The Duke's Cut: Bridgewater Canal

Cyril J Wood

2009


A companion to the author's work on the Manchester Ship Canal. This one is a bit lighter on the process of actually digging the canal, perhaps because it's older and perhaps because there's little more to say than that it was in fact dug, by hand.

Finished on Sat, 25 Jul 2020 06:26:44 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.

Ashenden

W. Somerset Maugham

1927


Better thought of as a sequence of related short stories rather than a novel, and more Leslie Charteris than Ian Fleming. If you can get past the casual racism (completely normal for the time) then it's an interesting take on the life of an intelligence operative.

Finished on Sat, 25 Jul 2020 06:22:13 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.

Crusaders: An Epic History Of The Wars For The Holy Lands

Dan Jones

2019


A fantastic narrative history, far broader in scope than might be expected from the sub-title, covering the extended campaigns in Spain and the Baltic as well as the familiar Latin Crusader States. That does make the coverage a little lighter, but Jones has covered much of the same ground form a different perspective in the (equally excellent) The Templars: The Rise and Spectacular Fall of God's Holy Warriors.

Finished on Thu, 23 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5*/5*.

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test

Tom Wolfe

1968


If you've ever wondered what it's like to think, talk, and operate while on acid, I suspect that reading this book is the closest you'll get to it without pharmacological intervention....

I decided to tread this after reading How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence, a far more studious and measured encounter with psychedelics. This, by contrast, is a full-on trip in its own right featuring the Merry Pranksters, the Hell's Angels, the Grateful Dead, the Beatles (kind of), and what does sound like a pretty idyllic lifestyle amid the California woodlands.

The "electric Kool-Aid acid test" of the title is one such event, a happening in downtown LA at which the Pranksters provided the catering and spiked the punch – in fairness to them, not thinking anyone could possibly be surprised that this would happen as an event billed as an acid test. Mayhem predictably ensues.

The book is a showcase for what a superb writer Wolfe is. To be able to pull off a book that simultaneously makes sense while reading like a stream of consciousness is quite a feat. It's a challenging read in spite of this, but full of colour and texture from an age now passed and probably beyond retrieval.

Finished on Fri, 10 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3*/5*.

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of an Intellectual Life

Zena Hitz

2020


A clear and quite moving paean to academic life – as it was, and perhaps should be.

The author's short history possibly applies to a lot of people. Hitz studied at a small liberal arts college in the US which emphasised small-group, open-ended discussions. This is a poor preparation for "real" academia, with larger classes and a rather cut-throat "publish or perish" culture. It's enough to drive her out of academia and into a religious retreat.

These are common concerns amongst academics, especially those not fortunate enough to work in institutions that still value and focus on small-group teaching, as it Hitz' plea for a culture less driven for the concrete, measurable, value or usefulness of what's taught. These are easy values to approve of as an academic, but harder to deliver on in the face of students whose studies burden them with debt and who are almost all pursing their studies – at least in part – because of perceived advantage in the workplace. It's usually not the only reason, in my experience, but it does demand a realistic approach to questions of usefulness. There's a discussion that could follow on form this book about the ways in which we capture and express the value of critical and creative thinking, in humanities and sciences, in ways that students can appreciate and judge.

As with many books of this type, it can leave scientists feeling marginalised, not covered by the meaning of the word intellectual as the author uses it. I don't think it's intended in this case, and Hitz makes several references to mathematics and science in academia, but the thrust is definitely more into the humanities where perhaps the question of "usefulness" (and the need to defend a subject) is more felt more keenly

Finished on Thu, 02 Jul 2020 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.

Lord of Light

Roger Zelazny

1967


Often regarded as Zelazny's masterpiece, and it's easy to see why (although personally I prefer Amber, of which there are echoes here). A complex tale told somewhat non-linearly, and there are more echoes from the "real" history of the Hindu pantheon that is being re-enacted (or maybe acted for the first time?) on a world colonised from Earth.

Finished on Sat, 27 Jun 2020 10:07:25 -0700.   Rating 4*/5*.