Book Reviews

Reading List for January, 2023

Paris in the Present Tense by Mark Helprin

Recommended to my by a colleague here in Brazil, “Paris in the Present Tense” was my introduction to author Mark Helprin. It will certainly not be the last Helprin book that I read.

The book tells the story of Jules, an elderly French Jew with a colorful past as he confronts bureaucracy, anti-semitism, family issues, and his own memories. But Jules is only one of the main characters. The other is the city of Paris, which Helprin constantly describes in the most intimate of ways, often making the reader feel like he is strolling down the Champs Élisées, or rowing on the Seine.

Besides having a compelling story, I would also classify this book as a work of philosophy – although the one philosopher who appears in the book is portrayed in not the most complementary of terms. Most of the philosophising comes from Jules himself – a music teacher by trade.

If it is a captivating story, majestic writing, and philosophical reflection that you are after, treat yourself to this book.

Lucky Luke, La Diligence by René Goscinny and Morris

Casting about for reading material to reinforce my French, I remembered that when I was learning Portuguese I was helped by reading graphic novels in that language. The level is usually simple, the style conversational, and the accompanying pictures give context for new words.

It was then that I remembered a video I bought as a teenager, an animated treatment of the popular French character Lucky Luke. A quick Amazon search revealed that the graphic novels, in the original French, are indeed available on Amazon. There are also English versions, so if you don’t speak French and want to see the Wild West à la France, check them out.

This is more of an advertisement for Duolingo than for Lucky Luke, as after only three months using the program I was able to read this and understand the plot and dialogue.

Metaphysical Animals by Clare Mac Cumhaill and Rachael Wiseman

Here’s another outgrowth of my recent Epistemology class – a subject with which I struggled at the time, but which has proven very helpful to me in my overall philosophical studies.

One of the last books I read in 2022 was The Murder of Professor Schlick – an account of the rise and fall of the so-called Vienna Circle. To put it simply, the philosophers of the Vienna Circle, which came into being in – you guessed it – Vienna in the period between the two World Wars, were convinced that metaphysical concepts – including religion – were responsible for the carnage of World War I. Therefore, they sought a way to remove such concepts from the realm of what could be termed knowledge. Anything that could not be reduced to a mathematical concept must be “consigned to the flames” (in the words of 18th century Scottish philosopher David Hume, who was, unsurprisingly, an inspiration for some in the Vienna Circle). By the time World War II rolled around the Logical Positivists (as the new philosophy came to be called) had dominated the philosophical world and metaphysics had become quite unfashionable in Western universities.

Ironically, it was World War II that brought about the first major challenge to it. As the men of Oxford University were called up to war duties, their places in the halls of learning were taken by an influx of women. Among them were Elisabeth Ansocmbe, Philippa Foot, Iris Murdoch, and Mary Midgley.

Confronted with the horrors of the war, namely the Holocaust and the atom bomb, these four women saw clearly the inadequacy of Logical Positivism in providing a moral framework for saying “these things are ethically wrong.”

“Metaphysical Animals” covers their lives and philosophical development, from their prewar studies to their rise to prominence after the war, culminating in a confrontation with University leadership over the awarding of an honorary doctorate to President Harry S Truman.

Due to my interest in philosophy, I found this work terribly interesting. More general readers might be interested in it for the historical background, and for a brief appearance in the narrative of none other than C.S. Lewis (as well as a quick mention of G.K. Chesterton).

Two takeaways:

1) Logical Positivism was challenged, but by no means defeated. It’s tendrils can still be seen in science’s dependence on Karl Popper (a peripheral figure to the Vienna Circle), and in the way Science itself has been elevated to godlike status in our society.

2) Though they recognized that Logical Positivism was inadequate, the philosophy of ethics that the four brilliant protagonists of this book settled on also has its drawbacks, in my humble opinion.

Asterix and the Banquet by Rene Goscinny and Albert Uderzo

Continuing my project of learning French, I went back once again to when I was learning Portuguese, remembering that the madcap adventures of Asterix and Obelix were a great help to me in those days. Reading them now in the original French is proving to be great fun.

In the particular adventure, our heroic Gauls make a bet with the Romans: if they can break out of a blockade and make a tour of Gaul (France), collecting culinary delights from each region, the Gauls will put on a banquet for the Romans and the Romans will remove the blockade.

Hilarity ensues. If you’re not familiar with Asterix and Obelix, and the above review has piqued your interest, I’ve included a link to the English version below.


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