The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 1996.
Also see the full index of books I've read.
by George Eliot
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
review of Middlemarch was published in an 1873 issue of
The Atlantic Monthly.
Tess of the d'Urbervilles
by Thomas Hardy
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
The Lost World
by Michael Crichton
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!
by George Eliot
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
In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam
by Robert McNamara
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
My American Journey
by Colin Powell
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.
The Hunchback of Notre-Dame
by Victor Hugo
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
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
review of The Mill on the Floss was published in an 1860
issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
A History of God: The 4,000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity
by Karen Armstrong
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
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
Spectacle, October 1995.)
Heart of Darkness
The Secret Sharer
by Joseph Conrad
"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.
The First Coming: How the Kingdom of God Became Christianity
In December 1986, Atlantic magazine ran a cover story,
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.
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)
by George Eliot
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).
by Jeffrey M. Schwartz
with Beverly Beyette
"Cognitive-biobehavioral therapy" for
OCD, Dr. Schwartz's Four-Step program
teaches someone with OCD to:
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.
- Relabel the obsessions and compulsions; be an "Impartial
Spectator" to your own quirks!
- Reattribute the obsessions to their true cause, a
biochemical imbalance in your brain.
- Refocus the compulsions into different avenues of behavior.
- Revalue the obsessions, minimizing their significance.
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
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
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."
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
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.
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.
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.)
by George Eliot
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
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 ..."
Also see the Boston Review's
Evolution" for some interesting pieces, including H. Allen Orr's
Darwin's Dangerous Idea and Dennett's
Thurgood Marshall: Warrior at the Bar, Rebel on the Bench
by Michael D. Davis
(John P. Davis Collection)
and Hunter R.
An interesting biography of a great man ...
The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark
by Carl Sagan
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.)