3.24.2008

Agent Zigzag, by Ben McIntyre

Agent Zigzag
Agent Zigzag
I request that my local library buy this book, because it sounded like such a hoot that I thought a lot of people would by interested in it. Agent Zigzag, by Ben Macintyre, is the true story of a double agent named Eddie Chapman.

Eddie Chapman was a not-so-small-time crook in the 1930s. He helped run a gang of safecrackers in London. (Well, not so much safecrackers, since what they really did was blow them up.) He was captured by British police on the island of Jersey and put into prison just before the war started. When the Germans invaded the island, Eddie saw a chance to get out and volunteered to spy for the Germans. As soon as he got back to England, he immediately turned himself in and volunteered to spy for Britain. For the rest of the war, he was a British spy and managed to keep the Germans convinced of his loyalty all the way until the end of the war. There are a couple of comments in the book from the British agents (part of the Twenty Committee) about why Chapman became a double agent and why he chose to go back to the continent after being relatively safe in Britain. The conclusion seems to be that he did it for the adventure. He must have been one of those guys who needs constant, terrifying excitement in order to be happy.

Agent Zigzag has two things going for it. First, the story is incredible. If it weren't so well documented, you'd have a hard time believing any of this was real. Chapman was incredibly charming and lucky; he got away with things that I don't think anyone else has before or since. Second, Macintyre does a wonderful job writing this story with the flair that it deserves. One of the reasons that I don't read non-fiction much is because I often find them slow going, dull in many places, and/or the writers don't have the knack for making the subjects come to life. The people in this book pop off of the page and there is rarely a dull moment.

I read this book in about three days. This is a personal record for me; it's the shortest time I've every spent reading a work of non-fiction. If you know any WWII buffs or people who are into espionage, I really recommend this book.

In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, by Kage Baker

In the Garden of Iden
In the Garden of Iden
A co-worker and I got to talking about books a couple of weeks ago. (Not surprising, considering what I do for a living.) And we discovered a mutual interest in time travel novels. The next day, she brought me a stack from her own collection. In that stack were Kage Baker's In the Garden of Iden and Sky Coyote, the first two books in her series about the Company.

In In the Garden of Iden, the first book of the series, we learn about the Company, Dr. Zeus, Inc., a company that owns time travel and immortality technologies (read the Wikipedia article for more information about how this works). The only rule that seems to apply to Dr. Zeus is that they have to follow the historical record. So, no killing Hitler, etc*. Essentially, employees of Dr. Zeus travel back in time and create immortal agents to actually do the work of saving historical artifacts, animals, plants, and other important things that would otherwise be destroyed or become extinct. Dr. Zeus works this way because the people from the future hate the past; they think it's dirty and dangerous.

In this book, we are introduced to Mendoza, a girl rescued from the Inquisition and put to work for the Company as a botanist. Her job is to save genetic material from plants before they go extinct. She is assigned to go with a group to Kent, in the 1550s. This puts Mendoza and her fellow agents right into the middle of England's switch from Protestantism under Henry VIII back to Catholicism under Mary--a very dangerous time for just about everyone but especially dangerous for the agents since they are masquerading as Spaniards who came over with Philip II of Spain. In Kent, the group travels to the garden of Sir Walter Iden, who collects "rare" plants. Iden buys anything that sound rare. (He once bought a goat thinking it was a unicorn.) But it turns out that he has some important plants that will go extinct later. Meanwhile, Mendoza falls in love with Iden's secretary, Nicholas Harpole, who is a very staunch Protestant.

Sky Coyote
Sky Coyote
In Sky Coyote, the story is told from the perspective of Joseph, another immortal agent. In this book, Joseph has to convince a village of Chumash Indians to travel north to Canada, thereby saving their culture. Also, for the first time, we get a glimpse of what happens to humanity in the future. For me, this was the really interesting part. The immortals are constantly frustrated by these guys because the future agents are terrified of getting hurt, killing animals or people, and they're scared of the immortals because both groups have totally different modes of operation. For the immortals, it's like hanging out with uptight vegan pacifists who can't see that sometimes you have to play dirty to achieve the greater good.

Unfortunately, my co-worker didn't have any of the rest of the series, so I'm going to have to track them down on my own. I was utterly fascinated by the way that Baker plays with time travel, and how she uses it to ask the big questions about ethics, religion, and how we ought to be behaving.

* I recently read a really fun short story about how new time travelers are always tempted to kill Hitler on their first trip out. Read it here: http://www.abyssandapex.com/200710-wikihistory.html

3.08.2008

The Year of Living Biblically, by A.J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically
The Year of Living
Biblically
I've been looking forward to reading this book since I heard that A.J. Jacob's was going to do another one of his projects. (When it came out, I read his book The Know-it-All and enjoyed it a lot.) The Year of Living Biblically is just what it sounds like: Jacobs decided to follow the rules of the Bible as literally as he could. He read the Bible, and made a list of everything that was considered a rule. He also assembled a spiritual guidance team--rabbis, preachers, scholars--who could help answer any questions he might have.

One of the first questions I had was, how do you separate religion from the Bible? It's the holy book of several religions. The Jews have thousands of years of commentary (midrash) to draw upon and they and the Christians, Samaritans, etc., all have thousands of years of tradition and interpretation to draw on when they want to know how they should behave. Jacobs wanted to go beyond that, and get to what the Bible really said about how we should live.

I have a lot of problems with this, that Jacobs tends to gloss over in the book. I actually had to make notes as I read this to keep track of the things that bothered me. First, the Bible was written a long time ago, in a culture that was radically different from our own. One would think that there are rules that applied to them that are no longer relevant, simply because hygiene is easier for us. Jacobs does right that there is a separation between moral laws and ritual laws, and that a lot of the ritual rules are no longer followed by Jews or by Christians (for different reasons). But I have to wonder, does not cutting  your sidelocks really make you a better person? Also, as a corollary, I think that interpreting the Bible the way that Jacobs does is particularly hard, because he's not living with a group of people that are also following the rules in the same way. I think this is part of where literalists go wrong: they expect other people to play by their rules.

Second, it was written by a bunch of different people at different times, who didn't collaborate. Why should it be taken as a document with a coherent plan? After all, the various versions of the Bible (Hebrew, Catholic, Protestant, Samaritan, Ethopian, etc.) have changed over the years (see the Biblical canon). Third, we have to read the Bible in translation. Even people who can read Hebrew have a hard time with some of the words, because the meaning has changed over time or the word dropped out of the language entirely.

I freely admit that I am a relativist, and that I am probably agnostic. My experiences have turned me into a person who rejects literalist interpretations of the Bible. My approach to the Bible is a lot like what Jacob's describes as "Cafeteria Christianity." I pick and chose what I want to believe and which rules I want to follow.
It's a derisive term used by fundamentalist Christians to describe moderate Christians. The idea is that the moderates pick and choose the parts of the Bible they want to follow. They take a nice helping of mercy and compassion. But the ban on homosexuality? They leave that on the countertop. (p. 327)
This is definitely how I treat the Bible. I exercise the free will that I was given to create my own moral compass. (Is it any wonder that Dr. Faustus is one of my favorite works of literature?) When Jacobs followed the purity laws and the penal laws, it really bothers me. I don't think that women are impure for part of the month just because of our biology. And I don't think that we have the right to judge others (unless we are actual sitting judges or are on a jury). We definitely don't have the right to chuck stones at people.

There is one thing that Jacobs and I agree on. We have the same favorite book: the Book of Ecclesiastes.

The Kite Runner, by Khaled Hosseini

Kite Runner
The Kite Runner
This week I finished The Kite Runner, the latest book our reading group has tackled. I wasn't sure what to expect from this book. I have only heard a few things about the movie's plot, but apart from that I knew was that the book was set in Afghanistan and that the Taliban were in it. So, I was expecting pain and tragedy. I wasn't far off.

There are some characters that I've come across that just seem like lightning rods for tragedy. The boys in this book are a lot like that, especially Hassan. That poor guy never gets a break. The story is told from the perspective of Amir, who turns out to be Hassan's half-brother later in the book. Amir is hard to like at first. He treats Hassan like a tag-a-long friend, someone to play with when there isn't anyone else around and who he can boss around. I didn't start liking Amir until he and his father escape and head for America.

The part I liked the best was the last third or so, of the book, after Amir grows up into a gentle man. He gets a chance to redeem himself and atone for the huge wrong he did to Hassan, when he didn't tell anyone about what happened to Hassan in the alley. He gets to rescue Hassan's son, Sohrab. And though he kind of botches it, he still gets to rescue Sohrab and take him far away from Afghanistan.

I will give this bit of advice to anyone who wants to read this book. Don't go in expecting to understand the fall of the king in 1975 or the rise of the Taliban in the 1990s. This book is about Amir and his family. It's about good men who try to survive in very difficult circumstances. There are no attempts to understand the motives of the Taliban, although there are some references to how they managed to take power in the first place. In this book, it's not because of their adherence to a very strict version of Shari'a, it's because they made the Russians surrender at at last. All of the Talib's are portrayed as violent, possibily sociopathic, hypocrites. So, read this as a book about redemption and atonement, not as anything political.

3.01.2008

All Quiet on the Western Front, by Erich Maria Remarque

All Quiet on the Western Front @ Barnesand Noble
All Quiet on the
Western Front
I know I haven't posted for awhile. To be honest, I need to recover from Anna Karenina.

This week, I read All Quiet on the Western Front, a classic World War I novel by Erich Maria Remarque. It's based on Remarque's own experiences in the trenches, after he was called up in 1917. This is the first book about World War I that I've read that was written about the German experience of the war. To be honest, I got chills every now and then--a lot like when I was reading Anna Karenina--because I know what happened to Germany after the war. This book was first published in 1929, five or so years after the Nazis had started to form. There are a lot of comments about how the boys were conditioned to follow authority that were just chilling. Small wonder that Remarque had to leave his county and the Nazis burned his books.

As I read this book, I felt like I was getting a distillation of the war experience. The narrator, Paul Bäumer, talks about his experience in the trenches, charging the enemy, being in a field hospital, losing the classmates he volunteered with, killing a man, trying to relax near the front, visiting home, and being in training camp. My copy was only 296 pages long, and Bäumer signed up near the beginning of the war at the urging of his schoolmaster.

Along with all the comments about authority, I think the hardest part for me to read was the part where Bäumer goes home on leave. After spending some time in Bäumer's head, it was hard to see how he was treated by his father and by the men who hadn't been called up. There's a part where Bäumer encounters a middle-aged man who just goes on and on about how the war needs to be fought. It's so obvious that this man has no clue about what it's really like on the fronts that I got angry on Bäumer's behalf. I wanted to yell at the man and tell him to stick a cork in it. This was followed by Bäumer describing his last night at home before he has to go the training camp. He talks about how all he wants to do is cry in his mother's lap, but he can't because he just can't connect to his family any more. They don't know what the front is like, and they still believe--to a certain extent--that the war is worth it and necessary and that to refuse to fight or to be reluctant about it is cowardice.

I also felt like I got a better understanding of the Lost Generation, though I think the term should apply to most WWI veterans. Here's Bäumer's explanation of what happened to his generation:
And men will not understand us--for the generation that grew up before us, though it has passed these years with use already had a home and a calling; now it will return to its old occupations, and the war will be forgotten--and the generation that has grown up after us will be strange to us and push us aside. We will be superfluous even to ourselves, will we grow older, a few will adapt themselves, some others will merely submit, and most will be bewildered;--the years will pass by and in the end we shall fall into ruin. (p. 294)