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Book Reviews - General

Discussion in 'Book Lovers' started by Iravati, Sep 28, 2017.

  1. Iravati

    Iravati Platinum IL'ite

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    God and Golem, By Norbert Wiener

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    I don't know why I picked up this book. I was reading about Norbert Wiener and his early cybernetics theories then I stumbled on his philosophical books. God and Golem sounded action and face-off. So one quiet night, I began reading the book nicely propped against the bolster on my bed.

    The first two chapters put me to sleep then I woke up on the third and continued reading about Monkey's Paw, Rabbi Low of Prague and his Golem, Goethe's poems, Capek's plays, recurrences of Marx and Einstein and Darwin. Flipped chapter on chapter.

    Then I read "I do not remember whether it was Bernard Shaw or Samuel Butler who said - that a hen is merely an egg's way of making another egg". He can be forgiven for being derelict about his citations. He was writing back in the 60s. These days, one click brings up who said what and when on the interwebs.

    I finished the book and I was confused. I was not sure if I had assimilated anything. I don't know whether technology impinges on religion or religion should subsume technology. I don't think such contemplative books that pit or reconcile science and religion are meant for me. Next one.
     
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  2. Iravati

    Iravati Platinum IL'ite

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    Psychology of Intelligence Analysis, By Richards J. Heuer, Jr

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    One delight about Amazon Unlimited is that you gain access to books that no one has heard of because they were self-published and mostly on self-help and not mainstream books. Kurt Vonnegut and the Classics are for free. The classics are in public domain anyways but for Kurt Vonnegut I took the subscription. Another night I was scrolling the list when I saw a visual guide to Bayes' Theorem. I like visual books because they come with nifty sketches and Alice and Bob narratives. I downloaded the book and was reading when I chanced on a line..."CIA has published a chapter on this".

    Why did CIA publish a chapter on this? I followed the cross-reference and landed here. The original author was referring to this chapter here. I abandoned the visual guide partway and hooked on to this CIA skinny. Then, in the introduction, I came across,

    A central focus of this book is to illuminate the role of the observer in determining what is observed and how it is interpreted. People construct their own version of "reality" on the basis of information provided by the senses, but this sensory input is mediated by complex mental processes that determine which information is attended to, how it is organized, and the meaning attributed to it. What people perceive, how readily they perceive it, and how they process this information after receiving it are all strongly influenced by past experience, education, cultural values, role requirements, and organizational norms, as well as by the specifics of the information received. This process may be visualized as perceiving the world through a lens or screen that channels and focuses and thereby may distort the images that are seen. To achieve the clearest possible image of China, for example, analysts need more than information on China. They also need to understand their own lenses through which this information passes. These lenses are known by many terms--mental models, mind-sets, biases, or analytical assumptions.

    That introduction was forceful for me to carry on reading. The language is charming, the examples are solid, the study is interesting, the content is relevant to our everyday life. This is undoubtedly one of the best texts I have read in recent times. Books targeted at a specific audience, like in this case "intelligence analysts", is accessible for lay reading because the goal is to distill abstruse science into common knowledge. I should dig more into CIA archives to see if they have other friendly books. For now, this is a must read for anyone following this blabber-snipe.
     
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  3. Iravati

    Iravati Platinum IL'ite

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    Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself
    (Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man)


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    Friends ask me why I never read contemporary humour. I do! But then I relapse to quaint humour. I find the letterpress elegant, the constructs amusing, and the plot funny. Moreover, unlike genres like crime and romance in fiction, humour never withers, it stays fresh against the new arrivals. Humours ages well. It seals its laughs and vigour and bursts out every time you call upon it to tickle you. That's how I picked by Augustus Carp. The book was originally published anonymously in 1924 but later the author was revealed to be Sir Henry Howard Bashford, the physician of King George VI. Sir Henry has written few more satires and comedies. For now, lets talk of Augustus Carp. The full text is available here.

    I said talk, but there is nothing to talk. All the nineteen chapters are comical. You can only laugh but not talk about such satire. The book is about Aunts before Bertie Wooster's aunts showed up in literature, is about N.S.L, S.P.S.D.T, A.D.S.U before contractions gained popularity, is about the 'Circle of Life' before Simba was born and it is also about puns and punctilious Augustus whom you cannot put down till you have finished reading what he had to say about his upbringing and parish and adulthood and marriage.

    My father made a contemptuous gesture.
    `Oh, you know what he is,' he replied, `a weed before the rind.'
    `You mean a reed,' I said.
    `What did I say?' said my father.
    `You said a weed,' I said.
    `I said a weed?' said my father.
    `A weed before the wind,' I said. `I mean the rind.'
    `The rind?' said my father. `But that's wrong.'
    `Yes. But that's what you said,' I said.
    `A weed before the rind?' said my father.
    `Yes, a transposition,' I explained, `of the initial consonants.'
    `A transposition?' inquired my father.
    `Yes, an error in enunciation,' I said, I such as frequently takes place under emotional stress.'
    `But, I don't understand,' said my father.
    `You meant a reed before the wind,' I said.
    `Well, of course,' said my father. `That's what I said.'
    `No, you said a weed,' I said, `a weed before the rind.'
    `But how can a weed be before the rind?' said my father. `But you didn't mean that,' I said. `You meant a reed before the wind.'
    `Well, that's what he is,' said my father. `That's just what I say. That's why he implored me not to make a denunciation.'
    `But of course you will,' I said.
    My father nodded.
     
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  4. Rihana

    Rihana IL Hall of Fame

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    Isn't the joy of reading a good text even more if one comes across it due to sheer happenstance? Cognitive biases has been in my to-read-more-about for a while. This quote at the bottom of one of the chapters made me decide to bookmark this for reading by this weekend.

    "Analysis can be improved! None of the measures discussed in this book will guarantee that accurate conclusions will be drawn from the incomplete and ambiguous information that intelligence analysts typically work with. Occasional intelligence failures must be expected. Collectively, however, the measures discussed here can certainly improve the odds in the analysts' favor. "

    Somehow, the allowance for occasional failure even by the CIA, reassures. I am going to read Chapters 9-14 first and then the earlier ones.

    As a side note, it always fascinates me when a 'guvment' website has literature that is so easy to read and stay focused when reading. Another one I recall was the IRS's description of how to write a narrative when applying for tax-exempt status.
     
  5. Iravati

    Iravati Platinum IL'ite

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    Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps (by Tim Marshall)

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    I am afraid of writing stiff and formal reviews of books. Not that I have indulged in much reading and reviewing lately that I am weary of flashing my library which is in a slump. So, my first book in 2018 is Tim Marshall’s Ten Maps. I hardly follow current affairs. For days, I would not have known which nation encroached on which neighboring nation and there is always a war and revolution looming. If you are like me and don’t know where to start with the current political state of the world, Ten Maps is the book with slap-bang for the buck. In ten incisive chapters (focusing on a region/nation per chapter), the author distills the 101 of geopolitical machinations. Again, if you are a current affairs junkie and duly tune in to the happenings of the world, you may either find the essays boring or refreshing. Either way, I found the book snappy with maps and historical underpinnings nicely illustrating borders and breaks and bears of the world. Why bear.. because the first chapter deals with The Bear. I am providing the synopsis of the first chapter to give you an idea of the content and structure of the book. I urge you to read the book in one sitting as you may want to flip back and forth with the interlinked chapters. With no ado, here’s Chapter I – Russia.

    Synopsis of Chapter I – Russia

    What is six million square miles with eleven time zones with forests and rivers and mountains and 120,000 bears (local word: medved)? Russia! Churchill once said, “Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma”. By the time you finish the chapter you will realize that the whole intimidating bear is placed inside a puzzle like one of their matryoshka dolls. Russia is nestled in the North European Plain (to the West) and the West Siberian Plain (to the East). Also, there is that iconic Ural Mountains that runs from North to South. That’s basic geography you could care to start with as more flatlands and rugged promontories and basins are mounted as we proceed.

    The chapter sets into motion why Russia was never fully conquered from the West via Poland. First came the Poles in 1605, then the Swedes commanded by Charles XII in 1708, then the French raised by the Napoleon in 1812 (Remember that War and Peace novel), then the Germans in both the World Wars. They came, they saw and they returned! Why? Russia with its glacial winters poses a serious threat to the supply lines in those harsh terrains (for now this explanation should do till we wade further). What happened after the Second World War ended in 1945? NATO happened. Russia became USSR. NATO formed. Russia retaliated with its own confederation of Communist states in Warsaw Pact in 1955. So, there’s USSR camp (with Warsaw Pact), and USA camp (with NATO) ready to lock horns by setting the bear against the bald eagle. Let’s check what is happening on the Eastern front. There’s Afghanistan inscribed by the Kandahar and Hindu Kush mountains. Yes, the same Afghan with the sobriquet “Graveyard of the Empires”. To connect a landscape so large you need two rail lines: Trans-Siberian and Baikal-Amur.

    So far, this is what we must have learnt in school to pass our combined Geography and History papers in social studies. The chapter now flashbacks and flashforwards to elaborate Russia’s interest in its abutting neighbors, the orchestration of attacks and counter-attacks in these unforgiving plains, and outrage in Crimea. Why Crimea? You will be familiarized with two terms: “ethinic Russian” (one who speaks Russian or has ancestry in Russia) and “warm-water port” (jeez! it must water that is warm to touch unlike the almost frozen Murmansk and Vladivostok ports in native Russia).

    Flashback: How Russian Empire was forged during the reign of Ivan the Great (grandfather), Ivan the Terrible (grandson), Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, Remember, three greats and one terrible. How Russia expanded to become USSR and then shrunk back to Russia. Once you emerge out of the history you are ready for the future.

    Flashforward: This is why you need such books to tell you what has happened since then. Post 90s, USSR was split into internal camps depending on the orientation of the neighboring and splintered nations to their parent Russia: (1) Neutral (Uzbekhistan, AzerBaijan), (2) Pro-Russia (Kazakhstan and other K-sounding names with Belarus and Armenia) (3) Pro-Western (Latvia, L-sounding, Estonia, Slovakia, Albania, Romania and others mostly signed up in NATO or EU). Remember we had the NATO and Warsaw Pact, likewise, we still have the NATO, however, the Eurasian Economic Union and CSTO have superseded the Warsaw Pact.

    Still, what is happening with Crimea? Ok, here it is. Apart from the three types of assertive nations we discussed above whose fealty is writ large, we also have the unresolved Georgia and Ukraine and Moldova, and that’s where our chapter speeds up providing the geographical and demographical distribution of these balkan countries. It is difficult to provide a synopsis of all militant outbreaks which will run into several pages as each historical episode has cumulatively fuelled the unrest in this region. Say, Crimea ...was with Russian Empire and then transferred in 1954 to Republic of Ukraine, then there’s that Sevastopol, and then remember those catchphrases “ethinic Russian” and “warm-water port”. The chapter nicely unfolds why Georgia, and why Moldova on the same lines of why Ukraine.

    OK, I stop my synopsis here. I was supposed to write a synopsis but I have a feeling that I would exceed the original chapter itself if I get carried away with my excitement on how I had not known any of it till yesterday. The chapter touches upon NATO’s clauses and Sarah Palin’s “Russia from Alaska” remark, Yanukovych, Klitschko, Putin and other political bigwigs in that region.

    Mind you, geography drives the social, economic, cultural and political ambitions of a nation. The chapter dwells on the oil and gas reserves in Russia and how the power services are brokered within Europe. More like ..shale (LNG) of the American coast vs gas (piped gas) of the Russian continent. And no discussion with or without politics is complete without China these days. There’s China and also the Latin punk Venezuela into the whole The Bear roundup in chapter one.

    The other chapters: China, USA, Western Europe, Africa, The Middle East, India and Pakistan, Korea and Japan, Latin America, The Arctic.
     
    Last edited: Jan 9, 2018
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  6. Iravati

    Iravati Platinum IL'ite

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    The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained


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    While reading the book Kill All Normies, I came across Gramscian philosophy. Holy Gram! What and who is that! When I inquired around, I was told that Antonio Gramsci is elementary in political science theories.

    The only elementary creature I know is Sherlock Holmes. Thus, ashamed of my sub-elementary knowledge on political sciences, I downloaded the The Politics Book: Big Ideas Simply Explained. For starters, the book is neither a hardline nor an overflowing introduction to political theories. The material inducts you into the chronology and schools of political theories right from Attic democracy to Alternate liberalism.

    This book serves as a trigger-ready reference if you intend to lookup people and political thoughts. I have skimmed here and there and liked the layout with skinny introductions to paradigm shifts and the prominent thinkers during that shift. You might find similar abridged resources on the net in a loose fashion, though I preferred to have it bundled as a book. As a general read also, it is fascinating. It compares and contrasts various thinkers and ideologies. Say, someone asks you, Confucius and Mozi are similar, then you know

    Both Confucius and Mozi believed that the wellbeing of the state relied on the competence and dependability of the bureaucratic class, but they differed over the way that administrators should be chosen. To Mozi, Confucius adhered too closely to the conventions of the noble families, which did not necessarily produce the virtue and ability essential to a successful bureaucracy. Mozi felt that the qualities and skills for high office resulted from aptitude and study, regardless of background."
     
  7. Iravati

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    Wonder (By RJ Palacio)

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    Sensitive themes are mired in emotionally-charged dramas through adults. But, Wonder is a delightful read depicted through the feisty lens of children who display exceptional strength of mind and acceptance of follies in the ups and downs of life.

    August Pullman wants to be a regular ten-year-old when he is accepted to wean away from home school and start public school in Beecher Middle School. I want to be normal. The novel traces Auggie's trails and delights in his attempts to assimilate into that normalhood of life whilst being a different boy with cranofacial deformation. Though the storyline is linear, the character narratives or the voices are superimposed with each character independently recounting their version of the same episode. We are pulled into Auggie's challenging world in the beginning and then are gradually treated to Olivia's (Auggie's sister) confusion over her feelings for her brother, Summer's (Auggie's friend) account of Auggie's friendship, Jack's (Auggie's friend) conflict over his bonding with Auggie, and Justin's (Olivia's boyfriend) induction into a family very different from his. Through all the characters and their interweaving narratives, a story of a year with Auggie emerges that tickles us and tugs us alike. Jack's fall out with Auggie and the subsequent patch-up over a Facebook reconciliation is made to look so natural that one wonders being kids is an amazing phase in life where we wash away our egos and betrayals with light kisses and hugs.

    Witty, heartfelt and a nostalgic read! They say, books for adults are disguised as books for kids. True, Wonder is one such book which lingers with an adult not as a profound or transformative experience but a 'kind' and thoughtful recollection of how people around us shape and contribute to our well-being in ways that are not always obvious until you hear their side of the mutual experience. And that helmet and Star Wars references are riffed through out the novel. Refresh your Darths and Wookiees and Fett lineage before you read the book.
     
  8. Iravati

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    Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (By JK Rowling)

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    Hey, we are in the magical realm so no book can be written by a muggle. Therefore, the Fantastic Beasts book is authored by Newton Scamander, an intrepid wizard who worked in the Department for the Regulation and Control of Magical Creatures. Newt Scamander takes us on a catalogue of fantastic creatures delineating the difference and order of the magical creatures further known as "beings" and "beasts" and "spirits". The book is anything but a dry glossary of the magical creatures who have captivated us since the early days of Harry Potter. I was confused whether to download the ebook or audiobook or wait for the kindle in motion (animated) release of Fantastic Beasts. Finally, I downloaded the audiobook. The audiobook is loaded with ambient sounds alongside the toned voice of Eddie Redmayne to emphasize that you are reading a magical book where sounds and descriptions come alive to enchant you.

    The book details enhanced animal-looking creatures like Tego (ash-colored warthog) and Knarl (quilled hedgehog). It also provides the history and anecdotes of the perilous Lethifold and formidable Quintaped. How Mokeskin shrinks and deludes the grabbers, how Glumbumble spreads melancholy, how Diricawls pulled off the deception of extinction as Dodos, how Pogrebins stalk humans, how Mooncalves dance frenzy and release their excrement, how Fwooper cannot stop singing and how Jobberknoll cannot help being silent but for the last release of its majestic vocals o its death throes. The book is imaginative and accessorizes the fleeting creatures with their habitats and behaviours and anatomy and trade purpose.

    Additionally, one may want to look up the etymology of the creature names that is not covered in the book. For example, Niffler from niffle, from pilfer; Occamy from William Occam, Chizpurfle = chiz (cheat) + purfle (trimmed border of a garment).

    I loved the elaborate intricacies and mechanisms of the magical creature's shapeliness or the grotesqueness. My favourite is the three-headed serpent Runespoor. As I listened to the audiobook, I am pasting below the wiki text from Runespoor

    According to writings from Parselmouths, each of the Runespoor's heads serves a different function. The left head (from the perspective of someone facing the snake) is the planner; it decides where the Runespoor is to go and what it is to do next. The middle head is the dreamer (it is common for a Runespoor to remain stationary for days lost in glorious visions and imaginations), and the right head is the critic; it evaluates the efforts of the left and middle heads with a continuous irritable hissing, and its fangs are highly venomous. It is common to see Runespoors with the right head missing, as the other two heads often band together to bite it off when it criticises them too much. Because of this, the Runespoor rarely lives to a great age.
     
  9. Iravati

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    Norse Mythology (By Neil Gaiman)

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    A friend asked, are you monkey scratching reviews now? Jeez! Review is a scary word as it encompasses a passionate and critical inspection of the content in a book. I prefer cataloguing my reads with a puffy line or two on why I have chosen the book and how I have felt once I read it.

    Why Norse Mythology? I loved Gaiman's Coraline. So, why not his latest Norse Mythology?

    Gaiman has a knack to deliver a tale fraught with adventure and suspense and compassion in his modern voice. My Nordic knowledge stops with Odin and Thor and Loki, that too with generous lashings from Marvel Studios. Therefore, I ventured out further into the beginnings and the foretellings of a mythology as ancient and as captivating as the snow-capped landscape it unfolded on.

    The book begins with Ymir and Buri and Bor and Bestla. Then Odin, Vili and Ve. Later, the creation of the Nine worlds which includes the Midgard and the prodigious tree Yggdrasil which features in Odin's story. After the creation tales, the chapters that drive the narrative on how the Gods procured their weapons (like Thor's invincible hammer: Mjollnir) are sons of Ivaldi and the brothers Brokk and Eitri. Then, we have the tiff between Loki and his wife Sif, Freya's deceptive marriage to an ogre, the plunder of the vats of Galar and Fjalar to seize the poetic potion, and so forth. The book rounds up with the death of balder (Odin's second son) and the much dreaded apocalyptic Ragnarök.

    Verdict: Worth? Yes. Buy? No. Borrow? Yes.
     
    Last edited: Jan 22, 2018
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  10. Iravati

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    Pnin (By Vladimir Nabokov)


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    When you come across words like “canthus”, “cathetus”, “coxcomb”, “catalpa”, “caryatid”, “cocker”, “crenulated”, so forth in a book, you are either skimming the “C” index of Oxford English Dictionary or reading a novel of Vladimir Nabokov. In my case, it is the latter, the novel Pnin published in 1957.

    Every literary character with a bald noggin and strange feet garners instant sympathy and cheer because we relate them to the unsung heroic geniuses of a cruel society that has inflicted unreasonable ridicule and infamy on them. Timofey Pavlovich Pnin is one such ecstatic misfit whose whims and quirks and ignorance in an American neighbourhood — the surrounds of Waindell College where he is recruited as a professor in Russian language — takes us on a riotous chronicle of an émigré whose compassion and confusion in assimilating into the Soedinyon nie Shtati (The United States) is articulated in fermented vocabulary.

    Those familiar with the works of Nabokov are not disappointed with the intricate workplay and cultural references generously slathered even in his casual description of forehead as ‘leonine glabella’. Those unfamiliar would have no reason to doubt why Nabokov insists on ‘a la fourchette’ and ‘espace meuble’ in his wording. His exactitude for pharmacopeial (instead of overdose) and tripersonal (instead of what?) is laboriously agonising — as you have to pull up the dictionary continually, but also sweetly fulfilling —as you realise how cleverly precise is his rendition. But it is the tongue-in-cheek inflections on Pnin like pninian and pninized that unfailingly elicit a smile on the reader’s face (or visage or countenance or lineament, whatever the Nabokov junkies might raise the stakes at)

    Not only the fractal vocabulary but the art references like Van Gogh, Van Eyck, Petrus Christus, Memling, Toulouse-Lautrec et al will make you feel that you are shuttling between Pnin’s modest room and a flickering art gallery.

    As I mentioned, I have no intention to thoroughly review a book. I am using this space for a hodgepodge of my ruminations and observations on style and vocabulary noted in a book read.

    Mildly Funny:

    Clementses felt dejected, apprehensive, and lonely in their nice old draughty house that now seemed to hang about them like the flabby skin and flapping clothes of some fool who had gone and lost a third of his weight.

    Funny:

    St Bart’s was not particularly pleased either with Lake’s methods or with their results, but kept him on because it was fashionable to have at least one distinguished freak on the staff.

    Odiously Funny:

    Sunshine projecting in vaporous shafts between the white boles of birches, drenching the pendulous foliage, trembling in eyelets upon the bark, dripping on to the long grass, shining and smoking among the ghosts of racemose bird cherries in scumbled bloom.

    What was that last sentence?! Who knows some overripe po amerikanski (the American way) of telling a story.
     
    Last edited: Jan 26, 2018

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