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Readings and Ramblings

This is Readings and Ramblings. It is readings because this is a site for blogging about books and I intend to do that. It is ramblings because I might want to write about something else now and then.

An Introduction to Zen Buddhism - D.T. Suzuki, C.G. Jung This mumbo jumbo is complete nonsense. It even anticipates that a lot of people will consider it nonsensical when it claims that those who do just don't understand it, but then it goes on to add to the nonsense by claiming that if you understand it then you really don't understand it and if you don't understand it then you profoundly understand it. Honestly, I find myself constantly flabbergasted that anyone over the age of two can possibly be so gullible as to believe
in religion, any religion.
This Thing of Darkness - Harry Thompson This is a biographical novel, but it is not a biographical novel about the person I thought it was about. It is not a biographical novel about Charles Darwin. It is a biographical novel about Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the Beagle. I was more interested in Darwin, but Fitzroy's life is rather fascinating too and I learned quite a lot about him. Even though, being a work of fiction, a lot of dialog is made up and some events are conflated on purpose the author adheres very well to the historical record and, in fact, reproduces some of the dialog word for word from historical documents. The book is meticulously researched. Even though it is a biographical novel about Robert Fitzroy it does have Darwin as a secondary plot and covers his life pretty thoroughly too, at least insofar as it intersects with Fitzroy's and since Darwin was his companion on an around the world voyage where he developed his theory of biological evolution that intersection is pretty major. Darwin, of course, gradually came to his theory as he made more and more observations and this book makes a really good attempt to reconstruct his thinking processes. It covers how he arrived at his lesser known geological theories too. Something that really struck me, though, was the major impediment in Darwin's way and in the way of the entire scientific community at the time that obstructed the development of not only the theories under discussion, but the development of scientific theory in general. That was religion. These English explorers traveled to South America, Tahiti, New Zealand and other places around the world feeling supremely confident of their superiority to the indigenous peoples they encountered. They had no compunction at all about imposing their own standards on these people while they had utter contempt for such "primitives." But then, every observation they made had to be filtered through the bible. Every geological formation they encountered had to be explained with reference to the biblical flood. Every fossil they encountered had to be explained as a victim of that supposed flood. It is extremely clear that their adherence to Christianity that they were forcing on other cultures was strongly interfering with their scientific progress. As inferior as they just assumed these other cultures were it is clear that their Christianity made them not very far removed from the superstitious natives themselves. For an entertaining account of nineteenth century scientific inquiry and for an entertaining story of sea adventure do read this book.
Nebula Awards Showcase 2008 - James Gunn, Ben Bova, James Patrick Kelly, Elizabeth Hand, Ruth Berman, Eugene Mirabelli, Mike Allen, Kendall Evans, David C. Kopaska-Merkel, Jack McDevitt, Peter S. Beagle I really did like this book, but at the same time it annoyed me. First, I have always been annoyed that fantasy and science fiction are lumped together as if they were one genre. Oh, I am aware of the history that brought that about and, in fact, this book has an essay by Orson Scott Card in which some of that history is discussed, but it still remains that fantasy is to science fiction as astrology is to astronomy. The difference is profound and yet fantasy and science fiction is most often shelved together and treated just like they are the same thing. I find it hard to see that any two genres of fiction could be further apart though. So I was even more annoyed when the Science Fiction Writers of America became the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. That is as if the American Chemical Society started admitting alchemists. So, of course, it is going to annoy me that the members of the SFFWA produce an anthology of both science fiction and fantasy as if there was no difference. I do prefer science fiction over fantasy, but I will admit that I do like fantasy too. It's just that they are entirely different things. You may as well publish an anthology of romance and techno thriller stories. As far as I know that may have been done, but I am not aware of it and I certainly would not expect it. Nevertheless, these are very good stories. As someone who prefers science fiction I am glad that science fiction is predominent, but both the science fiction and the fantasy are very good and they were selected by professional science fiction and fantasy writers, so at least such writers should and do know what is good. I just wish that the fantasy writers would get together and select the very best fantasy stories for a similar anthology and that the science fiction writers would get together to select science fiction stories for a similar anthology.
Hearts and Minds - Amanda Craig This is a contemporary novel about immigrants in London and they tend to be illegal immigrants too. As is the case with most illegal immigrants they do not particularly want to be immigrants. They would have preferred to have remained where they were, but they immigrate to survive. Even so, though, the very young women from eastern Europe might have been better off if they had stayed in eastern Europe. That is, there is a focus on young teenagers who thought they were signing up for jobs as waitresses or even models and found themselves forced into prostitution. They are pretty much slaves. They do not even get to keep the money that is paid for their services. That goes to their ostensible employers, actually owners. I am not sure about the credibility of the character named Job. He is an immigrant from Zimbabwe and one day he decides to spend some of the money he makes as a minicab operator by buying the services of a brothel. Once he is there, though, he immediately assesses the situation and the plight of the teenage women who work there and he declines the services he has already paid for and, instead, he vows to a Ukrainian sex slave to help her. He eventually succeeds in helping her too. Somehow I just have difficulty in suspending my disbelief for that. The novel as a whole is entertaining enough, though, and if you keep in mind that it is based on the reality of the international sex trade it is even a bit poignant.
Last Sacrifice - Richelle Mead Ordinarily if I don't have anything to say about a book that I just read I leave the review field blank. I was about to leave it blank this time, but it turns out that there is one thing I have to say. It is not about the plot and it is not about the quality of the book in general. I just feel compelled to make this comment because I live in West Virginia and a significant part of this book takes place in West Virginia. Here is my comment. The author of this book knows nothing, absolutely nothing, about West Virginia.
Just Listen - Sarah Dessen This is a novel with a moral. The author is skillful enough that she does not beat the reader over the head with it, but subtly shows it by making it an integral part of the plot. The moral is that honesty is the best policy and by honesty I do not mean the kind of honesty that prevents one from cheating people in business dealings. It is emotional honesty that is under examination. It seems that the value of honesty is shown by the actions of a character who is described as possibly the most honest person alive. If you ask him his opinion of yourself you had better be prepared for it because he is going to tell you. He also expects honesty from everyone else and if one expresses an opinion of him that may not be entirely flattering he just accepts it. He is not the protagonist though. The protagonist has a problem with being honest. She is a model who wants to quit modeling, but she keeps on doing it because she cannot come out and tell her mother and others who want her to continue. She loses friends because she cannot honestly confront them when they become angry with her and she continues a friendship with someone she would be better off without because she cannot just tell that person that she wants to be through with her. She does keep learning from that most honest person alive though. She has not quite learned the proper lessons, though, when she is sexually assaulted and she finds that she cannot report nor accuse her asailent. She is ashamed of the incident and is afraid of what people will think of her. She almost lets the perpetrator get away with it even though he has a record of doing the same thing to others. Finally, she tells and testifies and finds out that no one holds the assault against her. That was a foregone conclusion to me. I can't say that I know anyone who would hold a sexual assault against the victim, but somehow it is a revelation to her. I am not so sure, though, that I can agree that complete honesty in the way it is advocated in this novel is the absolutely best policy. It is as if the author is advocating rudeness and complete bluntness and that kind of behavior can make enemies. I would suggest being a bit more diplomatic and when the faults that you see in others are minor I would suggest that it might be better to just keep quiet about them. In this novel undiplomatic bluntness always leads to happy endings, but in real life I think it tends to just get the honest person labeled as a complete jerk. Nevertheless, I try to avoid lying myself and I find that it serves to make life a lot less complicated. If you don't lie you don't have to cover up for your lies. If you don't lie you don't have to suffer the embarrassment of being caught in a lie. Furthermore, if you avoid lying and get a reputation for not lying then when something really important comes along that you really do have to lie about it is a lot easier to get away with it. You do not have to lie, though, to avoid offending people. Sometimes just keeping quiet will be a lot more useful and you don't really have to tell the truth all the time if you know that the truth is going to be taken as an insult. All you have to do is to not say anything. That does not seem to be what the author of this novel seems to be advocating though.
Mistaken Identity: Two Families, One Survivor, Unwavering Hope - Don Van Ryn, Susie Van Ryn, Newell Cerak, Colleen Cerak, Whitney Cerak, Mark Tabb I clearly remembered hearing about this case of mistaken identity in news broadcasts and when I came across this book I thought it would be interesting to learn something about the details of the case. I got the details and it could have been really interesting. The problem was that the book was filled with religious preaching. I detest religion and I detest books that push the superstitious nonsense. As I read it I kept thinking that I might give it a star for actually telling the story that I was reading it for, but in the end I just could not bring myself to do it. The entire book is permeated with the religious crap and the authors practically state that the reason for writing the book was to convert people to their religion. That is, this is not just a story of a trajedy that effected two families that happened to be religious. It is purposely preachy. The families actually used a trajedy to push religious nonsense. I could not allow myself to give it anything but the very lowest rating for that.
The Elephant Whisperer: My Life with the Herd in the African Wild - Lawrence Anthony, Graham Spence This is a fairly enjoyable book by a ranger in a South African wildlife preserve who makes a personal connection with a herd of wild elephants. He is charged with maintaining a wildlife preserve, not a tamed life preserve, so he really wants to be in contact with the animals as little as possible. However, a herd of elephants has to be relocated to his preserve and they are not very happy with being there and immediately start escaping. That will not do. It is most likely to get them shot. Have you ever tried to control a herd of wild elephants though? About the only thing he can do is to teach the elephants to trust him so that he can convince them to stay put. That leads him to actually make frends with them. And that, of course, leads him to some emotional trauma when he has to have one of them killed and it also ends up consuming his life too.
Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness - Joshua Wolf Shenk According to this author Abraham Lincoln was a cronic depressive to the point of virtual psychosis and to the point of being suicidal. He seems to think that if Lincoln was living in present times he would have likely to have been institutionalized for at least some amount of time and he could never have been elected president. This is not, however, a critical biography. The author does appear to consider Lincoln to have been a great man and a great president. In fact, he seems to think that Lincoln could not have reached his greatness without his bouts with severe depression.
Splintered Icon - Bill Napier This book is a thriller and it is two thrillers in one. There are two stories going on. On the one hand an antiquarian book dealer is hired to translate a manuscript that dates from the sixteenth century and is written in a kind of shorthand from that time. The man who hired him is murdered soon thereafter and the book seller finds himself being offered huge amounts of money for the manuscript and when he declines he finds himself facing violence. Then there is the other story. It is the story of the man who wrote the manuscript and it takes place in 1585. That story could be called an historical thriller. It involves murder, secret missions, sea travel and conflicts with the natives of North America in 1585. For most of the book I enjoyed that historical story more than the main story that takes place in modern times. However, as the novel approaches its climax that story gets a lot better and is filled with tension as the three protagonists are threatened with imminent death. They also find themselves in possession of a two thousand year old artifact that is of extreme importance to history. It is important enough that it is valued at about forty million dollars.

The Zahir

The Zahir - Paulo Coelho This book was something of a drag. A man's wife leaves him. There are no arguments and she does not explain anything. She just leaves and, of course, he is wondering why. His description of the courtship explains it pretty well to me. He had expended a good deal of effort to get her interested in him and she had just put him off and made excuses until he finally just wears her down. Then her attitude toward him doesn't especially change either. It seems to me that she left him because she was never much interested in him in the first place and considers him a bore. I certainly consider him a bore. When she walks out does he try to find her? No. Does he try to contact her and win her back? No. Does he give up on her and look for someone else? No. What does he do? He just engages in philosophical musings about his situation. Considering that the event does not seem too tramatic for him one might think his philosophical attitude is one of stoicism, but it is not even that. It is more existentialist. That is, this is what happened and that is the way it happened and so what? Then other calamities befall him. How does he deal with those calamities? Again he just engages in philosophical musings. On the whole the protagonist is boring; the plot is boring; the entire novel is boring. I give it two stars rather than one because I kept comparing it to other boring books I have read and I will have to admit that I did not find it as bad as some of those. At least I could read it without my mind wondering to other things, so it must have had something to hold my interest.
The Far Pavilions - M.M. Kaye This is a stand alone novel, but it could have been a series. It is long enough to be a series and there were at least a couple of spots, perhaps three, where the book could have been split and made into a trilogy. It is an interesting story of the British occupation of India with plenty of battles, especially near the end when the action is moved to Afghanistan. One of the most interesting parts is when a widow willingly allows herself to be burned on the funeral pyre of her husband. It seems that she is in a frame of mind such that she is only playing a role, but then the point comes when she is sitting atop the pyre holding her dead husband's head in her lap when she wakes up to the reality of what is happening to her. She wakes up to that reality after the fire has already been lit. She panics, but by then it is too late.
Firebird Pb - Michael Asher When I started reading this I thought I was reading a thriller. Well, it is a thriller, but thrillers overlap with a lot of other genres. So, what kind of thriller is this one? It starts out with a murder and the police are called in to investigate, so it seemed that I had a murder mystery. Then it is suggested that a ghoul commited the murder. It is not clear, though, whether the ghoul is a literal ghoul or if this is only part of the background of the story that includes uneducated and superstitious people. If it is the former then this story is either a horror story or an urban fantasy. If it is the latter then I am back to a murder mystery with an exotic setting. It turns out that it is neither. I got about three quarters through the book before I figured out what genre of literature it really is. It turns out to be solidly science fiction. How did I figure out that it was science fiction? If I told you that I would be giving you a spoiler. So I will decline and let you find out for yourself. I assure you, though, that the story taken as a whole is a quite delightful science fiction thriller with plenty of action, murder and intrigue.
BOX OFFICE ARCH'OLOGY: Refining Hollywood's Portrayals of the Past - Julie M. Schablitsky This book would have been better if it had concentrated on the archaeology without all the movie references, but that is the actual subject of the book so I suppose that could not have been left out. I am already aware, however, that movies do not get the history right. Even movies that are based on novels don't get the novel right either. Part of the reason is that movies are by their nature sketchy. If they covered the details of what they are about then no movie would be less than twenty-four hours long and even that would leave a lot out. Another part of the problem is that movie makers never let the facts get in the way of an entertaining story and, after all, the whole point of movies is entertainment, not education. I was impressed, though, that this book does mention some movies where the writers and producers actually consulted with archaeologists and made a serious effort to get the facts straight. Even then though ... well, never let the facts get in the way of an entertaining story. I still think, though, that the discussions about what the archaeologists have found out about the past is a lot more interesting than the discussions about how movies have depicted the past.

Aka

Aka - Tristan Jones This is a novel about the interactions between humans and dolphins. There was something that bothered me for a while. There are long sections of the story told from the point of view of the dolphins. It is clear that the author bases the novel on research that indicates that dolphins may have intelligence on par with or even exceeding the intelligence of humans. I started being irritated, though, that the author was presuming to understand how the dolphins saw humans and how they saw one another. After all, how could he put himself in the minds of dolphins? At best it was highly speculative. When I started using the word speculative to describe my criticism, though, I started to change my mind. I am a great fan of speculative fiction and especially the kind of speculative fiction called science fiction. If you peruse my bookshelves you will see that I most certainly do read other genres though. When I started reading this book I had every expectation that it was from one of those other genres. I am not sure how I had it categorized in my mind, perhaps as just literature. The more I thought of how speculative these passages from the point of view of the dolphins were, though, the more I realized that it was science fiction. It was not marketed as science fiction and there was nothing to indicate that it was science fiction before I started reading it, but it was science fiction anyway. Once I understood that, my irritation disappeared and I decided that it works quite well as science fiction. As I continued to read there were references to ancient Atlantis and that made it verge on fantasy, but I don't think it went so far in that direction that it was taken out of the science fiction realm. On finishing it I decided that all in all I quite enjoyed the book. It was only that I was getting science fiction with absolutely no expectation of science fiction that put me off at first. By the way, the dolphins are portrayed as well disciplined and cooperative members of a society. This shows very well when they rescue a man who fell overboard in midocean. They approached the task of rescue as if they were a well organized military unit.

For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity

For the Sake of Heaven and Earth: The New Encounter Between Judaism and Christianity - Irving Greenberg This book was not what I was expecting. I was expecting a sociological study of the interaction between Jewish and Christian cultures. What did I get? I got theology. I agree with Richard Dawkins when he said that theology is a complete non subject. I will add that it is utterly absurd. It is so absurd that when someone speaks to me with the assumption that I accept religious doctrine I feel like my intelligence is being insulted. Well, this book was written by a Jew for the consumption of Jews and I am not a Jew, so it could be said that it was the intelligence of Jews that was being insulted. However, I happened to read it. As a reader I could not help to feel like my intelligence was being insulted even if I was not the target audience. If there is anything that comes close to redeeming the book it is that the religion I most often have pushed on me is Christianity and at least this was not Christianity. The difference is very small though. The author seems to be trying his best to reconcile the theology of Judaism with the theology of Christianity, but they both seem to be so similar to me that it is like reconciling black with black with an almost unnoticeable bit of gray in it. I may have a bit of OCD in that when I start a book I feel compelled to finish it and I did finish this one, but I was certainly glad when I was through with it.