Articles about books

A book is a present you can open again and again.

Agnes Grey — Anne Brontë

agnes-greyThis short novel is neat and satisfying. It’s the story of a girl who decides to become a governess; Agnes is positively saintly, but with a quite amusing wryness in her descriptions of the people she meets. She certainly doesn’t make governessing sound like much fun; doubly so since Brontë based the story partly on her own experiences.

Inevitably, there is a romantic interest. He seems quite unpromising when first introduced, though I identified him immediately as The One; it’s that kind of story. Later, when she describes his appearance, the words are an exact — exact! — description of Colin Firth as Mr Darcy.

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Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance — Robert Pirsig

zenA man is on a motorcycle road trip with his son and a couple of friends. As they travel through roads and towns across the USA, he pontificates about life, philosophy, and yes, motorcycle maintenance. He doesn’t say a lot about Zen, actually, but what he does say fits in well with the rest of his ideas. He’s trying to develop a train of thought that he thinks might be able to solve the malaise affecting the affluent West in these decadent times.

As the narrator talks more about his own history, it becomes clearer where his ideas came from and how bound up they are to his personal life. You can tell that there are some troubles below the surface and these build tension throughout the story leading to… well, the end of the story, which was reasonably satisfying.

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The News — Alain de Botton

the-newsA thoughtful analysis of what is wrong with the mass media and how to put it right. It goes far beyond obvious ideas like reducing the bias towards bad news. I could see some of his ideas gaining traction, in the print media at least. It seems less likely on TV — maybe in a public broadcaster. If that happened I might occasionally watch TV.

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The House of Mirth — Edith Wharton

The House of MirthThis is a wonderful book. It immerses you into New York society a hundred or so years ago, a world where every social interaction is governed by intricate codes and strict, yet unwritten, rules. Lily Bart, the protagonist, is a consummate master of these rules, but will her extravagant tastes get the better of her and condemn her to a fate as an impoverished old maid? (Actually, I don’t know the answer yet: I’m only halfway through.)

It all sounds a bit Jane Austen, but Wharton’s prose seems to me to have a bit more steel in it, and her heroine is more morally ambiguous than, say, Elizabeth Bennet. There are many apposite metaphors, and a lot of insightful musing on human nature, apart from the engrossing plot.

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The Last Days of the National Costume — Anne Kennedy

national-costumeAnne Kennedy’s book starts out as a fussy woman’s internal monologue, before expanding to take in a pivotal series of events in her otherwise quiet life. It also will make me think twice before taking clothing in to be repaired.

The extended power outage in Auckland in 1999 apparently made minor headlines throughout the world. (I wasn’t living there at the time.) This is a story of the little madnesses that went on during that time in the life of Megan Sligo, a part-time clothing repairer. As people bring their clothes to her to be repaired, they tell her about the shameful and wonderful secrets behind the damaged items. She maintains her professionalism until one woman brings her an Irish dancing dress with a torn sleeve. Somehow this draws her into its own story.

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Essays in Love — Alain de Botton

Essays in LoveThis is a love affair narrated in almost excruciating detail by a man who thinks too much, or at least a lot more than most. As he tells the story of going about his life, meeting a woman and becoming a couple, he digresses onto diverse topics, related and unrelated. There is a lot of wisdom and understanding in what he says, and the story seems quite realistic and all too believable. It’s fun to read, in the way that all de Botton’s books are.

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Smart Moves — Carla Hannaford

Smart MovesThis is an eye-opening discussion of the varieties of people’s learning styles and the inadequacies of the traditional three-R’s style of education. Ideas like this have gained a lot of currency since this book was published, which I think is a great thing. Smart Moves puts a scientific basis behind common-sense notions like letting kids run around a bit before class, but really digs deeply into the physiology of the brain. I get the feeling that some of the author’s recommendations are more theoretical than evidence-based, but there’s still a lot of good information and a lot of new ideas to try out. Many of the exercises and techniques are applicable to everyone, not just children.

One of my favourite techniques, though, is one for parents: The Time Game. If your child asks for something, say you’ll do it — in three minutes. Then set a timer and allow the child to watch and wait for the time to count down. This is a great way to develop a time sense (which many children sorely lack) and patience.

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The Ant and the Ferrari — Kerry Spackman

The Ant and the FerrariThis is a readable, impassioned book about the big questions in life. Spackman explains the big bang and evolution in a very accessible way, probably the best such explanations I have ever seen. He explains how science conflicts with religion on these and other topics, but he does so in a much nicer way than the likes of Richard Dawkins or especially Christopher Hitchens. I could imagine that a religious fundamentalist could read this book and actually understand why so many people are convinced that Genesis is all just made up. It’s hard to imagine any such person getting much out of, say, Hitchens’s God Is Not Great other than the impulse to burn it.

Spackman meditates thoughtfully on the meaning of life before offering a few suggestions on improving our individual lives, and society in general. I really like his ideas — they could plant the seeds for big changes for the better. I could imagine some of them being implemented by enlightened governments in a few decades. The chances of these kinds of policy change may seem remote, but books like this will definitely help. It’s clear and easy to understand, and if enough people read it it could change the world.

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On Numbers and Games — John H Conway

On Numbers and GamesThis amazing book sets out a mathematical framework for describing and constructing numbers, and then generalises this to a way of analysing certain games. You probably need a postgraduate degree in mathematics to really understand all of it. I am not quite that qualified, but I know enough to be awed by what can be done by simply starting with nothing. Literally nothing: Conway starts with just an empty set, and proceeds to show how to spin this out into integers, rational numbers, real numbers, infinite numbers, infinitesimal numbers, and (believe it or not) more.

The whole class of numbers he constructs is called the Surreal numbers, and that’s a fair evocation of the way this book stretches my mind. I can generally understand the steps in the various derivations, but it takes some time and effort to develop the intuition to really understand the later constructions and to see where they are heading. Conway obviously had this intuition: after working on the ideas for some years, he wrote this book in just a week.

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The Ego Trick — Julian Baggini

The Ego Trick by Julian BagginiThis is a pretty good exposition of the “bundle theory” of consciousness. The idea is that “consciousness” does not exist: all there are are discrete conscious experiences, which combine to form the illusion of an integrated cohesive mind. This is the “ego trick” that we all play on ourselves.

These days I feel that this is something like the truth, but I will need to do a lot more thinking and read a lot more books like this one before I am fully comfortable with the idea.

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