Monday, September 30, 2013

1491 by Charles Mann

Having a (slightly) nerdy side, the family knows I think the book "Guns, Germs and Steel" is pretty cool.  Don't stop reading yet, just hear me out.  The idea behind that book is that the reason Europeans invaded other countries and took them over rather than the other way around (think the Aztecs taking over Spain) is that the combination of the devastating effects of European diseases on the invaded peoples combined with advanced technologies aided by written language gave the Europeans a distinct advantage.

Now comes Mr. Mann's book that is an interesting add-on to that line of thought, with a twist.  Part of the thinking has been that in most of the Americas, the natives were a somewhat docile population blended into the landscape, ready for  easy conquest.  It's mostly what we were taught in school and experience in our popular culture.

Mr. Mann contends that there were a lot more people here, who had been here much longer than many of us thought (maybe 20,000 years vs. 13,000), who had diverse modes of government, land management, plant and animal domestication, and a degree of cultural sophistication than was the equal or more to European cultures of the 15th century.

It appears that the disease effect was probably the balancing factor, since native populations may have been reduced by anywhere from 50 to 90% of what they had been only decades prior to European disease introduction.  It's a big "if" but it is likely Europeans would not have been able to gain any substantial foothold in the Americas without that devastation, because the eastern North American tribes and especially the Central and South American nations had enough tribal or regional cohesiveness along with an ability to match European weaponry and tactics that they could have easily repelled them.

The take-over did happen, though, so many folks would ask "so what?" in discussing the pre-Columbian nature of the Americas.  It's a matter of perspective.  What we experience now appears to have more contribution by those native peoples, to include food and even our form of government, than most of us knew based on what we were taught in school.  It also gives pause for thought whenever there is discussion of returning to some previous condition (the good old days) of politics, societal norms or even the environment.

As is the case with any book trying to examine a theory this broad, it's easy to disagree with some of his conclusions.  However, it is a worthwhile read for a valuable change in perspective to how most of us have seen the world until now.  It's a long book at 391 pages, not including footnotes and appendices, so you working folks might take the book in chunks if you tackle it.  Still, I'd recommend it to everyone in the family.  If you liked "Guns, Germs, and Steel" you'll like this.

Friday, September 27, 2013

"Dad is Fat" by Jim Gaffigan

I ‘have children’ like I ‘have male pattern baldness.’ It is an incurable condition, and I have it. Symptoms include constant fatigue, inability to sleep, and, of course, extreme sleep disruption.

So, I bought this book because I wanted something light and funny, and because I’ve really enjoyed Jim Gaffigan’s standup in the past. Also, I have an affinity for Comedian Books (which really should be a category) – Tina Fey, Ellen…..ok, so just those two. But that counts!

Anyway, while I did get a few laughs, I think the reason it wasn’t quite as funny as I’d hoped was twofold – 1, part of the art of stand-up comedy, in my opinion, is the delivery – with full-on facial expressions, timing, etc., which you don’t get with the written word as well and 2, I’m not a parent.

Actually, I was going to make one of my parent friends read it and then tell me what they thought so I could have a more diverse focus group for this review (and by diverse, I mean 2 people). But then I forgot and now it’s Friday and so….sorry, you just get my opinion!

Basically, this is my take on the book: if you like Jim Gaffigan and think he’s funny AND you’ve procreated, you’ll probably laugh out loud throughout this book. If you like Jim Gaffigan and think he’s funny and you’ve only THOUGHT about procreating sometime in the future, you will laugh out loud a few times during this book and also may contemplate getting your tubes tied. If you like Jim Gaffigan and never want to have children, why would you buy this book?

So there you have it. Watch a few of his standup specials, judge your laughing meter during said special, and then go to your local bookstore (aka Amazon) and decide for yourself! Personally, I think Amanda would like this book and that mom and dad would probably be fine just reading funny quotes by it. So…..enjoy! 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Time and Again by Jack Finney

Every so often I like to liven up my reading list with older books that I might have missed when they first came out. Time and Again, first published in 1970, was brought to my attention last year after reading Stephen King's 11/22/63. King called this novel the best time travel story he had read. So, I decided to give it a try and I'm very glad that I did!

The story begins in November 1970, when the narrator, Simon Morley, a lonely and bored advertising sketch artist in New York City, is approached by an Army officer offering him an opportunity to participate in a secret government project. The project involves an experiment to test if it is possible to send people back to the past through self hypnosis. During his training, Si is told that "we're mistaken in our conception of what the past, present and future really are...We think the past is gone, the future hasn't happened, and that only the present exists. Because the present is all we can see...As Einstein himself pointed out, we're like people in a boat without oars, drifting along a winding river. Around us we see only the present. We can't see the past, back in the bends and curves behind us. But it's there."

Intrigued by the proposition, Simon cautiously agrees to join the project and is given the assignment to time travel back to New York City in 1882. Before you know it you, too, are taken along on a most exciting and enjoyable adventure, traveling back and forth between the 19th and 20th Centuries. Finney's meticulous attention to detail, period-appropriate language and pacing made this one of the most visual and magical novels I have read. With regard to the pacing, at times you feel yourself slowing down as you read passages from 1882 and then sense time speeding up as you return to the 1970s. Finney also uses a very clever and unusual device to complement the text. Throughout the book, he inserts actual photographs of 1800s New York street scenes, and numerous illustrations, supposedly made by Simon Morley (remember, he was a sketch artist) that practically make the story come to life.

This book is a classic tale of time travel but it also contains plenty of romance, a good mystery and many interesting historical details. I highly recommend this book to everyone in the family...including our future son-in-law. It's a fun read!

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

And The Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini

Everyone in the family knows I did not like Mr. Hosseini's first book The Kite Runner.  That book was well written but I disliked the main character so much that the good writing did not matter. It was rather satisfying when that character returned to Afghanistan and got severely beaten.  He had it coming.  So I stayed away from the author's most recent book, even though Jackie thought I would like it.  Like most of her recommendations, she was right.

 The story starts in the middle of the 20th century in a small village in Afghanistan and spans back decades and forward to current time.  The opening chapter sets the stage beautifully for what comes next, which is a richer and more polished story than his first.  As the two children at the center of the story travel different paths, they open up to other well developed and interesting characters who ring true and make for a satisfying story.I particularly liked that there were opportunities for the author to revert to heart-warming outcomes that would have been too much and would have cheapened the story and yet he avoided those openings and had more true-to-life outcomes.  That said, the outcomes work and I gladly would have stayed with a longer book to see what happens next.  There are any number of scenes I could say more about but it would ruin the pleasure of discovery.  Becky and Amanda both would like this.  Jackie already does.