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Showing posts from 2003
Hedges, Chris. War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning. Public Affairs, 2002, bibliography, index, 211 p.

This book was recommended to me by a friend at the recent American Library Association conference in Toronto. And it is terrific. It is a heartfelt and devastating portrait of war, penned by a New York Times journalist who has been in many of the world's hot spots over the last 20 years. Hedges has seen some horrific scenes and talked to victims and victors from El Salvador, to Israel, to the former Yugoslavia. It is this latter conflict that provides Hedges with the fuel for his antiwar fire. What Hedges wants to do is strip war of its romance and justifications, which he does by closely looking at the language used by soldiers, generals, and politicians. And he succeeds brilliantly.

In seven chapters, Hedges looks at battlefield action, the addiction many develop to battle, the language of nationalism, and the close relationship of fear and death to love and sex. It is his exam…
Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Scholastic Books, 2003, 870 p.

Holy cow, what a big book! Rowling takes what is essentially a young adult book and turns it into a major novel. And to her credit, she almost pulls it off. Rowling has let Harry, Hermione, the Weasley's, Malfoy, and the other students grow up through the series and in the latest installment, Harry is a petulant 16 year old. His nearly incessant whining and self-pity can wear on the reader. Until, that is, he remembers what it was like to be 16 and that Rowling's Potter is a pretty fair depiction of the self-absorption and desire for independence, while simultaneously wanting to be spoiled like, that most teenagers to through in our modern society. Rowling is much less successful with the adults in her book. Sirius acts like an overgrown teenager most of the time, not at all like the caring god-father type we met in "Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets." It is with Dumbledore…
Right now, I'm in the middle of two books: Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett and War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges.

Pratchett is the popular author of the Discworld series and this is one of those. I've read the first three in the series and this one is number 11 or something. I got it for free as a give-away at the recent American Library Association annual conference in Toronto. Watch for a review when I'm done.

Hedges book is something completely different. I got it on the recommendation of a friend who reads a lot of history. I'm only a short ways into the book but it's totally engrossing. Hedges is a reporter who has written from many of the world's hot spots over the past couple of decades. He's vehemently anti-war and his book is a tightly argued, well-written meditation on the meaning of war and why is fascinates us. More on that one, too, when I'm finished.
National Geographic Guide to Civil War Battlefield Parks. National Geographic Society, 1992, 160 p.
Civil War Sites: The Official Guide to Battlefields, Monuments, and More. The Globe Pequot Press, 2003, 306 p.

These two guides function best if used as companions. The National Geographic Guide gives very brief synopses of each battle, arranged by state. If you're looking for Spotsylvania, for example, you look up Virginia, then find the battlefield. You get some facts about the battle then the brief narrative of the battle's highpoints.

The other quide, prepared by the Civil War Preservation Trust, is more of travel guide to the battlefields. Each battlefield has an entry that gives a description, hours, admission fees, and directions. The arrangement is not strictly by state. Rather it is by region, then by state within the region. Thus Virginia is near the front of the book in the "Middle Atlantic" section and Illinois is near the end in the "Midwest" sec…
Barnes, John. The Sky So Big and Black. Tor, 2002, 315 p.
Morgan, Richard K. Altered Carbon, Del Rey, 2002, 375 p.

The only thing these two books have in common is that they are both science fiction. One is by a well-known, highly published author. The other is a first novel by a former school teacher. Guess which one is better, more compelling, and much more enjoyable? Easy question. I wouldn't be asking if it wasn't a trick question. Hands down, Altered Carbon, Morgan's first novel, is the better of the two.

Barnes has written a number of books, many of which have been well-reviewed. This is the first of his that I've read and based on it, I have to wonder why he gets published. This book is dull, boring, without many redeeming values. It is derivitive of Robert Heinlein - unfortunately of the later Heinlein, not the Heinlein of The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Stranger In a Strange Land, or The Puppet Masters but the Heinlein of such dreck as Time Enough for Love or To…
Roy, Arundhati. War Talk. South End Press, 2003, index, glossary, end notes, 142 p.

India is a country of many faces and many complexities, many of which are never made explicit to Westerners, and perhaps especially Americans. Roy's slim volume is a blast of angry rhetoric, taking on Indian politicians and religious leaders of all stripes. Her strident and dogmatic tone often takes away from the topics about which she writes. When attacking the Indian government for ignoring the atrocies committed by Hindu rioters in Gugarat in 2002, she lumps them together with the IMF, World Bank, globalization, and US imperialism. This first essay sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The six essays collected here were all previously published. The best of the lot is Come September. Here, Roy dissects US policy since September 11, 2001. She recounts the many times the US intervened in other countries to pursue its own interests and links this intervention to the Iraq crisis. But here too she…
Sterling, Bruce. Tomorrow Now: Envisioning the Next Fifty Years. Random House, 2002, index, 320 p.

Meyer, Karl E. The Dust of Empires: The Race for Mastery in the Asian Heartland. The Century Foundation, 2003, index, bibliography, endnotes, 252 p.

Reading these two books in succession lent provided an unexpected synchronicity. In many ways they complement each other and offer a the strengths and weaknesses of the American perspective in the early 21st century.

Late one Sunday night while channel-surfing I happened across Bruce Sterling speaking at the New Jersey Library Association annual conference. He was the keynote speaker at the conference and was reading from his new book Tomorrow Now. He began his talk by offering the usual peaen to librarians that most speakers do when they address librarians. Then he began his reading, which turned out to be from Chapter 4. I must confess that I’m not a big fan of Sterling’s fiction. I read Islands in the Net a few years after it was publishe…
Judis, John B. and Ruy Teixeira. The Emerging Democratic Majority. Scribner, 2002, index, 213 p.

In 1969, Kevin Phillips wrote "The Emerging Republican Majority." His thesis was that the elecorate was changing and would soon be electing a Republican majority in the Congress and that the presidency would be ruled by Republicans. His thesis was borne out throughout the 70s and 80s. If Watergate hadn't intervened, it is highly likely that the U.S. would have had an unbroken string of Republican presidents from Richard Nixon through George Bush Sr. As it was, even with Watergate, Gerald Ford came within a whisker of beating Jimmy Carter. The Senate went Republican in 1980 and again in 1994. The House has been in Republican hands since 1994. In this new book, Judis and Teixeira argue that the Democrats are in much the same position that Republicans found themselves in 1969. By 2010, at the latest, they expect Democrats to be in control of the political agenda.

The authors mak…
Das, Gurcharan. India Unbound, Anchor Books, 2002, index, 412 p. (pb)

Das is an Indian who was born into a post-independence India. The story he tells is a personal retelling of India as it shook off its British colonial rulers and began to look at independence and what it means. As Das sees it, the story is "soft drama. It is taking place quietly and profoundly in the heart of Indian society." It is a story of vibrant entrepreneurs fighting entrenched bureaucracy and it is a story of the world's second most populous country struggling to come to grips with what it means to be a player in the global economy. He compares India, where the vast majority of people live in poverty and where the economy was stagnant for the first 50 years of independence, with the Asian Tigers, where governments encouraged economic growth. It's not always a favorable comparison. Although the Tigers showed astounding economic growth for a couple decades, they have suffered for the last seve…
Burdett, John. Bangkok 8. Knopf, 2003, 318 p.

Ostensibly a mystery novel, Burdett uses the mystery as a mechanism for ruminations on the nature of life in southeast Asia versus life in the West. He treats us to a hard-edged, fascinating view of Bangkok in the early 21st century and seems to say, "Hey, you hyper-rational guys in the West, take a look at us and learn."

Burdett's detective is policeman Sonchai Jitpleecheep, an inconsistent Buddhist, and a rarity among Bangkok police officers, an honest public servant. Sonchai navigates the muddy ethical and moral thickets posed by the murder of a black Army sergent. Carried out in an imaginative way involving pythons and cobras, Sonchai's job is not only to figure out who and why but how the snakes were made to act as if on cue. It's a fascinating journey and an odyssey into a culture and philosophy only slightly known to Westerners. Take a ride with Burdett. It's worth the time and effort.
Swami Bhaskarananda. The Essentials of Hinduism: A Comprehensive Overview of the World's Oldest Religion. Viveka Press, 2nd edition, 2002, index, glossary, 234 p. (pb)

In this short book, Bhaskarananda reviews the highpoints of Hinduism. No 234 page paperback can do more than scratch the very surface of the complexities of this fascinating religion. But Bhaskarananda does a good job. He uses everyday, modern examples to illustrate many Hindu concepts. Along the way he covers karma, reincarnation, predestination, and Hindu social customs. There are many facets to Hinduism and Bhaskarananda covers yoga philosophy as well as Sankhya and Vedanta. He attempts to answer many of the criticisms often leveled at Hindu and other eastern philosophies. For those looking for a beginning book about Hinduism this is a great place to start. An appendix offers suggested reading.
Zimler, Richard. The Last Kabbalist in Lisbon. Overlook Press, 1998, 318 p.

Lisbon in 1506 was not a safe place for Jews. The Inquisition is in full swing in nearby Spain and a drought is the excuse to make Jews in Portugal the scapegoat for God's anger. Whipped into a frenzy by Dominican friars, Lisbon's Christians go on a rampage, murdering scores of Jews. Some are burned, some are stabbed, some are thrown from rooftops. No abomination is too sordid for the mob once they begin their orgy of death and destruction.

One of the survivors is young Berekiah Zarco. Zarco's uncle Abraham is one of the elders of the community and a renowned mystic. Abraham is training Berekiah in the ways of the Kabbalah, a Jewish mystical tradition. But Abraham cannot escape the death that is all around and Berekiah finds him dead, murdered, in their cellar. Berekiah resolves to solve the mystery of his uncle's death. Risking his own safety, he moves through Lisbon, following clues, until h…
Liss, David. The Coffee Trader. Random House, 2003, 389 p.

Miguel Lienzo is a Jew living in Amsterdam in the mid-17th century. One of a community of Portuguese Jews, Lienzo is a trader on the Exchange, the Dutch market for buying and selling commodities and futures. As the book opens, Lienzo is down on his luck. After enjoying relative prosperity and the noteriety that goes with financial success, he made some unfortunate trades that didn't work out. Now he's living a debtor's life, scambling to avoid his creditors. Then along comes Geertruid, a mysterious Dutch woman, with a proposal that Lienzo finds irresistible.

It's time to invest in coffee, Geertruid tells Lienzo. Coffee is still relatively new in Europe. Geertruid gets Lienzo to try a few cups and soon he's ready to throw in with her. When he's drinking coffee, Lienzo feels invincible. It's amazing powers give him extraordinary mental insight into other trader's behavior and soon he hatches a pl…