10 of My Favorite Books from 2018

10.) Here is Real Magic by Nate Stantiforth: A professional magician, disillusioned because he has lost the sense of wonderment that it’s his job to create, travels to India to look at magic anew.

9.) Superhuman by Rowan Hooper: An evolutionary biologist examines how extreme specimens of humanity got to be that way. How come some people easily manage fluency in a couple dozen languages while some of us stumble on just our native tongue? Why is it that some people can run 100 miles non-stop when the average person’s body would start disintegrating before 20? What is the role of genetics and epigenetics versus practice and will?

8.) Anarcha Speaks  by Dominique Christina: A collection of poems formed into the story of a slave woman used for medical experimentation by a man many have called “the father of modern gynecology.” The books is a rare mix of story, history, and poetry, but it isn’t a narrative poem in the usual sense of the term.

7.) The Book of Chocolate Saints by Jeet Thayil: A womanizing poet and painter living in New York returns to his native India for a final show of his work. Along the way, the reader is presented with a host of fascinating characters.

6.) The Penguin Book of Japanese Short Stories ed./trans. by Jay Rubin: This collection of Japanese short fiction includes works by Haruki Murakami, Natsume Soseki, Yukio Mishima, Banana Yoshimoto, and Akutagama Ryunosuke and covers a swath of the timeline from the days of the samurai to the meltdown at Fukushima Dai Ichi.

5.) Milkman by Anna Burns: A young woman tries to brush off the attentions of a mysterious character known as the Milkman, but is really in a fight to avoid becoming the center of attention generally.

4.) How to Change Your Mind by Michael Pollan: Pollan, best known for his works on food such as “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” and “In Defense of Food,” tells the story of a resurgence of interest in psychedelic substances such as psilocybe mushrooms, LSD, and Ayahuasca for medicinal use as well as for mental and spiritual development. Included are descriptions of his experiences with mushrooms, LSD, Ayahuasca, and even a pyschoactive substance milked from the glands of a toad.

3.) Circe by Madeline Miller: This book tells tales of Greek Mythology with a lesser-known goddess at the fore. Circe is a daughter of the powerful sun god, Helios, but is an underdog character herself, which makes her stories all the more gripping.

2.) A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa: This is the story of a man who fled North Korea, leaving his family behind, during the famines of the 90’s. Ishikawa had a Japanese mother and a Korean father, and his father moved the family to rural North Korea in the late 1950’s under a “repatriation” program designed to gain workers for a war-torn North Korea while allowing Japan to offload some of the Koreans it’d forced to move to Japan as laborers during the Second World War.

1.) The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris: A love story set in the Nazi death camp in Poland. Based on a true story.

BOOK REVIEW: Biocentrism by Robert Lanza

Biocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the UniverseBiocentrism: How Life and Consciousness are the Keys to Understanding the True Nature of the Universe by Robert Lanza
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book argues for an understanding of the universe in which consciousness is key – the sine qua non of reality, i.e. without which there’s nothing. While Lanza emphasizes biocentrism is a scientifically-based conception, his argument will likely find more immediate traction with people of faith than with the scientific community. Skepticism is likely to arise among the scientific community because the history of science from the Copernican Revolution onward has indicated that we are a bi-product of the universe in action, and not the reason for its existence. Humanity, with our brilliant brains that are the most complex systems we know of in the universe, is neither the geographic center of the universe nor are we its center of meaning or purpose either. Looking at it another way, our annihilation wouldn’t even register as a blip to the universe. Lanza (along with his co-author Bob Berman), fairly uniquely among men of science, argues otherwise.

Lanza and Berman present seven principles of biocentrism over the course of the book. I won’t list these, but they essentially say that in the absence of an observer the world exists only as an unresolved probability function, and that time and space are meaningless in the absence of consciousness. Not to oversimplify the authors’ case, but the heart of their biocentric argument is that it’s consistent with, and could arguably solve, two of the biggest mysteries in science.

The first mystery is the nature of quantum weirdness that has been shown true repeatedly through experiments such as the double slit experiment (which the authors discuss in some detail, but I will not.) I will mention a thought experiment designed make this subatomic strangeness clear in the world at our scale. It’s called Schrödinger’s cat. The idea is that a cat is in a box with a vile of poison that is released by a radioactive trigger. One can’t know when the radioactive decay will release the poison. (This is a bit of subatomic strangeness that can only be reconciled in the face of an observer.) It’s said that the cat would have to be thought of as being in a superposition, simultaneously both alive and dead, until the observer enters the picture. The reader also may have heard of Heisenberg’s Uncertainty principle, which states one can’t know both of a pair of measurements (e.g. position and momentum) with perfect accuracy. All of this says that at the infinitesimally tiny scale of the quantum, particle behavior seems erratic, baffling, and is influenced by observation. While it’s hard to relate to through the lens of our macroscopic experience of the world, it’s a notion that is completely accepted by physicists because it’s been validated by countless experimental observations.

The second truth that science struggles to make sense of that biocentrism presumes to eradicate is the conundrum of the “Goldilock’s universe.” Taken from the fable of finding the porridge that was “just right.” We live in a universe whose actions comply with a series of equations and constants that – were they slightly different – would make life in all the forms we can fathom completely impossible. Starting from the fact that our universe is so mathematically consistent (a feature that it’s commonly argued needn’t be) to the fact that turning the dials a little would make intelligent life impossible, it’s easy to start wondering whether the creationists aren’t on to something. Religion doesn’t have a problem with the Goldilock’s Universe because it presumes the universe was made this way purposefully. Biocentrism doesn’t have a problem because the universe can only exist where there are conscious beings. Of course, science hypothesizes its own solutions to the conundrum. These varied solutions generally revolve around the anthropic principle (we exist in a universe capable of supporting life because if we didn’t we couldn’t) and a multiverse of parallel universes (because the anthropic principle applied to a single universe isn’t intuitively superior to assuming a god, goddess, or gods magically “poofed” us into existence.) Under this idea, which appeals to the Copernican Revolutionary mindset, there will be many more universes where life doesn’t exist, and perhaps even ephemeral bubble universes that can’t even exist as a universe – let alone as a life supporting universe.

There’s a major challenge to biocentrism that results from the fact that we are fairly certain that the universe is 13+ billion years old and our planet didn’t come into existence until about 9 billion years after that (i.e. Earth is about 4.5 billion-years-old.) Even if one assumes the conscious life grew up elsewhere before us, it’s hard to imagine it having happened instantaneously with the beginning of the universe. Lanza’s end run around this can be found in his sixth and seventh principles of biocentrism which state that time and space are illusory in the absence of an observer. Of course, this raises questions of how this could be so and why we might believe it is so — because “it’s essential to my case” isn’t a good reason to believe anything. To be fair, there are all sorts of theories out there – many more mainstream than Lanza’s – that propose time and space aren’t what they seem – starting with Einstein’s well-proven idea that time and space are relative.

This book is oddly composed. It describes the principles of biocentrism largely in the first half to two-thirds of the book, with a few random digressions, and then it really goes off the rails. Most of the digressions are little biographical stories about Robert Lanza, many of which are interesting but completely irrelevant to the book’s proposed topic. I’m unsure which of three competing explanations account for these erratic digressions: a.) the publisher said, “this manuscript must be 200 pages or we aren’t publishing it.” b.) the author is getting up there in age, realizes there is no market for his memoirs, and thinks he can sneak the highlights into this book which is sure to have a following if a controversial one. c.) the author was concerned about being taken for a kook and wanted to establish his bona fides (note: many of the biographical digressions consist of name-dropping.) I should point out that these digressions are the main reason for my mediocre rating of this book, and not disenchantment with the case for biocentrism. (I think we know too little about consciousness and about it’s odd interactions at the quantum level to draw any firm conclusions in that regard.)

I found this book to be fascinating – even some of the digressions were interesting, though not helpful to discussion of the topic at hand. It’s a thought-provoking work. I have no idea whether it will prove to have merit as a description of how the world works. I’ll leave it to readers to determine whether they think it is a sound interpretation of observed reality or a physics-envy based attack on the stronghold of physics as the heart of science or an attempt to reduce the fear of death in a way consistent with science (i.e. time as we perceive it being an illusion makes us all immortal.) If you are interested in the big questions of why the universe exists and what is the nature of reality, you may want to give this book a read – not that it’ll answer all your questions, but it will provide an alternative to mainstream views that you may find useful.

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BOOK REVIEW: Agriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Brassley and Soffe

Agriculture: A Very Short IntroductionAgriculture: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Brassley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is another in my favorite series of brief guides to various topics and disciplines, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” books. These books typically take around 100 pages to cover the fundamentals of a given subject. The series offers a quick overview in a no-frills fashion. This book is no. 473, providing an overview of agriculture.

The book is divided into six chapters, and has an Introduction in the front and a “Further Reading” section at the rear. The first chapter is about crop farming and it discusses the major issues of concern, including: the best soils, essential nutrients, fertilizer, as well as discussing what kinds of problems are faced in crop cultivation. Chapter 2 explores the other major division of farming, raising animals. In it, one learns about basic issues of feeding, breeding, housing, and providing medical treatment.

The third chapter investigates the topic of agricultural markets and trade. Here the reader is reminded of their basic economics education, and how market forces result in the topsy-turviness of farming in which a bumper-crop year can be bad while a drought year not so bad. (i.e. Huge harvests mean unit prices drop and surpluses may be lost to waste, whereas shortages result in high unit prices.) The authors also discuss the issue of global trade which is unique for agricultural products because almost every country makes some portion of their own food (excepting nations like Singapore and Vatican City), they are resources no country can afford to be cut off from, and they are perishable on varying time scales.

The fourth chapter is about the inputs used in agriculture such as land, labor, and machinery and equipment. This chapter discusses these topics more generally than they are touched upon in the first couple chapters. The penultimate chapter compares modern and traditional forms of agriculture. As the author points out, this division could mean very different things depending upon what two periods one is comparing. However, it is a worthwhile topic to consider with respect to its relevance to sustainability and the effect on the environment.

The last chapter is nominally about the future of farming, but it considers a number of current issues such as GMO (genetically modified crops) and the effects of climate change. The chapter explores what changes will need to be made as the population approaches 9 billion. It doesn’t go into issues like urban farming, petri-dish grown meat, or insects as the future of protein as much as I’d have thought, but does raise some interesting questions.

There are many graphics, from photos to tables, used to more conveniently and concisely convey information.

I would recommend this for those looking to get an overview of how farming works. Like most books in this series, it is optimized to being concise, not to being interesting – so if one wants fun facts and narrative creative non-fiction this isn’t so much the book for you. But if you want the gist of agriculture fast, this will do nicely.

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BOOK REVIEW: When I Walk Through that Door, I Am by Jimmy Santiago Baca

When I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother's QuestWhen I Walk Through That Door, I Am: An Immigrant Mother’s Quest by Jimmy Santiago Baca
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a narrative poem telling the story of an El Salvadoran woman who is separated from her child after illegally immigrating to the United States. It’s quite a timely topic, but as a work of literature and a “call to arms” it could have done much better.

This poetic novella is gripping to read, but is over-the-top in spots, and that does it a disservice in two ways. First of all, it takes the reader out of the story as they may become lost in the disbelief. Secondly, it takes a work that could have been a persuasive call for change, and turns it into an angry rant. To give a prime example, at one point early in the piece, the lead character has been (gang-)raped four or five times over the course of two pages, by varied factions including US law enforcement officers. Even if one were to accept the author’s presumed premise that American federal law enforcement agents are morally equivalent to the gangs of the drug cartels (a premise not likely to be accepted by the meaty-middle of society), one is left to ignore the fact that female prisoners, once in custody, aren’t left unsupervised with male guards. I know the reader may say, but this is a technical detail in a fictitious narrative poem. However, given the way the piece is presented (discussed more below), it reads like it’s telling us a story that is meant to move us through the proposition that this is the world in which we live. But once one reads one falsity, one is left wondering whether any part of the story is reflective of reality.

The idea that this woman is exploited by every male she comes into contact with, whether they are gang members or Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents, has poetic merit. It’s pointing out that without legal status, she is in a perpetually vulnerable state. Yet, it seems lazy and sensationalist to make all such exploitation rape. When one morally equates gangs with agents of a democratic government, one isn’t just saying that the individuals are equivalent, you are casting aspersions against the entire system of rule of law. (Because, of course, protections should be in place, and — failing them — the means to lodge complaints. And I think most would argue that both are the case.) The bigger problem, one found throughout the political spectrum in the US, is that individuals vilify each other, pretending they are being persuasive, when in reality they are just more deeply etching an “us-them” divide. By this I mean to say, one can’t tell people how vile, despicable, and evil they are, and then expect them to see your perspective.

The narrative poem is delivered in a combination of free verse and poetic prose all of which verges largely on just plain prose. That is to say, the emphasis is on telling a story and not so much on the usual core components of poetry, i.e. sound, imagery, and metaphor. (Unless some of these fictitious elements, e.g. the astounding number of rapes, are meant to be metaphorical. Then my concern would be that one risks diminishing a horrible thing, if one throws around that word as metaphor.)

This is a quick read, and, as I mentioned, it’s presented in a gripping fashion – if hyperbolically so. I suspect that it will be mostly read by a demographic determined along political lines, which is a shame. It could have been so much more.

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BOOK REVIEW: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North KoreaA River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tragic memoir tells the story of a man of mixed Japanese – Korean heritage who was, as a boy, moved to North Korea under a “repatriation” program that was designed to provide North Korea with laborers while conveniently reducing a minority problem for the Japanese. During the Second World War, Japan had imported labor from Korea for the war effort. As it happens, Ishikawa’s father was from South Korea, but – in the wake of the Korean War — it was North Korea that was looking for rank-and-file laborers.

The author’s father was eager to get out of Japan because he was treated as minorities frequently are – especially ones as rough around the edges as he, and so he swallowed the propaganda of Kim Il Sung’s regime hook-line-and-sinker. The author’s mother (and the author, himself) didn’t want to leave Japan because she didn’t speak the language and was ethnically Japanese (putting her in the minority shoes.) Little could any of them have known how bad life in North Korea would be, and how dire a mistake it was to agree to the move.

Life in North Korea was hard on everybody (except the party elite), but it was particularly hard on this family because: a.) they were discriminated against and could only attain the lowest-of-the-low in farm sector jobs; b.) they were accustomed to life in Japan and so they knew exactly how backwards North Korea was compared to its neighbors; and, c.) the wife’s family in Japan disowned them, and so even when other transplanted families began to be able to receive wealth from their kin in Japan, their family was cut off (but assumed by neighbors to be receiving packages.) From constantly having to game the system to get enough calories to survive to a series of tragic events that were largely tied to the country’s impoverished nature (e.g. inadequate healthcare,) the book features one soul-wrenching turn of events after the next.

Ishikawa grew to manhood in North Korea, married twice, and had children, but when the famine struck in the 1990’s he fled the country into China across the Yalu River, leaving his family behind. The book’s last chapter deals with Ishikawa’s challenges living in an expensive first world country – Japan – while trying to get his family back. It’s difficult to know whether Ishikawa ever serious could have thought he could get his family out once he was gone. Certainly, he proposes that he did think that, and he spoke to Japanese diplomats (who felt horrible about what had come of people like him) about it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how he could have thought so, being familiar with how the Kim dynasty operated. Still, one may have to grant a man his delusions when he makes such a hard decision while he is literally starving to death. Ishikawa was able to discover what happened to at least some of his family members, and that information is in an epilogue.

I found this book gripping and fascinating. It’s depressing reading throughout, there’s no getting around that, but it gives insight into how people live in the villages of North Korea that is not so extensively described elsewhere – not to mention what it’s like to be a member of a minority group, labeled a “hostile” and essentially relegated to a low-caste life. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. It’s one the best books of 2018 that I’ve read this year.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poems by Hermann Hesse

Poems by Hermann HessePoems by Hermann Hesse by Hermann Hesse
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’re like me, you may not have realized that this German author, known for short philosophical novels such as “Siddhartha,” “Steppenwolf,” and “Demian,” was also a poet. This bilingual edition consists of a selection of 31 poems picked and translated by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet, James Wright. The poems are short form poems that range from less than a page to three pages, and thus even with the inclusion of the original German verse, the book is only 80 pages.

It’s hard to imagine a more skilled editor / translator than James Wright, who was considered one of the best American poets of his time. When I was reading up on Wright, I saw that major themes in his poems were “loneliness and alienation,” and those themes are certainly seen in this selection, though I cannot tell you if they’re representative of Hesse’s poetry over all or not. The philosophical outlook of Hesse’s fiction certainly shines through in places, as does the sparse, imagery-centric approach seen in Eastern (e.g. Zen) poetry – a style that tries to keep the poet out of it by presenting scene devoid of analysis or judgment.

Though it didn’t do me much good, owing to my inability to speak or even properly pronounce German, I like that the original poems in German are included. An Italian proverb compares poetry translations to women — i.e. the more beautiful, the less faithful. So, it’s always nice for those with bilingual fluency to be able to look at them side-by-side (which is how they are printed.) Sometimes even hearing the poem without understanding meaning can give one insight into the musicality of the verse.

I enjoyed this selection of poems, and while I can’t say how much is Hesse and how much Wright, either way they were well-composed and pleasant to read. I would highly recommend this selection for poetry readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Miss Burma by Charmaine Craig

Miss BurmaMiss Burma by Charmaine Craig
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel tells the story of a mixed-race family and their trials and tribulations in Burma / Myanmar from the colonial period (before the Second World War) through the early 1960’s when a civil war was in progress. The father / husband, Benny, is ethnically Indian, religiously Jewish, works for the British, but was born and spent his early childhood in Burma. He marries a Karen woman (i.e. of the Karen tribe.) The central (and titular) character is the couple’s first child, Louisa. Louisa is a beauty, and for various reasons – none of which reflect her own preferences – she ends up a beauty queen and national celebrity.

What is fascinating about this book is how the many levels of humanity – from the individual level (e.g.Louisa / Miss Burma) to the international level – play into each other. At an individual level, each member of the family finds his or her life intruded upon by the nation’s conflicts. Benny ends up a prisoner of war of the Japanese and then later a prisoner of the Burman ruling regime. He feels beholden to the Karens because of a combination of factors involving repaying of debt, familial obligation, and friendship. Louisa ends up in the pageant – in part — because of the question of whether the leaders and Burman citizens are really serious enough about unity to allow a non-Burman into that high-status role.

At a national level, there is a rapid succession of changing situations. First, the country needs to thwart the Japanese invasion. Next, they must throw off the British colonial yoke, and, finally, Burma must figure out what kind of nation (or nations) it will become. The Burman leader wants to consolidate the country, while many tribal groups, including the Karen, want independence. Benny’s family is tied up in this conflict, in part, because of their Karen connection, but also the fact that Benny was able to exploit the post-war economy to his advantage and became rich after the war. This makes him, and his family, both important and simultaneously loved and despised.

At the international level, America and other global powers have interests in keeping Burma from disintegrating into tribal sub-states. In the early post-war period, these interests are largely economic, and involve the preference to have a solitary trading partner for Burmese goods. However, later, as “domino theory” takes center stage in American foreign policy, the interest shifts to thwarting the spread of Communism. (“Domino theory” was the idea that if a non-Communist government fell, others would proceed in a chain reaction throughout the region. It was a little simplistic, but reflected the anxiety of the times and was a large part of the justification for the Vietnam War.)

I found this book gripping and fascinating. The international intrigue and family tensions both work together to make an intensely readable work. Without getting into the ending, I will say that it feels a little bit rushed and anti-climactic. However, the events of the book give it plenty of tension overall, and there is a logic to the place the book ends. It is emotionally powerful to see how this family is repeatedly torn apart and must come together again through great difficulties. We also see how obligation and sense of duty play themselves out, often trumping other considerations.

I would highly recommend this book for readers of fiction, particularly those with interests in historical fiction and works that offer insight into a nation and a culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: 100 American Poems ed. by Selden Rodman

100 American Poems100 American Poems by Selden Rodman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked this book up in a used bookshop (the edition is copyrighted 1948) and was excited to get to reading some poems from my native land. However, I was a little off-put when I read this sentence in the editor’s introduction: “… Poe’s ‘The Raven’ and Whitman’s ‘O Captain! My Captain!’ are inferior and unrepresentative poems by any discriminating standard.”

I thought, “Oh, no. This is one of those editors who only likes works that are too cryptic and incomprehensible for the common man (or woman) to enjoy.” The type who’ll rave about Joyce’s “Ulysses,” but will mock Huxley’s “Brave New World” as lowbrow tripe. Surely, being beloved by massive numbers of readers counts for something.

Having read the book, I’m pleased that the editor took the attitude he did — not because it presented me with “better” poems, but because it offered more obscure poems than one would expect to see in most such collections. (And they weren’t particularly arduous or tiresome examples.) The book does include all the poets who one would expect to appear, e.g. Emerson, Longfellow, Poe, Whitman, Dickinson, Frost, Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, T.S. Eliot, and E.E. Cummings, but there are many lesser known (i.e. lesser remembered) poets as well. The 100 poems include works by about 60 different poets. And, while the big names tend to have more poems per poet, their selections almost invariably don’t include the best-known works of the given poet. Long story short, if you get a chance to pick up this collection, you’re likely to find some selections that are more obscure but none-the-less great.

As one can imagine from the fact that it includes examples from those twin pillars of American poetry – Dickinson and Whitman – one can expect both metered / rhymed poems as well as free verse. [More of the former in the early part and the latter among the latter pieces.] Poems that are longer than about three pages are generally excerpted. So, there’s a mix of short and intermediate length poems, but only excerpts of long ones. The only ancillary matter is the Introduction, which does give the reader an overview of not only what he / she will be reading, but also some general information on the flow of the American poetry from colonial times through the first half of the 20th century.

I enjoyed this book and would highly recommend it for readers interested in American poetry from the early 18th through the early 20th centuries.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Autobiography of a Flea by Anonymous (Stanislas de Rhodes)

The Autobiography of a FleaThe Autobiography of a Flea by Stanislas de Rhodes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“The Autobiography of a Flea” is a historical work of erotica first published in the late 19th century anonymously, and later was attributed to Stanislas de Rhodes. Like the works of the Marquis de Sade, the book is simultaneously a socio-political commentary and philosophical novel. While the erotic elements tend to not be as extreme and perverse as Sade’s work, it shares in common a philosophy of society and a disdain for the clergy and the aristocracy / upper class (Sade’s work was earlier and straddled the French Revolution, and so things had changed on this front.) But, for example, in this book, two lascivious and hypocritical clergymen play key roles in the story that would not be unfamiliar to Sade’s readers.

The story starts with discussions (and wagers) regarding a competition that is coming up between women who work for the village’s main employer, a vintner. Whichever woman tramples the most grapes, wins a substantial prize. Our narrator is a libidinous, little flea who follows the sexual antics taking place in this French village. From the flea, we learn about the competition through discussion before, during, and after amore by two village couples. Two women who are likely to be front-runners make a salacious wager that involves the other’s husband. Each woman confesses the wager to her respective husband, but the husbands each have confidence in his wife to win, and so neither is concerned about the competition. Little do any of them know, the vintner has stacked the deck in favor of the fairest maiden in the village, who he intends to marry – despite the fact that he is old, feeble, and disgusting.

This fair (re: young and gorgeous) maiden has a suitor, and she is about to be intimate with him for the first time, when the village priest interrupts them. The priest then uses his knowledge to manipulate the young woman to his benefit. (Ultimately, he is joined by an English priest on sabbatical who involves himself with a couple village widows as well as in the priest’s nefarious plot.) The village priest simultaneously seeks to please the vintner (because the old man is the church’s leading patron), and at the same time he pursues his own pleasure. So, the young woman is forced into marriage, and into allowing consummation of said marriage — though the old vintner repeatedly shows himself not up to the task and is usually comically premature.

The author echoes a theme from Sade’s philosophy, which a society that is anarchic under its feeble institutions, i.e. in which the strong do whatever they please to the weak. The lead character, the maiden, is constantly humiliated and run roughshod over whenever she tries to move against the flow of this anarchy. Counting on the strong to behave virtuously only gets her punished and humiliated. It’s only when she starts moving with the flow so as to game the system by acknowledging and heeding this power disparity that she starts to see success in getting her way.

As with the Marquis de Sade’s work, this book could correctly be claimed to be excessively pessimistic and Hobbsean (philosopher and author of “The Leviathan” who believed people were brutish and self-interested.) I found it to be cleverer and less gratuitous than the works by Sade that I’ve read. Both the use of the narrating flea to give the reader a well-established point of view and the story — which exists (in contrast to many works in this genre, including Sade’s work “120 Days of Sodom.”) I’d recommend this book for readers of historical fiction and erotica (particularly if one enjoys — or can tolerate — the sado-masochistic dynamic.)

[Note: there are a couple versions of this book, but – as near as I can tell – the story is consistent between them. It’s the character names that vary. The book is set in France, and features one English clergyman (kindred spirit to the village priest.) However, the more common version of the book features more English-sounding names, but there is a version with more typically French names. e.g. the lead, Bella, is Laurette in the latter edition. I read the version with the more French sounding names, but read a plot summary of the other edition, and the story was the same in broad brush strokes at least.]

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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