BOOK REVIEW: Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber

Romanticism: A Very Short IntroductionRomanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s commonly believed to have been a response to the Enlightenment, a desire to not throw out the baby with the bathwater as the influence of religion waned. In this book, we learn that that’s a misleading oversimplification, but not one completely devoid of truth.

Like a lot of “movements,” Romanticism is a fairly loose set, containing a disparate band of entities. This is exacerbated because it’s not just, say, a style of painting or of music, but rather it cuts across a diverse range of activities. Because of that, the book offers the least clarity in the opening chapters (ch. 1&2) and in the last one (ch. 6.) The first two try to rope in Romanticism and to differentiate it from “sensibility,” a movement oft-confused for Romanticism. The last chapter attempts to show the commonality that cuts across different domains, e.g. how are Romantic paintings similar to Romantic novels, or – for that matter – Idealist philosophy.

However, starting with chapter three, the book provides clear insight into the nature of Romanticism. Chapter three investigates poetry. Chapter four examines philosophy and Romantic attitudes towards religion and science. This was quite eye opening to me because I’d previously contrasted Romanticism with the Enlightenment, and here I learned that the Romantics’ views on religion and science were far from the opposite end of a spectrum. Chapter five shines light on the social context of Romanticism, focusing on politics, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, and War, but also evaluating what influence, if any, Romanticism had on changing views toward women.

I feel I came away from the book with a better understanding of Romanticism, and so I’d recommend it for others interested in learning more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Radium Girls by Cy

Radium GirlsRadium Girls by Cy.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 6, 2022

This is a graphic novel that tells the same story [based on actual events] as the similarly titled, but otherwise unrelated, popular book by Kate Moore. The “Radium Girls” were women who worked at watch factories, painting luminescent numbers on watch dials. Unfortunately, the luminescent material being used was radioactive, and the painting process that these women were taught involved touching paintbrushes to their lips between strokes, causing them to ingest minute amounts of it everyday, often over many years. In today’s world, a person who found themselves glowing in the dark from a job (without protective equipment) would know something was radically wrong, but this took place about a century ago and understanding of radioactivity was much less – though scientists clearly understood that precautions needed to be taken when working with radium.

This book captures the highs and lows of a small group of workers from one of the watch / clock factories involved, the one in Orange, New Jersey. Ultimately, this is a sad story of deteriorating health and premature death, but it also shows a relatively new phenomena of women holding jobs that allowed them to increase control their own destinies. By showing the women as they tasted the good life, the experience of the bottom falling out created a more visceral experience. The women did earn a good wage — not the kind of money that makes cancer worthwhile, but higher pay than the usual salary available to women of the day.

I thought the story was well told and touching. The art was in an interesting style – sure to be the cup of tea of some but not others – but nevertheless clearly conveying events of the story. I’d recommend this graphic novel for readers interested in the subject.


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BOOK REVIEW: Saints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow

Saints: A Very Short IntroductionSaints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an overview of the history of sainthood in Christianity: how the canonization process changed over time (i.e. from mostly dispersed to increasingly controlled by Rome,) what types of individuals have been selected (from ascetics and martyrs to the heads of orders and other more conventional candidates,) the changing incidence of women saints (while always far less than males, at times almost nonexistent,) and who were some of the more prominent (or atypical) saints.

The book’s organization is primarily a chronological flow, but there are a couple chapters that are of a more topical nature (e.g. on female saints and about hagiographies [“biographies” of saints that mix fact and fiction.]) It was fascinating to me to learn that we are amid a resurgence of canonization. The making of saints had fallen off for a time around the 1800’s (presumably at least in part because it became increasingly challenging / embarrassing in an “Enlightened” age to argue for miracles [“proof” of which is necessary as part of the process.]) However, that can’t be the full story because since John Paul II there’s been a substantial increase in canonization, while we have less reason to believe in supernatural phenomena than ever.

The book takes an agnostic / scholarly stance on the rightness or wrongness of sainthood and doesn’t go out of its way to discuss the scandalous. However, it does not shy away from – here and there – mentioning misbehavior of the Church (e.g. Papal Indulgences and political canonization.) The economist in me found it fascinating that Indulgences gained fungibility – i.e. tradable as an intermediary of value, i.e. like cash.

I found the book interesting despite its occasional drifts into obscure theological / historical territory. It’s readable and, at times, fascinating.

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BOOK REVIEW: Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler

Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest TeaDarjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As Bordeaux or Tokaj are to wine, Darjeeling is to tea, producing a quality beverage considered by many to be the best in the world. However, this isn’t merely the story of how this region of northern Bengal (or, alternatively, Gorkhaland) came to produce a unique kind of tea that would be sought-after around the world. It’s also a story of empire and how Britain’s insatiable demand for tea drove major developments in geopolitics. It’s yet further the story of recent troubled times of Darjeeling tea, from labor shortages to environmental degradation, and what tea estates have done to adapt – from management / organization changes to organic production techniques.

Lessons in the history and geography of tea may seem niche and uninteresting, but the story of tea is actually quite fascinating, involving Opium Wars, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and an industry shakeup resulting from India’s independence.

I found this book compelling, and thought it did a good job of zooming in and out between local and global (and past to present) to maintain the interest of a diverse readership. Whether the book is exploring attempts to transplant tea shrubs and expertise from China or the changing customer base for Darjeeling tea, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking story. If you’re interested in tea, world history, or agribusiness, you’ll likely find something in this book to hold your attention.


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA, Vol. 1 by Brandon Beckner

Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIAProject MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

This graphic novel mixes fiction with the historical events, and – in a bizarre inversion of the usual – the most outlandish parts of the story tend to be the history. It tells the story of the CIA’s ill-fated and highly illegal “experiments” with LSD, studies that involved dosing unwitting individuals on American soil. The fictionalized through line of the story involves a San Francisco journalist who stumbles onto the CIA’s illicit activities in 1971, and – even after being discredited – continues to pursue the story with the help of a whistleblower. The book includes a prologue that shows the accidental dosing of chemist Albert Hofmann in his laboratory, an event that marked the discovery of LSD. And it comes to an end showing Operation Midnight Climax, a sub-project of MK-Ultra that was among the most audacious plots because it involved setting up a brothel at which johns were involuntarily dosed with LSD and watched through 2-way mirrors as they did the deed [or freaked out, as the case may be.]


The art is interesting. A lot of the frames are psychedelic, reflecting the fact that one is seeing the world through the eyes of tripping individuals. Most of the rest are retro to give the feel of the time at hand. In most cases, that’s 1971 San Francisco, but some of the story jumps back to events in the 50’s and 60’s. At one point the frames reminded me of Archie and Jughead comics.


I enjoyed how the story was told, using the driven newbie journalist as protagonist. That said, the book may be annoying for individuals who are curious about what is fact and what is fiction. Footnotes are occasionally used to help in this regard, as well as to give information about period references used for authenticity.


I found this book compelling, but – having read a fair amount about MK-Ultra – I had some idea what was true and recognized the names of key figures. If you’re interested in the ridiculous annals of the CIA and aren’t bothered by the fact / fiction mixing, check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley

Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to ArtZen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg (FREE)

This essay reviews the history and key personalities of Zen Buddhism, and then has a quite brief discussion of Zen influenced art. The thin book at its most interesting when it discusses Zen Buddhist teachings by way of the life events and sayings of its historical figures (e.g. Bodhidharma.) It does have some nice straightforward explanations of concepts.

What’s not to like? First, it’s just an essay, so if you’re expecting a full book, you might be displeased. Second, the opening discussion about the sectarian divides of Buddhism is very biased in favor of Mahayana Buddhism and against Theravada. (Of course, if one is reading about a Mahayana sect, e.g. Zen, one probably expects as much.) Finally, the title might lead one to think the book will help one understand the Zen mind’s influence on creativity, but it’s not a great source for that.

If you know what to expect, this little piece has something fine to offer. Waley was a prolific translator and a renowned expert on things Asian (particularly poetry,) and he has an insightful way of communicating difficult concepts.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

King Henry VIIIKing Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play takes place over a period of time, for want of a better measure, straddling the first two [of six] marriages of Henry VIII. It doesn’t reach the ill-fated end of Anne Boleyn, but rather finishes with the baptism of the girl child she birthed [Elizabeth, who will later be Queen.] [Of course, the failure to produce a male child was the downfall of Katherine of Aragon’s Queenship, so the birth of Elizabeth doesn’t bode well.]

In as much as a history has a theme, this one would be the conflict between the aristocracy and the clergy. This is first, and most extensively, seen through the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, who wins the favor of the King in the Cardinal’s conflict with the Duke of Buckingham, but later Wolsey gets ousted after an aristocratic cabal diverts the Cardinal’s mail to the King. Henry discovers that Wolsey has recommended denial of an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, despite the fact that Wolsey was telling the King to his face that the marriage’s end had his endorsement. Later, we find aristocrats (the King’s Council) taking on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, but Henry sides with the Archbishop as he once had with Wolsey.

The play’s major events are the execution of Buckingham, the divorce from Katherine, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the birth of Elizabeth.

This isn’t the most compelling of the Shakespearean histories, but it does have its intrigues. No doubt it would be a bolder play in the absence of the authoritarian nature of monarchy, but it’s still worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Richard III by William Shakespeare

King Richard IIIKing Richard III by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like Macbeth, this is the story of one man’s unchecked ambition bringing about his ruin. Richard wants to be king. The problem is that his eldest brother (Edward) is already king. The good news for Richard is that Edward is sick. The bad news is that Edward has two sons (and a daughter,) and there’s another elder brother (i.e. Clarence.) While Richard is willing to let nature take its course with Edward, he’ll have to get rid of everyone else between himself and the Crown.

Richard is different from Macbeth in that Richard’s psychopathy is more like that of Iago from “Othello.” Macbeth is conflicted and, though he keeps digging himself deeper, the burden of guilt leads to a descent into madness. Richard is anxious, but it’s not clear that he feels bad about what he’s done (i.e. having his brother’s boys killed, as well as his own brother, his wife, and a number of aristocrats.) When his own mother tells him she wishes she’d strangled him to death with his umbilical cord it rolls off him with the cool detachment one expects of a psychopath. That said, in the last act, he is visited by a series of ghosts. These visitations and his subsequent monologue might give indication that he’s realized how awful he is, but one could also argue that he’s just worried about the precarious state of his kingship.

The hammer drops when Richmond, a nephew of Henry VI, leads forces against Richard. In part, the aforementioned ghosts (which could be interpreted as bad dreams) psychologically do in Richard. (Though the ghosts also visit Richmond with the opposite message, a positive one.) But also, Richmond has proven his leadership skill by forging alliances with the French and the Scots, and turning Lord Stanley (despite Stanley having a son held hostage by Richard.)

While this play not only lacks the character nuance of Macbeth as well as The Scottish Play’s brilliant poetic language, it does have more great lines than the other “War of the Roses” plays (i.e. Henry VI, Pt. I – III.) [e.g. It opens with “Now is the winter of our discontent” and, of course, there’s “A horse! A horse! My kingdom for a horse!”]

This conclusion to the War of the Roses story is well worth reading.

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