BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway

The Complete Short Stories of Ernest HemingwayThe Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway by Ernest Hemingway
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Hemingway was widely regarded as a master of short fiction, and for good reason. This book collects published and previously unpublished short stories into one volume. While the collection prominently features Hemingway’s obsessions with safari, war, and (to a lesser degree) bullfighting, it actually covers a lot of ground from what might today be called flash fiction to almost novella length pieces, from grim and gritty tales of violence to quiet stories of being and everyday life, and from crime in the big city to life in rural America.

The complete collection offers all the well-anthologized pieces, such as: “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber,” “The Killers,” “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place,” “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” and “The Gambler, the Nun, and the Radio,” but it also presents some exceptional stories that may have slipped past readers. Some of my favorites include: “The Last Good Country” (about a young man and his sister on the lam from the game warden,) “The Butterfly and the Tank,” (a drunk gets a bit too merry among men of violence,) and “The Strange Country” (Hemingway’s version of “Lolita.”)

The book is arranged into three sections. The first is “The First Forty-Nine,” a collection that gathered all of Hemingway’s fiction published to that point. The second section consists of the fourteen pieces published after “The First Forty-Nine” came out. The final section is seven unpublished stories, a few of which are connected by virtue of the fact that they were meant to be part of a novel that was never completed because of Hemingway’s untimely demise.

If you enjoy short fiction, this collection is worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Animals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi

Animals in Our DaysAnimals in Our Days by Mohamed Makhzangi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: June 14, 2022

Besides being animal-themed or animal-centric to varying degrees, there are a couple of other features common to the stories in this translated collection from Egyptian author, Mohamed Makhzangi. First, it’s truly international in terms of settings. In addition to stories that take place closer to the author’s (i.e. in the Middle East,) there are tales set in Bangkok, Jaipur, Windhoek, and undefined but evocative locales that all feel based on the author’s travels. Second, the stories tend to have a dreamy, surreal quality and / or speculative elements – i.e. they aren’t strictly realist, but more magical realist. At times, stories read like Kafka (e.g. “Brass Grasshoppers”) and at other times like a fairy tale (e.g. “White Bears / Black Bears.”) Where the stories vary is with respect to theme, from war to alienation to the interconnectedness of nature.

The translation by Chip Rossetti is highly readable, and the stories are well-crafted, engaging, and often thought-provoking. I’d recommend this for all readers of short fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry

A Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen MonkA Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen Monk by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.

Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.

As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.

This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Botany of Beer by Giuseppe Caruso

The Botany of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 Plants Used in BrewingThe Botany of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 Plants Used in Brewing by Giuseppe Caruso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This is an excellent reference for those with a serious interest in beer, botany, or both of the above. For the amateur brewer, it offers insight into some new and exotic ingredients for experimental brews. For the amateur botanist, it offers greater understanding of how plants are used by mankind — in one prominent domain, at least. For the beer connoisseur, it provides examples of some brews with unusual ingredients that might just expand one’s palate. The book is well-organized, easy-to-use, and has some fine ancillary features to make it an even more valuable tool.

For each of the 500-ish plants, there’s an orderly entry. Entries are arranged alphabetically by scientific name, and the book also provides alternate names, as well as common names and variations. There are drawings that break parts of the plant out for better identification, and there are sections offering both physical and chemical textual descriptions of each plant. There are also sections listing related species and cultivars (cultivated variants.) There is a geographic section that describes, if known, the place of origin of the plant, as well as the domain the plant has expanded to, or in which it’s now cultivated. One section describes what parts of the plant are used in beermaking, another provides a list of the styles of beers the plant has been (or might be) used in, and another (where applicable) an example of a beer in which that ingredient is found. As applicable, there’s also information about plant toxicity and – in some cases – fun facts related to the plant’s use in brewing. There’s a glossary, bibliography, and common name index, as well.

I’d put the included plants into three categories: 1.) plants that are common cultivated foods somewhere on the planet (note: that doesn’t mean they will appear in grocery stores in your particular neck-of-the-woods;) 2.) trees whose wood is used in barrel-making or smoking, but aren’t ingredients, per se; and 3.) ingredients that aren’t likely to appear on your plate unless you’re a hardcore forager or a deep-dive foodie with connections to a botanist or native population.

I found this book to be a well-crafted guide to beer-relevant plants, and would recommend readers interested in beer (or – more broadly – food and beverage ingredients) give it a look.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural SciencesThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Paul Wigner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available online here

This brief essay asks why math proves so effective for describing / codifying physical laws, and whether our physical theories — built on (phenomenally successful) mathematics — offer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

There’s a popular story in which a drunk man is found on his hands and knees under a lamppost at night when a police officer comes along. The cops says, “What-cha doin’?” To which the drunk replies, “I dropped my keys, and I’m looking for them?” So, the cop says, “Well, they’re clearly not where you’re looking, why not look elsewhere?” And the drunk says, “Cuz this is where the light is.” I think this story can help us understand what Wigner is getting on about, if only we replace the drunk’s “light” with the scientist’s “elegant mathematics.” Wigner reflects upon why it should be that so many laws of nature seem to be independent from all but a few variables (which is the only way scientists could have discovered them –historically, mathematically, and realistically speaking.) On the other hand, could it be that Physics has led itself into epistemological cul-de-sacs by chasing elegant mathematics?

There’s no doubt that (for whatever the reason turns out to be) mathematics has been tremendously successful in facilitating the construction of theories that make predictions that can be tested with high levels of accuracy. However, that doesn’t mean that some of those theories won’t prove to be mirages.

A few of the examples used in this paper are somewhat esoteric and won’t be readily understood by the average (non-expert) reader. That said, Wigner puts his basic arguments and questions in reasonably clear (if academic) language. The essay is definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking insights.


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BOOK REVIEW: Sadhus by Patrick Levy

Sadhus: Going Beyond the DreadlocksSadhus: Going Beyond the Dreadlocks by Patrick Levy
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I got to the last couple chapters before I realized that this was a novel, and not a work of immersion journalism. I don’t mean to suggest that it wasn’t as compelling as I’d wish a work of fiction to be. On the contrary, it’s a fascinating look into a group of people (Sadhus / renunciants) who are little understood because they exist on the edges of society and can appear strange – if not a little scary – in their countercultural existence. The book reads like an authentic account of the Sadhu experience of a Frenchman who gives up his money and all but a few meager possessions to become a wandering ascetic under the tutelage a philosophically compatible Baba. (Until the fever dream ending instills a bit of surrealism and fourth-wall breaking.) The fact that the lead is demographically and a philosophically like the author, heightens the tendency to believe it’s nonfiction. [It’s quite possibly fictionalized autobiography to some degree, but I couldn’t say to what extent.]

Besides telling a story centered on a wandering Western ascetic in Northern India, the book does double duty in reflecting upon Hindu-Yogic-Tantric philosophy, particularly with respect to metaphysics. The lead character is neither religious nor a believer in the supernatural. Rather, he is (like many of us) in search of an almost defunct variety of a philosophy, the kind practiced by Socrates and some historic and present-day Buddhists, a variety that’s open to questioning and challenging all beliefs and assumptions as the means to better understand one’s world, a variety that recognizes the ubiquity of ignorance with respect to key questions of metaphysics. The story includes a number of Socratic method style conversations, as well as quotes from texts such as the “Avadhuta Gita” and “Ashtavakra Gita.”

I found this story to be compelling and informative, shining a light on a rarely-seen side of India.

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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Mythology Class by Arnold Arre

The Mythology Class: Where Philippine Legends Become Reality (a Graphic Novel)The Mythology Class: Where Philippine Legends Become Reality by Arnold Arre
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: August 9, 2022

Let’s call this “Breakfast Club” meets “Ghostbusters” but instead of busting ghosts this group of student-misfits is tasked with getting Filipino mythical creatures back to their home domains while saving their own city from the most villainous of the beasts. There’s a lot happening in this graphic novel — action and adventure tied to the daunting task of containing these creatures, some magical and some monstrous, but there’s also a couple love stories that play out, as well.

I enjoyed reading this graphic novel, finding it fast-paced and imaginative. The characters, both human and mythological, are distinct and face meaningful problems. It’s a story that is both lighthearted and humorous, but with the requisite tension and conflict for such a story. If you’re into mythological superhero stories, check this one out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Naked Lunch [the Restored Text] by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextNaked Lunch: The Restored Text by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This isn’t a novel so much as a series of heroin-fueled fever dreams. While that makes it sound incoherent and unreadable, there’s a great deal of visceral imagery and clever language in it. What there’s not is a thread that carries the reader through a series of events constituting a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like dystopian fiction, but that’s merely Beat-style lingo and heroin addict worldview applied to a combination of Burrough’s world and the surreal mind-space of the addict on a fix.

As is also true of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” if you’re a reader who needs a coherent story and the avoidance of experimental language, you probably won’t like this book. Furthermore, readers who’re uncomfortable with pornographic imagery will also find the book objectionable. However, if you enjoy books that are prose poem-like in their use of language and if you don’t mind the disjointed strangeness necessary to convey the addict’s mental experience, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book. It’s worth recognizing that what makes the book a challenging read is simultaneously what makes it such a masterpiece of the drug-addled experience. If it were more lucid, it’d be tepid and purposeless.

This is the restored text edition. This is one of the few cases in which I’d recommend reading all the backmatter. It includes some “outtakes” from the earliest drafts, but (more usefully) some essays by Burroughs that offer important insights. When one finishes this book, there’s a tendency to think, “What was that? What did I just read?” The appendices help one understand the book better. Here we read Burrough’s claim that he had no recollection of composing the original draft, and a later statement in which he clarifies that his earlier statement was an exaggeration – that he did have some memories of it.

I found this book to be an engrossing read. As I say, while it’s bizarre, outlandish, and frequently pornographic, it also lends insight into a state of mind that most of us – fortunately – will never experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ashtavakra Gita Trans. by Bart Marshall

Ashtavakra Gita: (bootleg version)Ashtavakra Gita: by Bart Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There are many translations of this Hindu classic of Advaita Vedanda, a non-dualist school that teaches the oneness of all things and the illusory nature of the universe that we think we know. “The Song of Ashtavakra” explores self-realization and the path to liberation (i.e. Moksha.) [Ashtavakra was a sage with birth defects from which the name “8 angles” derives. Yoga practitioners will know the name from an arm balance pose that involves balancing the kinked body on bent arms in a manner that was apparently reminiscent of the look of this sage’s body.]

The translation that I read, one by Bart Marshall, is clearly written in readily understandable language. It’s presented as a series of short-form poems arranged into twenty chapters that also form a dialogue between Ashtavakra and Janaka. This version doesn’t contain commentary and analysis as some translations do. Because it’s both highly readable and inexpensively acquired, I’d recommend one give it a chance. If you later decide you’d benefit from commentary, you’ll not be at a loss by having read this version first.

As is common enough in such tracts, the book can be repetitive as it reiterates ideas like the need to avoid desire and aversion and the nature of oneness. That said, there were some quite powerful statements that genuinely expanded on the ideas of the work. (e.g. 18.100: “One of tranquil mind // seeks neither crowds nor wilderness. // He is the same wherever he goes.” Or 3.12 “Why should a person of steady mind, who sees the nothingness of objects, prefer one thing over another?”)

If you’re a student of philosophy or of yoga as a philosophy, I think this is well worth a thoughtful read.


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