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

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

Amazon.in Page

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

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

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

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 3 by William Shakespeare

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

Amazon.in Page

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

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

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

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare

Henry VI, Part 2Henry VI, Part 2 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Project Gutenberg

Whereas the previous part of this trilogy was a war story largely set in France, this middle section is much about courtly intrigues and more local threats to the Crown. It does see the “War of the Roses” infighting between York and Somerset come to a head, as well as a successful plot by the new Queen and Suffolk (who might be making the beast with two backs) to get rid of the much beloved Gloucester (the King’s protector / advisor.) And there’s a brief but tumultuous rebellion led by a commoner who thinks himself kingly material, Jack Cade.

Despite the fact that the historical events of this play are among the latter half of those covered in Shakespeare’s histories – chronologically — it is believed that this is one of Shakespeare’s first (and, quite possibly, THE first.) Like other early Shakespearean works (e.g. “Titus Andronicus,”) it doesn’t have all the bells and whistles by way of beautiful language. That said, it’s loaded with tension and has elements one might recognize from latter works, such as the comedically capricious nature of crowds. (Shown when the people yo-yo between Cade’s rebellion and the aristocrats who argue for loyalty to the Crown.)

The possibility that this might be Shakespeare’s first may seem unlikely because it turned out to be “Part II.” However, one piece of supporting evidence is the play’s intense cliff-hanger. [Henry VI, Part 1 is comparatively self-contained, but this this part ends with the King being pursued by York’s forces — who’ve dominated in a skirmish against loyalist forces.]

This may be an early play, and – thus — not one of the Shakespeare’s most mellifluous works, but it’s engaging and definitely worth a read.

View all my reviews

DAILY PHOTO: Miniature Displays, National Museum of Vietnamese History

Taken in Hanoi at the National Museum of Vietnamese History in December of 2015

BOOK REVIEW: Dreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis

Dreaming EaglesDreaming Eagles by Garth Ennis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

New Edition Out: June 1, 2021

This graphic novel by the author of “The Boys” and “Preacher,” tells a story based on the experiences of the Tuskegee Airmen, and does so as a story within a story. The framing story is set in 1960’s America and finds a World War II veteran (a pilot of the Tuskegee Airmen) trying to talk his teenaged son down from getting too entangled in the Civil Rights movement — for reasons that are only revealed as he completes the telling of his experiences at war. Through flashbacks, the protagonist depicts not only the thrilling exploits of air-to-air combat over Europe and the visceral tragedies that occur when hot lead meets with aluminum high above the world, but it also shows the unique tribulations experienced by these particular military men – such as “leaders” who wanted to see them fail and widespread discrimination.

The story-in-story approach is an excellent one because it allows for a character arc in which the protagonist grows. Without getting into spoiling details, as the protagonist revisits his story, he comes away with a new and changed perspective (which is always a valuable feature in storytelling.) The frame also breaks up the history and helps maintain reader attentiveness by showing the influence the story has on the attentive son. (Young men not being famous for being interested in the life stories of their parents.) I don’t mean to suggest that the war story is not interesting. It’s full of action, heroism, and the tension of interpersonal conflict. However, for those who aren’t history buffs and are acclimated to Ennis’s more popular fare [i.e. full of superheroes and random acts of violence and titillation,] the story may feel a bit flat only by virtue of the fact that it is constrained by actual historical events.

I found the art to be well-crafted. The chaos of air combat is conveyed without being so chaotic that one can’t tell what is happening, and the graphics offer a great sense of setting and era.

This volume is definitely worth giving a read. It tells a compelling story of the combative exploits and the political / social travails of these groundbreaking and heroic pilots, while holding a mirror to the rank societal biases of the era.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

King Henry IV, Part 1King Henry IV, Part 1 by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

View Amazon.in page

While it may be Henry the IV’s reign that is threatened during the course of this play, it’s the King’s son, Prince Hal, who plays the lead role. “Hal” goes by that name because the cast features an abundance of Henrys. Besides the King and Hal, Hal’s principal rival is also a Henry (though that one, Henry Percy, goes by “Hotspur” in the interest of avoiding Henry-based confusion. [Additionally, Hotspur’s dad is a Henry, as well.])

While one might expect that the play’s principal conflict derives from intense competition for use of the name “Henry,” readers of Richard II will note that King Richard II handed over the crown to Henry Bolingbroke (a.k.a. Henry IV) under contentious conditions. The fact that Henry Bolingbroke wasn’t the next in line of succession and that he forced his predecessor out doesn’t bode well for an undisputed claim to the throne, and Henry IV’s rule is faced with everything from passive aggressive opposition to outright armed rebellion. At the start of the play, we see an indication of this conflict in Hotspur’s unwillingness to hand over a number of prisoners that his forces had taken in battle. Hotspur’s family were allies to Henry against Richard II, and the King’s unwillingness either to meet some of the Percy family demands or to recognize their role in his current kingship has made them hostile towards Henry IV.

In the first half of the play, Prince Hal is shown to be a rascal who enjoys hanging out in the pub with the likes of Sir John Falstaff. (You may know the pudgy, cowardly, and fib-prone Falstaff from his role in “The Merry Wives of Windsor.”) While Hal tends to be the voice of reason among his pub-crawling friends, Falstaff provides a low bar against which to compare one’s virtue. One event offers us great insight into Hal’s character early in the play – not to mention great amusement. When Falstaff convinces a few friends to engage in a bit of banditry, robbing a courier to get some money for mead (or ale, or whatever they drank) Hal says he has a conflict. However, Hal and his friend Poins don their own highwaymen attire and rob Falstaff’s robbers. Later, Hal and Poins are greatly amused by hearing Falstaff tell the tale of how he and his three compatriots barely got out alive against fifty enemy bandits — the Prince knowing full well that it was just two men (Poins and he) who robbed the four, and with no violence, whatsoever. Hal gives the money back, showing he is not of the same ilk as Falstaff, but it’s telling that the Prince goes to all the trouble (and risk) of a counter-robbery just as a prank.

The second half of the play centers on a rebellion that is being carried out against the King, led by Hotspur and his father. As this is going on, Hal realizes he needs to step up his game and give up his mischievous ways. When a reconciled King Henry IV and Prince Hal approach for the Battle of Shrewsbury, both the King and the Prince make offers to the enemy that are intended to prevent the carnage of all-out war. Prince Hal’s offer is that he and Hotspur (who is not present at the time) engage in single combat (a duel) to avoid the tragedy of a battle of armies. In this offer, he speaks of Hotspur very graciously, while acknowledging his own faults. Neither offer is passed on to Hotspur by his elder, though he does learn of Hal’s proposition before the two come into combat in the melee of war (a fight that Hal wins – an important victory, given that Hal is a major character in the next two Shakespearean Histories, i.e. Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V [Prince Hal will become Henry V.]) Hotspur’s father (i.e. the Earl of Northumberland and the one who met with Henry IV and Hal) didn’t pass on the offers because he was concerned that Hotspur might take the Prince up on his offer, and that the outcome would be devastating for the Percy family. This is an informative bit of duplicity that highlights Hotspur’s apparent virtue and the duplicity of his elders (i.e. the Earls of Northumberland and Worcester.)

Because Shakespeare’s Histories follow the flow of real-world events, some are more evocative as stories than others (because some of the Kings’ stories were more engaging than others.) There’s a general consensus that Henry IV, Part 1 is among the better historical plays. The arc of the story demonstrates clear character growth in Hal. In its comedic moments, the play is quite funny, but that doesn’t diminish the tension and tragedy of the story overall. It’s definitely worth a read. Even if you only plan to read a few of the historical plays, this should probably be among them.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Comic Book History of Comics by Fred Van Lente

Comic Book History of Comics: Comics for AllComic Book History of Comics: Comics for All by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

As the title suggests, this is a history of comic books and graphic novels that is presented in the form of a comic book. This book turned out to be more fascinating than I expected (and, obviously, I thought it would be interesting enough to start reading it in the first place.) The added fascination, of all places, came from the economics nerd in me (I thought that guy was dead, but apparently not.) You may wonder what economics has to do with the history of comics, but it turns out that there was a long period of learning about how the unique characteristics of comic books should influence how they were most lucratively sold. At first, comics were sold just like other magazines, but eventually people realized that the fact that these periodicals told serialized stories (and that they were potentially collectable) made them a very different kind of product. And there were booms and busts along the way.

It’s not just economists who might find something surprisingly interesting in this book, there is a colorful discussion of intellectual property law as it pertained to comics. (As well as the more visceral human-interest story of the artists who created characters that made executives and actors billions of dollars, while said artists eked out a living.) Long-story-short, this book isn’t just for those interested in how artistic styles changed, or how various popular characters came to be, though those subjects are touched upon as well. It looks at the history of comics from many angles. One learns a little about the unique Japanese, Brazilian, Mexican, and African comic book markets, and one even sees how comic books played a roll in international relations. While it’s mostly an industry (macro-)level look, there is discussion of a few who individuals who changed the industry (e.g. Alan Moore.)

This is a quick read, but packed with interesting information for those of us who are basically interested in everything. It’s well drawn as well. Check it out.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Madness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull

Madness: A Very Short IntroductionMadness: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Scull
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This is yet another of the many “Very Short Introduction” books from Oxford University Press that I’ve been pleased to read and review. The series offers concise overviews of a wide range of topics that are presented by scholarly experts. This particular book is a historical examination of the changing approaches to mental illness from the ancient world where such a condition might be attributed to demonic possession to more recent times in which drugs and decarceration / defunding of asylums have become the dominant approaches to mental illness. Along the way the book shines a light on the immense difficulty experts have had in understanding what mental illnesses are and how they can best be dealt with. The book not only looks at the real-world response to mental illness, but also explores how it’s been treated in fiction from “Hamlet” to “One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest.”

The book consists of six chapters. As one would expect of a book from a historian’s-eye view, its organization is chronological, but the arrangement of time periods by chapter reflects changing approaches to mental illness. Chapter one focuses on the ancient world, during which we begin to get glimpses of madness in the written record. Chapter two, entitled “Madness in Chains,” focuses on the 16th through 18th century, during which Bethlem [Bedlam] Hospital was the cutting edge. That the institution’s nickname becoming a synonym for chaos and confusion says a lot. It was a time of brutal measures that did little to reduce the trauma of mental illness. The chapter also discusses madness in Elizabethan literature, famously that of Shakespeare.

Chapter three shifts to the 19th century, an era in which incarceration became more widespread as well as coming to be thought of as the best that could be done for the insane. In Chapter four, we learn about the rise of psychoanalysis as well as the increasing employment of treatments that involved the physical body – infamously, the lobotomy.

Chapter five is one of the most intriguing parts of the book. Entitled “Madness Denied” it opens with an exploration of the difficulties that arose from all the war-related cases of mental illness that came about as a result of the two World Wars (and others.) It also discusses a movement to overturn the prevailing approach to insanity, most famously and vociferously argued by the Scottish psychiatrist R.D. Laing, a clinician who had a mix of promising and disastrous results from his experimental approach which used LSD, but few other medicines. What I found most interesting, however, was the discussion of the growing recognition that there was a false front in the idea that psychiatry was beginning to really understand mental illness and its treatment. This was exemplified by the Rosenhan experiments in which sane volunteers checked themselves into asylums and, for the most part, the doctors and staff couldn’t tell that they were sane (though, interestingly, in at least some cases the other patients did call it out.) The troubles in classifying and diagnosing mental illnesses have also seen in the vexed history of the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Illness” [DSM,] a guide meant to get mental health experts on the same page about what’s what. [As opposed to ten psychiatrists offering ten different diagnoses of a given patient.] While a worthy attempt, the DSM has not – thus far – succeeded, though it could probably be argued that progress has been made.

The last chapter brings the reader up to the current period, a period dominated by two trends – first, mental illnesses being treated overwhelmingly pharmaceutically; and second, the closing of asylums and the concurrent ill-effects that have come about, societally speaking.

The book has a few graphics, mostly black and white art and photos used to enhance the reading experience. There are also appendices of references and recommended readings.

If you are interested in the history of psychiatric medicine, I’d highly recommend you check out this brief guide. It may not give you all the information you’re looking for, but it’s a good first stop to organize your thoughts on the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Witchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill

Witchcraft: A Very Short IntroductionWitchcraft: A Very Short Introduction by Malcolm Gaskill
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

Witches, like ninja, so excite the popular imagination that everyone knows about them, but most of what we know is incorrect — either by virtue of being exaggerated or being imbued with cultural and narrative coloring. Gaskill’s book shows us the changing landscape of popular belief about witches and witchcraft, and it contrasts those perceptions with what the historical records show. So, for example, while there was undeniable persecution of individuals accused of witchcraft, it was less of a widespread mania than one might have been led to believe.

There were several fascinating discussions throughout the book. One such discussion is how surprisingly widespread the phenomena of witchcraft is, with witches being found in Africa who demonstrate remarkably similarities to those we are familiar with from the stories of Europe and New England. One can imagine how societies in which medicine was rooted in shamanistic practices, e.g. mixing herbal medicine with superstitious rituals, might produce practitioners that the modern, Western viewer would associate with witchcraft.

Another interesting question under discussion involved the psychology of accusations of witchcraft. For example, it’s not like every time a child died the parents leapt to the conclusion that there was some sort of voodoo witchcraft being practiced against their child, but in some circumstances it definitely happened. Under our current understanding of science and medicine, it’s hard to imagine how anyone would reach such conclusions, but it’s illuminating to explore the conditions under which our ancestors did. It tells us a great deal about humanity’s changing understanding of the world.

The book consists of eight chapters and the usual ancillary matter for the AVSI series (preface, graphics, references, and recommendations for further reading.) It begins by asking: “what is a witch, exactly.” It’s not as simple a question as one might think. Is a witch an herbal healer? Is she a malicious devil-worshipper? Is he or she just a neighbor with whom one had a beef, resulting in the use of that person’s perceived nefariousness to explain an unexpected tragedy? Is a Wiccan a witch? (This is addressed later because Wicca is a relatively recent phenomenon.) Is a witch just a popular Halloween costume based on stereotypes and story details? In some sense, the witch is all of these things wrapped into a messy mélange.

Chapter two recounts how the rise of Christianity warped the way witchcraft was viewed. As Christians attempted to both eliminate the competition of existing spiritual beliefs and to fit those who practiced witchcraft into the context of the Christian belief system, a new kind of witch came to be introduced. Chapter three delves into how the popular image of witches came to be associated with older, haggish women. (In the early days of witchcraft, women were no more associated with the practice than were men.) This chapter also has a fascinating section about cases of neighborly disputes playing out through accusations of witchcraft.

Chapter four explores how witchcraft came to be conflated with demon-worship in the popular imagination, and how beliefs about witchcraft were influenced by competing takes on Satan and what powers the devil was believed to have (or not have.) It also discusses the topic of witch hunts, and proposes that, while horrific things happened, there are many more examples of rationality and calm reflection winning the day. As I was reading this book, it sometimes felt to me like the author was acting as an apologist for the forces of persecution, but upon closer reflection I realized that he was just trying to combat an overly exaggerated view of what it was like to be amid witch hunts and trials. From what most of us have heard about the Salem Witch trials one might be led to believe that any woman in the seventeenth century who was accused of being a witch would immediately be drowned by an insane and angry mob. That was [mostly] not the case. Which is not to say it’s not horrible that it happened at all, but it is useful to understand the scale of any problem.

Chapter five investigates the nature of witch trials, and the changing face of how witchcraft was treated under the law. Witch trials have become synonymous with a vicious catch-22 in which a woman is tied to a rock and thrown into a river: if she floats out, she’s immediately killed as an agent of Satan; if she doesn’t, they say “our bad” and reward her with a Christian funeral. Gaskill emphasizes that there were people at the time who recognized and challenged how horrible and insane that approach was. [I often mention Dr. Sherrill’s formulation of the “Outhouse Fallacy,” the idea that because earlier people didn’t have indoor plumbing that they must have been complete dimwits, and the fallacy tends to apply to our popular conception of people of that era.] Chapter six dips further into crazes and panics over witchcraft. Chapters seven and eight consider different dimensions of how fantasy and reality became intertwined in how witchcraft was seen – from Macbeth’s trio of witches to modern Hollywood adaptations.

I read a lot of these AVSI titles from Oxford University Press; they are a good way to get a quick overview of a subject with which one has a limited familiarity, while ensuring the source has a high degree of scholarly competence. This edition is no different, and – in fact – owing to its fascinating topic, it’s probably more engaging than most. I enjoyed learning how my perception of witchcraft varied from reality, and how perception becomes a kind of reality unto itself. If you’re interested in learning about witch hunts, witch trials, and the like, this book provides an excellent and brief overview of the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Richard II by William Shakespeare

Richard IIRichard II by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

This is a dramatization of the last couple years of the deposed King’s life. It is written entirely in verse, which is not the norm for Shakespeare (only a couple other histories are purely verse, most mix prose and poetry.)

The story opens with two gentlemen petitioning Richard II about their dispute. One of the men, Henry Bolingbroke, has accused the other, Thomas Mowbray, of both misappropriating funds and being involved in the murder of the Duke of Gloucester (a relative of Bolingbroke’s.) Mowbray denies these claims. First, Richard attempts to mollify the men and bring about a peaceful settlement. When this fails. Richard agrees to allow the two men to undertake “trial by combat” – i.e. dueling to the death. While this seems to provide a solution, as combat is about to take place, Richard changes his mind and calls off the match. Instead, the King banishes both men into exile – Mowbray permanently and Bolingbroke for ten years [adjusted to six years.]

As in Hamlet, indecisiveness is the root of tragedy in this play. Had Richard let the two men duel it out as planned, he likely would have died as King instead of being deposed. If Mowbray had won, then Bolingbroke would not have been around to later usurp the crown. If Bolingbroke had won, he would have automatically received his inheritance upon the death of John of Gaunt (Bolingbroke’s father and Richard’s uncle) and – therefore – Richard wouldn’t have confiscated John’s holdings to fund a war in Ireland. Either way, Richard would have been better off had he let the duel happen. But, because he didn’t, and then took possession of Bolingbroke’s inheritance, he triggered a chain of events that would involve Bolingbroke invading England against minimal resistance [and increasing support] as Richard was off fighting in Ireland.

While this play is generally classified as “a history,” it has been known to be called a tragedy, and the ending certainly fits that genre. In the last act a conspiracy to unseat the newly coronated king, Henry IV [Bolingbroke,] is revealed when the Duke of York discovers that his son, Aumerle, is involved in the conspiracy. Aumerle races to King Henry and gets him to grant him leave without knowing what treachery was in the works. Henry agrees, but then the Duke of York shows up asking the King to punish his son for his involvement in the conspiracy. It looks like York is about to have his way when the Duchess (York’s wife and Aumerle’s mother) enters and implores the new king to spare her boy – which Henry does (though he has the conspiracy brutally crushed with most of the conspirators killed and those who weren’t killed being captured.)

Also in the last act, one of Henry’s loyalists overhears an off-the-cuff remark that Henry makes about wishing Richard dead. The henchman decides to go to the prison and take matters into his own hands. The play ends with a mortified Henry rebuking the murderer and announcing that he, himself, will go to the holy land in an attempt to make amends for the suggestion that triggered Richard’s murder.

I found this to be an engaging tragedy. The histories aren’t often as intriguing as the tragedies, but this play features and intense – if straightforward – narrative arc. If you’re interested in reading Shakespeare’s histories, this is definitely one you’ll want to check out. It also sets up what is sometimes called “the Henriad,” [a tetralogy of plays] which includes “Henry IV, Part I,” “Henry IV, Part 2,” and “Henry V.” That makes “Richard II” a logical starting point to take on the four-play epic.

View all my reviews