BOOK REVIEW: The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare

The Two Noble Kinsmen (Folger Shakespeare Library)The Two Noble Kinsmen by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in page

 

King Creon of Thebes is a jerk. The play opens with three Queens petitioning the Duke of Athens, Theseus, to avenge the kingly husbands that Creon had executed. Theseus ultimately agrees. We know that Creon is really a jerk [and not that the Queens are being spoilsports (or duplicitous)] because Creon’s own nephews – Palamon and Arcite, the titular two noble kinsmen – are about to high-tail it out of Thebes to get away from Creon’s reign when they learn Theseus has attacked. These two aren’t the kind to shy away from a fight, and so – instead of leaving – they fight for Thebes, despite its jackwagon of a King. The two fight with valor, but are no match for Theseus’s forces and are captured, becoming prisoners of Athens.

Palamon and Arcite are paragons of manliness, the kind of men who other men want to be and that ladies want to be with. They are handsome, virtuous, athletic, and likeable. The two share a bond that one might think unbreakable, until the beautiful Emilia enters the picture. Through the window of the jail, Palamon spots Emilia in the garden and is stricken by love at first sight. When Arcite says he, too, has the hots for Emilia (who they both only know by sight and from a distance,) Palamon is suddenly ready to kill his kinsman and brother in arms. Palamon is over-the-top in his anger, especially as it seems unlikely at that moment that either of them is likely to meet Emilia. [I suspect Arcite really likes Emilia, too, but one can’t eliminate the possibility that the elaborate antics to follow are all for the principle of the matter because Palamon is so insistent that Arcite has no right to pursue Emilia. As if Palamon had called “shotgun” and Arcite had tried to jump up front.]

However, soon Arcite is summoned to the palace, and he ends up being banished from Athens. He’s told that he doesn’t have to go home, but he can’t stay in Athens. Arcite starts to head back to Thebes, but then he finds out that Athens is having a field day (by that I mean a day of sports and competition, not in the colloquial sense of the word) he decides to disguise himself and compete in the hopes of winning Emilia’s heart (and / or getting Palamon’s goat.) (Winning Emilia is no small feat given Emilia’s high standards and – given her adoring talk of her relationship with a friend named Flavina – a likely lesbian inclination.) But we’ve established that Arcite is a man among men, and he trounces the competition, and – in doing so — does get to meet Emilia.

Meanwhile, back in the jail, Palamon is no slouch himself. By way of a combination of charisma and machismo, the jailer’s daughter has fallen as fast and stupid for him as he did for Emilia. The daughter ends up breaking Palamon out of jail. Shortly after that, the she goes coo-coo for coco puffs insane when she realizes: a.) being a commoner, Palamon could never fall for her, and b.) in all probability her father will be hanged when Theseus realizes Palamon is no longer in the prison, and her father’s blood will be on her hands.

Palamon and Arcite meet. Palamon has not cooled down, and is more ready than ever to kill his kinsman — but in a duel, because he’s a gentleman, not a heathen. Arcite provides food and medicine, and tells Palamon he’ll back in a week with two swords and two suits of armor so they can hold their deathmatch in a style befitting gentlemen. I don’t know how much it was intended, but the absurdist humor of these two men alternatingly assisting and threatening to gut one another is hilarious. One could build a Monty Python sketch on it with some tweaking and exaggeration.

Palamon is good to his word, and (after helping each other on with the other’s armor) the two commence their duel, but are interrupted by a deus ex machina hunting trip featuring Theseus, Hippolyta (his wife), Emilia, and Pirithous (a gentleman friend of Theseus’s.) Theseus is angry and is ready to have the two men hauled off for execution. The kinsmen genteelly request that they be allowed to finish out the duel so that one of them will die a little ahead of the other by the other’s hand. Theseus denies this request, but everyone loves these dudes (even Pirithous seems to have a bro-crush on them) and they all intercede.

Theseus has a change of heart. He offers Emilia the option of picking which one she’ll marry, and the other will be executed. Emilia says thanks for the offer of god-like powers, but that she’ll pass. She says she’ll marry whichever one comes out alive, but she’s not going to be judge, jury, and executioner. Then Theseus tells the two kinsmen to leave for one month, during which time they are to be civil to each other. When they come back, they’ll bring three knights with them. (BTW, bad deal for the knights who also die if their boy doesn’t win the competition, but they are all knightly stoic about it.) Then they’ll have a competition in which whichever man can force the other man to touch a pillar will win Emilia’s hand and the other one will be executed.

I’ll leave the reader to read how it plays out. I believe I read that this play was called a comedy on its playbill, but its one of the plays that there is no consensus in categorizing. Unlike “Macbeth,” which is always called a tragedy, or “Taming of the Shrew” which is uniformly labeled comedy, there is significant difference of opinion on this one.

All the while the two noble kinsmen’s stories are playing out, a subplot is afoot in which the jailer’s daughter has gone mad, and efforts are being made to snap her out of it. It turns out that her father, the jailer, was not in danger because Palamon didn’t rat her out, and probably because Theseus assumed Palamon burned through the locks with a smoldering look.

This is a straightforward and entertaining tale. Yes, it has its share of deus ex machina happenings (the fortuitous fox hunt is neither the first nor last), but that’s the nature of theater. Furthermore, I found parts of it hilarious, particularly when the kinsmen are getting armored up for their duel.

This was amongst Shakespeare’s final plays, and it’s said that he had a co-author on it. So, it’s got a little bit different feel. It’s not categorized as a problem play, but as I mentioned some call it a comedy and others a tragedy. Either way, you should definitely read it.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Odyssey by Homer [A. Pope translation]

The OdysseyThe Odyssey by Homer

Translated by: Alexander Pope

Amazon page

 

This epic poem tells the tale of the action-packed return of the King of Ithaca, Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin,) from the Trojan War, as well as, of his resumption of the throne. The return home is harrowing because, early in the journey (though not in the story,) Odysseus blinds a cyclops that turns out to be the son of the sea god Poseidon (a.k.a. Neptune.) Because he incurs the wrath of Poseidon, the journey which – even in the rickety sailing / rowing ships of the day – would have taken a few weeks, took ten years, most of which he was the guest / hostage of the nymph Calypso. Retaking the throne was challenging because he was enshrouded in a disguise by Athena (a.k.a. Pallas) so he couldn’t just walk right up and say “remember this face, I’m the boss.” The disguise is donned so he can make sure his wife, Penelope, is being faithful (despite the fact that he’s been schtooping nymphs, witches, and probably a few human women that don’t bear mentioning) and since throngs of suitors have descended on Penelope’s castle who would rather see Odysseus dead (in hopes of acquiring his kingdom) it’s safer all around to check things out in disguise.

The poem doesn’t take a linear approach. It begins twenty years after the war at Troy. Everyone who survived is back, except Odysseus and his men, and so a plague of suitors vies for Penelope’s hand in marriage so that one of them can acquire Ithaca’s wealth. Penelope, the picture of matrimonial virtue, is not having it, but Greek hospitality says you’ve got to feed and look after visitors (because they might just be gods in disguise.) The first few books not only set up the problem of the suitors but also follow Odysseus’s son, Telemachus, as he travels around trying to find out from those who returned from Troy whether they know anything about Odysseus’s whereabouts.

The poem then skips to where Odysseus was at the time of Telemachus’s travels, which was stuck on Calypso’s island. The gods intervene to force Calypso to let the King go, but Poseidon is still upset and swamps Odysseus’s ship. Odysseus washes up onshore and makes fast friends with the local king and queen. It is through friendly discussion that we hear about all the trials and tribulations of Odysseus’s journey up to that point. He tells the couple about how he blinded a cyclops with clever word play and a flaming stick, how Poseidon first tempest-tossed him, how he ended up on the island of the nymph / witch – Circe, how Circe turned his men into swine, how he survived the Sirens by plugging the ears of his men and tying himself to the mast, how he survived the horrifying monsters Scylla and Charybdis, how he visited the underworld and met with some comrades from the Trojan War, how he got stuck on Calypso’s island, and then how he ended up on the island on which he tells the story. The king and queen are big fans, and send Odysseus off with best wishes and some parting gifts.

Odysseus makes it back to Ithaca, is summarily dropped off on the shore with said gifts – while he’s sleeping. That’s when he gets his disguise from Athena. He reveals himself to Telemachus, but otherwise keeps it all on the down-low, even keeping his return from Penelope. Telemachus also has to be careful because many of the suitors would love to assassinate him because he’s the only male opposition to their plans (if you haven’t noticed, Ancient Greece was misogynistic.)

Odysseus checks out the town in his beggar disguise and is enraged that the suitor’s have overstayed their welcome, are eating all the island’s livestock – not to mention trying daily to get in his wife’s knickers. It all comes to a climax when a festival banquet takes place, and Penelope (who is always looking for creative and / or polite ways to put off her suitors) says that she’s willing to marry any among them who has the strength and skill to string Odysseus’s bow and shoot an arrow through a dozen axe heads (battle-axes with a hollowed out blade so the weight is reduced.) They all fail. Some have arms too puny to string the bow; others lack the accuracy to shoot through the rings. That’s when disguised Odysseus says he’d like a try. The suitors object that he’s a beggar and couldn’t possibly run a kingdom. Telemachus, who knows what is up and who is – with his mother – hosting the event, agrees to let the disguised King take his shot. He succeeds, and then goes on a killing spree of the suitors.

After the bloodbath, he has to take great efforts to convince Penelope that he is actually her husband, the King. The god-given disguise is only part of what makes Penelope doubt. Odysseus has convinced everyone else by then. However, Penelope has had men trying to get in the sack with her for a decade, and to her mind it wouldn’t be above some skeezy god to play this gambit to try to bed her. She thinks the killing spree smells of god-like activity. [Even by Hollywood standards one guy killing 108 suitors (plus who knows how many of their groupies and hangers-on) strains credulity.] But eventually she is convinced.

Then Odysseus has to go see his father, Laertes, who is not long for this world. It’s during this visit that a second wave of attackers comes, and the “feeble old man” Laertes puts a javelin through the chest of the first of them. Then there’s a divine intervention that keeps the bloodbath from rolling on.

The most commonly stated moral of the story is: don’t run afoul of the gods. [Put more broadly / secularly, this could be restated as: behave morally.] Of course, Odysseus is not particularly moral, and he ultimately does alright despite being a liar, a trickster, a cheater, and a hypocrite (not to mention the murderousness.) So, there might be an additional clause, i.e. “behave virtuously, but – if you can’t – be on good terms with a few choice gods.” In truth, “use deception skillfully” may be more of the true moral of the story. Being tricky is a major part of what gets Odysseus through when all about him are dying. Modern critics sometimes take as a moral: “If women be nutty, then men are stark, raving lunatics.” This is consistent with what we see in the story (and, perhaps, in life,) but it would probably be attributing more progressiveness to the blind poet, Homer, than was the case.

I read the Alexander Pope translation, which is surprisingly readable given that it’s from the early eighteenth century (1720’s.) There were a few turns of phrase that I couldn’t find anywhere in dictionaries or search engine, but nothing that caused a major misunderstanding. It is a metered and rhymed translation, so it’s fun to read. Still if one isn’t comfortable with reading archaic English (for example if one doesn’t like reading Shakespeare,) one might not find it as enjoyable and easy to follow. That said, the edition I read had a short prose synopsis at the start of each book (i.e. chapter,) and reading that increases comprehension of the verse [if you don’t mind spoilers, which – if you’ve read this far, you presumably don’t.]

I’d highly recommend reading the Odyssey, and I was pleased with the Pope translation.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Measure for Measure by William Shakespeare

Measure for MeasureMeasure for Measure by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

“Measure for Measure” was originally grouped as one of Shakespeare’s comedies (back when there were just three categories: tragedy, comedy, and history,) but more recently it’s been reclassified as one of the three “problem plays” of Shakespeare. Problem plays are neither clearly comedy nor clearly tragedy, but mix elements of both.

Vincentio, the Duke of Vienna, is taking a mysterious trip, and he’s left his deputy, Angelo, in charge. Angelo is a stickler for the law (or, at least, appears to be at first) and one of his first official acts is to sign a death sentence on Claudio. Claudio is a young man who knocked up his girlfriend. While the law calls for death, everyone advises Angelo that the details of the case don’t merit such a sentence. Those details being that the young woman, Juliet, is in love with Claudio, consensually partook of sexual intercourse, and both she and he are eager to marry so that the child will not be born out of wedlock. Angelo is unmoved by petitions from just about everyone to let Claudio live as long as he weds Juliet. When Claudio’s sister, Isabella, who heard the news in the convent where she is a postulant [in training to be a nun, but not yet one,] comes before Angelo seeking leniency for her brother, Angelo’s tune slowly changes, and he betrays himself as the worst form of hypocrite. If Juliet will “consent” [used loosely] to Angelo taking her virginity, he’ll let Claudio go. Obviously, Juliet isn’t at all keen on this arrangement, being a nun wanna-be and having the strict moral values one might expect of one who’s chosen such a life. She goes off preparing to tell her brother that he must die because the only way out is for her to sex up Angelo. Isabella fully expects Claudio will accept this, but Claudio has a moment of weakness in which he shares his terror of death and requests Juliet do the deed with Angelo. However, she won’t do it.

At this point, things look grim for Claudio, but we find out that the Duke is pulling a Henry V, and (far from visiting foreign lands to unknown purpose) is making his way in disguise through Vienna, learning what happens in his absence. The Duke [pretending to be a friar] has various meetings with Isabella, Claudio, the Provost (a warden), and others. The Duke-turned-friar hatches a plot that hinges on a piece of inside information that he holds.

It turns out that the sight of lovely Isabella wasn’t the first cause of Angelo being a jerk, there was a previous incident. Angelo was once betrothed to a woman, but before they could wed the woman’s fortunes changed when a storm sank the boat carrying wealth that included her dowry. Lacking a dowry, Angelo kicked the woman to the curb where she ended up turning tricks in a Viennese brothel because for fortune had sunk — literally.

The Duke / friar’s plan is that Isabella go to Angelo and say that she agrees to his despicable propositions, and that she will do the vile deed on the condition that it be someplace pitch dark so that her lady bits can remain unseen and so she won’t throw up in the lousy face of her rapist. She also insists she be able to bring a servant to the place in question. The plan revolves around getting the wronged ex-fiancé turned prostitute to agree to pull a switch-a-roo, with her engaging in intercourse in the dark with Angelo instead of the virgin Isabella doing so. Angelo having committed the same offense as the man he signed a death warrant for will have to either change his order regarding Claudio or submit himself to the same punishment.

One can see why this play is not easily classified. It contains a lot of dark subject matter. However, it does have numerous lighthearted moments of humor, including Lucio badmouthing the Duke (to the Duke’s friar-disguised face) and the servant of a local brothel’s Madame, Pompey, becoming an assistant to the executioner. As in comedies, everything works out more or less happily for all parties.

I was gripped by this play. It’s among my favorites of the Shakespearean comedies. It has an intense storyline and some fascinating moral conundrums. The Duke works his plot such that more than one character must confront a moral dilemma and choose whether to be a better version of him-, or herself. This is definitely worth reading.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Living by Epictetus; ed. by Sharon Lebell

The Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and EffectivenessThe Art of Living: The Classical Manual on Virtue, Happiness and Effectiveness by Epictetus
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This thin volume is packed with the wisdom of Epictetus. Epictetus was a freed slave who made a name for himself as a philosopher in Rome about a century after the birth of Christ. While small-s “stoic” conjures an image of a dour automaton, the Stoics were philosophers who believed [he oversimplified] that there’s nothing worth getting broken up about. If you can do something to influence the outcome of an event, you just need to pick the virtuous course. And if you can’t do anything about it, getting mopey is futile. In many ways, Stoicism is the Western philosophy that is most in-line with Eastern philosophies in that it emphasizes that your internal mental state is independent of what is happening outside you; so, if you can rule your mind you can find your bliss. Lebell, the editor of this volume, heavily accentuates that similarity.

When I called this thin, I didn’t mean “thin” as a derogatory comment. That said, this book is even thinner than it’s 113-page count would suggest because (as with most poetry collections) there’s a lot of white space left under a few lines of text. I actually think it’s kind of nice that the publisher didn’t do what is usually done with such short books, which is to pad them out with various unnecessary ancillary material. That said, if you can get the e-book, you’ll save some trees from dying for blank space. If they would have placed more than one maxim per page, it would probably have been cut to about 60pp.

I found this book to be well-written and nicely presented, and would recommend it for someone who wants a simple and concise overview of Stoicism.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Food: A Very Short Introduction by John Krebs

Food: A Very Short IntroductionFood: A Very Short Introduction by John R. Krebs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

 

This volume in the Oxford University Press AVSI series examines human eating habits. The first chapter puts the human diet in the context of evolution, reflecting upon how we got where we did in terms of food consumption. Here one gains insight into where the Paleo-diet fad is flawed, and one learns how cooking had a huge influence on human evolution.

The second chapter delves into the issue of likes and dislikes in food. We see that there are species-wide commonalities, but there are also differences both at an individual and cultural group level. e.g. Why is spice so common in the tropics and so rare in the great white north?

The third chapter looks at the ways food can do us in and what we’ve done – besides [and including] the aforementioned cooking – to reduce the threat of food gone awry. The penultimate chapter examines nutrition and how we get what we need from food.

The last chapter takes a bit of a turn, but investigates the fascinating topic of how (and whether) we will continue to feed our species. Readers will likely remember the name Malthus from either history or economics classes. He was an economist who suggested humanity was in dire straits, vis-à-vis food. Malthus noticed that population was growing geometrically while agricultural output grew arithmetically, and he reasonably noted that this was unsustainable. Of course, Malthus failed to foresee the huge technological advances from fertilizer to mechanization. However, that doesn’t make his concerns forever moot – perhaps just tardy. It remains far from clear whether the limited land space and resources can take billions more humans – especially without killing off all the other species. (Especially, if we aren’t willing to give up eating resource-intensive foods like cow in favor of less intensive one’s like grasshopper.)

The book has some graphics as well as both a “references” and a “further reading” section.

If you’re interested in food in a general sense, I’d recommend this as a great way to take in the outline of the topic.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Lila Says by Anonymous

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Consciousness by Susan Blackmore

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

Amazon page

 

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.

View all my reviews