There Are Places in the World Where Rules Are Less Important Than Kindness

Carlo Rovelli

2018


A collection of essays that showcases the author's quite breathtaking range of interests and erudition, beautifully written – perhaps especially the last essay on the outbreak of covid-19 in Italy. Although I think my favourite is the essay "Ideas don't fall from the sky," where an early-career Rovelli is given unexpected advice from a Nobel prize-winner, that hard work and an immersion in contemporary ideas and their origins is more important that raw talent in achieving success. Spotting contradictions or gaps in the corpus of work in an area often shows where there is new knowledge to be found, and this requires one to be an expert, not necessarily to have superior insights. It's a gratifyingly modest view of science.

Finished on Tue, 19 Oct 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon

David Grann

2009


A retelling of a story that was once front-page news across the world: the disappearance of probably the last of the "gentleman explorers", Percy Harrison Fawcett, his son, and his friend in the Xingu river basin in 1925.

Grann mixes the history – both of Fawcett and of some of the Fawcett-hunters who've emerged over the decades – with his own archival research and explorations around the Xingu. He shows how Fawcett's obsession within finding the lost city of Z (as he called it) led him to falsify the information he gave to others about his intended route. He also traces the growth of the obsession, setting Fawcett's undoubted skills in the jungle with his demanding and unforgiving manner and his gradual eclipse by other, more professional, anthropologists and archaeologists, who decided his ideas about the Amazon being able to support a large civilisation were fatally flawed.

And yet the professionals may have been wrong in their criticisms. A new generation now argues that there might have been exactly such a civilisation, building cities in wood and cultivating large tracts of jungle. Disease wiped them out leaving only subtle traces, such as the earthworks now being re-discovered.

The story trails-off a little at the end, which is perhaps inevitable given that there's been no proper resolution of the disappearance. It's still a great story, of a time not long past when there remained significant gaps on the map.

Finished on Tue, 05 Oct 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

Collected Fictions

Jorge Luis Borges

1998


A dazzling collection of short stories, intellectual without pretension, that weave and re-enter each other in fascinating ways. It's impossible to read this collection without being reminded of other writers' works, and equally hard to decide exactly who influenced whom. Certainly many of the works resemble those of HP Lovecraft in presenting themselves as contemporary or eye-witness accounts of fictional happenings, or as reviews of non-existent books. I was also strongly reminded of one of my favourite Robert Heinlein short stories "The man who travelled in elephants": that same magical realism appearing in a framework that's almost, but not quite, science fiction.

Finished on Sun, 26 Sep 2021 07:35:44 -0700.   Rating 5/5.

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

Michael Lewis

2021


A hard work to classify. It sets out a bleak view of American healthcare in which politics has eroded a system that can, in principle, deal with large-scale medical emergencies – but which i practice has degraded to the point that it can't function at all. In this telling, the covid-19 pandemic was an inevitable tragedy, one that the federal government and the president made worse by their actions (and inactions), but would have been unable to address in any case because the means of control, and of action, have degraded beyond the point of effectiveness. It's especially scathing of the CDC and its false (in the author's view) claims to authority and leadership.

But it makes, in my opinion, a mistake in trying to find a collection of heroes who can serve as independent counterpoints to the institutional failings. Perhaps that's also inevitable in Lewis' journalistic style, and (as always with his books) he does indeed find a cast of memorable and unusual characters. But he suggests that bureaucratic impediments serve no purpose or are malicious, where in fact they serve as important corrections on risk to the public: one may argue that the safeguards should be jettisoned in a pandemic, but not (I think) that their existence per se is unnecessary. More seriously in my view, Lewis inherently promotes the "great man" theory of science (although one of his protagonists is a woman): the idea that individuals can change the course of history, and are held back by the inertia of the scientific "establishment", which in my experience doesn't exist. He also seems to feel that capitalism and private investment are a way forward, despite detailing all the failures of private companies along the way, and despite the evidence from countries other than America as to the power of centralised, planned, government interventions.

Finished on Sun, 19 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma

Matthew Parris


An enjoyable, if limited, read.

The author's hypothesis is that a lot of "great lives" – and he admits to not being able to define what this means clearly – are formed in childhood trauma. Some of the examples (especially Edward Lear and Rudyard Kipling) illustrate this perfectly. But to coverage of the lives chosen, one in detail and then others in a manner that is really rather perfunctory, left me feeling rather short-changed about the lives not fully explored.

But Parris seems to lose conviction in his approach for three of the later chapters, which deal with trauma in fiction. That's a statement about what we find meaningful or entertaining rather than being about biography, and these feel like "fillers" rather than properly contributing to the book.

Finished on Tue, 14 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Nuclear Folly: A History of the Cuban Missile Crisis

Serhii Plokhy

2021


A revisiting of the Cuban missile crisis from more of a Soviet perspective, which is an interesting twist.

It's a view that focuses on the politics in play rather than on the publicly-visible events, and this radically changes the view of what's important. The confrontation at sea, for example, and the famous tussle at the Security Council between Stevenson and Zorin, barely rate mentions. Instead there's consideration of Kennedy's domestic credibility problem in dealing with Krushchev, as well as Krushchev's problem getting out of the situation in which he found himself. It also shows the influence of Fidel Castro, who was far more willing to get into a nuclear war than either of the main protagonists, in spite of the obvious consequences that would have had for Cuba.

Finished on Sun, 12 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Culture Warlords: My Journey Into the Dark Web of White Supremacy

Talia Lavin

2020


Very much a dive into the murk of internet conspiracies and racism: an important book that shines a welcome (if that's the right word) light on how the internet perpetuates and accelerates extremism, and especially how the tropes of past outbreaks (mainly against Jews) re-appear in updated guises time after time.

I think the book would be stronger if it focused more on Lavin's actual experiences in the various fora she explores. Some of the other chapters, while interesting, aren't really about her own journey and so slightly weaken the first-person narrative.

Finished on Sat, 11 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 4/5.

Diary of a Young Naturalist

Dara McAnulty

2020


An insightful and moving reflection, as much about a young man's struggles with autism as about the environment. But it also indirectly highlights the strengths of introversion and autism, the ability to perceive the important things and to identify mistakes and charletainry wherever they appear.

Finished on Sat, 04 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.

Invasive Aliens: The Plants and Animals from Over There That Are Over Here

Dan Eatherley


The story of plants and animals invading the UK, mainly (though not entirely) with human intervention. Full of anecdotes and strange twists as species interact.

It's hard to say whether the overall impact of invasive species is positive or negative. It's remarkable that many species that invade other countries do better there than they did at home, which is a positive for global biodiversity in a sense. I also hadn't realised how deliberate a lot of introductions were, and how two-way they went between Europe and the "New World".

Finished on Wed, 01 Sep 2021 00:00:00 -0700.   Rating 3/5.