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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Eloquent Essay: An Anthology of Classic & Creative Nonfiction - John Loughery (Editor) Jordan talked me into it - a familiar story :) Just ordered from The Book Depository...

If you hang out on Goodreads, I imagine you enjoy reading essays. (Like, if you don't, what exactly are doing here?) This book is a collection of 17 outstanding essays, nearly all of which, I'm ashamed to say, I hadn't previously read.

It was irresistible to pretend I was reading them here on GR, and then try to imagine how I would have reacted to them. In many cases, no great feat of imagination was required. Bruno Bettleheim's The Ignored Lesson of Anne Frank, I.F. Stone's When Free Speech Was First Condemned and Leo Marx's Huck at 100 are brilliant reviews of, respectively, The Diary of Anne Frank, Plato's Apologia and Huckleberry Finn. The first two would simply have knocked me flat, Bettleheim by the depth of his controlled anger and Stone by his extraordinary and unconventional scholarship. There's an important word in the Apologia, he claims, which has been consistently mistranslated out of deference to Socrates; when you substitute the correct translation, the whole sense changes.

With Leo Marx, my reaction would have been a little different. I know Huckleberry Finn well, which I can't say of the other two books, and my own review is exactly in this direction, commenting on the irony of the claim that Twain is a racist. Damn! Why didn't I do more work? If I had, I might have written this little gem. The same goes for Pico Iyer's In Praise of the Humble Comma (Iyer adores semi-colons too, but expresses it so much more elegantly than I did), Carl Sagan's The Fine Art of Baloney Detection (I would love to be able to explain the merits of scientific thought equally convincingly), and Ellen Ullmann's Space Is Numeric, a paean to the joys of late-night software implementation. Damn and double-damn! I've hacked code late at night to beat a deadline more times than I can count. I could have written this, but I didn't! Why ever not?

Some of them were telling stories about things I'd never experienced myself, but which would instantly have taken a place in my memory. After reading George Orwell's piece, I almost felt I'd attended a hanging in colonial-era Burma myself, Edward Abbey does a wonderful job of debunking the cowboy myth, and Martin Luther King's Letter from a Birmingham Jail, I discovered, thoroughly merits its fame; it's both inspiring and extremely well-written.

And finally, as usual on Goodreads, there are the people writing about the joy of writing. It's always a risky strategy, and Eudora Welty's Writing and Analyzing a Story was one of the very few contributions that I wasn't sure I would have voted for. But Alma Palmer Adler's Lying in the Long Grass, Eating Cane more than made up for it. The theme of conceiving of one's writing as a lover has been used before, but she does it remarkably well. I have to share this quotation with you:
I have not given this long-standing, faithful lover, this passionate devotee, my full attention. In some respects, I still fear what might happen to the rest of my life if I were to abandon myself to this paramour. In many ways, I sense that the depth of my feelings borders on sickness; yet I am painfully aware that this lover is as necessary as the blood that feeds my heart.
Me too, Alma, me too. I wish I could send you a friend request.