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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 40)

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words

Randall Munroe

2015


Complicated stuff explained in simple words.

It's hard to decide how to classify Thing explainer. On the one hand it should be a children's book: I once owned a book called "What makes it go?" that did a similar job. And Monroe does an excellent job at explaining things that children will want to know about: the US space team's up-goer five, Earth's past, the Big thing tiny hitter, and more. And also some things they hopefully won't want to know too much about, like the Machine for burning cities.

But there's also something of a conceit to the book, in that it's limiting its vocabulary for effect and not simply for clarity of explanation. That makes some things a lot harder than they need to be, and marks the book out as really not for children at all.

That being said, it's extremely enjoyable, as well-written and well-illustrated as What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions and the rest of xkcd. Definitely to be recommended.

4/5. Finished 28 February 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki

Essays in Idleness and Hōjōki

Yoshida Kenkō

1332


Two medieval Japanese classics in one.

Hojoki is a a short, simple parable of a monk's efforts towards enlightenment. There's a sting in the tail whereby, after describing his efforts to simplify his life, Chomei (the author) then concludes that he's become too attached to his own efforts, that his road to enlightenment is actually a source of attachment in its own right. In that sense the essay is almost a lengthy Zen koan on the dangers of pride, attachment, and effort.

Kenko's Essays in idleness is much harder to define, by contrast. It's part philosophy, part a gossipy history of events and anecdotes in a lost era. There are some fabulously quotable sections:


What happiness it is to sit in intimate conversation with someone of like mind, warmed by candid discussion of the amusing and fleeting ways of the world. But such a friend is hard to find, and instead you sit there doing your best to fit in with whatever the other is saying, feeling deeply alone.


and:


It is a most wonderful comfort to sit alone beneath a lamp, book spread before you, and coming with someone from the past whom you have never met


Amongst the anecdotes are some really wonderful examples of Japanese manners that are to some degree maintained into the present, for example of the right (and wrong) ways to put oneself forward to do something for someone else, without in the process claiming any undue worth or ability for oneself. And it's fascinating that Kenko, writing in the twelfth century, complains in surprisingly modern terms about how is age is shallow and uncultured compared to elder times: a complaint that never seems to age. It's precisely this mixture of the sublime and the commonplace that makes the Essays such a joy for me.

4/5. Finished 27 February 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Travels With Epicurus

Travels With Epicurus

Daniel Klein

2012


A meditation is exactly what this book is: a wandering, thoughtful, and ultimately open-ended examination of aging and what it means to age well. The author is a knowledgeable philosopher, well able to explain the thoughts of a dazzling range of thinkers. In the end – and to the extent that the book has a conclusion – he seems to arrive at a measure of Zen mindfulness: a valuable old age is best achieved by being the old man, by exploring what the state has to offer, and not wanting it to be other than it is.

4/5. Finished 11 February 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country

The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World's Happiest Country

Helen Russell

2015


Fluffy and without pretensions, this is a fun and mildly entertaining read, half unserious cultural analysis and half displaced biography. But there's a lot to be learned from Danish culture for those of us from other (or, as the Danes would possibly say if they weren't too polite, less developed) cultures, not least the importance of getting away from the stresses of industrial life. It doesn't convince me to move, I have to say (not least because I already know that I don't like pickled herring and excessive numbers of rules), but the power of tradition and ubiquity of festivals and entertainment do make it sound inviting.

3/5. Finished 30 January 2016.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)