Readers, Writers and My Great White Whale (Dostoevsky)

I have this idea that a writer should be well read. Writers read. We fall in love with books, stories, characters and ideas. Through books we travel the world. We learn what good writing looks like while experiencing great love stories, horrors, and human achievements. We see the good, the bad, and the ugly of humanity, while noticing the skill and craft of the storytellers.
Most writers want to emulate those authors in their craft and reach. We want to explore and expose the things we love and hate, the things we know and don’t understand, the places we have been and those we imagine, the people we have met and dream of meeting, or fear ever being near.
As readers, we want to experience everything, without the risks those experiences entail. And as a writer, we want to conjure up similar experiences for our readers.
So as writers, we read for the joy, but also as a student of the craft. We notice how great writers make things work. Sometimes we can see the trick because we are looking for them. Other times we are just amazed and must reread a passage or a book to try and see what the author did that was so great.
So reading must be the first thing a writer does. Read the good and the bad, because we learn from both. What to do, and what not to do.
Some brilliant authors inspire us and give us the energy to write and write like there is no tomorrow. For me Tolstoy and D.H.Lawrence light my fire. Other writers can demoralize us and send us into a funk. How can I ever hope to write so well? Early Joan Didion and Virginia Woolf do that to me. There are others in both streams.
Read to find which writers are which. Observe and learn from both, and save them for appropriate times.
Hemingway liked to say you had to read the greats, so you knew what you had to beat. Reading the greats sets the bar. High.
So I have a list of great writers and outstanding books I think a writer should read. I have been working through that list for over forty years. Getting a degree in English literature helped, and also exposed me to writers I might have missed, growing my list faster than I could read.
George Eliot’s ‘Middlemarch’ left me in awe. And demoralized. I could never match this. Anton Chekov’s ‘The Cherry Orchard’ left me laughing out loud, and energized.
And great new modern writers are adding to the canon and my list faster than ever. Cormac McCarthy and Neil Gaiman, Miriam Toews and Anne Tyler, Haruki Murakami and Stephen King. Danielle Steel and EL James. Tom Clancy and Dean Koontz. Every writer should have such a list that never ends.
Read what you might turn your nose up at to see why they are so successful. This summer I read a Colleen Hoover book. I thought it could have been so much better, but also saw what people enjoy in her work. Anyone can write a book that nobody will buy or read.
Read what will stretch you, challenge you, and might be over your head.
But I think there is a list of fifty or so books every writer should have read. Each year, I choose one and tackle it. And so to Dostoevsky. He has always been on my list.
I have tried to read Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work maybe a half dozen times. Each time I have stalled at about 100 pages. The Idiot. Stalled. Crime and punishment. Stalled. Notes from Underground. Hit a wall. The Brothers Karamazov. Stalled.
So Dostoevsky became my great white whale. (Yes, I have read Moby Dick. You should too.). This summer, I vowed to complete one of his novels. I chose ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ after doing some searches on Google, and asking a few friends for advice.
‘The Brothers Karamazov’ is not an easy book to read. I won’t read it again, unlike say ‘Anna Karenina’ which I have read at least three times, and love.
In keeping with my theme of writing book reviews for writers, my critique is more around the craft and the effect of the book on this reader.
My first complaint is the distance between the reader and the characters. I am a huge fan of close third person. I think this point of view best allows a reader to experience what the characters are thinking, feeling, and wanting. Novels written in close third person allow a reader to immerse into the novel and ‘become’ the character for that scene. First person does this too, but is limited to a single character, as jumping between two or more first person points of view just throws me right out of a story or book.
Tolstoy does this close third person well, and so I expected that from Dostoevsky, but no such luck. In ‘Brothers Karamazov’ there is a third-person narrator telling the story. Each scene is written with a similar voice and the reader is more watching the action than immersing into it.
Dostoevsky also has some ideas he wants to share. Intellectual, political, philosophical, religious. Fair enough, most writers have a strong moral position. We love things, hate things, are enthused and deflated by the world around us, and envision a better world, or a destroyed world, to highlight our beliefs. But the admonition to any new writer is to ‘Show. Don’t tell’. In ‘Brothers Karamazov’ there are long sections of didactic lectures, thinly veiled as conversations. About half way through the novel, I hit ‘Talks and Homilies of the Elder Zosima’ which went on too long and really didn’t have anything to do with the plot. Today, an editor would take it out. Other scenes went on far too long.
The sort of ‘Hero’ of the novel is Alyosha, which might be why I didn’t love this book. He is milquetoast. The oldest brother Dimitri is wild, passionate and active. The middle brother Ivan is intellectual, a bit aloof, maybe even a snob. They both have romantic relationships that are questionable. And of course the father Fyodor is nothing but passion. How young Alexei/Alyosha can be so removed and so lacking wants and needs to drive him forward left me scratching my head. I still don’t know what he wanted. He came close to something romantic with Lise, but then she was sort of written out of the story. Mistake.
Suddenly. So many writing coaches admonish against adverbs, with good reason. Dostoevsky seems to love ‘suddenly’. Nothing happens in ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ but that it happens suddenly. Sometimes the adverb is used three or four times on a single page, such that I started laughing every time I saw it. If my search for the word is right, I count over 1,200 uses. I remember a quote from Mark Twain saying any time you use the word ‘Very’, you should substitute ‘Damn’. Your editor will remove the word, and then it will be right. This should have been edited out.
Right after Dmitri is arrested, the narrative goes off on a tangent about Boys. I felt like any momentum in the plot stalled, and I scratched my head over exactly what the point of that Book Ten was. Somebody tell me.
The trial chapters were painful. The entire book up to that point was replayed in detail. I felt like Dostoevsky was treating readers like school boys. ‘In case you didn’t notice this, here it is again’. Condescending on the part of an author is never a good look. A good rule of thumb is to assume readers are as intelligent as you, the writer.
And for how painfully long the book is, we don’t really learn what happens. We know who killed the father, Fyodor. There is a plan to have Dmitri escape to America, or somewhere. And the brother Ivan is deathly sick. Does Dmitri escape? Does Ivan recover or die? And what does Alyosha do?
And how about Grushenka? I felt she was the one character who might have lit the book up. I saw shades of a Becky Sharpe. But none of the women characters were well developed.
So I can tick the box and say I have read a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky. The effort was not really worth the reward. But I still have a list of great writers I need to sample. Any suggestions on what should be next?

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September 20, 2023

ISBN 978-1-250-78845-0

Review of ‘A Girl Called Rumi’ by Ari Honarvar

‘Journalists and historians tell us what happened. Artists and novelists show us how it felt’. By this measure, ‘A Girl Called Rumi’ by Ari Honarvar is a success. I felt the stifling fear of post revolution Iran as the reader shares the experiences of young Kimia in 1981. The fascist morality squads chastising, beating and murdering young girls for running down a street or showing a bit of their hair is felt in the gut. The horror of bombs dropping from the sky with air raid sirens wailing had my hair stand up, and the sudden death or disappearance of neighbours and friends as victims of war or the totalitarian state give the reader a sense of the constant dread people lived under. And still do.
Contrasting to the horror is a joyous escape through art, poetry and myth. The strength of family, the wisdom of elders and seers, and the thousand years of Persian culture are all experienced. The story of the Seven Valleys of Love is a beautiful vehicle to share the power of imagination. Does it really happen? Is it magical realism or magical imagination? Either way, it is magical.
I live in North Vancouver where we have a large community of Iranian expats. During the 2022 uprising, I had a conversation with my dental assistant while I waited for some freezing. She told me how her, her mother and children had gotten out of Tehran, but her brother had not. The brother had two teenage children, a son and a daughter, and they lived in fear that one or both would be caught up in the protests and the repression that the regime was inflicting. That story so closely parallels the story of Rumi, Kimia and her brother Arman. I felt queasy reading the story. It is so real and accurate.
A quote by Simone Weil is so appropriate of the Iranian Ayatollah State: ‘There is one, and only one, thing in modern society more hideous than crime, namely, repressive justice.’
Honavar weaves layers of history, Sufism, art, and poetry. I had heard the name Rumi but knew little. Now I know more and have good reason to dig deeper. That such a place as Iran would call to the expats to return is so understandable.
I can picture the Hoopoe birds and the Simorgh. The vibrant colours, the sounds, smells and tastes. The book is a sensory experience well worth the time and effort of reading. Five stars.

Review of ‘A Girl Called Rumi’ by Ari Honarvar

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September 7, 2023

Review of ‘The Simone Weil Handbook’ by Jacqueline Pearson

I had never heard of Simone Weil until I read a book review of ‘The Visionaries: Arendt, Beauvoir, Rand and Weil’ by Wolfgang Eilenberger in The Economist magazine.
The comments about Weil piqued my interest. There is a lot to read about her, so I started with this short book by Jacqueline Pearson. It has whet my appetite and I will definitely seek more.

It is a quick, easy read and I recommend it for anyone like me who doesn’t know where to start.
She had such a short, tragic life. That Albert Camus thought so highly of her influenced me. He said in 1950 she was ‘The only great mind of our time’, and had created ‘a body of work whose full impact we can as yet only guess’.
I feel this book opens a door to a wonderful adventure.

Below is a short collection of Weil’s quotes that affected me.
So many wonderful quotes.

To be rooted is perhaps the most important and least recognized need of the human soul.

When once a certain class of people has been placed by the temporal and spiritual authorities outside the ranks of those whose life has value, then nothing comes more naturally to men than murder.

A hurtful act is the transference to others of the degradation which we bear in ourselves.

All sins are attempts to fill voids.

I am not a Catholic; but I consider the Christian idea, which has its roots in Greek thought and in the course of centuries has nourished all of our European civilization, as something that one cannot renounce without being degraded.

The poison of skepticism becomes, like alcoholism, tuberculosis and some other diseases, much more virulent in a hitherto virgin soil.

Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.

Liberty, taking the word in its concrete sense, consists in the ability to choose.

There is one, and only one, thing in modern society more hideous than crime, namely, repressive justice.

I definitely give this book five stars.

Review of ‘The Simone Weil Handbook’ by Jacqueline Pearson
ISBN 9781489125095

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September 5, 2023

Review of ‘12 Rules for Life’ by Jordan B. Peterson

I read this book because I know Peterson is Canadian, has a huge following, and he seems to have infuriated the self righteous left in the ongoing culture wars.
I am more of a ‘pox on both your houses’ about these left/right schisms. When either call their opponents stupid or evil, and treat a discussion as an excuse to hate, I’m out.
I wanted to see what the fuss was about, and for the first nine rules of twelve, I thought I might have picked up the wrong book. Most rules are pretty matter of fact. Stand up straight with your shoulders back. Treat yourself like someone you are responsible for helping. Make friends with people who want the best for you. Compare yourself to who you were yesterday, not to who someone else is today.
This is almost milquetoast advice. How can people get offended by this? There are a lot of biblical references to the King James bible, but more as an historical reference. It is a core of much Western thought, literature and morality, so I wasn’t offended. I attended Sunday school as a kid, so I know most of the stories.
I bogged down on so much psychological discussion. Even got bored a bit.
In the later chapters, I can see how it might rub some of the left academic woke folk the wrong way. He talks about gender roles as self evident, when so many university types want to change everything in the name of overturning capitalism, the patriarchy, or whatever other ills they see in society.
I rolled my eyes a bit, as Peterson sets up a straw man that most of us ignore day to day. I know when I hear an academic talk about ending Capitalism, I think of a quote from Michael Ungar “Western capitalism may have problems, but it has proven to be the engine for the greatest advances is economic and physical well-being in the history of mankind.” It betrays a naivety of the person who suggests ending it rather than regulating it. And Peterson covers well the alternatives of Fascism and Communism, the horrors of Hitler, Stalin, and Pol Pot.
He makes several references to Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brothers Karamazov’, which is funny as I am reading it right now. He points out some of the imagery or metaphors in the book I may have missed. But I am still not enjoying it, and won’t read another book by Dostoevsky soon.
Peterson makes a point about how boys and young men are being marginalized because they are not like women enough. This is one reason I want to write books for boys and young men. Young women are going to university at much higher rates than young men. This will eventually lead to women in more leadership roles, which may be good, but men will be poorer and have fewer opportunities. I want to work to turn that around.
Men still lead in the STEM areas, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. For now.
I do like his idea to do one thing each day to improve your life in some small way. Clean your desk, pay your bills, return some calls. Balance a cheque book.
So in summary, a decent book, if a bit long, dealing with some current issues.

So as I prepare to post this review, I see Peterson is in the news again today. The College of Psychologists of Ontario has censured him over some tweets. He has been ordered to take a course in social media, which is kind of funny, as this entire episode is him running a Masterclass in using social media.

August 23, 2023

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ISBN 9780345816047

Review of ‘Five Little Indians’ by Michelle Good.

Continuing my book reviews for writers with a critique of ‘Five Little Indians’ by Michelle Good. I compare it to ‘Jane Eyre’ by Charlotte Bronte. They are both stories of people treated poorly, either by fate or by the government. Meanness and cruelty. People persevere. In ‘Five Little Indians’, some make it through the horror with scars, but are able to carry on. Others cannot, and self destruct. And some nearly self destruct but avert disaster.
Good doesn’t sugarcoat the abuse, but much like the book in the same vein, ‘Indian Horse’ by Richard Wagamese, the real horrors are only alluded to.
My knock on ‘Five Little Indians’ is the same as against ‘Jane Eyre’. There is a literary device called ‘Deus ex machina’, used by the Greek playwrights two thousand years ago, which translates to ‘God in the machine’, where unsolvable problems are resolved by some outside event that is improbable at best. Jane Eyre inherits a fortune from a long-lost uncle, Lucy inherits a life insurance policy. Happy endings all around.
The book revolves around five characters who are all scarred by the residential schools. That one goes to prison for beating the priest doesn’t surprise me. I am amazed that doesn’t happen more and am reminded of the movie with Robert De Niro ‘Sleepers’ where abused boys murder their abuser. I found some of the character frustrating and didn’t quite understand the motivations of Clara to smuggle guns. Again, she nearly self destructs.
This book by Michelle Good is a hard read at times. We live in a time where White Privilege is being replaced by Collective guilt at the wrongs by previous governments. With such potent emotions conjured up, it is hard to see solutions. But understanding the history, the past wrongs, and the affects on people, survivors, is an important first step. That this education can happen through literature such as ‘Five Little Indians’, “Indian Horse’, or other stories is a good way to advance the discussion.

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June 9, 2023

Book review of Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’

I was reading another book, ‘The Daily Stoic’ by Ryan Holiday and he referenced a quote from Joan Didion’s ‘On Self-Respect’. I wanted to read the entire essay, so I downloaded the e-book of ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’. The first two essays I read from the collection were ‘On Self-Respect’ and ‘On Keeping a Notebook’. The prose is so good I was amazed and demoralized. How could anyone write this well and how could a novice writer ever hope to match this? I closed the collection and spent a few days in a funk. Maybe I should give up this writing dream.
How is it some writers inspire us to write, and some so set us back? For me, reading Tolstoy or DH Lawrence makes me want to open up Scrivener and start pouring out words. I can go for hours after just reading a chapter of either. Or most novelists, for that matter. But Virginia Woolf, whose work I admire, can take the wind out of my sails, although I don’t aspire to write stream of consciousness. James Allen’s ‘As A Man Thinketh’ inspires, as does Dorothea Brande. George Eliot, who’s ‘Middlemarch’ is one of the five best novels ever, leaves me feeling inadequate. John Gardner makes me feel like a failing student, as does Sol Stein. But William Zinsser, Anne Lamott, Annie Dillard and Anne Tyler all make me feel it is possible. Not easy, but possible.
A few days later, I picked up the Didion essays again, and realized I had started with the two best works. Slouching Towards Bethlehem left me a little cold. Didion takes a journalist’s eye to 1967 Haight-Ashbury San Francisco. The moral corruption was noted. The rape was matter of fact. A five-year-old given LSD. It was good to see it end, both the essay and Haight-Ashbury.
I enjoyed some of the essays about the California central valley, a part of the state away from the glitz of San Francisco or LA. But some of the name dropping left me wondering who she was talking about, and I was too tired to Google them.
Didion was one of the greats. But human, and fallible. That I know I can emulate.

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June 4, 2023

Book review of Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’

Review of ‘No One is Talking About This’

Continuing series of book reviews for writers.

I have finished reading Patricia Lockwood’s ‘No One is Talking About This’. The book is a North Van City Library book club selection for January. If it wasn’t, I might not have finished it, but there is a commitment to the group to read and be able to discuss the book when we meet.
The book is divided into two parts, and I am struggling to see the bridge or link between them. First is an exploration of the Internet, with ‘The Portal’ being a stand-in for Facebook, TikTok, Instagram, Twitter or what will you. The short fragments of narrative match my experience, with short un-related bits of information coming at the reader, much as some social media does.
The author uses a device of not naming the protagonist or anyone else. Done well, as by McCarthy in ‘The Road’, it creates a dystopian distance between the reader and the main character. Done poorly, it comes across as an affectation at best, as obnoxiously gimmicky at worse. For reasons that I will add later, I lean towards the latter here.
The first ‘Portal’ section I thought rang true for much social media. It has no rhyme or reason, but pinballs between subjects for each tiny section of narrative, which grows tiresome. There is no thorough analysis here, but more a stone skipping the surface. Which is true of social media, so the effect works. But I found it shied away from the meanness and divisiveness that is so prevalent on social media. It ignored the ability of anonymous users to spout hate and kookiness. The divisive ‘us and then’ aspects of saying things that the speaker knows will offend the other side, and as the section wound down, I asked myself, ‘What is the Point?’
But not before a few distasteful episodes of sexual profanity. I had a memory of a toddler who had learned that saying ‘Fuck’ brought all kinds of attention. Shocking and funny at first, it gets old quick. Adolescent boys giggling over bathroom humor or the still adolescent men who wrote for my university’s engineering papers, shocking with their filth. Or the second tier comics working in Manhattan who thought laughs of shock were as good as laughs of insight or hilarity. They’re not. Is it an equality thing, showing that women can be as crass as men? Gold star then.

The second section is a sad story and I still can’t see what it has to do with the first section. Again, no names are used, and again it is all short sections of narrative that never go deep. But the larger issue with this book appears, in that there doesn’t seem to be any agency by the main character, or anyone else. They just go along for the ride, making no changes or taking any action. Too much time on social media, I think.
The title is ‘No One is Talking About This’, which is kind of ironic in that talk is really all they do.
There is some talk of ‘The Dictator’ but no attempt to cross or bridge the political divides.
I am working on a theory of the novel. (Although, I am not sure I would call this a novel.) My idea is that great novels are supported like a three-legged stool. There is head, heart, and groin. Physical passions, emotional engagement, and intellectual involvement. All three aspects need to be present and in something close to balance. Too many novels fail for having only two aspects and missing the third. This work is all intellectual. There is no emotion and little physicality. It is all in the head, which creates a distance between the reader and the material. An excellent novel is a chance for the reader to experience with the characters what they are going through. But being purely cerebral, this book becomes academic, almost a term paper that doesn’t engage in the other two aspects.
Even in the second half where something terrible happens, they held the reader at such a distance we become one of the doctors pronouncing on the case. ‘Oh, that is sad. Next.’
Novels are about humanity. And humanity is messy. ‘No one is Talking’ tries to make humanity clinical and so misses the mark as great fiction. It sounds like it may have gotten a ‘A’ as a term paper with a Booker nomination and a New York Times 10 Best Books award. That is success if that is what Lockwood was going for. But it is not why I read literature.
Overall, I am not sure what the point of the book is. It left me a little empty. Sad.

Review of ‘No One is talking About This’

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Jan 9, 2023

ISBN 9780593189580

Review of Julia Cameron’s ‘It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again’

I am poised to begin my retirement. My ‘Second Act’. I don’t plan to do nothing. In fact, I plan to do everything I have delayed for the last sixty years. But I am nervous. How will I schedule my time? Who will I see and interact with every day? Where and how will I spend my days? Will my finances support retirement?
I am standing on a dock getting ready to dive into a cool, clear lake. This book, Julia Cameron’s ‘It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again’, has helped me make that dive.
Years ago I read Cameron’s earlier book, ‘The Artist’s Way’ and thought it was great. This newer book is similar, but focused on people like me, ready to retire and move onto their second act.
It is organized as a twelve week course, which took me seven months. Life intervened.
I will describe the basics of the course, but I highly recommend that readers of this review buy the book and work through it themselves. It rewarded the cost and effort multiple times over.
Cameron encourages readers to journal every day. Morning pages Cameron calls them, a chance to free think and capture about 750 words each morning. I have been doing this for years, so this part was easy. So many writing coaches suggest that getting a daily flow of material happening is a huge priority. Dorothea Brande in ‘Becoming a Writer’ suggests that these morning pages, and an additional ‘Write by Appointment’, are required of anyone who wants to be a writer. I am now getting a further one thousand words in five of seven days, and I already feel more like an actual writer.
‘It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again’ then suggests a daily walk, to clear your head and focus your thoughts. This has been harder since my dog Sawyer died, but I am making it. I have found a bird sanctuary down on Maplewood flats I am enjoying. And the birds are great.
Then the harder intellectual exercise is to explore your past and write a personal memoir. Divide your age by 12 and then each week there is a set of writing prompts to explore your life for those 5 or 6 years. This stirred up a lot of ghosts for me. And I reached out to people, my mom in particular, to help me remember events and timings through my past. People I had forgotten came back in my memory, great and painful memories resurfaced. I unearthed long buried hopes and wishes, cleaned up, and considered again. I can’t tell you how vibrant some of these memories are. And at the end of the twelve weeks, I have a written history of myself that makes me proud, makes me cringe, and makes me laugh. A history that is mine alone. Everyone should do this exercise. It opens up so many positives. It maps out how you got to be here now.
It can be painful. A serious injury, a lost loved one, a cheating partner, a mistake in careers, a missed opportunity. People who have died or slipped away.
But it can also be joyful. Remembering that first kiss, that first big fish, that falling in love, that building a house, a life, a family. Accomplishments, travels, friends and family. I learned I had so much to be grateful for, so many people who had done me good, so many good times and laughs and wonderful experiences.
And from that history, it becomes easier to plot a plan for the next act.
Cameron also suggests weekly ‘Artist’s Dates’. These are fun. Once a week, alone, go do something you might enjoy. I visited the Museum of Anthropology at UBC, I had coffee on Commercial drive, I went to the Squamish Lil’wat Cultural center in Whistler, I watched an old movie, I went to the Vancouver Art Gallery, I went to a birding store and a gardening shop. The possibilities are endless and fun and highly recommended.
The cumulative effect of the book, the exercises, the walks and dates and memoir discovery is amazing. It is revitalizing in a way no other book has been for me. It opens fresh paths to consider.
It is not a book to just read, but a set of exercises that must be engaged in. The effort is rewarded in so many ways.
I loved this book and cannot recommend it enough.

Danny Aldham

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October 26, 2022
Review of Julia Cameron’s ‘It’s Never Too Late to Begin Again’
ISBN 9780399174216

Book Review of The 5 Love Languages

Book review of The Five Love Language
By Gary Chapman
ISBN 978-0-8024-1270-6

This is an odd little book. A best seller which I respect. A simple proposition which I like. Yet I felt there was a transactional quality to the advice Chapman gives that left me cold. ‘Secrets to Love that Lasts’ it is subtitled, but I found very little in the book about love.
We live in a world of pop culture and a pursuit of quick fixes. This book delivers a quick fix. Figure out which of the 5 love languages your spouse appreciates most and you are set.
They are:
Words of Affirmation
Quality time
Receiving gifts
Acts of Service
Physical touch

My personal high score was for quality time. I already knew that.

These are attributes that could be used in any transactional relationship. Give your employees words of encouragement, or flattery. Give your target gifts. Give the business associate access to whores. And capture it on film.
I am cynical but giving your spouse what works for them should be done out of love. There is a section where Chapman gives advice to a wife in a loveless relationship that she should give her husband the sex he wants and pray to God for strength. He should give the advice to get out of such a horrible relationship.

Not my cup of tea

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Review of ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamin Labatut

This is a strange book. It is well written, articulate, interesting and educational. It begins as a non-fiction discussion of poisons like potassium-cyanide and arsenic, and the use of cyanide in the first world war, then in the death camps of the Nazis, and a postulation that Napoleon died of arsenic poisoning from the green dyes he seemed to adore. Facts, as far as I know. But then Labatut starts to mix in fiction, or at least things he couldn’t have known.
The book covers some famous and important episodes in physics and mathematics. Schwarzchild being one of the first to understand Einstein’s Relativity and developing the mathematics that defined the Schwarzchild Singularity which is the theoretical underpinning of understanding Black Holes. I found it interesting that originally Einstein thought there must be a mistake in Schwarzchild’s math. But more interesting I thought was Schwarzchild’s idea that the mathematics of mass bending space to create these black holes was his idea that the ideas of physics could be applied to social systems and masses of humanity. A certain critical mass of believers, supporters, enablers and amplifiers could create a similar collapse of society into a space where nothing from outside reaches and where there is no escape from the beliefs, actions and behaviours of others in the group. It becomes a closed system that draws people in and from which escape is near impossible. Schwarzchild thought the society of World War 1 Germany had succumbed to such a phenomenon, but a similar case could be made for the MAGA Republicans, the Q-Anon/Fox News/OAN/Evangelical Trump followers who are leading America to some sort of promised land.
A theme of the book is madness. A good portion is focused on mathematician Grothendieck, a Field’s Medal winner, who may have gone insane. I struggled with understanding what the point of that long section was. And as Grothendieck voyaged from sanity to madness, so this book moves from fact, to fiction, to magical realism to something unknown. It is not a novel, as there is certainly no plot or story.
It is a short book, maybe 200 pages, but a difficult read. Close to half of our book club group failed to finish it. I have some university level education in physics, math and chemistry, and there was nothing presented here I couldn’t understand. Which made me think this was really only a surface dealing with the issues.
My knock on the book would be its magnifying an old, mistaken trope that brilliant people always end up in madness. The tortured souls cliche. That artists and scientists are pigeon-holed by such mistaken beliefs does society a disservice.
Review of ‘When We Cease to Understand the World’ by Benjamin Labatut
September 18, 2022
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