BOOK REVIEW: Your Soul is a River by Nikita Gill

Your Soul is a RiverYour Soul is a River by Nikita Gill
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of short-form free verse poetry. There is a prose poem or two, but mostly it’s of the sparse line variety that’s popular today. The general approach of the collection is the pep talk, using metaphors from nature to convey to the reader how they should cope with heartbreak and other traumas.

It’s arranged into eight chapters, most of which take a theme from nature to tie the component poems together. The section headings are: “the cosmos,” “fire,” “the storm,” “ache,” “the sea,” “wild,” “the Earth,” and “heal.”

The collection offers some clever use of metaphor and imagery, and it’s quite readable. That said, it’s a little heavy on aphorisms for my taste. Instead of evoking emotion purely through imagery, metaphor, and sound, there are many lines that straight out tell the reader how they should feel – albeit often couched in a moving natural metaphor. In a way, Gill’s poems are the antithesis of haiku. While haiku strips away all the analysis, leaving only pure observation, and putting the conversion of that observation into feelings into the reader’s hands, Gill connects the dots for her readers.

Overall, I enjoyed reading these poems. As I mentioned, there are ways in which they are not my cup of tea, but – of course – I’m not Gill’s intended demographic either.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lila Says by Anonymous

Lila SaysLila Says by Chimo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Lila Says is the tale of a star-crossed odd couple. The lead, Chimo, is an unemployed, 19-year-old, Arab man living in a Parisian government housing complex. Chimo’s life revolves around writing stories and getting by however he can. A fair amount of the book is about living a life of poverty in the ghettos of one of the world’s most expensive cities, but the core of it is about Chimo’s relationship with Lila.

While Chimo is awkward with girls and uncomfortable in sexual matters, Lila is an exhibitionist and – it seems at first – a nymphomaniac. She is a pretty blonde girl being raised by a Catholic aunt. Over the course of the novel, it becomes less clear that Lila is a nymphomaniac, and it’s possible that she just gets excited by causing arousal in others – particularly Chimo. In other words, it’s not so clear to what degree she is having sex, versus telling erotic tall tales. At any rate, the interplay between Chimo’s repressed nature and Lila’s unrestrained nature is at the center of the story. It soon becomes clear that part of the reason Lila has chosen Chimo is because he’s simultaneously safe and interested. That is, he can control his libido but doesn’t reject Lila’s flirtations. Chimo is surprised to find that Lila doesn’t talk to any of his friends the way she does to him, and – in fact – she doesn’t talk to them much at all.

This book is hard to rate. It’s definitely rough around the edges. However, as it’s presented as the journal of a young, unemployed man with minimal education that roughness contributes to an authentic feel. I have no idea whether it’s really a case like Go Ask Alice. (Go Ask Alice was presented as an anonymous manuscript written by a teen-aged girl whose life fell apart due to drug use, but it turned out to be written by a middle-aged woman whose life experience was nothing akin to Alice’s – though she was a therapist and youth counselor and thus had access to stories of those like Alice.) However, the text feels like it could have been hand-scrawled in the ruins of an abandoned building by candle light as described. (That is, if one discounts the British slang which takes one away from the “Arab man in a Parisian housing project,” but the book was originally published in French and so the English edition translation was made to invoke the same class level in its readership.) There are even a few footnotes about the state of the pre-edited manuscript that sell the meta-story of the book.

It’s also a great oversimplification to classify the book as erotica. It’s true that there is a great deal of sexual content in the book, and most of what Lila says, except toward the book’s end, is intended to be titillating. However, the book is also about living in poverty, selling blood to get grocery money and such. Furthermore, the book’s end ventures away from eroticism and into the realm of tragedy.

I found this book to be incredibly and surprisingly engaging. I might say I liked it warts and all, but I think it’s truer to say its warts contributed to making it more engrossing. I would highly recommend it for readers who don’t mind adult themes and who aren’t attached to happy endings (no pun intended.) I don’t mean to give anything away or to beat a dead horse. It’s just that if one picks the book up thinking of it as romance or erotica, one might feel betrayed. Better to think of it as a gritty work of fiction.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Looking by Alexandra Horowitz

On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert EyesOn Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes by Alexandra Horowitz
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a field guide to getting the most out of walks in the city; though it’s presented through a series of essays. City-centeredness is the book’s niche. There are tons of books that teach one how to get more out of the subtle signs and signals seen in nature, but we tend to miss the nature (and a good deal of the culture) in our city walks because we view them in a utilitarian fashion and because there is so much shouting for our attention that it’s easy to miss nature’s subtle cues.

The book consists of 12 chapters—each of which is organized around a city walk. Eleven of these walks are with experts who offer the author (and her readers) greater insight into some dimension of the city walk experience that is often lost to the limits of our attention. When I use the word “expert,” I use it broadly. The reader may find some of these individuals more worthy of the title “expert” than others—e.g. two among them are the author’s 19 month old son and her dog—but they all offer a unique insight. [You may recognize the author’s name from a popular book she wrote on dog behavior, and that’s a particular area of interest for her.] Others are the kind of experts that might testify in court or be asked to give a consultation at a corporation. Along the way, Horowitz inserts more general information on the psychology and science of human attention–and its limits—as is relevant to the larger discussion.

The twelve chapters are organized into three parts. The first part deals with the inanimate dimension of the city. Its four chapters deal with the things that children notice owing to either their height or their unjadedness, the natural materials of the city (rocks and biomass), fonts and signage, and the under-appreciated ordinary.

The second part explores the animate part of the city, including insects, animals, and humans. The reader will learn that–despite the fact that they may only see the occasional bird or squirrel—the city is teeming with non-human fauna. The two chapters that deal with humans take quite different perspectives. One is with the Director of the Project on Public Spaces, an expert on how cities are organized (by planning, organically, and by default) and the effect that this has on people and their movement through cities. The last chapter in this part is by a doctor whose expertise is making diagnoses in the style of Sherlock Holmes by means of close observation of the minutiae of a person’s appearance and posture.

The final part is about the sensory experience of a city walk. The first chapter in this section details a walk with a blind woman who is attuned to moving about the city using her other senses. There’s a chapter with an expert on sound, and the walk she takes with her dog—whose experience is largely informed by its olfactory sense. The last chapter is a short summation of what the author has learned and begun to apply in her own solo walks.

The book has few graphics, e.g. depictions of relevant art. There are source citations arranged by chapter in end-note form.

I found this book to be intriguing and beneficial. I think we could all benefit from city walkers who were more tuned in to what was going on around them. (Sadly, the trend seems to be going the other way.) I’d recommend this book for anyone who likes to take a walk, and nature lovers may find it unexpectedly fascinating.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Science of Breath by Swami Rama et. al.

Science of BreathScience of Breath by Swami Rama
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an oldie, but a goody. The first edition came out in 1979, but as its intent is to provide an overview of the anatomy and physiology of breath for yoga practitioners, the fact that it doesn’t access the bleeding edge of respiratory science isn’t all that detrimental.

This short book consists of four chapters. Two chapters are by the famous yogi Swami Rama, and the other two are written by medical doctors. The first chapter is an introduction to breath from the yogic perspective. It both explains why it’s so important to understand and work with breath and introduces the mythic physiology (prana, nadi, chakra, etc.) that has historically been used to explain pranayama (breath exercises.)

The second chapter is written by Dr. Alan Hymes and it explains the mechanics of respiration. While Chapter 2 focuses on the anatomy of breathing, it begins with an explanation of cellular respiration to introduce the role of breath in powering muscles. There is a fine explanation of the operation of the diaphragm and the intercostal muscles in breathing.

Chapter 3 is written by Dr. Rudolph Ballentine, and it delves into the role of the nose and nasal cavities in respiration. Breathing through the nose is emphasized in both yoga and many other systems of breath training (e.g. the Buteyko and Wim Hof methods.) This is because the nasal cavities perform many useful functions such as moisturizing and warming air, capturing pollutants, and extract heating and moisture from exhaled breath. Besides exploring nasal anatomy and physiology, Dr. Ballentine describes jala neti shatkarma (nasal cleansing with salt water) and nadi shoudhana (alternate nostril breathing.)

The final chapter, written by Swami Rama, mostly describes various techniques of pranayama (breathing exercises) and related practices bandhas and mudras (locks and seals in which bodily parts are contracted or constricted.) However, the chapter begins with a mix of physiology and mythic physiology. That is, it explains some topics not addressed earlier–such as the interaction between the nervous and the cardiovascular systems as well as chakra.

My standing complaint about books that weave together science and pseudo-science is mitigated a bit herein. My problem with putting these ideas together is that it can be difficult for the reader to determine what concepts reflect reality and which offer models to help one visualize energy. However, except for the last chapter, this book does a good job of keeping these ideas separate. The chapters by the medical doctors present the science with minimal intrusion of unscientific concepts. Swami Rama does present science and mythology together, but not so much scrambled together in a confusing mish-mash.

Chapters 2 through 4 use a number of graphics to help present the material. In the middle chapters these largely consist of line drawings to convey the relevant anatomical features or physical actions. The last chapter adds photographs to demonstrate relevant postures. There is a page of recommended readings, but it’s more of an advertisement for other books put out by the Himalayan Institute than the recommendation of books on the science of breath.

I found this book to be educational. It packs a lot of useful information into a concise package and is readable to a layman. I’d recommend it for yoga practitioners and others who are engaged in breath work.

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BOOK REVIEW: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore

Consciousness: A Very Short IntroductionConsciousness: A Very Short Introduction by Susan Blackmore
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Consciousness remains one of the least understood phenomena of our world. It’s also one of the most intriguing subjects, and fascination with it has spurred debate both between science and religion and within science. While science has been moving toward the belief that consciousness is rooted in the brain, there remain many important questions to be answered. Of course, historically, it wasn’t at all common to think of consciousness as arising from the action of a material object (e.g. the human brain), it was beyond humanity’s intellectual capacity to comprehend how something as grand as consciousness could arise from a 1.2kg (<3lb) organ. Consciousness was intertwined with ideas of “the soul”—a non-material self-ness.

So it is that Blackmore takes on a shadowy subject in which questions are as likely to lead to more questions as they are answers. She lays out the arguments between scholars of science and philosophy as to what exactly consciousness is, how it operates, and how important it is or isn’t.

The book consists of eight chapters. The first chapter attempts to define consciousness and discusses the degree to which there is a lack of consensus on the subject. In doing so, it outlines why consciousness is such an elusive subject.

Chapter two describes the attempt to find correlates of consciousness in the brain, and it describes some of the case of brain damage that support the notion that consciousness is a product of the brain. Many beliefs of duality (i.e. the idea that body and mind are separate) have been in decline because of cases in which brain damage is specifically linked to changes in consciousness. Consider life-long love being uprooted by a scalpel.

Chapter three deals with a number of topics related to time and space, such as whether consciousness lags behind reality. That sounds ridiculous. However, remember that we experience the world from inside the frame of reference of consciousness.

Chapter four examines a number of illusions to which our conscious minds are systematically subject. We have a number of blind spots, many of which result from the fact that a great deal of what the brain does, it does without letting the conscious mind in on events.

In the fifth chapter, the author presents the link between consciousness and perception of self. It has long been taken for granted by most of the world that there is some soul that exists beyond the body, and it’s in this chapter that the author reflects upon whether this is an illusion or not.

Chapter six covers a topic that is integrally linked to consciousness and the idea of self, and that is free will. Free will is another notion that humanity historically took for granted that is coming under fire in the face of our increasing understanding of the brain. Current scientific evidence suggests that free will as we perceive it (i.e. thinking things through consciously and then making a decision at a conscious level) is an illusion.

Chapter seven is about the many altered states of consciousness, including: dreaming, drug-induced effects, meditation, and some of the widely reported experiences that seem to involve separation of consciousness from body (e.g. out-of-body and near-death experiences.)

Chapter eight ponders the evolutionary advantage offered by consciousness (especially if a major part of what we think we use our conscious minds for is an illusion.) One thing is clear; evolution doesn’t hand out vast and complex advances in capability if they don’t serve to make one more likely to survive to procreate. However, could consciousness—majestic as it may seem—be a mere side-effect of a big brain developed to facilitate survival in a world in which we weren’t the strongest, fastest, or most athletic creatures by a long shot?

The book uses a wide variety of black-and-white graphics including cartoons, technical diagrams, and photographs. These graphics help to communicate important ideas and are more likely to do so with levity than technical complexity. The book is readable, considering the challenging topic.

I’d recommend this book for those interested in an overview of the state of understanding and debate about what consciousness is.

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DAILY PHOTO: Chimp in a Cage Reading a Book at the Amritsar “Zoo”

Taken in Amritsar on April 10, 2016

Taken in Amritsar on April 10, 2016

 

So many questions:

1.) As it’s clearly not a real ape, why the need for the cage?

2.) Why did they anthropomorphize this particular primate? (i.e. Is it just whimsicality, or is it a statement of some sort?) [Most of the creatures are in animalistic poses–though often not to scale.]

3.) Did the chimp start off reading huge (Tolstoy / Dickens / Ayn Rand style) books, or did it have to work up to them?

BOOK REVIEW: World War Z by Max Brooks

World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie WarWorld War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War by Max Brooks

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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World War Z, as the subtitle suggests, is written as a series of interviews of key (or in some cases typical) people involved in the Zombie War. The viewpoints addressed include various political leaders, military service members of various branches and nations, strategic planners, doctors, and even civilians caught up in the diaspora that resulted from the plague.

The approach of the novel is unusual. To the degree there is a lead character, it’s the UN employee who conducts all the interviews. However, we don’t experience the interviewer’s story arc and are left with very little insight into this individual. Rather, the story is a global arc of mankind’s experience of zombies from “patient zero” through the clean up in the years following the war. And, it is a global tale. The stories of these individuals take one to places like Chongquing, Meteora, the Amazon, Barbados, Johannesburg, the Alang ship breaking yard (an excellent choice for a post-apocalyptic setting, I must say), Denver, and even onto a ballistic-missile-toting submarine sitting on the ocean floor.

Where Brooks’s book excels is in making one think, and in that regard it does an excellent job. This isn’t about edge-of-the-seat adrenaline injections to which most Zombie book authors aspire. I don’t deny that there are emotional parts to the book, but the tension is reduced by virtue of being a collection of survivors’ tales. That is, we know the story-tellers survived more-or-less intact. Also, because of the intrusions of the interviewer and the authenticity of responses (some are more skilled and open story tellers than others), we never lose sight of the fact that this is a couple of people talking war stories.

That being said, we take a cook’s tour of gut-wrenching food for thought over the course of the novel. Consider a government that abandons its citizenry, and even uses some as bait to help save others. Brooks tugs at the readers’ heartstrings through an interview with a K-9 soldier who describes the role of man’s best friend. Brooks portrays the best and worst that mankind has to offer–as one would surely expect to experience them in such a world gone wrong.

I must admit, some of the topics may be more interesting to me as a social scientist than they will be to others. One interviewee discusses the mismatch between job skills needed and job skills available in a rapidly evolving post-apocalyptic landscape. This speaks to present-day society as much as it does to a dystopian future. The author devotes an interview to questioning the man responsible for reestablishing trust in the dollar in an economy that has by necessity reverted to barter. There is also discussion of revolutions in governance that find their catalyst in the Zombie War. There are intriguing turns of events such as the makeshift flotillas of U.S. citizens converging on Cuba because Fidel’s authoritarian regime was uniquely prepared to close itself off during the earliest days of the outbreak.

With the movie coming out this Friday (June 21), I will say that I can’t see much in common between the book and the trailers for the movie that I’ve seen to date. However, I can imagine the movie being an extension or outgrowth of one of the many vignettes expressed in the book. This is not to say that the movie will be bad (or that it won’t be), but if one sees the movie one will still be left with impetus to read the book.

I enjoyed World War Z because it makes one think–a feat that isn’t the strong suit of Zombie literature.

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Book Review: We Are Soldiers Still

We Are Soldiers StillWe Are Soldiers Still by Harold G. Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a mix of the story of meetings between American and Vietnamese military men a couple of decades after the war and a treatise on leadership and war –plus some filler material. It’s a follow-up to a book written by the same authors on the Battle of Ia Drang, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. That book was the subject of a movie starring Mel Gibson.

Both parts of the book are interesting, but this book is at its best when it discusses the meetings with Vietnamese officers. General Moore (Lt. Col. at the time of Ia Drang) gets to meet with the opposing commander at Ia Drang, Lt. Gen. Nyugen Hu An, and get his perspective on the battle. While the meetings go from being tentative to cordial with changing political winds, one gets a feel for the tension and the melting away of those tensions. With the latter meetings, additional U.S. fighters from Ia Drang are present, and not all have as easy of a time letting bygones be bygones as Gen. Moore. The group of U.S. soldiers spends the night on the Ia Drang battlefield (in an area that was near the border and not entirely settled at the time of their return.)

I don’t wish to suggest that the second part, which talks about leadership strategies and views on war, is not worthwhile, but it very much felt like padding to get the book up to a salable thickness. Gen. Moore is obviously quite competent to address these subjects, but the shift in the book is glaring and jarring.

This is very different kind of book than its predecessor. If you are expecting a tale of war, that’s not what you’ll find. If you are interested about how mortal enemies can be come close friends, you’ll find this book intriguing.

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