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Posts about reviews (old posts, page 11)

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

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.

4/5. Finished 19 October 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

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

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.

5/5. Finished 05 October 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Collected Fictions

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.

5/5. Finished 26 September 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Premonition: A Pandemic Story

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.

4/5. Finished 19 September 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

Fracture: Stories of How Great Lives Take Root in Trauma

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.

3/5. Finished 14 September 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)