Books of the Month
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!"?
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.
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
- loved to fragments.
selection is Explaining
Hitler, by Ron Rosenbaum, published in 1998 by Random House, New York.
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.
readers who want a feeling of certainty when dealing with historical accounts,
this will be a most unsettling book!
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.
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.
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....
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.
book for June is Texts from the Amarna Period in Egypt by William J. Murnane.
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.
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.
selection for November's book of the month is The
Crucible of Creation: The Burgess Shale and Rise of Animals by Simon
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
Our book for January, 2001
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.
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.
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.
See more book reviews on Recommended
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