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Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion
by Sam Harris
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $15.85
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughtful, Challenging, Exciting, January 19, 2015
As one of the "New Atheists" Sam Harris is known for scorning the shallowness of much of what passes for religious thought today. One need not agree with his overall stance that religious belief is unnecessary in order to accept his criticisms of certain aspects of such belief: hostility towards science and reason or an increasing anti-intellectualism, to name two that most disturb me. In Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion Harris gives his readers a beautifully written and thought provoking discussion of spirituality that is in many ways an account of his own personal journey.

There are five chapters in Waking Up. I found myself intrigued and really excited by much of Chapter 2 "The Mystery of Consciousness" and Chapter 3 "The Riddle of the Self" because they revealed so much that was new to me about what science has begun to discover about the functioning of the mind. Chapter 1 "Spirituality", Chapter 4 "Meditation", and Chapter 5 "Gurus, Death, Drugs, and other Puzzles" were more personal accounts of Harris' own researches, involving pilgrimages to various Indian teachers and sages and experimentation with psychedelic drugs.

This is a thought-provoking work which will inevitably challenge many of one's assumptions and deep beliefs. It certainly should not be avoided on that account, since a belief that cannot withstand a challenge isn't worthy of being held.

The Company of the Dead
The Company of the Dead
by David J. Kowalski
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.69
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Multiple Histories, January 16, 2015
Any book whose cover bears the words "Alternate History" will immediately catch my eye. If that cover also has a picture of the Titanic then I no longer have any choice in the matter, I'm buying it right then and there and then reading it as quickly as possible. That's what happened a few days ago when I happened upon The Company of the Dead by David J. Kowalski.

As all the world now knows the Titanic struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage in April, 1912 and sank, carrying with it 1500 passengers and crew. Kowalski's book turns on what might have happened had the events of the night of April 14-15 unfolded somewhat differently. A great deal hangs in the balance: Kowalski speculates that slightly altering the fate of the Titanic would have had a massive impact on the unfolding of the twentieth century. To accomplish such an alteration he sends time travellers from a century later back to 1911. Perhaps, however, what actually happened in April 1912 is preferable to the alternative Kowalski proposes. The result is a conflict stretching over a century and across the North American continent, which in Kowalski's hands has a vastly different look.

Overall The Company of the Dead is engaging and entertaining. I most enjoyed the segments that take place on board the Titanic, though Kowalski's speculations on what happened in his alternate twentieth century were also intriguing. A good portion of the middle of the book is taken up with the battles between different groups of time travelers with very different goals, which I found less interesting. Nevertheless I feel confident in recommending this book to Titanic aficionados, lovers of alternate histories, and anyone else who enjoys a good science fiction read.

How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life
How to Be a Victorian: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Victorian Life
by Ruth Goodman
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $18.94
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Living History, Literally, January 13, 2015
Ruth Goodman went about the process of learning more about the Victorians by living in as Victorian a manner as possible: dressing, eating, sleeping, working, and cooking as our forebears more than a century ago would have done. The result is a fascinating look at the world of Victorian Britons, from early morning to night. Some of her conclusions will be surprising (I would never have guessed that wearing a corset could actually be comfortable) while others are to be expected (Victorian medications richly deserve their lethal reputations).

I learned quite a bit about the day to day lives of the Victorians: how they slept, cooked, ate, washed, worked, and relaxed. It was valuable indeed to have Goodman's frank appraisals of her own experiences and informative and often amusing to read about Victorian theories on health, proper dress, and daily comforts and discomforts. Some things that had long puzzled me were cleared up: a photograph of one of my great-grandmothers who was born and brought up in the late Victorian era shows her sitting on the very edge of her chair. Thanks to Goodman I now realize that such a posture is actually quite comfortable if you are wearing a tightly laced corset.

To be clear, Ruth Goodman is writing about British Victorians, so the experiences of Victorians in America and elsewhere would have been different in some aspects. This is also a very concrete account of day to day life, so while you can gain some insights into the Victorians' religious and social beliefs from it, you would need to do more reading elsewhere to really get into their heads. And in the end Goodman's book should fill its readers with new appreciation for their warm houses, varied and well cooked foods, reasonably comfortable clothing, etc.

A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff: The Great Recession and The Death of Small Town Georgia
A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff: The Great Recession and The Death of Small Town Georgia
by William Rawlings
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $26.10
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars History Writ Small, January 11, 2015
William Rawlings' well written history of a long forgotten tragedy has a deeply personal connection to him: the supposed murderer was his great-uncle, while the victim was a cousin. Growing up in the town and county in which the events he writes about took place meant that he was familiar with some of the story, but not all of it. What he discovered when he began to research what may or may not have happened on Ring Jaw Bluff back in 1925 gave him and his readers a new perspective, not only on that event but on the history of rural Georgia and the rest of the South nearly a century ago.

In 1920 rural Georgia and the rest of the South was riding high on a wave of prosperity. Thanks to World War I cotton prices had risen dramatically, and small towns like Sandersville in Washington County were enjoying an influx of easy money. Large mansions were built, new banks and other businesses lined the streets, and fancy automobiles breezed past old horses and wagons. The good times looked like they were there to stay, but it was an illusion. Temporarily high cotton prices had masked the endemic problems of the rural South: reliance on a one crop economy, reluctance to industrialize, dependence on African-American workers subjugated by discriminatory laws and customs, and lack of a supportive infrastructure meant that the economy rested on a knife edge and could falter at any time. In the early 1920s the cotton bubble burst and took Washington County's economy with it. Banks began to fail, businesses closed, and large numbers of formerly wealthy people found themselves land poor and deep in debt. The African-American laboring class began to move north in search of work and better living conditions, extremist groups like the Ku Klux Klan grew in influence, and cotton itself came under threat from the boll-weevil.

Charlie Rawlings was one of those newly poor men. Having worked himself into a position of apparent affluence, he now stood to lose everything.
In 1925 he and his cousin Gus Tarbutton hoped that their fortunes could be revived through possible kaolin clay deposits on land they held in joint-interest. While examining the land one afternoon Tarbutton was shot and killed. As evidence came out that Rawlings had several insurance policies on the life of his cousin and that his financial situation was increasingly dire, he was arrested and charged with murder. A sensational trial followed, but even after it and a long series of legal wranglings concluded there was still uncertainty as to what had happened on Ring Jaw Bluff.

In relating this story of his old family tragedy William Rawlings admits that all of the questions cannot be answered. Nevertheless, his tale helps readers to better understand what happened in the South during the 1920s, which were not "Roaring" at all in places like Sandersville, and how those events influenced the rest of the country as well.

Call the Midwife: Season 3
Call the Midwife: Season 3
DVD ~ Jessica Raine
Offered by MightySilver
Price: $27.85
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Heartbreak And Beauty, January 7, 2015
This review is from: Call the Midwife: Season 3 (DVD)
What is it about this series depicting the lives of a group of midwives in London's East End in the 1950s that makes it so compelling? First, the stories are intensely human, with flawed but enormously likeable characters. Secondly, the writing is superb, telling stories that are often tragic but always including some hope and inspiration for better times. Thirdly, I can't say for sure, I just know I love it. When the first series was shown on PBS a couple of years ago I was somewhat repulsed at the thought of watching such a show, but I gave it a try and was hooked within five minutes.

In the third season we see quite a bit of change going on at Nonnatus House. For one thing the House itself has had to relocate, finding a more spacious though somewhat dilapidated home in the Poplar district of the East End. Then Jenny and Trixie both find new love interests, while the former Sister Bernadette, now married to the local doctor, adjusts to her new role as wife and mother, as does the loveable Chummy with her policeman husband. Some things stay the same: Sister Julienne is still unflappably in charge, Sister Evangelina is as brusque but dedicated as ever, and Sister Monica Joan is just as ethereally batty.

There's a sizeable dollop of sorrow to be found in these stories: babies are born but sometimes don't thrive, and occasionally their arrival causes more pain than joy to their parents. Jenny discovers that love is often blended with sorrow, and she is forced to reexamine her sense of dedication to Nonnatus House several times. Chummy's difficult relationship with her upper class family, particularly her mother, undergoes new strains, and a new midwife turns out to have a tragic history of her own. There's also reconciliation, however, between Chummy and her mother, between Sister Monica Joan and her fragmenting memories, and between Trixie and the man she is beginning to love. And mixed in with all this is plenty of laughter and joy. This season ends with the departure of Jenny, who has been the main character and guiding voice of the series thus far, but with so many strong secondary personalities I feel sure that future series of Call the Midwife will be just as wonderful as the first three. I know I certainly intend to keep watching!

The Emperors: How Europe's Greatest Rulers Were Destroyed by World War I
The Emperors: How Europe's Greatest Rulers Were Destroyed by World War I
by Gareth Russell
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.31
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6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A Good Though Not Always Thorough Read, January 7, 2015
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One hundred years ago the guns were roaring across Europe. Within six months of the outbreak of World War I in the summer of 1914 hundreds of thousands of men had been wounded or killed and large areas of territory had been devastated, and the largest battles and deadliest new weapons were still to come. At the heads of four of the major combatant nations were the Emperors: King George V of Great Britain (who was also Emperor of India), German Emperor Wilhelm II, Austrian Emperor Franz Josef, and Russian Tsar Nicholas II. By the time the guns finally fell silent only George V still held his throne. Gareth Russell's relatively short (227 pages plus Notes and Bibliography) history is a sound comparison of the five Emperors (when Franz Josef died in November 1916 he was succeeded by his great-nephew Emperor Karl I), contrasting their personalities, the influence or lack thereof they had on their nations' war efforts, and their families and ultimate fates. It is an interesting and lively read, though heavily reliant on secondary sources with little or no archival research, as well as some puzzling bibliographical omissions.

Russell's focus is on the war years, so the childhoods and early reigns of the Emperors are dealt with very briefly in the first chapter. The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in June 1914 and how it led to the outbreak of war is then covered before the main narrative begins. We learn some interesting new variations on some long accepted beliefs, including that the Tsar was an independent and decisive ruler until he succumbed to depression in 1916; that the Kaiser had very influence on strategy or other decisions during the war, often giving surprisingly good advice to his generals which was ignored; and most importantly that the collapse of the Russian, German, and Austrian monarchies were not predestined under some great historical dialectic.

I enjoyed many of the details Russell includes about the families of the Emperors, such as that Wilhelm had a Down's Syndrome granddaughter who was not institutionalized as so many were, but was fully included in the life of her family; or the many charming stories about the Tsar's hemophiliac son and four beautiful, tragic daughters. Perhaps the most interesting chapters are those that deal with the young Emperor Karl I and Empress Zita, who made a valiant but unsuccessful attempt to pull Austria-Hungary out of the war in 1917. I found Russell's Bibliography interesting, though some omissions puzzle me: why would he rely so extensively on Gordon Brook-Shepherd's biography of Empress Zita but not, apparently, on the same author's excellent biography of her husband Karl? I also found George V's inclusion in the cover photo of the Emperors somewhat odd since he is rarely referred to in the book itself (none of the King's many biographies are included in the Bibliography.) In sum I feel that this is an interesting introduction to the stories of the Imperial rulers of World War I Europe that should inspire its readers to seek to learn more about them.

The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft
The New Annotated H. P. Lovecraft
by H.P. Lovecraft
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $27.96
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Suitably Eldritch, January 5, 2015
Howard Phillips Lovecraft didn't live to see his fiftieth birthday, lived an impecunious existence on a tiny income, was devoted to racial and political views that were extreme even for his time, and died almost unnoticed. His parents died in mental institutions and he himself was prone to bouts of depression and "nervous exhaustion" all his life. At the time of his death his literary output consisted of a number of stories and short novels that had been published in pulp magazines. Why then, this volume of 22 of his stories, carefully annotated by Leslie S. Klinger? Because H.P. Lovecraft's fantasy stories are recognized as being among the very best of their kind, setting a standard for horror literature that has rarely been surpassed since his death in 1937.

This large volume of over 800 pages includes introductory essays on Lovecraft's life, his position as one of the great horror writers alongside Poe, Machen, and others, and on his legacy of influence on more recent writers. I found these essays fascinating, especially the biography which included a number of pictures of Lovecraft, his family, some of his homes, and of his wife Sonia, whom he married and lived with briefly before separating (but never divorcing.) But the bulk of the volume is made up of the 22 selected stories, which include some of my favorites: "The Shadow Over Innsmouth," "The Dunwich Horror," "The Whisperer in Darkness," and "The Colour Out of Space," among others. Each story is copiously annotated with definitions of some of the archaic and obscure words like eldritch with which Lovecraft peppered his narratives, explanations of the settings and locales, references to literary and historic influences, and so on. I especially enjoyed seeing the posters and publicity materials for the movies and television adaptations of some of Lovecraft's stories. While none of these really capture the atmosphere of Lovecraft's own writings, they are nonetheless interesting to look at.

H.P. Lovecraft's position as a master of fantasy and horror in literature is now well established, and this volume should become one of the standard references for both scholars and fans.

The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty
The Ugly Renaissance: Sex, Greed, Violence and Depravity in an Age of Beauty
by (Historian) Alexander Lee
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $22.23
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Shadows Behind The Splendor, January 3, 2015
When I hear the words "Italian Renaissance" the image that comes to my mind is of some sort of paradise wherein creative geniuses created masterpieces in a serene atmosphere of unclouded beauty. Naturally I recognized that that was an overly simplistic view of a complicated era, but Alexander Lee's fine new history does much to reveal just how complex, violent, and tumultuous the Renaissance really was.

The book is divided into three segments. The first focuses on the Renaissance artists. Creative geniuses they were indeed, but they could also be violent, manipulative, sensual, and sometimes criminal. Lee paints a vivid picture not only of the artists but of their environments: the teeming, filthy, streets and neighborhoods of Florence, Rome, and other Italian cities. Secondly Lee deals with the patrons of the Renaissance artists: the wealthy and powerful families like the Medicis and the Sforzas who made enormous fortunes, often through underhanded means, and who used those fortunes to fund artists and gain more prestige for themselves. This is also the story of the condottieri, the ruthless men who led mercenary armies and who also sought immortality by sponsoring artists. And of course the Renaissance Popes are covered here, venal men who enriched their families through nepotism, constructed cathedrals and palazzos for their greater glory (and incidentally for God's glory as well), and who also made certain that some of the greatest artistic works of the period were funded. Finally we read of the Renaissance and the larger world: the growth of anti-Semitism and racism, the discovery of the Americas which eventually led to the enslavements of Native Americans and Africans, and the ongoing conflict with the rival Islamic empire, which came close to conquering Italy during the Renaissance.

Throughout this book Lee tells a vivid story full of incident and conflict. It was fascinating to read of psychopaths like Cosimo de Medici, Sigismondo Malatesta, or Galleazzo Maria Sforza, who combined mass bloodshed with artistic patronage; or to learn of the less pleasing personality traits of Michelangelo, Botticelli, or Raphael. I enjoyed the many colorful anecdotes, such as the story of one papal conclave which saw cardinals being strong armed out of the council chambers by hirelings of one candidate while shouting their support for another. The Ugly Renaissance is an incredible volume which deserves a place on your bookshelves alongside more decorous (but perhaps duller) histories of the period.

Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
Fields of Blood: Religion and the History of Violence
by Karen Armstrong
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $20.81
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Countervailing And Convincing View, December 27, 2014
In the early twenty-first century it has become something of a norm to ascribe every act of violence and every conflict to the influence of religion. In many ways that is an understandable view, considering that shortly after the century began a brutal act of terrorism performed in the name of a major religion led to more bloodshed and violence over more than a decade. But is it an accurate view? Is religion inescapably tied to violence? Karen Armstrong, an erudite but supremely readable scholar and author of A History of God, The Great Transformation, Islam: A Short History, (among many others), says no, and she has produced this fascinating and wide ranging chronicle in refutation.

The roots of religion are inescapably entangled with the roots of civilization itself. As hunter-gatherers learned to farm and began to settle in permanent communities over ten thousand years ago they sought reassurance and support from supernatural powers. Contact and conflict among agrarian communities and with separate groups of herders led to more formal religious development, sometimes in support of warfare and violence but often in opposition to it as well. As civilizations grew more ethically based religious and philosophical views came to replace the simpler earlier forms, a process which continued thorugh the classical periods into what we now call medieval and early modern periods. With industrialization came the rise of powerful nation-states and more complex religious and ethical systems. Conflicts among nation-states and between them and other world regions were often thought of as religious wars, although their roots lay in imperialism, colonialism, and nationalism as well.

That's a very basic description of Armstrong's sweeping history of religion and violence. She excels, as always, in her ability to point out and analyze historical parallels that may not always make for comfortable reading, such as her comparison here of the near simultaneous development of fundamentalist Islam in the Middle East with that of Christian evangelical fundamentalism in the United States at about the same time period. Of particular importance are her final chapters, in which she casts a critical eye on Western imperialism and colonialism and their role in the development of terrorism in the Middle East and elsewhere.

The best way to combat a harmful stereotype is to thoroughly refute it. By revealing the shallowness and insufficiency of the "violence is caused by religion" truism Armstrong has done humanity a great service.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)
The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies - Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (Special Edition)
Price: $19.88
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Beautiful Accompaniment, December 19, 2014
With The Battle of the Five Armies Peter Jackson's trilogy of movies depicting JRR Tolkien's novel comes to an end. Whatever one's opinion of Jackson's treatment, there can be no dispute that the music composed for it by Howard Shore is dramatic and often very beautiful.

Befitting the title, this two CD collection opens with martial and seemingly violent tempos that continue until near the end of the 2nd CD. Inevitably and understandably there are many echoes from the earlier Hobbit films as well as The Lord of the Rings trilogy (for all of which Shore was the composer.) The battle music reaches a climax with "To the Death" and then, appropriately, quieter and more melancholy strains take over for the final four or five tracks. The highlight is Billy Boyd's rendition of "The Last Goodbye." Each of the races depicted in the film has its own theme: strong and powerful for the Dwarves, ethereal for the Elves, brutal for the Orcs and Wargs, and comfortably homey for the Hobbits.

While my opinion of the movies themselves is decidedly mixed, I do feel that the music is certainly worthy of Middle-earth.

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