What I’ve been reading

by on June 1, 2016 at 1:09 pm in Books, Uncategorized | Permalink

1. Tom Bissell, Apostle: Travels Among the Tombs of the Twelve.  Fun, engaging, and informative, worthy of the “best of the year non-fiction” list.

2. China Miéville, Embassytown.  The first of his novels that has clicked with me, perhaps because it is the one that comes closest to being a true novel of ideas, Heideggerian ideas in this case.  A new prophecy is needed, and the nature of the new prophecy, like the old, will be shaped by language.  Just accept that upon your first reading you won’t enjoy the first one hundred pages and you should at some point go back and read them again.

3. Yuri Herrara, Signs Preceding the End of the World.  Sometimes considered Mexico’s greatest active writer, this novella draws upon the Juan Rulfo-Dante-Dia de los muertos tradition to create a convincing moral universe in 128 pages.  I find this more vivid and arresting than Cormac McCarthy’s treatment of the other side of the border.

4. The Gene: An Intimate History, by Siddhartha Mukherjee.  This book filled in a number of gaps in my knowledge, plus it is engaging to read.  Overall it confirmed my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use.

The other books I read weren’t as good as these.

1 Tim June 1, 2016 at 1:18 pm

1. Enjoyed enough to immediately begin re-reading. Need a scorecard to keep up with everyone involved, and in the end even that’s not sufficient. Bonus: No panegyric about the Camino de Santiago.

2 co June 1, 2016 at 1:37 pm

4. I’m in the back 1/3 or so of it. It’s enjoyable though perhaps not so much as “The emperor of all maladies” That was pretty high bar though and the book gets better then further I move into it.

3 Ray Lopez June 1, 2016 at 5:07 pm

So you enjoy stylized non-fiction, involving too-clever-by-half corner cases? You’d probably enjoy a history guide when reviewing ancient ruins. The guide–if he or she is good–will tailor their rendition of history according to how they size you up. If they think you like action, they’ll mention wars, executions and the like, if you like romance, they’ll mention some famous person slept here and/or pined away here, etc. It’s all speculative b.s. and corner cases, designed for entertainment along the lines of todays’ reality TV or National Geo.

4 derek June 1, 2016 at 1:45 pm

I don’t need to have read other Mieville for Embassytown, correct? It sounds standalone rather than part of the Perdido Street Station continuity.

5 IVV June 1, 2016 at 3:03 pm

Embassytown is a standalone. It’s not part of Bas-Lag.

6 PN June 1, 2016 at 3:39 pm

The Bas-Lag books really are his best ones. I think Railsea, Embassytown, and The City and the City are all good ones too. He’s one of my favorite authors!

7 derek June 1, 2016 at 3:50 pm

I did try Perdido once, but it was just too dense for airplane/tired parent reading. I find that classic Victorian novels and relatively literary science fiction often fit the bill perfectly for the reading level that I am often trying to target.

8 Melmoth June 2, 2016 at 11:29 am

His real strengths come out when he slows down and pursues one idea at a time, like in Embassytown or his short stories. The Bas Lag books have too much going on, and Kraken felt like a bit of a car crash. Mind you I love the energy and rough edges of King Rat.

9 IVV June 2, 2016 at 3:44 pm

That’s much of the reason I think The City & The City is his best work. He focuses on the exploration of one idea, and it is part of the general theme that Miéville explores in all his works: when is something one thing and not another? Can it become both or neither at the margin?

10 dearieme June 1, 2016 at 2:03 pm

If my memory is right, there weren’t always twelve, and their names varied too. Presumably the importance attributed to “twelve” was actually an allusion to the twelve tribes?

Anyway, little enough is known about the historical Jesus; I imagine that the amount known about the 12 may be less. Or even negative – who on earth could really think that Peter went to Rome, never mind became bishop there? That’s about as honest as the Donation of Constantine.

11 wwebd June 1, 2016 at 10:49 pm

Dearieme: actually there is more known about Jesus than there is about any other similar writer or story-teller, divine or not, who preceded him who did not speak Greek – but you probably knew that already – as for the amount of apostles, well, there was one at first, or maybe there were two to start with at once, then there were more… Judas was one of the original twelve, then he was replaced under unpleasant circumstances…. Bartholomew and another named apostle may be the same person …. there is a good free summary of all this in a pre-1923 leaflet readily available on the internet (Divinum Officium is a primary sponsor) it is called “The Saints of the Canon” (a reference to the apostles and others mentioned in the Latin Mass used in England and other Catholic countries for many centuries now beginning a very very long time ago – although for obvious reasons there is no description therein of the life of Judas)… Further speculative info – the apostle-specific biographical wording of the gospels may not exclude the possibility that the very long-lived Evangelist John actually is a re-named Lazarus (as Peter is a re-named Simon) … even non-denominational fundamentalists usually do not insist that the writer of the Epistle of James is James the Greater… had Peter written a Gospel we might know whether his three denials were part of a plan to infiltrate the Roman machinery of death and rescue Jesus, rather than the cowardly failures of honesty that the current Gospels do not rule out as being what actually happened ….as far as Peter going to Rome, why not? the surviving prose records confirm that travel throughout the Mediterranean was fairly easy back then for charismatic people with access to funding. Anyway, older people can cheer up as there is no record of any of the apostles declining to try to evangelize old curmudgeons.

12 Ricardo June 2, 2016 at 12:47 am

“actually there is more known about Jesus than there is about any other similar writer or story-teller, divine or not, who preceded him who did not speak Greek”

Which is to say, very little is known about him.

13 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 12:56 am

Digha Nikaya has an awful lot more about Buddha than the Bible does about Jesus.

Also, it wasn’t the “Roman machinery of death”. They were very careful to ensure that they couldn’t be blamed for the execution of this very popular man.

14 Ricardo June 2, 2016 at 2:54 am

Well, the gospel authors tried to blame it on the Jews — with rather negative consequences for Christian-Jewish relations in subsequent centuries — but my understanding is almost all historians agree that Pontius Pilate was a brutal provincial governor and the decision would have been his and his alone to make. The last thing the Roman authorities needed was some troublemaker stirring up the Passover crowds in Jerusalem by nearly starting a brawl with the merchants and moneychangers at Herod’s temple.

15 dan1111 June 2, 2016 at 8:18 am

The New Testament does portray the decision to execute as Pontius Pilate’s. I don’t think the New Testament account is implausible based on what we know of Pilate from other sources. He seemed to have brutal tendencies and was not liked by the local populace, but his position also depended on maintaining order and some semblance of good relations with the Jews.

Also, the New Testament was mainly written by and for Jewish Christian believers, when they were a persecuted minority. It’s important not to read the negative portrayal of “the Jews” in the Gospels through the lens of later events.

16 dearieme June 2, 2016 at 9:47 am

The Chief Priest ruled Jerusalem day-to-day, but on the occasion of festivals that brought in large crowds, the Roman prefect/governor moved from his base in Caesarea to Jerusalem, bringing a large garrison with him.

The Chief Priest thought Jesus a troublemaker after his antics in the Temple. He had him arrested and held a hearing. He knew that if Jesus did start a riot the Roman troops would have to be called into action, and that a blood-letting would be the result. He decided that to avert this Jesus should be executed, but did not himself have the power to order execution (with one exception that has no bearing on this case). So he had to send him to PP for another hearing. Presumably PP’s attitude was that unless there was good reason to overrule him, he’d approve the Chief Priest’s recommendation. And so he did.

That seems to me to be a reasonable interpretation of what “Mark” says, remembering that whoever wrote Mark may not have understood all the context himself.

17 Student June 2, 2016 at 9:53 am

One interesting thing to note is that johns gospel is the only one to blame the Jews. The Synoptics refer to “the crowd”. This seems to mean that by the time of the writing of johns account, the Christians has already been expelled from the synagogues and viewed themselves differently.

18 Student June 2, 2016 at 10:22 am

Marks gospel was written by Mark, a companion of Peter. Mark, in fact, got the material for his gospel from listening to the sermons of Peter and from being a disciple himself. In fact, there is evidence that Mark left the group after the bread of life discourse and was restored to the faith by Peter. After which, he became a travel companion of Peter, wrote the gospel of Mark and then founded the Church in Africa. Coptic tradition certainly thinks this the case.

19 dearieme June 2, 2016 at 8:28 pm

Attributing names to the anonymous gospel writers happened long after the event, and were near-arbitrary guesses. In other words, nobody knows who “Mark” was. Nobody knows where he lived. Nobody knows what his sources were. People do seem to have measure of agreement about when he wrote, though, there being some consensus that it was shortly before or after the destruction of the Temple.

20 Student June 2, 2016 at 9:44 am

Wrote a response regarding the 12 and the minor variations in the names below. Probably should have just replied directly.

Only a couple thoughts.

1.) I don’t buy the arguments about John being Lazarus. His name was already Lazarus when he was raised and John would have written (or attributed to him) under the name John if he was renamed Lazarus. All of peter’s writings were written as Peter not Simon. Why wouldn’t john be similar?

2.) Peter did not author a gospel but the gospel of Mark is a written account of his sermons. Therefore, it pretty much is his Gospel.

3.) it is well established that the epistle of James was written by James the less. I am not sure i know of anyone serious suggesting it was james the greater.

4.) there is tons of evidence of Peter having been in Rome. Christians since the earliest days had told specifically how he was crucified in Rome and have visited his burial place since the earliest days. Further archeological evidence exists to suggest that his tomb in the Vatican contains his remains.

5.) for those wondering about jesus and pilot… See the writings of Josephus and tacitus if you want non biblical roman historical sources.

21 dearieme June 2, 2016 at 9:49 am

“Christians since the earliest days”: the second century is not the “the earliest days”. The gap is too long, strongly suggesting that the story was invented as part of some political wrangle within the churches.

22 Student June 2, 2016 at 10:06 am

Piecing together the references in 1 clement (say about 95 AD) and Ignatius’s Letter to the Romans (call it 110 AD), I’d argue there is 1 century evidence that comes only a couple decades after the death of Peter. If this were incorrect, it would have been questioned right away. Further tradition says he died in Rome… As a result the burden of proof lies with those arguing against tradition, and there is no evidence he died anywhere else. Don’t you think someone as important as Peter to the early movement would have had a known burial place. If not Rome, then where? Peter wouldnt have just disappeared with no tomb or visited burial place. Come on.

23 dearieme June 2, 2016 at 5:51 pm
24 Student June 2, 2016 at 6:19 pm

Innacurate info. I will gather the evidence when I have some time for you. This is classic version of the tired Protestant pope denial. Nothing new here.

25 dearieme June 3, 2016 at 12:05 pm

No, this is vigorous atheist pope derision. Buncha crooks.

26 dearieme June 1, 2016 at 2:06 pm

“my impression of major advances in the science, but not matched by many medical products for general use”: I’d think that might be the conventional wisdom, and nonetheless true.

27 sfp June 1, 2016 at 2:22 pm

4. Stuart Ritchie isn’t so happy about it but mostly because he attacked IQ tests and didn’t focus on genetic engineering enough: http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/05/how-siddhartha-mukherjee-gets-the-gene-wrong/

28 anon June 1, 2016 at 6:53 pm

Harsh.

29 ad*m June 2, 2016 at 2:12 pm

Wade had a strong takedown in WSJ:

http://www.wsj.com/articles/peeking-into-pandoras-box-1463170629

Example:
“What does psychometrics have to do with the history of genetics? Almost nothing, but Mr. Mukherjee goes out of his way to launch a long diatribe against “The Bell Curve,” a reasoned discussion of intelligence tests that has long been vilified by the left. This irrelevant passage will give readers the uneasy feeling that the author is more concerned with promoting his leftist credentials than with explaining a complex subject factually, surely the first duty of anyone who writes about science.”

30 improbable June 1, 2016 at 2:29 pm

Re 4, I have not read the book, but based on a recent New Yorker piece which I assume was an advert, there are serious doubts about his understanding of the science: see here

https://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2016/05/05/the-new-yorker-screws-up-big-time-with-science-researchers-criticize-the-mukherjee-piece-on-epigenetics/

A pity as I quite liked his book on Cancer.

31 Kris June 1, 2016 at 3:32 pm

A defense of the piece the author wrote in the New Yorker: http://www.vox.com/2016/5/7/11606886/scientists-angry-new-yorker-epigenetics

It seems Mukherjee emphasized one factor over others, mainly (he claims) because a New Yorker article has only so much space. He claims the book deals with all the relevant factors.

32 Ray Lopez June 1, 2016 at 5:21 pm

Yes, I rather like the Neo-Lamarkian hypothesis. BTW, you will also note the more prestigious the scientist the shorter was their criticism in the link cited by ‘improbable’. This has also been observed in academia: the higher ranked the teacher, the shorter their replies.

33 Student June 1, 2016 at 2:56 pm

1. Sounds like it might be interesting.

@dearieme,

All four of the Gospels reference 12 apostles (as does every church father that writes anything of them… the number has never been in dispute) but John doesn’t list all of their names as the Synoptics do.

The only difference at all across the Synoptics is that Thaddaeus is referred to as Jude in Luke. FYI, the RCC refers to him as St. Jude Thaddaeus and identifies him as the son of Clopas and Mary (the Virgin Mary’s cousin) and brother of St. James the less.

John doesnt list all of the apostles, refers the Thaddaeus as Jude (like Luke), and Bartholowmew as Nathanael. Some dispute that Nathanael is Bartholowmew but it seems pretty obvious to me that he is when you read the texts closely because: Bartholomew is always mentioned next to Phillip in the Synoptics and in John he was brought to Jesus by Phillip. Also, Nathanael is present at the Resurrection, as was Bartholowmew.

In short, the number is always very clearly 12 and while the names do vary a bit, they still referred to the same people.

34 John Mansfield June 1, 2016 at 3:09 pm

In population geneticist Sewall Wright’s early papers, he kept using the phrase “unit of genetic inheritance.” It took me a while to catch on that he wrote them before the word “gene” had caught on. I wonder what geneticists, such as Wright, Fisher and Haldane, were called back then, before the word gene.

35 P June 2, 2016 at 3:27 am

‘Gene’ probably dates to 1909 (Johannsen). ‘Genetics’ and ‘geneticist’ are older than that.

36 Noumenon72 June 1, 2016 at 3:35 pm

“The other books I read weren’t as good as these.”

Is this a bitter blow at Age of Em?

37 Todd K June 1, 2016 at 3:41 pm

I doubt it considering the rumor is that Robin Hanson was Tyler Cowen’s ghostwriter for “The Age of Em.” But keep in mind these rumors have yet to be confirmed or denied.

38 Tyler Cowen June 1, 2016 at 7:20 pm

Robin’s book is great, but I read and reviewed it some time ago…

39 Noumenon72 June 2, 2016 at 12:21 am

I apologize, I googled “Tyler Cowen Age of Em” before posting and not “site:marginalrevolution.com “age of em””. Also I forgot that it was already out and thought that Slate Star Codex was reviewing it brand new.

40 P June 2, 2016 at 3:25 am

How can Robin Hanson be a ghostwriter for his own book?

41 P June 2, 2016 at 3:30 am

Unless it was written by an emulated version of Robin Hanson…

42 Todd K June 2, 2016 at 11:49 am

Now you’re getting it….

43 marc June 1, 2016 at 3:47 pm

Read Embassytown late last year and really loved it. As you note, its a challenging read, especially the first 100 pages – but it draws you in and becomes very compelling.

44 CD June 1, 2016 at 6:03 pm

4. Siddartha is an entertaining science writer…he’s a less impressionable Malcolm Gladwell. I can’t speak to his book on cancer, but his section on psychiatry in The Gene is weak. He does not seem aware of the implications of most twin studies of the last forty years, nor does he seem to understand the idea that there is such a thing as non-Mendelian inheritance.

45 Jan June 1, 2016 at 7:05 pm

1) I saw Bissell speak at my college right after he wrote his first book, Chasing the Sea, in 2003. He was pretty much a nobody then, but I loved the talk and took an interest in his book (it was about Uzbekistan and I was about to ship out to the same part of the world). Since then, his writing has only gotten better. I look forward to reading this one.

46 Dmitri Helios June 1, 2016 at 11:52 pm

Ship out? Were you in the military?

47 Troll me June 2, 2016 at 1:08 am

What does that have to do with anything?

48 Mc June 1, 2016 at 10:22 pm

tyler has readatosis, fret not, no matter what you in life? if you’re good at you’ll have income, and ability to support others, in their, needed jobs as well. hey, how about a beer after i moved your lawn, is hot out here, the ice-caps r melting, we’re all boiling, and were trying to reflect, over some decent sunset, or some shit, in what otherwise has been the plight of thankless drudges.

49 CW June 1, 2016 at 11:53 pm

2. I haven’t been able to do much with China Miéville’s works in the past, either. I can’t get very far in them before I get sidetracked on other things. I could try this new one I suppose, but the thought of reading a novel of ideas by a Marxist (and an English academic one on top of that), at least at this point in my life, doesn’t make me immediately jump out of my chair to run and buy the book.

50 Mc June 2, 2016 at 1:03 am

chrissie’s buds, didn’t pop, until she was in her early twenties ~ this is a girl, who at one time, didn’t know if she’d be living in a wheel chair or not. she had puck, was funny, because higher powers gave her a magic brush, but she never knew that still, she was real, spoke from her heart mostly, in a very peasant manner, ever if she was yellin, which she was wont to do

51 martin June 2, 2016 at 4:37 pm

Been meaning to acknowledge, and sincerely thank, TC for being the main curator of my reading material the past several years. Too many superb recommendations to keep track. Most recently, “Conundrum,” a perfect read on a topic I might probably have avoided. Keep ’em coming.

52 martin June 2, 2016 at 4:46 pm

Apropos your request for recommendations, I am surprised not to find “1924,…” in your recommendations. Presume it did not grab you.

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