BOOK REVIEW: Ion by Plato

IonIon by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

In this early Socratic dialogue, Socrates converses with a Homeric rhapsodist (i.e. performer of Homer’s stories) who shares the dialogue’s name, i.e. Ion. Socrates leads Ion to the conclusion that the rhapsodist is really a conduit of divine inspiration – as opposed to being an artist. To a large extent Socrates achieves this by showing (somewhat brutally) that there are experts infinitely more competent to comment on Homer’s epic poems that is Ion. For the most part, Ion accepts that expert artists would be more qualified to comment on the correctness of Homer’s words than is he – e.g. an expert on horsemanship would be more qualified to comment on the parts which reference horses. [The only point at which Ion offers a challenge is with respect to military general, where he believes himself equally competent to discuss military campaigns as would be a commander. (Though Socrates tries to disabuse him of this notion.)]

And despite this, no one would argue that Ion offers a special value that those various artists and experts cannot, a unique connection to Homer’s works. For Socrates that value lies in inspiration. The poet, too, Socrates argues isn’t so much a crafter of verse as one capable of receiving inspiration. The rhapsodist allows the intense emotional experience to transfer from the muse / poet intersect onward to the audience member. In less mystic terms, Socrates is trying to make sense of the artistic process and its largely unconscious process and its focus on the experience of emotional resonance, rather than on rational thought. One can see a bit of overlap with a later dialogue, Phaedrus, which discusses divine madness and its virtues.

This short and to-the-point Socratic dialogue is worth reading, even if does come down in needlessly otherworldly territory.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany

The Atheist in the AtticThe Atheist in the Attic by Samuel R. Delany
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

The first two-thirds of this book is the titular novella. It’s a cerebral work of historical fiction that will be loved by readers interested in philosophy and history, but which will be dry and claustrophobic to those expecting a gripping tale. It’s not that there are no stakes. The story is about a clandestine meeting between Leibniz and Spinoza during a turbulent time in the Dutch Republic. That said, the bulk of the story is discussion and internal monologuing about philosophic ideas. Leibniz speaks with Spinoza, but also with household staff – offering insight into his psychology. In short, for perspective into the psychology and philosophy of the time, it’s intriguing, but it’s no thriller.

The last one-third of the book consists of two nonfiction pieces. The first, there’s an essay that Delany wrote on racism in science fiction. In it, he discusses some hostility he was subjected to at a Hugo Award ceremony early in his career. He also describes how he is repeatedly put on panels with other black writers (whose work is different from his own) rather than with those whose work is most closely related to his. It’s an interesting look at the varied faces of racism from blatant through well-intentioned to accidental. The last piece is an interview that rambles over a wide expanse of topics touching on Delany’s career.

I enjoyed this book a great deal. That said, I’m an admitted philosophy nerd. I think someone who only read the cover blurb might expect the novella to be more story driven and less character- and philosophy-centric. The essay on race features both stories from Delany’s career and his views on racism as a system. If you like cerebrally-engaging reading, check it out.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Euthyphro by Plato

EuthyphroEuthyphro by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is one of the early Socratic dialogues of Plato. I mention that because the early dialogues are believed to more truly reflect the ideas of Socrates (whereas the mid to late dialogues include many more of Plato’s ideas – just using Socrates as a mouthpiece / pedagogic medium.) It’s notable as one of the dialogues that happens around the trial of Socrates, and, while not as famous as “The Republic” or “Symposium,” it’s among the more well-known and accepted of Plato’s 35 Socratic dialogues.

Socrates meets Euthyphro on the courthouse grounds. Socrates is waiting to be tried; Euthyphro is bringing suit against his own father. Thus begins a conversation on piety and impiety. Euthyphro counts himself an expert in the subject and is utterly confident in his charge of murder — despite confounding issues: (i.e. it’s more death by negligence than outright murder and there is the question of dishonoring one’s own father.) Being on trial (in part) for impiety, Socrates is eager to learn what he can from Euthyphro.

Using his eponymous method, Socrates boxes Euthyphro into a corner from which the self-declared master can no longer defend his iron-clad confidence in his own piety. [The Socratic method employs questions to uncover ignorance and logical inconsistencies.] After answering that something is holy because it’s loved by the gods, Euthyphro is queried about whether the gods are a unitary actor (i.e. do they all love the same things?) The dialogue ends with Euthyphro high-tailing it, unable to work his way out of the philosophical trap into which he has fallen.

All of the Socratic dialogues around the trial of Socrates are worth reading. The translations are readable, and offer great insight into – at least what Plato interpreted as – Socrates’ process.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Outlandish by Nick Hunt

Outlandish: Walking Europe's Unlikely LandscapesOutlandish: Walking Europe’s Unlikely Landscapes by Nick Hunt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

There are many beautiful and wonderous sights that come to mind when one thinks of Europe: forests, meadows, alpine vistas, or cities of stunning architecture. However, there are other sights that one wouldn’t expect at all: tundra, jungle, desert, or steppe, but those are the unexpected destinations that Hunt takes his reader. In some cases, a destination under discussion doesn’t meet the technical definitions for said ecosystem, but they’re the closest that Europe has to offer, and that’s enough to make them outlandish.

The book takes the reader on a tour of four uncharacteristic ecosystems of Europe: Cairngorms arctic tundra in northern Scotland, Poland’s “jungle” – the forest primeval of Bialowieza, Spain’s Tabernas desert, and the Hungarian Puszta (i.e. the Pannonian Steppe.) For each of these places, the reader is treated not only to vivid description of the locale and its flora and fauna, but also some fascinating folklore, cultural peculiarities, and indigenous mysteries. In Scotland, this involves inexplicable reindeer and the legend of the Big Grey Man. In Poland and Belarus, we learn about legendary forest folk deities and about the last Soviet standing. In Spain, one gets a lesson in Spaghetti Westerns. In Hungary we see birders, neo-Nazis, and Central Asian immigrants all traipsing the same ground.

I found this book to be an engaging read. It helps raise consciousness about climate change without collapsing into a gloomy doom-fest. This discussion is most notable in the most extreme ecosystems, Cairngorms and Tabernas, but most of the intense discussion is saved for a brief epilogue entitled “The Last Snow.” The book offers rudimentary maps, but relies entirely on text to paint a picture, but I felt the author did a great job of bringing the places to life through words.

If you’re interested in learning more about a few of the globe’s lesser-known natural settings, I’d highly recommend this book.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha

Philosophy of Biology: A Very Short IntroductionPhilosophy of Biology: A Very Short Introduction by Samir Okasha
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Excepting the final chapter, this wasn’t the book I expected, but it did raise some compelling questions. The book did devote more space to semantic and categorical questions than I found useful or interesting. These are the kinds of questions which philosophers may find joy in catching peers in paradoxes, but which are pure navel-gazing, offering no insights on how to achieve the well-lived life or to better understand the grand questions of the universe.

The book looks at the metaphysical and epistemological ramifications of evolution, species classification, genetic and memetic transmission, and the degree to which humans are or aren’t constrained by our evolutionary history. Among the questions I found most interesting were: Is it useful to speak in terms of “function” (i.e. “what a thing is for”) when discussing biological entities, given that those words seem to imply an intended purpose inconsistent with evolution? Does selection occur at the level of the individual, the group, or both? How does one reconcile the Mendelian notion of a “gene” with that of molecular biology? Lest one think Mendel’s ideas were partially formed and are now supplanted, they do internally explain dominance and recessivity, a thing molecular biology can’t yet do. Is it reasonable to apply the logic of evolution and heritability to the cultural domain?

I got a lot out of this tiny guide. It may have spent more time on semantics and categorization than I would have liked (as well as more time reviewing basic biological science,) but it did raise some intriguing questions that I didn’t anticipate as well as illuminating new dimensions of those I did. Your patience with the insubstantial questions will be a major factor in how much you get out of this book.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The End of Trauma by George A. Bonanno

The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSDThe End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD by George A. Bonanno
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: September 7, 2021

The central idea of this book is that not everyone who’s exposed to traumatic events has long-term mental health effects. On average, two-thirds of those who suffer traumas show resilience. Bonanno’s experience working in the mental healthcare sector in New York City in the aftermath 9/11 impressed this truth upon him. The anticipated mental health tsunami never came; most people recovered and moved on with their lives.

It is hard to predict who that one-third is who will suffer long-term mental trauma. While there are some traits that correlate more to resilience and others to a proclivity to be traumatized, the fact that humans are complex and there are many confounding variables makes it immensely difficult to anticipate the impact of a trauma.

Given this difficulty, it’s beneficial to figure out how one can increase any victim’s resilience, and that’s the task the book engages. Bonanno discusses an optimal mindset for resilience that he calls the “flexibility mindset,” and he details a corresponding sequence (i.e. the “flexibility sequence”) that he suggests is the best known approach to reducing the adverse effects of trauma. As the key word, “flexible,” suggests, this approach requires adaptability. It’s not a one-size fits all approach, but rather hinges upon determining what coping strategies a person has access to, and then evaluating the degree to which they are working.

If found this book to be full of food-for-thought. I thought there could have been more elaboration of the dangers and limitations of distraction as a coping mechanism. To be fair, there is a discussion of this as he presents another therapist’s experience with, and thoughts upon, the “flexibility” approach, but that’s a bit late in the book. That said, I learned a great deal in reading this book, and thought it offered some excellent insights.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Crueler than Dead, Vol. 1 by Tsukasa Saimura

Crueler than dead, vol.1 (Crueler than dead, #1)Crueler than dead, vol.1 by Tsukasa Saimura
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: October 12, 2021

A teenage girl regains consciousness in a bland institutional setting to discover that she has been part of medical experimentation. Her mission, should she choose to accept it, is to get a vile of vaccine tested on her and the young boy who will be her traveling companion (as well as, on a bunch of people who didn’t survive) to a stadium in the heart of a Tokyo, a city overrun by Zombies. This is a manga-style graphic novel (i.e. black-and-white panels read right to left.)

I found the work to be in the meaty middle among the vast Zombie subgenre – neither among the best nor the worst. What I think the book did well was set up stakes for intense action. They have to journey to the center of the world’s most populous city to the only un-Zombified people known to remain living. So, the stakes are the continued existence of our species. What the book doesn’t do so well is maintain pace and a clear narrative thread. Textless panels are used to make transitional jumps and it’s not clear to me that most readers will follow the flow smoothly.

If you enjoy Zombie stories and manga comics, you may want to look into this one. It has a video game like aesthetic and feel which may (or may not) appeal to gamers more than the average reader. If you find Zombies overplayed and are looking for only the best of the best in Zombie stories, you’re unlikely to find that here.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon.in Page

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

King Henry VI, Part 3King Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Here we witness a tug-of-war for the British monarchy that plays out to a decisive conclusion (eventually.) It begins with Henry VI as king, but the Duke of York has gained the upper-hand. Henry makes a deal that, upon his death, succession will pass back to the Duke’s line, but not before. The Duke reluctantly agrees, but the deal makes everyone else furious. Margaret (Henry’s Queen) is upset because her son has lost his right to succession. The Duke’s sons are also displeased because they think their father should strike while the iron is hot, rather than risking that Henry’s strength and popularity will rise.

The Queen’s displeasure leads her and Clifford (enemy to the Duke, who killed Clifford’s father) to go on the offensive to reacquire the line of succession. They kill the Duke’s youngest son, a child, and then the Duke, himself. This would strengthen Henry’s position, but fortune doesn’t shine for long on anyone in this play, and soon the Duke’s sons capture Henry and Edward (the Duke’s eldest son) is crowned. But then Edward lusts after the first woman he meets as King, the widow Lady Grey, and being rebuffed in his plan to make Grey his “side piece,” he proposes to her. Unfortunately, Edward has already dispatched the Earl of Warwick to propose to the sister of the French King. This leads to the humiliation of Warwick (not to mention the French King’s sister,) and Warwick (with French troops) goes back and dethrones Edward. This, too, is short-lived. Edward consolidates support, captures Henry, and defeats Warwick. As the play ends it might seem stability has been achieved, but we know Edward’s brother, Richard, has ambitions.

While this one of Shakespeare’s earliest plays and it’s constrained by events, it’s worth a read. It has a lot to say about how arrogance, lust, and timidness can all precede a downfall.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: 1000 Storms by Tony Sandoval

1000 Storms #11000 Storms #1 by Tony Sandoval
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: August 10, 2021

As in A Wrinkle in Time, a girl whose father disappeared under mysterious circumstances travels through a portal to a strange and menacing world of adventure. The art is beautiful and – where applicable – simultaneously grotesque, and I found the surreal aesthetic compelling. The protagonist is well-developed and interesting, being a seemingly orphaned girl, living with relatives, who likes to go off on her own adventures, and whose solitary nature encourages a reputation for oddity among her peers. Unlike A Wrinkle in Time, the protagonist’s motivation (other than getting out of the house and collecting peculiar things) is not so clear, and so the story feels like it stumbles toward an ex machina resolution. There’s plenty of engrossing action, but little sense of motivation or agency. It’s a coming-of-age story split between the real world and a kind of fairy story demon realm.

It’s a tad darker than the average down-the-rabbit-hole children’s story, but except for a couple frames it would be unobjectionable for the youth market. [That said, given what seems to be the youthful age of the characters, these frames (involving sexual exploration) seem awkward and out-of-place – though they definitely separate this graphic novel from Alice in Wonderland, A Wrinkle in Time, or other stories that share its subgenre and themes.]

This is an intriguing adventure story with a pleasing aesthetic, but I felt it could have been driven by the protagonist’s goals to a greater degree, rather than reacting to events unfolding around her. Though it’s occurred to me that what I really might have been missing was a greater sense of what her “opposition” was after.

View all my reviews