Imagine heaven

February 27, 2016

Mike Adams on near death experiences.

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Go Set a Watchman

February 21, 2016

Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, died the day before yesterday. Imagine my surprise when I found that my local public library had an electronic copy of her second novel Go Set a Watchman available. I’m barely into the book, but it’s excellent. LATER: I won’t say much more here, because the whole plot turns on an enormous spoiler. But now I can see why this novel, written first, couldn’t get published at the time. And yet it works perfectly as a sequel. Once you read Mockingbird and fall in love with the characters, Watchman lets you find out what happened to them in later years. I’m glad someone persuaded Harper Lee, rightly or wrongly, to publish. May she rest in peace.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

February 21, 2016

I have known about this title for years but read it only recently. It sounds like a humor book, but it’s really a police procedural, a dark comedic treatment of the life of Detective Meyer Landsman. The work is set in an alternate world where the United States nuked Berlin, the Arabs chased the Jews out of Palestine in the late 1940s, and many refugee Jews live on a reservation in Alaska. I found the plot a little hard to follow, and the descriptions a little flowery, but overall enjoyed the work.

Hard-wired for religious belief?

February 19, 2016

Based on the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter 1), and also based on observation, I’ve long believed that we humans come by our belief in God or the gods as part of our “wiring.” A new book challenges that belief. In Battling the Gods: Atheism in the Ancient World (Cambridge), Tim Whitmarsh argues that both theism and atheism have venerable pasts.

In one way this is nothing new. We’ve known for a long time that some of the ancient Greek philosophers did not believe in the gods. And religious faith seems to remain the default setting among the vast majority of humans. But if Whitmarsh is right, we cannot oversell that conclusion; the truth could be more complex than I, for one, have believed. (Isn’t it usually that way?)

And those on the other side of the aisle might need to adjust their rhetoric too. Atheists often picture religious belief as a product of early stages in human evolution, with atheism winning ground every day until all enlightened people will eventually disbelieve in the divine. The presence of atheists in the ancient world shows that model as too simplistic.

That’s all I’ll say because I haven’t read the book. A good summary of it appears on the University of Cambridge web site.

Pre-historical fiction

February 8, 2016

I’m reading Shaman by Kim Stanley Robinson (2013), an author best known for his Mars Trilogy (Red Mars, Blue Mars, Green Mars). Shaman describes the life of a hunter-gatherer band of early humans through the eyes of Loon, a young boy who trains to become a shaman. I’ve read one or two of the Mars Trilogy, also Robinson’s The Years of Rice and Salt, and so far I’ve enjoyed this one best.

Robinson writes leisurely, descriptive prose that moves the story slowly. He creates a sense of the land where the humans live, and he describes plausible habits of language and culture. One example: Robinson shows Neanderthal and Cro-Magnon humans living on the same land and sharing a complex relationship. The Cro-Magnons naturally call themselves People, and they call the Neanderthal Old Ones or Lunkheads. The two races sometimes visit one another’s camps, and at least once in the novel some People help out an injured Old One. But if the Old Ones catch you alone in the woods, they might kill you and eat you.

Joe Steele

January 26, 2016

Harry Turtledove does it again. The dean of alternative history imagines that Joseph Stalin’s parents immigrated to America before he was born, and he eventually becomes president of the United States instead of Franklin Roosevelt. It reminds me of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, although the politics of President Steele and Roth’s President Lindbergh differ a lot. Think it can’t happen here? Turtledove makes you wonder if maybe it could.

Manhunt: the 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer

January 23, 2016

I’m reading this book by James L Swanson (HarperCollins, 2006) that focuses entirely on the search for John Wilkes Booth after he assassinated Abraham Lincoln. A new edition, maybe just a reissue, came out in 2012 under the title Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.

A couple of impressions: first, I had not realized how deeply the search for the conspirators cut into Americans’ civil liberties. The authorities arrested dozens of people, broke into houses, and did all kinds of things that would not pass muster today. Also, if Booth had not broken his leg I think he would have gotten away.

This is addictive

January 22, 2016

A real-time map of births and deaths in The Atlantic.

The Eagles weep

January 18, 2016

Glenn Frey dead at 67. R.I.P.

Color photos from World War I

January 17, 2016

From the UK Daily Mail.


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