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

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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.

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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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Return of Sherlock Holmes (Sherlock Holmes, #6)The Return of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This short story collection is the sixth book in the Sherlock Holmes canon, and – as the title suggests – it marks the return of the famous fictional detective after a hiatus. Doyle had tried to kill off the Holmes character so that he could work on other projects. At the end of “The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes,” Doyle leads us to believe Holmes and his nemesis, Moriarty, wrestled off the Reichenbach Falls, plummeting to stony deaths.

In the first story in this collection, “The Adventure of the Empty House,” we discover that Holmes didn’t die, and has been exploiting his reputed death, playing a game of cat-and-mouse against the remnants of Moriarty’s gang, notably the deadly, Col. Sebastian Moran. The other twelve stories of the collection stand alone among the larger canon, and follow the usual Holmes narrative weave. Most involve murder, but there is one (“The Adventure of the Three Students”) that involves a “crime” as mundane as test theft, and in some cases, e.g. “The Adventure of the Second Stain,” the murder is a secondary issue. Each crime is solved using the intense observation, out-of-the-box thinking, and leaps of intuition of which only Holmes is capable. Usually, the guilty party is brought to justice, but, in some cases, Holmes follows his own moral code, deciding not to assist the authorities in cases for which he believes the crime justified, or unavoidable.

Among my favorites of the collection are: “The Adventure of the… Norwood Builder,” …Dancing Men,” and …Missing Three-Quarter,” but there’s not a vast standard deviation of quality or style in these stories. They are all intriguing and have their own distinctive features while showing Holmes’s quirky brilliance. This is definitely a must-read for Holmes fans.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Haikus

Book of HaikusBook of Haikus by Jack Kerouac
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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For a guy who didn’t realize “haiku” was singulare tantum (like “deer,” having only a singular form,) Kerouac crafted poignant and evocative haiku. This Beat writer, best known for his semi-autobiographical novels (e.g. On the Road and The Dharma Bums) sought to create a sub-form that he called “American Haiku.” Like many English language haiku poets, Kerouac abandoned the 5-7-5 syllable format, but where others traded in the rule for a more English-friendly one (e.g. 2-3-2 stressed beats,) his American haiku used three simple lines and no strict counts. [Note: The relatively long syllables of English can cause the stark, sparse feel of Japanese language haiku to be lost.]

Lest one think this Beat poet jettisoned all the rules, he’s truer to the rules of content than to those of form. He uses season words widely in evoking a state of mind. Also, he sticks to pure observation to a surprising degree. [Traditionally, haiku merely suggested imagery, letting readers reach cognitive and emotional insights on their own.] There are some poems that are actually senryū [a poetic style that is the same as haiku in form, but which deals in humor and human foibles,] but not as many as I expected. Kerouac deals much less in political rage and shocking content than his Beat contemporary, Allen Ginsberg.

To give a taste of his haiku, here are a couple fine examples:

One flower
on the cliffside
Nodding at the canyon


Birds singing
in the dark
In the rainy dawn


I delighted in this collection. It reflects Kerouac’s Buddhist insights, plays off the work of Japanese haiku masters, and blends classic haiku with rare touches of uniquely American irreverence. I’d highly recommend it for poetry readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & ClayThe Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Escaping 1939 Prague, Joe Kavalier moves in with family in Brooklyn, becoming fast friends with his younger cousin, Sam Clay. Combining their talents, Joe as artist and Sam as writer, the young men create a number of popular comic book characters. For those unfamiliar with comic book history, a major stream running through this story involves the trials of “work for hire.” Because of the nature of comic book publishing, creative types tended to work on salary (giving the publisher all rights to whatever was created – e.g. TV shows, toys, etc.) Because of this, the creators of some of the most lucrative characters and stories received little credit or financial reward (relative to the profits.) While these artists / authors didn’t lose their shirt if a title failed, there’s something offensive about Corporations (or actors) shoveling in money from a franchise while the creator lives a dank suburban existence.

If it were just about the unfair lives of comic book creators, the book would be interesting — but not 600+ pages interesting. What makes this a compelling story is that each of the titular characters has a darker challenge with which to deal. For Joe, it is an obsession with bringing as much of his family to safety as he can, and coping with his rage against the Nazis. For Sam, it is the fact that he is a closeted and conflicted gay man in 1940’s and 50’s America. The driving question is whether the two men will be able to avail themselves of the tripartite support network (themselves, plus Rosa – Joe’s girlfriend,) or whether either (or both) will self-destruct because of an inability to do so.

This is a well-crafted novel and I highly recommend it.

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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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Taboos and Transgressions ed. by Luanne Smith, Kerry Neville, and Devi S. Laskar

Taboos and Transgressions: Stories of WrongdoingsTaboos and Transgressions: Stories of Wrongdoings by Luanne Smith
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This anthology collects twenty-four gritty stories of familial dysfunction, lives in poverty, and various forms of wrongdoing. While there is a common theme and all the stories are situated in a realist context, there is a rich variety among the stories. A few are sparse and obscure, but most fit within the usual page range and level of story development for magazine published short stories. But there is considerable diversity to the “wrongdoing” of the story, ranging from subjective peccadillos to outright felonies, with the protagonist sometimes being the perpetrator but other times being victims or witnesses. Most, if not all, of the anthologized stories have been previously published.

Among my personal favorites were: “The God Box” (Michael Gaspeny,) “The Tao of Good Families” (Soniah Kamal,) “I Still Like Pink” (Francine Rodriguez,) “She Sheds Her Skin” (Kyle Ingrid Johnson,) and “Goatmartie” (J.C. Sasser.) That said, your preferences may vary, and the most famous authors with included pieces are probably Kim Addonizio (“True Crime”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Gargoyle.”)

While the title might suggest erotica or even pornography, the included stories are literary fiction and, while some mention happenings that are properly taboo, few really revolve around those activities. There is some prostitution and unsubstantiated allegations of bestiality, but readers need not be concerned that there is anything sexually or violently graphic among the stories. (Certainly, no more than one would read in Philip Roth or Erica Jong.)

If you enjoy gritty, realist short stories, this collection offers a fine and diverse selection of such works.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Hound of the Baskervilles (Sherlock Holmes, #5)The Hound of the Baskervilles by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A legend tells of a monstrous hell-hound who haunts the moors of Devonshire and who long ago killed the head of the Baskerville estate, a wealthy family and linchpin within the community. When the present head of the Baskerville fortune, Charles, dies suddenly and under mysterious circumstances – i.e. outdoors at night and in the presence of huge paw prints — many neighbors conclude the legendary hound has returned to fulfil the curse of the Baskervilles. The doctor, neighbor, and friend of Charles, Dr. Mortimer, doesn’t know what to think, as a man of science he might dismiss the legend, but he’s the one who found the hound prints. Above all, Mortimer knows that if the new heir to the Baskerville estate is driven away, it would be devastating for the neighborhood. Mortimer thus seeks the advice of Sherlock Holmes.

This is one of the most well-known and beloved stories in the Sherlock Holmes canon (fyi – it’s #5.) One interesting feature is that Holmes, himself, is not present through the middle of the story. As in all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s Dr. Watson who provides perspective and narration, but throughout the second act we see Watson doing the investigating as well. Sherlock is present for the beginning of the story when Mortimer comes to call and the Baskerville heir, Henry, arrives in London, and then he’s there to spring a plot to conclude the case, but in between we learn of only Watson’s activities in Devonshire.

This is an intriguing tale from beginning to end, and it is remarkable how many strange and seemingly disparate strings the story ties up cleverly. It’s a fascinating look at superstition and how it creates converts under the right circumstances. This quick and thrilling read is worthy of your time.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VI, Part 1 by William Shakespeare

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

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Like some of the other histories, this one is not so much about the titular character (Henry VI) as it takes place during his reign, and, in this case, it’s the very beginning of young Henry VI’s rule. In fact, this play begins with Henry V’s funeral. Henry VI does play a role as the naïve, new ruler who has the childlike wisdom of one who can’t see why everybody is getting so upset about what seem like trifling matters (e.g. infighting) when more crucial problems are at hand (e.g. France in revolt.) This is best seen in the young King’s gentle rebuke of the aristocrats for the big deal they are making about the color of rose being worn – which includes Henry’s innocent wearing of a white rose to make a point. (The events leading up to the War of the Roses feature prominently in the story, i.e. the civil war between the House Plantagenet and the House York.)

All that being said, if one were to pick a protagonist for this play it would have to be the great military commander, Talbot (pitted against his French counterpart, Joan of Arc — referred to as Pucelle throughout the play.) Early in the play, Talbot is captured, and this throws the English into a panic because he’s considered the linchpin of their forces in France (and because England is in a fragile state with Henry VI being young and inexperienced.) Talbot’s release is negotiated (the French, perhaps, being dismissive of how crucial the English see Talbot as being.) This dismissiveness is later seen in an episode with the Countess of Auvergne. The Countess, surprised to find Talbot is not a giant – given his reputation, thinks she is about have him arrested. When asked how he obtained such an outsized reputation, Talbot calls for his men, who promptly make an overwhelming show of force, clarifying wherein his power lies and putting to rest the idea that her men can take him. Act IV sees the tragic end of Talbot and his son, who each try to get the other to leave a battlefield dominated by the French, but neither will do so and so they die together.

The reason the great Talbot gets outplayed is two-fold. First, Joan (Pucelle) convinces the Duke of Burgundy to change sides, which significantly changes the balance of forces. Second, the English infighting between Somerset and York plays out in Talbot being denied reinforcements. The tragedy of this being that Talbot is universally-beloved, and it’s through no fault of his own that he can’t get the backup he needs. He is lost due to the pissing contest of lesser men.

Act V shows us how a peace is brokered that hinges on an arranged marriage for the young Henry. This provides us a [kind of] story wrap-up, i.e. a moment of stability. However, it’s no surprise that there are more parts to come, because there is a tremendous amount of divisiveness yet to play out. There is the embryonic War of the Roses, and a related great deal of contention over the deal that was brokered to end the war in France. For one thing, at one point Henry was doubly betrothed, and there was dissention about which fiancé he should pursue. But even if there hadn’t been a second choice, there was still room for conflict over what was seen as a bad deal (no dowry to be paid from the Princess’s side and – in fact – the relinquishment of territories – a reverse dowry if you will.)

A lot of people consider this to be one of Shakespeare’s worst plays. (The insult is often not against Shakespeare as many also believe he only partially penned this play, as well as some of the other lesser-loved plays.) I must say, as Histories go, I found this one to be quite readable. (Of course, I didn’t despise “Titus Andronicus” either – though it is mega-bloody and perhaps not as nuanced a story as the later tragedies.) I think the Act IV tragedy and the political infighting made for some intense emotional resonance. In general, the histories are constrained by how interesting the events are rather than how creative the playwright can order them (though a number of the tragedies follow events – as they were known — fairly closely.)

Part of the complaint may have to do more with language than story, and from this perspective, I must say there are not a lot lines that leap out at one in the manner typical of Shakespeare.

At any rate, I wouldn’t necessarily dismiss this play based on its (relatively) diminished stature, lest one make the same mistake as the Countess.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Narrative Poems by William Shakespeare

The Narrative Poems (The Pelican Shakespeare)The Narrative Poems by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While William Shakespeare is overwhelmingly known as a playwright who also wrote a collection of sonnets, back in his day some of his poetic stories were quite well-received. This volume collects the five narrative poems that Shakespeare is believed to have authored (or partially authored.)

Venus and Adonis: This is one of the two long-form narrative poems of Shakespeare. It tells the tale of the goddess Venus’s obsession with Adonis, her many attempts to woo the hunky lad, and the tragedy that befalls him, breaking her heart. It’s written in six-line stanzas of iambic pentameter with a quatrain of alternating line rhymes and an end couplet of a third rhyme.

The Rape of Lucrece: This is the other long narrative poem of Shakespeare. Lucrece’s husband, Collatine, is off on campaign and brags about how perfect is his wife, Lucrece. The “gentleman” he is telling this to is Tarquin, and the high-praise of Lucrece sets the seed of obsession in Tarquin’s mind. When he then finds himself in Collatine’s neighborhood (with Collatine still off to war,) he pays Lucrece a visit and is invited to stay over. That night he breaks into her bedchambers and – after threatening to kill her and a random male servant whose corpse he’ll shove into bed with her – Tarquin rapes her. After mulling over her options, Lucrece calls for Collatine’s return and after getting the promise of Collantine and his fellow soldiers to have revenge for her, she tells them who raped her immediately before ending her own life by dagger.

It’s written in the rhyme royal seven-line stanzas of iambic pentameter made famous by Chaucer.

The Phoenix and the Turtle: This is a very different poem from the others. In terms of format, it abandons iambic pentameter in favor of shorter, punchier lines. Stylistically, it’s a bit more obscure and allegorical than most Shakespearean poetry.

The gist of the tale is the description of a funeral for the perfect couple. [I guess that an important thing to know is that “Turtle” is used as short for turtledove, and so it’s not a tale of bestial interspecies lovin’.] Besides the lines being shorter, the entire poem is short and sweet, ending with a philosophical lament about truth and beauty.

The Passionate Pilgrim: While we’re back to iambic pentameter (and mostly sonnets) this work is a departure other ways. First, rather than being a narrative poem proper, this is really a love poetry collection. Second, while the collection consists of twenty poems, Shakespeare is believed to have only written five of them (I, II, III, V, and XVI.) Of those, the first four are sonnets, and the last is an eighteen-line poem. Third, this is not new or exclusive material. The first two sonnets came to be included in the 154-sonnet collection of Shakespeare (138 and 144,) and the other verse is from “Love’s Labour’s Lost.”

A Lover’s Complaint: The weeping of a maiden attracts the attention of a passerby, who she tells her tale of woe, having been wooed by a young man who got his milk and high-tailed it before he was forced to buy the cow. Besides being a woman’s tale of woe, it also shares with “The Rape of Lucrece” the fact that it is written in rhyme royal. It’s much shorter than “The Rape of Lucrece.”

I would highly recommend poetry readers dig into these lesser know Shakespearean works.


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