January 9, 2004February 7Meeting Report

January 18, 2004

Book Reviews

Book reviews were presented by Jerry Douglas, Anna Andrews, Wayne Luney, Jerry Bachman and Bill Potts. Esther Franklin made an informal presentation on the work and character of H.L. Mencken, based partly on The Impossible H.L. Mencken.

Apart from the photograph of H.L. Mencken, the images below are of book covers. No image of the Mencken book cover was available.

Our Lady of the Forest: CoverJerry Douglas reviewed Our Lady of the Forest, by David Guterson, published by Alfred Knopf (ISBN 0-37-541211-5). The book tells the story of a bedraggled teen runaway, Anne Holmes, who wanders the forest near North Fork, WA, and eventually experiences a Marian experience (i.e., sees something—a light—she believes to be a vision of the Virgin Mary). Prior to her interest in Catholicism, she was a drug addict, petty thief and frequent masturbator—a practice she doesn't neglect as she wanders through the forest. The usual true believers flock to North Fork, hoping, with eventual disappointment, to experience the "miracle." A local priest, Father Don Collins, alternates between a fatherly interest and a sexual longing for Anne—expressed, not surprisingly, through masturbation.

Jerry recommends the book.

Without a Doubt: CoverAnna Andrews' book was Without a Doubt, by Marcia Clark, with Teresa Carpenter, published in hardcover by Viking Adult (ISBN 0-67-087089-7) and in paperback by Penguin USA (ASIN 0140259775).

In the book, Marcia Clark talks about the tremendous odds against success in the trial of O.J. Simpson, from the dream team mounted for the defense to the incompetent Judge, Lance Ito, the hostile jury, her own personal problems (highly-publicized divorce, child custody suit, flooding in her home), relentless TV exposure, a fellow prosecutor (Christopher Darden) who was frequently off sick, and so on.

Other highlights discussed by Anna and the audience were the release, by Clark's ex-mother in law of an old photograph, taken in Europe, of her in a topless swimsuit, O.J.'s faked difficulty in putting on the gloves that were introduced in evidence, and the Bruno Magli shoes, which O.J. declared were not the kind of shoes he would ever wear. The subsequent civil trial, which used new gloves identical to the originals (including, of course, their size) and revealed numerous photographs of O.J. wearing the Bruno Magli shoes (whose imprint was found at the scene of the murder), was free of the overwhelmingly negative (for the prosecution) influences of the criminal trial. At the civil trial, Simpson was found to have caused the "wrongful death" of Nicole Brown-Simpson. He continues, of course, to travel the golf courses of the world, looking for the "real killers."

Anna strongly recommends this book.

Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883: CoverWayne Luney discussed Krakatoa, The Day the World Exploded, August 27, 1883, by Simon Winchester, published by Harper Collins (ISBN 0-06-621285-5).

In the book, Winchester claims a link between the cataclysmic explosion and the religious unrest in the area today. From a communication point of view, a significant aspect of the event was its timing—not the date itself, however, but the fact that it occurred not long after the invention of the telegraph and the laying of undersea cables, thus allowing the news to be spread worldwide within hours of the explosion. The book covers the already well-known facts, including the subsequent tsunami, the audibility of the explosion vast distances away, and the pall of dust that covered the globe for months or years afterwards.

For Wayne, there was a minor personal aspect, in that his grandfather, at the age of 7, had witnessed, from a ship in the area, the early aftermath of the explosion, including rocks (presumably pumice) floating in the ocean.

Wayne recommends the book. Also by the same author is the fascinating story, The Professor and the Madman, which I can strongly recommend.

Contact: CoverJerry Bachman preferred to call his review a recommendation. The book was Contact, by Carl Sagan, published by Simon and Schuster (ISBN 0-67-100410-7).

The publisher's description says of Sagan's only novel, "Pulitzer Prize-winner Carl Sagan imagines the greatest adventure of all--the discovery of an advanced civilization in the depths of space. In December 1999, a multinational team journeys out to the stars, to the most awesome encounter in human history. Who--or what--is out there?"

The following paragraphs are taken directly from Jerry's notes.

A radio signal in the form of a coded message originates from the nearby star, Vega, stirring things up on planet Earth. Radio astronomer Ellie Arroway is definitely in her element as a key representative of the international scientific community. Thus begins a comprehensive exploration of the possible effects that communication with non-Earth intelligence might have on the global community.

Contact is much more than great science fiction. The story has a very realistic flavor, but the author goes far beyond his professional scientific perspective. Sagan has included many elements to provide insight into the human condition.

Contact is a thorough examination of the dynamics of human relationships. Sagan explores interpersonal relationships such as parent-child, student-mentor, male-female, and those among academic-colleagues and more.

He also covers societal and cultural relationships. There is not a stone unturned as we look at religion, science, politics, philosophical points of view, global-governments and the media. How may these various relationships be affected if the Earth was contacted by extraterrestrial intelligence? The author probes the many dimensions of social interaction. 

Sagan expertly reaches into many areas of human endeavor and successfully brings everything together to find cohesion and relevancy. Is there the possibility of a harmonious universe? A universe that makes sense to all reasonable points of view? This novel offers an optimistic, rational picture of how we relate to our surroundings and to one another. Contact is a masterpiece that is a fitting legacy of the broad ranging genius of Carl Sagan.

Gerry strongly recommends this book.

Beach Blanket Atheism: CoverBill Potts' choice, for the meeting, was Beach Blanket Atheism: The Beginner's Guide for the Non-Believer, by Edward P. Tolley, Jr., published by Ceshore Publishing Company (ISBN 1-58-501043-X). Ceshore is an imprint of SterlingHouse Publisher. Bill received his copy directly from the author (addressed to HAGSA's PO Box), so it seems likely that the presidents of all other AHA Chapters and affiliates also received a copy.

The book received a very good review from its publisher (obviously) and from one of several reviewers on the Amazon.com web site. Other reviewers were more critical, especially of substandard editing, characterized by errors in grammar and punctuation, and by repetition, of which the most egregious example was an Einstein quotation that appeared twice--in successive paragraphs! The book contains a very large number of quotations (appropriately so), spoiled in some cases by lack of attribution, and in other case by surname-only attribution. For example, the author attributes a quotation to "Maugham." But which Maugham? Are there multiple Maughams? Or should he have said "W. Somerset Maugham," the well-known author? It turns out that he should.

Its flaws notwithstanding, the book does provide a good (and fairly accurate) introduction for someone whose worldview is moving towards an atheistic or agnostic perspective, but in need of encouragement and reassurance. It also makes a good addition to the personal library of any Humanist who has one. For these reasons, Bill gave the book a conditional recommendation.

Esther Franklin's impressions of H.L. Mencken were derived from Mencken quotations, other material, discussions with other groups, and The Impossible H.L. Mencken, by Marion Elizabeth Rodgers, published in 1991 by Doubleday (hardcover, ISBN 0-38-526207-8), and Anchor (paperback, ISBN 0-38-526208-6). Because of vision problems, Esther's exposure to the book was by way of the Talking Books edition.

The discussion, involving the audience, dealt with Mencken as the elitist he was and with his lack of sensitivity. None of this detracts, of course, from his incisive and acerbic wit. In terms of his lack of either sensitivity or the common touch, more than one person contrasted him with the poet, Walt Whitman, who was one of the subjects of Mencken's literary criticisms.

It's possible that Esther, along with Pete Holmquist, will entertain us at one of our May meetings with a fuller presentation on both Mencken and Whitman.

Report prepared by Bill Potts

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January 9, 2004 2004 Meetings February 7