Discussion in 'Media Central' started by RickDeckard, Dec 23, 2012.
You didn't see nuttin'. Capice?
The Ascent to Godhood - J. Y. Yang
So last time I read the second book of four first, and said I would read the first book second after first digging it out. But I found the third book first (that is to say, second) so I went ahead and read the third book second after first reading the second book first and I expect I'll read the first book third because I'm not sure we have the fourth book so we might have to buy it first?
Anyway, these are lightly interconnected novellas, so this one is thankfully not about the apotheosis of Mokoya (though it name-drops a couple of characters from that book). It's about an old woman at a funeral telling her life story. Born to poor farmers, she was sold at an early age to be brought to the city to be trained as a dancing girl for the elite classes. It's a hard life, but she is making a name for herself when a young woman, Hekate, enlists her for blackmail. She quickly becomes part of Hekate's inner circle, trained to be confidante and assassin, as she is swept into a world of politics, power, riches, betrayal, murder, and yellow silk dresses.
This is about half as long as the first book I read, but tells the story well of Hekate's ascent to power. More gripping is the journey, a simple girl who is swept away by her new existence and wholly devoted to Hekate until One Fateful Night.
What is Mathematics, Really? by Reuben Hersh
I've recently started doing a little bit of maths tutoring, which piqued my interest in this topic. Philosophy of Mathematics is largely divided between those who believe that mathematical objects are in some sense real entities that we discover (Platonists) and those who believe that mathematics is simply a set of "games" that we invent (formalists). This book attempts to review the history of the debate, which goes back millenia and suggest an alternative, named "humanism" here, that mathematics is an emergent intersubjective phenomenon that maps in some ways onto reality.
It's interesting, but it's very strangely constructed. Rather than present the history and subsequently argue for his own views, Hersh does it the other way around. This means that he's intensely argumentative from the start, skewering (sometimes hilariously) noted luminaries from Plato to Descartes to Quine with an attitude bordering on ridicule. His arguments are somewhat persuasive (although I felt that he begged the question a little - the natural numbers don't exist but counting numbers do?) but one can't avoid the conclusion that some of his representations are straw men. Overall it was a provocative and stimulating read, regarding a subject on which there's not much available for the general reader.
Fascinating topic. I think of mathematics as built on some fundamental descriptions of the real world (quantity, identity, etc.) that are very difficult to dispute, and which can be extended to ever more elaborate descriptions of reality or even to purely conceptual ideas, and which will hold true because the chain of reasoning back to those foundations remains intact.
I fall firmly on the side of formalists because I think math is our description of reality, not something that has its own independent reality. A ballistic projectile follows a parabolic path not because a parabola exists in some Platonic sense, but because our description of such a path is what defines a parabola.
Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert
This is the first of several sequels (and prequels) to the original Dune novel. Set several years later, it expands on the world that was built by introducing new factions and deepening our understanding of some of the existing ones.
I didn't feel it got going in the same way that the original did. It's a very different story, much shorter and with limited action. The majesty and scale of the original is replaced mostly by palace intrigue and philosophising. This of course, is fine in itself. But it didn't seem logically coherent - I found the intentions of the conspirators difficult to discern and some of the powers of the main characters to be limited by the needs of the plot at any given time.
There are bright spots. The shape-shifting Tleilaxu are memorable, as are the Guildsmen, who can see the future but who live in a tank, addicted to spice. Things pick up towards the end and some of the confrontations that happen send sparks flying. The climax in particular is affecting. There's enough here for me not to abandon the series.
What I've read recently:
The Last Sheriff in Texas: A True Tale of Violence and the Vote
Death of the Battleship
Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45
Searching For John Ford: A Life
In the Blink of an Eye: A Perspective on Film Editing, 2nd Edition
The Boy Kings of Texas: A Memoir
Downfall: The End of the Imperial Japanese Empire
Bruce [Springsteen biography]
The Attack on Pearl Harbor: Strategy, Combat, Myths, Deceptions
Currently re-reading Shattered Sword: The Untold Story of the Battle of Midway.
I'll probably tackle David Lean: A Biography next. I've had it for a few years but had misplaced it until earlier this week.
Now, there's a filmmaker. When the BFI put together a list of the best 100 British films of all time, he had seven (!) on the list. I recently watched Brief Encounter, one of his classic films that I had never seen; it was excellent, of course.
Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer
Albert Speer was initially Chief Architect of the Third Reich, before becoming the head of Armaments and War Production. Co-operative and contrite upon his arrest, he was the highest ranking member of the Nazi hierarchy to avoid the death penalty in the subsequent Nuremberg trials - arguing that he had not known of the regime's more grisly crimes and that he had defied Hitler's scorched earth policies as the war came to a close. He was sentenced to 20 years for his use of forced labour and spent much of the time in prison writing this memoir.
It has subsequently been proven that Speer was lying. He was an anti-Semite and knew all about the holocaust and other things. This knowledge renders his admission of guilt in this book - a share in the collective guilt and guilt that he did not investigate further - appear totally self-serving and places the entire work in it's proper context - part of a campaign waged to represent himself as an apolitical "good Nazi" following his release from prison in the 1960's.
But bearing that in mind - this was a really fascinating read.
Speer writes well - perhaps too well. Long sections on his work as an architect and on bureaucratic wrangling are kept engaging. Aside from the aforementioned apologies, Speer mostly stays clear of troublesome areas and focuses on his work in making production more efficient (this was indeed remarkable) and the internal politicking. One must remind one-self that this is not merely a talented civil servant working in a normal country.
Perhaps the most interesting aspects concern the personality of Hitler and how that changed over time. Speer was very close to him. A magnetic and clever politician in the early years, his failing health was perhaps a major factor in the German drive for war (he felt he would not live long), his insularity from all but his core group, his turn to micromanagement and eventual exhaustion severely marred the war effort as time went on.
The likes of Goering (corrupt, decadent, lazy) and Boorman (fanatical, scheming) come off particularly badly. Hitler kept these and others in constant conflict by awarding them overlapping and imprecise jurisdictions, and by continually realigning them according to whim. Speer appears to have for a time become second only to Hitler, achieving dictatorial powers over the economy of most of Europe, before being stripped of some of these.
In the final analysis, Speer perhaps represents the section of the German bourgeoisie which sold their souls to the Nazi Party. Much more sophisticated than the other boors who surrounded Hitler, he was willing to use his considerable administrative talents for their ends as a means to accumulate power and wealth for himself. The astonishing fact that German industry was not subordinated to the state until very late in the war (much later than in the "free" societies") highlights how keen the Nazis were to mollify the capitalists and the nature of this faustian pact with them. (See also the neutering of the SA, who wanted a social revolution.) This perhaps also shines some light on why elements in the west sought to rehabilitate him.
There have been other biographies of Albert Speer written more recently. The questions thrown up here almost demand exploration of those as a corrective.
When my mother died five years ago, among the books I inherited was an original printing of this book. As with many of the books in her collection, I suspect she picked it up for free or at little cost at a thrift store or something and I'd be surprised if she actually read it.
Based on your review, I won't waste my time with it.
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
One of the most famous opening lines in literature - describing how main character Gregor is transformed into a giant bug - sets the stage for Kafka's most famous work. It's a short novel, a work of both absurdism and pessimism. In three chapters, Gregors situation goes from bad to worse as he deals with the consequence of the change that has befallen him.
There's a lot going on under the surface to unpack. Gregor has been working a sales job to support his family. His reaction upon undergoing his change is almost exclusively a concern for this rather than himself, speaking to the Marxist concept of alienation arising from wage labour. He's also cruelly rejected by his family, and there's a kind of dualism or counterpoint suggested by Gregor's sister, who seems to want to help him for a time and who eventually completes her own metamorphosis into a grown woman.
Beyond these intellectual concerns, the story evokes an enormous amount of pathos for our main character and his suffering and can be read on many different levels. I am sure that my own impressions barely scratch the surface.
Man, I read that one back in grade school. So weird, so engrossing, so sticks-in-your-brain.
Beyond Weird by Philip Ball
Time for more physics. Philip Ball is a prolific science writer, who has completed a number of interesting works.
Ball outlines the particulars of quantum mechanics and runs through the main interpretations, bringing things up to date with the latest experimental data, pouring cold water on far-out ideas such as the Many Worlds Interpretation. He then discusses quantum computing and attempts to reformulate the theory in different ways. In particular, he suggests that what quantum mechanics may be telling us is that fundamental reality is composed not of "things" but of "information" and that there is promise in such an approach. He sits on the fence somewhat in regards to debate between the realists and the anti-realists (whose motto is "shut up and calculate").
There's nothing particularly wrong with the book, but I felt that it was lacking much that was new. This debate has become somewhat stale following decades of limited progress.
Ecclesiasticus - KJV
This is attributed to one Jesus, son of Sirach, son of Jesus. It's also much more what I expected of the Wisdom of Solomon: short proverbs and instructions on various topics. A lot of praise of wisdom, righteousness, and fearing the Lord. Humility, forgiveness, justice, and other virtues are praised in detail. Beware of sinners and don't gossip. Also toward the end comes a review of the deeds of kings and prophets. It's very insightful, aside from a random slam on women from out of nowhere, and well-said, even if the subjects covered are pretty standard. Fifty-one chapters of this makes for heavy reading, especially without a lot of paragraph divisions, but I found myself making more use of the highlighter function here than in all the previous Apocrypha combined. Another one I expect to return to in the future.
1 Baruch - KJV
Attributed to one Baruch, presumably Jeremiah's secretary, as the writer who then read it to the Jews a few years after Babylon came and took them all away from the Holy Land. Whether Baruch or Jeremiah came up with the contents is unclear to me. It starts out very thick with review of the awful sins the Israelites committed under the Mosaic Law, the horrors that the Babylonians visited upon them in war, and God's holiness. Just when it looks like all five chapters are going to be like that, the subject changes to (surprise!) the value of wisdom. Then there follows a promise of hope for the future, if the Israelites will endure their exile and wait for God to deliver them. Not much of anything for a modern reader that hasn't already been said by the prophets or Solomon.
Letter of Jeremiah -- KJV
In my edition, tacked on as a sixth chapter of Baruch. Jeremiah tells the Jews they will spend seven generations in exile, then spends the rest of the letter going on about how powerless and less than useless the idols they will encounter are. He's very thorough about it, but that's pretty much all there is here.
The next three "books" are pieces of the book of Daniel that Protestants excised.
The Prayer of Azariah and Song of the Three Holy Children -- KJV
Supposedly the prayer that one of Daniel's acquaintances prayed when he and his two friends were thrown into the furnace for refusing to worship Nebuchadnezzar. It's a thorough, model prayer, giving glory, confessing sin, and asking deliverance. So the angel saves them, and then they all three speak in chorus as they call upon every single bit of Creation to praise the Lord, again very prettily. One feels strongly that, if any of the men's original words were ever in this, they've been brocaded and embroidered beyond recognition. I just wanted to say "brocaded".
Susanna -- KJV
A couple of old geezers want to have sex with Susanna. She says no, so they accuse her of adultery. Daniel gets them to contradict each other's testimony, so they're put to death instead of Susanna. Huzzah.
Bel and the Dragon -- KJV
Cyrus is king now. He thinks an idol called Bel is eating the food sacrificed to it, but Daniel proves that the priests are sneaking in at night with their families to eat everything. Then Cyrus worships a dragon, but Daniel demonstrates its fallibility by feeding it junk to make it explode. The Babylonians get mad at Cyrus for losing their favorite gods, so Cyrus throws Daniel in a lion den. God whisks Habukkuk all the way over from Judah to keep Daniel fed. Cyrus opens the den, finds Daniel unharmed, and throws in his persecutors.
Started reading Leviathan Wakes. The first book in the Expanse series.
So far, really good
Prayer of Manasseh - KJV
It is, in fact, a prayer, and a good one, attributed to a king of Judah. It's a classic structure, starting out with glorifying God, specifically His power and mercy; confessing sin and recognizing its consequences; asking forgiveness; and expressing faith that the prayer will be answered and the supplicant will praise God the rest of his life. I'd be willing to reread this one.
Next up, the end of the Apocrypha and the ones everyone's been waiting for: I and II Maccabees!
The Sun Also Rises - Ernest Hemingway
Before this year, I had read about two pages' worth of Hemingway. That changes now. This, evidently his first novel, is about an American named Jake living in Paris in the 1920s. In the first part of the book, he and his acquaintances spend most of their time drinking and being drunk. There are several men and one woman, Brett, a.k.a. Lady Ashley until the impending divorce, who is a social butterfly weighed down with a bit of a conscience over all the men she attracts, drinks with, sleeps with, and leaves behind. Second part is about going to Spain for a fishing trip, during which people are occasionally sober, and a bullfight, where one of Brett's conquests gets annoying enough to invite mildly anti-Semitic sentiments in his direction.
Of course, Hemingway is famous for his prose. A lot of this book is taken up by dialogue, often long, untagged, emotionally ambiguous exchanges that aren't particularly interested in helping the reader figure out the missing details. There are also a few very nice descriptive passages, devoid of emotion and simple in words that nonetheless effectively paint picturesque scenery. The book itself is a first-person narrative, told by Jake. He rarely feels the need to make his own feelings explicit. It's the kind of first-person that feels less like it's being told by a character with quirks, and more like the author just decided to write from Jake's point of view. It's interesting to me that, without feeling like this is being told by a live human being sitting across from you, the prose nevertheless commits the sin of informally drifting from subject to subject within a paragraph, without any proper transition phrases, and yet I don't mind. At one point, Jake even stops to say "That has nothing to do with the story."
So I guess what I'm trying to get at is that in Hemingway's prose, literary devices are either muted or absent, and there's no grand idea underlying anything, and yet it works well. Simple, direct, and unaffected.
A Promised Land by Barack Obama
Political memoirs are something I seem to enjoy yet not read a great volume of, so it will be worth making more of an effort with them. This is obviously the most prominent one that's been released recently.
I have mixed feelings about it.
Obama writes very well. He's cool and rational, perhaps to a fault, at pains to understand the motivations of adversaries and taking very few slights personally. But it's too long - 700 pages to cover his early career and the first two years of his presidency. When he comes to an issue, one could argue that he spends too much time explaining the history and background.
And while his tellings of events are certainly interesting, there's fairly little that jumps out as particularly new or that won't be somewhat familiar to anyone who kept abreast of the news at the time. Perhaps the most interesting aspects relate to the nuts and bolts of how the US presidency works - the Secret Service agents, the trips on Air Force One and what it's like to live in the White House.
It is striking how much the early part of the book supports the contention that (whatever his talents) his career was launched by the media & PR industry.
After telling of that, he walks through most of the major issues and events of his early presidency including the financial crisis, financial regulation, healthcare reform, climate change, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, repeal of DADT, drawdown in Iraq, a troop surge in Afghanistan, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and intervention in Libya.
In each of these areas, he takes a broad view, demonstrating both an understanding of his critics and the limitations of his achievements. Yet, while having come to power on foot of an extraordinary grassroots campaign pushing for "change" his achievements in office were conservative - incremental change aimed primarily at stabilising the existing structures with little effort made to alter anything fundamental.
From October to Brest-Litovsk by Leon Trotsky
I enjoyed Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution, a detailed if somewhat biased account of the events leading up to and including the October Revolution in 1917. He was clearly a formidable intellect and a gifted writer. Yet I found myself curious as to how he would justify subsequent Bolshevik actions when in power, as they essentially reneged on all of the easy answers that they offered before their violent seizure of power.
This work is much shorter but purports to cover the next several months, up to the signing of the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty with Germany. Unfortunately it is much less objective and much more propagandistic. It actually re-covers much of the period before October and it's chief aim appears to be to excoriate the Bolshevik's left-wing opposition (Mensheviks and Social Revolutionaries) for insufficient militancy. Trotsky tries to argue away the Bolshevik usurpation of democracy by finding or inventing reasons why any body who opposed them (such as the Consitituent Assembly) was illegitimate. He omits much of which is inconvenient and directly lies at least once, when he commends the discipline of the revolutionaries. They had in fact, completely ransacked the Winter Palace.
He's similarly evasive when covering the signing of the peace treaty. He appears astonished that the Germans would take advantage of the situation for their expansionist ends, and his own role in the farcical "no war, no peace" policy and its quick reversal by Lenin is only hinted at.
The book is short and goes no further than that, not really touching on the early period of Soviet rule. Clearly this isn't quite what I was looking for, although I know that Trotsky has other works. But his overconfidence is wearing and gives me pause. Regardless of the conditions imposed by the ruinous civil war, would his appraisal of the Cheka and the Red Terror be even worth considering? On this form, perhaps not.
Evered - Ben Ames Williams
Another 1920s book with a bull in it. This one, set in rural Maine, is about drama in a family led by a hard man. It's written in good old-fashioned steak-and-potatoes prose, the kind you can curl up with on a rainy afternoon just to experience Good Writing. The setting is picturesquely described, the characters simple but enlivened by seeing their private thoughts as the story unfolds. It's a good yarn, nothing spectacular, but worth Gutenberg's resources to make it available.
Tangled Up in Blue: Policing the American City by Rosa Brooks.
One of my new favorites, it goes beyond academia into practical considerations on policing issues. The author is perhaps uniquely qualified, a Georgetown Law Professor who is both the child of prominent leftist activists (Barbara and John Ehrenreich), the wife of a Special Forces officer, and has an extensive background in humanitarian AND defense policy work. She's advised the Pentagon on Humanitarian issues and the Sec of Defense on policy, traveled in Sierra Leone investigating child soldiers, and is a board member of Human Right's Watch, Amnesty International, and the Council on Foreign Relations.
She joined the DC reserve police force at age 41. DC's reserve force is unusual in that they are fully functional police officers.
She served there for 2 years and at the end of that time brokered a reform minded alliance between the police and Georgetown law in order to look at systemic issues in the police force.
Her basic takeaway: most police officers go in to policing for the right reasons (at least of those she met), with the #1 reason given being that a police officer helped them in their life and they wanted to give back because of that. But also that the job is dehumanizing in many ways, and that often there are no good solutions to issues because of the way laws and policies are written. The average number of arrests a DC police officer makes is less than 1 a month - but that's contrasted by the fact that in her early days she was incentivized to make many arrests to 'practice.' That overciminalization in laws means that police can find reasons to arrest a good number of people, but the force doesn't back it's officers and there are so many ways an officer can make a mistake due to the conflicting rules and priorities that all the officers feel they are one mistake away from losing their job.
She went into a lot of practical consideration for policing, but at the same time spoke of greater societal issues. It's true that both black areas are overpoliced, but also that black legislators and citizens request that level of policing, at least in DC.
Ultimately her takeaway is that the entire concept of arrest and incarceration is highly flawed, and the vast majority of people arrested don't need to be. Insteads they need help due to poverty, mental issues, and a break down of many societal functions in those areas, much of that being long term debilatating results of racism against minorities leaving them in far worst circumstances than their own abilities and talents warrant.
Anyway, interesting read, and more nuance than most Black Lives Matter vs Blue Lives Matter arguments.
Operation Trojan Horse by John A. Keel
You may remember Keel as the author of The Mothman Prophecies, a very strange book indeed. In Operation Trojan Horse, Keel takes a broader look at the entire UFO phenomenon. In the same wide-ranging style as Mothman Keel connects all kinds of "paranormal" things together and draws the conclusion that UFOs are not metal space ships from Zeta Reticulii, but rather projections from a higher/alternate reality of some kind. That the phenomenon has existed throughout human history and been interpreted in different ways over the years depending on the culture of the times. From a spiritual/religious perspective, to "ghosts" and "fairies," to the "airship" sightings of the mid-nineteenth century, to the modern era of "spaceships" and "contactees." Keel makes an interesting argument but sometimes his leaps of "logic" definitely feel like a reach for preconceptions.
The book was originally published in 1970 and so the incidents mentioned in it all take place prior to then. And Keel suggests that the phenomenon is building to some kind of grand pay-off, but here we are fifty years later and it hasn't amounted to anything yet. And Keel himself died in 2009, so we ain't gettin' any more thoughts on the matter from him. Still, if you're in to Fortean stuff at all it's an amusing read. Keel's writing style is nothing if not engaging.
Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen
My early impression was that Mr. Darcy is an introvert, and therefore happy not talking to people at parties if they aren't really worth his while, but now I think the pride is what mainly makes him not talk to people below his station and there might just be some introversion in there to make him comfortable with that decision. He's definitely not a "life of the party" type regardless.
I find it notable that this book and Jane Eyre both threaten to pair the heroine off with a cold-fish preacher man, though obviously in very different ways.
All in all, I am glad not to be a person of that time who had to go courting as delicately as these hoity-toity Brits did. It all seems very exhausting.
Bullshit Jobs by David Graeber
David Graeber died last year aged 59 and the praise for him in lefty circles was such that I regretted never having read any of his work.
In "Bullshit Jobs" he forwards the view that a large proportion of the jobs within the modern economy - both in the public and private sector are pointless, and the world would be better off without them. He spends some time describing these types of jobs - ranging from box-tickers to bored flunkies to various types of goons whose activities are positively harmful.
While I agree that he's on to something - automation could should at this stage have reduced working hours substantially and correspondingly increased leisure time, I unfortunately found his approach less than rigorous. He takes at face value the judgement of each individual as to whether their own job falls into his category. This seems to me to be a grave error - with workers seeing only a tiny part of supply chain, they are not always in a position to make that determination. More than half the book consists of analysing the submissions to polling, whereby people describe their struggles in such jobs. I'm all for analysing the human consequences but this is too much.
His explanations for the phenomenon are similarly unsatisfying. A large part of his explanation is what he calls "managerial feudalism", where managers in various industries measure their importance by how many staff they have reporting to them. He also touches on the deleterious role of financialisation, a little more fruitfully.
Towards the end there's a fascinating chapter on the history of work, which explains very well how our unhealthy attitude of seeing it as a good in itself arose via the "Protestant work ethic", and how strange modern wage labour is. But this is almost an aside. The phenomenon and the reasons for it are worth studying but it will take a more substantial effort than this.
I Maccabees - KJV
So in the upheaval after Alexander the Great dies, wicked Jews started making alliances with other nations and behaving unJewishly. Also Antiochus started attacking, looting, and occupying Israel, in particular building a tower in Jerusalem to sort of serve as a focal point of foreign wickedness. But Mattathias the priest and his family, particularly Judas Maccabeus, rebel and flee to the hills. Judas takes control of the faithful and starts winning battle after battle despite overwhelming odds and treachery. A lot of people attack them and each other and a lot of people die, until Judas decides to ally with Rome, at which point he dies and his brother Jonathan takes over. War continues, but also people start wanting to make nice with Israel and Israel starts getting very agreeable treaties. But Jonathan is captured, so his brother Simon takes over. Life is pretty good if still warlike, until Ptolemy treacherously kills Simon. The book ends with Simon's son John taking over.
That tower keeps having to be scoured out, you'd think they would just raze it after a while.
Separate names with a comma.