Sunday, December 26, 2010

„The French Lieutenant's Women” — A Story — The Theses

Who did not watch that movie? The top cast with Meryl Streep and Jeremy Irons. The two stories on two planes: The Victorian — set in the XIX century England, apparently close to The Book, and The Modern, telling about the affair of actors who embody the heroes of The Book.

But, the close reading of The Book, uncovers dramatically different thoughts and conclusions and is worth reading  — even more if you already watched the movie.

In this review, I will not relate the plot of the book. If you must read about it, see the respective Wikipedia article. I want rather to direct your attention to some specific aspects of the story and the its deep conclusions.

On the surface, the book tells a story of the unorthodox love between two people living in the Victorian Era and tightly bound by convenances and rules of their age and their society. But under the surface it is a story of universal importance and human choice: Charles, who is already engaged to a woman (with wedding date already known) meets another mysterious and interesting women, and falls in love with her. Something that happens and repeats itself across the time and cultures.

However, Fowles shows, that, as usually is the case, there is no one good happy end. In fact, book shows three possible endings and we can imagine all possible conclusions out of these three different finale. To do so, author distances himself from the plot and tries to describe how the different flows of action depend on human freedom of choice. In showing this, Fowles uses his top literary mastery. These three endings come natural, and have nothing to do with artificial „novel like” implement.

By distancing themselves from the limits of time and space, the author, however discovers that characters of his story live their own lives, and even though all is his imagination — there are constrains, and they are true and unbreakable:

„I do not know. This story I am telling is all imagination. These characters I create never existed outside my own mind. If I have pretended until now to know my characters' minds and innermost thoughts, it is because I am writing in (...) a convention universally accepted at the time of my story: that the novelist stands next to God. He may not know all, yet he tries to pretend that he does.(...) My characters still exist, and in reality no less, or no more, real than the one have just broken. Fiction is woven into all, as a Greek observed some two and a half thousand years ago.  I find this new reality (or unreality) more valid; and I would have share my own sense that I do not fully control these creatures of my mind, any more than you control ...”

Paradoxically, by showing the three possible endings of the story, Fowles does not imply he is a god who creates the world for his stories. Reading it, while we contemplate all of the ends, we still have the notion of the frozen and unchangeable time of the past. On the philosophical or moral level, he shows how our choices create the reality that is permanently fixed — whatever we do....

I also need to relate, that, contrary to the movie, in two of the endings, one of the partners of the affair (in this case — She) does not play the fair card. We witness a women, for whom it is more important to observe her own needs (however lofty) than the true sacrifice of the man she was in love with. The last of the three endings is particularly hard to read after knowing about the vital and sincere choices made the man.
Don't take it as a hidden sexism of Fowles. In life it happens equally (or even) more often, that the man is the one who acts for his own sake. We have no sign the author of the book thinks opposite.

That was a great reading experience, and I particularly suggest it to all who watched the movie — it will elevate your experience.

Mirek
PS. After „The French Lieutenant's Women” I started to read Jane Austen's „Sense & Sensibility”. I already thought there must be some connection between the two authors and their novels. For example, the Lyme Regis pier: „The Cobb”, is the important object in both  „The French Lieutenant's Women” and Austen's „Persuasion” ... Should I find some SIGN in that coincidence ?

Picture by Ian Usher

Translation of O. Henry story ...

I was so moved by O. Henry „The Gift of The Magi” that I translated, to my mother's tongue, that little pearl of literature ....

It is here.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

The two (not quite) Victorian novels

It gives me true fun... Not long time ago I finished reading „The French Lieutenant's Woman” by John Fowles and was truly amazed by its depth (as compared to the movie of the same title), and now I'm in the mid of Jane Austen first novel „Sense and Sensibility”. I may seem naive to be a man of 50 and read such a literature as Austen's novels, but I do have true fun. I look from the different angles on the period in human culture called Victorianism (even though Austen formally lived in the preceding period).

Fowles delivers the contemporary account about Victorianism, and it analyses its dark sides at length, while Austen writes from the depths of the culture, believing in the values his heroes believed...

That's just a short note what I have been reading recently. Both reviews will come soon ...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

O. Henry’s Christmas stories...

I was amazed and delighted to read (i.e. listen to) O. Henry's Christmas stories.

I was deeply moved by „The Last Leaf” and by „The gift of the Magi”.

I can not write more tonight — ....

St. Placide, Paris, December 15, 2010

Saturday, December 11, 2010

A Tale about Joy and Suffering ...

You will not find this book in English. Written in Polish was most surely not yet translated to other languages. It is even hard to find any information about it author, Pinchas Menachem Joskowicz on the net. Some short posts were mostly related to his recent passing away in Jerusalem. The book can be found on Google Books though.

„A tale about Joy and Suffering” (In Polish: Opowieść o Radości i Cierpieniu) is the autobiography of Joskowicz. Born in Hassidic family that belonged to Ger Hasidic Dynasty, he was raised in Zdunska Wola, a medium sized town in Poland. His parents came from Lodz, where I live today ...


What makes this book amazing is the simple language and deep inner warmth it was written with. It is even more amazing when I tell you that it describes the most tragic period of Jewish history in Poland — that of Shoah... In first chapters he describes the world of Polish Jews as it was before the II World War, in all its glory and beauty. "To be a Hassid" is one of the first chapters where we can sense how amazing and splendid was Hassidic life there.


And, suddenly in just few years that world seized to exist. I guess it is the first book I read that reflects how tragic and catastrophic was German attack on Jewish communities in Poland. They were literally wiped out from the surface of earth...


Joskowicz was first sent to Lodz (Litzmannstad) Ghetto and from there, to Auschwitz. He survived only because he was sent, with some small number of prisoners to Germany, first for slave labour, next to Neuengamme camp. After few after-war years in Bergen Belsen, he arrived in 1948 to Israel, where he married and lived with his family. In 1988 returned to Poland after he was called to be Chief Rabbi of Poland, the post he held until 1999. So — he was the first Chief Rabbi of free Poland and he could witness and impact on the revival of Jewish life in Poland. This life however never he even reached a small scale of the life before II World War.

I probably cannot transmit in words of this review the true value of this little book. It is tragic as it describes the end of the world of Polish Jewery. But it also shows, how deep faith and humility can save human being from insanity — which for many was the only reaction to Shoah...

Like the title of it, Tale about Joy and Suffering, it tells about utmost suffering human can endure and about the joy found in life full of faithfulness to G-d...


I have the feeling I could not properly describe the beauty of this little book.
Yet, I read it from cover to cover in just few days, despite being extremely busy ....




Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Short Stories of "Goodbye, Columbus"

I did not tell in my previous post, that just after „Goodbye Columbus” Philip Roth published five short stories (The Conversion of the Jews, Defender of the Faith, Epstein, You Can't Tell a Man be the Song He Sings, Eli the Fanatic). Many reviewers and some public opinions criticised Roth for iconoclasm apparently emerging from these stories. Many called him "self-hating Jew". As was with „Goodbay Columbus” — I disagree with these opinions. The stories are full of good humour, and yes — of irony, but always told with specific deep tenderness and warmth.

The most beautiful of them is „Eli, the fanatic” who shows the transformation of the secular person to religious one in an incredible way — through ... clothing. Well, it is more complicated and deep than that. It is a tiny story that tells in a simple, unpretentious way, without any grandiloquent words — what it sometimes mean to receive The Call...

I suggest to read it — is short and glorious...

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

The portrait of self destruction - Goodbye Columbus

I have just read Philip Roth's first novella „Goodbye, Columbus”. I did that because I liked the two other novells The Dying Animal and Nemesis and I was happy to read them.
I was surprised how deep and thought provoking the author first novel was, and, indeed, it confirms the greatness of the author.

The plot of the novella is simple. The narrator Neil Klugman, a poor 23 years old librarian of Newark Public Library falls in deep and true love with Brenda Patimkin, a daughter of wealthy family and student of very a good school. However, as the narrations unveils, we see that their relation has some intrinsic unuttered problems, probably related to the difference in social status of the partners. They finally break after the discovery made by Brenda's parents of their sexual relations.


But, contrary to many, I do not find this book to explore the "classism" or assimilation problems (both Neil and Brenda were Jewish).


To me it is a record of self destruction — or the destruction of true love, of true great values in life by the narrator. The amazing value of the book lies in the ability of author to stay behind the hero, to create such a narration where, on a surface, while we read, we support his acts and his decisions. And only after a short musing we can notice this deception. We clearly see that there is no excuse for the hero, that he, almost deliberately, kills the love of his life — having not a single spark of remorse, and even trying to excuse himself.


Was it unconscious ? Was is really deliberate ?


As with all destructive steps of our lives — the main reasons are inside us ....





Saturday, November 27, 2010

Thomas Sowell latest book — a true face of intellectuals or gross exaggeration?

The latest, full book of Thomas SowellIntellectuals and Society” will be read as the true enlightenment or as anti-intellectual tirade. Whatever you will find it — it is a book you just cannot ignore — it is absolutely essential for all who, even, occasionally, think of themselves as of „intellectuals”.

And one should, at least for the time span of the reading, forget Sowell's many controversial views and public utterances — like that about Obama speech to students. We should forget them and read carefully, because many of the examples of stupid intellectual's acts — are unfortunately true...

Sowell first defines whom he gives the name „Intellectual”. For good or for bad, he narrows the definition to those who generate or create — IDEAS — and leaves outside the scope of his interest those who contribute to the progress of science and technology, medicine etc. Of course, in many cases the groups overlap, yet what interests him are those who create or disseminate the ideas. And he is deeply critical about those he names that way! He gives many accounts of total misjudgement of the elite, mostly from XX century history. The key example is the role of French intellectuals in the aftermath of the I World War to promote unconditional pacifism in France, that almost directly led to the disaster of the II WW. With equal scrutiny he analyses the approach of many British intellectuals to Nazi Germany, matters of rearmament and disarmament and the like. One of the most striking example is that of Bertrand Russel, whose series of misjudgements, first about Hitler, later about Soviets, was particularly long...
The examples go further when he analyses the intellectual climate around cold war, and real wars of XX century, like Vietnam War.

The main reason, according to Sowell, of so many fallacies is complete lack of accountability of intellectuals. There is no „real world verifiability” that could be applied to the works of ideas, as it is with the other, more practical, activities of intellectuals. We can also find a profound ignorance of intellectuals outside their, usually narrow, area of knowledge. As the result they, quite often, create the climate of total misinformation. Instead of presenting evidence and using logic, intellectuals, according to Sowell, often indulge in „verbal virtuosity” with so many euphemisms, clever phrasing and pseudo-wise quotes.

Many will not agree with Sowell. Also, as he stands on the clearly conservative position (using US political terminology) , many will deny the value of his conclusions.

But, I will not. When I was reading the book, I could not forget about the another book about Intellectuals and their fallacies: „The Captive Mind” by Czeslaw Milosz. Even though it was written in 1953, and was probably unknown to Sowell — it provides a great support for his views and conclusions.

And — I could add so many examples from my life. I still cannot forget many teachers and university professors that openly supported communist regime in Poland and other Central European countries. Of course, there were also many intellectuals who opposed it — but the deep delusion in which so many lived and even promoted — was the key feature of my experience from the time of transformation from communist country to the free one....

So, if you think of you as of The Intellectual — read this book in earnest — and think and think and think — before you start promoting your ideas ...

BTW, here is the Sowell's incentive to read the book :-)


Sunday, November 21, 2010

Maestro Górecki died ...


Mikołaj Henryk Górecki was one of the greatest composers of our time. He certainly was famous on the worldwide scene for his „Symphony of Sorrowful Songs” that was a global hit comparable only to popular music hits. But all his works, including those commissioned by Kronos Quartet place him among the giants of music like Olivier Messiaen, Charles Ives, Arvo Part, John Taverner or Giya Kancheli. He practiced something I call, by the term I coined: „rich minimalism” — where the musical language is simple but the meanings and depths are rich.

If you haven't heard about Górecki, it is also for the fact that he was very modest and private person who always shunned publicity.





Here is the Górecki's obituary published by Guardian.


Nemesis by Philip Roth

After „The Dying Animal” by Philip Roth, I knew that he is a great and deep writer.

However — his latest novel „Nemesis” is one of the best books I ever read.

It is a story of young man, the teacher of physical education and passionate javelin thrower. The story is set in 1944 during one of the worst American polio epidemics. As he could not go to the army, the hero was already discontent of himself when the plot of events related to the epidemics and the events of his personal life caused a major self oppression and the unbearable conviction of guilt.

It is a great book about insecurity a man can experience, about guilt and punishment and about human rebellion against G-d due to overwhelming sense of undeserved suffering of many...

And ultimately it is a book about the triumph of human freedom of choice...

In his short book, and in the simple words, Roth once again comes to the main theme of Job's bible book (without, of course, any direct reference to it) and to the most important problems that face humans — without pathos and sanctimonious deliberations...

THE great novel.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cri de coeur over books — The Gutenberg Elegies by Sven Birkerts

I already reviewed a part of Sven Birkerts' influential book when I addressed his position on audio books. It is obvious that I was in disagreement with some of his opinions about this form of books.


Now it is a time to express my opinion about the book as a whole. It is a book about the change of our perception of literature and, in general, of books in the "electronic age" marked by shift from the deep perception of literature, experience of its meaning to the superficial, fast, „multilayered, multitrack ability to deal with the world” — characteristic to the electronic age.


The book is divided into three major parts. In the first „Reading Self” contemplates on the role of writing and reading for out inner life, our inner experience. With some autobiographical threads Birkerts main thought is the dialog between people that comes through writing:

„Every true reader, then, is a writer and every true writer is a reader, and every person engaged in the project of self-awareness is the reader and writer of himself. Writer and reader: They are the recto and verso of language, which is itself the medium of our deeper awareness.”

In the second part, „The Electronic Millennium”, Birkerts analyses the developments going on in the perception of literature and its importance in our times, and first analyses three important factors resulting from electronization of our literary experience: „The Language Erosion”, „Flattering of historical perspectives” and „The waning of the private self” giving all the factors deep explanation. One of the most important results of these factors is the danger of „societal totalism”, described as a „movement toward deindividuation, or electronic collectivization”.


Next, the author goes for the analysis of the impact of the pervasive external digital systems on our notion of wisdom and knowledge. Here the danger lies in the shift of our role in relation to knowledge:


„(...) we may choose to become the technicians of our auxiliary brains,mastering not the information but the retrieval and referencing functions” (...) „The leader of the electronic tribe would not be the person who knew most, but the one who could execute the broadest range of technical functions.”



It is hard not to agree with Birkerts — the danger is real.
Later in the same part, the author goes for analysis of audio books and hyperlinked systems. And here I came to conclusion that many his conclusions missed the true dangers and focused on some that are not really of any imminence. The first set of issues, related to audio books, I addressed before and I refer readers to that post. The second is related to hypertext. And here is where I disagree with the author very strongly. To me, he did not notice the true essence of hypertext. He focuses on potential non-linearity of reading on the web (true), on the difference on writing with the computer and a mouse, but misses the key point of the new communication enabled through hyperlinks. Some notes are good shots:

„Do we still call it reading? Or would we do better to coin a new term, something like 'texting' or 'word-piloting' ” or „Hypertext — at least the spirit of hypertext, which I see as the spirit of the times — promises to deliver me from this, to free me from the 'liberation domination' of the author”.

But generally, I must say, the Birkerts notion of hypertext is superficial and — that he also did not stress the real danger related to hypertext — the distraction it brings to frequent web readers...


The last part of the book, „Three meditations” contemplates the changes in literature and art. First, is describes the dissolution of the real audience („The isolated reader may remain, but the audience is gone and is not likely to reappear”) in the electronic era. Second, it refers to Alvin's Kernan's „Death of Literature” and analyses the eroding role of the literature and more generally, of art. The apparent reason of it, according to Birkerts, is in the ”entirely inhospitable” electronic environment to the „stuff of art”. Finally he worries about the degradation of the very role of author:


„It assumes, too, that people will, out of a vestigial craving for meaning, or out of a sinking dread at what their lives have become, turn again to writers for the news they need. If nothing like this happens, then the writer will take a place beside the scrimshow artist in the museum of hallowed but ultimately useless crafts.”

The book is concluded by a code with the significant title „The Faustian Pact”. Birkerts uses the devilish allegory and warns us about the full enodorsment of the electronic way of life:

„From deep in the heart I hear the voice that says, 'Refuse it'”

There is also an interesting author afterword, written by the author 10 years after the first edition of the book. He seems to ease his „Faustian Pact” dilemma: „It falls to us individually, one by one, to decide how we will face up to the seduction of the new — how much of it to use, how much to refuse”.

I must admit, that when I first read this book, several months ago I had a bit concerned opinion than today. Maybe it was after my reading of Nicolas Carr's "The Shadows" when I started to appreciate Birkerts "Cri de coeur" more...

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Job book revisited in XXI century — „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” by H. Kushner

For many reasons this very book waited very long to be reviewed on my blog. And I will abstain from the explanation: why? ....

From the superficial point of view Harold S. Kushner book „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” is as the other tens if not hundreds of books of Motivation & Inspiration or Spirituality genre ... There is the something though, that adds to its solemnity — the dedication to Aaron Kushner, the author's son who died at the age of 14... Having this said, despite my compassion for the author, I must admit I was rather suspicious about the book and its message. Always, when a book devoted to the most important matters is acclaimed as a „National Bestseller” I grow suspicious...

But I was wrong. Entirely wrong. Rabbi Kushner wrote a book that can be thought of as the contemporary, and very personal — commentary to Job's Bible book.

He asks the fundamental question: „Why do the righteous suffer?” and going through typical contemporary answers, rejects them. He finally states:


„All the responses to tragedy which we have considered have at least one thing in common. They all assume that God is the cause of our suffering, and they try to understand why God would want us to suffer. … There may be another approach. Maybe God does not cause our suffering. Maybe it happens for some reason other than the will of God.”

Then Kushner goes directly to the interpretation of the Book of Job.

The Book of Job to many is one of the most important and most mysterious books of the Bible, because it rises the question of the reason and sense of human suffering. For many, the very presence of Book of Job in K'tuvim (Writings) is a sign. And I believe it is. It is very brave and very atypical book...

Kushner's interpretation of Job is very unorthodox, although on a different level — he concludes that the fundamental message behind this important biblical narrative is:


„If God is God of justice and not of power, the He can still be on our side when bad things happen to us. He can know that we are good and honest people who deserve better. Our misfortunes are none of His doing, and so we can turn to Him for help. … We will turn to God, not to be judged or forgiven, but to be strengthened and comforted.”

This and many other's passages and chapters of this small book, make the traditional idea of all powerful G-d less compelling to the idea of G-d Good and Just and respectful to the human freedom:


„This is what it means to be human 'in the image of God.' It means being free to make choices instead of doing whatever our instincts would tell us to do. It means knowing that some choices are good, and others are bad, and it is our job to know the difference…. But if Man is truly free to choose, if he can show himself as being virtuous by freely choosing the good when the bad is equally possible, then he has to be free to choose the bad also. If he were only free to do good, he would not really be choosing. If we are bound to do good, then we are not free to choose it."

Kushner makes a lot of historical references, also to Holocaust. His understanding of this calamity is far from „punishment” interpretation:


„When people ask 'Where was God in Auschwitz? How could he have allowed the Nazis to kill so many innocent men, women, and children?', my response is that it was not God who caused it. It was caused by human beings choosing to be cruel
to their fellow man. (...)
I have to believe that the Holocaust was at least as much of an offense to God's moral order as it is to mine, or how can I respect God as a source of moral guidance? … I have to believe that the tears and prayers of the victims aroused God's compassion, but having given Man freedom to choose, including the freedom to choose to hurt his neighbour, there was nothing God could do to prevent it.”

Can we think of all fatalities of our lives as an „exercise” ? As the trail brought on us to bring us higher? Kushners' answer is: no, we can't:


„The conventional explanation, that God sends us the burden because He knows that we are strong enough to handle it, has it all wrong. Fate, not God, sends us the problem. When we try to deal with it, we find out that we are not strong. We are weak; we get tired, we get angry, overwhelmed. We begin to wonder how we will ever make it through all the years. But when we reach the limits of our own strength and courage, something unexpected happens. We find reinforcement coming from a source outside ourselves. And in the knowledge that we are not alone, that God is on our side, we manage to go on.”

I know that Kushners' views are perhaps unorthodox, but I can tell you , my reader, the following:


Any time I visit the places in Poland like nearby Chelmno, and I feel all the horrors the innocent people came through there (and in hundreds of such places) I can not, just can not think of this loss of life of unimaginable proportions as of the punishment. Anytime an unimaginable disaster or accident happens, I have no words to utter. I only tend to think that G-d, by his own powerful choice, made the human free will really FREE. Free for Good and for Bad... Free to err and free to trace and follow G-d's message...



Saturday, November 06, 2010

Backlog of reviews ....

Despite some little success of writing 4 quite long reviews of the books I have been reading since holiday time, the backlog of reviews still has the following titles:


Sven's Birkets — „Guttenberg Elegies” (already done, see above)
Joseph Conrad — „Nostromo”
Harold Kushner — „When Bad Things Happen to Good People” (review written, see above)
Douglas Adams — „The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy”

I'm not sure if I will be able to write any review of the last despity standing up and shouting „Fun, Fun, Fun !!!” :-)



As for the rest — we will see. I'm getting phyically better, so I'm not sure I will have time for more reviews soon....

Marek Halter's Saga — The Book of Abraham

I have been reading this amazing book (in paper) since June. It is a thick 800 pages tome, and the very first impression one gets is of the important physicality of books. Still important...

The Book of Abraham” is partially factual partially fictional saga of Marek Halter's family. Marek Halter is Polish born French-Jewish writer and activists. For Poles he is famous for working toward reconciliation between Jews and Poles. He was also very active anti-communist activist (the first independent radio station used by Lech Wałęsa in 1980 was smuggled by Marek Halter to Gdańsk).

The book tells the story of Jewish family with origins in Jerusalem AD 70 during the destruction of the Second Temple. The forefather of all generations is Abraham the Scribe. We follow the paths of his progeny, and on the way we learn the history of Jewish Exile that started in the beginning of the first millennium and ended in XX century. The inseparable companion of the family through the ages is the scroll where the names of the family members are written and transmitted through ages.

Fascinating, colourful plot takes the reader to Alexandria, to Hippo, Toledo, Cordova, Narbonne, Troyes, Strasbourg, Benfeld, Soncino, Salonika, Constantinopole, Amsterdam, Lublin, Żółkiew, Paris, Warsaw and Oddessa... The destiny meets the family ancestors with many important historical figures like Bishop Augustine of Hippo, famous Torah commentator Rashi (at Troyes) or Gutenberg during the time of the invention of books. The stories are told by a very good and captivating narration. If author did not announce it, the reader would not be able to discover where the fiction ends and true account starts.

One of the most important motives of „The Book of Abraham” is about importance of writing and printing and devotion to books. Books are no longer only to be read — they become important elements of family survival, they shape generation by generation, they instil the meaning of life into the hearts of descendants.

For Europeans, who are convinced about superiority of their culture and civilization it is not an easy book. Even though Marek Halter did not write martyrology of Jews, it is hard not to think of the family dole as of martyrdom. Most of the history of Jewish exile is the constant escape. Even in Poland, where the Jewish life flourished, their lives was far from safety. We witness the relatively unknown and senseless Warsaw's Pogrom, and hostility toward Jews before the war, despite their effort to form the military units (many were formed) to fight against Germans. Even though Marek's and his parents’ life was saved by brave Pole during horrors of Warsaw Ghetto, when they returned after the war to then communist, Russian subjugated Poland — they were greeted with a mixture of hostility and contempt. So it is difficult experience for Pole or European to read passages about it. Yet — it is not Halter's invention. He writes in truth... I know it also from my family and my friends families war time and post-war time stories....

I was happy that in the days and years of distraction due to Web and eBooks, in months when I was listening to many audio books, I could find days and hours to dive into this fantastic book and commit o truly deep-reading :-)

Sarah's Key — Still Small Voice ...

There are almost no European nation that did not participate in Holocaust. Ages old hatred and hostility to Jews, the eternal Others — created a situation of common acquiescence to Nazis devilish plan. Of course, the degree and the kind of the sins vary from nation to nation. It takes generations to rise publicly recognizable people, writers and artists to conduct a true nation's heart-searching and uncover, often with pain, the naked sin. Sin that has no explanation...

For me, French writer Tatiana de Rosnay's „Sarah's Key” is one of the most important books about Holocaust and the current awareness of it — in the most european of European's countries — France. While most of Nazi's horrors of Shoah happened on Polish soil, the fate of Jews in France was of specific, because it was in hands of highly coordinated French policemen of the legal French government. Such action was unusual in the WWII Europe.

The book's two parallel plots interweave the past (1942 France) and the present (2002 Paris).
In the past thread we read about operation Vel' d' Hiv' when 13000 Parisian Jews were packed into Velodrome d'Hiver (cycle track) and kept there indoor in horrible conditions, before being sent to concentration camps, first around Paris (Drancy) and then to Auschwitz.

The hero of that thread, young girl Sarah, in an attempt to save his brother, saves him from French policemen, but not from peril of death. When she escapes from a camp, and with help of French family comes back to Paris, she discovers what happened — and the event cast a shadow on all of her future life ...

In the contemporary thread, Julia, an American journalist married to a Frenchman, discovers the connection of her husband’s family has to the events of 1942...


She relentlessly goes after all possible tips to find what happened to Sarah and to understand what was the attitude of French to the Holocaust. It is good it was written by the French writer. Still Small Voice....


The book is also a very good page-turner (or ear-defender if you listen to audio), so I recommend it, even though as for war time books, it is not as deep as Zusak's „The Book Thief” ...

I read this book quite long time ago. For many reasons I could not write this review for a long time. Meanwhile I visited the place of Velodrome d'Hiver. The monument is not very easy to find. Finally my daughter found it and made the pictures of this moving monument:



You can see more monument pictures made by Jola.


Thursday, November 04, 2010

Political Mind - prophetic or controversial ?

When I read first chapters of the George's LakoffThe Political Mind” during this year holidays I was almost elated. It played the tune that sounded true not only in American tuning but also in European one and in my Polish tuning as well. I found it almost prophetic and eye openning.

Having the subtitle „Why you can't understand 21st-Century Politics with an 18th-Century Brain” the book uncovers the role of specific language and its structural forms in politics and shows that this role is much deeper than we usually think — that it goes deeply into our brains and moulds our minds...

The book starts by the recall to Anna Nicole Smith case. Of course her life and death story was not the main reason of the interest. Rather the typical "frames" and "scripts" within which her story was told, are of the author interest. The frames and scripts of Anna Nicole Smith life were mostly untrue. Yet they spread to such extent that many people identified with them, despite their almost obvious unreliability. The narrative about Anna Nicole Smith was so important that Lakoff cites David Rieff: „understanding the importance of Anna Nicol Smith will help us understand politics”. And this leads us to interesting part of the book where „conceptual frames”, „semantic fields” or „specific scripts” are used to understand a phenomenon instead of the more deeper knowledge about the phenom itself.

This is typical to politics. And in the XXI century politics with pervasive use of digital media, these frames and scripts spread even faster than before. Lakoff tries to prove that it is not self-fuelling process. Behind most important political frames and narratives of American politics stand the conscious and systematic activity of conservatives. The book lists many examples where certain popular narratives (like that about „war on terror”) were just created to serve a particular goal. When Lakoff speaks about American politics, it is clear he stands on democratic (or how he called them "progressive") positions. He sees his mission, the mission of this book in uncovering the problem:


„Conservatives have excelled at articulating their values and ideas. It is time for progressives to do the same. My job here is to unlock the cognitive unconscious, to take progressive thought off the leash and to draw an accurate picture of conservative thought for the sake of comparison.”

He first finds the source of the polarisation in the family values. By almost equating the empathy with progressive values and authority with conservatives values, Lakoff tries to explain how our family upbringing can lead us to take a specific position on the political scene. Behind this conclusion is the assumption of the deep role of specific brain structures amplified by the specific family models (like Strict Father Model or Nurturant Parent Model) so that we select empathy or authority as the ground of our certain political choices.

This way of thinking is then extended in the analysis of the role of the brain in Political Ideologies. He uncovers certain metaphors that are used by politicians (purity, rottenness, light, darkness) when speaking about morality — and shows how deep is the importance of these metaphors in the formation of political ideology. The working of these metaphors is very often unconscious and some of them have deeply „embodied” aspect.

The central part of the book shows Lakoff way of thinking in practice. He analysies the role of some traumatic metaphors like „The War on Terror” or „Privateering” or some media created stereotypes (e.g. „sons of the welfare queen”) in politics and in achieving certain political goals.

To this moment I liked his book. Certainly its main purpose, i.e. to wake up our awareness of the the role of certain brain activities, particularly — unconscious activities and their role in our political decisions — is achieved. And I'm thankful to Lakoff for that. When I looked through his eyes on my domestic, Polish politics and discovered how many frames and (invented) narratives started to live their own life and influenced politics, even if they were based on false stories. Take the metaphor of „undercover agent” almost synonymic with an evil-doer of communist times and using this metaphor against Lech Walesa by his political opponents....

But on that level, or at these kind of reasoning the value of the book ends...


Let me now list issues which I have against the book. These issues are serious and, in my opinion, they diminish the value of the book — which could be a great contribution to the current political discussion. Could be. But is not.

First, I understand George Lakoff is scientist. While there is nothing bad in scientists to have political opinions and express them openly, it is quite disturbing when the certain political views and biases put shadow on the science the scientists cultivates. As an example take the way in which Lakoff calls political oponents of the US scene. He does not call them „democrats” vs. „republicans” or even „liberals” vs. „conservatives”. He calls the first „progressives” and the later — „conservatives”. By making this delicate and almost unnoticeable shift, he puts a certain frame and certain narration into motion. He tries to amplify his own political agenda by the scientific method (brain science and linguistics) he tries to say it is objective! His „progressive” narration about Democrats is like many narrations and metaphors a bit untrue, to say the least. It ignores the fact that the first, and only one by name, Progressive Party was actually formed by a split in Republican Party! Of course, we can't call today's republicans „progressives”, but we shouldn't speak about political opponents using certain frames and labels that are not quite true... (BTW, I am, like Lakoff, on the side of Democrats :-) )

Second, I'm very sympathetic to the current progress of brain science. I'm far from the understanding of the mind as something disembodied and purely logical. But the current state of the brain science does not allow now for many conclusions that Lakoff makes. For example by literally painting the metaphors as the results of certain synaptic connections — and speaking of abstract context as of result of the another physical connections is such great oversimplification that authors conclusions (even after his acknowledgment of the oversimplification) about important political consequences of brain structures seems to be naive.

I'm not a brain scientist. I'm physicist and chemist. But I read a lot about brain science and I know the simple fact — our current science is still very far from understanding the mind and the brain — its home and cradle. The way Lakoff reduces politics to brain mechanisms is naive — to say the list.

Finally, I was shocked by the naivety of the final chapter „What if it works” where Lakoff gives quite bombastic predictions how fantastic would be the politics if we all apply his way of thinking about brain and politics. This is perhaps the worst part of the book, and in some sense it close to the bombastic parts of Neuro Evolution... I know it was typical to scientists of Enlightenment age (which, ironically, he critisises) to predict bright future if their theories worked ...


But we also know from history how it often ended, despite beautiful words and lips full of empathy. This is why I find the book controversial to the same extent as it is prophetic ....

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Last warning — Nicolas Carr's "The Shallows"

How many of us, heavy Web users, haven't noticed something strange that recently has happened to us and to our ability to concentrate, to focus for a longer time, to our power for deep reading? I'm sure not many.


So when I started reading Nicholas Carr'sThe Shallows. What the Internet is Doing to our Brains” I immediately knew that this is one of the most important books I recently read. Not for being just „interesting”, but for forming the very strong, and maybe — the last — serious warning...



„I used to find it easy to immerse myself in a book or a lengthy article. My mind would get caught up in the twists of the narrative or the turns of the argument, and I'd spent hours strolling through long stretches of prose. That's rarely the case anymore. Now my concentration starts to drift after a page or two. I get fidgety, lose the thread, begin looking for something else to do. I feel like I'm always dragging my wayward brain back to the text. The deep reading that used to come naturally has become a struggle.”


This is deeply true. I feel it myself. Even when I listen to my audiobooks, I have that feeling very often, too often...


So what has really happened?


Nicolas Carr's book tries to answer this question. And is doing it in a very deep and convincing way. To write the book, the author almost had to cut his strong ties with digital world, move to mountains of Colorado, and drastically limit all distractions coming from the excessive use of the net...

He first recalls the famous Marshall McLuhan book „Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”. It was McLuhan, who first noticed and explained the famous inference: „The medium is the message”. It was he who proved that on a longer time scale „the medium's content matters less than the medium itself in influencing how we think and act”. It was McLuhan who discovered that „The effects of technology do not occur at the level of opinions or concepts. Rather they alter patterns of perception steadily and without any resistance”.

McLuhan, who died in 1980, did not witness the birthday of Web in 1989. Yet his insights based on the analysis of media existing in sixties and seventies are actual in the Web era.



What exactly does it mean?


To understand it better, Carr recalls the idea of our brain adaptabillity and plasticity first proposed by William James in XIX century. It was James, who in his „Principles of Psychology” wrote: „ ... the nervous tissue seems endowed with a very extraordinary degree of plasticity”. This idea was endorsed by Freud in 1895 in an unpublished manuscript where „he argued that the brain, and in particular the contact barriers between neurons, could change in response to a person's experiences”. Such views were later dismissed and criticised and almost forgotten, until late seventies, when, thanks to many researchers, and among them Michael Merzenich, proved the brain plasticity in a series of experiments. The strong support for the brain plasticity theory came from Nobel prize winner, Eric Kandel, whose landmark research of Aplysia (the sea slug) resulted in conclusion that „synapses can undergo large and enduring changes in strength after only a relatively small amount of training”.


Having said so, Carr analyses the history of the „Tools of the Mind”. He explains how cartography has changed our perception of space in the past, how clocks did so to our perception of time, and the Guttenberg invention — to our knowledge and to the oral tradition.


Coming to XX century computers, he calls them „The Medium of the most General nature”. And its true as „Everything from Beethoven's Ninth to a porn flick can be reduced to a string of ones and zeroes”. And here we come to the net and its most important difference from any mass media — it is bidirectional. People are no longer passive receivers of messages — they can send them! And this interactivity makes the net exceptionally attractive... However, the very nature of online information deeply changed our perception of text:



„A page of online text viewed through a computer screen may seem similar to a page of printed text. But scrolling or clicking through a Web document involves physical actions and sensory stimuli very different from those involved in holding and turning the pages of a book or magazine”

The most important factor changing our brains is related to the nature of hyperlinks:



„Links don't just point us to related or supplemental works; they propel us toward them. They encourage us to dip in and out of a series of texts rather than devote sustained attention to any one of them. Hyperlinks are designed to grab our attention. Their value as navigational tools is inextricable from the distraction they cause”

What is more, this distraction, this silent stimuli we offer to our brains when we are online is almost unnoticeable. We are unaware of it. It does not pain. Paradoxically, we tend to think about the Web, called by Cory Doctorow an „ecosystem of interruption technologies”, about blogs, tweets and FaceBook notes almost only in positive sense. Yet we do not notice the danger:


„The Net's cacophony of stimuli short-cuircuts both conscious and
unconscious thought, preventing our minds from thinking either deeply or creatively. Our brains turn into simple signal-processing units, quickly shepherding information into consciousness and then back again.”


Even more profound changes happened in our perception of books. Carr devotes a distinct chapter to books, and their transformation from paper to electronic books. And he notices the dangers here, as well:


„I fear that one of the great joys ofbook reading — the total immersion in another world, or in world of the author's ideas — will be compromised. We all may read books the way we increasingly read magazines and newspapers: a little bit here, a little bit there.” (Steven Johnson)

There is also a big change in writing style. Authors stray from typical narration to a sort of presentation, where they even do not expect readers to read the book but to skim through it...
Carr seems to say, that some of these changes are not so bad, but — are we really sure they are not ? Are we able to assess their net result ? Certainly we are not. At least not yet. But I'm worried the results will not be good for our culture ...




The danger of Google



The one of the most frighteing chapters of the book is entitled „The Church of Google”. He first notices the close proximity between the Taylorism and Google faith in software algorithms: „Google doesn't believe that the affairs of citizens are best guided by experts. It believes that those affairs are best guided by software algorithms”. This approach, confronted with Google mission „to organize the world's information” , backed up by Google's almost messianic faith in its cause, and powered by Google conviction that it „is more then a mere business; it is a 'moral force'” — is really dangerous. And we witnessed this 'moral force' in action many times...

One of the case was related to Google Books. In this very case we could see how this 'moral force', working hard with its lawyers could get the practical monopoly over millions of so-called orphan books....

I do not see Carr as specifically biased against Google — he only points the most important aspects of this greatest and the most dangerous monopoly ever created — monopoly over human knowledge ...

Depending on the direction Google will take in the near future, on their approach to potential AI development, we, as civilization can both profit or sustain a big loss ...




„Google is neither God nor Satan, and if there are shadows in the Googleplex they're no more than the delusions of grandeur. What's disturbing about the company's founders is not their boyish desire to create an amazingly cool machine that will be able to outthink its creators, but the pinched conception of the human mind that gives rise to such a desire.”


What's going on with our memory?


The yet another danger comes from the degradation of human memory that is the result of the totalization of the influence of global search engines (and of course of Google as the most improtant player) and milions of devices (like common GPS driving aids) and software programs. Don't take me wrong: Carr DOES NOT say not to use them. He says we just may not abandon memory and memorization, because of their fundamental importance:




„The offloading of memory to external data banks doesn't just threaten the depth and distinctiveness of the self. It threatens the depth and distinctiveness of the culture we all share.
(...)
Culture is more than the aggregate of what Google describes as „the world's information.” It's more than what can be reduced to binary code and uploaded onto the Net. To remain vital, culture must be renewed in the minds of the members of every generation. Outsource memory, and culture withers.”




Are machines as we are?




In the last chapters of this amazing book, Carr describes human reactions to the software initiatives aimed at Natural Languge processing and imitating the primitive AI. In particluar he writes about ELIZA software, created by Joseph Weizenbaum in 1966. The striking fact was that reactions to Eliza were as it was almost human! „What shocked him was how quickly and deeply people using the software „become emotionally involved with the computer,” talking to it as if it were an actual person.” Later, when Weizenbaum expressed his views (and his warnings) in the book „Computer Power and Human Reason”, most of leading computer scientists called his views as heresy! One of the strong proponents of AI, John McCarthy wrote a mocking review calling it „an unreasonable book” protomting unscientific „moralization”...

This and other examples (like British Edexel — automated marking of exam essays), illustrate the great danger the humanity faces, if it does not counter the effects of digital and computing technologies by „meditative thinking”.




„The tumultuous advance of technology could, (...) drown out the refined perceptions, thoughts, and emotions that arise only through contemplation and reflection.”




Carr ends his book by the very deep observation, that is also an unintentional tribute to the wisdom of Clarke and Kubrick:




„... people have become so machinelike that the most human character turns out to be a machine. That's the essence of Kubrick's dark prophecy: as we come to rely on computers to mediate our understanding of the world, it is our own intelligence that flattens into artificial intelligence.”



So far, this was my longest review I ever wrote. And this was one of the most important books I ever read....

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Carl Orff & Brahms ...

Whenever I can, I listen to music on Saturdays. Today, my musical experiences were under the spell of German composers. I started with Carl Orff's Carmina Burana. This cantata was written in 1937. On the textual level it is based on secular German poems, embracing the nature of life, joy of nature, common pleasures and perils. „Wine, Women and Song” was the title of 1884 publication of the most of the poems contained in the cantata.



This is beautiful music, no question about that. However, always after I listen to the great German music, particularly of the early XX century music, I cannot avoid deep question how this highest emanation of culture could live with the silent acceptance of all Nazis atrocities committed at that time. What is the value of culture, music and literature, if it cannot help people to resist the blatant crime?

How can we listen to beautiful tunes and chords of great musical works when we know that their authors, openly supported the regime that coldbloodedly killed millions of people?

How can we enjoy it when:

„...German music, which had sought sublimity, transcendence, disengagement from the ordinary world, must bear responsibility for what happened down below as it roamed through higher realms. Mann hinted further that this very “musicality of soul” was the key to Germany's fall; the aesthetic had triumphed over the merely human. In Nazi Germany, music became either a weapon of hate or an opiate of indifference.” (Alex Ross: World War II Music)
So, while I enjoyed it, I had the feelings that spoiled my experience....
It is hard to forget that Orff, accepted Nazis' commission to write a replacement score for Mendelssohn's “Midsummer Night's Dream” — what certainly was one of the darkest deeds in all musical history.

Later today, I switched to older German music. Johannes Brahms and his symphonies. Dramatically different world — warm and great. Melodious and architectural. And listening it under the baton of Leonard Bernstein — is always a great experience....



Why? Is it because Brahms lived long BEFORE the dark times? Is he better than Orff and Strauss who openly collaborated with the Nazis? If so — what to think about Wagner?

I think, that the deep reflection on the German culture, its music, its literature, in all its highs and lows has been, and still is, the very important part of our intellectual life...

In this context, it is worth to read the entire Alex Ross article: "In Music, Though, There Were No Victories". You can find it here....

Science fiction, philosophy or ... teology ? 2001 — A Space Odyssey

As usual, it is extremely hard to write a review about the book or a movie that deserved and received thousands of reviews. So it was with Arthur C. Clarke's2001: A Space Odyssey” for me. Yet there are some aspects of this novel, that seems to be overlooked by many.

First let me shortly recall, that the novel is less well known in the popular culture than Stanley Kubrick's famous movie, that has been and continues to be — one of the best movies ever done. I'm sure not many of my readers would disagree. However, both the movie's screenplay and the novel were created almost concurrently, and the novel was published after the film public release. So, while the movie's visual and verbal narrations have their own life and are great achievement of the great writer and the great filmmaker — the narration of the novel extends the main message of the film and goes much deeper.

The final sequences of the famous movie show the transformation of the main character into an older and older person, and then upon the influence of the monolith — to the child. The very last scenes reveal the symbolic „return” of the child to the earth or its orbit.

The novel is more textual at its climax: we know that the mind and memory of the main hero are being transformed from his physicality into a „mind” which, while still incorporated in the child, is clearly the omnipresent mind with the deep insight and awareness about everything it/he wants. In the last scenes of the novel the child (mind) comes back to the earth at the right moment, at a brink of a nuclear war and saves the world by destroying the warhead of death.

The last sentences of the novel read:


„He had returned in time.

Down there on that crowded globe, the alarms would be flashing across the radar screens, the great tracking telescopes would be searching the skies - and history [as it had hitherto been known] would be drawing to a close.

A thousand miles below, he became aware that a slumbering cargo of death had awoken, and was stirring sluggishly in its orbit. The feeble energies it contained were no possible menace to him; but he preferred a cleaner sky.
He put forth his will, and the circling megatons flowered in a silent detonation that brought a brief false dawn to half the sleeping globe.

Then he waited, marshalling his thoughts and brooding over his still untested powers.
For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next.

But he would think of something.”


On the surface, and out of context it sounds naive, but when you read the book — it is not. Clarke's parable is in fact a philosophical speculation on the idea of linking religion with external intelligent life. While I'm not in favour of such speculations, it is hard not to see the elegance and wisdom which Clarke puts into his allegory. Just muse over the penultimate sentence: „For though he was master of the world, he was not quite sure what to do next” ....

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Neuro Revolution - Two reviews in one post

I have just read Zack's Lynch „The Neuro Revolution”. As before — seems to me the full review will come in due time :-)

However, I must say, that I have very mixed impressions. And I must say frankly, it is quite bombastic, utopian book with very little knowledge about the field itself ...

It is perhaps characteristic, that I found the similar tendencies of utopian thinking in this book, as it was in Lakoff's „Political Mind”...

If there is some value in reading the book, it is in really good number of references to significant events and other books and other people of the field...

Going to Munich today... No more time ....

Two weeks later:

I honestly tried to add a bit more about the book, but finally I didn't find it reasonable...

Particularly, in the light of another book related to brain science I read ("Shallows"), I found Lynch's book quite naive and utopian...

When he writes about such things like neuroenablers, oxytocin or concepts like neuroteology or neurocosmetics, he does not deliver any deeper information, but a kind of superficial hype of pseudo-science...

See, as an example, how he writes about the potential of neuroscience for business and society:

„In a neuro-society, corporate wealth will flow in a more lateral way, decreasing the gap between the haves and have-nots bolstering the middle class and reducing poverty. That development will add to our social capital making prosperity last longer. Neurotechnology will also provide new tools for management, it will become less seed of the pants and start being something of the science.(...) But many people who get to be managers, are often the fiercest competitors and they don't always have a good emphatic skill set. In the future more people will have better tools in training, perhaps in neurofeedback even in exquisitely targeted neuropharmaceuticals ....”


Not only Lynch's visions are utopian and inhumane but also scary ... All of this seems to be very strange, even more, when one discovers how active Lynch is on the public scene and how high is his influence (See his blog...)

So what is the book's value? Is there any?

As I wrote before — there is some value in it as a source or collection of some very good references.

For example, thanks to the book I found an interesting TED talk by Jill Bolte Taylor and discovered for myself great scientist Vilayanur Ramachandran. The another reference was to an article about Neuropsychology of Religious Experience.

Some books, referred to by Lynch, like Steven's Mitchen:
The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body
, „Why We Believe What We Believe: Uncovering Our Biological Need for Meaning, Spirituality, and Truth” by Andrew Newberg, or „Proust was a Neuroscientist” by Jonah Lehrer will certainly be on my next-reading list !

So, I suggest not to read it from cover to cover but to harvest it for indeed quite good references :-)

Friday, September 24, 2010

The utmost surrealism in a realisticly told tale about unreal world ...

I just finished "Nostromo" by Joseph Conrad...
I do not know what to say. This is ulitmate book, the ultimate literature experience.
Through all the book the shiver of someting out-of-this- earth pierced my ears and my mind...

I hope, I will write a true review, but I just wanted to tell you now that this great book is a must...

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Victor Hugo on human nature, history and philosophy ...

I'm slowly coming back to my regular writing of reviews for the books I read and/or listen to.

Don't ask me please what has caused this, almost 2 months long, silence. There were reasons, but I wanted to keep them away from digital world, as all the thoughts and feelings caused by them ...

So my first very late review is for Victor's HugoLes Miserables” which reading I shortly reported here.

After „Notre-Dame de Paris” (here and there) I knew that Les Miserables will be THE book of my 2010 reading. And it was. It seems that writing any new review for the masterpiece of literature, which received thousands of excellent reviews, makes little sense. So it is, and let me only very shortly to tell you what is a historical fiction which plot starts in 1815 in France and lasts for about 20 years. The main story of the novel is about ex-convict Jean Valjean and his attempts of expiation and redemption against all odds. It later evolves into a love story in the second generation after him, however, placing his personage always in the context.

Even if it was written in XIX century, the storytelling in the novel is excellent and is still superior to so many later „epoch works” ....

However, I want to stress some other aspects of this enormous (1900 pages) work. It contains a lot of deep philosophical passages about the nature of law, ethics, politics, religion and French history. Set in one of most tumultuous periods of the country history (like defeat of Napoleon at Waterloo or Spring of Nations), it examines the nature of historical and philosophical dispute between royalists and republicans. And in all these, philosophical, historical, sociological analyses, Hugo shows incredible level of maturity and, I could say, professionalism. He does not merely „philosophize" — he goes deeply into the nature of the problem, yet his language remains simple and direct:

„Conscience is the chaos of chimeras, of lusts, and of temptations; the furnace of dreams; the lair of ideas of which we are ashamed; it is the pandemonium of sophisms; it is the battlefield of the passions. Penetrate, at certain hours, past the livid face of a human being who is engaged in reflection, and look behind, gaze into that soul, gaze into that obscurity. There, beneath that external silence, battles of giants, like those recorded in Homer, are in progress; skirmishes of dragons and hydras and swarms of phantoms, as in Milton; visionary circles, as in Dante. What a solemn thing is this infinity which every man bears within him, and which he measures with despair against the caprices of his brain and the actions of his life! ”

And the last, but certainly not least matter: Hugo created the fictional world that still lives in us and in our culture. See around and you will quickly find Jean Valjeans, Fantines, Javerts, Cosettes, or little Gavroches. In operas, movies, theaters and songs... It is enough to remember this one ...

[the post finalized in Beavais, France in a cafe in front of monumental XIII century cathedral]

Friday, August 27, 2010

Long backlog of reviews ...

For reasons I want to keep out of digital world, I was unable to keep posting reviews of books that I read recently. So, the pile is composed of:

Victor Hugo — „Les Miserables”
Sven's Birkets - „Guttenberg Elegies”
Tatiana Rosnay - „Sarah's Key”
George Lakoff - „Political Mind”
Arthur C. Clark - „2001: A Space Odyssey”

and... currently reading Marek Hartel's "The Book of Abraham" and listening to Conrad's Nostromo ....

I hope I will manage to review each item from my list soon ....

Mirek@Stockholm

Friday, August 13, 2010

The past that haunts the present - Sarah's Key

I have just finished Sarah's Key by Tatiana Rosnay. Amazing, enchanting yet sad and tragic book. For another tragic reasons I want to keep me out of digital world, so I will not write a review today. Time will come and I will ...Maybe

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Brains, Heart and Courage - my holiday's reading

There is a book, the book that belongs to the realm of great literature, that shows and leads us in our striving for more knowledge and understanding, for deeper love and emotions and for stronger braveness in our life.

Its author tells a good story, fascinating for some us, naive for the rest, but the story that shows, without ostentation and cheap morality how we can find these virtues. They lie inside us — always in the depths of our souls, and no one can truly give them us, if we don’t start believing we can get them.

And he teaches that there are people and situation that can ignite, even if by a substitute, the fire of brains, heart and courage. However — they can ignite ONLY , never truly GIVE them to us.

The book makes also a case about humbugs and posers, and says, that sometimes they can have some merit. Contrary to the traditional thinking, and somehow against the common sense — the merit of some humbugs is in promoting good and welfare. Of course only if good is the essence of their humbuggery, not the evil...

And the book says much more; how a pauper can truly become the leader, a coward — the headman, and how a strong desire to live a normal real life among close family and friends and the resignation from splendours is, at the end, rewarded ....


This author is Lyman Frank Baum. This book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz published in 1900....

Some used to say that the book was politically motivated, and that its characters ridicule some political figures. I don’t buy such interpretations.

The story for our children and grandchildren but not a childish fairy tale at all....

It was my holiday reading this year...

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Close Listening by Sven Birkerts — What is the problem with audio books ?

I was so deeply moved by a chapter of Sven's Birkerts „The Gutenberg Elegies” named „Close Listening” that I decided to commit a post — just about this chapter. As for the book itself, I hope to finish and comment on it during holidays, i.e. next week.

It is apparent, from the first sentences of the chapter, that Birkerts is against audio books. He gives a number of strong arguments. Let's see them here....

Passivity of audio books:


„Books, for me, have always been about covers and pages and grappling with the syntactical rigors of stationary prose. The passivity of listening seemed to me on a par with the passivity of television watching. How could it fail to reduce any work of merit to, at best, a companionable blur, a string of easy cadences in the ear?”

Confusion of experience.

He criticises the special effects that are sometimes added to the recordings (calls them tacky effects); but was is more important criticism is the confusion of our physical experience during listening, experience of driving, walking, commuting with the imaginative world of the story we listen to.

Limitation of the medium.

Sven maintains that certain literature is well perceived only through text:


„Our more serious literature incorporates levels of difficulty — in narrative sequence, referentiality, syntax, and linguistic density — and presupposes a reader who is free to hover over a phrase, reach for a dictionary, and dart back.”

Irrelevance of the recording pace to the text.

Sven gives examples, where the pace of narrator reading, being regular and uniform, was completely irrelevant to the meaning of the text. Descriptions, dialogues are usually fine, but when a book turns into some philosophical conjectures — the same pace is just unbearable:


„We don't just speed a thought through our neural network — we inhale it, hold it, wait for it to send ripples through the whole of our being. Rewinding the tape is no solution.”


Difficulty with deep reading.


„Reading, because we control it, is adaptable to our needs and rhythms. We are free to indulge our subjective associative impulses; the term I coin for this is
deep reading: the slow and meditative possession of a book. We don't just read the words, we dream our lives in their vicinity. (...) Deep listening to words is rarely an option. Our ear, and with it our whole imaginative apparatus, marches in lockstep to the speaker's baton”

Powerlessness of the listener.

Sven claims that when we hear a book we are deeply silenced by the vocal tyranny of the narrator:


„The listener is powerless against the taped voice, not at all in the position of my five-year-old daughter, who admonishes me continually, "Don't read it like that, Dad." With the audio book, everything — pace, timber, inflection — is determined for the captive listener. The collaborative component is gone; one simply receives.”

Sexless voicing.

The books read by male narrator lose the female character, if it is of importance and conversely, the manly dialogs read by a woman sound strange:


„Cheever's prose is as imprinted with his gender as Virginia Woolf's is with hers. Nor could I get past the bright vigor of the performing voice; I missed the dark notes, the sense of pooling shadows that has always accompanied my readings of the man.”

Abridgement of books kills their message.

Svens notices that too many of audio books are just bad abridgements. The arbitrary selection what to include what to leave out is usually killing the perception of the book. He gives an example of „Under the Volcano” by Malcolm Lowry:

„Lowry had meant his novel to turn like a wheel; everything in it is keyed to the concept of circularity, making chapter one absolutely indispensable . No amount of civilized gnashing by reader Christopher Cazanove could make up the
deficit.”

Multitrack sensibilities required.

Listening to audio book, requires a good deal of multitracking sensibility. This is in opposition to „single-track tasks demanded by the silent page”. What is more, it can create a shift or change in the way authors write today: „... is is not farfetched to suppose that a good part of future of literature will be bound up with the audio process.”

Despite all these remarks, the chapter ends with some positive remarks.

Sven recalls listening to James Joyce „The Dead” which he found great in the audio format. Basically he values the rendering of some short stories (by authors like Updike, Welty and Carver) in audio. He also notices that sometimes the good reader opens the deeper understanding:

„An evocative reading can capture the shifting tension that exists between sound and sense; it can unearth the overlooked sentence rhythm and whet the blade of irony. Reading is different from listening, yes, but in listening's limitations I have found unexpected pleasures.”

He ends it with these words:


„In the beginning was the Word — not the written or printed or processed word, but the spoken word. And though it changes its aspect faster than any Proteus, hiding now in letter shapes and now in magnetic emulsion, it remains. It still has the power to lay us bare.”

What do you think?

I'm passionate audio book listener, so this chapter requires me to comment and, more specifically to argue. But I will do it at some later time, maybe after your opinions...

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Reading before holidays ...

I am particularly tired and exhausted before these, 2010 holidays. This is why I'm less active on my blog...

But to tell you what's going on, here it is, shortly: after enchanting „Les Miserables” I returned to Lakoff's „Political Mind” and, in paper, to Birkerts „The Gutenberg Elegies”. Both deserve posts, and I promise to deliver them when I settle in my little cottage on the shore of Baltic sea, i.e. next week.

I will also post my recollections and records from 2010 Literary Festival in Paris.

Despite the exhaustion, I was able to create a few play lists on YouTube related to this Festival. The one worth seeing features Philip Pullman and another one David Hare.

So... Keep visiting me ...

Cheers
Mirek

Sunday, July 11, 2010

End of Seven Weeks in an another world - Les Miserables

I was reading, or to be precise, was listening to Victor's HugoLes Miserables” for the last 7 weeks. More than 1500 pages of text, rendered to more than 70 hours of fantastic story-telling (in a literal sense) by David Case (aka Frederick Davidson).

I will not write my review tonight. I'm still in the mood, despite the fact that during this reading I was also reading other books, listen to music, visited exhibitions.


I must think what and how to write. Les Miserables has caused hundreds of thousands of other reviews — so why I must write my own ? But I will wait, will wait until the incredible world created by Victor Hugo start to fade a bit, and my emotions start to sediment in the basin of forgetfulness ....


Les Miserables is so important that we almost forget it is a great book.
Who of us have not wept when little Gavroche died as a hero on a Parisian barricade of the Spring of Nations, who of us was not mesmerized when Susan Boyle sang Fantine's song... Who have never thought about a power of the qualms of conscience which had driven Jean Valjean to silent and troubled heroism; who did not imagine how beautfull was Cosetta and her mother Fantine...


That's all for tonight. If you haven't read it yet — do it please — it is more important than 1000 TV shows, more than hundreds football matches ...


I will write my regular review when the time will come....




Social Platforms for Enterprise - Enterprise 2.0 by Andrew McAfee

No one can dismiss the importance of Social Networks for the global culture. The simple saying goes: "Web connected documents — Facebook connected people". Although I'm not in favor of the role that FaceBook plays today, I cannot ignore its utmost importance for our civilisation. (For good discussion about it see here) .

When Internet brought Web to life, corporations started to use it internally and INTRANETs were born. So is today, with ESSPs - Emergent Social Software Platforms to follow Web 2.0 trends. These solutions bring a completely new setting for Knowledge Management in a corporate world. And they are the subject of the Andrew McAfee book „Enterprise 2.0. New collaborative tools for your organization's toughest challenges”.


The book is not technical at all. The author does not even try to list the software packages that deliver ESSP functionalities for today's corporations. Instead it starts from the analysis of the opportunities, often missed opportunities of the group work, goes through the definitions of Enterprise 2.0 to the concrete recommendations for corporations which would consider implementing ESSP.


On the surface we feel what the ESSPs are. We could pronounce the names of most important Web 2.0 solutions, from Wikis (Wikipedia), through social tagging (Delicious) to Social Networks (Twitter, FaceBook). But we sometimes do not notice their "free form" features like being optional, free of imposed structures, egalitarian and data format neutral. They share the important features that are best described through the acronym of SLATES: Search, Links, Authoring, Tags, Extensions and Signals. It is easy to map specific solutions available today to any of these features.

One of the bast parts of the book has the title "New Approach to Old Problems" where he applies the concept of SWT — The Strength of Weak Ties (1973 - Mark Granovetter - American Journal of Sociology) to understand better why social networks inside corporation do matter.

The concept of SWT helps to formulate the Bull's Eye theory of the importance of Social Systems. In this theory we use SN systems to maintain Strong Ties, but we also maintain Weak and Potential Ties:



These interesting considerations form Part I of the Book. In Part II McAfee considers the difficulties related to implementation of ESSPs today.

The first paradox related to their introduction is a typical Red Herring case: "I've noticed that concerns around Enterprise 2.0 fall into two broad categories: fears that people won't use the newly available ESSPs, and fears that they will". This diverting, usually "committed" by management, masks the fears of the same management. Sometimes, the fears are justified. Corporations have their secrets, they protect their information from free leaking. However, as many bright examples show (European investment bank DrKW or US Directorate of National Intelligence) there are ways to protect what is to be protected while using all benefits of ESSPs !


The second problem is that everybody wants to implement ESSPs quick, but in fact it is a task for a long period of time — true Long Haul project! McAfee lists certain qualifications that can impact the adoption, like the ability to make quick relative evaluations, understanding of the status quo and deep understanding that people are loss-averse. He concludes with the words of Gourville: „ ... to be successful companies must anticipate a long, drawn-out adoption process and manage it accordingly”


The book concludes with two great chapters. „Going Mainstream" contains a true Road Map for implementation of ESSP in a corporation. It stresses the role of early adopters (believers), and the most important challenge for management: "Communicate, Educate & Evangelize”. It also puts stress on measuring real progress rather than on calculation of ROI...


„Looking Ahead” tries to predict a future of Enterprise 2.0. The most interesting forecast the author makes is the shift from „Model 1 behavior” to „Model 2 behavior”. The concepts come from Harvard professor Chris Argyris, who in 1996 book „Organizational Learning II: Theory, Method and Practice” (with Donald A. Schön) layed out a framework for successful strategies of large organisations. „Model 1” strategy relies on the unilateral design and management of the work environment, on protection of one's position and protection of others and on grasp and control of organizational tasks. In contrast, „Model 2” strategies assume high participation and joint task control, bilateral protection of others and orientation toward growth.

Using these concepts McAfee makes the conclusive remark, that is worth to quote:


„I am deeply interested in Enterprise 2.0 not because its component technologies are novel, innovative, and powerful (although they are) and not because I believe that ESSPs will fundamentally transform how enterprises are designed, rendering hierarchy obsolete (I do not believe this will be the case).
I'm most interested in the use of ESSPs because they can help organizations move from a Model 1 to Model 2 theory-in-use. These tools can change the nature of collaboration and discussion within an enterprise, giving people the ability both to contribute their perspective to a dialogue and to inform themselves by incorporating multiple perspectives. In short, they can help organizations move from defensive to productive reasoning.”



And this quote is the best climax of the book and of my review...