The subject matter (the 1889 Exposition in Paris) and cover of this book seem designed to invite comparison with Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White...moreThe subject matter (the 1889 Exposition in Paris) and cover of this book seem designed to invite comparison with Erik Larsen's The Devil in the White City. This book is similar in that it weaves together a number of stories of various historical figures whose paths crossed in Paris on this particular summer (Eiffel and the challenge of constructing the tower, Gauguin, Whistler, Buffalo Bill, Annie Oakley, Thomas Edison, etc.), but the structure is somewhat less determined by the subjects themselves. In Larsen's book, two central narratives (planning and preparing the fair, and the crimes and capture of Dr. Hill) drive the story, where here the narrative periodically returns to each character as the summer marches on. This varies from the relatively momentous (e.g., Edison's trip to Paris where he meets many luminaries and is lauded as a genius) to the fairly random (newspaper publisher James Gordon Bennett, for example, is revisited every once in a while, but seemingly for no reason other than to tell more anecdotes about how he would randomly, and drunkenly, fire his employees). While this makes for an interested read, with lots of rich historical tidbits, neither the fair nor the tower that provide the backdrop really do much to tie the strands together.(less)
The story Pete Hamill tells of growing to adulthood and (eventually) giving up drinking is interesting both for the perspective on Brooklyn history (m...moreThe story Pete Hamill tells of growing to adulthood and (eventually) giving up drinking is interesting both for the perspective on Brooklyn history (mostly Park Slope when it was an Irish neighborhood) but more for the struggle to live his life, and first to figure out what that meant. The last section glosses over many years and events without much detail - some, undoubtedly, because the details were lost to the drinking, but I can't shake the feeling that there was also some selective editing for the pain of telling all those stories. Still, there is plenty of shame, loss, and recognition here to bring the story to an end.(less)
One might wonder why I bothered reading this book, given that I didn't like the first two and the third was only marginally better. I was almost convi...moreOne might wonder why I bothered reading this book, given that I didn't like the first two and the third was only marginally better. I was almost convinced of quitting until my sister (who put me up to reading the series in the first place) made me sit through the fourth movie. That got me thinking, the first three books are short and not very sophisticated (being targeted, if we take Harry's age as a metric, at 11-13 year olds). Out of fairness, it seemed like I should look at this book, which (I believe) is the longest, and much more substantial. Plus, I'll admit that about halfway deep into the storyline, I was just curious what happens. (Not that it's not obvious what, ultimately, is going to happen. But I did want to know in a bit more detail than that.)
J.K. Rowling was not a good writer when she wrote the Philosopher's Stone and I can say with confidence that she hasn't really improved much. Her writing is littered with lazy cliches, and when she tries to break that habit she just ends up spinning metaphors that make no sense. It is considered a mark of a good writer that they can show, not tell, something to the reader. Rowling generally tries first artlessly to show, then gives up and tells you anyway, with the result that her writing is not just bad but boring. Thankfully, this is more common in the earlier books, but she continues to bore in other ways. Long stretches of this book (and the series as a whole) are painfully dull to get through. Anything to do with the Dursleys, Harry's non-magical aunt and uncle, is mindlessly predictable, and I found myself eagerly awaiting his return to the magic world not end his suffering but mine. Almost as dull are the magical fight scenes, which I hadn't encountered until this book. This comes as a strange surprise because this book is basically one long building of suspense for when the forces of evil will finally show themselves, and when they do a fight is inevitable. Unfortunately, this fighting takes the form of a lot of "so-and-so cast a spell at such-and-such, which just missed him, but then he was hit by another spell thrown by whoever". (Remember the descriptions of battles in the Iliad? It's about that bad.) Another problem is that Harry and his cohort's emotional reactions often strained credibility, but of course I'm reading a book intended for adolescents some ten years too late. Part of the success of these books may well be that a 15 year old who reads this feels that it accurately reflects their emotional world. I still find their behavior hard to believe, but perhaps I'm just not the one to judge.
In spite of all these qualms, I did find things to like. I was surprisingly pleased with the way Rowling sustained the build-up throughout this book and her eventual resolution was fairly well-crafted, the fight scene notwithstanding. Also, there is one exception to the dull magical fight scenes, when Dumbledore (Harry's mentor - think Obi-Wan Kenobi) fights Voldemort (the most evil and powerful wizard - think Darth Vader crossed with Emperor Palpatine with a dash of Hitler). Basically, whenever Dumbledore uses magic it feels more like jazz improvisation. Nothing he does is presented in a way that is clear to the reader, and it's not overburdened with excessive explanation, which makes it much more enjoyable to read.
These books are not great works of literature, but like any story once this series gets going you can feel the pull of the conclusion, beckoning however many pages beyond. Unfortunately, after finishing this book I happened to be on a plane where I could watch the 6th movie for free, and I quickly discovered that at this point in the story the movies are just confusing, which more or less condemns me to finishing this series if I want to find out what happens.(less)
Maugham in his element - sexy personal drama that flouts conventional (for his time) morality. Not as great on substance as some of his longer novels;...moreMaugham in his element - sexy personal drama that flouts conventional (for his time) morality. Not as great on substance as some of his longer novels; really this read like a short story that ran on to the point where he felt like publishing it as a book. But that is to say that it, like most of his short stories, is damn good.(less)
I would not have picked up this book had we not found it lying around a small hotel in a quiet town in Central Panama. Caroline found it dull compared...moreI would not have picked up this book had we not found it lying around a small hotel in a quiet town in Central Panama. Caroline found it dull compared to the movie, which she felt better built up the suspense. I thought it well-written, though, and other than the fact that I knew the ending that it did a good job building. Plus, great descriptions of life for a young couple living in New York in the 60s.(less)
this book reminds me of everyone i've ever known. kenji (who taught me conlaw) tells the story of how he came out, and draws on this experience to pro...morethis book reminds me of everyone i've ever known. kenji (who taught me conlaw) tells the story of how he came out, and draws on this experience to propose a new paradigm of civil rights. no, really. read it.(less)
100 pages into this book it felt a lot like Lucky Jim, which is unfortunate because it just made me wish i was reading Amis instead of Waugh.
Waugh is...more100 pages into this book it felt a lot like Lucky Jim, which is unfortunate because it just made me wish i was reading Amis instead of Waugh.
Waugh is a strange guy, and this is a strange book. it's meant to be funny, which it is for the most part, although i think Waugh indulges too much in caricatures of certain types that don't ring true. this may of course be a result of reading this book 80 years after it was written. humor doesn't always stand the test of time.(less)
it's hard to say what possessed me to read this book now of all times. some people will know that i've read most of ray jackendoff's Patterns in the M...moreit's hard to say what possessed me to read this book now of all times. some people will know that i've read most of ray jackendoff's Patterns in the Mind, which covers a lot of the same ground, and i've also taken/audited courses on semantic/syntactic theory with ray, so why read pinker?
while confirming a lot of things any casual student of cognitive/psycho-linguistics will already know by now, pinker is still definitely worth reading, and in this book he's at his finest. he explains the basic ideas with simplicity and grace, in a way that won't be tedious even when the general concepts are familiar (though real linguists might be bored). and of course, this is pop science, so pinker steps back to capture the big picture now and again, tying together the strands of current research (c. 1995) into a coherent picture of mind, brain, language, and evolution.
i'd have to say that the most valuable thing i gained from reading pinker was the way he adeptly handled the most contentious issues in this field. he makes a clear case for the core of chomskyan theory, without hesitating to draw lines where chomsky is wrong. he engages with some of the prevalent speculation about language evolution, challenging a number of widely-held beliefs. he takes a stand against the desire to find human-like language in other animals, noting that 1) it's just not there and 2) to insist that we need to find human language in order to elevate other animals to our stature is chauvinistic in the extreme.
basically, i'm sorry i didn't read this book in fall of 2004, when i first started thinking seriously about these issues and could have gained the most from it. but i have no regrets at all about reading it now.(less)
if you've ever thought about where your food comes from this is probably worth a read. if you've never given it the least thought, this should be a ma...moreif you've ever thought about where your food comes from this is probably worth a read. if you've never given it the least thought, this should be a mandatory introduction to how and why this should affect your food choices. pollan's voice is not that of an overbearing advocate for one position, but of a true science journalist. his prose is fluid and he takes pains to engage the reader, simultaneously engaging seriously with the idea of our food chains as natural systems. the dominant narrative emerges as the tension between industrializing food production and distribution on the one hand, and our pastoral ideal of our food as natural and wholesome on the other. the book offers no easy resolution (de-industrialize food? this would require a national revolution that doesn't seem too likely in the near future), but prompts any reader (including the self-righteous organic food-shopper) to think seriously about what our aims are, and how best to realize them.
i think other readers have tended to find this book to be disheartening for the above reasons. i actually found it to be remarkably optimistic. when you look at pollan's examples of the best food production has to offer, what strikes me is how many benefits come intertwined when things are done right: sustainable architecture is low-waste, high-yield, has low environmental impact, and creates healthier food that tastes better, too. much like The Death and Life of Great American Cities, our values are intertwined, and we can further them all simultaneously if we set reasonable goals and don't delude ourselves about the limits of these systems.(less)
About a third of the way into this book i happened to read the blurb on the back cover which describes it as a book about a love affair, which surpris...moreAbout a third of the way into this book i happened to read the blurb on the back cover which describes it as a book about a love affair, which surprised me because the affair hadn't started yet. Which underscores the major flaw of this book: it's too long and as a result is about everything and nothing. For example, there's much more discussion of Kant in this book than i expected. Granted, i didn't expect any discussion of Kant in a bildungsroman, but there's actually quite a bit of it. These discussions also tend to touch on issues of determinism, moral responsibility and religious belief, which gives you a slightly better sense of the context. The book also offers some nice insights into social class structure, at least as it existed at the turn of the last century and how it was changing. Maugham (in the form of his protagonist) provides a prime example of a gentleman confronted by the destabilization of the class structure that was supporting him, which makes for an interesting story and good (if dated) social commentary. And, of course, the book has a lot to say about love. i'd have a very different appreciation for this part of the book if i'd read it about 5 years ago. As it is, i share in Maugham's hindsight while being sometimes irked by his feelings in the moment. A good example is when, a hundred pages into his affair, i came to the conclusion that Maugham was not really in love with the object of his desire (it takes him somewhat longer).
The saving grace of this book is Maugham's prose, which makes 700 pages go almost as quickly as a book half its size. Fortunately, Maugham's other work demonstrates the virtue of economy.(less)
It's simply scandalous that I hadn't read this before now. I had actually read an abridged version when I was in elementary school, and at this point...moreIt's simply scandalous that I hadn't read this before now. I had actually read an abridged version when I was in elementary school, and at this point I know the various plot elements well enough that there were no surprises, but reading Doyle's actual prose is definitely worth it. In many ways, this is the pinnacle of the Holmes stories (that I've read at least). One reason for this is the simplicity of the underlying plot: heir to fortune dies under mysterious (possibly supernatural) circumstances and the next-in-line, fearing a similar fate, has Holmes uncover a plot by someone else seeking the fortune. A Holmes fan might notice that this is schematic applies almost perfectly to "The Speckled Band" as well, but I think Doyle worked best when he stuck to basics, fleshing out the story with his own particular flair.(less)
More seriously, this (like other books by Jane Austen that i've read - which means Pride and Prejudice) is an interesting character study. And that means both a study of the characters themselves, and the characteristics that distinguish them and make them similar, which is perhaps what made the book most worthwhile for me. The trait of "sensibility" was confusing to me when Austen first described it, and only through an examination of the way it manifests itself in the various characters did it come to be meaningful to me.(less)
this story, told engagingly from maugham's own perspective, may or may not be about thomas hardy's life before he became famous. whether or not it's a...morethis story, told engagingly from maugham's own perspective, may or may not be about thomas hardy's life before he became famous. whether or not it's a true retelling is besides the point, as the pleasure of reading it comes from the genuine affection maugham (or his narrator anyway) feels for the woman at the center of the story.(less)
Somewhere in the middle of this book you get the feeling that you may, in fact, be a Kantian. Thankfully, that goes away by the end, but at that point...moreSomewhere in the middle of this book you get the feeling that you may, in fact, be a Kantian. Thankfully, that goes away by the end, but at that point you've been overwhelmed by the excellent commentaries by Cohen, Guess, and Williams (and to a less extent Nagel, although he mostly just confused me). Philosophy should always be in lecture form and always be this exciting.(less)
This book was rather silly. It also probably only deserves three stars, but I picked it up the day after I finished my finals, and it provided a wonde...moreThis book was rather silly. It also probably only deserves three stars, but I picked it up the day after I finished my finals, and it provided a wonderful diversion. It also reads in the blissfully relaxed way a good British novel should.(less)
i just finished this book, and it's about mother-flippin' time - i started it some 9 months ago. there were several factors that kept me from finishin...morei just finished this book, and it's about mother-flippin' time - i started it some 9 months ago. there were several factors that kept me from finishing this book more quickly that have nothing to do with its content. nevertheless, i have to confess that it let me down in certain ways. part of the reason is that i had much greater ambitions for this book, but that's not a reason to criticize (it's to gibbard's credit that he has such modest aims). i was also somewhat disappointed simply because gibbard's view is intuitively plausible to me, and i was therefore not shocked (i don't know why i thought i was going to be shocked, but it was a let down all the same).
that, in a nutshell, is why i didn't give this book four stars. if you've ever thought about normative language, and what it is we're doing when we use it, and what exactly we should aim for with moral inquiry, i highly recommend you read this book. it's likely to open your eyes, no matter what perspective you're coming from.(less)
this is, in all likelihood, one of the 5 best books you will ever read. jacobs' knowledge is broad, deep, and subtle. her insights are unpretentious a...morethis is, in all likelihood, one of the 5 best books you will ever read. jacobs' knowledge is broad, deep, and subtle. her insights are unpretentious and powerful, such that you wonder how you could ever be blind to something so obvious. one thing i wondered while reading is how it is that this book was written almost 50 years ago and we still haven't fixed all the problems we face. of course, jacobs says that it's not as simple as all that, but for a book that seems so strikingly to get so much right, it's baffling that we persist in making the same mistakes all over again.
almost as baffling as why you haven't already gotten up from your computer to go read this book.(less)
i picked this book up a few weeks after finishing The Maltese Falcon and a few days after finding out it was the inspiration (partly) for Kurosawa's Y...morei picked this book up a few weeks after finishing The Maltese Falcon and a few days after finding out it was the inspiration (partly) for Kurosawa's Yojimbo. at the end of the day, there's nothing quite like watching a surly Toshiro Mifune rub his beard and contemplate how best to reduce two warring Japanese gangs to ruin, but reading about Hammett's Continental Op is also pretty amusing. the Op isn't so much a character as a guy who runs around, does stuff, solves mysteries, all the while downing enough gin to kill a small pony. and really, what more can you ask for from a book you're reading to distract you from the philosophy you feel you should be reading.(less)
this would have been pretty eye-opening, if i hadn't gotten the central insights from other subsequent books that described diamond's thesis. still wo...morethis would have been pretty eye-opening, if i hadn't gotten the central insights from other subsequent books that described diamond's thesis. still worth it for the wealth of examples diamond cites in support of his arguments. the chapter on political systems is something i still need to digest in some respects.(less)