BOOK REVIEW: God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut

God Bless You, Mr. RosewaterGod Bless You, Mr. Rosewater by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This novel presents a satire of American socio-economic existence. It spends much of its time poking fun at old money folk (trust fund kids, as they’d be called today,) but the book has plenty of barbs to go around. The story centers on Eliot Rosewater, the head of the Rosewater Foundation, the charitable arm of an old money robber-baron kind of family corporation. Eliot is cut from different cloth, however. He’s in love with the work-a-day blue collar American, and does everything in his power to eliminate his separation from such people, including obsessively working with volunteer fire departments, setting up his foundation in his hometown (Rosewater, Indiana,) and making the Foundation an extremely personal organization that gives what would today be called micro-grants to ordinary citizens for ordinary uses.

Opposing Eliot Rosewater is a lawyer named Norman Mushari who’s made it his mission in life to have Eliot proven insane so that he can have the Rosewater Foundation fortune shifted to Fred Rosewater (of the middle-class Rhode Island Rosewaters.) The challenge is knowing whether Eliot is truly insane or not, even Eliot, himself, doesn’t always seem clear on the matter. For many, such as Mushari, just the fact that Eliot is acting in opposition to the societal norm (e.g. setting up in Rosewater, Indiana v. New York or Chicago and not making big grants to corporations and colossal NGO’s but rather giving a few hundred dollars at a time to residents of Rosewater) is proof enough. And, if Eliot is crazy, is it because there’s something wrong with him, or that there’s something wrong with the world.

This book is hilarious, and the last chapter leaves the reader with a great deal to mull over. I’d highly recommend this book for all fiction readers.


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BOOK REVIEW: Dropping Ashes on the Buddha by Seung Sahn

Dropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung SahnDropping Ashes on the Buddha: The Teachings of Zen Master Seung Sahn by Seung Sahn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book’s one-hundred brief chapters mostly consist of interactions between the Korean Zen Buddhist teacher, Seung Sahn, and students of his. However, there are also some old Zen stories, and a few odds and ends: such as the transcript of a completely unproductive “dialogue” between Seung Sahn and a Hindu yogi. Some of the student-teacher interactions are epistolary, but others are face-to-face “dharma combat” or Q&A sessions (which also, ultimately, became dharma combat — given Seung Sahn’s teaching methods.) Dharma combat is a dialogue that resembles Socratic dialogue except that the goal isn’t to use logic and sound reasoning to persuade another, but rather to demonstrate a lack of attachment and proclivity to overintellectualize. It involves a lot of seemingly nonsensical answers and occasional shouting and slapping / hitting. It sounds unproductive, but the objective is to break established cognitive modes and to induce epiphany, rather than to build a rational argument.

It’s a thought provoking and informative book, if a bit repetitive. Most of the conversation revolves around less than a dozen ko-an [kong-an in Korean,] which are questions or statements that’re intended to provoke a kind of realization rather than to produce a straightforward / rational answer. It’s not a problem that there’s repetition, as these aren’t straightforward ways of thinking, and oftentimes it takes many varied looks at a ko-an to grasp what’s being conveyed. That said, I felt this book could’ve used some editing to streamline the dialogue a bit to make it feel a bit less punitively redundant.

If you’re interested in ko-an and dharma combat, this is a great book to look into. However, if you’re familiar with many of the popular ko-an and Zen stories, it may feel a bit redundant.


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BOOK REVIEW: Pulp: The Process Edition by Ed Brubaker

Pulp: The Process EditionPulp: The Process Edition by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: July 26, 2022

This is the “how the sausage gets made” edition of a popular standalone graphic novel, “Pulp.” It takes the reader through the various stages of the book’s development from conception through book “trailer,” drafting, penciling, coloring, and on to the final product. It offers explanatory notes by the author and artist at each stage along the way, in addition to showing the work at that stage of development. For the more substantial stages (e.g. drafting and final edition) it shows the full product, but for intermediary stages (e.g. inking and coloring) it just shows a few representative pages to give one the idea.

If you’re just looking to be entertained by a story, this isn’t the edition you want. Which isn’t to say that it’s not the book you want, “Pulp” offers a well-crafted and intriguing tale of a man, Max, who lived the gangster life in the wild west in the prime of his life (late 1800’s) and then “went straight” to become a pulp fiction writer in 1930’s New York during his senior years. The action of the story takes place in 1930’s New York, with flashbacks to violent episodes of Max’s past out west. It’s a take on “the life sucks you back in” storyline.

The main market for this edition is artists and writers interested in the comic writing / drawing tricks and techniques of seasoned professionals. I can also imagine actors, filmmakers, and those with cinematic interests benefiting from learning how choices are made with respect to how scenes are set and framed – i.e. to learn from the economy of the graphic novel format.

If you’re a creative type looking to work with comics or wanting to learn about how scene choices are made, give this book a look. If you’re just looking for an action-packed story, pick up the original edition of “Pulp.”


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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Auditioning, Second Edition by Rob Decina

The Art of Auditioning: Second EditionThe Art of Auditioning: Second Edition by Rob Decina
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a revised edition of a book about how to audition for television shows. The first edition was written in 2004 by a successful casting director (now VP for Casting at CBS) and teacher of casting, and the revision includes industry changes due to technology and the pandemic. For example, it explores the post-COVID shift toward more self-taped auditions and the best practices for them. It also has a few new notes about how the author’s perspective has changed on an issue or two with his new experiences.

This book is niche. Except for a chapter on how to become a casting director, it’s all about preparing actors to audition for a television series. While it might seem that auditioning would be auditioning, apparently television auditioning is quite different from stage auditions and even a little bit different from other on-camera auditioning (e.g. for movies.) To a neophyte, such as myself, the book might be expected to present teachings about acting, but one of the major recurring themes is that acting and auditioning are separate (if related / overlapping) skills and that the latter presents a number of additional considerations. It’s these considerations that are explored in the book – e.g. how to plan and determine your own acting choices (being undirected,) how to behave before and after the audition, how to know what are good or poor investments for a new actor, and how to not be unappealing or ridiculous with your attempts to distinguish yourself.

The book is honest and direct, to the point that the most frequently repeated advice is to not expect to get the job. That’s probably also among the book’s most controversial advice, but the author feels it helps new actors to get out of their heads, to deal with the tons of rejection all of them will face, and to not fall into the bad behaviors that some novice actors think will help to separate him from the pack [while such behaviors often only serve to annoy the casting agent.]

As I said, it’s niche, but if you want to learn how auditioning works or how the sausage is made in the entertainment industry, it’s a quick and well-organized read.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianA Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a comedy of family dysfunction. The family consists of Cold War era immigrants to England from Ukraine. One adult daughter (Nadezhda) narrates the story, which about how her estranged relationship with her sister (Vera) is renewed through battle with a common enemy, Valentina, the gold-digging Ukrainian woman (younger than either sister) who’s moving in with the sisters’ eighty-four-year-old father.

There’re a few divides that generate the story’s tension. First, Vera grew up with war during her formative years, while Nadezhda was a child of the post-war peace. This informs how each sees the world and the other. Vera sees her younger sister as a naïve bleeding-heart socialist, while Nadezhda sees Vera as a cold and distrusting Thatcherite scoundrel. Second, there’s the chasm between established immigrant and new arrival, the former feeling that they kept their heads down, did the work, assimilated, and earned their status as citizens, while feeling someone like Valentina is tricking her way in and expecting to be handed all the perks of first-world living without working for them. Finally, there’s the gap between what a new immigrant expects life is like in a wealthy country, and what it’s actually like. Valentina has a television view of England that assumes the characters she sees are typical.

The story is funny, but occasionally poignant – e.g. as when we learn the family’s war-torn backstory or even when Valentina is shown in a more sympathetic light by our “bleeding-heart” narrator, who waivers between her family obligation self (who despises Valentina) and her socialist-feminist self (who empathizes with Valentina to some degree.)

I’d recommend this book for readers of literary fiction. It’s well-crafted and humorous. But it’s literary fiction, so if you need your characters likable and your plot strong, you may find it a bit dull.


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BOOK REVIEW: Better Living Through Criticism by A.O. Scott

Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and TruthBetter Living Through Criticism: How to Think about Art, Pleasure, Beauty and Truth by A.O. Scott
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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There’s a chasm between title and book. The title, which is clearly meant to play on the Dupont motto turned recreational drug user motto that substitutes the word “chemistry” in place of “criticism,” suggests a book that will be directed toward a reader, teaching said individual how to hone his or her skills of art criticism. This book, on the other hand, reads more like a review of the criticism industry that is meant to be received by an audience. In other words, it feels more like you’re in a Ted Talk than that you’re having a private lesson or conversation. It’s a fine book, witty, thought-provoking, and insightful by turns, but not the book one would expect from the title, subtitle, and blurb.

This essay (or collection of six shorter essays – if you prefer) examines the life and livelihood of art critics and how the endeavor has ebbed and flowed over the years. While the author is a film critic, he adeptly uses examples and stories from across the arts: poetry, paintings, music, theater, etc. In addition to the six chapters, there are three dialogues that are presumably meant to be reminiscent of Oscar Wilde’s essay / dialogue “The Critic as Artist,” a piece that is referenced and quoted in the book.

While the book is generally readable, it would probably benefit from more clarity of message while dialing down attempts to be witty and interesting. It seems like the author may have aimed to do what the films that film critics tend to love do, leave one walking away wondering what it is that one just consumed.

If you want to know more about the criticism “business,” i.e. who does it and how the job has changed (and continues to change,) you’ll enjoy this book. On the other hand, if you’re looking for a book that (as this book’s subtitle suggests) will help you better understand “how to think about art, pleasure, beauty, and truth,” then this might not be the book for which you’re looking.


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BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

An Essay On CriticismAn Essay On Criticism by Alexander Pope
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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View free at The Poetry Foundation

This essay is a poem, i.e. heroic couplets in iambic pentameter, to be precise. It advises both poets and critics of some of the mistakes made in their respective pursuits (though at the outset he warns that bad criticism is a bigger sin than bad poetry.) To critics, Pope advises against nit-picking, as well as failure to recognize the tradeoffs inherent in poetry – i.e. sometimes the better sounding line is grammatically strained, or the wittier line may be less musical. To poets, he lays out a range of insights from stylistic to psychological, and it is an essay both about improving the product of writing as well as improving the relations between writers and critics.

Those unfamiliar with the essay will still be aware of a few of its lines, these include: “A little learning is a dang’rous thing;” “To err is human, to forgive, divine.” “For fools rush in where angels fear to tread” and anyone who’s learned to write iambic pentameter (and the sins, thereof) will remember: “And ten low words oft creep in one dull line.”

But those everyday aphorisms are by no means the full extent of this essay’s wise words and its clever phrasing. My favorite couplets of the poem include:

“Some neither can for wits nor critics pass, // As heavy mules are neither horse nor ass.”

“Trust not yourself, but your defects to know, // Make use of ev’ry friend – and ev’ry foe.”

“For works may have more wit than does ‘em good, // As bodies perish through excess of blood.”

“Words are like leaves; and where they most abound, // Much fruit of sense beneath is rarely found.”

“True ease in writing comes from art, not chance, // As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.”

“Some praise at morning what they blame at night; // But always think the last opinion right.”

“Unhappy wit, like most mistaken things, // Atones not for that envy which it brings.”

“All seems infected that th’ infected spy, // As all looks yellow to the jaundic’d eye.”

“’Tis best sometimes your censure to restrain; // And charitably let the dull be vain:”

I delighted in this poem. It’s full of food-for-thought, and reads remarkably well for a piece from the year 1711.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

The Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing NothingThe Critic as Artist: With Some Remarks Upon the Importance of Doing Nothing by Oscar Wilde
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free to Read Online

In this dialogue, the characters of Ernest and Gilbert reflect upon the value, nature, and limits of artistic criticism. Ernest serves largely as foil and questioner, taking the everyman view that critics are failed artists and that criticism is a puny endeavor that isn’t good for much. Gilbert, on the other hand, defends criticism of art as an art unto itself, and a difficult one at that, one that requires revealing elements and ideas of the artistic piece that the artist didn’t put in the piece in the first place. Throughout, Gilbert lays down his counterintuitive bits of wisdom about the job of the critic, the characteristics of good critics, and – also – about artists and art, itself. [Ideas such as that all art is immoral.]

Oscar Wilde was famed for his wit, quips, and clever – if controversial – turns of phrase, and this dialogic essay is packed with them. A few of my favorites include:

“The one duty we owe to history is to re-write it.”

“Conversation should touch everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.”

“If you wish to understand others you must intensify your own individualism.”

“Let me say to you now that to do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.”

“Ah! don’t say that you agree with me. When people agree with me I always feel I must be wrong.”

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

This is an excellent essay, and I’d highly recommend it for anyone who’s interested in art, criticism, or who just likes to noodle through ideas. You’re unlikely to complete the essay as a convert to all of Gilbert’s tenets, but you’ll have plenty to chew on, mentally speaking.


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BOOK REVIEW: Doctor Strange: Surgeon Supreme, Vol 1: Under the Knife by Mark Waid

Dr. Strange, Surgeon Supreme Vol. 1: Under the KnifeDr. Strange, Surgeon Supreme Vol. 1: Under the Knife by Mark Waid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Those who know the character of Doctor Strange from either the comics or the movies know that his backstory is as an arrogant – but brilliant – surgeon whose hands are badly damaged in an accident. In his far-flung search for a cure, he stumbles onto the realm of magic and ends up making a career change from surgeon to sorcerer. The premise of this volume is that Strange’s hands are cured and he precariously divvies up his time between the demanding jobs of neurosurgeon and Sorcerer Supreme.

The plot of this six-issue arc revolves around a theft from Strange’s own estate, a theft which grants his unknown enemy and her known henchmen the power to give the Sorcerer Supreme a run for his money, magically speaking. The shift to a two-hat wearing Stephen Strange facilitates him being none-the-wiser about the magically powerful weapons being deployed against him coming from his own forge. It also creates a series of tense periods during which he’s simultaneously urgently needed in the magic and material worlds.

I felt the volume did a good job of building up to a face-off with the big bad while making each issue a worthwhile standalone story. There are false flags and other mechanisms to keep one guessing about how the story will unfold. Some of the issues were more gripping and creative than others. The most brilliant, in my opinion, was the issue three battle in a tattoo realm to which the tattoos of humans – including one of Strange’s patients – drain said individuals’ life-forces. That issue most captured the psychedelic bizarrity that makes Doctor Strange comics so splendidly clever, unique, and enjoyable to read. The concluding story / resolution was also compelling.

I enjoyed this volume and would recommend it for fans of Doctor Strange.


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BOOK REVIEW: Nature’s Numbers by Ian Stewart

Nature's Numbers. Discovering Order And Pattern In The UniverseNature’s Numbers. Discovering Order And Pattern In The Universe by Ian Stewart
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This popular mathematics book reflects upon the ways in which patterns appear in nature and how mathematics can shed light on said patterns. It explores why tides are predictable while weather patterns are anything but. It investigates why flowers disproportionately have a number of petals that is in the Fibonacci sequence (a list of numbers in which each is formed through the addition of the previous two numbers.) It shows one how an eyeball can evolve, and how long it would be expected to take. It describes where and how we see calculus, probability and statistic, chaos theory, and complexity in nature.

It’s unambiguously a pop math book, there’s not an equation in sight. It does use diagrams and various graphics to convey ideas, and these help to simplify and visualize the topic. If anything, I would say the book could have benefited from more graphics [and might even have benefited from a less strict rule about sticking to colloquial prose.] (Meaning, some of the analogies and attempts to relate clarified ideas better than others.)

I found the book highly readable, and believe that – overall – the author did a fine job of providing food for thought without getting too complicated for the general reader. There were points at which the author seemed to lose his train. For example, he off-ramped into criticisms of the division of mathematics into applied and theoretical branches and the tendency to more greatly value the applied side of this false dichotomy. I have no doubt this is a worthwhile subject of discussion, but not necessarily in this book.

If you’re looking for a readable discussion of how mathematics is used in the study of nature, this book is worth reading – especially if you are equation-phobic.


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