Category: 5 Barrels

“Other Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness” by Peter Godfrey-Smith Review

Other MindsOther Minds: The Octopus, The Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness

Author:  Peter Godfrey-Smith

Released:  2017

Octopuses have an ability to adapt to the special circumstances of captivity and their interaction with human keepers…In New Zealand, an octopus took a dislike to one member of the lab staff, for no obvious reason, and whenever that person passed by on the walkway behind the tank she received a jet of half a gallon of water in the back of her neck. Shelly Adamo, of Dalhousie University, had one cuttlefish who reliably squirted streams of water at all new visitors to the lab, and not at people who were often around. In 2010, an experiment confirmed that giant Pacific octopuses can indeed recognize individual humans, and can do this even when the humans are wearing identical uniforms.

If you’re like me, that previous paragraph is enough to dig in to read a whole book about the amazing creature that is the octopus. I love the idea of an intelligent creature living on our planet that most people know nothing about, and Peter Godfrey-Smith has written a very well researched book about cephalopods, primarily the octopus but also squids and cuttlefish. Although large portions of the book don’t deal with octopuses, Godfrey-Smith manages to explain why it is important to look at these organisms to learn not only about what they are capable of, but also what we can learn about the evolution of life on Earth and what intelligence and consciousness mean.

Why octopuses though? The primary reason is that scientists believe that we can trace all life on Earth to early organisms hundreds of millions of years ago that branched off into numerous different paths that led to things like plants, animals, bacteria, etc. Of all the living organisms on Earth, advanced nervous systems can be found in three subsets, the first being animals, the second being arthropods, and the third being cephalopods. The cephalopods come from an entire different branch on that evolutionary tree, and are unique in their development of a nervous system on that branch. Considering that, the octopus could be compared to an alien life form, as we can look at an animal whose brain has evolved under an entirely different set of circumstances than the rest of the planet.

I learned a lot about philosophy and evolution while reading this book, and I think most readers would gain similar new knowledge. For instance, all I knew about Pre-Cambrian history prior to reading this was that supposedly the Graboids from Tremors were around then. However, Godfrey-Smith explained that situation that the life forms in this era (the Ediacara) floated around in a pre-predator environment. Quite simply, early life forms were not hunting each other but instead scavenged (Godfrey-Smith refers to this as “the Garden of Ediacara”). The result was an environment allowed mutations to thrive and a giant boom in variation of life forms to follow in the Cambrian era.

In addition to reviewing studies on octopuses and preexisting literature, Godfrey-Smith frequently visits a location called Octopolis, one of the only confirmed habitats for multiple octopuses over several years. Throughout the book, I got a ton of great anecdotes about these amazing creatures both from the author’s personal experience and scientific studies. Some of the interesting stuff I learned included that octopuses have distinct personalities that come out both in the wild and in lab settings. Also, the nervous system of the octopus is spread throughout the both the brain and the arms, meaning that even if you cut an arm off it can continue to function on its own afterward for a lengthy period of time. Godfrey-Smith describes this relationship as the brain being a musical conductor, but the arms are all jazz musicians; the brain sends a command, but the arms have great leeway and creative ability to make decisions and react accordingly.

The color changing aspect of octopuses is discussed extensively. If you haven’t watched video of their camouflage in effect underwater, stop reading this and hop on Youtube because they are natures greatest color changers. Scientists disagree as to if this is used at all for communication between animals; I came away with the impression that at a minimum they are used in expressing dominance or submission to other octopuses. What is amazing though is that octopuses are themselves colorblind, even though their eyes are very similar to human eyes in how they function.

Much of the difficulty in knowing more about octopuses, or limiting how much one can learn, is the short lifespan of the animal. For the most part, they all live for about two years or less, an extremely short time for such an intelligent animal. There are a few exceptions, such as the nautilus (which can live ten times as long but is nowhere near as smart) and the deep sea Octopus which not only lives longer but can spend over four years just nurturing its eggs! This was the longest egg brooding period ever observed for a creature on Earth.

As people become more aware of the intelligence of these creatures, additional studies are being performed. In 2011, it was learned that octopuses can recognize other individual octopuses. Another study seemed to indicate that octopuses can learn by watching others do something and not by doing it once themselves. Humans are able to have episodic memories of a particular event instead of how to do something. Studies show octopuses also have this high functioning capability.

There are some great photos in this book as well (both color and black and white) and some helpful diagrams related to a variety of subjects. When the book gets into more philosophical issues, or discussions about biological evolution, it can get a bit text booky at times, but never for more than about 10 or 15 pages. Godfrey-Smith wisely centers all of his big ideas and conclusions on the octopus. Highly recommended.

5-star

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“Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier” by Mark Frost Review

Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks:  The Final Dossier

Author:  Mark Frost

Published:  2017

Here’s a book that has to have one of the smallest possible audiences likely to find it entertaining. Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier is a collection of FBI files assembled by fictional character Tammy Preston on other characters from the Twin Peaks tv series. It is written by Mark Frost, who is one half of the creative team behind Twin Peaks, along with David Lynch. Instead of telling a complete story, it is a very quick read of fill in the blank details for one character’s theories of what exactly is going on in Twin Peaks (the town) and a few details on what the characters were doing when not on screen. So to rundown: if you haven’t seen all of Twin Peaks, this isn’t for you. If you prefer your Twin Peaks to be as mysterious as David Lynch left it, or if you are David Lynch, this isn’t for you. Also, if you are not a fan of spending a good deal of cash on a book you can read in about 90 minutes, this might not be for you.

I’m giving this five stars however, so obviously this book is for some people. A little about my thoughts on Twin Peaks. The first two seasons of Twin Peaks were some of the most original and engrossing television I’d ever watched. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was an initial disappointment that revealed itself as an amazing movie on rewatch. Finally, the new series Twin Peaks: The Return was the best television I’ve watched since Justified went off the air (and something I gladly would watch ahead of Game of Thrones this season) and then dig into articles and podcasts the next day to try and dissect what I had just watched.

The Return was the kind of series I needed to talk about with anybody I could find that watched it, which sadly was not enough people. The idea of getting more details on what’s been going on in the world of the show is very appealing, and my only complaints with this book are that I wish it was longer (and had more photos). Tammy Preston basically serves as a mechanism for Mark Frost to decode or theorize on all of the David Lynch oddities, from the Black Lodge to time travel and doppelgangers. The chapters on Major Briggs, Donna Hayward, Annie Blackburn and Audrey Horne all gave significant new information on the characters than what is revealed in The Return. Other characters like Wyndom Earle, Philip Jeffries and Laura Palmer provide less details but plenty of theorizing on what it all means.

Part of what makes Twin Peaks so fun is that the answers aren’t all provided on the show, so the viewer is constantly both challenged to come up with their own conclusions and also forced to experience the show without expectations as to what will happen next. Those same attributes make it a perfect candidate for analysis and expanded universe style writing. Although this is “Final” Dossier, I’d gladly come back for followups in this format in the future. Highly recommended for fans of the show.

5-star

“Lincoln” by David Herbert Donald Review

Lincoln

Lincoln

Author:  David Herbert Donald

Published:  1996

To all outward appearances, he was less prepared to be president of the United States than any other man who had run for that high office.  Without family, tradition or wealth, he had received only the briefest of formal schooling.  Now fifty years old, he had no administrative experience of any sort; he had never been Governor of his state, or even mayor of Springfield.  A profound student of the Constitution and of the writings of the Founding Fathers, he had limited acquaintance with the government they had established.  He had served only a single, less than successful term in the House of Representatives, and for the past ten years had held no public office.  Though he was one of the Founders of the Republican Party, he had no close friends and only a few acquaintances in the populous Eastern states, whose vote would be crucial in the election.  To be sure, his debates with Douglas had brought him national attention, but he had lost the senatorial election both in 1955 and 1859.  Dismissing his chances for the presidency, one of Hatches’ Boston correspondents remarked scornfully: “As for Lincoln, I am afraid he will kick the beam again, as he is in the habit of doing.”  Pg. 236

 

Lincoln by David Herbert Donald is the fourth biography about an iconic president that I’ve read through the first sixteen.  Along with Washington, Jefferson and Jackson, Abraham Lincoln is a subject that everybody reading comes into with a head start as far as the major plot points in his life.  As the previous paragraph summarizes though, Lincoln’s pre-presidential years were unremarkable by political standards, his post presidential years non-existent, and his term in office dominated by a single conflict.  I was curious to see if I would come away as impressed by him as I was by Washington, who seemed to have done ten times as much as he is credited for doing in the history books with no precedent for any of it, or underwhelmed like I was by Jefferson who lucked into his greatest contribution to America through a French government needing to make money.  In the end, I came away viewing Lincoln much like Andrew Jackson, a man who deserves to be recognized as a titan in the Oval Office, but one who also did not quite live up to his gigantic reputation.  Here’s how the president scores on my presidential grading rubric:

 

Born into –  Lincoln’s mother’s heritage is difficult to trace, with the possibility that she may have even been illegitimate.  His father’s family came from successful land owner/farmers in Virginia.  The family owned three farms in Kentucky, moved to Indiana because it didn’t allow slavery and the land deeds/titles were clearer than they were in Kentucky.  After Lincoln’s mom died from drinking bad milk (cows had eaten a poisonous root), his father remarried and Abraham loved his new mom.  Compared to his father, who Lincoln never had a kind word to say about, Lincoln and his step mom were closer than either Lincoln was to his father or his stepmother was to her own biological son.  In terms of coming from little, Lincoln’s in line with Millard Fillmore and James Buchanan as coming from humble origins, but not quite as impressive as Andrew Jackson’s rags to riches.  4 out of 5.

 

 

Pre-President – Obviously there’s more information available for guys like Lincoln and Washington as children than for lesser known presidents, and this book provided a good overall view of Lincoln from a young child onward.  For education, Lincoln went to nearby cabin houses for schools for three separate years, but never full time.  He estimated he only had about one entire year of education as a child.  Growing up he developed ideas on politics early, and was very much Anti-Jackson (he would read anti-Jackson papers) and very pro Henry Clay (pro internal improvements/forming a national bank).  He took a variety of jobs before settling down, including as a riverboat pilot (navigator) and store clerk.  People always trusted Lincoln, and as a clerk he got to know his community in Illinois (he moved there as older teenager).

 

Lincoln’s first political run was for state legislature, where he finished 8th out of 13 candidates (losing, just the top four advanced).   He was asked to run by others, so his interest in politics was still not immediately apparent.  Following his loss, he enlisted in the militia for the Black Hawk War, and was chosen to be an officer by 2/3 of his fellow soldiers.  Lincoln never saw any combat or Indians, and would mock his military experience in later political campaigns.  His first political appointment was Village postmaster; this was not an important appointment as Lincoln (a Whig) was appointed by Jackson’s (Democrat) party.  Because the job paid so little, Lincoln also began working as an assistant surveyor.  He ran for office again for the State House of Representative (the author argues) primarily for monetary concerns.  Lincoln didn’t reveal his positions on political issues to help bolster his chance of being elected.  This second bid was successful.   Lincoln began studying law once he was elected.  This book glossed over his admission to the bar, just stating Lincoln partnered with another attorney and was one of busiest in Springfield.

 

On the social scene, his first fiancé was Ann Rutledge; she died while waiting for Lincoln to complete his education and before they could tie the knot (probably of Typhoid fever).  Most of Lincoln’s efforts as State Representative were toward making Springfield the new state capital, an endeavor he and his friends were ultimately successful at.  Lincoln continued to practice law during this time, and tried 300 cases before the highest Illinois court during his career.  His practice was varied, representing clients as different as slaves seeking freedom, and slave-owners seeking return of slaves.  At this time there was a devised plan within Whig party for House of Representatives (National level) candidates to only seek one term in office; Lincoln had earlier helped endorse the plan when it wasn’t yet his turn to run for the office apparently to help cycle through candidates until it was his turn to run.  It paid off when Lincoln was elected to the House during Polk’s term.  As a Whig, he made numerous anti-Mexican American War speeches which would haunt him later in his career and spent most of his energy trying to get Taylor elected the following year, which seemed very hypocritical for a person so against the war.

 

Lincoln’s view on Slavery while he was in the House was to vote to allow discussions of it, but to vote against actual restrictions on slavery.  He even devised a plan while in the House of eliminating slavery in D.C. by banning it after 1850, keeping those that were slaves as slaves but allowing them to be sold to the government, and those born after 1850 would be free.  Looking to others for feedback, nobody else would support it and he never brought it to the floor.  Lincoln sought and was offered other positions after his term, the most interesting being the Governor of Oregon, but instead he returned to his law practice when his term was over.  The experience in Washington helped his practice, which began generating high income and notoriety for successfully arguing railroad cases.  Lincoln mostly stayed out of politics besides arguing for Winfield Scott’s candidacy until running for office again in 1856.

 

Up until he was President, Lincoln supported the idea of sending freed blacks back to Africa as the best solution to the slavery problem.  He lost in his first bid for U.S. Senator, lost in a bid for the Vice Presidency, and was actually elected to the Illinois House of Representatives but declined it because it would have disqualified him from running for Senatorial office.  He switched from Whig Part to Republican in time for the 1856 Presidential election, which rejuvenated his political career.  Lincoln was the major politician present in crafting the platform of the Republican party which borrowed from Whig, Abolitionist, Know-Nothing  and Free Soil platforms.  During this time, Lincoln debated against Illinois Democrat Stephen Douglas several times before eventually running against him for Senatorial seat in 1858; Douglas’s spot was in jeopardy due to heavy Anti-Nebraska (those against the Kansas-Nebraska act) sentiment.  Over a total of seven debates held throughout the state, all of which received substantial media coverage, the two showeded their main differences as candidates was Douglas extreme Pro-state’s sovereignty position versus Lincoln’s belief in fundamental human rights for all individuals, blacks included.

 

The final result in the election was very close with Republicans edging Democrats by a plurality, however election of Senator was done by the state legislature at that time which still had a democrat majority, so Douglas won.  Lincoln tried to maintain the illusion that he wasn’t interested in Republican nomination for president, however he had a book about his debates published as well as an autobiography prior to election cycle to promote himself (at this time, it was still considered bad form to campaign yourself to be president).  Lincoln, despite little experience as an elected official, was a name many papers and people supported as a candidate, first due to his role in forming the Republican party in Illinois, and second because of his notoriety from debates and speeches made regionally prior to the election.  Lincoln’s destiny as a potential presidential candidate was yet again tied to Stephen Douglas.  If the Democrats nominated Stephen Douglas as their candidate, Republicans would likely nominate somebody from the West as well for their candidate.  The Democrat party ended up being split, with half supporting Douglas and half supporting Breckinridge.  The result was that though Lincoln received less than 40% of the popular vote (with Douglas, Breckinridge and the National party candidate 4th), he easily won the electoral vote.  This was despite not receiving a single electoral vote from a slave state.  With that, the inexperienced one term former Congressman was President.  2/5

 

Presidential Career – Lincoln’s goal coming into office was to balance his Cabinet with former Whig and former Democrat Republicans.  He also considered having somebody from south for his cabinet, but the only individual it was offered to declined as he required Federal protection for slavery in the territories as condition of his acceptance of the position.  From the start, Lincoln seemed to underestimate the threat of secession, even believing the raising of arms in South Carolina to be beneficial event for quelling any eventual rebellious sentiment.  Lincoln made no public speeches prior to taking office in an effort to not further agitate Southern sentiments.  He ended up picking William Seward as Secretary of State and lead voice in his Cabinet, a man who disagreed with many of Lincoln’s views (Seward wanted to go further than Lincoln to conciliate the South).

 

From the beginning there was disarray in the office, as the Fort Sumter crisis came to a head.  Many criticized Lincoln for not knowing how things worked (he tried communicating orders directly to naval commanders, and attempted to establish a Militia branch on his own), and for not having a definite plan.  Part of this was that Lincoln continually underestimated the likelihood of the South seceding.  His plan was also very reactive, so it genuinely could appear he didn’t really have a plan.  He did preserve the historical upper hand though by making the first shots come from the south in retaliation for non-violence by the Union (attempting to bring provisions to the Fort).  After the loss of Fort Sumter, Lincoln began acting more decisively, suspending Habeas Corpus and ordering 75,000 troops to be raised.  Lincoln tread carefully at first to avoid provoking middle states like Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri.  Later in the war he would even imprison news paper editors for advance reporting on the draft (causing gold speculation).  Obviously Lincoln saw war time as an acceptable excuse to infringe on any constitutional rights necessary to preserve the Union.

 

As the Civil War began, Lincoln would struggle (and continue to do so) with his picks for head General.  Winfield Scott was too old to take the field and was forced to resign after some early struggles.  George McClellan was young and looked the part but was constantly criticized for not being aggressive enough and failing to take note of the topography in making his plans.  McClellan also didn’t like Lincoln and criticized him privately, and even refused to see Lincoln when the president visited him at his residence.  Lincoln was consistently criticized for not having a policy or not being assertive enough, particularly regarding his relationships with generals.  Lincoln allowed McClellan to not reveal what his military plans were, and consistently deferred to McClellan even when he strongly disagreed with the general’s strategy.  Even Lincoln’s detractors praised him for being honest and having good intentions though.  I would agree with the good intentions compliment, however the author cited tons of examples where Lincoln would claim ignorance of areas to avoid having to discuss his policies and orders (I picture Phil Hartman’s Ronald Reagan impression) that seemed to contradict that Honest Abe reputation.  Lincoln took his time removing McClelland in favor of Halleck, then went back to McClelland.  Afer McClelland’s second removal, the post went to Burnside, then to Hooker, all of them focusing on Richmond and reasons why they could not engage Lee’s army despite Lincoln’s prodding otherwise.  Lincoln’s first success with the position came with Meade, who Lincoln initially chastised for not pursuing Lee after Gettysburg before coming to his senses and praising the military victory.  However, even Meade proved too reluctant to pursue battle, so Lincoln brought in Grant from the west.  Lincoln supported Grant more than any of the other generals, for the primary reason that he actually was willing to fight with what he had, and did not send constant requests for more troops.  His first few months on the job involved tens of thousands of casualties, but we all know how the final results went.

 

The main international incident of Lincoln’s presidency occurred when Southern delegates were caught via the search of a British naval vessel.  Initially Lincoln and all but one of his cabinet members were happy that it happened and underestimated the view the British would take.  It soon became apparent that it could be the catalyst for a war with Britain if the delegates were not released and an apology issued.  That was the route Lincoln ended up taking as he could not risk a second war with Great Britain.  In general, the event showed his limited grasp of Foreign relation issues, and he either delegated or took the advice of others on these issues for the rest of his term.

 

Lincoln tried to maintain the position early and often that the sole issue of the War was Union or Disunion.  Despite requests by many Republicans (including Vice President Hamlin) to either confiscate slaves from rebels or declare them free, Lincoln resisted because of worries of how it would play with middle states and southern Union supporters.  The issue came to a head when the Governor of Missouri issued a proclamation doing what Lincoln would not; Lincoln considered this more helpful to the Confederates than their victory at Bull Run.  When the Governor’s (Fremont) wife (the daughter of Thomas Hart Benton) came to discuss this with Lincoln, he dismissed her as a female trying to discuss politics.  Lincoln stayed firm and made sure that all positions and policies on slavery came only from him.  In addition to Fremont, Trumball and others tried to drive legislation through to abolish Slavery prior to Lincoln during the war.  Lincoln was slow to decide how to approach this issue, spending time considering sending Slaves to Africa, then to Central America, before ultimately deciding to offer compensation for states that voluntarily abolished slavery over set time tables (ranging from 1860’s to 1890’s).  Lincoln was continually approached by abolitionists and Republican Generals about emancipating slaves in the South; Lincoln resisted doing so until it seemed the tide was against him in war and in public opinion.  Still, he needed a military victory before making any announcement, so he waited until after Antietam for the Emancipation Proclamation.  Even after doing this, Lincoln met with Black leaders to discuss the colonization option with them, and not surprisingly they were not on board.  The author indicated that Lincoln did that so he could deflect his shift in positions on this topic; my guess is that Lincoln still thought it was the best option and was genuine in trying to sell blacks on it.  Lincoln eventually decided to allow black soldiers in the Union Army, but it was done very reluctantly, with the position they would just be used to garrison or perform additional non-combat duties.

 

Besides the Civil War, there were a few other interesting incidents during Lincoln’s terms.  A Sioux uprising led to over a hundred settler deaths in Minnesota.  A few hundred Sioux Indians were rounded up and sentenced to death; Lincoln reviewed all the charges/paperwork and commuted all but 28 of the executions.  Congress also established the Homestead act, the national banking system with paper currency, and the Department of Agriculture during Lincoln’s tenure, though his involvement in those appears to have been minor if at all. Seward and Salman Chase (Head of the Treasury) both tried to resign their cabinet positions, but Lincoln would not accept either one and even manipulated Chase into admitting he exaggerated strife in the cabinet to the Senators he had previously been complaining to.  Chase later was angling for nomination against Lincoln, and Lincoln again allowed him to connive against the President.  Beacuse Chase was successful running the Treasury for the cabinet, he was kept on despite the problems caused by his ambitions, until his third submitted resignation; Chase was actually surprised when Lincoln accepted it.

 

Lincoln began addressing the public more after a Congressman was arrested for inciting desertion; the reaction was so positive he continued to do so throughout his presidency and began consulting his cabinet less.  Besides the things he is best known for, this precedent was adopted by later presidents.  His Gettysburg Address came a few weeks after the battle, and was a very short speech that followed a few hour long oration by the previous speaker.  Those that heard it were caught off guard as to its brevity, but as it was recirculated and evaluated it ended up representing a turning point in both Lincoln’s perspective and the public perspective on the need for the war; no longer just Union or Disunion, but about equal fundamental rights for all men.  Lincoln’s most impressive actions as president came in steering reconstruction.  Even prior to being reelected, Lincoln made it known that abolition of slavery would be condition of any peace agreement.  This was a controversial position, however Lincoln stayed strong on it for the reason that it would be wrong to go back on his promise made to those that came north and were fighting in the army (200,000 blacks by that point).

 

The only political rival Lincoln worried about when his reelection campaign happened was Ulysses S. Grant; Grant however was very supportive of Lincoln and had no interest in running against him.  Donald straddles line of what Lincoln and his people did to insure he was elected (holding out naming Supreme Court Justice, furloughing soldiers to go vote) versus what he didn’t do but could have (rushing additional pro Union states in the west into existence, suspending the election due to the rebellion) to make the case that Lincoln was completely ethical in his handling of the election.  Surprisingly to Lincoln, he won in a landslide, with only three states voting against him.

 

According to Donald, Lincoln had limited involvement in getting the 13th amendment passed by Congress.  He was obviously in favor of it, however there was also enough sentiment in Congress that he did not need to take an active role in getting it passed.  Lincoln was more involved however in working to get it ratified by ¾ of states.  As late as 1864, Lincoln was in favor of paying $400,000 to south in exchange for 5 year gradual elimination of slavery but was talked out of it by cabinet.  Throughout the entire war, Lincoln held firm in his position of never recognizing confederate states government, but this caused problem at the end of the war with whom to recognize to discuss terms of surrender.  The eventual settlement on “gentlemen that served as representatives to rebellion” struck a balance between efficiency and principal.  Lincoln’s final plans for reconstruction (essentially putting the rebellious confederate leaders back into Congress) were opposed by most of his cabinet, and he withdrew them along with his initial pledge to Virginia to recognize its leaders in effect during Civil War.  He did become first president to state formally that some blacks should be granted the right of suffrage (educated ones who served in military).  On same day he believed the war to finally be over he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth as part of plan to kill both Johnson and Seward as well (Seward was attacked and injured, Johnson’s attacker never followed through).  4.5/5

 

Vice President – Hannibal Hamlin was Lincoln’s first Vice President.  Hamlin never met Lincoln until after both men won their nominations.  The two met for three days in Illinois where the two discussed forming the cabinet and seemed to get along well.  Like most Vice Presidents of that era, Lincoln did not include him in discussing policy or in important cabinet decisions.  At once point during Lincoln’s first term, Hamlin was encouraged to abandon Lincoln and run for president himself by unhappy Republicans, however he chose to support the President instead which gives him a memorably contribution to the office that most early Vice Presidents lacked.  Hamlin was much more radical than Lincoln regarding abolition, and Lincoln used to joked nobody would kill him because the Vice President was even more entrenched in the positions than he was.  4/5.

 

Hamlin was not renominated as Vice President as there was no excitement toward him at Republican convention in 1864.  Lincoln was very guarded about who he wanted as his Vice President, but all indications are he was happy with Hamlin and also with candidate Andrew Johnson.  Andrew Johnson was the only southern senator (Tennessee) to continue serving once war broke out, which is a pretty neat fact.  Also neat is that Johnson got drunk before he was inaugurated as Vice President and made a fool of himself.  Lincoln even asked that Johnson not be allowed to talk outside following the inauguration.  2 out of 5.

 

First lady – Mary Todd Lincoln was rumored to be courted by Stephen Douglas prior to marrying Abraham; after they were married she always called her husband “Mr. Lincoln” so you can tell right away she was a wacko.  Mary Todd came from a wealthy family of southern slaveholders, which would cause many to question her loyalty once the war broke out.  Lincoln got land and a yearly income from Mary Todd’s father after marriage during marriage.

 

Mary Lincoln was described as being the most prevalent First Lady since Dolly Madison, and the woman that the term “First Lady” was coined for.  That might have been because she was so disliked.  Her large contributions to the presidency consisted of going so far over budget on redecorating the White House that Congress has to authorize twice to go extend additional funds to cover purchases she already made… this while soldiers were freezing during a Civil War.  She also was accused of revealing a sensitive document to a reporter, but the reporter later indicated the gardner showed him and the matter was dropped.

 

Two of Lincoln’s children died before Lincoln; Eddie who was four years old and died in 1850, the author didn’t spend a lot of time on, aside from mentioning that Lincoln may have written poetry about it.  The death of Willie was incredibly tragic.  He was 12 years old and was sick for weeks due to bad water (termed Bilious fever) and continued wasting away.  Lincoln was in the office, and Mary Todd Lincoln chose this time to host her largest soiree, so both parents took turns coming upstairs to check on Willie.  He died a few days later, while little brother Tad was also bedridden with the flu.  I can only imagine how awful it must have been consoling nine year old Tad when his brother had just died and he was sick with the same flu, not knowing if he would recover.  After Willie’s death, Mary Lincoln retreated in mourning and stopped hosting large get-togethers.

 

Mary conducted multiple séances at the White House to speak to her dead son, even getting Lincoln to sit in on one but Lincoln remained unconvinced.  Despite the tragedies, she continued to be disliked and distrusted by those in Washington.  Mary Lincoln also embarrassed herself when accompanying Lincoln to visit Grant’s troops.  She was late arriving and Lincoln was accompanied by an attractive young woman on a horse and Mary berated her in front of everybody.  Overall, she was the worst/least likable first lady I’ve read about, even beating Franklin Pierce’s wife.  1 out of 5.

 

Post Presidency –  **Crickets**  N/A

 

Book Itself – Donald set out with the goal (per the intro) of writing a book that focused on what Lincoln knew when he made decisions and why he made them.  For the most part, the book read like a standard biography, but it also read pretty fairly.  When given an opportunity to interpret Lincoln’s actions, Donald would generally try to present both sides but would land on the most favorable interpretation to Lincoln.  The result was a portrait of a man who came into office with impossible circumstances out of his control and stood firm in the face of that opposition.  I don’t know that Lincoln was extraordinary in his accomplishments, as all of his most notable actions were supported by or attempted by other members of his party prior to Lincoln acting on them, but certainly history supports the timing of his decisions as the North won the war and slavery was abolished.  For such an iconic figure, it was a very fair biography.  5/5.

 

5-star

“Crime and Punishment” by Fyodor Dostoevsky Review

Crime and Punishment

Crime and Punishment

Author:  Fyodor Dostoevsky

Translator:  Larissa Volokhonsky

Released:  1866

I don’t reread a lot of books. Typically if I read a book more than once it’s because it’s a book I loved as a kid and haven’t read in years, or it’s a graphic novel that I love (Watchmen, Dark Phoenix Saga or Savage Dragon back issues most come to mind). The first time I read Crime and Punishment was my senior year in high school as part of a class assignment for a class called “Novels.” The class was just what it sounds like; we would read a certain number of pages every night and discuss the previous reading in class the next day. Other books we read for that class included: The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe, O Pioneers!, The Grapes of Wrath, and David Copperfield. I loved three of these books, liked one and didn’t care for the other, so overall it was a pretty rewarding class.

Fifteen years later, my wife needed a book to fill a slot in her current reading challenge and got the audiobook version ofCrime and Punishment so I figured I’d revisit this book that I really enjoyed in a different format. In a normal year I’ll read about 50-80 books, and I started reviewing them awhile back just because I have trouble remembering the plots on a lot of the books shortly after reading them if they’re not fantastic. Maybe it’s because this was a book that was discussed in the Socratic method for a month, or because I really enjoyed it, but for whatever reason I remembered this book fairly well even before starting it for a reread.

**Plot spoilers follow**

Boiled down to a sentence, Crime and Punishment is the story of a student who kills an old woman and then slowly unravels in his social world. I remembered that plot, but I also had some pretty strong recollections of Raskolnikov’s (the student) theories about the right of some great men to commit crimes, and his subsequent delusions and familial crisis. Subplots involving Raskolnikov’s fixation on a young woman he meets and his friend Razumiknin’s relationship with Dunya (Raskolnikov’s sister) similarly left their imprint on me. Oddly, there were two major plot points that I totally forgot about until rereading. First was that Raskolnikov actually killed two women, as the first victim’s sister shows up during the incident. Second, perhaps the most interesting character in the book is Svidrigailov, the only man who has figured out Raskolnikov’s secret and attempts to elicit a confession.

It was easy to see why I forgot about the second murder, as even throughout this book that victim is treated as more of an afterthought to the death of the wealthy landlord. I’m not sure why I had so little recollection of Svidrigailov’s story arc, as on this reread it was by far my favorite arc in the story. Svidrigailov and Luzhin (Dunya’s fiancé) are the two closest things to an antagonist in this novel, along with Raskolnikov’s own conscience. Both are motivated at times by their attraction to Dunya, though Luzhin’s villainy is more apparent early on and Svidrigailov’s character faults are discovered more slowly. The dynamic is a big part of what makes this such an amazing read, as the protagonist of the book is a repugnant murderer and the antagonists are very flawed men with their own selfish motivations. The fact that everybody gets their own retribution by the end is very satisfying as well.

**End of spoilers**

Doestovsky’s writing style is a combination of play writing and psycho-drama. Every scene in this book could be done on a play stage with probably 5 or fewer people having speaking parts on a stage. However, it’s also written in a manner that would not be interesting to watch as a play, as the dialogue is very long and analytical. The simplicity of this style was more successful for me as a prose novel than as an audiobook, where hearing somebody read these long exchanges could at times sound more inauthentic than in creating the conversation in your head.

Overall I ended up still enjoying the things I liked the first time I read this book, and coming away with even more appreciation for a lot of stuff that I forgot about. As much as I enjoy reading, the thrill of reading a new book and hoping to discover something amazing was rarely as rewarding as revisiting this good read and discovering even more to love than I’d known about before. I can already see myself trying to work a re-read into my current reading schedules based on this experience. For those that enjoyed this book, I would also recommend The Idiot. I read that book, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes From the Underground based on my enjoyment of this book previously, and felt that The Idiot was just about equally enjoyable to this work.

5-star

“The Touch” by F. Paul Wilson Review

The touch

The Touch

Author:  F. Paul Wilson

Released:  1986

As a stand alone book in F. Paul Wilson’s Adversary Cycle, The Touch barely ties into the events of the Repairman Jack world or even the rest of the Adversary Cycle stories, but was overall one of my favorite books I’ve read by the author. The book is the story of Dr. Alan Bulmer, a family physician who gains the ability of the Dat-tay-vao, a healing touch that works for about an hour a day. Patients who come in with hearing loss or broken bones leave Bulmer’s office completely healthy. The ability seems to know no limits, fixing life long birth defects or nearly fatal cancer. The ability draws Bulmer into the intrigue of an ambitious senator, as well as the attention of other local medical professionals, all of which believe Bulmer is either having a breakdown or is now a scam artist. The only man who seems to have any idea what is going in is the Vietnamese gardener for the local widow, a man with a set of skills reminiscent of Liam Neeson in Taken.

While Wilson can craft great page turners, nobody will ever confuse him for John Steinbeck. Wilson often falls back on cliched character types and racial stereotypes throughout his writing, and The Touch is no exception. The bad guys are foreshadowed early and there is no guessing when it comes to who Alan should trust. Despite all that, the story moves at a brisk pace and I frequently found myself wondering how I would respond in the same situation. The progression of the touch on Bulmer is obvious to the reader immediately, but it is understandable how Bulmer could ignore or overlook the negative effects (or diagnose them as stress) for as long as he does.

Much of the suspense of the book hinges on whether Bulmer’s ability would work on a person with autism, which was sort of odd to distinguish among all the conditions a patient could have. Wilson wisely focuses much of the doubt as coming from a character worrying about the possible effects on her son. With a simple story and few major characters, this is the type of book that lends itself to thinking of cinematically while reading. (For my reading, I pictured Harrison Ford as Bulmer and Catherine Zeta-Jones as the widow (when they were in their 40’s), Naomi Watts as Bulmer’s wife and Richard Jenkins as the Senator.)

My book also included the short story, Dat-tay-vao which explains how the ability crossed the ocean from Vietnam to America. The story features some very unlikable characters in a tense Vietnam setting, while filling in a blank that I wasn’t particularly interested in knowing about. Still, who can complain about a free bonus story.

5-star

“Night Terrors” by Alice Henderson Review

Night Terrors

Night Terrors (A Stake Your Destiny Buffy Book)

Author: Alice Henderson

Published:  2005

Maybe I’m biased because I made it through this book to a happy ending on my first try, but this was my favorite of the Stake Your Destiny Buffy books. I wrote in my review forKeep Me In Mind that “the entire thing reads like a long dream sequence (I hate dream sequences).” Night Terrorsactually featured a lengthy dream sequence so now I’m reevaluating my stance on the topic. I think the problem with Keep Me In Mind was that the entire book felt like a training drill with zero stakes (sorry, bad pun… how about consequences) for the reader. In Night Terrors I was making what I felt was the best choice each time but I constantly felt like I was leading Buffy to her death as the plot got weirder and wackier.

The plot of Night Terrors is that people around Sunnydale are getting sleepy, and feeling paralyzed in their sleep but feeling as though they are awake. It starts off affecting Buffy but spreads to others like Angel and her classmates. As Buffy feels like something is sitting on top of her, and that she’s not alone in her room, she lies paralyzed and unable to do anything about it. Once the feeling has passed, we’re given the choice of going to find Angel, going out on a patrol, or studying for a test that day that we’ve so far neglected. The choice is simple enough, but right away the book at least gave options that felt either more authentic to how Buffy would behave in the tv series or that an average reader would consider in her place (the previous Stake Your Destiny books have seemed addicted to offering a day spent with Cordelia right out of the gate).

**Slight Spoilers follow**

I flipped around when I was finished and saw other happy endings possible for the reader, and since it’s difficult to review this book without giving away the track I followed, reader beware. I started off patrolling before ending up heading toward the gym at Principal Snyder’s direction. Before I got there I decided to check on a crying student. After I learned more from the Scoobies, I decided to sleep and confront the Night Terror right away (my thinking being that staying up would just lead to a later confrontation with a tired and weakened slayer). After entering the dream world, I tried to locate Willow to communicate with the other spirits. When that was a dead end, I decided to Trust Ned, the man from Planet X who worked with the Lava people and build a dreamcatcher to catch the Night Terror.

For those following along, yeah that took a turn well away from anything in the series. I can only say that the alternative options presented to me seemed like tricks by the enemy, and that my path resulted in a happy ending. Spending about one third of this story in an anything goes dream world actually felt more like an episode of the tv series than one would thing just from reading that recap. In particular, it felt like the season four finale where Willow, Buffy, and Xander are encountering the First Slayer in their sleep.

**End of spoilers**

Besides feeling like a fun episode of the series and rewarding my obviously excellent choices based on years of watching the show and reading the books and comics, Night Terrorsalso benefitted by not having the ultra predictable page numbering problem present in some of the other Stake Your Destiny books. I jumped into the last 200 pages fairly early and often my two choices were close enough in page numbering to not give away which way the book was steering me. Although I wouldn’t put this book up there withDune or East of Eden, I’ve now read all of the Stake Your Destiny books and this was the only one that I didn’t come away from with grievances, and I actually had a really fun time reading it. That earns a perfect score from this reader.

3-star

“Clan of the Cave Bear” by Jean M. Auel Review

Clan of Cave Bear

Clan of the Cave Bear

Author:  Jean M. Auel

Published:  1980

My fascination with this book is somewhat random. Growing up, this was a popular enough book that I’d see it for sale at numerous used book stores, and always kept it in the back of my mind that I would read it someday. No particular reason why besides a title that implied there’d be some people that had some involvement with bears. I never bought it as a kid though, who knows why when I picked up so many other books that have sat on my shelves for years and either been read or are still waiting for the long payoff. When my wife was looking for a book about a primitive culture I looked this one up (really never even knowing what it was about for sure until then) and got a copy for both of us. While she’s reading the excellent Crime and Punishment I thought I’d zip through this one before she got to it. That’s a long buildup before ever discussing this book, but I’m wanting to be honest in discussing my thoughts as I read this.

First, I’m giving this book five stars. I give a lot of books I enjoy five stars, but they’re generally books I enjoyed and lived up to what I was hoping for, or took a series that was good and made it better. This was one of those rare books that made me wish I’d be a bit pickier with my five star ratings as I enjoyed this book a lot more than many other books I’ve given five stars to. I’d say it’s on par with Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub for the best book I’ve read in the past few years.

However, I could see how this book would not be for everyone. Auel has a writing style here that I LOVED. It was very simple to follow, heavily based on advancing the narrative. However, Auel also has a habit for interjecting a modern reader’s sensibility into the story, discussing things like advanced medical science, or biology of the neanderthal brain. I could see how some readers will be taken out of the story by this, but I appreciated the interjections as a good narrator explaining the inner goings of the characters and the society they inhabit. The group of neanderthal (Clan) people also have some abilities that are rooted in fantasy, but the book tries to stay as grounded as possible in reality. While that mixture of modern science with fantasy abilities all taking place in a historical fiction type of narrative is unlike anything I’ve read, Auel (for this book at least) managed to bring it all together in an exemplary manner.

Clan of the Cave Bear features a small cast of about 20 characters, of which five are significantly developed and about another five are treated as important but also fairly static (along with the other ten or so characters). Ayla is the protagonist, a Cro-Magnon girl who gets adopted by the neanderthal tribe. Iza is the medicine woman who adopts her, Creb is the shaman type character for the clan, Brun is the tribe leader and Broud is his son and in line to be the next leader. I found myself loving four of these characters and hating the fifth, which I expect will be the same reaction for most who read this book.

I can see by the average Goodreads scores, that most people find the quality of this series to be of diminishing returns as it advances. I’m tempted to forego reading more of the series and just enjoying what a great book this is on its own. However, I already know I’ll be tracking down at least the next book as this one ends on enough of an open ending that I’d like to see what happens to the characters that are still alive from the group above, as well as the offspring of those characters.

5-star