Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log for 2017
By Tal Cohen Friday, 20 April 2018
January 2017

The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler. His best, I believe; and then,

Playback by Raymond Chandler. Wait, the woman is not the killer? And the cops are nice people? And there are (almost) explicit sex scenes? And Marlowe is suddenly soft? Who are you, and what did you do to Chandler? (Also: who fired the gun, at whom, and why? Is this the same guy that killed the chauffeur in The Big Sleep?)

Exit Wounds by Rutu Modan.

Numero Zero by Umberto Eco. He used to be a good author, but his last few books (I’ve read them all except The Prague Cemetery) embarrass his first few ones. Numero Zero, in particular, reads like a cheap rip-off of his 1988 novel Foucault’s Pendulum. I was wondering when will the Knights of Malta and the Freemasons appear; well, the answer is chapter 6.

The Shadow in the North: A Sally Lockhart Mystery, by Philip Pullman.

Poetics of Narrative Fiction by Ayala Amir, Nili Diengott, Nurit Hermon, Hanna Herzig, and Rina Ben-Shahar (two volumes). Course textbook.

February 2017

Babel-17 by Samuel R. Delaney. The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis was introduced in the mid 20th century, and to this day -- even though it long since fell out of favor -- science-fiction authors have great fun with it (consider the 2016 movie Arrival for a recent example). Delaney was one of the first SF authors to run wild with the idea, turning language into a weapon. A bit over the top, but still fascinating. I should read more Delaney. (And I managed to find a near-mint copy of the original print, shown in the attached photo.)

The let’s-pick-pilots-in-the-bar scene sounds like a copy of the Star Wars cantina scene, except it was written over a decade before.

Deep in Your Heart, poems by Uzi Ben-Cnaan. My favorite author of children’s fiction, if only because of his book My Name is Barak.

Time Travel: A History by James Gleick. The first Gleick book I’ve read was Chaos, back at highschool, and it included a reference (Dewdney’s column in Scientific American) that taught me how to draw the Mandelbrot Set. Now Gleick writes about time travel, and the book doesn't even include schematics for a flux capacitor. Hmpf. (Overall, an interesting book, oscillating nicely between physics and literature.)

March + April 2017

Quo Vadis: A Tale of the Time of Nero by Henryk Sienkiewicz. I read the Hebrew translation, by Uri Orlev, but also sampled the English translation, by S. A. Binion (1905). The Hebrew text is much more fluent and readable, although it is slightly abridged. (Not a huge loss: the book is tedious.)

Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett. Hebrew translation by Mouli Melzer. (This is the first translation from the French original; previous Hebrew translations were from the English text.)

Eugenie Grandet by Honore de Balzac. Hebrew translation by Menashe Levin.

Studies in Words (second edition) by C.S. Lewis. A fascinating review of how words acquire new meanings, and on how simple it is to think you understand, say, a passage from Shakespeare, but in fact you completely misunderstand it because he uses some trivial word -- like “physical” -- in a meaning that is completely obsolete today, and the meaning that you are familiar with does make sense -- except it’s the wrong sense.

The book has a chapter per word, each chapter being like a super-elaborate dictionary entry, with a long discussion of each sense and example from all across the classic literature. There are 10 such chapters; the first seven (Nature, Sad, Wit, Free, Sense, Simple, and Conscious and Conscience) and fascinating, but they are followed with three new chapters added in the second edition: World, Life, and I Dare Say. The first two of these are simply too long and tiring (some 50 pages each) and could have easily been trimmed down in half.

It is amazing to see the breadth of the sources that Lewis draws examples from, and a bit daunting when you realize there was no internet or electronic indexes to search in; most of these works probably didn't have a concordance, either.

American Gods by Neil Gaiman. (The chief of police in Lakeside is called Chad Mulligan, but I found no other reference or connection to Stand on Zanzibar.)

Oedipus Rex by Sophocles.

The Tragedy of Macbeth by William Shakespeare. A re-read; actually, two re-reads, once in the original, and once the Hebrew translation by Meir Wieseltier.

May 2017

The Way of the World, by William Congreve.

Woyzeck, by Georg Buchner, translated from the German and with an introduction by Shimon Zandbank.

The Wild Duck, by Henrik Ibsen, translated from the Norwegian by Gad Kaybar. The ending becomes obvious at an early stage, and it’s still shocking when it comes.

And to balance all those classic plays:

Aurora by Kim Stanley Robinson. Odd to read such “old school” SF written in the mid-2010s. I would have easily have believed this was written in the 80s. In fact, stories about generation starships were common in the 40s and 60s. And I wish I could say this was a good book: it was, in fact, highly disappointing. First, the use of computer science jargon in the book was pathetic. The author keeps throwing around terms like “traveling salesman” and “the halting problem” while obviously having no clue what they really mean. It seems like at least one of these terms was flaunted just for the sake of a (mediocre) joke on page 381.

Another strange thing is the naming of things, or more specifically, the lack of naming. Tau Ceti’s planets are lettered, and planet E and F -- despite being so dominant in the travelers' lives -- are never given a name. That was really odd. Yes, right now in early 21st century they’re called Tau Ceti E and F, but after spending a century and a half traveling towards them; after spending months with E up in the sky -- they still remain nameless? The ship is nameless. The AI remains nameless. The alien life (?) they discover is left unnamed (by the characters, explicitly). And so on.

Then there’s the obvious choices never taken... There’s a large discussion about taking off the helmets when first settling Aurora, but nobody seems to think about letting animals test the air. Not even lab mice, which apparently they regularly breed on the ship explicitly for the sake of experiments. Worse, after the first disaster, nobody considers sending down significant biomass to the land below, to see if anything would survive. It’s almost as if the ship is composed of fools. Human behavior is not believable either; after the events of the year 170, showing how violent people are, we find that on the return trip, during the long years of famine, nobody in the ship blames Freya for the choice she led them to. There is no resistance to her, and no resentment?

Bottom line is that the plot is simply not believable, not because of its SF elements, but because of its (silly) human element. And the storytelling... it starts right, but the longest chapter (“The Hard Problem”, about 80 pages long) is horrible. First-person narration with zero dialog and too much boring science. Oh, you can have first-person narration with zero dialog and lots of science without being boring: see The Martian for an example.

June 2017

The Periodic Table by Primo Levi. Translated by Immanuel Be'eri. “We were at the age when one always has the need, instinct, and immodesty of inflicting on one another everything that swarms in one’s head and elsewhere (and this is an age that can last long, but ends with the first compromise)”.

My Garden by Meir Shalev. A comparison to Capek’s The Gardener’s Year is inevitable -- and I think Shalev wins. Not only because of the language (an unfair comparison: I’m unable to tell how poetically beautiful Capek’s Czech was), but also because his text is more serious -- and his humor superior. (The story about white lupines, p. 188, seems like an interesting exception to the handicap principle. Perhaps that principle is less relevant for non-competing communications?)

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald.

July 2017

Plays, volume VII: The People That Walked In Darkness and others by Hanoch Levin. Throwing the existential problem in your face like no other.

Experiencing Theatre: Introduction to Drama and the Theatre by Zmira Heizner and Karin Heskia. Course textbook.

Antigone by Sophocles (translated by T. Carmi, introduction by Moshe Hadas and comments by Avraham Oz). Based on the English translation by Dudley Fitts and Robert Fitzgerald, which does not sound (according to Carmi’s comments) very reliable. Need to find a better version.

The Late Mattia Pascal by Luigi Pirandello. Translated by Miriam Rodeh. Supposedly his best book, yet not nearly as interesting as some of his plays.

August 2017

Miss Marple Stories by Agatha Christie. A Folio Society edition, including all twenty published short stories. The first 13 are basically Miss Marple and the Thirteen Problems, which I’ve read not so long ago (early 2015). I feel like too many of the stories hinge on “same person playing multiple roles,” but maybe it’s just me.

Far from the Madding Gerund and Other Dispatches from Language Log by Mark Liberman and Geoffrey K. Pullum. I read Language Log for many years now; this is a collection of articles from its first 3-4 years, up until 2006 or so, by two of its most prominent contributors.

It is amusing to see how repetitive some of the topics are over all those years, especially by Pullum. We get to singular “they” by page 5, the nonsensical advice of Strunk and White by page 6, people misunderstanding adverbs and adjectives and using century-old, outdated definitions by page 7, split infinitives being perfectly fine by page 8, complaints about the Economist by page 10, misusing the concept of passive voice by page 53, no such thing as talking animals by page 60, and you'll have to wait until page 73 to first encounter “the Eskimo vocabulary hoax”. It just made me realize how monotonous Pullum is in his topics over all those years. His writing in Language Log, although violent and free of any semblance of politeness (and thus, a highly enjoyable read), provides very little new topics for discussion; it’s mostly repeating the same old gripes about how others talk nonsense about language and linguistics.

Not surprisingly, the very first article (“The disappearing modal: for those who'll believe anything”) presents Pullum’s tired claim that “it is a mystery why linguistic subject matter is treated so differently in the general press from other material in which science has been interested” (p. 4). So, news flash: it isn't. Not because it’s well-treated, but because other topics are equally badly handled. As a computer scientist I can tell you that the general press coverage of claims about computing and software are, more often than not, laughable; any physicist and any medical doctor, for example, would tell you the same about their own domains (and it often doesn't even take an expert in those domains to find the horrible factual errors and gross misunderstandings and misrepresentations of fact). Not because of stupidity or evil intent, mind: most journalists just don't bother to check their facts with an expert. Same as in linguistics. In fact, I suspect that the only subject matter treated with some level of competence by journalists is, well, journalism.

And following these gripes, it is doubly amusing to read Pullums violent onslaught on Dennis Overbye of the New York Times , titled “A short sharp slap for Dennis Overbye”. If the title isn't violent enough, the text contains: “Thwack! I hope that hurt” as the article nears closing (p. 74). Why amusing? Because of Pullums advice to Overbye: “Don't be an indolent hack, use your left brain” (ibid). Well, what do you know, in that very sentence Pullum performs the exact sin that he attributes to Overbye, using an incorrect cliché from a domain he’s not an expert in, in this case neuroscience. As any expert in the field would tell you, lateralization of brain functions is mostly a myth that has long been put into question, or at the very least a gross oversimplification, and a phrase like “use your left brain” is meaningless advice. But then, Pullum never stopped to ask an expert. Thwack. I hope that hurt.

The book content is, of course, based on blog posts -- and these in fact went through little or no editing. Links in the original posts are turned to semi-sidebars in the text. Many of these link to web pages, and I suspect that at least four hundred and four of these had become stale since the book was published (over a decade ago). Where the link is to a blog entry that is included in the book, it is replaced with a page reference; except where it isn't (e.g., on p. 298), which indicates sloppy editing.

But with all this gripe and criticism... it’s a wonderful read! Yes, some of the topics are still repeated on Language Log to this day, but most are not, and many are insightful, or delightful, or both. Highly recommended.

The complete Adventures of Tintin, volume 7, by Herge. (Includes The Calculus Affair, The Red Sea Sharks, and Tintin in Tibet.) I’m reading the blue-spine hardcover 8-volume edition, published in 2011, with translations by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. I’ve seen that there’s a newer print, red-spined, printed in 2015, that drops the shockingly racist second book, Tintin in Congo. But even here, in The Red Sea Sharks (originally published in the late 50s), the depiction of Africans still shockingly racist.

September 2017

September reading list:

The Complete Adventures of Tintin, volume 8 by Herge. (From The Castifiore Emerald to Tintin and Alph-Art, the last incomplete draft.) Guest visitor, hidden in a carnival image: Asterix! And I just realized that the Thomson and Thompson humor is the grandfather of “In Soviet Russia” jokes. Also, I tried answering my family like Professor Calculus would do, just for one evening, and was very nearly thrown out of the house.

The Best Of 2600: A Hacker Odyssey by Emmanuel Goldstein. ''[T]he truest form of hacking [is:] Exploring somewhere where people don't want you to be, gaining knowledge that most people don't have, and having the ability to do things that most people cannot.” And indeed, the best parts of this book (which took me many many months to read, a bit here and a bit there) are such descriptions of clever hacks, showing how, by studying a system, you can make it do more than it was meant to do -- or more than it was meant to do by the end user, at least.

The bad part of the book, however, is the annoying, nonstop whining of the editor, Eric Corley (“Emmanuel Goldstein”). He is relentlessly griping and feigning innocence when it comes to charges against hackers. If your claim is that hackers explore places and indicate loopholes, do they then need to support others in exploiting these loopholes (for profit)? Do you really see no issue with somebody selling equipment for the obvious purpose of allowing others to cheat phone companies? Goldstein confuses hacking with civil liberties and freedom of speech. If you feel that word processing software prices are outrageous, real hackers are those that create alternatives, not those that work on defeating copy protection. Yet this is never what Goldstein argues for. And the repeated claim that copying software is entirely unlike stealing physical goods does not justify stealing services (such as phonecalls). The implications of messing with the law are mentioned in a passing -- “The Making of a Pseuo-Felon”, p. 630, is something anybody who thinks about using some of those hacks should read first.

Golstein’s uses so much pathos that it causes eye-rolling; “destiny has put us in this position at this time in history and we have to continue to stand up for those things we believe in”. Oh come on. The articles he chose for this “best of” volume include some that openly advocate illegal, sometimes violent activities; from an article about portable hacking, dated Summer 1992: “During the daytime at a pay phone no one is likely to even notice you [at your illegal activity] [... But] If you’re at a junction box or cutting into someone’s phone wiring at three in the morning, no excuse is necessary. Just be prepared to shoot to injure, and run like hell.” There are multiple articles about phone boxing (red boxes, blue boxes, etc.) with the sole aim of obtaining free calls from payphones; while you could argue the morals of stealing a non-physical service, this quickly degrades into a guide for stealing or wrecking the payphones themselves, with very little editorial lip-service by Goldstein by way of excuse for publishing it (“we still felt it was an informative piece and we hope that those reading it would apply their own set of values to what they learned from it”).

Surprising as always: the American mindset of agreeing to vast data being in the hands of private companies, but not (heaven forbid) in the hand of the government. “If it’s left in the hands of the private and business sectors, and used in ways that doesn't discriminate or eliminate the people’s options for doing things, this can be a great thing and an added level of security for people in their homes [...]. However, if placed in the hands of the government, we could be giving them one more power that would enable them to control and monitor our lives.” I must say, this is one of the most fascinating differences I see between Americans and Europeans in the modern world.

25 X Kishon by Ephraim Kishon. A selection of his newspaper columns over 25 years; a “special war edition” published during the war of 1973. The man obviously really loved his country, but some of the naive fallacies and assumptions of innocence made me wonder if he was indeed convinced by the propaganda machine, or was he a knowingly part of it.

October 2017

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I have a strong recollection of reading this as a short story in some collection as a child; a short story that left me very puzzled and concerned, for reasons which (back then) I could not pinpoint.

The Family Dictionary by Daniela London Dekel.

The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World by David W. Anthony. Decided to read this after listening to the first few episodes of the podcast The History of the English Language.

The book is about positioning the original tribe or tribes that spoke what is today known as “Proto-Indo-European”. Not to blame this author, but the decision of linguists to avoid using the term “Aryan” and replace it with clinical terminology ended up with monstrosities like “Pre-Proto-Indo-European” (p. 48). Oddly, Proto-Indo-European, despite being repeated hundreds of times in the book, is rarely ever (mostly in diagrams) abbreviated to PIE.

Anthony presents a nice counter-argument to reconstructed PIE not representing any “real” language, actually spoken by anyone, by comparing it to an English dictionary: no single person ever spoke the language as represented in any specific dictionary -- which covers a long period of time, both new and obsolete words; and represents a single pronunciation of many (p. 85).

Detailed reviews of why this settlement belong to the same period as that other settlement, based on an analysis of, say, grave ornaments, including a painfully elaborate list of items found in those graves, get painfully boring real quick. A lot of chapters eight, nine, eleven, and sixteen (and to a lesser extent, large sections of other chapters as well) were really hard to read through because they were so slow and boring to anyone who’s not part of this academic field of study (or should I say, study of fields); but even more so because it was (for me, at least) practically impossible to reconstruct a story, an actual chain of events, or even a simple timeline, from this ocean of details. Where a story does appear, it is a fascinating read; for example, the discussion of evidence for the domestication of the horse, and the research done by the author and his spouse on that subject, was an excellent read (chapter ten). It also showed how this is all part of an argument in the scientific community; a footnote about their apparent main proponent states, “We believe [Marsha] Levine’s criticisms are based on factual errors, distortions, and misunderstandings” (p. 486). “When writers vie wisdom mounts,” I guess.

The last chapter is beautiful as it ties everything together to a coherent whole.

The Garden of the Finzi-Continis by Giorgio Bassani. Translated from the Italian by Reuven Kritz.

November 2017

Adventures in Iraq by Yani Avidov. The true story of an Israeli operative in the early 50s, trying to help bring immigrants from Iran to Israel and ending up bringing hundreds of palm scions from Iraq in a thrilling operation.

The Complete Hercule Poirot Short Stories, volume 1 by Agatha Christie (Folio Society 3-volume edition). This is the first time I’m reading any of these. So much like the Holmes short stories: cases narrated by a companion who’s a retired military man (Captain Hastings / Dr Watson) who’s a pale shadow of “the master”, with a good friend at the Scotland Yard, etc. Conan Doyle wins hands-down in terms of story quality and reliable, eloquent problem-solving; Christie’s writing is funnier, especially once you realize this isn't a pastiche, it’s a parody. Compare A Scandal in Bohemia with The Case of the Veiled Lady (in this volume published as The Veiled Lady): in both, we have an aristocrat trying to recover a compromising document, sent to a past lover years ago. In both, the detective manages to break into the house in question, and has to find where was the article hidden. But while Holmes finds an ingenious way to make Irene Adler reveal her secret unintentionally, Poirot merely “employs the little grey cells”, after searching throughout the house, to realize where it must be hidden.

The parody is particularly evident in Poirot’s words to Hastings: “remember it, and if you think at any time that I am growing conceited -- it is not likely, but it might arise [...] En bien, my friend, you shall say to me, “Chocolate box.”'' (from The Chocolate Box, after not having failed to solve the case, but failing to note a particular clue); vs Holmes’s words to Watson, “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little over-confident in my powers, or giving less pains to a case than it deserves, kindly whisper 'Norbury' in my ear, and I shall be infinitely obliged to you.” (from The Yellow Face). But Hastings promptly does whisper that to Poirot, who completely fails to get the point.

Many of the stories present the reader with everything there is to know in order to solve the mystery, and in some cases Hastings appears like a fool for not catching on after the first sentence of Poirot’s always-fashionably-late explanations, if not before (e.g., in The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman).

The Complete Hercule Poirot Short Stories, volume 2 by Agatha Christie. An interesting number of stories deals with attempted double-murders of a specific kind: kill somebody (or in one case, commit suicide), and have somebody else hanged for doing it.

December 2017

The Complete Hercule Poirot Short Stories, volume 3 by Agatha Christie. I tried to read the last part, “The Labors of Hercules”, in lockstep with the twelve Labours of Heracles in Robert Graves' The Greek Myths. But Graves is impenetrable and annoying, and Christie did a horrible job of a generally good idea (twelve mysteries that are somehow mapped to the Greek myth). Rather than subtle and hinted-at connections, the mapping is in-your-face, and what could have been a spirited metaphor becomes a shallow trope.

Just Childhood: Introduction to the Poetics of Children’s Literature by Zohar Shavit. The first chapter deals with the appearance of the concept of childhood in Western culture -- a concept which the author claims is not essencial, but rather culture-dependent, based on Philippe Aries’s Centuries of Childhood. Among other things, Aries claims that high infant mortality led to emotional detachment between parents and their children, as some sort of a psychological immune system (to cope more easily with children’s death). Critics claim that the opposite is true: the emotional detachment contributed to the high child mortality. This sounds even more horrible and borderline impossible, against the very human nature; but the appendix includes some well-researched data from Elisabeth Badinter’s work, The Myth of Motherhood, which is both shocking and convincing.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling. Particularly amusing to read “Dumbledore’s” commentary, in the context of the poetics of children’s literature.

Eight Following One by Yemima Tchernovitz. The ornate language -- in a book for children -- is surprising.

New Approaches to Children’s Literature by Rima Shikhmanter; and that book’s Reader (with texts by Jack Zipes, Sandra L. Beckett, and Bette P. Goldstone and Linda D. Labbo).

The Invincible by Stanisław Lem. Translated from the Polish by Uri Orlev. Although this isn't what Lem had in mind, the story is super relevant for today’s public debate about AI. Plus, there’s something about Soviet-era SF that is so different than Western SF of the time -- the lack of hope; the perception of futility in humanity’s attempt to conquer space. “Not everything and not every place belong to us,” one of the character says. The last chapter, with the necrosphere’s geometry show, was (for me) really reminiscent of Lem’s Solaris. Overall, this book just begs for a movie adaptation.
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