March, 2005

Mar 05

Flanimals, by Ricky Gervais

This is a very peculiar, but funny book for kids & adults alike. Written by the genius behind “The Office” (if you haven’t seen it, you should check it out on BBC America or DVD straightaway — wholly unique & astounding), it’s a book about a series of made-up animals called Flanimals — goofy creatures that walk on their hands, sleep all day, and eat each other. It’s a funny book to read through — should be fun to read with our nephews and nieces.

Mar 05

North Korea: Another Country, by Bruce Cumings

I’ve been wanting to understand more about North Korea for a while now, so picked up this book at Kepler’s a bit ago without really knowing anything about it. I’d say it’s an interesting book about a particularly under-reported topic, but not one that you should really put on your reading list unless you’re particularly interested.

The book talks a lot about the current DPRK leadership, and a LOT about the Korean War, American mistakes, and the resulting situation in the country. Cumings leans quite a lot to the North Korean side of the story here, and blames the US for most of the country’s problems today — I found it to be a little over the top.

Having said all that, it’s useful to try to see through how American media reports things and question whether the things that we all “know” to be true really are. In that way, it reminded me a little bit of All the Pope’s Men, which highlights how strongly my views have been shaped by the media.

Anyway, it’s a country that I wish I knew more about, so I’m happy to have spent a weekend with this book. I come away thinking that it isn’t such a crazy regime as we all are told now, but at the end of the day, it’s a small, under-resourced, isolated country that’s pretty scared of the major powers it perceives as aligned against it. In many ways, a scared country is more frightening to me than a basically aggressive one.

Mar 05

Shadow of the Giant, by Orson Scott Card

I’m a sucker for books in the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card — I’ll read just about anything that Card writes in this one. Even though the books that are coming out these days aren’t all that great as science fiction, aren’t all that great as novels. But Card is really good at creating a momentum & books that are extremely quick to read. This one is about Peter as Hegemon and Bean as Giant — it’s a fine book, but nothing to get too excited about.

Mar 05

All the Pope’s Men, by John L. Allen, Jr.

This is another book that I’ve had on my shelf for a while but just got around to reading — it’s a relatively in depth look at the way that the Vatican works, how it’s organized, how it (organizationally) thinks about issues. I found much of the content interesting, although a little bit arcane (predictably, I suppose), and the author a little more sympathetic & apologetic for the Church than I would have liked. As an example, the book spends quite a lot of time going through two episodes — the sexual abuse scandal in the US, and teh Iraq war — and goes into excruciating detail on who did what, when, and why. It was a lot more detail than I expected, and it didn’t completely change my views on the situation, but certainly gave me some other points of view to think about that are worthwhile. I’m predicting that this book, and another of Allen’s books, Conclave, will sell extremely well in the coming months or years as a new Pope takes the spot. A fine book, but I probably can only recommend it to you if you’ve got a lot of extra time. 🙂

Mar 05

John Adams, by David McCullough

I’ve been trying to get through this book for most of the three years since it was published — as always, I was having some trouble getting through the bits about Adams’ boyhood life (see my post about Ulysses S. Grant). I finally made it through that part — the first 100 pages or so — and the next 500 pages were really worth the effort. I’m a sucker for presidential history in any event, and bits about the American Revolution in particular, and this is just a really interesting book.

I’ve always been interested in John Adams — it’s been interesting to me that he is always talked about in comparison to Thomas Jefferson, and generally not that favorably. I think it has to do with the fact that the two were such good friends, such good collaborators, and eventually such bitter rivals — but really more to the point that they were our first two presidents who weren’t George Washington. These two men (plus Alexander Hamilton, whose biography I’m looking to read shortly) really established party politics in America — while GW stood above all of that.

When you look at the two men (Adams & Jefferson), the contrasts are stark: Jefferson was from the South, Adams from the North; Jefferson was tall & attractive, Adams short & not; Jefferson able to write lyrically — almost hymns to freedom, Adams a very functional writer; Jefferson full of contradictions, Adams very straightforward (for the most part). Jefferson has always gotten the most attention, because he gave voice to the dreams of the American Republic — lyrics that resound even today. Adams has always looked more like a guy who came to work every day and did the work.

I have to say, though, that I think that’s not a fair view. What’s very clear as you read about John Adams is that he just did an incredible amount of the deep thinking and heavy lifting that made the Revolution and resulting Republic work. He did a lot of the unglamorous diplomacy when other countries didn’t even really want to talk with us, he pushed through a lot of the important clauses in the early US documents, and I think he put into place a lot of the work that would ultimately result in Abolition.

This book is fascinating because we know a lot about Adams’ thoughts — because of the incredibly extensive letters that he wrote continuously — many to his wife Abigail, who seems to have been a first rate partner in every sense of the word. In these letters we get to see a bit of the person — with high hopes & accomplishments, but also petty envies, perceived slights, and self-doubts.

One of the things that I learned in this book is that in contrast to Adams, Jefferson burned all of his correspondence with his wife Martha after she died (relatively early in life). So we’re unable to get quite the insight into Jefferson the human being — which, ironically, seems to have made his legend even greater. We mostly know Jefferson through his public writing — that Declaration he wrote wasn’t too bad, the Kentucky Resolutions, other things like that — and some of his (mostly) public discourse with folks like Adams. And as such, we’re not privy to any of the more unflattering human elements that we see in Adams.

Reading this book, I’m struck that John Adams was a legitmately great man (and his wife Abigail was equally amazing), and ended up doing a lot of the grungy, needed-to-get done work of starting the country. This isn’t quite the right analogy I know, but in some ways Jefferson/Adams seems a little bit like Jobs/Wozniak to me: Promoter/Worker.

Great, great book.