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A. G. Plumb "Greg Plumb" (Melbourne, Australia)

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Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
Trilobite! Eyewitness to Evolution
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4.0 out of 5 stars The reasons for reading are far exceeded, Aug. 22 2001
I became fascinated with the demise of dinosaurs after seeing a program on TV, and reading the book it was based on - 'Hot-Blooded Dinosaurs' by Adrian J Desmond. And there was no shortage of fascinating books about dinosaurs to develop my interest. But for me the most ingruiging aspect of dinosaurs is not their end - what caused their extinction - but why, whatever it was, didn't cause other species to disappear. Crocodiles and turtles, some small furry mammals, these survived. But not one dinosaur (excluding the possibility of radical evolution to birds, as some have suggested) - not the big fierce predators, not the small fast scavengers, not the slow-moving armoured hulks, not the vegetarian giants, not the flying dinosaurs, not the sea-going dinosaurs (Nessie excluded!) managed to survive. There must be something to learn about the extinction event from the SURVIVORS - they must have had some feature that distinguished them from the dinosaurs and allowed their survival.
So, when I saw 'Trilobites!' I was immediately interested. Here was another far-reaching, long-lived, diversified species that is as extinct as the dinosaurs. Perhaps here there would be some clues by looking at what made the trilobites - all of them - extinct.
When I started reading I was surprised to be clambering along a Welsh cliff top with Thomas Hardy quoted at me. Later on in the book I am in a much more familiar territory - an Australian outback pub, experiencing the discomfort of being assailed by those who have had just one or two drinks too many. This all seems far from trilobites. And yet, for me there was something of a relief in it too, because I was spooked by these strange ocean-going creatures. They looked too much like spiders or other unloved creepy-crawlies!! Just looking at the fossil illustrations gave me the heebie-jeebies.
But there was so much more in this book than the description of the types of trilobite, the geography of them (cephalon, thorax, pygidium), the exploration of how we (the Human Race) have got to know them. In this book you will learn about the role of Museums in scientific discovery, the naming of species, the shaping of the planet over geologic (almost astronomical) time. But the book is a vehicle for a much stronger message.
On page 207 E O Wilson's idea of consilience is introduced - consilience is the unification of knowledge. Mr Fortey has demonstrated consilience wonderfully in this book. Here we have colourful stories about the geography of the places of discovery, there are literary connections, stories of the people who made and are making the discoveries (including Mr Fortey), reviews of other scientific writers and - as indicated already - a bringing together of geology, biology, chemistry, history and so on. There are clearly great advantages to seeing how all aspects of knowledge interlock and benefit from each other - it is better that not all of us are specialists. This message is one that interests me because it seems to me that A E van Vogt promoted the idea in a science fiction novel 'The Voyage of the Space Beagle' (probably a precursor to 'Star Trek') in 1951 where the science of 'Nexialism' was proposed to guide specialists (such as biologists) and the military controllers of the space ship as they explored the Galaxy.
I never really got to feel any closeness to the trilobites, perhaps an uncomfortable intimacy in the end. But this is a great book and I'm sure any person interested in scientific endeavour will love it.

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way
The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got that Way
by Bill Bryson
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 16.42
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4.0 out of 5 stars Light-hearted, light-weight linguistics, Aug. 6 2001
I enjoyed the humour and lightness of this book but I have read too many books on linguistics and, especially, the English language to be really informed by Mr Bryson's book. But having said that, the book is certainly not arduous to read. (My favourite books on language are the series Pelican Books published in the 1970s or 1980s - I remember especially 'Stylistics' by G Turner, but there were great books on phonetics, semantics, grammar, syntax etc etc - a fine indroduction to the study of language.)
The first half of Mr Bryson's book seemed to me to be well formed and had direction and inner logic that drove it along. But the latter half seems to be more of a grab-bag of bits and pieces (although I did enjoy the very last chapter on word games a lot). I was also disappointed at the emphasis on American English. Important though it is there are many other Englishes that ought to be considered. Unfortunately the small concessions to Australian English were often incorrect (for exasmple, Australians still call cookies 'biscuits' - although we may use the term cookie as well - we never call scones 'biscuits' as the American's do - this is certainly the mistake of an American perspective, not a British one!)

The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Oxford World's Classics)
The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale (Oxford World's Classics)
by Joseph Conrad
Edition: Paperback
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3.0 out of 5 stars Improvement toward the end, July 18 2001
I happened to read this book about six months after reading Chesterton's 'The Man Called Thursday'. There are some similarities that spoiled the Conrad for me - especially because Conrad's treatment of the opening did not have the surreal and creative flair of Chesterton (the end wasn't as inventive either, but that's another story).
Both of these books are about anarchists and yet anarchism as a philosophy is not justified at all - I suspect anarchism was the unjustifiable terror of the time just as communism was to become later. And yet this did disappoint me. About twenty years ago I read 'The Syndic' by CM Kornbluth and in this there is a great rationale for anarchism (not that I think Kornbluth was an anarchist). It got me reading some of the great anarchist writers - especially Emma Goldman and Peter Kropotkin. For me, one of the greatest benefits of reading is broadening one's point of view, entertaining new ideas. So Conrad and Chesterton both disappointed me in having characters I found it difficult to identify with because they espoused philosophies without in any way supoporting them for the reader. (Another more recent example for anarchism is Ursula le Guin's 'The Dispossessed.)
Having said that, I found reading 'The Secret Agent' a labour, just as other reviewers reported. It is so unlike Conrad's other books (although some of his novels I have found difficult to read, but not for reasons of triviality as this one seems to show). But around page 100 things change. The remainder of the novel I wouldn't have missed for anything. It's the great luminous writing of 'Victory', 'Heart of Darkness', 'Lord Jim' and 'Almayer's Folly'. Quite suddenly the characters are engaging in a very personal way, and the events of the novel are surprising and revealing.

Johannes Brahms: A Biography
Johannes Brahms: A Biography
by Jan Swafford
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 25.73
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5.0 out of 5 stars Exceptional and insightful, July 10 2001
This is perhaps the finest biography that I have ever read. It evokes so well the atmosphere of Hamburg in Brahms' youth (which added to what I had read of an earlier period in 'Anton Rieser' by Moritz) and later of Vienna. It has so many friends - other composers and musicians, and then there are the pieces of music that are so familiar to modern music lovers - the serenades, the symphonies, the Requiem, the songs and chamber music, the concertos. Any sense I had that Brahms was less productive than the great giants he saw looming behind him - Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert - was altered when I read that he had destroyed many of the works he was dissatisfied with, as well as a lot of biographical material, such as letters. Fortunately some resources remain and Mr Swafford uses these continuously.
Brahms was a man as well as a composer/musician and I greatly admired the gentle way Mr Swafford narrated the story of the relationship of Brahms to the women he was so attracted to, but kept at arms length - especially, of course, and tragically Clara Schumann. For me there was a secondary biography here - that of Clara Schumann. She was such a courageous woman to sustain the friendship and the stream of musical advice that Brahms so needed, after Brahms had rejected following the death of Robert Schumann. In my experience, few women are capable of sustaining such a friendship in the face of their own emotional disappointment. Mr Swafford describes Brahms' behaviour without any hint of criticism or speculation - the facts speak sufficiently for themselves. Another aspect of this biography is the explanation of the schism in music caused (precipitated?) by Beethoven's musical experiments - a symphony with a program (the 'Pastoral') and one with words (the 'Choral'). Berlioz took Beethoven's lead and wrote an especially influential programmatic symphony (the 'Fantastique') as well as less successful symphonies with vocal elements (such as 'Romeo and Juliet'). This was taken on enthusiastically as the new wave - emotional rather than academic music. Liszt and Wagner were the great leaders in Germany of this modern school. In the meantime there was a reargaurd action lead by Mendelssohn and Robert Schumann to try and retain the historic development of music and reject radical change (Mendelssohn's revival of interest in the music of JS Bach is an example of this). Brahms arrived in this schism and was immediately championed as the future of music by Robert Schumann - was this the cause of Brahms' rejection of women - a sense of duty to Schumann's prediction?
Like all biographies that are chronologically described there is always a deep sense of sadness as we read of the end of life. But after the gruelling and sad description of Brahms later life and death, Mr Swafford ends the biography with an essay that explores Brahms place in history and explores why we still enjoy the music despite the general decline in musical appreciation that Brahms could see coming. Was Brahms the end of the historic development line in music? Did Liszt, Wagner, Bruckner, Mahler and Richard Struass win the battle of the schism? It seems that Brahms' music was fostered by his political wisdom (despite some personal abrasiveness), but if that were the case the music would have disappeared along with that of all the composers Brahms admired (with the exception of Dvorak).
But there is another school of music - that of Scheonberg, a composer whom I have grown to admire recently more than I would have expected twenty years ago. But Brahms and Schoenberg? It's an interesting speculation and Mr Swafford does reflect on it with an insight that adds measurably to the biography.

The Longest Journey
The Longest Journey
by E.M. Forster
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 17.00
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4.0 out of 5 stars Beguiling but gloomy, June 2 2001
This review is from: The Longest Journey (Paperback)
I find Forster an engaging and compelling writer. His novels often become absorbing despite flat passages and parts that, for me at least, are bordering on the unacceptable - the actions and thoughts of characters sometimes seem contrary to behaviour that seems at all natural to me.
I missed the sense of the exotic in this novel that I got from 'A Passage to India' and 'Where Angels Fear to Tread' - and yet the world of the priveleged in the UK and the cloisters of Cambridge University are exotic for me. It's just that they are so gloomy in this novel - gloomy and troubled. Even the countryside is blighted by the freight trains that repeatedly claim lives as they tramp the landscape.
This novel also has melodramatic elements that stretched my sense of credibility, however revelations of surprises are wonderfully managed. While my thoughts were heading in the right direction with the major revelation, when it did come it brought a true 'aha!' feeling - it made so much sense and yet I, like the characters in the story, had not seen it coming.
But, perhaps for me, the most disappointing aspect of this novel is its attitude towards the 'disadvantaged'. As in the movie 'Edward Scissorhand' the 'distorted' person, while capable of receiving small 'gifts of love' (as Morike put it - see Hugo Wolf's song 'Verborgenheit') it seems from these views of life that the realistic approach to the 'distorted' is that they are incapable of true happiness or fulfilment. This is a view I certainly don't subscribe to.

Words And Rules
Words And Rules
by Steven Pinker
Edition: Paperback
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Losing impetus, May 25 2001
This review is from: Words And Rules (Paperback)
Several years ago I read 'The Language Instinct' by Steven Pinker and, despite being an avid and enthusiastic reader of books about language, I was somewhat disappointed - the book seemed to lack drive or insight. These comments, however, are based on an impression which is not fresh in my mind.
Hence, when I started reading 'Words and Rules' I had a slightly negative preconception to fight against. But I was surprised. 'Words and Rules' is both entertaining and insightful. It's discussion of the forms of past tense in English - both regular and irregular - gave me a lot to think about. It 'explained' some of those curiosities that I had wondered about for many years - 'slept' but not 'sleeped', and yet both 'learnt' and 'learned' are acceptable. Unfortunately I did become bogged down in the book as Mr Pinker uses more and more avenues of research to support his hypothesis that both words ('slept', 'learnt') and rules ('-ed' as in 'learned') are functional. Anf that rules may be modern inventions gradually displacing the much older irregular forms.
From a philosophical point of view this book did make me reflect on how academic research often comes up with two hypotheses and so often both are proved to be partially correct. Even when they seem to be mutually exclusive, such as the wave and particle nature of light. Is it a reflection on the power of the human mind and its ability to support its hypotheses even in the face of opposing hypotheses? If that were the case, Mr Pinker is presenting no case at all. A much more revealing document would be one that took either of the two theories - words or rules - and justified it in exclusion to the other.

by Philip K. Dick
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Let's get to the heart of things, May 18 2001
This review is from: Valis (Paperback)
In 'Valis' Philip Dick takes us on another journey into the very soul of being. He explores ideas that many of us shove into the back of our mind as too complex or too distressing to spend any time with - they might clutter our lives too much. But they are there always, nagging away in the background - how do you decide what is real? was that smile from a pretty girl really an encouragement to me, or am I fooling myself? how can I tell? does my wife really love me? do my children? is there a God? and how can I manage the terror of death - my own and the death of those I love?
This novel is more than an exploration of the ideas that Philip Dick worried about that we all do (Dick is forever quoting other worriers - Mahler, Dowland, the I Ching etc etc) - it is a very personal almost autobiographical sharing. I read the novel, and read it again. I don't believe I will understand all of it ever. Perhaps some of it is not understandable in any meaningful way (Clifford Simak wrote a wonderful short story about things that may not be understood, called 'Limiting Factor') but it is such a wonderful trigger for my own racing mind as it explored its own journey amongst ideas.

The Divine Invasion
The Divine Invasion
by Philip K. Dick
Edition: Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Divine Dick, May 18 2001
This review is from: The Divine Invasion (Paperback)
Philip Dick was an immensely creative and entertaining writer - a real stylist but also a creator of wonderfully inventive plots. But he does something else, something that many of the best SF writers do - he is an educator. But where other SF writers educate their readers about the latest scientific discoveries and technological developments - and the implications of these for individuals and for the environment and society of humans - Philip Dick takes on deeper things - the nature of reality, the psychological functioning of the mind, and in this novel, God and religion. These are topics that Philip Dick certainly doesn't trivialise. He obviously spent much time researching and understanding the philosophy of these ideas in a way that enables his novels to be a foundation for readers who are interested - and his novels have a way of making you interested.
I suspect that the average reader of novels - even literary novels - would be surprised by some of the background material that Philip Dick weaves into his stories. In fact, I'm surprised myself when I realise I'm deep in some theological arguments that were probably 'lifted' from some research source and then brought to life in such an engaging way.
In this novel you, like I, might be confronted for the first time by a really tangible God, something drawn together from the ideas of generations and generations of philosophers.

20th Century Man Who Was Thursday
20th Century Man Who Was Thursday
by G K Chesterton
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
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4.0 out of 5 stars Was Chesterton an anarchist?, May 18 2001
By all measures this is an extraordinary novel. Part of its strangeness to me - its personal strangeness - is that anarchist philosophy has always been close to my heart. But this novel is not an anarchist manifesto - it doesn't refer to Proudhon, Kropotkin, Goldman or even William Godwin. But that's not to say the arguments are not surprisingly engaging. I can't believe that Chesterton was an anarchist but anarchism does give an individual the personal power to exercise their religious beliefs as they see fit (or as instructed by their God) and we certainly know that Chesterton was a Christian.
So why does Chesterton use anarchism as a vehicle in this novel? Perhaps it was to shock the reader into considering something seriously that they might not have done otherwise - to open the horizons of their thinking. Not that this is a serious novel though - it is full of sparkling wit and humour. One thing that anarchy does provide for Chesterton is a 'no holds barred' framework in which the story itself - its plot - can take whatever whimsical (and illogical?) turn that the author chooses.
Take the ride of this thriller with its confusion of parts - all the anarchists that aren't but leave you wondering if everyone else isn't an anarchist. This ride is a real roller coaster with wild dips and climbs, twists and turns.

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5.0 out of 5 stars Extraordinary music, and matching performance, May 11 2001
This review is from: Gurrelieder (Audio CD)
There is so much in Ozawa's 'Gurrelieder' to be excited and intoxicated with. Yes, this is Schoenberg's music! He is such a maligned artist and yet so much of his output is rich and exotic in a romantic style - if you have doubts just listen to his transcriptions of Bach and Brahms, Johann Strauss jnr even!! Where would I direct the attention of a sceptic in 'Gurrelieder'? That's such a difficult idea because there is so much of variety and yet also a great homogeneity. But, for me, the GREAT moment is 'The Song of the Wood Dove' and Tatiana Troyanos' remarkable singing. Play this in isolation and people who have shunned Scheonberg will never guess the source. But then, looking for highlights, how could I go past the stunning closing chorus? No, you really have to listen to all of it. It's tight and to the point - unlike the drawn out passages in Wagner - and yet it is also monumental and so obviously a product of the twentieth century that built on the foundations of Berlioz, Wagner and Brahms.

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