BOOK REVIEW: Spillover by David Quammen

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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SPILLOVER is a fascinating and in-depth exploration of zoonoses – i.e. diseases that can jump from various animal species into humans. This continues to be a germane topic in the face of our current zoonotic pandemic – COVID-19. The book came out in 2012 / 2013, but has seen a groundswell of interest because it’s the most well-known popular work on this subject. One will read a few sentences in the book that seem prescient, but the author and the many experts he consults would be the first to state that this is no act of mystical precognition. Rather, a zoonotic pandemic seems to be an inevitability given humanity’s huge and growing population and the nature of our interactions with the rest of the animal kingdom. Of course, no one could say precisely when or what pathogen would lead to “the next big one,” of which – it so happens – we are currently amid. Though coronaviruses do come up as potential candidates, but so do others (e.g. certain strains of influenza.)

The book is organized differently than most. It’s cut up into bite sized chunks, with 115 chapters that are usually not more than a few pages each. However, chapters aren’t the relevant unit of interest so much as the book’s nine parts, each of which takes on a particular zoonosis, or class thereof. Because zoonoses are such a huge topic, the author focuses on a few that are of particular interest for varied reasons, including: the challenge of tracking the disease’s origins, the potential to be the next big one, the global influence of some diseases, as well as other reasons a particular zoonosis generates an interesting story.

The first part explores one of the lesser known zoonoses (except for in locales where outbreaks have occurred, e.g. Australia,) Hendra virus. While a common species of bat (the flying fox) is the reservoir for Hendra, what makes the story gripping for humans is that humans contract the disease through the intermediary of horses. While interaction with exotic wildlife is the the mode throughout the book, the fact that, here, transmission occurs from one of humanity’s closest animal friends increases the closeness-to-home effect.

Part two shifts into one of the most dramatic and well-known of the zoonoses, Ebola virus. Ebola is familiar from Richard Preston’s book “Hot Zone,” though Quammen does explain how Preston sensationalized and overstated the physical effects of the disease. [Presumably what Preston did was take the most vicious looking case and describe it through as dramatic of analogies as possible, such that it became unrecognizable from the typical case.] At any rate, it’s a disease that grabs one by the fear center because – while it doesn’t spread readily – it’s highly lethal and is unarguably an unpleasant way to go.

Part three delves into malaria and P. falciparum, the bug that causes it. Malaria has profoundly shaped human existence in the tropics. A vector-borne disease carried and passed by mosquitos, Malaria is widespread throughout much of the world and continues to generate debilitating effects. Many concepts are drilled into one while reading this book, and one worth mentioning here is the differentiation of reservoirs and vectors. A lot of the stories in this book revolve around scientists’ searches for reservoirs – the species where the pathogen resides in waiting. It’s often much more difficult to uncover a reservoir species than it is a vector (vectors invariably coming into direct contact with humans, whereas reservoirs can be far removed from humans.)

Part four investigates Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS.) This is one of the most relevant sections because SARS is a corona virus — like COVID-19 — and it served as a harbinger of a corona virus pandemic. SARS is also at least vaguely familiar to most people as it was a relatively recent epidemic.

The next two sections zoom out a bit and, instead of diving down into one zoonosis, they each consider a range of bacterial and viral zoonoses, respectively. Part five discusses Q fever, Lyme disease, Psittacosis, and other bacterial diseases that enter humans by way of other animals. Part six explores a range of viral diseases and – in the process – gives a bit of a lesson as to why viruses present such a risk as well as how different viruses work. This section covers rabies and Nipah virus.

Part seven tells the story of the search for the Marburg virus origin and reservoir. Marburg is similar to Ebola, but the story of the epidemiological search for it makes for intriguing reading. Part eight discusses HIV-AIDS and its simian predecessor, SIDS. What made this fascinating to me was that I learned that HIV has been around (at least) since the first decade of the twentieth century. If you’re like me, you associate the origin of AIDS with the 1980’s. However, with so many people regularly dying from so many different conditions in central Africa, it wasn’t obvious that those killers were getting an added help from a virus that crippled immune systems. It also took scientist a while to realize that SIDS was resulting in the death of chimpanzees. (It’s possible for a reservoir to be unaffected by a disease, and this is what they first thought to be the case.)

The final part is a wrap up that zooms out to look at the nature of episodes of ecological imbalance and “outbreaks” of species. In this case, “outbreak” is used to describe any explosion of population growth of a species. While the section opens with a species of caterpillars [forest tent caterpillars] that would occasionally flare up, killing off trees on a large scale, it discusses human population growth as an outbreak that – like all others – will inevitably end one way or another. This section also discusses influenza (which isn’t a major topic earlier in the book,) presumably because it had been the lead candidate at the time for the “next big one.” And “the next big one” is a related overarching theme in this section.

The book is annotated and has an extensive bibliography. There are few graphics, but there are maps that are helpful for those who aren’t familiar with the areas where many of these disease outbreaks originated (e.g. central Africa.)

I found this book to be intriguing. It teaches the reader some basics of epidemiology as it goes about telling the story of the spread of these diseases. [e.g. It will help one distinguish virulence and transmissibility – terms that are often used by neophytes interchangeably, but which are distinct in important ways.] However, the focus is always on the story and, therefore, it keeps these lessons interesting throughout. I’d highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the pandemic, zoonoses, or the challenges of combating disease.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Places Lost and Found ed. Ronald Koury

Places Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson ReviewPlaces Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson Review by Ronald Koury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: September 30, 2020

 

If good travel writing is virtually travel, then this essay anthology mixes global travel with time travel. It’s a collection of travel (or at least locale-centric) writings previously published in “The Hudson Review.” While the oldest of the included pieces consists of translations of Tocqueville’s journals from his trip to America, the bulk of the works are from the twentieth century to recent years (and almost all from latter twentieth century onward.) This temporal aspect offers the reader unique insight into how various destinations have changed – particularly if it’s a place one has visited. Only about one-fifth of the essays feature locations in the United States, and the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, and Oceania are all represented among the twenty-five pieces presented.

While most of the pieces are straightforward travel essays, there are a couple that – while focused on location – aren’t what one might typically consider travel writing. One of these, which is probably the most evocative piece of writing in the book, is called “Blue Grotto” and it tells the story of the author being regularly taken to a bar by her father when she was a child [an occurrence that could probably not happen at the time of publication, let alone today, without child services becoming involved.] The other outlier is entitled, “Making it Uglier to the Airport,” and while it sounds like it would be about cutting it close while traveling, it’s actually a review essay about changing architectural notions regarding aesthetics.

The other essays include not only run-of-the-mill style travel writing that uses vibrant descriptions to make a location sound appealing (e.g. see the pieces on County Cork and the Hudson River,) but also include a number of essays about what might be termed “dark tourism” in today’s parlance. Dark tourism is travel to places that are or have been (in recent history) war-torn, crime-ridden, disaster damaged, or otherwise prone to turn up in the nightly news. The essays on Cambodia and Haiti (of which there are two) are prime examples. There are also pieces that fall somewhere in-between, featuring destinations that are a bit rough or challenging, but which are by no means dangerous. A great example of this – oddly enough – was a story of travel to Fiji, but only because the author chose to stay in the home of tribesmen of a remote village.

As a traveler, I found this book to be fascinating. As I mentioned, I got a lot out of the fact that it offered insight into temporal, as well as geographic, destinations. For example, I’d made a similar trip to Cambodia, but about twenty years after the one made by the author, and so it was intriguing to read about similarities and differences. (The trip in the book was much sooner after the disastrous reign of Pol Pot, and so there were many differences.) If you enjoy travel writing, I’d recommend you give this book a look. I was impressed with how broad a range of locales were explored.

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BOOK REVIEW: Metaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford

Metaphysics: A Very Short IntroductionMetaphysics: A Very Short Introduction by Stephen Mumford
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Metaphysics is a subject that gets complicated quickly. Like physics, it covers a wide swath of territory –many of the most fundamental questions of the universe — but (unlike physics) it doesn’t hold much promise of zeroing in on definitive answers. There’s just reasoning that is closer or farther from reflecting reality. Mumford makes a sound decision to avoid the usual approach of starting with a mile-high overview of the subject, probably rightly concluding that it would become an indecipherable mess quickly.

Instead, over ten chapters, Mumford starts with the simplest questions asked in metaphysics [relatively speaking] and proceeds to incrementally move toward the more complicated ones. In Chapter 1, he asks, “What is a table?” There’s nothing particularly crucial about a table. It’s just an item that is tangible, without a lot moving parts / complexity, and – thus — is the kind of thing that few people would discount as being real. However, even here at the shallow end of the pool, questions pile up about what even such a simple item really is, and under what circumstances it can be said to continue to be that thing. [e.g. One gets into Theseus’s ship kind of questions – i.e. if one replaces all the individual parts of a table to what degree does it remain the same object.]

Chapter 2 shifts from what the first chapter called “particulars” to what are herein called properties. [e.g. The redness of a fire engine. The roundness of a racetrack.] Are properties real? Could you take them away from a particular? If you could, what – if anything – would it be that remained. Chapter 3’s question is, “Are wholes just the sum of their parts?” In the case of the aforementioned table, this question might seem a lot easier to answer than if the object in question is oneself. We all intuitively feel that we are more than the sum of our bones, and skin, brain, etc. But are we? Even if a child’s toy blocks are nothing more than the summed blocks, might not a human being or a dog be vastly more.

I will propose that chapters four through six are closely related (though no such division is made by the book’s table of contents.) All of the questions addressed by these chapters hinge on our experience of time, and none of them would be questions if we didn’t experience one thing after another. Chapter four explores the nature of change. Chapter five is about cause and effect. The subject of cause raises all sorts of interesting questions because we often see examples of caused effects, but we also seem to read cause and effect into situations in which they don’t really exist. (e.g. The often-sited error of mistaking correlation for causation.) Chapter six takes on the subject of time directly. There are many different theories of time. With respect to metaphysic’s most basic question of “what is real?” one quickly comes up against different hypotheses. Some think only the present is real. Some believe the past and present are real, but the future couldn’t possibly be. Still others think the whole experience of time is an illusion.

Chapter seven gets into the metaphysical question that is both most intimately interesting and among the most challenging, and that is, “What is a person?” This is interesting in that we all tend to feel we know what a person is, at least one feels that one knows what one is, but views abound – from the Buddhist notion that the self is an illusion to various religious approaches proposing we are fundamentally a soul or spirit, to materialist interpretations that suggest – in all likelihood – we are the sum of our parts and their activities.

Chapters eight and nine retreat once more from tangibles to ask what is the nature of a possibility (ch. 8) and whether nothing can actually be thought of as a thing [and what the ramifications are of doing so] (ch. 9.) Both of these cases are interesting because they have no simple answer and in different cases different answers suggest themselves as truer. When a possibility is of high probability it may seem sound to treat it as if it were a [potential] reality, but following that reasoning toward the lowest probability happenings quickly results in absurdities.

The final chapter gets around to the overarching question of what metaphysics is, but it also deals with the question of whether metaphysics is relevant. Some say metaphysics amounts to little more than mental masturbation. Others feel that science has replaced metaphysics in all the important ways and more.

The book has a “further reading” section at the end. There are a few graphics throughout the text, but the book is primarily textual.

I found this book to be quite useful. I think the author took a smart approach with its organization and does a good job of avoiding getting lost in the weeds (which is a perennial risk in these types of works.) Mumford uses pop culture references and the like when they make approachable examples, and — in general — does a good job of keeping an eye on readability. If you’re looking for an introduction to metaphysics, this volume is worth checking out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody

Introducing Sartre: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Sartre: A Graphic Guide by Philip Thody
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean-Paul Sartre was a French philosopher, author, and critic, and this introductory guide discusses each of those aspects in descending order of emphasis – meaning it’s largely about his philosophy but it offers insight to his literary works and touches upon his criticism. This is the third book in this series that I’ve read, and I found it to be the best, so far. The other two books I’ve read also each explored the work of a philosopher (fyi – the others were Baudrillard and Kant,) and I think this one was the most appealing to read because it was able to draw upon Sartre’s literary work to convey his philosophical ideas more narratively. Because of this, the book required less intensity of concentration to keep complicated concepts and jargon straight. (Not that any of these books is particularly challenging, but with the hook of characters and stories it’s that much easier to hang on the ideas being expressed.)

As with the other books in the series, the book consists of many tiny sections, each of which uses graphics (usually in the form of cartoons) to emphasize certain information. In the case of this book, there were about seventy-five sections. Many of the sections discuss biographical aspects of Sartre’s life, and influential world events he lived through. The philosophical sections delve most heavily into the existentialist and phenomenological concepts most closely associated with Sartre, but also investigate his political philosophy. With regards to his political philosophy, there was extensive discussion of Sartre’s ideas about freedom and Marxism. Sartre was an ardent advocate of Marxism, but – like many – the theoretical appeal it held for him was somewhat tarnished by the brutal realities seen in Russia and the Eastern European satellite states. As alluded to, there are sections that discuss historical events as they pertain to shifts in Sartre’s thinking.

There are sections that explore Sartre’s various literary and philosophical publications – most notably “Nausea” which is Sartre’s most well-known literary work and which contains some of his most influential ideas. As for his work as a critic, the book focuses heavily upon Sartre’s writings about Baudelaire.

The graphics are all black-and-white cartoons, most of which serve a function similar to text-boxes in reiterating key concepts, or sometimes showing competing ideas in the form of a discussion. They are simply drawn and easy to follow.

I found this to be a useful way to gain some insight into the work of Sartre, who was little more to me than a familiar name before reading this book (though I was aware of his affiliation with existentialism.) If you are looking for a concise guide to Jean-Paul Sartre, this book is worth checking out. I read it via Amazon Prime.

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BOOK REVIEW: 100 Things to Do in the Forest by Jennifer Davis

100 Things to Do in a Forest100 Things to Do in a Forest by Jennifer Davis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I’m a big fan of any book that works to get people to experience nature. The more times I see someone on a cellphone walk into a wall or a pole, the more this is true. [BTW: If you are thinking to yourself, “I’ve never seen a single soul walking into anything while on their phone!” then you are among those who are walking into things. (Or, maybe, you live in a cave.)] At this point, I’m pretty concerned about the continued survival of our species because of the lack of awareness that time in nature cures — one way or another.

This book takes a crack at the problem by coming up with a hundred activities of varying kinds that one can do in nature, the intent being to make it appealing for the segment of the population who have no idea what to do once they get into the woods and / or who may have a bit of angst about the experience. The book shifts philosophy from what has long been the mainstream view defined by the mantra: “take only photos and leave only footprints.” This isn’t to suggest that Davis is condoning wandering around tossing trash about or randomly uprooting plants. On the contrary, she advocates being a good steward of nature, but with the provision that nature can take more individuals plucking flowers or the like (and that if more people were vested in nature through such activities, they would ensure that the large-scale threats were stopped.) I’m not sure how I feel about this philosophical shift, but it does make for intriguing food-for-thought.

The activities are of varied types. I would classify them as campcraft (e.g. knot tying or knife use,) personal development (e.g. meditation and yoga), and crafts projects. One might get the feel this book is geared toward kids, but the author clearly tries to reach a broad demographic. The ideal demographic might be adults with children who are looking at what to do to make a trip to the woods compete with the hot sensory injection of modern urban life. While it’s not a particularly advanced book, I did learn a few new things. Furthermore, I felt that most of the activities suggested were potentially beneficial. There were a couple exceptions. The first is one in which one categorizes things in nature as opposites (which I object to on the basis that humanity does far too much stuffing of things into arbitrary groupings already, and I feel it has negative consequences.) The less psychological and ethereal objection was the candle-lit trail. (Which I primarily object to on the basis that – even placing tealights in glass jars the book suggests – a fire hazard is created by putting jars on loose leaf and needle litter which is spongy, uneven, and often highly flammable. A secondary objection is that carrying enough glass jars to make it work would be ridiculously awkward and risky for a person walking around in the dark in the woods. But 98 or 99 suggestions that remain are still likely to give one something useful to think about.

The book has artwork here and there throughout. Some of this art is ornamental, but other pieces are functional, in support of teaching activities such as knot-tying that are difficult to convey through text.

If you’re looking for a book of activities to perform in nature, this one is worth checking out. The activities are pretty simple, but because they are of several different classes of pursuit, even someone experienced in the woods may learn something new regarding meditation or crafts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Kant: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This volume is part of a large series of guides that are put out by Icon Books with the goal of providing concise overviews on various topics. In this case, said topic is the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. Kant was an eighteenth-century Prussian philosopher who greatly influenced modern and post-modern philosophy. Among the ideas that Kant shaped and influenced were skepticism, morality based in reason, and the need for an understanding of knowledge that was neither purely empiricist nor purely rationalist (but which acknowledged the strengths and limitations of each.)

The book largely follows a chronological approach in presenting Kant’s ideas as he came up with, and published, them. Along the way, there are sections that are biographical rather than being focused on the philosophical ideas. These sections are largely in the beginning, middle, and end as they discuss the philosopher’s entry into the field, the changes in the midst of his career, and the end of his life. I thought it was useful to gain a bit of insight into the man as a man (rather than just as a philosopher) because it helps one understand the nature of the mind that came up with those ideas. That said, if there were space constraints, I would have preferred more examples and narrative explanation of the ideas – which are intensely definitional and abstract, making them both dry and less effective than they could be – over that biographical information (much of which boils down to Kant being quirky and peculiar.) The bulk of the book follows the flow of ideas contained in the three publications that were the colonnade that undergirded Kant’s philosophy (“Critique of Pure Reason,” “Critique of Practical Reason,” and “Critique of Judgement.”)

Between the last biographical section and the book’s conclusion, there is a nice section that discusses Kant’s influence on other philosophers, including: Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Foucault, Lyotard, and Derrida. When I say “influence” I’m not just talking about those who paid homage to Kant, but also those who critiqued his work and advanced the discipline by way of critiquing Kant.

As the subtitle suggests, graphics are used throughout. The graphics are black-and-white and are a mix of diagrams and cartoon drawings. I thought the drawings were well-rendered, but weren’t necessarily arranged to gain the most explanatory power. As with other books in the series, many of these are cartoons that merely restate ideas from the text. Other graphics are diagrams that arrange ideas in a way that I’m sure made sense to whomever was putting them together, but whose immediate explanatory value (if any) was not always readily apparent to me. I have no way of knowing whether this was purely the illustrator, or (more likely) a collaboration between author, illustrator, and editor.

This is an okay overview of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. I’d describe it as accurate but not as clear or interesting as I’d wish it to be. I will admit that if it hadn’t been available without extra cost via Amazon Prime, I probably would have obtained a different guide. There is loads of competition in this concise guide market (e.g. “Kant: A Very Short Introduction” by Oxford University Press.) You might benefit from shopping around a bit.

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BOOK REVIEW: Healing Mushrooms by Richard Bray

Medicinal Mushrooms: Healing Mushrooms for Immune Support - Improve your Memory, Reduce Inflammation, and Fight Cancer (Urban Homesteading Book 7)Medicinal Mushrooms: Healing Mushrooms for Immune Support – Improve your Memory, Reduce Inflammation, and Fight Cancer by Richard Bray
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This guide offers a concise overview of the medicinal use of fungi. It’s a soup-to-nuts examination of how to utilize approximately thirty different mushrooms for treatment of a wide variety of ailments.

The book consists of eight chapters. Each of the first three chapters is quite brief and provides simple background information about mushrooms as medicine. The detailed information begins with chapter four, which provides an in-depth overview of fungi and the characteristics by which which some of them derive health and medicinal benefits. Chapters five and six repeat some of the same information, but from opposing angles – making it easier for the reader to find the information they are seeking. Chapter five describes the mushrooms, including a brief mention of the uses of each. Chapter six, on the other hand, introduces a range of ailments and medical conditions, and suggests which of the mushrooms have been studied as remedies. There are endnotes, directing one to the papers in which the scientific results appear. This is also where one finds information on dosages.

Chapter seven shows various approaches to preparing mushrooms for use as medicine. Not all of the mushrooms can be eaten, some require tinctures or other preparations to be made, and this chapter explains how to do that work in a step-by-step fashion. For the mushrooms that can be eaten, it describes the relative merits of different cooking methods. The last chapter discusses where to obtain mushrooms. It offers considerations for foraging mushrooms, but also tips for commercially acquiring them.

The book has many graphics. These include color photos of the various species of mushrooms as well as some drawings and diagrams throughout. The chapter on preparation has graphics interspersed within the textual directions to offer a visual indicator and break up the text. As mentioned, there is a huge set of paper references arranged as endnotes linked to the places (largely in chapter six) where findings are cited.

If one is wondering, the book does not discuss any mushrooms with psychoactive (psychedelic) properties (e.g. psilocybe.) Many of the mushrooms included will be well known to culinary mushroom users (e.g. button, portobello, enoki, lion’s mane, chicken-of-the-woods, shiitake, and oyster mushrooms.) Others were familiar to me [as someone with a minimal knowledge of mushrooms] even though it wasn’t from their culinary use (chaga, reishi, and jelly ear.) And a few of the fungi I was unfamiliar with before reading the book.

I found this to be a useful book. It’s concise and offers attractive and useful graphics. If you are interested in medicinal mushrooms, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Matrix and Philosophy ed. William Irwin

The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the RealThe Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real by William Irwin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As might be expected of a collection of twenty essays that try to squeeze every drop of philosophy out of a two-hour movie (or to criticize each drop,) some of the chapters are much more compelling and pertinent than others. One could argue that some of the chapters are of sounder quality than others (and I would make that claim,) but even if you take them as a collection of high-quality philosophy essays, it’s hard to deny that some of the chapters are germane to the story the filmmakers created, while others try to use the film to get across an idea they find worthy – regardless of whether or not it has anything to do with the film, per se. More simply, the book comments on “The Matrix” through the varied lenses of a wide variety of philosophical branches and schools, most of which have something to say about the movie, and others… not so much.

Few films have achieved the mix of popularity and philosophization of 1999’s “The Matrix.” The movie imagines a world in which the simulation hypothesis is true – i.e. there are people living in a simulated / virtual world that is so convincing that they are unable to tell that they aren’t going about their lives in “base-reality.” The movie’s central question is: should one prefer an existence that is real — if grey, dismal, subterranean, and hostile – over one which is illusory — but one has all the modern comforts, delicious virtual steaks, and one isn’t being hunted by killer machines? Over the course of the story we see two divergent perspectives on this question. The lead character, Neo, chooses to leave the Matrix to enter the real world. Meanwhile, one of the crew members of the ship Neo finds himself on, Cypher, betrays his shipmates in order to get back into the Matrix. It’s clear from the fact that Neo is the lead and Cypher is portrayed as a treasonous scoundrel that opting for “the real” – warts and all – is viewed as the correct position on the matter. However, the fact that we see Cypher in relatable circumstances, ones that engender some empathy for the character, means that answer isn’t meant to be taken as a forgone conclusion.

The movie’s premise engages a couple branches of philosophy – notably, epistemology (asking what, if anything, can one know to be true?) and metaphysics (asking, what is real?) While there are a number of philosophical ideas that recur in the book, the most repeated is Plato’s cave? Based on the ideas of Socrates, Plato described a situation in which people live chained in a cave in which they can only see silhouettes moving about on the wall from a light source behind them. What happens when one becomes unchained and leaves the cave into the “real world?” How is one received by people when he returns and tells the story of what one experienced? Is anyone interested in following in one’s footsteps, or do they believe it’s a lie, or the ramblings of a madman?

The twenty chapters of the book are divided into five parts. Chapters one through four consider the epistemological questions raised by the film. Chapter one sets the scene and gives the most extensive discussion of the comparison of the movie to Plato’s cave. Chapter two takes an anti-skeptical turn. It argues that, if one isn’t a philosopher, one has little reason to view the world skeptically. The world works, why question it? The argument is both true and not particularly useful. Chapter three proposes that one cannot make sense of a world in which all or most of a person’s beliefs are false. Like the previous chapter, this one boils down to: we can’t eliminate the possibility of a Matrix-like truth, but neither do we have any good reason for giving it a second thought. Chapter four focuses on sensory perception and what it says (and / or doesn’t say) about what we know. In daily life, we intuitively (if not explicitly) base a lot of what we “know” on our sensory experience — even though most of us know it is flawed. Perhaps the most intriguing issue raised by Chapter 4’s author was about the Hmong people, and their increased incidence of dying during sleep – in conjunction with a folk belief about malevolent spirits who attack during sleep. (Thus, it’s suggested that the mental world and the physical world aren’t separated such that the former can have no influence on the latter – i.e. the materialist take.)

[Note: The reason the point about the Hmong is salient is that there is a scene in which Neo asks whether dying in the Matrix means dying in the real world. Morpheus answers “the body cannot live without the mind.” From a storytelling perspective, it’s easy to see why the filmmakers created this rule. There would be zero tension in any scene that takes place inside the Matrix (i.e. where almost all the action takes place) if it weren’t the case that people could die from what happened inside. However, from a philosopher’s (or scientist’s) point of view the statement is problematic. Every night our conscious minds go “dead” and yet we wake up just fine. However, the Hmong issue raises an interesting point, suggesting maybe we don’t understand the issue as clearly as we feel we do.]

Part two of the book (ch. 5 – 8) shift from epistemology to metaphysics. Chapter five lays out the basic metaphysical issue, asking how effective a two-category classification scheme of real and unreal is, and where it runs into problems. Chapter six shifts focus to the mind-body problem (does physical matter generate subjective experience, and – if so – how,) and asks what minds are and whether machines can have one. Chapter seven rejects the film’s notion that mental states can be reduced to physical states, but ventures into interesting territory by evaluating the ethics of “imprisoning a mind” — if it were possible. Chapter eight explores questions of fate and determinism, which is also a central premise in the film. The appeal of the real world in this film is obviously not that it’s better, bolder, brighter – it’s none of those things – a major part of the appeal is that in the real world it seems one is free (i.e. one has full free will.) Whereas inside the Matrix, a least much of one’s life is deterministically dictated by computer programs.)

Up to this point, whether or not I felt a given essay said anything interesting, I believed they were all addressing this film’s philosophical underpinnings. From part three, we see a shift. For example, chapter nine asks, is “The Matrix” a Buddhist film. Not surprisingly (given – to my knowledge – none of the filmmakers ever said it was,) the authors conclude that it’s not, but that it has touches of Buddhist influence (also not surprising, given they aren’t hidden or subtle.) Chapter ten discusses the problems of religious pluralism. Because this film presents not only the aforementioned Buddhist influence but also Christian influence (Neo as savior) and bits from all-manner of ancient mythology (starting with character names / roles, e.g. Morpheus,) it’s proposed that it’s advocating a kind of pluralism. [Given that the movie exists in a fictional world, the fact that it draws ideas and names from various sources, doesn’t seem to me to be a suggestion that the filmmakers are advocating a particular hodgepodge, pluralistic, Frankenstein’s Monster religion.] I do think the author did a fine job showing that pluralistic “religions” tend to be logically inconsistent and systemically untenable. Where he lost me was in the suggestion that individual religions are logically consistent. The one I was raised in had an all-powerful god who couldn’t contradict human free will, and one god that was simultaneously three separate and distinct entities. In short, the religion I had experience with is chock-full of logical inconsistency. I burst out laughing when I got to this statement, “Is it really the case that the evidence supporting the truth of, say, Christianity is no stronger than that supporting the truth of, say, Buddhism or Jainism?” Given that (at least the schools of Buddhism closest to what Gotama Buddha taught) pretty much only ask one to believe that if one meditates and behaves ethically one can achieve a heightened state of mind free of the experience of suffering, and Christianity asks one to believe in a God[s] and demons and miracles and sundry ideas for which there is not a shred of evidence, I’d say it really is the case.

Chapter eleven examines the question of happiness, and concludes that: 1.) happiness “is the satisfaction that one is desiring the right things in the right way”; 2.) that one can’t have happiness without a “right understanding of reality.” I don’t think its convincingly conveyed that either of those two ideas is true, but the question of happiness as it pertains to Cypher’s decision is an interesting one. I found chapter twelve to be one of the most intriguing and thought-provoking of the book. It focuses heavily on the teachings of Kant, and it discusses how important features we see with the Matrix (e.g. illusion and enslavement) aren’t features projected from an external source but are imposed by oneself. I think this is a useful way to think about how the film can be related to one’s own life – i.e. thinking about the Matrix world as symbolic for an illusory mental world.

Part IV is entitled “Virtual Themes” and it looks at “The Matrix” from the perspectives of nihilism, existentialism, and then takes a step back and asks questions about the usefulness of studying philosophy through a fictional device (i.e. film.) Chapter thirteen looks at “The Matrix” through the lens of nihilism, putting it beside Dostoevky’s “Notes from the Underground.” Chapter fourteen is similar in that it compares / contrasts “The Matrix” with another philosophical literary work, the existentialist novel by Sartre, “Nausea.”

I thought the questions taken up in the second half part IV were important ones. These two chapters (i.e. 15 and 16) deal with what is the proper relationship – if any — between philosophy and the product of storytellers. I say this is important because the discussion throughout the book is contingent on there being some value in philosophical ideas in fictional accounts that aren’t optimized to conveying philosophy, but rather are optimized to building an entertaining story. Some of the critiques lack effectiveness because they seem to accept there is value in considering philosophy in fiction, but the correction to make it more effective philosophy would make it useless as story. I would hazard to say that any film that would receive a thumbs up as a conveyor of philosophical ideas from a panel of 24 philosophers (the number involved with these chapter) would be fundamentally unwatchable. But does that mean the bits and pieces of philosophy one gets are worthless? I’d say no, but opinions may vary. Chapter fifteen asks why philosophers should engage with works of fiction, as wall as considering the value of story. Chapter sixteen focuses on genre, concluding that “The Matrix” is a work of real genre, but virtual philosophy.

That last section includes analysis from the perspective of what I would call the single-issue schools of philosophy (feminism and Marxism,) as well as postmodernism (which is said to have been a major influence on the directors) and other twentieth century philosophers. The two single-issue schools do what those schools often do, which is to myopically focus on what is interest to them (regardless of that issues importance to the film, or lack thereof) and pick and choose examples that seem to support their idea. The feminist essay reduces the story to an attempt to be un-raped (i.e. unplugged) and catalogs all the instances in which some “penetration” took place, be it characters being jacked into the Matrix hardware or shot. The author compares “The Matrix” to “eXistenZ,” a film with similar themes that she prefers (though, given the relative popularity of the two films, she may be the only one who feels that way.) The chapter on the Marxist perspective isn’t as poorly related to the film. However, I doubt the essay would exist if the Wachowskis had stuck to their original plan. I read once that the filmmakers originally had a different (and more sensible) rationale for why the machines had humans in a vat. The idea that appears in the film is that humans are used to produce bioelectricity (probably the most scientifically ridiculous idea in the film) and this forms the basis for the Marxist critique of the pod people as exploited labor.

The penultimate chapter is probably the most relevant of the last section. It discusses postmodern philosophy, notably Baudrillard’s “Simulacra and Simulation” which is said to have influenced the Wachowskis and it [the book] even had a cameo appearance in the film. The last chapter is the most convoluted read, but probably by the most prominent author in the book. It’s by Slavoj Zizek and it critiques the movie from the perspective of the ideas of Lacan, Hegel, Levi-Strauss, and Freud.

I found lots of interesting nuggets of food-for-thought in this book. As I said, the effectiveness of the chapters varies tremendously. This isn’t so much because the quality of authors varies. It’s just that some of the work gets off topic – kind of like if there was an analysis of “My Friend Flicka” and it was decided that the thoughts of a Marine Biologist were essential — you’d be like “what am I reading, and why?” That happens sometimes as one reads this book. But, if you like the movie and want some deeper insight into it, this is a fine book to check out. It’s also a good way to take in various philosophical ideas, leveraging one’s knowledge of the film.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells

Shakespeare's Tragedies: A Very Short IntroductionShakespeare’s Tragedies: A Very Short Introduction by Stanley Wells
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Once again, we revisit a title in my favorite source for mainlining quality information on niche topics, Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series of books. These guides are generally between one-hundred and two-hundred pages in length, and provide essential information on a specific topic or discipline without getting bogged down in minutiae or in attempts to be entertaining.

I’ve been reading (/rereading) the tragedies of Shakespeare, and thought the guide might give some insight into the background of the plays and the more obscure shifts in language and meaning. Which it did. I would say more the former than the latter. But it also brought up subjects that I wouldn’t have necessarily given much thought, such as how the nature of the theater of the day shaped the plays – e.g. what could and couldn’t be done and how it influenced the pacing.

The book consists of an introduction, eleven chapters, an epilogue, and the usual backmatter (i.e. references, recommended reading, index.) The introduction and first chapter together set the stage by explaining the nature of tragedy in literature and drama. The introduction deals more generally with the question of what is tragedy, while chapter one deals more specifically with theatric tragedies in Shakespeare’s time. The question of which of Shakespeare’s plays are tragedies, versus the other two genres of the day – comedies and histories, might seem straightforward, but it’s not. Some of Shakespeare’s tragedies are quite historical (e.g. “Julius Caesar”) and some of his comedies are fairly bleak (e.g. “The Winter’s Tale” and “Troilus and Cressida”) and his tragedies generally have comedic elements and language (e.g. see: “Hamlet.”)

Having established differed approaches to defining tragedies, the remaining ten chapters each take on one of Shakespeare’s tragedies in what is believed to be chronological order: “Titus Andronicus,” “Romeo & Juliet,” “Julius Caesar,” “Hamlet,” “Othello,” “Macbeth,” “King Lear,” “Timon of Athens,” “Anthony & Cleopatra,” and “Coriolanus.” For each play, the author discusses things such as how what was going on at the time and where Shakespeare was in his career play into the character of the plays. However, much of the page space is occupied by laying out each story. In that sense, this guide is probably most useful for someone who has minimal experience with these plays. However, one will learn about how the plays were received at the time and subsequently, a little about the modern retellings (i.e. film, mostly,) and a little bit about how these works fit in the context of Shakespeare, his contemporaries, and those he borrowed from.

Having recently read Bart van Es’s “Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction,” I was thinking about which organizational scheme I preferred, between the two. Instead of organizing chapters by the play, as Wells does, van Es has chapters that are topically arranged — covering subjects like setting, language, characters, the role of time, etc. It should be noted that there is a good reason for this difference in approach. There are more comedies (18, by some — but not all — counts) and some of them are “more comedic” than others, and so the topical arrangement is more sensible for a short book (i.e. it wouldn’t make sense to have 18 or more chapters in a book designed to be concise, and it wouldn’t be the best use of space to have full chapters to cover “problem comedies” or “tragi-comedies.”) Ultimately, I don’t know that I have a preference. Both clearly have advantages, and I thought each approach was sensible for its subject.

A brief epilogue delves into why we are even interested in reading tragedies – Shakespearean or otherwise. As might be expected of an epilogue in such a concise guide, the author doesn’t bother arguing for a decisive answer, but rather presents a few alternatives in basic outline. The book has a few plates of artwork that take their subjects from the works of Shakespeare, notably paintings by the poet / artist William Blake.

I’d recommend this book as an accompanying guide for those reading through Shakespeare’s tragedies. It may prove slightly more beneficial for readers with limited experience of the works. However, even those who’ve read, watched, and reread the plays are likely to learn something new.

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