2012 Books, and a Recommendation

So I’ve been trying to read a lot this year.  So far, I’ve been fairly successful.

In an effort to fill space before my Super Mega Awesome Cinco De Mayo movie review, I’ll summarize the books that I’ve read so far this year, that I’m currently reading, and that I have queued up next.

The first batch are in the “completed” stack:

Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy – Reviewed here.

Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy – I read these mainly because of the buzz surrounding the movie.  I liked them overall, mostly because of the way Katniss developed over the course of the books.  The subject matter is somewhat disturbing, but most of the darker themes weren’t explored as deeply as they would have been in more adult books.  The most interesting material could have been condensed to about a book and a half.

Lawrence M. Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing – An interesting and accessible book about cosmology and why we have a universe rather than not.  It’s eloquent and thought provoking.

Katherine Stewart’s The Good News Club – Stewart investigates the encroachment of religious groups, specifically fundamentalist Christian groups, into the public school arena in the  United States, which has been abetted by a series of court decisions that characterize religious activity as protected speech.  It’s a very compelling, and somewhat chilling, read.

Chris Rodda’s Liars for Jesus – Rodda reviews the subtle and not-so-subtle historical revisionism espoused by certain conservative Christian groups.  This can be particularly difficult for the average person to notice, since one must usually go back to primary documents to unravel the truth.  Rodda goes back to the source material and meticulously teases out the truth.  In many cases, she traces the evolution of a particular claim through a variety of successive embellishments, many of which start with the writings of David Barton.  It’s like an insidious game of telephone…

Charles Stross’ The Fuller Memorandum – I think it was Joshua Zelinsky that pointed out Stross’ Laundry Files books to me.  The basic hook is that “magic” is really math, and the weird things that H.P. Lovecraft wrote about are basically accurate.  The premise works.  I thought this was the second best of the three Laundry books published to-date, the best being The Atrocity Archives.

Richard Dawkins’ Unweaving the Rainbow – The wonders of science.  Dawkins is a very eloquent writer, and when he gets going on science, it’s hard to stop reading.

Charles Seife’s Proofiness – Lying with numbers, and how to detect it.  Counting is inherently messy, and lots of parties have a vested interest in exploiting that fact.

Eleanor Herman’s Sex with Kings – A look at the mistresses of a number of European monarchs down through the centuries.  It’s less about the sex and more about the political influence and authority that many of these ladies wielded during a time in history where royal marriages were more about bolstering international relations and consolidating power than about any actual affinity between the two parties.  The book is a little uneven, since Herman jumps back and forth a lot, but still interesting.

The books below are titles that I’m in various stages of reading ranging from “most of the way through” to “have barely cracked the spine”:

Ron Chernow’s Washington: A Life – Chernow’s hefty biography of the first U.S. President.  (In the literal sense – the print edition clocks in at over 900 pages).  Most of us know Washington based on a chapter or two in high school history classes and a few pithy anecdotes about cherry trees.  The real man was a much more complex individual, keen to be accepted in the higher circles of Colonial society, and with some significant grudges against the British military traditions that denied him the recognition that he felt he deserved.  I’m still working through this and will be for a while.

Compendium 1 of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead – I’m a huge fan of the television series.  The premise of the graphic novels – survivors of a zombie apocalypse trying to figure out their places in a new world – is the same, but the development of most of the characters goes down rather different paths.  Watching the initially stable personalities start to unravel and the secondary characters grow into something new is fascinating.

Michael B.A. Oldstone’s Viruses, Plagues, and History – Oldstone takes a look at a number of the biggest killers in history, such as Smallpox, Yellow Fever, and AIDS.  He goes into some pretty gory detail, which is both engrossing and stomach churning.  The grim threat of weaponized diseases shows up several times.  Pair this book with the film Contagion for a fun-filled evening.

Richard Dawkins’ The Magic of Reality – Dawkins on critical thinking skills.  Aimed at a younger audience.  I haven’t gotten too far into it, but my initial thought is that Dawkins may be a bit heavy for teens or young adults.

And finally, queues but not started:

David Rothenberg’s Survival of the Beautiful – A work on the topic of sexual selection.  Why do peacocks have such elaborate plumage? Why are some animals brightly colored to the point where they attract predators?  Matt Ridley’s The Red Queen deals with similar material.

Martin Gilbert’s Churchill: A Life – A massive biography of Sir Winston Churchill.  This one will take quite a while to work through.

Bart Ehrman’s Did Jesus Exist? – Ehrman takes on the topic of Jesus mythicism.  There has been some controversy around Ehrman’s scholarship for this book.  The existence of an historical Jesus has been a subject of contention among scholars for years, and despite what most of us may have been taught in church or Sunday school, is far from being a settled question.  At the conservative end of the scale are those who would claim that everything written in the Bible about Jesus is completely correct, and at the other end are those who would claim that Jesus was a character built out of bits and pieces of pre-existing myths and stories.  In the wide middle are those who posit an historical individual around whom various stories and legends grew.  It’s an interesting topic, but a very polarizing one.

My goal is to complete this list by the end of July, which gives me 4 months left in the year.  I’d like to aim for another 10 books by the end of December.  Suggestions are welcome.

Now, there is one other resource I’ve found myself spending a lot of time reading lately, and even though it doesn’t fit in the “book” category, I wanted to go ahead and put in a plug for it.

Over at Patheos, a young woman named Libby Anne has a fascinating blog called Love, Joy, Feminism.  Libby Anne comes from a family that is involved in the Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull movements.  I was not terribly familiar with either of these beyond the very general premise that Quiverfull families have lots of kids.  Libby Anne left these movements in college.  Her story speaks for itself – there’s no way I can summarize it that does justice to the eloquence and sensitivity with which she writes.  She also frequently links to a number of blogs dealing with similar stories, which are all compelling in their own way.  I’m not sure exactly why I find her story so interesting, but I do.  I recommend paying Libby Anne a visit and reading her About page.


That’s Offensive!

(The following post, or parts of it, have been bouncing around in my head for a couple of weeks.  It hasn’t come together the way I hoped it would, so I’m putting it out there in the hope of sparking some comment discussion.)

Through some odd coincidence, I’ve recently had the opportunity to be on both sides of the offended/not offended table.

a couple of weeks back, I rented a copy of a movie that’s likely to become a cult favorite – Hobo with a Shotgun.

I’d initially planned to write a review of it, figuring that Rutger Hauer as a shotgun-wielding hobo trying to clean up a corrupt town might be good for some Badgering.

The first, I don’t know, 20 minutes were pretty well what I expected.  Then it brought in some elements that seemed maybe a bit over the top, and ultimately went down some paths that I found to be grossly unnecessary and just vile.1

While I ultimately did finish Hobo, it came very close to earning a place on my list of Films That I Couldn’t Force Myself To Sit Through.  That list currently has one entry.2

Now, as it happened, fresh off of my encounter with Hobo, there was some mandatory training at work.

We get a lot of mandatory training, including training on avoiding and preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault in the workplace.  I’d been through this training a few weeks back, but some friends in another department were in a later session.  There are some videos that go along with the training, and they’re fairly graphic in content and language.

My session showed one of the three.  The other two were “suggested”, which I interpreted as meaning “optional”, so I took the “don’t watch them” option.

My friends saw a different one in their session, and chose to watch the others at their desks.

Now, the video they saw in their session was, according to them, useful and appropriate.  I have no reason to doubt them on that.

The video that they watched at their desks that I didn’t see, they both found inappropriately graphic – to the extent that someone watching similar material at work outside of the context of official training could well have been written up for it.  Again, I have no reason to doubt them on that.

The video that all three of us  saw is the interesting one.  When I watched it, I thought that it was somewhat raw and had some crude language in it, but didn’t find it unusually shocking.

They did, and they told me about it quite clearly.3

I’m somewhat ashamed to say that my knee-jerk reaction to their concerns was to think “it didn’t really bother me much, so it shouldn’t bother them.”

I hope that didn’t come out in my initial response to them, because if it did, I was a complete assclown.

The fact of the matter is that whether I found the video offensive or not is completely immaterial to whether or not they did.  That point took a few minutes to sink in, but part of the reason that it finally did was because my reaction to Hobo was still fresh in my mind.  I don’t get to declare my perspective to be the correct one simply because it happens to be mine.

As it turns out, the question of whether or not someone finds a particular video (for example)4 offensive isn’t even the interesting question.  Why someone finds a particular video offensive is more intriguing because discussion of those reasons offers opportunities for people to learn from one another.

It can be a tricky discussion to have, though, because of the all-too-common view that we have some right to not be offended, and if I dare question your offense, I’m guilty of violating that right.  Such discussions can easily collapse into arguments and personal attacks.

But you have no more right to not be offended than you have a right to drive around in a brand new red Corvette.  Neither do I.  Neither does anyone else.  That doesn’t mean that I have a right to go out of my way to offend you just for the sport of it, or that crudeness and vulgarity should be the norm.

I think that deliberate offensiveness can serve a purpose – witness the cigarette warnings used in Canada – because offensive things can stick in your head whereas milder approaches might not.  I also think that it’s sometimes a good idea to seek out things that you find offensive and try to understand the other perspective.5

Now, the thing that I’m having trouble with is this:  Given that certain things offend me (or you), just how much effort should I put into avoiding those things?  Should I go out of my way to avoid them?  Should I accept that some level of offensiveness is just a part of life and deal with it?  Should I develop a thicker skin?  What’s an acceptable daily allowance of offense?

Feedback wanted!


1It was suggested to me by a colleague that perhaps it was necessary to make the villains in the film extra-reprehensible in order to make a shotgun-toting vigilante vagrant into a more sympathetic character. That’s a good point.

2As distinct from the very long list of Films That I Have No Desire To Sit Through Again.  That list includes some excellent films, such as The Exorcist, and some not-so-excellent films, such as anything directed by Uwe Boll.

3If there’s one thing I can usually count on these two for, it’s brutal honesty.

4Or word.  Profanity can be a fun topic to discuss.  Odds are that you use a somewhat different vocabulary when you’re by yourself vice with a group of people, and a different vocabulary if you’re in a social situation vice a business setting.

5Politics and religion tend to be the heavy hitters in this scenario.  Remember that understanding another perspective doesn’t obligate you to agree with it.