<![CDATA[Silash Ruparell - Book Reviews]]>Mon, 01 Feb 2016 02:45:22 -0800Weebly<![CDATA[Ferdinand von Schirach (2012) - Crime & Guilt]]>Mon, 23 Nov 2015 09:56:01 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/ferdinand-von-schirach-2012-crime-guilt
My one liner: Crime and Guilt. Did he or didn’t he ? Is she or isn’t she ? We always knew they are grey areas. Schirach’s subtle short stories show us this spectacular uncertainty.

If you haven’t read anything by Ferdinand von Schirach, a German crime writer and Munich lawyer, this is a good place to start, but do also check out The Collini Case, and The Girl Who Wasn’t There.  His stories are translated from German into English, and the translator for Crime and Guilt is the recently deceased Carol Brown Janeway.

In a parallel with English Law the title hints at the two elements that must proved in a criminal court: first that a Crime was committed – the Actus Reus; and secondly that the accused had the Guilt or intention to commit – the Mens Rea.

This collection of short stories is a clear demonstration that neither Crime nor Guilt are clear cut – and just as importantly, the fine line before we all cross into one or the other, or as Schirach more eloquently puts it in his introduction:

“All our lives we dance on a thin layer of ice; it’s very cold underneath, and death is quick. The ice won’t bear the weight of some people and they fall through. That’s the moment that interests me. If we’re lucky, it never happens to us and we keep dancing.”

Take the story of the Ethiopian migrant who commits an almost comical bank robbery – “The cashier said she hadn’t felt at all afraid…[T]he robber had just been a poor soul, and more polite than most of her customers.” 

As you hear about his life story, from childhood abandonment, to having every attempt to further himself blocked by the system or by prejudice, to his attempts to rebuild his life and live and Ethiopia – only to be thwarted by the bureaucratic machine:

“In the Middle Ages, things were simpler: punishment was only commensurate with the act itself. A thief had his hand chopped off. It was all the same, no matter whether he’d stolen out of greed or because he would otherwise have starved. Punishment in those days was a form of mathematics; every act carried a precisely established weight of retribution. Our contemporary criminal law is more intelligent, it is more just as regards life, but it is also more difficult. A bank robbery really isn’t always just a bank robbery. What could we accuse Michalka of? Had he not done what all of us are capable of? Would we have behaved differently if we had found ourselves in his place?”
Image licensed from here under a Creative Commons Licence
The writing style is rarely expansive, as you would expect from short stories, but that sometimes doesn’t prepare us for the brutality of the human effect, the ability to summarise all of the devastation that can be foisted on an individual, in one single sentence.  An young man in custody accused by a young child of having molested her:

“Miriam didn’t attend the main hearing. Her lawyer sent the divorce papers to the remand centre. Holbrecht signed everything without reading it.”

We are also treated to some pure comic moments, slapstick within the serious business of organised crime. Atris is a little slow, and has been left at back at their apartment by his partner in crime Frank do 2 things, and two things only.  Look after the key to the locker where the booty is kept.  And feed Buddy, Frank’s huge mastiff dog.

“He stared at the dog and the dog stared back. Frank hadn’t been gone for more than two hours and he’d already screwed things up: the dog had swallowed the key to the locker.”

Oh, and number three – don’t drive Frank’s Maserati. But, what will happen when Atris now has to drive buddy to the vet in the Maserati to get some laxatives ?

The weird and the wonderful all pass through Schirach’s office, and we chuckle. But it is often nervous chuckle, because there is a part of us that finds it scary, disturbing.  We are somewhat cosseted these days, because we consume so much off the internet so when conspiracy theories, or worse, are casually bandied around it all seems so remote. We are safe behind our screens. But Schirach is a person who has come face to face with the real people behind the stories on a regular basis.  What would you do if this guy walked into your office ?

“The camera. They inserted a camera in my left eye. Behind the lens. Yes—and now they see everything I see. It’s perfect. The secret services can see everything that Mohatit sees,’ he said. Then he raised his voice. ‘But they won’t get my secret.’ Kalkmann wanted me to bring charges against German Intelligence. And the CIA, of course. And former American president Reagan, who was responsible for the whole thing. When I said Reagan was dead, he replied, ‘That’s what you think. He’s actually living up in the attic at Helmut Kohl’s”

And that, really, is one of the hallmarks of a good author, someone who manages to get the reader to transport themselves into the story, and ask himself: “What would I do ? How do I judge this ?”.

And the remarkable thing for me the number of times I find myself rooting for the “criminal”, whether through empathy, morality, circumstance, or other mitigating circumstances. That is a common occurrence in works of fiction, and there are certain techniques that fiction-writers use to make the reader take sides.  But these are real-life stories, and most of the stories jail sentences were handed out.

Crime, its practice, perception, prevention, policing, and prosecution represent the ultimate confluence of disciplines.  Straddling emotion, (in)humanity, law, morality, philosophy and religion. 

And overseeing all of these is Science.

Science, that helps the perpetrator to commit the perfect kill:

“The blow was precise, hitting the carotid sinus, which is a brief surface dilation of the internal carotid artery. This tiny location contains a whole bundle of nerve endings, which registered the blow as an extreme increase in blood pressure and sent signals to Lenzberger’s cerebrum to reduce his heartbeat. His heart slowed and slowed, and his circulation did likewise. Lenzberger sank to his knees; the baseball bat landed on the ground behind him, bounced a couple of times, rolled across the platform, and fell onto the train tracks. The blow had been so hard that it had torn the delicate wall of the carotid sinus. Blood rushed in and overstimulated the nerves. They were now transmitting a constant signal to inhibit the heartbeat.”

Or Science, the great arbiter of proof:

“[19 years later…] When the science had advanced sufficiently, the cigarettes in the dead man’s ashtray underwent molecular genetic analysis. All those who had been under suspicion back then were summoned for a mass screening.”

So that at the end of the day, some people when faced with incontrovertible facts of truth, or tragedy, or knowledge, take incontrovertible and irreversible actions:

“Everything was peaceful; it was Christmas. [she] was taken back to her cell; she sat down at the little table and wrote a letter to her father. Then she tore the bedsheet, wound it into a rope, and hanged herself from the window handle. On the twenty-fifth of December, [her father] received a call from the lawyer on duty. After he’d put down the phone he opened the safe, took out his father’s revolver, put the barrel in his mouth, and pulled the trigger.”

Many of the reviewers on the various blogs and forums describe this as a book they couldn’t put down until they finished it.  Same here.  The emotional journey of this book is intense, and when you get to the end you do want some explanations that maybe you can’t get, because you are not a judge, or a criminal lawyer, or a social worker, or a bank robber, or a policeman, or a victim. 

So you look back to the beginning of the section “Guilt”, and there is the answer staring right at you.

In a quote from Aristotle:

“Things are as they are”.

There is no Wikipedia link to this book.  The Google books link is here.
<![CDATA[Fritjof Capra & Pier Luigi Luisi - The Systems View of Life: A Unifying Vision (2014)]]>Mon, 12 Oct 2015 18:56:08 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/fritjof-capra-pier-luigi-luisi-the-systems-view-of-life-a-unifying-vision-2014
My one-liner: Astounding breadth of coverage of philosophical, scientific and economic systems and processes guiding humanity towards a more sustainable existence.

“[T]he Zeitgeist (“spirit of the age”) of the early twenty-first century is being shaped by a profound change of paradigms, characterized by a shift of metaphors from the world as a machine to the world as a network. The new paradigm may be called a holistic worldview, seeing the world as an integrated whole rather than a dissociated collection of parts”

The Systems View of Life  - A Unifying Vision (Fritjof Capra and Pier Luigi Luisi) is the kind of book I wish I could write.  As the industrial age, which began in the period of the European Enlightenment, draws to maturity through the end of the 20th century and beyond, its very fruits have given humanity the tools to move beyond the industrial and mechanical, and into a higher conception of the nature of existence. 

Thus we have the insights of quantum physics and fractal mathematics which were only made possible by going through the Newtonian / Cartesian phase. Or the interconnected, networked world that is forming today, that came about through incremental phases of industrial, machine-based progress.  The recent giant leaps in computing power that today enables us to study and model complexity and chaos, leave us perhaps with more questions than answers, but evolved through essentially linear statistical methods over the preceding 200-years.

Where Capra and Luisi take us therefore, is into a place that we I think, already know to be instinctively know we need to be.  Namely that as a society we are perhaps grown up enough to be able to once again emphasise the qualitative over the quantitative, the observation over the explanation, the process rather than the outcome.  The prize, they argue, is a great one:

“As we move further into the twenty-first century, transcending the mechanistic view of organizations will be as critical for the survival of human civilization as transcending the mechanistic conceptions of health, the economy, or biotechnology. All these issues are linked, ultimately, to the profound scientific, social, and cultural transformation that is now under way with the emergence of the new systemic conception of life.”

Personally I would add a caveat to this: the developed or industrialised world in primed for this transition; the developing world is still undergoing its industrialisation phase through which many hundreds of millions of people are being lifted out of food poverty.  Capra and Luisi hint that this can be short-circuited (“The root causes of hunger around the world are unrelated to food production. They are poverty, inequality, and lack of access to food and land”) – my view is that they need to take their time to evolve societally, having now moved away from a land / organic-based existence – they will not need 500 years like we did, but they will need decades.  This is important, because the transitions implied in the book will likely remain imperceptible at the level of all humanity for rest of the century.

Moving back to the book itself, the authors do well to delve into science well enough to give the reader a sense of rigour, without crossing the line into incomprehensibility for the layman.  A consistent theme is the rationalist, and currently prevailing tendency to break down our existence into building blocks and compartments, whether that be measurements of economic growth, medical diagnosis, legal systems, industrial production. But modern physicists have taught us that at that quantum level “matter” (in the non-technical sense) is fundamentally interconnected and cannot be reduced to infinitesimally small building blocks:

“An electron is neither a particle nor a wave, but it may show particle-like aspects in some situations and wave-like aspects in others. While it acts like a particle, it is capable of developing its wave nature at the expense of its particle nature, and vice versa, thus undergoing continual transformations from particle to wave and from wave to particle…

The discovery of the dual aspect of matter and of the fundamental role of probability has demolished the classical notion of solid objects. At the subatomic level, the solid material objects of classical physics dissolve into wave-like patterns of probabilities. These patterns, furthermore, do not represent probabilities of things, but rather of probabilities of interconnections…

The laws of atomic physics are statistical laws, according to which the probabilities for atomic events are determined by the dynamics of the whole system. Whereas in classical mechanics the properties and behavior of the parts determine those of the whole, the situation is reversed in quantum mechanics: it is the whole that determines the behavior of the parts.”

Electron Wave Particle Duality
And the recently evolving discipline of fractal geometry provides us with the basis to extend this principle of interconnectedness and probability both upwards and downwards:

More obviously upwards - the functioning of the human body; the development of societies and economies; ecological phenomena; the space-time of the universe.  Less obviously downwards, but reaching into the spiritual and philosophical (think of the buddhist and other eastern philosophies which emphasise the oneness of zero and infinity). 

We arrive here through the property of fractal geometry known as self-similarity.  The authors tell us how the inventor of fractal geometry Benoit Mandelbrot demonstrates this by breaking a piece of a cauliflower and showing that it looks just like a small cauliflower.  Every part looks like the whole vegetable at every level of scale. 

So if such interconnectedness and self-similarity exists at the quantum level, why have we organised our societies in such a compartmentalised, non-holistic way ? The answer set out in the book can be summarised by two phenomena.

First, the focus on responding to, and treating, observed outcomes rather than rather than understanding the underlying processes that lead to those outcomes.  An obvious example would be politicians who create new government policies based on “events” rather than a qualitative appraisal of the world around them.  Or alternatively the diagnostic approach of modern medicine:

“The conceptual foundation of modern scientific medicine is the so-called biomedical model, which is firmly grounded in Cartesian thought …[T]he conceptual problem at the center of contemporary healthcare is the confusion between the origins of disease and the processes through which it manifests itself…

A systemic approach, by contrast, would broaden the scope from the levels of organs and cells to the whole person – to the patient's body and mind, as well as his or her interactions with a particular natural and social environment. Such a broad, systemic perspective will enable health professionals to better understand the phenomenon of healing, which today is often considered outside the scientific framework. Although every practicing physician knows that healing is an essential part of all medical care, the phenomenon is presently not part of scientific medicine. The reason is evident: it is a phenomenon that cannot be understood when health is reduced to mechanical functioning.”

The second is the sense of connection that humans once had with the physical world, the land, nature and eco-systems, and which has been lost through in the industrial society that we inhabit.  This connection is, the authors tell us, real and rooted in science.  Indeed that very epitome and oft-cited champion of the rationalist scientific school, Charles Darwin gives us our route back to nature.  For at the end of day all living organisms share a common ancestor. Organic and inorganic matter evolved to produce living cells which then evolved to produce water, air and land-borne species, of which we are but one.

“There is nothing more holistic and systemic than this notion of Darwinian biological evolution”

Studies of the number of proteins that form all of life suggest that there around 1014 different types (or 100,000 billion).  A lot, you might think.  However, the mathematically possible number of proteins that could exist based on chains of so-called “residues”, or amino acids, is 10130.  Some of those would be energetically impossible, but even if 1 in a billion of those are “permitted” the resulting number of all possible proteins would be 10120.  By way of comparison if the actual number of proteins in existence were a single grain of sand, then all the other possible combination representing those that don’t exist, would be the equivalent of the Sahara Desert.  And we still do not understand  very much the process by which that “one grain of sand”, representing all of life, was selected, over and above all of the other mathematically possible combinations.

And delving into space-time, planets such as our own, have also been part of a cosmic evolution of the universe, the concept of a universe “pregnant with life”.  The authors quote the physicist Freeman Dyson (1985): 

“As we look out in the universe and identify the many accidents of physics and astronomy that have worked together to our benefit, it almost seems as if the Universe must in some sense have known that we were coming.”

So where does that leave us and where do we go from here ? Rationalist science cannot yet (and may not ever) give us the answers to the true origins of life ?  Does it matter ? Yes, it does matter, One the one hand it matters to adherents of organised religion, searching for a way to become closer to a god as creator.

And it also matters to the finest scientific minds seeking out the origins of life and the universe, whether to through Big Bang or more recent theories.  Take Stephen Hawking, in A Brief History of Time, and his binary test for whether or not there is a creator:

“So long as the universe had a beginning, we could suppose it had a creator. But if the universe is really completely self-contained, having no boundary or edge, it would have neither beginning nor end: it would simply be. What place, then, for a creator?”

Capra and Luisi push us to gaining an understanding of the nature of consciousness, and the signposts point to philosophies of the east:

“From our point of view, the apparent dichotomy dissolves when we move from organized religion to the broader realm of spirituality, and when we recognize that both spiritual experience and the mystery we find at the edge of every scientific theory transcend all words and concepts…

[S]cientists [such as Oppenheimer, Bohr and Heisenberg] published popular books about the history and philosophy of quantum physics, in which they hinted at remarkable parallels between the worldview implied by modern physics and the views of Eastern spiritual and philosophical traditions.”

As physicists delve deeper into the material world they come to realise that their own consciousness is part of the unity of all natural phenomena.  Mystics arrive there from the opposite direction, with an understanding that outer world is essentially one and the same as the inner world which is their starting point.  Thus there is an increasing recognition, observable as we move into a new century that we are “part of a great order, a grand symphony of life”.  Every molecule in our body was once part of a previous body, non-living or living, and the same will apply to all life forms that come after us. 

Indeed, the authors point out the origin of spirituality.  The word “spirit” is derived from the Latin for “breath”, see also the related Latin “anima”, Greek “psyche”, and Sanskrit “atman”.  Allowing us to posit that this notion of the spirit, being breath as the source of life, is common across the ancient schools of thought in both east and west:

“Spiritual teachers throughout the ages have insisted that the experience of a profound sense of connectedness, of belonging to the cosmos as a whole, which is the central characteristic of mystical experience, is ineffable – incapable of being adequately expressed in words or concepts – and they often describe it as being accompanied by a deep sense of awe and wonder together with a feeling of great humility”

This, say Capra and Luisi, is the true sense of “ecology” (derived from the Greek “oikos” meaning “Earth Household”) – a oneness with the natural world around us, being a member of a “global community of living beings”, and not interfering with ability of the earth to sustain life.  The reader is not surprised at this point that authors take on a quick detour into Gaia theory as well
Gaia Hypothesis: the single and self regulating eco-system
Practically, achieving this oneness means that current and future generations of politicians, scientists, business leaders, teachers and professionals will need an understanding of the nature of sustainability.  An education programme, in other words.

Modern social networks have the ability to achieve this.  Social networks can be (and have typically in the past) used as instruments of control and authority, through bringing together and influencing people of similar mindsets.  But in the future they can also be a means of empowerment, dissipating common views about the importance of sustainability, and a systemic or holistic way of thinking.

Examples include: holistic therapies that connect physical well-being to mental well-being; a recognition that an individual’s well-being is determined by diet, and environment and social interaction; an understanding of the self-healing properties of many systems, including the human body and its surrounding ecology; the importance of human and ecological well-being for any corporate entity, arguably over and above its financial and profitability measure.

So, the network, technological and philosophical ingredients are in place in the 21st century.  What are the policy implications ? Is there some new world order that needs to be created ? The book takes the obligatory diversion through the well-trodden path of the economic and environmental unsustainability of our current existence, culminating in a now-familiar walk-through of the global financial crisis, its causes and effects. We also hear about various bodies, movements and NGOs that have sprung up before and since to address and promote sustainability.

The book then concludes with a number of possible visions for a more sustainable future, and presents a number of overlapping strategies.  The authors note in particular that economic globalisation, which has accelerated in the last 100 years or so, is now essentially characterised by a global network of machines (computers, factories, communication lines, financial systems) that are pre-programmed to maximise profit. 

The financial motive is the current “human value” which dominates.  It would not, they argue, be too much of a leap of imagination to re-programme the machines to have other values built into them.  This would also involve moving from quantitative measures of economic growth, such as GDP, to what may be termed “qualitative growth”.  Whilst growth is a characteristic of all life, it is not linear and not unlimited – at the same time as some organisms and ecosystems grow others will shrink and release their components which can become resources for new growth. Qualitative growth is “growth which enhances life”.  Quantities can be measured, but qualities need to be mapped, and new mathematical and computing disciplines are allowing us now to do this. 

Linked to this, the authors contend, should be a programme for corporate reform.  The obligation to maximise shareholder return is etched into the contractual structure of a company, its board and the underpinning legal system.  The fiduciary duty owed by a company and its managers to its shareholders overrides all other duties.  This profit maximising duty makes the same assumption that economists currently do, namely that social costs, resource ownership, ecological sustainability should not be the goal of a corporation.  The authors recommend extending or even replacing this fiduciary duty to include the well-being of the corporation’s employees, of local communities and of future generations, and creating new forms of ownership.  And arguably this need not be in conflict with a market-based economy.

The next area for change is where I am most sceptical – namely a number of suggestions around poverty eradication, stabilising population growth, and empowering of women.  The last, in particular is seen to be important as a way of tempering the male, power-based, private ownership-based, accumulative cultures that predominate today, with a more feminine approach: conservation, co-operation, and community.  More yin, less yang.  I am sceptical not because these aims are not highly laudable (though limiting population growth sounds a tad Malthusian), but because it seems apparent to me, having witnessed the rise of China, the tiger economies and some Latin American countries, that the quickest way to eliminate poverty is rapid industrialisation.  As I mentioned, their time for an ecological approach will come, and it will come within decades rather than centuries, but they will have to learn the hard way !

Finally, energy transformation. In particular the systemic view advocates a shift away from coal, oil and other fossil fuels.  We are at a moment of perfect technological alignment for an energy revolution, because of advances in both energy and communications technology, enabling the a “Third Industrial Revolution” with five pillars:
 - shifting to renewables (solar, wind, hydro)
 - transforming building stock into power plants, collecting energy on-site
 - deploying hydrogen and other storage technologies
 - using the internet to transform electricity grids into “inter-grids”
 - transforming automobiles to electric plug in and fuel cell vehicles

The argument is that this can be achieved in the context of a market economy generating viable returns for investors.  Couple this with reductions in industrial waste and inefficiency (estimates are that we can save up to 90% of energy and materials currently used in industrial design), and we can become truly sustainable:

“Imagine fuel without fear. No climate change. No oil spills, dead coal miners, dirty air, devastated lands, lost wildlife. No energy poverty. No oil-fed wars, tyrannies, or terrorists. Nothing to run out. Nothing to cut off. Nothing to worry about. Just energy abundance, benign and affordable, for all, for ever”

This is a great book and will get a 5* rating from me on the various book blog sites.  I like it because it provides a coherent scientific, philosophical and technological underpinning for the ideas presented.  I do agree that we are seeing signs of systemic rather than linear phenomena, and I do think that current conditions can provide the impetus for this transition.  What I don’t understand, and I don’t think the authors do yet either, is whether this transition will be itself a systemic process, or whether some top-down “policies” or “new forms of government” will be required to push the process.

There is no Wikipedia entry for this book. The Google Books entry is here.

<![CDATA[Danny King - School for Scumbags (2012)]]>Mon, 28 Sep 2015 13:35:59 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/danny-king-school-for-scumbags-2012My one liner: Criminal capers from a fun easy to read author imparting a few insights into the do’s and don’ts of how to be a master criminal

The Gafin principle:  Every criminal gets caught.  Every criminal gets caught.  The Gafin principle measures whether or not it was worth it.  As an example, a Mr Matthews is convicted for 5 crimes, for which he made £500 each.  And he serves five years in prison, or approximately 250 weeks.  So his weekly earnings from the jobs turn out to be £10 per week.  Which he could have earned in any risk-free non-criminal job.  So, under the Gafin principle: the crime isn’t worth it.
What's a Borstal ?
So what if he had stolen £5 million pounds, would that have been worth it ? Under the Gafin principle you may conclude yes, but in fact no.  Because cash is easily traceable, because the Bank of England changes notes and denomination on a regular basis, and because to all intents and purposes you wouldn’t be able to spend it when you got out.  £5 million worth diamonds on the other hand, that’s £20,000 per week for each week of prison time.  Definitely worth it, and our young students are starting to grasp the principle…

I like Danny King.

His Kindle books are riddled with errors, grammar, syntax, spelling, the lot.  I have no idea whether the print books are the same, but I assume there is some publisher quirk around this.

But it really doesn’t manner.  Mr King is an honest author, whose books do what they say on the tin.  Most relate to the English criminal underworld, ranging from petty to master criminals.  Tales hilariously told, and formulaically set up to put the reader firmly on the side of the burglar, thief, pickpocket, schemer – we are naturally emphatic with characters who are laughably pathetic.  Great reading when you have a couple of hours to kill and really don’t want to engage the brain.

I have chosen to review School for Scumbags.

You know you are on to a winner with the opening quote of book, from the 17th century by Jean de la Bruyère:

“If poverty is the mother of all crime, lack of intelligence is its father”

And the teenagers at school for scumbags need a lesson in probability and expectation so that they can understand which crimes are worth committing.  “Here at Gafin we take a different approach. We educate young men about crime, show them the effects of their actions, the consequences of indiscriminate robbing.”  Gafin, run by Mr Gregson, Mr Fotheringay, Mr Sharp, and lovely and flirtaciously delicious Miss Howard, being the outer-London boarding school where a bunch of teenage delinquents have pitched up (or rather have been sent to by divers despairing parents).

Put these 20 or so young layabouts in closed environment together and they will sound find ways to steal of each other, steal off the school, engineer perfect crimes, protect each other, grass on each other, physically assault each other. Each lad with his own distinctive personality, the schemer, the fat kid, the arsonist, the neanderthal.

The protagonist is a young lad called Wayne Banstead (“Banners”), who being of above average intelligence, ends up being the ring leader in most of the capers.  Including a hilariously rigged football tournament where parents are invited to witness the progress of their young angels and also to place “bets” on the likely winners.

But it turns out that the Gregson, Sharp, Fotheringay and Miss Howard have a dastardly plan.  They have devised the ultimate heist, and one that most definitely does pass the Gafin principle. 
Some old coins, yesterday
The preparation.  The boys have not yet been told about the heist.

“Gregson told me to go and nick something in the gift shop…Anything, it didn’t matter. ‘Just nick something,’ he said, ‘and make sure they see you do it.’”

And then a period of intensive training for the big day.  No detail left to chance, intensive training, team spirit and camaraderie, removal of a couple of bad apples from the team, and hence from the school.

Each boy clear what his role would be. And who would suspect a bunch of teenage schoolchildren of actually walking out with the stash ?...

So, in keeping with the standard formula of the heist story e.g. [insert your favourite heist movie here], the reader finds himself egging on this disparate bunch of young budding criminals to successfully complete the job.

Naturally there are twists and turns along the way, some people do get hurt, and I won’t say what happens to the treasure, but it’s a fun yarn full of chuckles and giggles.

There is no Wikipedia page for this book. The Google Books link is here.

<![CDATA[Erich Maria Remarque - Arch of Triumph (1945)]]>Thu, 20 Aug 2015 05:56:19 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/erich-maria-remarque-arch-of-triumph-1945My one liner:  A sculptured glimpse into the resigned gloom of Pre-WWII Europe brought to life through the travails of a Parisian refugee inhabiting a twilight world.

In the opening scenes the protagonist Ravic first meets his lover-to-be Joan on a cold November night in the shadows of the Pont de l’Alma  in Paris after literally bumping into her, sensing her distress about some event unknown, and taking her home with him.  Only to find out shortly afterwards that her (now-former) lover has just collapsed and died.
That sets the tone for the rest of the book, set in the seedy underbelly of Parisian life of the epoch. 

Erich Maria Remarque is “of his generation”.  His works reflect a life that straddled two world wars. Arguably his more famous work is All Quiet on the Western Front (note to self: re-read).  Remarque’s themes are oppression, and Ravic, a German-speaking Czech, is the epitome of the stoical existence of those who fled the Nazis.

“Don’t you know that refugees are always as stones between stones? To their native country they are traitors. And abroad they are still citizens of their native country”.

Ravic, a refugee in Paris is a doctor, a surgeon.  As an illegal, he cannot work officially, so he works as a “shadow” surgeon, performing operations for lazy or incompetent French practitioners who pay him a small cut of their fee – the patients of course, do not notice: they are under the knife by the time Ravic appears.

The title Arch of Triumph is for me an ironical metaphor for what was about to sweep across Europe, a tidal wave of oppression, reaching its apex as it converges on the actual Arc de Triomphe.  And I think Remarque paints this scary vastness exquisitely in his descriptions of the grey Paris cityscape:

“The Arc de Triomphe emerged, gray in the silver downpour, and disappeared. The Champs Elysées with its lighted windows slipped by. The Rond Point smelled of flowers and freshness, a gay-colored wave amid the uproar. Wide as the ocean dawned the Place de la Concorde with its Tritons and sea monsters. The Rue de Rivoli swam closer, with its bright arcades, a fleeting glimpse of Venice, before the Louvre arose, gray and eternal, with its unending courtyard, all its windows dark. Then the quays, the bridges, swaying, unreal, in the gentle rain. Lighters, a towboat with a warm light, as comforting as if it concealed a thousand homes. The Seine, the boulevards, with busses, noise, people, and shops. The iron fences of the Luxembourg, the garden behind them like a poem by Rilke. The Cimetière Montparnasse, silent, forsaken.”
This is what happened next...
Remarque’s character construction is remarkable.

Some explored in rich deep colours, others with rapid brushstrokes conveying the essential traits that mark them out. This of Veber, one of Ravic’s more honourable French “clients”:

“It was Veber’s invitation. That tinge of pity in it. To grant someone an evening with a family. The French rarely invite foreigners to their homes; they prefer to take them to restaurants. He had not yet been to Veber’s. It was well meant but hard to bear. One could defend oneself against insults; not against pity.”

Or the young lad Jeannot, who fulfils a kind of jester role in the novel, when he wakes up in the operating theatre after a car accident:

“"The leg has been amputated,” Ravic said. “Above the knee or below the knee?” “Ten centimeters above it. Your knee was crushed and could not be saved.” “Good,” Jeannot said. “That makes about fifteen per cent more from the insurance company. Very good. An artificial leg is an artificial leg, whether above or below the knee. But fifteen per cent more is something you can put into your pocket every month."”

Indeed dark humour suffuses the novel, often as a means of illustrating the politics and attitudes of the era, a method perhaps oddly reminiscent of the sardonic, mocking style of Molière:

"“Veber,” he said, “you are a magnificent example of the convenient thinking of our time. In one breath you are sorry because I work illegally here—and at the same time you ask me why I don’t rent a nice apartment—”"

In amongst all of this depth of character, stoical acceptance, gritty greyness and political upheaval you may be thinking that the plot is somewhat incidental.  And in a way it is.  Yes, there is a love story.  Two actually.  And a holiday to the south of France to get away from it all. And a deportation.

Together with an opportunistic exacting of revenge for an old wrong. 

There are historical lessons too, and perhaps those who eagerly call for breaking up the current European political construct should reflect on how recent it is that is was so hard just to move from one European country to another:

"“To Italy? The Gestapo would wait for me there at the frontier. To Spain? The Falangists are waiting there.” “To Switzerland.” “Switzerland is too small. I have been in Switzerland three times. Each time the police caught me after a week and sent me back to France.” “England. From Belgium as a stowaway.” “Impossible. They catch you in the harbor and send you back to Belgium. And Belgium is no country for refugees.”" 

Also a timely reminder that complex challenges await our current crop of leaders.

And so ultimately, you cannot escape the fact that this is a political novel, immersing you at each turn of the page, every location, every interlocution, in the reality of what it was like to live at the time, and why:

"“Suddenly Ravic had the feeling that all the misery of the world was locked into this ill-lighted basement room. The sickly electric bulbs hung yellow and withered on the walls and made everything seem even more disconsolate. The silence, the whispering, the searching of papers which had already been turned over a hundred times, the re-counting of them, the silent waiting, the helpless expectation of the end, the little spasmodic acts of courage, life a thousand times humiliated and now pushed into a corner, terrified because it could not go on any farther.”"

Here is the movie based on the book

And the Wikipedia link for the book is here.
<![CDATA[W. Somerset Maugham – The Painted Veil (1925)]]>Sat, 11 Jul 2015 22:08:37 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/w-somerset-maugham-the-painted-veil-1925My one liner: Maugham is one of the 20th Century’s great authors, and this book touches so many sides of human emotion, development and  self-realisation

‘Deb quando tu sarai tornato al mondo,
E riposato della lunga via,
Seguito il terzo spirito al secondo,
Recorditi di me, che son la Pia:
Siena me fè, disfecemi Maremma:
Salsi colui, che, innanellata pria
Disposando m’avea con la sua gemma’
Pray, when you are returned to the world, and rested from the long journey,’ ollowed the third spirit on the second, ‘remember me who am Pia. Siena made me, Maremma unmade me: this he knows who after betrothal espoused me with this ring.

In his introduction to The Painted Veil, W. Somerset Maugham quotes from Dante to let us know  what was the inspiration of the story. The passage is from “Purgatorio” which is the 2nd volume of La Commedia Divina (The Divine Comedy). Pia de’ Tolomei was a gentlewoman of Siena. Her husband suspected her of adultery.  He was too afraid of her family and station to put her to death, so instead he took her to his castle at Maremma and left her there, with the plan that the noxious vapours there would kill her off.  However, she took too long to die and in the end he had her thrown out of the window.
Pia de' Tolomei by Rossetti
Similarly in The Painted Veil, Walter Fane, a bacteriologist based in Hong Kong  in the early 20th century marries Kitty, a frivolous young girl who, upon
arrival in Hong Kong falls for the charms of the local cad, Charles Townsend.  Upon discovering the affair, Walter volunteers a secondment for both himself and Kitty to Mei-Tan-Fu, a fictitious colony deep inside mainland China, which is infested by cholera, in order that Walter can assist in containing the disease.  In all probability he is leading one or both of them to death.
Cholera bacterium
Many of Maugham’s works deal with the constant conflict in humanity between the transient or frivolous on the one hand, and the more stoical values of constancy, substance and true knowledge on the other.  Take for example one of his other novels, The Razor’s Edge. The main character of the book is Larry Darrell, an American former-WW1 pilot who decides to go on a spiritual journey of enlightenment that eventually takes him to the East, while his wealthy socialite friends mostly suffer reversals of fortune and continue to be mired in the demands placed on them by the high society in which they operate.

In The Painted Veil it is Kitty’s journey from wannabe socialite to a state of knowing, understanding and world-weariness that comes through experiences of sadness, betrayal and human suffering.  Her husband Walter himself is considered a nobody in the social whirl of Hong Kong.  

She had discovered very soon that he had an unhappy disability to lose himself.  He was self-conscious.  When there was a party and everyone
started singing Walter could never bring himself to join in.  He sat there smiling to show that he was pleased and amused, but his smile was forced, it was more like a sarcastic smirk, and you could not help feeling that he thought all of those people enjoying themselves a pack of fools.

A recurrent theme throughout the novel, and one which leads the reader to consistently reflect on the title, taken from a sonnet by the English Romantic
poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley:

"Lift not the painted veil which those who live / Call Life"

Even Walter’s wife hates him:

It was laughable; he had no sense of humour; she hated his supercilious air, his coldness and his self-control.  It was easy to be self-controlled when you were interested in nothing but yourself.  He was repulsive to her.  She hated to let him kiss her.  What had he to be so conceited about?”  He danced rottenly, he was a wet blanket at a party, he couldn’t play or sing, he couldn’t play polo and his tennis was no better than anybody else’s.  Bridge ? Who cared about bridge ?

And yet, on the cholera-infested colony of Mei-TanFu, which is where Kitty pays the price of her infidelity, none of these skills are useful.  The only Western inhabitants are the Deputy Commissioner Mr Waddington, and the French nuns in a local convent, which also serves as an orphanage for children whose parents have succumbed to the disease.

Here, Walter is in his element:

He’s doctoring the sick, cleaning the city up, trying to get the drinking water pure.  He doesn’t mind where he goes, nor what he does.  He’s risking his life twenty times a day.  He’s got Colonel Yu in his pocket and he’s induced him to put the troops at his disposal.  He’s even put a little pluck into the magistrate and the old man is really trying to do something.  And the nuns at the convent swear by him.  They think he is a hero.

The landscapes painted by Maugham take you to the location.  As and aside, if you are interested in fin de siècle South East Asia as seen through colonial eyes, I would also highly recommend one of Maugham’s travel books, The Gentleman in the Parlour.

But Maugham’s speciality is conveying Eastern mysticism, and its impenetrability to Western eyes.  In The Painted Veil, this mystique is embodied in the Chinese wife of Waddington  An aristocratic lady who left her newly impoverished family after the Revolution to devote her life to the
Englishman.  And Kitty starts to appreciate the depth and intensity of her
surroundings and their inhabitants:

Kitty had never paid anything but passing and somewhat contemptuous attention to the China in which fate had thrown her.  Now she seemed on a sudden to have an inkling of something more remote and sterious.  Here was the East, immemorial, dark and inscrutable.  The beliefs and ideals of the West seem crude beside ideas and beliefs of which in this exquisite country she seemed to catch a fugitive glimpse.

Not that Maugham lets Walter get away with it either.  Walter had ‘courted’ Kitty, somewhat ineptly for many months before proposing to her. Indeed such had been his ineptitude that Kitty had not even been sure of his love interest at the moment of proposal.  But, she had been on the social scene for several seasons without any (in her mother’s eyes) ‘appropriate’ proposals, and she had accepted more of a desire not to disappoint her mother by not being left on the shelf.  It comes back to bite Walter, through Kitty’s infidelity.  And Maugham wastes no time in telling us that he was as much at fault as Kitty for marrying her in the first place, and he ultimately pays the price:

What did it really matter if a silly woman committed adultery, and why should her husband, face to face with the sublime, give it a thought? It was strange that Walter with all his cleverness should have so little sense of proportion.  Because he had dressed a doll in gorgeous robes and then discovered that the doll was filled with sawdust he could neither forgive himself nor her.  His soul was lacerated.

Maugham’s language is rarely flowery or sophisticated, and most of his novels are brief.  Yet, when you look back on his novels you see that you have gone on a journey with his characters, you have taken on their learning, you have wrestled with their dilemmas, you have lived in their physical space, and you have learnt about their cultural influences. 

That is Maugham’s true genius: that you don’t notice all of this until you reach the end of the journey.

The Wikipedia link to the book is here.

There was also a 2006 film which you can read about on Wikipedia here.
<![CDATA[John Julius Norwich – Byzantium, The Early Centuries (1988)]]>Thu, 11 Jun 2015 21:48:44 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/john-julius-norwich-byzantium-the-early-centuries-1988
The ancient city of Constantinople
My one liner: Fratricide, Patricide, Matricide, Infanticide, Blood, Guts, Gore, Pillage, Murder, Incest, Intrigue, Betrayal, Incompetence, Brilliance, Genius, Aggression, Passion, Fervour, Docility, Stupidity, Hubris. In other words the first five hundred years of the Byzantine Empire as described by John Julius Norwich in this classic account.
“After over half a century of contact with the Romans, his people had become perhaps one degree less bestial than at their first arrival; but the vast majority still lived and slept in the open, disdaining all agriculture and even cooked foods – though they would often soften raw meat by putting it between their thighs and their horses’ flanks as they rode.  For clothing they favoured tunics made, rather surprisingly, from the skins of fieldmice, crudely stitched together; this they wore continuously, without ever removing them, until they dropped off of their own accord.  And as they had always done, they still practically lived on their horses, eating, trading, holding their councils, even sleeping in the saddle.”
The Huns were a savage tribe which smashed their way out of the Central Asian steppes around 376AD.  Attila the Hun, “the scourge of God”, led a series of attacks on the Byzantine Empire and built up a vast dominion stretching from Constantinople to the Balkans in the East to Italy and France in the West. He came within a whisker of invading Rome itself.   
The Hun invasion is  just one example of the incursions and travails that beset the Byzantine Empire during the period covered in this book, 300 to 800AD. 
This colourful account by John Julius Norwich tells the story of the early Byzantine Empire, established by Emperor Constantine I (“Constantine the Great”) in 311 AD in the new city of Constantinople on the banks of the River Bosphorus.  The New Rome.
Whilst the Pope, and hence the religious centre, of the Roman Empire continued to be seated in Rome, the political centre had now gravitated towards the East.  

It was not a smooth and unambiguous transition, and often there were
Co-Emperors, one for Byzantium and one for the West of the Roman Empire.  
However, throughout the period of this volume, there was one inalienable and unargued article of faith for every Byzantine (and from which they drew strength of unity in times of turmoil), namely that the Emperor (or Co-Emperor) was the sole Vice-Gerent of God on earth.  This volume ends with the shattering of that practice in the most remarkable way in the year 800AD.  Pope Leo III produces a document (proved to be fraudulent only several centuries later) entitled the “Donation of Constantine”, pursuant to which Constantine the Great had allegedly, 500 years earlier, “retired” to the “province” of Byzantium, having bestowed on the Pope the right to confer the title of Emperor. 

By this document the Frankish ruler Charles (“Charlemagne”) was crowned
Emperor by Pope Leo and despatched to Byzantium to replace the supposed Empress Irene whose reign over Byzantium had been an economic and political

Of course, the transition was helped by another factor: “That the Empress was notorious for having blinded and murdered her own son was, in the minds of both Leo and Charles, immaterial: it was enough that she was a woman.  The female sex was known to be incapable of governing, and by the old Salic tradition was debarred from doing so.”  
In between the bookends of Constantine the Great and Charlemagne, we read of a fascinating period of Christian history.  Of Emperors who were disastrous.  Of others who ruled Byzantium with skill, care and competence.  
For example Heraclius came to the throne in 610 AD.  He introduced a new structure into the eastern side of Byzantium, organising it along military
 - The part of Asia Minor (the northeast coastline running from Selifke in the Mediterranean to Rize on the Black Sea) which had recently been recaptured from the Persians was divided into four “Themes”, or regions.  The choice of word was significant, because tema was the Greek word for a division of troops, thus underlining the warlike division of the region. 
- Each tema was put under the governorship of astrategos, or military governor.  
 -  A reserve army was maintained by providing potential soldiers with inalienable grants of land, in return for hereditary military service if called up.  
 - The net result was that Heraclius did not have to rely on ad hoc recruiting or on doing deals with dodgy barbarians in order to raise an army.  
On the economic front he fixed the parlous fiscal position of the Imperial economy through:
 - Taxation and government borrowing
 - Restitution from supporters of the previous corrupt regime
 - Subsidies from “friends and family” in Africa
 - Most importantly however, he persuaded Patriarch Sergius, the Archbishop of Constantinople, to declare that the coming war would be a religious war.  Hence all of the Church assets and treasure would be at the disposal of the Emperor. 

Leadership 101 for aspiring modern warmongerer.  
You will need to read the book to find out what became of Heraclius.  

Every Emperor was confronted by tribes trying to nick territory.  The Gauls and Franks perennially switching their loyalties to and from Rome.  The Lombards (from modern Germany and Austria) settling in Northern Italy. The Slavs trying to take the Balkans. The Goths, the Vandals and Huns having to be bought off or fought off.  
But, there are two stand-out foes of Byzantine Christendom over this period.  
First, the Persian Empire, whose rulers always seemed to have the knack for knowing when they had the upper hand. As an example, in 359AD Emperor Constantius II receives a letter from the Persian King:
Shapur, King of Kings, brother of the Sun and the Moon, sends salutation...
Your own authors are witness that the entire territory within the river Strymon and the borders of Macedon was once held by my forefathers; were I to require you to restore all of this, it would not ill-become me...but because I take delight in moderation I shall be content to receive Mesopotamia and Armenia which were fraudulently  extorted from my grandfather.  I give you warning that if my ambassador returns empty-handed, I shall take the field against you, with all my armies, as soon as the winter is past.”
I guess a lawyer would call that a Letter Before Action.

And of course the other formidable challenge to Byzantium was the rise of Islam.  

In 633 AD, shortly after the foundation of the religion, it suddenly “burst out of Arabia.”  First Damascus, then Jerusalem.  Next, the whole of Syria.  Egypt and
Armenia fell within the decade. The whole Persian Empire was subsumed within 20 years.  And then Afghanistan and Punjab within another 10 years. 
To the West, North Africa and Spain. Across the Pyrenees and finally checked
at the banks of the Loire.  
The rest, as they say, is history.
The various Emperors acceded and reigned using diverse styles of governance and deployed some interesting procedural instruments.  

The Emperor Maurice, though fundamentally a good man, faced financial
pressures as a result of the extravagance and incompetence of his predecessor.  Around 602AD he introduced austerity measures, but went too far, at one point cutting military rations by 25%, refusing to ransom 12,000 captives of the Avars (leading to them being put to death), and decreeing that the army should not return to base for winter but should sit it out in inhospitable territory beyond the Danube.  Eventually he become so unpopular that he took the decision to flee to Persia (with whose king he had previously  concluded a truce), taking his family with him.

His successor Phocas, embarked on a brutal purge of all his enemies. 
“Debauched, drunk, and almost pathologically cruel, he loved, we are told, nothing so much as the sight of blood..; it was Phocas who introduced the gallows and the rack, the bindings and mutilation which were to cast a sinister shadow over the centuries to come.”
First, Phocas despatched troops to Asia and killed Maurice and family. Then he exterminated his own brother and nephew. Plus a whole bunch of military men.  He even managed to kill Narses, his best general in the East.  Unsurprisingly, the Persians took their chance, invaded, and took
significant chunks of territory, including Mesopotamia, Syria, Armenia,
Cappadocia, Paphlagonia, and Galatia.  
Other examples abound. 

Julian the Apostate, who eventually became Emperor in 361 AD, had to bide his time (indeed he didn’t really have imperial designs, and in fact was a sort of travelling scholar, and by all accounts a little bit of a geek).  

His cousin Constantius II preceded him as Emperor.  He had had Julian’s father and stepbrother killed when Julian was a young child.  Constantius made the error of elevating Julian, appointing him as the Caesar of Gaul.  Julian must have had a festering hatred for Constantius II.   He bided his time, and then led an army against Constantius.  
This book has some other useful features.  The tables of lineages, emperors and family trees, the maps and illustration all add to understanding.  Moreover there is a tourist guide, providing a list of the Byzantine monuments still surviving in Istanbul today.  
I agree with the author in his Introduction that Byzantium is an era of history under-taught in schools, yet it has more than enough material to capture the imagination of a schoolchild.  
The narrative of this book is tight, so it leads you swiftly from one reign to another quite seamlessly.  
And that perhaps, is a clue to the central message of the book. 

Dynasties come and go.  Some leaders are good people, some are bad, most a bit of both. They are able to wield huge power. And yet they are all merely human beings powerless against the passage of time and events.

The wikipedia link to the book is here.
<![CDATA[Anthony Price - Other Paths to Glory (1975)]]>Fri, 01 May 2015 21:38:30 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/anthony-price-other-paths-to-glory-1975My one liner: The trenches of the First World War were horrific killing fields. Why would the French Secret Service be interested in their topography six decades on ? Other Paths to Glory is both a spy novel and a reminder of 20th Century European military heritage.

Other Paths to Glory won the Gold Dagger award of the CWA for its author Anthony Price.  Dr David Audley is the hero of this, and other novels, by Price.

Paul Mitchell is a historian and expert on the French and Belgian battlefields of the  First World War.  He spends much of his time in the archive rooms of the British Commonwealth Institute for Military Studies. 


His mentor and hero is Professor Emerson, for whom Mitchell worked as a researcher at Cambridge.   One day Mitchell is interrupted in the archive rooms by two men, and his life changes:

“Number Two spoke this time.  And whereas Number One was a huge, rumpled, soft spoken, Oxbridge type, Number Two had “soldier” written all over him, from his carefully cropped red hair, and the mirror-shine of his boots, to the bark of his voice.”

Searching questions to Paul Mitchell about a small torn piece of German trench map produced by the two men.  That night, Mitchell, who lives with his mother, is brutally attacked and thrown into the canal near his house.  He manages to somehow clamber out, and make it back home, to the astonishment of the police constable, who have found his “suicide note.”  And Professor Emerson has died that day.  In a house fire.  Except it wasn’t the fire that killed him.

Dr David Audley (British Secret Service) arrives at Mitchell’s house, and persuades him to go into hiding.  Assumed identity...etc.

But Mitchell is also persuaded (seduced ??) into going further than that.  If he is to maximise his chances of survival he must help Audley find out what he and Emerson “knew” that has resulted in one murder and one attempted murder.

This book is somewhat of a trip down memory lane for me.  The school-trip that made the biggest impression on me as a teenager was a four-day tour of the battlefields of The Somme and Flanders, the main sites of the First World War trenches where millions of British, Commonwealth and German troops were killed.
The Canadian War Memorial at Vimy, France
“ “Terrible – yes, it was that sure enough,” he nodded.  Only terrible wasn’t the half of it: if there was a word in the English language for the loss of fifty-seven thousand men in a few hours that first day he hadn’t been able to find it.”

Paul Mitchell has now become Captain Paul Lefèvre (pronounced “Lefever” – English Huguenot, you see) of the 15th Royal Tank Regiment.  Accompanying Audley to find out what is was that had so intrigued and excited Professor Emerson on a recent visit that he had made.  The problem is that every time they find a war veteran, or local, who has something useful to say, he drops dead.

Spy novels, when well-written have the air of imparting “inside” knowledge of the machinations of global geopolitics and secret services, as if they are facts.  This one is no different.  Whether it is indeed true or not, we are told of how “neutral houses” work:

“...That’s the curse of open diplomacy – one side’s got to be seen to win or lose, and if neither does then it’s just as bad.  So the first thing that they came up with was the hot line...Except that when its a matter of life and death nothing beats face-to-face talking...So then they set up the neutral houses...if two countries have a problem they just approach a third party for a key to a neutral house.  No publicity, no TV, no questions asked, permanent top security guaranteed at head-of-state level.  France is a popular country for meeting...”

We find out that the French Secret Service has called its British counterparts to help out because a “neutral house” meeting is about to take place at a farmhouse in the Somme.  And there has been some murderous activity in the area lately.  So they are worried.

One of Paul Mitchell’s specialities is the Hindenburg Line.  In particular he has done much research into the feats of a British Regiment called the Poachers.  Recognised as one of the most incredible feats of the Battle of the Somme was the manner in which the Poachers captured a ridge where there was a Prussian Redoubt, which borders onto “Bully Wood”, or Bois de Bouillet.  The objective had been to attack a village called Hameau which was near Bully Wood.  The Prussian Redoubt was considered impregnable, built as it was into the side of a chateau.  The story of how the Poachers captured it was one of both bravery and foolishness.

But maybe also interesting to someone trying, several decades on, to penetrate an even safer and more impregnable fortress on the border of Bully Wood.

The plot is clever, but the battlefield descriptions and the recounted tales of the veteran characters make this novel as much a work of military history as of fiction.

There is no Wikipedia entry for this book.  The Google Books link is here.
<![CDATA[Richard Davidson and Sharon Begley – The Emotional Life of Your Brain (2012)]]>Wed, 15 Apr 2015 21:32:30 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/richard-davidson-and-sharon-begley-the-emotional-life-of-your-brain-2012My one liner: Neuroscience is a discipline still in its infancy.  This book reaches some quite startling conclusions about how we  can “re-wire”our own brains and hence tweak or change our own personality.

We know intuitively that our minds can be “trained” so that we become an expert in something, or maintain our mental agility (think Sudoku, or those Nintendo puzzles designed for old codgers).  Neuroscience is an evolving discipline, and research has shown that we can take this intuition much further.  
It goes something like this.  
Our personality can be described by six Dimensions of a person’s “Emotional Style” – we sit at some point on line between two extremes for each of those Dimensions, and the combination of all those points, in essence sums up to form our personality.  Now, here’s the interesting bit.  Which part of the line we sit on with respect to each Dimension depends on either the activity in, or physical properties of, a particular part of the brain

So what, I hear you ask.  We are born with particular brain characteristics, and therefore our “personality” is determined by genetics and that’s it. End of  story.
Not so, according to the authors, Richard Davidson (a neuroscientist) and Sharon Begley, a science writer.  

Davidson has spent over four decades researching this, and reckons that the size, shape and activity of the various parts of the brain can be changed by  “exercise” in the same way that we might change our body shape and fitness by
going to the gym. In other words the brain exhibits neuroplasticity.
The implication ?  We can reconfigure our own brain in order to change our location within each Dimension of Emotional Style, and hence alter our own personality over time.  Nurture can override nature, in other words.

The book concludes with practical actions we can take in order to reconfigure the brain, ranging from different styles of meditation, to targeted social training “drills”. It also provides possible ways to treat “disorders” such as depression or autism.
What are the six Dimensions of Emotional Style ? They are: (1) Resilience Style (how quickly or slowly do you shake off a setback ?); (2) Outlook Style (broadly, are you an optimist or a pessimist ?) (3) Social Intuition Style (are you good, or bad, at reading visual, aural and oral clues from other people and hence gauging other people’s emotional state ?) (4) Self-Awareness Style (are you intensely self-aware of physical cycle and states of your own body, and are able to relate them to changes in your own mood and behaviour, or alternatively do have difficulty in understanding why you behave the way you do ?); (5) Sensitivity to Context Style (how often, or not do you adapt your actions or behaviour to current social situation ?); (6) Attention Style (how easy or difficult do you find it to focus on a particular task, rather than letting your thoughts or attention wander ?).  
An example.  Social Intuition. Guess who this is:
“I ushered him to a quiet table [to] get waiters to bring him lunch, [but] he would have none of it.  Maroon robe swirling, he walked up to the buffet table, took a plate, and waited in line to serve himself like everyone else – attracting no small number of stares, but even more smiles of appreciation that this Nobel laureate, head of the Tibetan government in exile, best-selling author, and spiritual leader was waiting his turn for poached salmon, rice pilaf, and a Weight-Watchers nightmare of desserts like everyone else.  Social Intuition, indeed.”
Note, the Dimensions of Emotional Style are a continuum and each person sits at some point on the continuum for each Dimension.  Note also that for each Dimension there is not one “good” extreme and one “bad” extreme.  Take Self  Awareness.  At first blush you may think it is good to be highly Self-Aware.  It means you can quickly recognise when you are angry, sad, jealous or afraid, and can relate this to emotional cues within your body. But, taken to the extreme, “someone with very sensitive emotional antennae for his own feelings who observes the pain of another will feel that person’s anxiety or sadness in both mind and body –experiencing a surge of the stress hormone cortisol, for instance, as well as elevated heart rate and blood pressure.”
So how does neuroplasticity work in practice ? Well, for example, scientific research and experimentation conducted by Davidson demonstrates that a more Positive Outlook Style is caused by a stronger physical link between the Pre-Frontal Cortex and the ventrial Striatum (see the Diagram, apologies for the hand-drawing, probably the first time I have drawn a human body part since ‘O’ Level Biology).  So to give yourself a more positive Outlook if indeed that is what you want (Remember: pessimism can be good as well, as it may make you a better manager of your personal risk), you need to do exercises which strengthen that link. The authors suggest repeatedly putting yourself in situations which require forethought and planning. Slightly counter-intuitively, this means you actually repeatedly place yourself in front of temptations for instant gratification (e.g. junk food, shopping for luxury goods), and practice refusing, because you convince yourself this would be better for you in the long term.
As a supplement, they advocate techniques originally developed by Giovanni Fava (University of Bologna, Italy), called “well-being therapy”, which also strengthens the Pre-Frontal Cortex to ventrial Striatum link. Broadly, each day, write down positive characteristics of one or two you know, express gratitude regularly (and look into people’s eyes when you say “thank you”), and compliment other people on a regular basis (again, looking into their eyes when you do so). 
What I like about this book is that it leads you through the link from the scientific to the practical (as Davidson says: “I am admittedly biased, but I believe that any program that purports to alter something as fundamental as Emotional Style simply has greater credibility if it is grounded in neuroscience). And it leads us through the evolution of the research, from its slightly rickety days in the early 1970s (electrodes strapped to the head monitoring dream activity in volunteer students, with results recorded on polygraphs) to 21st century fMRI analysis in highly controlled environments.  
We learn how early science and philosophy contributed. Charles Darwin’s 1872 book “The Expressions of Emotions in Man and Animals”, emphasised the instinctive signs of emotions, particularly facial expressions, hence providing an indication that different emotions must be linked with distinct physiological profiles.  Or Carl Jung’s autobiography, entitled Memories, Dreams, Reflections, containing the first observations about introversion and extraversion as traits, and speculating about psychological and physiological differences among people of each type.
And there is alot about Buddhist Monks.  Richard Davidson tells of his meetings with, and subsequent co-operation from, the Dalai Lama in collaring monks (the “meditation Olympians”) to participate in medical trials on the effects on the brain of different styles of meditation.  Initial attempts to get older mountain-dwelling monks in Dharamsala to participate “on-location” were, as hilariously recounted, a complete disaster.  But persistence paid off, and younger, more outward-looking monks did eventually collaborate in studies in the USA, leading to findings that prolonged meditation did increase levels of “neural synchrony”, a phenomenon whereby neurons from different parts of the brain fire off at exactly the same time, a process which research apparently demonstrates will typically make cognitive and emotional processes become more integrated and coherent.

This is a difficult area of science, and has been tackled well.  Should you adopt the conclusions and recommendations in order to develop your personality in the ways that are proposed ? Well, the approaches suggested are hard work. And it would be difficult for a layman to verify the scientific research that underpins the conclusions, so you would have to take it all at face value, and hence it would be somewhat of a leap of faith. But then, we don’t read scientific research papers before joining a gym and doing physical exercise.  So perhaps this is no different.

There is no Wikipedia link for this book. The link to the author's website is here.
<![CDATA[Charles Neider (Ed) – The Autobiography of Mark Twain (1959)]]>Sat, 28 Feb 2015 22:17:13 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/charles-nieder-ed-the-autobiography-of-mark-twain-1959
Mark Twain and Billiards. Inseparable
My one liner: If Huckleberry Finn gave you pleasure as a child, this collection of letters and notes of Mark Twain, will give you as much pleasure now. 

Take profits on your stock positions when they have gone up.  Not all new technologies are great investments.  Heed the advice of technical experts. Due diligence is no substitute for “friends and family”.  Some basic investment propositions that are as true today as they were 150 years ago. And Mark Twain was a pretty disastrous investor. 

Some time in the 1860s he took a stock tip from his acquaintance Mr Camp, “a bold man who was always making big fortunes in ingenious speculations and losing them again in the course of six months by other speculative ingenuities”.  The tip was to buy Hale and Norcross, and he purchased 50 shares at $300 a share, putting in 20% himself, with the rest on margin.  He also persuaded his brother, Orion, to come in for half the amount, and awaited the cheque.  Predictably enough, Hale and Norton went through the roof hitting $6,000 per share.  Inexplicably Twain waited for Orion’s money before selling out.  Predictably enough Hale and Norton came crashing back down.  Blasted through the margin and into Twain’s equity, and “at last when I got out I was badly crippled”.  Only later does Twain find out that his brother had sent the money in gold (rather than a cheque which any “normal human being” would have done) to a nearby hotel, and the clerk had deposited it in the safe and forgotten about it.

Then there was the foray into patents. Twain acquires a patent for $15,000 from an “old and particular” friend who had neglected to mention to him that it was worthless. The deal was that Twain would pay a further $500 per month to the friend who would do the manufacturing and selling.  In his colourful humour Twain tells us “that raven flew out of the Ark regularly every thirty days and the dove didn’t report for duty.”

Or the steam engine, which “another old friend” told him would get out 99% of all the steam that was in a pound of coal.  He takes the advice of a coal and steam expert who shows him using a book of “figures that made me drunk and dizzy” which the machine could not come within 90% of the claimed steam release.  Despite the expert advice Twain proceeds and engages the inventor because “maybe the book was mistaken”.  Five thousand dollars later, the inventor comes up with a machine which saved 1% steam, but “you could do it with a teakettle.”  Undeterred, Twain now fancies himself as an enthusiast on steam and takes some stock in a Hartford company which is a making a new kind of steam pulley.  “That pulley pulled thirty two thousand dollars out of my pocket in sixteen months, then went to pieces.”

These are just a few anecdotes from a collection of letters and notes which constitute the autobiography of Mark Twain (real name Samuel Clemens), put together from 1870 up to his death in 1910, and edited into a book by Charles Neider in 1959.  He is not afraid to admit his follies, and he is not afraid to admit his vanity:

This Autobiography of mine is a mirror and I am looking at myself in it all the time.  Incidentally I notice the people that pass along at my back...and whenever they say or do anything that can help advertise me and flatter me and raise me in my own estimation I set these things down in my Autobiography.”

We learn that Twain was a highly proficient billiards and pool player. And with our modern world obsessed with level playing fields and standardised rules he gives us the story of the billiards table at Jackass Gulch, a dilapidated former mining town which the gold deposits were now exhausted. The saloon is of a “ruined and rickety character struggling for life, but doomed.”  And the pool table reflected this, with chipped balls, the cloth darned and patched, the table’s surface undulated with headless cues that “had the curve of a parenthesis”.  And Twain postulates that it would be much more entertaining to have the great champions who grace the competition tables of Madison Square pit their skills against Texas Tom of Jackass Gulch on the bad billiard outfit, where adjustments have to be made for all of  the table’s faults and inaccuracies.  Possibly some life lessons there.

And how did Twain conceive of Finn, the reckless boyhood adventurer ? Well there must have been something of the Twain about Finn.  An example comes from 1845 when a measles epidemic is claiming the lives of many children in Mark Twain’s home town.  The ten-year old Twain is so engulfed with impatience as to whether he will succumb to the epidemic that he forces the issue by deliberately sneaking into the house of his measles-infected friend and jumping into bed next to him.  Needless to say he contracts that disease, but survives by a whisker.

The book is a fascinating insight into an America which is transforming from Emerging Market to Global Superpower (“Steadily, continuously, persistently, we are Americanizing Europe, and all in good time we shall get the job perfected”).  Twain was a supporter of equality, though his language reflects what was culturally acceptable and normal in a country where slavery was still prevalent.  And he was active all the way to his death.  Although one suspects that if the death of his wife in Italy 1904 was a near-fatal emotional blow to him, then the loss of his daughter Jean in 1909 probably sapped his remaining will to live.

This is the Wikipedia link for the book.
<![CDATA[Paul Torday – The Girl on the Landing (2009)]]>Mon, 05 Jan 2015 21:57:55 GMThttp://www.silashruparell.com/book-reviews/paul-torday-the-girl-on-the-landing-2009
The mythological Lamia
Paul Torday – The Girl on the Landing (2009)

My one liner:
A disturbing thriller, which leads you into an uncomfortable zone somewhere in between the supernatural and the deepest primaeval recesses of the human mind.
“Serendipozan is one of the new generation of neuroleptics.  While we must  concede that extrapyramidal symptoms (e.g. acute Parkinsonism) and neuroleptic malignant symptoms (sometimes resulting in mortality) have been observed in control groups, we believe that these occurrences are statistically insignificant. This must be balanced against clear evidence of the effectiveness of Serendipozan and the significant improvement it can give to the quality of patients’ lives, allowing in many cases for them to live within their own communities without the need for medical supervision..  Dr Hans Bueler, Tertius Corporation AG, International Symposium on Clinical Psychiatric Medication, Basle 2002” 

Paul Torday's novel switches protagonists neatly between Michael Gascoigne and his wife Elizabeth, both in their thirties, the story is told in both their first persons. Michael, an orphan, and owner by inheritance of the Scottish highlands estate Ben Carroun, doesn’t need to work. He spends much of his time down in London where he leads an affluent if non-descript existence.  The dusty, time-capsule encased, politically incorrect gentlemen’s Groucher club in Mayfair is the beginning and end of his social life, bounded neatly by golf, card games, stalking, and the petty internal squabblings of the club committee. And his personality reflects his existence.  Dull and predictable.
 Elizabeth has been married to him for 10 years.  An unremarkable marriage, largely devoid of passion. “I’m  making it sound as though we had an unhappy marriage. That’s not true.  It was what my mother used to call a ‘workable’ marriage.”   An unremarkable job on a woman’s magazine, which she didn’t really need to keep once she got married.  
Slowly however, things start to change.  The “Girl on the Landing”makes her first appearance in a painting. Michael and Elizabeth are staying with friends at a country house in Ireland, where Michael is captivated by a painting he sees on the staircase. 

The painting was of an interior that showed a shadowed landing...The foreground of the painting was drawn with great attention to detail...The farther into the background the artist went, however, the less he appeared to care about the detail. The female figure was merely sketched in and she was dark, so dark one could make out only the merest suggestion of a face...”  Several chance encounters ensue between Michael and a strange and beautiful young girl. On train journey. In a restaurant. At the estate. She calls herself The
Lamia, and Michael starts to opens up to her about his past. 
“‘She seemed at once, some penance lady elf, Some demon’s mistress, or the demon’s self’ Lamia, by Keats.”

 Elizabeth starts to worry as Michael’s personality starts to change.  He is becoming increasingly dishevelled, unpredictable, elusive, and aggressive, not to mention amorous.  She is at once more attracted to him (he is now “Mikey”, not Michael),  yet disturbed by him.  One evening at the estate they are hosting Peter Robinson and David Martin, friends of his, and fellow Groucher members, when he delivers a completely unexpected monologue. The conversation has turned to the candidacy of Vijay Patel, a successful second generation British banker of Ugandan Asian origin, whom Peter has proposed for membership at the Groucher. The club is deeply divided as he is the first “black man” they would be letting in.  Over dinner David makes some off-colour remarks about Patel’s (un)suitability, and Michael launches into a tirade about the origins of British identity.  But what a tirade.  It is clinical in its exposition of a hypothetical woman cave dweller in the post Younger Dryas ice age period making treks across to Britain from the Pyrenees, some time in the Mesolithic area.  Yes, the Anglo-Saxons and Celts and Vikings came after, but it made little difference to the DNA of the inhabitants of the British Isles. And not only is the content shocking for being so out of character, it is the primordial venom with which he delivers it that unnerves his wife.
As Michael’s unpredictability worsens, we start to understand why a violent conclusion to this story is the only possible outcome. 
Some nice touches in here, including a cameo appearance by Charlie Summers, down-on-his luck charmer and purveyor of luxury dog food.  Charlie will be known to Torday regulars as the tragi-comic subject of another of his novels The Hopeless Life of Charlie Summers.

Here is the Wikipedia link to the author.  There is no Wikipedia link for the book.