BOOK REVIEW: Socrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor

Socrates: A Very Short IntroductionSocrates: A Very Short Introduction by C.C.W. Taylor
My rating: 5 of 5 Stars

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In Plato’s Socratic dialogues, Socrates is forever challenging sophists and others who propose to know what virtues are while they are demonstrably unable to define or delineate them. I wonder how he would have felt about being one of the foremost examples of a person that people firmly believe they know, when there is good reason to believe that much of what we know is false. Socrates is described in comedic plays like Clouds by Aristophanes, but those descriptions are written for comedic effect. There is a large body of works by Plato describing Socrates’ philosophical jousts, but it seems clear that some of these writings reflect Plato’s views which may or may not have been shared by Socrates. There are a few matters of official records, and numerous isolated mentions from people who either loved or loathed Socrates (loving and loathing not being states conducive to accurate reporting.)

This book attempts to concisely review what is known about Socrates and his philosophy, what is myth, and what can, at best, be regarded as the features of a fictional Socrates. The book starts with a chapter on Socrates’ life and what is widely believed true about his biography. Then the book outlines the body of writings that discuss and describe Socrates, particularly those of Plato, Xenophon, and Aristotle. Next there is a chapter that explores the philosophy Plato’s Socrates, a fictional construct partially based on the man and partly shaped by his student’s views. The last two chapters discuss the legacy of Socrates (real and mythical) in philosophy and culture.

There is a Further Reading section at the end to give the reader some sources to continue their investigations. I found this to be a fine overview, well-organized, and readable. It will be more useful to those who read Plato, and relevant works of Xenophon.

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BOOK REVIEW: Jesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham

Jesus: A Very Short IntroductionJesus: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Bauckham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book explores the life of Jesus, the historical context of that life, his approach to teaching, the nature of his identity, the story of his death, and concludes with the origins of Christianity. The book rests on a couple of controversial ideas, the most influential of which is that the four gospels of the New Testament are valid historical sources and that they’re more useful than competing sources (e.g. the Gnostic Gospels.) Rather than asking the reader to take this as a given, Bauckham does present his argument in the second chapter.

I found this book to be intriguing and worth reading – surprisingly, once I realized it was written by a theologian, and not a Religious Studies scholar or historian. (Theologians have skin in the game of religious teachings, whereas Religious Studies scholars and historians are expected to be more objective with regards to religious claims.) It’s telling that I didn’t realize Bauckham was a theologian right away; he does generally present the material with the dispassionate objectivity of a scholar. However, eventually, he slips into the proclivities of a theologian, such as the stance that in the absence of strong evidence either way one might as well accept the truth of religious teachings. Also, he gives Jesus a free ride on shady behavior (as when Jesus compares a Gentile to a dog – which Bauckham calls “almost rudely negative” before rationalizing away said negativity.)

For me, the discussion of Jesus’s teaching style (Ch.5) was the book’s strongpoint. That chapter shows the reader how Jesus became such a big deal. Believer or not, one will come away impressed with Jesus as a teacher.

If one is looking for a book that considers the gamut of views about Jesus, this isn’t the book you’re looking for – e.g. Chapter 6 on Jesus’s identity doesn’t give time to the view that he was just a smooth-talking preacher whose followers likely absconded with his body – let alone that he was a fiction. That said, there is a great deal of interest in the book, and I found it well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Kafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson

Kafka: A Very Short IntroductionKafka: A Very Short Introduction by Ritchie Robertson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Kafka’s life story presents us with one of the greatest literary counterfactuals: What if Kafka’s friend, Max Brod, had honored the writer’s deathbed wish to burn his novels and other unpublished works? After all, Kafka had an outsized influence on modern literature; “The Trial” and “The Metamorphosis” alone have had profound reverberations across the world of literature. It’s with this hook that we are pulled into Kafka’s short, tragic, but brilliant life.

This book presents sketches of both the life and the body of work of Kafka, but subsequent chapters apply three different lenses to Kafka’s canon. The first of these is the body. It’s easy to see this theme’s influence in “The Metamorphosis” (in which the protagonist wakes up to find he’s a huge bug,) but Robertson shows us how the body cuts through other works and was influenced by skinny Kafka’s turbulent relations with his imposing father as well as by his difficulties in intimate relationships.

The second lens is institutions. Again, one of Kafka’s more famous works springs to mind, “The Trial,” but we also see that this, too, is a recurring theme — not only with respect to government / bureaucratic institutions (e.g. “In the Penal Colony”) but otherwise, as well. The final lens is religion and secularity. Kafka was living in the wake of Nietzsche and other nihilist and existentialists, and the atheist worldview was coming to dominate among the erudite segment of society. But Kafka straddled a line; the spiritual had appeal for him, but his life felt governed by nihilistic patterns.

I learned a great deal from this book. I think it offers important insight into Kafka and his writings.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear

Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers concise answers to some of the key questions that circle about the life of Jesus and the religion spawned by his existence. It tells the reader what is known about the life of Jesus, providing insight into what life events are well supported and which are only described in accounts written long after the fact (e.g. the gospels.) It describes which factions believed Jesus was a god and which didn’t. It describes opposing views of what Jesus was (i.e. if he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill human being, was he wearing a human suit or was he some sort of divine hologram.) A lot of the book is more about Christianity than Jesus, proper, exploring how the religion came into existence, how it changed, why it became schismatic, and how it was influenced by other domains of human activity (e.g. governance and philosophy.)

As the subtitle suggest, the book uses graphics throughout – primarily drawings and monochrome artworks depicting Jesus, events from his life, and other characters in his story (e.g. apostles, disciples, and such.) Besides graphics, the only ancillary matter is a “Further Reading” section that discusses Bible versions and scholarly works on Christianity and the life of Jesus.

I found this book to be concise, interesting, and informative. If you’re looking for an outline of Jesus’s life that offers insight into the evolution of Christianity from a non-theological point of view (i.e. having no dog in the fight of whether Jesus was a god) you may want to give this guide a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide by David Norris

Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Joyce: A Graphic Guide by David Norris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This guide provides a concise overview of the life and work of James Joyce. I’ve now read a few of the titles in this series (they are available on Amazon Prime,) and this has been my favorite so far. To be fair, this might have to do with the nature of the subject matter (most of the volumes I’ve read previously were about more complex philosophical subject matter, topics about which it’s harder to write clearly and concisely, while still meaningfully. Which is not to say Joyce’s work can’t be daunting.)

Like the other books in the series, this one is arranged into short (1-2 page) sections (about 70 of them) that each address a particular topic. There is a general chronological flow, though some of the sections deal more with the great novelist as a person, others focus more on his books, and still others talk about influences – both those who influenced him and how he influenced others. As the subtitle suggests, there are graphics throughout. Most of these are black and white drawings in a cartoon style that serve to reiterate or dramatize key points. There is one quite useful table that maps Joyce’s “Ulysses” to Homer’s “The Odyssey,” which influenced it.

Which brings us to the value of a book like this when trying to understand Joyce’s work. Having been reading “Ulysses” of late, I’m interested in gaining more depth of insight into the man’s work. Joyce’s language is beautiful, but for me it’s been a bit more like reading poetry than prose. Story is dialed down to virtual non-existence. Referring back to the aforementioned table that describes how “Ulysses” and “The Odyssey” relate offers a great example. When one sees the title “Ulysses,” one immediately thinks of Homer’s epic poem, but a straight-forward reading of each work leaves one wondering how two books could be more different. “The Odyssey” is the harrowing tale of Odysseus’s (a.k.a. Ulysses’s) ten-year return journey after the Trojan War, it features monsters, ship wrecks, cunning lovers, a visit to the underworld, a rampaging slaughter, etc. “Ulysses” is the story of a couple guys (mostly Leopold Bloom, but also Steven Daedalus) who go about their seemingly mundane daily lives in Dublin, Ireland. There are no monsters, witches, duels to the death, and – arguably — the big excitement is the attendance of the funeral of an unknown character. However, Norris offers the reader insights into how the two works can be seen as linked.

There are similar breakdowns of other major works (i.e. “Dubliners,” and “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”) Special focus is given to the unique ways in which these works are arranged and the philosophy and psychology that inform them.

In addition to the aforementioned graphics, there is a “Further Reading” section at the end to point readers to works that will help them to further flesh out their understanding of this curious author and his notoriously challenging works.

If you’re interested in decoding Joyce, I’d recommend you check out this brief guide.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Portrait in Poems by Evie Robillard

A Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B ToklasA Portrait in Poems: The Storied Life of Gertrude Stein and Alice B Toklas by Evie Robillard
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available March 3, 2020

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This work provides a biographical sketch of Gertrude Stein, her partner Alice Toklas, and their life together in Paris. The vehicle is free verse poetry, although it reads more like a children’s book than poetry. That may sound as though I intended it as a burn, but that’s not the case. The marketing materials for this book present it as a child-friendly picture book, if not entirely marketed in the children’s literature market. What I mean to say is that the writing is simple, literal, and isn’t filled with complex metaphor or cryptic description that one might expect in adult works of poetry.

The book is illustrated in a child-centric manner as well, with whimsical, unintimidating, and colorful art.

I didn’t know much about Stein, and had only heard the title of the book, “The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas” in which much of this book’s source material presumably resides, and so this was a nice background, without getting too deep in the weeds.

If you’re a Stein fan and are interested in introducing a kid to her biography, or if you have your own limited but adult interest in her life, this is quick read to get you up to speed.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Song for China by Ange Zhang

A Song for ChinaA Song for China by Ange Zhang
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page [Available September 3, 2019]

 

This short biography (under 100 pages) tells the story of the man who wrote the “Yellow River Cantata.” The subject, Guang Weiran, lived through interesting times during the early and middle 20th century when China experienced civil war, Japanese invasion, and post-revolutionary turmoil. Guang Weiran was heavily involved in the arts as a poet and leader in the arts community, but he was also a militant leader during the fight against the Japanese. The author, the subject’s son, wisely sticks to the more intriguing times of Guang Weiran’s life – particularly through his writing of the poem that would become song lyrics – and doesn’t get lost in the mundane.

Besides the short biography, the book also includes a great deal of art as well as a copy of the poem that served as the lyrics for the “Yellow River Cantata” in both English and Mandarin script. There are photos of the subject during some key life events, but the most common graphics are woodblock prints in which red is the only color displayed, which makes for an eye-popping visual effect. There are also some yellow-toned paintings interspersed with the poem / lyrics.

I found this little book to be interesting, and I enjoyed the art as well. If you’re interested in 20th century Chinese history, you might find the book worth a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell And The ButterflyThe Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If it had been written under ordinary circumstances, this would be a fine book. It offers some beautiful imagery and language, and – more importantly — is heartfelt, touching, and nakedly honest. But it wasn’t written under ordinary circumstances, which makes it an astounding book. Its author suffered a severe stroke that, after leaving him in a coma for a time, resulted in a condition called “Locked-In Syndrome,” which resulted in his inability to move any part of his body save his left eyelid. It was by moving this eyelid that he painstakingly dictated the book. As one might suspect, the book is concise and sparse in tone, but it read like that could have been a stylistic choice, rather than a necessity.

The title becomes less nebulous once you know it’s about a man with Locked-In Syndrome. The diving-bell represents his body, a clunky cumbersome entity that limited his perception to narrow slices of the world. The butterfly is his mind, which remained free to go anywhere and create anything he could imagine. Some of what I found most fascinating about the book was the author’s discussion of the mental world he created. Though the book deals even more extensively with how the condition changed his interaction with people. Loneliness is a central theme. Because of the severity of the condition, he is restricted to a special facility and can only see his children on weekends. While his children are the most important to him, he also reflects back to people that he worked with in his role as a magazine editor or who he counted as friends.

The organization is not strictly chronological, and I felt this was beneficial. By presenting flashbacks to before he was injured and, eventually, to when he had his stroke, he broke up the tragedy to keep it from becoming overwhelming.

I found the book to be extremely powerful. I would highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North KoreaA River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tragic memoir tells the story of a man of mixed Japanese – Korean heritage who was, as a boy, moved to North Korea under a “repatriation” program that was designed to provide North Korea with laborers while conveniently reducing a minority problem for the Japanese. During the Second World War, Japan had imported labor from Korea for the war effort. As it happens, Ishikawa’s father was from South Korea, but – in the wake of the Korean War — it was North Korea that was looking for rank-and-file laborers.

The author’s father was eager to get out of Japan because he was treated as minorities frequently are – especially ones as rough around the edges as he, and so he swallowed the propaganda of Kim Il Sung’s regime hook-line-and-sinker. The author’s mother (and the author, himself) didn’t want to leave Japan because she didn’t speak the language and was ethnically Japanese (putting her in the minority shoes.) Little could any of them have known how bad life in North Korea would be, and how dire a mistake it was to agree to the move.

Life in North Korea was hard on everybody (except the party elite), but it was particularly hard on this family because: a.) they were discriminated against and could only attain the lowest-of-the-low in farm sector jobs; b.) they were accustomed to life in Japan and so they knew exactly how backwards North Korea was compared to its neighbors; and, c.) the wife’s family in Japan disowned them, and so even when other transplanted families began to be able to receive wealth from their kin in Japan, their family was cut off (but assumed by neighbors to be receiving packages.) From constantly having to game the system to get enough calories to survive to a series of tragic events that were largely tied to the country’s impoverished nature (e.g. inadequate healthcare,) the book features one soul-wrenching turn of events after the next.

Ishikawa grew to manhood in North Korea, married twice, and had children, but when the famine struck in the 1990’s he fled the country into China across the Yalu River, leaving his family behind. The book’s last chapter deals with Ishikawa’s challenges living in an expensive first world country – Japan – while trying to get his family back. It’s difficult to know whether Ishikawa ever serious could have thought he could get his family out once he was gone. Certainly, he proposes that he did think that, and he spoke to Japanese diplomats (who felt horrible about what had come of people like him) about it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how he could have thought so, being familiar with how the Kim dynasty operated. Still, one may have to grant a man his delusions when he makes such a hard decision while he is literally starving to death. Ishikawa was able to discover what happened to at least some of his family members, and that information is in an epilogue.

I found this book gripping and fascinating. It’s depressing reading throughout, there’s no getting around that, but it gives insight into how people live in the villages of North Korea that is not so extensively described elsewhere – not to mention what it’s like to be a member of a minority group, labeled a “hostile” and essentially relegated to a low-caste life. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. It’s one the best books of 2018 that I’ve read this year.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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