Archive for book reviews

logicomix redux

Posted in Books, Kids, pictures, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on May 31, 2019 by xi'an

I had not made the link until the last speaker of the 50 years of Dauphine commemoration was introduced that he was one of the authors of Logicomix. He spoke of the mathematical modeling of neurons and brain activity, rather than comics, but at a very low level that he called cartoonesque. It is a rare event that cartoon characters can be met in the flesh!

chance call for book reviewers

Posted in Statistics with tags , , , , , , , , on May 14, 2019 by xi'an

Since I have been unable to find local reviewers for my CHANCE review column of the above recent CRC Press books, namely

I am calling for volunteers among ‘Og’s readers. Please contact me if interested.

reading pile for X break

Posted in Books, pictures, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2018 by xi'an

Réquiem por un campesino español [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , on December 17, 2017 by xi'an

Thanks To Victor Elvira, I read this fantastic novel by Ramón Sender, a requiem for a Spanish peasant, Pablo, which tells the story of a bright and progressive Spanish peasant from Aragon, who got shot by the fascists during the Spanish Civil War. The story is short and brilliant, told from the eyes of the parish priest who denounced Pablo to the Franco falanges who eventually executed it. The style is brilliant as well, since the priest keeps returning to his long-term connection with Pablo, from his years as an altar boy, discovering poverty and injustice when visiting dying parishioners with the priest, to launching rural reform actions against the local landowners. And uselessly if understandably trying to justify his responsibility in the death of the young man, celebrating a mass in his memory where no one from the village attends, except for the landowners themselves. A truly moving celebration of the Spanish Civil War and of the massive support of the catholic church for Franco.

Children of Time [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 8, 2017 by xi'an

I came by this book in the common room of the mathematics department of the University of Warwick, which I visit regularly during my stays there, for it enjoys a book sharing box where I leave the books I’ve read (and do not want to carry back to Paris) and where I check for potential catches… One of these books was Tchaikovsky’s children of time, a great space-opera novel à la Arthur C Clarke, which got the 2016 Arthur C Clarke award, deservedly so (even though I very much enjoyed the long way to a small angry planet, Tchaikosky’s book is much more of an epic cliffhanger where the survival of an entire race is at stake). The children of time are indeed the last remnants of the human race, surviving in an artificial sleep aboard an ancient spaceship that irremediably deteriorates. Until there is no solution but landing on a terraformed planet created eons ago. And defended by an AI spanned (or spammed) by the scientist in charge of the terra-formation, who created a virus that speeds up evolution, with unintended consequences. Given that the strength of the book relies on these consequences, I cannot get into much details about the alternative pathway to technology (incl. artificial intelligence) followed by the inhabitants of this new world, and even less about the conclusive chapters that make up for a rather slow progression towards this final confrontation. An admirable and deep book I will most likely bring back to the common room on my next trip to Warwick! (As an aside I wonder if the title was chosen in connection with Goya’s picture of Chronus [Time] devouring his children…)

the nihilist girl [book review]

Posted in Books, Kids with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 7, 2017 by xi'an

When stopping by an enticing bookstore on Rue Saint-Jacques, in front of La Sorbonne, last July, I came across a book by the mathematician Sofia Kovaleskaya called the nihilist girl. Having never heard of non-mathematical books written by this Russian mathematician whose poster stood in my high school classroom, I bought it (along with other summer reads). And then discovered that besides being a woman of many “firsts”, from getting a PhD at Heidelberg (under Weirstraß) to getting a professor position in Stockholm, to being nominated to a Chair in the Russian Academy of Sciences, she also took an active part in the Commune de Paris, along with many emigrated Russian revolutionaries (or nihilists). Which explains for this book about a nihilist girl leaving everything to follow a revolutionary deported to Siberia. While not autobiographical (Sweden is not Siberia!), the novel contains many aspects inspired from the (amazing if desperately short) life of Sofia Kovaleskaya herself. A most interesting coincidence is that Sofia’s sister, Anna, was engaged for a while to Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whose novel The Demons takes the opposite view on nihilists. (As a feminist and anarchist, Anna took a significant part in the Commune de Paris, to the point of having to flee to Switzerland to escape deportation to New Caledonia, while her husband was sentenced to death.) The book itself is not particularly enjoyable, as being quite naïve in its plot and construction. It is nonetheless a great testimony of the situation of Russia in the 19th Century and of the move of the upper-class liberals towards revolutionary ideals, while the exploited peasant class they wanted to free showed no inclination to join them. I think Dostoyevsky expresses much more clearly this most ambiguous posturing of the cultivated classes at the time, yearning for more freedom and fairness for all, but fearing the Tsarist police, unable to connect with the peasantry, and above all getting a living from revenues produced by their farmlands.

wet summer reads [book reviews]

Posted in Books, Kids, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 24, 2017 by xi'an

“‘Oh ye of little faith.’ Rebus picked up his lamb chop and bit into it.” Ian Rankin, Rather be the Devil

Rebus’ latest case, a stray cat, a tree that should not be there, psychological worries in Uppsala, maths formulas, these are the themes of some of my vacation books. I read more than usual because of the heavy rains we faced in Northern Italy (rather than Scotland!). Ian Rankin’s latest novel Rather be the Devil reunites most of the characters of past novels, from John Rebus to Siobhan Clarke, Malcolm Fox, Big Ger’ Cafferty, and others. The book is just as fun to read as the previous ones (but only if one has read those I presume!), not particularly innovative in its plot, which recalls some earlier ones, and a wee bit disappointing in the way Big Ger’ seems to get the upper hand against Rebus and the (actual) police. Nonetheless pleasant for the characters themselves, including the City of Edinburgh itself!, and the dialogues. Rebus is not dead yet (spoiler?!) so there should be more volumes to come as Rankin does not seem to manage without his trademark detective. (And the above quote comes in connection with the muttonesque puzzle I mention in my post about Skye.)

The second book is a short story by Takashi Hiraide called The Guest Cat (in French, The cat who came from Heaven, both differing from the Japanese Neko ko kyaku) and which reads more like a prose poem than like a novel. It is about a (Japanese) middle-aged childless couple living in a small rented house that is next to a beautiful and decaying Japanese garden. And starting a relation with the neighbours’ beautiful and mysterious cat. Until the cat dies, somewhat inexplicably, and the couple has to go over its sorrow, compounded by the need to leave the special place where they live. This does not sound much of a story but I appreciated the beautiful way it is written (and translated), as well as related to it because of the stray cat that also visits us on a regular basis! (I do not know how well the book has been translated from Japanese into English.)

The third book is called Debout les Morts (translated as The Three Evangelists) and is one of the first detective stories of Fred Vargas, written in 1995. It is funny with well-conceived characters (although they sometimes verge so much on the caricature as to make the novel neo-picaresque) and a fairly original scenario that has a Russian doll or onion structure, involving many (many) layers. I was definitely expecting anything but the shocking ending! The three main characters (hence the English translation title) in the novel are 35-ish jobless historians whose interests range from hunter-gatherers [shouldn’t then he be a pre-historian?!] to the Great [WWI] War, with a medieval expert in the middle. (The author herself is a medieval historian.) As written above, it is excessive in everything, from the characters to the plot, to the number of murders, but or maybe hence it is quite fun to read.

The fourth book is Kjell Eriksson‘s Jorden ma rämna that I would translate from the French version as The earth may well split (as it is not translated in English at this stage), the second volume of the Ann Lindell series, which takes place in Uppsala, and in the nearby Swede countryside. I quite enjoyed this book as the detective part was is almost irrelevant. To the point of having the killer known from the start. As in many Scandinavian noir novels, especially Swedish ones, the social and psychological aspects are predominant, from the multiple events leading a drug addict to commit a series of crimes, to the endless introspection of both the main character and her solitude-seeking boyfriend, from the failures of the social services to deal with the addict to a global yearning for the old and vanished countryside community spirit, to the replacement of genuine workers’ Unions by bureaucratic structures. Not the most comforting read for a dark and stormy night, but definitely a good and well-written book.

And the last book is yet again a Japanese novel by Yôko Ogawa, The Housekeeper and The Professor, which title in French is closer to the Japanese title, The professor’s favourite equation (博士の愛した数式), is about a invalid maths professor who has an 80 minutes memory span, following a car accident. His PhD thesis was about the Artin conjecture. And about his carer (rather than housekeeper) who looks after him and manages to communicate despite the 80 mn barrier. And about the carer’s son who is nicknamed Root for having a head like a square root symbol (!). The book is enjoyable enough to read, with a few basic explanations of number theory, but the whole construct is very contrived as why would the professor manage to solve mathematical puzzles and keep some memory of older baseball games despite the 80mn window. (I also found the naivety of the carer as represented throughout the book a wee bit on the heavy side.)

Not a bad summer for books, in the end!!!