BOOK REVIEW: The Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman

The Immune System: A Very Short IntroductionThe Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a volume in the “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series put out by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of scholarly subjects. As the series title suggests, the central objective of AVSI books is to pack as much of the fundamentals of a topic into as slim a package as possible. I read quite a few of these to get the gist of a subject without a lot of extraneous information. In short, they are brief and provide a high caliber understanding of the topic, but they aren’t written to be entertaining and they assume a basic scientific literacy. They usually weigh in at between 100 and 200 pages. (In this case, 144 pp.)

I found the seven chapters were optimally arranged. Chapter 1 describes and delineates the immune system, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. Putting the immune system inside neat borders is hard. If you simply describe it as the body’s defensive system, you quickly run into problems at the edges of competing classification. Sure, B cells and T cells are clearly part of the immune system, but what about skin and mucus membranes? Where does the lymphatic system end and the immune system (which uses it extensively) begin?

Chapters two and three explore the two major divisions of the immune system: the innate and the adaptive. These days, with COVID-19 at the center of global attention, the distinction is probably clear to most. The innate system isn’t geared to take on specific invaders. It has the advantage of being able to fight almost any invader, but the disadvantage of not being able to keep up with invaders that grow rapidly, are good at disguise, or both. An adaptive system response is what we all lack for COVID-19 because it only recently jumped to our species (well not “all of us,” those who had it and are recovered have adaptive immunity and that’s why they don’t have to worry about getting it again [those who have properly working immune system, at least.]) The adaptive response recognizes specific invaders and can raise an army against them tremendously quickly. Vaccines train the adaptive system to build such a response (typically by injecting a weakened strain into the body, but more detail is provided in the final chapter.)

Chapter four is entitled “making memories,” and it is an extension of chapter three. It further investigates adaptive immunity by focusing on the question of how the body develops a memory of those invaders it’s crushed in the past (or that it learned to crush by way of vaccination.)

The next two chapters delve into the two opposing ways the immune system can fail. Chapter five is about immunological failure, or how and why the body sometimes isn’t up to defeating invading adversaries. Most famously this is seen in HIV / AIDS patients, but there are other ways that the system fails in its job as the body’s bouncer. Chapter six looks at what happens when the immune system is too aggressive. [It’s important to realize that not only does the immune system check out foreign bodies, it also checks the tags on the body’s own cells, killing those that don’t display a proper “tag.”] The two major categories of over-performance are: autoimmune disorders (when the body wrongly attacks its own cells) and allergies (when the body goes all “This is Sparta!” on relatively benign foreign objects.)

The last chapter looks briefly at what work is being done in medicine these days involving the immune system, including approaches to vaccines, immunotherapy, biological therapies, and work on inflammation and the how the immune system is linked to aging.

If there was one topic I wish was better (more extensively) handled it would be discussion of what is known about how and why lifestyle choices influence immune system operation. There was a mention of how smoking has been linked to a specific immune system deficiency, and a general comment on how diet and exercise appear to be linked to increased effectiveness of autophagy (the body’s process of self-consumption and recycling of cells,) but that’s pretty much it. As there is a lot to cover in a small space, it’s hard to be too critical about this, but it seems like a crucial topic (if not as scientifically sexy as vaccine research, which is discussed relatively extensively.)

I found this book did as advertised, give me the immune system basics in a quick read. It has simple illustrations to support the text, and has a table of abbreviations — which can be beneficial given the hugely abbreviately nature of the immune system physiology. There is also a “further reading” section, but it’s heavily focused on textbooks – versus presenting popular science books that cover the material in a more light and entertaining manner.

I’d highly recommend this book if you have a basic scientific literacy and want just the facts on immunity without a lot of meandering narrative.

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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga for Sports by B.K.S. Iyengar

Yoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And HealingYoga For Sports: A Journey Towards Health And Healing by B.K.S. Iyengar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a book by the renowned Pune yoga guru who passed away in 2014, B.K.S. Iyengar, on how athletes can use yoga to build general health, prevent injuries, and combat postural misalignments that result from sporting activities that are asymmetric or unbalanced. A book on yoga for athletes might address any number of topics from core strength and stability to meditations to prevent choking under pressure, but this one focuses heavily on asana (postural yoga) – particularly – for improving flexibility and postural alignment. (It does introduce pranayama, but only the practices of viloma and ujjayi breathing.)

Iyengar is most well-known for an approach to hatha yoga that uses props to allow anyone to achieve a properly aligned posture, regardless of whether one has a yogi-level contortionist body (and most athletes don’t because of the countervailing requirements for strength necessitated by their sports.) This prop-centric approach is seen heavily in the book’s second part, which describes and demonstrates a range of basic asana (postures) along with relevant variations. I mention this because through the first part of this book, I felt it was much more of a book for yoga practitioners who might also happen to be amateur athletes than it was for athletes looking to introduce yoga into their training regimen. By that I mean that the photos of recommended poses in Part I are unlikely to be useful for athletes who have tight muscles from intense physical activity. However, if you’re feeling that way about the book, too, you may find that the second part’s variations are more reasonable for a person who doesn’t have an extensive background in yoga or stretching.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part consists of ten chapters that cover the topic of yoga for sports with broad brush strokes, covering topics like skeleto-muscular anatomy, common sports complaints, yoga for warmup, yoga for prevention and for recovery. It also deals with specialty topics like maintaining a healthy body in retirement as well as issues for women athletes (women may find this section to be a bit menstruation-heavy, as if that were the predominant challenge facing women engaged in athletics. On the plus-side there’s none of the bizarre and / or offensive notions about menstruation that have been known to presented in the context of yoga.) As I mentioned, during this first part I thought the book would not be so useful for the problems of athletes, and some may find that still seems to be the case after reviewing part two. The gulf between what is recommended and what the average practitioner can physically do is a perennial difficulty with books on yoga.

The second part discusses asana in detail, providing pictures, text descriptions, and notes on benefits and – where applicable — other considerations (e.g. contra-indications.) Here one can find prop-based variations to allow individuals who may be stiff or in recovery to perform the asana. Mostly, there is just one photo of each posture in mid-pose. However, where special guidance is needed getting into or out of the pose (which can be the case with prop yoga) there are sometimes multiple photos demonstrating a progression of movement. My major gripe with this book is that it was littered with typos (at least the e-book edition that I read on Kindle.) The typos were most notable in this section. I can’t remember if I saw any in parts I, III, or IV, but the errors stuck out in part two because there is a lot of repetitive directions for the poses that seem to have been copy / pasted such that the same missing letter typos appear many places throughout the section.

The third part is much briefer than the first two, and it simply describes props that an athlete might consider acquiring. It starts with basic kit and moves to bigger items, though it doesn’t discuss all the huge equipment that one would find in a fully equipped studio teaching Iyengar-style yoga. It provides text discussions of critical considerations as well as photos.

The last part is just a couple pages of testimonials of famous athletes saying how much yoga (in general) and Iyengar’s teaching (specifically) helped them to improve their games. These brief testimonials are presented in text-boxes and look somewhat as one might see on the opening pages of a novel.

As would be expected of a book on sports published in India, most of the examples are cricket-centric. (Again, not surprising as cricket is the 800-pound gorilla of sports on the subcontinent.)

I found this book to be quite informative. If you can bear the typos (and they may have been exorcized from the print editions,) you’ll likely find the book to be informative and well-presented.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dhammapada trans. by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita

Dhammapada: a practical guide to right livingDhammapada: a practical guide to right living by Acharya Buddharakkhita
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Dhammapada consists of 423 sayings attributed to the Buddha. There seem to be numerous versions of the Dhammapada as translated by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita in circulation, so your results may vary for good or bad from what I report here. (Not to mention there are many other translations which may vary tremendously)

The 423 sutras or maxims included in the book are arranged into twenty-six topical chapters. The version I have presents no analysis, it’s just the text of the verse in Pali (i.e. the Roman / English language alphabet spelling out the phonetic Pali words) with an English translation below.

First, the pros of the edition I read: There are some explanatory notes offered as necessary (38 of them,) there are a few graphics (drawings and photos in B&W,) and there are two indexes. The first of the two indexes wouldn’t be of much use to me, but it would be for the Pali literate because it indexes the Pali verse. The second index is in English and is organized by analogies (i.e. analogies employed in the verses,) and that could be a tremendously useful feature. For the Pali literate, having the original phonetic Pali included must be an excellent feature. (There’s also a page in the front matter that shows how the pronunciation works.)

As for the cons of this edition: First, there were a few typos (mostly of the type that wouldn’t be caught by spellcheck – though this translation was pre-spellcheck — so I’m referring to the kind of typos that aren’t easily caught.) Second, while all the verses are translated, there is some text that remains in Romanized Pali [I suspect prayers, but can’t say for sure.]

This is the second translation of the Dhammapada I’ve read, and I found it worthwhile. It’s easily readable, not too flowery, and not bogged down with needless analysis or exposition. I can’t say how it compares among all translations (either in terms of skill of translation or in accurately capturing the Buddha’s meaning,) but it reads pretty fluidly.

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BOOK REVIEW: Acid Dreams by Martin A. Lee & Bruce Shlain

Acid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties RebellionAcid Dreams: The CIA, LSD and the Sixties Rebellion by Martin A. Lee
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a microhistory of America’s interaction with LSD. LSD, commonly called “acid” from its full name Lysergic acid diethylamide, is a chemical substance that was originally derived from ergot fungus, and which causes distortion of perception, an altered state of consciousness, and – in some cases – hallucinations. When I say it’s American history, that’s an oversimplification because many of the events described happen overseas (e.g. LSD’s own story begins in Switzerland with chemist, Albert Hofmann, after all,) but most of the central players are American and the book’s two primary lines of investigation are both centered on America. One of these lines involves the covert research program designed to discover if acid could be used as a truth serum, a mind-control agent, an incapacitant, or otherwise to the benefit of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and other covert agencies. The other line is about the role that LSD played in the countercultural revolution of the 60’s and early 70’s.

The book’s flow begins more heavily focused on the covert programs, then gets into what was happening with the youth in the 60’s, and toward the end discusses where the proceeding lines seem to run together with individuals like Ronald Stark who was a drug smuggler involved with an organization called the “Brotherhood for Eternal Love” but who many suspected of having ties with (if not direct employment by) the CIA – and not entirely without reason (though not with sufficient evidence that firm conclusions are drawn in the book.) I should mention that this just the general flow. The book has a chronological flow with topical segments within, so it’s not like it deals with these issues entirely independently.

If the covert research program had been carried out by competent scientists using accepted methodologies, then the discussion of these programs would probably be at best moderately interesting. (To be fair, some competent science may have occurred, but it’s so unnoteworthy compared to the wild and pranksterish that it draws no attention.) What the reader learns, however, is fascinating because it involves clean-cut and seemingly respectable g-men spiking unwitting subjects with acid like a teenage prankster-idiot might do – but without the “excuse” of being immature, stoned, and having not yet learned to behave responsibly. Perhaps the most bizarre program was Operation Midnight Climax, in which CIA agents hired prostitutes in San Francisco to spike the drinks of their johns so they could find out if the customers got loose-lipped. A CIA agent would watch on, dutifully making pipe-cleaner twists of the various sexual positions performed by the sex-worker and her customer.

The civilian history follows a path from Hofmann’s discovery at Sandoz Laboratories (now owned by Novartis) through the early years of Al Hubbard (the so-called “Johnny Appleseed of LSD”) through the trials of Timothy Leary to others who figured in the heyday of LSD such as Ken Kesey and his Merry Pranksters, and, finally, to the crackdown on psychedelics and the illicit smuggling rings that resulted. There is fascinating coverage of how Federal law enforcement tried to stifle production and smuggling of LSD, particularly with respect to training agents to infiltrate hippie organizations.

This book originally came out in the 80’s (though I read the 2007 edition) and while it has a post-script that discuss a bit of a resurgence that occurred beyond the 70’s, it doesn’t touch upon a more recent thaw in attitudes toward psychedelics as they’ve begun to be legalized (or sought out where they are legal) or the surge in popularity of “micro-dosing.” As of this book’s end all psychedelics remained Schedule I – a label which states that they have no legitimate medicinal value (which cooler heads have realized is blatantly wrong given substantial evidence that psychedelics can be of benefit in conquering addiction, in managing depression, and otherwise.)

I found this book intriguing. It’s a must-read if you are interested in any of the following topics: the 60’s counter-culture revolution, mind-control programs, or how public policy gets hijacked by history.

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BOOK REVIEW: New Theories of Everything by John D. Barrow

New Theories of EverythingNew Theories of Everything by John D. Barrow
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book reflects upon the various elements that any Theory of Everything (ToE) would have to reconcile. A ToE is the holy grail of physics, a theory that would unify the various forces to explain the nature of the universe as we experience it. There have been many attempts to achieve a ToE, but it remains elusive. There is the mathematically beautiful and elegant string theory that suffers that one drawback of having no experimental support. There are those who have given up on a ToE in the sense that the term is normally used, suggesting that the desired degree of unification isn’t possible and that the desire to think it must be is just wishful thinking.

Probably the most useful piece of information about this book for one considering reading it is its readability. As works of popular science go, it’s more challenging that most (but not as difficult as, for example, Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time.”) [I have little doubt that those who read physics textbooks will find it a walk in the park.] It has few equations, and the mathematics it does present is elementary. However, it does explore quite complicated ideas. The book uses graphics to assist, mostly diagrams, but many of these require thoughtful consideration in their own right.

The organization of the book is based on an eightfold way (no relation to the Buddhist eightfold path) – that is, eight ingredients with which a ToE must be consistent. The nine chapters of the book begin with a brief opening chapter that sets up the rest of the book by discussing what a ToE would really explain (“everything” isn’t necessarily the answer in a strict meaning of that word), what the eight components are, how pre-scientific ToE’s operated, as well as introducing the recurring concept of algorithmic compressibility. (The importance of compressibility lies in the idea that in order to make the equations describing the universe more concise it’s necessary that the data describing the universe be “compressible” – i.e. have some underlying order.)

After the intro chapter, the eight subsequent chapters are logically arranged into the aforementioned eightfold way. These are: 1.) laws, 2.) initial conditions, 3.) the nature of forces and particles, 4.) the constants of nature, 5.) symmetries and the breaking thereof, 6.) organizing principles, 7.) Bias and selection effects, and 8.) to what extent mathematics is integral to the universe. Some of these elements (e.g. the laws and constants) we are told couldn’t vary by much and allow us to still exist. So, the question addressed in the book isn’t only how can science get to a theory that explains the existence of a stable(-ish) universe, but further one that can support complex and intelligent life. The chapters on symmetry breaking and selection effects are particularly relevant to this discussion.

One of the most interesting discussions is the last. Chapter nine, entitled: “Is ‘pi’ really in the sky?” discusses the question of how fundamental mathematics is to the universe. It’s long been a topic of scientific intrigue that there seems to be no particular reason for mathematics to be as effective as it is at describing the way the universe works. The discussion has resulted in a wide range of replies from those who say the success of mathematics is more illusory and limited than it appears to be, to those who believe the universe not only is written in mathematics but is math (see: the work of Max Tegmark.) That is, some say that there are parts of a stable universe that must be orderly enough to be described mathematically and those are the only parts we truly understand as of yet. Others say mathematics is the bedrock of the universe.

I enjoyed this book, and found the organizational approach helped a great deal in thinking about the problem. I doubt I grasped everything the author was trying to convey, but it was a book piled high with food for thought for anyone interested in thinking about the nature of the universe. If you’re interested in the grand-scale questions, I’d recommend this book. That said, there are more readable takes on the subject out there if one is looking for light pop science fare.

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BOOK REVIEW: Carl Lutz (1895-1975) by György Vámos

Carl Lutz by György Vámos
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page (only the French edition is currently showing)


Carl Lutz was a Swiss diplomat assigned to Budapest in 1944, at the time the Nazis and their Arrow Cross comrades were trying to deport the Budapest Jewry to death camps. Lutz may not be as well know as his Swedish counterpart, Raoul Wallenberg, but that’s not for lack of saving lives. Like Wallenberg, he saved thousands of Jews by issuing protective documentation, and by fudging numbers and background documents where necessary to keep more people safe.

Lutz also oversaw a facility where the people issued these documents were allowed to stay to keep them out of the city ghetto from which they might get caught up in deportations. The Swiss-flagged facility was called the “Glass House” because it was on the grounds of a factory where specialty glass had been made, and the building’s façade was covered in multiple styles of glass as a way for perspective customers to see what products were available. Unfortunately, the property wasn’t designed for residential use, let alone for providing facilities for large numbers of people. Quarters were cramped and hygienic facilities were inadequate. However, the facility did keep people alive, even though it was raided by the Arrow Cross. [For those visiting Budapest, a small museum / memorial room can still be found at this same location, and this book’s author can offer more insight.]

The book is written in a scholarly style, i.e. employing a historian’s tone. It largely follows a chronological format. The book doesn’t discuss Lutz’s life much outside the war years, but it does give the reader background about Hungary’s anti-Semitic laws and actions as well as an overview of strategic-level events. [Hungary was allied with Germany in the Second World War, but in 1944 tried to separate itself and stop deportations. This resulted in Germany taking control and handing power to the Arrow Cross Militia, which was the Hungarian fascist party — akin to the German Nazis.]

The book is concise, weighing in at only 125 pages — about 17 of which are in an appendix of documents and photos regarding Swiss efforts to undermine the Nazi’s Holocaust.

As I said, the book is written in a scholarly / historical format, rather than the more visceral narrative approach of a journalistic or popular work. Still, it does become more intense reading in the latter half — when the author is describing events concerning the Glass House, Lutz’s issuance of protective documentation, and the siege of Budapest by the Russians at the end of the war. It will certainly give readers insight into a little-known rescue effort during the Holocaust.

If you’re interested in international efforts to thwart the Nazi’s plan to exterminate the Jews, this book will clue you in on events that aren’t well-known – particularly by English readers. I highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Guide to the Good Life by William B. Irvine

A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic JoyA Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a great little guide for a person considering the Stoic life. Stoicism was one of more well-known philosophies to come out of the ancient world, though it suffered a setback with changing philosophical trends and the rise of the great monotheistic religions. For those who know the term “stoic” as a small-s adjective, it’s worth noting that its definition (emotionless / impassive) is not the distinguishing trait of this school of philosophy. (Something similar can be said for Cynic v. cynic and Epicurean v. epicurean.) Still, there is a thin connection in that Stoics believed in not being controlled by emotion to one’s detriment, and not becoming emotional over things about which one has no control.

This book offers some historical background, showing how Stoicism evolved as it moved from Greece to Rome (and later how it might continue to evolve to appeal to — and work for — a modern following.) It also gives one some idea of the subtle differences of perspective among the Stoics. Usually when one bones up on Stoicism, one does so through the writings of a particular philosopher, be it Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, or Seneca, and so it’s interesting to see how these men with varied backgrounds lived and taught Stoicism.

The book is divided into four parts. The first part discusses what a life philosophy is, it gives Stoicism a context within other ancient philosophies, and it compares and contrasts Greek and Roman Stoicism. The second part describes the techniques that Stoics used to achieve their worldview and approach to living. These techniques include negative visualization (mentally rehearsing worst-case scenarios in a way that one becomes desensitized to them), classifying events by whether one can do anything about them or not and adopting a fatalistic acceptance of what one cannot influence, self-denial (i.e. avoiding excessive pursuit of comfort or pleasure), and meditation (being aware of one’s behavior so one can learn to implement Stoic approaches to living.)

Part three describes the advice of Stoics on a range of issues that are confronted in life. These include: duty, social relationships, insults, grief, anger, desire for fame, desire for luxury, exile, old age, dying, and becoming a Stoic. You may note, most of these are as valid today as they were in the day of the great Stoics, if not more so, and even “exile” has modern day analogies.

Part four discusses Stoicism for modern living. Among the issues covered include how a secular humanist might justify the practice of Stoicism. (The historical justifications were couched in theistic assumptions about the world.) It also delves into nuts and bolts considerations for the would-be Stoic. (Specifically, Irvine suggests practicing something he calls “stealth Stoicism,” which involves living in accord with the tenets of the philosophy while avoiding drawing attention to it from friends and family who might think you’ve become a lunatic who will soon be showing up to the 4th of July BBQ in a toga.)

Besides annotations and a works cited section, the back matter also includes a Stoic reading program as an Appendix.

I found this book to be interesting and informative. I’ve read works by Stoics, but it was nice to learn about Stoicism through a broader, overhead lens. If you’re interested in a philosophy of life, in general, or Stoicism in particular, this is a good book to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Prescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg

Prescriptive StretchingPrescriptive Stretching by Kristian Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Many people have problems that they are only aware of through symptoms like head aches or back pain that result from imbalances in muscle tightness. This book explores stretching, systematically.

The book is divided into four parts. The first, entitled “Stretching Fundamentals,” presents fundamental principles and background information. Besides basic guidelines for stretching, it also discusses anatomy and physiology of the muscular system at a rudimentary level.

The second part is about targeted stretches, and it forms the heart of the book. This section, literally, goes from head to toe (and then back to the arms) explaining techniques for stretching major skeletal muscles. For some muscles, there is more than one stretch shown, but for others there is just one. Each entry on a muscle is divided into two parts. The first, “Muscle Facts,” describes the muscle, the causes of tightness, the symptoms of tightness, tests to gauge how tight the muscle is, and any precautions that should be considered when stretching the muscle. The second presents the stretching technique with a line drawing and mention of any mistakes to avoid. There are a mix of solo and partner stretches, as well as those using a ball.

The third part presents programs for pain relief. There’s a useful section that discusses morning aches and pains, and the ways in which one is sleeping might be leading to a crick in the neck or shoulder pain. This section not only lists the muscles that one should stretch to address various issues, but it gives little anatomical drawings in the context of the stretch that both help show what one is stretching and gives a reminder of the stretch.

I came to this book from the perspective of a yoga practitioner and teacher. If you’re wondering how these stretches differ from yoga, a major factor is that balance is taken out of the equation. The stretches in the book are done in a stable position. The downside of this is two-fold. First, if you want to build and maintain balance, you need to do an entirely separate set of exercises for that (depending upon the condition of the individual that could be necessary or a waste of time.) Second, one needs access to a wide range of equipment such as tables, adjustable benches, etc. (not to mention a partner, in some cases) to make these exercises work. The upside is that the individual is in a safe and stable position, so if they have poor balance they are at minimal risk.

The last section is one assessing flexibility and muscle balance. People think more about the former than the latter, but for most people, how balanced opposing muscle groups are probably contributes more to painful problems in the body. Because some muscles are easier to stretch than others, a book that shows how to get to the more challenging muscles is a great thing to have.

The ancillary matter includes a variety of graphics (mostly line drawings and anatomical drawings), a section upfront on the major components of the muscular and skeletal systems, and a references section in back.

I found this book to be useful and informative. I’d recommend it for individuals such as trainers, yoga teachers, athletes, and others who want to understand stretching at a level beyond technique.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera

The Art of the NovelThe Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of essays by the renowned Czech novelist about the literary novel, and particularly the European literary novel. That said, the pieces gather nicely into this collection without seeming disparate. Points and themes carry across the essays such that the book has a life as a whole. Also, the there is food for thought in this book even if one isn’t particularly interested in literary novels. There are ideas that could be of interest to any story crafters or writers.

There are seven parts (essays) in the book. The first and third part take specific novels as their focal point: Cervantes’ “Don Quixote” and Hermann Broch’s “Sleepwalkers,” respectively. That said, the feel isn’t greatly varied from the more general chapters of 2, 4, and 5. That is, Kundera uses critique of those novels (as well as others) to make general points about what is more or less effective, artistically speaking, in the novel. Besides those two novels, not surprisingly given Kundera’s heritage, he also repeatedly uses the novels of Franz Kafka and “The Good Soldier Svejk” by Jaroslav Hasek as examples. That said, many well-known novels come up in the discussion including those of Tolstoy, Musil, and even Faulkner (I say “even” because he’s clearly not a European novelist.)

The sixth and seventh parts are both a bit different. Part six is entitled, “Sixty-Three Words,” and it’s Kundera’s discussion of words that he believes are misconstrued. In some cases, they are words prominent in his own works, and in other cases they are of interest regarding novels more generally. Like many writers, Kundera takes a strict approach to words, arguing that synonyms don’t exist because if meanings were truly identical one of the words should die. The last piece is from an address that he made about the novel as a European artform.

While I read this with interest as a writer, I found that the discussion that most intrigued me did so on the level of a jnana yogi. That is, what interested me was his discussion of what constitutes a person – fictional or not. Kundera speaks in considerable detail about this issue. He’s writing about fictional selves, but some questions carry over. What makes a character and what is superfluous information – i.e. the illusion of a self? What is necessary and beneficial to convey to reader? Kundera criticizes the modern novel for getting bogged down in describing physical attributes and background information. On the other hand, Kundera praises novels in which one learns little about the character beyond what they do in the novel. His objection is that this denies the reader the opportunity to mentally build the character, him or herself. However, it also raises the question of whether those characteristics are really the relevant information.

I learned a few things from this book. It’s short and surprisingly readable given the topic-at-hand’s potential to become arty and pompous. If you’re a writer (particularly if you’re interested in the novel as an artform) this book is worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Documentary Filmmaking Master Class by Betsy Chasse

The Documentary Filmmaking Master Class: Tell Your Story from Concept to DistributionThe Documentary Filmmaking Master Class: Tell Your Story from Concept to Distribution by Betsy Chasse
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book focuses heavily on the business aspects of making a documentary – including legal, financial, and marketing issues [as opposed to the technical and creative aspects.] I suspect that makes it the perfect guide for many would-be filmmakers who learned the art and technique of filmmaking elsewhere, but who may be lacking insight into how to raise money, manage a team, and get the film seen by the right people – or just any people. On the other hand, if you’re expecting in-depth instruction on how to shoot or edit your film, this book doesn’t discuss those topics in great detail. [And would probably need many more graphics to do so. The author presents concepts like narrative arc and discusses interview questions, but that’s all conveyed readily by text.]

The book consists of 19 chapters arranged into seven sections. Section I is, quite logically, about what questions one should ask and answer before putting significant resources into a film. These are questions that one would logically expect a filmmaker to consider, but that could be overlooked in the heat of passion. For example, are there many films on the same subject (and, if so, did most of them flop?)

Section II discusses the business plan. Once one has preliminarily concluded it’s worth pursuing the project, the business plan involves outlining the project soup to nuts so that one isn’t making it up as one goes along, and running into the problems that improvising creates.

Section III explores various approaches to financing one’s project and what is required of each. There are chapters that compare and contrast investor funding, crowd funding, and grants and alternative funding, and which discuss what is needed for each. There is also a chapter about whether a sizzle reel is likely to be worthwhile. [A sizzle reel is somewhat similar to trailer, but cobbled together from existing footage.]

Section IV is about production. While I said this book is light on creative and technical material, it does address how to go about interviewing, and how to obtain b-roll, music, and other necessary material. Still, a lot of space is devoted to legal and human resources type issues. Section V is about post-production and is also a mix of technical and creative material related to assembling one’s film.

Like Section III, Section VI is one of the cornerstones of the book. It explains how to market one’s film and how to get it distributed. The pros and cons of being shown in a theater versus other platforms (e.g. streaming services, internet sites, etc.) is considered in detail. There is a lot of discussion of legalities and whether it is better to hire someone to handle these tasks or be involved with them oneself. The final section the conclusion.

There isn’t much in the way of ancillary matter in this book, though there are sample contracts and agreements where relevant, that – again – I imagine could be quite beneficial for those entering the field.

As a complete neophyte to the subject, I didn’t know what to expect. I did learn a lot of interesting information about the business and legal considerations involved in filmmaking. Chasse offers a great deal of insider insights. I don’t know how many surprises there would be for someone who’d gone to film school — or even for a dedicated autodidact, but there were certainly a lot of interesting tidbits for an outsider.

I’d highly recommend this book for someone who is interested in making a documentary, though if you haven’t spent a lot of time studying the technical and creative aspects (or at least making iPhone videos,) you’ll probably need to supplement this book with other information sources.

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