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Books of the Month

Cover of The Complete Book of Presidents    Our pick for January, 2000 is The Complete Book of U.S. Presidents, 5th edition, by William A. DeGregorio, published by Wing Books, New York, 1997. Here we have all the dry facts, juicy gossip, campaign details, issues, politics, and events associated with each president from Washington through Clinton. There is information in here that is just about impossible to find anywhere else. We use this book in conjunction with Oscar Brand's CD, Presidential Campaign Songs, on our weekly public radio show, Rags to Rhythms, to present a vivid picture of what was going on in the United States during each presidential election. This book really helps to add life and depth to the reader's perception of a given president's time period. We particularly appreciate the campaign details. Did you know that Rutherford Hayes's victory was of extremely dubious validity, and that the hanky-panky associated with that election gave rise to the Federal Election Commission? Do you know about which President people chanted, "Ma, Ma, where's my pa? Gone to the White House, ha, ha, ha!"?
    This book is an invaluable reference for people with an interest in US history. If you are a student taking an American history course, we suggest that you read this along with your textbook. It will help tie everything together.

Cover of the Godzilla Compendium    Our pick February, 2000 is The Godzilla Compendium, by J.D. Lees and Mark Cerasini, published by Random House, 1998. This is the officially sanctioned account of the Toho Studios monster Godzilla, and the other dai kaiju (big monsters) who starred with him in his many sequels. Obviously this book is not for just anyone, but if you are a fan of the Big G or are interested in how monster movies are made, this book is a fascinating resource. The book includes reviews, descriptions and photographs of the 22 Godzilla movies made at the time of printing, descriptions and statistics for more than two dozen monsters, guest essays, stories from the making of the movies, information about the suits, movie posters, comic book covers, and even a guide to using Godzilla movies to teach your child values!
      On a personal note, I am particularly fond of this book because it motivated my son to want to read. This book is my son's equivalent of the Velveteen Rabbit - loved to fragments.

Cover of the book, Explaining Hitler.March's selection is Explaining Hitler, by Ron Rosenbaum, published in 1998 by Random House, New York.
    This book, of course, is about Hitler, but it's about much more than that. The author examines the many claims that have been made about Hitler, and the evidence on which those claims are based. He finds that much of the Hitler story is a house of cards, with theories built on statements made in secondary sources, based on hints and rumors from unreliable primary sources. Ron Rosenbaum digs deep into the foundation of Hitler primary sources: interviews, autobiographies, letters, diaries, recordings, statements of spies, accounts by Hitler's acquaintances, and newspaper articles by Hitler's German contemporaries. Ordinarily, a scholar places a great deal of trust in primary sources, but when dealing with Hitler, nothing is clear-cut. Everyone associated with Hitler had his or her own agenda. Hitler himself was a consummate liar. The result is massive confusion and uncertainty about one of the most significant figures in recent human history. This has profound inplications for people who are studying more ancient figures, such as Akhenaten of Amarna. If we have such trouble figuring out a historical figure from our own time, imagine how difficult it is to untangle the motives and actions of someone centuries dead.
     Rosenbaum addresses the great mysteries associated with Hitler: Was Hitler self-aware evil, or did he really think he was doing the right thing? Could the Holocaust have happened without Hitler? Was Hitler inevitable? What caused Hitler to change from the pleasant youth people claim he was to the virulent monster he became? What was the source of Hitler's anti-Semitism? Did Hitler have "Jewish blood"? Was Hitler sexually perverted?  Was he directly responsible for the death of his niece, Geli Raubel? How is it possible for someone like Hitler to exist? Rosenbaum examines the many thories about Hitler, and the motives of the scholars who formulated those theories. He demonstrates clearly that the appearance of a historical figure depends more on the person painting the portrait than on the figure himself.
    For readers who want a feeling of certainty when dealing with historical accounts, this will be a most unsettling book!

Cover of Fossils of the Burgess ShaleOur selection for April is The Fossils of the Burgess Shale by Derek E.G. Briggs, Douglas H. Erwin, and Frederick Collier, Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994.
     The Burgess Shale provides a rare look at some of the earliest animals on Earth. Unusual circumstances resulted in the preservation of soft tissues of organisms that would have otherwise disappeared without a trace. These fossils have revolutionized paleontology and our view of how the Metazoan phyla and classes evolved. They have also led to some remarkable controversies that even touch on the very nature of science and scientific thought.
    This book provides the reader with a detailed overview of the Burgess Shale organisms. Each organism has a description accompanied by a beautiful photograph by Chip Clark, and a fine drawing showing a reconstruction by Larry Isham. The creatures depicted range from the commonplace brachiopods to the otherworldly Anomalocaris. Particularly fascinating are the organisms that seem to straddle several phyla, and are probably closely related to the ancestors that gave rise to these phyla.
     The care that went into preparing and analyzing these fossil remains and the analysis that went into interpreting them represents science at its best. This book is a treasure for anyone fascinated with fossils, strange organisms, and Earth's early history.

    Our book for May is our old favorite, Buried Alive, by Arnold Bennett. Bennett was an early 20th Century British author whose works ranged from the somber Old Wives Tale to light-hearted works like Denry the Audacious. If you have recently discovered (or rediscovered) this author through the recently reissued Old Wives Tale, check out his truly funny Buried Alive.
     This novel is about world-famous British artist Priam Farll, who is so shy and reclusive that almost no one knows what he looks like. All of his interactions with the outside world take place through the agency of his valet, Henry Leek. Then Henry Leek does something terrible -- he dies. The attending physician thinks that the dead man is Priam Farll, and Priam is too shy to correct him. Besides, the idea of freeing himself from his burdensome famous identity is quite appealing to Priam. He assumes the identity of Henry Leek. He watches his valet's remains get buried in Westminster Abbey. He finds himself in a blind date arranged by his late valet, and it works out surprisingly well. But then Priam starts painting again....
    The world through the eyes of sweet, baffled, eccentric Priam Farll is laugh-out loud funny. The situations in which he finds himself as a result of his "death" are painfully entertaining. This book is a treasure.

The cover of Texts from the Amarna Period.Our book for June is Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt by William J. Murnane.
    This little book is a must for anyone who is seriously interested in studying the history of the Amarna period, one of the most fascinating times in Egyptian history. In the late 18th Dynasty, when Egypt had achieved its highest peak of wealth and influence, the pharaoh Akhenaten led a religious and artistic revolution that shook the entire empire. This book presents translations of many of the surviving texts from this period, allowing the reader to draw his or her own conclusions about what was really going on during this turbulent period in history. The book lets us get a glimpse not only at the lives and accomplishments of members of the royal family at the time, but also into the lives of the people who served them. This book is a gold mine of historical information, and a great treasure in any historian's library.

The cover of King Jesus.The book for October is King Jesus by Robert Graves. I am fascinated with the origin of Christianity, so this book was a must-read for me. This controversial book is essentially a thoroughly-researched historical analysis presented in the form of a novel. In it, Graves examines the origin, life, and death (or disappearance) of Jesus in the context of the historical figures and events of the time, religious and secular customs, and Biblical, Gnostic and other sacred writings. As with his other works, such as Hercules, My Shipmate, Graves seeks to present plausible explanations for the supernatural or mythological parts of traditional stories. At the core of both Hercules, My Shipmate and King Jesus is the story of the struggle between newer patrilineal religions and the ancient cult of the Triple Goddess with its yearly sacrifice of the king. King Jesus is not an easy read. It helps if you are thoroughly familiar with the Bible, the Torah, and the Nag Hammadi writings. Yet Graves as always is a compelling writer who portrays all of his characters, including Jesus, with respect and sympathy. I highly recommend this book to people who like thought-provoking reading.

The cover of Crucible of CreationOur selection for November's book of the month is The Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and Rise of Animals by Simon Conway Morris.
     Multicellular animals, the Metazoa, appeared on Earth about the time of the beginning of the Cambrian Period, about 550 to 600 million years ago. Wouldn't it be great if we could go back in time and photograph these early animals? It would answer so many questions about how modern animals are related to each other and what kinds of ancestors they came from.
     Of course, we don't have photographs, but we do have something almost as good, and in some ways better: the remarkable Burgess shale fossils and their equivalents around the world. Author Simon Conway Morris began his studies of these fossils while a graduate student, and in this book, he describes the latest findings and ideas about this controversial fauna in a way that the general reader can understand.
     What makes the Burgess Shale fossils so remarkable? Usually, only the hard parts (if any) of an organism are preserved, since the soft parts rot away. The Cambrian Burgess Shale animals were preserved in their entirety, or close to it, presumably by a catastrophic burial on a ledge on the continental slope. Rapid burial prevented their soft tissues from decaying, and the animals were preserved as films of carbon in the layers of the shale. Although flattened, all the layers of their bodies are there, and the fossils can actually be dissected.
     Although some of the animals are familiar, like the trilobites and the brachiopods, a great many of them are bizarre and difficult to classify. Simon Conway Morris takes the reader on a tour of the fauna, complete with photographs and reconstructive drawings, and he discusses what these animals tell us about the origin of the major animal groups such as the arthropods, the annelid worms, the brachiopods, and our group, the chordates. This is a fascinating book for people who like to learn about how things begin, and if you already have a taste for Burgess Shale stories from reading Gould's Wonderful Life, you'll want to continue the saga with The Crucible of Creation.

Our book for January, 2001 is Ancient Egyptian Literature by Miriam Lichtheim, University of California Press, 1973. This three-volume set, covering the time span from the Old Kingdom (starting about 2650 B. C.) to the Late Period (ending about 324 A. D.) of ancient Egyptian history, is an absolute essential for anyone with a serious interest in the study of Egyptology. The series contains translations of an incredible variety of different types of texts: official documents, accounting books, tomb biographies, songs and poems, religious texts, folk-tales, myths and legends, funerary texts, magic spells and scribal advice books are among the types represented.
     It is through these primary sources that one can get an idea of what it was really like to live in the ancient world. It is fascinating to trace the changes in the Egyptian civilization through the changes in the flavor of the literature.
     Some of these texts will be of interest even to those with a casual interest in Egyptology. The "Instruction of King Amenemhet I for His Son Sesostris I" tells the story of the assassination of the first king of the Middle Kingdom, a rare look into the political intrigue and turmoil that surrounded the pharaonic institution. The worlds oldest short story, "The Story of Sinuhe" (possibly an account of an actual historical figure, possibly fiction -- read it and see what you think!), was based on this incident. The New Kingdom era "Tale of the Doomed Prince" is a story in the spirit of our familiar European fairy-tales, with too many parallels with stories like "Sleeping Beauty" and "Rapuntzel" to be coincidental. The Stela of Isenkhebe, dating from somewhere in the area of 650-630 B.C., is the bitterly poignant account of a girl who died in early childhood -- perhaps one of the most telling accounts of the difficulties of life in the preindustrial world.
     Some of the other texts in this series are harder for the modern reader to relate to (like the extremely peculiar "Argument of a Man with His Ba," aka "The Suicide," or some of the more esoteric literature from the "Book of Going Forth by Day," aka "The Book of the Dead"), but all provide a fascinating glimpse into the lives and minds of the ancient Egyptians.

Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler Our book for February 2001 is Parable of the Talents by Octavia Butler, a science fiction novel set in the near future (mid to late 21st Century). In many ways, the book reminds me of another of my favorites, Margaret Atwood's Handmaiden's Tale. Both stories portray the United States in the thrall of far right Christians, an extremely ugly future. Both heroines are punished for being women, and both have their daughters stolen from them to be adopted and reared by strangers. But Octavia Butler's main character, a powerful Black woman named Olamina, is stronger, less isolated, more driven and more severely betrayed. Olamina founds a new religion (based to some extent on entropy) that succeeds in reshaping human destiny. The story is told both by Olamina herself and by her twice-stolen daughter. The book is frightening at least in part because of its plausibility, and deals with the impact of such situations as the demise of the public school system and the unchecked reign of unofficially sanctioned terrorists (such as the Ku Klux Klan used to be). The author's style is straight-forward and compelling. This book is the second in a series that began with Parable of the Sower.

The Moon and the Sun, by Vonda N. McIntyre Our book of the month for March 2001 is The Moon and the Sun, an alternate history novel by Vonda N. McIntyre, winner of the 1997 Nebula award.. This is a fun book set in the court of King Louis XIV of France. The heroine is a brilliant young woman who has just been brought to the court from an oppressive convent. Her brother captures a sea monster for the king. The heroine befriends the sea monster, who turns out to be a sentient marine primate. This creates an ethical problem for the king, who wants to eat the creature.
     I particularly like the way King Louis is portrayed. He is shown to be a dignified, generous person who never-the-less has some serious faults in his character. Even though the king is essentially the villain of the book, he is a true human figure with depth of character.
     Also of interest is the king's advisor, the charismatic athiest dwarf.
     Probably the least believable character in the book is Marie-Josephe, the main character, who is just a bit too perfect. However, if the reader is willing to just go along with the story, there is plenty of action to keep to keep one entertained, and magnifent depth of detail.

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Updated 4/1/01.

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