Friday, March 30, 2007

The Courtier and the Heretic by Matthew Stewart

This is a book in the vein of Dava Sobel's Galileo's Daughter and Longitude and The Measure of all Things by Ken Alder, but where those books deal with the discoveries of physical science, this book deals more with philosophy and religion's response to those discoveries.

The approach of the modern world was very threatening to religion and the concept of God. Things which had previously been accepted on faith or because the Bible or the Church told us it was so were increasingly coming into question.

It is in this environment which Leibniz, Voltaire's model for Dr. Pangloss in Candide and Spinoza, the moral atheist, formulated their differing, yet intertwined, philosophies.

Stewart's argument is that Leibniz and Spinoza were both ahead of their time in understanding the portent of modernity but that they reacted to it very differently. Spinoza welcomed and embraced the shifting definition of God while Leibniz did all that he could to forestall the impending storm.

As a philosophical dilettante, I found this book hard and yet fascinating. Many a paragraph I had to read and reread, only to still not quite grasp its point. For all that, Stewart presents the conflict between the two men in an engrossing way which kept me reading through the depth.

I came away finding references to these two philosophers recurring around me and am inspired to read more. I've already started to reread Candide which is, in part, Voltaire's critique of Leibniz' theories. I'm also intrigued by Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion which draws on Spinoza and which was featured with an interview of Dawkins on Fresh Air the same night I finished this tome.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Biting the hand that feeds you

Like millions of other people, I read and enjoyed Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code.

Like a significant percentage of those millions, I then bought and read Holy Blood Holy Grail by Michael Baigent, Richard Leigh and Henry Lincoln almost entirely due to the fact that Brown acknowledged it as one of his resources. (Hey, I like to read fiction.)

Holy Blood Holy Grail experienced quite a healthy sales increase in the wake of The DaVinci Code.

So, I was puzzled when I first heard that two of the authors (that's right, just two, not all three) of Holy Blood Holy Grail were suing Dan Brown's publisher (not Dan Brown) for plagiarism.

If you're plagiarizing something, do you reference it repeatedly?

Apparently Britian's Court of Appeals, which today affirmed the lower court's decision rejected the plagiarism claim, wondered about this also.

According to Danica Kirka of the AP,

Lord Justice Bernard Rix said Brown hadn't disguised his use of the work of Baigent and Leigh.

The character of Leigh Teabing is an anagram of Leigh and Baigent, Rix noted, and at one point Teabing refers to "The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail" as "perhaps the best-known tome" on the subject.

"That is not the mark of an author who thought that he was making illegitimate use of the fruits of someone else's literary labors, but of one who intended to acknowledge a debt of ideas, which he has gone on to express in his own way and for his own purposes," Rix wrote in his opinion.

However, in terms of motives for the lawsuit, it was found that the publicity of the trial had significantly boosted sales of Holy Blood Holy Grail.

The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

This book is one of my top five favorite books.

Of course, my list of top five favorite books probably contains more than five books at any given time.

We had book club again last night and this was our chosen book. So, even though my list of books to be read is longer than even I know, I had cause to read this one again. Yay!

I'm almost always intrigued by narratives woven around the idea of time travel. The philosophical questions time travel engenders and each creator's way of answering those questions fascinates.

The work in crafting Henry and Clare's love story is wonderful. Niffenegger weaves joy, longing, redemption, pain, grief, and humor into a confusing, riveting, ingenious tale.

To a woman, our book club liked the book. Some did find the book a bit hard at the start, a complaint my mom echoed when I gave her the book as a gift.

Among other topics, the book led us into a spirited discussion of morality and the defensibility of shifting the lines of morality in the pursuit of self-preservation.

. . . there is only free will when you are in time, in the present.

Henry DeTamble

Monday, March 26, 2007

One Day

It takes months for a book I order for the library to actually arrive. I'm always thrilled to get an email from the library that it's in. Ordering library books will be my secret legacy for Sogang.

Last fall I ordered Barack Obama's Audacity of Hope, which arrived when I was on vaction in the US. When I got back, it was checked out. I spied it amongst the teetering piles of books in my friend Donald's office. When he was done with it, we arranged to go to the library together to return and then immediately check out the book. We went last week.

Usually, any book I want to read is on the shelf. Reading is not a big pasttime here. I had no worries.

When the library clerk, checked in Audacity, it turned out that someone requested it. Another month wait at least. I tried to sign up for the list via the computer but for some reason this was impossible. (I'll try again.) I think the system's got a 1 request limit.

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Now on page 255

I'm still working away at Proust. Now I'm on about page 255 of the final volume (something like 750 pages more).

I have gotten tired of the obsessive nature of the narrator. Poor Albertine. Poor anyone who knows this guy. The jealousy, the insecurity, the constant strong emotion. Yet I'm trusting that Proust is leading me, the reader, along as he plans.

I am glad that a few pages back the narrator stopped going on about Albertine and started to discuss music. I needed some respite.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Ciao America!

I just finished reading Ciao America! a delightful book I heard about a few years back. I ordered it for the school library hoping it would contain insights I could use in my culture class.

Beppe Severgnini, an Italian writer, brings his wife and 2 year old son to Washington DC to get a look at life in America. They get a charming apartment in Georgetown (would be nice to afford one there) and he chronicles his adventures shopping, dealing with the phone company, reading the enormous Sunday papers, grocery shopping, etc.

He delights in what the average American finds mundane, which is an advertisement for living abroad as a means of staving off boredom. I found his writing style and observations funny. Yet I wanted more depth and find it hard to believe he had no serious frustrations. He found dealing with customer service agents a pleasure compared to doing so in Italy. Well, they aren't known for their efficiency so I guess that makes sense.

Beppe didn't have to work in the US and possibly deal with cross-cultural conflicts that might drive him nuts. Seems he just had half the expat experience. Either that or the Italian version is more comprehensive.

He does get somethings wrong. For example, he writes about Americans' love of SPAM. Really? I've never had it or wanted to. I don't know anyone in the US who likes it. I've never seen anyone put SPAM in their shopping cart. He also mentions Americans' use of phone cards. Again, not too many people I know used them even in the 1990's when Severgnini was in Georgetown. Perhaps phone cards were popular there locally. What this shows and reminds me is that inevitably expats will come to the wrong conclusions. Not a bad lesson as I try to figure out life here in Seoul

Still a fun read.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Reading Like a Writer

Poet and novelist, Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Boosk and for Those Who Want to Write Them is like taking a creative writing workshop at a fraction of the course. It's not an necessity for the aspiring author, but it does have value.

Prose begins with a chapter on Close Reading, which was featured in The Atlantic Monthly's 2006 Summer Fiction issue. Here Prose explains the virtue of slow, dilberate reading, something that does bear repeating in the age of multitasking. The book contains chapters on all the expected aspects of the novel: Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Character, Dialog, Details, and the unexpected Gestures, Learning from Chekhov, and Reading for Courage. Hmmm. . . we seem to be missing something about plot. Yep, and seeing that most writers do struggle with plot, I see it as a shortcoming.

The book feels like office hours with a caring, knowledgeable creative writing teacher. Prose offers honest advice including the suggestion that breaking the rules is often okay, and probably something one should do, since all the best have. She includes lengthy selections from her favorite writers to illustrate her points. In fact, I think the best part of the book is her list of books to be read immediately.

Reading her chapter on details was eerie. She describes a story an unnamed friend told her about teaching a storytelling class at Eslan Institute in Big Sur. Clearly, the friend is Spaulding Gray, a favorite of mine. I've seen his films including Swimming To Cambodiaand monologues and Chicago's Goodman Theater. They all mesmerize.

As I read that chapter all the sadness of Gray's suicide returned. I remembered hearing the report of his disappearance as I drove to an interview with the Foreign Service one January morning. I remember the eventual report that he had drowned, succumbing to the depression and suicidal thought that plagued him, that he often discribed in his monologues.

I'd wanted to one day take his Eslan seminar. A lesson in one day v. carpe diem. I wonder why she didn't mention his name. His fans have heard the story about this workshop and the one-legged motivational speaker and like all his stories they won't forget it.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Maus: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History and Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman

I first heard of this work when Susie blogged about it. Shortly thereafter I was in a book buying frenzy at our local bookstore (which was recently saved from the developers but that's another story) so I went looking for and bought it.

Since this is nonfiction, it can't rightly be called a graphic novel. I'm not sure what the correct term is. Graphic book?

Anyhow, either way, it's an interesting concept. It's very efficient. As I started it, I thought about all of the narrative with which the author didn't need to bother. Not being much of a comic book reader, I found at first that I was ignoring the artwork, focusing on the verbiage instead. After a short period of consciously forcing myself to both read and look, it became more habitual.

The books were very effective at conveying the slow yet inexorable march towards the Final Solution. The troubled father-son relationship and the comparisons between Vladek and other survivors provided a perspective on the post-war repercussions and fall-0ut.

I would have liked a more satisfying resolution of Vladek and Art's relationship but then it wouldn't have been nonfiction, would it?

A Must Read: "The No Asshole Rule"

Although my carryon was weighing me down with books and I have more than enough to read at home in Korea, I couldn't resist getting The No Asshole Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One That Isn't. Once it's in paperback, it'll be the book I buy for every college graduate or friend dealing with jerks.

Author Robert Sutton PhD at Stanford can't brook asshole-ism. He provides a reasonable, scholarly, accessible look at the cost of these jerks on businesses. Anyone who's dealt with a barbaric, out of control boss will recognize these characters and will get some validation that feeling crappy after an altercation isn't a sign of weakness. Each section contains data from studies on assholes (or corporate/academic bullies) as well as tecniques on how to cope and when to leave. It's a fast read and each chapter concludes with a checklist on the main points.

I thought is was interesting to learn that one company calculated the cost of keeping an a@#hole at $160,000, that there is a certain a@#hole tax in that some suppliers will charge you more if you've got a reputation as one, and that some companies will not promote such folks. Not only do the victims of abuse leave at a high rate, but those who witness abuse tend to leave a company.

Sutton urges companies not to hire them to begin with. He mentions that companies that value a humane work environment, try to weed them out through interviewing processes that allow people from all levels of the organization to screen applicants. It's time consuming at first but later pays off.

While a lot of this is common sense, when one's beaten down by a bully at work, this strengthens you, or did for me. It also reminds one that you're not alone. There are some great anecdotes of people who had flashes of verbal brilliance when dealing with assholes.

These jerks have been around forever. It's high time we had a sensible, analytic look at them.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley

What fun!

Filled with larger than life characters and escapades, this novel successfully portrays a "merchant of death," a lobbyist for the tobacco industry, in a sympathetic light.

While I've been aware of this work since the movie was being promoted, I was caught unawares by the whole cloak and dagger aspect.

This novel is more about corporate infighting set in a lobbying firm which provides much fodder for juicy ironies.

Looking forward to seeing the movie.