Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Last Week's Book: Syntactic Structures

Not much to say on this one except that it was an interesting read, surprisingly quick, and I certainly have never read the same book twice for Book a Week.

October 21-27: Syntactic Structures by Noam Chomsky

Linguistics (1957 - 117 pp.) 

Syntactic Structures is, much like What Is the West?, a short, focused, ambitious work with a huge ambit and not a lot of space. Syntactic Structures is very dense, with different ideas presented as often as about twice every three pages. The underlying premise, of a "rigorous and objective approach" (94) to the construction of sentences in the English language, is naturally interesting for anyone in love with the written word. The book is difficult for a non-specialist (a group including me), yet Chomsky explains his points with little enough jargon or symbols that it is easy enough to ford. 

I cannot offer anything approaching an informed comment as to how convincing Chomsky's propositions are. That has already been covered elsewhere. From the non-specialist's view, though, I did find Chomsky's argument against the use of defining grammar by semantic means effective. I also enjoyed his sentence path chart (19) and his chart explaining placement of subjects and predicates (27), which are perhaps among the simplest illustrations the book has to offer. I am not entirely certain that transformations solve the entirety of the English language without introducing too many exceptions, but then, that is for the linguists to decide. 

Something worth mentioning is the format of the book. Chomsky does this quite well overall - I tend to prefer books with many short sections to few long sections, and he offers up dozens of bites on his subjects. Each time he changes gears, he adds a new section or subsection number within a broader chapter, which helps greatly. He also numbers all of his examples, making them valuable reference points. If there is one thing that could be added, it would be a list of all of his numbered examples added to the appendices. I have not flipped back and forth through a book this much since Lone Wolf

This is definitely a niche book. It does not contain any history of the English language, nor does it contain much insight into how language is interpreted. It claims neither. To those with an interest in exploring the structural roots of English, it will please. 

Ease of Reading: 2 
Educational Content: 7

Saturday, October 20, 2012

This Week's Book: Jennifer Government

Anyone interested in mid-2000s text-based browser games may find this interesting. Or if you want a light read.

October 14-20: Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Science Fiction (2003 - 150 pp.) 

The premise of Jennifer Government is relatively straightforward. Corporations are in control of nearly everything, to the point of peoples' last names being their employers. Said corporations carry around medieval Papal States-style militaries that they deploy against their competitors in Erie War type conflicts. The government lacks funding to the point that it has to ask complainants' families for donations  when pursuing criminal cases. Antitrust law is nonexistent, allowing for conglomerate collusion on a mind-boggling scale. Much of this is attributed to "capitalizm", which was allegedly a working title for the book and which, based on my impression of the book, does not have much in common with actual capitalism. 

The characters and plot are easily understandable, with the book's short span dedicated almost solely to the latter. The frequent switching between characters, leading to 86 tiny chapters broken down into six parts and an epilogue, is a nice format. Placing everyone as an automaton allows the reader to suspend disbelief about who the characters are except that they usually either hate their jobs or enjoy being cruel, which is well within what would be expected in a book like this. Any political commentary is reduced to more or less a caricature of what the left thinks of the right. Given the cornucopia of too much government dystopia novels compared to the dearth of not enough government dystopia novels, it passes. Comments related to how there used to be a community when there was tax come off as tongue-in-cheek more than anything. 

The environment surrounding Jennifer Government is arguably more interesting than the book itself. Max Barry created the text-based browser game NationStates to promote the book, which drew considerable popularity. Then the similarly text-based but more interactive browser game Cyber Nations drew a similar demographic, including alliances that drew their members directly from NationStates (the New Pacific Order being the most famous example). Given the staggering numbers of nations these games have recorded, Barry likely made more people interested in online political simulators than in his book. The other important side-issue is his claims regarding the use of actual corporations' names, which allegedly resulted in lawsuits. While I don't think anything in the book is worthy of a suit if only because it's all so completely unrealistic, I would personally err on the side of caution when using anyone else's trademarked name. 

Barry gives a great few lines in his Acknowledgements at the end of the book: "Most of the time, being a writer means sitting in front of a computer and fighting against the urge to play Minesweeper. It's like that for a couple of years and then you get published and everyone wants to talk to you at once. But some people are there from the beginning, and these are the ones you can't do without." That first sentence is as true as anything. The second one I certainly hope is true. The third one is a telling reminder of why people write in the first place, whether it's one of the more taxing books I read earlier this year or a sci-fi thriller like Jennifer Government

Ease of Reading: 10 
Educational Content: 1

Monday, October 15, 2012

Last Week's Book: What Is the West?

This read about as quickly as First as Tragedy, Then as Farce. Needless to say the perspective was far different. For those who feel like a little Western congratulation, Nemo may be for you.

October 7-13: What Is the West? by Philippe Nemo

Politics (2006 - 121 pp.) 

What Is the West? is an ambitious project that sets out to answer the question its title poses: what are the defining characteristics that make the West distinct from other civilizations? Philippe Nemo answers this question by advancing the Greek, Roman, Biblical, Papal and democratic births that, all combined, give rise to the current West. The book is not very critical of the West, which is perhaps a criticism but is well in line with writers feeling passionate about their subject matter. The format he chooses is somewhere between a traditional academic tract and an op-ed, which allows the reader to pick up key information very quickly, if to the detriment of exhaustive historical research. 

Nemo's attempt at synthesizing all of these time periods works relatively well, following a narrative in which there are rarely more than a couple centuries unaccounted for. Perhaps the single most interesting takeaway I took from What Is the West? is the connection Nemo makes between the growth of the capitalist economy and the post-1750 world population boom. He answers the worries about rising numbers of poor in European cities around the time of the Industrial Revolution with a note that there were simply more people: "the city's poor were not people who became poor after being rich. They were people alive who would have been dead - or more exactly would have not been born. (91) [Nemo's emphasis] Another atypical viewpoint Nemo takes is the root of colonialism, as an extension of Western capitalism and technological innovation rather than as a predatory evil. The general dislike of the other is a common feature in politics, which Nemo brings to the fore with comparisons to various civilizations around the globe. (94) These are contentious points yet Nemo does well in his presentation of them. 

My qualms with the book are few but noteworthy. Firstly, the notion that the Medieval period represented the decline of anything but classicism is a notion that has been more or less debunked since the 1920s (first by Charles Homer Haskins, then by Lynn Thorndike, and the list goes on). Science indeed advanced during those centuries, which Nemo admits readily in his chapter on the Papal Revolution, so his initial suggestion that the Middle Ages were a dormant era feels inadmissible. Secondly, Nemo's boundaries of the West as given in his conclusion are mostly on point yet occasionally feel arbitrary. The most prominent example is that of Germany being firmly within the West but Poland only being partially within it. I would remedy this issue by placing both Germany and Poland within the West, as is consistent with Samuel Huntington's line dividing Europe between Catholic and Orthodox states. By that same token, I would place Eastern Europe farther away from the West than Nemo does, a main reason being that its traditional unification of secular and church power separates it from the West culturally. Finally, although Nemo braces himself for outsider criticism, I am curious to know what non-Westerners make of his conclusions. Ones like most of the world's population occurring due to Western-bred capitalism are especially interesting here. 

It is worth mentioning that the below ratings are given with an eye to mediating between a specialist's reading and that of a member of the general public. Those with backgrounds in history, philosophy or political science will likely find this an easier yet somewhat less educational book, as much of the material is summary and review. Those without backgrounds in those subjects will certainly find more undiscovered tidbits. 

Thanks to a professor for the recommendation. 

Ease of Reading: 6 
Educational Content: 6

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Ars Neptis Dei

Brand new poetry blog by a bright young mind I know:

Check it out if you want to read classically styled poetry with lots of nature imagery and Christian themes.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

This Week's Book: Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe

After all the American-themed books I read while living Stateside, I figured a Canadian book would serve me well here. That, and I found it while flipping through the collection of a used/old/rare/archival bookstore. This is only the second novel I've truly recommended myself in this way this year despite having read forty books. The other was House of Leaves, and I bought that online. Book a Week wouldn't have been the same without the feeling of stumbling across an interesting story in a bookstore and then just reading it. I'm glad I've had that. Hopefully I can do it again before New Year's.

September 30-October 6: Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe by Stuart McLean

Literature (2006 - 274 pp.) 

Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe is one of those books that's part of a series, yet a loose enough series you don't have to read them in order. The books are based off of McLean's Vinyl Cafe radio series, which is most commonly associated with CBC. I've never listened to the radio series. I haven't been a radio person in years. I enjoyed the book, though. 

The front cover is deceptive. Perhaps due to my unfamiliarity with the series, I expected the book to be about all different kinds of people. The Window Peeker, the Litterbug, the Diet Cheater, the Ill-Wisher, and others who appear as caricatures on the cover seem like great potential characters in that twisted Life Is Hell-style way. Aside from the highly uncharacteristic animated introduction showing exactly this sort of thing, these characters never emerge, at least in those literal forms. The recurring characters sometimes take on these personae, albeit within their own personalities and their own situations. 

Secrets from the Vinyl Cafe is about a Canadian family, the people on their street, and the various quirks of the lives of all of them. The book's division into parts based on types of misdemeanor sins (petty theft, not returning emails on time... you know) and then into short stories gives the reader a glimpse into everyone's life. The stories are all substantially different, offering perspectives from different generations and backgrounds. Multiculturalism risks tokenism in media but McLean handles it well here, giving us realistic tales of an Italian-Canadian, Chinese-Canadian, or lived so long in Canada they don't know what their ethnicity is anymore. I can identify with the stories that take place in Toronto. Others are located as distantly as the Maritimes and the seemingly fictitious town of Burnt Creek, Alberta. 

The greatest joy of this book is when you finish. You can look back at the table of contents, reread the titles of each of these sixteen stories, and feel the smile cross your face as you remember every one in vivid detail. Some are hilarious, some are heartwarming, and to be honest, some are better than others. They fit together nicely to form a modern, contemporary light read that might just teach you a bit about Canada. 

Ease of Reading: 9 
Educational Content: 3

Monday, October 1, 2012

Last Week's Book: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce

A more fun read than some recent entries, yet not much less educational. I think I can get used to that...

September 23-29: First as Tragedy, Then as Farce by Slavoj Zizek

Politics (2009 - 157 pp.) 

First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is Slavoj Zizek's take on the 2008 portion of the financial crisis. It is not a typical academic tract in the sense that it is littered with pop culture references, there are fewer citations, and the tone is casual. All of these make it that much more fun, and none detract from Zizek's perspective. His status as "the most dangerous philosopher in the West" (cover) is difficult to argue against when considering the contrarian nature of the book, as well as where he lays blame and the types of comparisons he draws. None of this may be surprising to a long-time Zizek reader, and I am sure he has many, but as a first-timer to his work some of his points are quite surprising. 

The viewpoint he details is stated refreshingly clearly: "What the book offers is not a neutral analysis but an engaged and extremely 'partial' one-for truth is partial, accessible only when one takes sides, and is no less universal for this reason. The side taken here is, of course, that of communism." (6) Objectivity in the arts is inherently impossible anyway. That Zizek takes a communist perspective means I read a book that did not conform to my own (capitalist) take on the world, which meant I would have something to engage intellectually instead of spending 157 pages nodding my head. The first section of the book, cheekily titled "It's Ideology, Stupid!" discusses Zizek's problems with global capitalism. Among the most enlightening of his critiques is the idea that the free market is not as real as capitalists would have it but merely an illusion in the mind of its adherents that exists because they think it exists. His other points, like the idea that crises are opportunities for conservative societies to renew the citizenry's faith in the system and his discussion of political fetishism, also demonstrate the connection between left-wing thought and the concept of the world as a construct rather than as a concrete thing. A more lighthearted highlight of this first part is his comparisons of Silvio Berlusconi to the Joker of Batman fame and of capitalist ideology to Kung Fu Panda. If that last teaser fails to get you reading this book, I have no idea what else I can offer. 

The second part, "The Communist Hypothesis", is less of a critique of Zizek's opponents (I assure you there are many of them) and more of a statement of Zizek's own beliefs. Alternatively, given his leanings, they may simply be what he believes are his beliefs, or what he wants the reader to believe are his beliefs, but nonetheless it is the more positive half of the book. His position on postcolonialism is one I had never seen before, namely that the Western powers are the only countries to ever sanction themselves for callous behaviour, as opposed to the typical axe being brought down by an enemy during a war that past empires have faced. This self-inflicted guilt is something other countries resist, which explains much of their anti-Western sentiment: "This insight allows us also to detect a symmetric duplicity in the way certain Third World countries criticize the West: if the West's continuous self-excoriation functions as a desperate attempt to re-assert our superiority, the true reason why some in the Third World hate and reject the West lies not with the colonizing past and its continuing effects but with the self-critical spirit which the West has displayed in renouncing this past, with its implicit call to others to practise the same self-critical approach." (115) In effect, the moral superiority of admitting one's wrongs is a kind of ideological imperalism the West projects, which is resisted through shameless blame-laying. Aside from this insight, much of Zizek's second part focuses on the key differences between socialism and communism, the former of which requiring shunning from any self-respecting adherent of the latter. Compromises to the working class are seen by Zizek as efforts to mollify efforts toward a violent revolution, which he places as the only way to dethrone established interests in the private sector. 

The book's title refers to Zizek's notion that societies fall twice. They experience a tragedy that shakes them to their core, rebound from it with renewed ideological zeal, and then fall a second time amidst everyone being unable to take the system seriously. His two reference points of 2001, complete with tech bubble crash and 9/11, and the crisis of 2008, signals potential impending change. Then again, he states how successful Barack Obama can be as a conservative president, noting that a president needs sufficient conservative credentials to accomplish tasks like easing up on immigration and engaging supposedly hostile foreign countries. First as Tragedy, Then as Farce is not so much about predicting the future, though, as it is about lampooning the present. At this, Zizek is successful, providing an entertaining and intellectually stimulating read even to those who may find his conclusions foreign to their lines of thought - or even absurd. 

Ease of Reading: 5 
Educational Content: 7