Following the somewhat disappointing Book 3 of "My Struggle", Knausgaard returns to the form that so interested me in Books 1 and 2 of his enormous auFollowing the somewhat disappointing Book 3 of "My Struggle", Knausgaard returns to the form that so interested me in Books 1 and 2 of his enormous autobiography. Book 4, taking place in the year following his school graduation, is full of the details of life that any late adolescent male experiences: enormous preoccupations with music, alcohol, and girls. As with his other books in the series, it's not the uniqueness of his life that makes the book compelling, as much as it is the way that he tells his personal story: with frank and brutal honesty. He drinks too much, he smokes too much, he has momentary romantic thoughts about some of the young girls whose instruction he's entrusted with as a teacher, and--when he does manage to slip into bed with girls his own age--he has a serious problem with premature ejaculation. Talk about honesty. Be forewarned: that last topic proves to be one of the central themes of the book...but if you've followed Knausgaard through his first three books, you probably aren't a shy reader. Stick with it through Book 4....more
“Killers of the King” offers a valuable lesson for all would-be usurpers of the throne: after disposing of the monarch, kill everyone related to them“Killers of the King” offers a valuable lesson for all would-be usurpers of the throne: after disposing of the monarch, kill everyone related to them as soon as you can.
This history book by Charles Spencer (yes, _that_ Spencer family), covers the events surrounding England’s seventeenth century parliamentary rebellion in which a segment of MPs decided that King Charles the First was unredeemable and had to be deposed. Permanently. They felt that the King had treated his countrymen rather poorly in the recent civil war, what with his duplicitous double dealings with various factions, and his ill considered decision to document most of them in letters to confederates. The movement to place an English monarch on trial--a semi-divine being accountable only to God--is in itself an interesting story, but that;’s not the focus of this book.
Surprisingly, by page 100, not only is Charles I dead, but so is his non-royal successor, savior-turned-dictator, Oliver Cromwell. It’s not the details of the short-lived British Commonwealth that Spencer focuses on post-regicide, but rather the hunt for the men who dared put the king on trial and sign the orders for his execution. By a stroke of misfortune, the good people of England were rather put off by the excesses of the Cromwell regime, stoking the royalist fan base which had never been truly eliminated. All they really needed was a new king to place a crown on. Charles’ son was waiting safe and sound across the Channel in France for his big chance to be that king.
Once enthroned, and despite public promises of gentle justice (even forgiveness) for the traitors, Charles II waged a never-ending campaign to hunt down every last man who had a significant role in placing his father on trial. Some conspirators fled to Europe, some turned themselves in expecting leniency (usually finding none), others still sailed for America. Two of the more famous fugitives, Edward Whalley and William Goffe, did manage to forever avoid capture in America despite aggressive pursuit by English agents. Most, however, were eventually executed in extraordinarily brutal fashion. (As it happens, tales of being drawn and quartered in ye olde England are not the least bit fictional or exaggerated.)
The books’s first third is disappointingly slow and plodding. Spencer regales the reader with a never ending stream of facts that, while accurate and thoroughly researched, don’t hold together as a particularly compelling story. My interest level piqued somewhat in the final two thirds, however, in which the historical retelling moves to the pursuit, imprisonment, and execution of Charles’ various parliamentary enemies. “Killers of the King” never quite turns into a page turner, but it has its moments. I would have liked it better if Spencer had managed to sustain a consistent quality throughout....more
Following the cataclysm of the Great War, victorious European and American leaders were left in the unenviable position of determining what should beFollowing the cataclysm of the Great War, victorious European and American leaders were left in the unenviable position of determining what should be done with the wreckage of Austria-Hungary, the Ottoman Empire, and other nations of eastern Europe. Never before in history had there been a need to simultaneously redraw the borders of so many lands. The decisions made by the Allied leaders at the Paris peace conference of 1919 were contentious, heated, sometimes illogical, misinformed, wise, capricious, and more. And the outcomes caused by the resulting Treaty of Versailles affect large portions of the world to this day. The story of how those leaders reached those decisions has the potential to make for compelling reading, but the volume of details necessary to fully explain that tale can also drown it. Such is the case with Margaret MacMillan’s “Paris 1919.”
No bones about it: this is a challenging book. It’s more scholarly than popular in style and it’s not the sort of book you’ll want to take on holiday. This isn’t a criticism, just a statement of fact. I admit to having approached it like a plate of broccoli; I didn’t finish it because I was enjoying it so much as I finished it because I felt it was good for me. The initiating causes of what we now call World War I are complex and the consequences of its aftermath more complex still. It might just be that there are no shortcuts if one really wants to have a firm grasp on it all. If you approach the subject with this attitude, you just might make it through all 494 pages of this book.
MacMillan’s text is best when she’s discussing the personalities behind the treaty negotiations, including the “Big Three”: America’s Woodrow Wilson, Great Britain’s David Lloyd George, and France’s Georges Clemenceau. Wilson is drawn in relatively unflattering terms as an exasperatingly stubborn and preachy moralizer, a man who relied on his own inflated sense of intuition rather than his experienced diplomatic corps, and someone who was naive about european politics. Lloyd George generally comes off well as a savvy politician, wit, and masterful orator (but who could at times show a shocking unfamiliarity with the geography of nations whose fate he was deciding). Clemenceau is described as a generally wise elder statesman who has the inside track on european affairs…and the motivations of his bitter historical rivals, the Germans. One gets the feeling that he was the realistic pragmatist to Wilson’s dreamy, half-informed naif. There are many other personages thrown into the mix as Paris was filled with petitioning leaders and aspiring leaders-to-be, all angling for their piece of a future Europe or one of its colonies.
Where I struggled with this book was in its repetitious chapters regrading the details of national borders, their geography, and the names of all of the small towns that comprised them. This is all important information if one wants to understand the facts informing the decisions made by the allied leaders, but it makes tough sledding for a reader with only moderate interest. This is where the book succeeds better as a scholarly record that a popular account. Many of these details are repetitiously sleep-inducing and one of the primary reasons that I thought I might not actually have the drive to finish it. Having said that, if you have the will to keep plowing ahead, you’ll generally be rewarded by the underlying drama.
Deliberations over where national lines should be drawn was really an impossible task that no group of men, no matter how wise and thoughtful, could have concluded satisfactorily. Their charge was to divide Europe and its colonial possessions in a way that served the need for justice, defuse the potential for future conflict, leave Germany economically viable and weak (but not too weak), and realign borders so that like people would be together. But what did “like people” even mean? How could groups of people be ordered in cohesive patterns when the contradictory criteria of ethnicity, shared culture, language, and religion are considered simultaneously? It turns out that there’s often no way to meet all of these conditions in a single solution. More often than not, the final decision resulted in two or more sides that were unhappy with the result. The history of European and Asia Minor is simply too complex to arrive at a univariate solution for binding people together under a single flag. Combined with this complexity was the fear that making the wrong decision could lead to political unrest that would drive new nations to revolution and into the waiting arms of the Bolsheviks—a very real and ominous concern which constantly shadowed the thoughts of the Big Three as they deliberated.
MacMillan draws some conclusions at the book’s finale when she flatly asserts that the Treaty of Versailles was not responsible for setting the stage of World War II. The reparations levies against Germany were not “crushing” as they are commonly described today. The treaty had provisions for payments that were conditional on Germany’s ability to pay and were tied to the country’s economic performance, and there were many “creative financing” tricks used to reduce the money owed. Further, the allies seemed to have little stomach for vigorously enforcing the terms of the Treaty as the years wore on. MacMillan believes that the idea that the Treaty was to blame for Germany’s misfortunes of the 1920s was mostly just convenient propaganda for Hitler and the Nazis.
There’s no doubt that MacMillan has completed a thorough reconstruction of what transpired at the 1919 peace conference—and I applaud her for her efforts to paint a detailed picture of events and discussions that took place almost a full century ago by carefully assembling thousands of disparate scraps. This is an important record of what happened at one of the most fateful diplomatic gatherings in modern history, and in that way, it serves as a valuable reference for historians everywhere. It just may not make for the most compelling casual reading, taxing the attention spans of all but the most dedicated reader....more
Having enjoyed the first two books in Knausgaard's semi-fictional autobiography, I was really looking forward to the third. Sadly, I have to report thHaving enjoyed the first two books in Knausgaard's semi-fictional autobiography, I was really looking forward to the third. Sadly, I have to report that this was my least favorite out of the three that I've read so far, mostly owing to the uncompelling stories that are available at this point of life: early childhood. Knausgaard's earlier books, criticized by some for their painstaking observations of daily tedium, worked for me because of his descriptions of his adult life--struggles with his alcoholic father's life and death, difficulties with his wife and children and so forth. The third book, describing his daily activities as a young boy, without the interest of complex adult situations to sustain them, really is tedious. The book has moments when it manages to break out of the boredom of swimming trips to the local lake, bicycling with pals, and reading comic books, but they're rare. The best moments are when the narrative turns back to his difficult relationship with his harsh father, but they're only sprinkled throughout in a disconnected fashion and are too sporadic to support sustained and lengthy reading. It took me a long time to finish this one, So long, in fact, that I thought I might put it permanently aside. in the end, I stuck with it. I'm not sure I can tell you exactly why, but I'm glad I did. Despite being disappointed in Volume 3, I enjoyed the previous two enough to hold out hope for the next volume...and a return to more mature life experiences. And with this many pages behind me, I've started to feel as if I know Knausgaard. I want to see what happens to him next....more
Ian McEwan delivers yet another resonant and profound meditation on adult relationships and the unintended consequences of the choices we make. Our prIan McEwan delivers yet another resonant and profound meditation on adult relationships and the unintended consequences of the choices we make. Our protagonist Fiona is a British High Court judge, rendering daily decisions on the fate of families, children, parents, and spouses. Her apparently long-enduring and successful marriage is imperiled when her husband of decades suddenly announces that he's determined to have a fling with a much woman 30 years his junior. Concurrent with this development is the case of a young Jehovah's Witness who, when faced with a treatable form of leukemia, chooses the certain death promised by the treatment that he refuses because it conflicts with his family's religious views. This is a challenging case of the highest moral order and one that requires all of Fiona's skills as both a judge and a human being.
This brief novel is fascinating not only for its deft handling of the complex relationship between Fiona and her husband as they negotiate the new boundaries of what their marriage is becoming but also for its approach to evaluating the pros and cons of individual rights, religious freedom, and the interests of the state. I won't give away what judgement Fiona renders, but let's just say that it has implications that she could not have foreseen no matter how much deliberation she might have expended on the issue.
Literate, adult, and complex with no simple answers, "The Children Act" is another fine addition to McEwan's growing body of work and one that I highly recommend. ...more
Let’s just get to the point: Replay is simply one of the best novels that I’ve read in a long time, the kind of book that you’re sorry to see come toLet’s just get to the point: Replay is simply one of the best novels that I’ve read in a long time, the kind of book that you’re sorry to see come to an end and, after the last page, one finds it hard to return to the “real world.” Published in 1988, Replay is basically a mid-life fantasy novel in which our hero Jeff Winston gets the unexpected opportunity to live his life over again. I’m not giving anything away by saying that he dies from a heart attack in his 40s only to reawaken as an 18 year old freshman in college. After the initial shock, he’s forced to conclude that it’s no dream; he really is re-living his life over again. He has the miraculous opportunity to do it all over…except this time, he’ll get it right. With his foreknowledge of the future, he can not only make himself wealthy, but he can avoid getting trapped into the same failed relationships that ended when he “died.” What person in their 40s hasn't wondered how things might have been different or whether or not they’ve made the most of the time that they’ve been given? Replay explores that question in elegant ways.
I wouldn’t want to give away any of the details of what Jeff learns along the way since that would ruin the enjoyment of reading the book for yourself, but I will say that author Ken Grimwood has crafted a classic here, a book that I’m surprised is not more well known. He skillfully covers universal adult themes of regret, longing, and confusion over just what the inherent meaning of life is. He delves deeply into the joys and sorrows of marriage, children, money, power, sex, and personal fulfillment. He does this so well that you may feel—as I did—as if you’ve actually had the opportunity to live multiple lives and reach the same conclusions about Universal Meaning as the protagonist does. As a result, you may be just a little more joyful about the life and the chances that you have today—right now. Replay achieves what the best fiction always does: it awakens us to fundamental truths.
One final note: the book initially has the feel of a standard time travel novel in that there are no great surprises in the first 100 pages or so…but stick with it. There’s a great twist right in the middle of the book that significantly changes its trajectory and allows it to break away from the rest of the genre. ...more
A terrific little popular science book that introduces the reader to the world of materials science. Ever wondered why metals bends but ceramic shatteA terrific little popular science book that introduces the reader to the world of materials science. Ever wondered why metals bends but ceramic shatters or why sand is opaque yet glass is transparent? It's likely that you never have, but author Mark Miodowik will set your mind wandering down these paths. There's just enough scientific detail to entertain the already scientifically-literate while not boring the newcomer. It strikes the proper balance. Short, breezy and conversational, this would be a great book for your next transcontinental plane trip....more
Not bad, but it's a bit disjointed. It's less a thorough examination of the title question and more of an opportunity Wilson to further expound on hisNot bad, but it's a bit disjointed. It's less a thorough examination of the title question and more of an opportunity Wilson to further expound on his lifetime passion: ant biology. Strangely, for such a slim book, he takes an opportunity to settle some scores with Richard Dawkins who has apparently lambasted Wilson in the past for hewing too closely to an evolutionary theory called "inclusive fitness," a topic which will probably leave many readers drifting off. His articulate take down of organized religion is likely to appeal to those who share a belief in rationality and reason in favor of supernatural explanations. While he promises to talk about how the humanities have the power to advance human existence beyond what science and technology alone can promise, he never really does so. Instead, that thought is relegated to a few pages at the back of the book. ...more
Not quite as thrilling as the first book in the series, Brilliance, but good enough to hold my interest. The first third of the book is a bit slow, thNot quite as thrilling as the first book in the series, Brilliance, but good enough to hold my interest. The first third of the book is a bit slow, the second third picks up and moves along quickly with enough drama to keep things perky, but the final third descends into a kind of hackneyed, "cinematic style" where dialogue becomes overly macho, predictable and lackluster. Much of the dialogue and narration was of the "I heard this in a bad movie" variety. It seemed to get worse as the book progressed. Despite all of this, I still wanted to know what was going to happen to intrepid agent Cooper and his his hunt for "abnorm" leader John Smith. The end of the book squeezes a lot of punch into the final 15 pages, enough that I'll probably pick up the third book as well. ...more
Feeling starved of intellectual engagement? Is PBS failing to meet your craving for mental stimulation? Is your spouse tired of listening to your pontFeeling starved of intellectual engagement? Is PBS failing to meet your craving for mental stimulation? Is your spouse tired of listening to your pontifications on the origins of the universe? Well, good news then: David Deutsch is here to provide relief. “The Beginning of Infinity” is a wide-ranging book of ideas. Hard to pin down precisely, it offers a sampling of what I’d call “1 o’clock discussions.” You know the ones; they happen after the party guests have departed and only you and your best friend remain behind, staring at the ceiling, chatting as you finish the last drinks of the night.
Deutsch, equal parts physicist (his actual day job) and philosopher, creates a carefully constructed argument designed to prove that there are no theoretical limits on human knowledge. Can we stop the aging process? Given enough knowledge, sure. After all, the complexity of the problem is finite, and the biological processes underlying the aging process are relatively well understood. Given enough time and resources for the necessary research, there’s no reason that humans can’t prevent aging from occurring. (The practical implications of such an outcome would be fascinating, but that’s not the focus of the book.) Basically, Deutsch argues that any physical process that is not precluded by laws of nature (like traveling faster than the speed of light, for example) is achievable given sufficient knowledge and that if we don’t have that knowledge right now, we can obtain it.
The foundation of his proof rests on two basic truisms: that in any endeavor problems are inevitable, and that all problems are soluble given sufficient knowledge.
One of the many meanings of “infinity” (which he carefully lays out at the end of each chapter’s summary) is that there are no limits on what can be known. He says that suggesting that there are “bounds on the domains in which reason is the proper arbiter of ideas is a belief in unreason or the supernatural.” He buttresses his argument by offering a brief tour of history and The Enlightenment. Western civilization of the Pre-enlightenment remained stagnant during the Dark Ages specifically because organized authority squelched free inquiry and the creation of original conjectures which could be tested to conclusively rule out false ideas. Deutsch says that it is only through the creation of original conjectures that knowledge can be expanded. All assertions must be tested, and proof sought. Whatever is true withstands any degree of testing that one can muster, while that which is false crumbles. With the Enlightenment, explanatory knowledge became the most important determinant of physical events, not superstition or human authority. Once that occurred, the curve of charted knowledge growth became steep indeed with no end in sight.
Accepting that humans have the theoretical power to become infinitely knowledgable, doesn’t mean that getting there is easy. Here, Deutsch delves into his theories of “optimism.” Continuing to pursue knowledge through the solution of problems is fundamentally an exercise in optimism. We believe that solutions exist, even if we haven’t yet found them. If we try to improve things and fail it's because we did not know enough in time. Civilizations that have collapsed did so because they had insufficient knowledge of how to save themselves or they ran out of time before a solution could be found. The inhabitants of Easter Island are highlighted as an example as well as (somewhat controversially) our own current predicament as a civilization faced with the challenge of dramatic climate change. Deutsch suggests that climate change is simply another example of a problem that needs sufficient knowledge with which to devise a solution.
Arguments like this can cause Deutsch to come across as cold and rational to a fault. While it’s hard to argue with the logic of his carefully constructed propositions, it can leave one searching for a little humanity behind the words. In this regard, “The Beginning of Infinity” can sometimes feel less like a late night conversation with a buddy and more like a lecture from Mr. Spock.
But, just as that begins to happen, he manages to branch off into another fascinating exploration of Ideas writ large, covering topics such as quantum mechanics, the Multiverse, the mathematical impossibility of truly representational government, memes, beauty, creativity, sustainability, artificial intelligence, and the concept of mathematical infinity. Each one of these explorations is tied to the basic premise of the infinite expansion of knowledge, though some less successfully than others. For example, his exploration of beauty is completely devoid of the ineffable emotions that most of us associate with that quality. This is perhaps one of the only realms where logic has less to offer than unjustifiable irrationality.
While not all of these topics hold together as a completely coherent whole, each is utterly fascinating in its own way (particularly his exploration of the multiverse, a concept so foreign to human experience, that the chapter calls for repeated readings to promote comprehension). Everything is so carefully laid out that you’re likely to be persuaded of Deutsch’s position that given enough time, there’s nothing that we can’t learn and that there are no problems which are insoluble. Overall, this book is a great source of brain food for anyone looking to sharpen their mental acuity, step out of the ordinary, and go for a walk with a brilliant mind....more