Ideas & Society Newsletter for May

Take a look at this selection of books packed with reflections and often provocative ideas about wars and scientific explorations, poetry and humour.
Delightful finds that you can read for basic information, relaxation and inspiration. Enjoy!

Library News

Literature

In this centenary year of the beginning of the First World War what could be more appropriate than that we open this month’s selection with a book of love letters written in during times of conflict, when correspondence assumes such critical importance.
Other books in the mix include reflections on the nature of writing, Clive James’s thoughts on poetry, a new look at Chaucer, and a couple of humorous books to cheer us on our way. We hope you find something to take your eye here.

Syndetics book cover Wives and sweethearts : love letters sent during wartime / Alastair Massie and Frances Parton.
“What is it like to fall in love with a soldier? What is it like to be a soldier in love? Throughout history, those serving in the British Army have combined romantic relationships with their military duties. In wartime especially, all the usual emotions experienced by men and women in love are felt to a heightened degree. The sense of danger, and the sometimes years of separation imposed by service abroad, make the heartache of loss and the joy of reunion all the greater.” (Global books summary)
Syndetics book cover Chaucer’s tale : 1386 and the road to Canterbury / Paul Strohm.
“A lively microbiography of Chaucer that tells the story of the tumultuous year that led to the creation of The Canterbury Tales In 1386, Geoffrey Chaucer endured his worst year, but began his best poem. The father of English literature did not enjoy in his lifetime the literary celebrity that he has today–far from it. The middle-aged Chaucer was living in London, working as a midlevel bureaucrat and sometime poet, until a personal and professional crisis set him down the road leading to The Canterbury Tales.” (Syndetics summary)
Syndetics book cover A slip of the keyboard : collected nonfiction / Terry Pratchett.
“A collection of essays and other nonfiction spanning Terry Pratchett’s entire career, from his early years to the present day. A collection of essays and other nonfiction spanning Terry Pratchett’s entire career, from his early years to the present day” (Provided by publisher)
Syndetics book cover Thinking about it only makes it worse : and other lessons from modern life / David Mitchell.
“What’s wrong with calling a burglar brave? Why are people so f***ing hung up about swearing? Why do the asterisks in that sentence make it okay? Why do so many people want to stop other people doing things, and how can they be stopped from stopping them? Why is every film and TV programme a sequel or a remake? Why are we so reliant on perpetual diversion that someone has created chocolate toothpaste? David Mitchell delights us with a tour of the absurdities of modern life.” (Summary from Global books)
Syndetics book cover Poetry notebook : 2006-2014 / Clive James.
“Clive James is one of our finest critics and best-loved cultural voices. He is also a prize-winning poet. Since he was first enthralled by the mysterious power of poetry, he has been a dedicated student. In fact, for Clive, poetry has been nothing less than the occupation of a lifetime, and in this book he presents a distillation of all he’s learned about the art form that matters to him most.” (Syndetics summary)

Read more

Popular Non-Fiction

This month’s selection of books talk about: how our passion for possessions is fast fading, politics in Indonesia, and being a practicing Muslim in the West. Interesting reading!

Syndetics book cover The looting machine : warlords, oligarchs, corporations, smugglers, and the theft of Africa’s wealth / Tom Burgis.
“While reporting from Johannesburg, South Africa and Lagos, Nigeria for the Financial Times, Burgis realized that natural resources might be Africa’s curse, not its salvation. In this alarming history of colonialism and exploitation, Burgis skillfully explains how Africa’s longstanding difficulty in securing Western support has led to a partnership with China in which that country has provided “infrastructure for interference” to several African countries since the 1990s.” (adapted from Syndetics summary)
Syndetics book cover Stuffocation : why we’ve had enough of stuff and need experience more than ever / James Wallman.
“For many of us, our possessions and the lifestyle that goes along with them are causing more stress than happiness–otherwise known as ‘keeping up with the Joneses’ or what Alain de Botton calls ‘status anxiety.’ But James Wallman argues that we are approaching a tipping point with regard to materialism. People are turning away from the endless drive to consume in favor of a simpler, more streamlined way of living… (adapted from Syndetics summary)
Syndetics book cover Demokrasi : Indonesia in the 21st century / Hamish McDonald.
“…After providing a solid and balanced portrait of the three decade-plus governance of the Suharto regime (1967-1998), McDonald carries the story forward to the present day, which finds a populace eager for accountability from its elected leaders. Those still uncertain about Indonesia’s importance to the US will find evidence here in the form of its growing economy, posed to be the sixth largest in the world by 2030. McDonald’s insights-including the observation that Indonesian foreign policy favors “soft” over “hard” power – present clear reasons for the current limits to the country’s international influence…” (adapted from Syndetics summary)
Syndetics book cover Laughing all the way to the Mosque : the misadventures of a Muslim woman / Zarqa Nawaz.
“Being a practicing Muslim in the West is sometimes challenging, sometimes rewarding and sometimes downright absurd. How do you explain why Eid never falls on the same date each year; why it is that Halal butchers also sell teapots and alarm clocks; how do you make clear to the plumber that it’s essential the toilet is installed within sitting-arm’s reach of the tap? And it’s not always easy to get things right with the community either…” (adapted from Syndetics summary)
Syndetics book cover The hundred-year marathon : China’s secret strategy to replace America as the global superpower / Michael Pillsbury.
“Pillsbury … argues that China has deceived the United States about its motives since the two nations began normalizing relations in the 1970s. He asserts that China’s military “hawks” are really in charge, not the moderates; the economy is not moving toward free market capitalism but mercantilism; and the government will not democratize.” (adapted from Syndetics summary)

Read more

Religion & Beliefs

This month’s selection features tales of Celtic myths, as well as insights into Islam, Sufism and Buddhism. Enjoy!

Syndetics book cover The Celtic myths : a guide to the ancient gods and legends, by Miranda Aldhouse-Green.
This includes both vivid retelling of Irish and Welsh myths as well as social history, evidence from archaeology (such as the Gundestrup Cauldron) and a guide to themes such as animals or the environment. the book begins with a discussion on how myths are handed down and ends with a discussion on the influence of monastic writers and translators. This is a great guide for anyone interested in Celtic history. The library has also received Pagan Britain, by Ronald Hutton, which takes a different approach to a similar topic.
Syndetics book cover The handy Islam answer book, by John Renard, Ph.D.
This user-friendly guide answers nearly 800 questions that cover Islamic history, religious practices, and Muslim cultural perspectives. Some questions include Why is Mecca a holy city for Muslims? What do Muslims mean by the term Allah? What is the Muslim “call to prayer”? Do Muslims, Christians, and Jews worship the “same God”? Why do some people not want girls to get an education? Muslims are diverse, and they have a vast range of views about Islam, just as any other religious adherents. This guide brings us further down the path of understanding.
Syndetics book cover The perfect I : fitness in mind, fearless in body, by Mike Ansari.
Martial arts expert and mystic, Mike Ansari, describes his forty-year search for God. He first visited a Moslem shrine at aged four and the reader follows him from Iran to his journey to New Zealand. Mike’s beliefs in the need for fitness in mind, body and spirit has led him to follow a strict Sufi regime of self-sacrifice, fasting and meditation. (summarised from the Back cover.)
Syndetics book cover Waking the Buddha : how the most dynamic and empowering Buddhist movement in history is changing our concept of religion, by Clark Strand.
This tells the story of the Soka Gakkai International, the largest, most dynamic Buddhist movement today. This movement invites Buddhism to “wake up” so it can truly work in ordinary people’s lives, rather than foster a style of meditation which detaches from reality. The author draws on his experiences as a Buddhist teacher and journalist to offer insight into how and why the Soka Gakkai’s commitment and approach to social justice has become a role model.

Read more

History

This month’s recent history picks are big on mood and journey. Atmospheres take on an interiorized and reflective tone in Adam Thorpe’s On Silbury Hill. These are picks for readers that want to feel transported.

My Dear Bessie My dear Bessie : a love story in letters / Chris Barker & Bessie Moore ; edited and introduced by Simon Garfield.
Twenty hours have gone since I last wrote. I have been thinking of you. I shall think of you until I post this, and until you get it. Can you feel, as you read these words, that I am thinking of you now; aglow, alive, alert at the thought that you are in the same world, and by some strange chance loving me. In September 1943, Chris Barker was serving as a signalman in North Africa when he decided to brighten the long days of war by writing to old friends. One of these was Bessie Moore, a former work colleague. The unexpected warmth of Bessie’s reply changed their lives forever. Crossing continents and years, their funny, affectionate and intensely personal letters are a remarkable portrait of a love played out against the backdrop of the Second World War.” (Syndetics summary)
Syndetics book cover Journeys home : inspiring stories, plus tips and strategies to find your family history : featuring Andrew McCarthy, Joyce Maynard, Pico Iyer, Diane Johnson & the National Geographic travel team ; foreword by Dr. Spencer Wells, National Geographic explorer-in-residence.
“Actor and award-winning travel writer Andrew McCarthy discovers his ancestry in a compelling narrative that combines 26 intriguing and heartfelt stories about discovering home and roots with tips and recommendations on how to begin your own explorations. Sidebars and a hefty resource section provide tips and recommendations on how to go about your own research, and a foreword by the Genographic Project’s Spencer Wells sets the scene. Stunning images, along with family heirlooms, old photos, recipes, and more, round out this unique take on the genealogical research craze” (Provided by publisher)
Syndetics book cover Paper love : searching for the girl my grandfather left behind / Sarah Wildman.
“Wildman takes an unexpected journey through her family’s past to piece together her grandfather’s history and uncover the fate of a young woman bound in unforeseen ways to her own life. Always believing that her grandfather had been incredibly blessed and extremely lucky to escape from Vienna and Nazi persecution on the eve of WWII, the author was surprised to discover, after her grandfather’s death, a cache of passionate letters from Valy, her grandfather’s first love. Determined to track the tragic trajectory of her grandfather’s early life a bitter chapter he repressed and glossed over for years and to retrace the harrowing odyssey of the woman he left behind, she traveled the globe in search of evidence and answers.” (Booklist)
Syndetics book cover On Silbury Hill / Adam Thorpe.
“Silbury Hill in Wiltshire, England, has inspired and perplexed people for generations. Artists and poets have fathomed their deepest thoughts searching for the hill’s hidden meanings, archaeologists have tunneled through earth for fragments that prove its purpose. But for all this endeavor, Silbury Hill remains a mystery. On Silbury Hill is Adam Thorpe’s own projection onto Silbury’s grassy slopes. Twenty years after the publication of his classic novel Ulverton, the acclaimed poet and novelist revisits the landscape that inspired him. It is a chalkland memoir, told in fragments and family snapshots, skillfully built, layer on layer, from Britain’s ancient and modern past.” (Amazon.com summary)
Syndetics book cover A man of good hope / Jonny Steinberg.
“South African journalist Steinberg (Sizwe’s Test) vividly recounts one Somali man’s experience of diaspora, resulting in a book that is part biography and part contemporary history. Steinberg first met Asad Abudullahi in 2010, in the wake of the South African riots that targeted the thousands of refugees, among them Asad, drawn there by the promise of a better life. In 1991, Asad, not yet in his teens, fled the anarchy in his native country, ending up in Kenya. He honed his survival instincts in Nairobi’s slums before traveling to Ethiopia in search of members of his fractured family… When Asad eventually reached South Africa in 2004, he took on the dangerous work of running a shop in one of the country’s poorest townships… The book’s subject matter may be unfamiliar to most Americans, but Steinberg’s thoughtful approach and Asad’s attitude of droll resilience make for a tale that any reader can appreciate.” (Publisher Weekly)

Read more

Science

Here are a few of the new science books that I have come across in the last wee while.

Syndetics book cover The edge of the sky : all you need to know about the all-there-is / Roberto Trotta.
“Explaining complex ideas in accessible language is the goal of every popular science writer, but Trotta, a theoretical cosmologist at Imperial College London, stretches that effort to creative extremes, telling the story of modern cosmology with only the “ten hundred” (aka 1,000) most common English words. At first glance, the deliberately simple language feels childish, more of a distraction than a valuable, creative approach. Airplanes are “flying cars,” planetary rovers like Curiosity are “space-cars,” a large telescope is a Big-Seer, and planets, with their wandering paths across the heavens, are Crazy Stars. But Trotta’s deft word choices quickly draw the reader into a surprisingly vivid alternate reality where student-persons (scientists) strive to pierce the mysteries of the All-There-Is: the universe.” (Publisher Weekly)
Syndetics book cover Turing : pioneer of the information age / B. Jack Copeland.
“Described by his mother as an “unsociable and dreamy child,” Turing found his calling in mathematics, applying his talents to WWII code-breaking intelligence (efforts “kept secret for almost sixty years”), but the breakthroughs that earned him a place in history were those in software-centric and stored-program computing, developments that gave rise to the fields of artificial intelligence and artificial life. Turing’s work was an exploration of the human mind via computers, though he theorized that there is nevertheless a “mysterious something” in the human mind that goes “beyond computability.” It is an increasingly relevant inquiry, as Turing’s inventions have spread from military-industrial applications into the everyday.” (Publisher Weekly)
Syndetics book cover Ocean : the definitive visual guide / project editor, Rob Houston.
“From mangrove swamp to ocean floor, mollusc to manatee, the Japanese tsunami to Hurricane Sandy, unravel the mysteries of the sea. Marvel at the oceans’ power and importance to our planet – as the birthplace of life on Earth, a crucial element of our climate, and as a vital but increasingly fragile resource for mankind. You will discover every aspect, from the geology of the sea floor and the interaction between the ocean and atmosphere, to the extraordinary diversity of marine life. Includes an inspiring introduction by editor-in-chief Fabien Cousteau. Ocean captures both the beauty and scientific complexity of the ocean, making it perfect for families and students alike.” (Syndetics)
Syndetics book cover Planet of the bugs : evolution and the rise of insects / Scott Richard Shaw.
“Shaw, professor of entomology at the University of Wyoming, Laramie, takes an arthropodist stand against “human-centric bias that seeks to place our vertebrate ancestors in some kind of elevated position,” as he frames evolutionary history from the vantage point of insect development. The million distinct catalogued species that Shaw says “rule the planet” only constitute a subset of those that are documented in the fossil record or that have been discovered in the microniches of environments such as the tropical rainforest. Shaw looks at groups of species in terms of the structural features that developed to exploit emerging habitats and examines them in light of their parallel development with plant or animal species for which they might be prey, parasites, or pollinators.” (Publisher Weekly)
Syndetics book cover How not to be wrong : the hidden maths of everyday life / Jordan Ellenberg.
“The maths we learn in school often seems like a mysterious and impenetrable set of rules, laid down by the ancients and not to be questioned. In How Not to Be Wrong, acclaimed mathematician Jordan Ellenberg shows us just how wrong this view is: in fact, maths touches everything we do, allowing us to see the hidden structures beneath the messy and chaotic surface of our daily lives. It’s a science of not being wrong, worked out through centuries of hard work and argument. Through supremely witty storytelling and wry insight, Ellenberg reveals the mathematician’s method of analyzing life, from the commonplace to the cosmic, showing us which numbers to trust, which ones to ignore, and when to change the equation entirely.” (Syndetics summary)

Read more