It was probably the title that enticed me to buy this collection of understated short stories. The title story is about a woman trying to write a thesis on the use of mathematical concepts in the writings of Jane Austen. It’s clever, amusing and likeable. I enjoyed reading the stories, which made a relaxing contrast to the harrowing writing of Lucia Berlin or Miranda July.Continue reading
You and two other logicians (Alice and Bob) are in a room. A controller comes in and paints a spot onto each of your foreheads. You can each see the others’ spots (Alice and Bob both have black spots) but not your own. The controller tells you all that all the spots are black or white, and at least one of you has a black spot. Then the controller asks if anyone knows the colour of their spot. Everyone says no. The controller asks the same question a second time: again, everyone says no. The controller then asks the same question a third time. What do you say now?Continue reading
I’ve heard of comic operas, but here is a comic based on an opera. My children have some books illustrated by P. Craig Russell, so I was excited to find that he has produced a comic book adaptation of Richard Wagner’s Ring operas. It’s pretty impressive: the opera cycle runs to about 15 hours long, and this comic book adaptation (or graphic novel, if you like) is over 400 full-colour pages.Continue reading
If you don’t already know a lot about the history of philosophy, you will by the time you’ve finished this book. If you do, then you’ll recognise a lot of it. Like Goldstein’s more recent 36 Arguments for the Existence of God, this book is full of philosophy, Jewish culture and academia. But there’s also quite a lot of sex. Or at least lots of musing about sex.
I find it pretty ingenious how Goldstein manages to incorporate so many concepts from philosophy explicitly into this story of a young woman academic’s love life. She explains the ideas succinctly either through the characters or direct to the reader, and makes them all relevant and apposite. This would actually be a great book to read as you embark on a course in philosophy.
How should we live? And why does it matter?
This book is just amazing. In its two massive volumes, Derek Parfit lays out a very detailed and very carefully argued ethical framework. It’s like a prodigiously sustained deep dive into his classic book Reasons and Persons with lots of examples and explanations. It’s also a conversation: one chapter consists of responses to parts of the book from other philosophers, which Parfit then responds to in turn.
From free will to the trolley problem, there is a lot to argue with and a lot to think about. Immersing yourself in it will give you a greater appreciation of what really matters — and just as importantly, why.
Like a lot of great SF, this starts with just one single premise. What if we suddenly discovered an unlimited number of pristine Earths, and we could all travel between them at the flick of a switch?
One day, a blueprint for a very simple electrical device appears on the Internet. Thousands of people build one of these little boxes, flick the switch — and disappear. They’ve “stepped” to an alternative Earth, untouched by humans. From there they can go back or continue on to a multitude of more-or-less parallel Earths. The story follows a number of characters through the massive social changes that follow on from this: suddenly there are endless frontiers, on pristine worlds where environmental degradation and climate change are irrelevant. There is also a lot of sci-fi adventure as people explore millions of the alternative Earths, some of which are very different — essentially alien worlds. And they don’t just stop there — the third book in the series is called The Long Mars.
Meg is the Italian Björk. And if you think that’s glib, try this: Meg would be the result if Björk joined Fever Ray and they went clubbing in Naples. Glib, yes, but maybe on the right track. Of course there is a lot more to her music than those easy comparisons, but they are a good place to start.
Meg’s singing reminds me a lot of Björk, but also of Karin Dreijer (from Fever Ray and The Knife). A lot of her songs seem to come from the same place as Björk’s, from the (mostly) electronic production that somehow still sounds organic, to the huge expressiveness of her vocals. But there is sometimes a slightly unhinged edge to the voice that makes me think of Dreijer. The only thing I can’t comment on is her lyrics, since I don’t understand Italian. She does sound a bit more subdued in her few English-language songs, so I’m sure Italian speakers would get even more out of Meg’s music than I do.
I loved this book of short stories even though most of them don’t end especially happily. The stories are written in a variety of voices, but almost all concern young women navigating problematic relationships. (Some of the women are older; some stories focus on men; but relationships are a constant.) Reading each story feels like inhabiting the character. It’s fun to be in someone else’s skin for a few minutes.
Standard education systems are broken: Turning Learning Right Side Up points towards a way of fixing them. It argues that the current system of education was designed for purposes that no longer make sense. (Ken Robinson’s TED talk Do schools kill creativity? is the classic formulation of this problem.) Then this book talks about how education could be designed to help children become fully-rounded adults.
The emphasis is on learning rather than teaching, with children taking the initiative in their activities and even in the organisation of the school. This is already the norm at a few places, such as the famous Sudbury Valley School in the USA. It works well partly because a family that sends their child to such a school has probably already prepared them for this more independent style of education. I think it could work more generally, but it must start very early — children will need to grow up understanding that this is how schools work. Places like Playcentre in NZ get them started on the right track, with their philosophy of child-initiated play. We just need to continue this idea as they move through the education system.
“Freddie” Hayek is, of course, famous for the epic rap battles between him and his arch-nemesis, the maverick economist and Bloomsbury groupie John Maynard Keynes. Keynes may have been more charismatic, but Hayek had the edge in writing. The Road to Serfdom is a compelling and passionate defence of free-market economics and is much more readable than Keynes’s dense The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Even the title is snappier. (The General Theory wasn’t written for a popular audience, though — Essays in Persuasion is a better read, although maybe less influential.)
Hayek does come across as a bit of a Cassandra, terrified that a bit of well-meaning socialism is just the first step on the slippery slope to fascism, totalitarianism and, well, serfdom. The shrillness of his warnings is explained by the context: he was writing during the second world war, and saw echoes in contemporary American society of Germany in the interwar years. He grew up in Austria before living and working in the USA and England, so he was well-placed for this comparison.
This classic book of essays is divided into three parts. The first part covers California in the 1960s. This makes the sixties seem just as crazy as their reputation — Didion lived through some turbulent times back then so I’m glad she wrote it all down for us to read about. The third part of the book is more varied as she writes about various other places from different viewpoints.
The middle of the book is my favourite part. These more personal essays are just wonderful. She can capture feelings with uncanny accuracy and she offers a lot of wisdom and understanding. I will be rereading them often.
This is a nice pocket-sized guide to consciousness. Actually it’s a guide to the problem of consciousness, since there is no consensus on what consciousness is or even exactly what the word means. Blackmore is even-handed regarding the various competing viewpoints, though it may all be slightly coloured by her own views, which are heavily influenced by Buddhism. And if you think that’s an incongruous stance for a hardcore psychologist/philosopher to take, then you really should read this book.
Demian is very mysterious and alluring. This book is about him and his influence on the narrator — they first meet when they are both schoolboys. Demian then turns up repeatedly as the years go by, gradually taking the narrator into a circle of freethinking misfits. It’s less fanciful than the other Hesse novels I have read, but still packs a bit of a punch.
Snap judgements are surprisingly accurate. Even the ones we make without knowing how. Even the ones we make when we don’t even know we are doing it: “I just had a bad feeling about him, I can’t explain it”. This book gives evidence and explanations for this. It’s interesting in itself, but the trouble is it has been a very influential book — since it was published, its examples have been cited and reused so many times in so many places that what must once have been groundbreaking now seems overly familiar. I had similar thoughts the last time I saw a performance of Hamlet: the dialogue just seemed to be one cliche after another. Of course, they weren’t cliches when Shakespeare wrote the play!
Even so, the sections towards the end about microexpressions were very interesting and new, at least to me. They give some insight into where the “bad feelings” about people might come from, and maybe some pointers into how you could train yourself to read people and situations better. So even now this is still a worthwhile read from a very influential writer.
This story is more fun than you would think, given that it is about a teenage boy coming to terms with his father’s death. Astronomy and mythology are two of Tuttle’s boyish hobbies; they run like threads through the stories he tells his younger brother and the conversations he has with his friend, and also play a big part in the novel’s resolution. His father, a famous mountaineer, disappeared in controversial circumstances which made his loss even harder for his family to deal with. The repercussions continue even a year later, when the novel is set.
Apart from dealing with his father’s death, he also has to deal with his mother and brother, who are struggling in their own way to manage. And of course he also has to negotiate the usual teenage issues; mostly school, and also the juvenile delinquent petrolhead who lives next door (along with his cute half-sister — it’s not all bad).
It’s good to finally read this famous book, starring the famous Captain Nemo and his famous ship the Nautilus, and discover that its fame is well-deserved: it’s a page-turning adventure story with drama, intrigue and nifty gadgets.
The narrator, a maritime expert, joins an expedition and eventually ends up aboard the Nautilus with couple of his companions. In a series of episodes we find out about the ship, a little about the captain, and a lot about various going-on under the sea. Verne puts a lot of really interesting and generally plausible ideas into the story, which is impressive for a speculative fiction written nearly 150 years ago. I have always wondered about the title though: I always thought that it referred to a depth of 20,000 leagues, but then I discovered that 20,000 leagues is about 100,000km, ten times deeper than any ocean. I now realise that it’s simply the distance travelled while under the sea — they circumnavigate the globe underwater, following a very meandering path.
Jim Flynn’s first Torchlight List book was a really interesting guide to one man’s essential reading list. This follow-up takes a different tack but is just as engrossing. Here Flynn takes a more global view, focusing on different parts of the world and calling out books and writers that he thinks are worth reading.
Flynn talks about the books and writers in the context of the countries and regions they come from. He gives excellent overviews of the various regions including their history and politics, which helps to explain the genesis of the different writers. I learned a lot just from these sections — they could almost be a book on their own.
This is fun to read and it may change your life. The subtitle describes it best: chaos (particularly perhaps the chaos of the modern world) is what Peterson dreads, and he offers prescriptions, strategies and even commandments for how to preserve an ordered and civilised life from the relentlessly pounding waves of entropy. And all presented using language that virtually demands to be read out loud.
Each of the 12 homely “rules” is really just the starting point for a wide discussion of how life should best be lived. Peterson is a psychologist and a Christian, and those are the lenses through which he views the world. There is a lot about biblical history and teachings — a lot of it is presented as metaphor so it is still somewhat relevant even to non-Christian and even non-religious people. But still, there is a lot more bible-bashing than I was expecting, even from such a famously conservative figure. Each of the 12 chapters ends with a restatement of the rule as its last sentence. For some reason I find this irritating and twee. And I normally like tweeness.
Squalor and alcoholism feature prominently in these short stories based on Berlin’s life. Many of the stories concern marginalised people: they suffer so much injustice but still manage to keep going. Even so, I wouldn’t describe the stories as uplifting.
I picked up this book because I had read about it in the London Review of Books, and also because it had a foreword by Lydia Davis.
This is deservedly one of the classic New Zealand novels. When I returned it to the library, the librarian eagerly asked me how it was. I said it was really good — a novel version of Frame’s short stories. The shifting viewpoints give a broad understanding of the characters and events, and the impressionistic first-person narrative really made me feel what it must be like for the main character, living a life very different to mine. Bad things happen to her, but there are also many marvellous moments of beauty:
Jim Flynn put this book in his top 5 novels list, so I grabbed it when I found a copy recently. He said it was the greatest novel portraying contemporary American college life. “Contemporary” in this case means circa 1950, and it is actually set in a military college, so it’s presumably a bit different from a civilian college like Harvard or whatever. It does seem a bit bizarre, with the ubiquitous corporal punishment and merciless bullying of first-years by older students who are still just out of their teens. I don’t know whether this weirdness is due to being 60 years ago, being American, being a military school, or being a work of fiction. I suppose it’s all four, but I do get the impression that the general features of the books’s college life are based on fact. Holy cow, what a hell-hole it must have been.
So the characters end up in various unedifying situations, usually of their own making, and we see them as they deal with things, usually badly. It becomes apparent that the novel mostly concerns the misfits and bad hats of the academy, which explains a lot about the dramas that befall them. The book ends with a couple of eloquent and very different speeches, and closes with just deserts all round.
This is a great survey of all the ways to lie with statistics, and how to avoid being fooled by them. So many of the things we read and hear are based on numerical data, and often it’s hard to argue with them — “the numbers don’t lie”, they say. And it’s true: numbers don’t lie. But people lie, sometimes using words and sometimes using numbers.
There are sections on politics, discussing gerrymandering and also counting election results. Seife’s analysis of the 2000 US presidential election is excellent, laying bare the frankly ridiculous voting systems in use. He also reveals what the actual result should have been, after all the court cases and recounts. His conclusion surprised me, but it is actually the only sensible option even though it would probably have caused outrage.
The whole idea of mathematics is to make things easier. It allows us to understand the world is ways that would be impossible without it. So it’s a great shame that many people see it as shrouded in mystery. Eugenia Cheng tries to overcome this problem in this book about mathematics and cooking (and in some cases, the mathematics of cooking).
The intricate details of mathematics can be tricky to get straight, but the concepts should be intelligible if presented properly. In this book, Cheng works towards an understanding of Category Theory, her own specialist area of mathematics. (I think this is the “mathematics of mathematics” mentioned in the subtitle.) Each chapter starts with a simple recipe, which Cheng uses to illustrate a mathematical concept. This strategy works well: you really get a good idea of what the concept is and why it’s useful, without getting hung up on complexities.
This small but perfectly-formed book is a simple story of girl meets boy and all the usual things that follow. But it’s told in an unusual way so that I sometimes felt as if I was inside the main character.
The viewpoint changes around a bit, and the tone varies from personal to almost clinical at times. But even so, there is so much insight here, like this heart-rending evocation of the isolation of a new mother whose partner is away during the day:
A taste for paradoxical reasoning is common among economists, to the point where it is a job requirement in some circles.
— Zombie Economics, p112
This book is about about raising boys, especially teenagers. It’s heartfelt and compelling, and it has a lot of good things to think about and remember if you have or are planning to have a teenaged son.
Celia Lashlie spent a lot of time at boys’ schools talking with the boys and their teachers, and describes what it’s like to be a student in a boys’ school. She describes the experience really thoroughly — as I read, I really felt I knew what their world was like. But there are many different ways for boys to experience their school life, and I thought she focused on one without really acknowledging others.
This book made me happy. Gretchen Rubin did her research, found out every possible method for becoming more happy, and then spent a year trying them all out. In the end she decides it has worked — she is happier — and she evaluates which methods worked best for her. She’s read a stack of popular psychology books and self-help guides, so we won’t have to.
The thing that works best for her is a resolutions chart: for example, she’ll resolve to sing every morning, and then put a checkmark on the chart every morning when she remembers to sing. She says that was the best thing because it helped her get other things done, but mainly because it was so satisfying to award herself a checkmark and to look back on the month and see all the evidence of resolutions kept. It’s interesting that this technique, often recommended to help children remember to brush their teeth or put their clothes away, can also work well with adults. I bet Rubin had very clean teeth as a child, and probably still does.
I love reading philosophy, and I love reading novels. So this philosophical novel is right in my sweet spot. I have read some of Goldstein’s non-fiction, but after reading this fun and thoughtful book I want to search out her other work.
It’s a story about Cass Seltzer, an academic whose life changes when he publishes a book about the psychology of religion. The catalyst is the book’s appendix, which contains the titular 36 arguments along with commentary and rebuttals. That appendix makes him into a superstar — he gains fame, notoriety even, and an academic superstar girlfriend. The novel covers his career from the beginning, through his fame, and more.
This is like one of those great, wide-ranging conversations where you talk about everything, from what you did last weekend to the meaning of life, and everything in between. Each essay is on its own topic and they are apparently unrelated, but as I got into the second half of the book I found that they started to go together and give a coherent picture.
I first heard of this book when I read Ashleigh Young’s essay in Tell You What 2016, in which she describes the process of creating its distinctive cover illustration. Later, the book became big news when it won a huge literary prize. I remembered that I also enjoyed her essay in the earlier Tell You What book, and I also realised that one of the blogs I read, Eyelash Roaming, is written by Young. It appears that I am a fan of Ashleigh Young’s writing! So naturally, I bought the book.
This is a fascinating book about poetry, disguised as a wry and humorous story about a poet with writers’ block. It’s like two books in one!
The protagonist is a likeable everyman. Well not really an everyman — he’s a poet and academic rather than just a regular Joe. But he’s definitely likeable in the way that Nicholson Baker’s characters often are. (I feel that Baker’s protagonists tend to be versions of himself, even though I don’t at all know what he’s like in real life. I presume he is likeable.)