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Review of “The World of Lore: Dreadful Places” by Aaron Mahnke

This was another random read, this time picked up at a local bookstore’s bargain table. I didn’t even read the back cover, so I had no idea this was a collection of mystical stories. The author has a podcast and seems to be a diligent researcher, and he presents a balanced picture of what can be explained and what cannot. I’m not a fan of this genre, but I found the stories well written and fun, with lots of background information on the places where the stories originated. Some of the tales made my hair stand up. Some were boring, most were informative and well presented.

It is an easy book to read, but for some reason it seemed to take a long time to finish. I mean, if you’ve heard one ghost story, you’ve heard them all; nevertheless, the depth of research and skeptical storytelling kept me interested. There really are unexplained incidents. That is a repeated message in this collection.

There isn’t much else to say. The book’s premise is clear and it is informative, rather than just retold stories. If you enjoy the lore behind the scenes, in many different locations, then I recommend this book.

I can’t help but wonder why such stories don’t occur today, despite the widespread use of smart-phone cameras and social media…

Review of “The Man Who Died Twice” by Richard Osman

I didn’t know this was part of a series when I bought it at Copenhagen International Airport. It wasn’t a problem, however, because the references to previous exploits are vague and don’t directly impact this story. The personalities and relationships of the characters are presented in sufficient depth that a fan of the series would probably find the detail redundant.

One thing I found disconcerting is the use of the present tense with a third-person narrator for most of the chapters. This approach is so awkward and inappropriate that the author kept resorting to the past and present perfect to present past events, and they made a lot of grammatically clumsy (if not erroneous) constructions doing it. It just made no sense. There is a first-person narrator who shares her view periodically, and that works fine in present tense. Some people talk like that.

As you can imagine, there are a lot of cliches (English not American) and stereotypes for the characters, but they kind of seemed the same to me most of the time. Now and then, one of them would suddenly behave differently than they had before; that is a risk with an ensemble cast of characters, and I only mention it to be as complete as memory will allow. The central character (not the narrator) seemed to have a rush of inspiration at the end, realizing her fallibility; it made me wonder if she does it in every book?

The plot was obvious because there really was only one person with the resources required to pull off the crime; thus, a variety of red herrings were introduced to keep the reader from figuring it out, and show the weakness of egotism (I still don’t understand the title).

Overall, a fun romp with some elderly people, filled with anecdotal observations of aging and nonsense. I didn’t finish it on the flight, but I remembered to read a few chapters (they’re short) every day.

A final comment: One crime solved by the “Thursday Murder Club” is enough for me…

Review of “The Law of Innocence” by Michael Connelly

Apparently, this is another “Lincoln Lawyer” novel (I think I saw the movie), so this is going to be a short review because, in general, series become formulaic and predictable, especially if the main character (also the first-person narrator) has been arrested for murder.

This read more like a technical report than a courtroom drama. There were plenty of motions filed and argued before the judge, but I got the feeling that it was all a farce, despite finding myself enthralled at times, especially in the first half of the book. A few tantalizing clues were introduced and I anticipated some surprises, like in an episode of Perry Mason. I had the overall impression that the author was fulfilling a book contract when it got to the end and the FBI saved the day. What a cop-out.

The problem with first-person narrators is that their thoughts have to be shared with the reader. This was attempted half-heartedly in this story; I got tired of hearing how Michael (Mickey) Haller’s life was on the line, repeated so often that I wanted to stop reading. The entire ordeal came across as a bored description of someone else’s encounter with the justice system.

I hope this isn’t representative of legal drama…

Review of “Ward No. 6 and Other Stories” by Anton Chekhov

The author is famous for writing short stories that explore the life of Russians in the late 19th century, but this collection is timeless in the way it presents the human condition, not through carefully crafted plot but instead by way of the actions of his characters. The range of personalities and life situations is boundless. This book was translated into English by Constance Garnett less than thirty years after most of the stories were written, so the overall sense of the times is carried into this translation.

There are no happy endings and the reader is left with more questions than answers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are lessons to be learned; instead, one is left with a sense of the hopelessness of life, and the mess we make of it through our decisions and acts.

These tales of misery and woe are replete with stark humor in the way the characters are presented. The narrator doesn’t think much of them, while respecting their humanity. The poor and wealthy are equally at a loss about their situations, and I was reminded of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: all is vanity and there is nothing new under the sun; happiness is unattainable and the best we can hope for is some satisfaction, and even that is fleeting.

What keeps this from being as depressing as “Crime and Punishment” is the rich detail supplied about the characters and their lives. If not for the unrelenting imagery and often humorously simple language, this would have been difficult to read. It helped that most of the stories are short and the reader has a break between the relentless parade of hapless individuals.

The language is often ponderous (clumsy descriptions of scenes), and yet I had to look up a lot of words. I have to assume (not speaking Russian) that this was in the original text, and was Chekhov’s intent. Part of this may have been that the stories were written over several decades and his writing style changed somewhat. However, all of these stories follow similar trajectories.

From my grim review you might think I don’t recommend this book, but nothing could be further from the truth. As hopeless as the situations and lives depicted in this collection of short stories are, they are entertaining to read–just not all at once.

If there is a message hidden in these pages, it is that the most fulfilling event of one’s life is when they can finally stop dealing with the burdens imposed on them, whether by their own decisions and thoughts or by other people. If I may be so bold as to read between the lines:

Death is the ultimate escape…

Review of “Como agua para chocolate” by Laura Esquivel

Novela de Entregas Mensuales con Recetas, Amores y Remedios Caseros

This is the latest book in my Spanish reading. I don’t know if I’ll ever speak Spanish or even develop an intermediate vocabulary, but I do enjoy reading novels in their native language (i.e. Spanish). The English translation of the book was turned into a movie that I never saw, “Like Water for Chocolate.” That phrase always escaped me, until I read the book. Now I get it.

I will make my usual comments about novels written in Spanish: the authors (no exceptions so far) don’t seem to want to use subject pronouns and so it can be downright impossible to know who is speaking in a crowded room; they also don’t like to use commas, which can be very tricky for a beginner because of the use of some articles (i.e. la and las) as direct object pronouns. Comprehension depends on context, which doesn’t work so well for a beginner who is struggling with the vocabulary (I understand the grammar pretty well).

The story jumps around a lot in time and space, and I got lost a few times, partly because I took several months to read the book. The idea of monthly recipes for chapters was intriguing but I didn’t get how the recipes fit the plot; they seemed random to me, but the characters were preparing them while the action was taking place. Sometimes the menu was central; at any rate, this was a great plot idea, which kept the story alive long after it should have died. It is a simple plot that uses gimmicks (e.g. magic and jumps in the action), so that the author didn’t have to actually write a full novel. It’s more like a collection of stories with a central character. (I could be wrong there because, like I said, I took a while to read it and my Spanish is not great.)

Overall, I enjoyed the story but the ending was a massive cop-out. I’m not sure that it’s a good read for someone learning Spanish because there’s a lot of culinary vocabulary that SpanishDict was only moderately helpful with.

Just between us, I think Tita is schizophrenic and…well, you’ll have to read the book and decide how to interpret the ending for yourself.

Review of “Crime and Punishment,” by Fyodor Dostoevsky

It says a lot about this Russian classic that the front matter in the book doesn’t say when it was originally published. I looked it up on Wikipedia; it was published (in Russian) as a series in 1866. This English translation was published in 1992. That is important because, as I’ve learned from other translations, the translators are the real authors of this novel. I will address this divided authorship below.

There were very few typos and grammatical errors, so hats off to Richard Paver and Larissa Volokhonsky. Since they have apparently won international acclaim for their translations, I have to assume that this is as close as an English translation can get to the intent of the author. Nevertheless, when I refer to the “author” below, I am necessarily including them in my comments.

This is a psychological thriller. The author gets into the head of the protagonist, not through a few well-chosen phrases and thoughts, but by using an omniscient narrator. Nevertheless, word by word, page by page, chapter by chapter, we finally are convinced that Raskolnikov is obsessed by his crime, even if it requires the entire book (580 pages). The details about his life and who he encounters are excruciatingly rich. Despite this, I didn’t feel like I was reading a novel written more than 150 years ago, in another language. The story is conveyed (painfully) as a timeless examination of why some people commit heinous and stupid crimes. No thought goes unexplored in this quest for the very essence of Raskolnikov’s inner being, his interpretation of the meaning (or lack thereof) of life.

There is a hint as to why the story unfolds so circuitously in its original publication as a series of chapters. The author simply forgot. It is repetitive and the style changes inconsistently. Sometimes, the other characters are the center of the action, their thoughts shared as easily as the protagonist’s (thanks to an omniscient narrator who jumps between heads within a paragraph). Then, Dostoevsky seems to remember what he’s trying to do and returns to the central theme. Finally, confirming my skepticism about unnecessarily long novels, he wraps the whole story up with an epilogue. All the loose ends are ties up neatly in a bow, just as Tolstoy did with “War and Peace.” Maybe that’s the defining characteristic of Russian authors–ramble forever then, coming to their senses, they write a quick summary.

This would have been a good novel if it were half as long. There is simply too much repetition, and too many distracting, unimportant side stories that added nothing to the plot. However, despite being a barbarian (I didn’t study literature in college), I appreciate the frank look into the conditions in Czarist Russia that inevitably led to the Communist revolution and civil war (between the white and red communists). The plight of everyone except the wealthy was deplorable. Got it!

I would like to add that sometimes dialogue can be too realistic. This novel is a good example of that literary trap. Very few of the characters could complete a sentence, from beginning to end, without a few “well,” “ahem,” “sir,” and too many other realistic, but horribly distracting, interruptions before they (failed to) make their point. Whether intentional or not, the author conveys the fallibility of oral communication between people, even when they truly want to talk openly. This failure to communicate makes sense for Raskolnikov, who had plenty to hide, but less so for the other characters.

Tolstoy published War and Peace serially, but he chose a different approach, using multiple points of view for his characters. That novel is much easier to read, despite being more than twice as long, and it was published at about the same time (1869). So, I’m not opposed to Russian literature, just poorly written novels…

Review of “The Case Against Reality,” by Donald D. Hoffman

As you can see from the book cover, the entire title was a lot longer than the title of this post. I heard an interview with the author on Lex Fridman’s podcast, and I was intrigued because I’m working on a novel (i.e. fiction) with a similar theme. This book is not a work of fiction (at least, not explicitly), however, but an overview of multidisciplinary research by the author and several collaborators on Evolutionary Biology, with a focus on Evolutionary Psychology. That got my attention because I think that is an oxymoron: Evolutionary Psychology–give me a break!

The book is well written, or else it had a good editor. (I think that Hoffman probably didn’t need a lot of corrections.)

I am not qualified to comment on the validity of his research or his conclusions. He is very honest about voicing criticisms made by his peers; however, his dismissal of their complaints is a bit too quick and unconvincing. The second major complaint I have is that the subtitle, How evolution hid the truth from our eyes, is repeated so often (often as a refutation of criticism) that it begins to sound like a mantra. Just keep saying it and you will believe. Who is he trying to convince?

He saves the quantitative basis of his work for the appendix. I would have appreciated more of a discussion of the unenumerated parameters his “mathematical” model incorporates to represent choices made by virtual “beings” in his game-theory-based model, which he declines to describe in adequate detail for the supposed semi-literate reader of the book to comprehend. I think he doesn’t want to say the obvious: he ran thousands of simulations, tweaking parameters, until he got the result he wanted. This is not scientifically unethical–by no means–but it is disingenuous, especially when presented to the non-expert as a scientific result.

For someone who has read a variety of “non-fiction” books on psychology and neuroscience (both medically and computationally based), the sickeningly common references to apples, vision, evolution “choosing,” and so on, are filler. Boilerplate. Nevertheless, his conjecture that our perceptions are nothing more than an interface with reality is interesting; however, until his research produces more than an infinity of simulated results using a model of (admitted) simplicity, his conclusions remain nothing more than speculation. To Hoffman’s credit, he admits this openly; but dismisses it just as quickly.

How many angels can fit on the head of a pin?

I don’t know and don’t care because I don’t believe in angels…

Review of “The Stainless Steel Rat’s Revenge” by Harry Harrison

The blandest of several covers used on the print copy of this book, which was published in 1970. I read an ebook with this cover, borrowed from the Fairfax Public library.

I vaguely recall the Stainless Steel Rat series when I was in high school (Harrison wrote more over the following decades). I didn’t read it or the first one because the covers looked kind of childish to me at the time. I was reading more “mature” SF authors like Heinlein and Asimov. I think this was meant for young teens, which I’m not above reading.

As with every other book I’ve reviewed, the grammatical errors increased after the halfway point, but they still weren’t distracting. The writing style wasn’t that different from the probable target audience, i.e., long-winded sentences that sometimes changed topic unexpectedly. The witty comments reminded me of the Spiderman comics I read in middle school.

The protagonist is a spy who works for some kind of galactic overseer agency, saving planets with help from gadgets and his sidekick/wife. From Jim diGriz’s repeated escapes from the same sinister empire, I’d say his imagination exceeds the author’s although it mostly relied on smoke grenades and perfect timing. The “action” was nonstop but highly repetitive. I was hoping for a surprise ending–the hero getting killed.

It was, however, interesting to see how limited an author’s imagination can be, especially in a genre like SF. For example, Harrison couldn’t imagine wireless devices (this was in 1970), and the cars (far in the future on another planet) sounded like the big-block V-8s that were popular when he wrote this book. And, despite the existence of warp drives (this was after Star Trek), the spaceships were apparently constructed of steel, and rusted. There are no drones, but there is a driverless cab and robot house cleaners.

This would probably be okay for a very narrow audience today, mostly boys between 10 and 13, because it doesn’t contain any sex but lots of junior-high innuendo (e.g. large bosoms and his jealous wife).

I’m glad I didn’t read it when it first came out because I probably would have thrown it in the trash can, wasting a few of my scarce dollars…

Awkward Meeting

I will never forget how I met Dr. Zola Brown. My thesis advisor, Dr. Daniel Greeman, wanted us to meet in a setting she would find comfortable because, apparently, she didn’t like meeting new people outside of the classroom. From his description of her personality, I expected the soon-to-be outside member on my Ph.D. thesis committee to resemble my fourth-grade teacher, who happened to have the same surname; that’s a thing about being African-American with a lineage that extends into the slavery period of American history. We all have similar surnames, like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Brown (you can guess where that one came from), and Wilson, which happens to be the appellation associated with my family’s distinguished lineage. The resemblance between Mrs. Brown and Dr. Brown didn’t end with their last names. 

Dr. Greeman had declined to tell me why he wanted me to meet Dr. Brown incognito, in disguise as an undergraduate enrolled in Physical Geology at San Francisco State University, on a field trip to Marshall’s Beach. I had done some research because I didn’t know if he was playing a prank on a colleague or making a fool of a new graduate student—some kind of initiation rite to the halls of academia. I was determined to play along because, to be honest, I was overwhelmed by the halls of academia and wanted nothing more than to have fun while joining the two-percent of Americans with a Ph.D., and if that meant pretending to be someone I wasn’t in order to meet an antisocial future collaborator, I was all in. 

“What are you doing here?” 

Oh yes, Dr. Brown and Mrs. Brown had a lot in common. She examined me from head to toe. She frowned at my makeup, shook her head at my large earrings and nose pins, scoffed at my form-fitting top and jeans; and her jaw dropped in shock at the high-heel pumps that adorned my feet. 

I smiled nervously (easy to do under the circumstances) and replied, “I’m a new student. I missed the van and drove so that I wouldn’t miss the field trip. This is really important to me.” That part turned out to be true, but I’ll get to that later.

Her response caught me off guard. 

“You look like a Klingon at a Death Ritual. What were you thinking, coming on a geology field trip dressed like that?” Her downturned nose hid what must have been nostrils flared with righteous indignation, her eyes indicating that I would probably fail her class.

I grinned at her comment, pleased that she appreciated my carefully applied makeup. I had always been enthralled by the Klingons and their culture, in which women were the equals of men, willing to kill and die for their honor. Furthermore, the Klingons are dark-skinned, not pasty like their Vulcan cousins, although my complexion isn’t as dark as Dr. Brown’s, which is probably why my surname is Wilson. 

“Take me to your leader.”

I was certain I would become accustomed to her abrupt demeanor, but I was surprised when a rock hammer was suddenly thrust at me, along with a pair of safety glasses. “Join the others and let’s see if you can tell dip from strike.”

I accepted the heavy tool and tiptoed through the tall, wet grass fronting the low bluff, inwardly grimacing that I would probably ruin my new shoes in the muddy soil. The students were confused by the twisted mass of shale and what was probably sandstone; some of them were pouring dilute hydrochloric acid on the unresponsive silicate rocks (HCL fizzes on limestone); others, mostly guys, were beating the rock to death with their cheap hammers. I joined a mixed group of men and women who were peering through tiny magnifying glasses at what I had learned from Wikipedia was a melange of sand and mud, buried deeply enough to harden into rock, and then scraped off as the Pacific Ocean’s seafloor plunged beneath North America. Feeling empowered by this knowledge, which the undergraduate students enrolled in Dr. Brown’s class apparently lacked, I nevertheless refrained from sharing my wisdom and instead acted as confused as they. 

“It’s all messed up,” a man with dark skin and close-cropped curly hair exclaimed in frustration.

A white girl with dark, straight hair, who could have lost a few pounds, added, “I don’t know if it’s sandstone or shale.”

 I pointed to a chunk of shale, embedded in a matrix of mudrock, and tossed out, “How can sediments like this, deposited on the seafloor, become so tangled?”

A black girl who had been studying one of the lightly colored sandstone blocks exposed along the bluff put her hands on her hips and declared, “I can’t tell what this is. I don’t see any bedding like in the shales, even the pieces we’ve been looking at.” She poured some more dilute HCL on the shiny, unspeaking rock and added, “It isn’t limestone.”

“I think it’s a schist,” announced a white guy who looked like he hadn’t gotten enough sleep the previous night.

I shook my head in frustration and corrected him. “Schist would have foliation that would be continuous. These rocks look like pieces that were mixed up together.” I looked towards the Pacific Ocean, hoping they would get my drift.

Another student joined our group, a black guy who had been diligently pounding on the helpless rock. “This is fucked up!”

It was time to collect their observations and come to a conclusion. “Let’s put it all together.”

They looked at me blankly. It was hard to believe I had been just like them only a few years earlier. Before I could elaborate on my statement, Dr. Brown’s commanding voice broke everyone’s train of thought. “Okay, you’ve had enough time to make your observations. Does anyone know what we’re looking at?”

A few hardy souls spoke up about it being igneous or metamorphic, but the guy who had called the rocks “fucked up” held his hand up, before quickly lowering it and, with a grimace that said a lot about his classroom experience with Dr. Brown, offered, “It’s all mixed up, some shale, a little of maybe granite or sandstone, something like that, but now it’s all confused…a mishmash, like my mom’s surprise dinner on Saturday night.”

There were a lot of laughs at his analysis.

Dr. Brown corrected him. “You are correct, Damon, but we call it melange. However, that isn’t granite, but only recrystallized sandstone that was mixed in with the shale matrix. It lost its original bedding when it was buried, every rock has its own chemical signature and responds differently to changes in pressure and temperature. But what caused it to look like this? To become a mishmash—a melange?”

The overweight girl looked at me, then at the calm Pacific Ocean, and offered, “It was caught in the subduction zone.” She pointed towards the sea and, with the others nodding enthusiastically, added, “It got all tangled up and was dragged along…” She grimaced and waved her hands as if imagining being dragged along with the subducting Pacific plate. 

I guess she was taking Geology 101 as a science requirement for a performing arts major.

Dr. Brown then strode to the outcrop and proceeded to show her students the details that revealed the complex history of what is now called San Francisco, a tumultuous interval that began more than 150 million years ago and continues to this day. I was as fascinated by her recitation of the Mesozoic past of Northern California as any of the undergrads. I was smiling in anticipation of sharing my discovery with Dr. Greeman as I handed the heavy-duty hammer back to Dr. Brown while the students filed back to the van. 

She looked at me with narrowed eyes as she said, “You aren’t on my class roster. I don’t mind an interested observer joining my field trips occasionally, but I don’t like disruptions…you fit in well with the others and seem to know strike from dip. I can see that you are serious but, still, don’t make a habit of it. You should register for the class if you want to take part in future field trips. I would welcome your participation.”

I finally found the appropriate response to her earlier comment about my uninvited appearance on her field trip. I showed her my best Klingon smile and said, “We Klingons do not believe in wasted effort or time, and we have no tolerance for foolishness or idle talk…”

She was still watching me, her jaw agape, as I climbed into my antique Toyota Corolla.

Review of “The Knowledge Machine: How Irrationality Created Modern Science,” by Michael Strevens

The author is on the faculty of the Philosophy Department at New York University and has been writing about a range of issues relevant to the scientific enterprise for more than twenty years. Some of his essays and papers sound quite technical, but this is a book written for entertainment as much as the serious ideas it presents.

First things first; the grammar was a little clumsy at times and I had to reread several paragraphs. This is a typical complaint I have with science writers; I think our thoughts jump before the pen has caught up. I noted (for the umpteenth time) that the number of (blatant) grammatical errors increased towards the end, as if he just wanted to get it finished. Still, it was well written overall.

I enjoyed the general approach used; setting out to debunk two of the more famous ideas about science is a great attention getter. He did a good job of it too. However, I’m not sure if the basic tenet (I’m not giving it away) justifies a book of this length. Some of the examples used to present his ideas weren’t very convincing although I agree with his conclusions (in general). Of course, I am a scientist, so maybe…actually, I would go further than he does in criticizing the practice of science .

The author goes out of his way not to offend anyone; all of the examples he uses are from the physical sciences, e.g., physics and chemistry, but social sciences like sociology and economics aren’t discussed. However, by neglecting disciplines that don’t have the clarity of conceptually simple measurements, his discussion can be interpreted as either chauvinistic or overly simplistic. The closest thing to a discussion of social sciences is taking aim at two famous philosophers of science, as the thesis of the book. This omission makes the author’s premise less convincing, possibly even reducing it to no more than biased speculation after an evening searching the internet for anecdotal stories.

I read this book on a Kindle, so I couldn’t easily go back and search for something forgotten. Thus, despite the repetition of several stories and ideas, I don’t recall exactly what “The Iron Rule” is.

That may be because I’m stupid, but still, shouldn’t even the densest reader get the main point to a book-length discussion of what is basically a simple idea?

Despite my criticism, I recommend this as light reading, especially for non-scientists who may mistakenly think that SCIENCE knows what it’s doing. I think the author paints a pretty accurate picture of how scientific inquiry proceeds, despite his bias.

As the author concludes, science is an unthinking golem, despite being practiced by the most intelligent animal on earth…