BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle

His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - with original illustrations)His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story collection is the penultimate book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. One sees a shift into the modernity of the twentieth century in the seven collected stories. In particular, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” is about the theft of plans for a submarine, and the final story, the titular finale, “His Last Bow” takes Holmes out of the world of crime and law enforcement and into the realm of espionage. Of course, the Sherlock Holmes books have always taken advantage of both the science of the day as well as offering glimpses into the cultures and peculiarities of far away lands. This blending of the cutting edge with exoticism is part of what gave these books a mystique that set them apart from other detective fiction, and is also partly why they have aged so well.


Two recurring plot devices in the book are poisonous substances and – ever popular with Doyle – the criminal secret society. Poisons play a central role in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” and “The Adventure of the Dying Detective.” The secret society angle plays into the only two stories of the collection that are two-parters: “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” and “The Adventure of the Red Circle.” “His Last Bow” isn’t the only departure from the standard Sherlock fare. Given an attempt to kill off Holmes as well as the unsuccessful finality of this book’s title, it seems like Doyle was acutely concerned by the capacity for these stories to become overplayed. Therefore, he seemed to experiment a little with story. Unfortunately for him, the author did too good of a job at creating one of the most intriguing characters ever, and so demand for the stories remained unabated – regardless of the fact that the stories tend to become a bit more predictable as one reads through them in their entirety.


I felt this collection provided a nice mix of atypical and classic Sherlock. It’s definitely worth a read.

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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: Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song [Trans. by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang]

Poetry and prose of the Tang and SongPoetry and prose of the Tang and Song by Yang Xianyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection includes works from eighteen prominent poets and writers from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties of China. Among the most famous of the included authors are: Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Yucheng, and Su Shi. The included works (mostly poems but including some brief prose writings) explore subjects such as nature, social justice, patriotism, travel, and drinking. If some of those topics surprise you, you’re not alone. I may be letting my biases show, but I was surprised by how much social outrage and humor was contained in these works from the China of 750 to 1,400 years ago. That said, most of the works do present the kind of sparse imagist depictions of natural scenes one would likely expect from Chines poets in days of yore. (Think haiku, but longer — though no less devoid of analysis or judgement.)

As someone who isn’t an expert on Chinese literature or even a speaker of any of the Chinese languages, I can’t comment intelligently on how precise the translations are. However, the English language versions contained in this volume are evocative, clever, and, occasionally, funny.

To give one an idea of the kind of humor, I’ll offer this quote from a poem by Xin Qiji:

Last night by the pine I staggered tipsily
And asked the pine, “How drunk am I?”
When I imagined the pine sidling over to support me,
I pushed it off saying, “Away!”


I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

The Aleph : including the prose fictions from The MakerThe Aleph : including the prose fictions from The Maker by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book contains the seventeen stories of The Aleph, plus about twenty short pieces of prose fiction from The Maker. Borges was one of the best writers of the twentieth century. His writings are mystical, philosophical, imaginative, provocative, compact, and thick with ideas and references to great literature from Don Quixote to Shakespeare to Greek Mythology. Much of Borges work has a fantasy / speculative component, but it never feels like it’s for its own sake, but rather to convey ideas of a philosophical, psychological, or spiritual nature. One might think that such short writings by a man who was clearly obsessed with a few key ideas (e.g. libraries and labyrinths) would get stale, but far from it.

The collection known by its titular final story (i.e. “The Aleph”) makes up the bulk of the book, and offers some exceptional stories – e.g. “The Other Death,” “Deutsches Requiem,” “The Man on the Threshold,” and, of course, “The Aleph.” The stories engage the readers with issues like mortality, fate, courage, and mystery.

The pieces from “The Maker” are short, few more than a couple pages and some just a paragraph. The most famous piece included is probably the brilliant “Borges and I,” but other important pieces include “The Maker,” “Everything and Nothing,” “The Yellow Rose,” and “The Witness.”

The book has notes and back-matter by the translator / editor, which can be useful for readers who aren’t acquainted with Latin America or the broad canon of classic literature Borges regularly references.

I’d highly recommend this for those who enjoy though-provoking, philosophical fiction. It is a thinking person’s read, but yet many of the pieces are highly engaging as stories.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Very Irish Christmas by Various

A Very Irish Christmas: The Greatest Irish Holiday Stories of All TimeA Very Irish Christmas: The Greatest Irish Holiday Stories of All Time by Various
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 14, 2021

This anthology contains fourteen previously published pieces by prominent Irish authors, including: Joyce, Yeats, and Colm Tóibín. It’s mostly short fiction, but there are a few poems as well as a couple of excerpts from longer works. All the pieces are set around (or reference) Christmas, but the degree to which that plays into the story varies a great deal. The anthology is very Irish, but not always very Christmassy. Meaning, if you’re expecting a collection of pieces like Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” where the joy or melancholy of the season is front-and-center throughout and the holiday, itself, is a pivotal story element, you won’t find that in a number of these selections. Often, the season is just an element of ambiance or of short-lived emotional resonance.

That said, the selections are all artfully written and each is intriguing in its own way. In the case of Joyce’s “The Dead” the appeal is the evocative language and creation of setting (though the piece does have more explicit story than, say, “Ulysses.”) Whereas, for pieces like Keegan’s “Men and Women” or Trevor’s “Christmas Eve” the point of interest might be the story, itself. Besides the Irish author / Christmas reference nexus, the included works cover a wide territory including contemporary works (keeping in mind the authors are mostly from the 20th century) and those that hearken back to days of yore. Some are secular; while others are explicitly Catholic.

I enjoyed this anthology, finding it to be a fine selection of masterfully composed writings.

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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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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway

Old Man And The SeaOld Man And The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novella is a masterpiece of American literature. The story is straightforward, but visceral and provocative. Santiago, an old Cuban fisherman, has been having the dry spell of all dry spells, having not returned with a fish in over eighty days. Santiago recently lost his assistant / apprentice, a boy named Manolin, but the age-mismatched pair remain friends. After a scene in which the two hang out and share a meal one evening, most of the rest of the book is only – literally – the old man and the sea.

The next day Santiago goes out much farther than usual in an attempt to rectify his losing streak. Soon, he hooks what he can tell is a massive fish. It turns out to be an eighteen-foot marlin, and it ends up dragging his boat around for the better part of three days before Santiago can sink a harpoon into it. But the three days of raw fish meals, almost no sleep, and gashed hands (from the line) are only the start of Santiago’s problems. The marlin is far too big to fit in Santiago’s tiny boat. The fisherman has to strap the fish to the outside of the boat. It’s not long before a shark sinks its teeth into it, and – while Santiago kills the shark – the blood and meat dripping into the sea attract additional sharks. By the time Santiago gets back to port, there’s nothing but a skeleton attached to his boat. Locals are impressed by the fish skeleton, buy Santiago has nothing to show for all his tenacity.

I was reading a book that dealt with the challenges of modernity (Camus’ “The Fall”) around the same time I read this book, and it occurred to me that this is, in an important sense, the opposite of “The Fall.” While Santiago may be struggling to prove that he’s still the man who once won arm-wrestling matches against brawnier challengers, he’s also at-ease in a way that seems rare. Santiago knows who he is. His fear of death is minimal. He can endure because he has the confidence of one who has mastered himself via the forge of nature.

This short book is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Fall by Albert Camus

The FallThe Fall by Albert Camus
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a novel for someone who revels in philosophizing. It’s not a book for those who like to get lost in a story. It reads as if one sat down at a bar next to an obviously intelligent, but also obviously tipsy individual, who proceeded to tell his life story reflectively and analytically – without emphasis on thrilling exploits.

It falls among books that deal in the crisis of modernity – by which I mean, the challenges that arise from being evolutionary optimized to live a certain kind of life, while living one that is completely different. (i.e. It’s like “Fight Club,” but both far more boring and less broadly introspective.) The protagonist, Clamence, tells us about how he once got hit in public and how angry he was with himself for not getting in a lick of his own. He also describes hearing a woman jump / fall into the Seine, and not lifting a finger to help – despite hearing the woman’s screams. Adherence to laws and norms (in conflict with animal impulse,) disconnection from community, and ethical ambiguity are recurring themes in such books. What one does in a post-god world is also reflected upon. Religion and belief, like it or loathe it, fulfilled a function for humanity, and a vacuum was created for people for whom the cons of belief came to outweigh the pros.

Personally, I’m prone to philosophizing, and so I did get into this book – despite not finding it engaging as a story. When I read one particular line, I learned I was a suitable drinking companion for Clamence: “I have never been able to believe, deep inside, that human affairs are serious matters.” [Virtue or vice, I can relate.]

If you’re prone to philosophize, check out this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Clouds by Aristophanes

The CloudsThe Clouds by Aristophanes
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play scoffs at philosophers and sophists (in general) and Socrates, in particular. An old man, Strepsiades, is beleaguered by creditors, having purchased a horse and chariot for his son, Pheidippides. Strepsiades tries to get Pheidippides to study philosophy because the old man believes it will allow his son to argue away the debt. Pheidippides refuses, and so Strepsiades takes it upon himself to enroll as Socrates’ student. After some strained conversations and ill-timed masturbation, all parties conclude that the old dog can’t learn new tricks, and so Stresiades again tries to recruit his son. This time Pheidippides does join Socrates’ “think-shop” (called “the Thinkery” in some translations.)

Socrates’ characterization isn’t fair to the philosopher in some regards. If the works of Plato and Xenophon hold water, Socrates was neither a know-it-all nor was he obsessed with grandiose topics – rather, he claimed to know little and was said to have been only concerned with questions of how to live a better life (as opposed to lordly enigmas like the origin of the universe or the nature of reality.) However, this isn’t to say that Aristophanes has no valid point. That intense and abstract philosophical debate doesn’t change the hard facts of the world is a legitimate point. Debts aren’t erased by the creditor’s inability to successfully argue niggling points of grammar. Being stabbed by a jilted lover is no less painful if love is an illusion than if it equates to beauty or is a fundamental truth.
Much of the play’s humor is weakened (if not killed) by a lack of common context, but that’s not to say there aren’t jokes that still fly in the 21st century.

This short play is worth reading, as it presents a beneficial counterpoint to the Socratic dialogues.

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