ian mackinnon

Books I have read since Saturday 5th of May, 2007

Jan 2008

Tue 8th

Herzog (1964) Saul Bellow

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Some wonderful scenes and many terrific details, but I still found the first two thirds to be quite a chore. Despite its qualities, the basic premise of following around an frivolous and decadent person who refuses to confront the reasons for his misfortune is a dull one. It's not until late in the book, when he starts acting with some sort of intention, that things become interesting and rewarding, and the details meaningful. On top of this, I found keeping concentration through many of the protagonist's tedious and almost meaningless letters to be near impossible, whatever their spin on the plot. Eventually good, but often hard and unpleasant work.

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Dec 2007

Wed 5th

On Power And Ideology (1986) Noam Chomsky

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A superb, broad and helpfully structured introduction to Chomsky's analysis of the methods of powerful states. I have listened previously to many of his lectures, but none have clearly joined so many of his ideas together as these. His occasional sarcastic comments and quoting of those who he criticises is unfortunate, since it might easily be mistaken for treating serious issues lightly, and could easily be confusing for some readers coming to his ideas for the first time. However this is an almost irrelevantly minor criticism when compared to the staggering work he has achieved.

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Nov 2007

Thu 22nd

Don't think of an elephant! (2004) George Lakoff

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Marginally better than you might expect for a book with an exclamation point in it's title, but still pretty awful. His assertions about the way political debate can be skewed by manipulative framing of questions is interesting, as are his opinions of the strategies of the Republican party. His dogmatic belief in the saintliness of Democrats and 'progressives' is not interesting, being as it is simplistic propaganda (a term which he only partially understands, given his definition of it). It is repetitive, one sided, and omits obvious evidence against it's argument (that 'progressive' governments are like a nurturing family). The bombing of Serbia was not nurturing, neither was NAFTA or the more militaristic exploitation of South America under Clinton, so these are not mentioned in the book alongside the copious references to Republican crimes. Writing a pseudo scientific book full of your own unfounded ideological beliefs makes you an idiot, even if you are a best-selling idiot. The comparison with Chomsky's rational and equal questioning of ideas, with assertions based on observable and presented evidence (also within in an examination of linguistics) is incredible.

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Thu 22nd

Language and problems of knowledge, the Managua lectures (1988) Noam Chomsky

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Staggeringly informative primer on universal grammar and approaches to studying human language, which along the way gives tremendous and clear insights into science, sociology, politics, and human biology. The responses to listeners' questions are perhaps even more stimulating than the lectures themselves. How can one man contain and articulate so much knowledge? I found chapter four (case theory) to be quite confusingly structured and thought it could have benefited from reordering and some better diagrams (e.g. trees rather than bracketed sentences). Also I was left wondering about how Chomsky bases his argument that humans should be allowed to be productive and social under their own command in accordance with their natural desire. When all his other reasoning is so comprehensively argues it bothers me that he resists providing a formal explanation for this.

The idea that human number capacity probably stems from language (the capacity for discrete infinity being the defining characteristic) was quite remarkable, and convincingly argued. Some other quotes I found particularly interesting: "it is quite possible--overwhelmingly probable, one might guess--that we will always learn more about human life and human personality from novels than from scientific psychology." "at MIT the physics department does not have a course in experimental methods, but many psychology departments spend a lot of time on what they call methodology. Well, there's a lesson there, but I won't draw it." The accompanying volume of political lectures given in the same week has just arrived at my door and I'm eager to get stuck in.

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Thu 15th

True and False: Heresy and common sense for the actor (1999) David Mamet

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Regarding acting, it's brilliant. Simply and logically argued, it pursuasively states that while it may not be easy to be a professional actor it is certainly within any determined person's grasp. It delivered many clear answers, but it also raised a few nagging questions. Can an amateur actor never be a true actor? If the actor is to perform the script with no more than a cursory understanding of its details, aren't they potentially in danger of sending some regrettable messages? If one learns one's trade from the audience, how can one provide 'the counterbalance of the reasonable view of the world' as he describes? I shall be scouring his other books for some suggestions...

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Thu 15th

Jafsie and John Henry (2002) David Mamet

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Even more diverse in subject matter than most of his collections of essays, much of this didn't particularly appeal to me. Specifically the essays I would categorise as 'musings of a wistful old man' and 'hunting and fishing' left me cold. Several of the subjects were also more interestingly dealt with in his earlier "Writing in Restaurants". The writing is always enjoyable and compelling, and the arguments well argued, but for such an opinionated guy I would have liked him to try questioning some of his own axioms rather than just everyone elses. The essays about writing and film are, as always, incisive and very humourously so. My particular favouries were "The Screenplay and the State Fair" and "Why Don't You Write with a Computer?"

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Mon 5th

The Cold Six Thousand (2000) James Elroy

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It's amazing that a story this complex can be told in such a curt style. The language is vivid and the brevity allows an unmatched tensly fast pace. The characters are enjoyably ambiguous and changeable, and the story so deviously intertwines historical evidence with fiction that I wouldn't even attempt to discover where they meet.

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Sep 2007

Wed 5th

Three Uses of the Knife (2002) David Mamet

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Almost every paragraph contains an enlightening insight, connecting dramatic phenomena with aspects of psychology or human nature. These insights are loosely ordered into three chapters, each dealing with one of the acts of a typical drama, and this aspect of the structure works well. However, within each chapter the argument is poorly connected (particularly in the third) and frequently leaves challenging and interesting ideas before their conclusion due to its tangential style. It is also frustrating that tasty quotes or ideas (from Freud, Eisenstein, Tolstoy, etc.) are not referenced when they could so easily have been. Could have been a great book, but is merely quite good.

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Aug 2007

Sun 26th

Elements of Refusal (1988) John Zerzan

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Probably the most shocking book I've read. It begins with a critique of time (that's right, time), which is no small subject for the author or the reader. He then continues by attacking language, art and agriculture, before tearing into the industrial revolution and beyond. His prime target in all of these cases it division of labour. It seems that's where it all went wrong.

Most of the book is heavily referenced, but I felt he misused his sources quite often, either by simply barraging the reader with uncriticised examples, or by enlisting some pretty hokey anthropology (I think he vastly overestimates anthropologists' abilities to accurately and objectively describe secluded tribes). He also occasionally irritated me with hyperbole, for example his critique of time is more accurately a critique of the quantification of time. However, when he does offer criticism and argument it is constantly, powerfully enlightening.

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Fri 10th

The Known World (2002) Edward P. Jones

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This demonstrates that a good story bears being told in almost any order.

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Jul 2007

Sat 21st

Pale Fire (1962) Vladimir Nabokov

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A thrilling story set within an innovative structure which is experimented with and deconstructed to its limits as the telling progresses. Wonderfully biting satire brilliant characters, and a beautiful 999 line poem within.

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Sun 8th

The Sea (2006) John Banville

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Many insightful thoughts about memory and experience contained in much delicious language. He has an interesting way of placing recollected scenes at diverse points upon axes of accuracy/embellishment and reality/allegory while keeping the whole cohesive. An example of this which particularly pleased me: "It was a bright, wind-worried day and the Graces were settled in a shallow recess scooped into the dunes by wind and tides to which their somewhat raffish presence lent a suggestion of the proscenium."

From the first few pages I had the horrible suspicion that this would be a nauseous work of suspense and drawn-out little revelations, but it got on track and became thoroughly enjoyable after about 10 pages. I still wonder why he felt he couldn't come out with the events of the ending right from the outset, rather than dropping so many little hints of it along the way that in the end it is not a real surprise, but since the content of the story was so good I'm not complaining.

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Mon 2nd

Gould's Book of Fish (2001) Richard Flanagan

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There was a handful of nice ideas in this thoroughly tedious book.

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Jun 2007

Mon 11th

The Language Instinct (1994) Steven Pinker

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A terrific argument for specific inherent human language acquisition. Doesn't shy from scientific terminology or method, and explains both clearly and in depth. A little high in anecdotal incidents for my taste though these are at least well referenced.

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May 2007

Wed 23rd

I Am Going to Be Small (2006) Jeffrey Brown

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Some very funny cartoons, and a substantial amount of filler.

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Wed 23rd

Cat Getting out of a Bag (2007) Jeffrey Brown

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nice observational drawings.

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Tue 22nd

Labyrinths (1962) Jorge Luis Borges

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A book of short stories. I found quite a few of these a little dull or impenatrable, until the end, at which the reasons for the depth and subtlety become apparent and make me feel sheepishly dumb.

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Mon 7th

The Fight (1975) Norman Mailer

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Magical description of Muhammed Ali. I especially loved the perceptive writing about how he seemed to test the world around him, both physically and through acting.

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Sun 6th

Christie Malry's Own Double Entry (1973) B.S.Johnson

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Interesting, funny and charming, though it began to wander considerably toward the end. It doesn't seem tremendously experimental now, simply quite varied in style.

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Sat 5th

Setting Free the Bears (1968) John Irving

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Neat.

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