BOOK REVIEW: The Madman’s Gallery by Edward Brooke-Hitching

The Madman's GalleryThe Madman’s Gallery by Edward Brooke-Hitching
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: March 7, 2023 [Some editions may be out in your area]

The Madman’s Gallery presents a selection of bizarre, curious, macabre, grotesque, surreal, and psychedelic artworks with essays offering insight into the background of each painting or sculpture, including information on influences and what is known about what motivated these atypical acts of creativity. Not all of the artworks are the product of mental illness – though some are and when something is known about the artist’s mental state it’s mentioned. They are all just, in some way, preternaturally creative or unconventional.

I was pleased that the book exposed me to a new selection of art. There were only a few pieces with which (as a neophyte) I was familiar. These included: Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait,” Bosch’s “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” Fuseli’s “The Nightmare,” Gentileschi’s “Judith Slaying Holofernes,” the Olmec heads, and Dali’s “The Persistence of Memory.” There were other well-known paintings that were referenced because they were influenced by or had something in common with the artwork under discussion.

The book disabused me of the notion that the latter half of the twentieth century art was the golden age of freakish art (though that era is well represented with discussions of Dada, Surrealism, performance art, etc.) It’s interesting to learn how much wild and weird art was being producing in previous centuries, given how little of it made it through the filter of history to a general audience.

There are many recurring themes throughout the book: death, blasphemy, fertility, demons, etc. But the latter portion of the book features some new sources of bizarre art, including hoaxes, forgeries, and AI art.

If you’re interested in art history, and particularly the weird side of the subject, I’d highly recommend you read this book.

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Spontaneous Ideation [Free Verse]

ideas accelerate to the surface
like air bubbles

from whence they came,
i cannot say

they passed up from below
the lit sea

from the darkness 

maybe, like air bubbles,
they follow a mostly straight path,
but i cannot say for certain
what happens below the light

i catch only the vapor that drifts up
out of the popping bubbles

and it must be gathered quickly 
before it spreads on the wind,
becoming lukewarm nothing...

damn increasing entropy!

BOOK REVIEW: Extreme Survival by Michael Tougias

Extreme SurvivalExtreme Survival by Michael Tougias
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: December 6, 2022

This book presents lessons from survival under intense, life-threatening turns of events. It focuses on the psychology of a survival mindset. The author has expertise in maritime survival, and a large portion of the cases explored involve survival at sea. Though the author did seek to include some variety, including concentration camps, home invasions, climbing accidents, etc. However, the maritime focus is worth noting because it’s in contrast to competing books which tend to give roughly equal discussion to a variety of different threats to survivorship.

There are three books I’ve read in recent years on extreme survival – i.e. Kamler’s “Surviving the Extremes,” Ashcroft’s “Life at the Extremes,” and Ripley’s “The Unthinkable.” Of these, the book that is most similar to Tougias’s is Ripley’s. The first two books focus much more on the physiology of survival in extreme environments. However, Ripley’s book also focuses on the psychological / mindset dimension of survival, though through a more diverse set of disasters.

The maritime focus didn’t bother me for three reasons. First, I’d rather have a person with expertise focus in that area than stumble about in lesser-known fields. It allowed Tougias to focus more on the stories of those with whom he’d conducted first-hand interviews. [The author did engage in a variety of stumbling in Chapter 8 [on the sunk cost fallacy] when he discussed the sunk cost fallacy as a separate but similar situation to those survival scenarios he’d already described [which were also cases of sunk costs] – i.e. it sounded like Tougias believes the sunk cost fallacy only applies to financial costs, which isn’t how economists look at the matter.] Second, survival at sea is one of the most intense scenarios I can imagine facing (i.e. I’m not concerned about survival in space, and I feel more experienced, competent, and -thus- less viscerally responsive to survive on terra firma – e.g. high elevation, deserts, etc.) Thirdly, since the book was on mindset, it didn’t need to be as diverse as the Kamler and Ashcroft books which examined the physiology of challenges presented by varied environments.

That said, I’d give a slight edge to the Ripley book, if you could choose only one. Still, this was a solid book on the subject, and did a great job with narrative examples and explanation of lessons. My criticisms are small. For example, like many books, chapters begin with quotations, but I felt they were the wrong quotations. Opening quotes are a widespread and fine approach when the quote is one that taps into the theme of the chapter. However, often the quotes in this book were from people involved in cases that were later presented within the chapter, and so the quotes often lacked context. If the quotes were meant to be hooks, some landed better than others. (A few simply left me befuddled.) On the other hand, the author did an excellent job with summaries at the end of the chapters.

All in all, this was a well-written book on survival, and I learned a great deal from reading it. If you don’t plan on reading multiple books on the subject, you might look into others first, but it’s certainly worth reading. And it’s a topic that gets one interested in reading more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst

The Storyteller's HandbookThe Storyteller’s Handbook by Elise Hurst
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: June 14, 2022

This is a book, but not one that one reads but rather one that one writes. It contains more than 50 imaginative and fantastical artworks intended to help creative parents build their own stories, while helping their children learn to become storytellers. There is a forward by Neil Gaiman (who has worked with the artist on previous occasions) and an introduction by Hurst, but otherwise there’s almost no text.

The animate subjects of the book are children and animals, but not just any animals. They are mis-sized, misplaced, mythical, imaginary, anthropomorphized, and extinct creatures in search of a clever explanation for their existence and behaviors. The usual suspects of our beloved stories are most well-represented: bears, lions, foxes, rabbits, birds, and fish – for example. But there are also less well-known creatures: mollusks, a mantis, kangaroo, koala, and armadillo. The settings are also designed to fuel the imagination: oceans, hot air balloons, impossibly floating places of all sorts, cities of gothic and fantastical architecture.

If you’re looking for a storybook where you have a graphic prompt to trigger your own story, this is a beautifully illustrated example of such a work.

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BOOK REVIEW: I’m a Joke and So Are You by Robin Ince

I'm a Joke and So Are You: Reflections on Humour and HumanityI’m a Joke and So Are You: Reflections on Humour and Humanity by Robin Ince
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This book examines the intersection between psychology and standup comedy. It investigates questions such as whether comedians are truly disproportionately depressive personalities as a number of high-profile cases have led the public to believe in recent years. It explores issues such as anxiety and imposter syndrome. But it also looks at less pathological issues of the mind, such as the origin of creative ideas.

The tone is light, and stories and jokes are employed throughout. That said, the book is also dealing with scientific and psychological issues, but it doesn’t get into technical minutiae. Ince discusses how ideas in psychology relate to the acts of a number of comedians he’s worked with, including Ricky Gervais and Tim Minchin, but – ultimately – he’s trying to present information that is useful to the reader. Whether the issue is grieving or parenting, the use of humor and comedy is just a tool to address issues most people face.

I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. You won’t necessarily find it to be a laugh-riot, but you’ll learn a thing or two while being amused.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury

Zen in the Art of WritingZen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

I rarely re-read books, but I’m glad that I revisited this one. I think I read it more smartly on the second go — more in a way that benefited from Bradbury’s style and message. The book’s nine essays, capped by a small collection of poems, convey lessons on writing, and – specifically – creativity in writing. Bradbury was among my favorite authors because he combined brilliant language with clever stories – i.e. he was creative on both levels. That’s a rarity. There are many excellent storytellers whose language lacks poetry or finesse. And, there are writers who are eloquent and evocative with language, but who either care little for, or have limited gift for, story.

While Bradbury claimed no expertise in Zen and doesn’t hide that he cribbed his title from a popular work by Eugen Herrigel entitled, “Zen in the Art of Archery,” it remains an appropriate title for the book and its eponymous final essay. Throughout the book, one can feel the Zen in Bradbury’s writing. He lets his words and analogies flow without becoming obsessively analytical about them – or at least appearing not to have been. Bradbury uses a lot of short, punchy sentences and a great many poetic applications of figurative language. He practices what he preaches as he both gives lessons and simultaneous demonstrations on how to write. His advice ranges from using single word writing prompts to shake one out of writer’s block, to the very Zen idea of avoiding thought – i.e. letting the words come from the subconscious. Lest one think that there is a conflict in a book on creativity that draws from another book’s title, there’s a recognition that creative writing is never wholly novel.

This book is well worth reading, not just for writers but for other artists and creative types as well. I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley

Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to ArtZen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Project Gutenberg (FREE)

This essay reviews the history and key personalities of Zen Buddhism, and then has a quite brief discussion of Zen influenced art. The thin book at its most interesting when it discusses Zen Buddhist teachings by way of the life events and sayings of its historical figures (e.g. Bodhidharma.) It does have some nice straightforward explanations of concepts.

What’s not to like? First, it’s just an essay, so if you’re expecting a full book, you might be displeased. Second, the opening discussion about the sectarian divides of Buddhism is very biased in favor of Mahayana Buddhism and against Theravada. (Of course, if one is reading about a Mahayana sect, e.g. Zen, one probably expects as much.) Finally, the title might lead one to think the book will help one understand the Zen mind’s influence on creativity, but it’s not a great source for that.

If you know what to expect, this little piece has something fine to offer. Waley was a prolific translator and a renowned expert on things Asian (particularly poetry,) and he has an insightful way of communicating difficult concepts.

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BOOK REVIEW: Teaching Artfully by Meghan Parker

Teaching ArtfullyTeaching Artfully by Meghan Parker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: May 4, 2021 in India (It may be out already where you live.)


While I’m not an art teacher and this book is clearly directed at art teachers, I took away a number of useful lessons nevertheless. The book is laid out as a comic book, and is meant to extol the virtues of that artform while at the same time conveying knowledge about art, teaching, and the teaching of art.

The book is organized into seven chapters that are loosely themed according to the seven elements of art: line, color, form, texture, shape, space, and value [in the sense of the level of lightness / darkness.] The connection between the artistic characteristic and what is conveyed in its chapter is more readily apparent for some chapters than for others.

Chapter one (Line) both presents how the book came to be and what the intention behind it is, and also has something to say about process. The second chapter is entitled “Color,” and it touches upon issues such as the nature of aesthetics, the value of the notion of embodiment to the artistic endeavor, and the role of imagination. Chapter three is “Form” and it explores how time, space, and story play into conveying knowledge, as well as offering insight into how form influences perception. The next chapter is “Texture, and it has a lot to do with interaction and human relationships as they pertain to the art classroom. “Shape” investigates the issue of boundaries, such as what really differentiates artist from non-artist, the grammar of comics, and the role of the teacher. It also presents a number projects that might be introduced in the classroom or in one’s self-study. “Space” is probably the most literal title as it discusses the classroom space as well as the more figurative space given to students. The final chapter (Value) has a lot to say about frames of reference and the analogy of painting frames to the frames that individuals operate in and see the world through.

There is a Conclusion that provides some summation of ideas, and there are also notes and a page of references. This book shined a spotlight on a few other books that intrigue me, but that would have been completely outside my awareness — given I don’t read much about the visual arts, but I’m increasingly finding it to be a topic of interest.

As I said, even though its outside my bailiwick, I took away some intriguing lessons from this book — particularly about how variations in the elements of art encourage different emotional and psychological responses. There are a few excellent quotes as well. These powerful lessons weren’t in every frame. A fair amount of space is devoted to both platitudes and [hopefully] cathartic rants about the challenge of being a teacher, and particularly a teacher of art.

The book is festively drawn and colored and (as befits a book focusing on the visual arts) I got even more out of how ideas were portrayed visually than how they were discussed textually. The book takes a light and whimsical approach, and is pretty to look at.

If you’re interested in learning more about the visual arts, I’d highly recommend picking this book up.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance PrimerThe Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


Steven Kotler’s new book, “The Art of Impossible,” shares territory with two of his previous books [“The Rise of Superman” and “Stealing Fire” (the latter co-authored with Jamie Wheal,)] but it also takes a step back to reveal a broader landscape than those previous books. Whereas the earlier books focused on how to achieve a high-performance state of mind called “flow” (or “peak performance,”) this one looks at the bigger picture of how to achieve success with daunting projects. So, while the fourth / final section of the book presents information that will be familiar to past readers, the first three sections – on motivation, learning, and creativity, respectively – are not addressed in the earlier works. [It’s worth pointing out that even section four (Ch. 19 – 23) presents some new information and organizational schemes because this is a fast-moving research domain of late.]

The book’s first six chapters (i.e. Part I) are about achieving and maintaining motivation. This starts from the logical bedrock of finding an “impossible” task for which one is likely to have sufficient passion and interest to follow through. The reader learns how to formulate goals that are challenging enough and clear enough to facilitate sustained interest, effort, and productivity. The importance of autonomy is discussed at length, and the reader learns what companies like Google, 3M, and Patagonia have done to make gains via employees energized by increased autonomy. The kind of motivation that allows one to knuckle-down under adversity, grit, is given its own chapter, and the author discusses six variations that are important to success.

Part II (Ch. 7 – 14) is about the learning process and how one can organize one’s pursuits to get the most learning per effort. Chapter ten is the heart of this section, offering a detailed approach to organizing one’s learning activities. Chapter fourteen offers yet another critique of the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by (and oversimplified in) the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers.” [This “rule,” developed by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, has come under intense criticism in large part because every time the explanation shifted downstream it became less of an approximate rule of thumb that was applicable to some specific domains and more of an iron-clad rule deemed applicable to every activity that benefits from practice, resulting in insane behavior such as parents who pick their child’s sport in the womb so that the kid can get the requisite number of practice hours before the college recruiters come to see him or her play.]

The third part (Ch. 15 – 18) is about fostering creativity. Here, Kotler takes the reader on a tour of changing thought about creativity, ranging from the ancient stories of muses to today’s state-of-the-art neuroscience. Like the section on Flow, there is an elaboration of where the neuroscientific understanding of creativity sits at the moment. Having read a range of books discussing such descriptions, this approach is falling out of favor with me. First, whenever I’ve read a book by an actual neuroscientist, I’ve learned that these simple attributions of activities to certain brain regions are either vastly oversimplified, more tentatively agreed upon than suggested, or both of the above. Second, I have realized that learning a name like Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and an oversimplified explanation of what it does doesn’t really help me. That said, I understand there is interest in these descriptions that drive their inclusion in such books. (I, too, have been interested in reading about it, but less and less so.)

The final part is about Flow, and this is where readers of “Rise of Superman” will be well-primed for the information that is covered. Chapter 21, which elucidates the twenty-two “Flow Triggers,” is the heart of this section. As I mentioned, Kotler has changed the way he organizes this discussion since his earlier book, but the material is still largely from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject. In addition to explanation of what it means to get into the state of Flow and of how to improve one’s chances of getting there, there is a discussion of “Flow Blockers” – four mind states that hinder Flow. The last chapter lays out a plan consisting of daily and weekly activities, and – as such – it serves as both a summary and an outline for moving forward.

Writers may find this book particularly beneficial because Kotler relies heavily on anecdotes from his own work to clarify and explain the points under discussion. By contrast, “Rise of Superman” relied almost exclusively on stories from extreme sports athletes, and “Stealing Fire” drew on silicone valley and the special forces heavily for examples. I actually enjoyed that Kotler spoke from his own experience. As someone who has read a fair number of books on peak performance, I’ve seen a lot of the same stories repeated within popular books. That said, readers who haven’t read much on the topic may wish the book had a broader set of narrative examples and less definitional / conceptual discussion. The author may be aware that many of his readers will have fatigue from reading the same stories and examples. When Kotler does mention such widely-discussed examples (e.g. Steve Jobs putting bathrooms in the Pixar building in a central location that created cross-pollination of people on different projects) he does so briefly and without preaching to the choir.

I found this book to be an interesting overview of how to approach a large-scale life mission. It’s well-organized and readable (though it might benefit from less vocabulary-based neuroscience discussion.) If you are feeling a bit rudderless, this is a good book to look into.

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