Tuesday, November 30, 2010

What We Say Goes by Noam Chomsky

This 6 hour long series of questions and answers between Noam Chomsky and interviewer David Barsamian from 2006-2007 is an excellent introduction to Chomsky’s (non-linguistic) perspective on the world. Given Chomsky’s breadth of knowledge and how he links topics, it is tempting to say that book is about everything, but that can vagueness can probably be boiled down to one theme: the discussion of power and how power influence peoples thoughts and actions.
A more specific topic list can be found from the product description: Noam Chomsky explores the most immediate and urgent concerns: Iran's challenge to the United States, the deterioration of the Israel-Palestine conflict, the ongoing occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, the rise of China, and the growing power of the left in Latin America, as well as the Democratic victory in the 2006 U.S. midterm elections and the upcoming presidential race.
All those topics and more are discussed, and in each one Chomsky presents a viewpoint that is counter to what most media outlets and governments provide. A criticism is that sometimes he could be clearer about how much intention and purposeful organization is behind the calamities of justice and moral consistency that he so often describes. I also so often wonder what drives him to keep doing so much. Justice? Duty? I wonder if he enjoys it or has decided it is the right thing to do (or both)?

I highly recommend this work. The uninitiated will get a understanding of what Chomsky believes and why he is so controversial, while those familiar will get useful, rational analysis of important events and a reminder to be ever critical of the types of acceptable discourse.

Propaganda and Control of the Public Mind by Noam Chomsky

This brief (under 2 hours) audio presentation gives an overview of some of Chomsky’s thoughts on various issues, primarily about state propaganda and how it influences thoughts and actions. It was as if Chomsky was responding to questions but we don’t know what most of the questions were. This would not be a good first Chomsky experience but might serve as a brief reminder for those already familiar. Both interesting and saddening was the fact that despite this being from the late 1990s, his commentary is applicable to current events (and one barely notices it's age).

Far better was What We Say Goes (reviewed above).

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

An excellent exploration of the life of a supposed Nazi propagandist who might really be an American spy years after the war. Neo-nazis love him, Russians befriend him and American countrymen despise him, all of whom it seems are trying to get him to or away from a war crimes tribunal.
This is one of Vonnegut’s best and given that I’ve read about 8 of his other books; I was surprised I hadn’t heard of it. In classic Vonnegut style we read about the horrors of war and witness absurd people in mundane situations or mundane people in absurd situations. The book is worthwhile, but I especially enjoyed the final fifth.
Some lines I enjoyed, paraphrased:
“You might as well look for diamond rings in gutters if you are looking for justice and fairness in this world.”
Person 1: This day will go down in history.
Person 2: Every day goes down in history.
“Corpse carries to the guardhouse” – a call that would go out in the concentration camps. Even more chilling in spoken German (this was an audiobook).
The other parts that stuck with me were the brief discussion on how chemicals influence our decisions (pretty good for 1966) and how the hard core racists aren’t crazy, just that some of gears have been worn down in their head. They still function, but not as they should.
Go read it!

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary by David Sedaris

Sedaris once again demonstrates why he deserves his fame as a wry satirist with this excellent little book of short stories about animals, which are obviously really parables that explore human foibles). The stories are anthropomorphic and unrealistic, but it was interesting to read about chickens, squirrels, rabbits or turtles acting in ways certain types of people would act. If you don’t have the minor suspension of disbelief, you won’t enjoy this. If you can go with the premise though, you’ll see Sedaris skewer bigotry, racism, pride, authoritarianism, religion and death. Primarily though, the main theme explored is that of human biases, personal and external, mostly about vanity and positive self-regard.
The stories are entertaining and I recommend the book (only 3 hours by audio presentation, with four different presenters). If I had any criticism, it would be that sometimes Sedaris wasn’t too subtle in his delivery.
(Note: out of curiosity, I just checked Amazon.com to see what others’ thought and many didn’t like this. So be warned!... the masses are displeased)

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Player One: What Is To Become of Us by Douglas Coupland (2010 Massey Lectures)

"Everyone wants to go to heaven but no one wants to die."
So say the characters in Douglas Coupland’s Player One: What Is To Become of Us, the 2010 Massey lectures, which were given as a five-part fictional story for the first time.
Player One was a good (almost great) but not quite excellent, exploration of human frailty and behaviour during a cataclysmic event. The story focused on four people in an airport hotel bar and their hopes and fading dreams. Coupland also tries to explore ‘what will become of us’ through bringing in technological developments, present and future, and how people are reacting to them. He also does this through one character but mainly through giving her cognitive ‘deficits’ like the inability to recognize and differentiate faces (prosopagnosia), atonality (laughter is a negative sound to her) and behaviours similar to autism. I appreciated the science, but it is unfortunate it had to be achieved in that way. Similarly, I thought he didn’t go far enough with the futuristic musings because there is a lot to explore. Currently, the line between sci-fi and actual technological research and development is often blurry.
For comparative purposes, here is the info paragraph from CBC that described the lectures:
In an airport lounge in the very near future, four people are marooned when a kind of apocalypse strikes. Sealed in, the four can only talk to each other, examining their lives and the meaning of love. Thick ash falls from the sky. Cell phones don't work. What is to become of us? In the tradition of Kurt Vonnegut and J.G. Ballard, Douglas Coupland locates his story and characters in an extreme situation and then pushes the implications as far as possible.
I thought the narrative style was fine, each of the four people described events in turn, but from third person omniscient instead of just first person like in Hornby’s A Long Way Down. There was a fifth voice, “Player One” but I thought this was not as well as executed as it could have been. My expectations were a little high, too.
Is it worthwhile? Yes. Fiction is probably a great way to expose non-sciencey people to these ideas. Go have a listen or read and let me know what you thought.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Bro Code by Barney Stinson and Matt Khun

This was a moderately funny book that I can’t recommend unless you are a fan of the show “How I Met Your Mother.” It is basically a list of rules for Bro-ness but most of them aren’t that funny (but I did laugh out loud a couple times). Granted, the whole thing is absurd but that does not quite make it worth your time. Listening to an audiobook version at 2x speed made it tolerable as the whole thing was over in about an hour.
I probably wouldn’t spend more of my life on it.
(It amuses me that Stinson is listed as the author as he is a fictional character)

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

A Long Way Down by Nick Hornby

A decent but not impressive exploration, neither light-hearted nor detailed inquiry, on the issue of suicide. This was my first Hornby novel, although I did enjoy the films High Fidelity and About a Boy. The novel follows four people, of diverse character and circumstances, who met on the rooftop of a building where they had all planned to kill themselves. A support group of sorts begins and they are in each other’s lives for the next several months. The presentation of this novel was interesting in that it was told from the perspective of each of the four people in succession but not all at once. Each character would describe a situation and then pretty much the same situation would be described by the others, and then this would repeat for a new situation.
I do like this, as the characters were decently developed and they seemed to act true to form. One does believe the characters had reasons for acting as they would. I even laughed out loud at a couple points. Further, because it was an audio presentation there were three different British voices and amusing little expressions to enjoy. That said, this was not a great work. Perhaps the content was a bit depressing or the plot/situations weren’t sufficiently captivating as to make one invested in the story. It felt like it would end at various moments – not a good sign.
I would recommend this to people interested in the topic but less so to a general reader.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Very Good, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Another delightful collection of amusing and entertaining stories of Bertie Wooster and his gentlemen’s gentlemen, Jeeves. This was the third Jeeves & Wooster work that I’ve finished and I would say it was better than Carry On, Jeeves but not as good as The Inimitable Jeeves. The primary reason it was better than Carry On was that Jonathan Cecil was the voice actor presenting the content (like with Inimitable). Although the stories were comparable to Inimitable (holding more variables constant), they were not quite as good. I felt some of the later stories were better than the earlier ones. Of course, diminished novelty is likely a factor given that one month ago I’d never experienced any Wodehouse and now several weeks later I have finished three similar works.
Regardless, great stuff, recommended and I’d probably read another but I’ll probably wait a bit more.

The Trial by Franz Kafka

A disappointing work because I now think “Kafkaesque” means “annoying.” I had anticipated reading a story about a man caught in an absurd bureaucracy that provides insight into the limits of institutions and the importance of openness in them, but instead it was a bit of a mess without clear explanations for the actions of the characters or the situation they are in. I realize things were supposed to be unclear, but actions and concerns were inconsistent in an unhelpful way.
For example, in the beginning we are lead to believe the main character exists in a world/state/city where one has the right to know the charges they face and be able to defend themselves. This turns out not to be the case but people do not react as if this is absurd or obviously contradicts how they think things should be.
(Spoilers are involved in my examples)
The main character has an opportunity to call the state’s attorney, who is an acquaintance, to find out more about his arrest, but he does not. This is not explained.
Later on in the work, the main character meets an Information man of sorts who can supposedly answer all the unanswered questions that have been so frustrating, but he is asked nothing. This makes no sense. If he kept asking and kept being denied like it was some authoritarian police state it would make more sense.
At the very end, when he is being escorted off to die (for reasons we never know) he doesn’t seek the assistance of a police officer. Gah! Such are the parts I found really annoying.
The main character is also unlikeable as he is quite arrogant, classist and is extremely fickly with women (him sleeping with the lawyer’s helper made no sense).
If the work wasn’t as short as it was (and the fact I wanted a valid opinion on at least a little of what Kafka was all about), I wouldn’t have finished this.

I don’t think it fair to blame Kafka as the work was unfinished and on his deathbed he asked it (along with other works) to be burned. I’m not saying it should have been burned, but I don’t agree with the amount of respect this work has received.
I do not recommend this book. Instead I would suggest you (re)read 1984.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Choke by Chuck Palahniuk

The entertaining and sordid tale of a pseudo-recovering sex addict who purposely chokes in restaurants to give the person who saves him more meaning in their lives, as well as subsequent financial rewards to him because they care, to support his crazed mother in a nursing home. One of the main themes is that we are trying to escape our own lives, if only for a moment.
That brief summary sort of says it all. If you liked Fight Club, chances are you will like this. Grit, sex, absurdity, amusement (a couple laugh out louds) and moments of perspective.
An easy and enjoyable read.

A couple memorable lines:
"Sometimes I think I'm doing a bad impersonation of myself."
and another delightful reference to patting your head and rubbing your stomach.

Monday, November 01, 2010

Another Year of Words

Books completed from late-October 2009 to late-October 2010.
* = recommended
** = highly recommended

Mindscan by Robert J. Sawyer
*The Greatest Show On Earth by Richard Dawkins
Justice as Fairness: A Restatement by John Rawls
Justice: What’s the Right Thing to Do? by Michael Sandel
I Drink for a Reason by David Cross

SuperFreakonomics by Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner
The Rights Revolution by Michael Ignatieff
*The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama
*The Man Who Loved China by Simon Winchester
Like Shaking Hands With God (with Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer)

Look at the Birdie by Kurt Vonnegut
Alexander the Great and his Time by Agnes Savill
*Evolution: How We and All Living Things Came to Be by Daniel Loxton
The Value of Nothing by Raj Patel
Flashforward by Robert J. Sawyer

**Shakespeare: The World as Stage by Bill Bryson
Freedom: Short Stories Celebrating the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Amnesty International)
*Why Sh*t Happens: The Science of a Really Bad Day by Peter J. Bentley
The Wayfinders by Wade Davis
Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman

*Why Your World is About to get a Whole Lot Smaller by Jeff Rubins
TimeQuake by Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
*Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku
*CBC 1967 Massey Lectures by Martin Luther King, Jr.
*Breaking the Spell by Daniel C. Dennett (again)

*Chickenhawk by Robert Mason (part of my Independent study of Vietnam. Try ctrl+f and search the title)
**The Vietnam Wars by Marilyn Young (part of my Independent study of Vietnam. Try ctrl+f and search the title)

**The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Absolutely Small by Michael Fayer
**Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto by Stewart Brand
*Packing for Mars by Mary Roach
*Atheism: A Very Short Introduction by Julian Baggini

What Intelligence Tests Miss by Keith E. Stanovich
The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction by Terry Eagleton
*The Public Domain by James Boyle
*How to Watch TV News by Neil Postman & Steven Powers
**The Inimitable Jeeves by P. G. Wodehouse

The Moral Landscape by Sam Harris
Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Carry On, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

An amusing and worthwhile collection of Jeeves stories but not nearly as good as The Inimitable Jeeves which I finished just a week ago. As I experienced both books in audio form, I think the primary factor for Carry On being less enjoyable was that the reader was different and not as good. Carry On, Jeeves was read by Martin Jarvis while Inimitable was read by Jonathan Cecil. Jarvis does a good job in his own right, but Cecil is more diverse, elaborate, and, perhaps most of all, I became accustomed to his presentation of the characters. When I first started the book I kept thinking “But He doesn’t sound like that!” A fiction of course, but such is how the audiobook crumbles. Consequently, my enthusiasm for Wodehouse has slightly waned, but I think the test will be to see if I enjoy another Wodehouse read by Cecil.
Although following a similar pattern, the stories were still a welcome experience.