29 July, 2011

There's a tiger...

Life of Pi

Yann Martel

It has taken me years to read this novel; i’m pretty sure Lynne bought it or gave it to me a long time ago, probably in the States, so perhaps it’s waiting there in the boxes i may never see again (sob), but i did take out this copy from the library here when i saw it, somehow the time was right for me to read it. And i’m glad i did, as it was very enjoyable Like much fiction it is more than just a story, though it’s hard to say for certain what the underlying themes are; certainly, there are questions raised about the meaning of story, or the ability to tell story, or the possibility of story to be true or not true, not to mention the question of how do we tell the difference between truth and fiction, when both are stories. I’m not sure about the framing story, though i accept that it is part of the novel; actually, if i think about it, i find that what i don’t quite get or like about the frame is the old Indian’s assertion that Pi’s story is one that will make you believe in God, or a god, which is not, it seems to me, at all the reaction drawn out by Pi. That incorrect assertion seems to grate a little, and that causes a discomfort within me, about the frame itself, somehow. Nevertheless, all in all, a lovely story, fiction or not, whichever story one might accept as truth in the end.

22 July, 2011

Cryptographically questionable ~ exciting plot, though.

Digital Fortress

Dan Brown

We found all of Dan Brown’s books in the library when The Da Vinci Code first came out and caused a furore, and borrowed and read them, so i have read this previously; nevertheless, it was fun to go back and take another look at it, seeing what i remembered from before, and what i could work out as i was going along. Result? Brown provides an exciting read, as he can certainly plot with the best of them ~ so long as plausibility is not essential, and it’s not always, to be fair ~ though he does tend to use and reuse substantial elements of the one plot in each book.

The point i found most frustrating about Digital Fortress was the way that Brown chose to explain his background; an author does have a problem when something outside the experience of the majority of his projected readers is essential to the point of the story and, the more so as, in this case, it subsequently enters that experience. Brown’s plot focusses on computer codes and privacy and the ability of the NSA to break the latter by means of their expertise with the former. What Brown does is use his main character to help the reader understand codes: She realises and suddenly understands and so on things which she would have had no puzzlement about at all if she were really the cypher and code expert, but Brown has to explain to the reader about code keys and viruses and so forth; i think, though, he chose the wrong way to make his explanations, as i found myself irritated each time Susan needed something explaining she should have known ~ like a biologist needing to be reminded about sex when wondering why animals are in pairs. Trivial point, perhaps, but it did affect my reading experience.

All in all, as with each of Brown’s books, i found that the plotting is excellent, if extreme or a tad unbelievable, the characters are acceptable, though not of the same level, and the writing itself is very average, with much that does not recommend it. A shame.

18 July, 2011

I've got a secret

Lady Audley’s Secret

Mary Elizabeth Braddon

There is a facet of my personality that is brought to the fore in the reading of this book. It’s not new to me, i’ve known it, and on occasion been frustrated by it, before; with this book, however, at one point it became dominant, and affected the reading of the book. The issue is that i sometimes have a tendency to become so involved with a book’s characters that i cannot bear to continue reading, for fear of what is going to happen to them. In Lady Audley’s Secret this happened at a point when Robert Audley is accused of madness for his beliefs; i didn’t want to know what was going to happen, and it was, in fact, probably a week, possibly more, before i picked up the book and finished it. The thing is, i knew the whole time, obviously, that in the end everything was going to be all right, i just couldn’t bear to face how the plot was going to reach a satisfactory ending, the struggles, trials, and tribulations that Audley was going to have to go through. I suppose that such a feeling by a reader for one or more of an author’s characters is one of the signs of real success in that author’s work. I’ll take it that way, anyway, rather than poking fun at myself for worrying about an imaginary person in a book written a hundred and fifty years ago. So, it quickly becomes evident, if that was my reaction, that i liked this book, that it is well written, a pleasure to read. In fact it is, to use a popular and almost meaningless word, a classic. It is listed in my copy of 500 Books you must Read, which is one of the reasons i was keen to buy and read it; it has an article of its own on Wikipedia; it has had films and plays and radio dramas made of it. None of these alone means much, but taken together they do lend an air of importance to Braddon’s work; that air is borne out by the book itself. Well worth picking up, reading. Even worth forcing yourself past the point where you worry about Robert Audley’s future!

11 July, 2011

The Puzzle of Meaning

The Rosetta Stone: The Story of the Decoding of Hieroglyphics

Robert Solé & Dominique Valbelle

I had wondered before, just how the Rosetta Stone had been used, the process of finding out the meaning of hieroglyphics, and this book explains quite clearly the process; not in as much detail, perhaps, as Chadwick used with his explanation of Linear B, but enough that i now have a flavour of the difficulties involved, and a very small understanding of the method of hieroglyphic writing ~ and cumbersome it seems to have been! I’m tempted to point out just how straight-forward English writing is by comparison, there being fewer decisions about how to put down the meaning intended but, of course, i’d be deceiving myself, as the process of writing this very review is fraught with decisions, many of which have caused me to stop, pause, backtrack, even, to slightly change or shade what i have written.

08 July, 2011

On Not Living up to the Hype

Does God Believe in Atheists?

John Blanchard

Quite a few things i need to critique about this book, ranging from the trivial to the potentially very damaging. A brief overview, first, to set the scene. Blanchard is writing to combat any possibility that atheists can make coherent or cogent arguments against the existence of God (or gods, i suppose). He begins by giving a very brief history of philosophy and religion; he then examines, again briefly, half a dozen or so major world religions; next comes a questioning of science and whether or not it has anything to say on the existence of God; he moves, finally to the Bible and orthodox Christianity and proves to his satisfaction that the only coherent option is a belief in the God of the Bible and Jesus.

Having raced, extremely quickly, over the book (at just over six hundred and fifty pages, with something like sixty of those as end matter, any single paragraph about it is bound to be perfunctory), i’ll pass on to some criticisms, starting with the trivial. The first is simply about the physical appearance of the printed pages; i don’t know if it the font at fault, or the size, or some other factor, but i found the superscript numbers linking to end-notes very frustrating; on several occasions i misread them as a form of punctuation, not a number, and i had to reread in order to be sure i had not misunderstood what Blanchard was saying. This is minor, but caring for the ease of your reader is quite important, if you plan on keeping the interest and attention of that reader for long periods. Perhaps we can put this down to the publisher, who did not realise the effects of his choices.

Next are the simple mistakes, the sort of thing which ought to have been caught by a fact checker or a copy editor or some such person (though, of course, they oughtn’t be made in the first place!). An example of this is that on page 288, in which Blanchard says Erasmus Darwin wrote the poem “The Temple of Nature”, and that it was “first published in 1903”; he did write it and, while it was published posthumously, it was a century earlier than Blanchard suggests. Lest one think i am being extraordinarily picky over a simple typographical error (“1903” for “1803”), i point out that less than a page later he assigns Pasteur to a time “[n]early fifty years before Darwin’s charming composition”, whereas, of course, Pasteur lived and worked contemporaneously with Darwin’s more famous grandson, Charles. Clearly, Blanchard is highly confused at this point of chronology, if at no other, which is worrying in a book claiming to deal so firmly in fact-based arguments.

Another couple of examples of this error are to be found on page 413, where Blanchard states that “slavery was eventually abolished in 1807” while speaking of the effects of scripture on William Wilberforce. Of course, it was only the British slave trade which was abolished in 1807; slavery in the British Empire was legal until 1833, and elsewhere in the world until 1848 (French Empire), 1865 (USA), or 1888 (Brazil). In the very same paragraph as this error, Thomas Barnardo is credited with founding the first of his famous homes at the age of five ~ in 1870, immediately after his dates are given as 1865-1905; in fact he was born in 1845. These simple mistakes (and there are plenty more than the examples given) do not fill the reader with any confidence that Blanchard is any more accurate in the rest of his writing and argument.

Perhaps the next most serious critique i have is that Blanchard stacks the deck at the very beginning of the book. He gets to make his definitions clear, and clearly his definitions are not the most usual senses of the words, so he aids his argument in this rather underhanded manner before he actually starts arguing. The most obvious definitions which are manipulated are those of “atheist” and “god” or, to be precise, in the reverse order. He defines God as “a unique, personal, plural, spiritual, eternally self-existent, transcendent, immanent, omniscient, immutable, holy, loving Being, the Creator and Ruler of the entire universe and the Judge of all mankind”. This is, in essence, the God of orthodox Christianity; unfortunately, as far as i can tell, giving such a definition completely begs the question, because his second definition is of an atheist as someone who does not believe in his definition of God. The vast majority of people, then, are atheists.

Another point that concerns me, linked with these two words, is the title. I could not understand, before i picked up the book, what exactly it meant, nor could i as i was reading it; it seems particularly pointless, a play on words which doesn’t really work because it only has one meaning, and that self-evident. In fact, the only time the title is even referred to in the book is on page 497 in a postscript to a chapter giving an extended analysis of a passage in the Epistle to the Romans which (the postscript) asks, “Does God believe in atheists?” then tries to define the meaning of the question itself. The problem is that the chapter this “P.S.” is tagged on to has not had anything to do with the issue and, secondly that Blanchard answers both yes and no, depending on the definition of terms. It is of no help at all, but appears to merely be something that was added at the last minute, shortly before press time, when someone realised that the book’s title made no sense within the book itself.

Moving on to a more serious criticism, in one of his main arguments for the existence of God, in which he uses science, it seems that on a number of occasions Blanchard misunderstands the position or arguments of those he disputes. On page 381, for example, in examining the source of morality, which he claims cannot be explained by any evolutionary processes; he tries to refute Peter Atkins, who attempted to show the possibility of evolutionary morality by the very fact that people survived with morality, he does this by asking, “where is the connection between survival and morality?” and then even adds, “what is the value of survival...?” Within evolution survival is the value in itself, it is the goal; and Atkins’ point that morality has evidently helped ~ or at least not hindered ~ that survival makes it a potential evolutionary point of differentiation. Blanchard thus clearly demonstrates that he does not understand evolution, which makes it difficult to imagine he can argue against it convincingly.

Later in the book, while he is discussing mankind and its rôle, having moved beyond trying and succeeding, to his own satisfaction, to prove the existence of God, on page 473 Blanchard makes the astonishing statement that “language...[is] something which can never be accounted for by evolution”. He offers no proof for this assertion, obviously because it is both unprovable and quite easily falsifiable; even i can see that communication between animals of the same species clearly has a survival value and would be selected for, and manifestly the more complex the communication possible the better the chance of survival, leading ultimately to language as the pinnacle. Even more plainly, if Blanchard’s assertion were true, it would already have been touted and proclaimed by all sorts of anti-evolutionists as proof of their position, and many linguists would be spending huge amounts of time questioning it, trying to resolve it; that that is not the case speaks against it. Thus i have to wonder in what way does Blanchard think that making false statements helps his case?

There are other critiques to be made, but i think i have gone far enough to indicate that the book does not live up to the billing it is given in the assorted quotes on the back cover, the inside flaps of the dust cover both front and back, in three and a half pages of affirmation prior to the title page, and in the foreword by a man with seven letters after his name! There is, it is true, much in this book to enjoy, much to learn from, much to cause the reader to think, but it is, i have tried to show, so poorly presented and argued that the job needs to be done again, by someone better qualified.