bkinetic -- 2018 75-Book Challenge
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I completed the 75-Book Challenge last year for the first time and am back again this year. I found that the challenge broadened the range of books I read, partly due to the necessity of picking up whatever book is handy in order to keep pace. The group reads were also helpful in maintaining and channeling my progress. Thanks to everyone for their comments and encouragement during 2018!
Books Read in 2018
1. Foods for Men With Benign Prostatic Hyperplasia ***** by M. Ward Hinds
2. Old Filth ***** by Jane Gardam
3. Neanderthal *** by John Darnton
4. Fanny Hill ***1/2 by John Cleland
5. Riders of the Purple Sage*** by Zane Grey
6. No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies ****1/2 by Naomi Klein
7. Pay Any Price****1/2 by James Risen
15. The Importance of Living **** by Lin Yutang
16. Let Me off at the Top: My Classy Life and Other Musings ***1/2 by Ron Burgundy
17. Spanish Verb Tenses ****1/2 by Dorothy Richmond
18. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech ****1/2 by Franklin Foer
Happy New Year
Happy New Group here
This place is full of friends
I hope it never ends
It brew of erudition and good cheer.
2. Old Filth *****1/2 by Jane Gardam
A delightful life-span character study that explores how a young boy negotiates an emotionally impoverished childhood, grows up, and deals with further adversities later in life. Due to some fortuitous encounters he becomes a conventional success within his profession, yet echos of his toxic past continue to reverberate even into old age. The story makes a plausible case that one or two capable and compassionate people can overcome the debilitating effects of both apathy and brutality.
3. Neanderthal *** by John Darnton
Could an isolated tribe of Neanderthals have survived into the modern era? What would they be like? What would their discovery be like? These ideas could form the basis of an interesting plot. In this attempt though most of the really interesting facets of Neanderthal survival and discovery are left unexplored. Instead the author turns the story into more of a cowboys-and-Indians melodrama. The entire narrative is male-centric. None of the major characters is a female Neanderthal or a Neanderthal child. Wild para-psychological elements are added to the plot but these just detracted from an intelligent reconstruction of Neanderthal life and culture. Even with these flaws it held my interest, but I continued have a sense of unrealized potential.
4. Fanny Hill *** by John Cleland
In my early teens I recall discussing Fanny Hill with a close friend after we saw a copy on the rear deck of a car as we bicycled past on our way to our paper routes. He said he would have taken it had the car been unlocked. I therefore have been curious about it and have finally read it. I enjoyed the expressive language and Cleland's descriptions, which must have sometimes been intended to be funny.
By concentrating on only one aspect of humanity, erotica generally cedes any means of saying something about us and our world beyond the narrow interests of the uni-dimensional characters. At the beginning of the "Letter the Second" the narrator, Fanny, acknowledges one of these limitations, writing that the there is "no escaping a repetition of near the same images, the same figures, the same expressions" and the reader is apt to become tired of the content. So there is a self-awareness here of the nature of the genre. There is also no honest portrayal of the fate of women lured into prostitution. Here it becomes a means of upward socioeconomic mobility.
5. Riders of the Purple Sage *** by Zane Grey
In several instances the characters act in an overly theatrical fashion that made me think of the exaggerated affect of characters in silent movies. Relatedly, there are also some plot devices that are cloying, going overboard playing on the reader's sympathies. There are a few undeveloped characters that are bumped off like the expendable crew on Star Trek. Who were they? Some of the scenes went on long after they had served their purpose.
In spite of all these problems there was a strong plot line that maintained my interest. In addition, the main character's struggle to break free from the dysfunctional obedience of a stern religious upbringing was interesting. I also liked the description of the Utah landscape.
6. No Logo ****1/2 by Naomi Klein
Modern corporate avarice takes many different forms and all are brought into the light of day in No Logo. Naomi Klein illustrates how corporate entities have ceased to be factories that make things and have instead transformed themselves into brands they slap on outsourced materials. Klein gives many examples of the way in which advertisers condition people to respond favorably to brand labels by associating those labels with positive stimuli, such as music, concerts, sports events, and sports venues. This results in the brands themselves becoming cherished symbols of delight, worn on clothing, transforming people themselves into advertising media. She gives many examples of how corporations have shut factories in North America and opened vastly lower-paying sweatshops in impoverished countries. She shows how companies have increasingly ceased paying anything close to a full-time living wage, forcing people to give up searching for work or accepting low-paying part-time work. She also covers grass-roots movements that have risen up to challenge these forms of corporate exploitation. No Logo is now 18 years but remains an eye-opening catalog of what has gone wrong in corporate America and how to begin to solve these problems.
7. Pay Any Price****1/2 by James Risen
James Risen is a former New York Times reporter who had the difficult task of covering the intelligence agencies. In this book he reports on stories he investigated. The stories are very different in content, but united by the U.S. government's active efforts to suppress them because they would embarrass high officials. Risen details the cases of whistleblowers whose attempts to expose wasteful spending and illegal spying have been repeatedly thwarted by their superiors.
A subtext of the book is that the United States has put itself in permanent state of war. For-profit war contractors have established lucrative companies that depend on continuing international armed conflict. As a result there is no strong advocate for peace among these government contractors, whose share of the defense budget and influence on policy has grown exponentially. This has left whistleblowers and investigative journalists without much help in achieving peace and curtailing intrusive domestic spying. Like many spy stories, there are many instances of suspense, betrayal, and personal sacrifice.
9. Listening to Whales: What the Orcas have taught us ***** by Alexandra Morton
Marine mammals captivated the author during her youth. With pluck and intelligence she created opportunities to study dolphins and whales without any significant institutional funding. What emerges is a fascinating portrait of a citizen-scientist who made a set of lifelong discoveries mainly about Orcas or killer whales. Along the way the reader learns about how and why whale captivity, fish farms, and marine noise sources are all harmful to many species. The author found for herself why these modern phenomena are undesirable, allowing the reader to share her analytical insights as they transpired. Alexandra Morton is also a fine writer and the book could have stood alone as a memoir of family life in a beautiful remote marine habitat apart from the wealth of information about whales.
10. Tao Te Ching (trans: Thomas H. Miles) ***** by Laozi
Laozi's set of 81 brief chapters sets forth the philosophy of Taoism. The author cautions the reader that words alone cannot faithfully describe his subject, the Tao or the way of the universe, which in our time has led some to dismiss this perspective due to its ambiguity. Enigmas and apparent contradictions appear frequently, which compelled me to pause to contemplate what Laozi was trying to convey. The necessity of pausing and reflecting makes reading this material fulfilling, especially when I felt I moved closer to understanding.
I found the three jewels of Taoism appealing: Compassion, frugality (also translated as restraint and moderation), and humility (or not seeking to be first). Laozi is also persuasive in advocating selective gradual change rather than confrontation.
This book is not for the been-there-done-that crowd, who see the ideal life as episodes of serial consumption. Instead the truths here are intended to be revealed though a combination of experience and contemplation. Some have wisely recommended memorizing some of the chapters, allowing the enigmas and puzzles to remain with us and perhaps to be solved later on with the help of experiential and contextual diversity.
The edition I read was translated by Thomas H. Miles and his students. It served my purpose well, though at times I would have appreciated some additional commentary to supplement the helpful existing guidance. Miles' translation also has some useful introductory material in which key terms are defined, insofar as that is possible within Taoism. I intend to read other translations to get a better idea of the range of interpretations.
12. The Aquatic Ape Hypothesis ****1/2 by Elaine Morgan
This book makes the case that humans evolved in watery environments and our physical characteristics reflect this heritage. These characteristics include our relative absence of hair, bipedalism, relatively high body fat percentage, nose shape, location of the larynx, and possibly even our present-day affinity for lake shores and seashores, among others. The author, Elaine Morgan, examines the arguments for and against the proposition that these morphological features were due to selective adaptation to aquatic environments. Along the way she provides evidence against the savannah theory, the idea that humans evolved due to adaptation to grassland. She makes a persuasive case for the aquatic ape hypothesis. I admired her attention to detail, readiness to discuss alternative hypotheses, and ability to weigh the evidence dispassionately. I learned many fascinating aspects of comparative human physiology.
13. Tao Te Ching: Annotated and Explained (trans: Derek Lin) ****1/2 by Lao Tzu
One of the difficulties in reading the Tao Te Ching is its enigmas and paradoxes. Derek Lin translated Lao Tse's work and supplemented it with extensive commentaries. These comments are included on the pages opposite to the chapters, making it convenient to read the original material and then to switch and read Lin's interpretations. I found Lin's comments helpful in partially solving the enigmas and understanding the paradoxes. There were some instances in which I though Lin may have gone too far in adding surplus meaning, but even in those cases I thought his interpretations were interesting as a legitimate way to understand the chapters.
The Tao Te Ching can be like a Rorschach test in which the reader can impose their own meanings. This happens to some extent with all literature, but the Tao Te Ching is especially susceptible to this due to its ambiguities and enigmas. The challenges of translating the original material, written in ancient Chinese, add to this problem. For example Lin translated the word "conservation" from the Chinese, yet in another translation it becomes "frugality", and in a third it is "simplicity". The differences in meaning are of course substantial.
14. Tao: The Watercourse Way **** by Alan Watts
I have been reading different translations of the Tao Te Ching and found some of the chapters difficult to understand. Alan Watts has a Western perspective on the material, so in this book he was able to lead me to comprehend the Tao Te Ching better. For example he relates the Tao Te Ching's advocacy of an inert and non-interventionist government to something akin to Western political philosophy of anarchism. In this way, he explains the Taoist philosophy in terms of concepts Westerners know, and I found this helpful in confirming some of my tentative hypotheses about the meaning of the Taoist ideas. This isn't perfect because the Taoist ideas likely lose something when translated as Western concepts, but it at least brings the Western reader closer to understanding.
This was apparently Alan Watt's final book and he was not able to finish it. Al Chung-liang Huang assembled the material and added some helpful explanations of his own.
17. Spanish Verb Tenses ****1/2 by Dorothy Richmond
I began work on this self-study workbook months ago, doing a few exercises almost each day. I finally finished. Dorothy Richmond packed this with lots of practice exercises, to the benefit of her students. My background is in educational psychology and I belong to the school that believes that practice is the key to learning, so this approach is ideal. I have to admire the author for her superb work in constructing all the exercises. As long as it took me to complete them, I know that writing them was longer and harder work than doing them. Hail Dorothy Richmond!
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