BOOK REVIEW: The Complete Works of Edgar Allan Poe

The Complete WorksThe Complete Works by Edgar Allan Poe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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There are quite a number of volumes entitled “the complete works of Edgar Allan Poe,” or something to that effect. It’s almost always inaccurate, but most include more than the casual Poe fan would enjoy reading. The book I read included Poe’s one novel (some include a partially written 2nd novel,) many of his essays, all of his short stories, and all of his poems (in that order.) Note: I’m not complaining that the book didn’t include every single piece that Poe published. That would include a large amount of literary criticism of writing that has long been forgotten (in most cases, for good reason.) It does include a biographical sketch of Poe’s life and a “History of Horror” essay by an unnamed individual as ancillary matter.

The ideal reader for such a work has an interest in Poe as a person or an interest in literary history (and, particularly, the history of stories of the weird, dark, or surreal.) That isn’t to say that there is no value in reading beyond Poe’s greatest hits (i.e. stories: “The Tell-Tale Heart,” “The Gold-Bug,”“The Pit and the Pendulum,” “The Fall of the House of Usher,” “Murders in the Rue Morgue,” and “The Cask of Amontillado” and poems “The Raven” and “Annabel Lee.”) I found some treasures among the lesser known works (e.g. for story “The System of Doctor Tarr and Professor Fether,” for beautiful writing “Landor’s Cottage,” and for insight into Poe as a writer “How to Write a Blackwood Article.”) That said, such “complete” works include pieces that: a. have not aged well; b. are experiments that didn’t turn out spectacularly; or c. beat to death one of Poe’s obsessions (e.g. being buried alive.) This is particularly noticeable regarding his essays, which largely violate item “a.” If you just want to read the very best of Poe’s stories and poems, you can probably find a more selective volume. (Though I would recommend reading his novel.)

Poe only completed one novel, entitled “The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket.” It’s my contention that this book would be much more widely known and read if it had a title that was less wordy and more exciting. It’s the gripping tale of a young man who stows away on a ship that suffers a mutinous and ill-fated journey. It can be broken into two parts. The first part, which I found the most intense, covers the period from when the ship launches until it becomes unseaworthy after a storm. The second part takes place after the protagonist is rescued, and the rescue vessel eventually experiences its own dire fate involving crossing paths with indigenous people.

The essays are – as one might expect – the least engrossing part of the book, but there were only eight of them. There is an article on a chess machine hoax and other happenings that might have been quite well received in Poe’s time. There are also some pieces on philosophy and theory of literature that might be of interest to literary historians, but few others. There’s an essay on “Philosophy of Furniture” that I have a hard time imaging was of interest to any one in the past, or in the present, but I could be wrong.

Poe is most well-known for his short stories (even the poem “The Raven” tells a story,) so unsurprisingly this is the biggest section with about 67 stories. Besides his many spectacular macabre and strange tales, Poe is known as the inventor of detective fiction. Poe’s Dupin predates Sherlock Holmes by about a half a century, and the two sleuths are veritable twins – excepting the former is of Paris and the latter from London. It’s not only that Dupin has the whole, “from the flour dust on your cuff I can tell you were near the La Vie en Rose bakery last night at nine o’clock” thing going on, the two stories are told in a similar fashion (Dupin has his own less well-developed Watson to tell his tales and serve as a foil.)

The final section of the edition I read was Poe’s poetry. As was the norm at the time, the poems were rhymed and metered. (Whitman didn’t publish his first edition of “Leaves of Grass” until about six years after Poe died, so “free verse poetry” was still considered a nonsensical oxymoron.) Many of Poe’s poems are intermediate in length, though “Al Aaraaf” is fairly long and there are several that are sonnet length or thereabouts.

Apropos of his time, Poe’s writing can be wordy and needlessly complicated. You’ll find a lot of untranslated quotes that assume any reader will be fluent in French, Latin, and German. I enjoyed reading the “How to Write a Blackwood Article” in part because I learned that Poe’s pretentiousness wasn’t just his preference. In that article, he rails against some of the practices that he uses copiously because it was the only way to get his work published. I don’t necessarily buy that Poe was completely opposed to pretense (he wrote a “Philosophy of Furniture” for heaven’s sake.) He was no Mark Twain. But at least he recognized that greater simplicity was possible ideally, and he was by no means one of the more ponderous or plodding writers of his day.

If you decide to read the complete works, you might want to pay attention to the book’s organization. As I said, the version I read was organized: novel, essays, stories, and poems, and, within each category, alphabetically. I have no problem with the macro-organization (though I would have shunted essays to the back.) However, there are more useful ways to micro-organize than alphabetically (chronologically by publish date, for example.)

I have bizarrely eclectic tastes and interests, and Poe is one of my favorite authors, so I enjoyed this volume immensely and found it well worth reading (enough to read a “Philosophy of Furniture.”) If you just enjoy Poe as a storyteller and weaver of dark tales, you may want a more selective volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon

Seven Samurai Swept Away in a RiverSeven Samurai Swept Away in a River by Jung Young Moon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Full-disclosure: I enjoy writing that’s quirky and rambling as long as it jettisons pretension and brings in some whimsicality. This book by Jung Young Moon plays into that wheelhouse. If you’re expecting a novel with a story arc and character development, you may not like what you find. Personally, I wouldn’t call this a novel (though the author does,) but it’s one of those books that defies neat categorization. I’d call it creative nonfiction, and – more specifically – an “essay of essays,” which is to distinguish it from an essay collection. [Comparing it to fiction, it would be more like a novel-in-short stories than a collection of stories.] The author’s own words about how the book was composed are more insightful than my own, he called it, “… a mixture of stream of consciousness technique, the paralysis of consciousness technique, and the derangement of consciousness technique…” [As far as I know, the latter two are his own designations.]

Saying the book is rambling (and “pointless” in the best sense of that word) isn’t to suggest that the book lacks a theme. It’s a Korean’s take on things Texan after having spent a substantial amount of time there. But that Korean take on Texas is given an added twist into interesting territory by this particular Korean’s off-beat worldview. So, while many writer’s have considered the psychology, motives, and possible conspiratorial links of Jack Ruby (the assassin of JFK assassin Lee Harvey Oswald), Jung focuses on the issue of Ruby leaving his dogs in the car while he went to shoot Oswald. The author discusses the book as though it – like the sit-com “Seinfeld” – is about nothing, but I think it’s more about a chain of somethings turned on their heads and viewed through a fun-house mirror.

While the Seven Samurai are referenced in the title and are discussed at various points throughout the book, it’s more as a reminiscence than a throughline. That is, if one is expecting any great insight into Akira Kurosawa’s masterwork – either its story or as a film – that’s not how Jung uses the reference. He does talk in detail about cowboys and cowboy-ness. That may seem like a rough segue, but film fans may see a connection. Kurosawa’s film was famously the basis for the Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” I think there’s a connection in the broad appeal of machismo that both samurai cinema and Texas draw upon. [But maybe it was just some sweet alliteration for use in the title.]

I enjoyed this book immensely and would highly recommend it – except for readers who require order or who insist a book make a point. It’s humorous by way of strange lines of thinking and an alien outlook on a singular culture.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Gothamites by Eno Raud

The GothamitesThe Gothamites by Eno Raud
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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While the English translation of this children’s book just came out this summer, the original book (in Estonian) dates to 1962. I don’t point that out because it’s incomprehensibly dated, but because some readers may find the basis of the story to be misogynistic by today’s standards. There is a nation of people (the Gothamites) that is so known for their great wisdom and erudition that all of its men are hired abroad as counselors and advisers. The women find it untenable to have their men gone all the time, as well as finding their own nation is falling into shambles, and so they call all the men back home for a pow-wow. It’s decided that as long as their reputation for wisdom precedes them, the Gothamite men will always be called away to serve other nations, and so the only solution is to immediately give up their clever ways. Which they do.

The opening chapter lays out the backstory I discuss in the previous paragraph. Each chapter thereafter shows the Gothamites bumbling through a simple problem for which they are now unable to find solutions because they’ve given up being contemplative. It’s a bit like the movie “Idiocracy” but set in an ill-defined past instead of in the future, and geared toward children rather than adults. If it was meant as a jab at the Soviets for the bumbling ineptitude in which their system of governance resulted, it seems to have escaped the wrath of the USSR and – in fact – the author seems have done well for himself.

This is one of those children’s books, where I believe the age of the child matters greatly. Let’s consider just one of the stories from the book. Facing a salt shortage, the foolish Gothamites plant a field with little crystals of salt. When weeds begin to sprout, as will happen in a fallow field, the Gothamites are sure they are on the right track. There is an age at which this story is humorous and / or provides a teachable moment, but an older age at which the recipient of the story finds it boring and cringe-worthy. I think at the sweet-spot, the stories are funny and may offer ways to encourage judicious thinking. It’s certainly not laugh-out-loud funny for an adult reader, but it’s all about finding the right audience.

There are whimsical artworks throughout, depicting scenes from the various misadventures of the Gothamites. As far as how individuals are drawn, it reminded me of the old Popeye cartoons, but most of the plates show a chaotic scene with many silly things going on at once.

As l said, I think one has a limited window for an ideal readership, but within that window I think children will find the stories amusing and playful, and parents will find it to be wholesome humor. For that readership, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dream Story by Arthur Schnitzler

Dream StoryDream Story by Arthur Schnitzler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Suffering one-two blows to his masculinity, the lead – a doctor named Fridolin – engages in a risky chain of events that culminates in sneaking into the orgiastic masquerade ball of a secret society. The major drivers of this behavior seem to be his wife’s admission of a fantasy she had about another man and Fridolin’s embarrassment over a subdued response upon being run into by another man on the sidewalk. The former is the more important event, but it amplifies the effect of the latter event, and together they result in Fridolin goading himself to do something dangerous. It also drives him to ignore warnings and show undue bravado, which results in his being discovered as an impostor at the masquerade event.

If this sounds familiar in broad brush-strokes (but not necessarily in details,) it’s because the 1999 Kubrick film, starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman, “Eyes Wide Shut” is loosely-based on this story. The movie was set in modern-day New York, and the novella is set in Vienna contemporary to its composition (i.e. circa 1926.) The book was originally released in German under the title “Traumnovelle.“

I enjoyed this novella. There is excitement and tension throughout the work that varies from a bit of marital friction to life-and-death fear that the protagonist’s desire to redeem himself will get him killed. There’s also a fascinating instance in which Fridolin’s wife, Albertine, recounts a dream she had that has faint echoes of what actually happened to Fridolin in it. This leads the reader to wonder whether she knows more than she lets on, or whether her subconscious just made some lucky guesses based on their earlier interactions. The reader is shown the seedy side of early twentieth century Vienna. Certainly, what was going on there with regards to the fields of psychology and psychiatry play into the story.

If you’re looking for a short work of intrigue, I’d highly recommend this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Crazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa

Crazy WisdomCrazy Wisdom by Chögyam Trungpa
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book collects the lessons of two seminars on crazy wisdom taught by Chögyam Trungpa in 1972. “Crazy Wisdom” is an awakened state of mind that was taught by Padmasambhava – the teacher who introduced Buddhism to Tibet from India. The two seminars consist of six and seven lessons, respectively. These thirteen lessons make up the chapters of the book. Each chapter consists mostly of a text discussion of the topic at hand, but with an interview at the end in which the teacher is asked to clarify points mentioned in the text or that are relevant to the topic under discussion.

The book starts with differentiating two approaches: trying to live up to what one would like to be (i.e. spiritual materialism), and trying to live what one is. While the former is a widespread phenomenon across many religions, it’s dismissed as not all that productive. Along the way, the book discusses how being childlike, ruthless, hopeless, fearless, and in touch with death can all have beneficial effects on the mind. Of course, one has to go about such things in a proscribed manner as it’s emphasized that crazy wisdom and being crazy aren’t identical states (even if they may share similar appearances in some instances.)

Like many books on wisdom, this one offers a mix of profound insight and a sort of double speak used to make profound-sounding but ineffable statements, or logically inconsistent statements, seem true and / or thought-provoking. A philosophizing style is employed rather than narrative style, and so it can read a bit blandly.

There are a few notes and several line-drawn artworks in the Tibetan Buddhist style, but otherwise it’s a straightforward text.

I found this book to be intriguing and to offer interesting food-for-thought. It’s a short book, but may be a bit challenging for a reader without a background in Tibetan Buddhism, or in Buddhism in general. If you’re interested in Vajrayana Buddhism, you should give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

SurfacingSurfacing by Margaret Atwood
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A young woman takes a double-date to her childhood home in rural Canada after her father goes missing. [OK, “double-date” sounds a bit trivial for the tone of the novel, but it’s the quickest way to say that she goes with her boyfriend, Joe, and a married couple, David and Anna.] At first all is well, and the four are enjoying time away from the city, living in a cabin on an island in beautiful lake country. In fact, the group decides to extend their stay, and — intriguingly — this decision isn’t advanced by the protagonist, who’s father remains missing, but one of the others who is enjoying the novelty of back-country living. During this extension, tensions rise within the group, both within each couple and between the couples.

In the third part of this three-part book, the protagonist descends into a feral madness. Her father’s disappearance, which the protagonist addresses with the stoicism of one accustomed to living in remote territory, is only one of several triggers. We discover that she was divorced, she’d been on the outs with her parents in relation to that marriage, and that her current relationship is falling apart because Joe wants to get serious but the protagonist wants to keep things casual – presumably because of the trauma of her last marriage.

As the novel progresses, we get little indications of what might have been responsible for her father’s disappearance, though the reader doesn’t have a good grasp on whether there is merit to the speculated motives, or whether they are just indication that the protagonist is beginning to lose a grip. We discover that there are parties interested in purchasing the property. Some vitriol is spoken over the fact that the prospective buyers are American, but we don’t know whether that reflects a reasonable curiosity about why foreigners would be interested in such a remote property or whether it’s the madness or whether it’s just a visceral dislike of Americans. It also seems like the protagonist may be on the trail of some sort of artifact and that her father may have left her clues about it. However, again, we don’t know whether this is all the crazed imagings of a person descending into madness.

This is a short, quiet novel, but it was nevertheless engrossing. A lot of the intrigue is packed into the very end of the novel, but as it’s a short novel that doesn’t mean that there’s and excessively long build. The protagonist’s madness offers nice opportunities for strategic ambiguity – i.e. the reader has some freedom to determine what is true and what is paranoia.

I read this as part of a personal project to read a piece of literature that offers insight into a country for every country that I’ve visited. I think it fits the bill nicely. The reader sees a little bit of what life in rural Canada is like. The reader also witnesses some of the conflict over language and nationalism as this takes place in predominantly French-speaking territory, and the protagonist has been living away long enough that her language marks her as an outsider — even though this is where she’s from. We also see how Canadians can feel an intense difference between themselves and people from the United States, even though much of the world sees Canadians as “the polite Americans.”

I’d highly recommend this book for fiction readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: Chloroform by Linda Stratmann

Chloroform: The Quest for OblivionChloroform: The Quest for Oblivion by Linda Stratmann
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Stratmann’s book tells the story of the rise, fall, and debauchment of the anesthetic known as chloroform. As such, most of the book — particularly in the first half — is a medical history that offers detailed discussion of the debates that went on between doctors as to whether chloroform was the best form of anesthesia available, or whether an alternative approach was superior. (Contenders include: ether, nitrous oxide, or the old-fashioned approach of no anesthesia whatsoever.) The book also discusses a number of cases in which chloroform was used in the commission of a crime, or was speculated to have been. On the topic of vice, the use of chloroform as a recreational drug is also described. For those who aren’t medical historians, the explorations of chloroform in crime, vice, and licentiousness are where the book gets intriguing, and they tend to take place in the latter half of the book. [That makes sense from a chronological perspective as it took some time before laypeople became aware of the range of uses of this substance.]

The book is well-written and follows the intrigue. That said, it’s definitely a niche work. I came at it from the strange direction of one who is interested in consciousness (and, by extension, how it is lost.) This book could appeal to those interested in the history of medicine, true crime, or recreational drugs, but, regardless, it’s a niche within those niche fields.

The book has graphics, annotations, a bibliography, and even an appendix that describes the chemistry of chloroform. It comes with all the bells-and-whistles one might expect of a scholarly book, but tells a story skillfully. The author is neither a journalist nor a scientist, but she seems to have done an extremely thorough job of research.

If you only read one book on the history of chloroform this year, make it this one. [Disclaimer: As far as I know, this is the only history of chloroform, and it’s certainly the only one that I’ve read to date.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Panchatantra [trans. / ed. by Arthur W. Ryder]

PanchatantraPanchatantra by Arthur W. Ryder
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Panchatantra” is “Aesop’s Fables” meets Machiavelli’s “The Prince,” but with an Indian flavor. [I realize that the Panchatantra is much older than “The Prince” (though not as old as Aesop’s Fables — at least not when comparing written editions) but I’d argue it’s still a useful tagline for general readers who aren’t particularly acquainted with Indian literature.] Like Aesop’s Fables, anthropomorphized animals make up the bulk of the cast in this set of stories within a story. Like “The Prince,” a lot of the the advice offers insight into how to lead (as opposed to just how to lead a moral life.) The topics addressed include: building sound alliances, avoiding deception, and making decisions regarding war and peace.

As the Sanskrit title — Panchatantra [“Five Treatises”] — suggests, this work is arranged into five books. Of the over eighty fables of the original, more than fifty are collected in this edition. [I suspect this was done to eliminate or consolidate stories that were essentially the same.] The first book is “The Loss of Friends” and it focuses on how alliances are broken up by enemies. The second is “The Winning of Friends” and it gives particular attention to alliance building. The third book is “On Crows and Owls,” and it’s about how to decide whether to go to war, choose peace, or seek some alternative. The penultimate book is “Loss of Gains” and it discusses ways in which people forfeit (or have stolen from them) what they have gained. The last book is “Ill-Considered Action,” and it advises against being hasty. The stories are skillfully written and translated, and they are thought-provoking. That said, they can be a tad hackneyed and simplistic as well. For example, a large number of these tales convey the same simple lesson that one should take advice from individuals who are wise and virtuous, and that lesson’s inverse (that one should ignore those who are foolish and / or immoral.)

I’d highly recommend giving the Panchatantra a read. It both conveys wisdom and offers good stories. It’s true that the stories can become a bit repetitive and also frequently have less than profound morals, but overall, it’s a smart and entertaining collection of fables.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of The Big Bang Theory by Mark Brake

The Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America's Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of ScientistsThe Science of The Big Bang Theory: What America’s Favorite Sitcom Can Teach You about Physics, Flags, and the Idiosyncrasies of Scientists by Mark Brake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The good news is that this book is full of fascinating tidbits from the history of science, the history of science fiction, and the pop culture phenomena that is the television show, “The Big Bang Theory.” The bad news is that it may not at all be the book that you are expecting if you take the title literally. That it’s not the book it seems like it would be could be a good thing or a bad thing, depending on what your interests and science background are.

Let me explain. Say you are a super-fan of the show with an education in physics and you want to know something like: which Dutch researchers Sheldon thinks Leonard is ripping off and how, or: what the monopoles are that the four male leads go to the North Pole in search of [and why,] you won’t learn anything about those things in this book. You won’t have any more insight about what the scientists on the show – be it Raj Koothrappali to Leslie Winkle — are working on, or what those vaguely referenced scientific terms and discussions mean. You won’t learn about what any of the equations on those dry erase boards mean, and whether it’s gibberish or real science. As I mentioned, this may be a good thing because the topics that are mentioned off-hand on the show are often complex and difficult, e.g. Bose-Einstein Condensates, and most readers would be lost in such discussions. That said, if you are looking for such discussions and clarifications, you absolutely won’t find them in this book.

This book is aimed more at a reader with a high school science education, an interest in science fiction, and who would like to learn some quirky facts about science and science fiction while they are regaled and reminded of fun moments from their favorite episodes of the show. Truth be told, I wouldn’t be at all surprised to learn that this was a collection of essays written long ago, and then the author said something like, “Hey, I have this essay about volcanoes, in episode ___, _____ makes a random comment about volcanoes. I could put some dialogue from that episode at the front of the chapter, sprinkle in a few references to the show in the text of the chapter, and recycle a whole box of columns, putting together a science-pop culture crossover book.”

The 31 chapters are organized into four parts entitled, “Space,” “Time,” “Machine,” and “Monsters,” respectively. That said, organization isn’t the strong-suit of the book. The eight chapters in the “Time” section seem to have more to do with chemistry than time, per se. The “Machine” section does better, but discusses concepts like fire and volcano that are no more connected to that theme than to any of the others. It’s really a disparate collection of essays on various science and science fiction related topics.

I may sound like I’m panning this book, but I enjoyed it, overall. Now, if I’d have shelled out the cover price thinking I was getting the book that the title suggests, I’d be royally cheesed off. So, know what you’re getting and decide accordingly. If you have an interest in the history of science and science fiction, you’ll probably find the book intriguing and worth reading. If you have a high-level understanding of physics and want to learn about the physics they mention in “The Big Bang Theory” television series, you will be sorely disappointed.

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BOOK REVIEW: Book of Words by Abay Kunanbayev

Book of WordsBook of Words by Abay Kunanbayev
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Book of Words is a collection of 45 short essays by Abay Kunanbayev (1845 – 1904), one of Kazakhstan’s preeminent men of letters. Abay is known both as a poet and philosopher. This book includes more prose philosophy than poetry, though it does contain a few lines in verse.

I picked this book up while traveling in Kazakhstan. It should be noted that much of the book is a rant against the Kazakhs of Abay’s day. The book advocates for individuals to be both more scholarly, more virtuous, and more piously religious, and it skewers Kazakhs as simpletons who only care about the size and state of their livestock herds and the wealth that said herds can bring them. It’s eloquently written, but there’s not much more to it than that. With his Book of Words, Abay is trying to goad the Kazakh’s into being more virtuous and well-read. Judging from both the prominence of his name in Almaty (a huge statue, a major road, and one of the Metro stops named for him) and the success seen in Almaty, many Kazakhs probably took his words to heart.

There was a forward by someone named Nursultan Umbetov who is living, but far less famous (internationally, at least) than Kunanbayev. However, that front matter is the only ancillary matter for the edition I read. It does have explanatory footnotes where necessary to clarify something that wouldn’t make sense to non-Kazakhs.

If you want to gain insight into Kazakh culture, and how it’s changed since the 19th century, this book is worth reading. Much of the book may be viewed as trite truisms rather than earth-shattering wisdom, but it’s concise and well-articulated.

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