Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Summer Reading List

Here it is, the second annual Zeta Woof Summer Reading List. Not, as I felt compelled to explain last time, a list of books for me to read, but a list of books which I have read during the last year or so and which I can in confidence recommend to you.

Before the Dawn: Recovering the Lost History of Our Ancestors by Nicholas Wade
Fifty thousand years ago, in the northeastern corner of Africa, a small and beleaguered group of people prepared to leave their homeland. The world then was still in the grip of the Pleistocene ice age. Much of Africa had been depopulated and the ancestral human population had recently dwindled to a mere 5,000.

Those departing, a group of perhaps just 150 people, planned to leave Africa altogether...
Fiction? No. Speculation? Not.

The evidence, embedded in our genes, has only recently been uncovered—this book could not have been written a decade ago—and the story it tells is fascinating, and, at least to those who would prefer a Noble Savage, horrifying, for humans are more closely related to the murderous chimpanzee than to the peaceful bonobo.

The Children of Men by P.D. James

At the other end of our history something has gone wrong. In this work of speculative fiction mankind has inexplicably lost the ability to reproduce. Written in 1992, this work anticipated by fifteen years the panic of demographic decline now spreading over Europe. "Now a major motion picture" the sticker on the cover boasts. Mark Steyn had this to say about that:
There are zillions of bad movies, but Alfonso Cuarón's film Children Of Men is bad in an almost awe-inspiring way.
Don't bother with the film. Instead read this book, beautifully written by a master of English prose.

Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil by Ron Rosenbaum

He sought an explanation but in the course of his research
I was stunned by what seemed to be a compulsive assertion of certainty, or of contradictory certainties, by the psychohistorians in particular. It was Hitler's father! No, it was Hitler's mother who caused the trouble! It was his missing testicle! No, it was a primal scene! "Irritable reaching" devolved into a desperate lurching after a single answer, a single person, none of which on closer examination was nearly sufficient or convincing.

All of which led me to shift my focus—with Schweitzer's Quest as a model—from a search for the one single explanation of Hitler to a search for the agenda of the searchers, an attempt to explain the explainers.
And a fascinating attempt it is.

To Ride, Shoot Straight And Speak The Truth by Jeff Cooper

Colonel Cooper died late last year but I have since discovered that he was the master of three things: the pistol, the rifle, and clear, concise writing. I bought this collection of essays primarily for his chapter on The General Purpose Rifle:
For those who have not tried it, an explanation of the advantages of the forward telescope is in order. First, and most important, the forward glass does not obscure the landscape. With both eyes open the shooter sees the entire countryside as well as the crosswire printed on his target. For this reason it is important that the magnification of the telescope be no greater than 3X (some hold that 2X is maximum) in order to avoid excessive disparity between the vision of the two eyes. This forward mount, properly used and understood, is the fastest sighting arrangement available to the rifleman.
A fascinating character, absolutely unique.

How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z by Ann Marlowe

As powerful as Cooper but more in a psychological than a physical sense, Ms. Marlowe has written for the Village Voice, the New York Times, the National Review and The Wall Street Journal. She has worked on Wall Street, lived in Afghanistan, studied philosophy, and done a lot of junk. She writes clearly, candidly, and with devastating force.

This is her story, organized not chronologically but by topic. Oddly enough, it works.

Crimes Against Logic by Jamie Whyte

Greg recommended this to me a number of times but the argument that finally clinched it was that it "belongs right alongside How To Lie With Statistics on your bookshelf." It does.

Says Mr. Whyte in the preface:
All self-help books should begin win a confession. Here is mine: I write letters to the editor. "Outraged of London," that's me. I am getting better, though. I often don't send the letters, and sometimes I don't even write them. If I had a therapist, he would be pleased by my progress.

But I must also confess that there has been no deep reform of my character. I still want to write those letters. It's just that what gets me so riled doesn't seem to be of the least interest to the editor of the London Times. Nor to my increasingly fewer friends, who yawn and roll their eyes as I explain my concerns—or "rant," as the less kind among them say.

What bothers me so much?

Errors in reasoning. Fallacies. Muddled thinking. Call it what you like; you know the kind of thing I mean.
Jamie Whyte is a past lecturer of philosophy at Cambridge, and his book is at once rigorous and entertaining.

With the Old Breed: At Peleliu and Okinawa by E. B. Sledge
I began writing this account immediately after Peleliu while we were in rest camp on Pavuvu Island. I outlined the entire story with detailed notes as soon as I returned to civilian life, and I have written down certain episodes during the years since then. Mentally, I have gone over and over the details of these events, but I haven't been able to draw them all together and write them down until now.
That was thirty-five years after the war. Don't let that deter you—this is as close to the action as you'll get.

This is Paradise! by Hyok Kang

I've mentioned this one before. Kang grew up in horrible poverty, thoroughly convinced that it was the best of all possible worlds and that the outside, especially South Korea, was worse—far worse. Finally at the age of twelve he escaped, first to China, then by way of Vietnam to South Korea. Here he tells the story, illustrated by his own drawings, of his childhood in the worker's paradise.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

I've mentioned Murakami before too, and although The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is—so far—his magnum opus, this spot on the reading list is really a placeholder for all his books, including the half-dozen I've read: Kafka on the Shore, Sputnik Sweetheart, Underground, The Place That Was Promised, and After the Quake; the two that just arrived, South of the Border and Norwegian Wood; and all the rest. So far, none have disappointed.