Servant of the Secret Fire

Random thoughts on books and life in the reality-based community

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Location: New York, United States

The name I've chosen comes from "Lord of the Rings," when Gandalf faces down the Balrog in the Mines of Moria. My Hebrew name is Esther (which is related to the word for "hidden" or "secret") Serafina (which means "burning"). This seems appropriate because although I don't usually put myself forward, I do care very passionately about a lot of things. Maybe through these blogs I can share some of these passions, as well as less weighty ideas and opinions, with others.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

Books I've been reading

These are actually books that I’ve finished recently and haven’t been able to get around to reviewing, though I would like to give more attention to some of them.

The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout, Ph.D. ****
I don’t believe that I know anyone who fits this description, although the author claims that 4% of us are sociopaths, but a lot of the traits seem to fit a certain world “leader” who shall remain nameless (initials GWB).

The Post-Truth Era by Ralph Keyes, Ph.D. ****
Particularly apropos with what seems to be an epidemic of lying and fabrication in the news that only seems to be getting worse. The author’s main thesis seems to be that human beings are not innately honest, but in the past have been more constrained by the fact that most people spent their lives in small communities where everyone knew everyone else. Since he’s not a Luddite who wants us to ditch all of our technology, I don’t think that he has much of a solution for the problem.

Birth of the Chess Queen by Marilyn Yalom ****
An interesting history of the development of the chess queen, starting with the her beginnings as a male vizier who was limited to only one diagonal move. The author traces the evolution of the piece as chess migrated from India through Persia and into Europe through Muslim conquests, and argues that the “sex change” (10th century) and greatly increased power of the queen (15th century) are a reflection of the presence of powerful medieval queens on the stage of Europe, the cult of the Virgin Mary, and the related cult of courtly love. Interesting, with a lot of information about both chess and historical queens.

Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis ****
The first volume of Lewis’ “Space Trilogy.” I liked this one much better than The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe,“ but I will refrain from comment until I’ve finished the trilogy.

What Angels Fear by C.S. Harris *****
A mystery set at the beginning (literally) of the English Regency period. With well-rounded characters and an intelligent plot, it looks like the very promising opening of a series. The Regency era bids fair to become almost as well-populated with mystery series as the Victorian era, at the rate they’re appearing. Restoration mysteries, anyone? (This is one the few eras that is untouched, as far as I know. Samuel Pepys might make a good detective.)

Women in Purple by Judith Herrin ****
A history of three Byzantine empresses, all of whom lived during the Iconoclasm controversy of the late eighth and early to mid-ninth century (another appropriate topic considering the recent violence in the Muslim world over the cartoons showing the Prophet Muhammed). Herrin suggests that the power held by these women is the result of the weakness of the empire in the face of an expanding Islam, which itself was a motivation for the Iconoclast movement. (”The Muslims are winning battles; therefore the reason we’re losing must be that God doesn’t approve of representative art.”) Interestingly, Irene (who actually ruled on her own as “Emperor” after deposing and blinding her son), Euphrosyne (the daughter of that same son), and Theodora (the wife of Euphrosyne’s stepson), all were on the side of the iconophiles, and it was their stance that was victorious in the end. Herrin also makes the case that if Iconoclasm had prevailed, western art, which took much of its inspiration from the Byzantine empire, would have been much poorer.

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