Thursday, December 30, 2010

Another Guest Review

THE TIGER: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival
By John Valliant
Review by George Pasley

This book is a true account of a tiger killing near the village of Sobolonye in the Russian Far East in December,  1997. As such it is a gripping narrative, describing how the Tiger seems to have stalked and killed a man who had earlier tried to kill the tiger, how the Tiger went on to kill one more man and to terrorize a village, and how authorities tracked down and killed the tiger at risk to their own lives.
But it is more than a true story, and that is the genius of the book. Each of the characters in the story came from somewhere else far away, for reasons other than choice, and stayed because for the most part they had no choice. Instead, they were compelled both to come and to stay for reasons of history, politics and economy. Valliant weaves those reasons into the narrative.
Even more, Valliant gives vivid description to the exceptionally unique ecology of the region known as Primorye, to the evolution of tigers, to the history of interaction between men and predatory beasts (including a vivid and chilling description of baboons hiding in caves by nighttime), the environmental predicaments posed by perestroika, the economic depravity in which the current residents of Primorye live, and finally, efforts to save the Siberian Tiger from extinction.
I found the book holding tight grip on my interest, and loved the way the author helped us to see both the larger environmental, economic and political pictures as well as the intimate picture of a life and death struggle in the winter forest, and yet held the larger picture and the intimate picture in balance.
The Tiger is educational reading and compelling narrative. I would read it again, and read anything else Valliant has written.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

MARATHON: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization

Marathon: How One Battle Changed Western Civilization, by Richard A Billows
Review by George Pasley
Marathon is a newly written history book that doesn’t get bogged down in details (as so many history books do). Billows, a professor of Greek and Roman History at Columbia, takes the reader through an accounting of the famous battle of Marathon between armies of the city-state of Athens and the Persian Empire in August, 490 B.C.E.. His account includes a summary of how it has been viewed through the centuries since, a summary of the progress of Greek culture up to that time, a brief history of the Persian Empire, a history of conflict between Persia and the cities of Greece, a history of Greek democracy, a closer look at Sparta, the history of the battle, and a chapter devoted to explaining an assortment of things likely to have been ‘lost’ to western culture if Athens had lost the battle.
Having said that the book does not bog the reader down in details, I do need to say that the unavoidable use of large numbers of Greek and Persian names is a difficulty. They don’t need to be pronounced, but their strangeness to American readers makes it difficult to remember and distinguish them form one another.
The aside on Sparta was very insightful. The Spartans had a very deserved reputation as soldiers, a reputation that survives to this day, and use of the word “Spartan” to describe meager rations and lifestyle has its roots in fact- the Spartans ate their evening meal at ‘mess” and it was not much more than beans. But enlightened modern readers will be dismayed to know that the entire Spartan military complex was devised as away of keeping slaves in check, so that Spartan citizens would never have to work. In terms of military matters, that meant Sparta was very reluctant to send their soldiers out of their immediate region, for fear of not being able to put down a slave revolt back home.
It is especially helpful to know the exact nature of Athenian Democracy, its origin in issues of property ownership, its principle authors (Solon and Kleisthenes), and its layered features. In light of current American politics, I found it fascinating to know that the Athenians did not trust elections. Instead, they chose office holders by lottery- and had a process for sending citizens into exile if they seemed to be gaining too much influence. Billows makes the argument that the way that Athens knit military service to citizenry made their citizen soldiers more willing to fight to the death, as they were fighting for THEIR freedom.
Billows explains the Athenian strategy that won the battle for Athens, and then makes his case as to why the battle affected the flow of history. Unlike many other events, he argues that we do know what would have happened had Persia won: the surviving citizens of Athens would have been led into exile on the Persian Gulf, meaning that they would not have remained free in Greece, later to create drama, perfectionist art, and philosophy. Most importantly, the victory of Athens meant the survival of democracy (less than two decades old at the time of the battle). But Athens won, democracy survived, and millions enjoy its privileges today.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Library Building Committee meeting tonight

There will be a meeting of the Library Building Committee tonight at the Ted Ferry Civic Center at 4 pm.  The public are welcome to attend the meeting.  Hope to see you there!

Friday, December 3, 2010

New Christmas Books

'Tis the season....for new holiday novels and craft books!
How to Build a Gingerbread House: a step-by-step guide to sweet results by Christina Banner.  One of the nicest things about this book is that in addition to patterns for different holiday houses (St. Patrick's day, Easter, Halloween, Christmas), she offers ideas for each aspect of a gingerbread house.  You can pick and choose different elements and create an entirely new look.
Big Book of Thread Ornaments: over 100 crochet designs by Leisure Arts.  Angels, snowflakes, bells and balls, all with a delicate lace-like texture.  If you know how to crochet, you must make a snowflake ornament at least once in your life.
Fa La La La Felt: 45 handmade holiday decorations by Amanda Carestio.  I'm a sucker for felt, and these pretty little projects all use felt fabric (quick and easy to sew), instead of felted wool (adorable, but very time-consuming).  Stockings, garlands and ornaments in bright, happy colors.
A Very Beaded Christmas: 46 projects that glitter, twinkle and shine by Terry Taylor.  Projects range from adding a little festive dash to gift wrapping to elaborate beaded ornaments. If you can sew, bend wire, crochet or even glue, you can find a project here.
Christmas Eve in Friday Harbor by Lisa Kleypas.  A modern romance set in Washington, with an orphaned little girl, a lonely uncle and a grieving widow.
Christmas Mourning by Margaret Maron.  The latest mystery featuring Judge Deborah Knott and her husband, Sheriff's Deputy Dwight Bryant.
A Christmas Odyssey by Anne Perry.  It wouldn't be Christmas without a new holiday novel from acclaimed mystery author Perry.  This is her eighth novel that mixes the Victorian Christmas season with crime and suspense.
A Christmas Journey by Donna VanLiere.  This is a retelling of the Nativity story, complete with charming little watercolor illustrations by Michael Storrings.