BOOK REVIEW: Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Indian Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionIndian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

A concise guide to Indian Philosophy is a tall order. Over millennia, the discipline has had time to swell. This necessitated some careful pruning and selection on the part of the author. While the book does present key distinctions between all six of the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy (i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta,) the only one of the heterodox schools that it substantially addresses is that of Buddhism. (There are three major heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy by most accounts – Caravaka, Buddhist, and Jain, though some also include Ajivika and Ajnana to make five.)

This book focuses on the most novel ideas of each of philosophical schools under study, and it particularly focuses on points of debate where there is disagreement within or between schools. The book, therefore, moves metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, but doesn’t explore all major philosophical questions for all the schools.

If you’re looking for a book that sums up the key points of debate between and within major schools of Indian philosophy, this is a great book. It does the job quite well and with a minimal page count. If you need a book that offers insight into more than the major points of contention, but extends into a given school’s stance on some of the less provocative questions, I’d recommend Chatterjee and Datta’s “An Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (it’s much longer and denser, but dives deeper and farms wider.)

I like how this book was organized and thought it did a good job of being both concise and clear (a duo that doesn’t play well together with regards complex philosophical subjects.)

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Proust & the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Time to get meta, and do some reading about reading. Wolf’s book explores the neuroscience of reading, the evolution of writing systems, and what keeps some children from learning to read as rapidly as most. If you’re wonder about the seemingly arcane title, Proust’s essay “On Reading” planted a seed of thought that would become this book. The squid bit reflects the aquatic creature’s famous neurological adaptability, which is also witnessed in the learning human brain. Reading as both a mystic experience and as the unanticipated consequence of an extremely plastic brain are among the book’s recurring themes.

Another recurring idea is that reading has a cost. This view was famously expressed by Socrates, who believed reading would contribute to diminished memory, intellectual laziness, and other problems. Wolf reflects upon Socrates’ criticisms, but also draws a parallel between Socrates’ ideas on the subject and the present-day argument that the internet / social media is driving us inexorably and inevitably toward an “Idiocracy” type world.

The parts of the book that deal with the neuroscience of reading do get a bit complicated. It would be hard for them not to as reading is a complex task unfolding within the most complex system that we know of. However, wouldn’t say that this book is any more dense or incomprehensible than most pop neuroscience books – especially as it’s mixed in with less challenging material.

My understanding of dyslexia (Ch. 7 & 8) grew considerably while reading this book. I learned that it isn’t a unitary affliction, but can come about at any of a number of cognitive tasks that have to transpire during reading.

If you’re interested in how humanity learned to read, the benefits and costs of this capacity, and what dyslexia really is, this book is definitely worth reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Avadhūta Gītā by Dattātreya

The Avadhuta Gita - Song of the AsceticThe Avadhuta Gita – Song of the Ascetic by Dattātreya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Free Online: Sankaracharya.com

An Avadhūta is a mystic who’s transcended a dualistic view of the world, avoiding distinctions between self and everything else. Often, these sages are compared to those of various spiritual traditions who display divine madness, theia mania, crazy wisdom, or whatever one wishes to call it (e.g. the Nyönpa of Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism, or sages such as Ikkyu [Zen] or Saint Simeon [Christian.]) That’s because said individuals may behave in ways that seem strange because the conventions of society often doesn’t make sense in the context of the Avadhūta’s worldview.

“Avadhūta Gītā” translates to “Song of the Free Soul,” and it consists of eight chapters of poetry that read like sutras or epigrams (concisely stated bits of wisdom.) The poem can feel a bit redundant as it repeatedly hammers home the experience of a world free of duality and distinction, singing the virtues of oneness in oh so many ways. That said, other valuable lessons are eloquently conveyed throughout. For example, chapter two explains why one shouldn’t worry on the bona fides of one’s teacher, but rather take from him or her what is of use and not worry if a teacher doesn’t know everything. It makes the apt comparison that one doesn’t need a freshly-painted and ornately-trimmed boat to cross the river, anything with essential boat-like qualities will do.

There are many English translations of this poem. I compared two, and they read quite differently but conveyed the same gist. I’m not qualified to speak to how either compared to the original Sanskrit, but I didn’t feel either translation greatly outpaced the other in terms of conveying ideas (though one was more eloquently composed [though arguably with less clarity.])

If you’re interested in Yogic and Indian philosophy, I’d recommend giving this poem a read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Power Born of Dreams by Mohammad Sabaaneh

Power Born of Dreams: My Story is PalestinePower Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine by Mohammad Sabaaneh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: October 7, 2021

This graphic novel reflects upon the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of the author’s (artist’s) time in prison. At first, I found the story to be an evocative personal account of life in prison, but as the story continued it felt progressively less personal and more propagandistic. The central theme is that Palestinians feel imprisoned by circumstance, regardless of whether they are actually in a jail or not.

Still, it’s not the kind of work that will constructively advance a dialogue. It will rub those who sympathize with Israel the wrong way because it’s far from an unbiased account of events, vilifying the Israelis while glorifying (or failing to acknowledge) the Palestinians who engage in violence. This bias is particularly notable in the back matter, which presents accounts that seem journalistic, but which selectively present information to make it appear that all fault lies exclusively on one side.

To be fair, the author spent time in jail for (as best I could learn from the internet) what sounded like consorting with unsavory characters. [Which reeks of Soviet-style “justice,” but the book doesn’t really delve into the reason for his imprisonment, and – even if it did – I’m not sure that I’d trust that it’s the complete truth – given the way the general narrative is presented. So, I couldn’t tell you whether the author is an artist wrongly imprisoned for expressing himself, or whether he did something that was truly and legitimately seditious.]

The art is linocut to create a chiaroscuro effect (i.e. white lines, black background) and is stylistically interesting.

I enjoyed the art and found this to be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t recommend readers take it at face value as a fair account of the conflict, but rather as one man’s personal message about the conflict.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz

Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your MicrobiomeFiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome by Will Bulsiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book advocates a high-fiber (i.e. plant-based) approach to eating. The book pairs a pop-sci dimension (explaining the science of why more fiber and plant-based foods would benefit most readers,) with a self-help dimension that supplies readers with a program by which they can pursue such a diet.

The book explains how the body’s microbiome breaks down fiber, producing Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs,) and discusses all the great things these molecules do for us. Speaking of the body’s microbiome, the book discusses how to keep it operating at its best, explaining all you need to know about prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. It also explores the benefits of fermented foods, and the pros and cons of a range of other foods.

I liked that the book, by-and-large, takes both a scientific / pragmatic approach. For example, Bulsiewicz rejects the hype that everyone needs to abandon gluten (not just those with Celiac Disease.) I can’t say that the book is perfectly scientifically-objective. It does advocate that everyone quit dairy products. The author does present some of the evidence of benefits of dairy, but dismisses these as studies that must be supported by the dairy industry. [While I’m sure the dairy industry does fund studies, I doubt that they have a lock on the scholarly debate, i.e. sending out milk-goons to break the knee-caps of researchers.]

I didn’t find the dietary plan (Ch. 10) to be useful. While I eat a high-fiber / plant-dominant diet, I don’t take the extreme position that all non-plant food must be eliminated. That stance makes some of the recipes impractical. One needs a neighborhood Whole Foods to get some of the ingredients.

That said, the book offers a great explanation of why one should eat more foods that feed one’s microbiome, and it’s an excellent resource for those wishing to learning more.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on PurposeHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: September 14, 2021

Humans devote a lot of effort to avoiding unpleasant sensations. I’ve even heard people philosophize that all human activity is about moving toward pleasure or away from pain, but this claim fails on two grounds. First, people don’t invariably flee from pain, sometimes they run into its arms. Second, the dichotomization of pleasure and pain, categorizing them as opposites, also fails for a wide variety of human endeavors.

This book reflects upon a diverse set of cases in which the pleasure-pain dichotomy breaks down, attempting to glimpse why this is the case. Cowart investigates pepper-eating contests, ultramarathons, Polar Bear Club mid-winter dips, flagellation by religious adherents, and sexual sadomasochism. One thing these diverse activities have in common is that individuals voluntarily and purposefully subject themselves to intensely painful sensations. Throughout the book, the author is forthright about the varied ways that she has been attracted to pain, including: ballet dancing, an eating disorder, and sexual masochism.

This book takes a story-centric approach. As the subtitle suggests, it does present scientific findings, but this information is tucked in amid the stories – both her own confessional tales and the stories of the masochists (broadly speaking, i.e. not referring only to sexual pain-seekers) she meets during her research trips.

As a student of both martial arts and yoga, I found that the changing of one’s perception of, and relationship to, sensation is one of the most profound and empowering aspects of these practices. I, therefore, was curious what brought people to the purposeful pursuit of pain and what benefits others found. Not surprisingly, there isn’t just one reason for all cases, and Cowart discusses neurochemical, social, and psychological reasons. If you’re curious about why people engage in pain purposefully and voluntarily, this book is a must-read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham

Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short IntroductionCognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book provides a brief overview of cognitive neuroscience, a discipline that has really only been around for the past few decades, one that uses technologies allowing scientists to see what parts of the brain are active during a given mental activity. The reader learns what parts of the brain are involved in the various activities of being human from perception through action, and what can go wrong with these processes. While that sounds simple and straightforward, the immense complexity of the brain makes it anything but, and there is a lot of medical jargon and qualifying statements to explain how a given relationship between brain location and activity isn’t as simple or well understood as we are frequently led to believe. [Any plain and direct explanation of the brain workings is likely to be at best partial truth, and more likely outright deceptive.]

I found the organization of this book to be logical and conducive to learning about this complex and technical topic. The first chapter, “A Recent Field,” describes what cognitive neuroscience is and where it fits in among the various sciences that deal with mental activity including, psychology, psychiatry, etc. This gives one an idea of both how cognitive neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of mental activity, but also where its limitations lie and why it has not displaced all the other disciplines.

Chapters two through eight make up the core of the book and present an exploration of the various aspects of mental activity and what has been learned about them through studies in this field. The progression is logical and elementary: perception (Ch. 2,) attention (Ch. 3,) memory (Ch. 4,) reasoning (Ch. 5,) decision (Ch. 6,) confirmation / checking (Ch. 7,) and finally action (Ch. 8.) In each chapter practical questions are discussed, questions that will be of interest to readers whose goal is not vocabular expansion, in addition to the discussion of what brain region is involved with what activity. What kinds of questions? How amputees “feel” pain from the missing part of the body? Why humans suck at multitasking, and under what circumstances they can do better at it? How come people who have amnesia remember how to talk and engage in physical activities? Is there free will, and – if so – in what sense? Do we think in language? Etc.

The last chapter reflects upon the future of the discipline. Over the course of the book, the reader learns the limitations of what functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans can tell one about what is happening with the brain, and in this chapter one is introduced to the next generation of technologies that may take our level of understanding to another level.

This book has an excellent feature that I don’t recall seeing in other AVSI books. (That is probably, in part, because many of them don’t need it like this one because their subject matter is more readily grasped.) Said feature is a text box at the beginning of the chapter that asks some relatively rudimentary and practical questions, and then – at the end of the chapter – those questions are answered in another box. I think the author recognized that there was a high degree of risk of losing readers if the entire book was, “and when you do decide how many minutes to microwave your Hot Pocket, the temporo-parietal junction works in conjunction with the …” [not an actual quote fragment] he would produce book of limited benefit. [i.e. it would be too technical for the neophyte reader who just wants some practical insight (the AVSI target demographic,) but not technical enough for students of brain anatomy.] These text boxes help keep the reader focused on what is being conveyed while not getting too caught up in arcane terminology.

Other ancillary matter includes graphics (photographs of technology and readouts and diagrams showing where brain areas are located,) references, and a further reading section.

I found this book to have some intriguing discussions on interesting topics. That said, those discussions are interlaced with some necessarily complicated and dense subject matter (that’s the nature of the discipline.) That said, I think the author recognized his challenge and the question boxes and answer boxes that bookended the core chapters were very useful in offering focus for a non-expert reader. It you want a bare-bones overview of cognitive neuroscience, it’s worth reading this slim volume.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Drawing is for Everyone by Kateri Ewing

Drawing Is for Everyone: Simple Lessons to Make Your Creative Practice a Daily Habit - Explore Infinite Creative Possibilities in Graphite, Colored Pencil, and InkDrawing Is for Everyone: Simple Lessons to Make Your Creative Practice a Daily Habit – Explore Infinite Creative Possibilities in Graphite, Colored Pencil, and Ink by Kateri Ewing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: July 20, 2021

True to its title, this book presents an excellent set of lessons for rank amateurs to develop drawing techniques in a way that helps keep their inner critic from being their undoing. It does this by using mostly abstract and still life subjects as a means to convey the technique, such that the early lessons in each section aren’t expected to look like anything recognizable, and there is not the disappointment of off-kilter drawings. [There are some little birdy drawings in the higher numbered lessons, but nothing particularly complicated.]

The book consists 21 lessons evenly divided between three parts: graphite pencil, colored pencil, and ink. Each lesson gives some background information, presents the list of needed supplies, provides step-by-step textual instructions matched with a series of drawings to graphically demonstrate said step, and a section with creative options that show what some of the author’s students produced with the same exercise. This is also a nice feature for those with an intense inner critic, a tendency to compulsively copycat, and / or a conviction that they aren’t capable of drawing. It does this by presenting numerous different ways a project could turn out – all attractive but all very different.

Besides the lessons, there’s a brief introduction to set up the project. And, in addition to the aforementioned drawings, there are numerous graphics, such as photographs of still life subjects and supplies.

I thought this book was smartly arranged and organized. It’s a small book, but presents the dabbler with all they need to start building their skills, plus it’s beautifully presented. If you’re a neophyte looking to get into drawing but worried that you have not talent for it, this is an excellent place to start.

View all my reviews