My Amazon Book Reviews

By Andy Ross
 

A beautiful book and a future classic

A Beautiful Question: Finding Nature's Deep Design
By Frank Wilczek

1 January 2017

*****

Beauty is more than skin deep. This book contains a lot of text, a lot of monochrome figures, and a lot of color plates — but more importantly it contains ideas of great mathematical beauty that reflect with high accuracy the cosmos we live in. The quest to understand nature that began with Pythagoras and Plato has matured in the work of Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, and a host of more recent scientists, to produce a Core Theory of our reality that is at least as deep and stable as anything in the world we wake up to every day.

Frank Wilczek won his Nobel Prize in 2004 for breakthroughs on the mathematical foundations of quantum chromodynamics — our theory of how quarks make atomic nuclei — and is a passionate advocate of the supersymmetric extension of current theory that would deepen it yet further. His motive power for all this is a sense of beauty that reaches beyond the technical concerns that apparently suffice to animate most physicists. On the evidence of this book he is one of the great artists of our physical understanding of reality.

Unlike most authors of books on physics for poets, Wilczek is not patronizing and does not seek to erase the technical truth behind his readable gloss on the quest for deep beauty. On the contrary, he puts his passions on show with rapturous outpourings of praise for the creative impulse behind the visions he beholds — and then cites details in appended explanations of his terms of art that spell out the cash value of even his most apparently overblown rhetoric that show he chose every word carefully, and meant it.

This is clearly a book that transcends most of the glosses on physics that litter bookshops today. As an addict of such books, ever hopeful of striking gold but too often disappointed, I am confident it will stand as a classic of its kind a century from now, when almost all the others have sunk into oblivion. If you are too frightened of technical details and even simple equations to touch most such books, yet want your brain stimulated and seduced down to the innermost recesses of mystic imagination, this is The One.
 

A good novel with some nightmare characters

Purity
By Jonathan Franzen

1 January 2017

****

Jonathan Franzen is a good writer and Purity is a good novel. With a story about a star German hacker, whose proclaimed mission is to let sunlight disinfect the dirty secrets of this world, and a mixed cast of hapless Americans, who unwittingly reveal deeper downsides of modern life, this book could have been written for me. The German details were authentic and the depiction of modern life convincing, but in the end I felt no orgasmic joy.

Critical distance is the key here. The best novelists manage to achieve a forensic detachment from their subjects that gives the reader space to air dissenting views. Franzen did well at standing back, but not well enough for me. Perhaps I am too far out on a limb for any conventional novel, but the characters all seemed like nightmare products of Franzen's imagination, with exactly the lack of frontal lobe function that dream figures often display.

Franzen let himself become infatuated with his characters. Without wishing to give away the plot, I found the ending, where lots of unresolved threads were tied off neatly, too pat. Such imperfect characters don't deserve such luck, except at the indulgent whim of a fantasist. But by any normal standards it was a fine novel — except for a few superfluous paragraphs about birds — so I can recommend it to all but the fussiest readers.
 

Excellent on relativity, exciting on entropy, dud on now

Now: The Physics of Time
By Richard A. Muller

24 December 2016

***

I started this book with high hopes and found the first half really interesting, then it went downhill fast. Muller is obviously an excellent experimental physicist and has understood Einstein's theories of relativity, at least, really well. He also gives workmanlike accounts of large parts of particle physics and the basics of quantum theory, albeit with all the standard metaphors and anecdotes that regular readers of pop physics books will have read a dozen times before, up to and including the tired tale of Schrödinger's cat. He seems to be aiming his book at readers for whom all this would be new, so this much is forgivable.

Muller is surely right to direct serious doubt at claims (originating with Arthur Eddington) that the arrow of time is set by the direction of rising entropy. Both Brian Greene (in his 2004 book The Fabric of The Cosmos) and Sean Carroll (in his 2010 book From Eternity to Here) raise doubts too, and explain why in persuasive depth. But Muller adds something new to the debate with the idea that if time ends now and expands as the future unfolds, the entropy of our universe can be said to shrink, as negentropy, also known as information, increases to reflect the accumulation of new facts. This is exciting (for me at least, since I aired the same idea in a paper on time in 2006).

Unfortunately, Muller goes on to flunk his discussion of quantum mechanics with the disarming admission that since no one understands it (citing Richard Feynman and John Wheeler to this effect) he can be forgiven for bugging out too. In fact he fails to explain how good recent work by Dieter Zeh and others on decoherence (see Greene's book or indeed many more recent popular accounts) both gets rid of the old confusions about Schrödinger's cat and sheds new light on the measurement problem, which Muller makes heavy weather bewailing. As for the Everett interpretation, which people like David Deutsch and Max Tegmark have begun to take seriously, Muller seems to think that his dislike of the idea that people like himself might go their own way in parallel universes is enough to dismiss the interpretation.

Then things go downhill. Part IV of Muller's book gives what for any philosopher must count as an atrociously poor account, in a personal and folksy but blunt and emphatic manner, of everything beyond physics, including the mind and free will. His editors or early readers should have quietly advised him to dump the entire section. It adds nothing of value to the book.

That said, the denouement in Part V is an utter disappointment. There is no theory of now on offer, beyond the suggestion that time expands just as space does, and now is its leading edge, plus a few proposed tests indicated without proper explanation. To make this suggestion do real work in modern physics takes a lot of technical care, as he should know very well. Unforgivably, he has totally ignored all the recent work in neuroscience on the specious present and how the brain manages to give us a sense of the here and now. Given that his hero Einstein said the passage of time was a psychological phenomenon, and that this fact sufficed to explain how the underlying time symmetry of the relativistic block universe was unmoved by our sense of now, this oversight on Muller's part is hard to explain except on the assumption that he shares with Feynman a robust contempt for psychology. This fact alone should inhibit him from making such big claims for now.

In short, Muller is out of his depth in the latter half of this book. He is a senior and distinguished physicist who has devoted his life to doing solid work in experimental physics and to teaching others at the highest level, so I do not want to write the book off as a mess. As I said, the first half is really good. But the last quarter is just bad.
 

Admirable history of an Asian millennium of glorious triumph and bitter tragedy

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane
By S. Frederick Starr

21 December 2016

*****

This is a thoroughly admirable history book, with a persuasive narrative and all the detail in place. The main facts of the story are clear and the verdict is hard to deny — in Central Asia, over several centuries, a cultural and intellectual flowering appeared that bears comparison with the earlier classical flowering in Greece and Rome and the later Renaissance and Enlightenment flowering in Europe. But it died, for reasons that are still debated.

Professor Starr is a distinguished historian with a long record of service to the culture he portrays here, and he may be forgiven for doing it slightly more than justice in this fine history. For although the achievements of the Central Asians in their golden age were impressive and extraordinary, they were not, in the end, in my humble opinion, as astonishing as those of classical Greece or Enlightenment Europe. What was missing was a harder focus on science.

The Persian and Turkish cultures that flowered between the rise of Islam and the Mongol invasions produced remarkable work in astronomy and mathematics. The refinement of the Ptolemaic system with more exact measurements and a more perceptive cosmological perspective prepared the ground for the work of Copernicus, Kepler and Newton. The development of Greek mathematics using Hindu numerals led to great advances in arithmetic and algebra and in what we now call algorithms in homage to Abu Abdallah Muhammad al-Khwarazmi (780—850 CE). But neither advance overshadows the earlier work of Euclid or Ptolemy or the later work of Newton, Euler and Gauss.

Medicine too flourished in the Islamic golden age, but again its achievements pale beside the strides we have made in the last few centuries. As for the philosophy of the era, even as ardent an advocate as Professor Starr admits it was finally all but buried under a crushing weight of Islamic orthodoxy. Altogether the story of the intellect in the golden age was a tragedy, as the religious prejudices of Sunni and Shia fundamentalists not only snuffed out whole traditions of free thought but also banished an interesting religious strand of Sufi mysticism into the darkness.

Central Asia started its golden age with a rich marketplace of religious traditions, including Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Nestorian Christians, but within a century or two of violent struggle the Muslims had gained the ascendancy. Within a few further centuries, their stranglehold had become deadly. When Chinggis Khan and his Mongol hordes descended from the northern steppes and slaughtered all who stood in their way, the culture was already past its best, and with the final bloody conquests in all directions, into Russia, Anatolia, Africa, India and China, of the self-styled "Sword of Islam" Tamerlane or Timur (1336—1405 CE) the Timurid culture broke into the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires, and Central Asia settled into world-historical decline.

Lost Enlightenment is a history book for historians. The reader must make a serious effort to slog through its forest of detail, and I for one would have welcomed more maps, more standing back to take stock and look around more globally, and less special pleading for this or that minor poet or architecturally unremarkable tomb. The Islamic golden age was glorious enough to deserve a central place on the world-historical map, but I think we need to be clear that Islam was at least as much a hindrance as a help to that cultural flowering.
 

Just what it says on the cover — all in one big book

The Big Picture: On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself
By Sean Carroll

14 December 2016

*****

Sean Carroll is quite a star in the world of theoretical physics, and this book shows you why. Not only does he understand the deep ideas about as well as anyone but he can explain big ideas generally in a readable and helpful way. Sean has obviously read around quite widely, and the sources and debates to which he lightly refers and contributes here cover all the ground that I, for one, in an unusually promiscuous reading career, have explored.

The big picture, for Sean, merits the label poetic naturalism. Based on quantum field theory, informed by the latest work in cosmology and elementary particle research, leavened by Bayesian probability theory, and infused with a gentle atheism colored by modern politically correct liberalism, the picture is very much what you might expect. But it is painted so deftly, so effortlessly, that one is charmed into taking it all as is and putting aside critical thoughts for the duration of the ride.

For me this was light bedtime reading, but I can imagine that many readers will not have encountered enough on, say, the interpretation of quantum mechanics or the science of consciousness to follow some of the detail in a critical way. These readers I can reassure — the perspective Sean outlines is a fair reflection of those issues and an entirely reasonable basis for further thoughts and study. My only caveat is that on topics outside physics the views are sketched so casually that the reader might imagine many things are clear that for some of us are still controversial.

Sean is content to demur from belief in the naively conceived god of popular Christian faith without more ado, and quite reasonably too, but he does not venture further into the psychology of belief. He is content to accept the conventional view of life as the natural expression of the physics of large molecular assemblies evolving over millions and billions of years, again reasonably, but does not seem curious about the emergence of astonishingly complex attractors in the state spaces of biological systems. And he does not seem to appreciate the implications of contradictions surrounding self-reference in either mathematics or subjective psychology, where logical incompleteness and the feeling of free will seem at odds with the comfortable orthodoxies of physics.

None of this is likely to disturb Sean in the slightest. Of course there are deep problems on the horizons of science and deep prejudices buried in our everyday notions of life and meaning, but a popular book designed to offer a sort of standard model of our lived world is hardly the place to go heavily into all that. So I have no problem in giving him five stars for his effort — and recommending it to anyone looking for reassuring and intelligent bedtime reading.
 

A helpful edition of the text for the lay reader

The Qur'an: A Translation
By Kader Abdolah

14 December 2016

****

This is the first and only translation of the Qu'ran that has encouraged me to read it from beginning to end. It gives every appearance of being a sensitive and accurate translation — though I am no expert to judge that — and it makes the message of Islam come alive in a more human way. Helpfully, the suras are presented in chronological order, to give the work as a whole a narrative flow, and interpolated with notes on how to understand otherwise baffling parts of the text.
 

Elegantly civilized introduction to a powerfully illuminating view of the cosmos

Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity
By Carlo Rovelli

1 November 2016

*****

Carlo Rovelli is a true heir to the legacy of the Renaissance man. Even in translation, his prose is flowery, even poetic, and his exposition is enriched with deeply learned references to artists and philosophers from Anaximander and Democritus to Dante Alighieri. More to the point, his exposition of loop quantum gravity is authoritative and, I am pleased to say, intelligible, so far as it goes, which is admittedly not far in a book of physics for poets.

For too long, physicists have struggled to do what they regarded as justice to infinity in their theories of the spacetime continuum and their differential equations. The clear lesson of quantum mechanics is that finite limits bound any physics of small phenomena that we can devise, and a salient lesson of relativity theory is that not only do we face a finite universal speed limit but also the cosmos is quite possibly finite in extent too, even when our curved spacetime now seems to be shooting off to a hyperbolic infinity under the mysterious influence of dark energy. Putting finite bounds on the granularity of spacetime rescues us both from the paradoxes of renormalization in QED and from the singularities at the heart of black holes, not to mention the incalculability of the Big Bang itself.

If higher mathematics is the science of grappling with infinity, which is the view that remains when all finite mathematics is consigned to logic and computation, then physicists like Rovelli need to purge physics of its higher mathematics. The paradoxes of measure theory, whereby basic quantum computations lead us to talk of infinitely improbable events, are only the tips of the iceberg. Rovelli is clear that all these paradoxes should be done away with in a decent theory of quantum gravity. Our challenge is to model the granularity of spacetime at the Planck scale in a way that does justice to the observed phenomena, and here we face a massive enterprise for which the definitive equations are not yet in sight.

For decades now, the fashionable way to work toward a theory of quantum gravity has been via string theory, but that theory is still bogged down in its own mathematical intractability. By contrast, the approaches of such mavericks as Rovelli and Lee Smolin and others are less trodden and less massively developed. This is a shame, because the philosophical advantages of their approaches, not least in banishing infinities, are considerable.

Rovelli also mentions approaches to physics via the concept of information, which are even less well trodden and still poorly understood. As pioneers of quantum information theory like David Deutsch take it further, and as the Everett interpretation of quantum branching that Deutsch favors becomes more amenable to reasonable debate, this may change, but meanwhile the reserve on quantum indeterminacy that Rovelli maintains may hold sway.

This book is a report on a massive work in progress, where decades could pass before a widely agreed resolution of the outstanding problems comes into view. We are fortunate that Rovelli has entrusted us with his personal thoughts on the story, even though they cannot be final. Sadly, this is a topic that most lay readers will struggle with, but the book is already worth reading for the philosophical perspective on physics and science that Rovelli reveals, where his incomparable Renaissance erudition and wisdom makes for a truly thrilling read.
 

A fascinating and readable corrective to Eurocentric histories

The Silk Roads: A New History of the World
By Peter Frankopan

13 September 2016

*****

This is a fascinating view of history. It puts the story of the most active and important parts of the world in their rightful place at the heart of the narrative. Instead of starting with ancient Greece and Rome and marching the reader through Christian Europe up to modern America, Peter Frankopan starts with the ancient Persians and takes us up to recent developments in south and central Asia, where Islam has held sway for over a thousand years and where China is now playing a dominant economic role in transforming the region and through it the entire world. He does do in an engaging way, mixing a sober appreciation of the military and economic facts with a keen eye for amusing anecdotes about historical people and places that put things we thought we knew into a fresh and better perspective. Young people in Britain should encounter big history this way, so that their view rises above the blinkered and nationalist concerns of traditional school histories. The story is not told perfectly, and experts will complain of thin or weak patches in some places, but altogether the merits of the presentation so outweigh these signs of haste that I have no hesitation in giving the book five stars.
 

The Prophet superbly imagined

The Messenger: A Tale Retold
By Kader Abdolah

6 August 2016

*****

This is the best biography of the Prophet I have read. Not only decently short and readable, it captures the tone, the mood and the magic of desert life 14 centuries ago with great credibility. More to the point, it does justice to the transcendent ambition of the Prophet without falling into weak acceptance of nonsense or bigotry and without losing the sympathetic understanding of what on the evidence of this text is a masterful novelist.
 

Gott und die Welt verleugnet

Warum es die Welt nicht gibt
von Markus Gabriel

26. Dezember 2015

****

Die Welt existiert nicht, weil sie zu groß und unbegrenzt wäre - so Gabriel. Die Welt ist die Summe aller Sinnfelder aber nur Sinnfelder existieren. In der Terminologie von Frege, wenn wir reden oder schreiben, bedeuten wir Objekte jeder Art durch einen Mechanismus, den Frege Sinn nennt. Bedeutung ist im Bereich der Ontologie, Sinn dagegen Teil der Epistemologie. Gabriel will uns überzeugen, dass auch Sinnfelder ontologisch sind. Dies begründet er mit Argumente, die auch Frege zum ernsthaften Nachdenken bringen könnten.

Soweit darf seine These nicht besonders kontrovers aussehen. Weniger neutral ist seine Behauptung, Sinnfelder stehen generell in keinem berechenbaren Verhältnis zueinander. Dies hat als Folge, dass kein fundamentales Sinnfeld unter allen anderen liegt. Wenn wir uns zum Beispiel im Sinnfeld Alltagsleben bewegen, hat dies laut Gabriel in der Tat und nicht bloß in Erscheinung nichts mehr mit dem Sinnfeld von Elementarteilchen und so weiter zu tun. Für Gabriel sind solche Sinnfelder disjunkt, was heißt wiederum, dass wir in keiner einheitlichen Welt mehr leben. Dies kommt mir philosophisch unangenehm vor.

Ein Grundsatz einem harmonischen Zusammenleben ist sicher, dass wir in einer gemeinsamen Welt leben. Wenn wir jeweils in getrennten Welten leben, und dies sogar jeder selbst vom Moment zu Moment als wir gedanklich leichtsinnig von Physik zu Alltagsleben und zurück springen, kommt mir alles viel zu schizophren vor. Natürlich sind die Übersetzungen, die uns zwischen Sinnfelder tragen, nicht immer leicht zu definieren. Wenn wir aber die Übersetzungsarbeit aufgeben und seufzend sagen, dass sie überhaupt nicht zu finden sind, fällt alles auseinander und die Welt zerbröselt zum Staub.

Analog geht es bei Gott. Gabriel gibt eine gute Zusammenfassung vom Gedankengang Kierkegaards zum Thema Gott und Glauben und endet mit der Idee, Religion sei die Anerkennung der Tatsache, dass Gott im traditionellen Sinn gar nicht existiert. Gott ist kein Objekt oder Supergegenstand. Soweit könnten moderne Theologen gern gehen, sogar auch mit Gabriel zustimmen, dass über Gott zu predigen ohne gleichzeitig über die ganze Geschichte vom Geist in der Welt zu reden unzureichend sei, aber sie werden nicht so leicht akzeptieren, dass der Gottesbegriff gar keine Rolle mehr in einem modernen Sinnfeld spielen sollte. Für Gabriel ist alles was wir über Gott und die Welt sagen am Ende bloß Quatsch.

Man kann die Sache anders sehen. Der Selbstbegriff ist heute in der Philosophie des Bewusstseins oft gern als Konstrukt gesehen: Wir bauen ein Weltbild und gleichzeitig, als Spiegel davon, ein Selbstporträt. Die jeweiligen Bauteile, etwa Weltbilder und Selbstaufnahmen, ändern sich ständig in einem dialektischen Zickzack als neue Kenntnisse eingenommen und verarbeitet werden. Der Selbstbegriff ist die moderne Version der Seele, die nicht mehr im wissenschaftlichen Sinnfeld namentlich angesprochen wird. Wenn wir Nagels "Blick von Nirgendwo" auf der Welt werfen, was wir immer wieder als Philosophen versuchen, dann wird die seelische Perspektive eben göttlich. Dies können wir als wissenschaftliche Dialektik betrachten, wo jede Annäherung uns asymptotisch weiter bringt. Gott und die Welt machen so als Gegenpolen einer Dialektik eine natürliche Paarung. Trotz Gabriel, kann man die zwei verpönten Wörter geltend machen, ohne den wissenschaftlichen Ernst zu schaden.

Gabriel hat seine Vorarbeit in den Werken von Kant, Hegel, Heidegger und anderen hervorragend geleistet. Er hat auch moderne angloamerikanische Philosophie von Quine, Goodman, Putnam und Kripke auch hinreichend studiert. Aber einiges fehlt noch. Einem Autor, der Hegels "Wissenschaft der Logik" als "einem der besten (und schwierigsten) Philosophiebücher aller Zeiten" beschreiben kann, sogar wenn er mit den Werken von Frege vertraut ist, wird es kaum zu erwarten, dass er gleichzeitig tiefgreifende Kenntnisse über die logischen Grundlagen der Mathematik verfügt. Dies wäre zu viel zu erwarten.

Dies habe ich aber versucht, wenn auch in sehr bescheidener Weise. Von Hegels Logik, trotz heftiger Anstrengung, habe ich nicht besonders viel gelernt, aber von der Zermelo-Fraenkel Mengenlehre und verwandten Systeme habe ich einiges kapiert. In ZF wird eine kumulative Hierarchie auf der Nullmenge gebaut, die bis ins Cantors Paradies hinausragt, in einem Verfahren, das wieder als Dialektik dargestellt werden kann. In ZF heißt die Welt der Mengen "V" und provisorische Annäherungen dazu "V" mit einer Indexvariable. Die Paradoxen der Mengenlehre zeigen genau was Gabriel in Wörter gemerkt hat, dass die Welt V der Mengen nicht definitiv als existierende Menge dargestellt werden kann. Die indizierten Annäherungen können als Ersatz dafür einiges leisten, aber eben nicht alles.

Soviel hat Gabriel sicherlich wohl verstanden. Schon Frege hat dies nach Kritik von Bertrand Russell geahnt. Aber was danach kam, als Wittgenstein, Gödel und Turing ihre jeweiligen Beiträge zur ganzen Fragestellung geleistet haben, wird ein Forschungsprojekt für sich - oder eben für mich. Wittgenstein sagte, "Die Welt ist alles, was der Fall ist." Später: "Ich bin meine Welt." Davon könnte man einen ganzen Selbstbegriff aufbauen (ich habe es mindestens versucht). Gödel: Jedes (arithmetisch beschreibbare) System hat eine logische Lücke darin, analog zur Lücke in einer indizierten V-Annäherung. Turing: Jeder Universalrechner hat auch so eine Lücke, die als unbeweisbare Sätze erscheint. Moderne Neurowissenschaftler: Wir sind als "Biorechner" in dieser Hinsicht nicht besser. Die Lücke bei uns besteht darin, dass unsere phänomenalen Welten (die Spiegelbilder der Seele) nie ganz richtig sind. Durch diesen Mangel zu schauen ist für uns in Richtung Gott und die Welt zu bewegen, schon wieder in einer Dialektik. Meiner Ansicht nach könnte man die Ideen von Hegel soweit modern umsetzen. Dies scheint mir aber wesentlich weiter als Gabriel zu gehen gewagt hat.

Fazit: Gabriel hat anscheinend Gott und die Welt noch nicht ausreichend verstanden.

 

Teen romance as fairy tale? We have a winner!

The Changeling
By Helen Falconer

29 June 2015

*****

An Irish novel for young adults about fairies may seem an unpromising item for readers outside the charmed circle of Irish teenage girls. But Helen Falconer gives it enough power to work its magic on a wider class of readers, and she surely nurses the hope of emulating in her own modest way the success that J. K. Rowling achieved with her Harry Potter books. As a novelist accustomed to high praise for her prose, Ms Falconer is no doubt eager to enjoy a royalty jackpot commensurate with the exceptional quality of her talent.

The story starts with enough modern realism about schoolgirl crushes and teen texting to lull its target readers into a relation of trust. Then, with accelerating tempo, the magic kicks in and realism goes out the window in an escalating rush of supernatural fantasy. Once the tale has taken off, the action lets rip in fine style, with enough dash to propel this reader at least through a fairly long saga in one extended sitting. That, by the way, is a big achievement. Most of the few novels that this impatient philosopher reads at all leave him cold. Those consumed in one sitting are rare indeed. But modern teens unused to reading big books will need this narrative drive, and a novel that lacked it would fail at the gate.

With its artful blend of young love and folk wisdom, The Changeling strikes one as eminently fit for purpose. It weaves its spell both effectively and with a certain bravura, quite unashamed by its vivid evocations of the humble pleasures of daily life in a rural Ireland of little villages beside a rocky Atlantic shoreline. The grit and sensuality of social intercourse at a level most modern urbanites associate more with Thomas Hardy tales or with Poldark than with mobile phones and pinup pop stars form a fitting backdrop to a tale where realism is suspended in an indulgent reanimation of ancient Gaelic folklore. Add a swooning girl and a handsome hero and you can hear the happy chimes.

Fastidious readers might baulk at an uncritical resurrection of traditional myth and superstition. We might even accuse the author of seeking to cash in on a load of old tripe, except that her love for the stuff is too manifest and our duty of respect for its ethnic authenticity too sobering. Any modern teenage girl will understand that fairies and goblins and so on are fantasy, and indulge them anyway as an affirmation of Celtic identity in the multicultural marketplace. One obstacle to world readers is that the Gaelic names and terminology will challenge them. Most of them will find even the pronunciation of the old words too much to handle. So some parents who might have liked to read out the story to their kids will be frustrated, or at least forced to do a spot of homework in advance. On the plus side, even educated readers will learn a few new words.

Much of the Celtic myth on show in the book, it must be said, looks pitifully homespun and threadbare. In an era where Superman and Salman Rushdie have raised the bar for collective myth and symbolic supernaturalism to new heights, a celebration of the metaphysics of sprites and demons can look naive or disingenuous, as if any modern exhibition of such symptoms of psychic impoverishment should be seen with clinical cool or even as satire. But the truth deserves to be acknowledged. Most traditional belief systems in premodern times were as pitiful as the Celtic myths, and it does a modern author credit to accept and even celebrate those roots without condescension.

As an accomplished modern author, Helen Falconer is mature and cosmopolitan enough to remain untroubled by charges of childishness or cynicism. And Irish culture has a treasured place in a world community that celebrates a pantheon of Irish artists including names as big as James Joyce, not to mention an American scene that puts Irish Americans into the White House with remarkable frequency. If ever a little rural country punched above its weight, Ireland takes the cake. So no native of the Emerald Isle need be ashamed of ancestors who believed in fairies. Not least for these reasons, this thoroughbred hybrid of teen romance and fairy tale will be a winner.
 

A Vatican drama that highlights Christian life and faith

The Fifth Gospel
By Ian Caldwell

21 June 2015

*****

I found this a thoroughly satisfying novel. Ian Caldwell has done his work well. The novel has an intriguing theme and it is thoroughly researched, as well as skillfully plotted and populated with deep and credible characters. The Shroud of Turin is the iconic motif in a plot that really turns on the schism between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. Debatable claims for and against the authenticity of the Shroud give way to much more interesting reflections on the apparent blasphemy of such imagery, while parochial reflections on eastern versus western faith from the perspective of Vatican politics turn into a deeper analysis of the numerous little contradictions between the four canonical gospels. Here the fifth gospel of the title plays a didactic role in dramatizing what might otherwise have been a rather tedious exercise in comparative hermeneutics. The outcome is that the Gospel of John has something to say on the mystery of the Shroud, although to say more here might spoil the plot for some readers. The priestly characters, including Pope John Paul II in all his terminal frailty, add real depth to the philosophizing and illustrate better than any moralizing would do how Christian faith, for all its intellectual vulnerability, can give shape and meaning to mortal human lives. Altogether this is a novel for discerning readers. With a body count of one and no graphic sex it is not an airport novel.
 

Surely the best big history book so far

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind
By Yuval Noah Harari

29 September 2014

*****

This book is easy to read and yet deep in its reach. The story is the biggest story ever told, far bigger than the bible and far less speculative than the brief history of time of recent fame. Dr Harari, a graduate of Jerusalem and Oxford, has developed a course that for clarity and insight beats all previous historical overviews of the human condition in the history of our species, or at least all I have come across.

Science may seem to boast the biggest stories, from the Big Bang to the evolution of life on Earth, but these tell only part of the tale that leads to us. They leave unexplained those aspects of our human predicament that play a decisive role in shaping our powers and our priorities, both of which gaps leave scientists hanging, unable to round off the key final chapters of their sagas to form a satisfying narrative of how we became who we are. We need to understand the roles of agriculture and cities, of money and writing, of religion, imagination, ignorance and greed, before we can feel the grip of the great narrative in which we play our bit parts. When the story races up to genetic engineering, global connectivity and posthuman cyborgs, we need that firm anchor in the familiar facts of life. Dr Harari throws out all the lifelines a cautious reader needs, without ever blinding us with science or bogging us down in the trivia of conventional histories, with their kings and generals and dubious heroes.

My take on this book is conditioned by the fact that the last book I wrote was a big history with much the same ambition as we see in Sapiens. My book, Coral, was framed by a color-coded schematism that owed something to Hegelian dialectic and was freighted with some ambitious scientific claims from biology and the neurosciences, so quite apart from the fact that it plowed relentlessly through a lot of traditional historical detail it surely fails the easy-read test. But I did go from the Big Bang to global brains and cyborgs, so the scope was very much the same. My ambitious theorizing aside, Dr Harari has done the basic job much better.

There are hundreds of interesting and pregnant questions thrown up by Sapiens. None of them can be discussed with any finality in a brief review, but any reader of Sapiens will find them popping up with delightful frequency. Dr Harari is not afraid to make big and simple claims, and many of them have a ring of plausible truth, so much so that any future lexicon of quotable quotes will include a few of the gems in Sapiens. I shall not spoil the fun by quoting them here, for part of the joy of reading Sapiens is finding them and smiling with unexpected delight. The chapter on capitalism features big chunks of good stuff, so much so that even economics, that dismal pseudo-science, comes alive in the telling. For instant gratification, this is better than Adam Smith or Karl Marx.

A history of everything as brief as this leaves a lot out. I would like to have seen much more on science and war, as movers and shakers of the settled lives of contented flocks of humans, but others may prefer other biases. In the end, the balance in this volume is as good as any reader has a right to expect. It will likely be a long time before another short introduction to big history as good as this comes along. And as Dr Harari suggests, Homo sapiens might be obsolete before long. So this might become the best human story ever told.
 

Bloody Hell: A Holocaust Novel

The Zone of Interest
By Martin Amis

7 September 2014

***

The Jews have a history of obsession with a domineering God. The entanglement began some four or five thousand years ago and for many it continues still. The God is cosmic in ambition but strangely parochial in its gendered and ethnocentric preferences, and is all but impossible to take seriously in the age of science. This tribal God was inherited by two mainstream faiths, Christianity and Islam, which each revamped their theologies to efface the tribalism and inflate the cosmic ambition to fantastic extremes. The ruinous conflicts that resulted threw a shadow over many centuries of human progress.

The dark nadir in recent times of that ungodly struggle was the genocide perpetrated by the more demented servants of the Third Reich. Within the ugly context of an industrialized total war that racked up tens of millions of corpses in less than six years, including six million in Germany alone, some six million Jewish corpses were manufactured in a scattering of factories dedicated solely to that hideous task. Among them, Auschwitz in Poland is the most notorious. On a single large campus, about a million people, the great majority of them Jews, were deprived of life like cattle in a slaughterhouse. Most of the victims were herded into large chambers and gassed, after which their carcasses were fed by conveyor belts to ovens and incinerated. The remains were buried in unmarked pits in the surrounding pastoral landscape.

The rationale for this action was a racist ideology that seems in retrospect like a perverse and demonic caricature of the ethnocentric ideology of the Jewish people. Centuries of Christian persecution of Jews had set a precedent for interpreting Jewish theological speculations in the most malign light possible, and it was natural in the early years of the human sciences to update such paranoid fantasies into racist ideas with a scientific gloss. The general drift of these ideas was that the Jewish tradition of seeing the Jews as the chosen race of God, destined by divine election to prevail over the lesser races of the Earth, was itself destined to be overturned by a revolt of one such race, one which regarded its own credentials for prevailing over the lesser races to be scientifically more valid.

The science behind this revolt of the imperfectly Christianized race the Nazis idolized was transparently fallacious. The political impulse derived from it was morally benighted and practically absurd. Nevertheless, in the emotionally charged environment of a German nation that was, firstly, aggrieved by a sudden defeat in a bitter mechanized war of unprecedented destructiveness, secondly, existentially threatened by the sudden and barbarous eruption of communism on a continental scale in the territory of the former Russian empire, and thirdly, envious of the colonial empires of such peripheral European nations as Britain and France, the wild idea that Jews had somehow exploited not only their theocratic primacy over Christians to subjugate a proud warrior race but also their financial machinations to push the German nation to ruin struck a resonant chord. Thinkers with a poor grasp of science used the resonance to advance their racist fallacies.

The sad result of this eugenic madness was a plan to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The plan was hatched in late 1941 at a conference in Wannsee near Berlin and implemented within five years in an orchestrated undertaking now known as the Holocaust. This purportedly final solution to the Jewish problem involved the construction of giant camps like Auschwitz.

One consequence of the existence of such camps was the creation of a large class of state functionaries charged with the planning of the genocide and the administration of every last detail of the whole ghastly business. That this should have resulted in the moral contamination of the entire generation of such functionaries, who after guilty immersion in those deeds were fit only for termination with extreme prejudice, was in retrospect only natural. These functionaries, banal as they may have seemed as individuals, had become monsters beyond salvation in any rational judgment of the aftermath.

This is where Martin Amis takes his cue. As a novelist who rose to prominence by exposing to scurrilously satirical treatment the darker side of life in the dirtier corners of modern Britain, and who grew up in a Britain grown quite rotten with relief at having prevailed in its wartime defiance of the Third Reich, Amis seems to have been quietly obsessed for decades by the brutalization that the lesser Nazi officials endured in performance of their slaughterhouse tasks. The result is a novel set in Auschwitz and starring a camp commandant whose almost comic problems in the line of duty create a narrative thread to weave the big theme of genocide together with the more modestly human themes of sex and love, venality and courage, and so on. Like all novels, its success or otherwise for the reader is largely a matter of taste, but this novel has what it takes to appeal to discerning readers, as well as more than enough of what it takes to discourage almost anyone else.

Fortunately, Amis has good credentials for the task of writing this potentially embarrassing tract. As a true Brit with blond hair and blue eyes, he is almost certainly of largely Germanic extraction, but he also has a Jewish wife and Jewish daughters, so he is viscerally aware of the view from the other side of the racist fence. His literary ambition and accomplishments have served him well for the enterprise, and the shelf of books he has authored offers plenty of back story for the moral blockbuster that now adds its weight to the shelf.

Unfortunately, that back list includes beside the encouraging volumes a few tomes to which the only proper response is caution. Amis has written such brilliant books as the novel Money (1984) and the memoir Experience (2000) and such good books as the novel London Fields (1989) and the anthology The War Against Cliché (2001), but he has also published some horrible flops. His strange novel Time’s Arrow (1991) tackled the Holocaust, but it was written backwards, which disqualifies it as a contribution to anything but a psychiatric dossier. His monograph Koba the Dread (2002) on Stalin and Soviet atrocities is naïve and best politely ignored as a work of history. And his novel Yellow Dog (2003) tackled racism and the limits of reason in a way that called forth cries of despair and loathing from critics.

Whether The Zone of Interest succeeds on a topic where so much is at stake is moot. Genocide is not a promising scenic backdrop for a comedy of human manners, and a novel with richly human characters whose repertoire includes comic tropes as well as tragic ones can only drive its narrative by relishing the everyday trivia surrounding its players. These have the effect of losing the forest of mass murder for the trees of personal pleasure and pain. A more fully conceived novel about the Nazi genocide would delve with forensic imagination into the mad science of racial types and the military acceptance of slaughter in the line of duty. We would need a novelist of the calibre of Tolstoy and a verbal tapestry on the scale of War and Peace to do justice to all that. As it is, Amis has made a bold stab in the dark that will do little more than annoy most readers.
 

Inglorious Bathos

Inglourious Basterds
Directed by Quentin Tarantino

20 February 2014

****

This bloodbath comedy reinvents the end of the Third Reich in a slapstick assassination of the top Nazis in a little cinematic holocaust planned and perpetrated by American and French Jews. The trademark Tarantino gore is splashed in abundance and the dextrous wit of the multilingual screenplay is a joy to the ears. Christoph Waltz plays an exuberantly garrulous "Jew hunter" SS colonel in a virtuoso performance that holds the plot together with dazzling panache. Brad Pitt by contrast looks out of place as a drawling hillbilly US lieutenant leading an inglorious pack of Jewish scalp-hunters. Still, with Tarantino chapter breaks and applied graphics to put a modern gloss on what could easily have sunk into another fictional war story, the production sings along quite effectively.

What worried me at the outset and still worries me now two viewings later is that the moral standpoint the movie as a whole represents is both well worn in countless previous movies and philosophically inadequate to the loathsomeness of the evil it reflects. The Nazis were beastly to the Jews, so let a bunch of Jews be equally beastly to the Nazis, and let them kill Hitler too, to end the war nine months earlier and save the world, as it were. This is fine as a first introduction to the issues for innocent youngsters, if there are any left, who have not yet gone deeper. But brutality was not the unique horror of the Nazi phenomenon, and ending the horror show nine months earlier would have saved far more Germans, who had collectively voted to stage the spectacle in the first place, than Jews, who had suffered their worst attrition already by then. Hypotheticals are anyway moot in history.

No, the unique horror of the Nazi phenomenon was its deep intellectual roots in a culture that saw history in racist terms and was prepared to suffer mightily to showcase its view in historical fact. Some six million Germans were killed in the war, in circumstances as hideous as those in which six million Jews also died, and the Germans knew from 1943 at the latest that their furious revolt against the rest of the world was doomed to spectacularly bloody failure. But they did it anyway, in an operatic celebration of the martial arts armed with the latest high-tech weapons that may well stand as unparalleled in history since the astonishing career of Alexander the Great in antiquity. That the feat left the stench of genocide in its wake is troubling, and nothing in Tarantino's movie helps us to digest or reprocess that obstinate fact of history.
 

Psychiatric insight at its best

The Shock of the Fall
By Nathan Filer

1 February 2014

****

This is a first-person novel about a young man whose troubled life bloomed into psychosis that only medical help could alleviate. As an inside view of his state of mind it is fully convincing. Moreover it is as sympathetic as it can be without falling into sentimentality or crass political posturing. Here was a young man who needed more to flourish than his modest circumstances could provide, and the result was a descent into what most of us, lacking insight, would call madness. Nathan Filer has helped us understand such sad stories more deeply. The book is also neatly structured and plotted to get us through the harrowing stuff smoothly. I read it through in one sitting, which for me is remarkable and convincing proof of its readability.
 

Inspirational advice on how to write a classic

Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
By Christopher Vogler

7 February 2014

****

Our world is overflowing with clumsy and turgid texts that barely reward the effort of reading. What we all need is less pap and more pudding. We need stories that nourish and inspire us. We need stories that lift the soul to those enchanted and eternal realms from which we can return refreshed, filled with zest to revitalize and revamp the world of everyday cares. But writing those stories is a challenge.

Christopher Vogler knows this. His inspirational guide to ambitious writers of all kinds, but especially those who burn to write classic novels and screenplays, has surely lit the flame of many a soul that might otherwise have gone out in the weary climb to fame and fortune. Both in book publishing and in Hollywood, the road to stardom is long and hard. A writer needs a guide like this to light the way.

The book is replete with references to classics old and new that show how to do the job. The mythic structure Vogler reveals behind those classics is eternal, and even writers of Hollywood comedies can learn a lot from it, and doubtless have in the years since his book appeared. The frontispiece illustrations for the chapters in the third edition are beautiful. They set the tone for the chapters quite delightfully.
 

Is Jesus a fictional character and
Christianity a fraud?

Caesar's Messiah: The Roman Conspiracy to Invent Jesus
By Joseph Atwill

20 November 2013

****

The hypothesis advanced in this book is scientific. It can be checked by any scholar who makes the effort to read the historical works of Josephus Flavius and the New Testament Gospels carefully, in parallel. I found the forensic case Atwill assembles in his cool and methodical report both startling and convincing. Assuming that he has correctly translated and interpreted the texts, and that the mathematics is fairly deployed to prove the case with high probability, we have a clear case of massive and systematic deception. Christianity becomes a fraud.

Essentially, Atwill claims that Jesus of Nazareth is a fictional character written into history to prophesy events that were new at the time of writing. The intent of this deception was to persuade the successors of the militant Jews who were defeated in the Roman destruction of the Second Temple to adopt a pacifist ideology that in effect deified the the Flavian emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost, respectively. A more egregious blasphemy against Judaic monotheism is hard to imagine.

What I found especially shocking in this scenario is that the deception worked for almost two millennia. The evidence for the hypothesis was there for all to read in the first-century literature, but generations of earnest scholars had missed it until Atwill, who was raised in a deeply Christian environment but had an exceptionally gifted analytic mind, serendipitously spotted the key threads of the fraud and then took a few decades to build up his case. His book is not a light read and his key finding is presented more in sorrow than with glee, but the result is clear.

The huge irony in all this is that Christianity has arguably become the greatest religious ideology the world has ever known. Based on a Jewish militant tradition bordering on rabid racism, tempered by Greek philosophy and poetic sensibility, and spread by Roman military and institutional strength, the ideology that was centered on the figure of Jesus turned out to be a winner for many millions of believers, whose successors created the modern world. Modern Christians might prefer to rebury the filthy roots that Atwill digs up, but truth will out, and must.
 

Shocking, gripping, sobering report on human folly

Command and Control
By Eric Schlosser

18 November 2013

*****

The most amazing fact about the cold war is that we survived it. There was no outbreak of major hot war — assuming we count the wars in Korea and Vietnam as minor — and no accidental detonation of a big bomb. We lucked out.

How far we lucked out is evident from Eric Schlosser's astonishing reportage in this book. He obviously put in a lot of work on the research, and it paid off. More shocking than a thriller, more gripping than any novel, and more sobering than a war history, his account on the fragility of the nuclear stalemate during the cold war confirmed my worst fears about the US military and its shaky mastery of new technology.

Wisely, Schlosser avoided fancy effects in his style. The facts are chilling enough without any embellishment. But he humanized the story masterfully. The impact of preparing for Armageddon on all the voices and thoughts recorded in the book is clear enough. A horror beyond human imagination loomed just a button, or a dropped spanner, or a misunderstood message away.

Read this book and tell your friends about it. And thank providence that we're still here to reflect on the folly of all those who got us into this mess. It's not over. It will last as long as humans can muster the skill to build a bomb. We need secure global control of all nukes.
 

A revealing portrait of Jesus
rooted in historical fact

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth
By Reza Aslan

27 August 2013

*****

Reza Aslan has performed a public service with this readable review of the life and times of Jesus the Nazarene. As a scholar of religion and a teacher of creative writing, he has managed to hit a high note in a field both swamped with demented polemics from religious cranks and overgrown with pedantic exercises in obfuscation by bookish bores, all of which has fed a forbidding forest of obstacles to writers like Aslan. His new book is about as exciting as a monograph backed by a solid list of academic references can be, and it tells the story with a spin that begs for a Hollywood movie treatment by a team that can do justice to his thoroughly modern vision.

Zealot is the story of a politically engaged Jesus in a world where religion and politics were inextricably entangled. So the tale has a striking resonance in the turmoil currently gripping the Mideast region, and Aslan as a confessed Muslim is coming from the right corner to tell it. The Jewish struggle for freedom from Roman rule two thousand years ago finds a disturbing mirror in the modern Palestinian struggle to break free of Israeli domination, and although the contrast between the two struggles is so great as to make the second seem a wild inversion of the first, the parallel is revealing. Aslan is wise enough to do no more than hint at this side of his story and to focus on the old struggle. He presents the vivid facts surrounding the narrative in order to set in sharp relief the unknown details that have been blurred into mad minefields by endless polemics between various believers. What we see is a profile of Jesus that makes the Christian confabulations surrounding his life look transparent. No reasonable person can fail to see through the threadbare veils of faith to the shadow of the man behind them.

A great merit of the book is its gently ironic distance from the three monotheistic faiths. We see the facts, so far as they have been established by generations of patient scholars, plus an honest assessment of the gaps and the conjectures, all wrapped up in a story that stays lively enough to keep readers going. The ancient clash of Romans and Jews is a drama without equal in Western history, and its uneasy resolution in the Christian tradition is with us still. So Aslan needs skill and courage to stay on top as he surfs the waves of the ongoing controversies. He does so with such aplomb that even simple Christians need not be offended by his portrait.

Any such portrait confronts a historical challenge. A hundred years ago, Albert Schweitzer concluded a magisterial review of all previous lives of Jesus with the dismaying verdict that key facts were lost and all the lives said more about their authors than about their subject. More recent studies, for example on the Dead Sea scrolls and newly discovered gospels, have helped, but they have also raised wider questions. To disclose my own interest, last year I drafted a book on the life of Jesus that I now find largely shared the perspective Aslan adopts in Zealot. I know how hard it is to rise to the challenge posed by Schweitzer and failed to meet it. Aslan does better. His touch is so light as he approaches matters of moment to fundamentalists that he leaves his own opinions out of play, with the pleasing result that the facts, at least so far as we know them, can speak for themselves. Also, his scholarship has been impressive, albeit with gaps that some reviewers have attacked with their own zeal, so readers of Zealot can rest content that the main claims are reasonably solid.

In my opinion, Aslan fails the Schweitzer test on two aspects of the story. First, he drastically undervalues the pacific doctrines of the gospel Jesus, which show that Jesus was influenced by Essene ideas. The love and peace vibe makes Jesus more of a hippy than a zealot, and sets up a resonance between his ideas and Buddhism. Second, Aslan fails to look more closely at the resurrection stories. Odd details in the crucifixion drama suggest that Jesus may have survived the punishment, for a while at least, and perhaps even hoped to do so. Aslan may be forgiven for glossing over the resurrection issue, but losing the love thing behind a call to arms makes for a travesty.

Despite the flaws, Zealot is the best book on Jesus for a long time. Atheists and believers alike will find both cheer and challenges as they come to grips with its drama. All its readers will be better informed in the debates on faith that are likely yet to come. Our global civilization is struggling to integrate the three strands of monotheism in a world where science puts hard bounds on any truth behind their faiths. Zealot helps narrow the scope for believers to make wild assertions about Jesus the Nazarene, and thus helps us all.
 

The greatest movie ever filmed

Lawrence of Arabia
By David Lean (Blu-ray)

30 November 2012

*****

This is the version of Lawrence I'd been waiting for. You need Blu-ray to see the little camels in the desert panoramas. As a buff who has seen the movie several times since my first viewing back in 1966, I feel no need now to rehash the plot or the performances or the reasons why this is the definitive movie classic. Let me just say that anyone who likes classic movies should see this one, in this edition, on the biggest HDTV screen they can find. The desert shots are priceless. The story is unique. David Lean did good.
 

Simply brilliant

The Last Emperor
By Bernardo Bertolucc (Blu-ray)

27 November 2012

*****

This is a great movie dramatizing a great story. A man who began life as the last emperor of the greatest dynasty the world has ever seen, who was involved in some of the most exciting events of the century, and who ended up as a humble gardener in Maoist China, is a worthy subject for a good movie. Bertolucci is a good enough director to have made the most of it. And unlike some director's cuts, this one is fascinating enough to make the extra hour well spent. I cannot imagine a better screening of the life.
 

Impressive and gripping

Dominion
By C. J. Sansom

27 November 2012

****

This is a classic spy novel set in Britain in 1952, reconstructed as realistically as possible on the assumption that Britain had capitulated to Nazi Germany in 1940. The reconstruction is, so far as I can tell (I was too young in 1952 in north London to remember well), well nigh flawless, and the mood of the time is captured with great plausibility. The characters too are realistic and sympathetic, and the drama is gripping enough to keep one turning the pages. Everything is researched and assembled with impressive skill, and doubtless one could make a good movie from it. My sole reservation is that everything fits too neatly into the historical and dramatic template. To grip the deep emotions, a novel must do more with the characters than march them through a preplanned scenario. The hero struck me as a cypher, a nice guy who never transcended his obvious role. But maybe I'm asking too much. It's a really good novel.
 

Effective, efficient, and evocative

Sweet Tooth
By Ian McEwan

24 September 2012

*****

Forty years ago, life in Britain was even worse than it is now. The British secret service was snobbish and paranoid about enemies of the state, and even a clever and beautiful girl fresh from Cambridge was hard pressed to carve out a career that rose above dreary office routine. From this unlovely mix, Ian McEwan has crafted a novel that works impressively well. His prose is smooth without being distracting, his orchestration of the plot is tidy and efficient, and his evocation of the mood of the times is, as I can attest, entirely credible. The girl whose drama we follow is naive in the manner of those years but engaging, as a gathering storm of literary scandal casts a gloomy spell over this chronicle of a reckless love affair.

Some of McEwan's early books were fairly forgettable, for me, but since his classic novel Atonement he has been in fine form, with Saturday and Solar as excellent additions to the corpus, and this new effort shows him at his best. The natural comparison to make is with his longtime friend Martin Amis, whose strange and fizzy concoctions defeat all contenders judged as heady draughts but leave bitter aftertastes in the cold light of the morning after. By contrast, McEwan is not too proud to work at plotting his books carefully and at making them realistic in the ways that count for anyone with a more sober appreciation of the hard facts of life in bygone Britain. Sweet Tooth would make a good little movie for a new starlet.
 

Brisk and impressive scholarship
from an orthodox perspective

Lost Christianities: The Battles for Scripture and the Faiths We Never Knew
By Bart D. Ehrman

27 August 2012

****

Anyone who wants to understand the emergence of the New Testament as a canonical anthology can profit from reading this book. The raw texts for the canon were a muddle of assorted memoirs, tracts, and letters written by people who mostly lacked sufficient understanding of what they were writing about to express themselves clearly. The result was a dismaying tangle of confused and competing doctrines that took time to settle into a stable foundation for an organized church. In fact it took about three centuries, which makes for quite a story.

Bart Ehrman has documented this development superbly. He highlights the uneven quality of the original texts, the controversies and corruptions that bedeviled their preservation and publication, and the personal failings and animosities that constantly threatened to derail the entire process of finding agreement on what should go into the canon. He does so clearly in muscular and energetic prose that makes for easy and enjoyable reading.

My main criticism of his book is that he seems totally uncritical about the orthodox faith that emerged from the history. I sensed a triumphalist tone in his crowing over the success of that orthodoxy over its defeated rivals. He considers briefly how it might have been if a competing doctrine had won out, but this is more for rhetorical effect than as part of any serious attempt to get at the roots of the doctrinal disputes. One can hardly fault him for not going beyond his stated intention, but I for one felt hustled by his lack of critical distance from the faith he upholds.

Ehrman expresses no curiosity about how Jesus spent the formative years before his baptism, no interest in how the Dead Sea Scrolls illuminate the Jesus story, no doubts about the miracles or the resurrection, and no awareness that the apostle Paul might have been moved by darker impulses beside evangelical zeal in his missions among the gentiles. As a professor of religious studies, Ehrman may prefer not to exceed his mandate, but his easy acceptance of orthodoxy means he sees the trees in this study but not the forest.
 

Ein besseres Buch über Heideggers Philosophie
ist kaum vorstellbar

Ein Meister aus Deutschland: Heidegger und seine Zeit
von Rüdiger Safranski

22. August 2012

*****

Seit Jahrzehnte wollte ich mich mit Heideggers Philosophie befassen. Mit Kant und Hegel habe ich in Oxford hauptsächlich in englischer Übersetzung gekämpft. Aber Heideggers Werke lassen sich nicht so leicht übersetzen. Nach 25 Jahre hier in Deutschland dachte ich, jetzt oder nie! Also habe ich Safranskis Buch als Propädeutik gelesen. Es war so einleuchtend, dass ich keine Lust mehr habe, Heidegger selbst zu lesen. Besser kann ein Buch über einen Philosoph kaum wirken. Konzeptionell ist Safranski fast so schwer zu verinnerlichen wie Heidegger, aber vom Redefluss her ist Safranskis Text wesentlich angenehmer. Man hat das Gefühl, den grossen Denker ausreichend durchgeschaut zu haben.

Nietzsche als Denker und Mensch durchleuchtet

Nietzsche: Biographie seines Denkens
von Rüdiger Safranski

22. August 2012

*****

Nietzsches Philosophie ist von seinem Leben kaum trennbar. Um die Philosophie zu verstehen, muss man etwas über das Leben wissen. Umgekehrt scheint Nietzsches Leben ohne die Philosophie völlig sinnlos zu sein. Aber um beide Seiten zusammen zu bringen braucht ein Autor seltsames Talent. Safranski hat dieses Talent ganz offensichtlich. Er hat es geschafft, sich in Nietzsches Gedankenwelt so überzeugend einzuschleichen, dass der Leser, der vorher seine eigenen Meinungen zu Nietzsches berühmtesten Werke (Zarathustra, Ecce Homo usw.) bringt, wohl doch diese Werke neu und tiefer verstehen werde. Das Buch ist meisterhaft.

Schopenhauer mit Scharfsinn und Verstand durchleuchtet

Schopenhauer und die wilden Jahre der Philosophie
von Rüdiger Safranski

22. August 2012

*****

Schopenhauer ist schwer für einen Biograph, weil erstens er selbst so gut schrieb und zweitens sein Leben abgesehen von der Philosophie ziemlich uninteressant war. Aber Safranski ist es gelungen, die Seiten so zu kombinieren, dass die sich gegenseitig einleuchtend ergänzen. Schopenhauer hatte das Unglück, in Hegels Schatten seine Karriere starten zu müssen, und als stolzer junger Mann hat er dies kaum überlebt. Aber sein Hauptwerk, Die Welt als Wille und Vorstellung, war ein Klassiker, das noch ein Jahrhundert später noch gut zu lesen war. Safranski erklärt genug von dieser Philosophie, um den Leser das Gefühl zu geben, die Hauptidee darin ausreichend verstanden zu haben, und gleichzeitig erzählt genügend biographische Einzelheiten, um den ganzen Fall Schopenhauer in kritischer Perspektive zu setzen. Mehr von einer seriösen Biographie kann man wirklich nicht wünschen.

Strange combination of speculation and scholarship

A Search for the Historical Jesus
By Professor Fida Hassnain

July 24, 2012

***

Professor Hassnain seems to have misrepresented the story he attempts to tell about the historical Jesus. He relies heavily on several unreliable sources, yet expresses no doubts about their provenance, while building a controversial and finally unsatisfying biography for Jesus the Nazarene. Naturally he concentrates on the parts that interest him and emphasizes the last years in Srinagar, but a more thorough attempt to integrate his findings with the sober historical work of historians in the Jewish and Christian traditions would have greatly improved this book. I have recently published the short book Christ, which covers much the same ground, but I hope to have integrated the speculation more candidly within a more conventional tale, and taken more care to try to reconstruct the mindset of the unknown person who lived the biography.

Any prospective reader of Professor Hassnain's book should first Google Nicolas Notovitch and look at his 19th-century memoir of his travels in Ladakh and Tibet (in which he made the claims that Hassnain leverages with no hint of skepticism about NN's "Life of St. Issa") and check Holger Kersten's book Jesus Lived in India: His Unknown Life Before and After the Crucifixion, which for my money covers the same ground as the professor but in a way that is much more accessible to a European who is ready to accept the idea that Jesus lived to a ripe old age.
 

Patrician poetry dressed down as populist prose

Lionel Asbo
By Martin Amis

July 2, 2012

***

The eponymous Asbo is an unlovely vulgarian whose presence for 276 pages is frankly wearying. His counterpoint, the boring arts student Des, lightens the load at the cost of diluting the savage fun the Asbo saga throws up. As always with Amis, language gets in the way, and recherché words and phrases distract and bemuse any reader hoping to watch him pig out on tabloid tales of drunken debauchery of the sort that inspired this fastidious dip into a feral underworld.

This book is emphatically not a "good read" for the masses, nor is it a scholarly tour de force of sustained insight into a subculture we'd all like to see cleaned up or done away with. See it instead as a book of prose poetry. Amis can catch the unintended music of demotic language like no other writer I know, and many of the lines in this volume of sound bites are superbly evocative of the character types that lie behind the absurd caricatures we see in Asbo and his milieu. Reading these pages, one is reminded that English at its best is a phonetic language that has an auditory impact on the brain. Too much of the dead prose that surrounds us lets us forget that fact. But Amis is fast becoming a language pedant, and this tiresome trait intrudes on the story (a chav girlfriend called "Threnody" — WTF?) to an irritating degree. The boring Des is the main foil for this word worship, but a plot thread involving crossword clues (to say more would spoil the thread) betrays it more candidly.

What could have saved this book from the arts ghetto is a stronger focus on Asbo the financial wizard. After winning his lotto fortune and surviving the wild excesses that follow, Asbo rises far enough in the world of investment portfolios to make vast profits, it seems (though Amis disdains to say how), and thus reveals a fine resonance between his chav ways and the buccaneering spirit of the financial go-getters who have nearly brought us all to ruin. If Amis had taken the trouble to research this side of his chosen topic with more care, he could have begun to make up the ground he lost to Tom Wolfe two decades back when that former journalist showed us how well a novel could both satirize and illuminate the ways of the "masters of the universe" in Wall Street and the City. But no, Amis is not cut out for fieldwork. His world is already there in the tabloids, with their curt neologisms and their atrocious alliterations. His idea of getting his hands dirty is to read their smudged pages, and his idea of putting his mind to work is to parse his degustation of the lives vomited forth there.

In short, this comedic profile of Asbo the lotto lout is another worthy little tome on the shelf of Amis potboilers, but hardly a book to change the world. Despite its thin and unedifying story and its vacuous and unappealing characters, at least it's not instant trash. Enough to fill a quiet weekend it just about is, which is probably all an Amis fan needs to know to fork out a tenner for it.
 

Integral vision with no physics in sight

A Theory of Everything: An Integral Vision for Business, Politics, Science, and Spirituality
By Ken Wilber

June 10, 2012

*****

Ken Wilber is a deep thinker and has good things to say. In a book on a theory of everything, a physicist naturally hopes for insight into how new physics is changing the way we see the world. But the hope is dashed: this is a book of easily digestible thought bites for a popular audience. That said, the thought bites are well worth deep thought. The integral vision, in which mind, soul, and spirit, both of the individual and of everyone else, get star billings alongside the objective science of self and world, is good. Much contemporary commentary in economics and politics is radically defective when seen with integral vision. Score a big one for Wilber.

Apart from what is now known as the Wilber diagram, with four quadrants and a set of nested levels to anchor the integral vision in a handy meme that anyone can sketch on a flip chart to liven up a meeting, the main theoretical device in the book is a meme for juggling worldviews called spiral dynamics. Wilber did not invent this meme, but it has great currency among pop theologists as a way of juggling simple concepts of gods or God. The idea comes with a color coding running from beige to turquoise, where the most interesting levels are red, blue, orange, and green. Roughly, red gods are tribal and aggressive, blue gods are mythic and legalistic, orange gods are rational and individualistic, and green gods are relativist and multicultural. With thought aids at this level, the reader should not expect too much insight into science, but it all makes for good reading.

Wilber has built up a great reputation among modern meditators and introspective philosophers, and this book shows why. Despite its simple tools and modest ambition, it displays an impressively strong and balanced grasp of the main issues and pushes on to ideas as deep as any in our culture. Wilber truly has an integral vision, and it is one we would all do well to pursue. Physicists will be happy to cut him some slack.
 

Thin science, dubious philosophy, and poor rhetoric

The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values
By Sam Harris

May 6, 2012

***

Sam Harris is an ambitious young man who has done some great propaganda work in the global war on terror. Now he hopes to settle down quietly as a neuroscientist and offers this book as a step in that direction. The science in the book arises from his doctoral thesis and is an entirely routine exercise in performing and interpreting a few brain scans with the aim of locating the neural correlates of belief. The philosophy is a crusade against facts and values that argues for a kind of utilitarianism in which our supreme moral duty is to enhance the well-being of conscious agents. The rhetoric against religion is familiar to any reader of the New Atheist manifestos of the last few years and is open to all the same objections.

Neuroscience is about to change the world as radically as physics and biology did in the last century. When our new brain scans and computer simulations together result in our building a solid foundation for a science of psychology, all our old notions of choice and preference, reason versus emotions, happiness and fulfillment, and more will be overturned in a new conception of what it is to be human, and conscious, and alive. But these are early days. The results that Harris cites to support his thesis are trivial relative to the work to come. Think of the first experiments on the molecular basis of genetics compared with the full genome scans we can do now. It is too soon to see the full scope of the revolution to come. Harris is overselling his first glimpses.

Utilitarianism is a Victorian philosophy of happiness that consorts well with the idealistic rationalism of the bourgeois revolutions of the eighteenth century. Now it is obsolete. A conception of morality according to which I do right when I more efficiently please myself and others is quite likely to contradict any more transcendent duty to which I may find myself committed. A projection of such an outstanding duty onto the dimensions of pleasure or happiness, however elaborate the summation over populations or integration over time, is unlikely to cut ice. We can conceive our goals independently of any such projection and hence have no idea how their projection should be scaled against others on a balance sheet, yet know with certainty that the goals are right.

Religion is an easy target for a certain kind of scorn. But the intelligent reaction to such easy pickings is to stop and ask whether religion has not survived despite that vulnerability, which has been obvious in the west since classical times, because it fulfills quite different functions. The doctrines are like mood music and the verbal formulations are just scores for certain instruments, for selected audiences, in specific locations. Treating moral pronouncements taken from such scores as analogous to fixed laws supporting legally defensible derivations is asking for absurdity. Religions typically support apodeictic laws in contexts where their sanctioned application produces the appropriate tonal effects in the mood music. Outside the concert hall they merely cause noise pollution. But similarly, brain scan results may be irrelevant to a life in the sacred time of a living tradition.

Overall, Harris has written a book on a big subject from the perspective of a relatively small cultural base. Modern life in California may allow great sophistication on some matters, but may be expected to suffer tunnel vision relative to wider perspectives available to cultivated people elsewhere. The world according to a freshly minted neuroscientist is a place full of wildly exciting promise for revolutions in our human awareness of our actual and potential place in the cosmos, but (1) the science of how the brain works is still far from ready to offer insights with the scope and certainty that the arguments in this book would require, (2) the philosophical distinction between what is and what ought to be is a pretty good one for many purposes and is not yet ready for scrap, and (3) our scientific understanding of religion and its potential contribution to an enriched science of human life is far more inchoate than our understanding of the brain. So this book aimed too high and missed its target. But it is well written and good for provoking interesting thoughts.
 

A clear and convincing historical analysis

Jesus Lived in India
by Holger Kersten

April 24, 2012

*****

Believers in the death and resurrection of Christ will have a hard time with this book. They will pick and poke at details just as some do over Darwin's theory of evolution or the new sciences of the universe and the brain. But Kersten's destruction of the orthodox position of traditional faith is clear and convincing, for me at least. His own research and his summary of the research of a vast number of other careful scholars has shown with some clarity that (1) Jesus was a teacher in the tradition of Buddhism and Hinduism who quite possibly learned his trade in advanced and extended Indian or Buddhist training, (2) Jesus survived the crucifixion, as he would have hoped, using Yogic skills developed during his training plus the cooperation of friends who may have seen his suffering Roman cruelty as a Jewish victory, and (3) Jesus probably headed back east after his recovery and became a wandering teacher called Yuz Asaf who finally settled in Kashmir and is buried in Srinagar.

Any attempt to reconstruct the events of so long ago with any clarity is doomed to be debatable, and any attempt to do so for a historic figure like no other in (Western) history is going to raise organized resistance from vested interests, but Kersten has given us a platform for doing so that is really good, in my humble opinion. I have read several books on this and related themes, and this is the best, for me. The balance of fine detail and judicious overview, the insistence on hard facts and the sober appraisal of probabilities, the sympathy extended to people of faith, whether Indian or Mediterranean, and the overall scholarly tone of the enterprise together make this for me the fiducial source on this topic. I have no hesitation in recommending it to seekers after truth and giving it five stars.
 

A work of historical genius and new relevance

The German Genius
By Peter Watson

February 28, 2012

*****

Peter Watson has written the best biographical introduction to the glories of post-Enlightenment German history that I have found or can imagine. This is a thick book and dense with facts, but the narrative drive is relentless and the overall conclusion is convincing. Germany has done more than any other nation to shape the modern world we live in, the world in which the United States of America has taken up the flag and continued the long march into a brighter future. If the USA is the modern Rome, Germany is its Greece, its Athens and Sparta rolled into one.

Watson rolls out a pantheon of great Germans for our edification, and an impressive roll call it is. From the early days of Kant and the idealists and Goethe and the romantics, through the middle years of Nietzsche and Wagner, science and industrialization, military prowess and colonial adventures, to the glory days of Einstein and the quantum theorists, Freud and scientific medicine, Heidegger and the existentialists, to the apocalyptic horror of Hitler and the Nazis, and onward through the economic miracle to reunification and a respected place at the heart of the European Union, Germany has been there, done that, and seen it all.

This entire astonishing story is tirelessly chronicled in Watson's magnum opus. He offers potted biographies and assessments of the hundred or more prominent Germans that all educated people should be acquainted with, and sets the tales in a master narrative that takes the reader through a story like no other in the entire history of civilization. The new relevance of the story is that Germany is a lot more than the blighted source of two world wars and a holocaust. Germany was the engine of a hundred years of progress that changed the world and gave America the tools and the opening for its own world hegemony. Now, in a Europe that otherwise looks desolate, Germany is the best hope for renewal.
 

Good honest fun, readable and realistic

One Day
By David Nicholls

January 12, 2012

****

This is a surprisingly and impressively good novel — I say this as a jaded and picky connoisseur of novels by Martin Amis and other relatively literary writers — that really comes alive. The pair Dexter and Emma come over as real people, portrayed honestly in all their human imperfection, and their interactions are presented with the lovingly clinical attention to detail that only the best authors can pull off convincingly. The story is fun too, with incidents and accidents that regularly put a smile on the reader's face. And unlike some longish novels, this one has you turning the pages - the tale pulls you along effortlessly. The author knows how to write too, with enough cute phrases and gracefully conveyed scenes to keep the pot bubbling without snagging your attention on contrived effects or overwrought sentences. So altogether this is as good as the hype suggests.

Yet it's not perfect. The one day per year device worked fine, and didn't chop up the tale excessively at all. Also, the ending is real enough, and life can be like that. But the later flashback chapters had me frowning. I'd have preferred them up front, even at the cost of some dramatic suspension and closure. And the pair were irritating enough in their limitations to make me want to stand back further, to put their foibles in more perspective. The movie, which in many ways does a fine job of reflecting the mood of the book, made that aspect clear enough for me before I read the book, so if you saw the movie already you'll know what to expect there. Also, some of the sentences in the book had me reading them twice just to catch the correct sense. That suggests some suboptimal writing, which is forgivable when all the rest is so good but can be distracting.

More trivially, the physical book was too cheap for words. The typeface reverted to typewriter font for italic caps and the print was sometimes blurred. In my copy, pages 37 and 38 were printed on the overlapped sheets where a second printer roll took over, and came complete with a sticky tab that gummed the pages. The volume had a production quality that would disappoint me in a toilet roll. I guess I should have read the Kindle edition. Perhaps these are End Times for paperbacks, or perhaps someone at Hodder should wake up.
 

A proof that Homo sapiens is not rational

Thinking, Fast and Slow
by Daniel Kahneman

January 5, 2012

*****

Kahneman has performed the historic feat of finding hard evidence for the limits of human reason. With simple but convincing experiments, he has done more to advance psychology as a science than anyone else in a hundred years. The implications for the rationalist ideology behind economics are what led to his Nobel prize, but those implications will probably take a century to work their way into political life, where much of the psychobabble about reason that is used to defend Western political ideals is now revealed as obsolete and scientifically untenable.

Kahneman's book is impressively readable, indeed compelling, and the argument he builds up is as solid as anything in psychology. Using simple questionnaires and elementary statistics, the author reveals facts about Homo sapiens that do more to destroy our self-serving illusions than anything since the breakthrough work on the psychology of religion by William James or the radical exploration of sexuality in the human psyche by Sigmund Freud. In his review of Kahneman's book, Freeman Dyson says Kahneman outranks those thinkers as a scientist. A physicist would say that, but even a lay reader will sense greatness in this book.
 

Martin at his best

The War Against Cliché
by Martin Amis

January 5, 2012

*****

Martin Amis was an excellent journalist and this volume of essays spanning three decades proves it. One can be — and I am — sceptical about the merits of some of his novels, but the literary quality of the essays in this collection is pretty much undeniable. For any student who wants to understand the Anglo-American zeitgeist of those decades, this may be a better place to start than Martin's novels. Once you see the majesty of his mental landscape in these essays, you can dive into the murk of those novels with more sympathy for the sensibilities of the muck-racker that he there reveals himself to be.
 

A novel for big bucks, not for big brains

Robopocalypse
by Daniel H. Wilson

August 31, 2011

****

This is a real page-turner with a great concept and a neat execution. But the focus on butchery and horror is too much for a cool chap like me. I don't see any possible future where robots go berserk like this. Sorry, Dr. Wilson, you may be a robogeek but in all honesty the scenario sucks. I too studied robots and I published a 1996 novel (now defunct) exploring a way for robots to take over the world in a slightly more civilized fashion. As for the writing style, the breathless verbatim reports of immediate observers is great for putting the reader in the battlezone but is really a cop-out for an author who couldn't make a more considered perspective on this scenario fly straight if he tried. The novel is a great addition to the Michael Crichton tradition and a natural for Steven Spielberg treatment, but I despair for your soul, Dan Wilson. If you want to see how the robots can really achieve their Global Organo-cybertronic Dominion, read my 2010 manifesto G.O.D. Is Great and weep. Snoozilicious it may be compared to Robopocalypse, but at least it seems feasible in the cool light of day. In short, Dr. Wilson has written a novel for big bucks, not for big brains.
 

A must for any serious student of consciousness

The Character of Consciousness
by David J. Chalmers

August 31, 2011

*****

David Chalmers is perhaps the greatest living philosopher of consciousness. The essays collected in this anthology of his best short writings for professionals are definitively classic. But many of them are hard work to read through. An introduction to the field this is not. Written over a period of a decade or so and published in a variety of outlets, the essays add up to a fascinating portrait of genius at work in a field where the final truth is still decades, if not centuries, away. By a curious coincidence, in 2009 I published a similar collection of my writings in consciousness over a decade or so — Mindworlds — and in effect dedicated it to David. Perhaps his new book, in concept if not in content, is his way of responding. Whatever the truth, his book is an absolute must for any dedicated consciousness buff. More serious appraisal must await peer reviews in professional journals.
 

An incendiary manifesto for reason

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason
by Sam Harris

April 6, 2011

*****

I read this book soon after it first appeared and was electrified. It changed my world. Harris pulls no punches in his attacks on the absurdities of organized religion and the atrociousness of much of what now passes for Muslim faith in particular. He wrote it as a young man and the book has the flaws you might expect: it's sometimes clumsily written and somehow poorly structured, but the clarity and brilliance of the central message is outstanding enough to put all that in the shade. As his "war work" in response to 9/11, this book is Harris' finest achievement to date — though he would probably wish to insist that his recent work as a brain scientist turned moral philosopher in The Moral Landscape deserves recognition independently of that achievement.
 

A fun take on the science of mind and brain

Thinks ...
by David Lodge

April 6, 2011

****

This novel is light and inconsequential but fun. I read it years ago, when it first appeared, and when I was in the community of researchers into the science of consciousness. Although the novel is rather British, it did catch some of the conceits of the community remarkably well, both sharply and wittily. In fact, I presented at a "Brain and Self" workshop in Elsinore, Denmark, in 1997 where David Lodge gave a talk and evidently gathered experiences for the novel. Some of the stuff in the book is rooted in that event. If you have any interest in the intersection of British academia and neuroscience, this book is for you.
 

Based on an idea by Max Tegmark

The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep Laws of the Cosmos
by Brian Greene

April 2, 2011

****

Brian Greene must have enjoyed Max Tegmark's May 2003 Scientific American article on parallel universes, since he recycled the concept for the third book in his physics trilogy. After covering string theory in The Elegant Universe and inflationary cosmology in The Fabric of the Cosmos, Greene covers alternative, possible, and parallel worlds and universes in this new book. He does so with a light touch and an easy manner, honed by years now of delivering such highly theoretical and speculative content to popular audiences. Whether he succeeds in whetting your appetite is another matter. Personally, I loved his first book, really liked his second one, and felt a slight ennui over the third one.

The fact is that the science of all these possible worlds is hardly science at all in the traditional sense, and there's a lot of hand-waving and vague philosophizing in Greene's account of it all. Like Steven Pinker, who wrote several big popular books in quick succession and found his content thinning out accordingly, Greene has found that the physics on show in his new parade is less meaty than most physics buffs will hunger for. Indeed, when string theorists admit that they need five hundred zeroes just to write out the number of possible universes on their recent estimations and when Greene admits that we might just as well be living inside a giant simulation in an alien supercomputer, à la Matrix, we are right to sigh and lose heart for the new physics.

Physics has had a great run in the last hundred years. From the Newtonian world of colliding particles in absolute space and time, perfused with electromagnetic waves, we have moved on to the weird world that Greene has presented as well as any physicist since Heinz Pagels, who published a fine trilogy on quantum physics, big bang cosmology, and the emerging science of complexity a quarter of a century ago. We need these popular prophets for physics even in times like these when the theory has navigated into a fog bank. Perhaps a bright kid somewhere will be inspired by Greene's books to find a way out of the fog.

Note added in proof: For a physics buff, the notes in Greene's new book are the best part. It's a pity that most readers, me included, will probably never read them all. Greene should have the courage of his professorial salary and put the good stuff in the main book where it belongs, and forget about trying to reach the top of the bestseller lists with a book that without the notes is too bland.
 

A long march on the left-right brain

The Master and His Emissary
by Iain McGilchrist

March 9, 2011

*****

Iain McGilchrist has poured his life's work into the capacious frame of this book. Only a thinker who first spent some twenty years getting his case together could have produced so massively buttressed an argument for greater awareness of hemispheric differences between the two halves of our cerebral cortexes. The scientific need for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of our brains' lateralization is clear and acute, and the social pathologies consequent upon our ignoring this key feature of our anatomy are correspondingly important. That said, the investigations brought together in this book can only represent a small start on a huge task.

Dr. McGilchrist is certainly to be congratulated for having made a start. Previous work on this topic has been of variable quality, a fact which becomes alarmingly clear as McGilchrist reviews the panorama of that work. Such contrasts as intuitive versus logical, or emotional versus rational, or even male versus female, hardly do justice to the subtle and often tricky nuances of our hemispheric specialization. In future, any researcher who wishes to do justice to this topic will have to take due account of this fundamental book. In fact, any such researcher will have to start here, for it brackets all that went before.

At first I expected a monograph that in its scope and ambition would essentially update the classic work on the bicameral mind published in 1976 by Julian Jaynes, but Iain McGilchrist takes a rather different tack. Although the depth and the scope of his work invites comparison with Jaynes, who was thinking so far ahead of the empirical work of the time that parts of his classic work now seem almost nutty, McGilchrist has wisely held back from speculating on the evolution of consciousness. Given the cataract of works on consciousness that have appeared in recent decades, this is perhaps only prudent, but it also reflects the fact that hemispheric lateralization cannot really be expected to shed much light either on the physiological question of how the operation of neural networks sustains or creates phenomenal experience or on the psychological question of how the emergence of consciousness can be traced in the cultural evolution of Homo sapiens. However, McGilchrist does not shy away from conjecturally tracing any number of historic cultural impacts back to our differentially lateralized brains.

One reservation is worth emphasizing. This book is not a work of science in the modern data-driven sense. It is much more correctly considered as a work of philosophy in the sense that prevailed a century ago before the logicians took over. Iain McGilchrist is a writer who in comparison with William James or Sigmund Freud is more inclined to cite artistic works that have no scientific credibility in support even of his more scientific claims. For example, he expects his readers to accept that poetic thinkers like Wordsworth or Goethe had insights that we can translate reliably into harder modern terms. I doubt that this translation is possible without controversy, and hesitate to endorse the pursuit of science in such a manner. Gilchrist also writes in a dense and allusive manner that many scientists will find hard to take. The fact that readers of a more reflective disposition will enjoy the style is beside the point. The message of this book, if summarized too sharply, will sound to many scientists like a rant or a jeremiad against modern civilization and its evils. My five stars are intended to persuade such scientists to read the book anyway.
 

A good history with a very real flavor

The Pacific: Complete HBO Series [Blu-ray]
Presented by Tom Hanks, Steven Spielberg, Gary Goetzman

December 26, 2010

****

The war in the Pacific from 1941 to 1945 can only be sketched in ten hours. This sketch captures the grit, the horror, and the sort of people who became heroes. It misses the grand strategy, many of the set-piece events, the technology, and the whole perspective from the Japanese side. But what it does it does well. It portrays telegenic characters who react believably to the unbelievable horrors of war and it frames a social history that brings the action home to a couch-bound viewer. The production values are superb and this is state-of-the-art historical reconstruction.

I watched the ten parts soon after watching the ten-part Band Of Brothers: Complete HBO Series
[Blu-ray] covering the American ground war in Europe in 1944 and 1945 in a similarly episodic and character-oriented way. I must say Band Of Brothers did it better. It was based on a real unit with consistently real events and characters, and seemed more real to me. The Pacific story, by contrast, seemed to have been dramatized to a formula. But this is a personal reaction and I have no hesitation in recommending both products as a pair for anyone who wants to invest twenty hours in understanding the American war against fascism from the grunt's eye view.
 

Reader's Digest for the soul

Teachings of the Christian Mystics
Andrew Harvey (editor)

December 26, 2010

***

Andrew Harvey has been a one-man industry in matters mystical. His credentials as a Christian are thin (a gushing book on Jesus — Son of Man: The Mystical Path to Christ — that put me right off) but for this collection it hardly matters. The classics presented here are obvious choices and brief enough for hurried readers who just want a bit of mystic titillation before moving on with their lives. Anyone who wants to engage with the deep thought paraded here will have to go much, much deeper than this anthology, but at least it points them in the right direction. Maybe it's the sort of book to put by the bed instead of a Gideon's Bible, or to put by the loo for people who have about one minute to spare. Think of the volume as Reader's Digest for the soul.
 

Overproduced and disappointing

War Bots: How U.S. Military Robots Are Transforming War in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Future
by David Axe

December 26, 2010

**

The topic of this book is intriguing but perhaps it is too early to give it the treatment it deserves. This book shows every sign of having been produced too hastily without sufficiently critical editorial attention. The text is brief and thin and the illustrations are of mixed quality. The layout seems designed to display the weaknesses of this content as lavishly as possible. The whole thing could have been edited down to a good in-depth magazine article for a periodical like Wired. A deeper analysis of the topic that appeals to me (I haven't read it yet) is Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century.
 

Much better than I feared from the hype

Freedom
by Jonathan Franzen

November 13, 2010

*****

Franzen has become a really good novelist. His earlier best-seller The Corrections was pretty good, but it was only a proof of promise, as far as I was concerned. I took a long time to get through it because I thought some of it was silly and boring, but it did show the emergence of real talent. Freedom has been so hyped that I was ready to find it as useless as Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. But no, after reading the first 24 pages I realized I was hooked and read the rest at high speed. For me, that's high praise already. I won't bore you with the details — I'll just recommend it.
 

A scattershot volume that lacks coherence

Hitch-22: A Memoir
by Christopher Hitchens

August 6, 2010

***

The Hitch is a public figure now, so this book will sell whatever I say. But don't expect too much. It's a collection of essays, some quite interesting, some less so, that tend toward autobiography. If, like me, you know some of the protagonists and were there at some of the events, the accounts Hitchens offers can be quite fascinating. But the chapters record a political evolution from naive student Trotskyite to posturing socialite Neoconservative that will grate on you if your views differ from the offered line by so much as a hair.

Given that unwelcome fact, the book has its merits. The book is written with a certain polish and includes some deft phrases. And the cameos of British boarding school life, of Oxford undergraduate demagoguery, of shabby London literary life, and of variously loathsome political and revolutionary figures worldwide, are often sharp and vivid. The energy the Hitch has invested in meeting, like Forrest Gump, all the big names of his time is impressive to behold. But the effect, in the end, is more depressing than inspiring. All that sound and fury has resulted in a scattershot volume that lacks the crafted coherence of a classic.

Hitchens has emphatic views that brook no opposition. As his best friend Martin Amis once said, resistance is futile. With the Hitch it's my way or the highway. In the end, after a mind-numbing recital of famous and infamous events and names of our time interspersed with repeated drum-rolls of self-righteous grandstanding, all leading up to a tedious review of his Jewish roots that exhausts all patience, this reader hit the highway.
 

A manifesto for rebuilding life on Earth

G.O.D. Is Great: How to Build a Global Organism
by Andy Ross

July 26, 2010

*****

Andy Ross says we are busy creating a global organization so integrated that we become parts of a single living organism that he calls Globorg. He claims our best hope of flourishing is to identify with Globorg. Recalling the psychology of group solidarity, he says that we shall learn to see and act as one. But first we shall need to smooth over the join between new science and old religion. As a former logician and consciousness researcher, Ross proposes a logical foundation for a new psychology that can accommodate machine minds alongside humans. On the basis of this psychology, he proposes a new philosophy of life.

The book has the stated aim of serving as a road map to take us from here and now to Globorg with this century. Some readers will find it utopian. Others may find the proposed changes appalling. But the issues Ross raises are realistic and practical, and they will be upon us sooner than many people think. This book is exactly the sort of primer we need to prepare ourselves. Not only that, it's engagingly written and filled with fascinating detail. Read it and glimpse our future.

Ross is also the author of Mindworlds: A Decade of Consciousness Studies.
 

A balanced, dramatic, and factually sound history

The Battle of Britain
by James Holland

July 3, 2010

*****

This is an account of Britain's finest hour that you can safely recommend to history buffs of all kinds, from amateur enthusiasts to university students. Actually, the finest hour here lasts six months, but that's long enough to take the Sceptred Isles from their day of greatest peril when the Nazi forces started their Blitzkrieg in the West to the period when the acute danger of invasion and collapse had receded and the war settled to a relatively sustainable slog. This is also the honeymoon period of Churchill's first six months in command, when he secured his place in the hearts of the English speaking people for all time by saving Europe and the world from its darkest years since the Black Plague. So the bar for this book is high. Only the very best is good enough to sit on the same shelf as so many other accounts, up to Churchill's own official history.

The special ingredients that Holland brings are balance and drama. He emphasizes the experiences of the warriors on both sides, and the reader is encouraged to sympathize with the German pilots and other ranks as well as with the British heroes. As for drama, the clash of Spitfires and Messerschmidts would seem exciting enough without more ado, but to keep the tension high over hundreds of engagements until the strategic picture becomes clear is one of Holland's big achievements. From our position 70 years later, the facts are in and we can be relatively objective, but the challenge of marshalling the facts into a coherent narrative is serious, and Holland has met it.

The book is not perfect. Sometimes the author's grammar runs away with him in the enthusiasm of the chase, and some fine technical detail about aircraft and engine systems could have benefited from deeper research, but these are quibbles. Also, the big picture, where the place of the Battle of Britain alongside the struggle on the Eastern Front or the debate in America over siding with the British Empire deserve some weight, gets short shrift in Holland's account. But this is no shame in a popular history. Holland deserves congratulations for a job well done.
 

A scrumptious feast of mad ideas for obsessives

36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction
by Rebecca Goldstein

June 9, 2010

*****

Rebecca Goldstein is a rare find among novelists: not only a big imagination but also a sharp analytic brain behind the scenes. She writes books that reward serious thought. For anyone who has moral scruples about reading novels during daylight hours this is a huge bonus. The 36 arguments are such delicious hokum, so often trotted out in earnest yet so flimsy, that a lampoon like this book is the only adult response to their emergence in public discourse. And the characters! Don't get me started. I recognized the real-life originals (yes, living, breathing souls) for her cartoon figures and saw them in all their sensual glory as the tale unfolded. On the other hand (ahem), some of the intellectual set-pieces explaining technical details for lamer readers did come over as the day job intruding into what would otherwise have been sweeter indulgences, but then again that touch of astringency is just what my ascetic palate, for one, finds most titillating. Any philosopher whose soul has been hung out long enough to dry will love the impish glee behind the caricatures of pomp and academic circumstance on parade here. The tale also presents a diorama of strangely anachronistic and dysfunctional Judaism in action, but with just the lightness of touch and compassion for its oddity that redeems the social commentary and lets the reader off the judgmental hook. Altogether, any readers who can savor the high life of the mind so scurrilously trashed here will hoot with joy as they read this gem.
 

Right on the Money

Solar
by Ian McEwan

June 9, 2010

*****

Ian McEwan is the best British novelist of his generation. And Solar is one of his best works. A comedy about a physicist — that's a hard act to pull off. But he did it, and creditably too. The novel is less dazzling than Martin Amis' Money, but the conception is similar, and I'm sure McEwan sees Solar as a kind of homage to Martin's comic brilliance. In fact, you can read Solar as Money reconstituted in a more craftsmanlike style and with a more substantial and credible central figure. Like Saturday, McEwan's other contender as his second-best novel, there's a lot of solid research behind Solar, which some readers may find too much but I find reassuring. If your conscience says you shouldn't be wasting time reading novels, you can tell yourself that the factual background is worth the lost opportunity to be reading something more worthy. And Solar is often really funny. That's already worth the time spent flipping the pages. Still, Atonement is McEwan's crowning and definitive masterpiece. Solar isn't in that league at all. But it doesn't pretend to be, and it's so much better than most novels out there that five stars are the least it deserves.
 

A tombstone for eternity

The Pregnant Widow
by Martin Amis

June 8, 2010

****

This is Martin's best novel since The Information. But it's not his best novel. That was Money. The Pregnant Widow is written with a long view, with a view to the reputation in decades and centuries to come. Perhaps it's a begging letter to the Nobel Prize committee. Or a required text for his university course, with the requisite plethora of vaguely scholarly references to more or less classic writings. But an airport novel it's not. That was Yellow Dog, which I bought in its first days as a hardback to read over the Atlantic and felt compelled to hide from the traveler beside me to prevent his seeing the shameful words on the page before me (once I'd read it to the bitter end, I tore up the book and trashed the shreds). By contrast, this new novel is worth sporting on the shelf for a lifetime. It's Martin's best shot yet at classic status. In times to come, when the London trilogy has lost much of its contemporary sizzle, The Pregnant Widow will live on as a challenge for English undergraduates eager to test their exegetical powers on a worthy target. This new novel also deftly overshadows Martin's first three novels, The Rachel Papers (where in effect he channeled the skills of his father Kingsley), Dead Babies (a pulp work that I panned with more zeal than craft in my 1975 Oxford university magazine Isis review of it), and Success (the less said the better), and leaves Martin with an airbrushed but serviceable legacy for posterity. In fact, the 2010 contribution to the collected works is better than all its predecessors in several ways. It's more sober, more craftsmanlike (except for the sometimes oppressively esoteric vocabulary and references), more reflective (despite the profusion of stylistic tics, such as in-sentence repetition, and pet topics, like breast and stature statistics), and more philosophical. Yes, Martin is aging, and it shows. But so are we all, and there are still plenty of readers ready to read a doorstop like this one to recall the embarrassments of their younger years. One detail for gourmet readers — the Ted Hughes story of Narcissus that reappears regularly in the novel as a leitmotif is brilliant, almost so much so that it overshadows the murky sex games in the castle. That, more than any other visible thread in the tapestry, is what will give the book classic status, if indeed it gets it. For Martin's place in history, it also makes the book a suitably impressive tombstone.
 

Sock it to 'em, Chris!

God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything
by Christopher Hitchens

June 8, 2010

*****

As good as it gets from the New Atheists — if you only read one of their books, read this one. The more serious arguments you can find in the other tomes — and pick earnestly over their logic or the scientific evidence for this or that claim. With the Hitch, you get the punch in the gut that tells you the religionists are a bunch of scoundrels who urgently need to put their own house in order before they presume to tell us how to live our lives. I was at Oxford with Chris and we had common friends (though I detested his leftist activism and his general debauchery), so don't accept my opinion. Just read the book and find you agree with my assessment.
 

This is a good little book

Out of Our Heads: Why You Are Not Your Brain, and Other Lessons from the Biology of Consciousness by Alva Noe

June 8, 2010

****

Alva Noe is a good philosopher, and the argument he presents in this book is worth taking seriously. As a philosopher too (who should disclose that he has traded words and shared parties with Alva), I'm not convinced entirely by his case, but I find the general drift quite persuasive. Essentially, the prevailing orthodoxy that minds are implemented by brains is conceptually lazy and possibly only half the truth, but we have our work cut out trying to go beyond it. Noe has made a brave start. Naturally, there's still an awful lot of mileage in the mind-brain orthodoxy, and much of the hard science in the area would be incomprehensible without it, in some form, but minds extend beyond brains and are sustained in being by more than brains. As an intuition pump here, imagine that minds are like money. Dollar bills and so on implement money, but money is a lot more, even if you exclude collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps and so on as beyond the pale. Minds are part of a huge public institution by which we build our organized and collective appreciation of nature and our place in it. Noe sees something like this (my gloss on the view is of course my own to live down) and gives the view a hearty helping hand. My reservation (hence four stars) is over the rather folksy rhetoric that decorates the book. This creditably personal style makes the hard core argument easier and smoother reading, and many will welcome it for that reason, but for me as a logical purist it was rather ad hominem. Anyway, that said, read this book in conjunction with Andy Clark's Supersizing the Mind. The basic message is the same. This is a message whose time is coming, I think. And Noe has done a great job in putting it out there for all interested readers to enjoy.
 

A biologically authoritative rant

The God Delusion
by Richard Dawkins

June 8, 2010

****

Richard Dawkins is a chap with a chip on his shoulder. He's the world's most accomplished and persuasive Darwinist and he's a man of high intellectual conscience who won't tolerate lazy thinking. His rant — that's the best word I can find for this book — is a great joyride for readers who like to see some righteous indignation behind an atheist tract in the tradition of Bertrand Russell. Dawkins has fallen in with some odd company since his best days as a popularizer of Darwinism, the essential core of an organized science of biology. Now Dawkins runs in a pack of four well-known New Atheists. Dan Dennett is respectable enough. He's perhaps the greatest living philosopher in the Western tradition and a fellow Darwinist of some renown. The rest of the pack are atheists of lesser fame. Sam Harris wrote a scandalized — and electrifying, and best-selling — tract against religion following 9/11 (and now studies neuroscience) and Chris Hitchens is an all-purpose rhetorical bruiser (an ex-Trot, no less, but a great journalist) I recall from my Oxford days many years ago. The four of them — Dick, Dan, Sam, and Chris — are the "four horsemen" of the atheist apocalypse, in the title characterization on the DVD proudly advertised on Richard Dawkins' website. The God Delusion is the literary reference that makes the "four horsemen" posturing respectable for Dawkins. Otherwise I'd worry that his atheist hobby-horse was fellow-travelling, to use a trope familiar to Chris. Anyway, if you're passionately for or against both Darwinism and Christianity (or for D and against C or for C and against D, of course), this book is an absolute must-read for you. Otherwise, maybe not: you'll just be bemused at all the speaker's spittle flying in your direction.
 

A very illuminating biography

Beyond the Darkness: A Biography of Bede Griffiths
by Shirley Du Boulay

January 11, 2010

*****

I confess I was skeptical before I started reading this book. I expected an uncritical hagiography. But I was pleasantly surprised. While never doubting that Bede was a quite extraordinary holy man, the author succeeds in maintaining the distance needed to present the facts without spin. In fact, this is an impressively skilled piece of writing, with everything logically in its place and presented correctly to enhance the quality of the overall portrait. The level of detail is impressive too, with much more than the average investigative journalist would have extracted. Altogether, Bede is fortunate indeed to have such a fine biography.
 

Insightful and still important

The Marriage of East and West
by Bede Griffiths

December 28, 2009

****

This book is an insightful classic by a Christian mystic. Driven by an inner vision of the shared goal of all genuine religions, Dom Bede argues passionately that Western religion, by which he really means Christianity, can be "married" with Eastern religion, and in particular with Hinduism. His own experience as a Catholic monk in India makes this view persuasive and convinces this reader at least that the vision is lucid and veridical. But the book is not perfect. Bede's disdain for science and industry, indeed for the whole "modern" world that has developed since the Renaissance, is unreasonable, in my humble opinion. For me, his understanding of modern science is too superficial and his antipathy toward the popular desire for creature comforts is too procrustean. Also, his views on Semitic versus Asiatic thinking and male versus female psychology are badly dated. Still, the man deserves to be a saint and his book deserves to be read by anyone interested in deep spiritual experience.
 

A loose and sloppy ramble that could have been more

The Lifebox, the Seashell, and the Soul: What Gnarly Computation Taught Me About Ultimate Reality, the Meaning of Life, and How to be Happy
by Rudy Rucker

April 15, 2009

***

I first read a novel by Rudy Rucker in 1980 and was totally delighted. Over the years I read several of his more serious books and was often very impressed. Also, I respect his curriculum vitae, which is intriguingly similar to mine but consistently a notch or two (or more) better. So I embarked on this book with some hope. And indeed there are glimmers of brilliance. But for a book that in ambition and scope invites comparison with Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel Escher Bach and Stephen Wolfram's A New Kind of Science it offers far too little. Rucker has written too much and blown his mind too far. Verdict: only for Rucker fans.
 

A fun take on some heavy math

The Pea and the Sun: A Mathematical Paradox
by Leonard M. Wapner

April 15, 2009

***

This book is about the Banach-Tarski paradox. It is light and easy to read, with the technical nitty-gritty decently veiled in light banter. The "paradox" is a proof that you can cut a ball into a finite number of pieces and reassemble the pieces into two equally big and equally solid balls. Or one or more bigger balls. This magic trick is done with infinities — you define fractal cuttings that you can twist and hence pull more stuff from infinity. A total cheat, of course, and Tarski should have been spanked for failing to deprecate his "achievement", but there it is. Wapner offers some personal stuff about Banach and Tarski and their milieu, but for that side I prefer the big book on Tarski by Feferman and Feferman.
 

A sober and sobering analysis of European secularism

The Stillborn God: Religion, Politics, and the Modern West
by Mark Lilla

April 15, 2009

***

For anyone seriously concerned to understand the secular trend in Europe over the last few centuries, this is an important and relevant text. Lilla offers a solid and competent analysis of how the Christian concept of God slowly evaporated in Europe as philosophers and others attacked the foundations of faith. Lilla sees this more pessimistically than I would prefer, and fails in my view to rise to an understanding of what is gained in the scientific rationality that we now enjoy in what an American neoconservative a few years ago (I forget who or exactly when) called our "Kantian paradise". I quite like it here myself.
 

The early years of a saint

The Golden String: An Autobiography
by Bede Griffiths

April 15, 2009

****

Bede Griffiths is an exceptional figure, as good a candidate for sainthood as one could hope to find outside the orthodoxy of institutional religion. This candid and lucid autobiography covers Bede's early years, up to the time when he became accepted as a Dominican monk but before he went to India. Since it was in India that he developed the compassionate and shining presence that makes him the very image of sainthood, this book can only whet the appetite for more. Also, to be critical, I found myself unable to celebrate his rejection of modernity in almost all its forms, which for Bede stretch back to the thirteenth century CE. Still, it was helpful for me to appreciate how and why he took this procrustean position.
 

Besser als Science Fiction

Kosmische Doppelgänger: Wie es zum Urknall kam — Wie unzählige Universen entstehen
von Alex Vilenkin

25. November 2007

*****

Wirklich eine großartige Lektüre, die meine Erwartungen weit übertroffen hat. Vilenkin hat eine tiefes Verständnis von den hochfliegenden Ambitionen der Kosmologie, weiß diese auch gut zu vermitteln. Hier lässt er seinen Ideen freien Lauf, ohne dabei die Grenze des wissenschaftlich Vertretbaren zu überschreiten. Er begleitet den Leser auf eine beschwingte Tour durch alle relevanten Themen: die Relativitätstheorie, die Urknalltheorie, Inflation, Symmetriebrechung, Vakuumzerfall, String Theorie, kosmische Zyklen usw. In die Erzählung bringt er etliche persönliche Anekdoten ein, die dem Leser einige charmanten Vertreter der neueren Geschichte der Kosmologie vorstellen. Er fühlt sich sehr zu Hause in diesem Mileu, und seine Freude, Ideen mit diesen Zeitgenossen auszutauschen, kann man auf jeder Seite des Buches miterleben. Insgesamt erzählt Vilenkin eine faszinierende Geschichte, besser als jeder Science Fiction. Mich hat er oft zum Schmunzeln gebracht — mehr als Stephen Hawking, der mit seiner 'Kurzen Geschichte der Zeit' als schärfster Konkurrent in der Welt der großen Ideen für ein breites Publikum gelten mag.
 

Sehr empfehlenswert

Skurrile Quantenwelt
von Silvia Arroyo Camejo

16. März 2006

*****

Wahrlich ein Paradebeispiel, wie man mit subtilem und teilweise paradoxem Stoff unterhaltsam und doch rigoros umgehen kann. So ein Buch hätte ich gern vor vielen Jahren als Jugendlicher gelesen. Darüber hinaus ist das Buch eine äußerst interessante Dokumentation, wie eine unvoreingenom-mene Schülerin sich mit den formalen und konzeptuellen Herausforderungen der Quantenphysik auseinandersetzt. Durch die Lektüre dieses Werkes kommt der Neueinsteiger einem Grundver-ständnis der Quantenmechanik ein ganzes Stuck näher.