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Alice Through The Looking Glass Audio Classics Library
Alice Through The Looking Glass Audio Classics Library
by Lewis Carroll
Edition: Audio CD
11 used & new from $0.14

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars BEWARE -- An Outrage!, January 21, 2010
There are many audio versions of Through the Looking Glass; do not buy this one. It is an abridgement. Generally, I don't like abridgements, but even if you do, there is really no excuse for this one, on two grounds.

1) Through the Looking Glass is not a long book. An unabridged version would run maybe 3 CDs. There is simply no point in abridging such a short book.

2) If you insist on an abridgement, it might as well be a good one. This is a disaster, essentially removing the book's highlights. It's bad enough that we miss the Red Queen informing Alice that you often have to run as fast as you can to stay in the same place; it's worse when we completely miss the White Knight proudly proclaiming that "'tis me own invention." But it is UNCONSCIONABLE that we never hear Jabberwocky. What in the world could they have been thinking?

The narrator does a good enough job, and I don't blame her. I blame the producers of this monstrosity. It rivals only Walt Disney's engregious "Jungle Books" movie as the Worst Butchery of Great Children's Literature. And at least Jungle Books had some good songs.

Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford Oriental Monographs)
Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography: Tractate Avot in the Context of the Graeco-Roman Near East (Oxford Oriental Monographs)
by Amram D. Tropper
Edition: Hardcover
Price: $220.00
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A crucial and important synthesis, November 8, 2009
Pirkei Avot is the most accessible and most-read tractate in the entire Mishnah, the central text of Rabbinic Judaism. The entire tractate is included in the traditional Jewish prayer book, and even though it lacks its own "Gemara," (classical Talmudic commentary), the list of thinkers who have written their own commentaries reads like an all-star list of rabbis and Jewish philosophers throughout the ages: Maimonides, Abravanel, the Volozhiner rabbi, Sforno, the Maharal of Prague, Samson Raphael Hirsch, all the way up to Ethics of the Sages: Pirke Avot (Skylight Illuminations), a wonderful edition by Rami Shapiro.

So do we really need another book on Pirkei Avot? You bet: we need it badly, for all the commentaries overlook, or treat perfunctorily, the critical historical and philosophical context of the work. Here, Tropper performs a crucial service, because he locates the methodology and style of Avot within the world of its creation, viz., the Greco-Roman world of the first two centuries C.E. While the book is unquestionably academic -- it was originally his doctoral dissertation -- it is clearly written, and far from hard slogging for anyone interested in religion or familiar with rabbinic literature.

Tropper beautifully demonstrates how many of the patterns usually associated with Avot -- in particular, its list of successive rabbis who transmitted "Torah" from Mount Sinai -- bear striking resemblances to Greek, Roman, and even early Christian texts. In doing so, he raises critical and evocative questions about the nature of the Mishnaic project.

Let us take the example of the succession list in the first two chapters of Avot. Tropper shows that it looks very similar to the work of the "Second Sophistic," i.e. a philosophical movement during the same period in Greece, in which Greek intellectuals and orators sought a heroic past to excavate as a way of compensating for their relative lack of powerlessness in the Roman Imperial system. Was the Mishnaic project similar? Tropper suggests that it was: Avot stood as a way to reinforce the authority of the office of the Patriarch among Jews by connecting it to the great events of the past. In this way, the story of a disciple circle -- that of the Patriarch -- became the story of a people. Anyone familiar with the account of the rabbinic chain of authority in Avot 1:1 can recognize that it attempts to make the case that the rabbis are the true heirs of Jewish authority. Tropper shows that this was not an isolated pattern.

The most frustrating thing about the book is that Tropper does not extend the comparative method to the PHILOSOPHICAL aspects of the book. If the rabbis, Roman legal scientists, Greek Sophists, and early Christians were engaged in similar literary and stylistic projects, does this tell us anything about their more general views of the world, of life, of politics, of economics? He shows with careful research in both primary and secondary sources that the Patriarch would have been familiar with the general Greek cultural milieu in the Galilee; but does this say anything about any interchange of ideas? Can Athens and Jerusalem speak to each other? But this just shows the value of the work: it raises bigger questions such as this, and gives subsequent scholars and modern Jews a chance to reflect and study them.

The second most frustrating thing about the book is its egregious price. I am lucky because I teach at UCLA, a major research university with an excellent Interlibrary Loan program. That's how I accessed this book. See what you can do at your own library: Wisdom, Politics, and Historiography is not worth the price, but it is worth the hassle of borrowing it, and definitely worth careful study and thought.

How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States
How Much Should a Person Consume?: Environmentalism in India and the United States
by Ramachandra Guha
Edition: Paperback
Price: $34.95
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13 of 14 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Impressionistic and Outdated, October 28, 2009
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If you are interested in India, and especially if you are interested in the environment in India, then Ramachandra Guha's work is probably your best first stop. But this book should probably not BE that stop.

Guha's most recent book, India After Gandhi: The History of the World's Largest Democracy, is a masterful account of India's politics and culture since Independence. It's just a shame that he didn't give this work nearly the same care.

On the contrary. How Much Should a Person Consume? is really not a BOOK at all; it is, instead, a collection of essays written over the last thirty years or so, tied together with the frailest of strings. As chapters or assorted essays, many of them work and have real value. But as parts of a book, they are totally scattered. Here, we see an account of peasant protests concerning centralized forest policy; there, an appreciation of Lewis Mumford as an ecologist; elsewhere, some autobiographical notes; around the corner, a critique of western environmentalists.

That critique itself might have had purchase 20 or 30 years ago; today, it is really shallow. Guha's essential argument is that western environmentalists have embraced a "wilderness ethic" that neglects the needs of real people in the developing world, particularly poor people in the developing world. The sourcing is abysmally thin, but even so, it completely neglects developments in US and European environmental organizations since the mid-80's. Many of these groups, think-tanks, and academics have spent years and much thought attempting to make environmentalism work for low-income people throughout the world, and have developed some of the most sophisticated models and accounts of how to do so. But you will not find them in Guha's book: instead, he restricts himself to isolated statements from individuals with broad assertions about their representativeness and precious little evidence. It says something when chapter after chapter that purportedly deal with US "environmentalism" fail to mention NRDC, EDF, and the entire disciplines of environmental economics or ethics. And no, it is not good enough to say that the essays were written a while ago: the book purports to be up to date, and was published in 2006.

The book's major value, at least for me, was its historical examination of the shameful history of forest degradation and ignoring of poor populations, especially indigenous tribes of India. But even there, it seems oddly disconnected from reality: there is no discussion of climate change policy, the WTO, or even contemporary Indian environmental politics. And I suppose that that is because these issues do not fit into Guha's quite trite division of environmental ideologies: agrarianism, nostalgia, scientific conservationism, and the wilderness ethic.

Toward the end of the book, Guha draws an intriguing contrast between "omnivores" and "ecosystem people", arguing essentially that the latter are subsidizing the former. This may well be true. He criticizes both what he calls "romantic economists" and "romantic environmentalists" and argues quite sensibly that we need some sort of new way of thinking. What he ignores is that lots of people, both inside India and outside, have been doing this. Are they right? Wrong? Misguided? Visionary? Guha cannot answer this question because he does not ask it. He does ask the question that is the title of his book. That is a crucial, seminal question. But he should try, at least, to answer it, and give credit to those who try to as well.

Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang
Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang
by Ziyang Zhao
Edition: Hardcover
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Portrait of a Technocrat, October 14, 2009
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Not soon, but one day, scholars will gain access to the documents, letters, diaries, and hidden correspondence of China's leadership over the last 30 years (and perhaps earlier). Then we will know the full story of how China emerged from the hell of the Cultural Revolution, and how it grappled with opening to the west. Until then, we will have to make do with the memoirs of Zhao Ziyang.

It's a good start. As other reviewers have mentioned, Zhao's journal is absolutely critical in understanding the rivalries and fissures within the Chinese Communist Party during the 1980's. Even now, Prisoner of the State gives us an invaluable look at how China's leaders debated political and economic reforms, and many of the inner workings of the Party.

For me, the most valuable lessons from Zhao's account derived from learning about the subtle ways in which leaders exerted power and influence. I was particularly struck by the continuing influence of "party elders" such as Chen Yun and Li Xiannian, even if they did not hold formal posts. Similarly, Prisoner brilliantly describes the ways in which Zhao, newly installed as CCP General Secretary, was able to muzzle the "anti-bourgeois liberalization" campaign that conservatives such as Li and Deng Lichun had advocated. Zhao never OPPOSED the campaign, but merely cabined it, forbidding editorials attacking individuals, preventing guilt-by-association tactics common during the Cultural Revolution, and enunciating the idea that true progress meant maintaining vigilance against both Left- and Right-deviationism. He also kept the Left at bay by eliminating their power centers, such as Red Flag magazine, and the research department of the Party Secretariat. Mao famously said that power flows from the barrel of a gun, but Zhao's picture shows something quite different: in Deng's China, power flowed from an ability to hold together political coalitions, keep one's opponents off guard and guessing as to your intentions, and -- of course -- maintaining the support of Deng himself.

Zhao realized too late that he had failed in this critical third requirement. At times, he seems to fool even himself. In the first part of the book, Zhao claims that his political fall originated essentially in a mistake of etiquette. When Zhao was out of the country, conservatives scared Deng about the protests; the supreme leader called the protesters anti-socialist and anti-patriotic; conservatives published Deng's comments in the People's Daily; the students became angry and refused to stop until receiving a retraction; and since Deng could not admit a mistake, something had to give. But by the end of the memoir, Zhao concedes what he had failed to see previously, viz. Deng was simply not going to tolerate meaningful political reform. He was committed to the dominance of the CCP.

Indeed, until the end of the book, Zhao seems unaware of the big picture political issue that underlies all the talk of China's future -- whether China will remain a Communist autocracy. Essentially, what emerges through most of the work is a portrait of a technocrat, cautiously and for the most part wisely moving toward market reforms, but seemingly oblivious to the question of the future of the Party. Even at the end of the book, Zhao seems to insist that parliamentary democracy will be beneficial not only to China, but to the Party itself. This is clearly false.

Zhao was no democrat, and at the end of the book, he concludes that moving toward democracy is necessary only because it is a prerequisite for economic reform. But as of this writing, that diagnosis has been proved wrong: China's economy has moved ahead by leaps and bounds, and has become the second most important economy in the world, but the nation remains completely autocratic in the political sphere. Freedom and democracy are crucial for their own sake, not because they will help raise GDP.

Zhao was the best of his generation, a man with the intelligence and flexibility to mastermind China's economic reforms, and with the seeming common decency to shy away from turning China's army on its best and brightest young students. In future decades, he will once again be honored in his own country. But he was not the man to bring democracy to China, and Prisoner of the State shows why.

Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life
Be Still and Get Going: A Jewish Meditation Practice for Real Life
by Alan Lew
Edition: Paperback
Price: $19.27
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Somewhat mistitled, September 15, 2009
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There is major problem at the heart of this book: the subtitle really does not describe its contents. To be sure, there is something about meditation in here, and of course Lew had vast experience with it, given his founding of a meditation center connected to a synagogue and his years in Buddhist practice. But for the most part, "Jewish meditation practice", particularly the "practice" part, really recedes into the background and only makes occasional cameo appearances after the first chapter. If you are interested in Jewish meditation, I would strongly recommend Jeff Roth's Jewish Meditation Practices for Everyday Life: Awakening Your Heart, Connecting with God, which was published in March 2009.

That said, there is real wisdom in this book. Lew was a fine storyteller, and he brings real insight into his Torah readings. I particularly liked his chapter on "Sacred Emptiness," where he mentions that the Holy of Holies in ancient Jerusalem Temple was in fact an empty space. Sometimes, it was regarded as the place of God's actual presence (as the Tent of Meeting was during the wanderings in the wilderness), but for the most part it was empty. And maybe, he suggests, that IS the meaning of God's presence: the discovery of the emptiness at the heart of life. We can create sacredness in everyday life not by always connecting it to some Grand Telos, but rather by living in the present and appreciating it for what it is. Like the Tabernacle, we create a structure around our lives, but we cannot answer that complete emptiness. The challenge is to live with it and make it meaningful for ourselves. That is why one has to "be still" before one can "get going." Acheive calmness, and then explore. At least that's the way I read him.

Lew was not a great theologian, but he was a good writer, and the book is a nice, gentle introduction to many Jewish themes. It also has some useful spiritual practice points. In that sense, it is useful and worth reading.

I recently discovered that Lew died this past January at the all-too-early age of 65. But he left a legacy of an important institution (Makor Or), and his three books, all of which help to communicate a thoughtful, spritual Judaism. Rest in peace.

by Henry David Thoreau
Edition: Audio CD
Price: $32.99
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A superb performance of an underrated classic, August 25, 2009
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This review is from: Walden (Audio CD)
First things first: if you are reading this review, it is probably because you are considering not just Walden, but Walden on audio. Does it work in that medium?

Have no fear: not only does Walden not LOSE something by being read, it probably gains something from Mel Foster's excellent performance. My first experience with his reading was the production of William Bernstein's A Splendid Exchange, and it was disappointing -- flat and lifeless. But he did a fine job with James Kugel's How to Read the Bible: A Guide to Scripture, Then and Now, and this is terrific, too; I'll assume the mediocre job with the Bernstein was the producer's fault.

Now, to the book. So much has been written about it, both on Amazon and elsewhere, that there is little more to say. But I will say this: if you read it in college, or if, like me, you merely PRETENDED to read it in college, pick it up again later in life. It is worth reading, and studying, and savoring.

Walden is thought of as the urtext of nature writing, particularly American nature writing, but that really understates the matter -- thus, my assessment of it as an "underrated" classic. It is really so much more: an essay on the nature and purpose of human existence, an exploration of human nature itself, and an example of how we can see the sacred in the mundane. Indeed, one could argue that Thoreau was not so much writing about nature, but using nature as a way of seeing the supernatural -- looking THROUGH nature to grasp the reality of the unseen.

And forget any notion you may have had about Thoreau, the dreamer: this is actually a very practical man, who strives hard to show that what he is doing can be a model for what all people should do. Not that they should go live in a cabin, but rather that they can and should seek their own unique path of existence. (Thus, the different drummer). It is no accident that the first and longest chapter is entitled "Economy": Thoreau wants to demonstrate that following a different IS possible if we prepare ourselves. If he is not fully convincing that anyone can do anything they want and make it stick, he is, in my view, unanswerable in his assertion that we cannot and must not be satisfied with what we are given, or what tradition or even our own habits tell us what we "should" do. If for nothing else, Walden is must-reading for anyone, young or old, religious or atheist, American or citizen of any nation. Or even no nation.

Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle against World Poverty
Banker to the Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle against World Poverty
by Muhammad Yunus
Edition: Audio CD
Price: $19.95
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30 of 36 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Some substance, please, July 8, 2009
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Muhammed Yunus has worked tirelessly for the poorest of the poor. He has developed an enormously exciting new model for economic and social empowerment. He has expanded it to serve millions of people and give out billions of dollars in loans. His story is thrilling, even inspiring. How in the world can you criticize someone like that?

Well, here's how.

First and most importantly, you can scour through Banker to the Poor and not find anything concrete about whether the Grameen Bank and all of its allied institutions have actually reduced poverty.

In the middle of the book, Yunus says that he wants outside independent auditors to look at the outcomes for Grameen borrowers. I believe him, but the man has been in business for more than 30 years now; it would be nice to have SOME indicator of effectiveness. Moreover, when he discusses the "star" system, whereby individual Grameen branches apply for recognition for outstanding performance, he notes almost in passing that only 21 of more than 1,100 branches have even applied for the "brown star," which is awarded if 100% of the borrowers have escaped poverty. Maybe none of them even received it. Now, 100% is a very tall order and it's not the best indicator. But it is the ONLY one that Yunus offers in the entire book.

Think about the scale of Grameen: it has delivered more than $4 billion in loans since it was founded. That sounds impressive until you realize that Bangladesh has more than 120 million people, about 40% of the size of the United States. $4 billion isn't even a drop in the bucket on that scale.

And yes, Grameen borrowers have a superb record of repayment. But they also paid back the brutally unfair loans that they got from rapacious middlemen before Yunus stepped it for precisely the reason that Yunus explains: they have no other choice. So we still don't know anything about outcomes.

This critique is necessary because Yunus makes some quite extravagant claims in the book, e.g. the government should get out of the business of social service, health care, and education provision altogether. Can the free market provide such things for the poor? Of course not, Yunus says: that's why he needed to start Grameen in the first place. He then proposes a rather hazy notion of "socially conscious entrepreneurs" that will fill the gap, and insists that this sector -- which really has yet to exist anywhere -- can do it. What structures will ensure this? How can the proper incentives be provided? How would these entrepreneurial ventures look any different from the traditional nonprofit sector? Yunus doesn't tell us.

In fact, although Banker to the Poor gives a decent enough overall narrative of Grameen and its founder, it tells us precious little about the model, how it works, and why it is successful. We get a few nuggets: one key innovation appears to be giving loans to small groups of borrowers, who essentially monitor each other. This seems to have been an ingenious idea. He does discuss how dedicated his staff is, and -- to his great credit -- he names many of the important staffers and how they contributed to the organization. But his account of why such talented people work for Grameen, how he is able to retain them, and whether such staff can be found in other places and at a sufficient scale, is not explained.

My suspicion got piqued when I realized that no one seems to have been able to replicate his model on the scale he has in Bangladesh -- or at least none that he discusses. He does talk about replications, but they seem to be small and not really making a dent.

And I confess to a certain amount of annoyance as to the style of the book: the intrepid advocate Yunus battles intransigent bureaucrats, lazy bankers, arrogant development agencies (who, like the World Bank, nevertheless have funded him lavishly since the early 90's). He even relates the exact words of the exact conversations. This tone is heightened by an overheated performance by Ray Porter in the unabridged audio edition.

This surfeit of heat over light really comes through when Yunus argues that credit should be a "human right." But he simultaneously says that Grameen only wants highly motivated and energized borrowers, who will work and commit to making their businesses become successful. There are lots of people like that, and lots of people NOT like that. What about those borrowers who are not as highly motivated and responsible? Do they have the right to credit, too? Yunus wants to end world poverty, and more power to him: but at the fundamental level, in this book he doesn't really seem to have thought through the most important implications of his argument.

If you know next to nothing about micro-finance, as I did before reading this book, it's worth it. Yunus seems to have done a great deal of good; smart, committed, effective people and organizations support him. It makes a good deal of sense and it's not as if anyone else has the magic bullet. It would just be nice to know exactly what he has done and how he has done it. I'm looking forward to reading his next book and finding out the substance, because Banker to the Poor certainly doesn't provide it.
Comment Comment (1) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Jan 29, 2012 9:21 PM PST

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives
by Leonard Mlodinow
Edition: Paperback
Price: $10.23
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3 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly clear, June 29, 2009
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Lots of other people have said lots of other things about this book, and for the most part, I agree. If you know a good bit about statistics, then this book is not for you. Moreover, a number of excellent books have appeared over the last couple of years that popularize and explain the Twersky/Kahneman "heuristics and biases" approach to life, so on that side, this book is not truly necessary.

But what an explanation of statistics it is! I've read a lot of introductory statistics material over the years (which of course says a good bit about my ability to understand statistics -- or lack thereof). I have NEVER read a book that explains the concepts so well. He explains the "normal curve," and then uses it to explain the underlying intuition behind Bayesian reasoning, the chi-squared test, and significance testing, just to name three. If that was so easy to do, then someone would have done it already. They haven't. Note that what I am talking about is the intuitive notion behind the tests. Lots of books (mostly textbooks) will explain the tests; what they won't do is give you a good intuitive sense of what these tests are doing, and how they work.

Mlodinow also communicates with exceptional clarity about the nature of statistical fallacies. For example, Alan Dershowitz argued that admitting evidence of OJ Simpson's abuse of his wife was irrelevant because only a minuscule number of women who are abused are also murdered by their husband. Using the Bayesian test, Mlodinow shows that the true question is: what percentage of women who were abused by their husband and were murdered were actually murdered by someone else?

Mlodinow also effectively sets forth the issues of how human beings see order in randomness and randomness where there is order. Of these, by far the more interesting heuristically is the former, and skillfully uses examples (such as random number series) to show how it happens. I agree that he does not as effective a job as others do in surveying all of the heuristics and biases. I think that Predictable Irrational (Dan Ariely), Nudge (Sunstein and Thaler), and Sway (Ori Branfman) are somewhat better than that. But all of these books are short and well-written: quite literally, you can read them all (or listen to them unabridged, as I did), and it will help the concepts stick in your head.

But one book that this is clearly superior to is The Black Swan, by Nassim Taleb. Taleb sticks with the "people see order when it's random" problem, but more than anything else, The Black Swan focuses on TALEB, not the problem. Taleb does discuss the problem of not knowing when you have a Gaussian distribution, but his account of the alternative "Mandelbrotian" way of thinking is just opaque (perhaps an occupational hazard, but then he shouldn't do it). I recommend Black Swan as well, but if you have to choose, Drunkard's Walk is better.

If you are a specialist in the field, then this book isn't for you. But if you really are a specialist, then the popular books aren't generally for you, either. Read this book if you want to get a good intuitive understanding of what is going on. You can't do better.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Sep 6, 2010 5:28 PM PDT

The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas
The Ethical Brain: The Science of Our Moral Dilemmas
by Michael S. Gazzaniga
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.69
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44 of 49 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars A nice literature review at best, and nothing more, June 23, 2009
Michael Gazzaniga is one of the most renowned neuroscientists of our time, and rightfully so; his experiments regarding the role of the corpus callosum in connecting left- and right-brain functions really changed the way that we understand the brain. It should come as little surprise, then, that he was eventually rewarded with a seat on the President's Council on Bioethics.

It should also warn potential readers of the fact that a good neuroscientist does not make a very good ethicist -- or indeed, much of an ethicist at all. Each chapter of this book (except the last, about which more below) basically has the same format: there is a well-written survey of the developments in brain science that implicate a particular ethical issue, and then a couple of pages of Gazzaniga's "Perspectives."

But these Perspectives shed virtually no light on any of the issues. If anything, they show how little science can tell us about them. In the essay on "My Brain Made Me Do It," Gazzaniga canvasses the literature on what we can know about mental states from the neuroscience, and then concludes that mental state or guilt for legal purposes is not a scientific question because scientists investigate brains, not minds. True enough; and something that anyone with the most cursory knowledge of the field could have told him beforehand.

Often he just seems to make assumptions about things without making it clear. He favors drugs that enhance our intelligence or cognitive capabilities because you can't stop them and in any event, most people won't use them. But he is outraged at athletes using performance-altering drugs because in some sense that violates the "social contract" that we all accept. The obvious question is why using intelligence-enhancing drugs would not also violate the social contact is completely lost on him. Maybe wealthy families will be able to afford these drugs to do better on the SAT, and thus create a more plutocratic base for college admissions (a problem that's bad enough already). Why isn't that a violation of the social contract? What does he mean by a social contract, anyway? Gazzaniga cannot answer this question because he never asks it.

I was really looking forward to the final chapter, in which Gazzaniga claims to set forth a theory of universal ethics not bound by time or culture. A fascinating and crucial topic -- and one that deserves a whole lot more than he gives it, especially because his evidentiary base is essentially one short journal article, and a quarter-century old book by James Q. Wilson (who is neither a scientist nor an ethicist). There is an awful lot of work that has been done on comparative responses to ethical dilemmas, ways in which cultures differ and don't differ, etc. Gazzaniga never mentions them.

The chief value of this book -- indeed, the ONLY value of this book -- is the review of the neuroscience findings. That is genuinely helpful to someone like me who is not a scientist. But I admit that I began to worry after the last chapter, where I have read a little (just a little) on the issues surrounding the universality of ethics, and found that Gazzaniga didn't seem to be aware of them. Uh oh.

Maybe I'm being too harsh. But that's because I was really looking forward to reading this book. Gazzaniga is a great neuroscientist, and thought he would have something interesting and provocative to say. He just doesn't.
Comment Comments (2) | Permalink | Most recent comment: Nov 6, 2014 6:01 AM PST

The Painter of Signs (Penguin Classics)
The Painter of Signs (Penguin Classics)
by R. K. Narayan
Edition: Paperback
Price: $8.99
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A well-crafted non-classic, June 15, 2009
The Painter of Signs is a good story, and it shows RK Narayan's capacity for wit and irony. The man could write, and it shows.

Yet I must disagree with the notion that The Painter of Signs is anything close to a great novel. We are told that Raman, the main character, is someone who wants to live in the Age of Reason, but we don't see it very much. Oh sure, he tires of his pious Aunt, who attends readings of the great Indian epics at the Temple every night, but that is not about the Age of Reason -- that's a standard intergenerational squabble. Similarly, Daisy, Raman's love, is a very flat character: she appears, she speaks, she does what she does. But we know very little about her. Narayan attempts to let us know her through relating what she tells Raman, but this almost seems like necessary background in order to make the plot move (which it does). In the end, she is a flat character.

I enjoyed the book, and it is a good read, but I find it a strangely muted window into India. As always, Narayan's description of the people and life of Malgudi are terrific and at times laugh-out-loud funny. But if you are looking for fiction that tells you about India, I would suggest first going to The White Tiger, by Arvind Adiga, Salman Rushdie's brilliant Midnight's Children, or even Jhumpa Lahiri's Interpreter of Maladies, much of which is not about India per se but rather the Indian expatriate community in the United States. Another work that is based on fiction and has been unfortunately overlooked is Jonah Blank's beautiful Arrow of the Blue-Skinned God: Retracing the Ramayana Through India, which really gets to the heart of key aspects of Indian culture.

My own view is that one compelling reading of The Painter of Signs is one that Narayan would have abhorred, namely, a political reading. Narayan didn't like critics finding allegories in his books, but I think it works here. Raman is India itself, torn between its rich traditions (the Aunt) and a seductive modernity (Daisy). Narayan does not choose between these two, and he was hardly a defender of traditional India, but a political reading of The Painter of Signs shows him (or the text) cautioning about the embrace of modernity that cannot deliver what it promises -- or what a person might convince himself that it promises if he is infatuated by its appearance.

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