January 31, 2018

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur, January 2018

Attention conservation notice: I have no taste.

Maria Konnikova, The Confidence Game: And Why We Fall for It... Every Time
An engaging popular-science look at confidence games, their players and their marks. (Konnikova references a lot of the social psychology literature, which is certainly better than ignoring it, but I haven't had the heart to check how many of those studies have failed to replicate.)
Yuri Slezkine, The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution
TL;DR: It's about some Russians.
This book is a lot of things: at barest bones, a look at the history of the Bolshevik party, the Russian Revolution and the USSR from, say, the 1880s down to about the out-break of World War II. But it is also a kind of collective biography of the Old Bolsheviks, which particularly emphasizes their imaginative lives as readers and as writers of literature, and their family lives. It is also an analysis of Bolshevism as a millenarian sect, closely following Norman Cohn's Cosmos, Chaos, and the World to Come and (less crucially) Mircea Eliade. (On the one hand, this point is kind of obvious to any non-Bolshevik from the definitions; on the other, I know of nobody else who has (i) worked it through in detail, without (ii) being a propagandistic right-wing hack-job.) This leads to looking closely through the Bolshevik's literary output for mythological themes and symbols, especially re-workings of Exodus and of creation out of the primeval swamp. It is an account of the up-bringing and youth of the children of the Old Bolsheviks, and of how they became patriotic Soviet citizens without really getting Marxism. It examines architecture, winter holidays, witch-hunts from early modern Germany to 1980s America, and window curtains. It is the story of the building, life and decay of a particular building in Moscow, the eponymous House of Government. Finally, it is the story of the many awful things which the Old Bolsheviks did and suffered. It is vast, detailed, humorous, learned, intensely arguable (*), and over-all magnificent.
One comment seems worth making: it is striking to me how modestly the occupants of the House of Government lived, for the unchecked rulers of a huge country. A four-room apartment, a nanny, the shared use of a vacation home --- this put them near the pinnacle, which is to say, on a par with moderately successful big-city professionals and executives in the contemporary west. (Some of the provincial managers seem to have been more ostentatious.) I think this really does indicate that whatever else might be said about them, they weren't in it for personal gain. Of course, living like the western upper-middle class in a country where millions of people were literally starving to death indicates incredible relative inequality...
Finally, I feel compelled to mention that I actually "read" this by listening to the audiobook, read by Stefan Rudnicki, who did an absolutely magnificent job at delivering the text, and in particular capturing Slezkine's use of repetition as a deliberate rhetorical device. (I can't judge Rudnicki's pronounciation of Russian.)
*: When I was in college, under the spell of Eliade and (less defensibly; but I was an adolescent) Joseph Campbell, I tormented my humanities teachers with analyses of literary works along the same lines as what Slezkine does here. They were very patient with me, and eventually got me to see that this mode of interpretation is just too flexible, that there is basically nothing it couldn't seem to account for, hence uninformative. (As I would now put it, the Rademacher complexity is too high.) I am not saying that Slezkine's efforts are on a par with my undergraduate effusions, but I do wonder, once he's decided that such-and-such a period's novels are variants on Exodus, how hard is it for him to find examples? how hard would it be for him to find Exodus stories from other periods, if he wanted to? how hard would it be for another critic to take the same text and read it as a variant on Genesis?
David N. Schwartz, The Last Man Who Knew Everything: The Life and Times of Enrico Fermi, Father of the Nuclear Age
This is a nice biography of Fermi, who wasn't, of course, the last man who knew everything (Schwartz says as much!), but was the last great physicist to be both a great theorist and a great experimentalist, and whose work helped create the world we live in. It's not ground-breaking (Schwartz has no pretensions in that direction), but it is very readable, and especially good at explaining the physics, with the imagined reader being an intelligent non-scientist, albeit one who sort of remembers what atoms and electrons are.
The one complaint I have is that I wish Schwartz had taken the space to explain and work through at least one of the canonical "Fermi problems". This would have made his descriptions of how Fermi worked much more concrete. As it is, those passages come across as quite abstract, and perhaps unconvincing. (After all, what who wouldn't prefer to ignore the irrelevant aspects of a problem?)
Jim C. Hines, Terminal Alliance
Mind candy: comic science fiction from a post-apocalyptic future, told from the view-point of military janitors. In addition to being funny, Hines has done a much better job of world-building than many writers of ostensibly more serious SF.
Mira Grant, Into the Drowning Deep
Mind candy techno-thriller / predator porn, set just a few years into the science-fictional future, featuring carnivorous mermaids. Grant has clearly given a lot of loving attention to their biology, and I look forward to the nigh-inevitable sequel.

Books to Read While the Algae Grow in Your Fur; Scientifiction and Fantastica; Physics; Writing for Antiquity; The Progressive Forces; Commit a Social Science; Minds, Brains, and Neurons; Pleasures of Detection, Portraits of Crime;

Posted at January 31, 2018 23:59 | permanent link

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