Mini-review: Nemesis, by Philip Roth

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis is a novel by Philip Roth, one of the great American writers of the 20th and early 21st century. It was published in 2010, but the experience of reading it now is eerie, given the obvious (if unintended by the author) echoes of the covid pandemic.

The story is set in 1944 New Jersey, during a summer that saw the prelude to the end of World War II in Europe, the continuation of the Pacific war against Japan, and an outbreak of polio – just a few years before the vaccine was developed. (Beware, several spoilers coming up!)

The main character, Bucky Cantor, could not join the army – much to his regret – because of his poor eyesight. Recently graduated from college, he is employed for the summer as playground director in Newark, NJ. He has a strong sense of duty and a sturdy moral compass, instilled in him by his grandfather, with whom he grew up.

But the kids frequenting the playground start getting sick and dying of polio, and Bucky is impotent about it. Finally his fiancee finds him a job out of town, in a campground in the Poconos, in Pennsylvania. There Bucky could have everything: spend time with his soon to be wife, work with kids, and be safe from polio. He hesitates because of his guilt about abandoning the children he was supervising in Newark, but finally takes the job. Unfortunately, the polio follows him to the mountains, eventually getting to him as well.

I will not write about how the last section of the book unfolds because it is well worth reading it on your own. Be prepared for a really tough scene between Bucky and his fiancee, as well as for a heavy dose of great food for philosophical fought, courtesy of a conversation about that fateful summer that Bucky has many years later with a guy who had been one of the children he had supervised back in Newark. The fellow in question had also been struck by polio, but his life then took a sharply divergent trajectory from Bucky’s.

Nemesis is a striking piece of writing by Roth, one that will remain with you for a long time, and that will give you quite a bit to think about. You will never see the current covid pandemic in the same way.

Mini-review: Julian, by Gore Vidal

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Julian, by Gore Vidal, is a wonderfully engaging historical novel about the last pagan Roman emperor, known to posterity – because of Christian hostility – as “the Apostate.” Julian was the nephew of Constantine I, the emperor that decided both to yield to Christianity and make it the state’s religion, and to move the capital from Rome to Byzantium, which he of course renamed Constantinople. Julian attempted to stem the rising tide of Christianity, not by banning it or by persecuting Christians, but rather by encouraging the ancient pagan rites and by stripping Christian authorities of their special privileges (as well as of a lot of temples they had been appropriated for their purposes).

Julian was also one of the few examples of philosopher-kings, and indeed consciously styled himself, in part, after Marcus Aurelius. While the latter embraced Stoicism, Julian was attracted to Neoplatonism. He was particularly influenced by the Syrian Neoplatonist Iamblichus, as well as by the mystic Maximus of Ephesus.

Julian rose to power rather unexpectedly, after having won surprising battles against the Germanic tribes in Gaul, and when his rival (and cousin) Constantius II suddenly died of fever. Julian immediately set out to implement a wide range of anti-corruption reforms throughout the empire, but his work was cut short by his death in battle during an expedition in Persia. He was possibly killed in action by one of his own, a Christian, though there is no hard evidence of that being the case.

Vidal’s novel spectacularly succeeds in giving the reader a glimpse of both the man and his time, achieving an excellent balancing act of being sympathetic to Julian while at the same time not indulging in hero worship. Vidal also uses the novel as a vehicle – through Julian – for a harsh criticism of Christianity, its origins, its doctrines, and its modus operandi. A real pleasure to read.

Mini-review: Socrates – A Man of Our Time

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Socrates is the quintessential philosopher in the etymological sense of “lover of wisdom,” as well as, of course, one of the first martyrs to the cause of wisdom. Socrates – A Man of Our Time, by Paul Johnson brings the Athenian sage vividly to life, and endeavors to explain why he is still so much relevant today.

Johnson does a good job, as much as it is possible to do, at distinguishing Socrates himself from what he calls “the ventriloquist’s doll,” meaning the Socrates-Plato that characterizes the later Platonic dialogues. We are then treated to the life and philosophy of Socrates, from his relentless acting as the self-appointment “gadfly” of Athens during the city’s optimistic times at the beginning of the Peloponnesian War through his perhaps inevitable trial once things had turned dark for his fellow Athenians and he had accumulated enough ill will among both the powerful and the everyday man.

Johnson has a somewhat annoying tendency to use parallels with British history, which at times makes the book feel a bit parochial, in stark opposition with the cosmopolitanism taught by Socrates. But don’t let those occasional diversions irritate you too much. The book is certainly worth reading if you are interested in philosophy as a way of life. And why wouldn’t you?

Mini-review: Happiness – Lessons from a New Science

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Who doesn’t want to be happy? Pretty much by definition, happiness, whatever we may mean by that term, is the ultimate intrinsic good. It doesn’t make much sense to ask “why would you want to be happy?”

Richard Layard is an economist who has decided to take a hard empirical look at the question of what makes us happy (and what doesn’t). The result is an interesting, thought provoking book, full of statistical tables and graphs to chew on. Some of the empirical results are more robust than others, of course, as is always the case in social science.

We learn, for instance, that money really doesn’t make you happy, as there is no correlation between the increase in real per capita income and degree of self-reported happiness. We also learn that seven factors account for the overwhelming majority of the degree of happiness perceived by individuals: family relationships, overall financial situation (as in: one has enough money to have shelter and put food on the table), work (as in job security), community and friends, health, personal freedom (as in how oppressive your government is), and personal values (as in: do you have them and hold on to them?).

Layard is at his weakest in the second part of the book, entitled “What can be done?,” because there he switches from social scientist to wannabe philosopher, and it clearly shows that he is out of his depth. Still, definitely a good, even if now increasingly dated, entry in your happiness library.

Mini-review: The Changeling

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Kenzaburo Oe is a Nobel winning writer whose novels often touch on political and philosophical issues, and whose writing style is influenced by French and American literature, as well as by literary criticism. Generally, I’d consider those influences (especially the latter) unwelcome in a Japanese writer, but Oe pulls off a fascinating existential novel in The Changeling.

It’s the story of a life-long friendship between an aging writer, Kogito (loosely based on Oe himself) and his brother in law, Goro, a successful movie director. (Kogito is obviously not a Japanese name, it’s a reference to Descartes’ famous cogito ergo sum). Goro has made a habit of sending tapes containing his reflections on their relationship to Kogito. In one of these tapes Goro says: “I’m going to head over to the Other Side now. But don’t worry, I’m not going to stop communicating with you.” Kogito hears a loud thud and later finds out that Goro has jumped to his death from his apartment.

This is the beginning of The Changeling, which then develops as a quest by Kogito to figure out why his friend committed suicide. A quest that brings Kogito to Berlin and in the woods of southern Japan, reflecting on early dramatic episodes of his life with Goro, as well as on developments stemming from those episodes and that unfolded over decades of their existence. Absolutely recommended.

Mini-review: Philosophy in the Islamic World

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Philosophy in the Islamic World, by Peter Adamson, is another entry in the author’s ongoing series, “History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps,” in turn based on his successful, and also ongoing, podcast. I’ve read, and highly recommend, two earlier volumes in this series, Classical Philosophy and Philosophy In The Hellenistic And Roman Worlds. And I fully intend to read the next two installments that are already available: Medieval Philosophy and Classical Indian Philosophy.

The volume on Islamic (and medieval Jewish) philosophy is particularly hefty, in part because that happens to be Adamson’s own specialty. But it is fascinating because it will dispel a number of myth and misconceptions about philosophy in the Islamic world, as well as elucidate several intricate connections between it and the resurgence of Western philosophy in the late Middle Ages.

The book is divided into three parts: the so-called “formative period,” which includes discussions of the gigantic influence of Aristotle on Islamic philosophy; “Andalusia,” which features, among others, the philosophies of Averroes and Maimonides; and “the later traditions,” with chapters on Illuminationism, debates on Avicenna’s metaphysics, and — surprisingly and very interestingly — philosophy and science in the Mongol age.

While I don’t usually react very well to that part of philosophy that is essentially theological in nature — and a lot of Islamic philosophy of the period covered by Adamson falls into that category — Philosophy in the Islamic World is highly readable, peppered by Adamson’s usual humorous references to giraffes and Buster Keaton, and more importantly represents a must have entry in your library, on penalty of developing some serious gaps in your understanding of philosophy.

Mini-review: Nemesis – Alcibiades and the Fall of Athens

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Nemesis, by David Stuttard, is the story of Alcibiades, the dashing, powerful, and rich Athenian statesman who was partially responsible for the disastrous expedition against Syracuse that helped change the tide of the Peloponnesian War, ultimately leading to the defeat of Athens. Alcibiades was brilliant, and had all the makings of a great politician and general, like his predecessor, Pericles (by whom he was adopted), and yet squandered the whole thing away, defecting from Athens to Sparta and then to the Persians, before being hunted down and killed by Spartan agents.

My interest in Alcibiades lies in the fact that he was also Socrates’ friend and pupil (and wannabe lover, though the philosopher had different ideas). In one of the Platonic dialogues (the Alcibiades Major), Socrates warns his student of the disaster to come, telling him that he (and politicians in general) just don’t have the right character for what they want to do:

“Then alas, Alcibiades, what a condition you suffer from! I hesitate to name it, but, since we two are alone, it must be said. You are wedded to stupidity, best of men, of the most extreme sort, as the argument accuses you and you accuse yourself. So this is why you are leaping into the affairs of the city before you have been educated. You are not the only one to suffer from this; most of those who manage the affairs of the city are the same way, except a few—perhaps including your guardian, Pericles.”

I’m currently writing a book, tentatively entitled The General and the Philosopher, to explore this historically and philosophically fascinating relationship, and more generally the theme of the interface between philosophy and politics. Stay tuned.

Mini-review: Apropos Of Nothing

I love reading books. That’s why this site features entries from my video book club, essay-based book club, as well as reviews of individual books. Sometimes, though, I can’t get around to a full fledged review, or the book requires only a few paragraphs of commentary. In those cases, I used to publish mini-reviews on Amazon. But since I’ve started boycotting the company (because of their awful labor practices, destructive near-monopoly, and willful avoidance of taxes), I decided to move this practice to my blog. So here we go with the latest entry.

Yes, yes, I know, why read Woody Allen’s memoir? Isn’t he a perverted child molester and rapist? There are, I think, at least two reasons. First of all, regardless of his personal life, he remains one of the most important movie makers and cultural icons of the latter part of the 20th century. Second, if you actually paid attention — as I did — to the controversy from the beginning you will have to come to the conclusion that Allen is innocent, or at the very least not proven guilty.

He does, inevitably, address the issue in Apropos of Nothing, where he points out that he has been cleared of charges by two different inquiries, and that the investigators have actually concluded that Mia Farrow coached her daughter to lie since she was a small child. But what about the fact that he married his much younger adopted daughter, Soon-Yi? She is indeed much younger, but was never his adopted daughter, he and Farrow were never married, and Farrow abused Soon-Yi, physically and psychologically. Besides, the couple has now been married for a long time, which is more than a lot of other celebrities can boast.

Okay, now that we’ve got that out of the way (and of course you are entitled to your opinion about it), the rest of the book is a delight for anyone who appreciated Woody’s movies over so many decades. You won’t get tips about movie making, as Allen claims not to be that good of a director (he thinks of himself as a writer), and acknowledges a lot of luck in his life. But you’ll get endless funny or insightful anecdotes about most of his productions, as well as so many other aspects of his astounding career.

Allen has always been skeptical of awards and reputation, and does not believe in an afterlife. It is fitting, then, that these are his parting words in the memoir: “And really, no interest in a legacy? I’ve been quoted before on this, and I’ll leave it this way: Rather than live on in the hearts and mind of the public, I prefer to live on in my apartment.”

Book Club summary: Practical Philosophy

Over at my Patreon and Medium sites I run occasional “book clubs,” meaning multiple posts on the same book, which interested readers can use either as a companion to the book itself, or simply as extended summaries that give them an idea of what the book is about (and hence facilitate their decision of whether to invest the time to read the full volume or not). Here are all the entries connected to the most recently completed series.

Practical Philosophy — Ethics, Society and Culture, by John Haldane. In this wide ranging volume of philosophical essays John Haldane explores some central areas of social life and issues of intense academic and public debate. These include the question of ethical relativism, fundamental issues in bioethics, the nature of individuals in relation to society, the common good, public judgement of prominent individuals, the nature and aims of education, cultural theory and the relation of philosophy to art and architecture. John Haldane is Professor of Philosophy, and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs in the University of St. Andrews. He is also a former Royden Davis Professor of Humanities at Georgetown University and is currently a Senior Fellow of the Witherspoon Institute, Princeton. As well as being a prominent academic philosopher he is well known in Britain, in North America and elsewhere in the English-speaking world as a public intellectual and social commentator.

Here are my commentaries:

1. What is practical philosophy? (Patreon / Medium)

2. Practical ethics (Patreon / Medium)

3. Families and why they matter (Patreon / Medium)

4. Private life and public culture (Patreon / Medium)

Book Club summary: Xenophon’s Memorabilia

Over at my Patreon and Medium sites I run occasional “book clubs,” meaning multiple posts on the same book, which interested readers can use either as a companion to the book itself, or simply as extended summaries that give them an idea of what the book is about (and hence facilitate their decision of whether to invest the time to read the full volume or not). Here are all the entries connected to the most recently completed series.

Xenophon’s Memorabilia. An essential text for understanding Socrates, Xenophon’s Memorabilia is the compelling tribute of an affectionate student to his teacher, providing a rare firsthand account of Socrates’ life and philosophy. The Memorabilia is invaluable both as a work of philosophy in its own right and as a complement to the study of Plato’s dialogues. The longest of Xenophon’s four Socratic works, it is particularly revealing about the differences between Socrates and his philosophical predecessors.

Here are my commentaries:

I. In defense of Socrates (Patreon / Medium)

II. Socrates teaches a lesson to his son (Patreon / Medium)

III. Socrates gives advice about politics (Patreon / Medium)

IV. Socrates teaches a lesson in statesmanship (Patreon / Medium)