Wednesday, November 09, 2011

What are you reading, Jim Woest?

I tend to read a lot. So I thought that my contribution to this blog might be to encourage an eclectic approach to reading by reporting on what I've read in the last month. With a single exception, noted in the list, I've enjoyed all of these. Maybe something here will pique some of your interests.

Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School by John Medina, Pear Press, 2009.

This is physiological psychology for the layman. Medina explains the influence the brain's structure has on the way we think. It's not a book of rules for how we should think; it's a book of rules about how our brains work. One interesting insight among many is that we learn best when we're in motion. Medina suggests that having people sit in a classroom for an hour is just about the worst possible way to get them to learn anything. Dandy.

The Anabasis of Xenophon (also called The Persian Expedition), translated by H. G. Dakyns, Publishing, 2009 (this edition).

In 401 B.C. a group of 10,000 Greek mercenaries followed a Persian prince into Persia in order to overthrow his brother the king. The prince was killed in the first battle, leaving the Greeks without a leader, friends, or a way home. The Anabasis was written by Xenophon, one of the Greek generals who led the troops back through what is now Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a study in leadership, politics, and resilience. One of the more interesting circumstances is that there was no hierarchy to enforce the authority of the leaders, so the army functioned in many ways as a democracy. Important decisions were made by vote, with the negotiation, bribery, blame-placing and flip-flopping that you might expect in such a situation

The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Puffin Books, 2008.

This is typically classified as a children's story. They are welcome to read it I guess, but it was fascinating for at least one adult – me. It’s a story of a little girl, stuck with a solitary and uncaring uncle after the death of her parents, who not only saves herself but also her invalid cousin (and eventually the uncle) when she discovers and resurrects a “secret garden” that no one has tended for a decade. It’s an incredibly optimistic and uplifting story of rebirth and of the healing powers of nature, with a hint of magical realism. Professor Natalie Hewitt tells me it’s gothic, but I don’t know about that. I read it twice.

At the Mountains of Madness
by H.P. Lovecraft, Random House Inc., 2005.

Ah, for the days of scifi pulp fiction. This was originally a serial run in "Astounding Stories" in 1936. It tells the story of an expedition to the then-unexplored interior of Antarctica. The expedition discovers a lost civilization of extraterrestrials that was destroyed eons earlier by the monstrous servants that the ETs created. Naturally enough, the monsters have survived. You should not look here for dexterous plotting, strong characterization, or even sound science. But it’s an excellent example of Lovecraft’s ability to build the horrific anticipation of an unknown menace. Read it for fun.

Disaster: Lessons from the Edge of Technology by James R. Chiles, HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.

If you're fascinated by man's ability to mess things up, as I am, this is a great read. Chiles looks at complex systems and our weaknesses in trying to work within them during crisis. He explains the failure mechanisms in the Concorde crash, the sinking of the ocean-going oil rig Ocean Ranger, the nuclear meltdown at Three Mile Island, the space-shuttle Challenger disaster, and a couple dozen similar events. He also describes a few times when preparation and cool-headedness averted disaster, as when Captain Bryce McCormick managed to land a DC-10 with a blown-out door, collapsed cabin floor, jammed control cables, and a stuck rudder that was trying to force the plane into a hard right turn. Very interesting stuff!

The Life of Flavius Josephus by (who else?) Flavius Josephus, Wilder Publications, 2009.

I thought this would provide some background to the culture surrounding early Christianity, but I gave up about 50 pages in. Too much of this seemed to me to be Josephus’ attempt to persuade his Roman masters that he didn’t really mean it when he helped lead the Jewish rebellion. You might find it interesting as an exercise in rhetoric. I didn’t.

"The Economist" Magazine.

I read it pretty much cover-to-cover every week. This is what Time and Newsweek would look like if they hadn’t gone over to the dark side and tried to become versions of People magazine. It provides excellent coverage of current events, politics, and even economics worldwide, and it's written intelligently and with a point of view. I usually start with the obituaries (almost always full of really important people I’ve never heard of) and book reviews at the back. Highly recommended.

I'm teaching a Sunday School class on Acts, making up the curriculum as I go. Professor Steve Richardson has used this book in his course on Acts and kindly recommended it to me. I've found it very useful. If you want to know more about the cultural, political and economic context in which Christianity first took form, this is an excellent place to start.

The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary by Ben Witherington, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1997.

This one’s in-process; I’m about halfway through. It’s a solid reference for my Sunday School preparation. The “socio-rhetorical” designation is, frankly, over my head, and fortunately not essential to my understanding or use of Witherington’s commentary. I think it means that he is trying to explicitly deal with the cultural influences on the creation of the text and on our understanding of it, but if you really want the lowdown ask Professor David Matson. For me, the value is in Witherington’s verse-by-verse commentary and especially his “Closer Look” vignettes. In the latter one or two page summaries he deals with a couple dozen topics: How Luke could reproduce verbatim speeches, Luke’s likely sources, how he used the Old Testament, his Christology, and so on. As a lay reader I’ve found these really helpful.

History of the Second World War by B.H. Liddell Hart, Da Capo Press, 1970.

I’m a history junkie. I decided awhile ago that I didn’t know enough about WWII. My father fought in the South Pacific, so I’ve been interested for a long time – I just hadn’t worked at it. Wandering through Barnes and Noble I found this classic by Liddell Hart marked down and figured that the time had come. I’m up to the fall of the Philippines, Singapore and Hong Kong – early 1942. Liddell Hart seems pretty Eurocentric in his presentation – he was British, after all – but I’m enjoying his insights into both military and political strategy.

Kidnapped by Robert Lewis Stevenson, Scholastic Inc., 2002.

I reread Treasure Island a couple months ago and enjoyed it, but I’ve never read this RLS book. I’m just getting started, but I expect to have a good time.

Looking back, I see that I haven’t read a single murder mystery this month. Exceptional for me. Anyway, maybe I’ve at least given you all some thoughts about genres that you might be neglecting.

All of these books can be purchased at, Barnes and Noble, and Better World Books.

You can also find them all at your local library by searching

We'd love to know what you are reading. To join the fun, fill out the "What are you reading?" questionnaire and submit it by following the instructions included.


Robin Hartman said...

Wow! You do read a lot, Jim. I am very interested in picking up a couple of these myself. Although I'm not as voracious as you by a long shot. Brain Rules will be first on my list.

Terri B. said...

Eclectic indeed! I'm intrigued by the socio-rhetorical commentary. I will now add it to my rather lengthy TBR (to be read) list.