Category Archives: Books

A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

From my notion book review template

A Hell of a Woman by Jim Thompson

What It’s About – lowlife surrounded by other lowlife’s meets desperate woman – the lowlife reveals himself to be quite low over the course of the book

How I Discovered It – Amazon sent me an email saying I would like it, and it was on sale

Thoughts – The pacing is the most interesting part – Thompson starts the main character off in the first person as the inner dialogue of a regular guy, then it changes to the dialogue of the average lowlife, then it gets much worse – all very believable though.

Calling Thompson the “Dimestore Dostoevsky” is pretty accurate

What I Liked About It – the character progression as a moral descent, which in hindsight, was obvious. Also the book was a very fast read – I read it in two or three sittings.

What I Didn’t Like About It – the ending had too many new things which hurt the concepts a bit

Who Would Like It? – any hard boiled fiction fans

Related Books – Pop 1280, the Grifters

Book Review – The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

From my notion book review template

The Book

The Screwtape Letters by CS Lewis

What It’s About

Letters from an older demon to his demon nephew on how to lure humanity into damnation – similar to the role of mobile phones and social media in our modern age

How I Discovered It

A book by Freeman Dyson – in his Templeton section on Theological Fiction

Thoughts

An interesting approach to the subject of moral progress

What I Liked About It

The perspective – one never hears the devil’s perspective, not does one ever read a book about moral progress as a process, instead of just arriving at an ideal end state

What I Didn’t Like About It

Nothing in particular

Who Would Like It?

People who are more prone to pondering religion and existence than going to church

Related Books

StarMaker by Olaf Stapledon

Money Quotes


There are two equal and opposite errors into which our race can fall about the devils. One is to disbelieve in their existence. The other is to believe, and to feel an excessive and unhealthy interest in them. They themselves are equally pleased by both errors and hail a materialist or a magician with the same delight.

Keep everything hazy in his mind now, and you will have all eternity wherein to amuse yourself by producing in him the peculiar kind of clarity which Hell affords.

What he says, even on his knees, about his own sinfulness is all parrot talk. At bottom, he still believes he has run up a very favourable credit-balance in the Enemy’s ledger by allowing himself to be converted, and thinks that he is showing great humility and condescension in going to church with these ‘smug’, commonplace neighbours at all.

Keep his mind off the most elementary duties by directing it to the most advanced and spiritual ones. Aggravate that most useful human characteristic, the horror and neglect of the obvious. You must bring him to a condition in which he can practise self-examination for an hour without discovering any of those facts about himself which are perfectly clear to anyone who has ever lived in the same house with him or worked in the same office.

Once this habit is well established you have the delightful situation of a human saying things with the express purpose of offending and yet having a grievance when offence is taken

And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless.

Do what you will, there is going to be some benevolence, as well as some malice, in your patient’s soul. The great thing is to direct the malice to his immediate neighbours whom he meets every day and to thrust his benevolence out to the remote circumference, to people he does not know. The malice thus becomes wholly real and the benevolence largely imaginary.

the healthy and out-going activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at least he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’

Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties. But what he must never be permitted to doubt is that the total from which these deductions have been made was, in some mysterious sense, his own personal birthright.

Certainly we do not want men to allow their Christianity to flow over into their political life, for the establishment of anything like a really just society would be a major disaster. On the other hand we do want, and want very much, to make men treat Christianity as a means; preferably, of course, as a means to their own advancement, but, failing that, as a means to anything—even to social justice. The thing to do is to get a man at first to value social justice as a thing which the Enemy demands, and then work him on to the stage at which he values Christianity because it may produce social justice. For the Enemy will not be used as a convenience.

who think they can revive the Faith in order to make a good society might just as well think they can use the stairs of Heaven as a short cut to the nearest chemist’s shop. Fortunately it is quite easy to coax humans round this little corner. Only today I have found a passage in a Christian writer where he recommends his own version of Christianity on the ground that ‘only such a faith can outlast the death of old cultures and the birth of new civilisations’. You see the little rift? ‘Believe this, not because it is true, but for some other reason.’ That’s the game,

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian. They all have individual interests, of course, but the bond remains mere Christianity. What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call ‘Christianity And’. You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform.

At any rate, you will soon find that the justice of Hell is purely realistic, and concerned only with results. Bring us back food, or be food yourself.

American Republics by Alan Taylor – a series of thoughts

I recently finished American Republics by Alan Taylor and liked it quite a bit – some random disjointed thoughts

  1. America is optimized for grand irony and strives for it at  all times
  2. The whole notion of states rights, and that people saw themselves as citizens of individual states is quite true but incomplete – during the early American days there was no “American” identity with which to identify – it would be like identifying as a member of NATO
  3. John Marshall was much more influential than one would think in the long term
  4. American did not have priorities as much as it had an agenda of “Let’s support whatever the settlers are already doing and act like it’s our idea”
  5. There was much, much more European involvement in North America than I would have thought, or knew about
  6. It was mostly a record of American public crime and barbarism, which is fine, the shoe fits, but it does leave out anything that could be labeled “good” or “neutral” – it barely discusses any sort of technology or anything that happened in the free states, or immigrants
  7. The whole notion of defensive imperialism makes more sense now – it’s similar to Russian imperialism over time in some ways
  8. The whole notion of States Rights is truer than I would have thought, but slavery was built way into the fabric of society to about the same degree that I thought too (very, very built in) – the two notions are an odd sort of separate, but related in practice
  9. Andrew Jackson (and Polk) were more thorough bastards than I would have thought possible
  10. Settlers led, and the government followed
  11. Anti-British sentiment loomed larger than I would have thought
  12. Being informed about the relative populations put a lot of things into focus
  13. The fear of slave revolts (which never really happened at all) was a driving force behind a lot of things 

Star Maker – a review

I recently/finally finished Olaf Stapledon’s Star Maker (Kindle Version)- a weird classic written in 1937. I found it strangely written, filled with novel ideas about a time and space traveler that wanders the cosmos, ultimately discovering everything there is to discover.

Stapledon’s worlds resemble Arthur C. Clarke in scale and detail (think really, really big). Stapledon goes way weirder, and isn’t afraid to mix physics, math, metaphysics, religion and psychology in one giant bundle. Apparently Freeman Dyson conceived of the Dyson Sphere after reading this book.

Now that I think of it is reminds me a little of Paul Wallace’s book Stars Beneath Us (a ramble on the book of Job as the really, really big picture.)

The Good:

  1. The concept – explaining the whole universe – and doing it well
  2. The progression – starting with one guy taking a walk, and ending with “The supreme moment of the cosmos”
  3. The science – all pretty accurate as far as I can tell for the time.

The Bad

  1. Transitions – they go by so fast you’ll think you missed them. The narrator goes from guy walking at night to space traveler very quickly, then off to other planets, then back to Earth. Stapledon underexplains how these things happen.
  2. Paragraph length – really, really long – an editor could have helped – sometimes they go for pages

On the whole I really liked it. Very different than anything I’ve ever read before in many ways. Here are some of the choice quotes from the book:

Quotes

Further, the God whom they worshipped with the superb and heart-searching language of an earlier age was now conceived either as a just but jealous employer

In Bvalltu’s view man had climbed approximately to the same height time after time, only to be undone by some hidden consequence of his own achievement.

This slender hope the war had destroyed by setting the clock of scientific research back for a century just at the time when human nature itself was deteriorating and might never again be able to tackle so difficult a problem

But even the most spiritual life has its temptations. The extravagant fever of industrialism and intellectualism had so subtly poisoned the plant-men that when at last they rebelled against it they swung too far, falling into the snare of a vegetal life as one-sided as the old animal life had been. Little by little they gave less and less energy and time to “animal” pursuits, until at last their nights as well as their days were spent wholly as trees, and the active, exploring, manipulating, animal intelligence died in them forever.

But since the fluctuating progress of a world from bare animality to spiritual maturity takes, on the average, several thousands of millions of years, the maximum population of Utopian and fully awakened worlds occurred very late, when physically the galaxy was already somewhat past its prime.

For suddenly it was clear to me that virtue in the creator is not the same as virtue in the creature. For the creator, if he should love his creature, would be loving only a part of himself; but the creature, praising the creator, praises an infinity beyond himself. I saw that the virtue of the creature was to love and to worship, but the virtue of the creator was to create, and to be the infinite, the unrealizable and incomprehensible goal of worshipping creatures.

Meanwhile, since each rocky sphere that had once been a galaxy had been borne beyond every possible physical influence of its fellows, and there were no minds to maintain telepathic contact between them, each was in effect a wholly distinct universe. And since all change had ceased, the proper time of each barren universe had also ceased.

Thus it was that, through the succession of his creatures, the Star Maker advanced from stage to stage in the progress from infantile to mature divinity. Thus it was that in the end he became what, in the eternal view, he already was in the beginning, the ground and crown of all things.

And the Star Maker, that dark power and lucid intelligence, found in the concrete loveliness of his creature the fulfilment of desire. And in the mutual joy of the Star Maker and the ultimate cosmos was conceived, most strangely, the absolute spirit itself, in which all times are present and all being is comprised; for the spirit which was the issue of this union confronted my reeling intelligence as being at once the ground and the issue of all temporal and finite things.

The above is the Holy Ghost

But sympathy was not ultimate in the temper of the eternal spirit; contemplation was. Love was not absolute; contemplation was. And though there was love, there was also hate comprised within the spirit’s temper, for there was cruel delight in the contemplation of every horror, and glee in the downfall of the virtuous. All passions, it seemed, were comprised within the spirit’s temper; but mastered, icily gripped within the cold, clear, crystal ecstasy of contemplation.

An interesting interview on urban planning

One wouldn’t think it would be that good, but I found this interview with Alain Bertaud on EconTalk fascinating. The gist –

  • Cities are a large, people dense labor market first and foremost, whether you want them to be or not.
  • All urban planners should focus on is affordability and mobility – anything else is not doable through urban planning
  • A good metric/optimization is – can a schoolteacher afford to live within 30 minutes of her school. Optimize for that and you’re taking care of pretty much everyone.

Speaking truth into the world

One of my happier discoveries of parenting is being able to read and revisit the classic works of literature for my daughter’s bedtime stories and see the wonder of timeless stories on someone new.  A secondary source of happiness is being able to read them out loud to her – there is an altogether different enjoyment in reading aloud compared to reading silently.  I’m reminded of something in Jordan Peterson’s book, namely that the spoken word has power that the written word does not.  In the beginning there was the word, and so forth…

You Can’t Win by Jack Black – Review

I recently read the book “You Can’t Win” by Jack Black, an autobiography of a safecracker (or yegg) who lived in the late late 19th and early 20th centuries.   The timespan between them and now is long enough for everything to be very different, but recent enough for the differences to be recognizable.  It was the best book I’ve read in quite some time.

Surprises in the book

  • There was a coherent alternate criminal society – the criminal element really did seem to all know each other – much more than I would have expected anyway.  The “underworld” seems to be an accurate name
  • Criminals really did have separate names for everything, i.e. yegg, pegging, “On the square”
  • Crime was very widespread – people did not mix criminal and straight jobs
  • Criminals specialized to a surprising degree
  • Beggars were highly valued by other criminals (as they saw everything that happened in a city)
  • Opium use was quite widespread – apparently the author maintained an active drug habit while in (American) prison with no difficulty whatsoever
  • Prisons were not overcrowded
  • Canadian prisons where somewhat more officially brutal (with lashings!) but there was no unofficial brutality – and extremely well run – I imagine both the criminal and taxpayer would prefer the Canadian system of the time to the American
  • The “silent” system and single cells seemed to  solve the prisoner on prisoner violence problem
  • The age at which parents sent children to be on their own is surprisingly low – 14 seemed to be quite common
  • The bonds between parent and child seemed to be much less than now
  • The author was sentenced to 2 years and 30 lashes in his Canadian prison stint – 15 on the way in, and 15 on the way out.  Good behavior would have the authorities go easy on him with the final lashes
  • Jail sentences were less than expected
  • People regarded the notion of identity very differently – There were no permanent records, no widespread photography, no fingerprints, no nothing.  Basically you were who you said you were unless someone said different.  And you could move 50 miles away and never run into anyone you had ever met
  • Many, many more

Let’s Kill Hitler

I recently thought of a new book idea, science fiction no less – to wit:

Many people have often talked about going back in time to the 1920s to kill Hitler – this one comes to mind.  The time traveler always goes back in time before Hitler has committed any crimes.  People see the willingness to murder an (at the time) innocent person in cold blood as a sign of virtue, or resolve, or whatever.

Say this time machine exists.  Say also that time travel results in a reboot of history at the moment of travel.

Suppose WWII never happened, but time travel did – say you have someone totally wanting to commit cold blooded murder, but wants to do it in the past to escape capture.  Say that person goes back in time, commits many murders, but does not make it back to the time machine in time and gets caught.  Say that person goes on a killing spree of historical proportions, but of course no one gets that he is a time traveler from the future.  The state executes the serial killer Adolph Hitler.  History Reboots.

Say that in the future you have some other person who wants to kill someone, evade capture, and have it be somewhat moral.  Aha!  Let’s go back in time and kill a serial killer, but before they’ve done anything (when it will be easier).  This person goes back in time to kill Hitler, starts talking to him – discovers how much they have in common and the two commit many murders together as the best of friends.  History Reboots.

Say that happens again – and again (with many reboots).  With increased numbers, what started as a lone killer, turns into a friendship, turns into a gang, which turns into a political party, which turns into a mass movement as all of the future world’s psychopaths travel to 1920s Germany.  Their deep interest in murder morphs into Naziism (as something they can all agree to).  With each new member they get stronger, and draw ever more people to come nip them in the bud.

Not really sure how it ends, probably in something pacifistic, perhaps with a paean to salesmanship.