The Darwin Conspiracy

by John Darnton

I finished this book a couple of weeks ago and forgot to write about it here in my book journal. I hope I can remember enough to give the book justice because I did enjoy it.

A floundering researcher, Hugh Kellem, begins investigating Darwin - looking for a new take on the naturalist life and discovery process. Hugh uncovers a secret journal written by one of Darwin's daughters which reveals the truth about Darwin's famous "natural selection" theory. The journal and its author were one of the most fascinating thing about this book. I did enjoy reading it, but some of the revelations were very convenient.

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Jarhead: A Marine's Chronicle of the Gulf War and Other Battles

by Anthony Swofford

I don't generally read military memoirs. I picked this one up because it was an also-ran at bookgroup and one that Stepan read and seemed to enjoy.

This book is Anthony Swofford's recollections of his experiences as a marine in the first Gulf War. It includes vignettes from his childhood as an army brat, boot camp, and transitioning into an elite sniper unit within the Marines.

He writes about the politics of war - politics within the military and brief glimpses of Washington politics, which was vaguely fascinating. For example, I had no idea Dick Chaney was so involved in the first conflict (yes, I did have my head in the sand...I was a freshman at college!). Also, within the military, you have to be careful whom you piss off or you just might find yourself stuck with the duty of burning the contents of the cans that collect the wastes from the latrines. There is also a "no salute" rule within combat zones to prevent the enemy from being able to easily identify those in command (who knew the military could be so practical?).

I think parts of the book were meant to be shocking, but weren't anything I wouldn't expect from a group of aggressive men, living in a military encampment, who have to maintain the mythos of machismo in order to face the jobs they may be called upon to do. Not to say the book wasn't without it's frank admissions of terror when the company uncounted the few combat situations that were detailed here.

Bottom line: I don't think I would recommend this book to anybody, but I'm glad I read it.

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The Life of Pi

by Yann Martel

This book is about the early life of a boy named Piscine. He shortens his name to Pi when boys in school start calling him “Pissing”. According to the book jacket, the book is about Pi surviving a shipwreck alone in a small life boat with a Bengal tiger, but it was so much more than that. He doesn’t even start his sea voyage until nearly 1/3 of the way through the book then doesn’t even discover the presence of the tiger for several chapters.

The first part of the book is introduction to Pi. I enjoyed his discovery of and dedication to Catholicism, Hinduism, and Islam. It followed nicely with my vague belief that the true religions of the world actually worship the same (One True) God, just in different ways and under different names.

Once he is on the lifeboat, there are some fairly gruesome scenes – I wouldn’t read them while eating. And during his struggle with the day-to-day struggle and worries of survival, he does some pretty disgusting things.

The book ends with a bit of ambiguity. Pi’s adventure ends when he finally drifts to land in Mexico. While recuperating at the hospital, he is visited by agents of the shipping company who don’t believe his story about surviving with a tiger for over 200 days on a tiny lifeboat. Pi finally tells them another story where all animals are transformed into people that the agents do accept. The reader is left to wonder which story is actually the true one. I choose to believe the story as originally told.

One final note, in the beginning of the book, the narrator is directed to interview a much older Pi to hear a story that would make him “believe in God”. I didn’t agree with that assessment of the story at all. The story for me was more about the perseverance of the human spirit to survive against all odds and through amazing trials and setbacks.

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Everything is Illuminated

by Jonathan Safran Foer

It took me a long time to read this book, but I did enjoy it. The story is told in fragments and is sometimes difficult to follow, but once I caught up to the time and place of a given passage, I was engaged and eager to find out what would happen.

The story is about the discoveries made by an American Jew who returns to the Ukraine in the present to locate the woman who saved the life of his grandfather during the Nazi invasion of WWII. A good portion of the text is in the form of letters written to the American after his return to the US by his Ukrainian translator. The fluid yet misused language of these letters can be confusing, but once I found the rhythm of them, they were very amusing.

Though this story was destined to end in tragedy (the tragedy of the war, the tragedy of the atrocities committed by friend in order to survive the war, the tragedy of having to cope with these atrocities...) it was also illuminating (revealing truth, discovering strength, displaying courage).

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The Da Vinci Code

by Dan Brown

Lynn suggested this book for book group, but it was rejected in favor of Dirt Music by Tim Winton. This book was a quick read, but I'm not sure it would be a very good group discussion book. I think there are 4 Catholics in our group (I am including Stepan since he was raised Catholic), but I doubt we could shed much light on the what was fact or fiction in regards to how the Catholic church was portrayed...but that's a topic for my journal.

The main character in the book, Robert Langdon, a symbologist, becomes the number one suspect in the mysterious death of the curator of the Louvre, who happened to be the Grand Master of a secret society, The Priory of Sion. The Priory is nearly two-thousand-years old and guards the secrets of the "other" gospels that the politicos of the Catholic establishment deemed heretical at the time of the Niacin Council (sometime in the 700s). It all evolves around the "real" life of Jesus Christ and his relationship with Mary Magdalene, the gradual assimilation by the Catholic church of ancient pagan rites and rituals, and the power of women (goddess worship). I think my sister, Meredith would really relate to certain parts of this book! (She has issues with the Catholic Church's stance on women in the priesthood.)

Upon finishing the book, one of my first thoughts was to discover the Catholic response, but I wasn't able to find much of anything on that topic...though I got side-tracked in several discussion groups while looking. However, the book does have an interesting website that is all about answering clues and solving riddles to advance to the next screen. Opus Dei is a real organization, though I doubt it's leaders are interested in holding absolute power over the Vatican. And does anybody know why the Pope is called the Holy See?

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