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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 50)

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House

Michael Wolff

2018


What can one say about a journey to the centre of the most disruptive and controversial White House of modern times? That is happened at all is amazing: that this book gives such a clear and (I would say) generally reasonably balanced view makes it a major contribution to political literature.

Wolff describes an administration at war with itself, a medieval court in which factions form and dissipate while seeking the attention of the monarch – and truly there's no other way to describe Donald Trump, who sits at the centre of the book while remaining curiously absent as an individual. Trump comes across as a bundle of contradictions: an outsider who took on the system and won, but someone pathologically requiring attention and submission from all around him while simultaneously hating those who engage in this behaviour; someone unable to control his attention of impulses at the most basic level; someone who personalises everything, seeing every interaction as a zero-sum game in another's gain must be his loss; and who is managing the presidency through, and for the benefit of, his own family.

It's clear that Wolff thinks Trump is uniquely unsuited to the role of president, and is surrounded by staff who's main task is to offer protection in both directions: protecting Trump from the world, but equally protecting the world from Trump. It's also clear, I think, that Wolff's Trump is suffering from dementia.

The book is marred by its writing style. There are rambling and often too-detailed sub-clauses – usually within hyphens – that often make sentences appalling difficult to read. And there are some jarring word uses ("hortatory"? really?) that add nothing and give the impression of someone trying too hard in places. Still, it's a compelling read, both as history and warning.

4/5. Finished 03 March 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Book of Iona: An Anthology

The Book of Iona: An Anthology

Robert Crawford

2016


An anthology that rally gives a taste of the island. Robert Crawford (my colleague at St Andrews) is . talented poet in his own right, and he provides marvellously accessible translations of many of the poems associated with St Columba. These, coupled with several short stories set wholly or in part on Iona – and even an essay by another of my colleagues, Al Dearle, about the difficulties of providing internet access in wild parts – make this a book to dip into for inspiration and relief from "normal" life.

4/5. Finished 03 March 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

Slow Professor: Challenging the Culture of Speed in the Academy

Maggie Berg

2013


The changing face and style of academia is a constant fascination to academics (like me). Many authors have commented on the increased managerialism they encounter, the excess of rules and the limitation of free inquiry and free teaching. Part of this might be regarded as the professionalisation of academia in the face of increasing demands from numbers of students, and their (very reasonable) expectations in the face of the financial costs they now (often personally) face. And it's undoubtedly true that, while we'd like to think that all academics are able to manage their time and efforts so as to balance equitably the needs of research and teaching, some don't do this and (typically, although it happens the other way round too) neglect teaching in favour of more career-enhancing research and esteem activities.

The core question is really quite simple: what is the right balance between independence and supervision for people who are experts both in their own fields and in passing on the passion, drama, and techniques of those fields to the next generations? It's one the resists simple solution, but that doesn't stop administrators and governments trying to shift the balance towards control. There are huge dangers in this from stifling free expression to impeding the exploration of new ways of educating – but it'd be foolish to ignore the benefits in terms of raising standards and ensuring learning outcomes.

The debate is weakened, in my opinion (as a science academic), by the focus that such works always have on the humanities: indeed, they're often phrased so as to exclude people like me, as though we were mere technicians and not "proper" academics. This book doesn't make that mistake, but still deals almost exclusively with the challenges of the humanities, which often feel devalued and sidelined by the resources thrown at "STEM" subjects.

I have to say that my own institution doesn't – yet, at any rate – exhibit any of the pathologies described by the authors, so part of the book for me is a warning tale of what to avoid in the years to come. It can also be read as a manifesto of what needs to be preserved, or re-acquired, if we're to keep academic healthy and questioning.

4/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Zoomable Universe: A Step-by-Step Tour Through Cosmic Scale, from the Infinite to the Infinitesimal

The Zoomable Universe: A Step-by-Step Tour Through Cosmic Scale, from the Infinite to the Infinitesimal

Caleb Scharf


There's nothing in the least pretentious or precious about this book. It's a straightforward tour through over forty orders of magnitude, from universal-scale gravitating structures to quarks and then on down to the Planck length, the theoretically smallest distance. In many ways this resembles a 1980's popular science book for early teens – and given how much I enjoyed those at that age, it's hardly a surprise that I loved this one too.

5/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Ancient Greeks: Ten Ways They Shaped the Modern World

The Ancient Greeks: Ten Ways They Shaped the Modern World

Edith Hall

2014


The history and effect of Greece told through ten claimed characteristics of the Greek mind and civilisation. It's a strong claim and, while it makes for a reasonable read, doesn't quite pull off the effect that the author intended. It's hard say why, as the writing is clear and as erudite as one would expect from a classics professor at a leading university. Perhaps it's the lack of any clear necessity in choosing these particular traits, which leaves the whole assemblage feeling perhaps a little cherry-picked to make scholarly points.

3/5. Finished 24 February 2018.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)