Friday, January 1, 2010

Book Reviews

Sorry for the hiatus.  First it was classes, then exams, then not exams, then painting a bike (pictures soon), and now this: book reviews.

1) The Jungle, by Comrade Sinclair: 1.5 / 5

Ok, I abhorred Ayn Rand's Fountainhead because it just a giant capitalist bowling pin wielded to inflict the blunt force trauma of "objectivism."  Likewise, The Jungle was a socialist two-by-four inducing a particularly vegetarian head-wound.  What I liked was the sense that Sinclair was reporting on injustice, which is exactly what he was doing.  What I didn't like was that the character was lifeless, alone (not lonely), and blended in seamlessly with the unbelievable predictability of the repressed proletariat.  Protagonist Jurgis does nothing but suffer, which would be fine, were it not happening in a vacuum--and not a literary vacuum of oppression-by-Adam-Smith--just a vacuum of mediocre writing.  What gets me a plot-line soap-box is why in the world Jurgis didn't continue to be a hobo!  My guess is that Upton needed to present a valiant, duty-bound person before they become a socialist champion.  Cheap trick Sinclair, but I suppose about half us vegetarians owe it in part to you.

2) Consciousness Explained, by Daniel Dennett: 3.5 / 5

Despite the lie of a title, Dennett has a gift for academic synergy.  He begins by laying out a "heterophenomenological" framework of anti-cartesian cognitive introspection.  What does that mean?  Well, that's what the book is about.  The big deal: Cartesian duality (mind vs. body) is false.  Thus, the Cartesian theatre (the one in our head where we unconsciously direct what we become conscious of) is also false.  Instead, Dennett gives us his reputed theory of Multiple Drafts where our consciousness is our ability (or rather, our inability to refrain from) abstracting sensori-motor input into iterative categories which we simultaneously recall, update, and project onto our experienced lives.  What struck me interesting were the similarities between a) massively parallel connectionist architectures (neural networks), and b) Douglas Hofstadter's theory of Strange Loops.  Surprisingly, Dennett's model is neurally plausible (ie. it "maps" well to known functions of the brain.)  Also, it's surprisingly respectful of deep philosophical debates like subjective experience, other minds, and free will.  What's lacking, in the book at least, is an evolutionary picture.  I thought it deserved a couple chapters about how assuming purposeful design of the brain is what lead to the Cartesian problems in the first place.  Dennett, good friends with High Priest Dawkins, seems altogether shy about evolution's lack of intent, which potentially makes consciousness a side effect of otherwise naturally selected, useful brain-functions.  Ground rule double invoked for lack of trying...otherwise could have been a home-run.

3) Nocturnes, by Kazuo Ishiguro: 2.5 / 5

Ishiguro, author of Remains of the Day and one of my personal favorites, Never Let me Go, has a new book, Nocturnes.  It's a set of five, loosely interwoven short stories about musicians and sunset.  Wonderful prose.  Great scenery.  Plot-lines were dry and the characters were unfortunately boring.  A couple cheap tricks (like reconstructive surgery, fame, fortune, and communism) adorn the five stories, but they end were they start: nowhere interesting.  Ishiguro has what I've found to be an unrivaled style of clarity that let's his characters live in our minds, but Nocturnes doesn't live up to past efforts.  My prescription is for Ishi to stay far away from short-stories: the long ones let the characters be characters, the short ones just feel a little cheap.  Well worth the time, especially for fans of earlier work, but I got the feeling Kaz was fulfilling a contract more than writing a book.

1 comment:

Keep it real