BOOK REVIEW: Zeno and the Tortoise by Nicholas Fearn

Zeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a PhilosopherZeno and the Tortoise: How to Think Like a Philosopher by Nicholas Fearn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book presents twenty-five philosophical tools or concepts fundamental to thinking philosophically. Fearn does an excellent job of making these ideas comprehensible while exploring how they can be of practical value in philosophizing (as opposed to diving into conceptual minutiae and the conflicts and debates around them.) The author uses stories, metaphors, and examples extensively, while avoiding jargon or complicated expressions and explanations.

The book is entirely Western-oriented, and one won’t see any discussion of ideas originating outside Europe (or North America by way of immigration from Europe.) That’s not uncommon for English language popular philosophy books, and I don’t think there’s anything nefarious to be read into it, though some will find it a shame. The philosophers whose ideas are addressed span from pre-Socratic Greece to Richard Dawkins (who I’m pretty sure is the only one still living.) The reader learns about reductionism, relativism, the Socratic method, analogy / allegory, teleology, thought experiments, parsimony, pragmatism (of sorts,) induction, skepticism, social contract, utilitarianism, dialectics, falsifiability, memes, deconstruction, and more.

I found this book to be readable and absorbing and would highly recommend it for anyone who would like an overview of the major ideas of Western philosophy and how they can be applied to thinking more philosophically.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

The Gothic: A Very Short IntroductionThe Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Gothicness is the perfect kind of subject for the VSI series because it’s one of those areas about which everybody knows something, and yet knows nothing, really. Goth is [or has been] a people (or some people’s perception of other people,) an architectural style, a literary / cinematic genre, a contemporary lifestyle, and a political motif. Because of this diversity, even people who have a degree of expertise on some aspect of gothicness may have little understanding of other aspects or how these varied forms of gothicness relate (if they do, and – if they don’t — why enough people believe they relate to have made this well-formed, consensus view of connectedness.)

The downside of this diversity is that this book will almost certainly be dry, verging on tedious, at some point in the reading, depending upon one’s interests. For example, I found the portions on Gothic literature and cinema to be fascinating, but the part that dealt with gothicness in Whig politics to be boring. [With the architecture bit somewhere in between.] That said, one needs to follow this throughline to see how so many varied domains came to be Goth. Also, the book is quite short, so one isn’t likely to be bored to death because there’s not enough space spent on any one topic for that to happen.

I learned a lot about what it means to be “Goth” [or “goth”] from reading this book. It covers the history in some detail, but also brings it around to present-day movies and art. If you seek to know more about what “Gothic” means, you should definitely look into this brief guide.

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BOOK REVIEW: Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law by Busshō Lahn

Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin's “Song of Zazen”Singing and Dancing Are the Voice of the Law: A Commentary on Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen” by Bussho Lahn
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 20, 2022 [In India, may be out in your area.]

This book consists of a collection of essays inspired by the poem, “Song of Zazen,” written by the 18th century Zen master, Hakuin. Hakuin’s poem is brief (about forty lines,) and the essays composed by a present-day Zen priest (Lahn) offer commentary on a stanza-by-stanza basis. The book is divided into fourteen chapters, though the final chapter isn’t a stanza commentary.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a great deal from it. The book benefits from the fact that the author is not rigidly sectarian. Therefore, the book is not doctrinaire, which warms the reader to the teachings. It’s also useful because it allowed the author to freely draw examples and quotes from a variety of sources, some of which may be more familiar or relatable to neophyte readers.

The last chapter offers a discussion of the fundamentals of zazen (seated meditation) as well as some other ancillary information that may be useful to readers new to Zen Buddhism, its practices, and its sutras. If you’re interested in Zen Buddhist meditation and philosophy, you may want to give it a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Survival by Michael Tougias

Extreme SurvivalExtreme Survival by Michael Tougias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 6, 2022

This book presents lessons from survival under intense, life-threatening turns of events. It focuses on the psychology of a survival mindset. The author has expertise in maritime survival, and a large portion of the cases explored involve survival at sea. Though the author did seek to include some variety, including concentration camps, home invasions, climbing accidents, etc. However, the maritime focus is worth noting because it’s in contrast to competing books which tend to give roughly equal discussion to a variety of different threats to survivorship.

There are three books I’ve read in recent years on extreme survival – i.e. Kamler’s “Surviving the Extremes,” Ashcroft’s “Life at the Extremes,” and Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” Of these, the book that is most similar to Tougias’s is Ripley’s. The first two books focus much more on the physiology of survival in extreme environments. However, Ripley’s book also focuses on the psychological / mindset dimension of survival, though through a more diverse set of disasters.

The maritime focus didn’t bother me for three reasons. First, I’d rather have a person with expertise focus in that area than stumble about in lesser-known fields. It allowed Tougias to focus more on the stories of those with whom he’d conducted first-hand interviews. [The author did engage in a variety of stumbling in Chapter 8 [on the sunk cost fallacy] when he discussed the sunk cost fallacy as a separate but similar situation to those survival scenarios he’d already described [which were also cases of sunk costs] – i.e. it sounded like Tougias believes the sunk cost fallacy only applies to financial costs, which isn’t how economists look at the matter.] Second, survival at sea is one of the most intense scenarios I can imagine facing (i.e. I’m not concerned about survival in space, and I feel more experienced, competent, and -thus- less viscerally responsive to survive on terra firma – e.g. high elevation, deserts, etc.) Thirdly, since the book was on mindset, it didn’t need to be as diverse as the Kamler and Ashcroft books which examined the physiology of challenges presented by varied environments.

That said, I’d give a slight edge to the Ripley book, if you could choose only one. Still, this was a solid book on the subject, and did a great job with narrative examples and explanation of lessons. My criticisms are small. For example, like many books, chapters begin with quotations, but I felt they were the wrong quotations. Opening quotes are a widespread and fine approach when the quote is one that taps into the theme of the chapter. However, often the quotes in this book were from people involved in cases that were later presented within the chapter, and so the quotes often lacked context. If the quotes were meant to be hooks, some landed better than others. (A few simply left me befuddled.) On the other hand, the author did an excellent job with summaries at the end of the chapters.

All in all, this was a well-written book on survival, and I learned a great deal from reading it. If you don’t plan on reading multiple books on the subject, you might look into others first, but it’s certainly worth reading. And it’s a topic that gets one interested in reading more.


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BOOK REVIEW: Batman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb

Batman: The Complete HushBatman: The Complete Hush by Jeph Loeb
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Over the course of this twelve-chapter story, Batman is pitted against much of his rogues’ gallery, but they’re puppets to a shadowy unknown, a secret villain: Hush. Batman has to do his best detective work, and still faces twist after turn in uncovering this enemy that knows him all too well, who knows all his pressure points. Batman has to battle Killer Croc, Poison Ivy, Harley Quinn, Joker, Scarecrow, and Clayface – and even [due to mind control] Superman and Catwoman, but nothing is as it seems. One might expect that a book this packed with enemies would face problems of pacing and poignancy, but the way the story is crafted (and the villains are effectively subordinated) it’s quite the opposite.

This was one of the smartest comics I’ve read. It’s a mystery that offers foreshadowing, but also false flags. There’s a sub-plot love story between Batman and Catwoman in which the relationship matures, but the question of whether one can ever really trust someone in that world remains ever in the background.

I thought this was one of the best comics I’ve read, and if you’re a Batman fan, it’s definitely a must-read.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Gardener’s Guide to Botany by Scott Zona

A Gardener's Guide to Botany: The biology behind the plants you love, how they grow, and what they needA Gardener’s Guide to Botany: The biology behind the plants you love, how they grow, and what they need by Scott Zona
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: December 6, 2022

This beginner’s guide to botany is well conceived and executed. The photographs are beautiful and well-chosen to help the reader understand the complexities discussed in the text. The text gets definitionally dense in places, but also presents fascinating ideas in plain English. I learned a lot from the book, particularly where it was less steeped in technical terminology and details and offered intriguing ideas and examples.

While the book’s eight chapters aren’t formally divvied up, I would place them into three groups. Chapters one and two are about what plants are and how they are organized to do what they do. Chapters three through five are about what plants need to survive (water, light, and nutrients, respectively) and why. The last three chapters explore the main activities plants engage in (i.e. defense, reproduction, and seed dispersal.)

I found this book to be informative and readable, and if you’re looking for a basic guide to botany that skillfully employs photographs, I’d have a look at this one.


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BOOK REVIEW: Ahiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok

Ahiahia the OrphanAhiahia the Orphan by Levi Illuitok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: April 11, 2023

This is a brief and action-packed graphic novelization of a traditional story of the Inuit people of Kugaaruk. That said, it’s probably too brief and action-packed for its own good. The story revolves around a man, Ahiahia, who is orphaned when members of the tribe kill his parents, and then when he comes of age the same contingent have it out for him. While one can imagine any number of internecine conflicts that could lead to the murder of his parents, the fact that we have no clue of the attackers’ motivation makes the whole thing feel gratuitous.

Ahiahia’s grandmother takes the boy in and goes to great lengths to see that he will be safe in the face of whatever familial rivalry led to his parent’s murder. Her actions blend the magical with the practical (e.g. chanting incantations over the bow and arrows she makes for him.) For me, the moral of the story can be seen in this blending. We don’t know how much of Ahiahia’s successes are due to the practical versus the magical, but one feels they worked together and that one without the other would probably not have fared as well.

At the end, there’s a scene that may be disturbing for those who have strong feelings about patriarchal subjugation of women, but it’s hard to argue that it’s not authentic.

This is a very quick read and has sufficient action to keep it engaging. However, it can also feel a bit purposeless.


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

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

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

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

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek

Rivers of Babylon (Rivers of Babylon, #1)Rivers of Babylon by Peter Pišťanek
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a Horatio Alger story (rags-to-riches) done Slovak style, which is to say it’s decidedly more edgy and gritty than the typical American version would be. The protagonist’s success is not solely the result of hard work and determination, but also a nasty temper, a capacity for brutality, and an unstudied skill for reading and manipulating people (despite a lack of education or intellectual acumen.)

Rácz (the story’s lead) returns home to his village from military service believing that he has a modest inheritance coming his way, only to discover that some members of his extended family absconded with his deceased parent’s savings. The father of Rácz’s sweetheart recommends that Rácz go to the big city [Bratislava] to earn some quick cash because the father can’t very well marry his daughter off to a destitute young farmer. Rácz does go to Bratislava and happens to sit down in a dinner next to an old man who is looking for his own replacement to run the central heating system for a block that is dominated by a high-end hotel catering to foreign visitors as well as some mostly luxury shops and businesses. It’s not a prestigious job, essentially a furnace stoker, but the pay is not bad and most people treat the stoker pretty well because they’re scared of having their heat go out in the winter – except the hotel manager, who is a bully. Rácz has his “Falling Down” moment after being tormented by the Manager, and his burst of anger — and the realization that he can control the hotel and all that’s around it by blackmailing everyone to keep the heat working — starts him down a path that will result in his rise to gangster-king status.

The book is humorous throughout, though it’s largely black humor. As for trigger warnings: the book includes acts of rape and kidnapping. Rácz does have a kind of moral compass, and one does see where his limits lie and the ethical rules he applies, but that moral compass is wildly off-kilter in comparison to most of society. I found the psychology of Rácz and other main characters (e.g. Video Urban, a character who is far more street smart than Rácz, but not as capable of brutality) to be intriguing, and the book offers a vision of what made the Soviet leader’s tick. [The era seems to straddle the fall of Communism as a shift to privatization takes place in the book’s latter half.]

If you’re interested in Slovak literature or gangster literature or both, I’d highly recommend this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Atlas of Improbable Places by Travis Elborough

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

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

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

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

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


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