31 December 2007

The selected 4th Quarter Canon

Note on prices: The most available book resources currently available are on-line, chiefly Amazon and bn.com. For used/rare books, the gold standard is bookfinder.com. Personally, I enjoy going to Barnes & Noble, B. Dalton, Borders or independents, such as The Book Shelf in Morgantown, because the online booksellers have yet to recreate the real-world browsing experience. Besides, there’s no coffee bar at Amazon. The largest bookseller is WalMart, but its selection is quite limited. The Amazon price is close to almost all sellers’ prices.

ll - Odyssey, by Jack McDevitt (Ace Hardcover, 2006, Amazon Price $16.47) - This is a sorta fun space opera. As is necessary in that genre, it postulates faster-than-light travel and ignores relativity. (If relativity turns out to be an absolute, space opera is pure fantasy.) Naturally, it deals with mysterious alien life. Space opera is an addiction of youth, and I have found that it lasts into adulthood. For me, it’s fun. For a non-sci-fi-er, it would be a great bloody boor.

llll - The Secret, by Rhonda Byrne (Atria Books, 2006, Amazon price $13.17) - "The secret" is that we become what we think about. Think abundance, you get abundance. Think health, you lose weight, and so forth. That sounds a little New-Age-ish. In New-Age-feng-shui-tao-te-ching-lao-tzu-sun-tzu-confucian-if-only-I-had-training-and-there-are-conspiracies-and-secrets-that-"they"-don’t-want-you-to-know-about world, this "secret" is certainly prominent. Nevertheless, the science underlying this idea may be perfectly sound. Neurological/behavior science isn’t very far advanced. We do know that the mind is a stunningly complex computer-analog, and most agree that it can be used more efficiently and effectively. It is capable of, indeed it thrives on, "fuzzy logic," something that computer engineers are slowly developing to make computers more "intelligent." We humans have "hunches" and "feelings," sometimes superstitious and stupid, but sometimes I think that it is the human mind making logical extrapolations from relatively little data. So, if we decide to think a certain way, is it not possible that our minds will work at least a bit more effectively to move us in that direction? I cannot talk probabilities here. To some extent, it is a matter of desire or faith. Some faith is due to concrete and measurable things - e.g., if I drop a pencil over the floor, I have every faith that it will fall to the floor every time. Some faith is not at all measurable or based on empirical evidence, for example, God and the after-life. I believe that, too, but cannot demonstrate it by dropping a pencil or anything else experimental. The capabilities of the human brain fall somewhere in between, and I have no expertise at all in quantifying those capabilities. So, for the moment, you either believe "The Secret" and apply it, with whatever results, or you don’t. One thing that I am fairly confident of is that thinking positive, constructive things won’t automatically bring their opposites into your life. I liked this book well enough to buy several copies and spread them around.

lll - Stick to Drawing Comics, Money Brain!, by Scott Adams (Portfolio Hardcover, Amazon price $16.47) - Dilbert is like a lot of lawyers - you either love him or you hate him. I absolutely love Dilbert. The humor is pointed but sometimes subtle, yadda, yadda, yadda, I just like it. Adams has written this non-Dilbert book which consists of pithy little essays, not unlike 100 decent blog posts. He writes in a readable and funny way. His opinions have an edge that I don’t enjoy and for a liberal, he writes in an unusually judgmental way. That’s a personal thing, not a recommendation against Adams. I certainly hope that my opinions have an edge which some folks don’t enjoy. (No, your Honor, I don’t mean you!) His insights are thoughtful, even when you don’t agree with him, and it’s an easy read.

llll - Plato and a Platypus Walk Into a Bar . . ., by Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein (Abrams Inage, 2007, Amazon price $12.89) - This is a damn fine and fun read. These guys, who have degrees in philosophy, explain various schools of philosophical thought using jokes as illustrations. When you remember that life is fundamentally a hoot from start to finish, this makes sense. For some reason, one illustration about the reductio ad absurdum is stuck in my mind. A man and woman are driving past a farm. They see 50 sheep standing in the pasture. The woman says, "Those sheep are shorn." The husband replies, "At least on this side." The teaching is that the probability of (1) farmers shearing sheep on only one side and (2) 50 sheep randomly orienting themselves so that only the shorn side faces the road is so slight that the woman is "right." Philosophy is far more "real" that it seems, because it puts labels on the perspective of our human minds. I had a lot of fun with this one.

llll - Heyday, by Kurt Andersen (Random House, 2007, Amazon price $17.79) - I’m not sure what to call this genre. I’ve always thought of historical novels as being fictionalized versions of known historic events. This is set in the United States in 1848 - 49, mostly in New York and California. It is a "quest" novel, quite rich in detail about the manner of living at that time. The images are clear enough that the reader can get a detailed picture of the setting and the culture. It shows that the author has done detailed research into 19th Century New York, fire-suppression technology and departments, prostitution and gold prospecting, as well as being familiar with human nature. Beyond the time-setting, this is just damn fine modern fiction.

lll - The Chase, by Clive Cussler (Putnam Adult, 2007, Amazon price $16.17) - Since around 1978, Cussler’s bread-and-butter has been the adventure novel featuring "Dirk Pitt," and a fictional government agency. There are 19 novels in that series (the first edition of the earliest one published only in mass market paperback and now very difficult and very pricey to obtain), and if you enjoy that sort of thing (which I do), they are a lot of fun. For the first time, Cussler alone has written a historical-adventure novel in the same style as the Dirk Pitt books, but without that continuing character. The plot involves a criminal investigation and pursuit in the West in 1906 (including chapters about the San Francisco earthquake), and as such is a western. (I hesitate to include that - for some odd reason, that setting turns lots of people off to otherwise good books.) This, too, has unusual historical detail, and is a fine read.

llll - Dinner with a Perfect Stranger; and A Day with a Perfect Stranger, by David Gregory (WaterBrook Press, 2005 and 2006, Amazon price $10.15 each, Amazon has a boxed set for $12.89) "A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds . . .", Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self-Reliance. See above, I’m not a great fan of unscientific, unprovable mysticism. This is unscientific and unprovable, and if it’s meant to be taken seriously, maybe it’s a touch heretical. The assumption is that Jesus personally visits first a husband and then his wife. In Dinner with a Perfect Stranger, the protagonist-husband receives an engraved invitation to dine at a nice restaurant with Christ in person. While nothing conflicts with my (admittedly incomplete) Biblical knowledge, it’s just vaguely uncomfortable for a modern author to be putting words into Christ’s mouth. (Neale Donald Walsch does that with a serious passion in his Conversations With God series. He makes no pretense at inspirational parable, he claims that the Almighty personally guides his fingers on the keyboard.) Christ explains, well, Christian love and takes a stab at pointing out where modern people are off-track. A Day with a Perfect Stranger starts with the protagonist-wife leaving on a business trip, and with her intense belief that her husband has stripped his mental gears. (She leaves him a note, "While I’m gone, I hope you and Jesus have a nice time.") On an airplane, she sits between an pushy proselytizer and a quiet, thoughtful fellow, the latter of whom is, again, Christ returned. This second volume is better than the first. The theme there is opening your mind (and your heart) to the extreme stretch that faith and love require. If these books are read literally, they are uncomfortable. Perhaps if these are read as allegorical or even as parables, they are inspirational and valuable. I liked them, and I’ve spread around several copies. Why does everyone feel compelled to apologize for spirituality of any sort and especially for practicing Christianity? Hey, if it bothers you, don’t read them, the First Amendment is alive and well in West Virginia.

lll - Rumpole Misbehaves, by John Mortimer (Viking Adult, 2007, Amazon price $16.29) - My goodness, a Rumpole book that scores only 3 compass points?! Have I slipped a cog? I’m not sure. John Mortimer is an English barrister, author and playwright who has been producing the delightful Rumpole stories for 30+ years, which feature an irascible older criminal trial barrister. Everyone who has ever appeared in front of a Court must appreciate and smile at (and maybe even secretly admire) the unspoken I-should-have-said asides in Rumpole’s mind. The most recent collections (Rumpole and the Primrose Path, Rumpole and the Reign of Terror, Rumpole and the Penge Bungalow Murders, and Rumpole Rests His Case) are at the zenith of this long-running series. Perhaps the irascible brush is painting me, or perhaps the series is just running out of gas, but I just didn’t get intense appreciation from this one. But I read it, and I will gladly and gratefully read any more that Mortimer has to offer.

llll - Bill of Wrongs: The Executive Branch’s Assault on America’s Fundamental Rights, by Molly Ivins and Lou Dubrose (Random House 2007, Amazon price, $16.47) - Molly Ivins died last January. One of her last professional acts was working on the manuscript for Bill of Wrongs. The war on terror, she reasons, has resulted in trading away the very things that make America unique and free, leaving precious little for the terrorists to disrupt other than public order. Factually innocent Americans have been detained for extended periods without lawyers or access to the Courts. Free speech is taking a licking from the Right (and, while Ivins only touches upon it, from the Left, too.) Employees of the American government - the AMERICAN government - are performing investigative and enforcement acts which constitute torture. This is NOT a balanced presentation, nor does it pretend to be. The Administration is, for example, taken to task for liberally interpreting the Second Amendment (a position which West Virginians have repeatedly supported en masse with their votes, including that on the Right to Keep and Bear Arms Amendment, West Virginia Constitution Section 3-22.) Ivins sticks with the zero-sum approach to creation/evolution. Nevertheless, we NEED voices for responsibility, liberty and free speech, so we are poorer with Molly Ivins’ passing. Perhaps her best epitaph will be found in the reaction to her death of her primary target for the past decade, President Bush II: "I respected her convictions, her passionate belief in the power of words, and her ability to turn a phrase. She fought her illness with that same passion. Her quick wit and commitment to her beliefs will be missed."

llll - Freedom from Oil, by David Sandalow (McGraw-Hill, 2007, Amazon price $17.79) - This is written in the format of faux government officials advising the President of energy policy options. The book is so intensively researched and so fact-rich that any qualms about the structure are quickly lost. Indeed, I wish that whoever occupies the White House would read this and take the information and projected solutions realistically. Minerals are finite. Minerals are unevenly distributed about the globe, thereby making energy hogs (like Americans) dependent on imports from regions which happen to be unstable or undependable or filled with dangerous fanatics. Combustion of fossil fuel liberates carbon which was trapped in the earth for some millions of years, thereby increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide. (Not everyone agrees. A West Virginia political candidate was quoted as saying that "there’s no scientific proof whatsoever that greenhouse emissions are caused by fossil fuels." That such simple minds are in positions of influence is either touching or disturbing, take your pick.) Sandalow debunks the common wisdom that scientists will certainly rush in and save the day by easily turning sea water into combustible (non-carbon emitting) hydrogen or conquering the problems of controlled fusion reactions. Sandalow discusses real-world short-term and long-term actions which should be taken. For instance, widespread use of "plug-in electric hybrid vehicles" would provide immediate energy efficiency and pollution limiting effects. It might be that we now living can escape the worst effects of our energy madness, but our grandchildren won’t. If the problem had been this bad in 1908 and was ignored by the people of that year, we would be quite peeved about now, and rightly so.

llll - Dune, by Frank Herbert (Originally published 1965, First editions run $100 or more, a hardcover reprint can be found for $10 or so) - I have a first printing of Dune, but I’m irrationally unwilling to handle it since it’s in DARN good shape. So I found a reprint hardcover on sale at B&N, and couldn’t resist. My list shows that this makes at least the third time I’ve read Dune, the next most recent being over 10 years ago. This is just brilliant mainstream sci-fi. Also, along with 2001: A Space Odyssey, Dune is one of the very few sci-fi books to have made a faithful translation to the screen. An oldie and a goodie.

ll - Lion in the White House: A Life of Theodore Roosevelt, by Aida D. Donald (Basic Books, 2007) - Hell, I always enjoy a read about TR, since he’s a genuine hero. But Lion in the White House adds very little to the extensive biographies of the past decade. The single thing I really got from it is a reasonable interpretation of TR’s intervention in the 1902 Anthracite Strike, reasonable being defined as I agree with it and it’s a noble conclusion. Edmund Morris’s The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, Theodore Rex, and the (hopefully) to-be-written volume about the post-presidential years remain the gold standard of TR bio’s, and H.W. Brands’ TR: The Last Romantic runs a close second. One detailed and fun (if quirky) TR tome is My Last Chance to be a Boy, by Joseph Ornig, which is a detailed account of the 1913 - 14 Brazilian expedition.

llll - Monongah, by Davitt McAteer (West Virginia University Press, 2007, Amazon price $19.80) - On 6 December 1907, an explosion in the Fairmont Coal Company’s Mines 6 & 8 in Monongah, Marion County, killed 500+ miners. This is a detailed study of that disaster. Before I actually put these words to paper, I was somewhat negative about Monongah, but for the wrong reasons. That would have been pretty stupid on my part, and would have placed form over substance. (Also, it would have run afoul of TR’s comments about it not being the critic who counts, but that the credit belongs to the one "who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly . . .".) The author, Davitt McAteer, is a native of Fairmont (right up the road from Monongah) who now practices law in Shepherdstown. (His sister is a friend and very gracious lady.) He served honorably as the head of MSHA during the Clinton Administration. Having come out of the United Mine Workers of America, he was less than the darling of the coal operators while in government. (The owner of the Crandall Canyon Mine in Utah, which collapsed killing 6 miners and and 3 rescuers in 2007, spoke of McAteer with fluent contempt in a press conference broadcast on CNN.)To grade this book, we have to grade several subjects:\
Research/Scholarship - A
Organization - B+
Editing - D
Overall Value - A+
McAteer researched Monongah for 30 years. (If he plans to match the output of a Michener, he needs to move a little quicker.) The length and depth of the research shows. Nearly all of the sources are primary ones, and the book is extensively end-noted. McAteer’s writing isn’t Michener, but particularly when he is talking about people, and how people lived, he does so with passion and such unusual detail that one can clearly see the images. The descriptions of the miners’ poverty in the squalor of company houses are so real that they are painful. The organization is a touch chaotic, but I might be unfair about that one. McAteer is covering a single large event which had several coherent lines of development going at once, so a strict chronology is impossible. At times, the book is redundant, but that’s really more of an editing problem.Ah, editing. Monongah is the unfortunate victim of inadequate, even inept editing, so much so that it takes willing suspension of disbelief to get past that to the value of the work. Whoever edited this used spell-check but didn’t read the manuscript itself very closely. There are several instances where homonyms or similar words are confused ("to" rather than "too", "road" rather than "roar", "Triangle Shirt Waste Factory" rather than Triangle Shirt Waist . . ."), poor grammar (" . . . they were paid a hourly wages" and some silly factual mistakes. (West Virginia was formed in 1863, not 1865; the hotel in Wheeling is McClure House, not McLure House; President Taft’s Christian names were "William Howard," not "Howard A.") For 30 bucks, ($19.80 at Amazon), more attention should have been paid to the details. There are also errors that I’m probably too petty in noticing that wouldn’t distract any reader save one who has walked the ground where the disaster happened. (I’ve been there many times, and every time I go to my father-in-law’s house, I park on the streetcar right-of-way that figures prominently in McAteer’s account.) McAteer isn’t heavy on historical interpretation (an attitude that I heartily approve of), and most of what he does sounds reasonable to me. (I think he misses the point of Theodore Roosevelt’s intervention in the 1902 Anthracite Strike, but that’s subject to honest disagreement.) SO, overall, if you set aside my own literary/grammatical fastidiousness, Monongah is an engaging and timely look at an important event and a turbulent time in our state’s history.
There is a children’s book (The Monongah Mining Disaster, by Jason Skog) due to be published in January 2008. It will be interesting to see what view that author presents to youngsters.

llll - The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Practicing Law, by Mark Herrmann (ABA Publishing, 2006, List price $34.95, Amazon price $23.07) - I’m not sure if I like this one because it’s full of good advice, or because I’ve learned soooo much over the years from curmudgeons. I started practice before Judge J. Harper Meredith, a curmudgeon if there ever was one. Wow, I loved that guy, and learned more much from him than anybody in law school. (Perhaps the best compliment I ever received was from Judge Meredith: "Roger, you and I understand each other.") The theme here is working hard and taking responsibility, which are probably hard to teach, but Herrmann mixes in a lot of "how’s & why’s." That’s the way I learned what I know about my craft (and hope that I’m still learning) from my mentors, mainly Alfred Lemley and the late Frank Sansalone. Both of them taught me the attitude of fighting like hell for your client, for giving honest and candid advice, and for working hard. Both gave me advice that, if followed, makes a lawyer’s life much easier. Do the order as soon as you get back to your office after a hearing. Don’t violate what is now RPC 1.8. Herrmann talks about the trap apparently laid by every lawyer-supervisor who assigns a brief to a student or new lawyer, that of asking if this is your best work and ready to file. I only got caught on that one once, and learned that the only acceptable response was "Dammit to hell, Alfred, I wouldn’t have brought you the bleeping thing if it weren’t." Herrmann teaches billing clearly, dealing with staff, dressing acceptably, involving clients in decision-making without compromising yourself, and building a practice. Maybe a great gift that those of us who have been taught by curmudgeons is to become curmudgeonly ourselves. This is a great resource to keep learning.

A note on cyberbooks: Ben Bova’s 1989 Cyberbooks forecasts the mixed blessing of large numbers of books being carried in a simple handheld computer the size of a modern mass market paperback. There have been several feeble attempts to fulfill this prediction in past years. Sooner or later, some format will catch on, just as VHS, cassette tapes and CD’s did. The latest entrant is the Kindle device exclusively offered by Amazon. Amazon touts its readable screen, (tiny) QWERTY keyboard, ease of downloading books (wirelessly), and long battery life. Amazon also offers online storage of your "library" so that you can keep downloading books basically forever, or until the next successful attempt at a cyberbook standard occurs. Downloads cost $10 for anything current, although $4 downloads are available for some books. Right now, Amazon has 90,000 titles available for the Kindle which is, when you think about it, not a whole lot. Oh, the biggest downside: The Kindle costs $399. Shipping is free. Yippee.

Pippa passes.