The continuing saga of my year in books, part the second.
Newton’s Cannon (J. Gregory Keyes)
The Enlightenment is an odd place to put a fantasy series, but that is where Keyes chose to center this one – and that’s one of the reasons I chose to read it, since it is both unusual and my area of historical interest and expertise. In the late 1600s, Isaac Newton – who in reality did in fact devote a significant fraction of his time and energy to alchemy – discovered the Philosopher’s Stone. Fast forward to the early 18th century and you end up with a split plot that follows on the one hand a minor French noblewoman, a magically-long-lived Louis XIV, and a sorcerer with a grudge who wants to wipe out England, and on the other hand a young Benjamin Franklin who gets himself tangled up in this mess by following and participating in the exchanges between them over the aetherschreiber, a sort of magical telegraph. The two plots never do quite converge, but one assumes they will in future volumes, and at that point the dark hints of spiritual forces behind all this will perhaps be explained. Keyes is a workmanlike writer – not the flaming talent his book jacket makes him out to be – but the book is enjoyable enough to make me pick up the next one.
A Calculus of Angels (J. Gregory Keyes)
In the second volume of this series, Keyes finally stops introducing things and starts telling stories. The catastrophe that ended the first book has changed the world almost as much as Newton’s original discovery. Ben Franklin and his boss, Newton, are now in Prague. Adrienne, the French noblewoman, is fighting her way across what is left of France. And an unlikely team of Cotton Mather, Blackbeard the pirate, and a Choctaw named Red Shoes is headed to Europe to investigate. Throw in Tsar Peter the Great’s invasion of Europe, Swedish King Charles’ resistance, and a servant girl named Lenka, and things get complicated quickly. Keyes does a good job of keeping the plot moving and making you turn the page to see what comes next, all the while hinting at ever larger issues that might be introduced in subsequent volumes.
Empire of Unreason (J. Gregory Keyes)
The Age of Unreason continues, this time mostly in the New World. Europe is a wasteland. The Tsar is missing and Adrienne is still in St. Petersburg. Franklin is in South Carolina and Red Shoes is somewhere in the midwest. Each has to journey on their own quest here. Adrienne heads east, across the Bering Sea to find new and unpleasant surprises in Alaska. Franklin, faced with the arrival of the Pretender King James, finds himself at the head of a motley force of American rebels. And Red Shoes journeys across the Indian lands to meet a dark spiritual destiny. There’s a lot of things being juggled here, and one hopes that Keyes will bring them all to a coherent point in the end.
The Shadow of God (J. Gregory Keyes)
And so it all comes crashing down, in a series of climactic battles across North America. All of the characters – at least all of the ones Keyes doesn’t kill off, something he is not averse to doing – converge on New Paris for the final confrontation between the malakim (who were apparently behind much of the events of the preceding volumes) and the motley remains of the human race. There is bravery aplenty and no small amount of philosophy, and in the end the world is different, as it inevitably would be. This series never quite gels, and sometimes the only thing keeping me going was fascination with the sheer weirdity of "Benjamin Franklin: Action Hero."
How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (David P. Goldman)
I picked this up at the library because I enjoy the kind of big picture political science that this promised. According to the book jacket, this was going to focus on changing demographics in the world – particularly the falling birthrates in both the West and the Islamic world – and what this means in geopolitical terms. And when Goldman sticks to this, it’s not a bad book. Unfortunately that discussion is just an entering wedge for his real purpose, which appears to be to advocate Christian theocracy. His basic position is simple – falling populations are death to any society; birthrates decline when people give up hope for the future; people give up hope for the future when they cast aside religion for secularism and education (this is especially true for women, whom he clearly feels need to remain uneducated and pregnant at all times, though to give credit where due he says nothing about barefoot) since there can be no possibility of any hope for the future grounded on this world and not the next; only theocracy (or “theopolitics,” in his ungainly term) can save the world; and only Christianity (and to a lesser extent Judaism) is fit for theopolitics - a position that in hindsight goes a long way toward explaining the distinction Goldman makes between "Civilizations" and "Islam" in the title of the book. Also, he insists several times that “failsafe” and “foolproof” mean the same thing. Goldman – who writes what he claims is a well-regarded online column on these matters under the name of “Spengler” – cherry-picks his evidence to suit his thesis, distorts the historical record when convenient, and generally does not give the reader any reason to continue slogging through this meaningless muck once his main point has been beaten home often enough. I kept waiting for it to get better – or, failing that, for Goldman to at least stick to the demographics (which are interesting and likely will have serious consequences in the near future) and keep the ideological axe-grinding in the background – but about halfway through I realized that neither of those was likely to happen and that my life is too short to be spent on failed books like this, and I put it aside.
The Hobbit (JRR Tolkien)
Once again, a journey through Middle Earth’s most accessible porthole, this time as a bedtime story with Lauren. We followed Bilbo and the Dwarves from the Shire through Rivendell, the Misty Mountains and Mirkwood, until the confrontation with Smaug and the settling of affairs that follows. I’ve read this book well over a dozen times now, and every time it becomes more clear that this was meant for younger readers. As with any YA book the driving force behind the plot is how the hero (Bilbo) comes of age, and only as a byproduct does Tolkien lay the foundation for the grander tale that is The Lord of the Rings.
Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance and Why They Fall (Amy Chua)
This is both a work of grand vision and extremely limited claims. Her basic thesis is that “hyperpowers” – empires and states who dominated their worlds without serious competitors – are distinguished by tolerance. This is a strategic quality, in her view, one that allows these hyperpowers to pull in and utilize the best that foreign populations can offer, but not a quality that involves respect or affection. It is also a “necessary but not sufficient” quality, one that must be present for hyperpowers to rise but whose presence does not in itself guarantee a hyperpower. Within those terms she does a decent job, showing how empires as disparate as Achaemenid Persia, Tang China, Rome, Spain and Britain all rose to power in part because of their tolerance and declined in part because of increasing intolerance. Ultimately, though, Chua is concerned with the lessons those empires have to teach the US, another of her case studies. Chua constantly hedges her assertions behind qualifications, which often makes you wonder how strongly she believes in her thesis, and she makes some basic historical errors – particularly regarding the US. But within those constraints it was a thought-provoking book and one far more grounded in reality than Goldman’s.
So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (Forrest Church)
In this thoroughly researched and remarkably even-handed book, Church examines the struggle that took place in the early republic over the proper boundary line between church and state. He takes as his starting position the undeniable fact (undeniable to anyone who has actually studied the period, which is a small minority of the political voices braying on the subject these days) that the Founding Fathers sought to set up a secular government to rule over its zealously religious population, one that stayed out of religion as much as possible and that kept religion out of it as much as possible. The problem, of course, is that different Founders, groups and interests defined “as much as possible” in very different ways. Some – notably Federalists and particularly the New England clergy – insisted that it was not very possible at all. Others – notably Democratic Republicans and particularly Baptists and other Dissenting sects – insisted it was entirely possible. And in the middle of this struggle were the first five presidents – Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – all of whom were themselves religiously indifferent at best, but each of whom took somewhat different positions on the larger issue anyway. This is a complex book, as befits its subject, but anyone wanting a good general introduction to the issue will profitably start here.
Un Lun Dun (China Mieville)
Zanna and Deeba are pre-teen girls somewhere in London, and they’ve noticed some pretty odd things lately. Eventually, those odd things are going to land them in UnLondon, a parallel sort of city where the old, the forgotten, and the mildly obsolete things from the city end up. UnLondon is under attack from the Smog, and Zanna is the Shwazzy – the Chosen One – destined to save the city. But when things go wrong the story gets much more interesting, and Mieville turns this YA novel into a meditation on destiny versus free will – on taking matters into your own hands when the prophecies fail – that fascinates down to the last page. Mieville is a writer of astonishing gifts, and even as he namechecks Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and the idea behind it, he creates an original story out of that same general setup. It’s not as complex a book as his adult novels but it has all of the trademark ingenuity and Otherness of Mieville’s writing, making it a book well worth reading.
The Magicians (Lev Grossman)
Quentin Coldwater is a Grade-A mope. He lives in Brooklyn, disdains his life and everything in it as only a teenaged boy can, serves as a jealous third wheel to his friends James and Julia, and is headed off for an interview for Princeton when the book opens. Things go wrong quickly, and he finds himself at Brakebills – an American school for magicians located in upstate New York. Imagine Hogwarts, but with all of the drinking and sex that comes with college. Here Quentin becomes a magician – a real, honest-to-God user of spells and arcane power – and learns that magic comes only at a price. He and his friends will pay that price in the second half of the book, which shifts its model away from Hogwarts and toward Narnia. This is a grown-up and surprisingly bitter take on the one of the oldest tropes in fantasy literature – the idea that there is a magical world out there for us to enter and live in – and Grossman focuses relentlessly on “the horror of really getting what [you] really thought [you] wanted” and the dangers of giving young men and women unlimited power. It is probably not coincidence that Brakebills is located only a few miles from West Point.
A Wrinkle in Time (Madeleine L’Engle)
This was a classic that Lauren and I read together at bedtime. Meg Murray’s father is missing. When her 5-year-old brother Charles Wallace befriends three old ladies – Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which and Mrs. Whatsit – adventure ensues. With their new friend Calvin they tesser across the universe to the planet Camazotz, where IT has enthralled the population, and the confrontation follows from there. When someone asked Kim and me what it was about, many years ago, our responses were immediate: “It’s a love story,” she said; “It’s a space adventure,” I replied. And it’s both. On re-reading, I was surprised at the explicitly religious content as well. But Lauren enjoyed the story, and perhaps we will move on to the other books in L’Engle’s series.
The Great Influenza: The Story of the Deadliest Pandemic in History (John M. Barry)
The influenza epidemic of 1918 is one of the most inexplicably forgotten tragedies in all of human history. It occurred in a well-documented historical era and killed more people than WWI, which was going on at the same time – anywhere from two to ten times more people worldwide, which translates to possibly 100 million dead at the upper end. And yet nobody knows anything about it today. John Barry wants to change that, and in this rambling, discursive, purple-tinted, occasionally forcibly folksy and often repetitive book, he manages somehow to paint a compelling picture of this catastrophe. He focuses on the medical researchers and their efforts to combat this plague – after a long history of American medicine up to that point, as well as digressions into several other subjects – and you learn all about their many foibles, but he also does a good job of communicating the pace and horror of the epidemic at large. He spends a great deal of time discussing Philadelphia, one of the hardest hit cities on earth, and much of what he says confirms the stories my grandfather told me when I was younger – he was six when the epidemic hit and remembered only a few things about it, but they were all there in this book. A sobering book in this modern era of increasingly virulent disease and decreasing willingness of our political system to care for the less fortunate who will inevitably suffer most, it manages to transcend its many flaws and be worth reading.
The Hitchhiker’s Guide series (Douglas Adams)
The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy
The Restaurant at the End of the Universe
Life, the Universe and Everything
So Long, and Thanks for All the Fish
In June, after Wisconsinites decided that what they really wanted in a governor was someone who had lied to Congress, openly threatened their fellow citizens with violence, gutted public education and libraries, slashed the university system, done multiple end runs around the state constitution, whored himself out to the highest out-of-state billionaire bidders, subverted the rule of law, repeatedly called for and signed pieces of legislation that are so far out of line that every federal judge who has examined them has rejected his arguments in scathing language rarely seen in judicial opinions, and – by his own numbers – turned a relatively thriving state into the worst economic climate in the entire United States (ranking 51st, behind even Washington DC, at the time I wrote this), I felt I needed some light reading. So I decided to re-read the entire Hitchhiker’s Guide series.
I’m not going to go through each book – if you’ve read them before then you know, and if you haven’t, you should remedy that RIGHT NOW. Adams was a gifted writer with a talent for laugh-out-loud comedy and turns of phrase that made you think as well as laugh (one of my favorites, from the first book, is a description of spacecraft that hung in the sky “in much the same manner that bricks don’t”). So instead I will tell you a story.
This series was one of the ways I knew that Jack and I would hit it off in college – we ended up being roommates for three years officially, including the year after I graduated, and one more year unofficially. Like many fans of the series, we could quote it verbatim and would do so without provocation or warning, much to the consternation of our friends. One night we got into a long disagreement, with each of us insisting that the other had misquoted a line. Of course we could not let that stand, so each of us got out our copies of the book in question and turned to the relevant page – and discovered that we were both right. Jack had gone to high school in England, since his father’s job had transferred the family there, and therefore he had the British versions of the books. I had the American versions. Apparently Adams made some significant changes when adapting them.
The Salmon of Doubt (Douglas Adams)
Douglas Adams died suddenly in 2001, at the age of 49, leaving behind a pile of half-finished fragments and ephemera, much of which was extracted from his various computers and compiled into this book. It is an eclectic collection, ranging from snippets of thoughts to a short story to several chapters of a new novel. Most of them are typical of his work – linguistically clever and thought-provoking, slightly absurd, and generally deeper than they first appear. It’s a slight book nonetheless, and serves mostly as a monument to what might have been.
Do You Speak American? (Robert MacNeil and William Cran)
One of my side interests has long been the study of American dialects, and this book is a breezy walk through some of that. A companion to a 2003 PBS series, the book is episodic, disjointed and often rather shallow, but nevertheless it does a nice job of illuminating a number of interesting developments in the way Americans speak at the dawn of the 21st century.
The Professor and the Madman (Simon Winchester)
Another of the short books I was trying to read in order not to leave anything unfinished before our trip to Europe, this was a fascinating book about the Oxford English Dictionary and two of the men who made it happen – Professor James Murray, its first effective editor, and Dr. William C. Minor, one of his most prolific volunteer contributors and the madman, locked away in Broadmoor for a murder he committed while under paranoid delusions. The core of this story is rather slight – Murray guided the OED for much of its early history, Minor had the time, resources and focus to send in thousands of the paper slips Murray sought for illuminating quotations for words he was defining, and eventually they became friends in a stiffly formal Victorian sort of way. Winchester therefore goes on long tangents – how Minor may have lost his mind during the American Civil War, Murray’s biography, a history of English dictionaries, and so on. These are well written and entertaining to read, and as long as you don’t mind the necessarily short shrift given to the relationship between the two title figures, you’ll enjoy this.
The Pirates! In an Adventure With Scientists [and] The Pirates! In an Adventure with Ahab (Gideon Defoe)
The Pirate Captain is a cheerfully clueless commander of a boat full of pirates with no names, just descriptions – “the pirate with the red scarf,” “the pirate with the accordion,” “the sassy pirate,” – except for Jennifer, who joins late. In their first Adventure, they team up with Charles Darwin to thwart an evil cleric, and in their second they struggle to find the White Whale in order to pay off a debt to Cutlass Liz. The writing is light, determinedly ridiculous and generally entertaining, and you can see why someone thought it would be a good idea to build an animated movie around these characters.
Xenophobe’s Guide to the Swedes (Peter Berlin)
A quick, breezy and good-naturedly sarcastic look at Swedish culture and people that plays on all the stereotypes of reserved, efficient, environmentally conscious and aggressively fair-minded Swedish people and provides a handy and occasionally useful description for interested foreigners. “Linguists, social anthropologists and pornographers agree that body language makes up 80% of communication between most humans. For all their foreign language skills, Swedes don’t have any body language, which means that 80% of any communication is lost on them.” It was a fun book, and an odd one to find in a Swedish home.
Don Quixote, Part I (Miguel de Cervantes; Tobias Smollet, tr.; Carole Slade, ed.)
I started reading this book because of a conversation I had with a friend about tilting at windmills. It is supposed to be one of the great comic novels of all time and I suppose it is, but I found it inexpressibly sad. Don Quixote is a minor Spanish gentleman whose mind is addled by books of chivalry and knights, so when he hits a crisis in his life he decides to abandon his previous existence and head off into Spain as a knight-errant, protecting the weak and championing justice as he finds it. He renames his ancient nag “Rocinante” and acquires a servant – Sancho Panza – to help him, and he sets out on the highway as a knight. Along the way he meets essentially three kinds of people – those who mistreat him, those whom he (usually inadvertently) mistreats, and those who seek to help him, often at considerable expense and trouble to themselves. There is a great deal of overlap between these groups – it is surprising how many good-hearted people he meets. On the one hand, there are a lot of things in this book that are quite funny. On the other hand, it is essentially the story of a deluded old man and the people who are trying to bring him back to his senses or at least keep him from harming himself or others, and Don Quixote himself never does snap back to rationality. Eventually he is returned to his own home in a cage. Cervantes himself wrote the story in two widely separated increments, and since both weigh in at well over 400 pages of 6-point type in this edition, I decided that Part I was plenty for now.
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England (Ian Mortimer)
If you’ve ever wanted to know what it was like to live in 14th-century England, this is your book. Mortimer approaches history from the ground up and with a lively sense of humanity and place, and thus you get chapters detailing what you would eat, where you would live, how you would tell time or weigh things, what the landscape would be, what the cities would look like, and a wealth of other deeply human-scale things that bring that turbulent century of war and plague to life. As a social history, this is a model of how historians ought to write – informative, scholarly, and entertaining all at once.
The Hammer (KJ Parker)
When you read a KJ Parker book, you know what you’re getting – a book that is very well written, with a complex plot, three-dimensional characters who straddle the line between good and evil, and an unremittingly grim and bleak outcome. You know it’s not going to end well. That’s not the question. The pleasure is finding out precisely how it will all fall apart. Gignomai is the youngest son of a long-exiled noble family, stuck on a mesa with his dysfunctional family. The common folk of the colony live in the town below, and his father forbids any interaction between the family and them. The savages – the aboriginal people of the colony, whose views of the colonists and Gignomai’s family are deeply idiosyncratic – lurk outside of it all. Eventually Gig will defy his father and set in motion a long-simmering train of catastrophe, as you know he will from the outset. It ends on an oddly bittersweet note, though. Perhaps Parker is mellowing.