Saturday, March 31, 2007

A History of God

By Karen Armstrong

In this book, Armstrong looks at how the idea of God developed and changed in the three monotheistic religions: Judaism, Christianity & Islam. It's a fascinating look at the history of religion from its earliest beginnings in the Middle East up to the 1980s. (The book was published in 1993.) It shows how very much alike we all our in our thinking and our beliefs about God. It also explores the different ways people have come to view God, from a far off and rather indifferent sky god, to the rationalistic view of God, to the anthropomorphous, personal God and to the mystical, intuitively experienced God of Kabbalah, Sufism & Greek Orthodox Christianity. (According to Armstrong, mysticism never really took hold in the western Christian churches.)
Armstrong never says how she herself thinks of God, though it seems at times that she tends towards Islamism and perhaps even mysticism. One thing for sure, she really doesn't like or approve of fundamentalism, which she believes is a blight on civilized society. But she also points out that atheism has not made humanity happier either.
I found this book really informative, although I read it knowing that the author was pretty secular in her view point. If you are offended by this kind of worldly speculations about religion and God, then don't read this book. But if you have a curious and open mind and are firm in your faith, read it with caution. Don't let the author's speculations spoil religion for you.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Good Earth

By Pearl S. Buck

Pearl S. Buck can sure tell a good story. This novel won the Pulitzer Prize for 1932. It is the story of a farmer, Wang Lung, and his family. The setting is pre-World War I China. Wang Lung is a poor farmer who lives with his father and an ox. Wang Lung is a young man and tells his dad that it is time for him to be married. So the father goes and buys a female slave from the house of a wealthy family. The woman, O-Lan, it strong and plain and silent. But when she does speak, it pays to listen. She is a fount of quiet strength and wisdom. She bears her children silently and alone and after giving birth she is soon back out working the fields with her husband. Things start off well for them. Wang Lung is a shrewd farmer, storing his crop and waiting to sell until the market is favorable and O-Lan is a thrify and careful homemaker and unpaid field hand. Unfortunately, they live in a land of feast or famine. It is pretty much a sure bet that some years will be droughty and some will be soaked and the land flooded. A drought strikes and despite Wang Lung's care and forethought the family has to flee the area and find work in a southern city. Life is very hard there. Wang Lung works till he drops and yet he can't afford to buy his family food or a place to live. They live in a lean-to and if it weren't for the soup kitchen, they would starve. But desperate times mean desperate people and the people rise up and loot and pillage. Wang Lung follows the looters and gets his hands on enough silver to get his family back home and to buy seed to plant. Due to his wise management, his farm prospers and his wealth grows and he becomes a big man in his community, O-Lan at his side, silently doing her best for him and their kids. Wang Lung starts going to a tea house, a place he would have never frequented before. He falls for one of the women who work as prostitutes in the tea house. He decides he must have this woman, Lotus; he becomes obsessed. He even makes O-Lan give him the two pearls she has cherished in a little bag hung around her neck. It breaks her heart that he demands these jewels from her and it is even worse when she realizes he wanted the pearls for the whore. After this, she just fades away and eventually dies.
I kind of lost interest in the story after the death of O-Lan. It was her story that I cared about, not Wang Lung's. Wang Lung was a bit of a jerk, although probably pretty representative of the male attitude of his time and place. After she died, I didn't really care what happened to the rest of the brood. Wang Lung marries his whore and he moves his family into the big house in town where his father purchased O-Lan. But he never loses his connection to the land that nurtured him and provided him with the good life.

Anvil of Stars

By Greg Bear


This is the sequel to The Forge of God. The survivors of the destruction of the Earth have been set up on Mars by the Benefactors, the aliens who rescued a few thousand humans. Now the Benefactors ask for a crew of youngsters to travel through the universe looking for the home system of the beings who sent the planet wrecking machines out to destroy any young and defenseless civilization they may come across. When the crew finds this system they are to destroy it. They do find a system that seems to bear traces of the planet wreckers and they destroy it, but it turns out to be a deadly trap and they barely escape destruction themselves. They manage to get away and continue the search. In their travels they encounter another ship like theirs, sent out to perform the same deadly task. But the crew is dead, and have been so for many years. They again encounter another ship like theirs, but this time the crew is alive, having been damaged in the same trap the people escaped. So they join forces and continue the hunt together.
Some of the humans find their new partners difficult to deal with as they look rather like snakes. The aliens are composed of groups of these "snakes" all joined together and in times of stress the joining can fall apart into its individual "snakes" and these "snakes" are a lot less intelligent on their own than when they are joined.
The stress of the long voyage, the near fatal encounter with the booby-trapped system and then dealing with their new snaky allies takes the crew to the breaking point. As they finally approach the true home system of the planet wreckers, the crew becomes divided. Some say the planet wreckers are long gone and it would make no sense to punish their descendants. The alien allies are inclined to side with these pacifists. But others want to proceed with their mission and destroy the many planets in the system, sending to their deaths billions of intelligent beings.

I didn’t really care for this story. A lot of the book is just about their tedious voyage through the empty reaches of space. The crew dynamics were weird and I didn’t like how it kept referring to the crew as children, even though most were in their twenties after many years of traveling on their mission. The ending was disappointing. The best thing about the story were the snake people. They are interesting but it seems like the only reason they are included in the story is to look down on human deceit and violence. Mostly, it was pretty dull reading.

Islam - The Straight Path

Edited by Kenneth W. Morgan

A couple words of warning about this book. First, it is pretty dated since in was written in 1958. Second it is not an unbiased or impartial book about Islam since it was written entirely by Islamics.

That being said, it is still a very informative book about the history and the spread of Islam. The statistics are probably quite a bit off since they are fifty years out of date. One problem I had with the book was the use of the Islamic dating system, which starts from the year Mohammad moved from Mecca to Medina, so it about 600 years behind the dating system used in the West. In most instances, the western date is included, but at times it is not.

The book it a series of chapters written by different experts and it discusses the history of Islam, its beliefs and its laws (briefly), the different sects, such as Shia, Sunni and Sufi and the history of the spread of Islam throughout others parts of the world, including Africa, India, China, Europe, Turkey and the Far East.
This book is available to read online at Religion Online.

Cosm

By Gregory Benford

First a note about the author. Gregory Benford is a physics professor at UCI, the institution featured in the book Cosm. So when he talks about physics and about being a professor at UCI, he speaks from personal knowledge.

Cosm is about a scientist who accidentally creates a universe during a physics experiment at a particle collider. During the experiment, a small explosion occurs and the scientist, Alicia, discovers a strange shiny ball about the size of a bowling ball in the wreckage. Instinctively she knows that this is something special, and wanting to protect her claim on the object, sneaks it out of the building and back to California, to UCI, to study. In the course of study, an assistant is killed when the object emits a burst of energy.
A lot of the book is concerned with the wrangling between Alicia and the collider lab over who has the best claim to the object. Alicia and her team figure out that the collider experiment somehow created a new universe, smaller than our universe and that the object is a sort of bubble off that universe that lets us peer into it. As they study and measure the ball they realize that the this new universe is running on a time scale much faster that ours so they can watch the growth and evolution as billions of years pass there in a matter of a few weeks here. Eventually, the government gets involved and tries to commandeer the object but Alicia is able to spirit it away and out to the desert.

This book is really Benford's speculation on the formation, growth, decline and eventual death of our own universe presented in the form of a novel. He never explains why the bubble was shiny silver and touchable and then why it suddenly became transparent so the galaxies could be seen with the naked eye. He also advances some theory that intelligence life is responsible for the creation of the universe in a sort of natural selection for universes with intelligent life.
It may sound rather dry, but it was a surprisingly readable and even exciting book as I read what new things Alicia and her team discover about their pocket universe. The conclusion was kind of a let down since it follows the little universe to its (and possibly our) ultimate fate. But, all in all, I enjoyed it.

Possible Side Effects

By Augusten Burroughs

I first encountered Augusten Burroughs in his book Running with Scissors. I recommend you read that book first as it is a more detailed look at Burroughs horrendous childhood.
Possible Side Effects is a collection of autobiographical stories, some true, some not so true, but all entertaining and funny. Burroughs has a wonderful sense of humor, and even if I don't quite believe all he writes, I certainly enjoy it.
This book contains 5 stories. In "Pest Control" Burroughs writes an improbable account of his first encounter with the tooth fairy. Even though this story did not ring true in some things, his description of his feelings about his aging grandmother were spot on.
"Bloody Sunday" is about a trip to London to promote a book and amusing enough that I shared some of it with my friend.
"The Sacred Cow" a story about his dog named CowCow that was bought to be a companion to the other dog, Bentley. Cow was a nightmare at first but became just a precious to his owner as Bentley.
"Team Player" is about Burroughs affection for college t-shirts, which he wears, although he sometimes feels like a fraud since he never attended college.
In "Killing John Updike" Burrough's friend advises him to buy first editions of Updike's novel because when Updike dies his novels will greatly increase in value. So Burroughs does, but then he begins to wonder if any of his novels are for sale online and he is amazed to find that his brother is selling Burroughs' watch online.
"Attacked by Heart" describes his experience with what turns out to be a minor health concern.
"The Wisdom Tooth" is about a vacation that didn't go so well.
"GWF Seeks Same" is about a friend's dating through personal ads and the bad advice he gives her.
"Mint Threshold" is about his days working on the Junior Mints account at an ad agency. This story was totally believable and really funny.
"Locked Out" is one of the more shocking stories as it describes his life during his struggles with alcohol. He gets locked out of his apartment and has to call a locksmith; the locksmith is horrified at the condition of Burroughs' home and assumes he is the victim of a burglary.
"Getting to No You" is about a brief crisis in his dating life when he seemed unable to stop dating people he didn't like and he ends up dating a whirling dervish with untrimmed toenails. Yuck!
"Kitty, Kitty" is a sad story of a dog he had named KittyKitty and how he finally realized he couldn't take proper care of the dog because of his (Burroughs') alcoholism. So he takes the dog to the animal shelter. He can't help but think he is doing the same thing to the poor dog that his parents did to him.
"Peep" is about looking in people's windows.
"Taking Tests, Taking Things" is about how he left advertising and decided to become a police officer. He discovers that he isn't really cop material and also talks about his days as a store detective when he was a teenager.
In "Unclear Sailing" he somehow gets a job cutting out sails for sailboats. He doesn't even last one day!
In "Moving Violations" he talks about a girl he knew, he calls her Druggy Debby. He and Debby would go for long drives and show disgusting porn images to anyone who pissed them off as payback. Kind of a road rage sort of story.
"You've Come a Long Way, Baby!" is about why he started smoking and how he now tries to live a cleaner life by chewing nicotine gum. Trouble is, he is now addicted to the gum.
"The Forecast for Summer" is about a friend of his mother's who killed herself. Not a funny story.
"Try Our New Single Black Mother Menu" is about how, when Burroughs was a kid, he wanted to eat a McDonald's and wear his hair in an Afro and wear burgundy platform shoes, despite being told that that sort of thing was only for blacks.
In "The Georgia Thumper" Burroughs gets even with his really mean other grandma whom he was forced to spend time with every summer.
"Little Crucifixions" is about an distressing skin condition he has been fighting since he was a kid.
"What's in a Name?" is a brief portrait of disturbed family life, with Burroughs' brother calling their mother Slave and their father Stupid and how Burroughs himself could call his dad vile names right to his face and get no reaction at all from the man.
"The Wonder Boy" is about how he fooled his mom into thinking he had psychic powers. It's hard to believe she was really that gullible.
"Fetch" is my favorite story in the book, as he stumbles into a job helping a couple of men train hunting dogs and ends up with a dog of his own.
"Mrs. Chang" is about the lady who used to read stories to the kids and they all loved her even though her accents was so thick they couldn't understand her.
And finally there is "Julia's Child" where he recounts his efforts to imitate what he saw on the cooking show on TV. Unfortunately, he is more concerned with appearances than with actually cooking and he just ends up making messes. But I guess the point of the story is where are his parents while all this in going on...?

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

The Forge of God

By Greg Bear

Eh, sometimes you just have to wonder about people. Why are there so many science fiction writers whose fondest wish seems to be the annihilation of the Earth? I don't get it...
Anyway, yes, this is another "let's destroy the Earth and wipe out everything that is precious and beautiful and makes life worth living" story. I don't know how I am so lucky as to stumble across these two books withing the space of a few weeks. (The other book was Manifold Time.) In this book the world has been attacked by machines who plant bombs deep in the Earth which will blast the world to bits. By the time we figure out what is going on it is too late to do anything. Some other aliens come and provide passage off planet to a few thousand people. They end up on Mars.
Basically this book gives Bear a chance to show us how smart he is. It is chock full of boring scientific facts and speculation, a trait it shares with the aforementioned book. Do I really need to read about the workings of a bomb when just the simple fact it is a bomb is enough? No, I don't.
Here is something I found just plain sick. This one character knows the world is doomed and he decides he will spend his last days enjoying the beauty of Yosemite. He is going to do a little sightseeing on his way and get there with time to spare for some introspection. He is feels this is a good plan. But then text says, "Then why did he feel so miserable?" HELLO!? THE WHOLE WORLD IS GOING TO BLOW UP! Who wouldn't feel miserable?
This was a stupid book. The people were stupid. They didn't act like people who knew they were doomed in a few days to a horrible, gruesome death. Greg Bear must be one heartless SOB not to understand how devastated most people would be by that. The main point of the book is to show everybody what a clever fellow Greg Bear is. Bah!

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Killobyte

By Piers Anthony

I first became acquainted with the books of Piers Anthony through his Xanth series. I have read several of them. I no longer read his new Xanth books because the quality of the story telling has taken a nose dive and they are simply bad. But when I saw this book I decided to give it a try since it was written in 1993 so maybe it was far enough back in his career before he stopped trying to write well.
There is a lot about Killobyte that is similar to Xanth. There is a dragon, an evil sorceror, an imp (the computer hacker), a beautiful, sexy princess, magic, and quests of a sort. About the only thing lacking are the puns and the lightheartedness of the Xanth stories. Otherwise the tone is very Xanth-like.
Walter Toland is a paraplegic ex-cop. He has rented a virtual reality online computer adventure game called Killobyte. Another player is Baal Curran, a depressed teen. Walter rented the game because he wanted to experience life as a normal man, not a cripple. Baal is in the game because it gives players a chance to experience death without actually dying and Baal is toying with the idea of suicide as she is having a hard time dealing with being a diabetic. They meet in the game when Baal is playing the Princess and Walter is the evil sorcerer. Just as they are starting to get friendly, the hacker traps Walter in the game. The hacker has infected the game with a virus that keeps the player from quitting the game. (Now here is a major problem I had with the story. The players are strapped into the game and can't get out if they can't exit. I just can't buy that idea that people would let themselves be strapped down or that a game vendor would sell such a dangerous product.) Baal agrees to help Walter escape the hacker and she quits and contacts the game maker and gets a patch that will lock the hacker into the game. But when she logs back on, she discovers that the hacker has now locked her into the game. And she also realizes her blood sugar has gotten dangerously low and she is at risk of going into diabetic shock. Walter also is facing death as the game is adversely affecting his pacemaker. They appeal to the hacker for the code to release them from the game, but he suspects they are trying to trick him and he refuses. He then runs off and Walter and Baal have to chase him across the virtual reality worlds of the game.

Despite its flaws and improbabilities and resemblance to Xanth, I found this an interesting and enjoyable read. It was fast paced and exciting and the idea of virtual reality is intriguing. Imagine a world where you can pursue any fantasy and look any way you choose! Where you can leave the limitations of your body behind and where any setting, real or imaginary is there to be enjoyed. What a deal!