BOOK REVIEW: Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor

Socrates: A Very Short IntroductionSocrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 Stars

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In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates is forever challenging sophists and others who propose to know what virtues are while they are demonstrably unable to define or delineate them. I wonder how he would have felt about being one of the foremost examples of a person that people firmly believe they know, when there is good reason to believe that much of what we know is false. Socrates is described in comedic plays like Clouds by Aristophanes, but those descriptions are written for comedic effect. There is a large body of works by Plato describing Socrates’ philosophical jousts, but it seems clear that some of these writings reflect Plato’s views which may or may not have been shared by Socrates. There are a few matters of official records, and numerous isolated mentions from people who either loved or loathed Socrates (loving and loathing not being states conducive to accurate reporting.)

This book attempts to concisely review what is known about Socrates and his philosophy, what is myth, and what can, at best, be regarded as the features of a fictional Socrates. The book starts with a chapter on Socrates’ life and what is widely believed true about his biography. Then the book outlines the body of writings that discuss and describe Socrates, particularly those of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Next there is a chapter that explores the philosophy Plato’s Socrates, a fictional construct partially based on the man and partly shaped by his student’s views. The last two chapters discuss the legacy of Socrates (real and mythical) in philosophy and culture.

There is a Further Reading section at the end to give the reader some sources to continue their investigations. I found this to be a fine overview, well-organized, and readable. It will be more useful to those who read Plato, and relevant works of Xenophon.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

Jesus: A Very Short IntroductionJesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores the life of Jesus, the historical context of that life, his approach to teaching, the nature of his identity, the story of his death, and concludes with the origins of Christianity. The book rests on a couple of controversial ideas, the most influential of which is that the four gospels of the New Testament are valid historical sources and that they’re more useful than competing sources (e.g. the Gnostic Gospels.) Rather than asking the reader to take this as a given, Bauckham does present his argument in the second chapter.

I found this book to be intriguing and worth reading – surprisingly, once I realized it was written by a theologian, and not a Religious Studies scholar or historian. (Theologians have skin in the game of religious teachings, whereas Religious Studies scholars and historians are expected to be more objective with regards to religious claims.) It’s telling that I didn’t realize Bauckham was a theologian right away; he does generally present the material with the dispassionate objectivity of a scholar. However, eventually, he slips into the proclivities of a theologian, such as the stance that in the absence of strong evidence either way one might as well accept the truth of religious teachings. Also, he gives Jesus a free ride on shady behavior (as when Jesus compares a Gentile to a dog – which Bauckham calls “almost rudely negative” before rationalizing away said negativity.)

For me, the discussion of Jesus’s teaching style (Ch.5) was the book’s strongpoint. That chapter shows the reader how Jesus became such a big deal. Believer or not, one will come away impressed with Jesus as a teacher.

If one is looking for a book that considers the gamut of views about Jesus, this isn’t the book you’re looking for – e.g. Chapter 6 on Jesus’s identity doesn’t give time to the view that he was just a smooth-talking preacher whose followers likely absconded with his body – let alone that he was a fiction. That said, there is a great deal of interest in the book, and I found it well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breathe by Rickson Gracie

Breathe: A Life in FlowBreathe: A Life in Flow by Rickson Gracie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: August 10, 2021

This autobiography of the phenomenal Brazilian Ju Jutsu practitioner, Rickson Gracie, begins with ancestral origins that include a Gracie who fought in the US Civil War through Rickson’s boyhood in Rio and his professional fights in Japan, and onward to how he reinvented himself after family tragedy and the end of his fight career. Along the way, he conveys lessons learned not only through personal experience and from his father and uncle, the founders of Gracie Ju Jutsu, but also through his studies with Olando Cani — a yogi and developer of bioginastica. While the book is overwhelmingly about a life in Ju Jutsu, Cani’s influence plays a crucial role as the yogi taught Rickson about breath control, and, among a huge pack of skilled Gracie fighters, that ability was pivotal in Rickson’s rise to the top. (The book’s title, “Breathe,” hints at the role breathwork played in Rickson Gracie’s legendary capacities for enduring, flowing, and keeping his head in seemingly unfavorable situations.)

The memoir is candid, offering insights into not only Rickson’s path to success, but also his failings (which, not unexpectedly given his single-minded obsession with Ju Jutsu and fitness, more often involved life as an impetuous youth, as a father, and as a person – generally – than it did his life on the mat.) The book also explores some of the fissures in the Gracie clan and how they grew under the pressure of the family’s mammoth success. With autobiographies, it’s always a challenge to know how true a picture one is getting, but Gracie’s willingness to self-critique makes this book feel truthful.

This book is fascinating and highly engaging. If you’re interested in martial arts, it’s a no-brainer for one’s reading list, but any reader who enjoys a memoir of a life intensely lived will find the book highly readable.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson

Kafka: A Very Short IntroductionKafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Kafka’s life story presents us with one of the greatest literary counterfactuals: What if Kafka’s friend, Max Brod, had honored the writer’s deathbed wish to burn his novels and other unpublished works? After all, Kafka had an outsized influence on modern literature; “The Trial” and “The Metamorphosis” alone have had profound reverberations across the world of literature. It’s with this hook that we are pulled into Kafka’s short, tragic, but brilliant life.

This book presents sketches of both the life and the body of work of Kafka, but subsequent chapters apply three different lenses to Kafka’s canon. The first of these is the body. It’s easy to see this theme’s influence in “The Metamorphosis” (in which the protagonist wakes up to find he’s a huge bug,) but Robertson shows us how the body cuts through other works and was influenced by skinny Kafka’s turbulent relations with his imposing father as well as by his difficulties in intimate relationships.

The second lens is institutions. Again, one of Kafka’s more famous works springs to mind, “The Trial,” but we also see that this, too, is a recurring theme — not only with respect to government / bureaucratic institutions (e.g. “In the Penal Colony”) but otherwise, as well. The final lens is religion and secularity. Kafka was living in the wake of Nietzsche and other nihilist and existentialists, and the atheist worldview was coming to dominate among the erudite segment of society. But Kafka straddled a line; the spiritual had appeal for him, but his life felt governed by nihilistic patterns.

I learned a great deal from this book. I think it offers important insight into Kafka and his writings.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear

Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers concise answers to some of the key questions that circle about the life of Jesus and the religion spawned by his existence. It tells the reader what is known about the life of Jesus, providing insight into what life events are well supported and which are only described in accounts written long after the fact (e.g. the gospels.) It describes which factions believed Jesus was a god and which didn’t. It describes opposing views of what Jesus was (i.e. if he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill human being, was he wearing a human suit or was he some sort of divine hologram.) A lot of the book is more about Christianity than Jesus, proper, exploring how the religion came into existence, how it changed, why it became schismatic, and how it was influenced by other domains of human activity (e.g. governance and philosophy.)

As the subtitle suggest, the book uses graphics throughout – primarily drawings and monochrome artworks depicting Jesus, events from his life, and other characters in his story (e.g. apostles, disciples, and such.) Besides graphics, the only ancillary matter is a “Further Reading” section that discusses Bible versions and scholarly works on Christianity and the life of Jesus.

I found this book to be concise, interesting, and informative. If you’re looking for an outline of Jesus’s life that offers insight into the evolution of Christianity from a non-theological point of view (i.e. having no dog in the fight of whether Jesus was a god) you may want to give this guide a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide by David Norris

Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide by David Norris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This guide provides a concise overview of the life and work of James Joyce. I’ve now read a few of the titles in this series (they are available on Amazon Prime,) and this has been my favorite so far. To be fair, this might have to do with the nature of the subject matter (most of the volumes I’ve read previously were about more complex philosophical subject matter, topics about which it’s harder to write clearly and concisely, while still meaningfully. Which is not to say Joyce’s work can’t be daunting.)

Like the other books in the series, this one is arranged into short (1-2 page) sections (about 70 of them) that each address a particular topic. There is a general chronological flow, though some of the sections deal more with the great novelist as a person, others focus more on his books, and still others talk about influences – both those who influenced him and how he influenced others. As the subtitle suggests, there are graphics throughout. Most of these are black and white drawings in a cartoon style that serve to reiterate or dramatize key points. There is one quite useful table that maps Joyce’s “Ulysses” to Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which influenced it.

Which brings us to the value of a book like this when trying to understand Joyce’s work. Having been reading “Ulysses” of late, I’m interested in gaining more depth of insight into the man’s work. Joyce’s language is beautiful, but for me it’s been a bit more like reading poetry than prose. Story is dialed down to virtual non-existence. Referring back to the aforementioned table that describes how “Ulysses” and “The Odyssey” relate offers a great example. When one sees the title “Ulysses,” one immediately thinks of Homer’s epic poem, but a straight-forward reading of each work leaves one wondering how two books could be more different. “The Odyssey” is the harrowing tale of Odysseus’s (a.k.a. Ulysses’s) ten-year return journey after the Trojan War, it features monsters, ship wrecks, cunning lovers, a visit to the underworld, a rampaging slaughter, etc. “Ulysses” is the story of a couple guys (mostly Leopold Bloom, but also Steven Daedalus) who go about their seemingly mundane daily lives in Dublin, Ireland. There are no monsters, witches, duels to the death, and – arguably — the big excitement is the attendance of the funeral of an unknown character. However, Norris offers the reader insights into how the two works can be seen as linked.

There are similar breakdowns of other major works (i.e. “Dubliners,” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”) Special focus is given to the unique ways in which these works are arranged and the philosophy and psychology that inform them.

In addition to the aforementioned graphics, there is a “Further Reading” section at the end to point readers to works that will help them to further flesh out their understanding of this curious author and his notoriously challenging works.

If you’re interested in decoding Joyce, I’d recommend you check out this brief guide.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Portrait in Poems by Evie Robillard

A Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B ToklasA Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas by Evie Robillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available March 3, 2020

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This work provides a biographical sketch of Gertrude Stein, her partner Alice Toklas, and their life together in Paris. The vehicle is free verse poetry, although it reads more like a children’s book than poetry. That may sound as though I intended it as a burn, but that’s not the case. The marketing materials for this book present it as a child-friendly picture book, if not entirely marketed in the children’s literature market. What I mean to say is that the writing is simple, literal, and isn’t filled with complex metaphor or cryptic description that one might expect in adult works of poetry.

The book is illustrated in a child-centric manner as well, with whimsical, unintimidating, and colorful art.

I didn’t know much about Stein, and had only heard the title of the book, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” in which much of this book’s source material presumably resides, and so this was a nice background, without getting too deep in the weeds.

If you’re a Stein fan and are interested in introducing a kid to her biography, or if you have your own limited but adult interest in her life, this is quick read to get you up to speed.

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5 Historical Figures You May Not Realize Were Super-Freaky

5.) Jean-Jacques Rousseau: This French philosopher is probably best known for his ideas about social contract in governance. At least that’s what I knew him for when I was a student of the social sciences.

Unlike the Marquis de Sade, whose philosophy and sexual proclivities were intimately intertwined, one wouldn’t necessarily guess that Rousseau was a masochist into getting spanked by dominant women from his political theories. Although, all interest in governance is about who holds the whip and what the whipee gets in exchange for being subjected to it — figuratively speaking, of course.

 

4.) Peggy Guggenheim:  This  heiress  to  an  

artistic empire had a legendary libido — and not just in her youth. What interests people is not so much that she was sexually promiscuous, but that age didn’t seem to curb her desire for sexual conquest.

Even though her memoir is filled with discussion of her sexual dalliances, she is still more well known for discovering important 20th century artists and saving art from thieving Nazis.

 

 

3.) Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: One of the all-time greatest musical minds, his genius for composition may have helped to keep him from being known for his scatological obsession.

This may seem far-fetched (not to mention grosser than the other proclivities discussed herein) but there’s even a Wikipedia page about it — so it must be true.

I knew from discussion of the movie “Amadeus” (which I, sadly, haven’t seen) that there was something unexpectedly scandalous about Mozart, but I never would have guess this was it.

 

2.) King Edward VII: It may be well-established that King Edward had some wild times, but the fact that he had custom sex furniture made tells you just how all-consuming his passions were.

 

1.) H.G. Wells:  The author of “War of the Worlds,” “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” and “The Time Machine,” Wells was all for free love, long before there was a free love movement. He is said to have had sex atop bad reviews. While I knew him as an early sci-fi author who famously predicted the atomic bomb (Physicist, Leo Szilard, cited Wells’ “The World Set Free” as an inspiration), he was — unknown to me — legendarily promiscuous.