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booksontrial's 50 book reviews in 2009

Club Read 2009

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Edited: Jul 6, 2009, 8:37pm Top

“The man who does not read good books
has no advantage over the man who cannot read them.”
- Mark Twain

I enjoy reading but don’t have the discipline to read regularly, so I made a resolution to write one book review per week in the year 2009 and beyond (hopefully). This way I can discipline myself to read at least one book every week and write down what I’ve learned. Being ignorant has its advantages in that you truly learn something new everyday.

I'm mainly interested in music, architecture, physics, biology, philosophy and biographies, etc. Check out my book review blog, http://booksontrial.wordpress.com.

All comments and book recommendations are welcome!

Edited: Jun 28, 2009, 5:36pm Top

Finished What is Art by Leo Tolstoy. This books greatly broadens and deepens my understanding and appreciation of art. One of the, if not the, best essay on art I’ve ever read. I especially enjoy the summary of various aesthetic theories and definitions of beauty, although Tolstoy’s definition of art is based not on beauty but on feelings.

For detailed review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/06/28/what-is-art/

Jun 30, 2009, 2:28pm Top

I enjoyed reading your review of What is Art? I haven't read the book, but the quotations you cite are thought-provoking, and I'm going to try to track this book down. Thanks.

Jun 30, 2009, 11:54pm Top

You can read the book What is Art online at


It's absolutely delicious. Enjoy! :)

Jul 1, 2009, 4:07am Top

I know What is Art only through the writings of Shestov, esp. The Good in the Teaching of Tolstoy and Nietzsche, subtitled "Philosophy and Preaching".

The first chapter opens with:

In his book What Is Art? Tolstoy - not, indeed, for the first time, but with all the passion of a man freshly entering the struggle - attacks contemporary society. The book is entitled What Is Art?, but it requires no special perspicacity to perceive that it is not art that is discussed here and that art is of little concern to the author.

This is of course highly polemic, and more aimed at Tolstoy's ulterior motives, but you might find it interesting to browse through.

Available at http://shestov.by.ru/dtn/dtn_0.html

Jul 2, 2009, 11:56am Top


Thanks for the recommendation.

It's ironic that Shestov set Tolstoy and Nietzsche side by side, as Tolstoy wrote contemptuously of Nietzsche's philosophy as "immoral, coarse, inflated, disconnected, babble".

I like to read the works by the authors themselves first before any polemic commentaries, so as not to be prejudiced against them. Unfortunately, I'm already biased against Nietzsche by other writers' criticisms.

Edited: Sep 29, 2009, 2:28am Top

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Like a good farmer who sows the seeds, cultivates, waters, and patiently waits for the crops to mature, Tolstoy lets his characters develop slowly, giving vivid descriptions of their external and internal lives as they unfold.

War and Peace is a true work of art (according to Tolstoy’s own definition in What is Art). He transmits his own feelings strongly to his readers through the characters, his love of life (Pierre and Natasha) and spiritual striving (Prince Andrew and Princess Mary). I found myself laughing and weeping together with the heroes and heroines, and reflecting on their reflections. (For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/07/04/war-and-peace/)

Jul 5, 2009, 5:58pm Top

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Edited: Jul 13, 2009, 7:20pm Top

Walden by Henry David Thoreau.

A thought-provoking and sobering essay on life. His comments on economy, architecture, education, philanthropy and various other aspects of life are quite poignant.

"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."

I enjoy reading Thoreau's adventures in the woods and fascinating observations of the wild animals and natural phenomena (the battle of the ants, the "hide-and-seek" game with a loon, etc), but I have a sneaking suspicion that he didn't learn more about the essence of life than what he had already known before, because if he had, he wouldn't have returned to the "civilized life".

What do you think of this book?

Jul 9, 2009, 11:24am Top

Hey books,

Walden is one of my favorite 19th-century texts. However, whenever I taught it to my students, they were always outraged because they read it as an affront to their capitalist dreams. I haven't taught in a few years. With the new simplicity movement becoming quite the vogue, I wonder how it would go over in classes now?

Jul 11, 2009, 10:25pm Top


If people were outraged by the book, it means it had an big impact on them, though they were fighting it. Others may draw inspirations from Thoreau, such as environmentalists and vegetarians, etc.

Jul 11, 2009, 10:26pm Top

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

Having already read his autobiographies Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think, I was convinced that I could gain valuable insights into quantum electrodynamics from Feynman, who had a unique ability to explain the most complex concepts. “What one fool can understand, another can” (even though that one fool was a Nobel Laureate).

Feynman did not disappoint. He was not only a great physicist, but also a great teacher. He was able to capture the crux of a complex physics problem, and explain it so simply and plainly that I was reminded of a line from Sherlock Holmes, “Everything is absurdly simple when it’s explained to you”. (For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/07/11/qed-the-strange-theory-of-light-and...).

Next up: The Making of the Atomic Bomb

Jul 13, 2009, 5:23pm Top

For some reason, I couldn't get Walden by Henry David Thoreau out of my mind yesterday. Although I had reviewed it and moved on to other books, I thought perhaps I hadn't done it justice, and that there was much more to Thoreau than I had perceived or appreciated due to my own lack of insights and experience. I listened to the audiobook version again, and revised/expanded my review until I was relatively satisfied (http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/07/12/walden).

Today I found out that yesterday was the 192nd anniversary of Thoreau's birthday. RIP.

His other work On the Duty to Civil Disobedience also deserves a much better treatment than I gave it, so I'll revisit it when I finish The Kingdom of God is Within You by Leo Tolstoy. Both deal with the subject of non-(violent) resistance.

Jul 14, 2009, 12:37pm Top

The Death of Ivan Illych by Leo Tolstoy

Ivan Illych lived a happy, healthy, decorous and dutiful life as a judge, until an accident made him terminally ill and brought him face to face with Death and the terrible realization that he hadn't lived as he should.

Like Morrie Swartz (Tuesdays with Morrie), Ivan suffered a slow death, unlike Morrie who was able to share some of his feelings with his family, friends and the public, Ivan was alienated from his family and friends, and trapped by loneliness, fear, doubt, anger and despair.

Somehow Tolstoy made Ivan's struggles more real to the readers. We no longer watch the dying man struggle as a visitor, but find ourselves looking out through his eyes at the unrelenting Reality that's always there, "always the same". Until, at the very end, there came relief and joy, and "it is finished".

Jul 14, 2009, 7:40pm Top

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald

Listened to audiobook narrated by Alexander Scourby. A story about dashed dreams and lost love, written in a crisp, witty style. Rich imagery, but vacuous content.

Jul 19, 2009, 7:57pm Top

This message has been deleted by its author.

Edited: Jul 22, 2009, 3:12am Top

What is Life? Mind and Matter by Erwin Schrödinger

Watson and Crick, in their respective accounts of the discovery of the structure of DNA, both cited “What is Life” as their source of inspiration. It’s amazing how a physicist’s insights triggered a breakthrough in molecular biology.

Schrödinger, based on the principles of quantum mechanics and thermodynamics and very limited experimental data, deduced with amazing accuracy the size and character of the genetic material, later known to be DNA. (For full review see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/04/25/what-is-life-mind-and-matter/)

Jul 22, 2009, 3:07am Top

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

A good case can be made that this book should be titled Konstantin Levin, not Anna Karenina. Tolstoy described Levin in great detail, his personality, his emotions, his life, and the Russian life in general (political. religious and economical) as experienced and perceived by him. If it's true that Tolstoy based Levin on himself, then I must say that I enjoyed the book as his autobiography, as I've become an ardent fan after reading his "War and Peace" and "What is Art".
(For full review see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/07/18/anna-karenina/)

Jul 22, 2009, 10:13am Top

Venturing where I'm fully unqualified - regarding Levin. I'm not sure what kind of autobiographic elements there are in Levin, it's an interesting idea. But, I think Levin was more of an ideal, someone Tolstoy would have loved to be. He is an experiment in a compromise of sorts between the hands-off upper classes and the peasants with dirt on their hands.

Of course, the problem with Levin being the main character is that he lacks the drama of Anna (because "All happy families are alike...")

Jul 22, 2009, 3:45pm Top

#19: dchaikin,

I'd have to read more of Tolstoy to identify all the "autobiographic elements" in Anna Karenina. But, based on what I've read so far, both Levin and Tolstoy were orphaned at a young age, made marriage proposals in similar manners, and lived as squires in the country. They were single-mindedly passionate about their ideals. At the end of the book, Levin was struggling with questions of the meaning of life and faith, and contemplated suicide. Tolstoy reportedly suffered a crisis of his own at the time.

The problem with Anna being the main character, memorable and bewitching as she was, is that it's quite obvious, from the way Tolstoy described her affair with Vronsky, she was doomed from the start.

Jul 23, 2009, 10:37pm Top

A Confession by Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy wrote this book shortly after he finished “Anna Karenina”. He was in his early 50s, in full possession of his mental and physical powers. famous, wealthy and well-respected, and yet he despaired of life so much that he was on the verge of suicide (His state of mind is also partly reflected in the character of Levin in “Anna Karenina”).

This book gives a candid, stunning account of the author’s struggles and search for the meaning of life. He looked for answers in experimental sciences, metaphysics, philosophy, art and religion (mainly Christianity), and examined their relations to the fundamental question of life. I’m impressed by his clear reasoning and intellectual integrity. Many of his views are still valid more than a century later.

Jul 25, 2009, 11:43am Top

Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne

An Eye-opening, Jaw-dropping Book

I remember watching a movie production (1954) of the book as a child. I loved it so much that I wished the movie would not end. Listening to the audiobook years later brings back all the wonders and much more.

Imagine you can explore the width and depth of all the oceans at will, all the marine species, all the natural wonders that have never been known or seen before. Imagine you can get inside a volcano and mine the minerals therein, or descend on the bottom of the ocean to collect pearls the size of coconuts. Imagine you discover a new continent, become the first man to set foot on it and claim domain over it.

Jules Verne takes the readers into just such an imaginary world, through the character of Captain Nemo and his submarine Nautilus, combining all the elements of wonder, suspense, adventure and humor into his narratives.

I thoroughly enjoy this book, although all the scientific names of the marine species and minerals make parts of the audiobook unintelligible. It reminds me what great potential human beings possess. In that regard, Captain Nemo represents the best and the worst of men, as one with superior power and knowledge, blessed with boundless resources, and yet tormented by his own destructive inclinations.


I'm excited to read Verne's other books in the coming months,Around the World in Eighty Days, From the Earth to the Moon and Journey to the Center of the Earth.

Edited: Jul 26, 2009, 4:47pm Top

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne

Verne's humor shines brightly all the way through this book. He makes good-humored fun of almost everybody and every nation under the sun. For a while, I thought I was reading a political satire. So funny and yet so true.

But of course, it's no laughing matter to send men to the moon. Verne again impresses me with his detailed scientific knowledge, his poetic vision of men's relation to the universe, the sense of wonder and adventure, seasoned with suspense. All makes this book a delicious read.


I am neither theologian, nor chemist, nor naturalist, nor philosopher; therefore, in my absolute ignorance of the great laws which govern the universe, I confine myself to saying in reply, ‘I do not know whether the worlds are inhabited or not: and since I do not know, I am going to see!’

Jul 29, 2009, 11:12am Top

A Slot Machine, a Broken Test Tube by Salvador E. Luria

What stuck me the most before opening this book was Dr. Luria's photo on the back cover. His alert eyes behind dark rimmed glasses, thin, pressed lips with an ironic upward curl in the left corner, his head tilting slightly backward in an air of aloofness. I thought perhaps he was not as communicative as some of the other scientist-authors whose autobiographies I had read and enjoyed. Fortunately, I was wrong.

In the first part of the book, he gave a very dry, reserved account of his personal life. However, when he started to describe his scientific research (which earned him a Nobel Prize), he became more and more animated and expressive, articulating how logic ("a slot machine"), luck ("a broken test tube"), discernment and perseverance all play import roles in good scientific research. His passion and dry sense of humor also came through strongly when he recounted his political activities, his participation in the fights against social injustice.

Dr. Luria intended his autobiography to be a confession, and indeed it was, although he remained analytical throughout and revealed his emotional life only at the very end. Upon reading it, one gains an understanding of his life, his character, his views on science, art, politics and religion, his triumphs and weaknesses, joys and sorrows. One can not help but feel sorry that such a life ended.

Edited: Jul 30, 2009, 3:57am Top

An Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin by Benjamin Franklin

"Human felicity is produced not so much by great pieces of good fortune that seldom happen, as by little advantages that occur every day."

A fascinating, inspiring story of how a boy, by industry, frugality, reading and writing, constantly striving to improve himself daily, attending to the service of others and the community, and cultivating meaningful friendships, became a great statesman, entrepreneur and one of the most influential figures in history.

Jul 31, 2009, 2:58am Top

Book 40: Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne

A fun and easy read about a wealthy man's wager to tour around the world in eighty days through Asia, America and Europe.

Verne brilliantly captured the excitement, the drama, the determination and resourcefulness required to complete a tour around the world, although he painted a negative picture of Asian and native American cultures.

"Truly, would you not for less than that make the tour around the world?"

You bet I would!

Jul 31, 2009, 8:13am Top

Just gave a copy of A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America to a friend on his 70th last week. I couldn't find what looked like a good, NEW biography of Teddy Roosevelt who's Gene's particular hero if anyone has good suggestions.

Edited: Aug 3, 2009, 7:52am Top

Journey to the Center of the Earth by Jules Verne

After reading Verne's "Around the World in 80 days", I wished to follow in Phileas Fogg's footsteps as closely as possible and tour around the world myself. After reading this book, however, I can't say I'm ready to embark on the journey to the center of the earth, even if it were possible and the route were laid out before me by the heroes in the book, Professor Lidenbrock, Axel (Lidenbrock's nephew) and their guide Hans.

The journey was not for the faint-hearted. There were numerous grave dangers, such as getting lost in a labyrinth hundreds of miles beneath the surface of the earth, drowning in a mediterranean sea, being melted alive in the lava of a volcano, and many others. Without the insane passion and stubbornness of Lidenbrock, and the experience and physical prowess of the cool-headed Hans, a lot of us timid souls would have fainted many times like Axel did, and retreated long before the journey was completed.
(For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/06/08/journey-to-the-center-of-the-earth/)

Aug 4, 2009, 10:01pm Top

Master and Man by Leo Tolstoy

A short listen done during my commute (Audiobooks can be very addictive because of the convenience).

A master and his servant went on a short journey through a snowstorm. On the way, we learn a lot about both of them, through their actions and dialogue, as if we were traveling with them in the sledge. In the end, one of them found exceeding joy and meaning of his life, though not without paying a heavy price. A bittersweet story that would not leave a reader untouched.

Aug 4, 2009, 10:06pm Top

#27: bobmcconnaughey,

What do you like about A Great Improvisation: Franklin, France, and the Birth of America?

Aug 7, 2009, 5:17pm Top

What Men Live By and Other Tales by Leo Tolstoy

A collection of four parables which illustrate the principles of life. Whatever Tolstoy writes, whether it be love stories, war epics or moral tales, it always leaves a deep impression on the reader.

In "What Men Live By", an angel is sent down to earth to lean three lessons, What dwells in man, What is not given to man, and What men live by. He learns them while living and working under the roof of a shoemaker.

In "Three Questions", a King looks for answers to another three questions, How to do the right thing at the right time, Who are the people he should pay more attention than to the rest, What things are the most important. The answers are quite surprising, but compelling nevertheless.

The guests in "The Coffee House Of Surat" engage in an intense argument about whose religion is the truth. A bystander, "a student of Confucius", gives the final answer and silences them all.

"How Much Land Does A Man Need" tells a story of a peasant who dreams of acquiring enough land so that he wouldn't fear the Devil, who schemes to get the peasant under his power.

Aug 8, 2009, 3:07pm Top

Father Sergius by Leo Tolstoy

This book should definitely be adapted into movies for the modern viewers, and I fancy there can be at least two different versions, depending on the targeted audience, the R-rated and the ecclesiastical.
(For full review see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/08/08/father-sergius/)

Aug 10, 2009, 6:18am Top

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith and Love by Dava Sobel

Because Sobel collected numerous materials from Galileo's own writings (his personal letters and published works), she revealed much about him through this book, not only his keen intellect, but also his wit and tact, his manifold interests and talents, his loving relationship with his devoted daughter, who comforted and sustained him during the trying years of his life. Through the correspondence of his daughter, a nun of the order of St. Clare of Assisi, Sobel also painted a vivid picture of the lives and practices of poor nuns in that period.

Presented in the proper historical context, against the background of the prevailing religious and philosophical ideologies of his time, Galileo's views on how science should be practised are truly revolutionary. Although it's not clear whether or how Galileo reconciled his scientific findings with his Catholic faith, when he was forced to recant by the Inquisition, his struggles and convictions are instructive and inspiring to scientists who follow his steps.

Edited: Aug 15, 2009, 8:26am Top

Lives of a Cell
The Medusa and the Snail
by Lewis Thomas

Reading Thomas' books is like watching a brilliant, inquiring mind at work, or rather at play, filled with wonder, wit and humor, exploring diverse subjects such as a cell, the earth, the universe, human body, the mind, music and language, and yet remaining coherent and fully accessible as if he was talking with the reader face to face.

These are books which one could not read without being fascinated and delighted at the same time. (For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/)

P.S. I'm also reading Elegant Universe by Brian Greene. Have to admit though, my brain is getting a bit bigger just reading his explanation of "special relativity". Surely there is a more elegant way to illuminate the nature of motion (time and space)?

Aug 15, 2009, 12:47am Top

I loved the Lives of a Cell. I'll have to look into the other book as well.

Edited: Aug 15, 2009, 3:55am Top

Both books are fantastic! My favorite Thomas book is The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher, which was the book that most inspired me to pursue a medical career.

Aug 15, 2009, 2:20pm Top

Looks like two more for my list then. It will be additionally interesting to read something with the knowledge that it had that great an effect on someone.

Aug 15, 2009, 4:35pm Top

#37: solla,

The true mark of great writers/books, IMO, is that they inspire people and even change their lives.

The Youngest Science is already on my "To Read" list, and I'd also add Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony. Thomas is a big fan of Bach (and I can't agree with him more), so it'd be interesting to see what he thinks of Mahler.

Aug 19, 2009, 3:39pm Top

Book 49: The Odyssey by Homer

An epic story of the hero Odysseus’ journey home from war against all odds. Samuel Butler, one of the early translators, might have a point, when he argued that the Odyssey was written by a woman.
(For a full review with possible spoiler, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/08/18/the-odyssey/)

Book 50: The World As I See It by Albert Einstein

This book gives me a better understanding of Einstein as a human being, who believed in Truth, Beauty and Goodness. He was also a passionate pacifist and a Zionist, who believed, perhaps naively, the cultural and social development of a Jewish nation would benefit both the Jewry and the Arabs.
(For full review and quotes, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/08/19/the-world-as-i-see-it/)

Edited: Aug 22, 2009, 5:53pm Top

A Briefer History of Time (the abridged version of the famous bestseller) by Stephen Hawking.

Hawking recounts the evolution of cosmology/physics from the time of the ancient Greek to the present, with emphasis on Newton’s law of gravitation, Einstein’s theory of general relativity, Planck’s quantum and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principles in quantum mechanics, Feynman’s “sum over histories” approach, and the string theory. He also examines the existence of the Big Bang, black holes, worm holes and time travel.

I like Hawking’s logical, clear, and succinct presentation, especially his explanation of General and Special Relativity, which enables me to appreciate the basic assumptions and logical reasoning inherent in the theory.

Aug 24, 2009, 11:52am Top

>39 booksontrial: I have always found Butler's argument an interesting one. Despite the overall misogyny in the work, the women are fairly sharp tongued. I especially like Penelope's comment near the end of the epic to the effect that if a woman were telling Helen's story, the result might be different.

Aug 24, 2009, 12:49pm Top

Sorry to be so late. I hadn't read a great improvisation - i'd gone to the university bookstore hoping to get a copy of the recent political biography of Khrushchev during his tenure as head of the CCCP for Gene. But that was sold out and browsing the shelves, i first looked for what looked like a good biography of Teddy Roosevelt, Gene's political hero, and not finding one that looked good, started looking through books dealing w/ earlier phases of American history. I was forced to trust to brief checking of reviews and skimming portions of the books i was choosing among.

Aug 24, 2009, 10:31pm Top

#41: urania1,

The book is quite apologetic for women who left or even murdered their husbands. Perhaps another sign that it was written by a woman. But above all, I find it fascinating how Penelope finally acknowledged and embraced Odysseus, long after his old nanny had recognized him from an old scar. She had to test his memory and intimate knowledge of their wedding bed, after all the troubles and trials he had gone through. That's what I would call "feminine sensibility".

Edited: Aug 25, 2009, 3:17pm Top

Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond

Why are wealth and power unevenly distributed among the nations?

Jared Diamond reviews the geographical, ecological and agricultural environment of the ancient societies and argues that geographical and ecological factors affect food production, the diffusion of crops, ideas and technologies, and ultimately the distribution of wealth and power.

Well argued and thought-provoking, though a bit repetitive at times.

(For full summary, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/08/25/guns-germs-and-steel/)

Aug 25, 2009, 8:58am Top

42: bobmcconnaughey,

What is it about Teddy Roosevelt that Gene admires the most? You might be able to find biographies of people with similar traits.

Aug 26, 2009, 4:00am Top

Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler's Ninth Symphony by Lewis Thomas

Having already read his other two works, The Lives of a Cell and The Medusa and the Snail, I thought I was reasonably familiar with Thomas’ ideas and beliefs, but he still managed to amaze me. Reading this book was like listening to a piece of music with a familiar lyrical tune, there were pleasant wonders here and there, and near the end there was a climax followed by a melancholy almost tragic ending that echoed the beginning.

Thomas was oppressed by the prospect of thermonuclear warfare, and listening to Mahler’s Ninth almost drove him to despair, with the thoughts of “death everywhere, the dying of everything, the end of humanity.”

Despite the ominous undercurrent, throughout the book Thomas’ expressed strong faith in science, nature and the symbiotic development of all the species in the ecosystem of the earth. He advised strongly for basic scientific research. Human beings are still just starting in the long evolution process of learning about nature, about ourselves, and becoming the “consciousness of the earth”.

Aug 26, 2009, 9:57am Top

Enjoying following along with your books here, especially the science-ish books. The Lewis Thomas books sound quite interesting.

Aug 26, 2009, 10:27am Top

I'm adding this one to my wish list. Thanks!

Aug 27, 2009, 11:03pm Top

>47 dchaikin:: dchaikin,

Glad to be of service. :) Lewis Thomas seems to be a very reasonable, knowledgeable and humorous fellow. I've yet to read his autobiography The Youngest Science.

Edited: Aug 28, 2009, 8:24pm Top

Family Happiness by Leo Tolstoy

In all his other novels I’ve read, Tolstoy was a third-person omniscient narrator, but here he used a first-person narrative as a young woman. Is it conceivable that Tolstoy, who was 31 when he wrote this, knew all the feelings and thoughts of a 17-year-old girl? I was incredulous, and only after many paragraphs into the story did I get used to the narrative.

It’s a beautiful story of the courtship and early married life of the young woman and a family friend who was 19 years her senior. I read it very slowly just so that I might see, through her eyes, how the scenery and music reflected her emotional state, how she perceived her husband and other people, and how she experienced life and happiness.

Whether she and her husband achieved family happiness is up to the interpretations and opinions of the readers, but Tolstoy certainly convinced me of his mastery of psychology.

Edited: Aug 28, 2009, 11:12pm Top

The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene

I enjoyed this book on three levels, though initially it made my brain expand. First, understanding physics theories. Second, the intriguing question of how to evaluate whether a theory is true, Third, the joy and excitement of discovery.

Greene did a great job explaining the complex physics concepts using analogies and thought experiments. For example, I would have never imagined that quantum tunnel has anything to do with balancing bank accounts or people walking through walls.

(For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/08/22/the-elegant-universe/)

Edited: Sep 3, 2009, 4:59pm Top

Iliad by Homer

Imagine camping on a beach on a start-lit night, and as you’re sitting around the camp fire, Homer tells a story of a great war that happened on the very same shore a long, long time ago.

There were warriors as numerous as the stars in the heaven and grains of sand on the beach, but the majority of them were doomed to die because of the will of Zeus, the god of Olympus. No truce could be made. They could not escape their fate to kill or be killed.

On the one hand, Homer’s use of rich imagery evokes in me a feeling of awe at the heroic grandeur of the war (like the raging of the see and the prairie fire) and the dramatic intensity of single combats, on the other hand, he shows the brutality of war by depicting how precious young lives were destroyed by the spear and the sword, leaving behind their loved ones. His graphic depictions of single combats with all the gory details often makes me grimace. (For full review with possible spoilers, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/09/03/iliad/)

Sep 4, 2009, 4:32pm Top

The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

This book gives an overview of the recent advances in neuroscience with emphasis on applications to restore brain functions to people who have suffered damages to the brain (caused by diseases, accidents or birth defect).

The human brain is not rigid, but is constantly adapting to changes in the environment and the brain itself. Brain functions can be strengthened and partly restored through targeted mental exercise. Psychotherapy can help rewire the neuronal network and restore proper brain function.

(For full summary see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/09/04/the-brain-that-changes-itself/)

Sep 10, 2009, 2:50am Top

Twenty-Three Tales by Leo Tolstoy

A collection of twenty-three parables (including What Men Live By and Other Tales, reviewed here) which teach virtues such as temperance, courage, perseverance, true piety, simplicity, forgiveness and love. The good ones are edifying and entertaining but not overly didactic or sentimental.

There is one folktale retold by Tolstoy that I especially like, “The Godson”. It tells a story of a young man who was adopted as a ‘godson’ and invited to visit his godfather’s golden mansion. He sneaked into his godfather’s throne room where he was able to see and control all the things that were happening in the world. He took upon himself to eliminate evil. Naturally he made a mess and caused more trouble in the world. His godfather then sent him on a journey to learn what he needed to become to destroy evil in men.

Sep 10, 2009, 5:25am Top

The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy

One of the most controversial and censored works by Tolstoy.

By the mouth of a man who killed his wife out of jealousy, Tolstoy launched a scathing attack on society's views and practices with regard to relationships, sex, marriage and child-raising. He even included many materials from his own life and marriage - Like the man in the story, Tolstoy also showed his wife his "memoir" and suffered intensely from jealousy. I could imagine his critics asking: Was he insane, round the bend? Some even cited the fact that Tolstoy left his home shortly before his death as proof that the great man had indeed gone over the edge.

(For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/08/27/the-kreutzer-sonata/)

Sep 13, 2009, 4:48pm Top

Book 59: The Great Divorce

Lewis takes the readers on a fantasy bus ride from hell to heaven, and describes what he believes to be the fundamental difference between good and evil, and the difference in traits between people in heaven and hell.

Book 60: The Abolition of Man

A thought-provoking, occasionally humorous essay in defense of traditional values and the emotions associated with them, against nihilism and reductionism.

Building the Getty by Richard Meier

Architect Richard Meier gives a detailed personal account of the building of the Getty Center, one of the most important works of architecture in recent history, which took 13 years to complete and cost one billion dollars.

Sep 14, 2009, 12:33am Top

I thought The Great Divorce was a very interesting book. Two things I particularly liked about the conception of heaven and hell was the self-exile idea of moving further and further from the bus stop, and how the place was purgatory if you eventually took the bus, and hell if you never did. The other thing I liked was how heaven got solider and solider. I think there is a part of the Narnia tales that is like that too, after the Great Battle, when they keep going farther and farther in, and each place seems a little more real.

When I read the great divorce I was also reading books by Karen Horney, a neoFreudian. She had an idea of a real self, and a false inflated self. I remember that some of the characters that Lewis created reminded me of that idea. I only vaguely remember, but it seems there was one person who was like a large bufoon, and only much later did you notice the little man to whom he was attached.

Sep 14, 2009, 3:24am Top

Enjoyed the Tolstoy reviews.

Sep 14, 2009, 9:22am Top

I enjoyed the Tolstoy reviews, too. I'm not at all acquainted with his short fiction, though I swear I'm going to remedy that soon.

Sep 14, 2009, 10:05pm Top

>57 solla:: solla,

Now that you mention it, the "self-exile" in hell has the same look as what we earthlings call "urban expansion". :)

I like how Lewis uses imageries to illustrate abstract theological concepts, and the dialogues of his characters are also very entertaining and revealing. I read Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters many years ago, and enjoyed them, but never read any of the Narnia Chronicles.

Freud and Jung are on my "To Read in 2009" list, hopefully soon. What's the difference between Freudian and neoFreudian?

Sep 14, 2009, 10:15pm Top

>58 chrine:: chrine and >59 Medellia:: Medellia.

My reviews didn't do Tolstoy justice at all. I'm just glad that they didn't drive you away. :)

Sep 14, 2009, 11:52pm Top

penis envy

no that was a joke. Neo Freudianism covers a batch of various theories/philosophies that grew out of the idea of an unconscious, and probably ego, id, super ego, but not so much the whole idea of sexual repression or trauma being at the root of everything. Besides Karen Horney, there are Harry Stack Sullivan, Virginia Satir, maybe Adler - I think the Jungians are usually classified separately - maybe Eric Fromm. Karen Horney was the one that interested me most. Mainly it was just allowing for theories of personality that allowed for motivations other than sexual/libido - though, if you read Freud himself, his conception of sexual is fairly broad.

Edited: Sep 15, 2009, 12:00am Top

That sounds so pretentious doesn't it - if you read Freud "in the original". Actually, what happened was I joined this kind of community, when I was 19. And night after night two of the people I lived with would stay up late at night in the kitchen discussing Freud, one defending and one not. I stayed up too - not wanting to be left out, although I had to get up early in the morning for a job, but couldn't participate because I didn't know enough about Freud. I was forced to read. After about half a dozen books, I could understand what they were talking about.

Sep 15, 2009, 1:44am Top


Thanks for the clear and concise summary. That's a lot of heavy reading you did at 19. Good for you.

I didn't have the courage to study Freud or any other books on psychology/psychoanalysis when I was 19, because people told me that most psychology students ended up in the psychiatric ward.

Sep 15, 2009, 2:10am Top

Hola booksontrial. It was interesting to hear about some of his books other than his popular works. I've always been oddly fascinated with the Russian authors, even though I haven't read much by them.

Sep 15, 2009, 2:53am Top

>65 chrine:: chrine,

Maybe you share a kindred spirit with the Russians. :) If that's true, I think you'll enjoy Tolstoy.

Sep 15, 2009, 3:05am Top

lol I'm not sure about that. But who knows.

Edited: Sep 18, 2009, 4:35pm Top

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

A rehash of A Brief History Of Time (reviewed here) . Hawking re-organized the materials in a tree-like, instead of a linear format, and elaborated further on the theories of black hole and p-brane. He explained the complex physics models as clearly as humanly possible without the use of mathematical equations.

Hawking's theories of the black hole are based on principles of thermodynamics, Einstein's curved space-time and the holographic principle, which states that all the information contained in a multi-dimensional space can be encoded on the boundary of such space (a surface with fewer dimensions).

Previously, Hawking believed that the theory of general relativity predicted the universe had a beginning and an end (e.g., Big Bang and Big Crunch). Here he proposes an alternative "brane world" model where space-time (or space-imaginary time) does not have a start or an end, but is self-contained and without singularities, like the surface of the earth with extra dimensions.

Hawking also showed how Feynman's "Sum Over Histories" approach can be used to explore the probabilities of time travel and multiple universes. In response to Einstein's famous dictum, "God does not play dice", Hawking stated tongue-in-cheek, "All the evidence is that God is quite a gambler. One can think of the universe as being like a giant casino, with dice being rolled and wheels being spun on every occasion."

Edited: Sep 20, 2009, 4:31am Top

Losing My Virginity by Richard Branson

The subtitle of the original version reads, "How I've Survived, Had Fun, and Made a Fortune Doing Business My Way". Branson certainly delivered the goods. I can't imagine anybody else having more fun doing business than he has. He described his strategies and adventures in such a straightforward and engaging manner, that I'm convinced this is how all business should be done.

Life is a series of challenges for Branson, and he has thrived on challenges since childhood. From winning a ten-shilling bet by learning to swim, to running a student magazine, to building a successful business empire, to exploring space travel, to helping to solve social and environmental problems, he gave a comprehensive account of his extraordinary life. It's candid, direct, humorous, fascinating and inspiring. One of the best autobiographies I've ever read.

Sep 27, 2009, 11:19pm Top

Traitor To His Class by H.W.Brands

A detailed account of FDR's life and times. It covers FDR's personal life (his relationships with his mother, wife and mistress), his apprenticeship in politics under Woodrow Wilson, whose internationalist idealism inspired FDR to lay down the foundation for the United Nations, his fight against polio, his economic policies emphasizing government regulation and intervention (the New Deal) during the Depression, and his international leadership in forming an alliance with Churchill and Stalin during WWII.


"A man must be what he is. Life must be lived as it is. You cannot live at all if you do not learn to adapt yourself to your life as it happens to be. All human beings have failings. All human beings have temptations and stresses. Men and women who live together through long years get to know one another's failings, but they also come to know what is worthy of respect and admiration in those they live with and in themselves. If at the end one can say, This man used to the limit the powers that God granted him. He was worthy of love and respect and of the sacrifices of many people, made in order that he might achieve what he deemed to be his task, then that life has been lived well, and there are no regrets".

--- Eleanor Roosevelt

Sep 29, 2009, 11:21pm Top

Walking by Henry David Thoreau

In this inspiring and thought-provoking essay, Thoreau beautifully articulates how Man derives his sustenance, his physical and spiritual well-being, his imagination and inspirations, from Nature, the Wild. (For full review and quotes, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/09/29/walking/)

Edited: Oct 4, 2009, 3:44am Top

Symposium by Plato Translated by Benjamin Jowett

A group of men gathered together for a feast and started a discourse on the nature of Love. Everybody presented their own notion of love one after another. The dialogues were half playful and half serious, but always entertaining and fascinating. Every speaker seemed to best the one preceding him, and Socrates gave the climatic, noble speech. Just when one thought that he couldn't be topped, a drunk came in and confessed his unrequited love for Socrates.

There are times when I can't evaluate a book, but rather I'm evaluated by it. This is one of them. I'd only quote excerpts from the book. The edition I read is the translation by Benjamin Jowett (I'd appreciate it if someone can recommend a better translation).


Love desires not only the good, but the everlasting possession of the good.

Love is a Mighty Hunter

Love is rough and squalid, and has no shoes, nor a house to dwell in; on the bare earth exposed he lies under the open heaven, in the streets, or at the doors of houses, taking his rest; and like his mother he is always in distress. Like his father too, whom he also partly resembles, he is always plotting against the fair and good; he is bold, enterprising, strong, a mighty hunter, always weaving some intrigue or other, keen in the pursuit of wisdom, fertile in resources; a philosopher at all times, terrible as an enchanter, sorcerer, sophist. He is by nature neither mortal nor immortal, but alive and flourishing at one moment when he is in plenty, and dead at another moment, and again alive by reason of his father's nature.

(For full review and more quotes, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/10/02/symposium/)

P.S. Edited to correct the caption: "Love is a Mighty Hunter", not "Hunger". Pardon the Freudian slip.

Oct 8, 2009, 5:17am Top

Last Days of Socrates by Plato

This book is a compilation of four Dialogues by Plato that provide an account of the trial and death of Socrates, “Euthyphro”, “Apology”, “Crito” and “Phaedo”. Of the four, Apology and Phaedo are the most dramatic, intellectually stimulating and emotionally moving.

Socrates, falsely accused of impiety and corrupting the Athenian youths, was condemned to death by poison. In “Euthyphro”, Socrates tore apart the covering of a man who professed to know all about piety. In “Crito”, he refused his friend Crito’s urging to escape prison and save his own life, stating that it would be unjust to break the laws of Athens.

“Phaedo” gives a fascinating and moving account of the last day of Socrates. There he was, facing impending death, and yet his sleep was sound and deep, and his speeches calm and penetrating as usual. He spent his last hours discussing the very thing he had pursued all his life, wisdom and the purification of the soul. Here he made philosophy come alive in a most powerful manner. Because to him, the immortality of the soul was not merely a matter of speculation, but literally a matter of life and death. If the soul was not immortal, then all his life’s travail would have been in vain. He would be the most pitiable of all men. Therefore, there are plenty of drama, suspense and wonder as the reader follows the greatest debate of Socrates’ life.

It may sound strange, but I’ve never admired and wished to converse with a hero in a book like Socrates.

Oct 10, 2009, 2:55pm Top

The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli

A fascinating, thought-provoking and disturbing read.

Machiavelli based his arguments on the premise (or rather observation) that men are inherently evil unless compelled by necessity to do good. If a man follows moral principles, he would be at a disadvantage to the majority who don't. Therefore, for a man to obtain and maintain power, it is necessary for him to resort to deceit, false promises, cruelty and other immoral devices.

(Full review in progress, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/10/10/the-prince/)

Edited: Oct 21, 2009, 1:56pm Top

Republic by Plato

One of the best books I've ever read. I wish I had read it twenty years ago, but perhaps I would not have appreciated it then as much as I do now. Although this is one of the most influential books in history, I put off reading it due to a lack of interest in political science. Ironically, another influential book on the subject, The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli, drove me to read this, to seek refuge, as it were, from the attack by the cynical argument that injustice is more powerful and profitable than justice.

In the beginning of this book, Socrates' associates challenge him to prove that justice is indeed superior to injustice. In response, Socrates discourses on the nature of justice and the attributes of a just state and a just person. He also examines the presence or absence of justice in four types of states --namely, timocracy (rule-by-honor), oligarchy (rule-by-wealth), democracy and tyranny, and four types of people corresponding to the types of states, i.e., lovers of honor, lovers of wealth, the democratic man, and the tyrant.

Because Plato adroitly employs a variety of analogies, parables and stories from Homer and Greek mythology in his dialogue, his arguments are not only coherent and compelling but also easy and enjoyable to follow from beginning to finish.

What is Justice

Justice is "the having and doing what is a man's own".

Plato's definition of justice is, to me, the most profound statement in the book, and it's the foundation that all the other arguments are built on. I always thought that justice was something administered externally. Plato defines it instead as an inherent state of being that is inseparable from order and harmony. In other words, justice is not a means to an end, but it is both the means and the end.

Justice in a Man

There are three principles working in man, namely, reason, passion and desire. A just man is one in whom the three principles are given their proper precedence, with reason ruling over passion and desire.

Justice is concerned "not with the outward man, but with the inward, which is the true self and concernment of man: for the just man does not permit the several elements within him to interfere with one another, or any of them to do the work of others,--he sets in order his own inner life, and is his own master and his own law, and at peace with himself; and when he has bound together the three principles within him, which may be compared to the higher, lower, and middle notes of the scale, and the intermediate intervals--when he has bound all these together, and is no longer many, but has become one entirely temperate and perfectly adjusted nature, then he proceeds to act, if he has to act, whether in a matter of property, or in the treatment of the body, or in some affair of politics or private business; always thinking and calling that which preserves and co-operates with this harmonious condition, just and good action, and the knowledge which presides over it, wisdom, and that which at any time impairs this condition, he will call unjust action, and the opinion which presides over it ignorance."

(For full review, see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/10/20/republic/)

Oct 30, 2009, 6:07am Top

The Youngest Science by Lewis Thomas

Medicine Watcher

Dr. Thomas gives a fascinating personal account of the development of medicine in the last three-quarters of a century. He grew up watching his parents practice medicine (his father was a physician, and his mother a nurse), became a physician himself, also a professor and dean of the medical school of NYU, served on the New York Board of Health overseeing public health policy and later headed a cancer center. He also experienced being a patient, receiving surgeries and hospital care.

Neurology, Immunology and Olfaction

Thomas intrigues the readers with many interesting problems in immunology and related fields. His sense of wonder and curiosity are very contagious. In particular, I find his notion that "neurology and immunology may be on the verge of converging" fascinating.

Dogs and mice can track individuals by their smell and separate people with cancer from those who are normal by the smell of their urine samples. These experiments suggest that differences in genetic makeup are expressed in smell (molecular makeup), and each person has a unique smell that can be used as a unique identifier, like fingerprints. These markers of self may have a mechanism similar to those in immune response, where foreign cells are detected presumably by molecular interactions on the cell membrane.

Memory (both immune memory and long-term memory in the brain) involves molecular interactions (at the synapses) and the synthesis of new molecules (proteins, etc). Vaccines work similarly to sensitization, i.e., they facilitate and strengthen existing pathways and even create new ones.

Oct 30, 2009, 6:12am Top

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

“I shall never forget how I was roused one night by the groans of a fellow prisoner, who threw himself about in his sleep, obviously having a horrible nightmare. … I wanted to wake the poor man. Suddenly I drew back the hand which was ready to shake him, … At that moment, I became intensely conscious of the fact that no dream, no matter how horrible, could be as bad as the reality of the camp which surrounded us, and to which I was about to recall him.”

Under the dire circumstances of the concentration camps, Frankl became fully convinced that if life is to have meaning, there must be meaning in death and sufferings also, and that every day, every moment, in every situation, no matter how dreadful and seemingly hopeless, a human being still can live with dignity and meaning, he always has the freedom to choose to be responsible for his life, to love, to experience life in its fullness even through sufferings.

Nov 16, 2009, 6:52pm Top

I'm having another episode of Reader's Block. Haven't done any serious reading in two weeks. As a diversion, I finished Complete Fairy Tales of Oscar Wilde. (Possible Spoiler Alert)

It's compilation of nine fairy tales from “The Happy Prince and Other Tales” and “A House of Pomegranates”

I enjoyed reading “The Happy Prince”and “The Selfish Giant” when I was a child. Sad but beautiful stories about miseries in the world and the fragility and beauty of love. “The Remarkable Rocket” reads like a political satire of the idle and pompous; “The Young King” decries the cruelty of wealth and power.

I don’t quite understand, let alone appreciate, “The Nightingale and the Rose” and “The Birthday of the Infanta”. One character died giving her heart’s blood to make a beautiful red rose, another died from shame of his own ugliness. IMO, their lives were sacrificed needlessly in the name of love, or rather, on the altar of beauty.

Nov 24, 2009, 11:12am Top

Memories, Dreams and Reflections by C.G.Jung

A Fascinating and Unique Autobiography

Jung explores many fields that are both familiar and strange, such as astrology, alchemy, philosophy, psychology and religion. For someone with limited knowledge and experience, Jung is quite understandable, as he conveys his ideas and feelings very well despite the broad scope and complexities of the subjects. He has a truly synthesizing mind.

It’s a unique autobiography, because, instead of a record of events in Jung’s life, it’s an account mainly of his inner experiences, his dreams, fantasies and reflections. Life is viewed as a process of transformation, namely, transformation of the psyche to achieve “wholeness” or “total consciousness”. Jung also reflects on his relationships and encounters with people who have influenced him, most notably Freud. It’s surprising, however, that he seldom mentions his wife, though he speaks volumes about his parents.

Jung identifies himself strongly with Goethe’s Faust, who gave his soul in exchange for knowledge. He asserts that there are opposites in everything and is particularly obsessed with the dark secrets. The book documents his fascination with corpses and graves, his experiments and experiences with the unconscious, spirits and multiple personalities. If not for his social support, he would perhaps have gone over the edge like Nietzsche.

(For full review see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/11/21/memories-dreams-and-reflections/)

Edited: Dec 29, 2009, 2:06am Top

Resurrection by Leo Tolstoy

The last major novel by Tolstoy. According to Wikipedia, Vladimir Nabakov heaped superlatives upon Anna Karenina, but questioned the reputation of War and Peace, and sharply criticized Resurrection and The Kreutzer Sonata. My opinion is the exact opposite.

To me, this is a more mature and riveting work than Anna Karenina, because it contains deeper spiritual and social insights, the upshot of the author’s personal struggles and growth in the intervening years. In Anna Karenina, we witness the despair and destruction of the main character, in Resurrection, the tender hope and revival of two souls.

As Levin is a self-portrait of Tolstoy in Anna Karenina, so is Prince Nekhlyudov, the hero of this book. Called to jury duty in the criminal court, Nekhlyudov recognized the defendant as the innocent Katusha whom he had loved but also seduced many years ago. He recalled his tender first love for Katusha, and his later betrayal and misuse of her. The reality of his subsequent life forced itself upon him, “a stupid, empty, valueless, frivolous life”. He decided to redeem himself and save her or at least try his best to relieve her misery.

Tolstoy painted a condemning portrait of the Russian society, specifically the prison system and the government service, which he blamed for oppressing and depraving the human spirit. It reminded me of the Holocaust, Abu Ghraib, and even happenings in our daily life. How otherwise normal, kind human beings can commit horrible crimes against others, and how insensitive and cruel we can be when “doing our job”.

In sharp contrast, the relationship and interactions between Nekhlyudov and Katusha become the more lively and riveting, like plants growing in the desert. There is the whole gamut of emotion, joy, devotion, pity, contempt, anger, forgiveness and love. That is what I as a reader can relate to and it’s also why I care about their fate to the very end.

(For full review see http://booksontrial.wordpress.com/2009/12/05/resurrection/)

Group: Club Read 2009

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