Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics

Stephen Greenblatt


An analysis of Shakespeare's treatment of tyranny in several plays: the Henry VI series, Richard III, Macbeth, King Lear, A Winter's Tale, and Coriolanus. All fascinating discussions as they stand, written by an individual who's clearly a deep Shakespeare scholar – but also cleverly addressing contemporary political themes and events. Make England Great Again!

As with much such scholarship, it often begs the question of how much Shakespeare really meant what is imputed to him: to what extent is his writing a mirror onto which we can project any theme of interest? Perhaps that's not such an interesting question in this case, though, as the reflections cast by the plays – histories and tragedies, including a couple considerably less well-read or -performed in modern times – are really illuminating of the timelessness of events that sometimes feel like they're uniquely modern, rather than be reiterations at some level of eternal themes. The power of this is shown by the fact that this book was published well before some of the events that it parallels, such as the 6 January 2021 storming of the US Capitol. That I think makes clear the depth of the historical context.

Finished on Tue, 08 Jun 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Everest the Cruel Way

Joe Tasker


A classic of mountaineering, although not to the same extent as Savage Arena, Tasker's other (later) book.

This is the story of an ill-fated expedition to climb Everest by an unusual route, in winter. The challenge was too great and the team had to turn back, plagued by illness and atrocious weather. But that in no way diminishes their achievement, and they laid the ground work for later winter expeditions to the Himalayas having exposed exactly how cruel the wind in particular made climbing in that season.

Tasker is quite an acute observer of his partners, especially of their strengths as climbers and team-mates. He himself comes through less strongly, and this is a far less personally revealing account than is "Savage Arena". It's probably best read as an inspiring tale of what can be achieved even when short of ultimate success.

Finished on Mon, 07 Jun 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Labours of Love: The Crisis of Care

Madeleine Bunting

Part policy exploration, part history, part memoir, and part anthropological study, this is a detailed and deeply worrying take on the state of modern British healthcare – the most loved and trusted part of the British State that has been under constant attack for decades. Why is that? – why would politicians seeking the approval of voters nevertheless fail to support and recognise the one thing that all voters admire? And do so with such fake affectations of care?

The notion of "care" itself, both as a noun and as a verb. comes under scrutiny. It's a word that's replaced a rich vocabulary of terms, bring aspects of medical and social services that were all previously regarded as separate under a single rubric. And perhaps that's the root of the problem. By destroying the subtlety in search of management and measurement, it becomes easier to neglect the essence of what's being provided and turn social care (and mental health care in particular) into "Cinderella services" adrift from public attention.

Finished on Sat, 05 Jun 2021 04:33:32 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Living Mountain

Nan Shepherd


Here then may be a life of the senses so pure, so untouched by any
mode of apprehension but their own, that the body may be said to
think. Each sense heightened to its most exquisite awareness is in
itself total experience. This is the innocence we have lost, living in
one sense at a time to live all the way through. ... The many details
– a stroke here, a stroke there – come for a moment into perfect
focus, and one can read at last the word that has been from the

Jeanette Winterson, in her afterword to this edition, describes the book as a "geo-poetic exploration of the Cairngorms". That's a good description, though incomplete: this is a meditation on mountains and mountain-centred living in all its forms, often quite breathtaking in its imagery and always rather meditative and spiritual in its perception of the wholeness of the environment.

The style of writing itself is fascinating, almost Victorian but without the heaviness. The grammar is flawless, which in itself is quite dated and dating, and every now and again there are some passages that jump off the page with their insight and lucidity. It's a book I want to take into the mountains to read in the situation of its conception.

Finished on Sat, 05 Jun 2021 04:26:48 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

To Be a Machine: Adventures Among Cyborgs, Utopians, Hackers, and the Futurists Solving the Modest Problem of Death

Mark O'Connell


A review of transhumanist ideas by an avowed sceptic.

Transhumanism is a difficult belief system to tackle. At its more extreme end it rests on the idea of the "singularity", the point at which scientific and technological problem-solving become so advanced that any solvable problem is solvable quickly – which of course includes the "problems" of sickness, death, brain uploading, and a host of other radical ideas. (In recent years the singularity is assumed to involve super-intelligent AI, although that wasn't originally the conception, and such AI could be regarded as a consequence rather than a cause of the singularity.)

It's an easy notion to ridicule, which this book sets out to do, and does well. But the long-term notion of accelerating progress isn't as fragile as it can be made to appear. The ideas deserve a better exploration than this book attempts. It's good for laughs and for making the participants sound like either idiots or charlatans – and maybe they are, but there's also some interesting and solid science going on that goes beyond these stereotypes, beyond those seeking publicity rather than knowledge.

Finished on Sat, 15 May 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot

Robert Macfarlane


A beautiful and poignant volume that's hard to categorise: part travelogue, part biography of the poet Edward Thomas, part meditation, part exploration. Macfarlane traces old footpaths, from the South Downs to the Hebrides to Palestine, reading the landscape and the marks that people have left on it. He follows the diversions as he encounters them, musing about the "pathways" in the sea that are clear and long-lived despite being written in the water, formed from the ways in which current and wind interact to lay down the "natural" route to travel before powered craft. He spends night under the stars, including a rather unnerving and supernatural encounter while sleeping (ill-advisedly, as he puts it) in a neolithic ring. And he brings out literary gems, such as the relationship between Thomas (whose work I've now been inspired to read) and Robert Frost's poem The road not taken. Altogether a delight to read.

Finished on Tue, 04 May 2021 14:00:37 -0700.   Rating 5/5.