Archive for the “Books” Category
After years of work by many people, we’ve finally published my mother’s memoirs. “My Short Century” by Lorna Arnold is now available from Lulu. A Kindle version is on the way, and both of them should show up on Amazon quite soon.
Posted by geoff in Books, Geek
Here’s my Amazon review of Ernest Cline’s “Ready Player One”:
Simple Wonderful (five stars)
The 80s were an interesting decade: the first personal computers, the first video games (in arcades and in the home), the first music videos, and a string of wonderful movies that brought together teenage angst, over-the-top technology, exuberant fantasy, and epic quests. So what would seem more natural than to wrap up all of these themes into the ultimate epic video game quest of all time? What better distraction could we have from the dystopia of The Decline And Fall Of Just About Everything?
Read it. Just read it. I wish Douglas Adams was around to endorse it. And I hope you feel the same guilty pleasure that I experienced each time I worked out a puzzle before the protagonist had got there. (Isn’t being competitive what this is all about?)
And now I have to go and dust off my PS3 and kick some zombie butt….
Actually I have just acquired a PS3, but my game of choice is Soul Calibur IV. So rather than hacking zombies, I’ll be chasing sword-fighting maidens in skimpy clothing and High German knights in blood-stained armour…
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@geoffarnold: Hallelujah! Amazon reports my copy of Penn Jillette’s “God, No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist…” is in the mail! http://t.co/L65ediP
Posted by geoff in Books
I just received my copy of Iain M. Banks’ “Surface Detail” from Amazon. A new Culture novel. 626 pages. Mmmmm!
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David Chalmers just blogged that his collection of papers, The Character of Consciousness, has finally been published. It first showed up on Amazon back in 2007, and my email inbox includes a slightly testy exchange with David about the ever-changing publication date. Never mind. My copy should be here on Wednesday, and I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing it. I don’t agree with his somewhat “mysterian” views, but I’ve always felt that the best way to understand one’s own position is to read the best of the opposition, and David certainly represents this.
While I was ordering this book, I checked to see if Chalmers showed up anywhere else. He did: as an author of Mind and Consciousness: 5 Questions. This is a collection of essays by many leading lights in the philosophy of mind, edited by Patrick Grim. I hadn’t heard of it before, but ordered it immediately. Even if one has read some of the pieces before, a well-edited anthology can be an invaluable way of capturing the state of an academic debate.
Back in April I reviewed Christopher Hitchens’ memoir, “Hitch 22″. In my remarks, I focussed on the literary style and the content of the work, without offering any opinions about the positions which Hitchens has endorsed. Regular readers of my blog will know that I generally agree with him on the topic of religion, and strongly disagree with him when it comes to the United States’ disastrous policies of regime change, nation building, and other military adventures. One thing that I did not do, however, was to discuss how Hitchens thinks. In a recent review in the New York Review of Books, Ian Buruma does exactly that. The result is a powerful indictment of the way in which Hitchens abandoned skepticism and irony in favor of simplistic emotion.
Another typical word in Hitchensâ€™s lexicon is â€œintoxication.â€ This can literally mean drunk. But that is not what Hitchens means. Writing about his early political awakening, when he shared with his fellow International Socialists a â€œconsciousness of rectitude,â€ he claims:
If you have never yourself had the experience of feeling that you are yoked to the great steam engine of history, then allow me to inform you that the conviction is a very intoxicating one.
This must be true. When Hitchens became a journalist for the New Statesman, after graduating from Oxford, he adopted a pleasing kind of double life, part reporter, part revolutionary activist, imagining how he might help an IRA terrorist hide from the law. He found this double life â€œmore than just figuratively intoxicating.â€ One can only assume that intoxication again played a part when he took the view that yoking himself to George W. Bushâ€™s war was to hitch a ride on the great steam engine of history.
The trouble with intoxication, figurative or not, is that it stands in the way of reason. It simplifies things too much, as does seeing the world in terms of heroes and villains. Or, indeed, the dogmatic notion that all religion is bad, and secularism always on the right side of history.
The biggest challenge for a soi-disant skeptic is to hold his or her own thinking – and that of one’s comrades – to the standard applied to others. And in this Hitchens has generally failed:
Again, the narcissism, the narrow scale of characters, and the parochial perspective are startling: â€œWe were the only ones to see 1968 coming.â€ It is as if the central focus of the Iraq war was about scores to be settled between Hitchens and Noam Chomsky or Edward Said. It is odd that in all his lengthy accounts of the war, the name of Dick Cheney is mentioned only once (because he happened to share the same dentist with Hitchens). What is utterly missing is a sense of perspective, and of the two qualities Hitchens claims to prize above all: skepticism and irony. A skeptic would not answer the question whether he blamed his former leftist friends for criticizing the war with: â€œYes, absolutely. I was right, and they were wrong, thatâ€™s pretty much it in a nutshell.â€ Asked about his literary influences, Hitchens mentioned Arthur Koestler. He was right on the mark. Koestler, too, lurched from cause to cause, always with the same unshakable conviction.
I love Hitchens’ writing, and his bravura performances of rhetoric. I do not believe that they would be diminished by a modicum of reflection and humility. I would love to read his thoughtful response to this insightful review by Buruma.
Posted by geoff in Books
Here’s my review at Amazon.com of the new novel by Iain M. Banks, Transition:
Insidiously exquisite, ultimately essential (5 stars)
I’ve always loved Iain M. Banks’ science fiction novels, especially his “Culture” books with their huge sentient spaceships and breathtaking worlds. The Player of Games is a particular favourite. And Ive also enjoyed what I think of as his various experiments: The Algebraist, and Matter.
This isn’t a “Culture” book. There are worlds – or at least a multiverse – but no spaceships. Bits of it are about the present. The characters are all recognizably human (there are no aliens or sentient machines), which doesn’t say as much as you might think. But it’s unmistakably by Iain M. Banks.
I’ve never been able to get into Iain Banks stark and gritty fiction, like The Wasp Factory or Whit. “Dark“, “twisted” novels are just fine, up to a point, but I’ve always found that Banks goes just past that point. Friends tell me I ought to try The Crow Road, which is supposedly dark, twisted, and funny. Maybe.
This isn’t dark. It’s twisted, in many ways. The characters are all recognizable to the modern eye, which doesn’t say as much as you might think. But it’s unmistakably by Iain Banks.
At least one reviewer said that he(?) couldn’t be bothered with this, and gave up after about 100 pages. In my case, I started it on a plane, got distracted, and tentatively decided that I would wait until I got home from my present business trip to finish it. But after a couple of days I found that I couldn’t stay away. It was as though the skein of this odd book had got snagged on a hangnail, and I couldn’t shake it off. (Ugh. Try another mixed metaphor.) I found myself reading it (on my iPad, using the Kindle reader) at every opportunity I got. Over breakfast. In between meetings. In my favourite cocktail bar here in Shenzhen.
Part of me wants to proclaim that it’s the best thing I’ve read in years. Other bits of me are still confused. I think that this is a very commendable thing. More books should have these effects.
I think that will suffice. I recommend it to the curious and the flexible among you.
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Posted by geoff in Books
I just posted my review of Christopher Hitchens’ new book “Hitch 22″ over at Amazon.com. This is what I wrote:
Must read. No excuses.
Let’s get the most important bit out of the way first. You ought to read this book. If you love good, insightful, literate, compelling writing then you must read it. You will not agree with all of it, maybe not even most of it. That’s OK. Echo chambers are sterile places: creativity and energy comes from conflict.
It’s tempting to adopt a personal approach to this book. After all, there are a number of points of commonality between Hitchens’ life and mine – our origins in post-war England, our youthful socialism, our migrations to the United States at the beginning on the 1980s, our uncompromising atheism, and anger at institutionalized mumbo-jumbo. But it would be a mistake for me to try to take this too far. At our cores, we are very different. Hitchens is an actor, a performance artist, a painter. He paints with words. He’s a passionate romantic, with the creative energy and curious myopia which this engenders.
Above all – and even though he is ambivalent about the term – he is a contrarian. He is defined by his oppositions, his targets. Mother Teresa. Henry Kissinger. Bill Clinton. Saddam Hussein. Ayatollah Kohmeini The Pope, and religion in general. And his opponents have to be big, controversial, and deserving of his attention. I searched the book in vain for any opinions of George W. Bush, and eventually concluded that Hitchens didn’t consider him worth comment. (And Hitchens chooses his targets because they trigger his passions – he feels no obligation to be even-handed or consistent.)
This is also an account of friendships of various kinds: the mentor, the partner in crime, the defender and advocate. I came away with the strong impression that for Hitchens, friendship is more important than love, which is an old idea that is rather out of fashion. It is not about intimacy, unless this is taken to include the intellect.
At the end, both I and the author seemed to come to the same conclusion: the memoir is not exactly a natural vehicle for Hitchens’ extraordinary literary talents. How does one end such a work? In my case, I set aside “Hitch 22″ and turned to what I regard as his best work: his slim volume on Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man.
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I just finished Rebecca Goldsten’s latest work, and I can’t wipe this silly grin off my face. This is the kind of book that makes my toes curl with delight: witty, arch, thought-provoking, funny, familiar, relevant, and deeply satisfying.
As in her previous novels, such as The Mind-Body Problem, Goldstein uses the stereotypical figures of academia to explore philosophical questions. A young professor escapes from the mad world of a Harold Bloom-like figure and writes a response to William James and Sigmund Freud entitled “The Varieties of Religious Illusion” (get it?). It includes an appendix listing 36 arguments for the existence of God, together with a crisp rebuttal to each. In this era of the “New Atheists”, this ensures that the book becomes a best-seller, catapulting the bewildered professor into the heights of academe, and culminating in a ferocious debate with a theist that includes all of the arguments that this reader would hope to make in a similar situation! And this narrative, with many fascinating twists and turns, is wrapped up in a novel complete with an appendix(!) on 36 Arguments for the Existence of God. With the addition of the subtitle, “A Work of Fiction”, this becomes the delightfully misleading title for the book as a whole.
Is it wrong of me to hope that some theist will read the title, assume that it’s a response to Dawkins, Dennett et al, buy it sight unseen, and be confused, angry, and – possibly – enlightened?
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Before my last overseas trip, I loaded Simon Schama’s book “The American Future” onto my Kindle.
I enjoyed it immensely: a witty ramble across the history and geography of the United States, neatly linked to the momentous political events of late 2008. Highly recommended. Soon afterwards, Kate got it out of the library, and she too enjoyed it. And then we wondered. We’d enjoyed several of Schama’s earlier TV series – on art, and British history – and it seemed plausible that the book of “The American Future” might be tied to a BBC TV series. That’s the way the media business seems to work these days. We checked, and indeed it was, and the DVDs were available. So we ordered them from Netflix. They arrived a couple of days ago.
Well, there was some beautiful photography. Lots of shots of American landscapes, often with Simon Schama gazing thoughtfully out across the prairie, or the river, or the mountain. But the narrative was slow, and the editing repetitive, and the whole thing was simply dull. Deadly dull. Tedious.
So skip the DVD, but get the book. It’s magnificent. And it’s cheaper.