Thursday, August 16, 2007

Summer Reading

Some of the books I’ve read this summer:

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowlings. Not much to say about this book that hasn’t been said. It has most of the flaws that critics have mentioned. But I did find it compelling and moving. It is very much unlike the previous six volumes—this is the first volume where Harry (and Ron and Hermione) don’t actually attend school. They should be doing their last year at Hogwarts, but because Voldemort and his Death Eaters have successfully effected a coup, they are now fugitives. The book consists of them trying to find and destroy horcruxes (parts of Voldemort’s soul), while trying to avoid capture. One interesting way to view it is from the point of view of an ordinary wizard who hates what is happening but is powerless. He or she would hear rumors and underground broadcasts about Potter, and his various daring (if inexplicable) guerilla actions. In one adventure, Harry, Ron and Hermione sneak into the Ministry of Magic in disguise to steal a horcrux. In the process, however, they free a bunch of “mudbloods” who are being processed and tried (the Ministry of Magic combines Nazism—racial blame-throwing—and Soviet Communism—show trials). The news of this daring raid must have filtered out and cheered people, although it is not until after the war that Harry would get credit for it.

Spent by Joe Matt—This is the grimmest volume of Joe Matt’s various autobiographical comics, dealing with his porn addiction. He seems unbelievably self-aware. This seems crazy because you would think that someone so self-aware would deal with his problems. But I think that is the point of these books, and Spent in particular. Addiction and other obsessive behavior are mysteries not because their victims have self-justifying fantasies about their behavior, but rather they know their behavior is a problem but are powerless to change it. Spent ends with no resolution, no therapy that turns Joe Matt into a “normal” guy.

The Sparrow and Children of God by Mary Doria Russell—Two science fiction novels dealing with first contact. The main idea here is that in the near future, we discover radio broadcasts from Alpha Centauri. The Jesuits jump on it and send a mission to meet these people before the U.N. or any other country can get a mission together. Interestingly, we are the technologically superior species, but the difference is relatively slight. You can imagine what happens—our presence disrupts the society we find there in utterly perplexing and unpredictable ways. In some ways, the changes are positive (an oppressed caste turns on its masters) but in some ways very negative (the masters are virtually extinguished). It is a little similar to The Mote in God’s Eye and The Gripping Hand by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, but Russell is a better writer about the subtleties of human nature. That said, her attempts and dialects and accents are cringeworthy.

The Glory and the Dream by William Manchester. A two volume history of the U.S. from 1932 to 1974. Manchester confesses to being a “generational chauvinist”; the generation in question being the World War II generation. These volumes are very readable, and while some of the information has been contradicted or made more complete by subsequent findings, overall it is very useful. What seems weird to me, as a man a generation or two younger than Manchester, is his emphasis. He gives a lot of ink to sixties radical personages like Angela Davis, and the events surrounding their lives. I think a man writing in the mid-70s of his generation must have seen these people as really important, in the same way, say, that Barry Goldwater or Adlai Stevenson were important. But it’s hard to see that today—the 60s radicals were interesting, and in some parts of the world (France and Germany, for instance) important figures then and in the future. But unlike the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, 60s radical didn’t actually succeed in changing our society in any major way (except the feminist movement), nor did they gain temporal power. In this case, he overestimates the 60s and the baby boomers (some of their representatives of them). But he misunderstands the cultural changes wrought by this generation—the importance of music to them (he can’t quite see the importance of Elvis, for whom he has an irrational loathing, and of rock in general), the way they greatly relaxed generations of rigid taboos, whether consequential (the role of women and non-white persons in society) or trivial (the idea that men don’t have to wear a tie). These are minor and slightly unfair criticisms of a highly engrossing book. Reading about the Roosevelt administration here is especially interesting—probably the best part of the book. His attempt to write an encyclopedic book about everything that happened in America is an overreach, but an honorable one.

The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien. I read this when I was in junior high and have never reread it since, even though I have reread The Lord of the Rings and even The Simarillion several times. It’s interesting to realize how much stuff he already knew about the mythos he was creating when he wrote The Hobbit—the hidden city of Gondolin and its fall were already known, as were the wars between the dwarves and orcs in Moria. But orcs were not called orcs, but goblins. And he seem to suggest that the ring is important, but never hints that he knows how important it will be. In The Hobbit, he more strongly emphasizes the differences between elves that once lived in the West (or are descendant from them, like Elrond) and the more rustic elves that never left Middle Earth. It was interesting and fun to reread The Hobbit after 35 years.

Freedom at Midnight by Dominique LaPierre and Larry Collins. This is a great one-volume history of the final months of the Raj and the independence of India and Pakistan. The villain is Mohammed Jinnah, the father of Pakistan. He felt any India in which Muslims were a minority would lead to oppression of Muslims, despite the good will of Gandhi and Nehru. And he may have been right, But this meant a partition, and in Punjab, the violence visited on the Sihks and Hindus of Pakistan fleeing East and the Muslims fleeing West was beyond comprehension. Gandhi almost single-handedly prevented similar communal violence in Calcutta.

A Savage War of Peace by Alistair Horne. This history of the Algerian War for independence has lessons for the U.S. today that we are studiously ignoring. The short-term efficacy of torture as an intelligence tool, combined with the long term disaster of it is a lesson our morally bankrupt leaders have understood precisely half of.

Chances Are by Michael Kaplan and Ellen Kaplan. This is a popular science book about probability and statistics, and of those I’ve read (a few, because the subject interests me a lot), this is the best. It gives just enough history of the subject, explains the centrality of the subject in all modern sciences, and most important, explains various laws of probability very well, including the extremely counterintuitive (for me) Bayes' theorem and the intriguing Parrondo’s Paradox.

Mutiny on the Bounty by Charles Nordhoff and James Hall. This is another one I read a long time ago—in 1985 I believe, the first summer I went to sea on a seismic boat. I brought books with me that were either nautical or “exotic” to my then 22 year old mind. I brought Mutiny, Moby Dick, a Borges story collection, and Guerillas by V.S. Naipaul. The latter two were “exotic” in my mind by virtue of being writers from little known (by me) third world countries. Anyway, Naipaul and Borges subsequently became two of my favorite writers. But I loved Mutiny and Moby Dick as well.

Like rereading The Hobbit, rereading Mutiny is a very interesting experience. It can’t be read quite the same way after having read all the Patrick O’Brian novels. My knowledge of life aboard a English naval vessel in the age of sail is infinitely richer. While Nordhoff and Hall don’t approach O’Brian as stylists, and are limited creatively with what they can do with the characters (since all the characters except for the narrator were real people who did actual things during and after the voyage of the Bounty, which as far as I can tell Nordhoff and Hall try to be very accurate about), the book benefits from their painstaking accuracy and unwillingness to shy from the unpleasantness associated with sea life. And it’s a ripping yarn.

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