ESSAY REVIEW: Confessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell

Confessions of a Book ReviewerConfessions of a Book Reviewer by George Orwell
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Available free through the Orwell Foundation

An amusing essay that reveals the dirty secrets of book criticism, while proposing that the vast majority of books don’t merit a review. Just a few pages long.

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BOOK REVIEW: An Essay on Criticism by Alexander Pope

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

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View free at The Poetry Foundation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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BOOK REVIEW: The Critic as Artist by Oscar Wilde

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

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Free to Read Online

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“…nothing worth knowing can be taught.”

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


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BOOK REVIEW: The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Wigner

The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural SciencesThe Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences by Eugene Paul Wigner
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Available online here

This brief essay asks why math proves so effective for describing / codifying physical laws, and whether our physical theories — built on (phenomenally successful) mathematics — offer the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

There’s a popular story in which a drunk man is found on his hands and knees under a lamppost at night when a police officer comes along. The cops says, “What-cha doin’?” To which the drunk replies, “I dropped my keys, and I’m looking for them?” So, the cop says, “Well, they’re clearly not where you’re looking, why not look elsewhere?” And the drunk says, “Cuz this is where the light is.” I think this story can help us understand what Wigner is getting on about, if only we replace the drunk’s “light” with the scientist’s “elegant mathematics.” Wigner reflects upon why it should be that so many laws of nature seem to be independent from all but a few variables (which is the only way scientists could have discovered them –historically, mathematically, and realistically speaking.) On the other hand, could it be that Physics has led itself into epistemological cul-de-sacs by chasing elegant mathematics?

There’s no doubt that (for whatever the reason turns out to be) mathematics has been tremendously successful in facilitating the construction of theories that make predictions that can be tested with high levels of accuracy. However, that doesn’t mean that some of those theories won’t prove to be mirages.

A few of the examples used in this paper are somewhat esoteric and won’t be readily understood by the average (non-expert) reader. That said, Wigner puts his basic arguments and questions in reasonably clear (if academic) language. The essay is definitely worth reading for its thought-provoking insights.


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BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

The One-Straw RevolutionThe One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I kept running into references to this book in my readings about food and farming, and, eventually, I figured it must be a must-read. One topic that’s of interest to me (and should be of interest to everyone) is how [or, perhaps, whether] humanity can be sustainably fed, given the realities of human nature. Fukuoka (d. 2008) was at the vanguard of what’s been called the “natural farming” movement (a term he admitted he didn’t love.) He spent decades growing rice, other grains, and fruits in rural Shikoku, Japan, using a minimalist approach.

The book mixes philosophy, biography, commentary on food / nutrition, and instruction in Fukuoka’s approach to agriculture. Guided by a philosophy of “wu wei” (i.e. “effortless action,”) Fukuoka figured out how to reduce the amount of effort and resources put into farming, while maintaining crop yields that were competitive with the standard farming model. His approach appears backwards, lazy, and unlikely to succeed. He didn’t plow his fields. He planted by casting seed into the previous crop before harvesting it (note: he alternated rice with winter grains.) He didn’t weed, but rather let white clover grow freely and used the stalks and chaff from one harvest as cover for the next (again, rotating crops,) a cover that biodegraded into nutrients. He used no chemicals, neither fertilizer nor insecticide. And yet, important details of his approach kept his yields up while using minimal resources to maximum effect by operating in accord with nature (e.g. no insecticides seems to risk infestation, but it also means that you haven’t killed the creatures that eat pests.)

Fukuoka’s philosophy combines the principles of nature, Buddhist & Taoist concepts, and – believe it or not — something reminiscent of Nihilism (without calling it such.) There are parts of the book that some might find disagreeable. For example, Fukuoka uses an analogy that draws on the Mahayanist view of the distinction between Mahayana and “Hinayana” that Theravadins may find offensive (fyi: the older branch of Buddhism considers “Hinayana” to be derogatory and believes it’s a label based on a mistaken belief.) [To be fair, Fukuoka explicitly stated that he belonged to no religion and he claimed no expertise on the subject.] More likely to take offense are scientists and agricultural researchers, a group who takes it from both barrels. [Fukuoka says his opposition to scientists is that they fill the same role in society as the discriminating mind plays in mental activity, and he values the non-discriminating mind.]

I found this book to be loaded with food-for-thought. It raises a number of questions that aren’t answered inside (e.g. is Fukuoka’s approach scalable?,) but it’s a fascinating and highly readable introduction to natural farming. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in the subject.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson

The TranscendentalistThe Transcendentalist by Ralph Waldo Emerson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Online: Emersoncentral.com

In this short essay (about ten pages,) Emerson lays out an argument for Idealism over Materialism, and then contends that it’s reasonable to excuse oneself from the economic and civic aspects of society in favor of a simple life of introspection. [e.g. As Thoreau did in his years at Walden Pond.]

Emerson opens by suggesting that Transcendentalism is just Idealism by a different name. Idealism being a philosophical stance which puts consciousness at the fore while proposing that there is something beyond [that transcends] our experience of sensory information. The arguments put forth in favor of Idealism include the fact that sensory illusions exist and the Kantian critique of Locke’s view that there’s no more to the intellect than that which is or was sensory experience; Kant argues that there’s intuition. Kant’s influence is considerable, and Emerson explains that even the term “Transcendentalism” is derived from Kant’s use of the term “transcendental.”

The latter part of the essay echoes Emerson’s masterwork, the essay “Self-Reliance.” It proposes that it’s perfectly laudable to take advantage of the greatest gift one has, one’s consciousness, to introspect and indulge one’s need to better understand.

I may have mixed views on Emerson’s ideas, but one can’t say he doesn’t use language and reason and passion to make compelling claims. I found this brief essay to be both thought-provoking and inspirational, and I’d highly recommend it.


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BOOK REVIEW: A Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges

A Personal AnthologyA Personal Anthology by Jorge Luis Borges
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of poetry, short fiction, essays, and other short writings (that fit into two or more of the previously mentioned categories) – all chosen by Borges as the works he wanted his literary legacy to be based upon. For those unacquainted, Borges was a brilliant Argentine author whose writings were philosophical, mystical, erudite, and brief. He was the perfect writer for those of us who love ideas and contemplation of the world, but who also suffer deficits of attention. He wrote in bitesize pieces, but those bites couldn’t have been more intensely flavored with ideas and evocative and provocative commentary. His subject matter includes lofty topics such as the lives of Homer, Shakespeare, and Buddha, but also crude, visceral experiences such as a knife fight.

Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of Borges’ work, and couldn’t resist reading his choices for his personal best – even having recently read many of the pieces – particularly the better-known ones. It’s worth noting that Borges’ choices include a great many of the works that others have called his best work, e.g. “The Aleph,” “Borges and I,” “Biography of Tadeo Isidoro Cruz (1829 – 1874,)” “The Zahir,” “The Maker,” “Averröes’ Search,” “The Golem,” “Circular Ruins,” etc. The biggest surprise of the collection was that it included much more poetry than I expected. The works I’ve read previously contained minimal poetry, but I’d say this collection is about half poems.

I can’t recommend this book enough. It’s thought-provoking and magnificently written / translated. I would normally say that I’m not qualified to comment on the skill of translation other than to say the book read well, but the two translators wrote an epilogue that I think showed they could channel the mystery and creativity of Jorge Luis Borges.


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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

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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: Monkey: New Writing from Japan: Vol. 2: Travel ed. Ted Goosen & Motoyuki Shibata

MONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVELMONKEY New Writing from Japan: Volume 2: TRAVEL by Ted Goossen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 28, 2021

This anthology of travel-themed short writings by prominent Japanese authors includes: short stories, essays, poems, excerpts from longer works, and even an illustrated story [i.e. “The Overcoat” by Satoshi Kitamura.] The nature and degree of travel varies considerably with some pieces being travelogues or setting-centric fiction, but other pieces explore travel in a more symbolic sense (e.g. “Hell” by Kikuko Tsumura or “Decline of the Aliens” by Hideo Furukawa.] And one piece, “Cardboard Boxes and Their Uses” by Taki Monma deals more with the topic of being shut in, so it might be considered a study in travel through its absence.

The anthology includes works by literary stars such as Mieko Kawakami, Haruki Murakami, and Yasunari Kawabata, and showcases translation by some of the most well-know translators of Japanese literature. [The edition ends with a dozen brief statements by translators about what they have found particularly daunting to translate — not necessarily because the literal translation is difficult but because the elegance of the origin language can be lost to clunkiness in the translated language.]

Among my favorite pieces were “The Dugong” (a historical fiction story with a “Journey to the West” feel to it,) Haruki Murakami’s essay entitled “Jogging in Southern Europe” (which anyone who’s ever exercised amid people who don’t exercise will find amusing,) “Five Modern Poets on Travel” [particularly the tanka of Kanoko Okamoto and the haiku of both Hisago Sugita and Dakotsu Iida,] and “Every Reading, Every Sound, Every Sight” by Jun’ichi Konuma. That said, I don’t think there was a clunker in the bunch, each piece was well-composed and translated, and I’d highly recommend reading this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song [Trans. by Yang Xianyi & Gladys Yang]

Poetry and prose of the Tang and SongPoetry and prose of the Tang and Song by Yang Xianyi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This collection includes works from eighteen prominent poets and writers from the Tang (618-907 AD) and Song (960 – 1279 AD) Dynasties of China. Among the most famous of the included authors are: Wang Wei, Li Bai, Du Fu, Bai Juyi, Wang Yucheng, and Su Shi. The included works (mostly poems but including some brief prose writings) explore subjects such as nature, social justice, patriotism, travel, and drinking. If some of those topics surprise you, you’re not alone. I may be letting my biases show, but I was surprised by how much social outrage and humor was contained in these works from the China of 750 to 1,400 years ago. That said, most of the works do present the kind of sparse imagist depictions of natural scenes one would likely expect from Chines poets in days of yore. (Think haiku, but longer — though no less devoid of analysis or judgement.)

As someone who isn’t an expert on Chinese literature or even a speaker of any of the Chinese languages, I can’t comment intelligently on how precise the translations are. However, the English language versions contained in this volume are evocative, clever, and, occasionally, funny.

To give one an idea of the kind of humor, I’ll offer this quote from a poem by Xin Qiji:

Last night by the pine I staggered tipsily
And asked the pine, “How drunk am I?”
When I imagined the pine sidling over to support me,
I pushed it off saying, “Away!”


I enjoyed this collection, and would highly recommend it.


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