BOOK REVIEW: The Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge

The Devil: A Very Short IntroductionThe Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This brief guide examines the shifting landscape of thought about Christianity’s Devil. Over the centuries, the Devil has been considered a person, a fallen angel, a metaphor or abstraction, a voice, and a literary device. Satan’s stock has risen and fallen, up with the Dark Ages, down with the Enlightenment, and, on the verge of outright demise, reconsidered when the mid-20th century brought such horrors that the human mind couldn’t cope with them sans supernatural explanations. At the same time, the power of the Devil waxed and waned in the face of philosophical challenges. There’s the Devil so strong he can give God a run for the money, a Devil reduced to whispering in ears, and a Devil who’s practically irrelevant – having no power whatsoever beyond making for an entertaining plot device.

I thought this book did a laudable job of showing the Devil through the light of history, philosophy, art, and literature. It offers a great deal of food for thought about how the Devil has been viewed over time, and what factors influenced these changes in perception. If you’re interested in the role the Devil has played in theological thinking over time, this book does a fine job of shining a light on the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Foucault: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This illustrated guide offers a brief overview of the life and philosophy of Michel Foucault in bite-sized, readable topical blocks. The book is part of a series, a series that I frequently turn to when I need a blast of information on a topic of momentary interest (because the series is readily accessible via Prime.)

Generally, I’ve found the series to be mediocre, but I found this volume to be much more engaging than most. In part this is because Foucault’s work deals in intriguing subject matter. He wrote on madness, prisons / punishment, and sexuality. Saying that the subject matter was more interesting than usual may not sound like a ringing endorsement of the book or its author, but there are a couple things that I think Horrocks can be credited for doing well to make for a more compelling book. First, he doesn’t steer away from the controversial, either in Foucault’s biography or in his work. Second, he clearly and frequently states the criticisms of Foucault, making the book more thought-provoking and useful.

And Foucault did draw his share of criticism, his multi-disciplinary style combined with an approach that didn’t result in unambiguous answers and policy recommendations made many consider him wishy-washy, or irrelevant. And, of course, his brazen willingness to take on provocative topics made many uncomfortable.

If you’re looking for a book to figure out who this Foucault guy was and why people still talk about his work, this book is worth your consideration.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Move by Caroline Williams

Move: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind FreeMove: How the New Science of Body Movement Can Set Your Mind Free by Caroline Williams
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book presents a pop science accounting of some of the more interesting scientific literature on the benefits of moving one’s body – be it through dance, martial arts, walking, or otherwise. That being active is an important element of maintaining a healthy mind and body will come as no surprise. Still, there are a number of specific points this book makes that may come as a surprise to many, such as that those who do an hour of intense exercise a day but otherwise live desk warrior lives may not be as well off as they think.

As the topic (and the scientific literature from which the book draws) is huge, the author focuses specifically on the mental benefits of physical movement, both attitudinal / psychological benefits and cognitive benefits such as improved creative thinking or memory. I found the book’s organization to be beneficial, and – in particular – believe it was a smart move to include chapters on breath and rest – topics that are integral to a life of movement, but which might not spring to mind. Particularly, the chapter on breath discusses findings on synchronization of breath and movement more than does many books on breath or movement, as well as offering extensive discussion of the benefits of 3 and 6 breath per minute (bpm) breathing.

There are a lot of books out there on this subject – though usually they focus either on exercise or on a particular approach to movement. Those who read extensively on the topic may not find much that is new in this book. However, I think “Move” holds its own, and also distinguishes itself in some of its fine points of emphasis. Certainly, if one is looking for a book to introduce someone to the benefits of movement, this is a prudent choice.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is a collection of poetry, short fiction, essays, and other short writings (that fit into two or more of the previously mentioned categories) – all chosen by Borges as the works he wanted his literary legacy to be based upon. For those unacquainted, Borges was a brilliant Argentine author whose writings were philosophical, mystical, erudite, and brief. He was the perfect writer for those of us who love ideas and contemplation of the world, but who also suffer deficits of attention. He wrote in bitesize pieces, but those bites couldn’t have been more intensely flavored with ideas and evocative and provocative commentary. His subject matter includes lofty topics such as the lives of Homer, Shakespeare, and Buddha, but also crude, visceral experiences such as a knife fight.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Borges’ work, and couldn’t resist reading his choices for his personal best – even having recently read many of the pieces – particularly the better-known ones. It’s worth noting that Borges’ choices include a great many of the works that others have called his best work, e.g. “The Aleph,” “Borges and I,” “Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829 – 1874,)” “The Zahir,” “The Maker,” “Averröes’ Search,” “The Golem,” “Circular Ruins,” etc. The biggest surprise of the collection was that it included much more poetry than I expected. The works I’ve read previously contained minimal poetry, but I’d say this collection is about half poems.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s thought-provoking and magnificently written / translated. I would normally say that I’m not qualified to comment on the skill of translation other than to say the book read well, but the two translators wrote an epilogue that I think showed they could channel the mystery and creativity of Jorge Luis Borges.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Nature is Never Silent by Madlen Ziege

Nature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each otherNature Is Never Silent: how animals and plants communicate with each other by Madlen Ziege
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: Hardcover out February 8, 2021 [e-book is out now]

The central premise of this book is that humans miss the tremendous amount of communication that is going on among and between other species. We miss it because we think of communication in an extremely limited way that revolves around visual and auditory expressions of human style languages. It doesn’t occur to us that different senses (e.g. smell) or other activities (e.g. stinging or passing gases,) could be used to convey messages as overt as, “Don’t touch me!” to as complex as, “There are good flowers to the southeast, roughly four-hundred meters along this line” or “Watch out! Some beetles have started chewing on my bark.”

While one might still dismiss all this communication as extremely simple compared to the infinitely complicated endeavor humans have made communicating, it’s not all just warning signaling. Many species engage in a form of communication that most people would probably attribute to humanity alone, specifically, deception. There are female fireflies who cannot only send a mating signal to males of her species to engage in reproduction, but can send counterfeit signals of other species to attract a male of another species of which she can make a snack.

It’s also important to note that it’s not just the species most similar to us who communicate. There are chapters devoted to both unicellular creatures and plants, species that one might be surprised to learn are quite active communicators.

I found this to be a highly thought-provoking book for the nature-lover, and I’d recommend it for anyone who wants to expand his or her horizons with respect to what is being transmitted in the natural world on those cold and quiet days when it seems like not a creature is stirring, and yet there’s always something.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Joy of X by Steven H. Strogatz

The Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to InfinityThe Joy of X: A Guided Tour of Mathematics, from One to Infinity by Steven H. Strogatz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is a mile-wide and inch-deep overview of mathematics. That is to say, it shines a light on a wide variety of subdisciplines, running from counting through subjects like topology, using rudimentary examples to give the reader insight into the kind of problems that can be solved. The book employs graphics, intuitive examples, and step-by-step explanation to clarify mathematics for individuals who didn’t get on so well with the subject the first time around.

The book’s thirty short chapters are divided into six sections: numbers (arithmetic,) relationships (roots, powers, etc.,) shapes (geometry,) change (calculus,) data (statistics,) and frontiers (group theory, topology, analysis, etc.) Like most popular mathematics books, formulas and equations are avoided to the extent possible. Even the notes that elaborate for curious readers use mathematical notation sparingly.

If you’re looking to give math a second try, this wouldn’t be a bad overview to get started. I don’t think it would be of much benefit to anyone who’s stayed in touch with mathematics, but it makes a fine light overview of the subject.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: I’m a Joke and So Are You by Robin Ince

I'm a Joke and So Are You: Reflections on Humour and HumanityI’m a Joke and So Are You: Reflections on Humour and Humanity by Robin Ince
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book examines the intersection between psychology and standup comedy. It investigates questions such as whether comedians are truly disproportionately depressive personalities as a number of high-profile cases have led the public to believe in recent years. It explores issues such as anxiety and imposter syndrome. But it also looks at less pathological issues of the mind, such as the origin of creative ideas.

The tone is light, and stories and jokes are employed throughout. That said, the book is also dealing with scientific and psychological issues, but it doesn’t get into technical minutiae. Ince discusses how ideas in psychology relate to the acts of a number of comedians he’s worked with, including Ricky Gervais and Tim Minchin, but – ultimately – he’s trying to present information that is useful to the reader. Whether the issue is grieving or parenting, the use of humor and comedy is just a tool to address issues most people face.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. You won’t necessarily find it to be a laugh-riot, but you’ll learn a thing or two while being amused.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Bankei Zen by Peter Haskel [trans.] & Yoshito Hakeda [ed.]

Bankei Zen: Translations from the Record of BankeiBankei Zen: Translations from the Record of Bankei by Yoshito Hakeda
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This collection of sermons, notes, poems, and letters from the Zen monk Bankei present his iconoclastic views on Buddhism. Bankei’s central teaching revolves around a state of mind that calls Unborn Buddha Mind. The Unborn Buddha Mind isn’t defined neatly (perhaps it can’t be,) though Bankei does refer to the capacity to perceive without consciously directing one’s attention – that is, to achieve spontaneous perception of a sensory input without the error that one might experience in thought, when one’s mind is analyzing and judging.

Bankei presented a distinctive countercultural view, both religiously and culturally. In terms of the teachings and philosophy of Zen, this is most clearly seen in his rejection of many of Zen’s primary methods – e.g. koan (Zen “riddles”) and mondo (a conversational Q&A technique.) Even those techniques Bankei doesn’t reject (e.g. Zazen, seated meditation,) he does deemphasize in contrast to a more workaday focus. Culturally, one can see the difference of Bankei’s approach in his rejection of consensus views of the time, such as that women can’t achieve enlightenment.

The book uses stories, straightforward statements, and poetry to convey a unique approach to practice. The book can be a bit dry and repetitive. (Different media – e.g. sermons and letters – discussing the same teachings will lead to repetition.) That said, if you’re interested in Zen and mindfulness, there is much to be learned via this book. There are even a few teachings directed towards martial artists, and how they can apply the lessons of Zen.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

As a rule, I don’t read books by celebrities. This is the first one I can remember reading. My reasoning is rooted in publishers’ beliefs that such books will sell no matter what, and anything that doesn’t have to be good is unlikely to be.

And yet, I’m glad I made an exception for this book. Perhaps, because it’s not a book about Noah’s rise to fame, there are only a few off-hand references to his early career successes in South Africa. This book is about his youth in South Africa as a mixed-race child under Apartheid (hence the title, as such interracial progeny were illegal.) The book focuses heavily on race and the bizarre logic of South African governance during those days, as well as how rulers set groups against each other to make their own misbehavior less conspicuous. However, it’s also a very personal story, telling of his close relationship with his mother, the abuse he and his mother suffered from his drunkard stepfather, and the challenges that compelled him to adapt to survive loneliness and the awkwardness of youth.

Given Noah’s comedic merits, it will come as no surprise that the book is humorous, despite the tonal burden of its subject matter – i.e. racism, poverty, and abuse. Often, the subject matter makes the humor dark and bitter, but it’s nevertheless amusing.

If you’re curious about life under apartheid, or in an abusive household, you’ll likely find yourself in the grips of this tense and hilarious memoir.


View all my reviews

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

Amazon.in Page

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.


View all my reviews