Tuesday, 31 December 2019

No One is too Small to Make a Difference by Greta Thunberg – Book Review +

Afin de lire ce commentaire en français, cliquez ici (bientôt disponible)

Publisher’s write-up:

'No One Is Too Small to Make a Difference is Greta’s first book in English, collecting her speeches from climate rallies across Europe to audiences at UN, the World Economic Forum, and the British Parliament.’

Note: My book is the May 2019 edition, and thus, I shall not refer to the speeches added in the expanded edition published in November 2019

Regardless of our position on her activism, most of us have an opinion on Greta Thunberg. Before I get into the review, I shall make it clear that considering the size of the book, this review would also be a mix of my views on the book and her activism (hence, the + on the title). For starters, she is another teenage activist who garners unusual amount of hate to be merely dismissed as media hype and followed up with endless conspiracy theories. All I saw was a repeat of what happened with another teenage activist during the decade, being Malala Yousafzai, the girl who was supposedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize just for getting shot, completely ignoring the fact that she was shot because of her activism (click here to read the review of I am Malala).

This is a small book and takes less than an hour to read – it contains eleven of her speeches, delivered before May 2019. The central theme of her speeches is that we are running out of time in taking action against climate change to keep global warming below acceptable levels, how the politicians are not doing enough and an urge to listen to the scientists. There is also emphasis on how the current societal model which measures success by economic growth is not sustainable, much as sustainable development has been a term for years, they have just been empty words with very little intent to act on those plans.

It is a matter of surprise that in countries like the US (and several others, unfair to single out one), the debate is not over how to handle climate change but rather, on existence of climate change. Much as the consensus among scientists is well known, the lobbyists have been strong enough to propagate climate change, like ExxonMobil; a champion of climate change denial up until recent times, despite their own research suggesting otherwise (precisely the reason why they needed the propaganda).

The book contains her famous speeches such as ‘Our House is on Fire’ delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos and ‘Can You Hear Me?’; where she emphasises how it is time the world recognises the problem as a crisis and treats it as one and the speech in House of Commons (being Can You Hear Me?), she brings up the creative accounting used by UK to show dramatic steps and achievements (having read several accounts about the Civil Service, I can easily imagine that coming from Whitehall).

She also explains much of the hate that she receives – as to how she is politically motivated, does not offer any solutions, etc. Especially regarding that latter, I have always felt that she never claimed that she had solutions and the crux of her speeches is urging politicians to listen to scientists. Much as she denies that she has any backing, it is very much possible that she does but I am not bothered by that so long as I am convinced about the cause that is being backed even if she is merely being used as a tool. I am satisfied that her activism regardless of our beliefs have got us to talk on this topic, across countries and that is what I consider as her success.

Of course, there are points I don’t agree with – where she points out that it is a black and white issue and there is no room for grey; while I agree with her on the issue part of it (need to reiterate my surprise at people still debating over the existence of climate change), it is not the same for solution and it is difficult to overhaul the system overnight. It is impossible to be completely in agreement with any person and Greta is no exception. The point that if the current rules do not permit the change, it is the rules that need a change, is a point that I agree with and has been emphasised well in all of her speeches.

My suggestion to the reader would be to not read all speeches at once as it might seem repetitive.

There were around a ten blank pages in my edition after the end of the book and it would have been much better if sources to the facts mentioned in her speeches were given; I do not challenge the factual accuracy as even her staunchest haters do not accuse her of factual inaccuracies, nonetheless, it would have been better to have the sources.

The book as such, I award it a rating of seven on ten.

Rating – 7/10

Have a nice day,

The Good Thief’s Guide to Amsterdam by Chris Ewan – Book Review

Publisher’s write-up:

‘In Amsterdam working on his latest novel, Charlie is approached by a mysterious American who asks him to steal two apparently worthless monkey figurines from two separate addresses on the same night. At first he says no. Then he changes his mind. Only later, kidnapped and bound to a chair, the American very dead and a spell in police custody behind him, does Charlie begin to realise how costly a mistake he might have made.

The police think he killed the American. Others think he knows the whereabouts of the elusive third monkey. But for Charlie only three things matter: Can he clear his name? Can he get away with the haul of a lifetime? And can he solve the briefcase-shaped plot-hole in his latest novel?’

In crime fiction, the protagonist is usually a detective (police or private) or a journalist, but this book features the lead character Charlie Howard who is a crime fiction writer and a part time thief. Charlie is from the UK and is currently living in Amsterdam, in the process of completing his next novel.

Charlie is approached by an American, Michael Park, who has a job for him – to steal two monkey figurines made of plaster for a fee of € 20,000. While Charlie has exact instructions on how to carry out the mission, the plan falls apart and Michael is fatally injured. It does not take long for the police to find Charlie and is a suspect for the attack on the American; while Charlie is no way an honourable character, this is certainly a crime that he did not commit. The rest of the plot revolves around his own investigations on why he was approached for the job and the importance of the seemingly worthless monkey figurines.

The author got into the plot immediately and the city of Amsterdam was used well – be it the description of the canals, the cafes and the seventeenth century houses. It was interesting to read crime fiction from the perspective of a thief and why Charlie became a burglar also had a good background story. Apart from Charlie, I was also satisfied with the supporting characters, the barmaid Marieke who is acquainted to both Michael and Charlie and has a critical role throughout the plot, the investigating officer Buggrave; all of these characters have a past which becomes an important part of the plot and the way the past unfolded and connected to the present kept me gripped. The book had a good start, and I was satisfied with the conclusion and the way it unfolded as aforementioned, but the book seemed a drag in between (especially the segments where Charlie was trying to fix plot holes in his own upcoming book), which had significantly reduced my pace in reading the book.

Much as Charlie was interesting – a famous writer cum thief, I also found him to be vain, who is too proud of his achievements as a writer and also, his prowess in burglary (and his actions in the book made me seriously doubt both). There were aspects about his character that was not convincing, wherein, he is a famous writer, but nobody knows the real Charlie Howard to the extent that he does not use his own picture in his book cover, which neither the public nor anyone in the general public know about (hard to believe). There were times where I felt it was very evident that it was the author’s first novel – wherein, Charlie was surprised to learn that the monkey figurines probably had more value than being merely intrinsic to Michael; which was obvious to the reader from the very beginning (I am not revealing any more on their significance).

To be honest, I started reading this book with no expectations. The only reason I had this book in my Kindle was because, sometime around the end of 2017, the book was available for free. I did not bother reading the book till I had planned an Amsterdam trip myself (which is forthcoming on a date after the publishing of this review) and I do not regret the decision, the book has laid a good foundation, there were shortcomings like how I felt the narration and dialogues were a little too flat but I hope it improves in the series (the next book happens to be Charlie’s adventures in the city I live in at present, so, should be interesting for me).

To conclude, I would say that the book convinced me enough to continue with the series and I would award the book a rating of six on ten.

Rating – 6/10

Have a nice day,

Friday, 20 December 2019

Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari – Book Review

Afin de lire ce commentaire en français, cliquez ici (bientôt disponible)

Publisher’s write-up:

‘Sapiens shows us where we came from. Homo Deus shows us where we’re going.

Yuval Noah Harari envisions a near future in which we face a new set of challenges. Homo Deus explores the projects, dreams and nightmares that will shape the twenty-first century and beyond – from overcoming death to creating artificial life.

It asks the fundamental questions: how can we protect this fragile world from our own destructive power? And what does our future hold?’

Homo Deus is the sequel to Sapiens:A Brief History of Humankind (click for reading the review of Sapiens) from Professor Yuval Noah Harari. While Sapiens explains the events in human history up to the 21st century, the author presents his prognosis on the future of the species – how are we going to deal with changing technology and artificial intelligence? Would we remain the same or would there be a fundamental change – the principal case the author built in the previous book was how our species managed to overcome several constraints without a fundamental change in the structure of our DNA. The author answers these questions in his book Homo Deus.

His coining of the term Homo Deus represents the species that would replace Homo Sapiens and the impact that genetic engineering and artificial intelligence is going to have. The author starts very well, explaining how we are living in the best time humanity has ever witnessed, that for the first time more people die of obesity related diseases than malnutrition, more people die of suicides than war and plague, inter alia. The book is split into three parts – the first explaining how homo sapiens conquered the world, moving on to explain how homo sapiens gave meaning to ‘their world’, and the final part explaining how we are losing control and the author’s prognosis on the future.

As mentioned earlier, the book started very well, giving out interesting facts and explaining how every human emotion is mere biochemical reactions; what if they could be recreated? That was a very good way to start the book which got us immediately into the book. Like his previous book, it dealt with a scientific topic and the author used layman’s language throughout the book. Owing to the similarity of the topic, this did not feel like a book different from Sapiens and in fact, in a lot of cases, it felt like the author was repeating the same contents as his previous book – during the second part, as to how humans rely on myth, how we need them for cooperation, etc. It seemed to me as a means to write a book very similar to the previous book including the size, whereas what the author wished to convey could have been done so in half the number of pages if we remove the redundancies.

I also observed the same flaws that I noticed in Sapiens, where the author seems to misunderstand the word 'religion' – going on to explain how ‘humanism’ and ‘liberalism’ are religions and what would be the religion of the future. Sure, there are some similarities between religion and the above-mentioned ideologies; to start with, they are ideologies, and both are myths that a lot of humans believe in, to create a stable society. But the similarities end there – religion is associated with the divine and there is usually a creator (which is the reason why theologians debate whether Buddhism could be considered a religion) and pretends to hold answers for every question and surely, the above mentioned laws do not (nobody would ask a humanist philosopher to explain how the universe came into being). This logic is the same as 'My dog has a tail. A cat also has a tail. Therefore, my dog is a cat'. These aspects of the book made me cringe.

It also needs to be mentioned as to how the author mentioned certain obvious facts as findings; to quote an example, tried to prove how human beings are not different from any other animals and there is no proof over existence of a soul. I have never come across even the staunchest users and believers in the concept argue that it is a scientific / medical concept. There was a similar argument over mind. Much as it was surprising and thus interesting to note that scientists conducted experiments to confirm the lack of it, it did not add any value to the book, nor add any knowledge to the reader.

To conclude, I would say that this book may be read for the sake of continuity and it has its high points and some interesting facts, but certainly not as informative as Sapiens. A relatively minor issue that kept bothering me is that the very title ‘history of tomorrow’ is a contradiction in terms. This book is a classic case of ruining a good start – the book dealt very little with the author’s prognosis. However, I would admit that if I evaluate the content ignoring all the redundant parts of the book, I would say it was fairly informative. That saves the author’s reputation in my books to read his next work, but not the rating of this book, I award the book a rating of four on ten.

Rating – 4/10

Have a nice day,

Sunday, 1 December 2019

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick – Book Review

Synopsis (from Amazon):

‘America, fifteen years after the end of the Second World War. The winning Axis powers have divided their spoils: the Nazis control New York, while California is ruled by the Japanese. But between these two states - locked in a cold war - lies a neutal buffer zone in which legendary author Hawthorne Abendsen is rumoured to live. Abendsen lives in fear of his life for he has written a book in which World War Two was won by the Allies. . .’

Disclaimer: I have watched all four seasons of the Amazon web series based on the book. However, there would not be any comparisons between the series and the book and references if any, would not be made unless unavoidable.

It is a frightening thought – what if the fascists had their way in the Second World War? The book from Philip K. Dick explores the question in a hypothetical scenario of the Axis Powers winning the war leading to the division of world between technologically advanced Germans and the empire that focuses more on spirituality, Japan.

The book revolves around five principal characters – Robert Childan, an American artefacts dealer in San Francisco, Pacific States of America (vassal state of Japan), Frank Frink – a craftsman in San Francisco, Juliana Frink – his ex-wife who now lives in the neutral zone in Colorado working as a judo instructor and Nobusuke Tagomi – a high ranking Japanese official in San Francisco. Chancellor of Germany, Martin Bormann is ill which starts a succession battle in the Nazi party, that could well determine the future of Japan and the world at large. There is a famous book, banned by the Nazis – The Grasshopper Lies Heavy which explores the hypothetical situation of the Allies having won the war – which is of interest to the characters, particularly in the sub-plot involving Childan and Juliana.

I liked the tangled web that the author weaved, by writing novel which presents an alternate history in which there is a novel in that plot which presents an alternative history in the world of the author which is in fact the real world of the reader. Another interesting aspect is the way in which he brought out the fascist takeover and the reaction of the people – where there is no significant resistance movement and people seem to have accepted it (or those who did not probably were eliminated during the course of the fifteen years). The only interesting character in the book was Childan, who is a very proud American and has poor opinions on blacks, the Japanese, though the latter is a bit paradoxical where there are often situations where he can’t help but admire them.

With that said, I would say that this book was four different plots weaved into one with there being only a loose connection between the storylines of each of the characters. Much as the author is known for science fiction work, this seemed more of a fantasy novel with the characters relying more on the Chinese oracle – I Ching than any technological advancement. It took me nearly 70% of the novel to realise that I was more than halfway through and there was still, barely anything that resembled a plot, with each character having a different objective. I liked the discussions between Juliana and her Italian boyfriend – Joe Cinnadella, a former soldier who had fought in North Africa, but I found it very unusual why an Italian would have the name ‘Joe’ (I have no idea about the diminutive of Giuseppe but I am sure in a world where Allies lost the war, anglicising names would not have been trend). I do not normally nit-pick on names and I ignore it if the plot is good, but this book does not deserve the leeway. In fact, the book ‘The Grasshopper Lies Heavy’ within the plot does not even resemble the world as it was in the period in which the author claims to base this plot on.

The story might have been interesting if the author had chosen to focus on one plot, but instead, had four different sub-plots, with little to no connection of consequence. My disappointment may also be contributed by the fact that I enjoyed the series that my expectations on the book were rather high.
To make matters worse, the foreword from Eric Brown in my Kindle edition even contained spoilers to the book and so, if you plan to read the book, avoid the foreword.

To conclude, you are often told never judge a book by its movie (I have a lot of bookmarks with similar quotes). However, this is the first time I am encountering a reverse situation where I enjoyed the series but not the book. To those who have followed the series but have not read the book, you have not missed anything. I would award this book a rating of two on ten.

Rating – 2/10

Have a nice day,

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