Saturday, August 05, 2006

Summer reading

One of the best things about summer holiday is that there's nothing to do. So there's nothing stopping you from reading, book after book...

Richard Muller-Freienfels (1941): Menschenkenntnis und Menschenbehandlung - Eine praktische Psychologie fur Jedermann I read this in Finnish, the translation is from 1953, and it was already 4th Finnish reprint. I found a German original from a German antiquariate web site, and that opus was printed in 1941. RMF's main work seems to be focused on soul and its mysteries - which explains why the only people who have ever taken him seriously (based on looking at who refers to the book) are some esotericists and art psychology people keen to explain how art is more than its physical features.

RMF:s writing is a collection of culturally-biased examples and rule-of-thumb types of solutions to anachronistic problems. It makes a funny summer read.

He can be counted as one of the cultural psychologists, and he was vehemently opposing the behaviourist school and their reductionism. While his Russian colleagues and contemporaries such as Lev Vygotsky actually managed to provide a viable alternative to the behaviourists, RMF - well, didn't. He is committed to the idea of a soul separate of the body, so it is unashamedly dualist, or Cartesian. He argues how important and special the human soul is and how we will never fully understand it, and how it doesn't reside in any of our physical organs.

Oddly enough, he then takes a full turn and a rather comtemporary view by explaining how our cognition is embodied. Not using those words, obviously, as they are a later addition to the psychology jargonator. And his argumentation for embodiment is OK, too bad he still insists on hanging on his dualist views... And as his starting points are skewed, the progress on the slippery slope takes him to funny places. He deals with graphology and physiognomy, believing in them as well as in the many sexist, ageist, racist and cultural stereotypes as useful psychological categories. Interesting, and even funny at times.

Oh, and not completely useless: I have to thank RMF for pointing me to Théodule Ribot's (1839-1916) work on attention. This is a glaring example of the black spots that are left when only reading stuff in English - I must admit that I don't even remember hearing the name before, even though he is considered as the father of French psychology... How sad is that. (Note to self: must do a literature search or two in French)

Dan Brown (2003?): Deception Point
Of course not all summer reading is high-brow, even if it's tongue-in-cheek. It needs to be feet-up and hands-down, also hopefully bottoms-up and eventually eyes-closed. So, I read a couple of thrillers as well. First, the best-selling book in Finland in May 2006: Dan Brown's Meteorite. I read it in Finnish, so some blame might go to the translator, but still I must say it was the worst book I've read in ages. I mean, most tabloids are more thrilling to read. On their bad day. The only consolation is that it didn't take me long to read, but it was still a total waste of time. It is also a waste of time to write any more about it, but I'll do it anyway. Might be that someone reads this and decides not to read it, and for that worthy cause I'll spend a couple of more sentences. The characters are one-dimensional, stereotypical and uniteresting. It's been a week now, and I can't remember one single character from it. I didn't really care what happened to them. From after about 5 pages I was sort of hoping they would all die very soon.

The plot is predictable and the screenplay style of the writing is annoying. With very short chapters that are like scenes in a bulk b-movie. And shorter sentences. Plus, the technical details and lists of things that are supposed to provide the credibility sucked. For instance, it just stands in the way of the story and annoys me if you list 10 symptoms of hypothermia when someone in the book is supposedly freezing. No, it doesn't make me symphatise with the character. In one word, this book is cheap. In another, it's bad. Don't read it. Ever. If it's the only book you have, burn it. I promise you, it's better that way.

Boris Akunin (2005): Turkish Gambit

Next book was by Boris Akunin, the second in the series of detective novels starring Erast Fandorin, a young, talented detective from St Petersburg. These adventures take place in the second half of 19th century, and have all the humour of Wodehouse's Jeeves stories, all the wit of Christie's Poirot's and all the suspence of Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, and it all takes place in the sort of 19th century jamesbond-esque international espionage scenarios. Brilliant stuff, brilliantly written. The characters are crazy, there are so many counts and barons and whatnot that you start losing track. Plots, schemes, conspiracies, lies, hidden identities and all that are abundant and the reader has to constantly update the list of good guys and bad guys (and gals). The only one you can trust is Erast Fandorin, very polite, determined and quiet character.

Ilkka Remes (2006): Hiroshiman Portti
So, Akunin has mixed genres, has crossed detective stories with tales of espionage and peppered the whole hting with humour and flamboyance. This already is more interesting than the techno-thriller that Brown put together. But, as Alistair MacLean and Tom Clancy have shown (and James Bond films continue to show), no matter how strictly your genre defines what you need to have in a book and how you write it, you can do it right, or you can do it wrong. Brown failed, but Ilkka Remes has succeeded. His new book (only available in Finnish so far), Hiroshiman portti (Gate of Hiroshima) is a good techno-thriller. It reads well, is not annoying even though it shows that Remes's team has done their homework of the details, and you actually only disentangle the plot in the very end. It is entertainment rather than "high" literature, but it works.

Karel Capek (1936): War with the Salamanders
The name of the author sounded vaguely familiar. But I never connected the dots until looking him up in wikipedia. Yep, he's the Czech science fiction writer who's credited as being the father of the word "robot". While the term was actually coined by his brother, Josef, Karel went on to write great books, including the "dystopian satire" that has been translated as "War with the Newts" as well as "War with the Salamanders". I read the Finnish translation, "Salamanterisota".

A Czech sea captain (yes, from the country that has as much coastline as Switzerland) discovers a new species of newts, finds them very clever, trades with them (knives to pearls), and things start to roll. International cartells exploiting a monopoly of newts, them being recruited to do underwater constructions in ports etc. And the newts spread around the world, learn to speak, write, do science... The title tells the rest. The book is very daring in its satire, and both communism and fascism get their share of it, and so do all European powers, industrialists and businessmen, and politicians. And while it was written just before WW2, it is still very topical and feels fresh. Partly because the themes it discusses are eternal, partly because the book is so well written. I especially liked the guy who worked as a custodian in the house of the indusrial magnate who financed the first pearl-trade operations. He blamed himself for the whole mess, because he had let the captain in to present his idea, even though he didn't have an appointment. Meanwhile, all the nations, politicians and businessmen were busy blaming everyone else...


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