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Books I Read in 2010

Best of 2010 = The Selfish Gene, The Age of Wonder, The Case for God, Decartes’ Bones,
A Thousand Splendid Suns

America’s Prophet, Moses and the American Story
by Bruce Feiler
3 out of 5 Stars

Here’s a perspective on American history I hadn’t ever thought about.  Moses, it turns out, is omnipresent in the American historical narrative.  The Pilgrims drew inspiration from the Moses story as did the Founding Fathers, Abe Lincoln, the slaves, FDR and of course, Martin Luther King.  The Moses story comes in two parts: the liberation of a chosen people from the tyrannical Pharaoh, and the establishment of laws that provided the Jews with the senses of responsibility and community that come with freedom.  Feiler explores these two abiding themes in our American culture and reminds us how Christian and secular values live side by side in a uniquely American way.

A Thousand Splendid Suns,
by Khaled Hosseini
5 out of 5 Stars

A Thousand Splendid Suns is written by the same guy who wrote Kite Runner, which was a great book.  This one is even better. You see Afghanistan through the eyes of two women, Mariam and Laila.  Through a twist of fate the two women become wives of Rasheed, an abusive and sadistic man.  You really get a feel of the world seen though the mesh screen of a burqa.  Women in a traditional Muslim culture have no rights and many are abused by their husbands.  When the Taliban takes over things get even worse for women who can’t be out on the streets unless fully covered in their burqas and accompanied at all times by their husband or male relative.

After the long jihad against Russia and the Russians withdraw, all hell breaks loose.  The country descends into total chaos.  Not even the Afghans themselves are able to keep track of which warlords are fighting which.  Hosseini makes you understand that the body parts thrown up against the wall after a car bombing once belonged to real people who loved and were loved.  These are people wracked by unending tribal bloodshed living on the brink of a brutal existence with the Taliban relentlessly pressing for a return to power.  And yet, down beneath all that rubble beats a hopeful Afghan heart, the heart of a thousand splendid suns.

City of Thieves
by David Benioff
3 out of 5 Stars

In this novel, a teenage boy and a Russian soldier hook up on a quest of fresh eggs during the German siege of Leningrad in World War II.  Everyone’s starving within the besieged city.  Russians are killing Russians as their army struggles to keep the Germans at bay. The two protagonists must find a dozen eggs for a corrupt Russian officer or be executed.  It’s written like a movie script which was a bit irritating.  It kept me turning the pages, but falls short of being a great novel.

Descartes’ Bones
by Russell Shorto
5 out of 5 Stars

A really intriguing book.  I never knew much about Descartes beyond “I think therefore I am”.  He was the father of modern scientific method and reasoning.  The book is a history of the body of enlightened scientific thought pioneered by Descartes and the forces of religious superstitions that opposed him during his lifetime and continue to rail against the march of accumulated scientific knowledge today.  It’s ironic that enlightened secularists who endeavor to understand the empirical and measurable truth of things accept that nothing can ever be known for certain; that science is based more on probabilities than on cold stark facts.  While on the other side, religious thinkers, as they ponder the amorphous spiritual side of life, tend to think in terms of absolute and irrefutable certainties.  Go figure.

by Robert Harris
4 out of 5 Stars

A thriller based on the premise that Germany ended up winning WWII.  Set in 1964, the plot revolves around an SS detective who stumbles on documents that show how the Gestapo managed to keep the Holocaust a deep secret from the rest of the world.  Very scary depiction of what life would have been like in a post-war German police state.  Totally plausible, with actual wartime orders and correspondences weaved into the plot.

by Marilynne Robinson
2 out of 5 Stars

It’s 300+ pages of beautiful prose which unfortunately reduces down to a few thimblefuls of soppy drivel.  I really enjoyed Robinson’s other novel, Gilead, but was annoyed by this one.  It’s about this pathetic self-loathing drunk of a son and brother who is a suicidal home wrecker.  Every aspect of his life is a total anguished mess.  His caring sister, whose life has also derailed, spends the entire novel weeping.  So does the aged minister father, an intellectual scripture spouter.  Such an incredibly tedious soap opera and yet, there is something about Robinson’s writing that compels you to plow through to the end.  You just want to slap these people, stick whoopee cushions on their chairs – ANYTHING that might make them get over themselves!

I, Richard
by Elizabeth George
1 out of 5 Stars

If you’ve got some sort of digestive complaint that keeps you on the toilet for several minutes you may want to help pass the time by reading one or two of the short stories in this collection.  They’re just not good enough for prime time reading.  The title story, I, Richard is decidedly lame.  One of the stories is okay – the one loosely based on the story of OJ Simpson murdering his wife.  It’s got a surprise ending that is pretty, uh, surprising.

Savage Beauty
by Nancy Milford
4 out of 5 Stars

I read this book because my Great Aunt Margot is mentioned in it … it’s a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay, the Pulitzer Prize winning poet and bi-sexual sex maniac.  Starting from humble beginnings in Camden, Maine to her critical and commercial success as a poet, ESVM became the most famous woman of her day.  Sort of like a combination of Lady Gaga and Hillary Clinton.  She was the voice of woman’s liberation after women won the right to vote and helped to throw off the Victorian shackles.  She was also a genius poet who died young thanks to her sex-crazed and alcohol addicted lifestyle.

I enjoyed reading about Aunt Margot’s sad little one-night stand with the famous lady and to juxtapose her life with that of her brother (my grandfather, Phil Schuyler).  Both Aunt Margot and Poppy were ground breakers in their own way.  While Margot was doing her bohemian literati thing in Greenwich Village with her buddy Vinny, Poppy and Maggie were out in Westport inventing the soccer Mom lifestyle of the American suburbs.

The Age of Wonder
by Richard Holmes
5 out of 5 Stars

A lot happened in the years between Newton and the Industrial Revolution.  The scientific community was coming into its own, moving from a handful of amateur dabblers to the kinds of professional scientists we think of today.  It was a time of great discoveries amid a sense of lost innocence.  This book takes a look at some of the key players during this epoch:

Joseph Banks, who travelled with Cook to Tahiti, screwed his eyes out with the local beauties, collected plants and animal specimens and eventually became president of the Royal Society … William Hershell, the self-taught astronomer who ground his own lenses and built his own telescopes and discovered Uranus.  He was the first guy to realize the Milky Way is a galaxy and that the nebula that been seen and known about for centuries were actually other galaxies in a universe of profound deep space and time … Sir Humphrey Davy who discovered laughing gas and invented a safety lamp that eliminated the risk of devastating fires in coal mines … John Faraday, who built the first electrical motor … Mary Shelly who wrote Frankenstein as a response to the contemporary scientific theories about electric “vitalism” found in all living things.

These remarkable people were all well rounded.  They were poets and musicians along as well as disciplined scientists struggling with the dichotomy between the spiritual and the empirical.

The Case for God
by Karen Armstrong
5 out of 5 Stars

This is a must read for anybody interested in what religion is all about today versus what it SHOULD be all about.  Armstrong traces human spiritual thought from prehistoric caves to the present.  She is unflinchingly critical of present day religious fundamentalists, and the need they feel to turn the myths of our biblical traditions into absolute literal truths.  She is equally as scornful of the bigotry and bull-headedness found on the other side of the spectrum: modern atheists like Dawkins who are every bit as black and white in their thinking as are the religious nuts they hate so much.

As she has done in her other books, Armstrong reminds us that it is only in recent times – since the late 19th century and largely as a response to Darwin’s theory of evolution – that people have felt compelled to turn the “mythos” of the Bible into a kind of crazy mixed up and butt-dumb theology.  Ancient people were extremely comfortable with the notion that there are two separate ways to arrive at truths: mythos and logos.  Armstrong urges us to take a lesson from the ancients and to get beyond our modern way of looking at religion that pits the brittle dogmas of one side against the other. She wants us to evolve into a post modern way of thinking that embraces both the ancient myths and what they can teach us with all that there is to learn from cutting edge science.

To Armstrong’s way of seeing things, there will always be truths that lie just beyond our ability to measure or put into words.  Seeking the “otherness” that lies just beyond our ken is what religion should be all about.  Pushing the boundaries of the known universe is what science should be all about.  The two can co-exist.  Neither pathway is the ONE WAY, neither will ever completely understand the realms they explore and as soon as we find answers to all our religious and scientific questions we will cease to be human.

That’s what I think about that.

The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo
by Steig Larson
3 out of 5 Stars

Okay movie. Okay book.  TGWTDT is a page-turner type thriller about a business tycoon and his dysfunctional family in Sweden, a murdered daughter (or was she?), a serial killing Nazi sympathizer (those ubiquitous Nazi villains) and a reporter and his side kick (the chick with the body piercings and tattoo) who solve the mystery thanks to some amazing computer hacking.  It’s the character of the tattooed girl who makes this book such a popular best seller.  She is multi-dimensional and fresh.  The plot however, is formulaic in my opinion with lots of infomercials about state-of-the-art computer equipment.  Maybe some people are interested in that kind of technical detail, but not me. It’s the kind of book that’s written with the movie already in mind.  I doubt I’ll bother to read the other two books in the trilogy.

The Selfish Gene
by Richard Dawkins
5 out of 5 Stars

Here’s a science book that puts genes in their proper place.  Genes are the first and primary movers of all life.  Genes are “selfish” in the sense they have but one self-serving purpose: to replicate and survive.  Millions of years ago when all of life was comprised of zillions of random genes floating around in the primal soup they began to learn how to organize themselves into larger and more complex combinations.  This gave way to higher organisms that gave the genes that comprised them advantages over less-well organized genes in the competition for limited resources.  Genes eventually evolved into the highly complex “survival machines” of today: plants, animals and humans.

Survival machines exist so that the genes that comprise them can replicate and live forever.  We survival machines are but temporary world travelers, while the genes that make us tall or fat, dark skinned or fair, muscular or graceful, human or lion, mammal or fish, potted plants or redwoods are immortal.  Fairly grim news, but one big whopping miracle nonetheless.

The Wild Things
by Dave Eggars
3 out of 5 Stars

A novelizaton of Maurice Sendak’s famous children’s book (which I have never read.)  It’s a cute story told from the point of view of a naughty eight year old boy.  After trashing his house and feeling unloved and misunderstood he runs away and finds himself on a strange exotic island inhabited by a group of overgrown monsters who make him their king.  The book is full of boy-like fantasies and written just like a boy with a fertile imagination would think.  On the island the young protagonist is able to freely express himself and eventually learns to feel comfortable in his own skin.  Very sweet.

The Witch of Portobello
by Paulo Coelho
3 out of 5 Stars

This book is nowhere near as good as his other parable, The Alchemist, but it is okay.  There was a bit too much overt preachiness about the feminine face of god and not enough of the actual tale itself.  In a good parable the story should indirectly reveal the larger message.  Getting a lecture about how our male-dominated society has systematically oppressed the feminine, intuitive and free “earth goddess” in favor of the male oriented authoritative god that sits in heaven is interesting and an important historical perspective, but a lecture doesn’t really grab you as much as a good story.   At least not for me.