BOOK REVIEW: The Art of the Tale by Steven James & Tom Morrisey

The Art of the Tale: Engage Your Audience, Elevate Your Organization, and Share Your Message Through StorytellingThe Art of the Tale: Engage Your Audience, Elevate Your Organization, and Share Your Message Through Storytelling by Steven James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is a fine book on storytelling, storytelling with a focus on business presentations and speeches. That said, this is a topic for which the market is glutted. There are many books available about storytelling, and while this one doesn’t distinguish itself by being exceptionally bad, neither does it distinguish itself as exceptionally good. It’s a decent book on storytelling, and if you’re interested in stories for work presentations or speeches and haven’t read other books on the subject, you might as well try this one. However, if you’ve studied up on the subject, I wouldn’t expect to discover anything profound or novel in this book.

The book does focus on some subjects more than do others. One of my favorite parts was chapter 11, “Warts and All…,” because it addresses an issue that books tend to overlook or gloss over, and that’s how to deal with the skeletons in one’s closet (or in the company’s closet.) It offers an intriguing look at the dark side of Henry Ford.

One of the strengths of this book is that it summarizes key lessons and repeatedly revisits core concepts (e.g. the StoryCube, which is these authors’ outline for presenting the fundamental elements of a story.) The book’s greatest weakness is probably oversimplifications and banal statements, particularly given that the authors critique the simplifying statements of others. For example, they offer a criticism of the common distinction between plot- and character-driven literature that misses that there is something fundamentally different between Joyce’s “Ulysses” and “The Hunger Games” that is worth understanding, and – to the degree their criticism is true – much of this book could be similarly criticized as oversimplification or false dichotomization / categorization.

Reading this book helped me think about the subject of storytelling, particularly the non-written variety of story, but I can’t say there was anything groundbreaking or of unmatched profundity.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough

Atlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World's Most Unusual CornersAtlas of Improbable Places: A Journey to the World’s Most Unusual Corners by Travis Elborough
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book has entries on about fifty odd and off the beaten path locations. These locales are grouped into six parts that explore: “utopias,” abandoned places, bizarre architecture, islands, otherworldly destinations, and subterranean attractions.

There’s a standard set of graphics for each entry that include: a map that shows where in the world the place is, a photograph at that place, and a closeup map of the site’s immediate environs. The text describes a little about the history of each place and any quirky facts of relevance (such as how a location came to be abandoned.) The text also helps to clarify definitional issues such as what kind of utopian vision was being sought-after for the various [arguably] failed utopias of the first section.

I enjoyed this book. I’ve only visited two of the sites in the atlas (Ross Island and Auroville,) and I’m always excited to learn about more strange and unconventional destinations. I felt the atlas did succeed by presenting so many places I’d not only not visited, but about which I’d not even heard. (There are locations like Puerto Princessa [under-island river in the Philippines], Aokigahara [Japan’s suicide forest,] and “the Palm” [Dubai’s artificial islands] that are well-known to geography buffs, and many of the lesser-known sites are quirky tourist traps (Ten Commandments Mountain in North Carolina,) but –still — there are some fascinating but little-known locations in the book.) There is a disproportionate coverage of North American and European locations, presumably because that’s where the market for English language books disproportionately lies, and little coverage of African or South American locations.

If you’re into strange and remote travel locations, you may want to have a peek at this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method: Advanced Techniques by Bruce Lee & M. Uyehara

Bruce Lee's Fighting Method: Advanced Techniques, Vol. 4Bruce Lee’s Fighting Method: Advanced Techniques, Vol. 4 by Bruce Lee
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book presents a collection of Jeet Kune Do [JKD] techniques, JKD being the martial art developed by Bruce Lee to rectify what he believed were fundamental problems in martial arts, such as: elaborate techniques that have little chance of working in actual combative situations and ignorance of large swaths of the combative domain (e.g. grapplers ignoring striking, and strikers ignoring grappling.) Interestingly, Lee has come to be viewed as a herald of the mixed martial arts (MMA) movement. That said, this book exclusively focuses upon a small collection of hand-strikes and kicks.

There are a few principles that recur throughout the book that are key to JKD and are where the value of the book lies. First, there is a focus on feints to trigger a reaction, the technique being applied as the opponent is reacting to a false attack. Second, the avoidance of complex and compound attacks whenever possible in favor of simple and direct tactics (if they will work.) Third, the use of direct, linear movements to stop attacks in progress.

The downside of this book is the author’s penchant for long, over-extended kicks. Lee emphasized the importance of speed, and speed would be essential for many of these techniques to have practical value. The reason one doesn’t see such techniques (as a fighter’s “go-to” tactic) much anymore is that the kicker’s foot has to travel a couple / few meters while the receiver only has to move centimeters to be offline and in position to catch the kick and dump the kicker. Ergo, one tends to only see widespread use of such techniques in Tae Kwon Do, where the rules and culture support huge kicks.

I learned a lot from reading this book, and I particularly value its emphasis on simplicity and avoidance of convoluted methods. That said, I think the reader needs to see the book as representing one stage in an evolution of martial arts.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Beauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton

Beauty: A Very Short IntroductionBeauty: A Very Short Introduction by Roger Scruton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This isn’t so much a book about what beauty is as where we find it, and in what kind of traits we find it, including the question of whether all that is aesthetically pleasing is beauty (or is beauty one element among multiple sources of aesthetic pleasure.) Scruton proposes four major locations of beauty: the human form (and face,) nature, everyday objects, and art. Each of these four has its own chapter (ch. 2-5,) and those chapters form the core of the book. Other chapters examine related questions such as: whether (/how) we can judge beauty, whether it means anything to say someone has good or bad taste, and how / why we find aesthetic appeal in places often consider devoid of beauty (e.g. the profane, the kitsch, the pornographic, etc.)

I found this book to be well-organized and thought-provoking. I liked that the author used a range of examples from literature and music as well as from the graphic arts. (Though the latter offer the advantage of being able to present the picture within the book — which the book often does.) I felt that the questions were framed nicely and gave me much to think about.

Some readers will find the occasional controversial opinion presented gratuitously to be annoying, as well as the sporadic blatant pretentiousness. I forgave these sins because the overall approach was analytical and considerate.

If you’re looking for an introductory guide to the philosophy of aesthetics and beauty, this is a fine book to read. [Note: there is a VSI guide (from the same series) on aesthetics that (I assume) has a different focus (though I haven’t yet read it.)]


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: How to Read the Wilderness by the Nature Study Guild

How to Read the Wilderness: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural Wonders of North AmericaHow to Read the Wilderness: An Illustrated Guide to the Natural Wonders of North America by Nature Study Guild
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release Date: November 22, 2022

This illustrated guide is designed to help readers learn some of the most prolific trees, plants, animals, birds, coastal life forms, and night sky constellations of North America. For plant [and in some cases animal] identification, the book uses a handy flowchart method that asks questions, sending the reader to an appropriate marker depending upon the answer. For wildlife identification, it uses descriptions of not only the animal, but skeletal remains, scat, and tracks. It also gives alternate names and asterisms for constellations.

The pros of this book include: 1.) it focuses on the most common elements and doesn’t get bogged down trying to be all-inclusive; 2.) it uses a flow charts, diagrams, and drawings successfully to do much of the heavy lifting.

The downsides of the book are: 1.) it seems be much more Western US-centric, and often treats everything East of the Rockies as a single zone (not to mention minimal discussion of Canada or Mexico – so maybe it should be thought of more as a US guide;) 2.) in trying to be text-minimal, it occasionally states things in a way that lacks clarity.

If you want to get a basic understanding of the elements of nature for the United States, this book is worth investigating. It’s young reader friendly, but not exclusively so.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Identity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas

Identity: A Very Short IntroductionIdentity: A Very Short Introduction by Florian Coulmas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book explores the slippery metaphysical concept of identity — not only as it’s presented in philosophy, but also in psychology, law, politics, anthropology, and literature. It begins with individual identity and expands outward to encompass gender, political, socio-economic, and linguistic identities. The aforementioned slipperiness of identity stems from the fact that we all have an intuitive grasp of identity that could be leading us astray. It tends to make us believe that aspects of identity are inherent features of the universe, when – in fact – they may be arbitrary designations – in which case, a given criterion or classification of identity may be chopped up in different ways than a given culture happened to glom onto.

I learned a great deal from this Introduction, and feel it was well organized and presented. How we see various dimensions of group identity (as well as how we weight them) has a lot to do with our social tensions and strife, and the issues around identity are worth dissecting — despite the fact that it might seem like a dry academic topic at first blush.

If you’re interested in learning more about identity, selfhood, and how various group identities feature in an individual’s overall identity, this book is worth investigating.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Power of Podcasting by Siobhan McHugh

The Power of Podcasting: Telling stories through soundThe Power of Podcasting: Telling stories through sound by Siobhan McHugh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book is in part a how-to guide, and in part a history of podcasting’s rise, though a history that tries to look from within rather than from a distance as much as possible. The two major thrusts of the book are story and sound. Of the many varieties of podcasts that exist today, the focus of this book is on ones that are story-centric, be they non-fiction or fiction. [Of course, there’s an argument that all podcasts should employ story to some degree, even if they aren’t of a format that facilitates an overarching story.] McHugh, herself, uses stories and what I’d call meta-stories (i.e. the stories of how various podcast-delivered stories got told) extensively throughout the book.

With respect to sound, there’s a lot of background sound and music that makes the difference between a professional sounding podcast and one that’s not. This is a particularly difficult subject to grasp because – while one often experiences background sound and music drawing one deeper into the story (or – perhaps more accurately – one feels its absence as a vague sense of detachment,) one tends not to be aware of this background audio on a conscious level. Therefore, discussions that point out the thinking about background audio choices can be profoundly eye-opening for a neophyte, such as myself.

When I say that the book has a podcasting how-to aspect, I should emphasize it doesn’t get into the technical aspects (i.e. what kind of mic to buy and how to use it,) but rather it discusses such topics as scripting, interviewing, editing / reorganizing for effect, and starting out. The book also has chapters at the end about increasing diversity in what has been an extremely Caucasian-centric industry as well as offering insight into potential future directions of audio storytelling. Throughout. there are short interviews with individuals with expertise in the industry, and there’s an extensive appendix, listing podcasts and podcasting resources.

If you’re interested in starting a podcast or learning more about podcasting, I’d highly recommend this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Body Am I by Moheb Costandi

Body Am I: The New Science of Self-ConsciousnessBody Am I: The New Science of Self-Consciousness by Moheb Costandi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

In this book you’ll learn about: a man who wanted a perfectly healthy leg amputated, a fisherman who felt like his hands were crab claws, a woman who felt she wasn’t responsible for the actions of her hand, various people who’ve experienced “Alice in Wonderland Syndrome” [i.e. feeling one has shrunk or stretched,] and about many other issues stemming from the body’s sensory and motor integration with what we think of as the mind. For most of us, the most powerful take-away to be gained from this book is just how wonderful and awe-worthy it is that we have bodies that are so well integrated and coordinated that we can go about life engaging in all sorts of fascinating and productive activities.

While this isn’t the only book that addresses this subject, I think it’s a topic worth learning more about and reflecting upon in depth. We can get so out of touch with the fact that our body is integrated with our mental and sensory experiences that we take “brain in a vat” scenarios as a given for the near future, as if one is the sum of one’s neuronal connections. This book will disabuse one this notion. In fact, the final chapter (Ch. 10) questions the proposition that copying consciousness is a matter of mastering such neuronal mapping. It’s easy to miss how much of our emotional experience is rooted in what’s happening in our guts and heart, and how much all the non-central nervous system parts of the body play in our conscious experience of the world.

I learned a great deal from this book and would highly recommend it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Comedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis

Comedy: A Very Short IntroductionComedy: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew Bevis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This introductory guide examines comedy in a broad fashion, covering literary, historical, philosophical, and – to a limited degree – its psychological dimensions. The book investigates the shifting meaning of the word “comedy” and the changes in media and mechanisms through which it’s been conveyed. So, if you’re concerned (or hoping) that this book is simply an accounting of comedy as the literary genre counter to tragedy, that’s not the case. It discusses not only literature and drama, but also standup comedy and other devices by which humor is conveyed, and it uses “The Simpsons” as well as “Candide” and “Don Quixote” as examples to get points across.

This VSI guide does have a little bit of overlap with the “Humour: VSI,” but where that book focuses heavily on the theory of what makes something humorous, this book addresses that subject in a much more superficial way. On the other hand, this book spends more time looking at comedy from ancient times onward and how its ways have changed since the age of the classics. This guide also peers more beyond the cognitive and philosophical aspects of humor to how elements such as physicality, persona, and even death play into comedy.

It is a scholarly introduction, so one shouldn’t expect a laugh riot, but it is a more entertaining read than if it only looked at comedy as the literary mode opposed to tragedy. If you wish to develop further insight into the many facets of comedy, it’s worth checking out.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.


View all my reviews