Sunday, October 30, 2016

Schechter, Harold (2003): The Serial Killer Files: The Who, What, Where, How, and Why of the World's Most Terrifying Murderers

What is it about?

The book discusses serial killers, with a heavy U.S. emphasis. The contents fall into two broad categories: covering "case histories" of individual serial killers and discussing the phenomenon of serial killing from different thematic perspectives (e.g. unerlyig reasons, modes of operating, catching/getting caught, and cultural resonance of the phenomanon, for example).

Was it good?

The book is quite fascinating, I have to admit. Before reading the book, I knew very little about the phenomenon, and what little I knew basically derived from movies.

Perhaps the book could have been organized a bit more rigorously so as to make the thematic and case historical sections more distinct from one another; currently the thematic treatment in places didn't perhaps reach the level of generalization or abstraction that I woudl have wished because of the heavy case emphasis. Then again, perhaps the number of cases to build upon is so small (luckily) that this is the level of generalization one can resonably hope to achieve.

In addition, through the case histories are quite fascinating - again, I have to admit - there is a bit of repetition in the book in that the case histories are discussed as such, and then again in conjunction with different thematic perspectives.

The main take-away for me?

It's pretty hard to think about what would be the take-away from a book like this. Perhaps it would have something to do with some of the basic human qualities of being intrigued - as witnessed by the cultural resonance of the phenomenon (c.f. e.g. the movie Basic Instinct) despite it being empirically so repulsive and horrifying to the vast majority of the humanity.

Who should read the book?

I believe that the book should be quite interesting reading for most people. Perhaps the most sensitive may find the case descriptions somewhat disgusting, but the tone in which those are described in the book is likely to play down such an effect.

The book on The serial killer files

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Huxley, Aldous (1932): Brave New World

What is it about?

The book is basically a dystopian novel, set in the future a few centuries from now, describing a centrally controlled and manipulative society.

In broad outlines, the book is quite comparable to George Orwell's 1984, though the specifics and the style of story telling, of course, differ quite a bit.

In the Brave New World, the society consists of a distinct hierarchy of social classes (alphas, betas, gammas, deltas and epsilons), to which people are "engineered" during before and after birth. Moreover, in place of God, there is Ford (Henry Ford, that is), and the use of the drug "Soma" is quite prevalent.

Was it good?

Truth to be told, the book was a disappointment. I had really high expectations, i.e. that the book would be comparable to Orwell's masterful 1984, but I found the book at places quite difficult to follow and to be engaged with. Thus, I kept wondering throughout the book, given that it has been considered as one of the major works of literature in the 20th century, whether there simply is something that I fail to grasp or appreciate - perhaps a subtle subtext giving a unified meaning to everything. Could be.

However, towards the end of the book, chapter 16 differs from the general pattern quite pleasantly. In this chapter, one of the characters embarks on a monologue, discussing quite extensively about the properties of the focal societal order and how it brings about all kinds of benefits. It is here that Huxley, in my opinion, delivers his best societal criticism, and provides some food for thought concerning our (or his 1930s) societal order. For example:

"But chastity means passion, chastity means neurasthenia. And passion and neurasthenia mean instability. And instability means the end of civilization. You can't have a lasting civilization without plenty of pleasant vices."

In a way, it seems that the book up to that point was a lengthy and somewhat obscure build-up to this crystallization of the message in chapter 16.

The main take-away for me?

Of course, any dystopian novel should provide as its main take-away a heightened awareness of the (often invisible) prevailing societal order and the unspoken premises on which it is build. This is the case with this book as well. However, I think that Orwell's 1984 does a better job in this respect. However, The Brave New World does a better job with regard to social classes (or stratification), no doubt about it.

Who should read the book?

As a classic of 20th century Western literature, the book should be on everybody's reading list. However, based on my own experience, I think that one would be better off, if one read a scholarly commentary of the book instead (not, however, that I had read one yet).

The book on Brave new world

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Ford, David F. (2000): Theology: A Very Short Introduction

What is it about?

The book provides a short (about 180 pages) overview of theology: what it is about, what "camps" there are, and what key questions theology answers or seeks to answer.

In addition, the book closes with the final chapter discussing whether and how theology is relevant in the 21st century (or the "third millennium" as the author has put it).

The book discusses the focal questions with Christianity as the "case religion". This makes the book quite accessible to a representative of a contemporary Western culture with cultural roots in Christianity.

Was it good?

I would say that the book fulfilled expectations, but did not exceed them. In other words, the book seeks like a quite solid introductory text on theology. I'm, however, perhaps not the best judge here, having very little knowledge about the field. But then again, I'm perhaps a good representative of the intended audience for a "very short introduction" in the field.

In any event, the book does a good job in depicting the - quite surprising - diversity of the field, especially with regard to different "schools of thought" or "camps" with respect to conceivable basic stances towards theology, from outright dismissal of such questions to unquestioning scriptural literalism, including a diverse spectrum between these extremes.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me was perhaps the richness of tradition in theology: very bright people have throughout centuries expended great energy and a lot of time in thinking and arguing about theological questions (which some modern people might perceive as not worthy of any thinking at all), resulting in an astonishingly wide range of theological positions with apparently rigorous reasoning behind them.

Who should read the book?

The book would be beneficial to basically anyone, especially those with no significant connection to theological questions. However, I presume that enjoying the book requires quite a bit of interest - academic or otherwise - in such questions.

The book on Theology

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Porter, Richard (2016): And On That Bombshell: Inside the Madness and Genius of Top Gear

What is it about?

The book covers the story of Top Gear, the globally known car show by BBC. More specifically, the book concentrates on the "Jeremy Clarkson" years, i.e. 2002-2015.

The author of the book is (or was) the script editor of show, who can provide a highly interesting "behind the scenes" point of view about making the show.

The book does not follow a strict chronological progression (though the very first and last chapters are about the birth and the death of the Clarkson era show). Instead, most of the chapters - and there are quite many - focus on a theme, such as "The specials", "As not seen on TV", "Five ways to die in Bolivia" and "The naan bread".

Was it good?

For me, something of a fan of the show, the book was highly appealing and entertaining, and I even tried to find small slots of time here and there to continue with the book.

In my opinion, the two main merits of the book are (1) providing an insider's view about the show and making it, and (2) the style of writing which is well in line with the humour used in the show as well.

Moreover, the thematic - as opposed to chronological - organization of the book seems to work very well; telling about an incident, a particular aspect of the show, or the making of a certain segment of an episode makes very engaging reading.

The main take-away for me?

While it should be no surprise, still I kept wondering throughout the book how much thinking, careful planning, writing and re-writing and and a small army of people it takes to make a television program seem like it is spontaneous, unplanned and effortless. I would have not imagined that the presenters, especially Jeremy Clarkson, are so meticulous about the flow of script and transitions between program segments.

Who should read the book?

Quite obviously, if one loves (or even hates) Top Gear, the book is quite likely highly enjoyable. If not, the "insider's view" may not work very well unless the making of television programs in general is of interest.

The book on And on that bombshell

Heskett, John (2005): Design - A very short introduction

What is it about?

The book is, true to its title, a general - indeed, a very general - overview of design in its different manifestations and domains of application.

Heskett understands design very broadly - i.e. not in terms of aesthetic design or even that plus usability - including product development and strategy, landscaping, urban construction etc. In fact, in the opening words of the book, Heskett introduces the subject matter by suggesting - quite reasonably - that when a modern, urban person looks around, very little that he/she sees is not a result of some kind of a design effort.

Was it good?

The book is very straightforward and extremely understandable. In fact, in comparison to other books in the "Very short introduction" series, the book is quite a bit less "deep" than an average representative of the series. The contrast is exceptionally striking with the one in the series on postmodernism I read a few weeks ago.

Still, Heskett does, in my mind, very good job on conveying his basic message: that design is present in may if not most human undertakings and - evidently according to Heskett - it would be a mistake to equate design with aesthetic or usability considerations alone.

However, I perhaps enjoyed a biography of Jony Ive, the head designer of Apple, a bit more, since it gives a deeper "insider's" look into the world of design, especially product design.

The main take-away for me?

The main take-away for me was Heskett's basic message: that design is a very broad phenomenon with various manifestations in the human-built environment - including intangibles such as services and information systems and structures - which, once again, provides a worthy perspective with which to approach daily life with an "analytical" eye.

Who should read the book?

The book is of quite general interest, and it is difficult to think of a particular demographic who would particularly like or dislike it. Still, perhaps Jony Ive's biography would be a bit more compelling - though it's take on design is somewhat narrower.

The book on Design

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Focault, Michael (1975/1995): Discipline and Punish - The Birth of the Prison

What is it about?

The book is, generally speaking, about the development of penal systems in the Western world, from the tortures and executions as public spectacles to the modern prison and its subtle counterparts in other institutions such as the school.

It is quite noteworthy that Focault discusses penal systems - or means of discipline and punishment - both in their explicit and implicit manifestations. An example of the former is the prison whereas the contemporary school system with institutionalized procedures, physical arrangements (think about the stereotypical arrangement of a non-progressive classroom), exams and grades exemplify the latter.

Was it good?

First, even without knowing the identity of the author, it would be quite safe to guess that the book was written by a French sociologist; the treatment is often quite elaborate (I hesitate to say obscure), and the language used impregnated by "big words". Some of this, however, may be attributable to translation.

In any event, I found the very beginning (the medieval idea of punishment) and the very end of the book (structurally embedded subtle discipline and punishment in the contemporary Western world) quite engaging. In contrast, the quite nuanced travel from the former to the latter could - for my taste - have been presented in a more straightforward manner.

Thus, my overall impression of the book was somewhat mixed.

The main take-away for me?

By far the clearest take-away for me was Focault's insightful treatment of "discpline as structure" (my expression). That is, in modern world, we are surrounded by a host of quite "invisible" means of discipline which are so institutionalized that we have often become blind to them.

Think about, for example, various information systems which require one to fill in specific details in order to have something accomplished, whereby the information system forces one to submit to its coercive structuration in order to have something accomplished. Or think about the various ways one is evaluated and ranked: often measures for doing this are "system-provided" which do not take into account individual idiosyncrasies or contextual differences, let alone personal preferences. Yet, one must conform to these institutional practices in order to "perform" in the modern society. Perhaps the school is the clearest example of such phenomena, though the workplace often has comparable characteristics (c.f. e.g., time cards, budgeting, performance appraisals etc.).

After having read the book, I certainly am more attuned to observing my daily life from this perspective.

Who should read the book?

As a whole, I wouldn't recommend the book for a casual reader - the language is not very accessible, and apart from the very beginning and end, the book can be quite laborious to plow through. However, if one is into French sociology (or philosophy), the book is probably quite a good fit, though in such a case one probably has read it (or some corresponding work) already.

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