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Last Updated Friday February 15, 2019


A Crack In Creation, Jennifer Doudna & Samuel Sternberg, Amazon Prime.

The Chinese scientist He Jiankui recently claimed to have opened yet another of Pandora's seemingly endless set of boxes: Germline gene editing. He proudly announced that two babies were recently born whom he had genetically modified to provide resistance to HIV, changing their embryos, their germline, in vitro prior to their implantation in their mother's wombs by employing gene editing techniques based on the new phenomenon CRISPR-Cas9, a recently characterized bacterial immune system.

Jennifer Doudna's book A Crack in Creation: Gene Editing and the Unthinkable Power to Control Evolution warned against such a premature application of CRISPR-Cas 9 to the human germline. If you are interested in this new technology, its enormous promise and power, and the potential consequences, good and bad, this book is must read. The ability to directly and much more easily modify the genome of any living organism, via somatic or germline modification, has become a reality.

Kindle. Read 2018-11-29.

Inhabited, Charlie Quimby, LA Public Library. Inhabited, Charlie Quimby's follow-up novel to his excellent Monument Road, focuses on life as a homeless person in a small city in western Colorado. This story is both edifying and compelling because he draws sympathetic and realistic characters, not just of those who migrate uncertainly from one temporary abode to another, but of those inhabitants who try to help the homeless and those who oppose such help, which can even be the same person under differing circumstances. Kindle. Read 2018-11-16.

Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion, Amazon Prime. Joan Didion's set of personal essays from the mid-60's, an exercise in the emerging New Journalism and most in the first person, are episodically brilliant, but just as often facile and self-indulgent. Kindle. Read 2018-11-01.

Ordinary Geniuses, Gino Segrè, Clackamas County Library. This is a good but not great biography of two lesser-known 20th century scientists, George Gamow and Max Delbrück, both of whom show up in many historical accounts of the history of molecular biology, hence my interest. I was particularly interested in the author's depiction of Delbrück, a Nobel Prize winner late in his life for work done thirty years prior. Delbrück, who is routinely depicted as a great thought leader and a fiercely intelligent scientist, is elusive in other historical accounts, begging the question: What did he contribute, and why was his input so prized? Hardcover. Read 2018-03-26.

What Men Live By, Leo Tolstoy, University of Adelaide. Tolstoy remains one of my favorite writers. His War and Peace and Anna Karenina were reading investments that still pay dividends. These four short stories, in particular What Men Live By, represent some aspects of Tolstoy's later turn to a simpler and more universal religious outlook, when he eschewed organized religion, and embraced a code based on Christ's teaching alone, centering on the Golden Rule and the Sermon on the Mount. eBook. Read 2018-02-12. Recommended by my friend David Wilson.

The Hunters: A Novel, James Salter, LA Public Library. Salter, a former fighter pilot, writes directly from experience in this novel of U.S. fighter pilots in the Korean War. He draws an internal picture of the psychology of the single combat warrior, and it feels genuine. His portrayal of heroism in the cloistered world of aerial combat does not always translate into obvious laudable accomplishment. Kindle. Read 2018-02-08.

Mink River , Brian Doyle, Clackamas County Library. The Department of Public Works in the coastal village of Neawanaka on the Mink River, besides performing the ordinary public works of cleaning streets and repairing sidewalks, slowly expands over time to 'preserve history, collect stories, repair marriages, prevent crime, augment economic status, promote chess, manage insect populations, run sports leagues, isn't that a bit much? We even give haircuts.' ( page 15) Worried Man and Cedar are its two aging employees, idealists who doggedly work to carry out their mission statement: 'Brains against Pains.' ( page 45) Hardcover. Read 2018-02-05. Recommended by my friend David Wilson.

Monument Road, Charlie Quimby, Weebcentral Library. It was a pleasure to soak in the deep water that is this novel. Charlie Quimby brought back alive a world I have had only episodic contact with in my life: small towns in the far country, where as a teenager, I spent successive summers, first in a small ranching and farming town in central Oregon, second in an oil and fishing town on the Kenai peninsula in Alaska. It was not as much the characters in this novel, but their sensibility, their rhythms of speech and actions that were recognizable from my past forays beyond the city.

After the pleasure of remembrance past is the pleasure of a deceptively simple love story. It is not one of gushing romance or erotic desires, but one of sharing a full life, of living for the other person, of being deeply grateful that fate brought a companion who could see you for what you are, and who unselfishly did the everyday things that add up to a lifetime of devotion. Kindle. Read 2018-01-14. Recommended highly by my friend David Wilson.

Perfect Rigor, Masha Gessen, Clackamas County Library. The Poincaré conjecture, one of the great unsolved topological problems, was finally proven at the end of the 20th century by Grigoriy Perelman, a Russian mathematician of genius. Topology might be described as distilled geometry. The historian Masha Gessen, who grew up herself in the Russian mathematical culture, invites us into the Aspergian milieu of world-class geometers to tease out the tale. Hardcover. Read 2018-01-06.

Protestantism And Progress, Ernst Troeltsch, Weebcentral Library. Ernst Troeltsch was a fin de siècle Protestant theologian who wrote Protestantism and Progress: A Historical Study of Protestantism and the Modern World. This work, along with his friend Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, both written just before World War I, are reasoned historical treatments of the influence of Protestantism on the perceived and potential progress of Western society. They provide effective contrast to the often simplistic and one-sided efforts by Protestant Evangelicals to do the same, such as Francis Schaeffer's How Should We Then Live? Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2017-12-13.

A New History Of Early Christianity, Charles Freeman, Multnomah County Library. This is a very readable historical treatment of the early gestation of Christianity. The approach is explicitly historical rather than theological, allowing the author to examine the early documents and archeology in light of the culture and politics of the early Christian writers. In particular the diverse perspectives and the many contradictions found in their writings can make more sense when considering wider historical influences, such as the region the writer came from, the language(s) they spoke and didn't speak, whether they were Jewish or Gentile, their position in society, and so on. Kindle. Read 2017-11-09.

The Ministry of Special Cases, Nathan Englander, Weebcentral Library. In The Ministry of Special Cases Nathan Englander tells a story of the Dirty War of Argentina as if in the guise of Isaac Bashevis Singer. The tale is steeped in irony, told through the eyes of a Jew, Kaddish Pozsnan, even outcast from the Jewish community of Buenos Aires. Paperback. Read 2017-04-10. A gift from Jon and Melinda, and Benn and Jenn. An author recommended by Jenn.

The Last Kingdom Series, Bernard Cornwell, LA Public Library. Bernard Cornwell's The Last Kingdom series, ever growing, takes place around the reign of King Alfred the Great of England, and describes the forging of Saxon and Norse territories into the the fledgling nation of England. It is generally solid historical fiction, in that it fleshes out a historical era with care, and adds a somewhat plausible adventure story to liven up the slow turn of historical events. The main character, Uhtred of Babbenburg, like, say, Little Big Man of the Wild West, experiences and absorbs all of the main cultures of the time, providing a sturdy historical vehicle for Cornwell's tales. Hardcover. Read 2016-12-01. Recommended by my brother Craig, who also loves historical fiction that is reasonably rooted in history.
Books in the The Last Kingdom series:
The Last Kingdom
The Pale Horseman
Lords of the North
Sword Song
The Burning Land
Death of Kings
The Pagan Lord
The Empty Throne
Warriors of the Storm
The Flame Bearer
War Of The Wolf

The Harry Bosch Series, Michael Connelly, LA Public Library. As a relatively new Angeleno, I thought it would be fun to read a detective novel that took place in Los Angeles. The Harry Bosch novels by Michael Connelly more than fit the bill. Hieronymus Bosch, is a Los Angeles police detective, and his stories take place mostly in Central, West Los Angeles and the San Fernando valley, the three areas of Los Angeles I am most familiar with. Kindle. Read 2016-10-13. Thanks to my brother-in-law, Greg, who recommended this series to me when I first became an Angeleno.
Books in the Harry Bosch series:
Black Echo, The
The Black Ice
The Concrete Blonde
The Last Coyote
Trunk Music
Angels Flight
A Darkness More Than Night
City of Bones
Lost Light
The Narrows
The Closers
Echo Park
The Overlook
Nine Dragons
The Drop
The Black Box
The Burning Room
The Crossing
The Wrong Side of Goodbye
Two Kinds Of Truth

The Laws of Medicine, Siddhartha Mukherjee, LA Public Library. Modern medicine began embracing scientific methods during the last couple of centuries, and in the past one hundred years this has produced an explosion of medical technologies that have aided physicians in significantly controlling some diseases and in particular, extending lives. Today in developed countries, many tests are available for diagnosis and many drugs are available for possible treatment. So why can't physicians today just run a comprehensive battery of tests for every sick patient and spit out a clear diagnosis, and with that, a clear prognosis and plan for a cure? Siddhartha Mukherjee proffers an answer via his Laws of Medicine. Kindle. Read 2016-10-10.

Along the Way, Britt Towery, Weebcentral Library. Britt Towery is a very American thinker, who's opinion columns from a West Texas newspaper are collected here. I warmed quickly to his direct and sometimes folksy Texas style. He holds strong opinions on many subjects, but has a particular emphasis regarding the importance of the First Amendment to the Constitution, which safeguards our freedom of speech and religion. Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2016-08-10.

Shut Up, Legs!, Jens Voigt, James D. Startt, Weebcentral Library. Jens Voigt was a wonderful cyclist to watch in the Tour de France. He was an aggressive rider, willing to attack in breakaways with few odds of success, friendly and available before and after a race. His motto, 'Shut Up, Legs!,' can be appreciated by anyone who rides bicycles long distance, or any endurance athlete for that matter: Muscular pain from exertion must be ignored in the pursuit of endurance feats. Hardcover. Read 2016-04-04. A gift from my Jon and Amanda.

In the Woods, Tana French, Clackamas County Library. Rather than mainly a rational whodunit, Tana French's In the Woods is a psychological drama, an intricate set of well-executed character studies embedded in the story of a police investigation into a child murder. Hardcover. Read 2015-12-08.

Napoleon: A Life, Andrew Roberts, LA Public Library. My early view of Napoleon was as a cartoon figure: A megalomaniac who tried to take over the world. I recall looking down at Napoleon's tomb in Paris in the company of my brother Craig, the two of us mocking his immense sarcophagus and elaborate surroundings, wondering aloud why the French would semi-deify such a bloody tyrant. The typical American republican conceits aside, we were woefully uninformed about much of the life of Napoleon. Napoleon, perhaps more than any other European leader, built the foundations of modern Europe. Hardcover. Read 2015-11-11.

The Martian, Andy Weir, Weebcentral Library. This 21st century Robinson Crusoe tale works because the lone marooned astronaut's effort at survival on Mars is framed around the question: how would a dogged, highly knowledgeable engineer solve the existential crises that cropped up and live yet another day? Paperback. Read 2015-08-11. The Great American Read.

Trent, John W. Malley, Weebcentral Library. Trent: What Happened at the Council, is a well-researched and well-told history of the Council of Trent, the mid-sixteenth-century Counter-Reformation centerpiece which produced the Catholic Church's response to the Protestant Reformation. This acount is carefully grounded in the complex politics of its times, placing the history of the Council in the balance- of-power tug-of-war, not just between reform movements within and without (Protestants) the Church, but among the nascent Ottoman Empire, the English Reformation, the Holy Roman Empire, the Papal States and the French monarchy. Hardcover. Read 2015-05-13. A birthday gift from Thomas and Bonnie.

Heart Of Darkness, Joseph Conrad, LA Public Library. In Joseph Conrad's classic novella, Heart of Darkness, the sailor Marlow serves as the author's version of Coleridge's Ancient Mariner, compelled to tell his story of conscience to whatever audience he finds. The story he tells is indeed dark, and indeed about the heart, albeit mostly the lack thereof. Conrad takes apart the European colonial enterprise, particularly the carving-up of Africa in the nineteenth century, and strips bare all of the tales of adventure from those times and places, along with the high-flown language of imperialism which was used to mask the utter barbarity of the undertaking. Hardcover. Read 2015-05-03. Thanks to my brother Craig and my friend Tim, who were recently telling me how much they admired Joseph Conrad’s writing. Also part of the Great American Read.

A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor, Weebcentral Library. Within Flannery O'Conner's short story collection, A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, a good man is not just difficult to find, but impossibly so. Thank God I am not Flannery O'Connor. I would not trade her ability to tell a story, and she was uncommonly good in some ways, for her brutal and dismissive view of the world. Harshness, of circumstance and character, formed her viewpoint; what is also redeeming found little place in her stories. It appears in O'Connor one can only find redemption outside of humanity, and that is dispensed grudgingly, with the great violence of the Old Testament God. Kindle. Read 2014-09-30. A gift from my brother-in-law, Scottie.

The Constitution Of The United States Of America, United States, Weebcentral Library. In one good hour the U.S. Constitution can be read from front to back. It is written in relatively clear language and still has the capacity to surprise. Hardcover. Read 2014-09-13.

The Sot-weed Factor, John Barth, LA Public Library. The Sot-Weed Factor is a satirical tour-de-force with so much going on that I could hardly follow it all. The style is bawdy, witty, and often funny, a full-fledged imitation of a 17th century novel, complete with the full English vocabulary of the times, which by itself is a welcome challenge to parse. It has been described as a picaresque novel, and the main character is Eben Cooke, an over-educated and under-employed poet and virgin, a Candide-like character constantly bewildered by the world, swept along by events, too curious to make a decision about anything. Hardcover. Read 2014-09-13. Highly recommended by my brother Craig; immediately after his recommendation I went directly to the library and started reading this book.

When I Was a Child I Read Books, Marilynne Robinson, Weebcentral Library. Every few odd years Marilynne Robinson has produced a book of essays, notably Absence of Mind and The Death of Adam. The latest arrival is When I was a Child I Read Books: Essays. The best of Robinson shines in these latest essays: In them she lays out her vision of the American Dream, celebrating the strengths of the American way of life, marked by its liberality (individual freedom), sense of community, and generosity, each informed by a non-sectarian respect for the soul. Kindle. Read 2014-09-03.

What Paul Meant, Garry Wills, LA Public Library. In What Paul Meant, Garry Wills translates the authentic Pauline letters himself, and combines a careful translation of the koiné Greek with modern scholarship to suggest that Paul, who is the modern intellectual's favorite whipping boy as the man who distorted Jesus' message, is in fact a faithful interpreter of the Jesus of the Gospels. Hardcover. Read 2014-08-10.

The Global Public Square, Os Guinness, Weebcentral Library. Os Guiness' The Global Public Square oscillates between a Utopian call for a universal human rights and a sectarian application of those rights, as if the author was of two minds, wrestling with the views of Roger Williams and James Dobson. Kindle. Read 2014-08-07.

The Origins of Modern Science, Herbert Butterfield, Weebcentral Library. Herbert Butterfield, in his book The Origins of Modern Science, tells the story of the development of modern science by focusing on the ideational changes in what is now referred to as science from the late Middle Ages until the advent of the French Revolution, with primary emphasis on the development of the modern understanding of motion. This is a brilliant choice, as it was the development of a robust physical and mathematical model of motion that allowed Newton to unite terrestrial and astronomical physics into a universal set of physical laws describing mechanics. Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2014-06-03.

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien, LA Public Library. O'Brien's Vietnam combat experience and facility as a writer helped to illuminate the pervasive fear he and other combat veterans experienced, and the resulting distortions it had on their behavior. I found it difficult and compelling reading. It is a set of related vignettes, short-story-like, that explore the short bursts of violence and the long periods between fighting that weighed upon the soldiers of this combat infantry platoon. The loss of a comrade produced deep and long-lasting emotional effects for these men, including fantasies inspired by perhaps mis-placed guilt: 'If I only had done this, my comrade would still be alive.' Kindle. Read 2014-05-20. A gift from Jon and Melinda, Christmas 2013. Melinda recently recommended this novel by O'Brien, as part of a conversation about what books were being read recently in high school.

What Is Life?, Erwin Schrödinger, Weebcentral Library. I recently re-read portions Erwin Schroedinger's amazing little book What is Life?, which was a post-war stimulus for a number of physicists to switch from physics to biology and look hard for a physical understanding of living organisms. Kindle. Re-Read (2) 2014-04-17.

The Big Nowhere, James Ellroy, LA Public Library. I decided to read one of James Ellroy's gritty L.A. noir detective novels. His Black Dahlia and L.A. Confidential were both made into films, the latter a very good one. Unfortunately, The Big Nowhere turned out to be not just gritty, but pornographically cruel and soulless. Kindle. Partially-Read 2014-03-26.

How Should We Then Live?, Francis A. Schaeffer, Weebcentral Library. I first read parts of this book in 1976, when Francis Schaeffer was a humble missionary to the intellectually curious, and not active in politics, or so it seemed. Several recent histories have described Schaeffer as a primary actor in the post-Roe-v-Wade shift of U.S. Evangelical Christians into high gear politically, who married themselves to the Republican party to return a morally corrupted secular society to the absolute moral certainty of Christian culture. This prompted me to re-read this book, to answer the question: What did Schaeffer have to say that influenced so many Evangelicals to become more politically active? Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2014-02-12.

How Now Shall We Live?, Charles Colson, Weebcentral Library. By the time Charles Colson got out of prison in the mid-70's, having been convicted for acts of political skullduggery during the Watergate scandal, he had converted to Evangelical Christianity. How Now Shall We Live was his best-seller, an homage to Francis Schaeffer's view of Western history. Schaeffer was a presuppositional millennialist who in the 1970's left the quiet life of a Christian intellectual to help lead the evangelicals to the heights of political activism we see today in the U.S. Hardcover. Read 2014-02-09.

The Ascent Of Man, J. Bronowski, Weebcentral Library. Bronowski's take on the history of science is informed by his knowledge of the arts. This is a humanistic history of man's construction of himself through invention and adaptation. Hardcover. Read 2014-01-31.

The orchardist, Amanda Coplin, Weebcentral Library. This is a well-structured novel of grief and solitude and of the damage of indifferent manipulation and violence, balanced against the friendship and care that can heal. The author depicts the inner life of people who are mostly isolated, via the point of view of an orchardist, as lonely, sometimes peaceful, and sometimes self-delusional or unaware. Paperback. Read 2014-01-15. A gift from my parents and my sister Ruth, Christmas 2013.

People of the Book, Geraldine Brooks, Weebcentral Library. Geraldine Brook's historical novel, People of the Book, tells the fascinating and uplifting story of how people of different faiths created and protected a Jewish book of worship known as the Sarajevo Haggadah for over five hundred years, a period marked by much religious conflict. Hardcover. Read 2013-12-29. A gift from my parents and my sister Ruth, Christmas 2013.

League of Denial, Mark Fainaru-Wada, ESPN. There is new understanding that concussive injuries from football can cause life-long brain-damage, and can seriously shorten and distort the lives of those whose brains have been damaged in such fashion. The new book League of Denial, which addresses these problems primarily at the NFL level, points out that everyone ‘knew that football was violent and dangerous, that one hit could break your neck or even kill you. No, what the researchers were saying was that the essence of football - the unavoidable head banging that occurs on every play, like a woodpecker jackhammering at a tree - can unleash a cascading series of neurological events that in the end strangles your brain, leaving you unrecognizable.’ ‘The devastating symptoms produced by chronic traumatic encephalopathy, CTE, a neuro-degenerative disease that had been detected in the brains of many deceased football players: depression, dementia, even suicide.’ Excerpted in the ESPN magazine. Hardcover. Partially-Read 2013-12-09.

Rosalind Franklin: The Dark Lady of DNA, Brenda Maddox, Weebcentral Library. Rosalind Franklin was one of the primary actors in the search for the structure of the DNA molecule.

In 1968 James Watson published The Double Helix, his personal account of the elucidation of the structure of DNA, in which he de-emphasized Rosalind Franklin's critical contributions during the period of discovery, while drawing a negative portrait of her.  Franklin did not receive the Nobel Prize for this discovery, but Watson and Crick did. Why not? Rank villainy?

Brenda Maddox does a superb job of sorting out Franklin's complex story.

Paperback. Read 2013-09-28.

The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander, Weebcentral Library. Michelle Alexander's book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness is an important and tightly argued treatise on the mass incarceration of black and brown people in the United States since the acceleration of the War on Drugs in the mid-1980's. Most of the incarcerations have been for low level possession, and have disproportionately affected minorities: According to federal figures, blacks and whites use drugs at a roughly equal rate in percentage terms, yet black men 12 times likelier to be jailed for drugs than white ones. Hardcover. Read 2013-09-01.

The second creation, Robert P. Crease, Charles C. Mann, Weebcentral Library. This is a history of the development of the Standard Model of particle physics, circa 1986. It is well regarded by physicists for its sociological treatment, as well as its attempt to record the false starts and uncertainty that accompany leading edge science; certainly the personalities and their various collaborations and squabbles are vividly rendered. As to the science, it is particularly good in providing a pithy description of how a unified theory of electromagnetic, strong and weak forces gives rise to our description of the early events of the Big Bang theory. Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2013-08-22.

Why Evolution Is True, Jerry A. Coyne, Weebcentral Library. This book has been hailed by some as a clear-eyed exposition of modern evolutionary biology. I found it strong on the science, and disappointingly weak on the intellectual discipline. Paperback. Partially-Read 2013-05-15.

Notes On The State Of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, UVa. Jefferson's only book, an answer to French inquiries regarding Virginia while our allies during the Revolutionary War. Reluctantly published by Jefferson first in France. While showing the amazing range of Jefferson, it also reveals both his conscience and lack thereof. Jefferson knew his standing in France amongst the intellectuals was precarious due to his slave ownership, and in these Notes he provided both a stiff condemnation of slavery (not because it was cruel or unfair or against his otherwise heartfelt Enlightenment principles, but because it caused painful pangs of conscience for sensitive slaveowners like himself), and reasons for why he did not divest himself of slaves, the basis for which was unadulterated racism: Blacks were difficult to free because they were not citizen material (too stupid, too ugly, too dangerous because they might take revenge for their ill-treatment, too hard to remove them from America where they could not be allowed to remain, etc.) All in all, much more revealing than Jefferson intended, and never intended for an American audience. eBook. Read 2013-04-02.

Cryptonomicon, Neal Stephenson, Weebcentral Library. This is a long historical novel that dares to write with some depth around the subjects of cryptoanalysis, mathematics, computers, and operating systems. It is full of insights about the technology, about those who live that technology, and about the cultures they inhabit. Kindle. Read 2012-08-03. A gift from my brother-in-law, Greg.

Endless Forms Most Beautiful: The New Science of Evo Devo, Sean Carroll, Weebcentral Library. Sean Carroll's overview of the new science of evolutionary developmental biology, or 'Evo Devo.', Endless Forms Most Beautiful, demonstrates new ways of testing Haeckel's old and discarded idea that 'ontogony begets phylogeny'. Evo Devo is bearing serious fruit; it would appear that a small number of genetic changes can produce very large, and species specific, changes, particularly those mutations occurring during an organism’s development or to the gene regulatory mechanisms of that organism; this is strong new support for the theory of evolution. Kindle. Read 2012-06-18. A gift from my son Jon.

Bad Religion, Ross Douthat, Weebcentral Library.

Since all other than orthodox is heretical by definition, it is thereby 'Bad Religion.' Ross, a practicing Catholic, argues that Christianity is a highly paradoxical religion whose orthodox views provide a necessary and hard won narrative: The one true synthesis of those paradoxical elements. The argument is not very compelling to me, particularly as it opens with the usual demagogic description of American society as corrupted, in decline both institutionally and morally, etc., only to be corrected by embracing his religion. (Yawn ... why is it that this theme has been sounded since, I don't know, the dawn of history?)

But the book is nonetheless valuable for its summary of those Christian paradoxes, as well as a survey of various Christian trends like Evangelical fundamentalism, prosperity gospel, liberation theology, revival of Gnosticism, etc., all of which he labels as heresies, and finally an 80 year history of the intersection of politics and Christianity in America.

Kindle. Read 2012-06-06. A gift from Jon and Melinda.

The Nothing that Is, Robert Kaplan, Weebcentral Library. 'Diddly squat is as close to squat as makes no nevermind.' This is a superb and far-ranging essay on the apparently mundane zero. While it might be expected to be predominantly mathematical, it is much more, an erudite and masterly exposition that touches many disciplines without slighting its mathematical roots. It has an exponential arc. Paperback. Read 2012-03-24. A gift from my wife Cindy.

American Sphinx, Joseph J. Ellis, Weebcentral Library. Joseph Ellis provides us with an ambitious analysis of the compartmentalized mind of Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was extraordinarily adept at saying and writing, apparently believing, and doing things that were paradoxical and often diametrically opposed to each other. Ellis suggests that this helps to explain his enduring following by just about every political persuasion in the United States, and even abroad: Anyone can find in Jefferson something that supports one's ideology, especially if they studiously ignore, in perfect Jeffersonian fashion, the things Jefferson said or did that would negate their ideology. Paperback. Read 2012-03-03. A gift from my wife Cindy.

Hen's Teeth And Horse's Toes, Stephen Jay Gould, LA Public Library. I read Gould's essay Nonmoral Nature in this collection to see his response to the religious moral arguments against natural selection. Ever since the publication of the Darwin's Origin of the Species arguments have been made about the inherent cruelty of the natural selection model, not just by Christians who argued against the theory of evolution, but also by scientists as early as Darwin himself. This idea became particularly problematic when religious opponents made various claims about the immorality of the biological evolution, arising from the general understanding that cruelty when applied to humans by humans is immoral or evil. These claims have been extended over time to suggest that evolution is a manifestation of secular humanism, which is an ethical doctrine, therefore the teaching of evolution must include the teaching of Creationism in biology classes to address the underlying implied ethical and moral claims of Darwinism and to compare the moral alternatives provided by religion. Gould's response in Nonmoral Nature pointed out that the application of morality to the blind processes of nature is bound to disappoint, as again, life just happens, whether modeled by the concept of natural selection or conceived as God's Creation, or both. Most living organisms consume other living organisms, and even some of those which don't, like fungi, rely on the byproducts of dead organisms for their own survival. Some do it in very cruel ways indeed, if one were to apply human ethical standards to their behavior; but of course one cannot do such a thing. Ironically, going down the path of condemning the cruelty of natural selection as a way of condemning the model of evolution brings one quickly full circle to the question of why the Creator would have made Nature so cruel. On a related note, Gould further suggested that this inappropriate mapping of morality onto natural behavior also helped to give rise to the misguided eugenics movement and various aspects of Social Darwinism. Paperback. Partially-Read 2012-03-01.

Apostles of Disunion, Charles B. Dew, Weebcentral Library. It has always been for me somewhat of a puzzle as to why many in the South up to today insist on the idea that slavery was not a primary cause of our Civil War, but that states rights, economic warfare, etc. or anything but slavery were the deep and the proximate cause of that war. Charles Dew, born and raised in the South, writes this monograph on that very subject. He comes at the subject by researching the various documents created and speeches made by the politicians and government officials of Southern states prior to the start of the Civil War for the purpose of justifying, insisting upon, and finally enacting the secession of the various states from the Union. Paperback. Read 2012-02-16.

The Subject Steve, Sam Lipsyte, Weebcentral Library. Is the Subject Steve dying? Aren't we all dying? Is the Subject Steve actually Steve? Hardcover. Read 2012-02-12. A gift from my Ben and Jenn.

The Swerve, Stephen Greenblatt, Weebcentral Library. Stephen Greenblatt's book The Swerve: How the World Became Modern is an excellent tale of the influence of Epicurus on the modern way of thinking. Epicurus spoke of change in terms of a 'swerve'; the author's allusion to a swerve otherwise is to the narrow and chance survival during the Renaissance of Lucretius' poem De Rerum Natura, a rumination and celebration of all things Epicurean, and whose influence in subsequent Western thought represents a giant swerve in cosmology, religion and natural philosophy away from Plato and Aristotle and towards Epicurus. Hardcover. Read 2011-12-29.

Spandau: The Secret Diaries, Albert Speer, Weebcentral Library. Albert Speer, Hitler's personal architect and Reich Armaments Minister, kept a diary while he was in Spandau prison following his conviction at the post-war Nuremburg trials. These diaries provide a fascinating, hooded glimpse of the 'smartest man' in the Nazi leadership. At least, smart enough to evade the death penalty at the Nuremberg Trials. Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2011-07-22.

Absence of Mind, Marilynne Robinson, Weebcentral Library. In her collection of essays entitled Absence of Mind: The Dispelling of Inwardness from the Modern Myth of Self, Marilynne Robinson sails the still uncharted territory of consciousness, or perhaps, the territory of charting consciousness. She fires an immediate broadside in her very first sentence: 'These essays examine one side in the venerable controversy called the conflict between science and religion, in order to question the legitimacy of the claim its exponents make to speak with the authority of science and in order to raise questions about the quality of thought that lies behind it.' The 'absence of mind' the title appears at least a double entendre: The removal of the mystery of the mind by sloppy, imprecise parascience (a word Robinson uses more in the sense of scientism) and a poke at those who would arrogantly misuse the authority of science as being absent of mind. Hardcover. Read 2011-04-14.

Divided by Faith, Benjamin J. Kaplan, Weebcentral Library. The ensuing religious fragmentation of Western Christendom following the advent of the Reformation created fissures in the fabric of European society so large that, after a century of warfare, borne by the exhaustion of bitter hatred and its accompanying destructiveness, the only option left for a more peaceful existence was the grudging co-existence of groups with religious differences. This is an account of the aftermath of the European Wars of Religion, and the rise of religious tolerance in Europe after the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation hell-on-earth, described so because all Western Christendom stood ex-communicated and bound to perdition, at least according to one or another of the warring Christian sects, Protestant and Catholic. Hardcover. Read 2011-03-21.

The Age of Reason, Thomas Paine, Weebcentral Library. Thomas Paine was perhaps the most persuasive of those proponents of revolution in the American Colonies of Great Britain, and well after his influential pamphlet Common Sense he continued to write about 'revolting' things (tongue well in cheek) in the following period of the French Revolution. His pamphlet Age of Reason is a fiercely argued defense of freedom of religion, an argument against organized religion and an argument for deism, written between 1794 and 1797 from Revolutionary France. Paperback. Read 2011-02-19.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale, Art Spiegelman, Weebcentral Library. If you were looking for just one story that would give you some sense of the personal impact of the Holocaust on its victims, survivors and their families, this is it. Spiegelman's cartoon version of his father's life before, during and after the Holocaust, of which he was a survivor, provides a more direct, complete and highly visual means of telling the story. Maus draws you close, and with each panel, you feel the emotional impact of this terribly difficult and sad world. Hardcover. Read 2010-12-14. Highly recommended to me by my brother Peter.
Books in the Maus series:
Maus: A Survivor's Tale. I: My Father Bleeds History
Maus: A Survivor's Tale. II: And Here My Troubles Begin

Steve Jobs, Walter Isaacson, Weebcentral Library. Steve Jobs recent demise brought out many encomiums having at least one thing in common: An agreement that he was a genius. Jobs' genius (a notoriously fickle word) would appear to be in the realm of practical design. His early Apple computer was easier to use and more accessible to its consumers than those of his early competitors, and that was true of most of the subsequent devices produced by Apple on his watch, including the Macintosh windowing and mouse-driven operating system, the seductively simple iPod, the iPhone marriage of mobile phones with a personal digital assistant and its deft employment of touch screen technology, and the iPad tablet offshoot. Hardcover. Read 2010-12-03.

The Unabridged Devil's Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce, Project Gutenberg. Ambrose Bierce is one of America's most celebrated cynics, along with Mark Twain and H. L. Mencken, and others too various to mention. His Devil's Dictionary provides ample dollops of irony, much of it directed seemingly at others while instead pointing directly at one's self. eBook. Re-Read (2) 2010-10-04.

Angler, Barton Gellman, Weebcentral Library. Bart Gellman's book Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency is a competent and sometimes surprising look at Dick Cheney's vice-presidency. The most surprising revelation? Cheney's fall from W.'s grace. Hardcover. Read 2010-09-25.

What Jesus Meant, Garry Wills, LA Public Library. Garry Wills, who is a believing Catholic, attempts to extricate the Jesus of the New Testament from the 1,700 year edifice of organized Christianity by doing his own translation of the koiné, or marketplace Greek ,in which the New Testament was originally written. Paperback. Read 2010-07-13.

Sh*t My Dad Says, Justin Halpern, Weebcentral Library. Pungent humor is the outward appeal of this loving and candid portrait of Dad; that it is often poignant and contains a surprising amount of insight is the hidden delight. Hardcover. Read 2010-07-01.

Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend, Gary L. Roberts, Weebcentral Library. Robert's book Doc Holliday: The Life and Legend is a solid effort to document the life of one of the main participants of the shootout at the OK Corral, and provides a dramatic rendering of that famous event. I found it a nice diversion. Hardcover. Read 2010-06-19. A gift from my son Benn.

Relentless Pursuit, Donna Foote, Weebcentral Library. Donna Foote's book Relentless Pursuit: A Year in the Trenches with Teach for America describes the controversial teacher program, following five of its young college graduates who immediately out of college and just after a short training stint, are teaching for the first time, and in failing inner city schools. Hardcover. Read 2010-05-14.

The Blue Mountains of China, Rudy Wiebe, Weebcentral Library. The Blue Mountains of China is compelling and candid historical novel that tells the story of a set of Mennonite immigrations from the Ukraine SSR to Siberia, Canada, Paraguay, and briefly, China. The novel begins with a series of loosely connected chapters which move forward in time, and focus on individual and interior responses to the privations endured by Mennonites, who either are being forced from their land or are seeking that next elusive place on earth where Mennonites can be Mennonites. Paperback. Read 2010-03-04.

The Millenium Trilogy, Stieg Larsson, LA Public Library. Lizbet, the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, carries the Millenium Trilogy. She is a private investigator, a severely withdrawn, highly intelligent young woman who has been terribly abused, both by her father and as a ward of the state. Lizbet trusts no one, and has developed world class computer hacking skills which serve her in good stead in her job as a private investigator and beyond. She teams up with an older investigative journalist, the fruit of said union providing a broad view of two generations of Swedish culture. Kindle. Read 2010-02-17.
Books in the Millenium Trilogy series:
The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo
The Girl Who Played With Fire
The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest

The Pacific, Hugh Ambrose, Multnomah County Library. I picked this book up on whim, to fill the hours of a long plane ride, mostly because of my admiration of the The Band of Brothers HBO series. I had read that the new HBO Spielberg-Hanks production The Pacific was also excellent, but I do not have access to HBO and was waiting for the series to be published in blue-ray.  So I thought, the book The Band of Brothers by Stephen Ambrose, upon which the HBO series was based, was very good, so why not just read The Pacific in anticipation of that TV series? Hardcover. Read 2010-01-12.

The Death of Adam, Marilynne Robinson, Weebcentral Library. Marilynne Robinson's The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought could just as well have been entitled 'Modern Jeremiad', as its tone is often bleak, accusatory, and angry, sure that the world, and America in particular, has taken a set of massively wrong turns in terms of both its thinking and its behavior. This is a book that marks modern thought as empty of spiritual meaning, and continually contrasts secular (mostly failed) ideas and behaviors with Christianity's spirituality and ability to offer meaning and moral structure in a modern human's life. The essays are wildly uneven, and the variation in quality is quite wide; most are readable, but several are nigh on unreadable. If you were to read this book from back to front, you would, roughly speaking, be reading from the best essays to the worst. Paperback. Read 2009-12-28.

A Short History of Nearly Everything, Bill Bryson, Weebcentral Library. Bryson has produced a brilliant exposition on fundamental science that is highly accessible and engrossing for any good reader. The author covers many topics of physics and astrophysics, including the origins of the universe, nuclear physics, and the origins and geological development of the earth. Paperback. Read 2009-10-12. Recommended by my brother Peter.

A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel, Hilary Mantel, Weebcentral Library.

Today we stormed the Bastille; I got there late; I heard it was bloody. Then I went home and had an argument with my mistress about the laundry. And she spends too much time gossiping with the concierge. Hmmm, what's that I smell for dinner?'

Such parody is a little harsh, but it serves to underline the overall pedestrian nature of this novel; the rich subject deserved much better. That subject is a tale of the French Revolution as seen through the eyes of its three major characters: Camille Desmoulins, Georges Danton and Maximilien Robespierre, two of whom were members of the decidely unsafe Committee for Public Safety, all three of whom were consumed via the guillotine in the most unsafe year of 1794.

Paperback. Read 2009-08-11.

Europe Central, William T. Vollmann, Weebcentral Library. William Vollman's Europe Central is a layered novel that provides various perspectives of World War II through the thoughts and activities of selected historical actors from Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, including Käthe Kollwitz, Kurt Gerstein, Dmitri Shostakovich, General Paulus and General Vlasov, among others. Each character carries their particular tragedy forward within the context of the times and the two totalitarian regimes. Paperback. Read 2009-03-02.

Harry Potter Septalogy, J.K. Rowling, Weebcentral Library. This is some of the most imaginative writing I have read since perhaps Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy, or some of the classic science fiction of Asimov and Herbert. Paperback. Read 2008-04-14. Thanks, Cindy, for your enthusiasm about Harry Potter; I followed your lead. And thanks, too, to the Great American Read.
Books in the Harry Potter series:
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
Harry Potter And The Order Of The Phoenix
Harry Potter And The Half-Blood Prince
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Skeptics and True Believers, Chet Raymo, Weebcentral Library. 'Years ago, noted science teacher and writer Chet Raymo embarked upon his own quest to reconcile the miracle stories he learned as a child with the science he learned as an adult. Skeptics and True Believersis the culmination of that search—a passionate, ever-inquisitive statement that science and religion can mutually reinforce the way we experience the world.Acknowledging that the scientific and the spiritual communities are increasingly split, Raymo builds strong bridges between them. He illustrates his argument with an array of thought-provoking stories, such as the remarkable migratory flight of a small bird called the red knot; the long, glorious glide of the Comet Hyakutake across the night sky; a hilarious alien abduction that didn't happen. Together, they are compelling evidence that religion should embrace the reliable knowledge of the world that science provides, while at the same time science should respect and nourish humankind's need for spiritual sustenance. 'Miracles are explainable,' Raymo paraphrases the writer Tim Robinson, 'it is the explanations that are miraculous.'For anyone drawn to reflect on life's meaning and purpose, Chet Raymo's uncompromising skepticism and reverence for mystery will affirm and inspire.' Hardcover. Read 2004-05-30.

Rosalind Franklin and DNA, Anne Sayre, Multnomah County Library. This is a good biography of the experimental physicist Rosalind Franklin by her friend Anne Sayre, but the subsequent book by Brenda Maddox, The Dark Lady of DNA is much better. Sayre had real difficulty separating her feelings about her friend from a more careful assessment of Franklin's role in the discovery of the structure of DNA. Hardcover. Read 2002-03-29.

Secret Knowledge, David Hockney, Weebcentral Library. 'Hockney challenges the way we see art today in what may become the art book sensation of the decade. In 'Secret Knowledge, ' hundreds of paintings are reproduced to show how artists would have used the technology available to them in rendering their subjects. 400 color illustrations.' Hardcover. Read 2001-12-28.

The Night Is Large: Collected Essays, 1938-1995, Martin Gardner, Weebcentral Library. Martin Gardner was a serious thinker and polymath, most famous for his mathematical puzzles and his Annotated Alice, and less well known for his excellent essays and expositions on science, mathematics, philosophy and even poetry. This collection of 47 broad-ranging essays spans physical science, mathematics, social science, the arts, philosophy and religion, and pseudo-science; all of these were written over a period of 57 years. Gardner was a clear writer, a fair one, and deeply curious about the world. Paperback. Re-Read (2) 2000-05-01.

Longitude, Dava Sobel, Weebcentral Library. I originally read this, mostly on a transcontinental plane trip, just prior to visiting the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, to answer the question: Why does an accurate clock allow you to reckon longitude at sea? I recently re-read it to absorb the role Galileo played in the the use of the periods of Jovian moons as another method to determine longitude for the purposes of navigation. Kindle. Re-Read (2) 1998-06-19.

The Annotated Alice: The Definitive Edition, Lewis Carroll, Weebcentral Library. 'For over half a century, Martin Gardner has established himself as one of the world's leading authorities on Lewis Carroll. His Annotated Alice, first published in 1960, has over half a million copies in print around the world and is highly sought after by families and scholars alike--for it was Gardner who first decoded the wordplay and the many mathematical riddles that lie embedded in Carroll's two classic stories: Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.Forty years after this groundbreaking publication, Norton is proud to publish the Definitive Edition of The Annotated Alice, a work that combines the notes of Gardner's 1960 edition with his 1990 update, More Annotated Alice, as well as additional new discoveries and updates drawn from Gardner's encyclopedic knowledge of the texts. Illustrated with John Tenniel's classic and beloved art - along with many recently discovered Tenniel pencil sketches - The Annotated Alice will be Gardner's most beautiful and enduring tribute to Carroll's masterpieces yet.' Kindle. Read 1988-08-03. The Great American Read.

The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener, Martin Gardner, Weebcentral Library. 'The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivenershowcases Martin Gardner as the consummate philosopher, thinker, and great mathematician that he is. Exploring issues that range from faith to prayer to evil to immortality, and far beyond, Garnder challenges the discerning reader with fundamental questions of classical philosophy and life's greater meanings. Recalling such philosophers was Wittgenstein and Arendt,The Whys of Philosophical Scrivenerembodies Martin Garner's unceasing interest and joy in the impenetrable mysteries of life.' Paperback. Re-Read (2) 1988-05-02.

Candide: or, Optimism, Voltaire, Weebcentral Library. Rire et faire rire.' - To laugh and to make laugh. 'Écrasez l' Infame!' - Crush the Infamy! Voltaire, the pen-name for François Marie Arouet, was perhaps the greatest writer of satires in Western literature. His best works are imminently readable today, particularly his satire Candide. Paperback. Re-Read (2) 1985-08-03.

Flora of the Pacific Northwest, C. Leo Hitchcock, Arthur Cronquist, Weebcentral Library. Flora of the Pacific Northwest is an excellent dichotomous key of indigenous regional flora. It served as one of my texts for a college class in Systematic Botany, which I feared would be deathly dull, and so proved the lectures, but the laboratory unexpectedly turned out to be a rewarding journey exploring the world without and the world within. Hardcover. Partially-Read 1980-05-15.

The Sleepwalkers, Arthur Koestler, Weebcentral Library. Arthur Koestler's book Sleepwalkers: A History of Man's Changing Vision of the Universe is an ambitious attempt to describe the development of Western cosmology and astronomy from the Greeks to Newton, with particular focus on Copernicus, Brahe, Kepler, and Galileo. Koestler did not see science as a linear and unbroken line of rational progression; instead he viewed the course of the history of ideas as somnambulant: Many ideas were stumbled upon by men with goals and mindsets alien to the very ideas they uncovered. Paperback. Read 1979-07-14. Read as part of the coursework for a class on the History of Science.

The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini, Benvenuto Cellini, Weebcentral Library. Benvenuto Cellini was a master Florentine goldsmith and sculptor who lived and worked during the time of the High Italian Renaissance, and was also, by his lights, tougher and craftier than anyone around him, could take on many men with a sword and live to tell the tale, was a great lover, and so on. His is the most ebullient autobiography I have read, and so wonderful, and so full of life! Paperback. Read 1978-11-07.

Born Again, Charles Colson, Celia Wiebe Library. During his years as a Republican political operative, Charles Colson prominently displayed an old Marine Corp saying in his home: 'When you’ve got ’em by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.' Colson described those years and the hard crash that followed in his book Born Again as a mid-life autobiography precipitated by a mid-life crisis. After his role as a self-described 'hatchet man' for Nixon White House was slowly exposed during the Watergate scandal, he converted to Evangelical Christianity, and after being convicted of obstruction of justice, he spent some time in prison. Hardcover. Read 1976-10-04.

Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand, Weebcentral Library. Re-read portions, particularly the infamous chapter 7, Galt's extremely long speech detailing Rand's Objectivism philosophy, because I wanted to understand why the Republican Party, and especially the Christian evangelicals, embrace her philosophy, which would seem completely at odds with their professed creed. Paperback. Read 1971-08-03. The Great American Read.

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