Sunday, 16 October 2016

How Lenin and Stalin Brainwashed Russians, by Larisa Vetrova

How Lenin and Stalin Brainwashed Russians uses propaganda posters from the early years of socialism in Russia to tell the story of the nation's dark modern history. The posters themselves are illuminating and the history is fascinating, but sadly the book is written in quite poor English. It is a short read, almost possible to finish in a single sitting, but unfortunately the experience is spoiled by the unnatural prose. With a little editing, this could be a very enjoyable book. 

Friday, 7 October 2016

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinaw

Sometimes I go online and feel like genius among idiots. Log into Facebook and you're surrounded by people trying to explain away the latest idiotic ranting by Donald Trump, or parroting a hip meme in the liberal community. Everyone, it seems, is stupid. 

A good way to feel like a complete idiot is to pick up a book like The Grand Design. From start to finish I struggled badly to comprehend much of what was said. Physic has never been my greatest strength - in fact, I didn't even take it in high school and have always struggled with its basic concepts. 

Yet I find science of all sorts utterly fascinating, and so I was eager to read what was touted as a book that was accessible to the lay person. There are no mathematical formulas; just basic descriptions and analogies to make these concepts easier to digest. It is a book that sets out to explain the whole universe, and that's precisely where it lost me. I guess my puny brain cannot comprehend that much information. 

In the beginning, Hawking sounds like a stoned college student. Take for example, the analogy of a goldfish in a bowl, looking out at the world. To him, the world looks very different to what it actually is, yet he can create certain rules from observations that can allow him to "see" the world. Then Hawking speculates that we are that goldfish... 

Although Hawking's analogies allow even people like me to follow along, I found myself lost more often than not. Often, the only thing I could follow were the constant stream of awful dad jokes scattered through the book. It seems as though every complex explanation is punctuated with some lame punchline.  

Tuesday, 4 October 2016

Aldous Huxley, by Nicholas Murray

When I was in Malaysia this summer, I reread Island, by Aldous Huxley. It's certainly not a great book, yet I was very interested in it and how it was written. I didn't know much about Huxley except for a few well-known facts - that he wrote Brave New World and The Doors of Perception, and that he died on the same day as John F. Kennedy.

Reading Island, I felt myself curious about what inspired him... It seemed that the book wasn't just a work of fiction, but rather that the fiction was a crude vehicle for his ideas about the perfect society. I was vaguely aware of the fact that's a sort of counterpart to Brave New World, his famous dystopia. So what exactly happened in his life to convince him that the island of Pala would be the perfect society.

To find out, I downloaded Nicholas Murray's biography. Of course, because Island was Huxley's last book, published just two years prior to his death, I didn't get the answers I wanted for quite a while. Nonetheless, it's a fascinating book. Huxley is a weird character - incredibly intelligent, bizarrely self-aware, and always on the move. Having now finished it, I almost feel as though I knew the man myself. Murray is indeed a talented biographer.

There were times it felt the biographer glossed over some unsavoury portions of the Huxley story, but he never entirely left anything out. Instead, he would mention and excuse anything that would detract from the Huxley legacy. For example, he often alluded to Huxley's interest in eugenics, but would always play it down and point out that it was fashionable at the time. He acknowledged the author's interest in dianetics, but played it down as just being interested in everything and never taking it seriously, which was likely untrue.

I will continue studying the life and works of Aldous Huxley with the goal of writing a long essay later this year on the subject of Island. There are other biographies of Aldous but Murray's was the only one available on Kindle. It does, however, appear to have the best reputation, building upon that of Sybille Bedford's earlier work with the advantage of new sources having come to light. 

Friday, 16 September 2016

Words on the Move, by John McWhorter

In Words on the Move, John McWhorter begins by observing that no one complains about clouds moving in the sky, but they complain about language changing over time. For example, people these days often complain about the over-use of the word “like” and the mis-use of the word “literally.” However, as tempting as it might be to whine, he says, this is perfectly normal. Our language – and all languages – has been in a state of flux throughout its entire existence. This is the nature of language. Not only does it adapt consciously to incorporate new words, but changes subtly over the decades. He observes that old movies sound stranger with each passing decade partly because of the accents which are moving further from ours, and also to keys in our spellings that indicate the differences in pronunciation over the years – ie daughter is not pronounced like laughter, but it used to be.

He talks about our perception of words as having concrete meanings when, of course, they don’t. Dictionaries are misleading because they imply that a word has a set meaning that is fixed across time, but dictionaries themselves go quickly out of date. Amusingly, McWhorter observes that considering a word as its dictionary definition is like saying a middle-aged person looks like their high-school graduation photo. People change, and so does our language. Throughout this book, the author explains why words change.

McWhorter’s style is accessible and often witty, yet incredibly well-informed. He seems rather hip to modern culture (perhaps trying too hard at times) yet absolutely knowledgeable about the millennia of development leading up to it. The result is a quite readable, very interesting, and valuable book.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Hunting with Hemingway, by Hilary Hemingway

I bought this book two months ago in Chiang Mai, Thailand, because I thought it was a biography of Ernest Hemingway... Well, it's not, but that's ok. It's still an enjoyable read.

Hunting with Hemingway is a strange little memoir by Hilary Hemingway, daughter of Papa's brother, Leicester. It begins with the passing of the author's mother, who left Hilary a cassette tape recorded by an unnamed professor, on which her father, Les, tells various hard-to-believe stories about hunting with his older brother, Ernest.

The book weaves an odd narrative, telling the story supposedly as it was stated on tape, while detailing Hilary's reaction to the deaths of her mother and father and, to a lesser extent, her uncle. At times the personal element is somewhat mishandled, I felt, as in the final chapters of the book, which seem unnecessary.

The book's value comes from the fascinating stories told by the crotchety old man on the tape. These are pure old fashioned boys stories of adventures across the globe - hunting lions, fighting ostriches, chasing Nazi U-boats...

Are they real? Did these things ever happen as stated? Maybe, and maybe not. That's dealt with throughout the book in conversations between the author and her family. At times it is stated, perhaps rightly, that it is unimportant. A story is a story. Leicester Hemingway, paraphrasing his brother, said:
A good story is at its best when the line between truth and fiction remains ambiguous.
 What bothered me was not the element of truth. I don't care if a story is embellished a little here or there. What bothered me was the hunting. It was hard to read these stories about the murder of innocent animals - tigers, lions, komodo dragons, marlin, etc. Leicester and Ernest go on about respecting the animals, yet it never enters their heads that perhaps the animals didn't want to die in the first place, and didn't need to.

I get that hunting has its place. It is not as black and white as right and wrong... But hunting for sport, for fun, is just monstrous and anyone who does it should be castrated, skinned alive, and fed to the buzzards. Of course, this was long ago in a different time, but still... It's hard to read these stories.

I've had the privilege in my life of coming up close to most of the animals they killed and I disagree with Les about them being monsters. The stories about these animals being man-eaters and posing threats are certainly wrong, and their deaths always unnecessary. This book doesn't really glorify the hunting element because it is commented negatively upon by those listening to the tape, but it is still hard to stomach. 

Wednesday, 14 September 2016

What I Want to Read...

I'm currently reading Hilary Hemingway's Hunting with Hemingway, and almost finished. Next up on my reading list is Aldous Huxley: A Biography, by Nicholas Murray. That's not a book I'm reading for pleasure, although of course I hope I'll enjoy it... but rather one I'm reading for study. I plan on writing an essay on Huxley before the end of this year.

After that, I'm incredibly excited about Homo Deus, by Yuval Noah Harari. His 2014 book, Sapiens, is probably the most important book you could ever read, and I realize how insane that sounds. But seriously, have the world read this and will would all find our lives improved. I reviewed Sapiens somewhere on this blog. Hit the tag below the post to find it.

I'm also excited about the final book in Liu Cixin's Three-Body Trilogy, Death's End. Alas, the second book was not brilliant, but I have my fingers crossed for this one. 

Saturday, 10 September 2016

Currently Reading/Watching

I'm currently reading Hilary Hemingway's book, Hunting With Hemingway. It's an odd little story about her - Ernest Hemingway's niece - finding a tape on which her father is recorded telling stories about his adventures with his famous older brother.

I'm quite enjoying the book, although I admit that I despise hunting in almost all forms, and so the supposedly heroic tales of murdering crocodiles, lions, tigers, cobras, etc are really rather off-putting. Still, it's an engaging story.

There's much to hate about Hemingway, including the hunting, but there's no denying that he's one of the great writers of the modern era, and beyond that a fascinating character.

I'll review the book later, but for now, as I finish up reading it, I'll share this video I recently watched, which tells about Hemingway's life in more depth.