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review 2017-09-03 18:32
The Discreet Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa, trans. Edith Grossman
The Discreet Hero: A Novel - Mario Vargas Llosa,Edith Grossman

This book put me in a bind: while I found the story and characters engaging, fun, even, there are aspects that offended me. As I read, I would wonder: "Is this attitude or behavior endorsed by the author, or just described by him in depicting this place and these personalities?" By the end, I decided that there are definite ideologies at work here, including the beliefs that when it comes to family, blood is all; that the younger generation is responsible for squandering the hard work of their parents'; and the conservative viewpoint that if one only works hard enough, one can be successful. Other troubling attitudes that are questioned by characters but nevertheless feel condoned by the narrative: blaming victims of rape or sexual coercion; treating women as objects; racism; masculine pride as more important than the lives of loved ones.

 

After I finished the book, I read several reviews as I tried to work out my opinion of it. These mention that Vargas Llosa won the Nobel Prize for Literature but that this may not be his best work; that he used to be a social progressive but became a conservative who ran for president of Peru; that some characters appear in other books of his; that some elements are based on real events and his own life.

 

The book is divided between two alternating and converging narratives with separate protagonists, both fitting the "discreet hero" label of the title. The stories take place in two different areas of Peru, one Lima, one provincial, and their plots appear to have no connection. When they link up, it's very satisfying, even though the connection is quite minor. Each plot has elements of a mystery-thriller that propel the story; I found it hard to put down. The characters are often charming and easy to root for (until they're not). In story one, a man who worked his way up from nothing and owns a transport company is anonymously threatened unless he pays for protection; he refuses. In story two, a man on the verge of retirement and a long-awaited trip with his wife and son finds his life upheaved when his wealthy boss decides to marry his servant to punish his errant sons; at the same time, the protagonist's teenaged son is being approached by a mysterious stranger who may or may not be real, the devil, an angel, or just the kid fucking with his parents (this last mystery is left ambiguous).

 

Other elements I enjoyed included the relationship between the second protagonist and his wife, his feelings about art's role in life, the police sergeant from the first story, and learning about Peruvian life across two settings.

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review 2017-05-27 18:05
Five Days at Memorial, Sheri Fink
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital - Sheri Fink

It was hard to put down this impressive work of journalism that focuses on events at Memorial Hospital in New Orleans before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina. As hurricane season approaches it begs the question: are we better prepared to deal with natural disasters in the U.S.? The epilogue to the book, written a few years ago, suggests in some ways we are, but in important ways we are not.

 

Hospitals were exempt from the evacuation order (belatedly) given by the mayor of New Orleans as Katrina approached. Many staff, patients, family members, and even pets sheltered at the hospitals (lesson the first: evacuate before the storm hits), including Memorial. As the title indicates, it would be five days before all were evacuated. After power loss, the generators eventually failed as they were in the basement, where the water levels rose once the levees broke. Though they had food and bottled water, the hospital went without running water, air conditioning, working plumbing, and the power needed to run vital medical equipment.

 

Evacuation aid via helicopters and boats was erratic or turned away by staff at points. Communication at all levels was unreliable; rumors swarmed, including that New Orleans was under martial law and looting and violence were everywhere. The staff went without much sleep as they continued to care for patients. The bad decision was made to leave the sickest patients, including those with DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) orders, last for evacuation, with the exception of neonates. Healthier patients (though some still critical) left first. Family members were encouraged and even pressured to leave their loved ones, assured the patients would be cared for.

 

Soon after the disaster, there was a reckoning. Or, I should say, an attempt at a reckoning. Troubled reports of irresponsible and ethically questionable decisions being made at hospitals and nursing homes arose, including euthanasia at Memorial. 40-some patients had died there, and about half were later found to have high levels of morphine as well as Versed, a sedative, in their systems. Were they euthanized, and by whom?

 

In addition to covering events at the hospital as reported by those who were there, Fink covers the development of the legal case against a particular doctor and two nurses accused of second degree homicide. Reading about what happened at the hospital, the good and, mostly, the bad, is heartrending and horrifying, impossible to look away from, like a car accident. Learning what does and does not happen afterwards infuriated me; my sympathies were with those who'd lost loved ones, who don't quite have closure. I sympathized also with nurses so traumatized by those five days that they could no longer practice.

 

Fink contextualizes Katrina as well as the ethics of decisions made. She profiles key players, letting their own words speak for them. I don't pretend to read much non-fiction, but it seems to me her work is exceptionally well researched, every effort made to fact-check and communicate with those involved. The book evolved from a piece she did for ProPublica and the New York Times, which won the Pulitzer. Regardless, I'm sure there's been a range of reactions. If you google the topic, you'll find a website by/for the doctor arrested who continues to deny wrongdoing, with a link to another site that proclaims "the truth" of what happened. I didn't bother clicking.

 

Mostly I think about the contrasting example of Charity Hospital, also in New Orleans, who lost fewer patients despite having more, with additional patients delivered to them. I think of proposed (and adopted) legislation or protocols that would shield physicians from legal ramifications of unethical decisions made during a disaster. I think of the following quote, with which I agree:

 

“Rather than thinking about exceptional moral rules for exceptional moral situations,” Harvard’s Dr. Lachlan Forrow, who is also a palliative care specialist, wrote, “we should almost always see exceptional moral situations as opportunities for us to show exceptionally deep commitment to our deepest moral values.”

 

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review 2017-03-08 07:39
A Stellar Arms Race
Star Trek: Tests of Courage - Howard Weinstein

A part of me wanted to write about how this story deals with the issues of the nuclear arms race and also the conflicting nature of the Hippocratic Oath in the context of war, until I realised that this is basically Star Trek and I have to admit that I am really not a huge fan of Star Trek. Okay, I do watch the odd movie that makes its way to the screen (including the three reboots that have arisen over the last few years), and I have also watched all of Deep Space 9 and quite a few of The Next Generation (and Star Trek Voyager) but in the end it still comes down to the fact that it is Star Trek, which while it is a science-fiction adventure, it is set in this semi-utopian future that basically wants to make me sick.

 

Anyway, I found this comic book (I am not going to dignify this book with the title graphic novel, namely because in my mind graphic novels tend to be much more sophisticated than was is in effect a licensed form of fan fiction with pretty pictures that probably would never find themselves in an art gallery – well, that's probably being a little harsh because the Schirn in Frankfurt did have an exhibition on the beginnings of the comic strip, but then again we are talking about really, really early comics, not something that has appeared in 1994) when I was in Sydney and staying in a hotel across the road from a comic book store that looked like it was trying to clear out all of its stock. Anyway, after a brief scan of its contents the only things that caught my attention were a couple of Star Trek comics and a Judge Dredd annual.

 

This adventure is set sometime between Star Trek V and Star Trek VI and is around the time that Sulu (aka George Takai – the guy that posts all of those funny Twitter and Facebook posts) got his first command. Actually, the writer of the comic in the afterword spent three pages carrying on about how it was unfair that it took Sulu so long to actually become the captain of a star ship and that by the time he did the series had effectively come to an end. Well, I suspect the reason had more to do with Hollywood being Hollywood as opposed to any really deep character development – Star Trek has always been Star Trek, and of the seven years of the Next Generation series, Picard was always captain and Ryker was always XO. Well, maybe in some of the movies he did land up with a promotion, but as far as I am concerned, in the world of television bugetry constraints, cash flow, and ratings always seems to trump character development.

 

I did mention that this story does explore the issue of the arms race, but the arms race, especially in the modern era where we have developed weapons that have the capacity of destroying all life on Earth, is something on which lots and lots of ink has been spilt. The other subject was much more interesting and that is the nature of the Hippocratic Oath – does a doctor take sides in a war, and if a doctor treats an enemy soldier are they committing treason? The problem is that doctors (or at least those portrayed in literature) tend to hold the sanctity of human life above politics. Organisations like the Red Cross are facing these ethical dilemmas in places like Syria and Afghanistan – if they treat terrorists are they partaking in terrorism? Further, hospitals are being viewed as important pieces of infrastructure and modern belligerents are becoming more willing to target these institutions in an effort to disrupt the enemy's capacity to wage war. However, the thing with modern warfare is that the boundary between the enemy and the civilian is becoming ever more blurred, but then the concept of the guerrilla war is not necessarily something new – Napoleon and Hitler had to deal with insurgents, it is just that we in the west are beginning to find ourselves on the other side of the fence.

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/1933850052
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review 2016-09-27 09:23
The Struggle Against Nature
Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo - J.R.R. Tolkien

This middle English poem is said by some to be the greatest poem of Middle English literature, however it does have to compete with The Canterbury Tales for that title, something that I am not going to go into since I have not have the chance to read Chaucer's work at this stage. However while the earliest copy of this poem exists on a manuscript dating back to 1400 AD, it was probably circulating much earlier than than. We don't actually know who the author of this poem is (and my suspicion is that it is like The Odyssey - it was an oral poem what was written down at a later date, and copied, and the version that we have is the earliest version of this copied text). The manuscript also contains two other poems, the Pearl and Sir Orfeo (both of which Tolkien translates as well).

 

 

While the poem begins in King Arthur's court, during a feast, the opening stanza goes back to the founding of England - Troy. It appears (and I noted that Holinshed, the English Chronicler from whom Shakespeare used as a source for some of his plays) also puts the origin of the British people to Troy. The story is that after Troy fell, Aeneas fled to Italy where he founded a colony and from that colony Romulus and Remus arose and went on to found the city of Rome (or at least Romulus, since since he killed Remus). However, one of Aeneas' general's, Brutus, was not happy with the location, so he left with some followers, sailed to Britain, defeated the Giants, and founded a colony that eventually, after millennia, went on to rule the world. This of course is all legend and there is no historical or archeological evidence to support this ever actually happening (though it does make a ripping yarn).

 

 

Anyway, that is beside the point. The poem itself was quite popular and tells the story of Sir Gawain who, at the feast, decides to take the Green Knight's challenge, which is that if somebody where to strike him then they must meet him at the Green Chapel in a year and a day and also be struck. Sir Gawain decides that sounds like a bit of fun and proceeds to lop off his head. However the Green Knight simply picks it up (his head that is) and walks out, telling him that he will see him in a year and a day. So Sir Gawain travels the land and arrives at the castle of Sir Bertilak. Bertilak then heads out out on a hunting trip but before he goes he tells Sir Gawain that if he gives Gawain the proceeds of the hunt, Sir Gawain must give him whatever he got that day. So, while Bertilak is out his wife attempts to seduce Gawain, who resists the temptations, and the first two times he is given a kiss, and the last time he is given a girdle which will protect him from harm. Gawain honours his agreement to Bertilak (with the exception of the Girdle) and then goes out to meet the Green Knight. After the battle, it turns out that the Green Knight is Bertilak.

 

This poem carries a lot of symbolism which will simply take way too long to explore the subtleties (and for those who are interested, I'll simply refer you to Wikipedia). However, one of the major themes in this poem is chivalry, which is a medieval code of honour for knights. One of the major aspects is honesty and keeping one's words. Gawain does demonstrate his honour by keeping his word to Bertilak (and the Green Knight) however he does fail with handing over the girdle. This is interesting because he keeps the girdle for protection when he meets the Green Knight without actually knowing that he has already met the Green Knight. We also notice that he honours the marriage vows by resisting Bertilak's wifes advances, even though each advance becomes progressively stronger. Some have suggested that the advances of Bertilak's wife reflects Bertilak's hunting trips, as the animals Bertilak hunts become progressively more aggressive.

 

Another aspect is nature verses civilisation with the Green Knight (and in turn Bertilak) representing nature and Camelot representing civilisation. The Green Knight's entrance to the feast is a reflection of the chaos of nature bursting into the order of civilisation, and Sir Gawain takes the challenge in an attempt to tame nature. However, considering the time this poem was written (the Dark Ages) it is also looking back to a more civilised time (despite doubts as to the actual existence of King Arthur's court). The time in which this poem was composesd was a time of lack of law and there is, in a way the hearers were no doubt longing for the better times.

 

 

In this particular work, there are two other poems which I will briefly mention. The first is The Pearl, which is an allegorical dialogue between a knight and a woman about the kingdom of heaven. This poem has a lot of biblical images (which includes the Pearl, a symbol that Christ uses in one of his parables to describe the beauty and value of the kingdom of heaven). The Knight had the pearl, but lost it, and is worried that in losing the pearl he has also lost access to the kingdom of heaven. Some have suggested that the Pearl is probably representing a loved one, such as a child, but I think the allegory in this poem is deeper than that.

 

The final poem, Sir Orfeo, is a retelling of the Greek story of Orpheus in the underworld (and this is very clear in that Sir Orfeo is a form of Orpheus). The poem is set in Winchester, however in the poem it is also called Thrace (the location in Greece of the original Orpheus myth). In this poem, though, instead of travelling to the underworld to rescue is beloved, he travels to the Faerie world where his beloved has disappeared. However, in all forms, this poem is the same as the Greek legend.

 

Source: www.goodreads.com/review/show/214359195
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review 2016-07-31 00:00
Ethics
Ethics - Baruch Spinoza,Edwin M. Curley,Stuart Hampshire,Edwin Curley The best way to read this book is to listen to it. If I were to have read it, I would have dwelled excessively on the axioms, definitions and propositions and would have missed the forest for the trees. Don't worry if you don't get the definition as he gives them. You'll be able to pick them up when he uses them latter on. Spinoza is an incredibly good writer. He will tell you what he's going to tell you, tell you and than tell you again. He'll say "in other words" or "take this example" or other such explanatory statements and amplify what he's been telling you while never being 'prolix' (a word he actually uses and I had to look it up. It means tediously long winded with words).

I've often heard people make the expression that they "believe in the God of Spinoza". After having read this book, I seriously would doubt them. What they've done is focused on the Spinoza formulation "that God is Nature and Nature is God" and they like the way that sounds, but they don't really know how Spinoza gets there or what he means by it.

This book is a vibrant defense of Scholasticism (Aristotelian thought) against Descartes' mind body duality. Spinoza creates a system with only one substance (God) but infinite attributes. Two of those attributes are thought and extension (body), but it's clear that God possess infinitely many more. God (or Substance) is the creator of the universe and possess thinking. The God/Nature Nature/God formulation would be pantheistic. But, Spinoza goes beyond that and very well could be 'panentheistic' (God transcends nature), but I can't say for sure based only on this book.

Spinoza uses most of the metaphysics of Aristotle. He believes God is the efficient cause (the mover) of the universe, but he does not believe in Aristotle's final causes, teleology. He believes that God is necessary, and that the universe is determined because from the necessary existence and therefore essence of God everything must follow from cause and effect (i.e. that Free Will is an illusion. Aristotle in his Ethics believes that Free Will does exist, but mostly Spinoza and Aristotle seem to agree. The concept of 'essence' are essential items in each of their systems). Things are only contingent when we don't know enough.

Only the first two sections of the book dealt with God and the Mind. The other three sections deal with emotions and our control. He'll reach some of the same conclusion that Aristotle reaches in his Nicomachean Ethics. Such as, our highest virtue is the contemplative virtue and we need to wake up, stop being distracted by the petty and focus on the universe and our place in it. He'll say we are most divine like when we use our contemplation on higher order matters.

Also, I want to mention that his sections on emotions and human bondage were some of the best formulations of psychology I've ever have come across in my readings. He'll say that it's our desires and our pains and pleasures which determine our emotional well being. The active part of us determines our emotional health and through the passive part is how our passions sneak in. Leading a virtuous life is the best. We should return hate with love or high mindedness for its own sake. He'll even segue into a self help book by saying we should repeat such slogans to ourselves so that when we our prone to hate we will know how to act instead. I can't understand why today's self help books don't do as well as Spinoza does within this book.

This book is a relatively easy read. It's clear that Hegel grabs major parts from Spinoza in his "Phenomenology of Spirit", and Hegel is no way as easy to read as this book is. Spinoza's attributes are determinants (limitations) of the infinite. Hegel makes all determinants negations of the infinite and gives us his dialectics (or movements) based on that. I did notice that Spinoza uses 'vacillate' in the later parts of his book and it seemed to correlate with Hegel's movements. I wish I had read this book before I had read Hegel. He would have made more sense to me if I had.

Never trust the summations you might have heard about this book or any other of the classic philosophical works you may come across. They always seem to get it wrong. This is a good book to read because Spinoza is such a great writer (he's not prolix as my review is!), he has a genuinely interesting take on the world, his psychology sections seem to be as good as any I have ever seen, you'll probably learn to be suspicious of the statement "I believe in the God of Spinoza" because a lot of baggage comes with that statement, and the influence his work has had on others becomes obvious and they would be easier to understand if you read this book before reading them.

(A note: I enjoyed this book so much I've downloaded his previous book "A Theologico Political Treatise" for free from LibriVox because it doesn't seem to be available at Audible).
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