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4.2 out of 5 stars
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4.2 out of 5 stars
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on 21 November 2010
Taken at face value, as a kind of fantasy thought-experiment succintly exploring the sheer strangeness of the concept of death itself, the book is by turns witty, imaginative, playful, and occasionally poetic. Each tale works independently in terms of its individual logic, and overall there is a real cumulative pleasure taken in the notion of comparing 40 'invented' afterlives. Some of the ideas are extensions of already existing fantasy and science-fiction lore to some extent, and religious ideas also get included - paradoxes and all - but what becomes clear,as it should, is that all of this is about how we actually value our lives, and really has nothing to do with the afterlife at all. It is essentially secular in its free play with ideas, levelling the profound alongside the trivial, and the 'deep' with the light.

Apparently some religious critics have found this book shallow and undermining of the seriousness of certain religious ideas. As someone who firmly believes religious afterlife 'hope and judgement' conceits are human-foible infected fantasies anyway, I find the humanity and playfulness exhibited here actually a confirmation of one the best aspects of human nature - inquisitivity. God forbid Eagleman uses the imagination God apparently gave him in the first place.
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on 12 June 2010
This little book has already caused quite a sensation in the publishing world, and for good reason too. And you can read why from the blurb on the back of the book. It did generate a variety of effects for me. Each short tale leaves a slightly different taste to the previous one. Some you will want to savour and allow the flavours to linger, whilst others may have no affect at all. Not only do you get such a wide variety of ideas and concepts, but the prose is delicious! Writers generally acknowledge that the short story is more of a challenge. These are not really short stories, more ideas for films or something, but the writing is superb.

They read quite like modern parables, with the effect of making you slow down and reflect. You can't help but put the book down after reading one and stare out of the window for a while and allow some re-arranging of the auld internal furniture. And you think of how life could be and then you think of how life is. And it's not so bad at all. And you just might catch a glimpse of wonder at the mystery of it all.
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on 15 January 2012
I loved this little book. Eagleman has such a great imagination taking us on whimsical hypothesis that stay with us long after putting the book down. The stories are more philosophy than fantasy and put forward better thought out scenarios than entire catechisms of so called Religions. You can read it all the way thought or just pick it up every now and then and read one little story. I found my mind returning to the stories during the day.
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on 24 July 2012
This is a work of fiction, but it's no story. It's a series of short stories, but it's no anthology. It is exactly what it says in the title; 40 tales, none longer than 4 pages, offering wonderfully imaginative, creative scenarios to posit an exact nature of the afterlife. In so doing it touches on our notions of God, reality, science, knowledge and the nature of our existence here on earth.

The book plays with notions of scale, humans being dwarfed by giant divinities, or us humans dwarfing microscopic numinous beings. Human beings as recording devices for other beings scientific experiments, an echo of Douglas Adams' joyous playfulness here, so that the afterlife is a debriefing room. Most of the stories see a schism between us mortals and the gods awaiting us in the afterlife. The gods who have set us in motion on earth to whatever end, but where we have gone our own way, or fallen into unpredictable sideroads, usually around love. In "Narcissus" the 'Cartographers' who set us in motion with our eyes, ears and noses as sensory recording devices, despair that we use thelenses of our eyes for scutinising not the landscape for their maps, but into the eye lenses of our felllow species, "an ironic way to trivilaise the technology". In "Quantum" every life choice you turned down you can now act out simultaneously in the afterlife. You protest this is too much to grapple with so the angel offers you a simpole scenarion, you locked in a room with just your lover which you gladly accept: "You are simultaneously engaged in her conversation and thinking about something else... she worships you and wonders what she might have missed with someone else. 'Thank you', you tell the angel. 'This is what I'm used to'".

Absent, unapproachable gods, shunned gods, gods who have long abandoned their original creation project. In all of these, mankind is wobbling between greatness and insignificance. mankind holds the key if only we could perceive it. The 40 tales are offered up as fictions rather than gospel. They are sketches, not without their lyricism, but they are to prompt and provoke thought, rather than supply any answer. Some of the stories see both us and the beings who populate the afterlife, but cut adrift from one another due to an inability to communicate as much as a discrepancy in scale. In "Giantess" a race finally work out how to send a message to the divinity, but only succeed in provoking an immune response from her that destroys their civilisation. The last survivor begs the human race to keep its din down so as not to draw the same reaction.

Eagleman is a neuroscientist by trade, but here clearly shows a literary skill in drawing on both science, poetic metaphor and myth to weave together a wonderfully fresh vision. In "Mary", Mary Shelley sits on the throne in the afterlife, because only she in "Frankenstein" has evidenced a mortal's understanding of the situation our Creator finds himself in when his creations have got away from him.

I would recommend this delightful little book to the readers of any genre. It is quite simply the sum of our lives. Told in just 4 page long stories.
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on 7 February 2010
This book has been garnering a host of admirers, from writers such as Alexander McCall Smith and Phillip Pullman to commentators from the heavier end of the celebrity spectrum such as Brian Eno and Stephen Fry.

There are clearly many within the forty `tales' that are stunningly original, witty and laced with wisdom. The subtitle and all the reviews outline the novel structure and conceit of the work, namely very short accounts - one to three pages each - riffing on different takes on the `afterlife' and by way of that, God, the purpose of life, philosophical, psychological, theological or political conundrums.

The notion, for example, that much of our existence takes `place in the eyes, ears and fingertips of others' that, once one has left the earth, is `stored in scattered heads around the globe' playfully elaborates on themes that have already occupied the `ologies' and isms' of more than a few sombre academics.

The main reason that these undoubted qualities do not lead to my doling out the five star accolade concerns the cumulative effect of these forty tales being collected within one volume. I can see how each short piece would be a star turn as a regular feature in a journal or a literate magazine, where reading one would definitely whet my appetite for the appearance of the next, one week, one month or whatever the publication interval was, later. As a compendium however, I found myself eventually wearying of them, mainly because of the way the format of self contained brevity created for me a repetitiveness that diminished the freshness and distinctiveness of the individual pieces. By about three quarters of the way through I was hungry for a sense of development, the fleshing out of a narrative or the elaboration of a set of ideas.

While I'm sure that the cult status of this little book will continue to grow and attract new devotees, I personally found myself pleased to be finishing it, with my motivation to return to, and complete, `Crime and Punishment' having been refreshed by the excursion.
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This stunning little volume stands on its own. There is nothing else to compare it to. When you read these surprising, amusing, quirky and profund stories, they start to shine in your mind like diamonds. They bring a new light on things, that you might not have noticed before. All stories are about the 'Afterlife' and what we can expect there, or also, on what is going on in the 'Afterlife'. Incredibly funny, clever and absolutely always disconcerting, they are more than food for thought. They are NEW food for thought that no one before ever put quite that way into words !!!
For a few pounds, don't deny yourself this genuine treat for the mind.
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on 8 June 2011
Eagleman's book is subtitled, "Forty Tales from the Afterlife", leading one to think that these are stories about post-death experiences, but they're really about how the brain experiences reality here and now. Eagleman is a neuro-scientist, and has said his religious beliefs waver between none and agnosticism, so he's not interested in religion as such, even though he may use the concepts of "heaven", "hell",or "God" in these sketches. None of what Eagleman writes, then, is to be seen as any kind of literal vision of the "afterlife" as normally depicted by religion. Religion, when it talks about an afterlife, either sees a terminal heaven or hell, or suggests some form of earthly reincarnation. Eagleman is not in competition with these conventional views.

For example, in the title piece Eagleman writes, "In the afterlife you relive all your experiences, but this time with the events reshuffled into a new order: all the moments that share a quality are grouped together. You spend two months driving the street in front of your house, seven months having sex, you sleep for 30 years without opening your eyes . . ." I think Eagleman is asking a basic question of how it is that we DO separate our common experiences by interludes of time, or how is it that our brains are able to simply forget and blot out experiences that have taken up so much of our lives?

Forty "tales" then, stories, sketches, prose poems, whatever you want to call them. They're uneven, the best ones nudge you out of your habitual way of looking at things, the ordinary ones elicit a "so"?
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on 10 May 2016
I bought this book after watching Dr Eagleman's recent BBC4 series on The Brain, which I found fascinating. Almost all reviews of this book praise it to high heaven (!?) but I must be missing something. The concept and format was intriguing but I found the actuality very disappointing. I think the intention of the book was to make us think about our present station in life through short excursions into imagined false idealisms. I am surprised that so many other reviewers found this heading towards the 'life-changing' category as I would have thought most of the scenarios and outcomes self-evident to anyone who has pondered the meaning of life whilst waiting for a human being to respond to a call-centre enquiry. Hmm, it seems not to have changed my grumpy outlook on life.
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on 30 May 2010
I would recommend all those who rave about this book to read the earlier "Einstein's Dreams" by Alan Lightman. Structurally they are very similar, and in my opinion "Einstein's Dreams" is far more coherent and better written. "Einstein's Dreams" in turn is said by many to owe much to Italo Calvino's "Invisible Cities" (but I admit that Calvino is not to everyone's taste). I cannot imagine that Eagleman was unfamiliar at least with Lightman's book -- the similarities are simply far too striking to be coincidental.
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on 26 March 2016
This is an entertaining book and at times really funny and thought provoking. Two downsides: Firstly, the inconsistency of the book to grasp its reader in all the stories/theories/thoughts that make up the different chapters of the book. Secondly, the price is way on the high end for a book such as this, it is a short book which although feels like its printed on good quality and paper, there are no images or reasons in my mind to warrant this higher price. In summary, I enjoyed the book on the whole and it made me think different possibilities and imaginings for the afterlife, but it is pricey for the type of book it is.
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