Category Archives: books

[b] The Grand Design (Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, 2010)

The Grand Design is the popular science book by physicists Hawking and Mlodinov that addresses the question of why our universe is the way it is, specifically – why are the physical constants fixed at the numbers we know they are, and how the universe came into being. A significant portion of the book is dedicated to the history of scientific thought, gradually approaching the present-time state of physics, and its ambition to work out a theory of all. In the later chapters the authors touch upon the string and M- theories, considering them as possible candidates for such unified theory.

The historical part of the book is very interesting – I definitely learned a couple of new things, but most importantly, I got a clearer understanding of the scientific ideas evolutions, not to mention the actual ideas of some of the renowned names. A lot in the book is about the quantum theory, which is more difficult to grasp; same goes to the 11 dimensions thing, and M-theory  – that stuff is pretty difficult in itself, and even though the language applied by the authors in describing strives to be as simple as possible, there is still the basic level below which it cannot go, and that level is rather high.

The authors do not try to hide the weak spots of science, although they do try to compile a theory explaining them. But I still do not know how exactly the picture that incorporates Big Bang is technically possible. Not that it makes me wanna turn to religion or anything. I do agree that the concept of god is not necessary to explain the universe (it also doesn’t really explain anything), but modern science still doesn’t have all the answers, and that sucks.

But all in all the book is beneficial and, I think, cannot do anything but good to the evolution of a person’s mind.

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[b] Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality (Jared Diamond, 1997)

Why Is Sex Fun? The Evolution of Human Sexuality by Jared Diamond is a popular science treatise on various aspects of human sexuality, the reasons why they are how they are, and how do we differ from other animal species in that respect.

The book was quite educational for me – I learned a number of new things, some of which were pretty fascinating. Diamond has a compelling understanding of how sexuality works, and he tells about it in a language simple enough to understand, but not too much, so nothing important gets missed out. Along the way he also tells about the sexuality of different animal species, and curiosities related to them (such as, what is the reason for a she-mantis to eat away her copulating partner). He bases his conclusions on the hard-core scientific findings recounted in corresponding papers, as well as his own observations (for he is an anthropologist who studies some not-exactly-civilized cultures).

I found the author’s style to be easy-going enough – he puts in a joke once in a while, though not too often, which helps to dilute the overall seriousness of the work. But, I believe, his wordings could have been more eloquent. Of course, it’s not that big of a deal, and certainly cannot be a deal breaker.

The book all in all is interesting and informative.

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[b] Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (Yuval Noah Harari, 2016)

Homo Deus by Yuval Noah Harari is an attempt to glance into the future of us, undertaken with great precision and attention to the trends that currently drive forward the development of humanity.

Harari provides a rather interesting view of the humankind’s history by showing it from a bird’s-eye view, so to speak. He makes a number of compelling arguments and creates a comprehensive picture in which I don’t see any actual weak spots. The humanism does indeed look like a religion; communism and nazism are, in fact, the extreme versions of humanism; the moderate humanism is a more efficient and less erroneous system of mass organization; but as powerful as it is, with the development of technology it is destined to reshape or maybe even disappear entirely – under the pressure of such alternatives as transhumanism and dataism.

I don’t feel very comfortable about many things he touches upon in this book, but I also can’t argue with them. All Harari’s mental models seem extremely plausible, as unsettling as they are. I believe, he is exceptionally discerning; he has the ability to seen the inner essence of things, and perceive the most important tendencies of social evolution, as well as threads connecting various parts of the extraordinarily complex machinery of human society. He doesn’t seem to have any special interest to say things that he’s saying, which makes him all the more convincing.

The english version of the book is prepared by the author himself, and is written in a wonderful language, which is rich and lively, but not overly complicated, and well-structured, so that it’s relatively easy to understand. I really enjoyed reading it.

This book is the kind you need to approach with an open mind, and if you do, it would reward you with a little better understanding of the world around us, of where it came from, and of where it’s probably headed.

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[b] History of the Russian State – I. A Part of Europe – From the Beginnings to the Mongol Conquest (Boris Akunin, 2013)

A Part of Europe – From the Beginnings to the Mongol Conquest is the first book from the series dedicated to the history of the Russian statehood. It is quite obvious which period it covers from the subtitle.

I gotta say, I’m really impressed with this work, not to mention that I enjoyed reading it immensely. There are 3 huge advantages this project has in comparison with earlier works of similar nature and official textbooks.

First: it compiles all known sources, including available documents and archeological findings, in a way that makes the course of history look consistent, logical, and, most importantly, understandable. Akunin has the ability to point out what events of the period are important and what are merely circumstantial; he emphasizes the first kind and only mentions the second. When I was studying history in school and later in university, I always found it impossible to figure out what exactly was going on during the period of feudal fragmentation, because there were so many princes and wars, and other events, and no teacher managed to point out which of them actually mattered. Akunin does just that, so now I can say that now I at least have an understanding of that part of history where before there was no understanding at all. It is also quite important that the author is very critical to his sources, and advocates the scientific approach to evidence in general.

Second: the book is written in such a language that makes it incredibly interesting to read, which, considering Akunin’s substantial writing experience, is not that surprising, I suppose, but pleasant nonetheless. I found myself totally fascinated by more than one episode of that ancient history, while I had no idea it is so interesting before. The actors of those times appeared before me as living, breathing people who were motivated by conscious aspirations as well as emotions and biases and weird ideas, just like people are today, and that is really appealing.

And third: Akunin does not try to force any sort of concept on the reader; all he does is he puts all the pieces of information together, as fragmentary as they sometimes are, and lets the reader judge for himself, while providing guidance at the same time – gentle and not at all obtrusive or all-knowing.

I seems to me that Akunin’s all-encompassing work is one of the best things that ever happened to discipline of the Russian history.

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[b] Foundation: The History of England. Volume I (Peter Ackroyd, 2011)

The History of England is a series of books by Peter Ackroyd in which he retells the history of what has eventually became Great Britain. He deliberately excludes Ireland, Scotland and Wales from the narration, and concentrates on the central state. The first book is dedicated to the earliest period of the land and up to enthronement of the Tudor dynasty.

It’s well-written and interesting to read. You can definitely get a sense of English history and set the events in relative order in your mind. I highly recommend it as a composite text-book that has taken into account all the relative sources known today.

At the same time I wish it would be more elaborate. This is a huge chunk of history we’re talking about, there are a lot of knowledge about it, and the further it goes, the more there is; yet, all of the events are presented in a compact, minimalistic even, way that misses on a lot of detail. Of course, I can always consult other sources for that, but let’s be honest – I probably won’t do that, and barely anybody would, there’s just too much stuff to read in general, new books are being published every single day, and the subject is not that fascinating. No, a work of history in our times needs to include everything, – everything scientifically relevant, that is. Sure, with those details added, the volume of the book would’ve skyrocketed, but I think Ackroyd would’ve managed to make it interesting nonetheless.

Also I noticed that Ackroyd sometimes is not very critical to his sources and allows for a mythological or biased piece of data to slip into the narrative; but these cases are rather rare as far as I can tell.

All in all, it’s a great work, and I wish other countries would follow the example and create modern expositions of their respective histories that would enclose all the new information we have.

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[b] Fermat’s Last Theorem (Simon Singh, 1997)

Fermat’s Last Theorem by Simon Singh is a comprehensive story of a mathematical construction that has become known as Pierre de Fermat’s Great Theorem. For the benefit of the reader, the author starts his narrative way before the theorem was first conjectured in 1637, throws some light on the origins of mathematics in general and follows the history of the art by describing some historical landmarks directly related in this way or another to the matter at hand. The whole reason this book was even written is because after more than 300 years of fruitless attempts to solve the riddle, in 1995 Andrew Wiles, a Princeton professor at the time, finally presented his proof of the theorem, which became one of the most sophisticated and complex mathematical works in history, and took him a decade of concentrated effort, and in a broader sense – his whole life.

The book really is comprehensive – it touches upon a lot of subjects, most of which are described in a lot of detail, so in the end history of mathematics appears as a continuous, albeit faltering, pathway, and this, I think, is a great achievement of the author. He also has an ability to retell mathematical stories so that they are interesting to read, and with language simple enough even for me to grasp without any problems.

On the other hand, it lacks certain lightness: Singh is rather a journalist than a writer, he has a sturdy, down-to-earth style that can never be characterized as brilliant. But this is non-fiction with educational and not entertaining purpose, nobody needs brilliant here, it’s just unpractical (and may be distracting).

This is a really good book that will tell you a lot new stuff about mathematics – unless you know it all already, of course, but I didn’t, so it was very educational for me. I cannot but recommend it for everybody.

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[b] Mortality (Christopher Hitchens, 2012)

Mortality by is a short collection of essays and notes written by Christopher Hitchens, an acknowledged journalist and thinker, in the period after he was diagnosed with cancer and before he died of it, – all related this way or another to the obvious subject.

Well, couple of things. First of all, all the texts, except probably for the latest notes, are absolutely brilliant in the form just as much as in the essence. It was a wonderful pleasure to read all those neatly arranged words, and the fact that they summed up to some really meaningful things only made it more intense. On the other hand, the author’s style is obviously journalistic, which is sort of specific, but it definitely works for this concept, and maybe for other Hitch’s ideas too, which I would verify eventually by reading his other books.

Of course, knowledge of the book’s history makes the process of reading it not only enjoyable, but also quite sad a little unnerving. Especially those last notes he made but had no time to brush clean. The contents of the book in general is likely to push your thinking towards the matters of death and dealing with death, which is a healthy thing to do once in a while. This work, albeit short and maybe a little too refined sometimes, serves this purpose well.

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[b] Sedition. Ideological Dissension in USSR Under Khruschev and Brezhnev 1953-1982 / Kramola (Kozlov, Mironenko, Edelman, Zavadskaya, 2005)

Kramola by the group of authors is an annotated collection of declassified documents related to the matter of the state persecution of ideological dissension of various kinds in post-Stalin USSR. Papers written by people who lost faith in the validity of the soviet version of communism are cited from their criminal case files. Cases described in this book preceded the dissidents movement, or went in parallel with it, although some people mentioned in the book were later dissidents as well.

The book is extremely scrupulous, it has all the signs of decent academical work; parts written by the authors are in good, readable language. In fact, the most interesting part of this work is authors’ commentary to the presented documents. Docs themselves are for the most part depressingly similar and boring, even though I realize very well that each and every one of them has a breathing person’s life behind it. All of those people were unjustly ruined by the state, some never recovered, but still the officialese influences the perception of their stories big time. However, few were quite unusual, which might be a good reason to read this book anyway.

If one would be able focus on the actual content of the stories, and would manage to look past the terribly tedious wordings of the KGB and militia officials at that, he or she would discover some pretty great material for reality-based fiction works (or whatever). All in all, even though dry and not spectacular at all, this book may be exceptionally helpful for understanding of the soviet history, especially that of the common folk and the society.

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[b] Einstein’s Greatest Mistake (David Bodanis, 2016)

Einstein’s Greatest Mistake by David Bodanis is a biography of the famous scientist that concentrates mostly on the twists and turns of his scientific career, but touches upon his personal life as well – to the extent necessary for better understanding of his persona. It gives nearly as much attention to explanation of his concepts and ideas as it does to the events of his life.

The main idea of the book is that Albert Einstein’s biggest mistake, one that was created by an unfortunate overlap of circumstances and eventually led to his alienation from the world scientific scene, is that at a certain point he started to believe that if the science of empirical evidence contradicts his ideas, it’s because the evidence is insufficient or interpreted incorrectly, and that he would be proven right in due course, same as it happened with the general relativity, i.e. he extrapolated, unreasonably, one particular case to all potentially similar cases.

The book is written in a light, easy to read manner; the author tries really hard to make complex things sound not overly complicated. The narrative is mostly about the primary subject, Albert Einstein’s life and works, but there is also a number of interesting insights into related themes, like what was the sum of knowledge at the end of XIX century – what Einstein started with, or the story of his ideas being proven through the efforts of astronomers and mathematicians. All of it constitutes a coherent and intelligible narrative that is interesting to follow throughout.

Even though I can’t tell that I fully understood how general relativity works (and some other things, too), I definitely learned a couple of new things from this work, and I enjoyed reading it quite a lot.

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[b] Wittgenstein’s Poker (David Edmonds, John Eidinow, 2001)

Wittgenstein’s Poker is a reconstruction of events in the history of philosophy involving Karl Popper and Ludwig Wittgenstein that lead to a confrontation between them at the Cambridge Moral Sciences Club in 1946. More broadly, it’s a careful and comprehensive look into both of those great philosophers, their lives and works, and their uncertain, but definite relation.

The book is pretty well-written, I can’t deny that (the translation into Russian is also good, not that it matters very much), but I felt like it’s too voluminous at times, which is normal, I guess, considering that this is philosophy we’re talking about, but it still could have been more laconic – to my taste. It is well expiated with quality content, though: insights into both Wittgenstein’s and Popper’s lives and writings, is a great way to catch up with what these thinkers are about, without actually having to read through their works, which can be a bummer, especially when it comes to Wittgenstein. The informational side of the book feels pretty great: it has multiple references, like a proper popular research, and it seems carefully weighted in conclusions.

On the other hand, while reading it, I couldn’t help but think that all those philosophizings (meaning, life work of W. and P. both) are not worth very much in terms of real life. I myself am totally pro-Popper, he is just more rational than Wittgenstein, and therefore makes much more sense (I’d prefer the concept of falsifiability to meaningless attempts at solving superfluous puzzles any day of the week), but ultimately, they both make philosophy seem like a pointless mumbo-jumbo that is of no interest to me whatsoever. Maybe it was this book that made me realize how much I really dislike it.

Be that as it may, the book is a really good work, and it’s also a really good reason to ask yourself what you really think of philosophy, and maybe just settle this matter for the time being within the framework of your own mind.

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[b] Pirates, Corsairs, Raiders / Piraty, korsary, reidery (Igor Mozheiko, 1994)

Piraty, korsary, reidery is a series of essays dedicated to various sides of maritime piracy. It concentrates mostly on the times when Spain, Portugal, and later England started to gain more and more sea power, but also touches upon pirates in ancient times, as well as retraces signs of piracy up to about late 1980s. The book is written by Igor Mozheiko, also known as Kir Bulychev, famous soviet science fiction writer.

The author has chosen a method of leaps: to describe the development of the phenomenon he selects some vivid personalities and tells about their lives sometimes deviating into explanation of related things. Where impossible (like with most of XX century), he simply retells the general state of affairs. His writing style is clear and simple; he is obviously passionate about the subject and spent a lot of time researching it. Although, there is no list of literaterary sources used, sometimes he mentions where the information was taken from, and all those books are primary, meaning they were written my immediate participants or at least witnesses to the events. Also, Kir Bylychev has a very strong reputation as a devotee of scientific method, and I personally have no reason whatsoever to doubt his professionalism. Along with realistic, non-romantic narrative, it makes the book very credible.

I learned new things from this work, and I enjoyed reading it, – all in all, the journey was interesting and worthwhile.

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[b] Hallucinations (Oliver Sacks, 2012)

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks is a valuable and careful account of current scientific knowledge concerning various kinds of – obviously – hallucinations.

The book is parted into several chapters, each dedicated to a certain condition that may cause, under some specific circumstances, auditory, visual, or other sort of sensory delusion. Every chapter is built around case studies relevant to the condition in question; these could be taken from fiction literature, from medical documents and earlier studies of the subject, as well as from dr. Sacks’s correspondence, and his personal practice and experience. The author does offer some conclusions, but they all are always careful and never definitive; he realizes very well how evidence-based medicine works, and he has a knack for transforming that knowledge into a clear and understandable text. It is quite well-written, and interesting from beginning to end. More imporatantly, it’s extremely informative – I learned a bunch of new things, and clarified my general understanding of the matter. I highly recommend this book to anyone who’s interested in how it really works.

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[b] Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Yuval Harari, 2011~14)

Yuval Harari’s Sapiens is basically what it says in the title – a brief history of humankind. He reviews the whole period of our species’ existence, and points out the most crucial landmarks of the humanity development, namely the cognitive, the agricultural, and the scientific revolutions. He argues that the dominating role was earned by humans because of the ability to cooperate, which in its turn comes from the ability to believe in things that don’t really exist in physical reality, such as money, gods, nations, state borders, etc.

Besides that main line, Harari also gives a multitude of interesting observations and conclusions, among which the most curious for me was the indissoluble link between capitalism, empire and religion, as well as the intricacy of the happiness issue (are we any happier today than people were 500 years ago? what about 5 000 years ago?), and, most importantly, – incomprehensibleness of our future, as we might become god-like creatures just as likely as destroy our habitat and ourselves irreversibly.

Some of the ideas suggested by the author may be up for discussion, but he doesn’t claim to be holding the ultimate truth about everything, and he’s also a human, meaning he’s just as likely to be mistaken about stuff as everybody else (except, he’s much smarter than the most), so the worst thing that can happen is that reading this book would stir up the spirit of debate in you, which, you know, isn’t bad at all.

The English translation (I think it was made by the author himself, although I’m not sure) is very nicely written – I enjoyed reading it, and it does seem very thorough.

All in all, I’m really glad I came upon this book – I learned a lot of new, interesting stuff, and also, Harari’s summaries and conclusions changed the way I look at the world – probably just a tiny bit, but who knows what it may lead to in the future. Highly recommended.

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[b] SuperFreakonomics (Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner, 2009)

SuperFreakonomics is a direct continuation of Freakonomics authored by the same 2 guys. It brings up different issues, and sets forth different statistics and data, but all those are the manifestation of the same exact approach applied in the first book. In fact, both of them are just the sets of more or less complete episodes taken from the same collection, which advances a thought that there could be potentially limitless number of them patterned after the first two. This structural typification is not a bad thing, though; just an observation.

This second book too includes some controversial topics, including prostitution and global warming, with the latter one becoming a stumbling block for many researches in the field. Apparently, some of the solutions offered are questionable, and some of the quotes are slightly distorted (without much damage to the meaning, though). Other than that, it’s all the same – exposure of hidden side of things using various methods of economical and statistical analysis.

Just like before, the language is not hard; it’s quite pleasant to read the book, and it’s interesting, too. All in all, it seems significant enough, even though the message is just the same as in the first book, but the specifics, the details are different, and that’s more important. But merging the 2 texts into a single book would make perfect sense.

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[b] Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (Malcolm Gladwell, 2005)

Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink is dedicated to snap judgements, or thin-slicing as the author calles it, focusing on both positive aspects of the technique (and, consequently, ways it can be used), and the negative ones (and how their influence can be if not excluded altogether then at least minimized). It is written well enough and easy to read;  the author’s viewpoint is stated clearly through-out – he surely knows how to draw up argumentation in support of his ideas and bring it to the reader’s notice. The book includes multiple references to research studies and generally produces an impression of a thorough and well-grounded work.

Although, as I said, deficiencies of thin-slicing is just as valid subject of the book as the advantages of it, certain people tend to ignore those parts of the book for some reason, so it is very important to remember that one should not rely exclusively on this method. It is not a substitute for critical analysis, – but it may be a useful addition to it. Of course, some work is required to conciliate these 2 very different approaches, as they seem to contradict each other, but human being is built on conflicting ideas and processes, so ultimatelly there’s nothing impossible here.

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[b] Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven D. Levitt, Stephen J. Dubner, 2005)

Freakonomics has a subtitle (A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything) that describes its essence quite precisely; other pieces of self-description occuring in the text from time to time seem to be correct as well, primarily the one that defines the book as something devoid of a unifying idea. It is indeed a set of unconnected, random even, episodes that have only one thing in common – a hidden side (unique for each case, of course), a number of unobvious traits and impact agents that have more influence on a given outcome than we can acknowledge or, sometimes, accept.

The book shows quite definitively that pretty much any event or phenomenon, especially a complex one, has such a side, and that it can be revealed if need be. It reaffirms the value of statistics as one of the means of conducting such exposure. It also confirms high importance of basic power of observation, to which the ability to see patterns is a sort of superstructure. It teaches to identify the clues that might turn out to be indicators of hidden tendencies, and not just separately by themselves, but the clusters of them, too. In theory, the book might cause worsening of apophenia symptoms, but for a healthy mind it would become a bearing pulley, a pillar of thinking and understanding.

It is written in high-quality English, nicely structured and worded, all of which makes it comfortably comprehensible. It’s interesting and important and well-done, all at the same time. Highly recommended for any curious mind.
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[b] Conquest of the Incas (John Hemming, 1970 [2009])

Conquest of the Incas is a rather extensive work on the Conquista of XV-XVI centuries and subsequent events in the region of modern Peru. It takes into account multiple sources, including written testimonies of direct participants, works of the XX century explorers, and archeological evidence. Author concentrates mostly on early years, up until ancient Vilcabamba’s fall, touches upon the fates of those few royal blood Incas left after it, and then recounts the short history of modern attempts to explore the land scientifically. Hemming’s approach is quite solid, he really tries to look at things objectively, like any good scholar should, and always substantiates his conclusions with evidence, – all of which makes him trustworthy. It’s quite nicely written, too, – save for the imperfections of the translation, there’s nothing to complain about narration-wise, it’s all pretty interesting. The translation (into Russian), though, is not all bad, just flabby and kinda careless, but still readable. I think, I learned a thing or two from this book, and that’s pretty much all I was looking for.

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[b] Destructive Psychotechniques / Technologies for Alteration of Consiousness in Destructive Cults (Irina Mitrofanova, 2002)

This book is a little strange. On the one hand, it’s packed with interesting and very useful information, on the other – it really seems to be a forgery: it claims to be a translation of a Timothy Leary work, but he doesn’t have any works by that title (or even remotely close); it also claims somebody named M. Stewart as a co-author, but I failed to find out who that is. Most likely, it was written by Irina Mitrofanova, who is reckoned as a translator and sometimes as a complier, on the basis of her own knowledge and extracts from the Leary works (with Leary being fairly named as the author of those pieces). I don’t know, why did the publishers have to conceal the real authorship, because, as I said, the book is worthy and helpful.

It contains a great deal of information about cults, technologies used to lure and retain cult members, as well as advices how to free people from destructive cults and how to overcome consequences of their minds alterations. I haven’t noticed any dirty tricks in the text – it all seems to be genuine, or at least written by a somebody with strong scientific approach. The writing style is mostly academic, but quite easy to comprehend; some bits are real-life stories, their style is correspondigly different. In general, the book produces an impression of a rather integral work, very decent and smart. One of the most important ideas it’s pedaling is that nobody is safe: no matter how strong you believe your mind to be, you still can be tricked, so it’d be better to avoid this kind of contant at all, – and it gives advice as to how such hidden attacks can be recognized, too.

It’s one of the best works on the subject of destrictive cults I’ve seen, and it’s the only one that’s not just descriptions of different sects. It can help people whose loved ones became trapped in that kind of organization, and also would be effective for those who seek understanding like me.

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[b] Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife (Mary Roach, 2005)

The author aims to tell about historical milestones on the road of possible variants of afterlife research. She covers reincarnation, attempts to communicate with the dead, as well as weight or measure in some other way if anything is left after human personality dies physically. She gives a fair amount of attention to all of the more or less noticeable theories, and really applies time and effort to researching them; she obviously has a lot of energy to spend, and she does so with pleasure and vigour. Her aspiration to understand seems genuine.

Her writing style, in comparison with classic non-fiction (something that is expected by default), lacks laconic brevity; instead, it is filled with humorous, entertaining passages aimed at facilitation of the written for the reader’s sake. Can’t say I oppose this kind of approach, – it has every right to exist, I believe, – but it does irritate a little as the reading becomes unreasonably light.

In her conclusions the author decides to keep an open mind notwithstanding that there was zero evidence to support any of the considered hypotheses. I don’t know – in my opinion, it’s like examining all the proof of evolution, agree with it, and still leave room for possibility of intelligent design – i.e. it doesn’t make much sense. But, of course, it’s the author’s write and choice; the fact that she is vigorously pro scientific approach and critical thinking, and has all the ability to keep herself from slipping into mystics, – it’s more than enough for me.

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[b] The Birth of Europe \ L’Europe est-elle née au Moyen Âge ? (Jacques Le Goff, 2003)

Traditionally historical process (especially in the textbooks) is presented parted into certain periods, which is kinda ridiculous, because there are no definitive borders, there are no lines that would separate one period from another – it’s just a conventionality introduced to bring some structure into generally chaotic flow that became a thing on itself with time. Which is why it is important to read books such as this one, – because they give a better understanding of what was going on, and how, and the connections between entities, and so on.

The Birth of Europe is based on hard historical data, it is nicely written and therefore quite enjoyable, and it creates the image of consistent development. In his work Le Goff is looking for those elements of modern European culture that we now deem the core ones, and tries to figure out when and how, and why did they emerge. He finds them scattered all over the so-called Middle Ages thus planting the comprehension that the birth wasn’t (and couldn’t have been) a single event but rather a forward movement. And even though there are plenty of lacunae regarding questions that naturally come to mind, the author manages to compensate them with his perspicacity.

Now that I’ve finished the book, I can say that I know more, and understand better, so for anybody who’s interested in the subject it’s highly recommended.

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[b] Upgrade For a Monkey. Big Story Of a Small Singularity / Apgreid obezyany. Bolshaya istoriya malenkoy singulyarnosti (Aleksandr Nikonov, 2004)

This work is an attempt to create a universal starter book for people looking to actually begin using their intellectual baggage. There is a number of issues that the author deems important, so he tries to tell about them from the position of popular science using language of journalism. First weak spot in this scheme is the selection of topics, obviously: even at the moment of first publishing some of them looked a little weird (UFO coverage, for example), and by now some others became obsolete while it’s been only few years. But there’s still plenty of useful information that might get a thinking person started. Besides, as some of the issues become less important, and others come to the surface, the selection of subjects changes with time anyway (not in the book, of course, but generally speaking).

Second weak spot is the author’s style. Say what you want, but sometimes it’s just too unceremonious and even pushy, which might cause some people to reject the author completely. As far as I understood, such places aren’t the attempts to deceit the reader, but rather to cut off certain corners; and I agree, – without explanation this doesn’t look so good, but impudence is less of sin than ignorance, I believe.

Is this book good enough to be translated into English? Considering that popularization of science in the english-speaking world happens at a much faster pace than in the russian-speaking world, I really doubt such a decision would have any sense – there are better written books on the same problems that include more relevant and complete data. I don’t think, there’s anything in the Nikonov’s work that is unique in comparison with other popular science works of general purpose. Moreover, anybody who thrives for knowledge for more or less enduring period of time won’t find much new info here, – this book is more like the beginners stuff.

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[b] Tambov Rebellion of 1918-1921, and Disintegration of the Russian Peasant Class in 1929-1933 (B. Sennikov, 2004)

This is not a large book, more like a monograph. Author makes an attempt to re-establish the events of the Tambov uprising through surviving documents of the epoch, wich doesn’t play out that well, because there’s too few of them left. The gaps formed as a result of this documentary insufficiency are filled with unnecessary and excessive details of personal stories, religious affiliations, and so on, which undermines the value of this work as a scientific research. Critical view on the bolsheviks’ policies and actions author combines with unexacting perception of the pre-revolutionary Russian Empire, that can be seen not only through the selection of witnesses, but also through vocabulary used – there are a lot of judgemental terms and expressions (positive for the defenders of peasantry, negative for bolsheviks; biased in both cases).

Second part of the book is about the later events of 1929-1933, when the famine roared the country (and this region in particular), which was a direct result of the bolsheviks’ economic policy. There are nearly no documents remained about those times, so the book consists mostly of the witness stories (told many years after the actual events), and a little bit – of the circumstantial statistics.

Consequently, the documentary foundation for the work leaves much to be desired, but there are objective reasons for this, as the majority of possible information sources was destroyed without any hope for recovery. Still, those sources that are still within our reach were used correctly, and notwithstanding author’s imcomprehensible admiration for the Russian monarchy supporters, the work in general seems earnest enough. However, I do think that the material presented would be sufficient for a large, serious article, but not for a book.

Names and figures

[b] History of Russian Mafia, 1995-2003. Big Cover / Istoriya russkoy mafii 1995-2003. Bolshaya krysha (Valery Karyshev, 2004)

This is the second part of the overview on the history of Russian organized crime after the fall of the USSR. Unfortunately this is way worse than the first part. Only about 10% of the content is about the facts, events and so forth, and even this body of materials is just a collection of random pieces of information without any attempt to systematize it – these are extracts from the newspaper articles, press releases, and very rarely author’s personal input (he was a laywer to many notorious felons, including Sasha Makedonskiy – Alexander Solonik, a hitman). The rest 90% is a bunch of very badly written reconstructions, through which Karyshev presented his understanding of different aspects of criminal life. Trying to make the book as lengthy as possible (was he paid for volume? I don’t know) he even duplicated some of the reconstructions from the fist book, which is extremely lame. At the same time, notwithstanding numerous shortcomings of this work, it still creates the comprehension of changes through which the criminal community went during those years alongside with the society in general. But that maybe only because I’m within the general context of this life; it probably won’t have the same effect on an outsider.
Names and figures

[b] History of Russian Mafia, 1988-1994. Big Huddle / Istoriya russkoy mafii 1988-1994. Bolshaya strelka (Valery Karyshev, 2004)

During the 90-s the author was lawyering for some of the notorious criminal personalities, and later qutie often put his memories into words – he published several essays on specific people, as well as trying to cover complete history of the phenomenon. This book belongs to the latter category; it’s dedicated to the period of origination of new russian criminal culture.

I can totally tell that he is really trying to be thorough, unbiassed and captivating all at the same time, but at certain points those aspirations come into an opposition with each other. Instances of dry account of events alternate with fiction-like reconstructions of supposedly real incidents and direct citations from the media about certain celebrated cases. I said the author is thorough, and while this is generally true, I should specify also that sometimes one episode is described several times with slightly different words, – i.e. he put citations into the text without bothering to consolidate them with everything else.

In the beginning the text seemed very solid, but as it was getting closer to the ending, the mass fraction of “reconstructions” bits started to grow and eventually there were more of them than those of substantative, meaningful text. The author is quite good at collecting, rewriting and recombining stuff, but there’s nothing creative about this book – even seemingly fictional reconstructions are definetely cribbed from questionaries, police reports, testimonies etc.

I suppose, short verdict would be: this is the kind of book that some later published better work would be based on.

Names and figures

[b] Gangster USSR. The Most Impressive Criminal Cases / Banditskiy SSSR. Samye yarkie ugolovnie dela (Andrei Kolesnik, 2011)

The book is carelessly written; the selection of cases is chaotic, there doesn’t seem to be any strict criteria to it (I can judge from the section about maniac murderers which subject I know a little deeper: some quite celebrated cases were completely missed); the elucidation of cases is shallow and sloppy; author’s language is full of epithets and speech turns that are totally needless in a non-fiction work; there is no evident labour behind the text of this book whatsoever.

For the most part the book was very irritating, but some places still managed to attract my attention; namely, the pages about ecomonical crimes, and the last chapter, dedicated to the establishment of the theives’ movement; – but even those were not very informative – they only stirred up my interest, if anything at all. Not recommended.

Names and figures

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