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28-Nov-2016
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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 1996.
Also see the full index of books I've read.


 

Middlemarch

by George Eliot (Wikipedia)
My first Eliot book. It took 500 pages for the plot to finally grab hold of me, but the writing is nevertheless superb. I love her sense of humor (some examples). (Or is that "humour"?) A contemporary review of Middlemarch was published in an 1873 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
  Thomas Hardy

Tess of the d'Urbervilles

by Thomas Hardy (Wikipedia)
Having read The Mayor of Casterbridge and Jude the Obscure (albeit twenty years ago), I should have expected the worst from Hardy. A good book, but an excruciating read; the last third of the book, I was almost praying it would end soon so nothing more would befall Tess. No such luck, however.
(Also see The Thomas Hardy Association.)
  [Book cover]

The Lost World

by Michael Crichton (Wikipedia)
Jurassic Park II. The first half of the book dragged a little, but the second half was a violent, continuing flurry of blood, guts (literally!), and gore. And, oh yeah, Tyrannosaurus Rex has razor-sharp vision now - to match his teeth!
 

Silas Marner

by George Eliot (Wikipedia)
My second Eliot book. Although the book is not as substantial as Middlemarch, the plot held my interest more. Again, I love her sense of humor (some examples).
  [Book Cover]

In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam

by Robert McNamara (Wikipedia)
An interesting book, although the endless descriptions of meetings and memos got tedious after awhile. As he intends, you get the impression that the U.S. was groping its way in the dark. And, lest we be too judgmental, he makes the point that the war was not the only thing on the Johnson administration's foreign policy plate. The photographs of a smiling McNamara climbing mountains, etc. struck me as inappropiate (not to mention irrelevant) in a book on this subject.
(Also see the NYRB review.)
  [Book Cover]

My American Journey

by Colin Powell (Wikipedia) with Joseph Persico
I don't know which of the authors deserves the credit, but this was a book I couldn't put down, even in the minor passages. Powell has had an interesting, upright life; I was reminded of C. Everett Koop's autobiography. It was interesting to read the sections on Vietnam after reading McNamara's book. His views on Oliver North et al were also interesting. Although I don't doubt Powell's sincerity, the repeated invocations of truth, justice, and the American way throughout the book started to make him sound like a man running for president. Still, the book is worth reading for Powell's sense of humor alone. I couldn't help but contrast Powell's "laugh with them" treatment of his six-gun shootout on Saturday Night Live with Dan Quayle's somber response about his wounded vanity when asked by Barbara Walters about Quayle jokes.
In Hindsight: Secretary of State Powell's silent and not so silent enabling of the Bush 43 administration's war aims was reprehensible - despite mea culpas after leaving office - and should shade any reading of his autobiography.
  Victor Hugo

The Hunchback of Notre-Dame

by Victor Hugo (Wikipedia)
I read Les Miserables a few years ago; it was an excellent book, although I found the lengthy philosophical discourses, seemingly every other chapter, a bit tedious. (This comes with age, bills, and kids, I guess!) I got worried a short way into The Hunchback of Notre-Dame when Hugo went on for 20 or 30 pages about Notre-Dame and Paris. However, once I skimmed through that, picking up a few interesting tidbits here and there, it was smooth sailing. Or stormy sailing, actually. Pierre Gringoire, the (unintentionally) humorous playwright-turned-vagabond, provides the only relief in the tragic plot. The latter part of the book was almost non-stop excitement.
 

The Mill on the Floss

by George Eliot (Wikipedia)
An excellent book about someone, Maggie, caught between a rock and a hard place in life, trying always to do the right thing. The first hundred pages offered a well-done depiction of childhood, as the back-cover blurb said, but it tended to drag a little. Once the children grew up, however, the plot started moving. My quotes from the book are lengthier and less humorous than those from Eliot's other books, perhaps because it was one of her earlier novels. A contemporary review of The Mill on the Floss was published in an 1860 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
  [Book cover]

A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam

by Karen Armstrong (Wikipedia)
A very interesting and readable history of monotheism from the beginnings of Judaism until the present. A major point made in the book is that our view of God is not the same as that of people living 100 years ago, 500 years ago, or 1000 years ago, a fact that is amply evident from the various theological disputes which have occurred down through the ages.
I was pleased that the brief discussion of Dostoyevsky's The Brothers Karamazov focused not on the popular Inquisition scene, but on what I considered the most moving section of the book, Ivan's discourse on evil, which Karen Armstrong concisely summarized in a single sentence:
Ivan is not troubled by evolutionary theory but by the suffering of humanity in history: the death of a single child is too high a price to pay for the religious perspective that all will be well.
(Also see "A Personal History of God" by Jonathan Blumen in The Ethical Spectacle, October 1995.)
 

Heart of Darkness

The Secret Sharer

by Joseph Conrad (Wikipedia)
"Vivid" is the word that comes to mind with respect to Joseph Conrad's writing. Heart of Darkness was fascinating and is well worth reading. The Secret Sharer is very short and it struck me as a throw-away story.
  [Book Cover]

The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity

by Thomas Sheehan
In December 1986, Atlantic magazine ran a cover story, "Who Do Men Say That I Am?", on how some Catholic theologians were going "back to the basics", trying to approach an understanding of Jesus by putting themselves in the positions of the original disciples. (This was ten years ago, so my memory is somewhat hazy about the particulars.) I don't remember if The First Coming was referenced in the article or if it just happened to catch my eye in the book store, but I bought it and I probably read very little of it at the time.
The basic premise of The First Coming is that Jesus' mission was to announce the arrival of God's present-future; i.e., we were and are living God's future now - God is among us wherever justice and charity exist. Thomas Sheehan comes to this conclusion by determining, using the latest results of Biblical textual analysis, what sayings were most likely uttered by Jesus and what events most likely occurred in His life. Sheehan then shows how Christians' view of Jesus evolved over the first century into the belief that Jesus was divine, thereby laying the foundation for the belief in the Trinity.
The First Coming gave me plenty of food for thought, but it tended to be repetitive, repeatedly emphasizing the same point over and over, and it used a lot of Biblical scholarship jargon. And, despite Sheehan's interesting - and persuasive - arguments, it's still just his interpretation of Jesus' life and sayings. As A History of God showed, the ages are rife with theological interpretations and "systems"; no one really knows for sure what happened.
  [Book Cover]

The Norton Book of the Sea

edited by John O. Coote
An organized collection of excerpts from literature on the sea. Much of the book is drawn from British naval history, understandable given the editor's background in the Royal Navy. The accounts of storms, initially interesting, started to get a little repetitive. In general, though, the book was fascinating. And remember (from the prologue's epigraph):
A man who is not afraid of the sea will soon be drowned, for he'll be going out on a day when he shouldn't. But we do be afraid of the sea, and we do only be drownded now and again. (The Arran Islands by J. M. Synge)
 

Daniel Deronda

by George Eliot (Wikipedia), edited and with an introduction by Terence Cave
In the introduction, Terence Cave describes the plot of Daniel Deronda as a "double helix", an apt description for a book which follows the increasingly intertwined lives of Daniel Deronda and Gwendolen Harleth. Cave also advises first-time readers to read the book before reading the introduction since any discussion of the text will, of necessity, give away the ending. This is good advice, whose spirit I will follow in talking no more about the plot.
The books by George Eliot that I read previously seemed to be very well written; Daniel Deronda didn't read quite as smoothly (for me): a number of times I had to stop and re-read a sentence in order to parse it correctly. The quotable quotes are not as quotable as those in her other books. The story creeped along for the first 100 pages and then cruised along at a moderate speed for the next 400 pages. That left 300 pages still to go and a lot could happen - and did happen - in the last 300 pages.
I also had trouble deciphering the punctuation in the font the publisher used (my aging eyes?), but I believe I forgot to mention what an excellent book Daniel Deronda is; I might even call it Eliot's Anna Karenina (which I haven't read in 20 years). Once you get past the first 100 pages, the story is fairly gripping and the last 300 pages seemed to yield a new surprise every page. Daniel Deronda is worth reading.
Terence Cave, both in the introduction and in the notes, does an admirable job of relating Daniel Deronda to the activities in Eliot's life at the time and to the contemporary social milieu (e.g., how the book was received by the public).
  [Book cover]

Brain Lock

by Jeffrey M. Schwartz with Beverly Beyette
"Cognitive-biobehavioral therapy" for OCD, Dr. Schwartz's Four-Step program teaches someone with OCD to:
  1. Relabel the obsessions and compulsions; be an "Impartial Spectator" to your own quirks!
  2. Reattribute the obsessions to their true cause, a biochemical imbalance in your brain.
  3. Refocus the compulsions into different avenues of behavior.
  4. Revalue the obsessions, minimizing their significance.
Brain Lock appears to have been written as a "ra-ra!" self-help book rather than a more precise account of the 4-step program and its case studies, so I was displeased with the introductory hype and bothered by the wordy and repetitive text. I suspect the publisher is more responsible for this than Dr. Schwartz, but the alternative of not having the book to read at all makes it a small price to pay. As I got further into Brain Lock, I developed a great liking and respect for Dr. Schwartz.
Dr. Schwartz has spent a considerable number of years working with OCD patients, so his program is no pie-in-the-sky treatment. The case studies in the book are not magically cured; they had real problems and they continue to have problems, but we learn how they are now able to cope with these problems.
Most importantly, Dr. Schwartz's sympathy for those with OCD is very evident throughout Brain Lock. For example, when one man terrified of battery acid (unwittingly) poo-poos those terrified of dust bunnies, Dr. Schwartz makes a point of noting that the terror, though not the danger, is just as real in both cases. The 4-step program itself is entered into gradually at a pace manageable for the patient. If the OCD gets the better of the patient at times, the backsliding, rather than being the end of the world, is used instead to reinforce the cognitive part of the therapy, i.e., helping the patient separate OCD from his- or herself.
  [Book cover]

A Short History of Christian Thought

by Linwood Urban
I got about a quarter of the way through this book; I hope to return to it at a later date, but it's rough going. I managed to make my way through the chapters on the Trinity and the Incarnation. As the book shows, these and other beliefs were developed in an effort to reconcile the different views of Jesus in the different gospels and, when you contrast John's gospel with the others, one cannot be blamed for thinking that maybe these questions should be left to a Higher Authority for resolution!
 

Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes

by Stephen Jay Gould (Wikipedia)
Laid up with the flu and too sick to read anything heavy, I re-read this book. I enjoy Gould's writings, but, for some reason, I rarely read any of his books from cover to cover; I guess he starts to lose me on the third or fourth column about the evolution of some obscure creature's appendage. Reading the sections out of order, however, I think I read the whole book this time.
Hen's Teeth and Horse's Toes includes his original column about the Piltdown hoax and a follow-up column responding to critics. I found Gould's arguments (nearly 15 years old now?) persuasive, but a recent The Washington Post "Book World" had a review of a new book on the hoax that, according to the reviewer, gives a sound rebuttal to Gould's implication of Teilhard de Chardin in the hoax.
One thing I like about Gould is that he knows where he's come from and he knows where he might be someday. In other words, he shows respect for sincere scientists in the past whose theories no longer hold up. A year or so ago, I read a book on geology in which the author, a geologist, pooh-poohed the work of geologists in the 19th century. Contrast that attitude with Gould in "This View of Life" in Natural History, July 1996: "[H]onorable errors do not count as failures in science, but as seeds for progress in the quintessential activity of correction."
  [Book cover]

200% of Nothing: An Eye-Opening Tour Through the Twists and Turns of Math Abuse and Innumeracy

by A. K. Dewdney
An interesting, quick read by the author of The Turing Omnibus. The anecdotes started to seem rather aimless after awhile and I wonder if he practiced what he preached when he said, without any supporting evidence, that the educational system today is a failure. I don't disagree with him, but I don't know that people today are any less mathematically literate than people of past years.
 

The Picture of Dorian Gray

by Oscar Wilde (Wikipedia)
Get rid of the flowery prose and you would have a good short story. Some of the dinner conversations were (intentionally) funny and I came across quite a few turns of speech that are now common sayings; e.g., "people today know the price of everything and the value of nothing", etc.
  [Book cover]

The Thread of Life: The Story of Genes and Genetic Engineering

by Susan Aldridge
She brings the subject to life - no pun intended! As the publisher says, the book is "accessible": it reads very quickly and covers a broad range of topics, delving into applications of genetic engineering that I hadn't even imagined.
  [Book cover]

Patterns of Software: Tales from the Software Community

by Richard P. Gabriel
The first half of this book talks about the latest rage in software design, patterns, based on Christopher Alexander's theory of architectual patterns. The discussion looked promising, but when it finished, I wasn't exactly sure what the point of the discussion was. Regardless, two ideas he stressed hit home with me: the "habitability" of a given piece of software (e.g., how comfortable would an arbitrary maintainer feel in making changes to the software) and the lack of examples of good software from which we can learn. What's out there beyond John Ousterhout's Tcl code and, of course, my own software? :)
The second half of the book is Richard Gabriel's autobiography and the story told is worth the price of the book. (That's meant as a compliment, despite the fact that the book was actually inexpensive relative to some of the other computer science tomes.) In particular, Gabriel talks about his struggles to get a college education, from freshman to Ph.D., and about his years at Lucid. Well worth reading!
(Also see Gabriel's Lisp: Good News, Bad News, and How to Win Big.)
 

Adam Bede

by George Eliot (Wikipedia)
This book drew me in immediately. Adam and Seth, two brothers with different personalities, have got to be the most likeable characters I've encountered in my reading. I found Adam Bede, like Silas Marner, to be more engaging, though less deep, than some of Eliot's other books - I came away with many fewer quotes.
  [Book cover]

Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life

by Daniel C. Dennett
"[A]n exciting, wide-ranging romp through great ideas", according to Jared Diamond in a blurb on the back cover. The book is basically about how natural selection works at and can explain all levels of things, from the initial assembly of the building blocks of life several billion years ago all the way up to the most abstract thought of the present day. It was fascinating reading and, like Diamond said, wide-ranging; the going got a little tough towards the end, when the philosophical discussions got too deep for me.
Dennett's arguments sound reasonable and he's appropriately modest when necessary, but I don't know and I'm not qualified to judge whether he and Richard Dawkins and others are closer to the truth than Stephen Jay Gould and Noam Chomsky and others, who get dumped on in the latter half of the book. Still, I read for fun and Dennett provides abundant insights and food for thought. And I think Dennett would be just as pleased as Gould if a "sky-hook" were to reach down and pick him (Dennett!) up, and a voice were to boom, "Sorry, Daniel. You've been wrong all along. Here, let me explain it to you ..."
(See the NYRB review. Also see the Boston Review's "Articles on Evolution" for some interesting pieces, including H. Allen Orr's review of Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Dennett's response.)
  [Book cover]

Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench

by Michael D. Davis (John P. Davis Collection) (Wikipedia) and Hunter R. Clark
An interesting biography of a great man ... a briefer biography ...
  [Book cover]

The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark

by Carl Sagan (Wikipedia)
The only writings of Carl Sagan (now sadly deceased) I had read before were his articles in Parade magazine. He was an engaging writer, though The Demon-Haunted World was not quite what I had expected. The first half of the book is largely devoted to assorted variations on alien visitations and abductions. I initially thought Sagan was making a mountain out of molehill, but I was brought up short by my wife and 10-year-old daughter telling me, coincidentally, about the hushed-up secrets of Roswell. (My father-in-law worked in the Pentagon at the time.) And there have been reports in the press of a London insurance firm selling alien abduction and impregnation insurance policies; according to one report, the latter is available to male and female alike, but you must give birth to an alien in order to collect!
The second half of The Demon-Haunted World is a discussion of ways in which society can be made to be more skeptical of non-scientific claims and explanations. I'm not hopeful.
As others have noted, Sagan's boyish enthusiasm for and excitement at learning new and wonderful things is highly visible in his writings and is evident throughout The Demon-Haunted World.
(The Carl Sagan Fan Club home pages I found on the net suffer, perhaps not unexpectedly, from an excess of black backgrounds! The Carl Sagan Portal is the official Carl Sagan site.)

Alex Measday  /  E-mail