Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Read Log, July-September 2022
By Tal Cohen Friday, 04 November 2022
Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir. Fantastic plot idea, and an enjoyable lightweight read, but so many writing-style holes made it annoying at times. A repeat of Weir’s “astronaut all alone” theme, and starting the plot with complete amnesia; what a disappointment. I was also annoyed by the highly stereotyped view of other nations, like Russians and Canadians.
  The most unrealistically represented science is in fact linguistics (well, chemistry and biology are also stretched a bit, with the notions of “Xenonite” and of microbes perfectly converting mass into energy and vice-versa). The two protagonists built a shared vocabulary of “several thousand words” within “several hours”. That’s shared vocabulary between alien races, with differing life experiences (let alone physiology and psychology). While the initial steps (kinda) made sense, the speed with which they move into abstract terms did not.
  Also, handing over to an alien race a laptop with practically all human knowledge? Isn’t that a bit of a risk? It probably isn’t, but the thought doesn’t even come up.
  All said and done, this is “old school” science-fiction done far better than any of the old-school writers could have done it; but I expect more from modern SF writers.

The Complete Greek Drama: All the Extant Tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides, and the Comedies of Aristophanes and Menander, in a Variety of Translations, edited by Whitney J. Oates and Eugene O’Neill, Jr. I’ve now completed reading Volume II, which includes seven plays by Euripides and the complete extant works (some partial and interpolated) of Aristophanes and Menander. Most of the translations of Aristophanes are by “anonymous”, which makes sense given the amount of profanities and scatological humor, combined with the translations’ time of publication.

Clouds, by Aristophanes, Hebrew translation by Aharon Shabtai. This was published in late 2021; it’s great that Shabtai is still actively translating.

Tango of Death by Yuri Vynnychuk, Hebrew translation by Anton Paperny. I was given this copy by the translation editor, Asaf Bartov, who is currently working hard to publish Hebrew translations of Ukrainian literature. (The effort has began, and this translation was published, prior to Putin’s war.) The book is at first highly disappointing, even clichéd, and includes a lot of odd and unjustified namedropping, in the style of The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, but without actually contributing to the plot. (Many of the dropped names, though, are relatively obscure and include, in the translation, footnotes.) But then, a bit short of halfway through, the characters discuss Borges, and hint at his “Library of Babel”, and suddenly the book switches to magic realism, and is truly uplifted by this change. The overall result is an enjoyable read, though not without faults.
  Some of the footnotes in the translation attempt to defend the author from coming across as antisemitic. These attempts are not always fully successful.

Homoioi: The Story of Sparta by Neil Bar. A history of ancient Greece, based on Herodotus, Thucydides and Xenophon; ostensibly focusing on Sparta but in fact not significantly different than other such histories. Overall, very well written, and a great introduction to the subject.

Introductory Lectures to Plato by John Glucker. Plato as a great Greek writer (in terms of literary quality of his writing) is an interesting aspect that I haven’t considered. (Glucker actually considers him “the greatest” in this regard.)

Toledo Nanochess: The Commented Source Code by Óscar Toledo Gutiérrez. A detailed line-by-line analysis of the author’s minimalistic, highly obfuscated, fully-functional chess program. After a brief historic survey (thankfully skipping the Mechanical Turk), the real action begins at Chapter 2, and any non-professional would get whacked by reality from the very first page or two: No, you should not use a two-dimensional array to represent the board. On the other hand, the algorithmic explanations are not very good; you will probably have a hard time understanding Toldeo’s Alpha-Beta Cut explanation without prior familiarity. (Also, some professional linguistic editing of the author’s English would have helped.) Still, it’s a fascinating and worthwhile read if you enjoy coding.
  P.S.: At the time of writing (early November 2022), it seems like Elon Musk decided to fire Twitter employees based (among other things?) on the number of lines they wrote. Mr. Toledo would likely have been fired in such a scenario, unless, that is, the book would have been submitted as part of the source code, as a comment. This, of course, says more about Musk’s move than about anything else.

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant. The name is misleading; this is a book about learning, working with other people, and more than anything else, having productive discussions. I’ve actually successfully used the techniques presented here to have a meaningful discussion with a religious fanatic without either of us blowing a fuse (and I think I managed to convince that person that same-sex marriage does not necessarily imply the end of the world is coming).

Twentieth Century Interpretations of Oedipus Rex: A Collection of Critical Essays, edited by Michael J. O’Brien. The best paper in this collection, by far, is E. R. Dodds’ sarcastic “On Misunderstanding the Oedipus Rex”. Bernard M. W. Knox’s “The Last Scene” is also good.

Life for Beginners by Rony Schneider. An ultra-cynical adult version of Yehuda Atlas’s It’s Me (והילד הזה הוא אני), except not remotely as good or as enjoyable. The author, a renowned copywriter, is clearly talented; but the writing seems lazy at times, and the ideas are often repetitive. I was hoping for more depth, I guess.

The Power by Frank M. Robinson. Pulp SF from the 1950s, with a mostly-expected twist. Spoiler: It’s the SF version of Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe. If anyone ever wanted proof that true immortality is a bad idea, Munroe’s description of a trip to the edge of the observable universe (Question 5) is an excellent argument. You’d be able to hear a real-time (i.e., life-long) description of the life of every single one of the 100 billion people who ever lived, each one of them 150 times over (as narrated by each of their 150 closest connections); and that will cover 1% of your trip. Yikes.
  The main drawback of this book is that the question I myself have sent Munroe was never answered (and thus isn’t part of this book). Oh well.

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