A history of philosophy melded with a young adult novel that aims for quirky but just winds up being creepy and dull. Sophie’s World starts out with its fourteen year old protagonist receiving letters from a middle-aged man, a stranger to both her and her mother. Anyone who has read Lolita has their shoulders up around their ears already. While Alberto Knox’s intentions are pure – he only wishes to give Sophie a correspondence course in the history of philosophy – it took me at least 100 pages before I stopped waiting for the other shoe to drop and Knox to kidnap her. The rest of the book bounces between Sophie’s lessons with Alberto, in which we follow along, and someone named Hilde Møller Knag. Hilde’s personal belongings regularly turn up in Sophie’s mailbox. Or bedroom. The two girls have nothing in common. Sophie has to figure out who Hilde is and why Sophie is receiving mail addressed to Hilde before their birthdays, because Alberto is convinced something will happen when both girls are fifteen. The story gets more and more bizarre and eventually devolves into a mishmash of fairy tale characters gallivanting about. I resent the precious hours I wasted on it. All I have to show for all that time is a vague understanding of the history of philosophy.
I am really in two minds about this book. On the one hand it’s brilliantly executed, with meticulously crafted and delicately nuanced characters. A throttling plot. Six hundred pages you won’t even notice you are flipping. On the other hand In the Woods is a distressing mystery with multiple child murders, sexual assault, and abuse. The narrator, Detective Ryan, ill-advisedly decides to investigate the murder of a young girl in the small town he grew up in despite it bringing back memories of the unsolved disappearance of his two childhood best friends and his own kidnapping. As the novel progresses he implodes further and further, threatening not just the murder case he and his partner are trying to solve, but both of their careers. It’s equal parts fascinating and crushing. French raises your hopes to the highest height before letting them plummet onto the rocks below. This is one of the few books I’ve ever read that I am going to give 4/5 stars and simultaneously shelve on my “I have regrets” bookshelf.
One. That’s how many lives I have, you guys. And sometimes I can’t force myself to fritter it away reading dull books when I have stacks of other books looking at me longingly, calling my name, whispering that they will love me so much better than that other book if I would only put it down and listen to them…
Anyways, I didn’t finish the Aeneid. Virgil’s writing is descriptive but not engrossing and the same could be said for his characters. The whole book is essentially a Roman version of The Odyssey, but boring. Aeneas and his ships escape their beloved city of Troy after the Greeks sack it and sail around the Mediterranean in a quest for the land Venus has promised them wherein to found their new nation. Madcap hijinks ensue. Or they would, if anything that happened was exciting and quirky. Dull road-trip is closer. There’s a lot of sacrificing bulls, pouring streaming bowls of wine and oil upon altars, sailing cautiously through dangerous passages, and the like. They have the ancient Roman equivalent of a sports day, with sailing, shooting, running, and sparring challenges complete with fabulous prizes (more bulls). They battle harpies. Once. The ships pass Scylla and Charybdis and nobody dies. One of the most legendary, feared sea dangers; a piece from the Odyssey which I have never forgotten reading and seen reproduced in other movies and books time and again, and Virgil has his fleet get insider’s sailing advice from a god and slip through without so much as an interested snuffle from Scylla, nor a bubble from Charybdis. It’s not that there isn’t enough death, just that after the fall of Troy the whole book becomes almost unrelievedly boring. One life, guys. Don’t squander it on draggy sagas.
Medea is an argument between high school students where almost everyone winds up dead in the aftermath. Hero Jason of the Argonauts and Golden Fleece fame, after marrying the woman who gave him that glory, abandons her and their children to marry a princess. Medea, understandably, is not pleased. Jason can’t quite wrap his mind around why she isn’t thrilled that he’s moving up in the world and really resents her refusal to see that he is dumping her for the good of their family. Beyond the shock value, I can’t see why this play has been so popular for so long. It’s violent, sexist, and depressing. The writing is mediocre. The ending is grasping. After having a plot set securely on the ground, Euripides has a flying, golden chariot rescue Medea, which maybe was a normal literary tool for the ancient Greeks, but seemed very desperate to me. Euripides wanted her to have her final, horrifying confrontation with Jason but couldn’t think of a way to do it that didn’t result in her death. This way they can trade verbal jabs, but Jason can’t throw spears at her. No one in this cast is likeable. No one wins. To even call Medea’s actions a Pyrrhic victory suggests too strongly that her battle of egos with Jason had a winner of any type. It did not. Content yourself with the Cliff’s notes for this bloody play, and spend your precious moments on something else.
A heavily abridged version of the first book of the tetralogy that makes up Gargantua & Pantagruel, this book has some unique features to offer the discerning reader of classic literature. Sermons. Multiple occurrences where thousands drown in urine. High minded discussion of classical education syllabuses. Potty humour. Soliloquies praising god and king immediately follow a lengthy, detailed discussion of codpieces. Of course Gargantua has the most fashionable codpiece, covering the most wondrous junk. Plus he’s a giant so his codpiece is huge. But how huge, you ask? Don’t fret! Rabelais includes measurements in case you want to make a scale model of Gargantua’s outfit. It’s been a long time since I’ve read a book where the author’s giddy squealing about the perfection of the main character eclipsed the plot. It’s also been a long time since I read a book with so many codpieces in it. It’s been even longer since I had call to use the word codpiece five times in a row. Rabelais used it more frequently though. It’s a good thing this Great Books edition didn’t edit out all the talk of wardrobes and meals or the story would have been 10 pages long. Basically, Gargantua’s parents do the hokey pokey; after 11 months (because he’s awesome) Gargantua is born. His bad tutors turn him into a useless lump, he gets a better tutor and goes back to being awesome, goes on some awesome adventures, pees on some people, fights in a war, his horse pees on some people, and then he founds the most awesome monastery in the history of the world. Pantagruel doesn’t show up in this book, but he’s Gargantua’s son so he’s probably awesome too. If you’re really committed to fleshing out your classical literature checklist then I guess you should pick up Gargantua & Pantagruel, but otherwise only read it if you really like lowbrow humour. I basically covered it for you here, with mentions of sexism and some gore in battle scenes you now know all the pertinent details. You’re welcome. I know, I’m awesome.
Preparation for the Next Life received many five star reviews on Goodreads. People raved about it. Wretched protagonists Zou Lei and Brad Skinner start an unlikely romance – she’s an undocumented immigrant, he’s a traumatised war vet – after meeting in a decrepit basement noodle shop. The writing is sparse, the sentences are simple, and every word is crushingly depressing. Lei and Skinner barely scrape by. The landscape is one of endless garbage and graffiti, rot and refuse. Attempts at progress end in failure, when they’re undertaken at all. Supporting characters exist only to undermine their plans and drag them back down. The whole novel is a bucket full of crabs, except someone has thrown in weapons. Graphic violence proliferates. Sexual coercion, rape, and the threat of rape are frequent themes. Brad’s relationship with Zou Lei verges on abusive, and while he’s presented in a sympathetic light and the problems are shown to stem from the emotional, physical, and psychological trauma he endured in Iraq – and for which the army refuses to treat him – I had a hard time seeing this as an “unsentimental love story” as The New York Times describes it on the cover. I kept thinking of Lolita. It’s constantly described as a romance, but is really a horrifying story of kidnapping and child abuse. The unrelieved despair soaking from every page made the ending almost cathartic; there finally seemed like the smallest chance that luck was changing. When you live right on the margin of society, dull stability is a dream come true. Glorious triumph? Not so much.
Because of the subject matter, violence, and overall heartcrushingness of the plot, I found this to be a very emotionally draining book. It’s definitely well written. The story is unique. But I’m recommending it with heavy caveats. Tread carefully.
Larson’s exhaustive recounting of the planning, building and execution of the 1893 World’s Fair is a deeply problematic book. It opens with Larson talking about two unnamed men; praising their unmatched skills in their chosen activities. One, naturally, is Burnham, the architect who choreographed the great dance that was the creation of the World’s Fair. The other is serial killer H H Holmes. It takes a special kind of person to praise the abilities of a murderer. Things do not improve from there. Chapters are florid with details. When Larson is writing about the fair, it’s not a problem. However. Each alternating chapter covers Holmes’ cruel machinations in extensive detail. Excessively gruesome detail. I can’t put enough warnings in here about how graphic it is. Worse is the way Larson writes about it. He seems to revel in the violence. The plotting. As though he idolizes Holmes more than the people who built this remarkable Fair in the face of well-nigh insurmountable odds. And on top of all that – as if that wasn’t bad enough – the language Larson chooses tends to dehumanize and objectify Holmes’ victims. It’s not clear whether this is a misguided attempt to present Holmes’ state of mind, or Larson just isn’t aware of how his choice of language is representing the dead. The numerous dead. Holmes gets included in this story in the first place because Larson contends that he uses the Fair to lure people to their deaths, but had the Fair not taken place Holmes would have been killing anyways. The Fair and Holmes were both in Chicago at the same time, but that is all they share, and I was deeply troubled by Larson’s attempts to represent Holmes’ heartless activities as on par with the incredible achievements of the architects and engineers who created a truly unparalleled exhibition of beauty and technological advancement. The Devil in the White City would have been a much stronger work without those parts.
This was the last story in a book of three, so this is going to focus on The Black Prince and Murdoch’s general style. Each of Murdoch’s stories is centered around one character with some egregious emotional flaw: selfishness, extravagant insecurity, obsessiveness, misogyny, an inability to see other people as human beings. Her main characters find their downfall, and sometimes redemption, through their faults. Letters feature periodically in the stories. The Sea, The Sea and The Black Prince are both “written” by the main characters, as memoirs at the end of their lives. Marriages factor heavily in all three stories and there are frequent remarks by one or other characters about what “private” places marriages are. Private here is a synonym for inscrutable. Deep. Mysterious. Often this opinion is espoused by a character who has never been married. Or divorced long ago. A string of acrimoniously ended relationships. Is it marriage that is so depthless? Or is it just that we can never fully comprehend any intimate connection between two people, especially one which has existed for decades? Two people can perceive the same event very differently. Two people can perceive the same person very differently, a concept Murdoch explores more fully in The Black Prince.
The Black Prince is a complicated tale with an unreliable narrator who may or may not be making his story up out of whole cloth. Additional pieces get sewn on in the form of postscripts by other unreliable characters. Everyone is full of lies, and when Bradley Pearson isn’t lying he’s blathering on about Art and struggle and how the True Artist refuses to profane the god of Art with anything less than a perfect offering even if it means never producing anything at all. Pearson believes his “inability to create is continuously significant.” (29) As if one learns and improves through will power alone, instead of practice. His rambling, didactic, sluggish monologues are agony. Murdoch’s luscious descriptions don’t seem to crop up as often here as in her other offerings. Possibly because she allowed Pearson to do the writing, and his voice is completely different from her own. I kept having to resist the urge to flip back to one of the other novels and read it instead. I kept flipping to the end of this one to see how many more pages were left. Not a good sign. While all the books had elements of sexism in them, with toxic masculinity and objectification of women, misogyny seemed to figure more strongly in The Black Prince. Murdoch herself takes the time to describe both genders, which I’ve found is a refreshing novelty in an author. She does tend to emphasize the women’s attractiveness. Its daily fluctuations are minutely catalogued. In a way it’s a relief to have women who aren’t constantly, stunningly, gorgeous. Pearson himself struggles to view women as autonomous beings. He writes about his love interest’s entire life being some sort of construction pre-ordained to push him through strife into greatness, to allow him to suffer so he can create his masterpiece of literature (this book). He makes grand pronouncements about never contacting her, never seeing her, never telling her, and immediately breaks them. It’s equally tragic and comic. There is nothing he succeeds at. It’s hard to believe he has any redeeming qualities. Many of the characters are reprehensible, at least from Pearson’s perspective. Don’t read this book if you’re feeling down about humanity. It won’t help you feel better. Find a charity to volunteer for.
Content warnings for: violence, suicide, murder, rape, maybe abduction, maybe abuse, and some weird attitudes surrounding characters with Jewish ancestors. And a whole Lolita-esque plotline that made me wonder if Nabokov or Murdoch read the other growing up. They had some very common elements. If you hated Lolita with the passion of a thousand fiery suns, it might not hurt to give The Black Prince a pass and read all of Murdoch’s other brilliant, intricate works first. I don’t want to say you won’t be missing out, but you won’t feel like you’re missing out unless you’ve flipped the final page of the last book and find you’re still craving more Murdoch. If you get to that point, then you can read The Black Prince.
It’s never a good sign when I have to start a book review off with a disclosure statement, but here we are. I didn’t finish Gomorrah. There was nothing I liked about it. Sentence structure. Lurid descriptions of violence only included to be shocking. Saviano’s subtle ennobling of mafia bosses. The few redeeming characters are either crushed by the machine or killed for fighting back. And vilified after death by a complicit media, so that they don’t become martyrs. This book has almost ruined Italy for me. There isn’t an item you can buy, nowhere you can go, nothing that isn’t controlled by one despicable crime network or another. Saviano tries to make the kingpins seem like sympathetic figures. He bemoans the difficulties the bosses have of spending their millions (which they’ve coerced and stolen from the people of Italy) while living the life of a fugitive, both from the law and from the other crime syndicates. He assures us that the people working ludicrous hours for pittance wages with no benefits, job protection, human rights or physical safety are still much better off than they would be if the work was done legally, because then “prices would go up and there’d be no more market–which means the work would disappear from Italy.” (26) Even if that is true, I have a hard time swallowing the idea that the solution is to let the mob continue to control everything. While Saviano’s rage starts to come out at the evil surrounding him towards the few final chapters of the book (which I skimmed), the majority of it read to me as the kind of shoulder-shrugging resignation to some flaw not really worth fixing. The whole thing made me sick to my heart, and while I stand in awe of Saviano’s bravery at publishing something like this and hope that he can live out the rest of his life in peace and safety, I’m also grateful to have quit reading this book. I highly recommend it if you’re a fan of true crime with a strong stomach for graphic violence and descriptions of torture. Not? You may need to give it a pass.
Oh yeah, content warnings for, well, pretty much everything. Maybe not abuse?
Finished! Let me show you what I learned from this book. Take the sentence, “I finished it.” In this sentence, finished is defined as “I visually examined each page, including preface, introduction, and appendix but excluding sources, bibliography, and the majority of the index.” Note that there is nothing in this definition about comprehension, or understanding. That is because for one definition of “finished” (the definition I have chosen to use in this book review), the focus is on completion without concerns about understanding, knowledge, or the ability to disseminate the information received to others of similar (or any) level of knowledge. With me so far? Yes? I’m impressed. No? That’s about how I felt for this entire book.
Originally I purchased this book on a whim because I loved the phrase “intuition pumps” and thought it would have helpful tools for more articulate discussions in debates. And it does, but only if you’re a philosopher. Dennett writes about philosophical debates on the nature of consciousness, free will, and meaning but with examples so abstract and metaphysical they’d be almost impossible to use in a conversation with laymen. That’s not a bad thing, but judging from this book there’s a huge gap between an interested layman and the entry level philosophy student this book is aimed at. I thought I was a reasonably well educated layman. I thought I would be able to make the stretch to entry level student. I could not.
There were still a great many things I enjoyed. The concept of intuition pumps (61), the discussion of Occam’s Razor(38) and Occam’s Broom(40), Boom Crutches(48), learning about register machines(109). Although I still don’t understand how a register machine could be useful as a thinking tool, unless maybe it’s to internalize the process of reducing a particular activity down to its most basic operations to see if you could get a simple machine (or a cascade of simple machines) to perform the same job, without understanding it or even knowing what they are doing? Dennet holds that often what we assume is irreducible complexity could actually be performed (albeit more slowly) by sufficient layers of the most basic computers (loosely paraphrased from p 139). That’s an interesting, terrifying idea. Terrifying because now I can’t argue that we aren’t all zombies, or robots.
This book left me with more questions than answers, and more confusion than when I started reading it. I guess that’s a good thing? I don’t regret reading it, but only now that it’s over.