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Jeremy Walton (Sidmouth, UK)
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Isaac Newton
Isaac Newton
by James Gleick
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars The marble index of a mind, 16 May 2014
This review is from: Isaac Newton (Paperback)
Following his excellent biography of the brilliant physicist Richard Feynman, James Gleick turns his attention to one whose abilities and influences were even greater - in fact, someone who was possibly the greatest scientist who ever lived. In the words of Hermann Bondi, "The tools that he gave us stand at the root of so much that goes on now... we may not be doing a lot more than following in his footsteps" [p193]. Before taking up this book, I thought I knew a little about Newton's life and works: born on Christmas Day, only son of a Lincolnshire farmer, a mostly self-taught mathematician, discoverer of the law of universal gravitation, embroiled in a dispute with Leibniz over precedence in the development of the calculus, researcher into the nature of light and colour, inventor of the reflecting telescope, alchemist, theologian and master of the Royal Mint.

All of this gets covered here, but what I hadn't appreciated was how much of his work (particularly in his early years) was devoted to many subjects - pure mathematics, calculus, optics, physics - at the same time, and how much of it he kept hidden from other workers in these fields. It can be hard for a modern scientist (particularly those following in his footsteps) to understand his secrecy, but such was the nature of the times he lived in, and Newton's role as the harbinger of the scientific age. This unique position also identifies him as - in the words of Keynes - "the last of the magicians" [p194], and it's difficult to avoid impressions of the arcane, the mysterious, even the other-worldly in the story of his life.

Gleick's elegant style is put to good use here (for example, "Then equations have not just solutions but other properties: maxima and mimima, tangents and areas. These were visualized, and they were named." [p38]), although his copious use of footnotes - which take up a fifth of this book - made me feel I was reading two interlocking books as I flipped back and forth between them. To be sure, careful reference to the scant documentation of Newton's life is important (if only for the unpicking of myths about his famous quote about standing on the shoulders of giants, the story of his dog which caused a fire that destroyed some of his manuscripts and - of course - the tale of the apple which inspired his discovery of gravity), but sometimes I felt important points - such as the suggestion that mercury poisoning could have caused his eccentricities in later life (which only appears in a note on p236) - fell into the gap between these texts. But that's perhaps to be too critical of a fine book: well-written, interesting and stimulating.


Turned Out Nice Again: On Living With the Weather
Turned Out Nice Again: On Living With the Weather
by Richard Mabey
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars When the wind blows, 13 May 2014
My daughter bought me this book as a birthday present, correctly perceiving a new-found interest in the weather arising from my having recently started work for the national organization which is devoted to understanding that elusive phenomenon. It's a lovely book, and the variety and depth of its contents belie its size (only 90 small pages). Mabey draws on the weather observations of writers like Flora Thompson, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and (mostly) Gilbert White, whose journals contain "spare, glittering miniatures that often have the depth and rhythm of hiaku", for example: "31 March, 1768: Black weather, Cucumber fruit swells, Rooks sit" [p14]. He supplements these with his own detailed recollections of notable stories in the continuous stream of weather events, such as seeing a ferocious downpour liquefy a decaying beech tree: "The rain was hammering drills of water at the already rotting trunk, and flakes of bark, fungal ooze, barbecued dregs from the lightning-charred heartwood began to drip on to the woodland floor like thick arboreal soup." [p5].

Elsewhere he explores the links between the weather and our feelings, and the way in which the latter can affect our memories of the former (everyone recalls the UK summer of 1976 as sweltering, for example, but few recall that that of the previous year was just as hot and prolonged). He's a very good writer, but I think his description on p79 of a state of prolonged instability and chaos as a "state of reductio ad absurdum" is misleading; although it means "reduction to absurdity", that expression is invariably used as the name of a common form of argument.


Falling Towards England : Unreliable Memoirs II
Falling Towards England : Unreliable Memoirs II
by Clive James
Edition: Paperback
Price: £7.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Treats of London, 7 May 2014
Clive James follows up Unreliable Memoirs, his best-selling account of growing up in Australia, with this book which describes his life in 1960s London before going up to Cambridge (his time there is the subject of May Week Was In June, the third volume of his autobiography). So this is about an intermezzo in his life: grown-up enough to try and make a new start in a new city, but not yet having received the benefits of the formation and support that Cambridge was to give him.

One view (which includes, perhaps, his) of this story would end up querying whether he was really grown-up at all, as he tries his hand at one stop-gap job after another, including wine merchant, librarian, sheet-metal worker and publisher's assistant. Each unsuccessful stint is described in his usual self-deprecating style, along with his parallel experience of unsuitable accommodation (including a spell sleeping in a large brown paper bag). His finely-honed style makes a catalogue of disasters look entertaining, and he does the same for his descriptions of his friends Bruce Beresford and Barry Humphries (disguised here as 'Dave Dalziel' and 'Bruce Jennings' respectively), and the trips he took to Italy where his girlfriend - and later wife - Prue Shaw (who's called 'Francoise' here) was researching early Italian literature.

So a lot depends on whether you like his style, and whether you can resist quoting passages like this description of a staple foodstuff of the time [p152]:

"When you cut it up, put the pieces in your mouth and swallowed them, the British hamburger shaped itself to the bottom of your stomach like ballast, while interacting with your gastric juices to form an incipient belch of enormous potential, an airship which had been inflated in a garage. This belch, when silently released, would cause people standing twenty yards away to start examining the soles of their shoes. The vocalized version sounded like a bag of tools thrown into a bog."

If - like me - you do, and you can't, then reading (or re-reading) this book will bring many rewards: nods of recognition, paroxysms of discomfort and howls of laughter.


The Ipcress File
The Ipcress File
by Len Deighton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: £7.19

4.0 out of 5 stars I spy, 6 May 2014
Published more than fifty years ago, this was Len Deighton's first novel, and the debut of his anonymous secret agent anti-hero (named Harry Palmer in the film adaptions, which starred Michael Caine). He stands in contrast to the more glamorous James Bond (whose first film, Dr. No, appeared in the same year as this book), in that he's working class, shops in supermarkets, wears glasses and is hindered by bureaucracy. He also has a sharp eye (e.g. "The barman - a tall ex-pug with a tan out of a bottle and a tie-knot the size of a large garden pea - was rubbing an old duster around spotless unused ashtrays and taking sly sips at a half-pint of Guinness." [p72]), and a memorable turn of phrase. Here, for example, is his way of describing his discovery of the true nature of the man in the next seat on a flight to Rome, after he's picked his pocket and leafed through his wallet, discovering some photos [p30]:

"[They were of] a dark-haired, round-faced character; deep sunk eyes with bags under horn-rimmed glasses, chin jutting and cleft. On the back of the photos was written '5ft 11in; muscular, inclined to overweight, No visible scar tissue; hair dark brown, eyes blue'. I looked at the familiar face again. I knew the eyes were blue, even though the photograph was in black and white. I'd seen the face before; most mornings I shaved it."

I've read this a few times over a period of many years, and greatly enjoy scenes like this in the story, most of which has a timeless quality (the outsider tackling an unseen enemy in a confusing and misleading world), although some aspects - for example, the way in which his female companion is employed mainly to ask questions so that he can provide the explanation of the labyrinthine plot in the denouement - haven't dated well. There are also many fascinating reminders of how long ago this all was sprinkled throughout the text - thus, in the very first sentence, a footnote is used to explain what the (then) neologism "hot line" means. And, in my edition (published in 1965), exotic words like 'aubergine' are printed in italics, as if to introduce them to the inhabitants of an age of innocence and unsophistication.


Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction
Dostoevsky: Language, Faith and Fiction
by Rowan Williams
Edition: Paperback
Price: £14.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Stimulating and considered, 28 April 2014
Like other reviewers, I was directed to this book by Timothy Radcliffe's excellent What Is the Point of Being a Christian?. I read - and greatly enjoyed - most of Dostoevsky's best-known works (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Devils, The Brothers Karamazov, and Notes from the Underground) a long time ago, but (or maybe hence) was a little hazy on the details of the plots and characters. Not like Rowan Williams, who's intimately familiar with the texts and the historical and academic literature about their author (he even steps in at one point (p45) to give his own translation of an significant phrase from Karamazov).

However, although it's essential for the reader of this book to have at least some familiarity with the stories (for example, the parable that Ivan Karamazov tells about the Grand Inquisitor's encounter with Christ), I wouldn't necessarily say it was crucial that they refresh their memories of all the details before tackling this, because the author works hard to tease out the ideas that he's interested in. These are indicated by his title, and his observation that "Faith and fiction are deeply related - not because faith is a variant of fiction in the trivial sense but because both are gratuitous linguistic practices standing over against a functional scheme of things" (p46). The second part of this sentence takes a bit of unpicking (in fact, it takes the whole of the rest of the book to do so), but the first part - about faith being a variant of fiction - is startlingly eye-catching, even to those readers who are struggling to progress beyond the trivial.

If they do, they'll encounter the author's main thesis: an analogy between the fictional world and characters which Dostoevsky creates in his stories, and ideas and beliefs about the way our world has come into being, our purpose in it and the consequences of the choices which we make. Even if we're comfortable with the notion of being like characters in a story created by another, this is a heavy burden for Dostoevsky to bear (the analogy would clearly be a lot shakier if we substituted the name of another author - Dan Brown, say - and their fictional world), but Williams thinks he's up to the task because of the richness and complexity of his works, which he explores in depth here. Along the way, he considers ideas about free will, spirituality, charity, love, forgiveness and sacrifice; in spite of the density of the writing which caused me - in spite of paying close attention to the text - to lose my way occasionally, I found these resonated with me and stimulated unlooked-for insights. The patience and effort required to read this book is, in the final analysis, a valuable investment.


Wrestling with Christ
Wrestling with Christ
by Luigi Santucci
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Getting to grips, 22 April 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Wrestling with Christ (Hardcover)
I bought this book many years ago and have re-read it several times. It's an extended personal meditation on the Gospels, containing all sorts of ideas, meditations and discursions about the life of Christ and the people who encountered him. The author (1918 - 1999) is an Italian novelist and essayist who brings a poet's turn of phrase and coruscating originality to bear on the long-familiar stories of the Gospels, and illuminates them in a way which gets you thinking about them and their central character in a fresh way. Here, for example, is him identifying with Nicodemus, who visited Jesus in the night:

"I would have gone by night; and often. On those occasions when I cannot manage to sleep because I'm horrified by the day I've just spent, and afraid of the one that's dawning; when my brain, and the academic knowledge handed to me by my father and mother who paid for my good education, weigh on my mind more than any sin - then I get up and go to him. I don't even need to get up. I lie there in the darkness, my eyes open, and pester him."

For a long time, I've used the section on Christ's passion and death as inspirational reading over Easter, but the whole book is to be treasured, and sought after by those who'd like to see Christ brought to life again.


The Jesus I Never Knew
The Jesus I Never Knew
Price: £4.99

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Who do you say I am?, 8 April 2014
I picked this up after having read - and been strongly affected by - Yancey's What's So Amazing About Grace? last year. Here, he tries to look afresh at the life of Jesus as presented in the Gospels, rather than that suggested or implied by the lives of his followers or by the behaviour of the institutions which have been set up in his name. This is a big topic, and he's obviously not the first writer to tackle it - indeed, one of the characteristics of Jesus is the apparently limitless fascination which so many (believers and non-believers alike) have with his message. This is to say nothing of the passionate - even violent - divisions which have arisen in the lives of some communities, who have then attempted to justify them by appealing to (their ideas about) his teaching - an argument that I've seen neatly summed up as "My Jesus is better than your Jesus".

So - notwithstanding the publisher's promise that the book reveals "what 2000 years of history have covered up" (which uncomfortably reminds me of something Dan Brown might have written) - it's perhaps difficult to find something new to say about this subject, but that's not to say it's a waste of time to examine it again. To take just one example, Yancey looks at the demands of the Sermon On The Mount with his jaw sagging [p133]: "Does Jesus really expect me to give to every panhandler who crosses my path? Should I abandon all insistence on consumer rights? Cancel my insurance policies and trust God for the future? Discard my television to avoid temptations to lust? How can I possibly translate such ethical ideals into my everyday life?" He finds partial answers to these excellent questions in the writings of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, but more completely in God's gift of grace, which rescues us from our desperation when we realize no-one can rely on their own efforts alone to live up to the ideal which Jesus sets out.


Some Remarks
Some Remarks
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Hardcover
Price: £14.51

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Quite remarkable, 21 Mar 2014
Verified Purchase(What is this?)
This review is from: Some Remarks (Hardcover)
Neal Stephenson is a knowledgeable, idiosyncratic writer with an interest in not only current and future technology (which is standard-issue for other writers of science fiction), but also its history. The former was his sure companion when he wrote the classic Snow Crash, and it was the latter which led him into writing his sprawling (but relentlessly fascinating) Baroque Cycle. Here, he collects together a couple of short stories (one of which is his early cyberspace tale "Spew", previously only available (I think) in the 1996 Hackers anthology) with several non-fiction pieces that have previously appeared in places like "Wired" magazine. These range from a learned discussion of the metaphysics of Liebniz and an introduction to Everything and More, David Foster Wallace's book about the history of infinity, to Stephenson's musings on how important science fiction is (or isn't) as a genre and his view of geeking out (concentrating on arcane detail) and vegging out (letting the whole thing wash over you). In between, you get his lengthy travelogue about his efforts in the mid-90s to get a ringside seat for the laying of the so-called "longest wire on Earth" - i.e. the Fibre-optic Link Around the Globe, and other gems such as his (entirely persuasive) advocacy of why walking around (instead of sitting down) all day at the office is really good for you.

I greatly enjoyed this stimulating collection; its variety keeps things moving along, and Stephenson has the gift of carrying the reader with him on his journeys. For example, he opens his piece about the longest wire on Earth - which you might be forgiven for thinking an uninteresting or unpromising subject - with "Information moves, or we move to it. Moving to it has rarely been popular and is growing unfashionable; nowadays we demand that the information come to us." [p121], which provides an instant and intriguing justification for the importance of what he's going to be talking about. Highly recommended.


Tears at Night, Joy at Dawn: Journal of a Dying Seminarian
Tears at Night, Joy at Dawn: Journal of a Dying Seminarian
by Andrew Robinson
Edition: Paperback

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars I will praise you Lord, you have rescued me, 18 Mar 2014
Here's a very short book which wouldn't take long to read if you weren't alive to its message and the effort which had gone into producing it. The author was studying for the Catholic priesthood when, at the age of thirty-one, he was diagnosed with cancer. Between then and his death less than a year later, he wrote about his daily life, suffering and belief, and the friends, colleagues (some of whom I know) and families who were helping him. It's a powerful testament to his faith in God's love and providence, and his striving for an appreciation of God's grace in his living and dying. His faith isn't unquestioning or uncritical, as he honestly records his frustrations, pain and disappointments as many of his hopes - if not for recovery, then perhaps the possibility of early ordination - remain unfulfilled, but this only enriches his account of his preparation for the end of his life.

Another reviewer of this book has noted that he too was facing death. Whilst it comes heart-rendingly sooner for some than others we are all, of course, in the same boat. Here is one man's account of how he felt about that, the things he believed in, and the faith which he held right till the end.


In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
In the Beginning...Was the Command Line
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Paperback
Price: £6.86

4.0 out of 5 stars Words and pictures, 7 Mar 2014
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In this little book (whose length is more befitting of an essay), Neal Stephenson displays an impressive depth of technical knowledge about how computers work, particularly in the area of user interfaces: the means by which we make them do the things we want. He uses that as a jumping-off point to tease out the differences between typing commands and manipulating objects on a screen, and what that means for how we think about what we're doing. It's a characteristically stimulating collection of ideas - thus, at one point, he suggests an analogy between a graphical user interface (GUI) and Disney World: both "are in the same business: short-circuiting laborious, explicit verbal communication with expensively designed interfaces." He's concerned that an overuse of a GUI leads us into an unfamiliarity with the written word - in roughly the same way, I imagine, that a commentator of fifty years ago would contend that watching too much television leaves less time for reading books, and hence increasing levels of illiteracy.

It's an interesting observation, even if the technological examples he uses have inevitably become dated since the book was first published in 1999. This of course is an inevitable consequence of writing about the current state of a fast-moving technical landscape (for example, he says his favourite user interface is BeOS, whose development company was to be dissolved two years after this book came out). But the ideas contained in the book are stimulating enough to have persisted for longer than the technology, and there's been at least one attempt (not written by the original author) to update its examples and observations. One of the reasons this has been possible is that the text is apparently freely available on the net. But it's still nice to have the book.


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