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Book review: Living with a Wild God, by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich, two of whose previous books I have already reviewed here, has many talents. She trained as a scientist and obtained a Ph.D in cellular immunology from Rockefeller University. But she then changed course and has been active in numerous other areas, especially feminism and left-wing politics. Throughout her career she has been a freelance writer, producing a wide variety of books and journalism, for which she has won many awards.

The present book is quite different from anything she has written previously. It is based on a journal which she started at the age of fourteen in 1956 and continued intermittently until 1966. The main reason for returning to it now is that it included the account of an ecstatic or mystical experience that happened to her when she was seventeen. As a rationalist and atheist she had not been able to come to terms with this and kept it to herself for many years, but now she feels it is time to try to understand it. [Read more]

Book review: Improbable Destinies, by Jonathan B. Losos

An important controversy in evolutionary biology concerns the inevitability or otherwise of the appearance of humans. According to Steven J. Gould, if the tape of life could be rerun from the beginning it is very unlikely that anything resembling humans would appear. But Simon Conway Morris disagrees. He and those who think like him hold that something very similar to us was pretty well bound to arise, and similar organisms would evolve on any other planets that support complex life (though these are likely to be rare). So who is right? This is the question that Losos tackles in his new book. [Read more]

Book review: Strange Bodies, by Marcel Theroux

This is a complex book. It could be described as science fiction or fantasy, but also as a philosophical or metaphysical novel—perhaps a fictional extension of the kind of thought experiments that Derek Parfit makes use of in Reasons and Persons; a meditation on the nature of human personality and its uniqueness or otherwise. And, finally, it is a thriller. [Read more]

Book review: A Voyage to Arcturus, by David Lindsay

I first tried to read this book many years ago but gave up baffled, probably expecting it to be science fiction of the kind I was used to. Yet it continued to stick in my mind, and recently I decided it was time to give it another go.

Science fiction it certainly isn't, at least as that genre is generally understood. It could be described as fantasy, but that isn't really right either. It has elements of both of these but could also be classed as philosophical allegory (it has been compared to Pilgrim's Progress). It evidently was written out of its author's deep religious and metaphysical preoccupations, not to say obsessions. In other words, it is a very unusual book that defies conventional categorisation. Read more

Book review: The Cradle of Humanity, by Mark Maslin

We are by now familiar with the idea that East Africa had a central role in human evolution, but probably few non-specialists realise how complex the story really is. This is what Professor Maslin writes about in his new book.

He identifies five stages in human evolution based on the fossil record, marked by the successive appearance of (1) the earliest hominins; (2) the australopithecines; (3) Homo and Paranthropus; (4) Homo erectus; (5) the journey towards Homo sapiens. This scheme can be simplified into three phases. First there was the evolution of bipedalism, which led to the spread of Australopithecus species across Africa. Next came the evolution of Homo erectus, and finally we get the evolution of Homo sapiens. [Read more]

Book review: The Story of English in 100 Words, by David Crystal

Crystal finds that there are two main ways of telling the story of English. The usual approach is to present a historical overview, starting with Old English and tracing the development of the language through Middle English, Early Modern English, to Modern English. This provides relatively little information about vocabulary. The alternative is to concentrate on words—their origins and uses.

In this book he combines these approaches, to give a series of snapshots of the development of English. History is central to the discussion, but Crystal is flexible and doesn't hesitate to digress from the principal word that is being discussed to include other material related to it. The tone throughout is chatty and informal. [Read more]

Book review: Consciousness: Confessions of a Romantic Reductionist

As readers of Francis Crick's book The Astonishing Hypothesis will know, Koch collaborated with Crick in the research on consciousness that occupied the latter years of Crick's life. In this book Koch talks about this work and what it tells him about consciousness, and he also considers the philosophical and religious implications of his research. The book is a mixture of science, philosophy, and autobiography. These are not always clearly demarcated from one another and this makes it difficult to discern a sustained line of argument in the book.

Koch was brought up a Roman Catholic and although he has lost his formal religious faith he is not free of the need to search for transcendence that his upbringing inculcated. He tells us that he started studying consciousness to justify his "instinctual belief that life is meaningful". This explains his choice of subtitle.

[I am] reductionist because I seek quantitative explanations for consciousness in the ceaseless and ever-varied activity of billions of tiny nerve cells, each with their tens of thousands of synapses; romantic because of my insistence that the universe has contrails of meaning that can be deciphered in the sky above us and deep within us.
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Book review: Who Wrote the Bible?, by Richard Elliott Friedman

The long-running BBC radio programme 'Desert Island Discs' provides its castaways with two books by default, the Bible and Shakespeare, to which they can add one further book of their choice. They are allowed to substitute a different book for the Bible, but hardly anyone ever does. This is evidence for the continuing importance of this book in modern life, even if fewer people actually read it than previously.

For Friedman, 'Bible' refers to the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), which corresponds to what Christians call the Old Testament, although there are some differences. The question of who wrote the text is probably not one that has occurred to many secularists or Christians, and one might think it would be of interest only to biblical scholars. But Friedman has managed to produce a book that reads like a detective story and will hold the interest of anyone who recognises the central importance of this book in the history of Western culture. Read more

Book review: Admissions, by Henry Marsh

As readers of his previous book, Do No Harm, will know, Marsh is a neurosurgeon who has written with profound insight about his work. At the end of that book he was at the point of retiring from his post as a NHS surgeon. The present book is mostly about his life after retirement, although he was still teaching and carrying out surgery in Ukraine and Nepal.

Like the previous book, this one is cast as a memoir, with some descriptions of surgery but much else besides: travelogue, reminiscence, philosophical reflections. Although Marsh was only in his sixties when he wrote — he was born in 1950 — he is very conscious of age, mortality and the possibility of a descent into physical or mental incapacity. Read more

Book review: The Other World, by Janet Oppenheim

This a detailed scholarly account of spiritualism and psychical research in England in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. Oppenheim chose to restrict her study geographically to keep it in manageable bounds and she ended it at the outbreak of World War I because the context of spiritualism changed after that time.

The Victorian era was marked by sometimes agonised questioning of traditional religious beliefs, caused partly but not wholly by science. This is the broad framework in which Oppenheim examines her subject. The book has three parts. Part I, "The setting", looks at mediumship and the growth of spiritualism since 1850. Part II, "A surrogate faith", covers a lot of territory, including spiritualism and Christianity, psychical research in relation to agnosticism, and the influence of the Theosophical movement. Part III, "A pseudoscience", describes attempts to evaluate spiritualism scientifically, most notably by the founding of the Society for Psychical Research (SPR); there are also chapters on evolution in relation to spiritualism and the ideas of physicists concerning psychic phenomena. Read more

Book review: Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahnemann

The ideas in this book originated in large part from a collaboration lasting many years between Kahnemann and his colleague and friend, Amos Tversky. The central insight on which the book is based is that our minds can function in two ways, which Kahnemann refers to as System 1 and System 2. System 1 gives a quick appraisal of things that is often biased emotionally or in other ways. System 2 is slower and analytical; its operation is effortful, so the default approach to a problem is usually System 1. This is not always wrong, but it often is. Read more

A reluctant conversion to Kindle

I've long resisted the lure of e-readers, insisting that I prefer to read proper paper books. But I've now had to eat my words; I've bought a Kindle Paperwhite. There were several reasons for this.

1. My eyes now make it difficult to read small print, at least with any enjoyment, and most of the paperbacks I buy, and even some of the hardbacks, have eye-straining print. Now I can enlarge the text to whatever size I like.

2. I review nearly all the books I read on my website, and this usually needs me to take notes while I'm reading. Hitherto I've done this either on a laptop or on paper, provided one of these was to hand when I was reading, but it wasn't ideal. The Kindle allows me to make notes on the fly, save them, and email them to myself to use later when writing the review.

3. Also in relation with reviewing, I often want to find a particular passage in the book to quote. Sometimes this can be done with the index, but often it can't, and then I have to thumb through the text to find the passage I want, which can be a lengthy business. With an e-book I can search it easily.

4. Our house is literally overflowing with books and there is nowhere to put new ones. I often want to look something up in a book which I know we have, but finding it often entails a long search through different rooms which may be ultimately unsucessful. So I expect most books I buy in future will be e-books.

5. I often come across a reference to a book I decide I want to read. If there is a Kindle edition it's usually cheaper than the paper version, and another advantage is that it is delivered instantly.

I gather that sales of e-readers such as the Kindle are declining as more people are reading e-books on either a mobile phone or a tablet. I don't have or want either of those. I could use my desktop or laptop to read the books, but that isn't pleasant. I wanted a device that was as book-like as possible, hence the Kindle. And I have to say that I am pleased with it. The screen is excellent - clear, sharp, and book-like -- so much so that I sometimes forget it isn't a paper book and find myself trying to turn the page over in the usual way!

The only thing I don't like is the absence of external buttons to operate the book; it's all done by tapping the screen to access menus. But that aside, I'm considerably impressed.

It's taken me a long time to reach this point. It was an article in The Author that finally convinced me to take the step, quite late in life. I'm glad I did. Probably there were people in the fifteenth century who lamented the replacement of manuscript books by this new-fangled printing process with moveable type, but I expect most of them were converts in the end.

Book review: The Russian Interpreter, by Michael Frayn

The novel is set in Cold War Russia, some ten years after the end of the second world war. Paul Manning is living in Moscow, where he is writing a thesis. He receives a visit from Gordon Proctor-Gould, who had attended the same Cambridge college as Manning although they did not know each other at that time. Read more

Book review: Towards the End of the Morning, by Michael Frayn

This is a novel about a kind of journalism that no longer exists. John Dyson and Bob Bell work for a newspaper that seems to have some literary pretensions, never sacks anyone and would certainly have folded long before the end of the twentieth century, let alone with the arrival of the Internet. The two men are friends and share an office where not very much work gets done. John is approaching middle age and has the ambition to get on television, which he thinks will transform his life. Bob, who is younger, eats sweets for comfort and has no ambition of any kind; he seems destined to potter along as a third-rate journalist for the rest of his working life. His ultimate future is probably foreshadowed by the third member of the office, 'poor old Eddie', who spends most of the day asleep, waking up occasionally to reminisce about old times and long-dead journalists of his acquaintance. Read more