10 September 2013

Summer reading

Posted by Callan Bentley

Periodically, I review books here. Usually, I do them one at a time, but at this point, I’ve been delinquent enough in my book reporting that I’ve got a big backlog. So I intend to just bomb through them, clearing out my backlog of unblogged books in one fell swoop post. This consolidation is probably a good call since few are specifically about geology.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail, by Cheryl Strayed

This book is at once a travelogue of the author’s experience hiking a portion of the Pacific Crest Trail and a deeper, more tragic memoir of a self-destructive phase in her life. The narrative goes back and forth between descriptions of crossing snowfields and encountering bears in the Sierra Nevada and growing up poor in Minnesota, her mother’s death, her own infidelities and the dissolution of her marriage, and a sad and bizarre embrace of drug addiction. The long backpacking trip is presented as “the way forward,” the way Strayed (a name she chose for herself) decided to leave her anguish, self-loathing, and heroin dependency in the past, a punctuation mark in her life that separated the old messy Cheryl from the new, wholesome, healed, balanced Cheryl.

I listened to this as an audiobook (my salvation for my new commute – a great way to make driving time productive), and found that it held my attention, though I rolled my eyes many a time at Strayed’s flair for creating and attracting drama, or making nondramatic aspects of backpacking seem dramatic to non-outdoors-savvy readers. That element of the book wasn’t very satisfying.

Master and Commander, by Patrick O’Brian
Post Captain, by Patrick O’Brian
HMS Surprise, by Patrick O’Brian
The Mauritius Command, by Patrick O’Brian
Desolation Island, by Patrick O’Brian
The Fortune of War, by Patrick O’Brian

These books, the first six of the 20.5-part Aubrey-Maturin series, are pretty much the best thing I’ve ever read. I’m not normally a novel person, but I had these recommended to me when I was in Texas last spring, and I remembered really enjoying the movie they made (Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, starring Russell Crowe and Paul Bettany) as a composite representation of several of the books. So I picked up the first book in the series from the Fort Valley Library, and I was immediately hooked. The language is rich and satisfying; the characters are deep and interesting, and the adventures seem authentic rather than contrived (see next book review down for a contrived counter-example). The novels following Jack Aubrey, a captain in the British Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, and his friend Stephen Maturin, a surgeon, naturalist, and spy. With the strong nautical flavor, these novels are sometimes described as “Jane Austen for men,” and I think that’s an apt comparison. The navy is a masculine world, and the few female characters that appear (mostly on land) are less fully developed and explored than the male characters. As a reader, I alternatively identify with Jack’s lusty, extroverted approach to life, and Stephen’s intellectual consideration and introspection. There’s something in each of them to admire, and something in each of them to elicit dismay.

Though each novel is self-contained as a story, there is a longer narrative arc that spans the whole series (or at least what I’ve read of it). The characters develop, accumulate experience, scars, and relationships, and after six books, I can attest to the fact that they really start to feel like old friends.

I highly recommend the audio book versions narrated by Patrick Tull – a man with a mastery of emphasis (his battle scenes explode with energy) and the infinite variety of British Empire accents. If you’re going the audio book route, seek out Patrick Tull’s voice and eschew all others!

Golden Buddha, by Clive Cussler and Craig Dirgo

Another audiobook, a pulp novel. It’s an adventure about a small independent corporation that takes on risky jobs for a paycheck. It’s one of a series called “The Oregon Files.” I don’t think I’ll be reading any others. In this novel, the corporation’s motley crew launches an audacious campaign to put the Dalai Lama back in power in Tibet. They succeed, with many encounters with bad guys along the way. Though I really enjoyed Cussler’s Dirk Pitt novels as a teenager, this doesn’t have the same flair, the same engaging characters. And what characters it does have are very thinly and unconvincingly developed. Overall, thumbs-down.

50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God, by Guy P. Harrison
50 Simple Questions for Every Christian, by Guy P. Harrison

Two great explorations of atheism, written in a calm, non-combative tone. I liked the first one better, because it gets at the heart of why belief in a supernatural being doesn’t make any sense. It’s general in approach, well-informed by Harrison’s anthropological training and extensive travels, and it’s set up in a very clever way. As he travels and meets people, Harrison asks them why they believe in a god. The 50 most common answers are presented here, along with his brief skeptical reply (generally two to three pages, with the longest discussion being ten pages or so in length). It’s an organized, pithy approach, and his tone is reasonable, although I’m sure he gets accused of “rage” or “militant atheism” too, merely by virtue of failing to believe in a god. I really value Harrison’s contribution because it’s quite cognizant of motivations – savvy in what’s driving the psychology of shallow reactions to criticisms of religious belief. I strongly recommend this book.

The second, specific to Christianity, was probably necessary, since Harrison lives in a Christian-dominant country, as do I. But addressing such derivative topics as the nature of the “Trinity” or the theological status of the Virgin Mary seems silly when the underlying ideas have already been so thoroughly dismantled. It’s like critiquing the spices chosen when someone insists on cooking a spoiled piece of meat. (I guess the point of bothering is that a lot of Christians might not be interested in the generalities of the first book, but the second volume, specific to the claims of their faith, might be more keenly relevant.)

The LIfe of Pi, by Yann Martel

Didn’t I say I wasn’t in to novels? Yeah, well… Here is another one I’ve listened to over the past couple of months. It was very nearly free (~$4) as a download from Audible.com, so I thought, “Why not?” and gave it a shot. It’s the story, mainly, of a boy from India who is cast adrift in the equatorial Pacific in a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger. The first part of the novel, set in Pondicherry, India, is fun and interesting. The part where he’s out at sea is less so – it’s a misery, and there’s only so much innovation you can employ as a writer, describing a situation where it’s just a person and a tiger on a small boat for a loooooooong time. They catch fish, they get rained on, they come to a kind of truce, they waste away. The writing is good, but self-indulgent. A favorite device employed by Martel is to repeat sentences in a series, say four or five in a row, varying a single word in each (the direct object, for instance). This results in a lot of words – it’s not a short book. The concluding three or four chapters resolve some of the motivation for this extraordinary length – it turns out that the story itself serves a greater purpose, but you really have to invest a lot of time reading about the grouchy tiger and the privations of the castaway before you get the dramatic payoff. Frankly, if I wasn’t commuting so much (and therefore in need of audio entertainment), I probably wouldn’t have made it all the way to the end, myself.

Life Itself, by Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert made a name for himself as a thoughtful movie critic but then lost his voice and indeed, his jaw, to cancer. Rendered physically mute, he found a new outlet in Internet-mediated communication – in blogging particularly. Ebert’s life is chronicled in this autobiography, which includes thoughtful reflections on places and rituals, people and work. I found it 95% enjoyable, and the 5% that wasn’t was too personally detailed to be relevant – for instance, he spends rather a lot of time describing his extended family lineage, or naming all of his childhood neighbors, or his drinking buddies from the Chicago newspaper scene. These relations may be interested in seeing their names in print, but I read it for the thoughtful reflections on a life lived, from the perspective of a man close to death and divorced from much “normal” human interaction. Many of the scenes he describes are familiar because we’ve all experienced something like them, but he describes them so much better than at least I would ever be able to, writing tight little essays that bring you around to valid conclusions about life, and how to live it.

An Ocean of Air: Why the wind blows and other mysteries of the atmosphere, by Gabrielle Walker

I loved Gabrielle Walker’s 2004 book Snowball Earth, so I checked this volume out of the Fort Valley Library. It doesn’t have the same overarching narrative arc, or the same personal sense that comes from a book structured around the life of a key protagonist, but is interesting nonetheless, in a more piecemeal way. Readers will learn of many different aspects of atmospheric science, ranging from the nature of air to the Coriolis effect to weather and climate, and how and why they change. I really enjoyed the detailed story of the ozone layer’s discovery, damage, and repair. It’s a good book for a guy like me to read, since I’m now contributing material to Earth science textbooks, but I’ve never been trained in meteorology myself. So getting a qualitative sense of how the atmosphere works is a terrific addition to my everlasting educational process.

What did you read this summer? Any recommendations for me?