Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Book log 13

How societies choose to fail or succeed
by Jared Diamond

Anthropologists are cool. At least for people who are curious about the world; not necessarily if you’re interested in things in which I have basically zero interest (auto racing, football, lacrosse, among others. Hey, this is my blog, I’ll opine as I choose). But if you have any curiosity about the world at all, Jared Diamond’s work has to be of some interest to you. I was reminded that I was interested in his work when I had a day job, and as usual I just never had time to look into his books. I started to read this particular work just as I began to watch the National Geographic presentation of his book GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL, about how geography, technology, and exploration (and the human assumption that “What I think is the most important”) are interconnected and how some societies develop certain ways while others do not. Anyway, Collapse is about how, again, societies may rise and fall and some of them never get back up, while others stumble but manage to keep going and even thrive under less than ideal circumstances. Understanding how the environment of the society involved can be either a detriment or a challenge makes a big difference in survival.

COLLAPSE has a lot in common with a suspenseful thriller. I realized that as I read chapters (they concentrate on various civilizations, how the remains of them were found abandoned, how they must have been founded and risen and collapsed and why), I was reading parts aloud to an amused husband as I was racing through the pages, eager to find out what happened next. The amazing thing is that like a thriller or a mystery or a romance (genre fiction all, of course), you can pretty much guess what happens at the end with these cultures, but you want to find out how they got there. Some cultures it’s all speculation and technology to figure out what happens because there wasn’t a written record (then of course there were written records for the Maya civilization, but the European religious overlords BURNED most everything), but sometimes there is a record, making the mystery not as mysterious.

After reading this book, if you still think that everything always turns out the way it should, well, I guess we can say that yes, things change. Cultures do die and are reborn and are thrive, but how it all happens, the choices made (and in some cases, the choices forced on those civilizations) can make all the difference.

And how often can you say a work of nonfiction reads like a thriller?

Coming up: SPLENDOUR FALLS by Susanna Kearsley, LOVE IN THE TIME OF CHOLERA by Gabriel Garcia-Marquez (and specifically, how I managed to avoid reading anything from this late master of literature, and why I wasn’t an English major), THE FIFTEENTH PELICAN, THE COMIC BOOK HISTORY OF COMICS, THE DEVIL IN THE WHITE CITY, and more!

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Book log 12

by John Dixon

We watched the CBS show Intelligence, and at the end of a recent episode I noticed some tiny wording at the end about the show being based on a book. Ooh, I thought, must check this out! It’s always fun to see how things change from the written medium to the visual one. So of course off to the library I went and reserved it and got it pretty promptly. 

The way these things go, yes, the original work was unrecognizable from the TV show. First of all, this work is classified as young adult, so the protagonist is a young adult, not a super secret agent soldier type the way it is in the TV show. And it’s an orphaned teenager who’s classified as a thug and goes through a boot-camp program on an island off the Pacific coast of Mexico. Our hero, a kid named Carl Freeman, shrewdly deduces that the location was chosen to be not only isolated, but for a culling process for a mercenary force mostly consisting of youngsters who are your basic psychopaths. 

The back of the book quotes a review that calls it “Lord of the Flies meets Wolverine meets Cool Hand Luke,” and it only goes to show that really, reviews are the opinion of an individual, because I didn’t see that at all. But Dixon also mentions that the book would have been his thesis for his MFA if he hadn’t run out of money to complete his degree, and I can certainly empathize with that.
Phoenix Island is a book for teenaged boys. The only girls depicted are the kind that make actual girls roll their eyes, but other than that? It’s a story about a kid who comes from a disadvantaged background, is basically thrown away from society, and works his way into a peace for himself. And I don’t think that anyone can say that’s a bad thing.

Coming up: COLLAPSE: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond, SPLENDOUR FALLS by Susanna Kearsley, and more!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Book log 11

BEOWULF (An illustrated edition)
Translation and commentary by Seamus Heaney

I thought I would find Beowulf an easier read (in English) than I did, because I remember reading a version of Canterbury Tales that was split between modern English and middle English. I read it and it was so meant to be read out loud and it was so rhythmic and full of life (and since I was reading it in the subway, I found myself with plenty of space around me. Not that I would recommend that as a way of carving out space). And that was the difference between Beowulf, an Anglo-Saxon classic, mythology, and an English one. A few centuries here and there, who would have thought there would be that much difference in readability? Well, I know now. Language can change at blinding speed sometimes or slowly at others, and in this case, it seemed to have happened a little of both. (It’s been a long time since my linguistical anthropology classes. A very long time.)

Or maybe it was this translation. And yes, I love the idea of an Irishman doing all this work on a classic Anglo-Saxon tale, perhaps THE classic Anglo-Saxon tale…anyway, this is one of those things that I was interested in when it first came out (no, not originally, I’m not that old, you twerp), but I was too busy. Now, I’m still busy, but in a completely busy way. Now, I can read something and actually think about it and even write about it. Even reading the introduction by Heaney was useful and informative, because I knew virtually none of what he mentioned. I was an anthropology major, not a classics major, many years ago, so I can tell you about a whole ‘nother set of things that society finds less than useful. The rhythm that Heaney gleaned from the original Old English I couldn’t find hear somehow, so I may have to come back to it at another time.

Anyway, the tale has a fascinating history. It has contradictions. It has Anglo-Saxon origins but takes place in Scandinavia. The hero of the piece faces three challenges (Grendel, Grendel’s mother, and the dragon), the last of which kills him. A monster and a monster’s mom? I don’t see it. A dragon, sure, but a monster and its mom, no, I don’t get. It doesn’t have the elements of the myth of the hero. Well, it has a few, but it just doesn’t have the same rhythm.

Anyway, Beowulf’s is still an interesting story. One of these days I’ll have to really and truly dig into it.

Coming up: PHOENIX ISLAND (on which the CBS show Intelligence was based) by John Dixon, SPLENDOUR FALLS by Susanna Kearsley, COLLAPSE: How societies choose to fail or succeed by Jared Diamond, and more!

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Book log 10

Understanding how good people turn evil
by Philip Zimbardo

Okay, surely I’m not the first person to wonder how in the world it is a villain becomes a villain, am I? Of course not, and the author of this book, Philip Zimbardo, gives a good shot at explaining it. I came into this book with tongue thoroughly in cheek—I have to confess that when I first heard about this book in a workshop (Greater Seattle chapter of Romance Writers of America, “Worldbuilding from an intelligence point of view,” Merien Grey, presenter), my first thought was how Lex Luthor, legendary arch criminal, went from being Superman’s very good friend during their boyhood Smallville days to being his eternal foe, and all because of how he lost his hair. (This is according to the early versions of the Man of Steel’s origins and has nothing to do with the movies you would have seen in recent years. Forgive me; I’m an old-time comics fan.)

But as it turned out, this book is about true evil, and it’s pretty disturbing. Zimbardo started to write this book years ago, exploring how the abuses of Abu Ghraib happened, turning what were soldiers fighting the good fight into something else altogether different. It became obvious fairly quickly that my light-hearted attitude belonged nowhere near this book. Witnessing what he did and researching what he had to had deep and lasting effects on Zimbardo, and after reading this, no one could blame him. Reading this, and in particular about the Rwandan genocide, reminded me about how otherwise rational human beings in Germany in the early decades of the 20th century were convinced that it made perfect sense to torture and kill others with whom they had so much in common.

Overall, a thoughtful, insightful, and horrifying treatise into the human response to a perceived threat. But don’t read this if you’re going to sleep anytime soon.

Coming up next: BEOWULF. This was a real challenge. And after that, PHOENIX ISLAND, SPLENDOUR FALLS, and more!

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Book log 9

DANCE WITH DRAGONS, Song of Ice and Fire (Book 5)
by George RR Martin

This book came from the library earlier than I thought it would, and since there was a waiting list for it, I figured I had better jump back into the big, messy, gory story of the current battle of Westeros. After The Feast of Crows, which serves as the first half of a very detailed volume detailing the happenings of the B characters, we go back to the A list, such as they are (it didn’t occur to me until I read the final note of Feast that its characters WERE the B list, just not the characters I’d just finished reading about in the previous book). The way these things go, I enjoyed Feast, and did not feel slighted. In fact, I kept wondering if we’d see anything of the characters in that book in this one. I missed them! (One thing about this series: once you realize that no matter who you may become attached to, there’s a good chance they’re going to bite the bullet, you just read, not to see who dies, but who lives.)

In Dance of Dragons, we finally see the dragons we saw born in the first book grow up, and they’re destructive. They’re basically very large pets that haven’t been trained. But then, how do you train something that large that flies, breathes fire, and eats everything? Including children, it turns out, which is a major problem. There’s only so much you can apologize for that one. The ongoing story really is all about control, with the dragons’ caregiver (oh, let’s just call her the dragonmom), Daenerys, having so many problems besides trying to control her darlings as she continue to prepare to take back the control of the region. Dragonmom has to pick a consort who’s going to help her in her quest, but in the way that queens often have had problems doing, it’s hard to choose who’s going to be the right one. This part is practically a romance (not a bad thing): follow her head or her heart? And she’s basically got to do it alone, since the young queen doesn’t know who to trust.

At least she’s in the warm part of the world. Winter is approaching fast in Westeros (although it’s described as late autumn—and if that’s late autumn, winter is really a scary thought). The center of the North, so to speak, is the holding of what was Winterfell, and the description of those ruins reminds me of the Japanese composer Rentaro Taki’s melody, “Moonlight over the ruined castle.” Seeing what it was and is now through the eyes of someone who was instrumental in its destruction, and his regrets about it, was touching—and horrifying.

Again, I can’t imagine the continuation of this story being less than destructive (because that’s what war does, after all). I know the next installment is scheduled for publication sometime in the near future (in the next couple of years or so, I think), but I will have had a break from it by the time I get to read it, and I won’t have the overwhelming sensation of horror. Just an amazing story.