Wednesday, 9 January 2013

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

I could spend an age reviewing this. It certainly deserves it. I hated the first 30 pages or so, as Jane grows up. It just struck me as out of touch with the thoughts and feelings of a child, which I suppose is appropriate, as the novel is supposedly being written by Jane years later, but the young Jane seemed so unreal. Once she meets Mr Rochester, however, I rather enjoyed everything. The mindsets and interactions of the adults are portrayed wonderfully. I don't really have an awful lot to say. I'm sure this needs a second reading before I'm ready to assess it properly. So many of the Classics seem to require a review later on. I revise this post later on. For now, 8.1/10.

Journey to the River Sea by Eva Ibbotson

Another children's book that didn't take very long to read, that made quite a refreshing change from Lucretius. A good cast of characters, although I felt everything was too black and white - the evil characters had no redeeming features, no moments when one could feel sympathy for them, and no real explanation as to why they were so unpleasant. But this did strike me as a fairy-tale, and I suppose such a division of good and evil is to be expected, and while the evil wasn't very interesting, the good certainly was. It is always interesting to read a child's perspective. Everything is so wonderfully uncomplicated. Which gets me wondering whether life really need be as troublesome as we supposed grown-ups make it. 

The novel also made me feel quite ashamed as a tourist for my prejudices towards other countries. While I have travelled abroad, I have never really engaged with a place properly, on it's own terms, as Maia does in Brazil. With any luck, this will change my attitude to travel. 7.3/10. 

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

A Short History of Philosophy by Nigel Warburton

While I’m not sure that Warburton quite matches the elegance of E. H. Gombrich’s counter, he certainly comes close. A Short History of Philosophy gives you 40 bite-sized essays on various philosophers or schools or philosophy, such as Epicureanism or Kant (who gets two chapters), starting at Socrates and winding his way to Peter Singer. Of course, this does raise one issue that made me rather angry with whoever came up with the title. Properly, this book should be ‘A Short History of Western Philosophy’, as there is not a single mention of anyone outside Europe or North America. There are no accounts of developments in China or India, which is very irritating as I know even less about that than I do about western philosophy. I shall have to find another book to fulfill that role.

Nevertheless, Warburton succeeds in getting quite complicated ideas across (in a simplified version, of course) in quite a small amount of space, although the differing concepts hit you so quickly that it’s hard to absorb them all in one reading, but I doubt that I will regret having to peruse the book a second, third or even fourth time, so engagingly is it written. 7.7/10.

The Nature of Things by Lucretius

Written in c.50 BC, this is an incredible philosophical piece by an Epicurean. The authors aim appears to be to rid the reader of superstition about how the world works, and help develop a better understanding concerning the nature of things, as once this is achieved, you can see clearly and without fear. For example, Lucretius argues that there is no need to fear death, as the soul cannot exist without the body, and so your existence will cease after your death. Had Lucretius met Hamlet, doubtless he would have told him in that sleep of death no dreams may come. Brilliantly, the Epicureans seem to have gotten a lot correct. Lucretius describes the existence and movement of atoms, how objects of differing weight will fall at the same speed in a vacuum, proposes that the universe is infinite (and that life will probably exist elsewhere in it), and perhaps best of all, evolution (5.837-854), describing how the fittest survived and bred. He also gets a lot wrong, such as how we see (4.158 ff.), describing how all objects continually throw off ‘gauzy films and flimsy shapes’, and the reason we can only see when there is light is because light creates ‘shining air’ that the atoms creating these films can travel through, whereas the dark air is too thick for the images to get through, which is quite an intriguing solution (4.337-351). Most of the time, however, when Lucretius is unsure he makes sure the reader knows, often giving them a whole host of possible explanations for a phenomena, such as lightning, or why the moon goes through cycles. For the latter, he proposes that half the moon glows, while half is dark, and the revolution of it creates the lunar phases, or that the moon emits light all the time, but there is another moon that we cannot see that crosses orbits, often blocking the light. Lucretius even hits upon the right answer, that the moon reflects the Sun’s light, but the amount it reflects varies according to the moon’s position (5.705 ff.). A great book, with the occasional philosophical insight (although it’s mostly what we would now deem science), and a lovely flowing translation by A. E. Stallings into rhyming fourteeners. 7.5/10.

Monday, 7 January 2013

The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond

Diamond takes you on a very readable journey through human evolution, how the various aspects of humanity - good and bad - developed. For our rise, he points to such factors as art, longevity, life cycle and language (which receives pride of place) and explores why it was we rose to become the dominant species on Earth, Diamond seeing the final proof of this in our extermination of the Neanderthals. Which leads onto genocide, one of factors that Diamond thinks will lead to our fall, alongside destruction of the ecosystem. He paints a very depressing picture, either that we’ll all nuke each other to smithereens, or wipe ourselves out through our reckless destruction of the environment. This comes in strongly at the end of the book, and I felt he was pushing his agenda too fiercely - no one likes being told they’re a member of the most violent and destructive species ever to have existed.

All developments in humans, Diamond is careful to contextualize in the animal kingdom. It seems we are not so different from other species. Take language. Vervets have at least eight words, while gorillas and chimpanzees can learn hundreds of words in sign language (they are unable to vocalize words as their anatomy is not developed for this). Humans just take language and run with it, and Diamond paints a convincing picture of how the first languages would have developed by studying modern pidgin languages, and seeing how they turn into creoles, the transition from the language containing solely concrete nouns to including abstract nouns, verbs, adjectives and grammar taking place in less than 50 years.

Much of the book was seemingly irrelevant to the main theme, but still fascinating, such as how we pick out mates. If we look at what correlates between couples, the highest correlation coefficient was for religion, ethnic background, race, socioeconomic status, age and political views (+0.9). +0.4 for personality, intelligence, neatness and IQ. But surprisingly, +0.2 for physical similarities: hair; height; length of middle finger. It seems we fall for people who resemble ourselves, which is because, according to Zanker, we find people attractive who look similar to our parents / siblings, the people we spent the most time with growing up, and our spouses will look like us because we look like them. Beauty is very much in the eye of the beholder.

The book is weak in places, however, such as his deviation concerning the existence of aliens. A popular theory, backed by those such as Richard Dawkins, is that on a planet that could support life, it is probable that intelligent life will evolve in a similar way to Earth, thanks to convergent evolution - nature using the same strategy over and over. For example, flight has evolved four times on Earth, in insects, birds, pterodactyls and bats. Diamond, however, uses one counter-example (the woodpecker, which has no counterparts elsewhere in the world) to weaken the case. However, I’m not sure he weakens it very much. Overall, however, quite a brilliant book. 8.3/10.

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Goodnight Mr Tom by Michelle Magorian

A friend of mine insisted that I read this book. I agreed to try, but remained skeptical of what I perceived to be a book for children. But not only is it an exceptionally good childrens' book, it can easily be appreciated by adults too. Its unassuming, simple and direct approach serves to make the novel emotionally very powerful. One feels that the somewhat basic nature of the emotions and language merely portrays the minds of children accurately, compared to, for example, Brontë's Jane Eyre, who (to me, at least) is a totally unconvincing 10 year old. William feels far more real. Here the emotions are far more primal, and William's transformation as an individual is magnificent to behold.
Perhaps the contrast of good and evil, and the romanticization of the countryside, are overly strong elements at times, but Magorian is able to contained these with limited amounts of accurate historical information, and the almost tangible realism that results serves to make the book believeable. Or rather, William's character is believeable. Zach, George, Mrs Hartfield, even Tom felt somewhat false to me, and my biggest regret for this novel is that Tom is not developed further. But it is a story that is focussed around William, and it is William's story of his life and emotional growth that I'm sure will draw me back to the book in years to come.

Thursday, 29 November 2012

Equal Rites by Terry Pratchett

I have to say that I was disappointed by this book. It is the fourth Discworld novel I've read (after Mort, Small Gods and Guards! Guards!), and it compares about as favourably as a dead meerkat. The vital spark and vim so essential to Pratchett's main characters was absent until the very end of the book, and throughout I had the sense that the story was building up to something grand and hilarious. Instead it was like listening to the Bolero without the crescendo. Slowly doddering along, not really going anywhere. The book didn't even have a lot to say about gender relations. Small Gods made me pause for thought a a fair few occasions, making me ponder such questions as 'What does that giant turtle thing carrying the world actually swim through?' But in Equal Rites it was just some silly women and some even sillier men bashing their narrow minds together, until finally joining together and the end (very quickly and with very little explanation). But what saddened me most was the almost total lack of Pratchett's signature footnotes. It just didn't feel like a proper, well-constructed member of the Discworld series. And thus, I pass judgement upon it, condemning it with a mere 3/10.