Well, I gave Swamplandia three chapters and 52 pages, and I'm ready to declare this the most overrated novel I have encountered in the last five yearsWell, I gave Swamplandia three chapters and 52 pages, and I'm ready to declare this the most overrated novel I have encountered in the last five years.
This story of a dysfunctional alligator park tourist attraction and its quirky family has made a lot of best-of lists this year, and I can't for the life of me figure out why. The story line is meant to be profound and bigger than life, but it comes off to me as just too pretentious. And the writing, which has been so widely praised? It seems to me like metaphors and similes out of English 101 or maybe Iowa Writers Workshop 101.
Examples: The father looks at a picture in an old book, where he sees "a devil squatted on the apron of the Spiritist's dress, wrinkling puddles into her skirt with its little hooves" Wrinkling puddles? Really?
Or: Of a sister, "When she was doing a seance her pupils blew wide and her violet eyes became as hard and shiny as bottle caps." Blew wide? Really?
And so forth and so on.
Perhaps as Russell matures, her stories and her characters will take on more weight than all these freshman language pyrotechnics. I certainly hope so....more
Not the most scintillating writing, but a clear and compelling book about how our psychological tendencies make it almost impossible for us to behave Not the most scintillating writing, but a clear and compelling book about how our psychological tendencies make it almost impossible for us to behave as ethically as we want to, or as ethically as we think we do. The authors -- a Harvard prof and a Notre Dame prof -- also show how these very human flaws affect corporate ethics and societal ethics.
At the end of the book, they mention two ways that governments could immediately obtain more ethical decisions. One is the Sunstein-Thaler "Nudge" approach of resetting defaults. Knowing that most people like the status quo and have a hard time changing it, this would change the status quo to require people to opt out of desirable outcomes rather than opt in. The difference in organ donation rates between opt-out societies like Spain and opt-in ones like ours is incredible. Another way of exploiting human tendencies is the delayed imposition rule. When people are given all the pros and cons of policies like raising fuel taxes to cut climate warming and foreign oil dependence, or cutting fishing quotas to preserve fish for the future, they are much more likely to vote in favor of them if they are told that the policies won't go into effect until some future point.
Full of interesting experimental results, "Blind Spots" is an important and timely book....more
It's not often when I read nowadays that I feel I've been in the presence of a master, but at the end of this rousing historical novel, I certainly diIt's not often when I read nowadays that I feel I've been in the presence of a master, but at the end of this rousing historical novel, I certainly did.
In "Sea of Poppies," Amitav Ghosh has created a vivid cast of characters, richly alien dialogue, an adventure story, a historical visualization of the opium trade and sea life, and an entire world. The first of a trilogy, with the second now out in hardback, it makes me want to rush out for book two.
At the heart of this book, in many ways, are two women. Deeti begins as a poor poppy farmer, married to an opium addict who also works in an opium processing factory. When he dies early in the story, she will end up in partnership with a giant of a man who helps her escape near death. The other is Paulette, the daughter of a French botanist and half-sister to a young Indian boatman, whose father's death makes her a ward of the richest British merchant in Calcutta, who also owns a sleek new sailing ship, the Ibis. The Ibis arrives from Baltimore, which is where young Zachary Reid first joined the crew.
The three will all end up on the Ibis, as it makes its way westward toward Mauritius in a voyage that is so full of twists and turns that a richly plotted movie could be made simply out of the trip itself.
I was initially put off by the profusion of strange terms that show up in characters' dialogue and thoughts, and didn't realize (duh) until I was nearly done that there was a complete glossary in the back.
I don't know much about Mr. Ghosh, who is obviously an accomplished novelist, but the historical research he has done on this period of the 1830s and the way in which he has introduced everything from the culture of caste and Hinduism to maritime life and British colonialism, while also creating vivid, complicated characters whom we deeply care about, is overwhelmingly impressive.
I used to think that Germany was the main place tortured by its Nazi past. But I'm beginning to think Norway runs a close second.
I've read only two No I used to think that Germany was the main place tortured by its Nazi past. But I'm beginning to think Norway runs a close second.
I've read only two Norwegian mysteries so far (the other was Nesbro's Readbreast) and both had the Nazi occupation as an underlying theme. This story recounts the bizarre murder of an antiques dealer who had been a resistance member during the war. Reidar Folke Jespersen's naked body is found propped in his store window with a strange inscription carved into it, stabbed to death by a bayonet that had been in the shop.
The lead investigator, Gunnarstranda, is the usual satisfying dour Nordic murder specialist. He is widowed, he has a new relationship he is unsure of, everything is covered in frost and snow and he smokes wherever and whenever he wants. His partner Frolich is also going through relationship issues.
With these side plots spinning away, they set out to figure out why Jespersen was killed not long after he upended a deal with his two brothers to sell the store to an outside couple. That becomes one important clue, but it is only part of the solution, much of which is buried in the past.
The pacing, the characters, the scenes, all kept me moving at a satisfying clip through the story. Recommended....more
This is a no-muss, no-fuss portrayal of how our brains work by a pioneering British neuroscientist.
Frith keeps the book moving with succinct descripti This is a no-muss, no-fuss portrayal of how our brains work by a pioneering British neuroscientist.
Frith keeps the book moving with succinct descriptions and lots of anecdotes about interesting scientific studies. One of my favorites: one study shows that when we use a digital clock attached to our fingers to estimate the gap between when we decide to tap our finger and then hear a subsequent tone, we think the time gap is shorter than it is because we "bind together" our intentions and our actions. This fits in with Frith's basic thesis that our brains are largely prediction machines, constantly testing the results of our predictions and making course corrections (unless we are afflicted with mental illness or brain damage or some other disruptive influence).
Much of that predictive work is unconscious, he notes, whether it is how we move our bodies in the world or read emotions and intentions in another person's face or gestures. But our brain's goal, always, is to make better and better models of the world, at least up to the point where the world functions adequately for us.
At the end of the book, Frith says he has studiously avoided the challenge many neuroscientists of his age have attempted, which is to describe what the neural correlates of consciousness are -- what makes us aware that we are individuals separate from our senses. Instead, he posits the interesting theory that only when we have a sense of ourselves as autonomous individuals can we actually be altruistic toward others -- that both being selfish and being generous are contingent on a sense that we have free choice. And this, he implies, is what has allowed us to develop such complex, cooperative cultures.
I had so many points of resonance with this book that it almost seems wrong to call it fiction. Whether the protagonist was talking about the sexual mI had so many points of resonance with this book that it almost seems wrong to call it fiction. Whether the protagonist was talking about the sexual mores of the 60s or examining what happened in his own later life, I felt at times I was looking in a mirror.
And yet Barnes' character is not me, and this quietly explosive story is not just a tricked up memoir for the author. Instead, as Tony tries in his latter years to make sense of his first love and why it fell apart, and what role his once idolized friend Adrian had in it all, he uncovers more secrets than he had ever bargained for.
You won't need a spoiler alert here. Suffice it to say that Tony finds out his old girlfriend's mother has left him a diary, but that the ex is keeping it. He begins a persistent campaign to get it back, never realizing what he is getting himself into. One revelation leads to another and finally to an unexpected (for me, at least) conclusion.
One of my favorite passages from the book also presaged its surprising ending. "It strikes me that this may be one of the differences between youth and age; when we are young, we invent different futures for ourselves; when we are old, we invent different pasts for others."
A superb piece of writing, with the wisdom to reassure and the inventiveness to still surprise....more
All right, all right, I didn't read this, but I did see it performed last night at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and as good as the acting was, I rea All right, all right, I didn't read this, but I did see it performed last night at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, and as good as the acting was, I realized scarcely five minutes in that Greek tragedy is not my cup of tea.
I kept wanting to scream at Electra -- "All right already, you're upset, your grieving, you're angry -- get on with it."
If the point of these Greek dramas was that everyone already knew the plot and you were supposed to be dazzled by the oratory, I wasn't. There are only so many ways to say that your mother killed your father and she's a witch, or that your stepfather is a greedy, grasping coward. And then we have our little misdirection when she thinks brother Orestes is dead, but in fact he's alive and ready for revenge. But the whole point of his "faked" death was so that mom and stepdad won't realize he's back and he'll be able to stealthily attack them, and yet there is no real attempt at stealth in the play, just some good old-fashioned gotcha.
I don't know, I'm either too modern or too unsophisticated to get why this is a classic, but meh, I don't....more