Wednesday, February 20, 2013

For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books (Part 6)

For those of you wondering, I actually finished reading Moonstone Cup a couple of days ago.  I've got my notes on it and everything!  But for some reason, I've been having a tremendous amount of trouble focusing lately.  In any case, I'll try to summon up the mental stamina to write up that review in a non-half-hearted manner by Friday, but until then, I thought I'd regale you with something a little less demanding: a list of the books which I'm currently worming my way through, along with a few comments on each and a recommendation based on what I've read.  Click below the break to judge my literary tastes.

The Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren

What it is:  A children's story by the author of the Pippi Longstockings books.  This is a whole lot darker than Pippi ever was, though; the premise is that two young brothers die and go to Nangiyala, the land of sagas and adventure, but discover that some adventures should only be imagined, never lived.

How I'm liking it so far:  I tracked down a copy after someone was able to identify my attempts to describe the opening chapters based on a twenty-odd year old memory (thanks again, Nshakes!), and the nostalgia value is overwhelming.  Reading it has brought back a rush of memories, and it's been a delightful, sometimes emotional experience.

But that's all tied up in my personal experience.  As for the book itself: it's a children's book, and as such is very simply constructed and written.  But there's an astonishing amount of depth here, considering the target audience, and also a surprising amount of darkness.  This story poses some very basic questions about courage, virtue, and death, and rewards thoughtful reading despite its linguistic and structural accessibility. 

Recommendation:  Look, it's meant to be read to or with young children, so anyone looking for dense prose and complicated, twisting storylines needn't bother.  But for anyone in the market for such a book, this is a shockingly somber and, in many ways, adult work which nonetheless has the potential to captivate young readers.  I know it did me.

One warning: there was apparently a lot of controversy around this book when it was published, as some folks thought that the story (specifically the ending) condoned or even encouraged suicide.  I... think that's sort of missing the point, but you may want to read it yourself before sharing it with young children, or at least  you should be prepared to discuss the ending with them.

Five Billion Vodka Bottles to the Moon, by Iosif Shklovsky

What it is:  The memoirs of a Soviet scientist who worked on, among other things, the Russian space program.

How I'm liking it so far:  The bit that made me pick up this book was the first line on the dust jacket, describing Shklovsky as "...pretty nearly a Russian Richard Feynman."  For those of you who haven't read Feynman's first biography, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, I highly, highly recommend it.  Anyway, I'm about halfway through this book, and the comparison is apt.  Shklovsky is irreverent, witty, and his brilliance and humor constantly show through in this thoroughly engaging work.

It's also an extremely "Russian" biography, for lack of a better word.  Shklovsky lived through WWII and Stalin's purges, among other disasters, and the stories he tells are full of death, despair, and tragedy.  More than one comic anecdote about some fellow scientist or student ends with, "shortly after so-and-so graduated, he was reported by a party member and was Disappeared.  I met his father some years later, and asked what had happened to him.  After a puppet trial he had been exiled to Siberia for a term of twenty years, and died of pneumonia his first winter there."  Then he'll go into a story about how he once masqueraded as a "Soviet chess phenom" while on a scientific trip to South America, and was beaten so roundly that the local newspaper ran a front page article about it.

Recommendation:  Anyone who enjoys history, comedy, tragedy, science, or the sheer pleasure of exploring the thoughts of an unquestionable (and unquestionably blunt-spoken) genius should read this.  It's great.

Rebels in Hell, edited by Janet Morris

What it is:  A book of short stories about various historical figures who are rebels.  And they're in Hell.

How I'm liking it so far:  This book is part of the Damned Saga, aka. the "_____ in Hell" books.  I read one of the collections a few years back, and have sporadically returned to the series since then.  As a collection of short stories (though most are on the long side of that definition) by various authors, the quality is expectedly hit-and-miss.  But I do enjoy the overall concept of "famous people and their adventures/travails in a very hands-off version of eternal damnation."

Recommendation:  The first collection in the series is Heroes in Hell; although they can be read in any order, I do recommend starting there to get a feel for the shared setting of the works, and there is some carryover from story to story.  Although some stories are better than others, I've found in the past that this is a shared universe which I consistently enjoy reading about, and it's my humble opinion that they make good bedtime material, for folks looking for such.

Honor: A History, by James Bowman

What it is:  A history of honor: how humans understand the concept, and how it's understood in various cultures today.

How I'm liking it so far:  I thought I'd enjoy this book a lot; with a description like the one above, it seems like the sort of thing that could be interesting, right?

Unfortunately, Bowman seems far more interested in advancing sweeping and ill-supported generalizations about culture and society than in actually explaining historical and modern concepts of honorable and dishonorable behavior.  From his introduction, where he makes the sweeping assertion that most Baby Boomers are anti-war because they feel latent guilt about dodging the draft during Vietnam (!), and on through suggestions that every modern society except Western believes that a woman's honor is entirely a product of her chastity (!!!), the author has a distressing tendency to site a single person or event, then extrapolate that to an entire culture or time period.  I'm less than a hundred pages in, and I've decided that I'll read to the end of this section to see if there's something to all this other than near-baseless assertions, but I very much doubt I'll continue past that.

Recommendation:  I can't recommend this.  Even if the conclusions Bowman draws weren't stupifyingly at odds with both common sense and personal observation, there's no excuse for basing an understanding of a fundamental human characteristic on such scant evidence, nor for failing to even address the many obvious counterexamples in any way.


  1. Sorry to hear about Honor. That one actually sounded like a good concept. Do you know any others that cover the same topic?

    And I have to give that Russian one a try. It sounds like a real interesting read.

    1. Seconding about the Russian biography. That sounds like exactly my kind of book.

    2. Yeah, I was really disappointed by Honor (obviously). Unfortunately, I don't know of any other mainstream books on the subject, though that's no doubt because I haven't looked. Something to check for on my next trip to the library, I guess.

      And yes, you should both definitely read Vodka Bottles. It's out of print, though, so you may have to look around a bit to find a copy.

    3. It reminds me of one of my favourite books on my rather lean-looking shelf: Training the Samurai Mind.

      One of the reasons I like this book, however, is that it is a collection of papers with little or no commentary save some details about the authors and their time period. beyond that, I get to examine and understand the ethics and principals of the era for myself, rather than some crackpot historian with a biased opinion. I love that book.

      Now, if you'll excuse me I need to get started on The Quantum Universe: Everything That Can Happen Does Happen. Just a little light science before bed!


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  4. The one about honor seems pretty familiar to me. Correct me if I'm wrong, but haven't you already covered that one in an earlier post?

    Also, thanks, Chris -- your blog fulfills all my pocket vaporizer needs! I never thought it would be possible, but WISPR™ is not only convenient and easy to carry, but it is also clean, cheap and eco-friendly! Finally, I can enjoy my" vaporization sessions" anytime I want!

    1. 1) I don't think so--maybe someone brought it up in the comments section somewhere along the line? I forget what inspired me to pick it up; maybe I saw someone reference it here.

      2) I am seriously this closeto disabling anon comments on the blog. But every time I do, someone makes a relevant and intelligent comment anonymously and I think to myself, "Well, I'd hate to leave them out of the conversation."

    2. 1) Using my incredible otherworldly superpowers I acquired when I was bitten by a radioactive Google, I found a cached version of the previous edition of For a Change, Let's Talk About Actual Books.
      As you can see, it clearly has Honor: A history, but it have been replaced by Price of Honor: Muslim Women Lift the Veil of Silence on the Islamic World since. What's interesting, it's a different (although similar) review. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark, I would say! (Well, that, or I screwed up something, which I am prone to whenever I'm using the Internet.) The link to the cached page can be found below.

      2) Heavens, don't disable it! Without these helpful comments, I would've never found a way to satisfy all my vaporizing needs twenty-four hours a day.

    3. Oh, goodness; I remember what happened. Have a seat, it's a funny story:

      I got a copy of Honor several months ago, and put it on the "to read" list. Now, what you may not know is that I sort-of assemble my "actual books" posts in advance; since I use them as filler, I want them to require as little effort as possible if I'm sick/tired/lazy/whatever. So, I typically plug the book and description in in advance, so that all I have to do is fill out the recommendation and what I thought of it bits.

      Anyway, I put Honor down, but then I didn't actually read it. What I did read was a book for a social justice group I'm part of, the somewhat-similarly titled (but otherwise entirely unrelated) Price of Honor. Well, when I filled in the blanks, I put the thoughts and recommendation for Price of Honor down in the Honor: a History slot.

      I noticed my mistake later (a week or two later? Maybe more) when I re-read the post and made a couple of long-overdue edits and modifications. So I changed the title and description (and it looks like I also added a line to the recommendation; go me?) to make the title match the subject. Then I actually did start reading Bowman's book, and I wrote this review.

      So... yeah. I admit it, I messed up! Maybe I need to do a corrections post or something.

    4. This explains everything. Another mystery solved by us meddling kids and our dog!

      And now, if you'll excuse me, I have a vaporizer session to enjoy. If you know what I mean.

  5. Ah, I expected The Brothers Lionheart to pip up on this list. You've certainly caught my interest with it.

    Also, "stupifyingly" is a fun word.

  6. I've heard of the "in the Hell" series before and considered them, but I haven't read any of them. To be honest, I haven't read a lot of books, lately. Some of it's that I've been busy, but I think a larger reason is because the university library is so uninviting, from the rather limited computer system they have (it's like they don't want people to use them) to the fact you can't bring your bags into the main stacks (seriously). Say what I will about my undergraduate school, but that place encouraged you to read and left me wanting to read every book there. Same with the one I grew up with as a kid. I loved it, when I moved, the local was, smaller so much smaller that, there was no comparison. I maintain that one of the better ways to get kids to read are libraries that encourage it. Ones that look inviting (ones that are not dark and dank) and don't have stupid rules.