Saturday, December 29, 2012

This Week's Book: Stranger in a Strange Land

This finishes Book a Week 2012! It's been a fun ride. Watch for how things'll change a little around here in 2013.

December 23-29: Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

Science Fiction (1961 - 655 pp.) 

This is the original edition, packed with 60,000 more words than the already decently long first pressing. 

The premise of the book is incredibly interesting. If a human born and raised by a highly intelligent race of Martians came to Earth, how would he react to his surroundings? Valentine Michael Smith wakes up in Bethesda Hospital under military watch facing exactly this problem. His subsequent adventures are highly interesting in that Heinlein explores the world as a Martian might consider it, like the understandably insatiable attraction to water. The ability to levitate objects feels excessive but it adds enough sci-fi camp to be worthwhile. The libertarian, rational egoistic philosophy of the early part of the book plays off of the power-driven obsession various powerful parties have with possessing the Martian and his parents' sizable bank accounts. 

My chief qualms with Stranger in a Strange Land are its length and its overbearing armchair philosophy. Neither seem like necessary additions to what was a perfectly fine book. The last quarter or so felt unnecessary - I felt like the book had in all meaningful ways ended by then. Once the possibilities of how Michael could react to Earth were more or less exhausted, whether obvious (like not understanding money) or outlandish (whether he would be considered sovereign of Mars), there was nothing left to say. The creation of the Church of All Worlds feels more like a strangely inserted authorial fantasy than any short logical leap from a Martian landing on Earth. Stranger in a Strange Land is very successful at being science fiction. There it should stay. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 3

Sunday, December 23, 2012

This Week's Book: Aesop's Fables

Another collection of things, which is working nicely. How many of us read these stories as children? Now, looking back, how many of us really knew what we were reading?

December 16-22: Aesop's Fables translated by George Fyler Townsend

Literature (1871) 

Aesop's fables were a staple of my childhood. I owned an illustrated copy of many of the fables, which my parents gave me so early into my young life I don't recall ever not owning it. Like then, the fox is my favourite animal to pop up in the stories. Unlike then, I've now read a copy with an introduction detailing what a fable is, a brief biography of what we know of Aesop, and a history of where and when the fables have popped up in European lore. In short, the craft of a fable is a cross between the storytelling of a tale and the didacticism of a parable. 

As with anything over 2000 years old yet so universal in the lessons it teaches, some of these fables are extremely applicable to the present day, others are utterly horrifying, and most lie somewhere on the vast continuum between. Still others have applications or ramifications Aesop could never have anticipated. In this last curious category, "The Ass and the Grasshopper" is a lesson in corporate strategy (i.e. that homegrown strategies can be more effective than benchmarking); "The Prophet" and "The Quack Frog" taken in a modern context appear to question the wisdom of social science professors (a famous example being a psychologist who is the expert in the psychology of money yet is not super-rich), "Jupiter, Neptune, Minerva and Momus" seems oddly pro-trailer park (the sin of the poor house being that it lacks wheels), and "The Widow and the Sheep" feels like an Econ 101 lesson in profit maximization. "The Fisherman and the Fish" and "The Lion and the Hare", applied today, are virulently anti-stock market. 

The best and worst messages range from heartwarming to horrifying respectively. "The Lioness"'s message of quality over quantity is well taken in almost any context, "The Fir-Tree and the Bramble" is a reminder that a wealthy life is not necessarily easier or more desirable, and "The Traveler and Fortune" scolds anyone who wants to blame, or credit, everything on luck. "The Fox and the Mask", one of my favourites since I was about two feet tall, is a reminder that style is useless without substance. "The Rose and the Amaranth", my other favourite, is a reminder that lasting beauty is often the best kind. Less happily, "The Man and His Sweethearts" supposes that a woman should feel ashamed of being courted by a younger man (but then how do we have Cougar Town?), "The Three Tradesmen" advocates a social isolationism mind-boggling to any modern person, and "The Mother and the Wolf" reproaches anyone foolish enough to listen to a woman. 

Other fables reflect the Victorian society George Fyler Townsend inhabited. "The Oxen and the Axle-Trees" is stoicism incarnate. "The Crab and the Fox" hearkens back to the old belief that every person had his or her place in the world and to defy that would be foolish. Those of us with ambition look back unkindly on that particular strain of Victorian thought. "The Astronomer", "The Wolf and the Lion" and "The Monkey and the Camel" send the horrible message of telling people not to think beyond one's immediate surroundings or to learn uncharacteristically new skills. The days of women learning to ride bicycles have since eroded this belief. 

Still other fables have either been grossly misinterpreted or were hazy to begin with. "The Swallow and the Crow"'s contribution of the phrase "fair weather friend" refers to friends who are unable, rather than unwilling, to help when times are difficult. The eponymous character of "The Wolf in Sheep's Clothing" is attempting to find shelter, not to become a danger (although there are apparently alternate versions of this fable that state otherwise). "The Oaks and Jupiter" and "The Oak and the Woodcutters" are clear instances of victim-blaming. "The Huntsman and the Fisherman"'s moral does not at all match its story; the story describes the ability of the characters to engage in trade with each other, whereas the moral reads "Abstain and enjoy". The moral of this entry, were it to have one, would be that Aesop's Fables is a cultural construct, of Ancient Greece in its original form and also of Victorian England in this translation. Many of the lessons persist over time yet others are quaint relics of earlier days. 

NOTE: With these types of books, page count is an estimate at best. The particular copy I read is one for Kindle for my laptop. There are doubtless many others out there. The fables are all so short and so easily available that to refer to any of the ones I mention here, a few seconds' search should yield what you need. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 5

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

This Christmas...

Today, at my favourite local coffee shop, I overheard a man say in a conversation that the upcoming alleged apocalypse of December 21st, 2012 "won't be the end of the world, just the end of time." I turned to the barista, whom I happen to know quite well, and said, "If that's the case, this Christmas will be timeless." He smiled.

Hope everyone has a wonderful final week of Advent en route to a timeless Christmas.

Last Week's Book: Chicken Soup for the Soul

A fitting accompaniment for law school exams... also my third last Book a Week. Hard to believe.

December 9-15: Chicken Soup for the Soul by Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen

Non-Fiction (1993 - 193 pp.) 

Now apparently also the provenance of a TV show and a health food line, Chicken Soup for the Soul started as this solitary book. It is compiled by two motivational speakers, and consists of a collection of stories submitted by various people, mostly from the United States. Others are by Canfield and Hansen. Each details someone who did something extraordinary. The usual fare consists of people who ran after having their legs amputated, children who sold more cookies than the other children, that sort of thing. The overarching message - that people should be nice to each other and that we can all do something special in the world - is a good one, no matter how cynical the recent economy may have made people. 

A few of the stories surprised me, some in a good way, some not so much.  "The Animal School" shows a libertarian leaning that I was not expecting, not so much for being libertarian as such but because a book by motivational speakers doesn't strike me as political. "I Love You, Son" is probably the most touching story here, for the combined reasons of speaking to what it means to be a father as well as making me look back a little guiltily on my own experiences as a child. (It concerns whether children ever truly appreciate their fathers enough.) "Rest in Peace" is probably my favourite story, having to do with telling people to bury everything they think they can't do, and it resonates the most with my life. "Service with a Smile" is an adorable story that will resonate with every dog lover. "The Touch of the Master's Hand", aside from its uplifting message about the value we often miss in things, mentions potage, which I know better than most thanks to reading If Walls Could Talk this past August. 

"Big Ed" and "Just Say It!" discuss the difficulties people have telling each other they love each other, and not in that first time ever telling a significant other way but even within a family. That something so natural should be so difficult is something I find troubling. "I Know You, You're Just Like Me" may have seemed heartwarming such a short time after the collapse of the USSR but is, to make an understatement, less than heartwarming to Central Europeans. "Ask, Ask, Ask" and "Tommy's Bumper Sticker" feel overly reliant on the fact that their protagonists are children; relying on being a cute child to sell products should not be seen as the hallmark of salesmanship. "Rick's Little Quest", "John Corcoran", and "She Saved 219 Lives" send some likely unintentionally morose messages. The first validates a young man's decision to drop out of school, the second discusses the successes of a man who was admitted all the way through the education system despite being illiterate, and the third glosses over someone's premeditated forgery of birth certificates. None of those warm my heart in the least, no matter what good came at the end. 

Hypothetically, Chicken Soup for the Soul is an exercise in challenging everyone to be the best s/he can be, regardless of adverse circumstances. "Run, Patti, Run" is the story that embodies this message the best. At the end of a story about a woman who ran record-setting distances in face of epilepsy, in question form no less, it asks, "If Patti Wilson can do so much with so little, what can you do to outperform yourself in a state of total wellness?" Whether this is inspirational or guilt-inducing depends on who you are, I suppose. 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 4

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Saving Money: 10 Things I Will Do, 5 Things I Won't

Maybe it's the terrible economy. Maybe it's the wider availability of technology, not least sites like this one. Maybe it's just that I'm an adult now. For whatever reason, it seems like for the past little while, money-saving columns are everywhere. As someone who develops some economics-based personal finance in my spare time, I figure that rather than bore you with the theoretical analysis that shapes my money decisions, I'll throw my hat into the "I do these things to be frugal" ring like everyone else.

A few articles I've picked up today are this one by a guy, this one by a girl, this other one by the same girl saying what she won't do to save money, and this one by a different girl who makes it gender-neutral. Most of the tips are good (like harvesting seeds from your garden), some aren't so much so. One that absolutely needs mention right here is the tip at the end of the last article: that you "shop" at lost and found bins. That is something I've never seen as a money-saving tip before. It's so beyond the pale I can't justify putting it on my list of things I won't do to save money, if only because it would never have occurred to me. It's not quite as bad as forging food stamps or stealing from the Salvation Army, but it feels like it's trending toward that end of the ethical spectrum.

Before I begin with my list of ways I do and refuse to spend money, I may as well begin by saying why it's important I noted the above links by gender. Something that I had probably known but had never really realized is that I save a significant amount of money just by being a man. I have never bought makeup or feminine hygiene products (that's what they're called now, right?) in my life. If tasked to do so, I'm sure I would appear very confused to the store's employees.

Another thing that's worth mentioning is that certain tips that are great for some people simply don't work for others. For example, the biggest single way I save money is by not having a car. No purchase or lease costs, no gas, no insurance... which turns around and becomes thousands in savings, vacations, and the peace of mind to know I can treat myself to a few extras without going broke in the process. However, I understand not having a car simply isn't an option for those who don't live in urban or other eminently walkable areas. I'm sure everyone has his/her own version of this: some people don't drink, others have family and friends all nearby so they have less need to buy plane tickets, and so on. I also don't smoke, which is helpful but is pretty normal for my generation.

Here are 10 Ways I Save Money and 5 Ways I Refuse to Save Money.

To save money, I...

1. Make use of the local library, as well as free promotional e-books.

Libraries, especially campus libraries, have amazing selections of books. Books that have passed into the public domain are often available as free e-books, and many newer indie authors are releasing their books for free. Thanks to the free e-book option, I've read books as far-flung as Bleak House and Machine of Death, both of which I'd recommend. Without these resources, Book a Week may not have been possible. Although I love my home library dearly, I simply don't need to own a hard copy of every book I ever read. Moving a lot helped this decision along too. I still buy books I feel like I'll want around in paper form but I spend a lot less on books than before.

2. Use coupons mercilessly.

I know this is on everyone's list, so it's not exactly the most original thing here. It's on everyone's list for a reason. It's also a great way to buy clothes, as opposed to the horror stories of patching up holes the size of a Buick. My favourite coupon-driven purchase: a pair of running shorts, from $36 down to $2. Remember, when combining coupons, take the percentage discount before the flat dollar discount.

3. Use hotel soaps and shampoos at home.

For those who travel even semi-frequently, this is a great way to save. I honestly have difficulty recalling the last time I bought shampoo. I understand each container won't last most people almost a month like it does for me, but even so... A fringe benefit is that you get to try a bunch of different kinds.

4. Make sure I do full loads of laundry.

I have way too much experience with commercial washers and dryers for someone of my tender years. As a result, watching a few articles of (usually white) clothing bounce around inside a washer or dryer is a frustrating use of a couple bucks. Waiting to wash darks or lights until I have a full load's worth, or close to it, saves money that is otherwise spent on absolutely nothing.

5. Think purchases through before making them.

This doesn't mean waiting weeks on end to see if you still want to buy something. That's a great way to lose out on sales. It just means having a logical reason for making every purchase, even if that purchase is a chocolate bar by the checkout counter. If you don't feel like you can defend a purchase to someone asking you why you made it, it's probably not a good idea. ("I'm worth it" isn't a defence.)

6. Don't throw out food.

This one seems simple, yet people throw out food all the time. Knowing what's in your fridge and freezer not only helps determine when you need to eat certain things but also prevents you from accidentally buying something you already have. Not letting food expire - or refusing to keep buying foods that often do, like a seldom-used salad dressing - is another way to stop spending money for nothing.

7. Take more napkins than necessary from fast-food restaurants.

This was more of a thing from my undergrad days, considering how rarely I eat fast food now. (Saving there too.) I don't see napkins as something to buy from a store. They're used for a few seconds and then discarded. Hard to justify paying for something with that quality when the place where you last bought a sandwich on the way home from work/school will do it for you. It doesn't have to result in guests knowing where you went last week, either, if you keep cloth napkins around for company and use the ones you got for free when you're by yourself.

8. Keep plastic bags from the grocery store.

I use my canvas grocery bags all the time. I own about half a dozen of them, most of them given to me for free. During big trips, when those bags are full, I'll generally get plastic bags. They've carried my track shoes to the gym/track, they've sat inside small garbage cans, and they've also been great donations to my parents for when the cat's litter needs to be cleaned out. Throwing out plastic unnecessarily isn't just horrible for the environment, it's literally throwing away something you could be using.

9. Reuse freezer bags.

Whenever they're empty, I wash them with soap and water. Then they can hold more of whatever was in them before, usually meat. Like the plastic bags above, there's no reason to throw something out that is still just as good as when you got it. The difference with freezer bags is that you actually paid for them. (For those who pay 5 cents per plastic bag at the grocery store, this still applies to you.)

10. Don't put off purchases until the last minute.

If an item you're looking to replace isn't something you only ever need one of (like a pair of shoes), there's nothing wrong with owning more than one while the original's life is fading. If said item is something you only ever need one of (like a microwave), it may be worth trading a couple extra months of life for a huge discount on the successor. Desperation doesn't come out to getting the best deal. The more time you give yourself to replace something, the more chances you give yourself to come away with a great deal.

Hopefully all that applies to everyone as much as is possible with personal finance, as much as peoples' individual circumstances vary. I've also excluded ways to make the most of credit card reward points, as I view that as more of a way to make money than to save it. All that said:

To save money, I won't...

1. Do anything that takes more time than it's worth.

Whenever I undertake a task that results in a financial net gain, I view it as though I'm performing a job. For example, if I attend a one-hour focus group and am given $50 for my efforts, I view myself as, for that hour, a $50/hr focus group attendee. That same logic is applicable in the home. If I take half an hour to make a meal that cost $2 of ingredients, provides no leftovers, and doesn't involve any creativity on my part, rather than microwave a prepackaged $4 meal, I'm essentially working as a low-level chef for $4/hr. (The difference in costs, doubled because I used half an hour as my example.) Those little ways to save money around the home could actually be short-term sub-minimum wage jobs in disguise. There are better uses of my time.

2. Cut my own hair unless I actually want a buzz cut.

For whatever reason, this one comes up frequently on frugality lists, including the men's one above. If a buzz cut is your personal style and you feel reasonably capable of doing a good job, go for it. If not, just go to a barber and fork over the cash. It's one thing to be defined by your frugality in terms of the wisdom of doing things like, say, not wantonly dumping food in the trash. It's another thing entirely to be so defined by frugality that people can tell you're frugal by looking at you. Worse yet, imagine if everyone followed this advice, resulting in the only difference in men's haircuts being measurable in small numbers. A personal style is not something I'd give up for a few bucks.

3. Compromise my clothing choices, whether for fashion or for quality.

I haven't done any formal research on this but I'm willing to guess that the average person wears clothing every day. There are so many sales on clothing from various retailers you'd think there was a world oversupply so blatant they'll have to turn the unsold items into rags. Fashion-wise, the personal style comment above applies. Wear what you'll enjoy wearing, because if you buy any reasonably good clothes they'll last for a while. Quality-wise, better clothes last longer. If a clothing item costs twice the price of a lesser counterpart but lasts at least twice as long, you aren't really paying more for it at all. Much like with the fridge and freezer example above, knowing which clothes you own is helpful so you can make the best of your durable purchases.

4. Regift.

It may seem resourceful and frugal to regift - if you're the one doing the regifting. Now imagine you're the person who bought that gift in the first place, possibly spent hours picking out just the right one, and it gets regifted. Not exactly quite so cheery anymore, are you? If someone buys you a gift, that gift is for you. It's not a proxy that waives your need to buy someone else a gift. Regifting is also less generous, as it removes the time and effort that demonstrate your care for the recipient. The only real defence for regifting is that neither the person whose gift is being shipped off nor the person who's getting a gift you didn't put any time or money into will usually end up knowing. In all, you've shown no appreciation for the time someone took to pick out a gift for you, shown no effort in shopping for someone else in your life, and justified the whole exercise by keeping both of those people in the dark. If that's how far you're willing to go to save money, I'll start hesitating before buying gifts for you at all.

A notable exception is if you truly believe something you got is absolutely perfect for someone else and the original giver agrees with you. This tends to occur more in terms of things like gift card swaps than in the giving of actual items. In this case, though, you're regifting in order to make a good faith attempt at making multiple people in your life happier, not to save money.

5. Cut up the credit card.

In addition to the aforementioned reward points, a credit card represents flexibility. I never carry a balance and view a credit card expense as though I had paid cash. Certain purchases, especially online ones, require a credit card. (One curious quirk of living in Canada versus the States is that Canadians don't have Visa debit cards.) There's also no guarantee I'll have enough cash in my wallet to cover a purchase every time I leave home. An unexpected sale at the grocery store could be out of reach but for a card sitting on the night table at home.

On that note, feel free to buy something at the grocery store that isn't on your list... as long as it's reasonably priced and you'll eat it. Handcuffing yourself doesn't make you more responsible, only less able to pounce on  deals.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

This Week's Book: Haunted

So I finally read a book by the vaunted Chuck Palahniuk, perhaps best known for the film rendition of Fight Club. (Yes, I've at least seen that. I am, however, a unique and special snowflake.) Haunted was a fun read - I liked the pacing and the angle.

December 2-8: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk

Horror (2005 - 411 pp.) 

The premise of Haunted is an interesting one: a whole ton of writers on a retreat that consists of being locked in a building for three months. They make the best of the time, if that's what you consider slowly killing each other and themselves. Most have names in some way related to their conditions, like the lip-free Baroness Frostbite or the psychic Countess Foresight. Each tells a sordid, twisted back story through a strategically placed vignette. These stories, interspersed with poems about the characters, sit between the twenty-four chapters. 

The book is at the same time hilarious, scary and disturbing. My favourite story is "The Nightmare Box", which on its own could have been the premise for an entire collection of stories. My least favourite is "Obsolete", which didn't present anything I found particularly gripping and was one of the longest to boot. The book's funniest quotation comes about halfway through: "You could put Mahatma Gandhi into a convent, cut off his nuts, shoot him full of Demerol, and he'd still take a shot at your face if you played him that 'Wind Beneath Your Wings' song." (186-187) (For those interested in reading this book, this is in no way spoiled. When you see it in context, you'll hopefully double over just like I did.) Most of the stories are entertaining, with helpful insights into how the characters got to be who they are. There is relatively little character development during the chapters, which Palahniuk uses to focus on the horrifying character of the writers' retreat. 

Amazingly, the characters know what awaits them. There's no element of kidnapping here. The book starts with the question: "If you were planning to be stranded on a desert island for three months, what would you bring along?" (6) In some ways still the kid who grew up reading choose your own adventure books, I naturally had to compile a list of my own. My suggestions appear to have been too practical for Haunted's deranged writers; not a single one had thought to bring astronaut ice cream or GORP (i.e. calorie-dense foods that won't spoil easily), a Brita filter in case the water isn't very good, lightweight synthetic outerwear to maximize the warmth-to-space ratio in the suitcase, and of course a whole ton of pens, pencils and paper. Each writer presumably took the last of those, although we curiously never see anyone writing during this retreat. It all consists of building a story. How each character builds stories is the story. 

Palahniuk started on the mishmash of short stories that would eventually morph into Haunted all the way back in 1991. This was no surprise to me, as throughout the book I kept feeling like I was reading something from the '90s. Maybe Haunted would have been a more effective release 5-10 years before it came out. The strings of one-word sentences detailing how bleak the world is just didn't feel edgy anymore in 2005, for example. Regardless, I enjoyed it, and the story behind "Guts" was especially amusing considering that was one of my favourite entries. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 2

Tuesday, November 27, 2012


It's for a good cause and it's everywhere. Donate to help prostate cancer awareness! Compliments on the 'stache optional.

Monday, November 26, 2012

This Week's Book: Priceless

I met a couple interesting benchmarks this week. This is the first time I've started a book for Book a Week before the week in question began (I started this one on Saturday evening). I'd previously had a rule against that, but after seeing how late I could read books in the summer, why not allow this? The important thing is that fifty-second book will be read by the end of the year. The other accomplishment is that this is the earliest in the week I've completed a book. Before this, it was The Satanic Bible, finished on the Wednesday of its week.

I think I'm about done for anything behavioural this year. Interesting read.

November 25-December 1: Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value by William Poundstone

Non-Fiction (2010 - 288 pp.) 

Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value adds to the growing stash of general interest material in behavioural decision theory. Much of this work is by psychologists or economists, but Priceless is by a professional writer. The best comparison would be Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. This perspective is interesting in that William Poundstone is able to report of others' theories without advancing any of his own, so his fifty-seven snippets are anecdotes about a subject rather than forays into it. The format fits the book nicely. The question the book asks is: how are prices set, and why do we keep falling for them? 

The first part of the book is a recap of any book dealing with behavioural decision theory. Some of those books are referenced in this list (Thinking, Fast and SlowPredictably Irrational) and they all have largely the same messages about phenomena like anchoring, the endowment effect, and other classic staples of the discipline. Having read a few of the articles during my education, I would recommend skipping straight to those if you already know why people will pay less for tickets than they would want in return for them. 

The highlight of Priceless is the substantial material on psychophysics, a field with which I was unfamiliar prior to reading. The connection between sensory perception and physical sensation is far outside of any of the social sciences training I have received, yet it is among the most interesting psychology-related subdisciplines I could have imagined. How far does a floor need to move before someone standing on it notices? What if the person is concentrating on something else and has no idea what is about to occur? Questions like these surface in various parts ofPriceless. Their connections to marketers' pricing schemes vary. The quality of the anecdotes is universally high. 

My problems with the portrayal of the ultimatum game could take up an entire entry and more. In light of this, it is too bad so much of the book considers the ultimatum game. Regardless, the ultimatum game responses make plenty of sense in a game theoretic context, with a general veto being the equivalent of a fight response in a first-entry deterrence game. The veto is not an irrational, emotional response; it is a reasoned method of threatening the proposer with punishment. Aside from this and similar issues, the constant "economists are all wrong" diatribe is worn and was never true. Chapter 9's anecdote about Maurice Allais and Milton Friedman demonstrates this quite handily. Some of the studies inPriceless leave much to be desired, but Poundstone was in no position to conduct them. Most of the studies were very interesting, though. 

An enjoyable read for those interested in behavioural decision theory. Books like these make me suspect I have a streak of the dreaded homo economicus in me. 

Ease of Reading: 7 
Educational Content: 6

Saturday, November 24, 2012

This Week's Book: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Probably a less engaging review this time, if only because I'm beat. This was funny.

November 18-24: The Best Laid Plans by Terry Fallis

Satire (2007 - 312 pp.) 

The Best Laid Plans is rightly organized into two parts. The first details a Liberal campaign trail in a Conservative stronghold, following an unwilling candidate with a budget of $157.23 and all of about half a dozen supporters. The second explores possibilities of what could happen if a Member of Parliament is more forthright than his peers, which is a massive understatement. The protagonist of the book is the aforementioned unlikely MP's executive assistant, who invariably becomes a pincushion of abuse. 

The first part is hilarious, and is exactly what I was hoping I'd be reading. The campaign angle lends itself to all kinds of mishaps, which drag the reader through a tragicomedy of stepping in excrement, woefully unorganized meetings, and being chased by dogs during canvassing. I would be remiss in saying the second part gets too political, as this is a political satire, but that's the feeling I get. The faux-heartwarming story of the firebrand MP isn't as compelling as the campaign story. That the Conservative enemy is being fought on the basis of tax cuts, instead of a more visceral potential Liberal fear like an anti-environment or anti-labour policy, feels empty. The romance subplot between our protagonist and the riding's former Liberal candidate's granddaughter doesn't add much. I really enjoyed this book - I just felt like the climax happened halfway through. 

Thanks to a non-RYM friend for the recommendation and for letting me borrow the book. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 2

Sunday, November 18, 2012

This Week's Book: Kindred Spirits by Ashanti Luke

It feels nice to finally read and review a Smashwords book for Book a Week. Hope some of you get a chance to poke around that site a bit.

November 11-17: Kindred Spirits by Ashanti Luke

Science Fiction (2010 - 220 pp.) 

As a Smashwords author (, I wanted to make sure one of my books I read this year was published there. After some digging, I found one that I thought would be a good fit. If you're interested in reading this book, the author's made it available for free here: 

Kindred Spirits is a fast-paced sci-fi thriller about a man who goes back in time to save a woman and to get her to kill a deranged evangelist. He also possesses an anti-matter shotgun. There's tons of action, with the narration working well - I could really envision the characters struggling through each shootout. There are plenty, for those interested. The combination of science-fiction and urban/low fantasy works well, with the backdrop of Richmond, Virginia being an atypical setting that Luke makes work. My lone qualms are that the end feels drawn out, although I won't say why for spoiler concerns, and that the characters seem predictable at times. Luke knows the tropes and uses them well, which mitigates the second point. 

A couple disclaimers are in order. Firstly, like many self-published books, there are a few typographical and formatting errors. These are thankfully relatively minimal. The other is there is coarse language, violence and graphic sex. Compared to the blood and guts strewn all over White Fang(see my June entry on that very book), this is nothing. Goes to show societal attitudes toward violence versus sex, and toward classic versus modern literature, I suppose. That discussion could be hundreds of pages, though. 

Regardless, Kindred Spirits a quick read and a page-turner. For those of us accustomed to heavier reads, it's a nice break. 

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 1

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Last Week's Book: On the Genealogy of Morals

Very opposed to some of the other writings I've read this year, which keeps things interesting.

November 4-10: On the Genealogy of Morals by Friedrich Nietzsche

Philosophy (1887 - 90 pp.) 

On the Genealogy of Morals consists of a prologue and then three essays: "Good and Evil, Good and Bad", "Guilt, Bad Conscience and Related Manners", and "What Do Ascetic Ideals Mean?" Within them, he develops a brand of scepticism and atheism that is visible to this day. The editorial style of his polemic means there are few citations, which has the dual effect of making the essay collection a quicker read while making his points feel easier to refute. A simple "that's not the way I understood Christianity..." pervaded my reading, although I found many of his arguments persuasive regardless. To others more inclined to agree with Nietzsche in broader ways, this may not be such an obstacle. 

Nietzsche brings up interesting points about the overly restrictive nature of the categorical imperative (with which I agree), the problem of people who claim to perceive events objectively (agree), the concept of the badge of suffering an ascetic wears as a form of desire (which I can concede partially), the opposition of priestly with knightly or aristocratic ideals (disagree), and the use of conscience as self-excoriation (strongly disagree). Other points, like the presence of religion among the oppressed signifying their weakness, are less compelling. In the prologue, he makes a statement that appears in some ways Christian: "For between chastity and sensuality there is no essential opposition. Every good marriage, every genuine affair of the heart transcends them both." This type of thinking has been found in Protestantism dating back to at least the Puritans of the sixteenth century, making it a curious claim of Nietzsche's. Generally, the claims he makes are ones the reader knows if he or she will agree or disagree with going in, although surprises like the one above add to the depth of the treatise. 

It is difficult to appraise how educational a work like On the Genealogy of Morals is. Much like A Tale of a Tub, it conveys a sense of learnedness and research without sharing all of those with the reader. A work like On the Genealogy of Morals forces the reader to consider important issues within morality with sporadic splashes of insight regarding the development of religious traditions over time. It will not act as an authoritative work of religious history or moral philosophy, yet such a work would be unable to properly present the perspective Nietzsche gets across, nor would it be readable within a week. 

Ease of Reading: 3 
Educational Content: 6

Sunday, November 4, 2012

This Week's Book: Moneyball

Another sports book. They're too much fun, really.

October 28-November 3: Moneyball by Michael Lewis

Non-Fiction (2003 - 208 pp.) 

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is a very fun, very quick read. For those who have missed out on it, it tracks Billy Beane's rise to stardom as general manager of the Oakland Athletics. In the late '90s and early '00s, he assembled a team capable of competing with any in the major leagues, usually beating them (they won 102 and 103 games in 2001 and 2002 respectively), with one of the lowest payrolls in the league. Doing this required new ways of thinking about baseball, from valuing draft picks more highly relative to veterans all the way to the use of sabermetrics. The statistics-based approach to baseball was understandably upsetting to old-style scouts, just as mercilessly flipping proven stars for compensation draft picks must have been to the fans. 

Two things struck me about Moneyball, aside from the great storytelling and interesting asides into individual players. (Recalling how fresh-from-injury Scott Hatteberg was made to play first base is up there in the latter category.) The first is how Beane's Athletics teams had not won a playoff series even when they had won 100+ games in a season. Since then, they have only won one playoff series (2006 ALDS), after which they were promptly smoked 4-0 in the ALCS. A little more explanation for their lack of success in the playoffs, and intermittent sub-.500 years between those appearances, would be interesting nine years later. Beane explains the playoffs away as luck in Moneyball - would he still do so now? The other one is how statistically driven baseball can be. Similar attempts have been made since the early days of SABR to turn basketball and football, the sports I know far better than baseball, into statistical test trials. That they've worked to only a limited extent in those sports despite their massive success in baseball speaks to baseball's uniquely stat-driven nature. 

Moneyball is an approach I know only somewhat well to a game I know only somewhat well. It may be a little difficult for those unfamiliar with baseball, but at least of the North Americans reading this, hopefully that won't be an issue. It's educational about baseball, and perhaps a little about statistics. 

Ease of Reading: 8 
Educational Content: 6

Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Last Week's Book: Syntactic Structures

Not much to say on this one except that it was an interesting read, surprisingly quick, and I certainly have never read the same book twice for Book a Week.

October 21-27: Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky

Linguistics (1957 - 117 pp.) 

Syntactic Structures is, much like What Is the West?, a short, focused, ambitious work with a huge ambit and not a lot of space. Syntactic Structures is very dense, with different ideas presented as often as about twice every three pages. The underlying premise, of a "rigorous and objective approach" (94) to the construction of sentences in the English language, is naturally interesting for anyone in love with the written word. The book is difficult for a non-specialist (a group including me), yet Chomsky explains his points with little enough jargon or symbols that it is easy enough to ford. 

I cannot offer anything approaching an informed comment as to how convincing Chomsky's propositions are. That has already been covered elsewhere. From the non-specialist's view, though, I did find Chomsky's argument against the use of defining grammar by semantic means effective. I also enjoyed his sentence path chart (19) and his chart explaining placement of subjects and predicates (27), which are perhaps among the simplest illustrations the book has to offer. I am not entirely certain that transformations solve the entirety of the English language without introducing too many exceptions, but then, that is for the linguists to decide. 

Something worth mentioning is the format of the book. Chomsky does this quite well overall - I tend to prefer books with many short sections to few long sections, and he offers up dozens of bites on his subjects. Each time he changes gears, he adds a new section or subsection number within a broader chapter, which helps greatly. He also numbers all of his examples, making them valuable reference points. If there is one thing that could be added, it would be a list of all of his numbered examples added to the appendices. I have not flipped back and forth through a book this much since Lone Wolf

This is definitely a niche book. It does not contain any history of the English language, nor does it contain much insight into how language is interpreted. It claims neither. To those with an interest in exploring the structural roots of English, it will please. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 7

Saturday, October 20, 2012

This Week's Book: Jennifer Government

Anyone interested in mid-2000s text-based browser games may find this interesting. Or if you want a light read.

October 14-20: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Science Fiction (2003 - 150 pp.) 

The premise of Jennifer Government is relatively straightforward. Corporations are in control of nearly everything, to the point of peoples' last names being their employers. Said corporations carry around medieval Papal States-style militaries that they deploy against their competitors in Erie War type conflicts. The government lacks funding to the point that it has to ask complainants' families for donations  when pursuing criminal cases. Antitrust law is nonexistent, allowing for conglomerate collusion on a mind-boggling scale. Much of this is attributed to "capitalizm", which was allegedly a working title for the book and which, based on my impression of the book, does not have much in common with actual capitalism. 

The characters and plot are easily understandable, with the book's short span dedicated almost solely to the latter. The frequent switching between characters, leading to 86 tiny chapters broken down into six parts and an epilogue, is a nice format. Placing everyone as an automaton allows the reader to suspend disbelief about who the characters are except that they usually either hate their jobs or enjoy being cruel, which is well within what would be expected in a book like this. Any political commentary is reduced to more or less a caricature of what the left thinks of the right. Given the cornucopia of too much government dystopia novels compared to the dearth of not enough government dystopia novels, it passes. Comments related to how there used to be a community when there was tax come off as tongue-in-cheek more than anything. 

The environment surrounding Jennifer Government is arguably more interesting than the book itself. Max Barry created the text-based browser game NationStates to promote the book, which drew considerable popularity. Then the similarly text-based but more interactive browser game Cyber Nations drew a similar demographic, including alliances that drew their members directly from NationStates (the New Pacific Order being the most famous example). Given the staggering numbers of nations these games have recorded, Barry likely made more people interested in online political simulators than in his book. The other important side-issue is his claims regarding the use of actual corporations' names, which allegedly resulted in lawsuits. While I don't think anything in the book is worthy of a suit if only because it's all so completely unrealistic, I would personally err on the side of caution when using anyone else's trademarked name. 

Barry gives a great few lines in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book: "Most of the time, being a writer means sitting in front of a computer and fighting against the urge to play Minesweeper. It's like that for a couple of years and then you get published and everyone wants to talk to you at once. But some people are there from the beginning, and these are the ones you can't do without." That first sentence is as true as anything. The second one I certainly hope is true. The third one is a telling reminder of why people write in the first place, whether it's one of the more taxing books I read earlier this year or a sci-fi thriller like Jennifer Government

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 1

Monday, October 15, 2012

Last Week's Book: What Is the West?

This read about as quickly as First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Needless to say the perspective was far different. For those who feel like a little Western congratulation, Nemo may be for you.

October 7-13: What Is the West? by Philippe Nemo

Politics (2006 - 121 pp.) 

What Is the West? is an ambitious project that sets out to answer the question its title poses: what are the defining characteristics that make the West distinct from other civilizations? Philippe Nemo answers this question by advancing the Greek, Roman, Biblical, Papal and democratic births that, all combined, give rise to the current West. The book is not very critical of the West, which is perhaps a criticism but is well in line with writers feeling passionate about their subject matter. The format he chooses is somewhere between a traditional academic tract and an op-ed, which allows the reader to pick up key information very quickly, if to the detriment of exhaustive historical research. 

Nemo's attempt at synthesizing all of these time periods works relatively well, following a narrative in which there are rarely more than a couple centuries unaccounted for. Perhaps the single most interesting takeaway I took from What Is the West? is the connection Nemo makes between the growth of the capitalist economy and the post-1750 world population boom. He answers the worries about rising numbers of poor in European cities around the time of the Industrial Revolution with a note that there were simply more people: "the city's poor were not people who became poor after being rich. They were people alive who would have been dead - or more exactly would have not been born. (91) [Nemo's emphasis] Another atypical viewpoint Nemo takes is the root of colonialism, as an extension of Western capitalism and technological innovation rather than as a predatory evil. The general dislike of the other is a common feature in politics, which Nemo brings to the fore with comparisons to various civilizations around the globe. (94) These are contentious points yet Nemo does well in his presentation of them. 

My qualms with the book are few but noteworthy. Firstly, the notion that the Medieval period represented the decline of anything but classicism is a notion that has been more or less debunked since the 1920s (first by Charles Homer Haskins, then by Lynn Thorndike, and the list goes on). Science indeed advanced during those centuries, which Nemo admits readily in his chapter on the Papal Revolution, so his initial suggestion that the Middle Ages were a dormant era feels inadmissible. Secondly, Nemo's boundaries of the West as given in his conclusion are mostly on point yet occasionally feel arbitrary. The most prominent example is that of Germany being firmly within the West but Poland only being partially within it. I would remedy this issue by placing both Germany and Poland within the West, as is consistent with Samuel Huntington's line dividing Europe between Catholic and Orthodox states. By that same token, I would place Eastern Europe farther away from the West than Nemo does, a main reason being that its traditional unification of secular and church power separates it from the West culturally. Finally, although Nemo braces himself for outsider criticism, I am curious to know what non-Westerners make of his conclusions. Ones like most of the world's population occurring due to Western-bred capitalism are especially interesting here. 

It is worth mentioning that the below ratings are given with an eye to mediating between a specialist's reading and that of a member of the general public. Those with backgrounds in history, philosophy or political science will likely find this an easier yet somewhat less educational book, as much of the material is summary and review. Those without backgrounds in those subjects will certainly find more undiscovered tidbits. 

Thanks to a professor for the recommendation. 

Ease of Reading: 6 
Educational Content: 6

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ars Neptis Dei

Brand new poetry blog by a bright young mind I know:

Check it out if you want to read classically styled poetry with lots of nature imagery and Christian themes.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This Week's Book: Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe

After all the American-themed books I read while living Stateside, I figured a Canadian book would serve me well here. That, and I found it while flipping through the collection of a used/old/rare/archival bookstore. This is only the second novel I've truly recommended myself in this way this year despite having read forty books. The other was House of Leaves, and I bought that online. Book a Week wouldn't have been the same without the feeling of stumbling across an interesting story in a bookstore and then just reading it. I'm glad I've had that. Hopefully I can do it again before New Year's.

September 30-October 6: Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

Literature (2006 - 274 pp.) 

Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe is one of those books that's part of a series, yet a loose enough series you don't have to read them in order. The books are based off of McLean's Vinyl Cafe radio series, which is most commonly associated with CBC. I've never listened to the radio series. I haven't been a radio person in years. I enjoyed the book, though. 

The front cover is deceptive. Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with the series, I expected the book to be about all different kinds of people. The Window Peeker, the Litterbug, the Diet Cheater, the Ill-Wisher, and others who appear as caricatures on the cover seem like great potential characters in that twisted Life Is Hell-style way. Aside from the highly uncharacteristic animated introduction showing exactly this sort of thing, these characters never emerge, at least in those literal forms. The recurring characters sometimes take on these personae, albeit within their own personalities and their own situations. 

Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe is about a Canadian family, the people on their street, and the various quirks of the lives of all of them. The book's division into parts based on types of misdemeanor sins (petty theft, not returning emails on time... you know) and then into short stories gives the reader a glimpse into everyone's life. The stories are all substantially different, offering perspectives from different generations and backgrounds. Multiculturalism risks tokenism in media but McLean handles it well here, giving us realistic tales of an Italian-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, or lived so long in Canada they don't know what their ethnicity is anymore. I can identify with the stories that take place in Toronto. Others are located as distantly as the Maritimes and the seemingly fictitious town of Burnt Creek, Alberta. 

The greatest joy of this book is when you finish. You can look back at the table of contents, reread the titles of each of these sixteen stories, and feel the smile cross your face as you remember every one in vivid detail. Some are hilarious, some are heartwarming, and to be honest, some are better than others. They fit together nicely to form a modern, contemporary light read that might just teach you a bit about Canada. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 3

Monday, October 1, 2012

Last Week's Book: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

A more fun read than some recent entries, yet not much less educational. I think I can get used to that...

September 23-29: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek

Politics (2009 - 157 pp.) 

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is Slavoj Zizek's take on the 2008 portion of the financial crisis. It is not a typical academic tract in the sense that it is littered with pop culture references, there are fewer citations, and the tone is casual. All of these make it that much more fun, and none detract from Zizek's perspective. His status as "the most dangerous philosopher in the West" (cover) is difficult to argue against when considering the contrarian nature of the book, as well as where he lays blame and the types of comparisons he draws. None of this may be surprising to a long-time Zizek reader, and I am sure he has many, but as a first-timer to his work some of his points are quite surprising. 

The viewpoint he details is stated refreshingly clearly: "What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely 'partial' one-for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason. The side taken here is, of course, that of communism." (6) Objectivity in the arts is inherently impossible anyway. That Zizek takes a communist perspective means I read a book that did not conform to my own (capitalist) take on the world, which meant I would have something to engage intellectually instead of spending 157 pages nodding my head. The first section of the book, cheekily titled "It's Ideology, Stupid!" discusses Zizek's problems with global capitalism. Among the most enlightening of his critiques is the idea that the free market is not as real as capitalists would have it but merely an illusion in the mind of its adherents that exists because they think it exists. His other points, like the idea that crises are opportunities for conservative societies to renew the citizenry's faith in the system and his discussion of political fetishism, also demonstrate the connection between left-wing thought and the concept of the world as a construct rather than as a concrete thing. A more lighthearted highlight of this first part is his comparisons of Silvio Berlusconi to the Joker of Batman fame and of capitalist ideology to Kung Fu Panda. If that last teaser fails to get you reading this book, I have no idea what else I can offer. 

The second part, "The Communist Hypothesis", is less of a critique of Zizek's opponents (I assure you there are many of them) and more of a statement of Zizek's own beliefs. Alternatively, given his leanings, they may simply be what he believes are his beliefs, or what he wants the reader to believe are his beliefs, but nonetheless it is the more positive half of the book. His position on postcolonialism is one I had never seen before, namely that the Western powers are the only countries to ever sanction themselves for callous behaviour, as opposed to the typical axe being brought down by an enemy during a war that past empires have faced. This self-inflicted guilt is something other countries resist, which explains much of their anti-Western sentiment: "This insight allows us also to detect a symmetric duplicity in the way certain Third World countries criticize the West: if the West's continuous self-excoriation functions as a desperate attempt to re-assert our superiority, the true reason why some in the Third World hate and reject the West lies not with the colonizing past and its continuing effects but with the self-critical spirit which the West has displayed in renouncing this past, with its implicit call to others to practise the same self-critical approach." (115) In effect, the moral superiority of admitting one's wrongs is a kind of ideological imperalism the West projects, which is resisted through shameless blame-laying. Aside from this insight, much of Zizek's second part focuses on the key differences between socialism and communism, the former of which requiring shunning from any self-respecting adherent of the latter. Compromises to the working class are seen by Zizek as efforts to mollify efforts toward a violent revolution, which he places as the only way to dethrone established interests in the private sector. 

The book's title refers to Zizek's notion that societies fall twice. They experience a tragedy that shakes them to their core, rebound from it with renewed ideological zeal, and then fall a second time amidst everyone being unable to take the system seriously. His two reference points of 2001, complete with tech bubble crash and 9/11, and the crisis of 2008, signals potential impending change. Then again, he states how successful Barack Obama can be as a conservative president, noting that a president needs sufficient conservative credentials to accomplish tasks like easing up on immigration and engaging supposedly hostile foreign countries. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is not so much about predicting the future, though, as it is about lampooning the present. At this, Zizek is successful, providing an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read even to those who may find his conclusions foreign to their lines of thought - or even absurd. 

Ease of Reading: 5 
Educational Content: 7

Friday, September 21, 2012

This Week's Book: The King in Yellow

This entry is admittedly disjointed. Read this book - you'll see why.

September 16-22: The King in Yellow by Robert W. Chambers

Horror (1895 - 133 pp.) 

The King in Yellow is notorious for its place in the short and often obscure history of weird tales. The combination of hinted supernatural and overt grotesque make this a chilling read, often genuinely scary. The first four stories deal with "The King in Yellow", an almost all unseen play that plunges its readers into madness and despair; the middle of the book is concerned with non-play grotesqueness and quick bites; and the last half or so consists of stories about American students living in Paris. 

The part of the book concerned with the play I found gripping in same way I enjoyed Arthur Machen's "The Novel of the White Powder" from the same year. Themes of obsession and insanity mark both, with the play's impact on its readers having this ethereal drug-like quality that eventually ruins them. "The Repairer of Reputations" especially has an incredible concept, complete with billing for the repair, and the Yellow Sign is just about the creepiest thing in literature. The stories in the middle of the book lack the play and the Sign, yet they have elements like a seemingly dead man who is seen alternately in dreams and on the street. "The Green Room" is less than a page but probably has the highest ratio of impact to words of anything I have ever read. "The Love Test" is like something out of a 19th-century LSAT if those had existed. The way Chambers twists his situations to emphasize the dark nature and arbitrary actions of his characters make otherwise absurd situations seem all the more real. (It is safe to say the chat between a clown and a Grim Reaper set to a Snow White theme could not be cast as realism, for example.) Aside from Chambers's 'cross-the-pond contemporary in Machen, there is a great deal of influence from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and even a little from The Picture of Dorian Gray. Within the drug-addled 1890s, the idea of external possession of the human body took form in supernatural horror like this. 

What I did not find quite as effective were Chambers's attempts at Henry James-style travel writing. The stories about the American students in Paris sometimes provided interesting background semi-related to the earlier stories. Indeed, Chambers is effective in his use of recurring characters. I found his students not all that interesting as people, though. Stories about American students in Paris seem like a cliché now, not so much then, so I can only hold so much against Chambers on that point. The first half or so of The King in Yellow is absolutely classic. 

"You have seized the throne and the empire. Woe! woe to you who are crowned with the crown of the King in Yellow!" 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 4

Friday, September 14, 2012

This Week's Book: A Tale of a Tub

Getting back to the old stuff. Apparently the 20th century is just too recent these days.

September 9-15: A Tale of a Tub by Jonathan Swift

Literature (1704 - 140 pp.) 

A Tale of a Tub is the first full-length book by Jonathan Swift I've ever read, "A Modest Proposal" having been the extent of my reading before this. I wanted to read something from relatively early in his career. I'm calling this fiction but it bleeds into non-fiction in that decidedly Swift way, satirizing the political events of the day so openly it becomes the treatise he describes rather than a novel. It centres on three brothers - Peter, Martin and Jack - who represent Catholicism, Lutheranism and Calvinism. Most of the treatise is a figurative telling of various historical events, especially from the Reformation up until its release, with occasional digressions into the general state of literary criticism. 

Much of A Tale of a Tub is identifiable now. Some of the more blatant ones are that no one cares about good writing anymore, that two of the three types of critics are insufferable, and that Catholic clergymen adorn themselves too ornately while Calvinist clergymen are too rigid in their rejection of said ornate adornment. Swift backs Luther more than the other religious figures, using Luther's personage to reflect the idea of balance between church wealth and humility. Swift's position in the Church of Ireland is evident throughout the treatise, but in a way that offers more insight into his perspective than into any particular hatred of the others. The association of Catholic doctrine with bodily filth, for example (and Swift's example here is the unnecessary, ritualistic and ultimately fatal cure for worms in the spleen), is at least as old as The Faerie Queene's depiction of the monster vomiting papers. The attacks on literary criticism are tougher to appraise, as religions have lasted far more solidly than specific schools of literary criticism, but the William Congreve quotation that "And how they're disappointed when they're pleased" (58) is one that should continue to be appreciated as it ages. 

A Tale of a Tub certainly has its place in the canon of early modern religious attack literature. It helps to have a background in early modern English history and/or literature, although I suppose this treatise could be useful background for reading Swift's contemporaries. Then, of course, "A Digression in Praise of Digressions" (83) is one of the best chapter titles I have ever seen. Swift's wit is present as always. 

NOTE: I have the Penn State ebook. That is where I've drawn the page references. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 6

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

This Week's Book: The Satanic Bible

A friend told me he'd rather read a review of the book than the book itself. Wish granted.

September 2-8: The Satanic Bible by Anton Szandor LaVey

Philosophy (1969 - 146 pp.) 

My copy of The Satanic Bible, dubbed "The Underground Edition", contains the original text plus all four introductions that have been used for it over the years and some concluding essays. It was made available as an ebook, proving that Satanism indeed keeps up with technological trends in its efforts to reach the masses. My introduction to this text comes from wanting to read substantially different material over the course of this year (and if this is not different, what is?) and from reading about the Satanism of David Vincent, bassist/vocalist of Morbid Angel. I thought Vincent's lyrics had great atmosphere, especially in "Fall from Grace", so naturally, I read the book. 

The Satanic Bible is predicated upon the Left Hand Path. Whereas the Right Hand Path contains principles like self-sacrifice for greater good, emphasis on light, and denial of temptation, the Left Hand Path is the exact opposite. Almost all major world religions belong to the Right Hand Path, as do Druids and practitioners of White Magic. Satanism, as one of the major branches of the Left Hand Path, defines itself in opposition to all of these. As a follower of the Right Hand Path (i.e. a Christian), I am inherently opposed to the broad conclusions LaVey draws. I can appreciate a compelling argument regardless of perspective, though. 

One of The Satanic Bible's charms is just how meticulously detailed it is. Truly everything about being a Satanist is explained clearly, whether it is how to embrace each of the Seven Deadly Sins or how to properly set up a room for a Satanic ritual. The book is divided very nicely into four parts - Satan (Fire), Lucifer (Air), Belial (Earth), and Leviathan (Water). Each draws on a different aspect of the Satanic faith while reiterating the initial theme of godlessness, that man is supreme yet animal. The occult bits LaVey includes throughout are educational in the sense that it is an entire body of literature he embraced more than I ever have or likely will. The field guide presentation of the last two parts makes the book seem more interactive, even to those of us who have no intention of actually carrying out any of the rituals. 

My problems with The Satanic Bible beyond my ideological opposition to Satanism more generally lie in the substantive details. LaVey is not one to cite his sources. The way in which he portrays Christian beliefs, for example his mention that gluttony is eating more than is absolutely needed for survival, is unconvincing. In light of his pillory of how Christians supposedly describe black masses, a little more understanding from LaVey would be welcome in displaying what he hates so much. The lackadaisical way in which he describes some aspects of rituals, like the desirability of a silver chalice but the admission that a wooden or ceramic (just not golden) one will serve fine in the absence of a silver one, contrasts sharply with the detail of the ceremonial setup. Then much of the book consists of blind acceptance of various occult sources, alleged plagiarism of works like Arthur Desmond's "Might Is Right", and tangential rants. The encouragement to make drawings, or to write stories or plays, directed at a desired or hated one feels like it could too easily lead to some art that LaVey even admits will not be of the highest calibre. 

The premise is incredible. That Satan has endured centuries of slander from Right Hand Path adherents yet has held his tongue makes him the benevolent one to LaVey. That Satan finally decides to speak back, and to rather unsurprisingly preach the Left Hand Path, is a concept that can perk up a reader's eyebrows if nothing else. The execution of The Satanic Bible is mixed. I was not expecting I would be convinced by its message but I needed something that presented more coherence. Besides, for all LaVey says about Satan keeping the church in business, so much of LaVeyan Satanism is derived directly from defiance of Christian practice that Satanism is likely the more indebted system of beliefs. 

Ease of Reading: 7 
Educational Content: 4

Monday, September 3, 2012

Last Week's Book: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien

This was a fun one. Nice to get back to some fiction, as heavy on historiography as it is.

August 26-September 1: The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún by J.R.R. Tolkien

Mythology (2009 - 371 pp.) 

An important note: The date and page count given are for the 2009 edition by Christopher Tolkien. It's a good edition - I'd recommend it. 

The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún consists of two stories in verse, "The Lay of Sigurd" and "The Lay of Gudrún". Each ends with the death of the titular character. One nice aspect of writing entries on centuries-old poems is that spoilers are irrelevant. Christopher Tolkien offers up these and more with regularity in the book's lengthy introduction. The former is a Norse epic involving rarefied lineage, a specially forged sword, a clash of good and evil without a whole lot of explanation as to why the good and evil characters act those ways, and a general understanding that our hero is someone incredibly special. The link to Beowulf is evident, although The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrún lacks the additive style that madeBeowulf less exciting to me. (The greatest hero in all the land rode across the field and then he smote a troll and then he captured a maiden and then he rose a flag, and so on.) The latter story concerns Attila the Hun, whose presentation in Norse legend is as cruel as one would expect. Gudrún's compelled marriage to him following the death of her beloved Sigurd leads to the alienation of Gudrún as a character much as Brynhild, Sigurd's Valkyrie betrothed, was in the first story. The storyline is exciting, especially in light of the post-Lord of the Rings interest in Norse mythology in Western culture. 

J.R.R. Tolkien's extensive Old English/Norse scholarship, and his son's antiquarian-style editors' notes, make this a really interesting read. It's not much of an airport read, but a long plane ride and/or a day off will polish this one off nicely. It adds a little poetic perspective to times we know so little about (the late Antiquity/early Medieval period in Northern Europe). What does it say that I enjoyed this more than Lord of the Rings

Thanks to a non-RYM friend for the recommendation. This one had been sitting in my collection since summer 2009. It's a gift well appreciated, if with a short delay. 

Ease of Reading: 4 
Educational Content: 7

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Week's Book: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism

Feels good to be ahead on this one. May that trend continue. I can't cover nearly all the issues presented in this book in this medium so here's a teaser.

August 19-25: The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber

Politics (1904 - 183 pp.) 

The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism marks an entry into the political science annals that is more interdisciplinary than anything. It showcases Max Weber's research into history, sociology and comparative religion*, as well as a qualitative theory that invites quantitative. I do not know of any such quantitative study being done, although it seems like such a massive undertaking that Weber's essay will have to suffice. As with An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation, this tract has been covered quite well academically by people far more qualified than me, so my purpose here is to flesh out value to the more general reader. There is no rule that someone has to be an academic to appreciate topics like morality, society and religion, after all. 

The underlying question, of how to explain the correlation Weber sees between Protestantism's prominence in states and their adoption of capitalist and especially industrial economies, is one that must have felt very relevant in 1904. Even so, the schools of thought developed throughout are seen in different Western Christian sects today. Much of the book focuses on the translation of monastic asceticism into various Protestant values, and much of the rest focuses on different sects' attitudes toward the accumulation of wealth. The morality, immorality and/or amorality of acquiring wealth is notable in its sway within sects, such as in considering the difference in a Puritan's spending habits versus a Catholic's. Weber identifies key passages that explain root causes of differences like these, while never abandoning deference to the typical criticism that it is not religion that influences economics but the other way around. 

Weber is friendlier to the Protestant cause, which shows in his sometimes rough treatment of Catholic beliefs. The analogy of a Catholic priest to a magician is likely his most hostile assertion here. His treatment of the various Protestant sects is cooler, yet he is not shy to point out any perceived contradiction therein. His treatment of John Wesley raises the timeless problem of the virtues of industry and frugality coexisting with the sin of riches - a conundrum that it is worth noting does not exist within Catholicism. Notions of monasticism being sinful in light of a duty to a place in society are similarly cast. 

Where the value lies to the non-academic, and even to the non-specialist, is in seeing how passages from various historical figures have resonated in our world ever since. The issues Weber presents are too numerous to discuss in full detail here, so I have merely outlined a few that look particularly interesting at a quick glance. The intertwining of religion, society and economy never really started and will never really end. Although 1904 seems like a long time ago, and Weber's time period shows through in the language, the concepts he presents are his perspective on nearly universal moral problems. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 10 

*Inasmuch as comparing Catholicism to various Protestant sects can be styled "comparative religion", of course.