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5 Characteristics I Look for in Travel Literature (w/ My List to Date)

Recently, I’ve begun to read at least one piece of literature from each of the countries I visit. While I’ve done this for the last several countries I’ve been to, now I’m going back to fill in the gaps from past travel.


I don’t want to be doctrinaire about the books I choose, but I’ve learned a little about what I find the most beneficial. While some people who do this insist on reading a novel from each country, I’ve been much more open to a range of forms, including: poetry, short stories, and — in a case or two — creative non-fiction. One reason I’m flexible this way is that the novel isn’t the basic unit of literature everywhere in the world. I don’t want to read a pop crime novel published by an expat that offers zero insight into culture just because that’s the only novel I can get my hands on in English. Short story collections have proven at least as insightful as novels because one sees more lead characters put into more diverse situations, and poetry can be as well — as long as it gives a sense of place and people.


I should also point out that I’ve violated almost all of these suggestions when something caught my eye — often to great effect. #5 and #1 are really the only ones upon which I insist.


5.) Offers insight into the culture of the country at hand. I don’t want to sound like a literary fiction snob. I read a lot of genre fiction and the occasional commercial fiction, but this is one area where I find literary fiction is best. In large part this is because literary fiction tends to be character-driven and that depth of character usually transmits some insight into culture. When I went to Nepal I read Samrat Upadhyay’s Mad Country [short stories] and learned a great deal about the people of Nepal from various walks of life.


4.) Authored by a national of said country and set there as well.  The second part (set in the country) seems like it would be non-negotiable, but I’ve certainly violated the first part  (local author) and can imagine violating the second (local setting) as well. The key is that it must do #5 (cultural insight, that’s the point after all.) To give an example of a violation of the local author proviso, for the time being at least, I’m going with George Orwell’s Burmese Days as my pick for Myanmar (Burma.) I may change that at some point, but it definitely offered insight about more than one of the items on this list.


To give an example of how one might violate the setting clause and still benefit, I’ve had Michael Ondaatje’s The Cat’s Tablerecommended to me for a Sri Lankan book. It features a Sri Lankan boy on a ship headed from Colombo to England and thus (as I understand it) is only briefly set in Sri Lanka. Sometimes, when a national is abroad, one gains even more cultural insight — i.e. it becomes easier to see culture through the state of contrast. (It turns out that I’m reading another novel set in Sri Lanka entitled Chinaman by Shehan Karunatilaka, which promises to offer me insight into not only Sri Lanka, but also into the craziness that is the sport of cricket.


3.) Teaches me about some historical happenings of the country in question. In some sense this is always true because even a contemporary novel deals in history by the time it’s published. However, I tend to prefer a time-frame during which something interesting was going on in the country, but not so far into the past that there is disconnect with the people I interact with in my travels. For example, for Vietnam, I recently read Novel Without A Namewhich features a North Vietnamese soldier as a protagonist, and it’s set during the last days of the war with America.


2.) Exposes me to a diverse set of characters. It’s a definite plus if the book shows how more than one element of society lives. A great example of this is Gagamba, a book by F. Sionil Jose, that I read in conjunction with my trip to the Philippines. In it, one peeks into the lives of rich and poor alike, as well as seeing Filipinos who’ve been living abroad and expats living in the Philippines, all this contrast makes the shadowy shapes of culture clearer.


1.) It’s a good read. It’s as simple as that. It must be a book I’d want to read regardless of whether I was trying to check off a box on travel literature.


Here’s a list of countries I’ve been to with my selections for that country — if I have one. There are some countries (e.g. USA, Hungary, India, China, Japan, and the United Kingdom) from which I’ve read a lot, but I’ll stick to presenting one that is an exemplar vis-a-vis the criteria above.


I’d love to receive recommendations, particularly for those countries I don’t have anything for yet.


Austria: The Tobacconist (recommended to me, not yet read.)



Cambodia: First They Killed My Father  (I’ve read some fiction set here, but this non-fiction is the best.)

Canada: Surfacing (not yet read)

China: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Czech Republic: The Good Soldier Svejk

Estonia: The Man Who Spoke Snakish (In progress. An unconventional choice as it’s genre fiction, but it came highly recommended and has not disappointed.)

Finland: The Year of the Hare (not yet read)

Guatemala: The President  (not yet read)

Hungary: Cold Days

India: The Guide

Japan: Narrow Road to the Interior

Kenya: A Grain of Wheat


Mexico: Selected Poems of Octavio Paz

Mongolia: The Blue Sky

Myanmar (Burma): Burmese Days

Nepal: Mad Country

Peru: Death in the Andes

Philippines: Gagamba

Singapore: Inheritance (in progress; another odd choice as the family that this novel presents is Punjabi, though they live in Singapore. and their lives are shaped by that locale. Some places, like Singapore and the UAE, have a lot of immigrants and it’s only fair to consider them through that lens.)


Slovenia: I Saw Her That Night (not yet read)

Sri Lanka: Chinaman (in progress)


UAE: Temporary People (not yet read)

United Kingdom: A Christmas Carol

United States: Blood Meridian

Vietnam: Novel Without a Name


BOOK REVIEW: Messy by Tim Harford

Messy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our LivesMessy: The Power of Disorder to Transform Our Lives by Tim Harford
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


The book’s premise is simple: being neat and tidy isn’t the great virtue you’ve been led to believe, and being messy isn’t inherently a vice. Over nine chapters, Harford explores the various dimensions in which our impulse to toward tidiness can get in our way, and for which a little messiness might be the cure. Each chapter uses a central story or two as exemplars, with other stories and anecdotes providing support.

The book’s introduction sets up the idea by describing a famous concert in Köln (Cologne) by Kieth Jarrett in which the pianist reluctantly agreed to play the concert on a sub-par piano, and (it’s argued because of the limitations of that instrument) went on to produce the best-selling solo jazz album. This tale sets up chapter one, which focuses on creativity, nicely. Creativity may be explicitly the topic of chapter one, but it’s a concept that cuts across the entirety of the book. Tidiness – it is argued — is antagonistic to creativity. In the first chapter, Harford describes how David Bowie partnered up with Brian Eno, and how Eno’s “oblique strategies” – while they annoyed the musicians to no end by throwing monkey wrenches into the act of making music – were highly successful in producing a unique sound.

Chapter two discusses collaboration, which always makes a mess. Central to this chapter is a discussion of the Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdős and the famous Erdős number that virtually all scholars are familiar with — at least those in who work in math, science, engineering, and other disciplines with a quantitative bent. It’s sort of a Kevin Bacon six-degrees-of-separation for those who make mathematics. The number describes how far removed one is from having a paper penned with this notoriously prolific mathematician (co-authored, one removed co-author, etc.,) and everyone publishing quantitative / mathematical scholarship desired a low number. The point made by Harford wasn’t just that collaboration in general is messy, but that working with Erdős, specifically, was, and it required collaborators to adjust to his peculiar, professorial ways.

Chapter three explores how tidy workplaces sometimes hinder productivity. The central case is MIT’s Building 20, which was popped up in record time to meet a wartime demand. The building housed a disproportionate amount of world-class science and engineering, and it’s argued that this was in part because its poor design put random people together on long walks to exits or toilets, and in part because – since it was a hideous monstrosity of a building – no one cared if its labs and offices were a mess or not.

Chapter four delves into the value of mess in improvisation. Of course, Jazz is revisited in this chapter, but the lead story is Martin Luther King Jr.’s most famous speech and how it came out of being forced by circumstance to abandon his usual process of extensive preparation and editing. Chapter five describes messy tactics as winning strategies. Erwin Rommel’s success by disruption and chaos creation is at the heart of this chapter as is the development of Britain’s SAS which sometimes beat Rommel at his own game by using a similar approach using smaller, more agile, and more elite forces. There is also an extensive discussion of how Amazon went from humble beginnings to being the 800 pound gorilla of online shopping.

The sixth chapter investigates the role of incentives. For an economist, this is a fascinating topic as the key to understanding economic behavior is usually to follow the incentives. Of course, unintended consequences often go hand in hand with attempts to produce / manipulate incentives. Much of this chapter describes how attempts to tie up loose ends through regulation have ended up generating worse outcomes than could ever have been anticipated.

The next chapter (ch. 7) is about automation, which could be seen as an attempt to clean up messy activities. Harford discusses the situation with self-driving cars, which it’s hoped will help to make highways safer. However, the case he concentrates on is that of flight Air France 447, which went down in part because its inexperienced pilot at the helm couldn’t cope when the fly-by-wire system designed to anticipate and smooth the pilot’s inputs into the controls suddenly went off-line. In other words, the junior pilot wasn’t used to flying messy.

Chapter 8 is about resilience, and here the author challenges the age-old economic notion that specialization always results in greater productivity. Harford suggests that diversity and intermixing of activities and people – rather than specialization and homogenization – often results in a better outcome. The final chapter takes a wider view at how being messy can help one in life. The author spends a great deal of space to the question of how on-line dating services do such a poor job – spoiler alert – they try to make the messy process of finding a soul mate neat and tidy.

The book has citations and end-notes. In the Kindle edition, these notes are hyperlinked for ease of use. There are no graphics, but they aren’t missed.

I enjoyed reading this book and found it to offer many fascinating cases. I will say, as I was reading these well-researched and interestingly described cases, I sometimes had to think hard (maybe do some mental gymnastics) to make the connection between the case at hand and the book’s central theme – leaving me to wonder if I was missing something or whether there wasn’t some shoe-horning of interesting anecdotes into the book to produce a work that was more about being interesting than about proving a particular point. That said, I would recommend the book, particularly for anyone interested in increasing their creativity, productivity, or both.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Memory Illusion by Julia Shaw

The Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False MemoryThe Memory Illusion: Remembering, Forgetting, and the Science of False Memory by Julia Shaw
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


Julia Shaw is a psychologist who conducted research into whether (and how) false memories could be “planted” in a person’s mind – and not just any memories, but memories of having committed a crime that one actually didn’t. That research is fascinating, and I think it’s tremendously valuable given the disparity between how accurate people believe their memories are and how fallible they are in practice. This disparity has played a major role in many a miscarriage of justice with eye-witnesses historically being considered the gold standard of evidence in criminal trials. Of course, I’m also a bit uneasy about people learning the recipe for an optimal process of generating false memories as it has the taint of being MK Ultra-level nefarious. (Though it should be pointed out that subjects must be active – if unwitting – participants in creating these false memories, so “planting” memories is an oversimplification.) This book discusses Shaw’s research, but it’s more of an overview of science’s understanding of the limits of memory and how those limits conflict with our beliefs – at least about one’s own memory [we often recognize how fallible other people’s memories are.]

The book consists of ten chapters. Chapter one dives into to one of the most common occurrences of false memory, and that’s the claim by some people that they remember events from their infancy – if not their own birth. Shaw presents the evidence for why such memories aren’t possible. This sets up the whole subject nicely because one must ask how so many people can claim to remember events that are physiologically impossible for them to have remembered, and to frequently be right about most key details. No one is suggesting that such people are liars (not all – or even most — of them, anyway.)

Imagine a school-age child hearing a story about his or her life as a baby. Hearing said story triggers a visualization in this child’s mind, and that visualization might well be filed away in memory, but when that memory is recalled the person in question may not realize she is recalling her imagined image of a story and not the actual event itself. Herein lies the crux of false memory: 1.) anything one visualizes in detail might potentially be stored away and become undifferentiated from the experiencing of an event; 2.) when we recall a memory we are recalling the last time we remembered it and not the event directly, and this can lead to a disparity between the memory and the actual event as it gets tied up with what’s going on in one’s mind at the time.

Chapter two explores perception, and how flawed perceptions may become flawed or tarnished memories. Just as memory isn’t the direct recording of events that we often feel it is, perception isn’t a direct replication of the world but rather a model generated in the brain. Therefore, the limitations and inaccuracies of the mental model are the first line of deviation of memory from reality. Chapter three describes how the brain’s physiology and evolutionary biology produce limitations to our ability to remember – limitations in spite of which we could thrive in the world in which we evolved.

Chapter four begins a series of chapters that take on specific objections that will arise to the ideas about false memory presented in the early chapters. This chapter counters an anticipated objection about people who seem to have perfect memories. In other words, a reader might admit that most people’s memories are crap (and even that his own memory isn’t infallible,) but what about the people with Las Vegas stage shows or the Asperger savant who knows every phone number in the Manhattan White Pages? Surely, these rare cases disprove the general idea of how memory works. Shaw shows that none of these people have perfect memory. Some have spectacular autobiographical memory (memory for their own life events) and others are exceedingly skilled at using mnemonic devices to remember any facts, but they all have limits. There’s also a discussion of how an unusually perfect autobiographical memory is often more of a curse than a blessing. We forget for good reason.

Chapter five examines another common memory fallacy, which is that one can remember best by getting the middleman of the consciousness mind out of the way and feeding data directly into the subconscious. In other words, it takes on subliminal learning. You may be familiar with the idea from ads suggesting that you can learn French in a couple of weeks without cracking a book just by playing audio tracks in one’s sleep and letting oneself learn effortlessly. Like every program that promises growth without effort, this one is debunked. Studies suggest that if one sleeps during such nights, one won’t learn, and if one learns, one isn’t actually sleeping. In other words, learning requires one’s attention.

I will say, the book fell off the rails for me a bit during this chapter. As I wrote in a recent blog post about psychological concepts that even psychologists repeatedly get wrong, Shaw denies the existence of hypnotic trance state as an altered state of consciousness. However, it becomes clear she isn’t arguing against the scientific perspective of what hypnosis is (a physically relaxed but highly mentally attentive state) and is rather denying the misconceived popular notion that seems to involve a person (possibly wearing a glittery cape) taking control of another person’s mind and making them into a zombified drone. She writes in an odd, round-about fashion on this subject as well as the topic of brainwashing – for which she offers her own value-laden definition. I’m not so sure that she didn’t understand hypnosis as much as she wanted to make sure her work was thoroughly distanced from hypnosis and brainwashing. It seems just seems strange and a bit dubious that a scholar studying false memory wouldn’t be thoroughly familiar with the literature on suggestibility and the states of mind most associated with it, i.e. hypnosis. I can only imagine the hoops she had to go through to get her research design through an IRB. (IRB’s are review boards that make determinations about whether a research project is – among other things – ethically defensible. After a series of famous — and ethically questionable — studies by the likes of Stanley Milgram, Ewen Cameron, and Timothy Leary, to name a few, psychology has come under great scrutiny.)

Chapter six asks whywe believe our memories are so awesome despite all evidence to the contrary. This comes down to why most of us unjustifiably judge ourselves superior in most regards. As is true of drivers, almost every person thinks she is better than average in the realm of memory. This is important because it’s not so much that our memory is fallible that leads to problems but that it’s fallible while we think it’s perfect. Chapter seven challenges the belief that there are certain events that are indelibly etched into our brains such as (depending upon age) the Kennedy assassination, the Challenger explosion, or 9/11. Such memories were once considered “flash bulb” memories, perfect renderings of societally traumatic events carved into our synapses. However, once these memories started to be put to the test, it was found that the details — vis-à-vis where one was and what one was doing at the time — are often wrong.

Chapter eight discusses how media and social media mold memories. One element of this is group-think. One’s memories may be molded through manipulation of the fact that people will readily believe that which is consistent with their beliefs while denying that which is inconsistent – regardless of facts and evidence. This chapter also takes on how social media influences memory as a distraction and because of so-called digital amnesia in which people remember less because they figure they can look it up at any time in the vastness of the internet.

Chapter nine proposes that even one’s most traumatic memories aren’t necessarily accurate, and – in fact – might be more likely to be fallacious. This may be the most important chapter of the book because it shows how a confluence of factors (namely, bad questioning tactics and peer / societal pressure) can result in the inadvertent planting of false memories. The chapter focuses on a series of Satanic ritual sexual abuse cases, a number of which were eventually disproved. So eager to build a case to bring believed wrong-doers to justice, law enforcement officers sometimes inadvertently pressured children into making up stories under the guise of trying to get them to open up, stories that sometimes became false memories.

Chapter ten shifts gears to consider what one can do about the issue of faulty memory – in other words how one can avoid being manipulated through exploitation of the limitations of one’s own memory. This is valuable information and not just for legal purposes but for life in general.

The book has a few graphics as necessary throughout the book and has end-notes to provide sources and elaboration on comments in the text.

I found this book to be immensely valuable as food-for-thought. The author presents many fascinating stories and the results of intriguing research studies, all in a readable package. I’d recommend this book for anyone who is interested in the subject of the limits of human memory, how these limits can be manipulated, and how that manipulation can impact the criminal justice process.

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BOOK REVIEW: Perfect Breathing by Al Lee and Don Campbell

Perfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a TimePerfect Breathing: Transform Your Life One Breath at a Time by Al Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page


It’s not an exaggeration to say that there is no set of yogic practices with a greater power to transform one’s life than breathing exercises (pranayama.) With this in mind, I’m always on the look out for new sources of insight into breathing – be it from free-divers, Buddhists, sports scientists, yogis, martial artists, or else-wise. This book provides an overview from a diverse set of experts with descriptions of a number of different breathing practices (e.g. Taoist qi gong, yogic pranayama, a practice for runners, etc.,) but it takes as its central tenet a six-second breath that it recommends as the titular “perfect breath.”

Breathing practices are often underestimated. People, after all, figure that they’ve been breathing every day of their lives, so who can teach them anything on the subject. The idea of reading a book on breathing is right up there with watching the paint dry or the grass grow for excitement. Unfortunately, in parts – many densely pack up front – the authors do too little to dissuade readers of this belief. In early chapters and sprinkled throughout, the book is rife with truisms and banal comments that will leave the rankest neophyte thinking they aren’t going to learn anything of value. That said, I’m glad I kept with it, because the authors convey some powerful insights by telling the stories of people from various walks of life who’ve achieved great things by improving their breath.

The book is organized around a central structure of breathing as a tool for improvement of body, mind, emotion, and spirit. This is sound approach to covering the topic, and the discussion of breath as a means to emotional control is particularly beneficial and welcome. It could be argued that the coverage of the topic of spirituality could have been jettisoned without much loss. The authors talked around the subject in away that was vague and insubstantial. To be fair, they may have been trying to avoid running afoul of individuals who were either secular / scientific (non-spiritual) or who had strong sectarian beliefs on spiritual matters.

The book has seven parts. Part I consists of two chapters that offer an introduction into the topic. These could have been pared down without substantial loss of value. Part II (Ch. 3 – 8) is entitled “Your Perfect Breath” and it discusses developing awareness of breath, body, emotion, spirit, and introduces the fundamentals of how one should breath the “perfect breath.” Part III (Ch. 9 – 12) explores the role that breathing practices can have on improving health outcomes. It’s well established that the body puts healing / rebuilding on hold under high stress, when the sympathetic nervous system is engaged. Breathing practices can help trip parasympathetic (rest and digest) activity. Part IV (Ch. 13 – 15) is of particular interest to athletes and those who want to perform better at some physical or mental activity. In addition to discussing both physical and mental performance, the authors devote a chapter to what is sometimes called Flow (Csikszentmihaly) or The Zone, and how breath can play into quieting the mind to facilitate said state. Part V (Ch. 16 – 19) is about breathing as a means to take control of one’s emotional life. People in the throes of emotional turmoil are unlikely to notice how that turmoil influences their breath, but it has a major impact — and it’s a two-way street, i.e. one can help mitigate excessive emotional response through breath. Part VI (Ch. 20 – 21) is devoted to spirituality and the nexus of breath and prayer or meditation. The final part (Ch. 22) explores the idea of the final breath. I thought this was a valuable discussion, given the tremendous anxiety of coming to one’s last breath and its impact on people’s lives.

There are no graphics in the book. They aren’t greatly missed, but might have been useful in places. (It’s probably more accurate to say the authors could have gone into more depth if they’d used graphics and not stayed in such vague territory.) There is an appendix that lists and briefly describes the included exercises, and the e-book / Kindle version includes hyperlinks to the detailed description in the book’s interior. Having a link to the practices is a useful feature. There is also a short section of recommended readings.

While it took me a bit of time to get traction in reading this book, once I did, I learned a great deal. I would recommend it for anyone who is interested in an overview of breathing practices for health, emotional control, and increased physical performance. The authors transmit expertise from a broad range of experts from various walks of life.

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BOOK REVIEW: Human Is? by Philip K. Dick

Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader (Gollancz S.F.)Human Is?: A Philip K. Dick Reader by Philip K. Dick
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page


This is a collection of 20 of Philip K. Dick’s short stories written between 1952 and 1973 that explore what it means to be human. Dick waxed philosophical on the question enough that a large collection could be assembled that examines humanity from many fascinating angles. While the age of these stories (and their Cold War taint) might make them seem obsolete, there is more than one way in which this collection is extremely relevant today.

First, artificial intelligence (AI) seems to be on everybody’s mind of late, and several of these stories feature machine intelligence as a means to understand what makes a human in a world in which there are other intelligent entities (in a similar vein, alien intelligence is also considered.) Second, Dick also asks us to consider the reality of a fictitious character who is alive in the minds of many and who might have more impact on the world than any living being. In our current phase of the information age, in which merchants of [dis-]information are becoming adroit at manipulating information and misinformation for their own desired effect, this seems a more crucial question than ever. Finally, there remains the age-old unresolved question of whether there is some x-factor beyond biology (i.e. a soul) that separates humanity from other forms of intelligence. While this is an old question, the fact that most people still believe there is a “soul” (by whatever name it’s called), even if most scientifically-minded people don’t see any reason to think so, means that it will continue to be a question with potential societal ramifications.

A sub-theme across these stories is the Cold War undercurrent of anxiety that the world could be turned into a dystopian wasteland at any moment. (In most of the stories, it already has been.) Again, if one can look past the references to the Soviet Union being cast as foe in many of the stories, one will find that the stories and the emotional zeitgeist aren’t as faded as they might at first seem.

The stories include some that movie-goers unfamiliar with Dick’s writing will know from Hollywood cinema (e.g. “Second Variety” (movie title: “Screamers,”) “Paycheck” (an eponymous film with Ben Affleck,) “Adjustment Team” (movie: “The Adjustment Bureau,”) and “We Can Remember It for You Wholesale” (i.e. both “Total Recall” movies.) But it also includes some deep cuts and lesser known stories.

1.) Beyond Lies The Wub: The crew of a ship is divided over whether to make an intelligent alien a prisoner or dinner.

2.) The Defenders: Owing to high radiation in the wake of nuclear war, humans are living underground, leaving the war-fighting to AI machines. A group of military men make an expedition to the surface only to get a big surprise.

3.) Roog: A dog is more than the family pet they think him to be, it’s secretly a guardian against the Roog.

4.) Second Variety: The Cold War went hot and the US built AI metallic creatures to fight the Soviets. The problem arises when these intelligent machines developed their own ideas, building androids because a robot that looked human could get into the midst of humans for better killing. The Soviets – after taking heavy losses – discover from serial number placards on androids that variety 1 is a wounded soldier and variety 3 is an orphan boy, begging the question of what is the Second Variety? When Americans end up among the last survivors, the question becomes essential for them as well.

5.) Impostor: Police take a man into custody who they believe to be an android with a dead human’s consciousness loaded into it, along with a bomb that could do tremendous damage. Of course, the man thinks they’ve got it all wrong.

6.) The Preserving Machine: A scientist builds a machine to preserve music, which he believes is at risk of being lost to future generations, but ultimately he learns that life always adapts and changes in unanticipated ways.

7.) The Variable Man: In a world in which decisions are made based on statistical models, the decision to go to war is in gridlock because the odds of winning stay close to 50/50. When a man from the future with a gift for repairing devices shows up, he upsets the apple cart by making the models unstable.

8.) Paycheck: A gifted engineer gets his memory wiped as part of a deal with a huge firm so that he cannot disclose any secrets about the top-secret high-tech project he was working on. He’s irked to find out that before his memory was wiped he asked for an envelope full of odds and ends in lieu of his lucrative paycheck. However, after being picked up by police, he soon realizes that the junk in the envelope was actually a well-thought out collection of useful items – if he can figure out how to use them.

9.) Adjustment Team: In a world in which a heavy hand has to periodically make major societal adjustments without people knowing, one man unwittingly becomes witness to these secret machinations. (Like “Paycheck,” the movie uses Dick’s concept without sharing the same character details and story details. However, I’d say “Paycheck” is closer to the story than is this one. However, it’s worth reading both because neither is exactly like the movie.)

10.) The Father-Thing: What if aliens could take over the consciousness of a loved one? How soon would one recognize the difference, if your father looked just like your father, but his behavior became a bit… off?

11.) Foster, You’re Dead: The “Keeping Up with the Joneses” mentality is a central theme in this story. A son wants one of the latest high-tech bomb shelters both because of Cold War anxiety, because it would be cool for a boy to have a subterranean lair, and because would be a prestige signal. The dad, however, is reluctant to get caught up in keeping up with the Joneses.

12.) Human Is: A scientist, who happens to be married to a woman who finds him cold and distant, is body-snatched while he’s away on assignment on a different world. His wife is the first to recognize her husband has been replaced, but does she want the original back?

13.) The Mold of Yancy: This story is about a soft dystopia, but instead of Huxley’s vision of people being plied with drugs and free and easy sex, these subjects are kept docile by the folksy wisdom of a beloved character who’s a complete fiction (unbeknownst to everyone.) Everybody wants their kids to grow up in the mold of the great war hero, Yancy. [Note: Even with all the AI stories, this may be the most apropos for today’s world, information used to manipulate people’s behavior without any threat of force.]

14.) If There Were No Benny Cemoli: Like “The Mold of Yancy” this story explores the question of what it means to be human by considering the fictitious person as a societal touchstone. If you can make people believe in a person who isn’t, and to change their behavior accordingly, what have you created?

15.) The Days of Perky Pat: In a post-apocalyptic wasteland, people are passionately into playing a game which revolves around a character named “Perky Pat.” In a way, she is a surrogate for who they were before war transformed the world. What will happen when they expand out to play members of a neighboring enclave who have a similar “Connie Companion” game?

16.) Oh, to be a Blobel: In a war against an alien race, a former spy was genetically altered to appear like the enemy species. After the war is over, he discovers that he can’t be stably turned back to human form. He will revert to the amorphous form of a Blobel for several hours per day, and stressors risk causing spontaneous transformation. As he will never be able to be married and have children with a human woman – who would have him – a solution is suggested whereby he will marry a former Blobel spy who turns into a human form for several hours per day.

17.) We Can Remember It for You Wholesale: A white-collar worker, Douglas Quail, who wants to go to Mars, decides to go to a memory-implant clinic that can provide him with a vivid detailed memory of a vacation to Mars. But when they try to implant said memory, it’s discovered that he isn’t who he – or the company — thought.

18.) The Electric Ant: A man who thought he was human finds out that he’s actually an android. The identity crisis that follows causes him to contemplate suicide.

19.) A Little Something for Us Tempunauts: There’s an accident with the first American crew of time-travelers, putting them into a closed time loop (i.e. like the movie “Groundhog Day.”) The question of the meaning of life in this story revolves around the unclear question of whether the tempunauts are alive or dead.

20.) Pre-Persons: In a future dystopia, abortion isn’t only legal; the age until which it can be carried out has been extended to 12. There are forces in society who rail against the government doctrine that a soul is attained precisely on one’s twelfth birthday, but that minority is considered to be the lunatic fringe.

This is an exceptional collection of stories, offering plenty to consider about the meaning of being human. Dick takes on the questions from several angles with a level of creativity only he could. I’d highly recommend this book for readers of science fiction or those who enjoy philosophical fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Novel Without a Name by Duong Thu Huong

Novel Without a NameNovel Without a Name by Dương Thu Hương
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel’s protagonist, Quan, is a North Vietnamese soldier who, after ten years of war-fighting and surviving, has worked his way up to a junior officer position with a small unit under his command. Much of the story describes a road trip in the midst of war. One of Quan’s childhood friends who is now his superior officer, Luong, assigns Quan the task of going to visit a distant medical unit to check on a third common village friend, Bien, who is said to have had a nervous breakdown. Luong, further tells Quan to take some well-earned time off for a home visit, since the junior officer hasn’t been to see his home in a decade. In the latter part of the book, Quan returns to his unit after an uneasy home visit to see the father with whom he has strained relations (his mother ran away with another man), the neighbors he seems closer to than he is his own father, and his childhood sweetheart who has fallen on hard times — having had to accept that the two would never be married. On the way, back to his unit, Quan checks on Bien who he busted out of horrific conditions at a field hospital and got reassigned to a special unit with the non-Infantry, but macabre, task of building coffins. The book ends with another uneasy transition, the war’s end – which sees Quan’s comrades in celebration, but also not sure what to expect after an entire adult life spent at war.

Interspersed with the real-time events that occur as Quan travels through a jungle war-zone, one is shown flashbacks to some of the intense traumas of his years at war. These include friendly-fire incidents and the “only the good die young” effect in which it seems the most kind and virtuous are often the most perishable in times of war. There’s also a very human story that’s told about how war effects lives and transforms relationships – in some cases forging unbreakable bonds and in other cases building impenetrable barriers between loved ones.

I’ve read a few books on the Vietnam War, both fiction and non-fiction, but this may be the first I’ve read from a North Vietnamese perspective. What is interesting about that is that the experiences and themes are often not that different from one sees in works like Karl Marlantes’s “Matterhorn” or Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried.” Soldiers on both sides have similar day-to-day experiences from boredom to horrors, and it has largely the same effect upon the soldier’s psyches. One of the overarching themes this book has in common with its American-centric counterparts is growing disillusionment. Like the American soldiers who often couldn’t comprehend what they were fighting for (other than the survival of their friends and themselves), Quan’s core beliefs become challenged over the course of the novel. It’s often been said that there are no atheists in foxholes, but it seems equally true that there are no ideologues in foxholes. The pragmatic concerns demanded of the war-fighter make it hard to be an impassioned Marxist or an impassioned follower of any ideology. This is seen in one scene in which an older officer is put off by Quan’s lack of enthusiasm for the Marxist message, and then later when the tables are turned and Quan converses with a young subordinate soldier who is even more disillusioned.

Of course, there are differences. Quan is much more at home in the environment of the war – though not exempt from the miseries of the jungle. It’s not like he’s been dropped on a different planet as it was for American soldiers who had no experience of tropical living. On the other hand, an American soldier could at least rest assured that his loved one’s were home in safety, but for Quan and his peers there is no reason to think family is any more safe than they. Of course, the concept of traipsing through the war zone on a home visit after years successively at war represents one important difference that is also fundamental to the story.

I found this book to be gripping and illuminating. It’s highly readable and relatable, even though there are flashbacks that take one out of a linear timeline; they are well done and not confusing. I would highly recommend this book for anyone who reads war stories, who enjoys translated fiction from other cultures, or who just wants a thought-provoking work of literary fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Drunken Botanist by Amy Stewart

The Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World's Great DrinksThe Drunken Botanist: The Plants That Create the World’s Great Drinks by Amy Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is about how plants are used in the making of alcoholic beverages from vegetative matter that serves as the primary ingredient in fermentation to obscure herbs and berries used to lend subtle flavoring. The book covers a lot of ground, being at once a guide to the chemistry of fermentation and distillation, a mixologist’s recipe book, and a guide to growing the plants used to make booze.

I will admit, if I weren’t such a neophyte to both subjects at hand – botany and alcoholic beverages – I probably wouldn’t have rated this book so highly. For me, almost every page offered new fun facts about alcoholic beverages, some of which I’ve consumed and many of which I never have. So if you have a high degree of understanding about one or both of these subjects, you may not find the book as intensely satisfying. Also, at times the book comes off a bit pretentiously – hardcore drunks probably don’t want to be shackled with so many rules for optimal alcoholic consumption (e.g. what type of glass they should drink a given drink from, etc.), but hardcore drunks are probably not a huge readership demographic. (It should also be noted that the reader gets some knowledge to fight pretentiousness as well, such as against gin drinkers who say they would never drink vodka when, in fact, they are drinking juniper berry-flavored vodka.)

The book consists of three parts. The first part describes fermentation and distillation and then offers two sub-parts dealing with the most everyday bases for alcoholic drinks (e.g. corn, grapes, potato, and wheat) as well as some of the more obscure and unusual objects of fermentation, respectively.

The second part delves into the plants that are added for flavoring or the like, and these are organized by: 1.) herbs and spices, 2.) flowers, 3.) trees, 4.) fruit, and 5.) nuts and seeds.

The final part gives some guidance on how some of these plants can be grown. It should be noted that this section is a bit thinner because a lot of information on growing the plants is covered in side-bars in the earlier sections and also this isn’t the book’s main thrust. The third part is similarly divided up between herbs, flowers, trees, berries & vines, and fruits & vegetables.

There are quite a few graphics, mostly in the form of line drawings, throughout the book – some are purely aesthetic and others are informative (e.g. drawings of plants.) There is also a recommended reading section that proposes further books to expand one’s understanding at the nexus of booze and plants. The book presents a lot of material in text boxes that set the information aside. These boxes include recipes, but also insights into how to best grow these plants with particularly emphasis given to how the process is optimized for those growing for beverage production (e.g. sometimes the optimal variety isn’t the most common variety.)

I enjoyed this book. It was readable, full of fun bits of information, and written in a light-hearted style. If you’re looking for a book on plants and alcoholic beverages, this is a good starting point. It doesn’t get too deep in the weeds but yet offers some obscure but amusing factoids.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lila Says by Anonymous

Lila SaysLila Says by Chimo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Lila Says is the tale of a star-crossed odd couple. The lead, Chimo, is an unemployed, 19-year-old, Arab man living in a Parisian government housing complex. Chimo’s life revolves around writing stories and getting by however he can. A fair amount of the book is about living a life of poverty in the ghettos of one of the world’s most expensive cities, but the core of it is about Chimo’s relationship with Lila.

While Chimo is awkward with girls and uncomfortable in sexual matters, Lila is an exhibitionist and – it seems at first – a nymphomaniac. She is a pretty blonde girl being raised by a Catholic aunt. Over the course of the novel, it becomes less clear that Lila is a nymphomaniac, and it’s possible that she just gets excited by causing arousal in others – particularly Chimo. In other words, it’s not so clear to what degree she is having sex, versus telling erotic tall tales. At any rate, the interplay between Chimo’s repressed nature and Lila’s unrestrained nature is at the center of the story. It soon becomes clear that part of the reason Lila has chosen Chimo is because he’s simultaneously safe and interested. That is, he can control his libido but doesn’t reject Lila’s flirtations. Chimo is surprised to find that Lila doesn’t talk to any of his friends the way she does to him, and – in fact – she doesn’t talk to them much at all.

This book is hard to rate. It’s definitely rough around the edges. However, as it’s presented as the journal of a young, unemployed man with minimal education that roughness contributes to an authentic feel. I have no idea whether it’s really a case like Go Ask Alice. (Go Ask Alice was presented as an anonymous manuscript written by a teen-aged girl whose life fell apart due to drug use, but it turned out to be written by a middle-aged woman whose life experience was nothing akin to Alice’s – though she was a therapist and youth counselor and thus had access to stories of those like Alice.) However, the text feels like it could have been hand-scrawled in the ruins of an abandoned building by candle light as described. (That is, if one discounts the British slang which takes one away from the “Arab man in a Parisian housing project,” but the book was originally published in French and so the English edition translation was made to invoke the same class level in its readership.) There are even a few footnotes about the state of the pre-edited manuscript that sell the meta-story of the book.

It’s also a great oversimplification to classify the book as erotica. It’s true that there is a great deal of sexual content in the book, and most of what Lila says, except toward the book’s end, is intended to be titillating. However, the book is also about living in poverty, selling blood to get grocery money and such. Furthermore, the book’s end ventures away from eroticism and into the realm of tragedy.

I found this book to be incredibly and surprisingly engaging. I might say I liked it warts and all, but I think it’s truer to say its warts contributed to making it more engrossing. I would highly recommend it for readers who don’t mind adult themes and who aren’t attached to happy endings (no pun intended.) I don’t mean to give anything away or to beat a dead horse. It’s just that if one picks the book up thinking of it as romance or erotica, one might feel betrayed. Better to think of it as a gritty work of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: Raoul Wallenberg by Ingrid Carlberg

Raoul Wallenberg: The BiographyRaoul Wallenberg: The Biography by Ingrid Carlberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the most recent of the many biographies of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat during the Second World War who is credited with saving thousands of lives. He was posted to Budapest with an assignment of issuing protective passports to Hungarian Jews. Hungary was a last bastion of Judaism among Nazi controlled / allied countries, but in the summer of 1944 they began mass deportation to the death camps in Poland. Protective passports from the neutral country of Sweden staved off deportation for many.

As dangerous as Wallenberg’s life was during his assignment to Budapest when he was constantly at odds with the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascist party) and the Nazis who put them in power, the most intriguing part of Wallenberg’s life story may be his disappearance. In January of 1945, as he was seeking contact with the commander of the Red Army in Hungary to facilitate a post-War reconstruction of Budapest, he was arrested by the Soviets and surreptitiously moved to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. The Soviets denied having Wallenberg, but facing overwhelming evidence from released prisoners who came into contact with Wallenberg in Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons eventually made the Soviets recant. In the 1950’s they admitted they’d had him while making the suspect claim that he’d died of natural causes in 1947. There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding the case. Why they arrested Wallenberg in the first place? Why didn’t they release or exchange him like other foreign diplomats they had in custody. If they executed him – why’d they do it and why’d they do it when they did it. [There were claims by prisoners stating that they’d met Wallenberg in Gulag camps in the 1960’s and even into the 70’s (though the latter claims are more suspect.)]

In a bold move, this book is written in the old school style, which is to say chronologically. This may not seem odd for those who’ve been reading biographies and autobiographies for a long time. It’s how historians always used to write their books, and it certainly seems like a logical arrangement for the telling of historical events. However, the mode today is to start in media res, or in the middle of the exciting bits, and to sprinkle in only what is absolutely necessary of backstory as one goes along. Because of a combination of intense competition for one’s reading time and what seems like the diminished attention span of today’s average reader, it’s really quite brave for Carlberg to start with 150+ pages discussing: Wallenberg’s parents and grandparents, his days in America as an architecture student studying a form of building design that would be considered virtually useless when he returned to Sweden, and his attempts to get started in business in the years between his return to Sweden and his entry into the diplomatic corps. That said, this first of the three parts that make up the book is well done and more interesting than one might expect. It doesn’t suffer from the painful dryness that is so common when one discusses ancestors and the subject’s childhood. It’s not just that Carlberg keeps an eye on what data might be useful for the reader later in the book. In fact, I’d say that what makes the first part interesting isn’t that it shows us how Wallenberg’s youth forged him into an inevitable hero. Rather, it’s that we come away with a picture of a somewhat shiftless kid from the least wealthy limb of a family tree of a rich family. It’s not that he was born to be a hero that makes his background fascinating; it’s that he was in many ways an ordinary fellow whose decisions at critical moments made him a hero.

As mentioned, the book’s 23 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part, as described, is Wallenberg’s background. The second part explores his actions while posted to Budapest. This is when he had to deal with the likes of Adolf Eichmann and – at the very end – rogue elements of the Arrow Cross Militia who were engaged in killing sprees. The third part covers the period of Wallenberg’s arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Soviet Union. Many of the popular biographies of Wallenberg were written in the 1980’s, during a period of reawakened interest in his fate but when the Soviets were just beginning to loosen up, and so this version does contain a little bit of new information that came out during the Glasnost years and subsequently.

The book has a substantial group of black and white pictures of relevant people and documents. There are also modern-day descriptions of the author’s visits to various key places in Wallenberg’s story including various offices and residences, as well as Lefortovo prison. These are short (a few pages at most) and are interspersed with the chapters around which that locale was relevant. Some of them involved talking with people who had insight into Wallenberg’s life and other places are occupied by individuals with little to no knowledge of Wallenberg. There is a detailed accounting of sources, including both a bibliography and lists of interviewed individuals and unpublished sources.

I found this book fascinating. I will admit that I didn’t get hooked right away. While there was enough in part one to keep me interested, the book doesn’t become truly gripping until the second and third parts. In part three, it becomes genuinely hard to put down.

That said, if one is hoping for a work that resolves all questions, that work doesn’t yet exist, and it’s less and less likely that it ever will given the way the Soviets purged Wallenberg from documentation (very few references were found during the Glasnost era investigation) and apparently cremated his body. Few people remain alive who were involved and their memories are adversely effected by time. Still, Carlberg offers excellent insight into what went wrong on the Swedish side that may have contributed to Wallenberg’s demise. The Swedish diplomat jumped to conclusions that probably hurt Wallenberg’s survival odds. There are a few brief scenes in the book that are visceral, and one of these involves the degree to which that one diplomat was haunted by his missteps in the case. (Another involves a cudgel-wielding former KGB-interrogator who threatened Wallenberg’s step-brother when the relative tried to visit to find out more. If the sparse documentation is to be believed, the retired KGB man may have been the last person to speak with Wallenberg. But the man clearly wanted to put that behind him.)

There were just a couple of questions that I wish had been addressed by the book that weren’t. Carlberg is keen to point out that it appeared that the Soviets were hinting that a teen-aged Baltic refugee, Lydia Makarova, could be a possible exchange for Wallenberg. (The Swedish diplomats were too dense to get this at first because one had concluded Wallenberg died in Hungary and another – higher up — didn’t believe in quid pro quo life trades.) I can see how this Lydia Makarova wasn’t really relevant to Wallenberg’s story. She was just an extremely high value subject, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they would want a teen-aged girl so badly that they’d have been willing to take the public relations nightmare of admitting they abducted a diplomat regarded as an international hero. With the book weighing in at over 600 pages, I can see why there was reticent to investigate this further just to scratch an itch of curiosity, but still the itch remains.

I’d highly recommend this book. I’ve read other books on Wallenberg, and believe that this book offered substantial value added – particularly regarding the investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance.

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BOOK REVIEW: Octavio Paz / Selected Poems ed. by Charles Tomlinson

Selected PoemsSelected Poems by Octavio Paz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Octavio Paz was a Mexican author, poet, and diplomat who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1990. (By separating “author” and “poet” I mean that he wrote in a variety of forms, and he is as famous for his essays as for his poetry.) His poetry reflects not only Mexican culture and sentiments but it also displays an infusion of the flavor of places he was posted or visited – e.g. there are many references to India and Hinduism as Paz was the Mexican Ambassador to India in the 1960’s. That variety is the spice of life is a sentiment Paz seems to have embraced. The poems included present examples of both short and long form, as well as prose poems and free verse. There is even concrete (visual) poetry in which the words are formed into an evocative shape. Also, as hinted at, there’s a mix of Eastern and Western worldview in these poems.

There are a number of different “Selected Poems of Octavio Paz” collections available. The details of the version I read are ISBN: 0140422463, first published in 1979 by Penguin Books and edited by Charles Tomlinson. The various collections tend to share many of Paz’s “greatest hits” and so the reason I mention the publishing details isn’t because you’re likely to get an entirely different selection of poems, but rather the features and translation skill may vary from one edition to the next. Most notably, the paperback edition I read is a bilingual edition (Spanish and English.) That didn’t do much for me as I’m not a Spanish speaker, though I do have an interest in the sound of poetry. While I can’t speak to the trueness of translation, I found the Tomlinson text to be evocative and effective.

The edition mentioned includes 56 poems drawn from five different poetry collections, ranging from the late 1940s to 1976. (Paz died in 1998.) Paz’s early collections favor prose poems and he moves more into free verse and short form poems later.

I enjoyed this collection. I was particularly enamored of Paz’s presentation of surrealist imagery and his questioning of reality. I would highly recommend poetry readers take in some of Paz’s work.

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