Books Archive

Monday, October 6, 2008

Books, A Year in Review - 2008, Part I

Old Book Bindings, from Wikimedia CommonsJust about a year ago, I started the books section of this blog, with an entry called Books I've Read in the Last Year. It was originally prompted by an article about an AP-Ipsos poll on people's reading habits. Among other things, it pointed out that around 1 in 4 adults in this country hadn't read any books at all in the previous year, and that among those that had, the average number of books read was 6. So, I wrote up the entry to compare my reading habits to the general population.

Well, it's been about a year since that entry, so I thought I'd take a look at how I compared this year. First, here are the books I read, which I've tried to group by subject (as oppposed to chronologically, alphabetically, or any other order):

  1. The Frog Princess (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  2. Dragon's Breath: (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  3. Once Upon a Curse (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  4. No Place for Magic (Tales of the Frog Princess)
  5. The City of Ember (Books of Ember)
  6. The People of Sparks (Books of Ember)
  7. The Prophet of Yonwood (Books of Ember)
  8. The Diamond of Darkhold (Books of Ember)
  9. Once Upon a Time in the North
  10. The Spiderwick Chronicles
  11. Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency
  12. The Long Dark Tea Time of the Soul
  13. Peter Pan
  14. The Strange Case of Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde*
  15. Gulliver's Travels
  16. The Jungle Book
  17. From the Ground Up: The Autobiography of an Aeronautical Engineer
  18. Dreams from My Father: A Story of Race and Inheritance
  19. Tao Te Ching
  20. The God Delusion
  21. The Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin's Journal of Researches*
  22. Dinosaurs
  23. At the Water's Edge : Fish with Fingers, Whales with Legs, and How Life Came Ashore but Then Went Back to Sea
  24. The Parrot's Lament : And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity
  25. Great Mythconceptions: The Science Behind the Myths

*-indicates that the Amazon link is to a different edition than the one I actually read.

Now, on to the analysis.

Continue reading "Books, A Year in Review - 2008, Part I" »

Friday, September 26, 2008

Book Review - The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book

I just read The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book (they were both collected into a single volume). The Jungle Book was first published as a book in 1894, while the short stories it contains were originally published in magazines from 1893 to 1894. The stories in The Second Jungle Book were also first published in magazines, from 1894 to 1895, with the book first being published in 1895. Both were written by Rudyard Kipling.

For anyone unfamiliar with the stories, they largely center around the inhabitants of an Indian jungle, and then largely around Mowgli, the "man-cub" raised by wolves. However, not all of the stories were about the jungle, as the title would imply. For example, there was the tale of Kotick, the white seal of the arctic, and that of Kotuko, the Inuit and his sled dog. The non-human characters were anthropomorphized to a degree - they could speak to each other (and to Mowgli), they were more intelligent than in real life, and there was a bit more organization and "Law" than really exists, but to a large degree, the animals in the book behaved like they really would in the wild.

I really enjoyed reading this book. You may think that of course I would, because it's a classic, and there's a reason why books become classics - but that's not always the case. Consider that a few months ago, I posted my review of Gulliver's Travels, and I wasn't too fond of that book. And I also recently read Peter Pan (I don't post reviews for all the books I read), and although it was enjoyable to read, I was a little disappointed. Just being a classic doesn't guarantee that everybody will like that book. But with The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book, I can definitely see why they've been popular for so long.

The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book are usually marketed as a children's books, which they are. But the stories in them, presented as fables, are not the tepid affairs that some Amazon reviewers seem to think children's stories should be. They have some violence, characters are killed, some characters are mean and intolerant, but non of it is overdone. Those are issues that, presented properly, children can and probably should deal with. Though, as far as being children's books, according to the Wikipedia entry, at least some "readers have interpreted the work as allegories of the politics and society of the time." As any book, The Jungle Book and The Second Jungle Book do reveal something of the mindset of the time when they were written. Kipling was a British man living in Imperial India, and the racism of the time does surface in some parts of the books.

I'll admit, I've always been fascinated with the characters from The Jungle Book thanks to a Disney cartoon called TaleSpin. TaleSpin was a 1930s era aviation fantasy - a hero that flew a flying boat, an island bar that you could only get to by plane, villains that had a flying base always on the move, air races, experimental airplanes... You can see why a kid like me would have liked it. Anyway, the characters from TaleSpin were loosely based on the characters from Disney's version of The Jungle Book, which themselves were only loosely based on the characters from Kipling's The Jungle Book. So, in the end, the TaleSpin characters that initially got me intrigued with the The Jungle Book really didn't share any more than names with the originals. But it did make it a bit hard to read Baloo's lines and not hear the voice from the cartoon.

One note on the particular edition of the book that I read - it's part of a series called "Unabridged Classics" put out by Sterling Publishers. All of the books in the series are affordable, hardcover editions of stories that have survived the test of time (the edition of Gulliver's Travels that I read was part of this same series). The publishers have added a handful of footnotes to explain things that might be lost on the modern reader, as well as a series of questions at the end of the book to stimulate thought or discussions (the end of book questions are targeted to a young audience). You could read all the stories in the series free on Project Gutenberg, but if you're looking for a good hard copy to put in a home library, this series is a good choice.

Speaking of Project Gutenberg, here are the relevant links for these books:
The Jungle Book
The Second Jungle Book

Friday, August 1, 2008

Book Review- Tao Te Ching

The Tao Te Ching is a classic Chinese text, the foundation of Taoism, and also important to Chinese Buddhism. Tradition holds that it was written by Lao Tsu around the 6th century B.C., although there is some debate as to the actual date it was written, and even whether Lao Tsu was an actual, historical person. There have been numerous translations of the text into English. The particular translation I read was that of Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English, which I've learned was the translation favored by Alan Watts. (Depending on the romanization of Tao Te Ching and Lao Tsu, or the attempt to express those words with the Roman alphabet, they can be written many different ways, with some of the most common being Dao De Jing for the text, and Laozi or Lao Tzu for the man.)

The text is poetic. It's fairly short, so you could read it pretty quickly if you wanted to, although it's probably better to take your time so you can reflect on what's being said. There are many parts of the text that make you stop and think, like the following passage from Chapter 2. This method of contrasting opposites was repeated throughout the text.

Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ungliness.
All can know good only because there is evil.

Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other.
Long and short contrast each other;
High and low rest upon each other;
Voice and sound harmonize each other;
Front and back follow one another.

The text also makes a point about not always having to do things. Sometimes, inaction can be the best path.

Movement overcomes cold.
Stillness overcomes heat.
Stillness and tranquility set things in order in the universe.

And another passage with a similar message:

Keep your mouth shut,
Guard the senses,
And life is ever full.
Open your mouth,
Always be busy,
And life is beyond hope.

Though at times, I think the text went to far in this regard. There was one passage in particular that struck me as being rather counter to Enlightenment ideals (though I'm sure some student of Taoism will come along and tell me I could interpret this passage differently). You can't learn about the world simply by sitting inside and meditating - you need evidence, which you can only get through observation.

The five colors blind the eye.
The five tones deafen the ear.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.

Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this.

Here's another passage along the same lines, which seems even more explicitly counter to scientific observation.

Without going outside, you may know the whole world.
Without looking through the window, you may see the ways of heaven.
The farther you go, the less you know.

Thus the sage knows without traveling;
He sees without looking;
He works without doing.

There were other passages describing what Tao is. A less charitable review might call them "mystical mumbo-jumbo," but this review wouldn't go that far.

Look, it cannot be seen - it is beyond form.
Listen, it cannot be heard - it is beyond sound.
Grasp, it cannot be held - it is intangible.
These three are indefinable;
Thereore they are joined in one.

From above it is not bright;
From below it is not dark:
An unbroken thread beyond description.
It returns to nothingness.
The form of the formless,
The image of the imageless,
It is called indefinable and beyond imagination.

Stand before it and there is no beginning.
Follow it and there is no end.
Stay with the ancient Tao,
Move with the present.

Knowing the ancient beginning is the essence of Tao.

Aside from the text itself, the book I read was also filled with beautiful photographs on every page. Considering the price I paid to buy the book used, these photographs would have been worth the price in and of themselves.

Given that the Tao Te Ching is fundamental to some of the world's major religions, and given that it is so short, it would definitely be worth reading if just to gain a deeper understanding of how a substantial portion of the world's population thinks. However, the text stands on its own accords as well, even if you don't agree with everything it says. It will at least make you think.

There are many translations available for free online. There is also a Wikipedia entry on the text, for those interested in learning more.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Book Review- Gulliver's Travels

I just finished reading Gulliver's Travels, which was written way back in 1726 by Jonathon Swift. I'm sure that just about anybody reading this blog has heard of the book, and knows the basic story. A doctor, Lemuel Gulliver, has several adventures in distant lands. In one, he is a giant among the Lilliputians and the Blefuscudians. In another, he is among the giants, the Brobdingnagians. In a third adventure, he visits the lands of Laputa, Balnibarbi, Glubbdubdrib, Luggnagg and Japan, inhabited by intellectuals, a magician who can conjure the dead, and one land with a class of people who couldn't die. And in his final voyage, he visited the land of the Houyhnhnms, a race of intelligent horses, which was also inhabited by Yahoos, a race of humans with practically no intelligence or reason. (Here's the Wikipedia entry, for a few more details of the story.)

First, for a bit of trivia, for anyone familiar with the concept of endianness in computing (byte order), this is where the term comes from. A long standing rivalry between the Lilliputians and Blefuscudians existed over which was the proper way to open an egg, whether from the big end or the little end. Hence, there were Big Endians and Little Endians. And here I always thought it was some technical term.

To be honest, this wasn't one of my favorite books. Perhaps that was partly to do with the fact that it was a political satire, and I didn't get the jokes. I suppose it's a bit like when my daughter watches The Daily Show. She understands the sillier bits of humor, but just doesn't get the parts that require an understanding of our political climate, or the personalities involved. The edition of the book that I read did have footnotes to explain some of the references, but as everyone knows, a joke's not funny once you have to explain it.

The book also satirizes an area that I personally find very intersting - science. This occurs when Gulliver is in Laputa and Balnibarbi. Basically, the people are all intellectuals, who go to the extreme of relying entirely on theory instead of practical knowledge. I'm sure Swift wrote this in response to the Enlightenment, and to the then not so old Royal Society. However, this attitude of questioning the reason for doing science when there's no clear practical application irritates me. Knowledge for its own sake is good enough. In the same way that some people may find beauty in a painting, others can find beauty in a deeper understanding of the mysteries of our universe. I've written about this previously so I won't go on about it anymore here.

The section on Glubbdubdrib was on another subject that irritates me. The king of Glubbdubdrib had the power to bring people back from the dead (but only a day at a time, and no more than once every three months). It was basically one long section on how things were so much better back in the good old days, when the kings were nobler, the generals braver, the philosophers smarter. I've written about the good old days before, too, and they weren't always so good.

Finally, the book was just so negative. It didn't start off too bad, but became increasingly pessimistic as time wore on. In reading other people's reviews online, I've seen many of them characterize it as misanthropic, and I have to agree. You definitely don't put down the book and walk away with a skip in your step.

I guess that there's probably a reason that a book's still in print almost 300 years after it was first published. To quote the Wikipedia entry on Swift:

Gulliver's Travels is an anatomy of human nature, a sardonic looking-glass, often criticized for its apparent misanthropy. It asks its readers to refute it, to deny that it has not adequately characterized human nature and society. Each of the four books--recounting four voyages to mostly-fictional exotic lands--has a different theme, but all are attempts to deflate human pride. Critics hail the work as a satiric reflection on the failings of Enlightenment modernism.

Perhaps my main problem is that I just happen to like Enlightenment values.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Book Review- City of Ember

City of Ember is a young adult/children's book written by Jeanne DuPrau, which I'd highly recommend. Without giving away any more of the plot than what you'd pick up in the first couple chapters - Ember is a city with no natural light. All the illumination in the city comes from street lights and lamps. The city gets its electricity from a giant generator driven by and underground river. But the generator keeps breaking down, they're running out of light bulbs, and there's nowhere to go - indeed, the people of Ember think their city is the only city there is.

Long ago when the Builders constructed the City of Ember, they had an important secret that the people were supposed to learn in 220 years. They enclosed the secret in a box with a mechanism that would open at the appropriate time, and entrusted the box to the mayor, who was supposed to hand it down to the next mayor, who was supposed to hand it down to the next mayor, etc., until the box opened and the citizens of Ember learned the secret. Unfortunately, one of the mayors broke the chain, and the box with the secret was lost.

Now, the two main characters, Lina and Doon, must figure out a way to solve the city's problems.

I really enjoyed reading this book. To give an idea of how engaging the story is, I read the book in two days, my wife read it in three, and our eight year old daughter read it in two. It's written in a style that sucks you in, so that you really want to just keep reading to see how it's going to end. Granted, it may not be perfect. It's a little predictable, and I definitely have a few unanswered questions (which may be resolved in the sequel or prequel, which I haven't read, yet), but those slight shortcomings are more than made up for by the story telling. I'd recommend this book to anyone, young and old alike.


Selling Out