Book Review: Ninety percent of everything by Rose George

AuthorRose George
Title: Ninety percent of everything : inside shipping, the invisible industry that puts clothes on your back, gas in your car, and food on your plate by
Publication Info: New York : Metropolitan Books, 2013.

As the title implies, freight shipping is important, but overlooked.  The author looks into the industry which appears to be impossible to regulate and awfully dreary at best for the sailors, yet surprisingly compelling.  The heart of the book is George’s journey on the giant container ship Maersk Kendal from Rotterdam to Singapore by way of Suez. Apart from her own journey, George explores the hardship of the sailor’s life and those who depends on them, shipwrecks, the effect of shipping on whales, the merchant marine during war, and Somali pirates.  It’s an interesting glimpse into a vital part of human life that can be beyond the brain’s capability to comprehend.

Recommended books: Trawler by Redmond O’Hanlon and The Invisible Hook by Peter T. Leeson,

Rating: ***

Book Review: The Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs

The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible (2007) by A.J. Jacobs follows 12 months of raised secular, agnostic writer for Esquire attempting the ultimate in Biblical literalism. While it is an exercise in participatory journalism, Jacobs is also a spiritual seeker and offers great insight on faith and religion.

For about 2/3’s of his year he sticks with the Jewish scriptures, and then about four months tackling the New Testament (something even more challenging since it’s not part of his heritage). He follows every rule from the scripture, those listed in the Pentateuch as well as many other direct commandments in books such as Proverbs, creating a list of over 700 rules. He illustrates just how difficult it is to follow each and every one of them not to mention simply remembering them all.

Then there’s the question of figurative language as even among Fundamentalist believers there is a difference of opinion on whether a particular passage should be accepted literally. Jacobs points out that even Christ teases those who take his teachings literally.It should be noted that this book is also very funny, but not in a mocking or detached ironic way. Instead there’s the humor of Jacobs grappling with the more perplexing Biblical commandments and the situations they land him in.

I learned a lot from this book too. I found myself growing very fond of Jacobs and appreciating his humility, open-mindedness and wisdom. He’s given a great gift by conducting this experiment and writing so eloquently about it.  I think whether you are religious or agnostic, conservative or liberal, there is something in this book for you.  This will definitely be one of my ten favorite books read in 2008.

I’ve decided…that the Wikipedia and the Bible have a lot in common. Hardcore believers say that the Bible emerged from God’s oven like a fully baked cake….The alternative is called the documentary hypothesis. This says that the Bible has many, many authors and editors….The passages have been chopped and pieced together by various editors. In short, the hypothesis says that the Bible has evolved, like humans themselves. Like a Wikipedia entry. – p. 200

My quest is a paradoxical one. I’m trying to fly solo on a route that was specifically designed for a crowd. As one of my spiritual advisers, David Bossman, a religion professor at Seton Hall University, told me: “The people of the Bible were ‘groupies.’ You did what the group did, you observed the customs of your group. Onely the crazy Europeans came up with the idea of individualism. So what you’re doing is a modern phenomenon.” – p. 213

I always found the praising-God parts of the Bible and my prayer books awkward. The sentence about the all-powerful, almighty, all-knowing, the host of hosts, He who has greatness beyond our comprehension. I’m not used to talking like that. It’s so over the top. I’m used to understatement and hedging and irony. And why would God need to be praised in the first place? God shouldn’t be insecure. He’s the ultimate being. Now I can sort of see why. It’s not for him. It’s for us. It takes you out of yourself and your prideful little brain. – p. 220

Greenburg tells me, “Never blame a text from the Bible for your behavior. It’s irresponsible. Anybody who says X, Y, and Z is in the Bible — it’s as if one says, ‘I have no role in evaluating this.’ The idea that we can work with God to evolve the Bible’s meaning — it’s a thrilling idea…He says that just because you’re religious doesn’t mean you give up your responsibility to choose. You have to grapple with the Bible. – p. 268

This year showed me beyond a doubt that everyone practices cafeteria religion. It’s not just moderates…But the more important lesson is this: there’s nothing wrong with choosing. Cafeterias aren’t bad per se…The key is in choosing the right dishes. You need to pick the nurturing ones (compassion), the healthy ones (love thy neighbor), not the bitter ones. Religious leaders don’t know everything about every food, buy maybe the good ones can guide you to what is fresh. – p. 328

Book Review: Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon by Jim Paul

One day Jim Paul decides that he wants to launch rocks into the ocean with a catapult and so he convinces his friend Harry to colloborate with him in building one, a process described in Catapult: Harry and I Build a Siege Weapon (1991). Paul manages to convince National Park Service to allow him to use the catapult at the abandoned forts at the Marin Headlands and even gets a grant for $500 from the Headlands Center for the Arts. Naively, Paul believes that $500 will cover the entire project (and then some) and is surprised when he ends up sinking hundreds of dollars of his own money into the project.

Similarly, Paul knows next to nothing about constructing a catapult. Harry has all the technological knowledge and is pretty much solely responsible for its successful completion. On the other hand, the cranky Harry has none of the whimsy that Paul has in his desire to fling rocks for fun.

Early on, the reader learns from Harry that a true catapult is more of a large crossbow. The trebuchet or “Monty Python type” he deems too inefficient and likely to break down. So they build the crossbow type of catapult acquiring parts from a strange variety of shops in the seedier parts of Oakland and San Francisco that specialize in steel-working, salvage, and boating among other things. In intermediary chapters Paul visits the catapult in history from its (supposed) invention in Syracuse by Archimedes to the fall of Jerusalem, King Edward’s conquest of the Scots, and even more tangential connections such as the Oppenheimers and the atomic bomb.

Overall, I found the historical chapters more interesting than the story of the catapult’s construction and deployment. Paul just tries too hard to find humor in places where he was really pissing people off (especially Harry). Similarly, the whole project seems to end up being a whole lot of nothing up to and including the lecture they deliver which is an exercise in cringing to read. The highlight of the contemporary part of the book comes just before the lecture where Paul and Harry wander to the shore where there rocks landed and discover that it is a nude beach.  Some poetic passages and observations make for insightful reading, but this is pretty much a hit or miss book.

For another opinion, here’s a review from the New York Times from June 6, 1991 by Christopher Lehman-Haupt.

Favorite Passages

Looking for the beginning of the catapult in history, I found it attributed to Syracuse most authoritatively, but discovered it in other places as well, and I began wondering if I hadn’t gotten the terms wrong: not that history produced the catapult, but rather that the catapult produced history. Catapults made empires that kept records, and defended those empires so that it was more likely that such records might endure for posterity. Perhaps, too, later writers simply credited their ancestors with inventing the catapult to confer the prestige of the technology on their own cultures. In any case, old catapult stories appear in various places, usually with the historical implausibility and psychological cogency of myth. – p. 59