↑ Reading ↑


The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 2012.
Also see the full index of books I've read.


Little Dorrit

by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1857)
As was the case with Nicholas Nickleby, I was channel-surfing one day and happened upon a movie adaptation of Little Dorrit. It looked interesting, so I decided to read the book. (I've only seen about 5 minutes of each movie.)
William Dorrit had been in Marshalsea debtors' prison for over 20 years. His youngest daughter, Amy, a seemingly frail young woman, was born and lived in the prison. From an early age, she took tender care of her father, even to the extreme of forgoing food so that he might eat. She also made every effort to help her brother and sister get on in life, efforts that were largely unappreciated by her two elder siblings who, in fact, looked down upon her for having been born in prison. (The family was free to come and go; only the father was confined to the prison.) The other protagonist of the story, Arthur Clennam, called her Little Dorrit, the name given to her by his mother's housekeeper. Arthur attempted to help the Dorrit family because (i) he was just that type of guy and (ii) he had a nagging feeling - but no evidence - that his father's business was in some way involved with Mr. Dorrit's downfall. Although admirable in all other respects, Arthur had one shortcoming: he failed to realize that Amy was in love with him and he, subconsciously, was in love with her.
Prominent in the novel are parodies of the upper class in the form of various characters and parodies of the government in the form of the Circumlocution Office. The purpose of the latter was to ensure the primacy of the "How Not to Do It" philosophy over the counter-philosophy, "How to Do It". Dickens is long-winded in these passages, which is unfortunate since he has a perfectly good story to tell otherwise. The parody of the government didn't sit well with me given that, at the present time in the United States, politicians in the federal and state governments are attacking public-sector employees as being unworthy to worship the ground upon which private-sector employees walk. Not surpisingly, many of the most vociferous critics, primarily Republicans, have sucked at the government teat most of their lives and show little evidence of familiarity with the private sector and its foibles. It reminds me of a fellow contractor at NASA, a Rush Limbaugh dittohead, who crowed about the Republican-engineered government shutdown in 1995. I began to list the government employees in our department, beginning with his beloved mentor (a very talented individual) and continuing with all the rest who were equally capable, and asked him one-by-one whom he would fire. End of conversation after a lot of sputtering on his part.
There are a number of parallel story lines progressing simultaneously; consequently, there are so many characters that you sometimes lose track of who's who. Midway through the book, Mrs. Merdle made a second appearance and I couldn't place her. I then made the mistake of searching for "Merdle" in the Wikipedia entry for Little Dorrit - the sentence I found reminded me of who she was, but the following sentence, which I couldn't help but notice, gave away some important parts of the end of the story!
Little Dorrit seemed to be a more awkward read than the other novels by Dickens I've read. I can't quite put my finger on why. Early in the book, he often uses the literary trick of repeating a word or phrase throughout a paragraph for emphasis. Then there's Flora's stream-of-consciousness dialog. And, of course, there are the flowery parodies. Perhaps he was trying to be too clever by half. Regardless, the writing style does not overpower the interesting story. I found the denouement to be somewhat confusing; the recounted story involved many people not mentioned by name and the relationships between them were hard to follow. Even one of the characters yelled out "Names!" in an attempt to remedy this deficiency.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Little Dorrit
  [Book cover]

Eloquent JavaScript: A Modern Introduction to Programming

by Marijn Haverbeke
1995 - Brendan Eich reads up on every mistake ever made in designing a programming language, invents a few more, and creates LiveScript. Later, in an effort to cash in on the popularity of Java the language is renamed JavaScript. Later still, in an effort to cash in on the popularity of skin diseases the language is renamed ECMAScript.
    - "A Brief, Incomplete, and Mostly Wrong History of Programming Languages" by James Iry.
My son was about to take a "Web Development Using JavaScript" course, so I decided to learn the rudiments of the language in case he had any questions. (I did a little bit of JavaScript programming back around 2000, but not enough to still remember it.) At under 200 pages, this book is a concise introduction to JavaScript. The example code gets longer the further into the book you read and, consequently, I became less inclined to study the code line by line; knowing the concepts, I can always research them in detail on-line when necessary. The language impresses one as a hodge-podge of features, duct-taped together; James Iry's quote above is apt.
Eloquent JavaScript is extremely well-written, but it is not for beginning programmers. The chapter on functional programming in JavaScript is likely to fly over the heads of programmers not familiar with functional programming. I'm not sure how programmers who have solely used class-based object-oriented languages such as C++ will adapt to JavaScript's prototype-based object mechanism. I used to read the ACM's OOPSLA proceedings in the early 1990s (back before they became largely composed of Java-related research papers) and had been exposed to various OO systems, so object-oriented programming in JavaScript was no surprise. Inheritance using vanilla JavaScript techniques is rather tedious, so different programmers have taken different approaches to writing helper functions to simplify the process, which can be somewhat confusing if you maintain other people's code or use existing libraries.
There were a couple of historical inaccuracies in the book. The common use of i, j, k, etc. as loop indices probably arose because of their use in mathematical notation, not because programmers are lazy, as the author suggests. Also, not all programming languages begin array indices at 0; C was the first mainstream language I knew that followed that convention. Other languages used 1 as the first index or allowed the programmer to specify an arbitrary range of indices for an array.
Haverbeke offers some practical advice on programming throughout the book, mostly good advice. However, I did take issue with his recommendation concerning documentation: write the documentation after you've coded and tested the software. He seems to envision programming as a give-and-take puzzle process such that the public interfaces to function packages and objects are likely to change as coding progresses. My feeling is that a programmer with sufficient experience should, with rare exceptions, be able to correctly specify public interfaces before writing code and that the documentation of those interfaces should serve as a design document for coding purposes. Regarding comments on code fragments, why risk the chance of forgetting to go back and comment on a particularly complex piece of code?
One minor complaint. My daughter and I have noticed the increasing frequency with which people in entertainment and the media use what my daughter calls "OCD as an adjective"; e.g., someone is OCDish about one thing or another. Haverbeke calls for adopting an "obsessive-compulsive mind-set" when faced with browser-specific JavaScript quirks. Throwing the OCD term around so freely in popular culture tends to trivialize the actual disorder, a disorder which is very serious for those who suffer from it. I'm sure Haverbeke meant no offense, but I wish he'd used different wording.
Also see:
  [Book cover]

The Theory That Would Not Die: How Bayes' Rule Cracked the Enigma Code, Hunted Down Russian Submarines, and Emerged Triumphant from Two Centuries of Controversy

by Sharon Bertsch McGrayne
I seem to remember learning about Bayes' rule in a statistics class I took (in the Economics department; I was at least smart enough not to attempt the more rigorous course in the Math department) or when I worked as a student programmer for the Pattern Recognition lab at the University of Maryland. Having forgetten whatever I learned, I hoped that McGrayne's book would provide some insight into the rule. She tried, but that was not the main focus of the book. As I understand it, you guess or estimate the prior probability of an event (and the prior probabilities of related events) and, using Bayes' rule, calculate the future probability of the event. In an iterative process, as new data becomes available you update the prior probabilities and calculate a refined future probability.
As I said above, the focus of the book is not so much on Bayes' rule itself, but on the history of the rule. In particular, the author covers:
The academic battles are quite interesting, but I found the many applications of Bayes' rule to be fascinating. Of particular note were the use of Bayes' rule in decrypting German communications during World War II and the sad story of a key player, Alan Turing, whose name is well-known among computer scientists for the notion of "Turing-complete" programming languages and the "Turing Test".
Coincidentally, the book spends some time on John Tukey, a brilliant man who, like many post-war scholars, was recruited for and worked on national security research. He was also hired by NBC to predict election results, to which end he used Bayesian methods, but, oddly, never "confessed" to using Bayes' rule; McGrayne speculates that this reticence might have had something to do with his classified work. Anyway, the professor in charge of the Pattern Recognition lab at the University of Maryland taught a course, "Exploratory Data Analysis", based on Tukey's book of the same name. Prior to the course, I was assigned the task of adding some features to the interactive data analysis program (received on magnetic tape) to be used by the students. From the Wikipedia article, I'm guessing it was the Carnegie-Mellon University Data Analysis Package (CMU-DAP). Being the days of teletypes and DECwriters, the program was interactive in the sense that you would enter data points and the program would generate the famed box-and-whisker diagrams using typewriter symbols. (Graduate students - and programmers working for professors! - had access to a motley assortment of CRTs.)
One case recounted by McGrayne is the 1966 mid-air collision of a refueling tanker and a B-52 bomber carrying 4 hydrogen bombs over the small village of Palomares, Spain. Debris and 3 of the bombs rained down on the village, contaminating the soil; the fourth bomb dropped into the sea. Months were spent on a Bayesian-guided search for the fourth bomb. A grid was laid out on the sea and probabilities were calculated for each cell in the grid. The cells were then searched in order of probability, with search results used to update the probabilities of the remaining cells. Finally, two sailors grabbed a Spanish fisherman who had witnessed the bomb falling into the water (but whose account had been deemed unreliable) and got him to show them where the bomb had dropped. The bomb was found in short order. The formal search was hampered by the primitive technology of the underwater sensors at the time and the lack of readily-available computing power. McGrayne tells the stories of several other cases in which Bayesian-guided searches were cut short by actual pre-search sightings. Carl Brashear, the first African-American Navy diver, lost his leg in the Palomares incident, an event dramatized in the movie, Men of Honor, starring Cuba Gooding, Jr.
The last chapter is a lengthy (!) whirlwind (!) overview of the application of Bayes' rule over the past 20 years in an extraordinary number of fields. It seems as if there isn't a field of inquiry that hasn't been touched by Bayes' rule.
One thing that surprised me was that the advent of computers in the 1940s seemed to do nothing to promote the use of Bayes' rule. In fact, it wasn't until around 1990, nearly 45 years later, that Bayes' rule came into its own, thanks to (i) more powerful computers and (ii) the adoption by Bayesians of Markov chain Monte Carlo (MCMC) methods. Apparently MCMC greatly reduces the computational intensity of practical applications of Bayes' rule.
Also see:
  [Book cover]

River of Darkness: Francisco Orellana's Legendary Voyage of Death and Discovery Down the Amazon

by Buddy Levy
In 1541, Gonzalo Pizarro, a younger and even more ruthless half-brother of Francisco Pizarro, conqueror of the Incas, set out from Quito in search of the "Lost City of Gold", El Dorado. (Quito, later to become the capital of Ecuador, was then part of the Inca Empire.) Francisco Orellana joined him shortly afterwards as his second-in-command. According to Wikipedia, the freezing trek across the Andes Mountains resulted in the deaths and desertions of about 3,000 virtually unclothed native porters and about 140 Spanish soldiers. (Oddly, the book mentions the severe conditions of this part of the trip, but not the loss of manpower.)
Getting through the dense jungle was difficult and slow. On the Coca River, a boat was built to transport sick and injured soldiers. More men became sick and weak from hunger and a halt was finally called. Orellana suggested to Pizarro that he (Orellana) and a group of about 50 men take the boat, scout downriver for food, and then return to the encampment. Pizarro agreed, the boat set off, and that was the last Pizarro saw of Orellana. After floating downriver for a few days, Orellana's men found the current too strong to make rowing back upriver feasible, so they had to continue on. Pizarro, eventually realizing Orellana wouldn't be returning, led his remaining men on an alternate route back to Quito.
That's the beginning of the story. In the remainder of the story, Orellana and his men descended the Coca River to the Napo River, then on to the Amazon River, and finally out to the Atlantic Ocean. The full length of the voyage is unclear; different articles on the Internet give distances between 2,000 and 3,000 miles. (Once in the Atlantic Ocean, the men had to travel an additional 1,400 miles north to reach Spanish-occupied islands.)
Levy keeps the story interesting and moving along at a good pace. Which is surprising since the story is somewhat repetitive from here on out: land at a friendly village and fill up on supplies, land at an unfriendly village and fight to escape with your life, land at a friendly village, etc., etc. Somehow the trip was made with minimal loss of life despite frequent battles against overwhelming odds; this fact was reminiscent of Francisco Pizarro's conquering of the Incas despite being vastly outnumbered.
Postscript: "Orellana's Cradle" makes appearances as a place and a piece of music in Harrison Ford's movie, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.
Also see:
  [Book cover]

Epidemiology: A Very Short Introduction

by Rodolfo Saracci
... currently reading ...
  [Book cover]

The God Species: Saving the Planet in the Age of Humans

by Mark Lynas
In 2009, a group of scientists under the aegis of the Stockholm Resilience Centre drew up a list of nine planetary boundaries - limits on aspects of the earth system that, if exceeded, would cause harmful, possibly irreparable, effects to the human species and the environment. The nine boundaries (Wikipedia) are:
  1. Climate change
  2. Biodiversity loss
  3. Biogeochemical (human-caused conversion of stable nitrogen from the atmosphere into reactive nitrogen in the atmosphere, on land, and in the oceans; human-caused dumping of phosphorus into the oceans)
  4. Ocean acidification
  5. Land use (especially the amount of land devoted to agriculture)
  6. Freshwater
  7. Ozone depletion (once exceeded, but now expected to recover by 2100)
  8. Atmospheric aerosols
  9. Chemical pollution
Limits have not been established for several of the boundaries and the remaining limits were set assuming no interactions among the categories. Of course, there are interactions, but trying to determine limits while taking the interactions into account would have resulted in variable limits that probably wouldn't have been useful as guidelines. (Also, a boundary is actually the low point of a range of values; the midpoint of the range is called the threshold.)
Lynas begins in a breathless rush to expound on his subject. He eventually either slowed down to a normal pace or I just got used to it. The book provides a good description of each planetary boundary, the history behind the boundary, and the potential futures if the boundary is or is not exceeded. All very interesting and informative.
There are some problems, however. Lynas comes across as pursuing a vendetta against environmentalists, or "Greens" as he calls them. The rare compliment paid to the Greens is always followed by "but". While I see and agree with some of his differences with the environmentalists, his attacks on them in the book seem excessive.
Lynas believes strongly in technological solutions to the problems facing us. His most controversial stance is advocating for nuclear power plants. I'm not sure how I feel about this. It's true that accidents in the fossil fuel industry have killed more people than in the nuclear power industry, but the nuclear power industry is still subject to the possibility that an unlikely disaster could be catastrophic. Lynas downplays the Fukushima incident in Japan in March 2011, rightly pointing out the widespread non-nuclear contamination caused by the spillage of industrial storage and waste in the tsunami. However, as I write this a year later, it has been reported that Japan has shut down 52 of its 54 reactors nation-wide for safety reasons. This may be an irrational response as many have suggested, but the reactor accident in Fukushima and the shady practices of the power company (TEPCO) that have come to light as a result are causes for concern. In fairness, Lynas urges the construction of new types of reactors designed more recently than the 40-year-old reactors commonly in use at Fukushima and elsewhere.
To promote nuclear power, Lynas brings up Einstein's equation, E = mc², where c is the speed of light (300 million meters per second): "Clearly even with a very small amount of fissionable material, multiplying it by the square of 300 million yields a very big number." While this statement sounds impressive, the equation applies to any type of energy, including that generated by fossil fuels. The enormous energy produced in a nuclear reaction actually comes from breaking the strong force holding together the particles in an atomic nucleus (Wikipedia).
The author also believes that we are smart enough now that the technological fixes we devise won't have unforeseen consequences. I don't buy that and two examples he gives in the book belie his point. First, the invention of fertilizer in the early 1900s had two effects, one good and one bad: (i) it has enabled us to feed the rapidly expanding population and (ii) it led us down the road to exceeding the nitrogen (biogeochemical) boundary. Second, the invention of freon in the 1920s also had two effects, good and bad: (i) it made safe refrigeration and air conditioning possible and (ii) it led to the depletion of the ozone layer. The bad effects only became apparent many decades later.
The use of fertilizer is an interesting issue. The alternative, organic farming, has a lower yield (persons fed per acre farmed). Consequently, reducing or eliminating the use of fertilizer would require increased land use (probably achieved by deforestation), thus resulting in exceeding the land use boundary, losses in biodiversity, and further aggravating climate change. On the other hand, I'm not optimistic about the development of genetically-modified, self-fertilizing grains, a feat which Lynas foresees happening within 10 years. (The roots of naturally self-fertilizing grains provide an oxygen-free environment for microbes which produce nitrogen.)
  [Book cover]

The Last Speakers: The Quest to Save the World's Most Endangered Languages

by K. David Harrison
"Saddened, we departed Nersa, village of mostly forgotten stories." This is the primary theme of Last Speakers, as author David Harrison travels around the world to villages where languages are dying. When the last remaining speakers of a language "go berry-picking" (to use a Tofa metaphor), the cultural, environmental, and historical knowledge encoded in their language and embodied in their culture is lost.
Last Speakers was a slow read for me - I was having trouble concentrating and the many languages covered tended to blur together as a result. Regardless, nuggets of information were frequent enough to keep me going and I came away with a respectable amount of food for thought.
Harrison warns against "exoticizing" these dwindling societies, but falls prey to romanticizing them himself at times, perhaps out of exuberance at gaining new knowledge. The Chaco region that reaches into Paraguay, Bolivia, and Argentina is characterized by a harsh environment and, despite a limited population, is a linguistic "hotspot" (i.e., many languages are found there). When a group of natives would get too large to sustain itself, it would break into smaller groups that would go their separate ways; this might explain the divergent languages that evolved over time. I'm reminded of a book I read years ago by a paleontologist hunting for dinosaur fossils in Africa. He remarked on the fact that the local natives, while very friendly and apt to break into smiles, daily walked a thin line between life and death by starvation or disease. Harrison is well aware of and describes the difficult lives lead by many of the groups he studies, but he naturally focuses on the groups' languages, which is, after all, the subject of the book.
Also see:
  [Book cover]

Mary Barton: A Tale of Manchester Life

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1848)
Elizabeth Gaskell was a contemporary of Charles Dickens and addressed many of the same social issues in her novels that Dickens did. Trying to describe the plot of Mary Barton risks giving the ending away, so suffice it to say that Mary Barton was a poor young lady who planned on becoming a rich young lady by marrying a rich young man. She was quite beautiful, so her intention was not out of the realm of impossibility. Aside from telling a romantic story, the novel also had the purpose of portraying the plight of the poor, both in terms of being poor in and of itself and of being poor in the industrial milieu of early 19th-century Manchester, England. The storyline is tied to some actual historical events in the late 1830s and early 1840s. One of the most poignant moments breezes by when Mrs. Wilson mentions in passing that she began working in a factory at the age of 5.
Mary Barton is almost a treasure trove for English-language linguists. Many times, oddities of spoken English are flagged with footnotes defining the terms and/or giving examples of their use in prior literature. It must have required an extraordinary effort by Mrs. Gaskell to track down the citations, especially in a pre-Internet age! (Let me amend what I've just written. The footnotes get fewer and fewer as you get further into the book. This is unfortunate. For example, upon encountering the word "moider" in dialog, you might think of it as an attempt to reproduce the pronunciation of "murder", thereby missing the fact that "moider" is a perfectly good British word meaning "to bother or bewilder".)
The New Bailey (Prison) of Manchester is not to be confused with the Old Bailey (Court) of London.
A quotable quote about fetching a "physic" for the dying Ben Davenport (Chapter VI, "Poverty and death"):
They are the mysterious problem of life to more than [John Barton]. He wondered if any in all the hurrying crowd had come from such a house of mourning. He thought they all looked joyous, and he was angry with them. But he could not, you cannot, read the lot of those who daily pass you by in the street. How do you know the wild romances of their lives; the trials, the temptations they are even now enduring, resisting, sinking under? You may be elbowed one instant by the girl desperate in her abandonment, laughing in mad merriment with her outward gesture, while her soul is longing for the rest of the dead, and bringing itself to think of the cold flowing river as the only mercy of God remaining to her here. You may pass the criminal, meditating crimes at which you will tomorrow shudder with horror as you read them. You may push against one, humble and unnoticed, the last upon earth, who in heaven will for ever be in the immediate light of God's countenance. Errands of mercy—errands of sin—did you ever think where all the thousands of people you daily meet are bound? Barton's was an errand of mercy; but the thoughts of his heart were touched by sin, by bitter hatred of the happy, whom he, for the time, confounded with the selfish.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Mary Barton
  [Book cover]

The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic—and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World

by Steven Johnson
This book is not so much about a map as it is about the problems of sewage, pollution, and outbreaks of cholera in 19th-century London, a city in the midst of the Industrial Revolution and with a rapidly expanding population. The narrative revolves around the story of an especially bad outbreak of cholera in 1854, spread from the Broad Street water pump. The map in question is not discussed in detail until later in the book.
In the early Victorian era, how did Londoners dispose of the sewage generated in a densely populated city of over 2 million? You deposited it in your basement, on your roof, in a cesspool, wherever. In response to widespread cholera epidemics, the Public Health Act of 1848 ("Key dates Health and Nursing, Great Britain 1000 - 1899") and, in particular, the Nuisances Removal and Diseases Prevention Act were passed, beginning the process of ridding the city of standing sewage and dumping or draining it into the River Thames.
John Snow and Reverend Henry Whitehead
Also see:
  [Book cover]

The Grey Woman and Other Tales

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1861)
A collection of short stories, the plots of the first several stories were a little ho-hum: expect more pleasure from reading Gaskell's elegant prose than from losing oneself in an interesting story. After trudging through the first three stories, I somehow happened to be in the right mood for the fourth, "Libbie Marsh's Three Eras", a story about an ailing boy reminiscent of Dickens' Tiny Tim. The remaining stories were equally engaging, all having a moral to them, which makes me think they were aimed at instructing young readers in the importance of being good and doing right.
The first and second story had their moments. "The Grey Woman", set at the time of the French Revolution, drew me up short at what I considered to be a thoroughly modern reaction to largess from an unexpected quarter:
Even Fritz lifted up his eyebrows and whistled [at the liberal money arrangements].
Human emotions and reactions are timeless, obviously - to all but me!
"Curious If True" has a brief portrayal of obsessive-compulsive disorder:
[Monsieur Poucet] had the awkward habit—which I do not think he could have copied from Dr. Johnson, because most probably he had never heard of him—of trying always to retrace his steps on the exact boards on which he had trodden to arrive at any particular part of the room.
Dr. Samuel Johnson, 18th-century author of A Dictionary of the English Language, had similar habits that indicate OCD. (A Wikipedia article attributes Johnson's quirks to Tourette Syndrome, whose sufferers often display OCD symptoms, a fact easily explained by the comorbidity of the disorders.)
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Grey Woman and Other Tales
  [Book cover]


by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1853)
A poor, orphaned young girl of 16 is taken advantage of by a rich young man and left with child. A Dissenting minister (beliefs) and his sister take the pregnant girl into their keeping. An early Tess of the d'Urbervilles?
Ruth's situation, while not uncommon, was a scandalous subject to write about publicly at the time and Mrs. Gaskell's novel was controversial when published. Details are few in the book: Ruth was suddenly pregnant and, just as suddenly, had a baby boy some months later. The novel struck me as somewhat simplistic in the beginning, but be patient - about halfway into the book, the plot thickens and the story gains depth. The final 60 pages provides a whirlwind of an ending.
Reading Mrs. Gaskell always broadens one's vocabulary and Ruth didn't let me down in that regard. Among the words I picked up were "oneiromancy" - predicting the future through dreams - and "sough", which means a murmuring sound or, less commonly, an unconfirmed rumor. It wasn't clear from the context, "keeping a calm sough", which meaning was intended, but I suspect Mrs. Gaskell meant keeping a rumor to oneself.
Ruth is also the source of this profound quote about children!
"For his part," continued the doctor, "he thought he was glad he had had no children; as far as he could judge, they were pretty much all plague and no profit."
Project Gutenberg eBook: Ruth


by Herman Melville (1819-1891) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1851)
"Call me Ishmael." And, yes, that's a hyphen in the title. Vivid writing that draws you into the story immediately. (Illustration by Vitaly S. Alexius.)
As contemporary Nathaniel Parker Willis said, "With his cigar and his Spanish eyes, [Herman Melville] talks Typee and Omoo, just as you find the flow of his delightful mind on paper." How true of Moby-Dick. More than just a dark story about Captain Ahab's obsession with the White Whale, Moby-Dick is a story full of life, lots of humor, and a full range of emotions. Melville wrote like the colorful sailor he was. Surprisingly, Melville's writings, other than his very early novels, were not well received at the time. In 1852, a year after Moby-Dick was published, a newspaper reported that they were startled to learn "that Melville was really supposed to be deranged, and that his friends were taking measures to place him under treatment. We hope one of the earliest precautions will be to keep him stringently secluded from pen and ink." Brutal!
Despite the book being written by a sailor, there is precious little time devoted to the actual sailing experience. Halfway through the book, the ship, the Pequod, finally rounds the Cape of Good Hope and heads into the Indian Ocean. On a quiet day, with quiet seas, the lookouts and the helmsman fall fast asleep. Sailors laze about on idle days. This is in stark contrast with shipboard life as described in Two Years Before the Mast. If memory serves, that ship was daily cleaned from stem to stern. (Although I also recall a Russian whaler encountered in California that was filthy.)
Melville covers in excruciating and poetic detail the attributes of different types of whales and the mechanics of whaling. The latter is interesting and involves some action, but the former makes for slow reading. As an example of poetry in the storytelling, Melville neatly dismisses philosophy in three sentences by comparing two leading philosophers to two whale heads hung on either side of the ship:
So, when on one side you hoist in Locke's head, you go over that way; but now, on the other side, hoist in Kant's and you come back again; but in very poor plight. Thus, some minds for ever keep trimming boat. Oh, ye foolish! throw all these thunder-heads overboard, and then you will float light and right.
These tangential musings continue until the very end of the book. Sometimes I was in the mood for them; other times, not. Common literary techniques that stood out in the book were long sequences of clauses separated by semicolons and more than occasional use of the "be that as it may" idiom.
The Thames Tunnel is mentioned twice in the book and is used in a metaphorical sense both times. The tunnel, built under the River Thames and opened in 1843, was subject to frequent floodings during its construction, leading to, among many jokes, this amusing snippet of doggerel (Wikipedia):
That very mishap,
When the Thames forced a gap,
And made it fit haunt for an otter,
Has proved that your scheme
Is no catchpenny dream;
They can't say "'twill never hold water."
Project Gutenberg eBook: Moby-Dick
  [Book cover]

The Handmaid's Tale

by Margaret Atwood (Wikipedia) (pub. 1985)
The premise of this science fiction story is similar to that of It Can't Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis. The story is told in a somewhat dreamy fashion, with flashbacks filling in the details of how things ended up the way they did. I'll give you a head start on the action, but bear in mind that this book was written nearly 30 years ago. Because of Muslim terrorist attacks (or so goes the official story), the United States government has been replaced by a peculiar Christian theocracy (the Gilead regime). Peculiar especially with respect to females being the inferior sex. The theocratic government is at war with Baptists, Catholics, Jews, and Quakers, not to mention other denominations, religions, cultures, ethnicities, and lifestyles - and personalities - that don't "belong".
In the scope of the story, the Commanders are important men, the Wives are their wives, and the Marthas are the help. If a Wife is unable to bear a child (and it's never the man's fault), the Commander is supplied with a rotating stream of Handmaids to fulfill that function. The Aunts instruct the Handmaids in their duties as subservient females. (The main character in the tale, naturally, is a Handmaid.) What are Handmaids? "[T]wo-legged wombs, that's all: sacred vessels, ambulatory chalices." And God? "GOD IS A NATIONAL RESOURCE." It's fitting that I'm reading this at the time of the 2012 Republican National Convention.¹ "'Our big mistake was teaching them to read. We won't do that again.'"
¹ "We view The Handmaid's Tale as cautionary. The GOP views it as an instruction book." - Vita Brevis
  [Book cover]

North and South

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1854)
Mr. Hale, a minister in the Church of England, after several years of struggle, decides he cannot support the doctrines of the Church and resigns his position. He has a lack of faith in the Church of England, not a lack of faith; he has become a Dissenter. He moves his wife and daughter from the seemingly idyllic rural village of Helstone in the south to a rough manufacturing city, Milton, in the north, where he acts as a tutor to earn a living.
The daughter, Margaret, is the quiet, strong, compassionate heroine of the story. (One senses a pattern in Mrs. Gaskell's novels!) Milton is wracked by strikes and, despite Margaret's belief that the market, not unions, should settle the issues of wages, etc., she continually finds herself at cross-purposes with a mill owner, Mr. Thornton (one of her father's adult pupils).
An important theme of the book, touched on explicitly towards the end, is change. Change happens, in rural village and urban town, to rich and poor alike, sometimes with good results and sometimes with bad results. Margaret's strength and compassion help to carry her and others through difficult times.
Project Gutenberg eBook: North and South
  [Book cover]

Death Comes to Pemberley

by P. D. James (1920-2014) (Wikipedia) (pub. 2011)
I was a big fan of P. D. James' Adam Dagliesh mysteries once upon a time, so I was interested in seeing her take on Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice. Unfortunately, it's been seven years since I read Pride and Prejudice, so I hope I remember enough to fully appreciate James' story. Fortunately, P. D. James begins her book with a whirlwind, tongue-in-cheek recap of the events in Pride and Prejudice, with every action part of Elizabeth's grand scheme to ensnare Mr. Darcy.
Overall, Death Comes to Pemberley is a pretty good murder mystery, whether you've previously read Pride and Prejudice or not. (If you haven't read Austen's novel, you may have some trouble keeping track of all the different characters, but don't let that dissuade you from reading James' book.)
  [Book cover]

Why Does E=mc² (And Why Should We Care?)

by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw
If you've seen and liked Brian Cox on any of his BBC science specials, you'll hear his voice come through in certain passages of this book. (The other passages are presumably written or co-written by Dr. Forshaw.)
Dr. Cox and Dr. Forshaw attempt a gentle introduction to relativity, the spacetime continuum, and E=mc². They warn that the concepts are counterintuitive and even begin with an admonition by Douglas Adams (Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, etc.): "Don't Panic!" I didn't come away from the book with a good understanding of these subjects, but I least got a little insight into some of the terms you'll find floating around in media reports, etc.

Dombey and Son

by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1848)
Dombey and Son? Never heard of it before now. Yet it's apparently one of Dickens' most critical works: his first book in which he fully embraced the form of the novel (or lack of form, as is the case with a novel). Common to Dickens' novels, the first 50 of the complete 800 pages are a little slow going, but then the pace picks up.
The story begins with Mr. Dombey, a giant in the business world; his endearing young son, Paul, who is "strange, and old, and thoughtful" and who is being groomed to take his rightful place in the family business; and Paul's older sister, Florence, or "Floy" as her small circle of intimates call her. Florence, who yearns for her father's love and despite growing more intelligent and more beautiful each day, is ignored and positively detested by her father because - because she is not a boy. These three characters gather other characters into their net and the story moves on.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Dombey and Son
  [Book cover]

Best Russian Short Stories

edited by Thomas Seltzer (Wikipedia)
Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Saltykov, Korolenko, Garshin, Checkhov, Sologub, Potapenko, Semyonov, Gorky, Andreyev, Artzybashev, and Kuprin.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Best Russian Short Stories (pub. 1917)
  [Book cover]

Sylvia's Lovers

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1863)
An on-line review warned that the first third of this book sets the stage for the remainder of the book. I would go further: the first half of the book comes across as a juvenile romance. Then the protagonist and the themes mature and the book gets moving.
In the late 1790s, Sylvia, who lives in a small whaling port, must choose between two men: a charming, dashing specksioneer (chief harpooner) and a not-so-charming clerk with good prospects (also her cousin). Things go badly awry for Sylvia, not to mention for the other characters too.
The social issue that Mrs. Gaskell addresses in Sylvia's Lovers is press gangs, used by Britain to kidnap men off the street and force them into service in the Royal Navy. (To fight the French at this time period.)
Interestingly, the North Atlantic whaling that is the lifeblood of Sylvia's hometown is described (and derided) by Herman Melville in Moby-Dick.
Although the first half of the book was boring and the last half was dissatisfying, after reading it, I found myself thinking back to different episodes in the story and reflecting on them. So, all in all, the book had an impact.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Sylvia's Lovers
  [Book cover]

The Idiot

by Fyodor Dostoyevsky (1821-1881) (Wikipedia), translated by Eva Martin (pub. 1868, original Russian)
Back when I was about 20, I read Tolstoy's and Dostoyevsky's major novels for my own enjoyment (and, several years later, re-read them for a Russian Literature class). The one exception was The Idiot: I read part of the book and then put it down; I can't remember why. So, making up for that lapse, I am finally reading the story in its entirety.
Now I think I know why I put the book down all those years ago. Strangeness simply for art's sake: strange situations, strange behavior, strange dialog, ... It doesn't make for a compelling story that keeps you wanting to find out what happens next.
As the pages dragged on, it got to the point where my one incentive for finishing the book was to see if Dostoyevsky brought it to some resolution. He kind of did, but, writing a month later, I can't remember exactly what it was. Not a memorable book. Young college students into earnest, late-night discussions may find the book of some interest.
Project Gutenberg eBook: The Idiot
  [Book cover]

The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier

by Tony Jones
Emerging church (Wikipedia)
... currently reading ...
  [Book cover]

Round the Sofa

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1859)
Round the Sofa is a collection of a novella and some short stories, with some additional text to "glue" together the stories. The title refers to a pleasant little party gathered around Mrs. Dawson on the sofa; everyone shares a story of interest to them. Mrs. Dawson goes first and relates "My Lady Ludlow", the novella. Then comes "An Accursed Race", a brief treatise about the shunned Cagots in France and Spain; a Gothic Welsh story, "The Doom of the Griffiths"; a story of lost love, "Half a Life-Time Ago"; another horror story, "The Poor Clare"; and "The Half-Brothers". I found the next to the last two stories to be the best, "Half a Life-Time Ago" and "The Poor Clare", with "My Lady Ludlow" following close behind.
Project Gutenberg eBook: Round the Sofa (glue text only; you need to download the stories separately)
"My Lady Ludlow"
"An Accursed Race"
"The Doom of the Griffiths"
"Half a Life-Time Ago"
"The Poor Clare"
"The Half-Brothers"
  [Book cover]


by Edward Rutherfurd
  [Book cover]

Oliver Twist

by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1839)
Project Gutenberg eBook: Oliver Twist
  [Book cover]

A Christmas Carol

by Charles Dickens (1812-1870) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1843)
Project Gutenberg eBook: A Christmas Carol
  [Book cover]

Wives and Daughters

by Elizabeth Gaskell (1810-1865) (Wikipedia) (pub. 1865)
Project Gutenberg eBook: Wives and Daughters

Alex Measday  /  E-mail