Nov 26, 2010

Book Review: Freedom

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Franzen, Jonathan
New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux
2010, 562 pages


I became familiar with the work of Jonathan Franzen some years ago when I stumbled upon his 2001 novel The Corrections, a witty and sometimes scathing satire of contemporary American suburbia. While I found the novel fascinating, I found Franzen's prose to be even more spectacular, and I marvelled at the author's ability to create beautiful and challenging sentences that simultaneously seemed effortless.

Franzen's newest novel, Freedom, will certainly appeal to those who enjoyed The Corrections, though the satire is toned down a bit in favor of social commentary. Using the lives of a dysfunctional family as a literary vehicle, Franzen examines such issues as metastatic consumerism, unthinking partisanship, and ecological sustainability. Franzen toiled to make readers dislike most of the main characters, and yet they manage to redeem themselves and even offer hope for the future.

Part of the appeal of Freedom to me is the depth of knowledge that Franzen possesses in a wide range of fields, and several times I found myself putting down the book to read up on topics the author referenced, subjects as seemingly diverse as the Cerulean warbler and mountaintop removal mining.

Part of Franzen's appeal as a writer can be found in the esoteric bits of humor and pathos found throughout the book. It takes a little knowledge of the Vedic traditions to known that the character Lalitha - devoted to reducing human population growth - has a name associated with the devotion to the Hindu Divine Mother, and the fact that Lalitha at one point considers getting her tubes tied cannot be a coincidence. Likewise, the Berglund family comes of age on Barrier Street, which seems to be a wry commentary about conflict in a gentrified and atomized neighborhood.

The conceptual understanding of freedom takes on many meanings in Freedom, from an individual desire to be free from want and worry to larger issues about the freedom of entire nations. Moreover, Franzen challenges readers on simplistic notions about what, exactly, constitutes a state of freedom, and examines people who attain what they believe to be freedom only to find that the freedom they sought was a chimera, and perhaps they were freer while still shackled to obligations like marriage, family, and work.

Freedom is not a light read, nor is it the kind of book that offers simple solutions to complex problems. Yet the book will likely stay with readers long afterward, forcing them to re-examine their lives and question their place in the world. Freedom is far more than literary gymnastics, and the ride is well worth the metaphorical ticket.

Nov 25, 2010

Random Wikiness

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When I am bored beyond measure - or when I am seeking intellectual inspiration - I occasionally visit Wikipedia and make use of the Random Article function. This button is located on the left sidebar of the main Wikipedia page, and a click on the Random Article link is a journey into the millions of constantly changing Wiki articles that Wikipedians have created and edited.

My first stop into the world of random Wikiness took me to a page that examines the life of major league baseball manager Joe McCarthy,
the first skipper to win pennants with both National and American League teams. A 1997 poll by the Baseball Writers Association of America named McCarthy as the second greatest manager of all time, right behind Casey Stengel. McCarthy, who managed MLB teams from 1926-50, was well before my time, and I only knew of him from reading books like Strange But True Baseball Stories as a kid growing up in the 1970s.

My next randomized journey took me to a page dedicated to Bill Nelson, an experimental rock musician and composer. I was vaguely familiar with the band Be-Bop Deluxe, for which Nelson might be most famous, though only in a tangential way. This page served as a reminder to check out some of Nelson's music. Here is a YouTube clip of Be-Bop Deluxe if you are curious about the band and the man who some call one of England's greatest guitarists.

I next took a Wiki-trip to the unrecognized nation of Transnistria, a territory that broke away from the Republic of Moldova in 1992. The Moldovan government does not recognize the secession, which was triggered by the perception that Moldova restricted the civil rights of ethnic minorities. The region contains about a half-million people, and though the 1992 cease-fire has held, repeated attempts to broker a peace settlement have stalled.

My random page-viewing ended with a reading about the California barberry, a holly-like shrub with serrated leaves that produces round purple fruits that resemble grapes. Typically found on coastal mountain slopes, the California barberry is edible, but it is sour and contains quite a few seeds, or so I am told. The fruit has also been used as a dye, and there is a history of the California barberry being used for medicinal purposes. Some gardeners prize the plant as an ornamental, though the growth rate of the California barberry may be a bit slow for impatient horticulturalists.

Nov 23, 2010

A Bunch of Dogs

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The lighting in this image is horrible, as the sudden appearance of the sun this afternoon made futile my attempt to capture all of my dogs in a single frame. Still, it was a moment of peace and happiness for the canine members of my family.

We adopted all of the dogs in the photograph, by the way, from Planned Pethood, a Northwest Ohio volunteer organization involved in pet rescue and low-cost spay/neuter programs. If you have a couple of dollars in a PayPal or checking account that you have a burning desire to see go to a worthy cause, consider donating to the group.

I have worked with many volunteer and charitable groups over the years, and Planned Pethood by far delivers the most bang for the donated buck. The group uses almost every penny of the received donations in programs that directly benefit rescued animals and that reduce the overpopulation associated with unwanted pets.

Nov 21, 2010

The Perils of Failing to Proofread

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Despite the fact that I teach college for a living (and in the writing-heavy field of history) I am not normally a grammar or spelling Nazi in the real world. Yes, I have my pet peeves, such as writers who start using apostophe's where apostrophe's are not needed as plural's in sentence's, but other than my stance as a radical apostrophist, I am quite forgiving of poor spelling and tortured grammar.

Still, occasionally I have to scratch my head at the benighted efforts of business owners when they create advertising with spelling or grammatical errors. Such was the case with the gutter cleaning entrepreneur, who promised "debree-free" gutters in a Xeroxed flyer that appeared on my porch today.

Perhaps the owner is being deliberately cute here, misspelling the word "debris" in an attempt to appeal to the sort of person who thinks it is kewl to spel badd 'n' stuff. But to most of the literate world, misspellings reflect poorly on a business owner.

Jess sayin', dood.

Nov 17, 2010

Book Review: The Professor of Secrets

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Eamon, William
National Geographic, 2010
368 pages


The mailboxes at my university office and house regularly fill up with more books than I could ever possibly read, let alone review, and there are times when I stare at the growing stacks of unread texts and feel almost guilty at the collecting dust. Then I grab a duster and the guilt dissipates, while the books often wind up on shelves, lonely reminders of unfinished business.

Yet there was something about William Eamon's The Professor of Secrets that immediately jumped out at me, and I found myself quickly hooked by the story of 16th century surgeon and alchemist Leonardo Fioravanti. Eamon, who is the Regents Professor of History and dean of the Honors College at New Mexico State University, crafted a highly entertaining work of medical history that reads like a novel, and the book is the rare text that can be appreciated by scholars as much as general readers.

Fioravanti was as much a showman as a healer, and his barnstorming brand of medicine contrasted sharply with the highly theoretical world of Renaissance physicians. Surgeons as well as physicians in the 16th century were quite different from their modern counterparts, and one of the most fascinating aspects of The Professor of Secrets involves Eamon's inclusion of standard medical treatments for common ailments. Syphilis patients might be subjected to a regimen of highly toxic substances such as mercuric oxide by the likes of Fioravanti, while the "wonder drug" known as theriac - which had its origins in the classical world - might be prescribed for almost any acquired illness or ingested poison. Of course, these "cures" might be even worse than the conditions for which they were administered, but this was a world just entering the beginnings of the Scientific Revolution.

The Professor of Secrets will delight as much as the book will edify, and I highly recommend this intriguing look at early modern medicine. The book contains thorough footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and quite a few illustrations and images that further enhance the textual narrative.

Nov 15, 2010

The Quote Shelf

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Medieval text with Latin script A frequent feature on this site; feel free to comment on the quote or to supply a competing quote.

An error does not become truth by reason of multiplied propagation, nor does truth become error because nobody sees it.

-- Mohandas Gandhi

Nov 10, 2010

Busy...Busy...Busy

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Sorry for the lack of posts in the past few days. I took on some extra teaching this semester, and one class in particular is giving me a workout: this is an upper level American economic history class, and I have been spending an unprecedented amount of time (by my standards, at least) reading and prepping.

I expect that this is the peak of zaniness, and that by the weekend I will have reduced the mountain of work back down to a manageable size.

Unless, of course, it becomes animate and devours me.

Nov 6, 2010

Missing His Mama

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Pictured on your left is our quirky Puggle, Eddie Haskell. He is forlorn because his favorite human being, my wife, is away for the weekend, and his sole source of comfort is the last shoe my wife wore before leaving for her trip.

Truth be told, I miss my wife, too, though I draw the line at shoe-sniffing, at least as far as you know.

Eddie Haskell sulks and sighs when my wife is away for more than an hour or so, and he seems to be smart enough to know that when she takes a small suitcase out the door that his mama will be away for a while. Eddie had the prototypical "hang dog" look as she left, and no amount of extra attention from me is going to distract him much from pining away for his mama.

Nov 4, 2010

Rapid Rhetoric: RUFESCENT

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Raphael's depiction of Plato defining the difference between true and false rhetoric This is an irregular feature - both in frequency and oddness - dedicated to a word or phrase I came across that I have never previously used.

rufescent (roo-FESS-ent) adj. tinged with red; reddish in tint.

I came across the adjective rangiferine today while perusing an 1888 book entitled The Avifauna of British India and its Dependencies. The word is of Latin origin, and is derived from the present participle of the verb rufescere ("to become red" or "to redden").

The term was used quite a bit in relation to a discussion of an Indian example of the Asian desert warbler (Sylvia nana):
The whole of the lower parts white, with, in the freshly-killed birds, a just perceptible rufescent tinge; wing lining and axillaries pure white ; wing pale brown, narrowly margined and tipped with rufescent white ; the tertiaries pale dingy rufescent with brown shafts.
The term rufescent seems to be a favorite among ornithologists, as the Rufescent Tiger Heron, the Rufescent Screech-owl, the Rufescent White-eye, and the Rufescent Prinia are among the many birds whose rufescence has been an inspiration to their monikers.

Nov 1, 2010

Book Review: A Photographic History of the 82nd Airborne Division at War

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Nordyke, Phil
Zenith Press, 2010
192 pages


Few American fighting forces can boast the sort of storied history associated with the exploits of the members of the 82nd Airborne Division, an airborne infantry unit of the United States Army. Phil Nordyke's A Photographic History of the 82nd Airborne Division at War provides a laudatory collection of images (some never before published) related to the unit's role in numerous campaigns in the European theater during the Second World War.

Over the years I typically cast a wary eye at pictorial histories, as there is a tendency in such books to produce trivial or superficial text to accompany the images. Nordyke, however, skillfully avoided this trap, and the chapters provide both detailed photographic captions as well as insightful accompanying text.

What I liked most about this book is its intriguing blend of photographic themes. There are of course plenty of images in the book related to combat, but Nordyke also included some fascinating shots of everyday life for members of the 82nd Airborne Division, like the image of troopers walking with a pair of mules hauling 81 mm mortars. Both World War II specialists and general readers will find A Photographic History of the 82nd Airborne Division at War a useful and informative addition to their libraries.