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Posts about book-reviews (old posts, page 87)

The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain

The Social Distance Between Us: How Remote Politics Wrecked Britain

Darren McGarvey

2022


A troubling tale of disaffection between classes in Britain – it's resolute in its class-based analysis, despite how out of fashion that is, and after reading this book it's difficult to disagree. That makes it an uncomfortable read for any middle-class person, since it's the middle class who takes the brunt of Garvey's assignment of blame. By allowing the working class to be demonised, and by allowing the creation of a benefits and support environment at least as "hostile" as that facing immigrants, the stage has been set for a breach between people that allows everyone to be manipulated by those in power.

All this came about (in Garvey's telling – and I have to agree to a large extent) because social mixing across class lines has collapsed, leaving groups in echo chambers that exclude views that might challenge their established beliefs. And indeed it's hard to think of counter-examples, beyond perhaps sporting and music events (and even they are now segregated by ticket price).

There are some very uncomfortable ideas in this book, and for that reason it should be recommended for everyone in Britain wanting a challenging explanation of how we find ourselve in our current predicament.

4/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

The Man from the Future: The Visionary Life of John von Neumann

Ananyo Bhattacharya


Not so much a biography of the man (although there's plenty of that), but of his work and the major activities going on in maths and computing to which he contributed.

It's almost impossible to comprehend how influential Von Neumann was to mid-twentieth-century science. He seemed to be able to see where the next set of major problems were going to appear, and then lay the groundwork for them – only to have shifted on to some new problem by the time others caught up. He was "first" into game theory and cellular automata, and early (though definitely not first) into computing. He made enormous mathematical contributions to the Manhattan Project. He also seems to have been quite at home at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, which many others have described very negatively in terms of the new work accomplished there. Perhaps that was a feature of being an exile: he had to be self-contained and able to take his work anywhere with him.

4/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Time on Rock: A Climber's Route into the Mountains

Time on Rock: A Climber's Route into the Mountains

Anna Fleming

2022


A modern rock-climbing autobiography. The thing that struck me most (as an ex-climber) is how little the culture and terminology have changed in the nearly thirty years since I was active. The ethos and approach have remained very communal and collaborative, with less of the competitiveness one sees elsewhere.

There were some changes, though, notably taking a climbing holiday on a Greek island, which is something I couldn't even have dreamed of, before the era of cheap flights and European holidays. It certainly made a change from the damp of gritstone and gabbro!

3/5. Finished 16 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

The Secret History of Wonder Woman

Jill Lepore

2014


A comic-book character who not only has a back-story of her own, but also a fascinating creation story, altogether more interesting than those of the other DC and Marvel universe characters.

It's an unsettling story, though. The creator of Wonder Woman, William Moulton Marsten, is the somewhat discredited inventor of the lie detector who spent decades trying to persuade law enforcement authorities to take his rather bogus claims seriously. (That he eventually partially succeeded probably worth a book in itself.) He also had a position as an advisor to Hollywood during on of its periodic moral panics, and had an unusual home life involving a wife and a live-in lover pretending to be his children's nanny (while actually being mother to some of them).

Despite all this, the women in his life seem to have exerted an enormous influence over his creation, who is far more independent and feminist than anything else in the genre at that time. While Marsten comes across as unbearably creepy to a modern (male) reader, he seems to have tapped into a style of characterisation that had to wait another half a century before becoming mainstream.

5/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Accidental Gods: On Men Unwittingly Turned Divine

Anna Della Subin

2021


Accidental divinity seems to have happened more frequently than one might expect. The mechanisms are very different, ranging from deliberately playing into people's expectations (in the case of Cortés and the Spanish conquest of South America), to possession by spirits in Nigeria and India, to the entirely accidental raising of Britain's Prince Philip to godhead.

In Prince Philip's case the claims are taken very seriously. When his new worshippers want a photograph of him, it initiates a flurry of activity to consult with anthropologists and archaeologists to determine the right way to carry the ceremonial pig-killing stick he is to appear with. There seem to be a mixture of motivations: a sincere desire not to offend, but also an unmistakable impulse to gain a subtle lever of control over a far-away imperial possession. Having a god on your side, as the Roman emperors knew, never hurts.

One perhaps has to feel sorriest for Haile Selassie, the very Christian emperor or Ethiopia who had to run for his life ahead of Mussolini's invasion and spent an exile in England campaigning for is country's liberty. After all this genuine accomplishment, he accidentally becomes a god to people he didn't know or understand as part of Rastafarianism (before becoming emperor he was known as Prince – or Ras – Tafari), which itself emerges from a Jamaican nationalism needing an origin myth. It shows how a need for religion remains entwined into the modern world's most modern impulses towards self-determination and independence.

3/5. Finished 15 October 2022.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)