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 Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermitThe Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermit by Michael Finkel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book delves into the fascinating case of Christopher Knight, a man who lived twenty-seven years in central Maine without human contact. Knight survived by stealing food and other supplies from cabins and other unoccupied buildings in the area. By his own admission, Knight conducted about forty burglaries per year for the more than a quarter of a century he lived in solitude. In addition to providing a biography of Knight, his hermit years as well as his capture, his trial, and his challenging reentry into society, the book discusses the psychology and philosophy of reclusive living in some detail.

This book was riveting to me, in part because I’m pretty deep into introverted territory and I recognize some of Knight’s personality traits in myself, and even I can’t fathom how he managed that degree of solitary living over so many years. What seems to be most difficult for people to comprehend was how he lived with only a tent-like shelter through the Maine winters, sometimes below zero Fahrenheit, while never building a campfire. (He did have a propane stove, but wouldn’t build a fire for fear that it would bring the authorities right to him.) That is astounding, but what I find even more amazing is the psychology, how Knight maintained sanity with that degree of self-imposed isolation, prisoners in solitary confinement have gone stark-raving mad with shorter and less intensely solitary stints.

Another issue that makes Knight’s story so compelling is that in so many ways he wasn’t your typical hermit. While he seems to have been uniquely wired to thrive on solitude and had the intelligence necessary to problem solve his survival, he wasn’t a spiritual seeker; he wasn’t particularly a minimalist (he accumulated lots of stuff;) and he did listen to the radio, as well as listening to television shows over his radio. While he went to great lengths to ensure he didn’t come into contact with people and that his camp wasn’t found, it’s interesting that he did stay fairly close to people [granted that might have been entirely owing to the need to steal from them, but one has to wonder if proximity didn’t have other causes as well.] Knight is an engaging character, it’s hard not to have some respect – begrudging or otherwise — for his ingenuity and unique capacity for extreme solitude, but he’s also a felon whose burglaries disturbed a lot of people’s lives.

This is one of the most captivating books I’ve read in some time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Chimpanzee Whisperer by Stany Nyandwi w/ David Blissett

I Am Stany: The Life and Loves of a Chimpanzee WhispererI Am Stany: The Life and Loves of a Chimpanzee Whisperer by Stany Nyandwi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: February 22, 2022

These are the memoirs of a man who made a career from his ability to read and interact with chimpanzees. However, lest one expect a Gerald Durrell-style book filled with amusing animal anecdotes and witty lessons on how to build a zoo, one should note that Stany Nyandwi faced poverty and many a tragedy in his life that make this animal-interest book also a human-interest story from cover to cover. [Note: There are many chimpanzee stories and insights into how sanctuaries and reserves are run, but they are interspersed with visceral tales of calamity and sorrow.]

The book tells of Stany’s youth in Burundi, a country that would fall into a vicious civil war as he came of age and then got the first job that might pull him out of brutal poverty (into regular poverty,) working as a laborer at a chimpanzee sanctuary. It wasn’t long before the sanctuary had to be shut down because of the dangers of the war between Tutsis and Hutus. Because his work ethic and talent with chimps had begun to show, he was offered jobs first in Kenya and then in Uganda. Traveling with the sanctuary chimps would separate him from his family (a wife and children, not to mention his parents and siblings) during the worst years of the war, leading him down a self-destructive path for a time, but then things seem to improve. Always when one thinks his life is settling into a healthy stability, there’s a spanner into the works. Yet, the author keeps finding the bright side, and being saved by that positivity and his gift for working with chimpanzees, a gift which makes him a man in demand despite his lack of education or resources.

This book is an emotional roller-coaster ride, but throughout we are saved by the author’s indefatigable positivity and humanity – perhaps, the traits that allowed him to get along so well with the chimpanzees. I’d highly recommend it for all readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: Born a Crime by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African ChildhoodBorn a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As a rule, I don’t read books by celebrities. This is the first one I can remember reading. My reasoning is rooted in publishers’ beliefs that such books will sell no matter what, and anything that doesn’t have to be good is unlikely to be.

And yet, I’m glad I made an exception for this book. Perhaps, because it’s not a book about Noah’s rise to fame, there are only a few off-hand references to his early career successes in South Africa. This book is about his youth in South Africa as a mixed-race child under Apartheid (hence the title, as such interracial progeny were illegal.) The book focuses heavily on race and the bizarre logic of South African governance during those days, as well as how rulers set groups against each other to make their own misbehavior less conspicuous. However, it’s also a very personal story, telling of his close relationship with his mother, the abuse he and his mother suffered from his drunkard stepfather, and the challenges that compelled him to adapt to survive loneliness and the awkwardness of youth.

Given Noah’s comedic merits, it will come as no surprise that the book is humorous, despite the tonal burden of its subject matter – i.e. racism, poverty, and abuse. Often, the subject matter makes the humor dark and bitter, but it’s nevertheless amusing.

If you’re curious about life under apartheid, or in an abusive household, you’ll likely find yourself in the grips of this tense and hilarious memoir.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Divine Madman by Keith Dowman

The Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa KunleyThe Divine Madman: The Sublime Life and Songs of Drukpa Kunley by Keith Dowman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers stories from the life of Drukpa Kunley, along with some interspersed poetry. Kunley was a “mad sage” (a Nyönpa, as Tibetan Buddhists call such individuals) / tantric yogi of the Vajrayana Buddhist tradition who lived during the 15th and 16th centuries in Tibet and Bhutan. Today, his most well-known legacy is the phallic graffiti that is common in Bhutan (encouraging it, not drawing it all himself.) Kunley’s approach was definitely tantric and ran counter to the mainstream. By “tantric” I mean that he did not eschew those activities that mainstream religion seeks to prohibit, but rather saw them as a means to master the mind through mindful practice. So, as the Bhutanese phalluses might suggest, he often comes across as sex-obsessed as well as being a drunkard, but the whole idea of this crazy form of wisdom is to rise above the programming of societal convention, and to be free of all the little niggling value judgements that culture and religion impose on the world in order to see life through a less distorted lens.

I’m not qualified to speak to how well concepts are translated, but the book is readable and thought-provoking, and that’s enough for me. There’s humor throughout, as when Kunley tells the monks of the monastery he’s visiting that he has a friend who is an excellent singer, and then proceeds to bring a goat in to bleat for them. That said, those who are attached to the mainstream religious approach and who place a high value on societal conventions are likely to find much to be offended by in the carefree discussions of sex and the wild statements designed to shock people out of their stupors.

I enjoyed reading this book, found it full of interesting ideas, and would recommend it for anyone interested in the person or philosophy of Drukpa Kunley.

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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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