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the Complete Review
the complete review - essays

Shedding Life

Miroslav Holub

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To purchase Shedding Life

Title: Shedding Life
Author: Miroslav Holub
Genre: Essays
Written: (1997)
Length: 264 pages
Original in: Czech
Availability: Shedding Life - US
Shedding Life - UK
Shedding Life - Canada
  • Disease, Politics, and Other Human Conditions
  • Translated by David Young. "Translation assistance by" Dana Hábova, Todd Morath, Vera Orac, Catarina Vocadlova and Miroslav Holub. See our review for our thoughts on "translation assistance."

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Our Assessment:

A : an excellent, varied collection of short essays.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times A 21/1/1998 Susie Linfield
The Nation B- 23/2/1998 Joe Knowles
The NY Times Book Rev. C+ 22/2/1998 Richard A. Shweder
Parnassus . 2001 Iain Bamforth
World Lit. Today B+ Fall/1998 Karen von Kunes

  Review Consensus:

  Too often too "intellectual", too technical, etc. -- though bits and pieces appealed to everyone. It is also suggested that translation may be part of the problem.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Holub's style of musing quickly wears thin. While his opinions on current events could be welcome additions to intriguing scientific debates -- such as cloning or vivisection -- they often end up as overbearingly arrogant as The McLaughlin Group." - Joe Knowles, The Nation

  • "(Holub) is precise, wry, skeptical, humane, witty, sad and optimistic. He is a master at discerning the links between scientific and philosophical truths. He is a cross between Lewis Thomas and Milan Kundera." - Susie Linfield, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Holub can be eloquent, and occasionally likable (.....) But for the most part his irony fails, and declines into sarcasm. He tries too hard to be clever. His writing seems forced, even ostentatiously intellectual." - Richard Shweder, The New York Times Book Review.

  • "While the reader is fascinated by many essays in the book, other parts are either too technical, excessively philosophical, or simply not exciting enough to carry along an average -- i.e., educated -- reader." - Karen von Kunes, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       In this varied collection of essays, reminiscent of his marvelous book, The Dimension of the Present Moment, Holub addresses many of his interests and concerns. The three dozen odd essays, few of which are more than five or six pages in length, generally use examples from Holub's own interesting life to make larger (and smaller) points. Scientist (M.D. and Ph.D.), poet, Czech, world-traveller, he has a lot to offer.
       A true humanist he is a staunch defender of Science, a believer in empirical evidence, in rational thought. He is frustrated and maddened by the un- and anti-scientific arguments of the age -- be they communist or New Age. Having lived and worked in Czechoslovakia for practically the entire time it was under Communist rule (he did work abroad in the mid-1960's) his examples of the stupidity and dangers of science that is determined by ideology (rather than a quest for truth) are particularly poignant and convincing.
       Holub's Eastern European / Czech point of view is particularly interesting, because it is not a scientific voice that is often heard. But science is international, and Holub certainly cosmopolitan, equally at ease in both Old World and New (though he affects a somewhat distanced point of view, more, we guess, for literary reasons than any other).
       Holub's arguments are forthright: disease cannot be called "bad", it does not belong in a moral category. Disease has made us who we are, and while we must combat it it is not something that can be beaten, it belongs to all life. Holub is fascinated by scientific discovery and how scientists see the world, and he wishes to communicate this (and often succeeds), so that the world can share his sense of wonder and understand the beauty (and use) of science. He suggests the filming of Archimedes' "Eureka" moment, but laments that "alas, script writers don't need science", science hardly being a subject for the big screen.
       Holub writes engagingly, whether in describing a frustrated technician reassembling an electron microscope when someone had slipped an extra screw among the parts (which naturally does not fit in the device), or a children's orchestra playing for foreign scientists in Mexico. Many of the scientific and philosophical essays are fairly technical, but we did not find the technical detail detrimental to our understanding of the text (though admittedly we also understood most of the technical detail, while in these times of scientific illiteracy many readers might not).
       Holub quotes extensively, bringing in a large number of authorities, sometimes obscure ones. There is a helpful, if somewhat amateurish Notes section appended to the text that does identify most of the names quoted. We did not mind the quotes and references, most of which seem on point. Certainly they show Holub's wide-ranging interests and knowledge: Lec, Feyerabend, Medawar, Lewis Thomas, James Thurber, Thomas Kuhn, Tagore are only a few of the modern names cited -- and then there are all the Czech and Central European authorities. Bonus points for quoting Durs Grünbein -- Holub knows his modern poetry.
       The immense variety of the essays -- lots of digs at Communist science and society, lots of discussion about science, culture, art, and progress in general (all intertwined, as they should be), some melancholy thoughts about society straying away from the proper path -- make it an entertaining and often surprising read. One might not always agree with Holub's philosophy and opinions, but he argues and presents his points well, and they are almost invariably at least thought-provoking.
       We are a bit baffled by the critical response: "excessively philosophical" -- what does that mean ? This isn't exactly Kant, these are really very casual pieces; only the technical vocabulary -- scientific, not philosophical terminology -- could possibly pose a problem. "Ostentatiously intellectual" ? "Overbearingly arrogant" ? Apparently America has become so laid back and has such low expectations and standards that any well-expresed sentiment that can't be understood by a third grader (or a fifth grader, who is naturally only going to have third grade reading skills) is unacceptably elitist. Not a good sign -- Holub's writing is straightforward and not at all condescending (except when concerned with such matters as Soviet biology under Lysenko, etc.).
       We certainly recommend this book, a strong and welcome addition to modern humanist literature. We specifically recommend it to a non-scientifically oriented audience, as Holub does an excellent job of showing how inextricably science, art, society (and, regrettably, politics) are inextricably intertwined -- and how dangerous ignorance (and in particular scientific illiteracy) is.

       A note on the translations: readers are informed that:
All of these essays were edited by David Young, in consultation with Miroslav Holub. Their first English versions, however, were produced by five different individuals (...).
       Officially, however, the book is "translated by" David Young. The suspicion that Mr. Young does not know Czech, a natural thought when his (co-)translations of Holub's poetry are considered, grows stronger here. Here he apparently put the final polish on the English versions, getting (or at least striving for) a uniform voice. Five cooks -- the other translators -- (and a sixth, Patricia Debney, who "assisted" on the title essay) still can make for something of a mess. Holub's strong hand -- he translated a number of the essays, and helped Young in the final edit, -- help somewhat but, though fluent in English, he perhaps does not have the requisite native feel for the language. The essays do not always flow as naturally as one might hope. In particular the technical aspects in a sense stand apart, parts of the text that Mr. Young perhaps felt less comfortable in dealing with.

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Shedding Life: Reviews: Miroslav Holub: Other books by Miroslav Holub under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Poetry under review

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About the Author:

       Czech poet and scientist Miroslav Holub (1923-1998) was one of the major Eastern European poets of the post-war period. He earned both an M.D. and a Ph.D. and was a noted immunologist with more than 150 academic papers to his name. Much of his poetry has been translated into English.

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