A few years ago, Miranda July was being talked abouot a lot, and I guess I saw a review, and got her ravely-reviewed No one belongs here more than you. I know I read the first couple of stories, and thought they were hard and awfully feminine in perspective, but I put it aside until last week.
These stories cut close to the bone, portraying relationships that consist of mutual miscomprehension, and inner expectations that mutely stand by as cruel reality motors past. They’re harsh, and overtly vaginal, and beautiful. Sometimes, the shock is breathtakingly beautiful. This is art, this is the surprise insight.
Timbuktu by Paul Auster. Can’t remember where I saw a blurb for this book, but I remember there was a positive blurb, and maybe I was feeling a bit down, and Amazon was there.
So it’s a dog story, from the point of view of the dog, a dog who can understand human speech. I think it’s an attempt to capture canine enthusiasm. In this, I think Auster succeeded. If you like dog stories, it may be for you.
In an interview video of Freeman Dyson, he mentioned with pleasure reading Men of Mathematics by E. T. Bell (1937), and said it had influenced him. So I scurried over to my local on-line bookseller, and got me a copy. This is a fun read, kids. He writes beautifully and floridly. Flawed, but fun — like many of the lives it describes.
Let me get through some of the egregious flaws. There are several.
First, the math: mathematicians will be very perplexed — how can so many of the diagrams be so incorrect, how is it that his description of the mathematical concepts are so unenlightening, so confused as to their audience, and so often just plain wrong? I can’t explain or excuse this. Bell was a mathematician of no mean talents. Maybe his expository skills lacked something, I don’t know. Maybe he was having a sloppy year. But this isn’t essentially a story about math.
Second, those who know something of the history of math will be disappointed that no Arab mathematicians are mentioned. He goes on about algorithms and algebra without mention of al-Khwarizmi! Was Arabic math unknown in the West in 1930? And he jumps from the ancient Greeks to Descartes, and spends lots of time on the problems of solution of polynomials, without mention of Cardano! What happened to Grassman? Was he still too controversial? Well, it’s already a big fat book, and you can’t include everybody. Still. These are not the people I would have left out.
He has also been accused of being gossipy, and promoting incorrect historical events. I don’t know. I decided to kick back and take it with a grain of salt.
Guys, this is where all the juicy tidbits about the mathematicians you heard all through school came from, the salacious fact a professor would let drop here or there. For me, what was most important, the fleshing out of so many names I knew only as a fancy handle to some mathematical doo-dad. (I have an old grouch about the practice of mindlessly attaching some researcher’s name, rather than a descriptive term, to a mathematical idea.)
He speculates about the origins of genius — but in the end it’s unresolved. These guys came from all over. They were middle-class and poor, some showed strange abilities as little children, some were introduced to math only in middle age, and several showed no special abilities until their teens, and then skyrocketed. A few had relatives who had special mathematical skills, most had none.
One thing very clear is that each of them had something other people don’t have at all — evidently, not always quite the same thing. Some kind of clarity came upon each of them. A huge amount of work was involved for sure, and for some of them, that work was obsessive (it killed a few of them.) But some of them wrote groundbreaking mathematics as easily as other people walk. Many found relatively comfortable lives, but some of them worked like this under very strained circumstances — poverty or the presumption of imminent death.
I feel that something different was going on back then. It’s very plain that the mathematicians of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had pretty direct access to the seminal works of their predecssors — all of them learned directly from the masters.
Should you read it? I think it’s a pretty good read for any interested person. A mathematician will have some issues to overcome.
Plato’s Republic, because I had always heard it was the basis for modern politics and a brilliant display of reasoning. The book is supposedly a record of discourses by Plato’s mentor, Socrates.
In both those respects, it was a big disappointment. It contains passages that treat Greek politics, and even a few pages of interesting ideas, but much of it strikes me as — maybe intentionally laughable at best, and tiresome muddling philosophizing mostly. There is nothing remotely like a blueprint for society here.
His big political idea is a class of caretakers who are carefully brought up with the right mix of the right kind of poetry, literature, music, and physical exercise, to prepare them for keeping the society in order. He spends a terrible amount of time deciding just what was fit to teach these people — for example, he doesn’t like astronomy, so that is not something the caretakers should learn. (He discerningly qualifies the proscription as being due to the poor state of scientifc knowledge of the cosmos in his time.) He then spends his efforts arguing that the best people to put into power are philosophers. (He, as it happened, being quite the philosopher.) It’s silly.
The one interesting discourse is a comparison between five kinds of government (ones he is familiar with in Greece — he admits that foreigners have all sorts of strange governments). These are aristocracy, timocracy, oligarchy, democracy, and tyranny, the first three of which he defines as government by “the best”, “honor”, and “the rich”. He ranks these in order best to worst, and he thinks one follows naturally from the last. (It should be remembered that Socrates was condemned to death by the Athenian democracy.) An example of timocracy is the government of Sparta. The list is at least something to consider. And it’s a worry that he claims that the public of a democracy will always elect a tyrant in the end.
The whole argument is spoiled by his insistence on drawing parallels between forms of government and individual personalities. Not that it’s a bad idea, but he takes it as his first principle, and uses it to draw all his conclusions. Unfortunately, again, it’s silly.
Within all the nonsense about putting philosophers in power appears the book’s other famous discourse: the one about the shadow-show in the cave. This is a fun setting for questioning the notions of perception and reality — but it’s spoiled by his conclusion that some people really see the real reality (and he’s one of those, you see.)
I wonder why one hears so much applause of this thing. Maybe the ancient Greek of the original is wonderful — I don’t know. There are a couple of interesting stylistic devices. The fact is though, it’s is a mish-mash of discourses on different topics, some of which are terrible drags (to each their own!) The political thread is carried only partway through the book, and never developed. And the purported reasoning is a model for bad thinking — it occurred to me that it could be a catalog of fallacies.
The reasoning is so pitfully awful, I have to wonder if he’s even serious, or whether the whole thing is an exercise in sophism, and meant as a joke. There are a few interlocutions in the book that point in that direction — where someone even objects to some assumption Socrates makes. He just rolls over the objection, even though it is quite reasonable, and maybe half of the assumptions made in the book are likewise dubious. Mostly the chorus just echos “That is surely the case.”
They say Socrates was a crafty old coot, who was good at turning an argument around to illustrate that the assumptions weren’t clear, and that he claimed that a wise man knew that he knew nothing. That kind of thing does not appear in this book. But maybe I don’t know enough to judge it fairly.
A kids’ book: My Side of the Mountain by Jean Craighead George. It’s a really fun fantasy of a kid who runs away from home and makes a great life in the Catskill mountains.
My story is, in 5th grade, a teacher was reading this book for us. I put up my hand to ask a question (don’t remember what), and the teacher said, “That’s it, move to the other reading group”. That was the group for kids with poor reading skills, and it was really boring. But worse, I was really enjoying the story, and I always remembered several great scenes from it. I guess I had been disruptive — but the injustice still smarts. I didn’t say anything, and I had my hand up.
Last year the incident came back to me, and I thought, why not? Pull up Amazon, get a used copy for like 2.50.
And you know, it’s still a good read, still very vivid. I’m glad I got to finish it!
Rasselas by Samuel Johnson. The language of this book hooked me—that alone is worth reading the book for.
I don’t know if this is a great book of philosophy. He’s making a point, something like Voltaire makes in Candide. So far, what I like most is his view of the world—the relations of the sexes, and of nations. But this story was a quick potboiler for Johnson — the characters are all cardboard. Don’t approach it with high literary hopes.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys: Pepys was a British official in the mid-1600s. He was in the habit of writing entries in his diary every night before bed. This one book is the most personal, first-hand account we have of those times. He witnessed the plague coming to London, the Second Dutch War (which was unfamiliar to me), and the Fire of London. He actually met with the king, and made many notes on the king’s habits—not all flattering.
I’m very pleased that the English of a common educated man of the time is mostly easily read.
The politics of his time seems very strange to me. Basically, lords are given various responsibilities, with huge sums of money to carry them out, and only afterward, only when things go very wrong, does anybody consider how well the job is done. Most of these guys just pocket the money. Sailors go to war and are maimed or die, and find they can’t be paid when the come home—Pepys is constantly horrified by this, but the people who could do something about it just don’t care, basically. They don’t care until they’re being attacked by a foreign navy, and the sailors aren’t interested in getting killed—and some even defect. And since the money hasn’t been properly allocated, they haven’t a fleet to defend themselves with anyway. To me, it’s all very sloppy, all this reliance on the honor of the gentry. To Pepys, it’s horrifying, but he never questions the system—he knows nothing else. He questions the individuals.
The diary ends with Pepys’ statement that he’s unable to continue due to failing eyesight. His own story went on for several decades, where he served in high offices diligently, despite health problems besides being nearly blind.
(This all sparked my interest in those times, just after the English Civil War, of which I had known very little. They were messy times, nothing like story-books of royal bliss. I was surprised to find out that Britain was invaded twice by the Dutch. The first time they were paid off, and the second time their own man William of Orange was installed as king — an event nationalistically re-branded as the “Glorious Revolution”. It all happened in Pepys’ life.)
Isaac Newton’s Opticks. This is a beautiful book. If you’re a science-minded person and you haven’t read it, you are missing out. This was the single most important book on the light and optics of that century, and in it are gathered dozens of very incisive experiments about the nature of color, reflection and refraction, as well as musings about their relation to chemistry and human perception.
Alone, Newton’s observation that the image of a circular beam of light made by a prism is elongated, and his deduction about what that meant about refraction of light, completely changed the concepts of the time. He deduces that the different colors of light are being refracted by different angles by the prism—the simplest explanation for that being that color is an intrinsic property of light. And he concludes that white light is a mixture of the rainbow of colors of light.
Among his many lovely experiments, I think my favorite is the one where he looks at paper painted with stripes of various primary colors with a prism—and sees the strips offset from one another by the refraction.
The English is very easy to read. Sure he uses thee and thou, but it’s not a book where people are often addressed so they don’t come up much. There are some funny words for various materials, but these can be looked up. He is speaking in the plain language of his time, and that language is our language.
[in progress] Ulysses by James Joyce
This book isn’t for everyone—I have my doubt that it’s for me. It has its moments. I love the voices and some of the wordplay.
But much of the book is obfuscation for its own sake. Joyce made no bones about this—he was leaving all sorts of obscure references specifically to challenge academics. Well for them it’s a game, but for most readers, it isn’t entertaining.
Machiavelli’s The Prince, that old lesson in Realpolitik that I always meant to read. This is the first English edition, in Elizabethan English — I’m going to offer as an excuse “for a taste of the times, without bothering to learn Italian”.
The usual wrong conclusion is that Machiavelli is bloody immoral, or even evil. A better question might be, what sort of morality is he talking about? He does discuss it, and regards some actions as immoral — just maybe not the same ones modern readers would. He lived in very violent times — he makes it clear that the worst thing is chaos, and to avoid that a stable state is necessary.
Another good question is, how right is he, as to what makes a successful or failed leader? He does provide rationales for most of his conclusions, and many strike me well. I would like to see a modern study, with some hard data.
Aside from the particular advice he offers, maybe the most important lesson of the book is this: to analyze the motivations of everybody that one depends upon for holding power, and to make advantage of those motivations. He runs through the assets that a ruler might have and actions they may take, and systematically points out various ways of looking at it, and guarantees nothing (except failure if you screw up too badly). So what remains is — to keep thinking, and to think from other people’s points of view.
He probably did read all the histories he could get hold of, and he really was in positions where he could observe the workings of state closely. (In fact, he was imprisoned and also tortured. Not unusual in those times.) This really should be required reading for anybody interested in politics or world history. I would be disappointed to know that many dictators have never read it.
After a long struggle, Franz Kafka’s Die Verwandlung succumbed. A lot of words that weren’t in my handy dictionary got past me, but I took notes, and mean to do them in the Duden.
This is a funny horrid story, that evidently is meant convey some moral message — I think. I have yet to formulate that meaning for myself, and I’m not sure I ought to. He portrays realistic people dealing with a situation they are completely inadequate for. The crazy story is bigger than any message.
The language seems strange to me, surely in part because it’s a century old, with vocabulary influenced by Kafka’s Czech-German upbringing. But it’s often clear that he plays with the language for effect. I often felt like I ought to be laughing, but didn’t know why.
Susan Callahan’s Brain on Fire — My month of Madness was waiting for me on an airport magazine stand shelf. It’s no work of art, maybe could have used some more editing here and there, but—call it a matter of taste or interest—I wasn’t going to put it down.
This is an insider’s view on brain dysfunction, and a medical detective story, and a story about healing and acceptance. It made me re-think the lives of the so many friends, acquaintances and family who’ve taken that plunge. And you can’t dislike the spunky young journalist-author.
The very strange Death in Spring, by Mercé Rodoreda. Why, I can’t say. (I seem to remember reading a review last year or the year before.)
It’s a different way to tell a story allright, and a different story to tell. The story is about death much more than about Spring. And it’s about life in a remote village with odd ideas about death and love, but maybe the point is, everybody’s ideas are odd... But I can’t say. It is kind of poetic, but really I can’t make heads or tails of it.
One of the “great Victorian novels”, George Eliot’s Middlemarch, was my companion for most of last fall and early this year. The language might be a shock at first, and the setting is pretty exotic for us middle-class 21st century folks, and the book is dauntingly huge…I don’t think I’d have got through it in my 20s, and I wonder how much would have sunk in. But it’s very well worth the effort.
Like her contemporary Tolstoy, Eliot shows genuine fondness for her characters, even the less commendable ones. We’re led to understand each point of view in detail, even to the instantaneous changes of aspect during a conversation, as well as the workings of the social web of a small town of that era. It’s a play of moral values, with a psychological chorus.
Her amazing, masterful turns of phrase were what grabbed me first. These had to have been painstakingly constructed, yet scarcely one of the 86 chapters passes without a prosaic surprise.
The characters speak in distinctive modes, including dialect, speech peculiarities, affectations, mincing of words, prudish aloofness, stuffy academic-ese, airheadedness and plain-spoken but proper salt-of-the earth. It’s a play of voices. You hear the characters as they are heard by one another.
Here and there, Eliot lets drop insights—some deep, some very deep—into general human nature, things I’ve never heard said her way, and sometimes, things I never heard elsewhere. This novel is more than entertainment.
The best travel story I ever saw: Henry Stanley’s How I Found Livingstone. The deal is, Stanley was a journalist, a seasoned war correspondent, commissioned by a newspaperman to find the lost missionary/explorer David Livingstone. He could write salable copy, and he was tough in the field.
It was rough going. At the time, the only means of communication or transport in Central Africa was by armed caravan. A single individual would be robbed and probably be killed, or otherwise die. Several members of Stanley’s troupe snuff it (including both of the other Europeans.) I don’t think I’d have made it, to tell the truth.
I was also impressed by the communications: mostly, people are speaking Swahili, the main trade language of the region (to this day). Stanley understands some Swahili and speaks Arabic.
Besides being a great page-turner, the book is a snapshot of another time. Ethnologically, you have an American, replete with the best prejudices of his time, and a cross-section of peoples in central Africa, who have their own interactions and idiosyncrasies. He makes little mention of the fact, but by the end, pretty clearly, he respects the Africans as people, although he still maintains his prejudices, as was just proper. Stanley’s descriptions of unspoiled jungle, savanna, rivers, mountains, of the flora and fauna, show a man whose appreciation of his surroundings survived hardship that would crush most people.
Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy (transl. Constance Garnett). Started reading this last year, a chapter or two most nights. He wasn’t shooting for brevity.
Besides being a great long lounge in the previous century, among a social class and in a country I know only by books, besides being somehow a great novel, what impressed me was that Tostoy likes his little characters, even the less sympathetic ones. He wants the reader to understand their motives, to see they aren’t who they appear to be to the other characters. The reader gets into the head of even a minor character, even the dog.
The breadth of the story is no disappointment. There are a half dozen main characters and another dozen minor ones; you see a bit of the world through each of them. For me, the lush country scenes stand out, mowing hay with the peasants and hunting. You can almost smell it, the fresh air and wide open nature. But the city scenes are great too. Conversations in restaurants and political meetings, balls and the paying of visits, although clearly not what Tolstoy enjoyed most, he portrays energetically.
A History of the Theories of Aether and Electricity (from the Age of Descartes to the Close of the Nineteenth Century ) by E. T. Whittaker (pub. 1910). [in progress]
A remark in R. Sexl’s Relativity, Groups and Particles put me on this trail. I’ve worked with Whittaker’s big physics treatise, and knew him to be a good, thorough writer.
The way the story starts: in the late 1600s, the philosophers had very little more than the ancient Greeks, regarding electromagnetism. They had magnetic stones, and amber, which (as we now say) could be given and electrostatic charge. They were a little thing, say a trick. But at the same time they were unlike anything else: both could move objects at a distance, with no palpable substance intervening. It was corner of the physical world that had defied explanation in terms of other familiar phenomena, that was scarcely distinguished from alchemy and magic. And the ancients had wondered about light, and sight, and warmth. And they had very advanced glass making.
Yet, in a span of 250 years, they took these stones, and bits of glass, and miserable state of cluelessness, to what’s now known as the theory of electromagnetism, one of the most splendidly accurate and practical sciences.
This is a very complicated story. (For beginners, the modern theory of is a difficult thing in itself—that’s easy to forget.) Each of its scientists made one or two observations, or proposed an explanation or two. Sometimes it was brilliant (Newton’s observation about the prism’s spectrum; Fresnel’s insight into of the double refraction of Iceland Spar), sometimes a total surprise (Galvani and the frog’s legs), but usually terrible hard work, that was often unrecognized in its time.
I’m also impressed, how you can get the “right” idea, then lose it. For example, in the 1700s, it was a common contention that objects were made of particles, that heat consisted of motion of particles, and that light might be an undulatory motion, which transmits heat to an object by causing its particles to undulate. This idea was lost for a hundred years, because of the observation that glass, which allowed light to pass, would block its ability to heat an object. Of course to us the answer is painfully clear: the glass is opaque to infrared light. But to them, the idea of invisible light would have been an oxymoron: light was that which could be seen, by definition. They were forced to consider other ways of talking about heat and light, that now seem very contorted.
For we who studied physics, it’s a parade of famous names. But it’s a whole different experience, to see how those names relate to one another and form a (halting) progression of ideas.
How did that happen? What did they have the Greeks didn’t? For sure they were no smarter. But for one thing, they had the idea of experiment. Why, I don’t know, but the Greeks really didn’t have it, expecting instead to deduce the world from first principles. For whatever reason, these guys experimented like crazy. And the telescope was invented in these times. (Why on earth did the Romans not have it?) The one other thing they had—surely no less important—was the printing press.
Sexl marveled that Whittaker mentioned Einstein, but assigned to his theory a minor role, that of a re-phrasing of known science. But, come on—relativity was very new, and Whittaker was old. This was the best way a person in his position could have seen it. He couldn’t have imagined that this newfangled formulation would displace the main term in his book’s title.
I’ve forgotten why I have a copy of Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World; that, I think, would have fit into its plot perfectly well. It’s a little introduction to the history of Western philosophy for young adults, mixed with a peculiar mystery story. The philosophy is distilled to be pretty accessible—but I can’t judge whether his summaries of the various schools of thought are fair. As my western phil. was never strong, I was going to learn something anyway. The approach is novel at least, but the story gets really silly as it progresses—the girl’s dialog with her teacher stands out as contrived. I was entertained nonetheless both by the story and the lessons.
Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is yet another of those great books I picked up as a kid and never finished. I should have, and then I should have read it again now—but one out of two ain’t bad. An adult can appreciate the richness of this story, the people and places, along with the several carefully-recorded dialects that constitute some kind of historical record. The obvious social and moral point is arrived at by humanizing the main characters. One surprise observation is that hell-on-earth to one person is just life to another. While many of the adults are mean morons, Huck (unsurprisingly, I suppose) and Jim both reason their way through the world, and are considerate of others. It’s a big thumbs up from me.
The War of the Worlds, by H. G. Wells, I’d begun a couple of times, but never finished. And sure I’d seen a couple of its cinematic redactions. The vision is very impressive, coming from a time when the best guess at a means for space travel was by cannon projectile, and for which flight was still a “secret”. The Martian machines are plenty scary as he describes them. The rest is a war documentary, it occurs to me he mixed a that very popular literary medium with the (I suppose) relatively less well received science-fiction-fantasy to very good effect.
P. G. Wodehouse’s My Man Jeeves, upon which Julian had gushed decades ago. Oh he was so right to gush. I’ve found a new role model, and it isn’t Jeeves (although he’s part of the picture).
The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, on Lydia’s advice. A story in the vein of mystical journeys, full of amusing twists, and a plain central message, that I found personally encouraging. A particularly nice line:
Everything that happens once can never happen again. But everything that happens twice will surely happen a third time.
— Arab proverb
The Tragedy of Pudd’nhead Wilson, because it was sitting there for free, I up and read it. The vernacular can be a little thick at times, and the expressions colorful, like a 4th of July firework display: of which, according to Wilson,
Statistics show that we lose more fools on this day than in all the other days of the year put together. This proves, by the number left in stock, that one Fourth of July per year is now inadequate, the country has grown so.
(Twain’s aphorisms alone would make it worth the read.)
I was impressed at what a construction this is, on Twain’s part. He’s making an important social point, and has to balance it very carefully on the edge of his readers’ prejudices. So he just makes a travesty of everything: race, sex, honor, and politics, it’s all so confused and juxtaposed, it’s hard to identify a particular place at which to take offense—it’s all offensive. Except: he has a weakness for the smart guy, with the fancy new forensic technology.
Obama’s second book, The Audacity of Hope (thoughts on reclaiming the American dream), written during his term as U.S. senator from Illinois.
Couldn’t really stop myself, after the shock of reading his first book.
This, as the subtitle suggests, is more of a collection of theses than the coherent work that his first book was. Although it still contains some autobiographical information, its subject matter is mostly political, and so it wouldn’t be of as universal interest. The style still varies a lot from one chapter to the next: some like speeches, some academic papers, others like political memoirs, and a few in the very personal style typical of his first book. His surprising insight is again apparent throughout.
Dava Sobel’s first book, Longitude (The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time), the problem being that of of determining one’s longitude at sea (to avoid crashing into a known island, or missing the destination and starving to death); the solver being one John Harrison. Her clear writing, thorough research, and eye for a great story line are evident here as in her other works.
It’s a great story about seafaring and politics as well as about science. The scientists play the bad guys this time, supporting a sciency method against practical engineering, while people were in fact dying from the lack of a solution. Persistence pays off finally, against all odds, but only barely, and after years of humiliation.
Barack Obama’s first book Dreams from my Father (originally published 1995).
I knew he’s smart and introspective and well-spoken, but I didn’t expect him to be this smart, this introspective, and… to be a splendid writer.
The style is maybe rough here or there, but (without exaggeration) it holds up to literature of professional writers. The story has an amazingly broad arc, from Hawaii to Jakarta to Chicago to Nairobi, with the whole scope of human relationships, yet maintains a simple thread.
I strongly recommend this to anyone. The topics are of general human interest, and I may have learned a thing or two about people from it.
Freedom, by Johathan Franzen, a book surprisingly laid on me by my colleague Jaime.
Franzen is a real one, a novelist who is writes the novel. It’s a whopper too. I have my complaints: some editing would have been useful, and his novelistic inventiveness leaks badly into the voices of his characters. Well, voice is a literary trick seldom mastered.
I guess the most impressive thing is the hugeness of the little lives of his little characters. They lead their petty little lives epically, as I suppose we all do. The detail of his analysis of their internal struggles is bit of a wonder to me.
There’s pathos to spare, but also, every hundred pages or so, he drops a little comedic cherry-bomb. It’s an interesting way to mix a novel.
One, None and a Hundred Thousand, by Luigi Pirandello, on the recommendation of my colleague Todor.
This one is a hoot, folks. The narrator has a problem that perhaps we all share, but as his uncomfortable fascination with it grows, and he proceeds to deal with it in unrecommendable ways. He shares with us every minute crevice of his excess and torment.
The language (in the translation of Samuel Putnam) is simply beautiful, a kind of turn-of-the-century English with a literary Italian flavor.
In my visit to Dublin last year, I saw the “spire” and wondered what it was, and heard something about a “Rising”. So I picked up Clair Wills’ Dublin 1916, The Siege of the GPO. I would say, I learned something about Ireland and about political uprisings in general. But I do not come away understanding much of the history of Ireland or quite why people were shooting one another for such a long time.
One point of the book is that little is clear about the event, including what really happened but especially what it all meant. My favorite line is: “Celebrations of revolution by established governments carry their own ironies”. It brought to mind recent uprisings, and for me, the much sillier story of the Boston Tea Party, which somehow still carries political weight in my country.
For a foreigner at least, this is a very academic text, full of unfamiliar references; as for action, the Rising itself takes only a fraction of the beginning of the book; the rest is concerned with the effect and interpretation and ownership of the event since then.
The Buccaneers of America by Alexander O. Exquemelin (trans. Alexis Brown). This is thought to be a reasonably accurate (mostly) first-hand, inside account of Caribbean piracy in the 1600s. As such, stands as the only example, and the best source from which all modern pirate portrayals draw.
The author was a very good observer and reporter, of people and their motives, of politics generally, as well as of nature. He paints rich glimpses of the place and time.
He gives a name, but appears in places to have deliberately (but imperfectly) distanced himself from the worst of the atrocities he describes. And for good reason: oh man, these guys were very very bad. He says “the worst imaginable”, and they had lively imaginations. Mercifully for us, after describing a few atrocities as examples, the author abbreviates accounts with “tortured as usual”.
As I read, I realized this was a specific case of more general phenomena of marauding, a mode of behavior that young men can fall into. The author details how, when by chance a group managed to steal a fortune, they would spend everything within two weeks of returning to home port, and be forced to set out again, just to feed themselves. He identifies the behavior as a kind of addiction; the rationale for any action, however sadistic or suicidal, was material gain.
It reminded me, for example, of the armies that were crisscrossing Europe at about the same time, and of the Vikings who were busy just a few centuries earlier. And also, to a lesser degree, but more familiarly, certain acts in modern warfare. On the other hand, it’s rather different from the very systematic Roman style of plundering and decimation, and from the sanitized and impersonal modern carpet-bombing. This was in a sense very personal.
Some myths: there weren’t any old pirates. A man in his 30s would have been old to them—job safety was not of high urgency. There weren’t any lady starlet pirates—this was a very extreme masculine environment: any women were slaves or prisoners.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, might present some difficulties with regard to the language, but I got used to the spelling and a couple of peculiar usages pretty quickly. His writing is quite direct and plain, for its time. It’s rich, and I highly recommend it.
Having been compiled at different points of life, its style is a little rough, and it’s incomplete (nothing about the revolution, only a bit about science), and unfinished as well. (One chapter consists of entreaties of friends for him to finish the autobiography—I skipped most of it.) It presents a wonderful picture of 18th century life generally, full of detailed personal accounts and intrigues, and very impressive general observations about people. Overall his writing is superb: his voice and humor shine through, although it goes into some details I didn’t care for. Well, it is his autobiography, I suppose.
Man was that guy ever busy, even with the stuff left out! I hadn’t known he was ever directly involved with the military. He was, on the British side in the French-Indian war.
Several wonderful quotes—I pick
“So convenient a thing it is to be a reasonable creature, since it enables one to find or make a reason for everything one has a mind to do.”
Pippi Langstrumpf by Astrid Lindgren, auf Deutsch. My inner child, an underdeveloped 22-year-old, would be horrified. But when I picked this up at a friend’s place, my first impression was: “this is a kid’s book?”. It’s rough in places. Death is present from the beginning. And Pippi is really absurd and charming. The inner child liked it too, even though he skulked off to his room after.
The Journey of William of Rubruck to the Eastern Parts of the World, 1253–55, supposed to be in fact the letter of the friar to the King of France, reporting of his mission to visit the Mongol king.
I don’t know why on earth it caught my eye or where I saw it, but it was very entertaining.
The friar is well educated, but starts out being awfully ignorant of the geography and cultures he travels through. The translators struggle to identify some of the place names, and to reconcile his story with present geography. To the end he refers to Buddhists as “idolaters”, but he does come away with some new views.
He is there explicitly to spread his Gospel, but also very much as both spy and ambassador. His analysis of the political situations shows him to be very much a man of the world. And the trouble he gets into, often because of ineffective translators and poorly chosen travel companions, is just precious.
At the same time, a person could very easily get killed in these situations. More than once he had to talk his way out of potentially lethal encounters — these were rough times. And one has to be impressed at the sheer physical difficulty of such travel. As monks, they traveled poorly, with few belongings, which were meant to serve as gifts (call them bribes), the conservation of which was at times difficult.
I visited Stockholm, and met there a sometime colleague Hans, who for lack of any other pressing topic, told me about recent developments in algebraic topology — primarily the solution of the Poincaré conjecture by Grigory Perelman. Somehow this had escaped me, although I remember being very intrigued by mention of it in an otherwise miserably mismanaged topology course. (I have for some years been hanging around mostly with physicists, who as a group show no more interest in mathematical topics than do plumbers, but distinguish themselves from plumbers by ritualistic expressions of disdain for it.)
I knew I didn’t have much of a chance of reading any of the original work. Judging from Hans’ description, it would have been unapproachably technical. So hoping just to get a further taste, picked up two popular books: Poincaré’s Prize by George G. Szpiro, and The Poincaré Conjecture (In Search of the Shape of the Universe) by Donal O’Shea.
Overall both books are entertaining and enlightening enough to deserve qualified recommendations. But neither is going to help you much with the math at all. Both try, and largely fail, to provide any useful picture, lay or otherwise. Both authors indulge in facile hyperbole concerning genius. Szpiro collapses into onomatopoeic blithering in his struggle to describe some of the geometrical techniques (where probably a few good drawings would have helped a lot). O’Shea’s subtitular topic was perhaps intended as a hook, or a handle for the lay reader to latch on to. But its connection to the primary subject is never well explained, and it is stretched beyond the point where it might be helpful or interesting.
They both succeed for me as histories filling out the lives of the primary players, especially Poincaré himself, and finally our stellarly defiant contemporary Perelman, the one who finally brought the monster down. Sure there are aspects of the stereotypical autistic idiot-savant mathematician in several of these people. On the other hand, several of them were in notorious possession of political savvy, which they used to advance both mathematical and professional aims. Especially Poincaré is rounded out as a real mensch and engineer par excellence who would risk his life to do his job to improve the safety of miners, as well as a genuine genius who almost alone pushed whole areas of mathematics to the point where today they are mainstream tools, and used (without gratitude) even by physicists.
It seems that many astrophysicists harbor secret interests in space flight. After several interesting discussions of it, my Kolleg Alexander lent me Digital Apollo, Human and Machine in Spaceflight, by David A. Mindell. This explores the development of the idea of automated flight, and the respective roles of the players, both technically and politically, focusing on the first primarily-automated flying machine, the Apollo spacecraft. It relates the Apollo story from a different view than presented by the astronauts, Besides the history, he goes into the stability of electronics guidance with a human “in the loop”, the development of “systems engineering”, and the purpose of humans in space flight. It’s a pretty amazing story—for those interested in space flight, an important read.
Long ago my friend Hilary recommended that I read Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels. Now again I have been pressured in this Discworld direction, this time by Anne, to read his Mort.
Death gets himself an apprentice, and takes a vacation, leaving the poor guy in charge. I have to confess, it was a fun read. I even loosed a couple of guffaws.
The style is very reminiscent of (more than anybody) Douglas Adams (but less heady) and also of Tom Robbins (without the tweed).
My Kolleg Iliya handed me a copy of Dragon’s Egg, a bona-fide sci-fi novel by Robert Forward. It’s about little critters that live and evolve on a neutron star. The part about the critters is genuine sci-fi of high caliber, imaginings of a whole different physical world and how life might be like in it.
Everything involving humans is, however, dreary, dated and very skippable.
[In Progress] Isabelle cited Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea as her favorite book, and I couldn’t remember having read it. I know I owned a copy, but no. Somehow familiar though.
At the insistence of my colleague Hakan, I read I,Q by John de Lancie (who played the “Q” character in several Star Trek series), co-written by Peter David. OK it’s got plenty of “Q” sounding lines, it has the character down pat. And the plot is all twisty, with just the right amount of emotiony stuff.
Leonie Swann’s Glennkill, subtitled ein Schafskrimi, auf Deutsch. The plan was to get through it quickly, without a dictionary, took me over a year, but I very rarely resorted to a dictionary. I still don’t know who done it, and I’m not sure one is supposed to. As to the book itself, the initial idea is extremely charming, and that’s what hooked me. But I think Swann could take the idea of talking sheep only so far, and began to explore other ideas, some more charming than others, so that at the end, at best, one feels that one has been several places (otherwise one would have been stuck on the meadow with the sheep). I can’t say I liked the tone turning from sheep contemplating death while grazing, to all mystical kung-fu, to shadowy bad humans in the small town. I would have to read it again, with a dictionary, to say better.
Mikael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. Fun in convulsive fits! On the advice of my colleague Dasha. It’s a layered story, compounding a gentle parody of Soviet life with an alternative reading of the death of Jesus and a very peculiar view of the relation of good and evil.
Stanislaw Lem’s Tales of Pirx the Pilot. A nice collection of stories of the guy who isn’t sure if he should be surprised that he’s a space pilot. They are about life in space, and told with a human perspective and humor unusual for the genre.
Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. She is going to run jumping into the leaves, then express in leaf-jumping horror the crawlies she finds there. This is a rush and jump and splash oh-no! Always panting, scanning for the next thing to pounce on, and then to wonder at the impossibility of framing the pounce in a human perspective. Not for everybody, but I loved it.
A friend of a good friend has great taste in books, to have left this laying on the table for me to see.
Christopher Clark’s Iron Kingdom (subtitled The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600–1947), because I’ve been living next to Park Sanssouci for over four years. Several of these Fredericks and Frederick Williams were very interesting characters, and are set off all the more by some of the rather duller princes that went between.
Clark tells the story in the large, in terms of trends and relationships, periods of migration and wars. He delivers a convincing and sympathetic story of how the so-called “Prussia” came to be, how it came to have some of the qualities that are associated with it, and its relationship with four centuries of political events.
Besides a clarification of the relationships between these kings and with the development of Germany, one shouldn’t be surprised to see similarities with current politics.
[In Progress] Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, this time auf Deutsch. I first read this when I was 19 or so, as part of a literature class, I suppose. I remember thinking at the time, this language is very pretty, I wonder how it would sound in the original? I didn’t really think then that I would ever go so far as to find out. Well, I saw a nice copy in a bookstore, and bit the bullet. And it is rather hard for me—the vocabulary is very special. But I can report that I’m not disappointed by the language. To my limited discernment, the original is warm and rich and transporting.
Reading Siddhartha as a rather more mature person, I’m struck by how much my perception of it has changed. For example, at the beginning is a struggle between father and son. When I was 18, I just saw it as a righteous son overcoming an obstinate, foolish father. Now I see how Hesse has choreographed his characters—the father’s sleeplessness, as the star slowly moves across the window, and how he sculpted as an ideal this familiar unpleasant interaction.
One of the advantages of working in an academic outfit is that you can ask around, “What is the best book in your subject?” and get very good answers. For cosmologists, I found, the present-day bible is Binney and Tremaine’s Galactic Dynamics, a book whose proportions are almost biblical, too. I got a recent copy, and am glad I did.
I learned a lot of new things about cosmology (that the modern view holds that galactic collision is one of the dominant processes in galactic formation rather than a rarity) and some new math as well (that an integral of motion of an orbit of a star in a mass distribution can be used to restrict geometrically the region of space through which the orbit passes.)
Another highly-recommended title in cosmology is Combes, Boissé, Mazure and Blanchard’s Galaxies and Cosmology. It’s not quite so imposing as Binney and Tremaine, but also very well written. They emphasize another odd new phenomenon: concentric shells about elliptical galaxies.
Following my old interest in typography, a respondant to a mailing list recommended Walter Tracy’s Letters of Credit. One might not expect to sit and read a book on type faces, but this guy writes with an easy elegance about his lifelong passion, and draws a reader in.
I tried to export Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, Slapstick, and Breakfast of Champions to the German public. Reviews were mixed, but essentially negative. I think they get the pathos, but they don’t get the humor. Well, humor is very delicate and often doesn’t translate. I was disappointed nonetheless. So I read them all myself, and felt better. Then Mr. Vonnegut died. So it goes.
In preparation for a long plane flight, I picked up Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Perl Earring. The blurbs will have you know that it is a masterwork. Were it not for those blurbs, I might be more forgiving.
I am unremarkable in that I’m transfixed, fascinated, transported by Vermeer’s little paintings. So I’m unremarkable in having bought this book, which features one of them on its cover, and which is meant to tell a story about its subject.
Ms. Chevalier deserves credit for an absolutely magnificent choice of topic. She also sat down, and bloody wrote herself a novel. But she holds a degree in creative writing, and she writes like someone with a degree in creative writing. What is worse, her 14 year-old maid protagonist narrates the story like someone with a degree in creative writing.
One lesson Ms. Chevalier missed in her courses was, not to irritate the reader with detail that adds nothing to the story. For example, the color of almost every eye mentioned in the book is dutifully reported.
Her style is so transparent that I could almost see her sitting at her desk, with art and history books of the times, thinking: “how will I get that bit into the story?”
Erwin Kreyszig’s 1959 text Differential Geometry. He has a beautiful writing style, which I fear has now died out. I couldn’t write like that.
The book covers the material using the simplest tools. There are no charts or atlases (by those names), no algebra of differential forms; topology is mentioned only lightly, tensors are objects that transform in a certain way.
This might be objectionable. Well, a lot has changed since 1959. A lot of the equipment and terminology one sees in modern literature post-dates this book. Also, I think the book is quite accessible to perhaps a third-year college student, who has just learned about partial derivatives, coordinate transformations, and multiple integrals, whereas all that modern machinery could amount to a barrier.
And he covers a great deal of geometry.
Now, I should have known all this material decades ago. But I’m hitting lots of beautiful little details that I never saw or don’t remember or never fully appreciated or saw but never connected with anything.
For example, the idea that the tangents to a curve (typically) generate a surface, and a family of involute and evolute curves. Somehow I found this a novel idea. Of course, it’s just a way of looking at developable surfaces.
I would love to understand the connection with geodesics with geometrical treatments of nonlinear P.D.E.’s.
Then there’s a formula for the torsion of a curve. How will I write it? The bars represent the determinant of a matrix whose columns are the three vectors written inside, the overdots are derivatives with respect to the parameter t of the curve x(t).
What the heck is that?! It’s gorgeous—such things don’t exist for nothing. Is there a corresponding formula in differential forms for this? I do not know. (I don’t remember any treatments of curves with differential forms—that material always rushes off to multi-dimensional surfaces.)
I paid too much in Seattle for a torn-up copy of a book that came highly recommended: Dava Sobel’s Galileo’s Daughter. It’s a history of Galileo, with the perspective of copious letters from his cloistered daughter, Suor Marie Celeste. I paid too much due to the condition of the book, I mean. The text itself is an excellent story.
This is naturally a very personal treatment. I find that it balances well his scientific endeavors with his political, religious, and personal life.
In contrast to the conventional story of a far-seeing scientist persecuted by a backward Church, Sobel explains that Galileo’s political connections with the Church were deep and complex. Even the Pope himself, who was an acquaintance, was such an admirer that he had once written a poem for Galileo. Also, Galileo had gone to great lengths to have his Dialogs checked and altered by the authorities (including the Inquisition) for anything that might offend. Yet, something went wrong. Sobel does not completely answer the question, but she does suggest a possible, probably unintentional, personal offense as the deciding mistake.
We also get a very rich picture of 17th century monastic life through Marie Celeste. It’s another surprise, both horrifying and touching. Through her, life at that time is roundly represented. I came away with a deep impressions of the society, the difficulties they faced, and their little joys.
Sobel knows how to string a story together. I had a problem keeping the book on my night-table, not to read one more chapter.
From the wonderful German children’s series “Was ist Was”, Band 16: Planeten und Raumfahrt. For my language studies, you see.
In the 1980’s, I saw part of a single episode of the fascinating PBS series The Story of English. I didn’t have a TV at the time, and the people who owned the TV on which I saw the episode were disinterested to the point of turning it off. I always regretted this. So I finally ordered a copy of the book, and read it, with full enjoyment and without the disapproval of TV owners.
You could complain that the tone of the book is overly congratulatory to the language (which is certainly in no need of encouragement). But it is a great story, of people from several places risking everything to move, and other people being displaced and having their cultures crushed.
I was particularly impressed by how complex the mixing of languages was, which resulted in English. In most books, we have: Old English, then the Norse invaded, then the Normans invaded and it was Middle English, then there was Shakespeare. But most of these “invasions” happened over a span of centuries, and often didn’t involve conquest as such.
The authors plainly love the playfulness of the English language, and its surprises and pitfalls. Their own mastery of the language is apparent from the beginning. It’s beautifully written, and quite gripping.
The 1962 edition of Einstein’s Theory of Relativity by Max Born. He does as much as one could hope without requiring knowledge of Calculus. It is also a sweeping history of the development of theories of electromagnetic phenomena in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This is a courageous attempt to bring the theory to the interested lay person, specifically those who don’t have the Calculus. I can’t say to what degree he succeeds. I’m sure all but the bravest high school students would be intimidated by the sheer amount of calculation he presents.
There is some point where it would be easier for everybody to just tell the reader to take a Calculus course. On the other hand, I wonder if his appeal to differential equations to distinguish action at a distance from contiguous action was really necessary. Also, I know of one or two places where he slips up, pulling a math formula out of a hat.
For me, I was in wonderment at his treatment of the history of the subject. He treats discredited theories with respect for their better features, and doesn’t shirk from pointing out inconsistencies in the reasoning of the greatest thinkers. And then, I was once again in wonderment that in the chapter on the concept of simultaneity he went on to make statements that are of the same nature as the ones he had earlier criticized.
For its flaws, this is the best book of its kind I have ever seen. I learned a lot about the development of science and relativity in particular, and he pointed out a number of subtle philosophic points I had never considered.
On the recommendations of both my Kolleginen Katarina and Diane, I read The Discovery of Heaven by Harry Mulisch. It’s certainly an entertaining read.
To be frank, I was left dissatisfied. But perhaps this was his intent, and perhaps this is the mark of true genius. I’m pretty sure that would be his explanation. (Oh. It was his explanation!)
It had to happen. On the advice of my Kolleg Thomas, I read the first two of JK Rowling’s series, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. These are page turners; the lady knows how to work a hook. For me, it was a challenge to put myself in a pre-teen frame of mind, but once that was accomplished, the books were a simple thrill. And now I can’t get back to my adult frame of mind.
P. G. Drazin and R. S. Johnson’s text Solitons: an introduction. I only got through the first two chapters, and skimmed the rest, just because I got involved in other things.
The book is quite accessible to those with a general mathematics background, and the material is very engaging.
Solitons are an under-appreciated phenomenon of nonlinear waves. (That tsunami in Indonesia killed 100000, and it was a soliton!) Maybe there is some fundamental importance: in physics, we have a well-understood theory of linear waves that explains a lot—except how stuff comes to be localized, as in the case of matter. Then we have a notion of particles, which are a nice conceptualization of localization of stuff, but in practice, particles keep falling apart. In solitons is a theory of wavelike things that can be localized for long periods of time.
One misconception the book tackles right off is that solitons are rare in nature. It happens that (in some sense) most non-linear time-evolution equations exhibit soliton-like phenomena. Perhaps the real reason for this misconception is that there is so little literature on the subject.
My only literature was The Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, circa 450 BC. This is a beautifully written account for any time; the presentation is remarkably balanced and seemingly modern. Or is it more that our modern prose sensibilities took form 25 centuries ago?
The tone is that of a report of the minutiae of a huge disaster. While this is interesting in itself, the window really opens on the occasions when he breaks out of his narrative to express his horror and disgust and despair over the events.
I would recommend this book to anyone with any interest in politics. The issues and arguments are amazingly familiar.
People have been pushing me to read more Salinger ever since I read Franny and Zooey. So when I was in Portland last year I visited Powell’s books, and thought enough to buy a copy of Seymour, an Introduction and Raise High the Roofbeams, Carpenters. Seymour’s Introduction is a bewilderingly silly, self-absorbed literary roller-coaster. I’m amazed at how he manages to integrate the point he’s making with the tone of the book. It’s a lesson in Zen archery. Since then I’ve also read The Catcher in the Rye and Nine Stories, which, I think, is all of Salinger. Here’s my big observation: Buddy always sweats profusely when he’s just had a Seymour-related epiphany.
Perhaps in honor of his passing, I read almost all of Stephen Jay Gould’s popular books, including Dinosaur in a Haystack, Bully for Brontosaurus, Time’s Arrow, Time’s Cycle, Ever Since Darwin, and Leonardo’s Mountain of Clams and the Diet of Worms. I wish I had another one by my bed. I’m sure I’ve missed a few, but now it seems they will eventually run out.
I just finished a fuzzy little thing, Vinyl Cafe—unplugged by Stuart McLean, a gift from my bud, Lin Patfield. After the last book, it’s a relief, let me tell you.
Now there are two books in my life. One is yet another Emma Tennant, Queen of Stones. Another sad non-chronological tale told through the eyes of children.
The other is a recommendation of a writer named Rachel whom I met while she served time as a waitress: Vurt by Jeff Noon. Well, I must say it’s different, and very energetic.
Hilary recommended a “young adult” sci-fi, Gillian Rubinstein’s Galax-Arena. I’ll give it this: I couldn’t predict the outcome. As these things go, it’s not a happy book, and that pleased me.
I read an odd little whodunit, Kinky Friedman’s Greenwich Killing Time, that Julian sent me. Seems this guy also had some sort of band, so now I’ll have to find out what he sounds like, too.
Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi kept me company in a stinky bar. I now have little sympathy for river-dwellers whose expensive homes are swept away in a flood.
I played for a while with Catastrophe Theory by V. I. Arnol’d. I’ve spent some time with a couple of his other books, and I’ve always loved his style, from that Russian math-puzzle tradition. If you’re at all interested in geometry, give this book a whirl.
Mr. Vonnegut, who seems to be ironically still alive, has written several novels since we last met. The one I just read was Timequake. Probably not his best, but then I’ll read anything he writes. I got a few laughs out of this one, so who can complain?
I plowed through a collection of short fictions of Jorge Luis Borjes. It went at a rate of one story per bar visit. Took months. It had its moments, but I think I’m finished with Borjes.
Last year’s big novel was Gabriel García Márquez’ Love in the Time of Cholera. Took me months, but then, it’s a very broad book.
Also read J. D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey. The characters’ dialog is beautifully quaint; there’s more going on here than you might at first expect.
Milan Kundera’s Slowness. More of the same. A simple observation is woven into a dual fantasy. I think this is also the year I read The Joke.
Over the past two years, I read almost all of Stephen Jay Gould’s popular books, including Wonderful Life, Eight Little Piggies, The Panda’s Thumb, Hen’s Teeth and Horse’s Toes, and The Flamingo’s Smile. Also read rather more serious books by Gould: The Mismeasure of Man and Ontogeny and Phylogeny.
On Tali’s recommendation, I picked up The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy. This is just up my aesthetic alley.
At John Kerkhoven’s insistence, I read A. R. Luria’s seminal The Man with a Shattered World, to contrast with Oliver Sacks. I however found it to be another wonderful island in a world Sacks had first shown me.
Joy shoved at me a copy of Oliver Sacks’ The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat. I was thrilled, and so read An Anthropologist from Mars, A Leg to Stand On, and The Island of the Colorblind. Seems people have one of two reactions to Sacks: either wonder or horror. I’m in the first category.
Very much enjoyed Milan Kundera’s Immortality, despite some not-terribly-original literary indulgences. He’s very good at weaving a simple observation into a story.