Saturday, May 29, 2010

Week 22: Death from the Skies!

Death from the Skies!: the Science Behind the End of the World, by Phil Plait

Phil Plait has a really enjoyable writing style and is very good at explaining difficult scientific concepts clearly. In this book, he explores several different possible ways for the world to end, each less probable than the last (or at least, very very far in the future). It's a great book for anyone interested in astronomy; the explanations of the Sun and supernovae are the best I've read. I plan to require my kids to read it as part of logic-stage astronomy.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Week 21: The Graveyard Game and Thomas Sowell

The Graveyard Game, by Kage Baker

I think this is book 4 of the Company series, and it's the first one that really concentrates on the central mystery of just what Dr. Zeus is up to--before this it's been part of the background. Joseph (formerly a resident of Lascaux, more recently a Roman centurion and Spanish Inquisitor) and Lewis, a literary document preserver, set out to find information on what happened to their friend Mendoza. And whatever happened to Budu, who hasn't been seen for about a thousand years?
I'm really getting onto this series and am looking forward to the next one. If you are the least bit interested in SF/history, you should read these books.

The Housing Boom and Bust, by Thomas Sowell

Sowell, an eminent conservative economist, came out with this short book pretty quickly after the housing market bust of 2009. It's his explanation of how we got into this mess and what we need to do to get out of it. It's an interesting--and depressing--read, which once again made me grateful for our relatively small mortgage (by California standards anyway).

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Week 20: The Bottom Billion

Paul Collier is a professor of economics at Oxford and directs the Center for the Study of African Economies. Here, he addresses the problem of the very poorest countries--the ones we call failing states, that are not becoming wealthier with the rest of the world because they are caught in various traps. There are about a billion people in these countries, so one-sixth of the world population is stuck in dire poverty that is not improving.

Collier identifies four major "traps" that keep the bottom billion down:
  • Conflict: usually recurring civil wars
  • Natural resources: if a country has a single valuable resource like oil or diamonds it can work against prosperity
  • Being landlocked with bad neighbors: with no ports, a country needs its neighbors to have good roads and good government in order to export products
  • Bad governance in a small country: corruption!

He discusses current aid policy and examines what works, and what doesn't. It becomes clear that if we want to help these failing states, we need to stop emotional, aimless money-throwing and analyze what truly works. Many fairly simple strategies are overlooked, and often we are simply pursuing less-effective (or even counter-effective) measures that need some tweaking in order to work much better. A few specific issues he explores in-depth are international aid, military intervention, international laws and standards, and global trade policy. How these instruments work--and fail to work, and could work better--makes for some interesting (if slow) reading.

This is an excellent book to study as part of learning about issues of global poverty and how wealthy nations can help the poorest ones get on board.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Week 19: One Amazing Thing and Mendoza in Hollywood

One Amazing Thing, by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni

Divakaruni is my favorite writer of contemporary fiction; I just love her books. (So thanks, Monica, for hooking me on her!) This new novel uses the old form that Boccaccio and Chaucer used of a gathering of different people, each of whom tells a story. Here, the characters are in San Francisco, applying for visas to India, when an earthquake hits and traps them in the basement visa office. In order to bear the difficulties of waiting for rescue, they tell personal stories that explain much of their lives and why they are where they are.

It's not a long book, but it's absorbing and well-written. I loved it.

Mendoza in Hollywood, by Kage Baker

The first Company novel, In the Garden of Iden, told the story of Mendoza, a Spanish girl rescued from the Inquisition's dungeons and sent on her first mission to Mary I's England. In this third installment of the series, Mendoza is again the narrator, now living in Los Angeles in 1862. Well, actually at a stagecoach stop in what will someday be Hollywood; one of the residents is a cinema fanatic who knows every inch of the future city, so there's plenty of film detail even though none of it exists yet.

As the books progress, the overarching plot starts to take shape and the Dr. Zeus Company starts to look more and more sinister. I'm really interested in how this series is going to develop.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Week 18: Enchanted Glass

Enchanted Glass, by Diana Wynne Jones

Diana Wynne Jones is my all-time favorite writer, so don't expect an unbiased critique of Enchanted Glass from me.

Andrew inherits his uncle's house but has no memory of the powerful magic and work that go along with the place. When a frightened boy named Aidan fetches up on his doorstep, they start to help each other figure out what's going on and why the reclusive Mr. Brown seems to think he owns both of them.
That summary doesn't do justice to the story. Jones has been working out themes of land magic in a couple of her recent books (The Merlin Conspiracy, The Pinhoe Egg) and this new book continues that train of thought. Of course, I enjoyed Enchanted Glass and of course, I'll be rereading it many times. Nobody compares to Diana Wynne Jones!

The Ultimate Career, by Daryl Hoole
Way back in the 60's, Daryl Hoole (who is female) wrote The Art of Homemaking for an LDS audience. I've never read it myself, but evidently it was extremely popular--everyone but me knows about it. A few years ago, with the help of her daughters and daughters-in-law, she wrote The Ultimate Career for modern LDS homemakers. I picked up a used copy; I like to collect and read these books, though I'm not much good at the actual job.

The title is taken from a C. S. Lewis quotation: "The homemaker has the ultimate career. All other careers exist for one purpose only--and that is to support this ultimate career." I have not actually been able to find a proper citation for this particular bit, but I did find another, similar quotation from a 1955 letter to a Mrs. Ashton:

"I think I can understand that feeling about a housewife’s work being like that of Sisyphus (who was the stone rolling gentleman). But it is surely, in reality, the most important work in the world. What do ships, railways, mines, cars, government etc exist for except that people may be fed, warmed, and safe in their own homes? As Dr Johnson said, ‘To be happy at home is the end of all human endeavour’. (1st to be happy, to prepare for being happy in our own real Home hereafter: 2nd, in the meantime, to be happy in our houses.) We wage war in order to have peace, we work in order to have leisure, we produce food in order to eat it. So your job is the one for which all others exist."
Well. Now that the librarian in me is satisfied, we can continue with the review of the book. The first half covers the physical basics of running a home well: organization, setting up a system, chores for children, and so on, plus sections especially for women with outside jobs and people just getting started. The second half is about motherhood and more spiritual topics, especially caring for children with special needs and coping with chronic illness. It's all about maintaining a happy, comfortable home, pretty much.
I quite enjoyed the book and certainly got something from it. It will go on the shelf with my other homemaking books and I'll use it again.