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Posts about reviews (old posts, page 6)

The Great Book of Amber (The Chronicles of Amber, #1-10)

The Great Book of Amber (The Chronicles of Amber, #1-10)

Roger Zelazny

1999


The entire Amber series, all two series and ten books of it. That's a lot of material to hold together as a coherent narrative, something only a master could have accomplished.

The first series builds on earlier swords-and-sorcery works and turns them on their head, as something happening contemporaneously with the modern world but in "shadows" being cast from Amber and Chaos, two poles of existence. The struggle between these two primal forces combines both the archetypal and the familial, with some siblings battling for the throne while others seek power by undermining the fabric of existence as embodied in the Pattern, that gives control over Shadow. The two struggles coalesce, with the Pattern being damaged and allowing Chaos to gain strength, and event that's reflected on all Shadows. It all comes down to a struggle to re-inscribe the Pattern and re-establish the balance.

All this (five book's worth) is recounted by the protagonist, Corwin, to his son Merlin, sitting on a rock before the Courts of Chaos at the end of the Patternfall Wall. The second series covers Merlin's adventures as similar forces rear-up and try to disrupt existence. The second series (another five books' worth) is nowhere near as polished as the first: there are a lot of loose ends and material that's never really explored, and the final ending feels quite weak, as though the strands didn't quite pull together as tightly as Zelazny wanted. It's a small failing, and the stories can be enjoyed for their pace and style without necessarily needing to be resolved.

5/5. Finished 23 April 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Book of Legendary Lands

The Book of Legendary Lands

Umberto Eco

2013


Fable, folklore, and (to a far lesser extent) fictional lands, explored with the clarity one would expect of Eco. This book is a joy to read, with key excerpts from source works included after the discussion in each chapter, and it's full of wonderful images, of paintings especially, that show the parallel visual arts associated with each of the chosen lands.

Again as one would expect from Eco, the last chapter is a philosophical discussion of the nature of truth when applied to legends: we "know" what happens in a legend, and so recognise any revisionist or alternative reading as "fictional" even though the original was fictional also. It's an interesting and worthwhile discussion that in many ways crystalises the points made in the concrete earlier chapters.

4/5. Finished 19 April 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays 2012-2018

It Gets Me Home, This Curving Track: Objects & Essays 2012-2018

Ian Penman

2019


Reports from music criticism. While it presents itself as a book of essays, it's actually an anthology of the author's book reviews over the past decades. That's not a criticism, although until you realise what's happening it's confusing to see repeated mentions of a particular book.

The essays/reviews range over big names like Frank Sinatra, Elvis, Charlie Parker, and Steely Dan, and the lesser-known like John Fahey and entire scenes like the Mods. One name that's missing, but that strangely haunts the book by her absence, is Billie Holiday: I think it's all the jazz references, but you can feel that she should be here in her own right – and then I read the introduction (having read the book), and read the author's explanation of why he didn't feel he could do her justice. Hopefully he'll write another book just for her.

4/5. Finished 09 April 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?

Michael J. Sandel

2020


A political philosopher takes on the whole notion of meritocracy.

The idea that we can – and should! – live in a meritocracy is taken as an almost as axiomatic in most societies. So it's refreshing, (if also terrifying) to read a take-down of the idea. And it's the idea itself that's the target, not simply the imperfact state of modern societies relative to an ideal.

In the UK we have a parliament whose social backgrounds bear a striking resemblance to the aristocratic parliaments of the nineteenth century: the wealthy and the elite-educated serve in massive over-proportion to their presence in the general population. After a brief interlude in the early-to-mid twentieth century when the situation was more balanced, representation is back with to being a preserve the elite.

However, the problem, as Sandel describes it, runs deeper. Meritocracy, even if accomplished fairly (which is hasn't been), is destructive for those who lose out, and who are therefore simultaneously excluded from power and from social advancement. At the same time, education (and especially higher education) is left to do all the heavy lifting in terms of social mobility, but faces a problem whereby previous winners pass on advantages like private tuition and social contacts to their children.

I think the problems raised here are true for many societies. They're perhaps more acute in the US, not least because top colleges often prioritise the children of alumni and so institutionalise the passing-on of advantage. But it's true that the UK has removed a lot of the props that allowed previous generations of working class kids – the "first chancers", the first in their families to go to university – to get ahead. This book provides a lot of intellectual muscle for a fight back, as well as some policy precriptions.

4/5. Finished 01 April 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)

A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear: The Utopian Plot to Liberate an American Town (And Some Bears)

Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling

2020


A group of libertarians decide that they need to form a free utopia, and move en masse to a town in the forests of New Hampshire that just happens to be in the middle of a massive boom in the local bear population. Hilarity ensues.

Well, not hilarity exactly, although this book is laugh-out-loud funny in places. But there are serious points being made too. The libertarians take apart the town's community activities and services, to some extent by freeloading off the services in neighbouring towns that have only fractionally higher taxes but have larger populations because they're ... ermm ... better places to live. The collective resources are depleted to the point that the bear become more than a metaphor, a problem for which the town can't summon a collective response. And the final humiliation is that, when a national libertarian movement in the same vein starts, and also picks New Hampshire as their target for their new society, they don't find the original enclave welcoming enough and start their own communities elsewhere.

It's hard to know exactly what the moral of the story is, if there is one. Certainly it makes a point about the benefits of community very well. But it's also somewhat trapped within a rather American rubric of democracy simply meaning having more votes than the other groups, where the majority can impose their will without too many safeguards,

5/5. Finished 25 March 2021.

(Originally published on Goodreads.)