Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Jesus on Death Row: The Trial of Jesus and American Capital Punishment, by Mark Osler

Here's something I don't often say:  read this book.

Prof Osler compares the story of Jesus' last days -- his prosecution, arrest, trial, condemnation and execution -- to the modern day American justice system and in particular to the practice of executions.

If you are a Christian then this short book should certainly resonate with you even as it may well challenge your views on the death penalty.

If you aren't a Christian you'll still find this incredibly interesting, and still wonder about the use of the death penalty.   Many death penalty supporters describe themselves as Christians and this book might make you wonder why that is.

One complaint about the book:  it suffers considerable redundancy.   This didn't bother me so much as to affect my bottom line recommendation but it is noticeable.

By the way:  Prof Osler authors a very entertaining blog; it is also worth a look.

The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, translated by Alistair Shearer

I really liked the long introduction by Mr Shearer.   I understand that there are other translations of the Sutras, but without having read them, not being a bodhisattva, and not reading Sanskrit, I'm willing to go with this one for now.

Mr Shearer quotes from the Vishnu Purana:
"Society reaches a stage where property confers rank, wealth becomes the only source of virtue, passion the sole bond of union between husband and wife, falsehood the source of success in life, sex the only means of enjoyment, and outer trappings are mistaken for inner religion."
Considering the Puranas date to around the first century common era, modified through the 16th century -- let's call it at least hundreds of years old -- this is a remarkable comment.   (The punchline is, of course, that yoga is a path out of this mess, where yoga is inclusive of the physical we think of a yoga studio for, the mental exercise we think of as meditation, and the behavioral for which we might look to Buddha's eightfold path, etc.)

The sutras themselves are brief and terse (at least in this translation, apparently not so much so in others!), and with meaning deeper than the few words might imply; I can't absorb them in a single reading.   This is the sort of thing one must study repeatedly, over many years, and presumably while doing the broad concepts, while working on the eight limbs of yoga.  (These are quite similar to the guidance of Buddhism:  rules for living including nonviolence, integrity, contentment and the like, also focus on posture, breathing, and meditation.)

When Hell is the Favourable Option, by David Jaundrell

The set of action / mystery / suspense novels I've been reading has taken its toll on me.   I'm fatigued by the genre.  Plus, Mr Jaundrell's writing includes unnecessarily brutal and graphic scenes of violence.   Other than that, the plot was good, and I'd even read another of his novels featuring the hero James James.  As long as I'm in a sufficiently light-hearted mood to skim past the yucky stuff.

But at this point:  I need to switch to non-fiction for a while.  And then perhaps some real literature, or at least something closer to that than this stuff.

Death of a Cure, by Steven Jackson

Continuing in my run of by-the-pool reading, another suspense / mystery novel.   This one has an interesting plot and good character development.   I'd recommend it.

Line of Succession, by William Tyree

A spy action thriller.   Pretty good but the main character isn't all that sympathetic.   Was annoyed at the cliff hanger / set-up-for-next-book-in-series ending.   Still in all, it fits the profile of by the pool summer reading.

Hostage Zero, by John Gilstrap

This is an action adventure novel.   I got the sense that it was a sequel, and sure enough learned that it was.

So how was it?   It is a good fit for the genre -- not a Booker Prize candidate but good, enjoyable low-brow reading for a hot summer day.

Friday, June 24, 2011

21 Things to Know Before Starting an Ashtanga Yoga Practice, by Claudia Azula Altucher

I wouldn't recognize an Ashtanga yoga pose from any other yoga pose; the only reason I read this book is that James Altucher  recommended it.   And even that was a risky proposition:  (a) Mr Altucher is the author's spouse, and (b) as best I can tell from reading his blog, Mr Altucher is a depressive, perhaps psychotic, in any case quite disturbed person.  But hey, 99 cents is clearly the Kindle cut off point for risking a bad read.

So now that I've read Ms Altucher's book I still wouldn't know an Ashtanga pose from any random runner's stretch.   But it was a fun read!  Kind of hard to describe though:   something like a self-help -lite mixed with where to eat if you find yourself in Mysore India.    (Note:  if the occasional typo or grammatical error makes you crazy then avoid this book.)

Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Essential Woodworker, by Robert Wearing

The title has it right, this is an essential guide for the serious beginner.   It is well written and illustrated; although it took strenuous effort in some areas to follow Mr Wearing's description, I ultimately did.

A few pages into this book I thought it would have been interesting to be an apprentice woodworker, taking several months to work through the material as exercises towards becoming a journeyman.   By the end of the book I'd increased my mental model of the time required to years.

The edition I own comes, by the way, from Lost Art Press, a fabulous resource for woodworkers which is run by a credible hot-shot hand craftsman.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

The Joy of Not Working, by Ernie Zelinski

This is one of the strangest books I've read.   Mr Zelinski's thesis is that work (i.e., working for "the man," big business, in a cubicle, using a Blackberry to read mail when you should be playing after office hours) is a plague that causes depression, misery and shortens life.  

His antidote?   Well that's what makes the book so strange:  it is a mix of "just quit!" and "find your own path to self employment that is somehow more satisfying."

His examples are just weird.  For example, Mr Zelinski cites the office worker who quit his job to become a busker at Toronto street corner and who is now so very happy.   I guess there was no notion of health insurance (well, it is in Canada).

There are good take aways from this book.   Don't confuse your work life tradeoffs by skewing to all work, no hobbies, no relationships, no fun.   That seems sensible to me.    But practical information?  I don't see it.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Portfolio Life: The New Path to Work, Purpose, and Passion After 50, by David Corbett

This is perhaps a good remedial book:  if you retire from your profession and find yourself dazed and confused, lost without a work identity, unsure of how to move forward.    But if, on the other hand, you haven't failed at retirement, or imagine you're not going to fail at it, then your view of this book will probably mirror mine:  too many platitudes, too little meat, and solving a problem I don't expect to have anyways.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Anarchist's Tool Chest, by Chris Schwarz

This is a must read book for anyone who is at all interested in woodworking.  Not because it describes how to build anything particularly exciting (except for a hand built wooden tool chest that I suspect few with bother with).   But rather because Mr Schwarz has a mission:   to evangelize hand wood working, to assure a vibrant community of folks who know how to build furniture really well.   And, I suppose he'd say, to combat the mentality that poorly built furniture which won't last very long is a pox on society:  it is a reflection of a disposable age which gets further and further from the grounding of well built, craftsman -like goods.

Don't take me the wrong way:  this is hardly a polemic.   It is well written, amusing, and informative.    Even if you don't plan to hand plane a rough board into flatness -- or even if you don't plan to even ever pick up a piece of wood -- this is a worthwhile read.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse

If you find yourself sitting at an airport departure gate, learning that your flight has been delayed from 8:35 pm to 1:00 am, reading a book is a good way to pass the time.   A book that covers some concepts of Buddhism is an even better idea.   And a free (Kindle) book -- perfect.   Hence, Siddhartha.

Our hero is of a wealthy class, becomes bored and leaves home to join a group of ascetics, Samanas, to wander about without any material goods, fasting and thinking.  He meets folks, falls in lust, becomes a materialist, returns to a simpler near-ascetic life, discovers attachment when he meets his son and the pain of separation, and becomes Buddha -like (or perhaps a Bodhisattva).

I particularly enjoyed Siddhartha's conversation with his friend Govinda about wisdom:  "...wisdom cannot be passed on.  Wisdom which a wise man tries to pass on to someone always sounds like foolishness. ... Knowledge can be conveyed, but not wisdom."

Many aspects of Siddhartha's life seem unappealing, even wrong.   He leaves his family without a second glance, and hardly thinks of them again for decades.   Buddhist teaching warns to avoid unrealistic romanticization of loved ones; this goes to far in my view.   The idea of avoiding attachment is, more or less, since things are not permanent and are always changing, what we are attached to will not live up to an initial illusion.  So the additional illusion that attachment brings happiness will lead to suffering.    The Buddha said:

"If you desire joy,

Completely forsake all attachment.

By forsaking completely all attachment

A most excellent ecstasy is found.

So long as (you) follow attachment

Satisfaction is never found.

Who ever reverses attachment

With wisdom attains satisfaction."

As with all such things, your mileage will vary.

By the way, that delayed flight finally took off at 2:40 am; a three hour evening flight home became a red-eye that arrived at 5:00 am.   But, as the Buddha said, life is dukkha.  So why get upset.

Loving Frank, by Nancy Horan

I came across this book through the recommendation of a friend during intermission at the Austin Playhouse theatre quite a long time ago.   I bought the book immediately and have tried ever so diligently to read it since.   But I find that after only a few pages my attention wanders, which explains why even though months have past, I've scarcely made it through half this novel.

The premise is a historical fiction about Mamah Cheney and her love affair with architect Frank Lloyd Wright.    This novel got great reviews and by every indication should have held my interest.   Perhaps I've read too many spy / murder / thriller / action novels lately and this has dulled my appreciation for literature. But in recognition of the facts, however unpleasant, I will confess: this book is tagged "unread" as I'm simply giving up on it.