Friday, July 12, 2024

Review: How Great Science Fiction Works

How Great Science Fiction WorksHow Great Science Fiction Works by Gary K. Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This lecture series was informative. I found it most useful in pointing me towards some potential new things to read: both classics and contemporary (and which ones to avoid too, though I don't think that was the intention of the lecturer!)

The series doesn't explain how great science fiction works, what ever that means. But it does give a concise history of the genre, how it developed, who the various key players where in its development, and the different modes of its development. It also discussed important themes and tropes of the genre (e.g. robots, aliens).

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Thursday, July 11, 2024

Review: American Gods

American Gods (American Gods, #1)American Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I really love the premise of this novel. And Gaiman executes it masterfully. The plot is well-integrated, the characters are intriguing, and the story is wild. One of the more imaginative stories I've read without being overly fantastical. There is a lot of darkness and cynicism in the story, but overall really a story of love and hope. I just enjoyed so much the way he plays with the myths and stories of humanity.

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Monday, July 01, 2024

Review: Robert B. Parker's Grudge Match

Robert B. Parker's Grudge Match (Sunny Randall #8)Robert B. Parker's Grudge Match by Mike Lupica
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lupica does a good job with Sunny. It's not Parker, never will be, but Lupica captures, for the most part, the quick pace, the quirky humor, and the style of Parker's characters and stories. I do get a kick out of the little references to Spenser and the characters and events of the Spenserverse. The story itself is a classic Parker set up and resolution. All in all, I really enjoyed it.

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Review: Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die

Think Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to DieThink Least of Death: Spinoza on How to Live and How to Die by Steven Nadler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nadler has given us a readable and concise account of Spinoza's philosophy. The focus, as can be intuited from the title, is on living and mainly his Ethics. But to understand Spinoza's views on how best to live, one has to understand his broader philosophical system. So Nadler does get into some of the more complex metaphysical, epistemology, and theological issues in Spinoza's thought, but only insofar as it is important for getting the context and basis for Spinoza's Ethics.

One of the more interesting elements for me was the connections that Nadler draws out to other philosophers. Nadler discusses the influence of Descartes and Hobbes, as well as ancient thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, and the Stoics. This shows the continuity of Spinoza with the history of philosophy while also demonstrating his uniqueness and his innovations. Lastly, Nadler shows how Spinoza's thoughts on how to live can be still be relevant and useful today.

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Saturday, June 29, 2024

Review: Ten Years Gone

Ten Years Gone (Adam Lapid Mysteries #1)Ten Years Gone by Jonathan Dunsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am so glad to have stumbled onto this! A classic hard-boiled mystery set in in 1940s Israel. The mystery is well done, there are several twists that keep you guessing. Lapid is a tough, intuitive detective with a heart of gold. Like classic hard-boiled detectives, Lapid lives by a strict code of morality and honor -- though not a conventional one. Willing to hurt and even kill, it always serves a kind of justice. Lapid's hardness is rooted in his past: a former Hungarian police officer, he survived Auschwitz, though his family does not. This accounts for his heightened sense of vengeance and justice; his survival ability; and his doggedness in pursuing the truth.

The social dynamics of post-independence Israel play an interesting role in the plot and characters as well.

I look forward to diving into this series.

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Wednesday, June 26, 2024

Review: Cataclysm

Cataclysm (Star Wars: The High Republic)Cataclysm by Lydia Kang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The first half was not as engaging, but the second half carries the rest of the book. Partly this is because there is just a lot more action with battle scenes and several surprising deaths. Much of the mystery of the Nameless is left unanswered--which makes sense given the role they played in Phase 1. Marc Thomson's reading is as always fantastic (though some of the female voices are a bit off).

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Sunday, June 23, 2024

Review: The First Eagle

The First Eagle (A Leaphorn and Chee Novel)The First Eagle by Tony Hillerman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like Leaphorn and Chee, their interactions and the contrasting, but complementary characters are what make the Hillerman books so good. But the actual mystery in this novel is not very complicated. There is usually a bit more that turns on something in Navajo culture but this one really doesn't. Nevertheless, it's still a good read.

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Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Review: Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History

Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief HistoryPythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History by Charles H. Kahn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The focus of this book is primarily on how Pythagoreanism influenced thinkers from ancient times up through Kepler in the 17th century. My main take away is that Pythagoras and Pythagoreanism really become a catch-all symbol of a sage-like, mystical philosophical/mathematical musings. It's not even really clear to me that the ideas later referred to as something called Pythagoreanism is all that connected to the historical Pythagoras--of whom we seem to know very little. Pythagoras seems to become a kind of omniscient sage symbol rather than a philosopher of distinct ideas and arguments.

Kahn argues for some influence on Plato and his Academy and through this and Neoplatonism gets picked up by others in later antiquity and in the Renaissance. The content of this influence on Plato is somewhat opaque, and seems centered on two main ideas: the cosmological role of numbers and geometry and the transmigration of souls. But it's also not entirely clear where these ideas really come from and how they find their way (and the extent that they really do) into Plato (though I think they are there in Academic Platonism and later Neoplatonism -- I'm less sure about Plato himself).

The book doesn't really get into the ideas themselves as such, it's more focus on tracing the lines of influence from thinker to thinker. It won't really be of interest to someone looking for a precis of Pythagoras or his ideas. I found it enlightening at times but not really what I was looking for.

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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Review: The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human

The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us HumanThe Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human by Jonathan Gottschall
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A thoroughly enjoyable look at the role that stories have on us and our lives. Gottschall explores why we tell stories, what stories do for us, what impact stories have on us, and what the future of story might be. He grounds his arguments in psychology and evolution, while also playfully including various kinds of stories. One of the big take aways is the universality of human storytelling: it is integral to what human lives are and how are societies work.

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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Review: The Stand

The StandThe Stand by Stephen King
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Reading The Stand post-covid is a bit terrifying. Obviously, covid was nothing like the superflu, but the sense of the spreading dread and confusion was all too real at times. While the superflu is the proximate cause of the setting, this is really an epic battle of the forces of Good and Evil given embodiment in the characters. There are divine, mystical forces at work here, though the humans are not mere playthings of these forces. King does a good job of showing how the characters make the choices that ultimately align them with each side. There are natural tendencies this way or that, but each character makes choices that put them on the path they end up on.

The Dark Man, Randall Flagg, embodies nihilistic evil. We don't know really where he comes from or what his goals might be, but in the end he's really just seemingly interested in destruction and chaos. He just wants to watch the world burn. Part of what King is saying is that there is a little bit of that in all of us; maybe that's why almost all the characters dream of him. There is real evil in the world. But, and this is part of the story as well, we don't have to follow Flagg(the evil), we can reject that nihilism and instead choose creation, connection, love, and trust.

One of the things that really struck me was how dated much of it felt. Word choice, cultural references, and similar sort of things read like the 70s and early 80s. This makes perfect sense, but it threw me a bit. I read the complete and uncut version which is nearly 1200 pages. There was definitely some room to trim that down a bit; but the book is meant to be epic, and so needed to be long. Though the middle gets a bit bogged down, the last third of the book gets cooking. It's worth the time and investment of time to read.

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Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Review: The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners

The Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better RunnersThe Examined Run: Why Good People Make Better Runners by Sabrina Little
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm writing a review of this book for a journal, so I can't say much here. But here's the short of it. This a well-written book that tackles some interesting and important questions but is really disappointing because it utterly fails to take account of and engage with the philosophy of sport literature. (Not a single reference!) This is a book published by a prestigious academic press that failed to do the basic research necessary.

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Friday, June 07, 2024

Review: Path of Deceit

Path of Deceit (Star Wars: The High Republic)Path of Deceit by Tessa Gratton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am sometimes amused that the YA books are often better than the 'adult' books. I found this book to be refreshing and the plot more focused. The portrayal of the Jedi was not as simplistic as some of the High Republic Jedi. And the story took some surprisingly dark twists. I think I will continue listening to the SW:HR books -- Erin Yvette does a great job.

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Monday, June 03, 2024

Review: Lethal White

Lethal White (Cormoran Strike, #4)Lethal White by Robert Galbraith
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Rowling continues her Cormoran Strike series with this fourth volume. Picking up almost immediately following book 3, we see the the relationships of the main characters develop and evolve. The mystery keeps you guessing, with many red herrings and misdirection. For some it might get a bit too intricate or complicated, but I enjoy the writing and story telling. Rowling draws such vivid characters and tells a good story that keeps you engaged, on your toes, and wondering where things will go.

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Tuesday, May 14, 2024

Review: Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi

Hunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious NaziHunting Eichmann: How a Band of Survivors and a Young Spy Agency Chased Down the World's Most Notorious Nazi by Neal Bascomb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t remember who recommended this book to me, but I am glad that they did. I knew the essence of the story: Israel stages a daring mission to capture Eichmann in Argentina and bring him back to Israel for trial. But I knew little of the details. In crisp and engaging writing, Bascomb’s book provides the mission details, but also how the mission came to be and who was involved.

We learn how Eichmann came to hold the power he held in Germany; we learn how he eluded capture after the war and made a new life in Argentina. Bascomb’s portrayal of the man is one of utter mediocrity mixed with unearned arrogance and haughtiness. It is haunting to hear Eichmann’s rationalizations for what he did, that he was just following orders; but at the same time clearly felt a kind of pride for being able to complete his orders as successfully as he did.

The detailing of the mission itself is obviously the most exciting and interesting parts of the book: it reads at times like a spy thriller. One almost expects Gabriel Allon to appear! The random near misses and mistakes that could have undermined the mission are mind-blowing. The author is able to create tension and suspense even though one knows the mission is a success.

Bascomb briefly covers the trial and execution, and includes an epilogue that explains what subsequently happened to all the main players: the agents involved as well as Eichmann’s wife and sons.

There are many books that tell the story of Eichmann’s capture; many written by members of the capture team. I haven’t read them, so I can’t compare. But Bascomb’s book seems well-balanced and thoroughly researched.

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Review: Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War

Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day WarCatch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War by Micah Goodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Goodman’s Catch-67: The Left, the Right, and the Legacy of the Six-Day War is an excellent and important book. It lays out in concise and clear language the range of philosophical and political ideas that help to structure and frame the Israeli understanding of itself and the conflict with the Palestinians.

Goodman focuses on the core problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: the way it is currently understood makes it impossible to make progress. Essentially, what Israel needs in a peace deal with the Palestinians is precisely what makes it impossible for the Palestinians to accept. Conversely, what the Palestinians need for a deal is precisely what the Israelis could never agree to. This is part of what Goodman means by “Catch 67;” a play on Joseph Heller’s Catch-22.

Another “catch” is that Israel faces an internal dilemma between its security needs in the disputed territories and a population problem. To keep the territories for security purposes, means having to rule over a substantial non-Jewish, non-Israel population. This threatens both the Jewish and democratic nation of the state. If the Palestinians in the territories were granted Israeli citizenship, it wouldn’t be long before the state would lose its distinctive Jewishness. But the alternative within this security paradigm, ruling over another people, would violate the democratic nature of the state. But, on the other hand, to relinquish these areas means a significant security threat to Israel. Hence, the Catch-67 nature of the conflict.

These catches make progress, both internally amongst Israelis and externally between Israelis and Palestinians, impossible. The solution to each problem is itself a problem whose solution is the original problem.

Goodman’s approach, then, is to stop trying for a solution and instead to look to reduce the conflicts. Thomas Sowell said about economics there are no solutions, only trade-offs. Goodman’s approach is analogous. There isn’t a solution to the conflict in the offing. But there are things to do to reduce the conflict. And in the last part of the book Goodman’s discusses various proposals that could help to do just that. I am skeptical about the effectiveness or feasibility of these, but I think he’s correct about the overall approach of focusing on more practical things to do that could shrink the conflict. I think real progress could be made on that front. In the wake of October 7, this is hard, even impossible, to imagine. But Goodman’s suggestions could be useful frameworks for thinking about the so-called ‘day after.’

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Monday, May 06, 2024

Review: Sports Spectators

Sports SpectatorsSports Spectators by Allen Guttmann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Noted sports historian, Allen Guttman, takes on the topic of sport spectators in this short volume.

The book is divided into two parts. The first part is “Part 1 From Antiquity to Modern Times” and it covers just that, though, in 123 pages, in no great detail. Most of the chapters in the first part focus on specific sports of the era and their spectators. Guttman highlights some of the demographics and what we know (or think we know) about how sport was spectated.

The second, and shorter, part of the book looks at spectatorship more analytically. It considers the impact that media has had on spectatorship, in short, but useless chapter, what academic critics like neo-Marxists say about spectatorship, and then closes the book with two of the more interesting chapters. The chapter on hooliganism tries to get at explanations of spectator violence; though Guttman’s analysis seems to end with few answers. None of the theories offered satisfy, though they all explain at least a small part of it. The last chapter on what motivates fans to be fans has a similar trajectory. There are several different theories and analyses offered, all of which seem to get at piece of it, without themselves being satisfactory. It’s an aesthetic experience, but not art. It’s kind of like worship, but also not religion. It’s a way of self-identification, but that’s also really complex and fraught. This chapter was the most interesting to me as a philosopher; and in part tis what draws me to the study of sport spectatorship both professionally and personally. Why do we watch? Guttman’s chapter isn’t an answer, but it is a good palace to find some questions to answer about why we spectate.

Published in the mid-80s, there is much that is out of date. Obviously, in the last 40 years sports spectatorship has continued to evolve. But Guttman identifies many of the trends that are still relevant today. I would imagine the media chapter would be much more substantial and the changes in in spectator violence would make the analysis of that chapter even more ambivalent. The role of gambling and fantasy would also have to be covered.

The book as a total is uneven. There are sections that offer interesting insights but others that are a bit pedantic. The historical sections condense a lot of material to provide a useful overview of the history, but is also too general to be that helpful beyond the general sense of things. The analysis/methodological sections are just too limited in scope, though as I noted above the last chapter raises some important questions about fan motivations.

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