BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman

Death: The Deluxe Edition (Death of the Endless, #1-2)Death: The Deluxe Edition by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book includes seven stories featuring the character of Death from Gaiman’s Sandman series. Two of the stories are longer (three-issue) tales, and the rest are single-issue short fiction.


For those unfamiliar with character, Gaiman subverts the “Grim Reaper” persona. Instead of a cloak-enshrouded skeleton, its face obscured by hood and shadow, Gaiman’s Death is an attractive young woman who goes by Didi, Gothically pale but certainly more beautiful than terrifying. However, appearances aren’t the only way in which Didi is the polar opposite of the Grim Reaper. She’s also preternaturally likeable and gregarious.


The first tripartite story is entitled “The Hight Cost of Living,” and in it a suicidal teen, Sexton, gets drawn into Didi’s drama, but also experiences a newfound appreciation for living. The other three-part story, “The Time of Your Life,” is about a rock star [stage name, “Foxglove”] who has everything a budding pop star could want, but when she learns that you can’t have it all and no one escapes their mortality, she’s forced to reevaluate her priorities. While the collection is built around those two stories, it’s not like the shorter works are filler. I found that “Façade” and “Death and Venice,” in particular, to be quite satisfying as stories.


A couple things to keep in mind: First, the stories are pulled from a long run, and so there are discontinuities – e.g. Death in “The Wheel” looks different from the other stories. Second, one reviewer said this book wasn’t a good choice if one hadn’t read the whole “Sandman” series. Someone who’d read it all might get more Easter Eggs, but it’s not the case that the stories don’t make sense in isolation. With the exception of the opening story, “The Sound of Her Wings,” I didn’t feel I was missing anything by not having read the series.


One can’t go wrong with Gaiman, the storytelling is clever and compelling, and the art is captivating – despite the stylistic variation.


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BOOK REVIEW: Home by Julio Anta

Home, Vol. 1Home, Vol. 1 by Julio Anta
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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Out: November 23, 2021

This book starts out with a gripping premise, a single mother and her son separated at the border, the mother being deported back to Guatemala as the son makes his way to the home of his aunt in Texas. The story shows a great deal of promise in the introductory issue. Unfortunately, over the course of the volume, all of the tension that is painstakingly built up is squandered. Whenever there is a challenging and visceral circumstance a new set of random superpowers is revealed, such that by the fifth and final issue, one no longer feels the protagonist is in peril (regardless of circumstance) because it’s a given that some deus ex machina magic will come along to save the day.


What’s sad is that, other than the crippling problems of anti-climactic story, the book shows many positive attributes. It’s well drawn. The book builds characters for whom the reader is rooting. Emotion is effectively portrayed. I think if the superpowers had been introduced upfront with some understanding of limitations and “kryptonite,” there would have been potential for an enjoyable read. As it is, however, it’s exactly the opposite of what one would like – a book that gets more and more intense – as resolutions come too easily.


It’s an impassioned, if not nuanced, view of immigration issues, and – if that’s enough for you – you might be interested in checking it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: False Guard by Merwan

Fausse Garde - NE (Hors Collection)Fausse Garde – NE by Merwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This graphic novel is set in a fantastical world that combines the culture of a Southeast Asian live-in gym, a setting suggestive of “One Thousand and One Nights” supersized to mega-city scale, and some novel creative elements of the author-artist’s imagination. The protagonist, Mane, is a fighter who dreams of making it big in the big city. On the bright side, despite the prejudices against him as an outsider, Mane has the drive and talent to be a champion. However, in a universe of single-minded people (professional fighters,) his energies are split between the gym and his desire to fight for social justice. It turns out that the man leading him into a guerrilla battle against the societal elite, Fessat, is an old intra-gym rival of the gym-owner / coach, Eiam, for whom Mane is fighting.


The story is largely about Mane’s attempts to reconcile these two aspects of himself, and the travails of the bifurcated mentorship he receives from Fessat and Eiam. The fictional martial art of Pankat bears resemblance to Muay Thai / Lethwei / Pradal Serey Southeast Asian style kick-boxing, with a combination of MMA elements to appeal to the present-day reader and some creative details to make it feel more exotic.


For the most part, I found the story and character development compelling. There were some points at which it felt like there was a disjoint between the emotional displays being made and the events at hand. It’s hard to put a finger on what was off, it just felt a bit overwrought at times. Besides a desire to create a visceral story, this is probably meant to reflect Mane’s stress level, but it felt forced at times. It’s also true that Mane is a complex character – at times sympathetic and at other times an impetuous jerk.


If found this book to be enjoyable and engaging.


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BOOK REVIEW: His Last Bow by Arthur Conan Doyle

His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - with original illustrations)His Last Bow: A Reminiscence of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This story collection is the penultimate book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. One sees a shift into the modernity of the twentieth century in the seven collected stories. In particular, “The Adventure of the Bruce-Partington Plans,” is about the theft of plans for a submarine, and the final story, the titular finale, “His Last Bow” takes Holmes out of the world of crime and law enforcement and into the realm of espionage. Of course, the Sherlock Holmes books have always taken advantage of both the science of the day as well as offering glimpses into the cultures and peculiarities of far away lands. This blending of the cutting edge with exoticism is part of what gave these books a mystique that set them apart from other detective fiction, and is also partly why they have aged so well.


Two recurring plot devices in the book are poisonous substances and – ever popular with Doyle – the criminal secret society. Poisons play a central role in “The Adventure of the Devil’s Foot” and “The Adventure of the Dying Detective.” The secret society angle plays into the only two stories of the collection that are two-parters: “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge” and “The Adventure of the Red Circle.” “His Last Bow” isn’t the only departure from the standard Sherlock fare. Given an attempt to kill off Holmes as well as the unsuccessful finality of this book’s title, it seems like Doyle was acutely concerned by the capacity for these stories to become overplayed. Therefore, he seemed to experiment a little with story. Unfortunately for him, the author did too good of a job at creating one of the most intriguing characters ever, and so demand for the stories remained unabated – regardless of the fact that the stories tend to become a bit more predictable as one reads through them in their entirety.


I felt this collection provided a nice mix of atypical and classic Sherlock. It’s definitely worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Mademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire

Mademoiselle BaudelaireMademoiselle Baudelaire by Yslaire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This graphic novel mixes fact and fiction to tell the tale of the romance between French poet, Charles Baudelaire, and Jeanne Duval, the Haitian mulatto woman with whom he maintained a long-term relationship. The fictional portion of the story is necessitated by the fact that some of the couple’s story is unknown. Much more is known about Baudelaire than Duval, and in terms of what is on record, accounts differ. The relationship was passionate and complex, but it’s hard to say how loving it was. Baudelaire is depicted as fetishizing Duval’s dark skin, and Duval seems like a gold-digger at times.


The bulk of the story is told in an epistolary fashion as a letter from Duval to Baudelaire’s mother after the poet’s death. While the epistolary form seems apropos for creating a tone for historical fiction set during the 19th century when that form was all the rage, it was the source of my only problem with the book. That problem is that some of what’s communicated strains credulity. First, the work is erotic in nature, and it seems unlikely that even the most libertine of women would feel the need to share with a mother what they did with her son. It just feels awkward. Second, there is a fair amount of “as you know, Bob” exposition in the letter. [“As you know, Bob” being shorthand for telling a character something that they would know at least as well as the teller knows, and – in some cases – more so.] This is most clearly seen when the letter talks about a time when Baudelaire was living with his mother, such that it’s not clear how Duval knows this information, but it’s non-sensical for her to act as though the mother wouldn’t know.


Other than that, my view of the book was entirely positive. I found the art was effective and captured the spirit of the time well. There’s large amounts of nudity and graphic sexuality, so if that’s troubling for you, it’s not your kind of book. The prose is just purple enough to lend authenticity to the 19th century epistolary format, but quite readable.


I found the book fascinating and I read it straight through. If you’re interested in the Bohemian life of a womanizing poet / laudanum addict, you’ll definitely find this book compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Why I’m Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political EconomyWhy I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As a foreigner living in India for almost a decade, I’m always looking for books that offer insight into cultural and political realities that remain obscure even after many years in country. I stumbled upon this book and the diametrically titled book, “Why I Am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor. I figured the two books might cover the pro / con accounting of Hinduism through two personal accounts of how a couple of thoughtful individual’s perceptions of the religion differ.


Having read this book, chronologically the first, I discovered that the two books might not mirror each other as well as I’d thought. For one thing, this book is really more about: a.) why dalitbahujans shouldn’t be considered Hindu, and b.) why following the dalit cultural framework would be better for India than following Hinduism. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t count off many theological points that rub the author the wrong way, socio-politically speaking. It also displays no shortage of anger (which one could certainly be argued is righteous, but nonetheless detracts from the feeling of scholarly objectivity that one might hope for in such a book.) But, at the end of the day, this is a book about caste, and how the system is used by the few to oppress the many. [It also turns out that both books cast themselves in opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement.]


In short, the author argues that the “high castes” of Hinduism (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are parasitic, misogynistic, violent, oppressive, corpulent, and demanding of “spiritual fascism.” On the other hand, the Dalitbahujans are painted as productive, egalitarian, democratic, creative, less materialistic, and capable of creating a sustainable path toward a healthy India of the future. I don’t know whether I came away with a much better insight into the truth of the situation, but as a social scientist I learned that what is true is often not so important as what is believed to be true – the latter can have huge impacts regardless of its objective truth. I say this because the author does make a lot of gratuitous assertions – unsupported statements — and these are particularly difficult to process when they address the motives of high caste people. He also sometimes whitewashes the “sins” of other religions to make the argument that Hindus are the worst / most unreasonable of all religions.


While it’s certainly true that the caste system has been oppressive and that the oppressed are within reason to be angry and to insist upon change, it’s hard for me to get a good read on what is true regarding the details because the author takes a preaching-to-the-choir route and doesn’t really provide the evidence an outsider would need to judge. That said, the book still offers a great deal of value because it tells one what the author (and presumably many others) feel to be the truth of the situation.


I found this book insightful and thought-provoking. There may be better books out there in terms of supporting arguments, but it’s a solid counter to the throngs of books by the Hindu intellectual elite. [FYI – The book will drive typo-haters insane, it’s loaded with missing letter typos, etc.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA, Vol. 1 by Brandon Beckner

Project MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIAProject MK-Ultra: Sex, Drugs and the CIA by Stewart Kenneth Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 19, 2021

This graphic novel mixes fiction with the historical events, and – in a bizarre inversion of the usual – the most outlandish parts of the story tend to be the history. It tells the story of the CIA’s ill-fated and highly illegal “experiments” with LSD, studies that involved dosing unwitting individuals on American soil. The fictionalized through line of the story involves a San Francisco journalist who stumbles onto the CIA’s illicit activities in 1971, and – even after being discredited – continues to pursue the story with the help of a whistleblower. The book includes a prologue that shows the accidental dosing of chemist Albert Hofmann in his laboratory, an event that marked the discovery of LSD. And it comes to an end showing Operation Midnight Climax, a sub-project of MK-Ultra that was among the most audacious plots because it involved setting up a brothel at which johns were involuntarily dosed with LSD and watched through 2-way mirrors as they did the deed [or freaked out, as the case may be.]


The art is interesting. A lot of the frames are psychedelic, reflecting the fact that one is seeing the world through the eyes of tripping individuals. Most of the rest are retro to give the feel of the time at hand. In most cases, that’s 1971 San Francisco, but some of the story jumps back to events in the 50’s and 60’s. At one point the frames reminded me of Archie and Jughead comics.


I enjoyed how the story was told, using the driven newbie journalist as protagonist. That said, the book may be annoying for individuals who are curious about what is fact and what is fiction. Footnotes are occasionally used to help in this regard, as well as to give information about period references used for authenticity.


I found this book compelling, but – having read a fair amount about MK-Ultra – I had some idea what was true and recognized the names of key figures. If you’re interested in the ridiculous annals of the CIA and aren’t bothered by the fact / fiction mixing, check it out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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BOOK REVIEW: Stoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood

Stoicism: A Very Short IntroductionStoicism: A Very Short Introduction by Brad Inwood
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inwood provides an overview Stoic philosophy as it’s discussed in a scholarly context. To distinguish Stoicism as scholars see it from how it’s viewed by those who practice it as a lifestyle, the author differentiates “large Stoicism” from “minimal stoicism.” The vast majority of books today deal only with minimal stoicism – in other words; they exclusively explore how to lead a good and virtuous life, i.e. ethics-centric Stoicism. Scholars, however, are also interested in the physics (/ metaphysics) and the logic of Stoicism.


There are several reasons for this difference in scope. First, Stoic ethics has aged much better than its other philosophical branches. Much of Stoic logic has been improved upon or superseded, and Stoic physics is [arguably] obsolete. This means that scholars studying Stoic physics and logic are more interested in those subjects as a stage of development or a piece of philosophical history than they are as contenders for understanding those subjects. Second, prominent Stoic philosophers with surviving writings (i.e. Epictetus, Marcus Aurelius, and Seneca) have inspired many people by discussing Stoicism as a way of life – not so much as a navel-gazing endeavor.


After discussing the origins of Stoicism, the major Stoic authors, and how Stoicism relates to other philosophical schools of the ancient world, the book presents a chapter each on physics, ethics, and logic. The last chapter investigates how Stoicism is viewed today and how it might maintain relevance despite challenges to some of its metaphysical and logical underpinnings.


Having read a number of books on Stoicism, I didn’t know whether this concise book would be of much benefit. However, by describing Stoicism’s broader context and how the deterioration of much of that context influences the philosophy’s relevance, the book offered plenty of food-for-thought. If you’re interested in this broader context, you may want to give this book a look.


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