Archive for September, 2011

‘Looking for Spinoza’ by Antonio Damasio

September 21, 2011

I have, over time, started reading three books by Antonio Damasio: Descartes’ Error, The Feeling of What Happens and this one, but I finished only the first of these (so BEWARE: I didn’t read a whole lot of the book I am right now writing about!). Not finishing a book is not a rare occurrence for me where nonfiction is concerned, but on the other hand it hasn’t yet happened with books by Richard Dawkins or Steven Pinker. It is sad, in a way: Damasio has what seems to me the most promising theory of consciousness around, he writes well, delivers beautiful sentences — but they’re not written for easy comprehension: everything stays too abstract; there’s too much neuroanatomy and too little explanation of what things are for, how things work (at least not for a layman like me, not such as to make accessible for me what’s going on). I’m afraid Damasio is just not as good a science writer, not as good an explainer, as Pinker or Dawkins.

Nevertheless it is certainly a very interesting book (alternatively, you might read his The Feeling of What Happens). If you are prepared to put a lot of effort and concentration into the reading you will surely be rewarded (in the afterlife, haha — just joking — which reminds me of another nonfiction book I’d like to read, and finish, one day: Inside Jokes: Using Humor to Reverse-Engineer the Mind by Hurley, Dennett and Adams).

As an aside, I think Damasio is wrong when he maintains (because he wants Spinoza to be right) that the brain’s function (the thing it is there for) is the person’s well-being. If you’ve read enough Dawkins you’ll know that that’s not what genes (e.g., for building brains) are selected for. If you don’t know what I mean, read The Selfish Gene.

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‘Three Stations’ by Martin Cruz Smith

September 21, 2011

This is the seventh of Smith’s Arkady Renko novels, the first six of which I all liked very much. I’m a little dissatisfied with this one (although it may be that I couldn’t concentrate enough on the reading). For example, I didn’t get the motivations of some of the main characters; and, even though I like happy endings, this book’s ending seems too happy to be true. I also have a dim recollection of thinking there were quite a few mistakes in the book, but I can’t remember what I thought they were (it’s been a few weeks since I read the book). Additionally, after just having read 1977, this book, with its occasional humor, seemed bland and trivial. (It isn’t, but the stark contrast made it appear so.)

Still, it’s a nice, entertaining book. Maybe not the best choice for starting to read Smith or his Renko novels.

(Aren’t the previous Renko novels all written exclusively from Renko’s own perspective? This one, at least, switches perspectives.)

I was always quite certain that the author’s surname wasn’t ‘Smith’ but rather ‘Cruz Smith’, as in Spanish surnames, where you get one name each from your father and your mother (but which ones of their two names? — The first one, derived from the respective father’s surname; as I found out here). So I was disappointed when I realized (ages ago) in The Strand, a large used-book shop in New York, that they had sorted him under S, not C. They didn’t know what’s what, I thought, thinking myself smart, as I like to do. But now, writing this post, I had to acknowledge that not only Wikipedia but also The New York Times calls him just ‘Smith’. I’m afraid I was wrong and The Strand was right, after all. (I didn’t find a book by Smith either way; but I lucked on a cheap hardcover edition of Thomas Glynn’s The Building — interesting book, and beautifully made, as Alfred A. Knopf books usually are, at least the Borzoi Books.)

Talking about surnames, I like the naming system Norman Spinrad invented (or at least his science fiction novels are where I encountered it): adults have three names, one from their mother, one from their father, and one they choose when they come of age, usually by referring back to a famous historical person (before that, I suppose, they have a throwaway name assigned by their parents). The chosen name is the one they then pass on to their children, if they have any. I like the idea of being allowed to choose a name for yourself. It’s interesting to ask yourself what name you would choose for yourself if you were to live in a society with that naming system. In my own case, I don’t have a robust idea. There are two philosopher-logicians whose names I sometimes exploit to construct internet pseudonyms for myself; but there is no one I could identify with enough (or whom I would aspire to emulate wholesale) to adopt his name as my own.

‘Nineteen Seventy-Seven’ by David Peace

September 20, 2011

Dark, dark, desperately dark! I was in a bleak mood while reading this novel, and the reading certainly didn’t improve the mood; on the contrary. The book revolves around a real, historical serial killer, the Yorkshire Ripper (look up ‘Peter Sutcliffe’ in Wikipedia), although there is also a lot in it that is fictional (at least I very much hope so!). Its two main protagonists, a policeman and a journalist, are not very heroic; rather, they are more or less falling apart during the course of the novel. Quite difficult reading (although it must be much less so for natives), but well worth the effort — if you have a robust emotional constitution.

This is the second book in a tetralogy, all with Nineteen Eighty-Four–style titles (must be intentional). The Independent on Sunday is quoted as having written the following about this book’s predecessor, Nineteen Seventy-Four: ‘This breathless, extravagant, ultra-violent debut thriller reads like it was written by a man with one hand down his pants and the other on a shotgun.’ That makes you wonder, how did he write? With his nose? And what did he concentrate on? Better don’t try this at home!

To me, Peace seems like the British Ellroy, especially because of his elliptic, slangy, torrent-of-consciousness writing style, but also because of the prevalence of violence and obsession. A comparison between Ellroy and Peace, on the one hand, and Andrew Vachss, on the other, might be interesting. (Okay, Vachss is more trashy; but I mean, besides that.) All three radicalize the hard-boiled genre, but in somewhat different ways. I think Vachss mainly intensifies the hard-boiled-ness of the plot, with his sadists, psychos and child-rapists, whereas the former two boost the hard-boiled-ness of the writing, of the sound (not that their plots were tame, quite the opposite).