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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 39)

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys

Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys

Michael Collins

1974


Truly an inspirational read. Collins' personality comes through perfectly: human, humble, excited by his luck, a keen observer of technical and human features and frailties, not trying to sound other than he is.

This is a book about the space programme taken broadly, perhaps best exemplified by the fact that it takes until page 364 (of 478) to get to the take-off of Apollo 11. Collins talks about his history in joining the programme (at the second attempt), his experiences in the Gemini programme before Apollo, the tensions and differences that went into the design, testing, and flight of the vehicles themselves. He deals frankly with his flight experiences and his lack of jealousy at not actually making a moon landing himself: he probably could have done on a later mission had he not consciously decided beforehand to walk away from spaceflight after Apollo 11. He is fascinating on the subject of his own isolation in the orbiting command module, which he found far from lonely and which led to an amazing exchange with Charles Lindbergh, himself no stranger to solo flight.

His relationship with his flight companions is extraordinary, perhaps because he is the most outgoing of the group (Neil Armstrong coming "a distant second" in terms of self-containment to John Young, his commander on Gemini 10). Collins clearly feels something of a lack in his communications with these other men, in that they interact almost purely technically without sharing their inner experiences: one gets the feeling he would have liked to hear more from them, but realised he could never open them up.

5/5. Finished 08 January 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are

Alan W. Watts

1966


A book that tries to take some of the planned seriousness out of life, recommending a more accepting and present course that enjoys the journey rather than worrying about achieving some future goal. As such, as a way of approaching living, it's an excellent antidote to the cult of self-help and self-actualisation books that currently flourish, and has lost none of its power in the half-century since it was first published.

3/5. Finished 24 December 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life

How Should We Live?: Great Ideas from the Past for Everyday Life

Roman Krznaric

2011


An excellent tour through philosophy and cultural history in search of the good life. There's a lot to like in this book, which is erudite and subtle without being in any way pretentious or a hard read. Starting off discussing the six modes of love recognised by the ancient Greeks, it then proceeds through ideas of travel, belief, work, time, money, and finishes with ways we might improve the ends of our lives (treading a very similar path to that identified by Atul Gawande in Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End). On the way it performs a welcome rehabilitation of Adam Smith and visits the thought of Gandhi, Goethe, and a whole range of less famous (but equally important) innovators.

It's impossible to read a book like this without comparing it to The Consolations of Philosophy. In many ways it's a perfect complement to Alain de Botton's work, similarly addressing modern concerns from the perspective of classical authors. I prefer Krznaric's approach mainly because it's more broadly about art and literature rather than strictly about philosophy, which allows him to draw on a wider range of inspirations. It certainly provides a lot of provocations to leading a better, more thoughtful, and richer life.

5/5. Finished 15 December 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Forensics: The Anatomy of Crime

Val McDermid

2014


An easy-to-read and broad-ranging exploration of forensics. The fact that McDermid is a crime fiction author clearly makes a difference, as she writes with the ease of someone used to making these ideas accessible. The book ranges over all aspects of forensic science, perhaps being strongest on the physical aspects like fingerprinting and DNA profiling. What comes out most strongly is the need for an holistic approach to investigation, the ways in which all the different aspects of a case – physical, psychological, and circumstantial – need to be fitted together to form a consistent scientific and criminal narrative.

4/5. Finished 02 December 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The First Salute

The First Salute

Barbara W. Tuchman

1988


A broad and fast-moving account of the endgame in the American War of Independence.

I'm an enormous fan of Tuchman, but this is far from being her best work. She still has the same eye for detail, same same telling turn of phrase, but the narrative is a little confused and the timeline hard to follow. She deals with some of the same issues in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam, a much better book. I think the weakness in this book stems from her taking an explicitly American perspective ("our country", "our leaders") which is missing from her other work: while she remains as even-handed as ever, and is far from being an American jingoist, it strikes an awkward note.

Having said that, there is huge satisfaction is hearing about the naval side of the war, the decisive influence of sea power on victory, as well as the details of 18th century naval warfare and the various characters involved. I was unaware of the degree to which France – and especially the French navy – was involved directly in the war, to the extent of dramatically affecting and constraining possible British strategic moves. Tuchman describes their motivations with exquisite care, as well as those of the newly-independent Dutch, showing how American independence was only part of the larger game of European power politics.

4/5. Finished 31 October 2015.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)