Sunday, September 2, 2012

Bibliophile: Priest's Whores, Killer Poems, and Electronic Mind Machines


If you think about it, this blog feature is pretty much the Kim Kardashian of library book searching.

This is Bibliophile.



This week, we're doing the University of Alberta.  Alberta's got a pretty advanced set of new book search tools.  Take a look. It's got RSS feeds for separate libraries and call number subject areas.  It does not, however, have a grand total, and clicking on each separate link gets a little tedious very quickly.  As established norm, an H indicates a book in my home library.

Strange histories : the trial of the pig, the walking dead, and other matters of fact from the medieval and Renaissance worlds / Darren Oldridge.  
Strange Histories is basically a pop history book: it takes moments from the past (mostly the Judeo-Christian past) that seem particularly odd to us today and explains why people had those beliefs.  Those oddities include a belief in witchcraft, trial by ordeal, the walking dead on Judgement Day, and the presence of angels.  The book claims its goal is to demystify the past, that the people living in these times had more complicated reasons for their beliefs than what can be dismissed by calling it all superstition.  I like that goal, but it still seems a little odd, as the starting point for all these discussions is "man, look how weird the past was."  I call it a pop history book, but don't let that dissuade you; if the first few pages are any indication, it's rather formal and somewhat dense.  It's just not particularly scholarly, in terms of his methodology or how it presents its sources.It's a little disappointing in that the weird beliefs all seem to stem from religious motivations; some more variety would be appreciated.  H. 

Supernature /Lyall Watson
Super Nature looks at the intersection between nature and the supernatural, where the fringes of science get a little fuzzy.  It makes a nice counterpoint to the last book: it was about the weird things people believed during "Ye Olde Times," and, um, this book is about some weird things that people believe right now.  I can't say I particularly agree with Watson's conclusions, but I think that this book feeds into a need people have to believe that there's more going on in the world than what can be rationally understood.  Subjects include the science behind astrology, psychic powers, circadian rhythms, and how evolution is influenced "by a pattern of information that lies half hidden in the cosmic chaos."  I believe that's a reference to the Futurama episode where God is revealed to be a computer code that talks to Bender for a while.  H.

  From priest's whore to pastor's wife : clerical marriage and the process of reform in the early German Reformation / Marjorie Elizabeth Plummer.
That's a catchy title, in a historically racy kind of way.  The book is about the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and how allowing priests to marry played a part in said reformation.  Plummer looks at the documents and arguments produced at the time with a focus on the records of Saxony, Franconia, and Swabia in Germany, a rural and urban mix that demonstrates the diversity of viewpoints.  I don't think I've studied the reformation since high school, and it was a fairly dry approach; I imagine something a little more contextualized would better anchor the debates.  The Amazon description doesn't really allude to a feminist treatment of the issue, but given the chapter titles and book titles, I think Plummer is writing from that perspective, which would also make a contextualized approach more relevant.  H. 

The dragon beards versus the blueprints : (meditations on post-war culture) / by Hsiao Ch'ien. 
I can't seem to find any information on this book in particular, but I can say something about Hsiao Ch'ien.  First, due to the whimsical nature of Westernized spelling, he's also known as Xiao Qian!  Fascinating.  Xiao was an early 20th century Chinese journalist.  During the Japanese occupation, he was part of a London-based protest group.  And he didn't favor well in the Cultural Revolution, as he was exiled by the Communist Party into the countryside.  He was heavily involved in WWII reporting, following the Allies on the front line.  He sounds like a pretty interesting person.  I chose this book for the title, but it looks like it would be worth reading on its own merits.  Plus, it's 34 pages long, so it would be a rather quick read. ...Actually, under that consideration, readers may be better off finding something he wrote that's of a little more substance.  H.

Never retreat, never explain, never apologize : my life, my politics / Deborah Grey.  
I believe my first exposure to Deborah Grey was John Morgan dressing in drag to imitate her, usually with a cigar in hand.  I really can't abide by any of her major stances, either politically, or, judging by this book's title personally.  It seems to be a perspective that decides ahead of times that it won't be considering anyone else's.  I just can't stand someone who would be proud of taking that approach to politics, or life for that matter.  (That's right--the only thing I'm intolerant about is intolerance.)  And for that matter, it seems a bit contradictory to write a memoir and also claim that you never explain yourself.  Judging from reviews, Grey's book demonstrates how her personal life lead to her political beliefs (hence the subtitle), and she is highly critical of the old PC and Stockwell Day's tenure as leader of the Conservatives (and for *some* reason she downplays her original misgivings over Harper for the leadership role).  I can't say I agree with her on most major issues, but I can't deny that she played a pivotal role in shaping the modern Conservative Party, and, by extension, modern Canada.  H. 

There is an I in team : what elite athletes and coaches really know about high performance / Mark de Rond.
And here's another title that seems hand-picked to annoy me.  (Well, actually, I hand-picked it, but you know what I mean.)  The actual subject is a little less provocative, as it's about harnessing such ego-oriented individuals and bringing them into line with a larger team.  It's a lesson that applies, the foreword tells me, to business and sports alike.  And (it goes on), while MOST applications of sport metaphors to the office are tired and cliched, THIS ONE covers the useful lessons that managers can actually use.  It looks at how interpersonal harmony can hurt team performance, why data and statistics can't replace intuition, and why likeability can trump compentence.  It also uses "cutting-edge social and psychological research."  I think if a book refers to its social research as cutting-edge, then you know where you stand.  And in case my sarcasm hasn't been picked up at this point, I think it's absolutely ridiculous to think that there's a similarity between coaching a game and being a business manager, and confusing the two will result in an office that's only superficially successful, if even that.  But I don't really have any cutting-edge research to back that up.  The book also has a lot of interviews, and I'll grant that it seems to be entertaining, on that level at least.  H.  

Regarding the pain of others / Susan Sontag. 
Susan Sontag is one of those authors that I've always meant to read, but have never quite gotten around to.  She's probably best known for her monograph "On Photography," which formalized one of the long-standing beliefs about photography, that observing and participating were two separate activities. It's a stance that's had a lot of traction (in part because it's so easy to criticize) and I've used it myself to situate discussions of camera use in videogames.  In this book, Sontag considers a related issue, how our ability to perceive horror may be eroded by the availability of shock imagery.  She also discusses the value of photography in a world of video, and what it offers that video doesn't.  Hmm.  The book sounds like it may be useful to my image-based focus in the dissertation.  Probably worth checking out.  H. 


Sex in college : the things they don't write home about / Richard D. McAnulty, editor.
From the title, the book seems both a little alarmist (What aren't your children telling you?!?) and dated (who "writes" home?).  It's an anthology about, well, sex in college, and it considers it in a variety of different ways with a variety of authors: intimacy issues, infidelity, theories of sexology, conducting research on the subject, sexual orientation, homophobia, assault, and sexual dysfunction.  The breadth of subjects suggests that it's a little more broad-minded than the title suggests, and a little less targeted towards overbearing parents.  In fact, the opening pages reject the view that we're facing some sort of sex-crazed twenty something crisis, and instead outline a history of dating with a focus on how new communication and transportation technologies have changed social patterns.  I'd almost rather read a sustained study with that premise than an anthology collection, but it could still be interesting.  H. 

Death sentences / Kawamata Chiaki
That brings us to the fiction section of this week's Bibliophile.  Chiaki's book is a sci-fi story about a poem that kills those who read it.  I'm afraid I can't think of that plot without flashing back to the Monty Python routine about the world's deadliest joke.  The story starts in 1948 Paris, where the poem is circulated among the dadaists of the period, and continues in the 1980s with a special police force tracking down illicit copies of the poem. I appreciate the real-world flourishes; it elevates the book beyond the Python sketch stuff.  I also like the idea of words having that sort of deadly effect; if Chiaki can connect the power of the poem to the Dadaist movement, it might offer an interesting historical viewpoint.  It's compared favorably to Gibson, Dick, and Bradbury, so at least it's in good company.  It's not in my local library, but at least looking it up brought up two other books with "death sentences" in the title. (One's on how jargon is damaging business practice, and the other is on the portrayal of death scenes in British literature.)

 The art of comics : a philosophical approach / edited by Aaron Meskin and Roy T. Cook.
I've participated in a few comic book reading group meetings, and I never know how to talk about the art.  I can handle story, which is mostly an extension of what I've learned as a lit student, and, thanks to Scott McCloud, I can talk about design.  But I feel like the actual art eludes me, sometimes.  Judging by this anthology, I may be worrying too much--it seems to be treating art in a more general sense.  The first section is on the comic medium, including what it means to evaluate a work with multiple authors, and how genres fit into comic studies.  Comics and representation look at how word and image work together, and how the comic (in terms of ha-hha) come out in the comic.  And the last section contrasts comics with film and literature.  The representation essays in particular seem like they might be worth a glance; comics use image and text together in a way that no other medium really captures.  

Speak to the devil / Dave Duncan.
Dave Duncan is a pretty established fantasy writer, who's been prolific in the industry for around thirty years.  I think I've read something from the "Tales of the King's Blades" series, but that's as far as my knowledge of him goes.  In Speak to the Devil, the story the fantasy world is on the cusp of transitioning from a feudal society to a nationalist one, with full armies.  Supernatural powers are feared as witchcraft, but the two protagonists of the story, Wulf and Anton, are charged with using these powers to defend a fort in danger of being captured by enemies with new technology.  Given how commonly magic and technology are combined or opposed in videogames, it's almost funny that fantasy literature tends to stick more to the medieval period, long before the technological revolutions or even the Enlightenment era.  This still reads as pretty traditional fantasy fare, but it's got enough of a twist that I could see it being a good read--but not one that would rise to the top of the list.

Altered carbon / Richard K. Morgan.
Morgan creates a universe where space travel is accomplished by transferring human consciousness electronically and downloading into new bodies.  The actual story is a sci-fi noir thriller, with Takeshi Kovacs, our protagonist, being downloaded into the body of a nicotine-addicted ex-thug and charged with finding the murderer of a billionaire--by the billionaire himself, who's not thrilled at losing his latest body.  I've learned to be somewhat wary of these sci-fi/noir hybrids; they tend to play it straight until the final chapters, then break away from their own established logic in order to do a really grand scale, often nonsensical sci-fi twist.  If Altered Carbon doesn't succumb to that temptation, I think it could be a nice little romp. 


The emperor's code / Gordon Korman.
Korman has probably had more influence on my childhood literary preferences than any other writer--in the non-fantasy and non-sci fi category, at least. I've loved his Bruno and Boots stories, as well as his YA stuff, and I've even kept reading a few through the years, including Jake Reinvented, a superb high school adaptation of The Great Gatsby.  This book appears to be more of a franchise thing, as part of a series called the 39 Clues, written by a rotating cast of authors.  It's a Da Vinci Code for kids, as two siblings discover that they are actually part of a gigantic family that has been manipulating world events for years.  They become embroiled in a plot between family factions to find the pieces (the 39 clues) needed to construct some sort of immortality serum.  This particular issue sees the two breaking up briefly, with one going to Everest and one to Beijing in search of the next clues.  I can't blame Korman for being involved in something a little more commercially viable than a Gatsby revival, but I can't say I have any particular interest in a series that seems tailor-made to be a low tech Spy Kids franchise.  And that's fine; I'm hardly the series key demographic, after all.

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