Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton

Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be is an excellent introductory book on the theory and explanatory power of evolution. Aimed a children, it is richly illustrated and manages to convey complex ideas in simple language. Additionally, Loxton addresses some of the common questions and confusions that surround the idea of evolution.

This would be an excellent beginner book for around 6-14 year olds (and some adults could learn something, too).
(Wired has a more comprehensive review)

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Alexander the Great and his Time by Agnes Savill

An excellent overview of the military campaigns of Alexander of Macedonia (Part I) and then an examination of his character and life in ancient Greece and its influence on our world (Part II). Savill has been accused of being an apologist for Alexander (and perhaps Greece) but I only found this to be overtly true in a few instances (admittedly, I would have to do a lot more research to know otherwise). Taking what Savill wrote as mostly true, I believe Alexander honestly deserves the “the Great” that follows his name. It is extraordinary that a man could conquer so much of the world before the age of 33 with a volunteer army - ever more so when it consisted of those he vanquished. Further, he did not offer women as the spoils of war and attempted to follow a rule of law. It is likely the fact that Alexander sought to improve the lives of those he defeated and allowed his men access, and the freedom, to address their concerns to him that enable such loyalty.

Despite the death and destruction and the basic problem with notions of conquest and domination, I was heartened by the (exceptionally rare) practice of not treating women as property to be sexually abused. Additionally, I was impressed at his attempt at a rule of law and a public space where people could address their grievances. I found myself admiring this man, leading his troops into battle with tactical brilliance time and time again. Similarly, one can see how easy it is to get seduced by the Greek notions of excellence in all aspects of life and accidentally ignore the various problems with the state.

I found the brief overview of the Greek polis and primary players in it to be quite useful. Sure I’ve heard much of it before, but a few more details about exactly how slaves were treated (better than I thought), the prevalence of and attitude towards homosexuality (much variance), Aristotle and the ideals of which Ancient Greece held in esteem.

Finally, I shall mention that Savill’s usage of Jung and his notions of the subconscious to analyze Alexander the Great were not only unnecessary but unwelcome. Such an examination was confused at best and I believe brief excursions into mysticism have little place in serious scholarship.

Recommended for those seeking an overview of Alex’s life and his time.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut

I enjoyed, but was not wowed, by this unpublished collection of short fiction by Vonnegut. Much of it was typical Vonnegut fare and I appreciated the themes explored and points made in most of the stories. There were not too many stand out passages but the one I liked the most was from the second last story (which should have been the closer).

Background: Two attractive and rich 17 y.o.’s had an experience where they were exposed to a poor man who, despite much education, had not managed to excel and therefore reward his dying mother who had sacrificed for him. They tried to help but their parents interrupted. Feeling the pangs of empathy and guilt at their privilege the youths wanted to visit the man again but the girl’s mother hesitatingly objected.
Excerpt (p.237):
She was really saying that she could not stand the idea of Henry’s and Anne’s growing up – the idea of their ever looking closely at tragedy. She was saying that she herself had never grown up, had never looked closely at tragedy. She was saying that the most beautiful thing money could buy was a childhood a lifetime long –

Monday, March 15, 2010

Like Shaking Hands With God (with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer)

This slim volume is the transcript of a conversation in a book store that took place in 1998 between Vonnegut and Stringer, with Ross Klavan as moderator.
The two highlights are below.
1) Klavan makes a general comment while asking a question: Reading both you guys – and it is also true talking to you – I feel smarter, as opposed to say, to reading the newspaper, which can make any of us feel stupid and helpless.
2)Vonnegut responds to a question of what he considers important: I was always interested in good citizenship. It was just what I learned in junior civics class in school in Indianapolis, how important it is to be a good citizen. Part of that would be, with me, that I would go to war, right or wrong. I would have gone to Vietnam, knowing how wrong it was.
(I found this very surprising because I considered him to be far more subversive and a likely conscientious objector)

The Reality Check #75 - #80