BOOK REVIEW: The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian Ed. by Istvan Bori

The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of NationhoodThe Essential Guide to Being Hungarian: 50 Facts and Facets of Nationhood by ISTVAN BORI

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This book is a collection of 50 short essays on various topics (origins, history, arts, sciences, products, and entertainment) as they relate to Hungary and Hungarian-ness. There isn’t a great deal of depth to most of the essays, and so this isn’t the book for someone who is well-acquainted with Hungary and Hungarians and wants a deep level understanding. However, it would be a very useful and easily digested resource for travelers visiting Hungary who want insight into this smallish nation with its very long history. For those familiar with Hungary, this nation has a national character that is quite unique and which is characterized by intelligence, solitariness, and a certain variety of gloominess.

Hungary has had a much larger impact on the world than either its size would suggest, or than most of the world recognizes. Famously, the Manhattan Project, which produced the first atomic bomb, wouldn’t have achieved success in such a rapid timeframe—if at all–if it weren’t for a slate of Hungarian-educated scientists including Edward Teller, Leo Szilard, Eugene Wigner, and Jon Von Neumann. Few of his peers would have disputed the statement that Von Neumann was the smartest person on the planet during his day. Challenging explosives calculations that made the atomic bomb possible are just part of a legacy that also included being the father of game theory–an approach to strategic interactions that is in widespread use in Economics and the social sciences today.

There are some areas in which Hungary has certain niche. For example, while Hungary might not be thought of as an athletics powerhouse, generally speaking, the Hungarians dominate in the sport of water polo and are frequently strong contenders in some swimming events.

This book’s chapters are roughly organized, but not formally grouped, into alike topics. For example, foods, beverages, spices, and desserts are all one after the other. Various history topics are presented together, and the same is true of the arts. Some of the chapters are on much more concrete topics than others. For example, there are chapters on “Fate” and “Soul” up front that are more conceptual than the average chapters. As I indicated, this is a collection of essays by various authors, and that means that there’s not a solitary tone and approach throughout the book. However, there was a single chief editor, and so the chapters aren’t distractingly disparate either.

I believe the book was unfortunately named. “The Essential Guide to Being Hungarian” makes it sound as if this would be a perfect gift for the children of emigrants, i.e. people who’ve visited the country and spent time around Hungarians, but who want to learn more about their native culture. It probably doesn’t give enough depth and new information for such people. For example, the chapters on cuisine talk about pogácsa and gulyas (i.e. goulash), and don’t delve into the exotic, but rather stick with the everyday cuisine with which any visitor to Hungary will already be familiar. On the other hand, tourists and travelers for whom this book might be ideal could be led astray, thinking the book is offering them more depth than they want, need, or can reasonably digest. That being said, there are chapters on niche subjects such as “contemporary writers” or “folk dancing” from which even a veteran visitor to Hungary might pick up something new.

I’d recommend this book–particularly for those who haven’t yet spent a great deal of time in Hungary or who work or interact with Hungarians and want more insight into their nature. Each essay is short and easily digested.

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DAILY PHOTO: Palace Gate Alight

Taken October 3, 2014 in Mysore

Taken October 3, 2014 in Mysore

BOOK REVIEW: The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

This is a short and simple book. Its premise can be summed up as “follow your dreams and all will work out.” It’s about a shepherd boy from Andalusia in southern Spain who yearns to travel. He sells his flock and sets out to do just that. Over the course of the book, he crosses North Africa from Gibraltar to the pyramids of Egypt and back. Along the way he faces many setbacks and barriers, but his willingness to adopt a positive attitude and roll up his sleeves and get to work allows him to overcome these obstacles. As he travels, mysterious guides and mentors–most notably the title-roled Alchemist–show up along the way to induce him to keep going rather than giving up.

As with The Coroner’s Lunch, which I reviewed a couple of reviews back, there’s a supernatural component to this book that seems superfluous. First, the supernatural element doesn’t add much to the story. Second, to my mind, if you are trying to sell the notion that you can make your dreams come true (in this self-helpy sort of way), having your character live in a world of magic detracts from that message. The take away for the reader may be, “Sure, the shepherd boy could do it, he lives in a world in which people can turn lead into gold. In my world, bound by laws of thermodynamics and whatnot, things are not so simple.”

You will note that my middling rating is anomalous. Having skimmed through reviews of this book, I found they were overwhelmingly divided between 5 star and 1 star reviews. It’s rare for one to see the same book being cast both in the best and worst book role by various readers. However, that seems to be the case for this book. Some people adore this book and consider it life-changing. Others think it’s oversimplified tripe for granola-munching potheads and/or six-year olds. I suspect that Coelho is quite pleased. I know—as a writer—if you can’t get someone to love your book, you want them to despise it. Mediocrity doesn’t put one in good stead for building readership. Hate is a passionate response; it means the book struck some kind of chord. Clunkers are remembered just like perfect melodies; it’s the so-so performances that vanish into the background—or the bargain bin.

Unlike the lovers and haters, I found this book to be just alright. It presents some good ideas, but not novel ideas, and it does so in a clear but not brilliant way. It wouldn’t hurt to read it as it’s very short and highly readable.

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DAILY PHOTO: Jump Through Flaming Hoops

Taken on October 4, 2014 in Mysore

Taken on October 4, 2014 in Mysore

IMG_1991

BOOK REVIEW: The Golden Sayings of Epictetus by Epictetus

The Golden Sayings of EpictetusThe Golden Sayings of Epictetus by Epictetus

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Epictetus was a slave-turned-philosopher who was born in Hierapolis and famously lived in Rome until Emperor Domitian banned philosophers from the city. Like Socrates—who Epictetus quotes and refers to frequently—we would know nothing of the thoughts of Epictetus if it were not for one of his enthusiastic students, Arrian, who compiled his mentor’s teachings.

Epictetus was one of the Stoics, philosophers who believed that one should be unmoved by the situations and conditions handed one by the universe—for such things are beyond one’s control. While the word “stoic” has come to mean emotionless in the colloquial, the philosophy might better be summed up by the Serenity Prayer.

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
The courage to change the things I can,
And the wisdom to know the difference.

In other words, one must not be made unhappy by what one cannot change, and one must strive towards self-improvement (changing the things one can) through intense discipline.

As the title suggests, the book consists of a collection of numbered sayings, some are pithy sentences and others are full paragraphs, but few are as long as a page. After the body of the text there is a collection of fragmentary sayings. Some of these “fragments” pack a whollop in themselves, such as, “Give me by all means the shorter and nobler life, instead of the one that is longer but of less account.” This is a central idea in Stoicism–that fear of death is the cause of many of man’s worst features.

Lest giving up one’s anger and fear of the unknown seem too daunting, Epictetus does advocate a gradual approach to self-improvement. He says that if one can at first say that one went a day without anger, one is on the path. As long as one works in the direction of saying it has been a week and then a month without anger.

As intimated above, Epictetus shows a great admiration for Socrates and applauds the elder philosopher for accepting that which he didn’t know and for his continual struggle to be a better man.

While the Stoics are often perceived as hard people, it should be noted that some of Epictetus’s ideas echo those of Mahatma Gandhi and other pacifist leaders. He praises the ability to forgive, not just letting a transgression go, but not allowing one’s mind to become fixated on perceived slights. Epictetus also echoes the notions read in Indian works such as the Bhagavad-Gita when he says, “Reward! Do you seek any greater reward for a good man than doing what is right and just?”

Epictetus shows his wisdom in suggesting that people lead others by example and not by trying to force them into changing their ways.

I think everyone should read this brief work of wisdom.

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DAILY PHOTO: Moon Over Bangkok

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

BOOK REVIEW: Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

Make Room! Make Room!Make Room! Make Room! by Harry Harrison

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Knowing that this book was the basis of the movie Soylent Green, I expected a very different book. While I haven’t seen the movie Soylent Green, I–like everybody not living under a rock–knew that the movie’s big twist was that “Soylent green is people!” Meaning, society has unwittingly been led into cannibalism.

I wouldn’t so much categorize Make Room! Make Room! as dystopian science fiction as I would a detective story that happens to take place in a Malthusian dystopia. (For those unfamiliar with the work of Thomas Malthus, he predicted a massive crash resulting from the fact that human population in his day [18-19th century] was growing much faster than food production and resource discovery. Some dismiss Malthus as a doom-and-gloomer who was unable to foresee that great technological breakthroughs would make it possible for humanity to support its growing numbers. Others, like Harry Harrison, have maintained that it’s merely a matter of time before humanity outstrips its resources and Malthus’s prediction is vindicated.)

While the story is about a detective investigating the death of a wealthy businessman/criminal and said officer’s love affair with the deceased man’s girl, Malthus’s idea sets the tone of this novel. Written in 1966, Make Room! Make Room! describes the world of 1999 as one in which food and drinking water are in scarce supply. Harrison predicted the population would then be 7 billion. He was off a bit. The population in 1999 was closer to 6 billion. While we have presently reached 7+billion, we aren’t surviving off SOYbeans and LENTils (SOY-LENT, get it) for protein.

It’s probably good that the story is about crime and romance, because when it becomes too focused on the Malthusian dystopia—rather than letting it play in the background and give the story a visceral edge—the book can be a bit preachy. This is best exemplified by the brief diatribes of Sol, the protagonist’s roommate and the character that occasionally drags us out of this fictional story and into a lecture on the dangers of unchecked population growth. Such brief lectures might have been well worthwhile if the author (and Malthus) had been correct, but they read a bit alarmist in the wake of both men’s overreaction (or incorrect timelines?) Readers with strong feelings on the subject of birth control may find that issue positively or negatively impacts one’s perception of the book depending upon one’s stance on the issue, but most will find it to be just an another issue that dates the work.

If this had just been about the 1999 Malthusian dystopia, it might be so dated as to be unreadable today. However, the story is more timeless than that—if with an inescapable retro feel.

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DAILY PHOTO: Bangkok Clock Tower

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok.

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok.

Located across the street from Wat Po just down from the drum tower.

DAILY PHOTO: Wat Pho Chedis

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

Taken in September of 2014 in Bangkok

DAILY PHOTO: Outbuildings Under the Banyan Tree

Taken on October 11, 2014 at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore

Taken on October 11, 2014 at Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath in Bangalore

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