More books :)

I’ve been on holiday for a few weeks; and while I was mostly doing other things, I did get the chance to do some reading. In no particular order:

The Night Circus

Is in some ways a lovely, ethereal book. It tells the story of a mysterious, haunting circus with wondrous performers, open only at night; that serves as the setting for two magicians, competing in an enormous challenge.

There are beautiful passages, and it evokes a world that’s entrancing and enchanting. Frustratingly though, there seems to be very little by way of plot to drive the story; at times it feels as though the plot device is just a convenient reason to bring together interesting characters in interesting locales, rather than a driving question in its own right. But it’s an entrancing world the author creates, and it’s a lovely read.

Empire

This was the first Gore Vidal I’ve read, and I enjoyed it. It tells the story of a small group of elite, powerful figures at the turn of the twentieth century in the US. But as well as telling the story of a small group of people, it tells the story of a major change in the US – what Vidal thinks of as the transition of the US from a republic to an empire, as the country acquires the Philippines, after the Spanish-American War. As he tells the story of this change through his characters (a Secretary of State, major newspaper proprietors, and a few other figures), the shadow of Lincoln looms large; a man with a different vision for the country (it made me want to read more on him).

Vidal also touches on how media shapes elections, and how party machines and political classes relate to the masses. There’s a limit to how much he can squeeze in (and the absence of any characters that aren’t part of the ruling elite is noticeable); but even as he paints real characters, and tells genuine stories about people (their loves and losses), he gives a sense of a historical tableau against which the action takes place. Populist movements, corruption, newspaper demagoguery – it’s all there.

I don’t have the historical knowledge to judge how well Vidal writes historical fiction, or whether there are major aspects he’s missed. But it’s a well told story, set in a fascinating period.

This is actually the first I’ve read by Gore Vidal, and I quite enjoyed it.

The Plantagenets 

Dan Jones’ book is a chronological account of the kings of England, from Henry II (mid twelfth century) to Henry IV (the start of the fifteenth). The book is very much a ‘great man of history’ narrative; it lists each king, the characters around them, and their rise (and falls). Inevitably, because of that, it misses major trends, and at times it can feel as though the context is quite absent. The Black Death is dealt with in a few pages, and its impact (for example, on labour markets) in a few lines.

Perhaps it’s unavoidable that Jones focuses on the few central characters in such a sweeping narrative on such a broad topic. But at times it can feel almost cursory, more a list of characters and events rather than a real insight into how key events took place. Some of his descriptions of the rise and fall of particular kings seem to depend simply on animal spirits. Maybe the historical material isn’t there, and I recognise there are some things we may never know; but at times the writing can feel a little lazy. After explaining how Richard II the second abruptly assumed more power at the age of II, and made several changes to key positions, Jones writes: ‘This could have been a disaster. But it was not.’

For all that, it’s a good introduction to the topic; and if you like history, it’s not a bad airplane read.

How are we to live

I’ve been disappointed before by Peter Singer, and this book unfortunately only reinforces that. The title is an interesting one, and the questions he asks are important ones. For all that, I wouldn’t recommend this at all; I found it sloppy and disorganised, and it felt at times as though he were rambling.

One of the central problems for me was that Singer barely touches on meta-ethics. Perhaps there’s something I’m missing here; but I think that if you’re having a conversation (or giving advice) on living ethically, there has to be some kind of discussion on what ethics is, or why it applies to people. Why should I, as a reader, care? I think that’s fairly central. Singer flounders around the topic a little, waxing lyrical on why evolution may encourage altruism (more on that below), or the benefits to an individual of being good. Neither of which, to my mind, is a very persuasive argument.

Singer does, in his very final chapters, touch briefly on a slightly more substantive response to the question:

The possibility of being led, by reasoning, to the point of view of the universe [he defines this in loose terms earlier in the discussion] provides as much ‘objectivity’ as there can be. When my ability to reason shows me that the suffering of another being is very similar to my own suffering and (in an appropriate case) matters just as much to that other being as my own suffering matters to me, then my reason is showing me something that is undeniably true [emphasis original].  I can still choose to ignore it, but then I can no longer deny that my perspective is a narrower, and more limited one, than it could be. This may not be enough to yield an objectively true ethical position … But it is as close to an objective basis for ethics as there is to find.

I think what he argues there is broadly correct; I came to a similar view from reading the dense but rewarding Reason and Morality, by Alan Gewirth.

Without this discussion of why we should care for others (how to get from the ‘is’ of everyday life to the ‘ought’ of a normative statement), then I think much of what Singer says is unfounded, and useless if he is trying to make the case for ethics as guiding principles for how we should live. So for that reason, and because his writing seems to be more a set of ideas he’s had that poured onto the page rather than a set of well thought through ideas, I was disappointed.

As a quick aside, I wanted to mention that while he references evolutionary theory, in this book at least Singer doesn’t seem to have fully grasped some of the material, or its implications. He mentions ‘stotting‘, as one of a number of altruistic behaviours, but my understanding is that its cause is still somewhat uncertain, and could potentially be advantageous for animals in some cases. More broadly, his discussion of evolutionary drivers of altruism (i.e. caring for close relatives) felt confused; simply saying that it can be ethical even with an evolutionary driver is true, but doesn’t really address the broader question, of how we should treat people who aren’t related.

I still hope that if I read something like The Expanding Circle, I’ll find something compelling in Singer’s writing, but How are we to live isn’t one I’d recommend.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

I bought this quickly at a bus-stop, worried I’d run out of reading material on a long bus-trip. It’s a good read, although nothing brilliant. I think it’s also worth adding a trigger warning; this book touches briefly on child abuse, in a way that felt somehow discordant with the rest of the novel, which was much lighter. That note rang false; and to a certain extent the whole device of a precocious youth going through a significant formative period felt as though it was relying a little too much on ideas we’ve imbibed from popular culture, rather than doing the hard work of character building. But it’s a fun read.

Actually, on reflection – the other thing I found interesting about this was how much it relied on a context that feels extremely familiar to me, even though I’ve never been there – a middle class, suburban American high school. In that sense, it joins a long line of coming of age stories in that setting; it’s probably one of the better ones.

Loser takes all

I’ve loved Graham Greene’s writing for a long time, and this book reminded me why. In a very short piece, he builds a world, a set of characters, and tells a story about love, about wealth, and about how we think about God. Definitely worth reading, even if it is one of his light pieces written as entertainment.

Let your life speak: listening for the voice of vocation

This is a collection of essays by Parker J. Palmer on the topic of vocation. Overall I found it slightly fluffy, with a tendency towards vague, emotional statements rather than clear advice. Maybe there are some things that you have to experience first hand; but overall it wasn’t terribly insightful.

There were a few useful points though. Palmer reflects on the importance of vocation, of being guided by one’s skills and strengths, and I think that’s important. Things can work much better when there’s a natural fit between your strengths and the work you’re doing.

Edge of Tomorrow/All you need is kill

I found this on the bookshelf of a hotel in a small New Zealand town, but really enjoyed it. Sakurazaka tells a story that’s interesting and fun to read. Like most time travel (not really, but sort of) novels, you could poke some holes if you tried hard enough, but given his story, nothing seems too implausible or internally incoherent. In the space he takes he tells a quick love story, a strong action story, and has fun doing it.

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