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7-Mar-2014
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The following are mini-reviews of books I read in 1997.
Also see the full index of books I've read.


  [Book cover]

Jerusalem: One City, Three Faiths

by Karen Armstrong (Wikipedia)
This is not a book to read immediately after Carl Sagan's The Demon-Haunted World! After Sagan's spirited defense of Western rationalism, Karen Armstrong's history of Jerusalem and of the "irrational" attachment of Jews, Christians, and Muslims to the city required a radical shift in gears.
Jerusalem was an interesting, although, at times, not a compelling, book to read. It is definitely worth reading if, like me, you don't know much about the history of the Mideast. Jerusalem's 3000-year history, as recounted by Armstrong, is a seemingly endless cycle of intolerance-induced tragedy. Christians come off the worst in Armstrong's telling, Jews somewhat less so, and Muslims are generally portrayed as the most tolerant and benign in their treatment of "infidels". (Of course, all three faiths have had tolerant and intolerant rulers, which leads one to draw the conclusion that the personality of the ruler may have more bearing on the mindset of a regime than the predominant religion.)
Throughout the book, Armstrong reminds the reader that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam all stress the primacy of practical compassion for the poor and needy, and that all three religions have, for the most part, fallen short of their ideals. As Armstrong says in the final chapter of the book:
All the major world faiths have insisted on the importance of transcending the fragile and voracious ego, which so often denigrates others in its yearning for security. Leaving the self behind is not only a mystical objective; it is required also by the disciplines of compassion, which demand that we put the rights of others before our own selfish desires.
and
As soon as the prime duty to respect the divinity enshrined in other human beings is forgotten, "God" can be made to give a divine seal of absolute approval to our own prejudices and desires. Religion then becomes a breeding ground for violence and cruelty.
 

Felix Holt, The Radical

by George Eliot (Wikipedia), edited and with an introduction by Peter Coveney
(If you get the paperback edited by Peter Coveney, don't read the footnotes. They mostly concern the manuscript and, in pointing out the significance of a passage in Chapter 3, I think, he gave away part of the story - aarrgghh!)
This is a book about politics and privilege (and lack of privilege) in the 1830's. Since Felix is, for the most part, overshadowed by some of the other characters in the story, an apter title might be Esther Lyon, The Lady. Like some of Eliot's other novels, it took several hundred pages before I really got involved in the story. There's a surprise twist in the end, but the story is finished off in the next few pages; a more developed ending would have been desirable. Coveney points out in the introduction that Felix Holt is of somewhat uneven quality, being a transition between Eliot's earlier novels and her later novels.
An appendix to the book includes the separately published, "Address to Working Men", a political speech "attributed" to Felix Holt. The speech could just as well be given today, but it's lloonngg - Eliot should have heeded Harold Transome's advice to Felix Holt and quit while she was ahead!
Quotes, of course! And I mustn't forget to mention Eliot's use of a term I first heard in a Kevin Coyne song; from Chapter 11 of Felix Holt: "Mr Chubb's notion of a Radical was that he was a new and agreeable kind of lick-spittle who fawned on the poor instead of on the rich, and so was likely to send customers to a 'public'."
 

"Programming Languages: Past, Present, and Future"

by Peter Trott in ACM SIGPLAN Notices (Volume 32, Number 1)
This is not a book, but it is must reading for computer programmers! Icons in the computer science field were asked for their views on the past, present, and future of programming languages. Their answers reveal a lot of well-grounded wisdom, good senses of humor, and, for those of us who only know them through the printed page, their human side. Some highlights:
  [Book cover]

The Emperor's New Mind

by Roger Penrose
Late in the book, Dr. Penrose puts himself in the place of the reader:
That is as may be, the reader is no doubt thinking, but what has all this to do with WCH [Weyl Curvature Hypothesis] or CQG [Correct Quantum Gravity]?
Well, actually, that question hadn't occurred to me!
The Emperor's New Mind is purportedly an attack on strong AI, whose proponents believe that, given a sophisticated enough algorithm, a computer (or any computing machine) can emulate the mind; in fact, a machine executing such an algorithm may be said to be conscious. Penrose, in contrast, argues that the workings of the brain are not computable and/or not algorithmic in nature. To buttress his argument, Penrose takes us on what Martin Gardner (in the foreword) calls "a dazzling tour that covers such topics as complex numbers, Turing machines, complexity theory, the bewildering paradoxes of quantum mechanics, formal systems, Gödel undecidability, phase spaces, Hilbert spaces, black holes, white holes, Hawking radiation, entropy, the structure of the brain, and scores of other topics at the heart of current speculations."
The first third of The Emperor's New Mind discusses algorithms and computability from a mathematical viewpoint; the second third of the book covers classical physics and quantum physics; and the last third of the book touches on cosmology, quantum gravity, and, finally, the brain. Surprisingly (to me!), I enjoyed the math section and even understood some of the informal proofs. However, Penrose completely lost me midway into classical physics - and quantum physics was a hopeless cause! As Penrose himself suggests, skim over the stuff you don't understand, but keep your eyes open for the interesting explanations, conclusions, and anecdotes that are scattered throughout the text.
The Emperor's New Mind was a tough book to read; someone with sufficient background could probably breeze through it and even make sensible comments on Penrose's arguments. Me, I didn't worry too much about what he was trying to prove; I simply enjoyed reading the book. I was a little disappointed that Penrose didn't delve further into AI, which is rarely mentioned after the first chapter.
(See Edmund Furse's arguments for strong AI in " A Theology of Robots". Also, the World of Escher features a Penrose biography and mathematical puzzles.)
  [Book cover]

The Inferno of Dante: A New Verse Translation

by Dante Alighieri, translation by Robert Pinsky
After struggling through Penrose's chapter on quantum physics, I came down with a bad cold and I needed something a little lighter to read: an Ellery Queen collection of mystery stories from assorted authors, Charles and Mary Lamb's Tales from Shakespeare, and Dante's Inferno. I had tried reading the latter some 20 years ago in what must have been an awkward, fairly literal translation. Pinsky's contemporary translation, in contrast, reads easily and is very fluid and beautiful. I occasionally glanced over at the Italian original on each facing page; to read the poem in its original language must be a prized experience - out of my reach unfortunately!
(Also see a fuller review, the NYRB review, and an interesting, on-line column with links from The Atlantic Monthly.)
  [Book cover]

Would-Be Worlds: How Simulation is Changing the Frontiers of Science

by John L. Casti
Would-Be Worlds describes a number of computer simulation projects in particular and, more generally, the characteristics of a good simulation and the limits of simulation. The book is a fairly quick read; it doesn't delve so deeply into any one topic as to scare you off. Casti's writing makes you interested in finding out more about what he discusses and the annotated bibliography both suggests and comments on further references for the layman.
I did have one quibble or question. Casti states that a simulation is "always" more complex than the thing being simulated. Is this always true? Casti uses the example of one brand of printer that emulates another brand of printer; the first brand must manage both its own states and the states of the emulated brand. I understand Casti's point, but he doesn't explicitly say that the level of complexity depends on what level of implementation you examine. I was reminded of the Windows emulators for UNIX workstations that, as I have read, interpret the Windows application code, but translate systems calls (e.g., to render a window) into native system calls; the underlying Windows kernel, rather than being interpreted itself, is replaced by the faster (and possibly less complex) native operating system. Anyway, just a minor quibble from a minor personage!
 

Microbes and Man

by John Postgate
Microbes and Man book drives home the point that the higher-level forms of life are just noise in the big spectrum of life - microbes rule! (I understand that Stephen Jay Gould says much the same in Full House.) Although the book is not long, Postgate lays out in abundant, but interesting, detail the incredibly diverse nature of microbes and their overwhelming presence in the world.
  [Book cover]

Privileged Hands: A Scientific Life

by Geerat J. Vermeij
The enjoyable autobiography of a blind marine biologist (or paleobioligist or paleoecologist or whatever). His specialty is mollusks, so be prepared for frequent talk of shells.
Midway through the book, Dr. Vermeij admits to a penchant for bad puns, which you'll find sprinkled throughout the book. For example, a volcanic ash-covered, but otherwise idyllic, island is called "The Pumiced Land". Groan! :)
(Also see "Blind Professor Receives MacArthur Award" and the Population Biology Group.)
 

The Collected Stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer

by Isaac Bashevis Singer
I originally bought and read this book back in the early 1980's. I must confess that, prior to then, I kept misreading "Isaac Bashevis Singer's ..." in an ad for a play as "Isaac Bashevis Singers", so I thought he was a choral group! A fellow student in college set me straight.
The short stories are, for the most part, excellent. Only 4 or 5 out of the 47 stories, including Yentl the Yeshiva Boy, have not unhappy endings. (And "not unhappy" is not meant to imply "happy".)
A couple of quotes from Old Love:
Why was it impossible to remember dreams? He could recall every detail of events that had happened seventy and even seventy-five years ago, but tonight's dreams dissolved like foam. Some force made sure that not a trace of them remained. A third of a person's life died before he went to his grave.
and
What flavor did his existence possess? No, his life made no sense whatsoever - but did that of his neighbors make more sense?
  [Book cover]

In the Beginning: A New Interpretation of Genesis

by Karen Armstrong (Wikipedia)
I don't know if I would call this a book and I don't know how "new" the author's interpretation is. The first half of the book is Karen Armstrong's interesting, but all too brief, musings on Genesis; the second half of the book is Genesis itself. She points out that the important characters in Genesis were not exactly paragons of virtue; the stories we simply absorbed as children in Sunday School are actually evidence of extremely "dysfunctional" families. The writers and compilers of Genesis were not trying to present some fundamentalist, "family values" ideal, but, instead, had a very realistic view of human nature.
  [Rabindranath Tagore]

Rabindranath Tagore: The Myriad-Minded Man

by Krishna Dutta and Andrew Robinson
I had never heard of Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) before, but an article, "Tagore and His India", by Amartya Sen in the June 26, 1997 issue of The New York Review of Books piqued my interest. Dutta and Robinson make interesting reading out of even the most mundane aspects of Tagore's life (a quality which reminded me of Colin Powell's autobiography) and Tagore's life was far from mundane.
A seeming combination of Tolstoy and Gandhi, Tagore didn't care for the former's writings and differed with the latter on the best direction for India as it struggled for independence. In addition to his literary achievements, Tagore, like Tolstoy, was also interested in education (despite or perhaps because of his own disdain for formal education) and founded his own school, Santiniketan, which consumed his energy and resources throughout the latter half of his life. From Tagore's My Reminiscences:
The main object of teaching is not to give explanations, but to knock at the doors of the mind. If any boy is asked to give an account of what is awakened in him by such knocking, he will probably say something silly. For what happens within is much bigger than what comes out in words.
Tagore took issue with Gandhi on the means to and ends of attaining India's independence. As someone who believed in combining the best from different cultures and from technological progress, Tagore disagreed with Gandhi's appeals to nationalism and Gandhi's vision of an essentially agrarian future for India. For my Greek friend, Thanos, I quote from "The Call of Truth" in Tagore's collection of essays, Towards Universal Man:
Sparta tried to gain strength by narrowing herself down to a particular purpose, but she did not win. Athens sought to attain perfection by opening herself out in all her fullness - and she did win. Her flag of victory still flies at the masthead of man's civilization.
Tagore died in 1941, six years before India achieved its independence in 1947. As Dutta and Robinson suggest, Gandhi's ideas won out - and were perhaps necessary - in the short term, but Tagore's ideas are gaining ground in the long run.
[Tagore and Elmhirst]
Like all intellectual giants, Tagore was not immune to the usual human flaws. Particularly disturbing to me (and, in later years, Tagore himself) was his disdainful treatment of his wife and his rush to marry two daughters at the ages of 14 and 10 so that they wouldn't hamper his efforts at founding Santiniketan.
An interesting personal note: Tagore's close friend Leonard Elmhirst studied agriculture at Cornell around 1920 - the same time, same place, and same subject as my grandfather. Given the small size of the school at the time, my father is sure my grandfather would have known Elmhirst. If this biography had only been written - and read by me! - 20 years earlier ...
(Also see Sandeep Mitra's Rabindranath Tagore page, which includes an excellent and lengthy overview of Tagore's life and achievements by Monish Chatterjee; INDOlink's poetry collection; and an essay on modern poetry by Tagore himself.)
  [Book cover]

Getting Control: Overcoming Your Obsessions and Compulsions

by Lee Baer
The classic on OCD, and rightly so ...
 

A Malamud Reader

by Bernard Malamud, with an introduction by Philip Rahv
I picked up this book back in the late 1970's after Malamud's stories were recommended to me by a fellow library employee, Barry Rubin (now a geography professor?). A Malamud Reader consists of a few short stories, some excerpts from The Fixer and The Natural, and the full text of The Assistant. Dismal and depressing, the last surely qualifies Malamud as a Jewish Thomas Hardy: just when you thought nothing else could go wrong, something does. Well worth reading.
See "My Father is a Book", by Janna Malamud Smith, Malamud's daughter. Also, Keiichi Shimada's Unofficial Bernard Malamud Home Page (UBMHP).
  [Book cover]

Kinds of Minds: Toward an Understanding of Consciousness

by Daniel C. Dennett
If you can wade through the philosophical gobbledygook at the beginning (and which surfaces occasionally thereafter), Kinds of Minds makes for enjoyable, though brief, reading. The book is full of alternate ways of looking at things. For example, Dennett discusses the role of time scales in the perception of intelligence. A speeded-up video of a flower opening up towards the sun makes it seem as if there is some intelligence present, driving the flower's "behavior". If aliens whose minds were 1000 times quicker than ours were to visit Earth, would they think humans had, collectively, the IQ of a tree? And, with respect to spatial scales, Dennett asks if an otter would look as playful viewed through a microscope?
 

Scenes of Clerical Life

by George Eliot (Wikipedia)
(It helps to write a review immediately after reading a book, rather than waiting a couple of months!) George Eliot's first "novel" is actually a compilation of three stories, all dealing with clerics: "The Sad Fortunes of Reverend Amos Barton", "Mr. Gilfil's Love-Story", and "Janet's Repentance". Eliot positioned herself as an observer of these scenes and, particularly in the first story, but decreasingly so in the latter stories, there is too much prose of the following sort: "Now we see so-and-so doing such-and-such ..." As a result, "Amos Barton" tended to drag, although it has a poignant ending; "Mr. Gilfil" was more interesting and moved a little faster. "Janet's Repentance" was the best of the lot and quite good in its own right. Eliot's wisdom and humor are evident, but not as well-honed as they would be in her later books.
I found out after reading a biography of George Eliot that all three stories are based on events she experienced or heard about in her youth. A contemporary review of Scenes from Clerical Life was published in an 1858 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.
  [Book cover]

Questioning the Millennium: A Rationalist's Guide to a Precisely Arbitrary Countdown

by Stephen Jay Gould (Wikipedia)
A delightful book and a quick read; it even has a surprise ending. Several things I learned from reading this book: (Also see another a two-part column by Gould himself in USA Weekend.)
 

A Woman of Contradictions: The Life of George Eliot

by Ina Taylor
This biography, my first, presents a sympathetic, but not altogether flattering, portrait of George Eliot. I enjoyed reading the book, but I would not recommend it to someone already knowledgeable about Eliot - the writing almost seemed aimed at a younger audience (although the content is not) and there were too frequent instances of poor grammar. On the other hand, I learned a lot about Eliot from reading the book (which moves along at a nice pace) and Taylor did a good job relating people and events in Eliot's life to people and events in her books.
  [Book cover]

How We Die: Reflections on Life's Final Chapter

by Sherwin B. Nuland, MD (Wikipedia)
(This review was written in the Fall of 1998, nearly a year after I read the book, so any erroneous or misleading statements in the review are the fault of my hazy memory, not of Dr. Nuland.)
This is a very, very difficult book to read, especially if one of the topics discussed hits close to home. Dr. Nuland, a long-time surgeon and professor, describes how people die, focusing in particular on: heart disease and old age; Alzheimer's disease; murder; accidents, suicides, and euthanasia; AIDS; and cancer.
When I began reading the book one night, one of the first things Dr. Nuland covered in excruciating detail was congestive heart failure. Coincidentally, my father (who had had severe heart problems since a heart attack in 1984) was exhibiting the same symptoms of the end stages of congestive heart failure that Dr. Nuland described: swollen legs and abdomen, very low blood pressure, etc. In effect, Dr. Nuland said, you drown in the accumulating fluid; it didn't sound like a pleasant way to go. Needless to say, I got almost no sleep that night. My father had a scheduled appointment with his cardiologist within a couple of days and the doctor immediately sent him to the hospital emergency room. Fortunately, a steady stream of Lasix® eliminated the fluid build-up. (My father died a few months later, but, thankfully, he didn't suffer through the final stages of - I suppose Dr. Nuland meant untreated - congestive heart failure.)
Towards the end of the book, Dr. Nuland talks about "The Riddle", the intellectual challenge presented by a patient's illness, the solving of which provides the doctor with intellectual satisfaction, a prime motivator in his/her pursuit of the patient's cure. As a computer programmer, I can understand this and, indeed, would even expect it from medical professionals. Unfortunately, computer programs are generally fixable; human beings, as Dr. Nuland points out, are not so easily cured and, in some cases, no cure is possible. If the patient's condition is not responding to the doctor's efforts, the doctor, deprived of this intellectual satisfaction, may lose interest in the case and distance him- or herself from the patient or, when the outlook is hopeless, may continue pursuing a cure and push care past the point of being beneficial to the patient.
In 1986, my father underwent 14 hours of heart surgery and slipped into a coma two days later. For the next week, my mother couldn't get any of the doctors to talk to her about my father's condition. The lead nurse in the Intensive Care Unit told my mother that it was common for doctors to make themselves scarce when their handiwork is an apparent "failure". Finally, a thoracic surgeon tangentially involved in the case kindly sat down with my mother and discussed Dad's condition with her. (My father emerged from the coma a couple of weeks later and was released from the hospital several weeks after that.) My mother liked this surgeon, who dressed himself from head to toe by mail from L. L. Bean, so much that she later bought the same L. L. Bean shoes he wore for my three brothers and me - "Dr. Henrikus (sp?) shoes", we called them!
How We Die is not an enjoyable read, although it is well-written and well-worth reading. In my own case, it provided me with an objective understanding (and thereby a somewhat distanced perspective) of my father's failing health and eventual death that was of some comfort to me at the time, despite my being, in actuality, intimately involved in the process. Afterwards, of course, when the grief finally sank in, the book just seemed a memory! Still, I'm glad I read it.
Two of the most interesting points made in How We Die are that (i) "death with dignity" is rare and (ii), if you live long enough, you'll die of old age! The latter point was brought up with regard to the requirement for the doctor to specify a single cause of death on a death certificate. In a person of sufficiently advanced age, it's simply a roll of the dice which organ fails first. A pathologist colleague of Dr. Nuland's who had performed many autopsies on elderly decedents reported that the internal organs of people of comparable ages showed comparable signs of "decay"; e.g., an 80-year-old man who runs five miles a day is likely to have a similarly advanced state of heart disease as an 80-year-old man who is showing the symptoms.
A word of warning: The chapter on murder, titled "Murder and Serenity", is very disturbing, particularly for parents. Serenity? It has to do with the way the body attempts to protect itself after a sudden, violent, physical assault (not necessarily a human attack) by going into shock. Consequently, the victim may initially be oblivious to the pain and horror of the attack and may even appear serene. Dr. Nuland gives the example of a soldier wounded in battle who keeps on fighting - the pain surfaces later.
(Also see the review in First Things, the review in Doctor-Patient Studies, and the book page at Growth House, Inc., "The Yahoo of Death and Dying".)
  George Eliot

The Impressions of Theophrastus Such

by George Eliot (Wikipedia)
A relatively short book, but a slow read - at least for me! I read the three books above concurrently with this one. Eliot's last published book, Impressions is a collection of character sketches, each sketch focusing on a particular human foible. (Theoprastus, Aristotle's favorite student and successor, is the author of a similar, but much earlier, collection of sketches, The Characters; hence Eliot's title.) Her writing is superb; I just didn't find the sketches holding my interest like her novels do. The last two chapters of the book I liked the best: "Shadows of the Coming Race", a look into the future of self-reliant, self-replicating robots with no need for humans, and Eliot's famous "The Modern Hep! Hep! Hep!", an examination of the pros and cons of nationalistic feelings, especially with regard to Jews.
The Impressions of Theophrastus Such is one long quotable quote, so I didn't pull as many quotes out of the book as I have from Eliot's novels.
(Also see the University of Iowa Press publication announcement and the unrelated Electronic Theophrastus Project.)
  [Book cover]

The Moral Intelligence of Children

by Robert Coles
...
  [Book cover]

Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin

by Stephen Jay Gould (Wikipedia)
...
(Also see Richard Dawkins' review of Life's Grandeur, as it was titled in England.)
  [Book cover]

Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities

by John M. Ellis
After reading Johnathan Yardley's review in The Washington Post, I had looked forward to reading this book. I was disappointed. The first chapter, "The Origins of Political Correctness", is excellent and briefly, but effectively, explodes the arguments of the "race-gender-class critics" who are the root of the problem. However, the remainder of the book, seemingly well-organized into separate discussions of the gender, race, and class arguments, struck me as consisting of little more than unrelated anecdotes strung together. Infuriating anecdotes in many cases (e.g., the literature professor who is bored by literature and Fredric Jameson's hilarious deconstruction of the movie Jaws), but a coherent line of reasoning eluded me. I got the impression that Dr. Ellis has a chip on his shoulder about the 1960's and, as Yardley says in his review, "Ellis is given, unfortunately, to invective, which is to say that from time to time he gets into the mud with the opposition." To round the book off, in the final chapter Dr. Ellis blames the rise of race-gender-class criticism and the decline of the humanities on - you guessed it - affirmative action!
Make no mistake, I share Dr. Ellis' distress about the misguidedness of what he describes; I am perhaps not familiar enough with all the players to come away with a more favorable impression of his book. I too think that Western Enlightenment values hold out the best hope for the world, a timely viewpoint given current events as I write this review (Fall 1998, a year after I read the book): Asian economies collapsing; numerous ethnic and tribal conflicts in Africa, Bosnia, and elsewhere; Iran poised for war with Afghanistan; India and Pakistan at nuclear loggerheads; etc.
My recommendation? Read Jonathan Yardley's review and the first chapter of the book, on-line at The Washington Post's web site (follow the links above). (Also see the the Yale University Press publication announcement. For a flavor of the debate, see Karen Lehrman's article in Mother Jones on women's studies programs, "Off Course", and some responses.)

Alex Measday  /  E-mail