February 7th, 2015

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Book 11 (2014)

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  1. Remarque, Erich Maria — All Quiet on the Western Front (215 pages)
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book cover: All Quiet on the Western Front.

As most of us did, I first read All Quiet on the Western Front when I was in high school. 2014 was the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of World War One, and so I kicked off my WWI reading by revisiting Remarque's famous novel.

As so many of us have read it and there is so much analysis available, I won't waste my "breath." But I will remark how so many of the same tropes of life in the trenches come up in WWI books.

It's inevitable, I guess, but as I read other WWI novels this past year I was struck by the similarities between episodes in those books and All Quiet on the Western Front, not just the squallid conditions in the trenches and horrific experiences between them, but the sojourns in town, the requisite visit to the local whorehouse, even scenes reminiscent of the men sitting around killing time while squatting on their port-a-potties. Directly or indirectly, so many war books owe a debt of gratitude to Remarque's work.

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Book 12 (2014)

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  1. Jones, Gwyneth — White Queen (318 pages)
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book cover: White Queen.

White Queen, a novel by Gwyneth Jones about first alien encounter, pops up in lists of the top science fiction novels of the past x years. I was more than a little intrigued by the praise and descriptions, so I picked up a copy.

On the plus side, Jones' aliens are convincingly alien. Not in a Lovecraftian weird-shit sort of way. Initially, in fact, they seem human enough that they are able to blend in and observe humanity for a period of time before contact is made. But appearances and origin aside, they are alien in profound ways which drive much of the tension in the story. The inability of the two cultures to understand one another, the sometimes comically mistaken assumptions made by both sides, leads to conflict and division with often tragic consequences.

This all sounds very good. However, I found the novel incomprehensible at times and Jones' style impenetrable. I also found some of the reactions by characters in the book puzzling. It's one thing for aliens to be alien, but so many of the humans seemed alien as well. And the constant shifts from human to alien perspective and jumps in time made the plot even harder to follow.

I wanted to like this book. It contains much that is thought-provoking and bits here and there that I found enjoyable. I'm not one to shy away from difficult books, but overall there was too much to dig through to be able to enjoy the story.

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Book 13 (2014)

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  1. Strunk, William, Jr., and E. B. White — The Elements of Style (104 pages)
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book cover: The Elements of Style.

I have long wanted to read The Elements of Style. Maybe it is somewhat perverse that someone should want to read a book on style and grammar for fun, but there you go.

Yes, it's a classic, you've all heard of it — and now I know why. It's direct, it's clear, it's informative, and it's fun. Really. I had no idea this sort of book could be so enjoyable.

More importantly, though, it makes me a more confident reader and writer. I confirmed several of the "rules" I thought I knew but wasn't sure of, realised where I was wrong, and learned new concepts. I plan to revisit this little book often and would recommend it to everyone.

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Book 14 (2014)

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  1. Keating, Karl — Catholicism and Fundamentalism: The Attack on "Romanism" by "Bible Christians" (337 pages)
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book cover: Catholicism and Fundamentalism.

Every Lent I try to read something appropriate to the season: a work of apologetics, writings of a saint, anything to help in my contemplation of faith. Catholicism and Fundamentalism has been on my radar for a few years, and I felt a strong urging to read it this year.

This is a fantastic work of apologetics, easily the best Catholic apologetics I've read and second only to C. S. Lewis as far as Christian apologetics goes. Obviously, given the subject matter, this won't be of interest to most of you. I would recommend it to Catholics who wish to know more about their faith and how to respond to people who question their belief and to non-Catholics who wish to learn, in an accessible and easily digestible way, what Catholics actually believe.

The book is meant as a response to anti-Catholics in the Fundamentalist community. (Keating is careful to point out that not all Fundamentalists are anti-Catholic and that not all anti-Catholics are Fundamentalist.) Catholicism and Fundamentalism begins with a history of and in-depth background of Fundamentalism in which, ironically for a book of Catholic apologetics, I learned more about that religion than I had previously understood. (I had always thought of it as an ultra-conservative Protestant movement (which isn't necessarily true) but did not know anything about its origins and foundation.) Then Catholicism and Fundamentalism outlines the most common attacks against Catholics by anti-Catholics. The following chapters examines each of these carefully, its historical source, where it may or may not misunderstand the Catholic position, what Catholics actually believe on each point and how they might respond, and more. Topics covered include the oft misunderstood concepts of infallibility, purgatory, the Eucharist, and the veneration of Mary and the Saints.

My only quibble is that the book seems either a bit dated or regional. Anti-Catholic attacks from Fundamentalists probably peaked in the 1970s or '80s and mostly in the United States. I can only think of one or two incidents where I have found my beliefs challenged by a Fundamentalist. However, I do get challenged by agnostics and atheists all the time — or at least I did until I started avoiding such situations — and I find these confrontations unpleasant, not because I feel set upon, but because I'm often at a loss for words how to explain what I believe and why I feel the challenger is wrong. Despite everything I've read and researched and my close association with the clergy, I often feel disadvantaged in such a discussion, not because of uncertainty in my position but because I lack the tools to respond. (Especially frustrating — and this has happened many times, is when someone tells me that I must not be Catholic because Catholics believe x and I believe y. The arrogance of non-Catholics (and some ex-Catholics who lacked the curiosity to learn more about their religion before giving it up) to presume to know better than an informed Catholic what Catholics believe! (On a side note, thank God for Pope Francis, who has opened a lot of eyes. In many ways, I feel vindicated.) Thus, I would have appreciated the book even more if, instead of Catholicism versus Fundamentalism, the scope had been more Catholicism versus Anti-Catholicism, whether from religious or secular sources.

I don't pretend to be a more capable apologist having read Catholicism and Fundamentalism. If anything, I better understand how daunting a task apologetics is. Keating goes into this at the end of the book, making recommendations for those who want to take up apologetics and steering those away who aren't willing to make a full commitment. Apologetics isn't easy, and it is easy to get tripped up. Better to point someone in the direction of a reputable and capable source than risk erring and further propagating misunderstandings about the faith.

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Book 15 (2014)

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  1. Ettlinger, Steve — Twinkie, Deconstructed (274 pages)
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book cover: Twinkie, Deconstructed.

How could I resist a title like Twinkie, Deconstructed. I may not have had twinkies in at least a decade or three, folks here in England may not even have heard of them, and just about everything about them is antithetical to the lifestyle I choose, but they were a part of my culture growing up, and I may even have liked them at some point. They are such an iconic, um, "food" that I couldn't resist this bit of pop science.

The premise of the book is simple. Ettinger's son once asked him what a certain ingredient in Twinkies is, and he didn't know the answer. Finding the answer proved less straightforward than he'd imagined and led him on a few adventures that led, eventually, to this book.

Twinkies' ingredients are constantly changing slightly, based on cost and availability, so Ettinger chose an ingredients list from the time of his research. Each ingredient became the subject of a chapter in Twinkie, Deconstructed. Ettinger discusses where the ingredient comes from and the processes it undergoes in order to become part of a Twinkie.

It's fascinating to see how many different uses each ingredient has, how closely or remotely it resembles the original commodity when it finally ends up in the Twinkie. Is corn really corn, is an egg really an egg? And what exactly is FD&C Yellow No. 5 anyway? It's a bit disconcerting to learn how many of the ingredients are petroleum byproducts. Many of the ingredients go through phases where they become lethal before other chemical processes turn them back into safe foodstuff. Where possible, Ettinger visited the plants where the ingredients are processed. In some, the chemical processes are closely held trade secrets. Others are in China and inaccessible.

My only quibble with the book is that some of the chapters seemed a bit tedious and repetitive, but only because so many of the processes used for one ingredient are similar to another. All in all, though, this is a fascinating examination of what goes into processed foods.