My Review of Tolstoy’s “A Confession”

A ConfessionA Confession by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tolstoy does a marvelous job of documenting his search for meaning. Who would have thought this staggering intellect, which had helped him acquire great wealth, would have contemplated suicide for years?

Points that particularly resonated with me: (1) his observation that the elite (which included him and includes me) live simulated lives, instead of the real lives lived by the working class, (2) searches for meaning are rendered futile, rationalistically, because one tries to mix finite and Infinite concepts together, and (3) the only way to find meaning is to be engaged in actually helping those in need, instead of just pontificating.

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“One of the commonest and most generally accepted delusions is that every man can be qualified in some particular way — said to be kind, wicked, stupid, energetic, apathetic, and so on. People are not like that. We may say of a man that he is more often kind than cruel, more often wise than stupid, more often energetic than apathetic or vice versa; but it could never be true to say of one man that he is kind or wise, and of another that he is wicked or stupid. Yet we are always classifying mankind in this way. And it is wrong. Human beings are like rivers; the water is one and the same in all of them but every river is narrow in some places, flows swifter in others; here it is broad, there still, or clear, or cold, or muddy or warm. It is the same with men. Every man bears within him the germs of every human quality, and now manifests one, now another, and frequently is quite unlike himself, while still remaining the same man.”

― Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection

My Review of “The Empathy Exams”

The Empathy Exams: EssaysThe Empathy Exams: Essays by Leslie Jamison
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I cannot recover the time I wasted on this book, but I can make sure I never read another book by this author.

The book starts out great, and the first 20% or so of it is has me seeing myself writing a review that says “This book nourished me and made me feel more human.” But, before even another 20% had gone by I was ready to throw the book against the wall. Instead of helping me to better understand empathy, it is the most self-serving piece of shit I’ve read in a long time. The author loves to talk about all she has been through, and that would be fine if it were done in a way that helped us (or even her) learn something from it. Instead, it’s just a chance for her to use her past to show off an impressive writing style (being somewhat similar to Marilynne Robinson and Joan Didion). She must have just finished her MFA when she wrote it because it just drips with MFA-ishness: for example, say that “It was like something is XYZ, until it absolutely isn’t” and then say that about something else a little later, and then say it again, except reverse the location of the is and isn’t, and of course, don’t forget to use the f-word, even where it is glaringly out-of-place, because every fucking writer should use the f-word, and be sure to describe the Mountain Dew soft drink as pee-colored. Lots of clever language and prose. Way too heavy on the metaphors, though, to the point of turning them into metafives. Apparently MFAs no longer teach anything about actually engaging the reader and ensuring the reader actually gets something out of the book.

As far as the the writing goes, her style is impressive and enviable, but cold. She accused herself of being a writer of cold fiction. I have not read her fiction, but I can see what she means, if her fiction is anything like her nonfiction.

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My Review of Anita Moorjani’s “Dying To Be Me”

Dying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True HealingDying to Be Me: My Journey from Cancer, to Near Death, to True Healing by Anita Moorjani
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was a real blessing for me, and not just because the near-death experience was “comforting.” Specifically, the reminders that we too often look externally for answers, instead of internally, and that we often create our own problems (including bad health) through our attitudes, were reminders that I really latched onto. I’d heard these bits of wisdom before, promptly labeled them as bullshit, and went about being the same old me, reading book after book, seeking wisdom on what to DO instead of BEING ME.

As to the NDE: I’ve read dozens of NDE accounts, especially in the first few years after my wife’s death, and I cannot recall reading one that was more convincing of its authenticity than Mrs. Moorjani’s account. For years I have just treated NDEs as illusions, images created by minds that were shutting down and being flooded with thoughts of days gone by. But this account has me thinking that my scientism (which I try not to have but do have) keeps me from understanding the world as it Really is.

Well written. Not preachy (for the most part). Highly recommended.

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Disappointment in Amazon

Marco’s excellent article on Amazon is worth a few minutes of your time. He summarizes reasons why he has stopped admiring the company and those reasons pretty much mirror my own. While I think you should read the article, I’ll give a peak by sharing its conclusion:

Amazon making its retail business worse to prop up another part of its ecosystem shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Amazon doesn’t want you to be only a retail customer anymore, and they’ll keep making it harder to be.

They want to lock everyone into everything. Just like everyone else. And we’re all worse off for it.

I’ve been a Prime member ever since Amazon started the program many years ago, having dropped out of it for only six months a couple of years ago. But, I too have become frustrated by Prime, and with Amazon in general. As to the two-day shipping: three of my orders in the past couple of months were delayed, once by over a week, and as far as I can tell only one of those delays was sensible (a definite weather-related delay). [Weather was cited as a reason for two of the delays, but in one case the item was already out for delivery when the status was later changed to weather-delayed, several hours before the weather would have been a factor.)

But, it’s not just the shipping. I ordered a Kindle HDX 8.9 a few months ago, and was delighted with it for the few days that it worked, at which time it started rebooting endlessly. I used Amazon customer service to try to solve the problem technically, and I am fairly technically astute on top of that, but to no avail. After searching Amazon’s forums, I saw that numerous customers had the same problem, and one customer complained that he was on his fourth device and it was still constantly rebooting. So I returned the item for a refund.

To Amazon’s credit, I will say that the Kindle HDX, when it works, is a splendid device. In fact, I liked it so well that I decided after a couple of months to take a chance on it again, and ordered a second one. I have been very satisfied with it. It is lighter than my Amazon Air, and has better battery life when used only for reading, although I prefer my Air all the way around. For one thing, the app store for the Kindle is pathetic. Pathetic is perhaps too kind of a word for it, in fact.

In a way, I get the feeling that Amazon just does everything in a half-ass way (except for one on one customer service, in which they excel). Take the various Kindle designs as an example: the Kindle Paperwhite has a marvelous feature in which it remembers every word you look up and stores them in a Vocabulary Builder. What a great idea! But, do they carry it over to the other Kindles? No … it’s as if each Kindle is designed in a vacuum. This is not the first time I’ve seen a feature on one Kindle that was not on others, when it clearly could have been.

I’m not sure what to do about Amazon … it’s like Marco says: damned if you do and damned if you don’t, to paraphrase. My Prime membership auto-renews in September, at which time the price will be $99 instead of $79. I may just cancel it.

The problem with a sending a message to companies like Amazon is that no body wants to be a messenger. For the most part, there is so much affluence in this country, and in the world at large, that they will always have enough customers who keep paying “membership fees” instead of looking elsewhere, like there is an “elsewhere.”

My Review of Stephen Webb’s “Mormon Christianity”

Mormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-Day SaintsMormon Christianity: What Other Christians Can Learn from the Latter-Day Saints by Stephen H. Webb
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is one of the clearest books on theology that I have ever read, and not because the subject is simple, for the Mormon theology is much more rigorous than most people think, but because the author (1) really knows his stuff, and (2) is an excellent writer.

I would say that anyone interested in theology in general, and certainly Christianity in particular, would do well to read this book, even if one lacks an interest in Mormonism. The reason for this is that the author makes abundantly clear that mainstream Christianity is heavily tied to Platonism (specifically, through its concepts of “the immaterial,” which includes its concept(s) of God. Mormonism is, in part, a theology that tries to stick to a naturalistic reality, positing that there is no supernatural, only super material (varying forms of matter, such as what we see and dark matter and spirit matter and so forth).

Not that I am trying to convert anyone to anything, but I must say there is a good bit in Mormonism to get one to thinking. I have been for some time troubled by the concept of an infinite God, because I am troubled by the concept of reality having ANY infinities. I tend to think of infinity as a nice mathematical concept, one that helps us solve a lot of complex problems, but not a factual reality. Mormonism addresses that. That doesn’t mean that I want to convert, of course, but it is something to think about. (I realize I could be completely hosed on my view that there are no real infinities … I could change my mind on that any day … I’m basically just giving an example of how one can possibly extend one’s views through a reading of this book).

I wouldn’t hesitate to read anything written by Stephen Webb. Excellent writer.

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Too Much Protein = Dangerous for Middle-Age People

Eating too much protein could be as dangerous as smoking for middle-aged people, a scientific study has found.

Research which tracked thousands of adults for nearly 20 years found that people who eat a diet rich in animal protein are four times more likely to die of cancer than someone with a low protein diet.

The risk is nearly as high as the danger of developing cancer by smoking 20 cigarettes each day.

That is, until a new study comes along.

Think Again

Some wisdom from Marcus Aurelius, Meditations:

The soul is dyed the color of its thoughts. Think only on those things that are in line with your principles and can bear the full light of day. The content of your character is your choice. Day by day, what you choose, what you think, and what you do is who you become. Your integrity is your destiny . . . it is the light that guides your way.

My Review of Samuel Johnson’s Prayers and Meditations

Doctor Johnson's PrayersDoctor Johnson’s Prayers by Samuel Johnson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote to his friend Norman Malcolm that Samuel Johnson’s Prayers And Meditations was one of his favorite books. He noted that he appreciated the honesty of the prayers and had adopted some of them for his own. I find myself with the same appreciation, having been not only moved by the prose but also feeling a kinship with Johnson’s humanness, his continuation over a period of years to fighting the same temptations and habits, his undying love and prayers for his late wife, his guilt at unmet duty and unfulfilled destiny. An humbling book and you don’t have to be a Christian to appreciate it, just human.

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