BOOK REVIEW: The Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio

The Photographer of MauthausenThe Photographer of Mauthausen by Salva Rubio
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Due out: September 30, 2020

This “graphic novel” tells the story of a Spanish photographer, Francisco Boix, who was sent to the Mauthausen Concentration Camp as a Communist during the Second World War. [Note: I only put graphic novel in quotes because it’s not a fictitious story, which “novel” implies, but graphic novel seems to be the accepted term for any graphically depicted story – fact or fiction.] Mauthausen was a camp in Austria. While it wasn’t technically one of the extermination camps, it was legendary for the death toll associated with the granite mine where many of the inmates labored. Its “staircase of death” was the location of untold fatalities, including: murders by the Nazis, suicides, and even tripping accidents that will happen when an emaciated prisoner has to carry 50 kg stones up almost 200 uneven steps with no railing day after day.

Boix, who had been a journalistic photographer previously, was assigned to work for a Nazi officer who took pictures in the camp – particularly pictures of fatalities. Boix carried equipment, set up lighting, developed negatives, and made prints. His boss, Ricken, is depicted as bizarre character. On the one hand, Ricken seems not so bad by Nazi SS standards, but, on the other hand, he has a sociopathic inclination to see death as art. Boix takes advantage of his position to make copies of the negatives with the idea that they will be evidence when the war comes to the end. At first, there is support for this plot among the Spanish Communists, who help hide the negatives away in places like the carpentry shop. However, this support dwindles when it becomes clear that the Germans will lose the war, and – thus –surviving to the end becomes everyone’s primary focus. Soon Boix is on his own to figure out how to get the photos out. He develops a plan involving one of the boys at the camp (children being less intensely scrutinized) and an Austrian woman, who is a sympathizer.

The book climaxes with the operation to get the negatives out of the camp, but resolves with the immediate post-War period when Boix attempts to generate interest in the photographs as well providing testimony at the Nuremberg Trials. Boix is portrayed as fiery and impassioned. When the others at Mauthausen just want to survive to the end, he maintains that any risk is worth it. While he is shown to have some conflict about putting a boy’s life at risk with (arguably) the riskiest step in the process, he doesn’t seem waiver. At the trials he’s outraged about the panel’s insistence on “just the facts.” He wants to freely and fully tell the story of Mauthausen, and they – like courts in democracies everywhere – wish to maintain an appearance of the dispassionate acquisition of facts.

I found this book to be engaging and well worth the read. The artwork is well-done and easy to follow. The story is gripping. While there are a vast number of accounts of events at places like Auschwitz, there aren’t so many popular retellings of events at Mauthausen. I highly recommend this book for those interested in events surrounding World War II and the Holocaust.

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BOOK REVIEW: Simulacra & Simulation by Jean Baudrillard

Simulacra and SimulationSimulacra and Simulation by Jean Baudrillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of 20-ish essays that share as a theme the idea that we live not so much in a world of events, information, and things, but in a world of simulacra in which those things represent or symbolize something (either the true version of that object or something else altogether.) After an opening that introduces the idea of simulacra and simulations, the chapters each look at an example of illusion and simulation in our world. The book’s strength is in suggesting outside-the-box, thought-provoking ideas. This is not to say that said ideas are all sound or unassailably true. A reasonable reader might conclude that much of the book consists of crackpot ideas. I tended to find that there was a kernel of truth in the points that Baudrillard was making, but that he often blew that kernel up into an absurdity.

To clarify, let’s discuss a couple examples of events that Baudrillard says that we don’t know, but instead we know a simulacrum of. These two examples are very different, and I believe one is a stronger argument for Baudrillard’s ideas than is the other. One is the Holocaust and the other is the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island. In both cases, Baudrillard argues what we “know” is not the event itself, but a representation that has been created through fictionalized accounts and “common knowledge” with varying degrees of accuracy. In my view, his point was more clearly made regarding the Three Mile Island nuclear plant accident. What people think they know of the event is more representative of what happens in the movie “The China Syndrome” than what actually happened. Most people grossly overestimate the costs and consequences of the event because they have a fictional representation of it in place of a factual understanding.

Besides events, Baudrillard considers a number of other ways we might be considered to be living in a representational world. The hypermarket doesn’t perform the same function as markets historically did. It exists to provide some hyperreal experience that is as much entertainment as it is the acquisition of necessary goods and services. Baudrillard also talks about how the media and advertising provide a façade in place of the real because of disincentives to provide accurate information. Journalism benefits from sensationalizing. Advertising benefits from hyperbolizing.

Baudrillard also ventures into the realm of science fiction. One of the most intriguing discussions is about holographs and how one might know whether one was the item being projected or the projection itself. There’s one chapter on J.G. Ballard’s novel “Crash” as an example of one of the more bizarre ways in which modernity conflates disparate things. [For those unfamiliar, Ballard’s novel deals with characters who are sexually aroused by car crashes.] An essay on “Simulacra and Science Fiction” proposes that sci-fi maybe dead by virtue of the fact that science fiction builds simulated worlds and since we already are a simulated world, the genre is passé.

I mentioned that this book’s strength is swinging for the fences with bold ideas about how modern humanity has built itself into a simulated world. So, what is its weakness? That’s easy. Low readability. The author assumes the reader has knowledge that it’s not reasonable to assume even an educated reader will have. If you weren’t familiar with the aforementioned J.G. Ballard novel or with the Beaubourg building in Paris, you’d have no idea what Baudrillard was going on about. Also, while it’s true that some of the ideas presented in the book are complicated, the author (and, perhaps, the translator) often make even relatively straightforward ideas complicated. There is a love of rare words. Beyond those issues, there’s a stream of consciousness approach to writing that makes the author’s train of thought hard to follow.

If you are interested in philosophy, this book is worth reading if you don’t mind struggling with difficult writing (a form of masochism with which I’m afflicted.) There have probably been more readable distillations of these ideas that will offer a clearer view of what Baudrillard means by ideas such as hyperreality. (We know Baudrillard means “more real than real,” but one only has one’s own intuition to make sense of that in a way that transcends Justice Potter Stewart’s dissatisfying definition of pornography as “I know it when I see it.”) If you don’t enjoy struggling with abstruse writing (or if you don’t know the meaning of the word “abstruse” without looking it up) this book is probably not for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov

Dopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug TradeDopeworld: Adventures in the Global Drug Trade by Niko Vorobyov
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book ventures over broad territory while maintaining a tight focus on recreational (and, mostly, illicit) drugs. It is — in part — an autobiographical account of the author’s short-lived career as a drug dealer and his subsequent prison experience. It’s also a global microhistory through the lens of drugs. It’s also a travelogue for the narco-curious who wonder things like: what the drug scene is like in Iran; or: what life is like on either side of the war on drugs in the hotspots of supply and demand. It’s also a gonzo policy tract, presenting scenes from the good (e.g. Portugal and New Zealand), the bad (e.g. the U.S.,) and the terrifying (e.g. the Philippines) of national policies on drugs, taking that knowledge into the author’s advocacy of legalization and other policy changes.

The book’s thirty-six chapters are arranged into eight parts. The first part is where one will find the autobiographical account of the author’s life as a street-level drug dealer. Part two is largely about the history of illegalization of various drugs (including America’s experiment with alcohol prohibition,) but it also has a chapter on the author’s experience with ayahuasca (a potent psychedelic substance historically used by shaman of tribes in Peru, but which has spawned a touristic cottage industry in Peru in recent years with the resurgence of popularity of psychedelics.)

Part three is about the rise of organized crime’s involvement in drugs in the Americas, and it includes a particular look at how Cuba was involved with (and touched by) the drug trade. The four chapters of Part IV focus on the United States, a reasonable distinction given not only America’s prominent demand-side dominance but also its ineffective, yet extremely costly, war on drugs [and the influence that was exerted globally in that pseudo-war’s name.] These chapters look at a collection of intertwined problems that America has experienced around the drug war, including: poor race relations, high imprisonment costs, and unnecessary loss of life. Part five shifts from the 800-pound gorilla of the demand side to its suppliers – notably Columbia and Mexico. There are extensive explorations of the Medellin and Sinaloa cartels and the fates of famous drug lords such as Pablo Escobar and El Chapo.

Part six shifts back to the individual as the primary unit of investigation (as opposed to the regional, the national, or the international levels.) However, this time the author, himself, is not the central character. He focuses on the story of a junky who managed to lead a normal life and of parents who lost children to overdose. A major theme of this book is countering the popular societal narrative that if one ever tries any illicit substance one will have a brief and miserable life as a drug-addled addict (as well as countering the fallacious belief that illicit drugs must inherently be more dangerous than legal one’s – alcohol being more damaging than a few illegal drugs along several different dimensions of danger – e.g. addictiveness, bodily damage, and encouragement of aggression.) The last chapter in this part is a fascinating look at how drug dealing via the dark web (anonymous online marketplaces that work on cryptocurrency) works in Russian (and how this could be improving safety.)

The penultimate part explores four prominent fronts in the War on Drugs. Here we see countries that are making all the costly mistakes of the United States, but – by virtue of weak governance – many additional ones, as well. Each of these locales shows the reader some new facet of the drug trade. With Russia we learn about how soldiers returning from the Chechen War brought with them a growing drug problem. In the chapter that deals with Iran [and its drug growing neighbors (e.g. Afghanistan)] we see an interesting twist in which hard drugs aren’t as challenging to acquire as one might expect under an Islamic theocracy. The Philippines has become the proverbial wild, wild west with police going Judge Dredd on drug dealers (Dredd is a comic book in which law enforcement, judgement, and punishment are all in the same individual’s hands.)

The final part shows some of the progressive shifts of recent years – moving away from a war on drugs and toward a tailored management of drug problems. The case of Portugal, a country that found itself with a huge drug problem but chose to handle it as a health rather than criminal justice issue, is highlighted. There is also a chapter on the wave of decriminalization and legalization of drugs (particularly of marijuana) in the US and elsewhere. The final chapter both discusses the drug issue du jour (the opioid crisis) and then finishes with an argument for why legalization combined with certain other policy changes would make for better outcomes.

The approach of this book is largely gonzo journalistic. It’s written in a humorous and self-referential fashion, and is not shy about taking a particular stance. It’s a fun and interesting read, and is conversational in style. The book is at it’s strongest when it’s telling personal stories – both the author’s own and those of the individuals that he meets in his journeys and in his life. As with gonzo journalism, more generally, its weakness can be seen in the reporting of the facts, in which it can be a little deceptive, lazy, or oversimplifying of complex problems here and there.

To avoid being gratuitous, I’ll give an example of each of those three criticisms [with the proviso that I read a review copy and they might be changed by the final published edition.] With respect to being deceptive, an example would be Vorobyov’s discussion of Albert Hofmann’s discovery of LSD. The author simply says that Hofmann “took” the substance (the phrasing implies he did it on purpose, but several other accounts I’ve read suggest Hofmann was accidentally exposed and didn’t know what was happening to him [such a smart fellow probably wouldn’t ride a bicycle home if he consciously took the substance.]) This may sound like nit-picking. I wouldn’t doubt that the author knows that detail, but was paying more attention to how he was expressing himself than fine details. An example of laziness with facts is seen when he discusses the cost of the drug war. He gives a dollar figure for Portugal, proposing that that has to be a better path than the US, which has spent a tremendous amount on the war on drugs. I suspect this is right, but he doesn’t offer a comparative figure for the US cost [just superlatives,] and so we are left to suppose it is the right conclusion. (Who knows, the relative size of both the populations and economies of the two countries might result in this assumption being wrong.)

To get to my last critical example, I have to first offer a bit of praise for something that the author does well. He often anticipates the opposing view and provides both evidence that supports his point and that supports the counterclaim. As an example, in the chapter on race relations he does point to the counter-point to his own that more police officers are killed by suspects than cops kill suspects during arrests [in the US, not necessarily the case in other places addressed in the book.] However, the ultimate point Vorobyov dismisses the discussion on is that cops (as opposed to suspects) sign on for that risk. [I feel I can safely say that no one applies to be a police officer with the idea that they will not have the best possible opportunity to defend themselves.] I’m not saying there isn’t a problem. There certainly is. However, attempts to reduce the issue to cops-are-all-just-racists-eager-to-get-their-guns-off (not this author’s stated argument, but at times the rant does seem to swerve into that territory) don’t get us anywhere.

While that may sound like harsh criticism, I wasn’t too concerned about such matters. As I mentioned, this reads like gonzo journalism, and such works are famous for not hiding bias, and – in that regard – I found this book more balanced than many. The form attempts to entertain, to present a personal argument, and to not get caught up in the minutiae of conveying precise facts. I wouldn’t quote fine detail or assume my interpretation of what was written was correct without fact-checking, but I don’t think there was any matter of fact that was far off the mark. And the fact that the author has a point-of-view that he’s advocating is par for the course.

This book was a fun and fascinating look at the narco-world. I was intrigued, educated, and sometimes horrified by what I learned. I’d highly recommend this book if you [like I] are curious about what goes on in the dark corners of the world beyond one’s everyday world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks

Introducing Baudrillard: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Baudrillard: A Graphic Guide by Chris Horrocks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Jean Baudrillard was a French Postmodernist philosopher who passed away in 2007. To those who aren’t navel-gazers of the philosophical variety, he is best known – if he is known at all – for having influenced the conception of the game-changing sci-fi movie, “The Matrix.” While I haven’t yet read “Simulacra and Simulation” – the book said to have inspired the Wachowskis, it seems that the influence of Baudrillard on the film’s world is that he provided abstract ideas that the film takes in a more literal sense. If this book represents his ideas well, Baudrillard didn’t claim that we are in a computer simulation run by an AI [or by anyone / anything else, e.g. an alien overlord] (that would be more in line with ideas presented by Swedish Philosopher, Nick Bostrom.) Baudrillard’s claim is that we are increasingly building and gathering around us a world of things that are — at their most fundamental level – signs and symbols. However, it’s also true that there are some quotes and concepts that make there way into “The Matrix,” probably most famously, “the desert of the real.”

A film [and its source novel] that might be said to more directly reflect Baudrillard’s ideas is “Fight Club.” Which isn’t to say that Baudrillard deals with issues of lost masculinity [he is, to many in academia, infuriatingly contrarian on gender related issues — proposing seduction as the source of feminine power to balance the masculine.] Instead, the ideas that play into “Fight Club” are that human beings have become – first and foremost – consumers, and second that people are striving for hyperreality — an existence that is more real than real. These core ideas: 1.) human as consumer, more so than producer; 2.) the world as a simulation; and 3.) the pursuit of hyperreality are book’s bedrock.

Built on that bedrock is a flow of topics. There are considerations of what Baudrillard’s ideas mean for art and entertainment. What is art? Is high art and low art a meaningful distinction? Baudrillard’s ideas are contrasted with various schools of thought that were active at the same time such as Marxism, psychoanalysis, and feminism. Of course, as a postmodernist, Baudrillard takes aim at the arrogance and absurdities of modernity, e.g. criticizing the prevailing notions about “primitivism.”

As the subtitle suggests, this book uses graphics. In the case of this book, they are mostly cartoon drawings, along with a few diagrams. Some of the cartoons repeat key text and definitions [like a text-box, but including whimsical cartoon images] and other depict debates between Baudrillard and his contemporaries.

I found this book was an informative outline of Baudrillard’s thinking. Baudrillard’s ideas are complicated, and thus conveying them clearly is a challenge, still I think that there were points at which the author could have favored clarity over scholarly precision in his discussions. If this were a philosophy text, that wouldn’t be valid criticism, but as this book is meant to be a basic introduction, I think it’s fair to say.

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BOOK REVIEW: Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta

Sand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the WorldSand Talk: How Indigenous Thinking Can Save the World by Tyson Yunkaporta
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book does a good job of showing that there are fundamental differences in philosophy, worldview, and perspective between indigenous / aboriginal peoples and the rest of the world. It’s fair to say that differences exist between any two different cultures, but the argument is that these are deeper and more profound. Said differences run from how one visualizes abstractions to how one views and interacts with nature to one’s go-to pronouns.

What the book does not do, not by any means, is honor its sub-titular promise to show how changing to aboriginal modes of thinking would save the world. It doesn’t even strongly demonstrate that the world needs saving. Instead, it relies heavily on the looming sentiment among many in the modern world (myself included) that the world is FUBAR [if needed, please look it up.] That sentiment is what draws people to the book in the first place. (And to others, e.g. Daniel Quinn’s “Ishmael” books, that argue for overturning modernity in favor indigenous ways.) While I, too, feel the imminent fall of modernity on a visceral level, I also recognize that this inevitable collapse is a combination of fact and fiction, and that its bases are as well. So, in some sense, Yunkaporta’s book is an exercise in preaching to the choir. Because of this, it only tweaks and clarifies the reader’s philosophy and mode of thinking (sometimes in clever and fascinating ways,) but it doesn’t vastly overturn a reader’s thinking. But even if it did completely change modes of thought and philosophies, those things don’t automatically change behavior. And saving the world (if the world needs saving) requires changes in behavior. Ultimately, one needs to know whether, how, and to what degree incentives change. (FYI – the importance of incentives is not lost on Yunkaporta, as he discusses them himself in another context.)

That said, there were many ideas that resonated with me, and in which I found deep truths. I’ll go straight to what may be the most controversial idea in the book and that is that modernity’s discomfort with – and desire to do away with — every form of [non-state sanctioned] violence has not been without cost. Yunkaporta is not justifying domestic violence (although the perception – justified or not – that such acts are out-of-control in aboriginal populations is likely an impetus for bringing up the subject.) What he seems to be arguing is that what seems like a disproportionate problem of violence in aboriginal populations derives from looking at what is happening in tribal communities through the lens of modernity, and the resultant tinge blows things out of proportion while missing part of the truth of the matter.

I’ll elaborate how I came to have a similar view through the study of martial arts. For example, when I’ve traveled to Thailand, I’ve always had mixed feelings about child Thai-boxing. On the one hand, I recognize a reason for concern about concussions in a brain that’s not fully developed. On the other hand, those children display a combination of emotional control, politeness, and self-confidence that seems in decay in much of the world. On a related note, I think that the lack of coming-of-age ritual might be failing the kids in the modern world because they skip a step that puts a bedrock of self-confidence under their feet. As a result, it’s not that they all end up milquetoast, some end up murderous because they can’t process challenging emotions effectively, they have a feeling of powerlessness gnawing at them, and they have no grasp of how to moderate their response under challenging conditions.

As far as ancillary matter is concerned, it’s mostly line-drawn diagrams that are used to show how aboriginal people depict various concepts under discussion.

I enjoyed the book and found many new ideas to consider. I’d recommend it for individuals interested in approaches to thinking and problem solving – and for those who want to learn more about indigenous populations. Just don’t think you’ll have a map to fix the world at the end.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pale Rider by Laura Spinney

Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the WorldPale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World by Laura Spinney
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Before the present-day COVID-19 pandemic, the Spanish Flu of 1918 seemed to be a largely forgotten historical footnote. It was overshadowed by its more explosive, if less lethal, co-event, World War I – the war that was fallaciously believed to hold the promise of ending all wars. Furthermore, Spanish Flu never achieved the mystique of the Black Death. In fact, among the fascinating questions this book examines is why such a world-changing event isn’t more diligently studied. Of course, these days there is a sort of grim desire to understand what happened in 1918 and what – if any – lessons can be learned.

[Which isn’t to suggest that that Influenza virus pandemic was perfectly analogous to the present Coronavirus pandemic. In 1918, science was still at a state in which there remained debate about whether the disease resulted from a bacterium or a virus, and — in some sense — it didn’t matter because they didn’t have good treatments for either. For COVID, we had accurate tests in short order, and will no doubt have a vaccine at some point in the coming months. That said, I’m not dismissive of COVID-19. As I understand it, COVID’s R-nought (reproductive ratio), and the fact that both pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission occur make the current pandemic serious business. Furthermore, while scientific understanding has increased radically, human psychology is surprisingly similar and some of the same conspiracy theories and wishful thinking that made things worse a hundred years ago may prove to do the same today.]

The strength of Spinney’s book is that it takes global perspective. It doesn’t fixate on the United States (where the 1918 Flu was first understood to its own, new disease) or Europe (where it was inexorably linked to the fighting, and got its fallacious name of “Spanish Flu.”) In addition to these locals, Spinney’s telling visits and revisits China (one of the alternative candidates for ground zero,) India (which suffered tremendous fatalities from the disease,) Brazil, and a number of other countries around the globe.

The book’s twenty-two chapters are arranged into eight parts. While these divisions are topically organized, emphasis is given to the stories being told and so said topics aren’t in one’s face but are, rather, background that is subtly presented in narrative form. Chronological consideration is tertiary. The penultimate part (Part VII) does explore the world in the wake of the Spanish Flu, but discussion of attempts to find the true index patient (a.k.a. patient zero) don’t take place until chapter 11 [Part V.] [To clarify, the acknowledged patient zero was a soldier at a US military base in the middle of America, but there are widely divergent thoughts about how long the disease might have been infecting people before that – masked either by the war or by the lack of data collection and reporting throughout the world. The only thing that is widely agreed upon is that the “Spanish Flu” didn’t originate in Spain.] I’m certainly fine with meandering on chronology in order to serve a more appealing narrative.

A lot of the subjects covered are interesting, but are what one would expect, e.g. what was it like to live in the midst of Spanish Flu. Therefore, I want to focus on a few topics that I found particularly interesting because they were illuminating, but weren’t necessarily what I anticipated. One set of topics addressed sheds light on just how different a time 1918 was. I suppose different people have different ideas about how modern the early 20th century was — relative to today. To me it was interesting to hear about church leaders calling upon people to attend services because there was an idea that the Flu was a result of god finding humanity’s “lack of faith disturbing.” [I quote Darth Vader, not this book’s author.] I’m sure there are priests and preachers saying the same these days, but I also suspect those voices are so far into the lunatic fringe as to not merit much attention, but not so in 1918 (and, thusly, many went to sit in high-density churches only to spread the flu more effectively than any virus could hope for.) Another interesting insight into the level of modernity was Spinney’s explanation of the fact that medicine, as we know it, had not yet risen to a favored spot above approaches like homeopathy and shamanism. Lest it sound like I’m engaging in the outhouse fallacy; I will say that people are falling in many of the same holes despite more advanced understanding of viruses – particularly as regards to people’s desire to impose order and purpose on a natural event.]

The other discussion that I found unexpected and revelatory was about the dearth of art and literature on the subject of the 1918 Flu. Spinney describes the effects of Spanish Flu on many major artists of the time, but goes on to discuss how few of those who survived the flu in 1918 brought it into their works. She does also discuss some of the works that did come about, as well.

I found this book fascinating from cover to cover. The fact that it covered so much ground geographically as well as topically was part of that intrigue. Learning what changes occurred in the wake of the 1918 Flu has certainly helped me consider what to expect in our future. The similarities and differences between then and now also surprised me. Just like today, there were a lot of wildly bizarre conspiracy theories from people who had to make sense of both the randomness of the Flu’s action and the fact that it put such a nasty a crimp in their lifestyle. It’s also interesting to consider some of the more intellectually stimulating theories – e.g. that part of the reason for the lethality of Spanish Flu is that in the theater of war, the virus didn’t benefit from the internal restraint usually shown (because people were dying so rapidly) and so mutations that favored a quick and harsh influence made gains. [For those who aren’t aware, it was the second wave of the Spanish Flu that was really nasty. The first wave was like seasonal flu for almost everyone, and by the third wave the virus didn’t have much of a reservoir of those without acquired immunity and so petered out relatively quickly.]

If you want to learn more about Spanish Flu, I’d highly recommend this book – particularly if you are interested in the global story and the after-effects of the disease.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es

Shakespeare's Comedies: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up this guide because I recently finished reading through a superset of Shakespearean comedies. By a superset I mean all the plays that are unambiguously classed as comedies (e.g. “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merry Wives of Winsor,” etc.,) but also the ones called “problem plays” (i.e. “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”) and some late plays that are sometimes called “romances” (e.g. “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”) Having read 18 plays [in some cases] called Shakespeare’s comedies, I had questions that I hoped the book would help to answer.

The first such question is “what’s a comedy?” I was somewhat familiar with various literary definitions, but still plays like “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and even [in ways] “The Merchant of Venice” seem a bit dark – regardless of how things worked out for the lead character in the end. I was pleased to learn that I’m not the only one befuddled by this question. It turns out there is a great deal of debate among scholars on the topic. This topic is discussed in the introduction, in an epilogue, and at various points in between. The epilogue looks at one variation on the question, which is “When did Shakespeare stop writing comedies?” The reason is that his latter plays that are classed as comedies (on folios, playbills, and by scholars) tend be much more mixtures of tragedy and comedy.

The book is organized into five chapters, each of which takes on a different characteristic of the plays. I liked this arrangement as it allowed the author to compare and contrast Shakespeare’s work with his contemporaries on crucial aspects of a play. A recurring theme throughout the book is to consider what the norm was for comedies during that period and then to look at how Shakespeare followed, bent, or blew up the rules.

Though I liked the organization, I found some of the chapters more intriguing than others. The first, entitled “World,” explores setting. One major distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and those of his peers is discussed in depth. While it was common to set comedies in urban environs, Shakespeare wrote a lot of forest scenes, and while he employed even more urban settings, van Es argues that the urban settings are forest-like in terms of expansiveness.

Chapter two examines wit in the works of Shakespeare. In doing so, it differentiates humor and wit and suggests the latter was more Shakespeare’s forte. The author also considers where Shakespeare’s wit is most clever and where it is ham-handed or even out-done by his contemporaries. One thing that I wish there was more of would have been elucidation of peculiarities of humor and wit of the day. There is some of this, and I did learn some new things. Still, when one is reading Shakespeare, no matter how much one is engaged by the story, there are references that one doesn’t know what to make of because while they must have made perfect sense in the lexicon of the time, they are meaningless (or divergently meaning) in today’s language. Some of these can readily be Googled, but not all. I have seen books that systematically explain such terms and phrases, but this one only offers a few examples.

Chapter three is about the theme of love. There is a lot that seems strange to modern sensibilities in Shakespeare’s work as pertains to love and relationships. Take “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena can have anything she wants from the King of France (who she cured of a fistula) but she insists on marrying Bertram — a man who despises her, resents her for what he views as having tricked her, thinks he is vastly better than her, and (worst of all) is not. How tricking a disgruntled jerk – Count or no – into moving back to live with one is considered a happy ending is hard to fathom. This was another area in which I was reassured to find that I’m not the only one who found some of the relationship matters bizarre.

Chapter four is about the element of time. During Shakespeare’s era it was normal for a comedy to take place over the course of a day – i.e. a short period. A couple of Shakespeare’s early comedies comply with this norm, but that is less and less the case as his works progress. “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” both see infants grow into marriageable age (granted that was like 12 in back in those days, but still) over the course of a play. [Granted, not everyone would class those works as comedies.]

Chapter five was by far the most interesting to me. It discusses the idea of characters, and it does so largely by employing E.M. Forester’s conception of flat versus round characters. Comedies of the day relied heavily – if not exclusively – on flat characters. Characters that were like caricatures, having simple motivations and little of the depth that might make them relatable or sympathetic. The author argues that Shakespeare increasingly wrote characters that were – to a person — round. Shakespeare was often able to gain comedic effect by making characters seem flat at times for which it was called. However, it’s also considered that this need for roundness might explain why Shakespeare’s late “comedic” plays are far less clearly comedic than one might expect.

The book has graphics, references, and a further reading section.

Chapter five and the epilogue really improved my view of this guide. I was not displeased with it prior to that point, but didn’t think it offered any great value-added to my understanding of the topic. However, in the end I found the book highly informative and useful. If you’re looking for a concise, no-nonsense guide to Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s worth having a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operation by Paul Marer

I Participated in Wallenberg's Rescue OperationsI Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operations by Paul Marer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inquiries about purchasing the book can be made here.

 

In 1944, the Nazis were working to eradicate the European Jews. Among the last major Jewish populations accessible to Hitler that had yet to be shipped to the death camps were those from Budapest. Among the most effective forces arrayed against the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascists) in the days before the Red Army arrived were neutral nation diplomats who issued protective documentation, offering at least a thin shield of legal protection that saved thousands of lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of such diplomats is that of the Swedish envoy, Raoul Wallenberg – not because his operation was bigger or riskier than those of the others, but because his story didn’t end with the war. Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets at the end of the Siege of Budapest for reasons that remain speculative, and he died in a Soviet prison. This book draws on the experience of Marianne Bach, a young member of Wallenberg’s team. Given the loss of Wallenberg, and the fact that the other members of his operation are now deceased, Bach’s story is an important last chance to learn more detail about what happened in Budapest during those dark days.

The book is chronologically arranged. The first two and the last three chapters discuss Marianne Bach’s life before and after, respectively, her days working as part of Wallenberg’s team. A reader might dismiss such chapters as humdrum, if necessary, background information, and starkly contrast them with the more high-octane, life-and-death, fascist-fighting core of the book. However, Marer fixes his sights on an intriguing focal point throughout these chapters, identity (and crises, thereof.) Both before and after the war, Bach was challenged by questions of identity – religious, cultural, and national identity. Living abroad, she was a foreigner, but at “home” in Hungary there’d been a great effort to eliminate her people. It was smart to focus on events and questions at the crux of identity. It makes these chapters engaging to a degree that a broad biographical sketch would be hard-pressed to achieve.

The core of the book (ch. 3 – 8) doesn’t just tell Bach’s story – in fact, it doesn’t just tell the Wallenberg story, it delves into the broader question of the fate of the Budapest Jews and all those who intervened to save whomever they could. This isn’t to say that the closeup story is absent. Readers get a detailed view of the operations that Bach was involved in and an overview of the Wallenberg story – including discussion of his fate as a secret Soviet prisoner. It’s just that those closeup stories are embedded within a broader context that includes activities like Carl Lutz’s Glass House operation, Hitler’s order to take over of Hungary before it could defect from the Axis, and the Danube executions by Arrow Cross Militiamen that followed that takeover.

This book provides a gripping examination of a disturbing time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Literary Criticism by Owen Holland

Introducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic Guide by Owen Holland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is an overview of the field of literary criticism that uses graphics (mostly cartoon drawings) to assist in conveying the information. This is one volume in a large series (Introducing Graphic Guides) that covers a range of subjects, mostly in the humanities (at least as far as the titles I’ve seen.) I picked up this book because it’s a topic I’ve developed a curiosity about, I knew almost nothing about, and it – like many titles in the series – was available to borrow via Amazon Prime.

As far as I can tell, the book covers all the major schools of criticism. Having looked around a little bit out of curiosity, I found the same headings are widespread. I do feel that the book would have benefited from being less personality-driven and more conceptually driven. By that I mean to say, it felt like the author thought his primary task was to list all of history’s most major literary critics. There’s a large number of individuals mentioned, but with little insight into how these critics engaged a piece of literature. I know that this is supposed to be a concise introduction, but I was dismayed by how little I felt I understood of the topic at the end compared to books that I’ve read of a similar nature (e.g. Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series.) In short, while I understand there’s limited space to cover a vast discipline, I don’t think the space available was used well.

I must admit that part of my confusion stems from the fact that literary criticism seems to be very different from what I thought it to be – and has been becoming increasingly so. So, I assumed that literary criticism had something to do with questions of how effectively elements such as language, narrative arc, metaphor, metrical form (or formlessness), character development, etc. are used in creating a resonance between writer and reader. [When I do reviews, these are the types of questions that inform my commentary. i.e. Is the story intriguing? Are the characters believable? Is the language skillful / beautiful? Is meaning conveyed in as approachable a manner as the subject allows (or if it’s more complicated, does that complication serve a reasonable end? etc.] To the degree these questions were ever of interest to literary critics, they seem have been replaced by another question: “Does this writing make ____________-ists feel warm and fuzzy, or mean and prickly?” [Where the “-ist” in question might be a feminist, a Marxist, or an environmentalist – just to name a few.] I may be misinterpreting what modern literary criticism is and does, but the fact that I’m doing so after having read this introductory guide supports my argument that maybe there was better use of space than having such a great number of critics cursorily mentioned – not to mention the cartoons (which seemed to serve little purpose.) The one thing the personality-driven approach does is give one plenty of examples of works to read to learn how various schools of literary criticism take on their appointed task, but I’d have rather had a clue about that from just reading the book.

I suspect that there are titles in this series that are able to use graphics to greater benefit – given their subject matter. In this work, the graphics are mostly cartoons that restate key points from the text in speech bubbles – so the art essentially fulfills the role that text-boxes do in some magazines and books, but in a more space-intensive way. If there were no graphics in this text, I don’t think I would have felt that I missed out on anything.

This book will show you how the field of literary criticism progressed and who the major players were, but doesn’t offer much insight into how critics engage with works of literature. Early in the book, this doesn’t make much difference, but — given the direction the field went in — it raises a lot of questions. There is discussion of whether art should be judged on its artistic merits or whether it rises and falls by its morality and social merit. I guess the answer the field collectively came to is the latter. [i.e. What matters is how happy or unhappy a work makes the segment of society the critic represents – I guess?] However, this makes it much more difficult to conclude how critics evaluate works. Do feminist critics dismiss all of Shakespeare as garbage because it disregards the agency of female characters in the way of that time? Do ecocritics toss “Moby Dick” in the trash because its about whaling? Or do these critics not engage with such texts because they are irrelevant to them? It would have been nice to have some insight into these questions, because it matters as to whether the field has anything worthwhile to say if you are a reader as opposed to an ideologue.

If you want a who’s who of literary criticism combined with some vocabulary building, this book has you covered. However, to see how critics engages with texts to produce criticism, you’ll probably need to go elsewhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: How To Make a Zombie by Frank Swain

How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind ControlHow to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control by Frank Swain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

The title of this book might lead you to believe that it’s either frivolous or that it’s an examination of a successful sci-fi subgenre. In fact, the book presents some serious (if disturbing, and often unsuccessful) science on two concepts that are disparate except by way of analogy of the Zombie – the brain-obsessed walking undead popularized in film and fiction. Those two ideas are: 1.) how definitive of a state is death, can people be brought back from it, and – if so – under what conditions and at what costs? 2.) is it possible to completely usurp an individual’s will, and – if so – by what means?

The book consists of seven chapters that are topically organized. The first chapter introduces the idea of Zombies, discussing early reporting on them from interested parties visiting the cane fields of the Caribbean. But it also delves into the idea of how drugs and freezing might create temporary death (or the appearance of death) from which individuals can be [partially or fully] successfully roused.

Chapter two explores the history of research about how to bring a deceased person back from the dead. Squeamish readers should be forewarned there is discussion of such things as partial dogs (i.e. the head end) being temporarily revived. The book touches on various ideas related to resuscitation. There is a discussion of one researcher’s study of katsu, techniques used in judo and jujutsu to revive an individual who has lost consciousness [or worse.] Near Death Experiences [NDE] and Out-of-Body [OoB] are also covered. These strange phenomena reported by revived individuals are too common to ignore, but — while they are often presented as evidence of an afterlife and /or the divine, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t perfectly natural phenomena. [e.g. Neuroscientists are able to induce an OoB with a carefully placed electrode.]

Chapter three shifts gears from the question of death and resuscitation to the one of mind control. While the bulk of the chapter is devoted to pharmaceutical approaches to mind control, it also examines mind control by other means – e.g. authority as an agent of mind control as seen in the famous Milgram experiments, as well as hypnosis. Most of the drug related sections deal with psychedelics (and their naturally occurring precursors.) Swain describes the CIA’s varied shenanigans with LSD in MK-Ultra, Operation Midnight Climax, and the Frank Olsen death. [Long story short, you can’t control someone’s mind with psychedelics, but you can still achieve some despicable ends.]

Chapter four continues the exploration of mind control, but focuses on more invasive approaches — from lobotomies to electro-stimulation. Of course, even as these procedures got more sophisticated, they could still only reliably make vegetables.

If you think the history of lobotomies from chapter four was as scary as it can get, I’ve got news for you. Chapters five and [particularly] six are the ones that I found both the most fascinating and by far the most terrifying. These chapters, together, uncover how mind control is achieved in the natural world by parasitic creatures. Clearly, if there is any risk of successfully taking over a human will, it will not be with doses of Acid or icepicks stuck in the brain, it will be from figuring out how some of nature’s parasitic masters of mind control do it and copying from their playbooks.

Chapter five discusses wasps and fungi that successful take over their [fortunately non-human] hosts. I wasn’t familiar with how many mind-controlling wasps there are, but I had heard of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Said fungus infects an ant, steers it up into a tree, forces it to secure itself by locking in its mandibles onto a branch, and then the fruiting body blooms out of the ant’s frickin’ scull. It’s chapter six, however, where things really get creepy. There’s an extended discussion of rabies, but the wildest part was a discussion of Toxoplasma gondi. T. gondi likes to infect cats, but if it can’t find a cat, it’ll infect a rodent and selectively (not only turn off the rat’s fear of cats but also) make the rat attracted to cats. What’s fascinating is that all of the rat’s other usual fears remain intact (bright lights, sharp noises, etc.)

The last chapter is on the various intriguing things that happen after a person dies — from cannibalism to organ harvesting. I think the most interesting discussion to me, however, was one about keeping a brain-dead accident victim alive long enough that her baby could live to term within her. (There was also an intriguing – if unnerving – case of a mother who wanted her deceased son’s sperm harvested.)

The book’s only graphics are black and white photos at the head of each chapter, but it is footnoted and has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

I found this book riveting. I learned a lot from it. The cases are presented in amusing and enthralling ways. If you are interested in the questions of what it means to be dead and how safe your free will is, this is an engrossing look at those subjects. I highly recommend it.

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