BOOK REVIEW: Goa Travels ed. by Manohar Shetty

Goa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st CenturyGoa Travels: Being the Accounts of Travellers from the 16th to the 21st Century by Manohar Shetty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

I picked up this book because I’m now planning a trip to Goa — only my second trip to India’s smallest state and my first to the north beach area for which it has become such a popular destination in recent decades. It’s always good to get a literary feel for a place, perhaps receiving some insights one might otherwise miss. In a way, this is the perfect book for that purpose in that it offers outsider views of Goa across time. [In another way, it’s admittedly a skewed view.]

This book gathers written excerpts from travelers to Goa. It’s divided into three parts. The first part mostly covers the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, back when Goa was a Portuguese colony. This is the largest section and includes twenty-one pieces by priests, sailors, merchants, and adventurers. This section shows a preoccupation with a few features of Goan culture that seized travelers’ attention. One of these was the terrifying practice of sati, in which a widow would throw herself on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre and be burned alive. Another was the obsessively guarded way wives were treated, generally barred from doing anything in public or with those who weren’t blood relatives.

The second section, also the shortest, features one piece on the Goan Inquisition, which was an extension of the Portuguese Inquisition and one of the major examples of horrifying behavior by the Roman Catholic church. While it’s alarming and gruesome to read about, it’s nonetheless fascinating.

The final section is about the modern era, which – for the purposes of this book – runs from about the 1950’s (after India gained independence from Britain, but while Goa was still a Portuguese colony,) through its days on the Hippie Trail, and on to more-or-less the present. I knew about Goa as a hippie hangout during that countercultural revolution, but I was less aware of what went on between Indian independence and Goa’s independence from Portugal. Among the seven pieces in this section, one also gets a feel for the challenges of having an intensely culturally conservative population packed into India’s smallest state with what is probably South Asia’s biggest party destination.

I learned a lot of fascinating facts from reading this book. It may be a bit sensationalist in some places and vaguely racist in others, but it’s not boring.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing the Enlightenment by Lloyd Spencer

Introducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic GuideIntroducing the Enlightenment: A Graphic Guide by Lloyd Spencer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This brief illustrated guide offers a history of the Age of Enlightenment with a particular focus on the changing philosophical landscape and its opposition. It does dip into the literature and arts of the time, but most intensely with respect to philosophical novels. It also discusses a burgeoning scientific scene, but mostly with respect to Isaac Newton and his influence. The Enlightenment was an age in which religion’s hold on the populace was declining and tolerance of other sects was increasing, and at the same time there was increasing liberalization, rationality, and openness to new ideas. Therefore, much of the focus is on philosophy of religion and political philosophy, and Locke, Bacon, Rousseau, Diderot, and Voltaire are the most extensively discussed personalities. (Particularly Rousseau and Voltaire as their contrasting views offered insight to the breadth of views among Enlightenment philosophers.)

I felt this book did a fine job of delivering an overview of the era and the new ideas that informed it. It drew heavily on quintessential quotes of major figures of the day (particularly the very quotable Voltaire.) It’s a fine place to begin one’s examination of the topic and includes a “Further Reading” section as a means to direct those who would like deeper insight into the subject.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom

The Gothic: A Very Short IntroductionThe Gothic: A Very Short Introduction by Nick Groom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Gothicness is the perfect kind of subject for the VSI series because it’s one of those areas about which everybody knows something, and yet knows nothing, really. Goth is [or has been] a people (or some people’s perception of other people,) an architectural style, a literary / cinematic genre, a contemporary lifestyle, and a political motif. Because of this diversity, even people who have a degree of expertise on some aspect of gothicness may have little understanding of other aspects or how these varied forms of gothicness relate (if they do, and – if they don’t — why enough people believe they relate to have made this well-formed, consensus view of connectedness.)

The downside of this diversity is that this book will almost certainly be dry, verging on tedious, at some point in the reading, depending upon one’s interests. For example, I found the portions on Gothic literature and cinema to be fascinating, but the part that dealt with gothicness in Whig politics to be boring. [With the architecture bit somewhere in between.] That said, one needs to follow this throughline to see how so many varied domains came to be Goth. Also, the book is quite short, so one isn’t likely to be bored to death because there’s not enough space spent on any one topic for that to happen.

I learned a lot about what it means to be “Goth” [or “goth”] from reading this book. It covers the history in some detail, but also brings it around to present-day movies and art. If you seek to know more about what “Gothic” means, you should definitely look into this brief guide.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: By Water by Jason Landsel & Richard Mommsen

By Water: The Felix Manz StoryBy Water: The Felix Manz Story by Jason Landsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Release Date: March 21, 2023

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This is a graphic novel-style biography of Felix Manz, a Protestant (Anabaptist) reformer from Zurich during the sixteenth century. Manz and his compatriots had a few beefs with the Catholic church, broadly classified. The first (and most religious / doctrinal) grievance was with respect to how the Church handled baptisms; specifically, infant baptism prevented baptism from being a free choice for the baptized. The second set of grievances involved the priesthood and how priests were moved around at the convenience of the Church and how much money they cost the citizenry. (i.e. They wanted local priests and not to be forced to pay a lot of overhead.) The third complaint was more an entire slate of complaints about resources. In that era, Swiss commoners couldn’t just go hunting in the woods or chop firewood as they needed because the land was under the ownership of the powers that be.

The story of Manz and his followers is intriguing, if one is interested in history. It’s kind of a strange topic to read in comic book form, but as history can be tedious in historical / biographic tomes, this makes for a quick and painless way to take in the story. There are a couple points where the book seems to shift into hagiographic territory (i.e. being difficult to swallow for the non-believer.)

The art is clear and neatly rendered, but I wondered how time-accurate it is. Maybe it is, but the inside of the houses looked pretty much like today (e.g. curtains and furnishings) and I found myself wondering whether its anachronistic or not. Ultimately, I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt as I know virtually nothing about how Swiss commoners lived in the 1500’s. At the end of the book, there are some appendices that provide more information in prose text.

If you’re interested in European and / or Religious History, you may want to read this book.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Egyptian Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch

Egyptian Myth: A Very Short IntroductionEgyptian Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Geraldine Pinch
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

It’s a daunting task to provide a flyover of such a fruitful mythological tradition, one that spanned thousands of years. This book does a mixed job of it. When it’s good – it’s exceptional, and when it’s not – it’s not. One can’t fault a book with this one’s editorial mandate for not being comprehensive. However, one can fault it for not using the little space available in the best manner. The book spends too much time discussing art and artifacts, and (to a less objectionable degree) history. I say “to a less objectionable degree” not because there was less space devoted to history but because having some historical and anthropological background is of benefit to understanding a culture’s stories [more so than knowing about their material possessions.] Until I got to chapter three, I thought the book might have been mistitled and should have been “Egyptology: A Very Short Introduction” because it was such a broad discussion of Egypt and its artifacts.

That said, in chapter three, the book does an excellent job of reviewing the gods of Egyptian Mythology. Thereafter, it meanders back and forth between being an excellent introduction to Egyptian Mythology and a rambling discussion of things Egypt. There’s a fascinating presentation of the conflict between Horus and Seth, but most of the discussion of myths are short summations (often one-liners.)

I don’t have any basis for comparison, and, therefore, couldn’t tell you if there is a better introductory guide to Egyptian Myth. That said, it does a good job of presenting an outline of the subject, but expect to spend a fair amount of time reading about subjects that are, at best, tangential to the stories of ancient Egypt.

View all my reviews

Nellie Bly Limerick

There was a reporter named Nellie Bly:
decided she'd give the asylum a try.
'Twas just for a story.
Doctors lost all glory
when they couldn't tell a nut from a spy.

BOOK REVIEW: Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward

Anarchism: A Very Short IntroductionAnarchism: A Very Short Introduction by Colin Ward
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Despite having graduate level education in Political Science, I never learned about anarchism. Even as an individual holding libertarian [classically liberal] beliefs, I dismissed anarchism as a philosophy without practical merit, one that failed to grasp the realities of human nature. And I apparently wasn’t alone as all those professors who built the curriculum that I studied didn’t find anarchism worthy of more than a passing mention as the theoretical endpoint on a continuum, a point that could never be reached in reality.

I read this little guide to the history and political philosophy of anarchism to help rectify this gap in my education, and to determine whether I was correct to dismiss anarchism as a pie-in-the-sky ideology of no practical value.

This introductory guide makes the point that anarchists have had influence in areas like labor and education policy. In essence, the book suggests that anarchism isn’t as bleakly devoid of success as it would appear. While we don’t see any functional and long-lived political entities devoid of governance by an organization with a monopoly on use of force, that doesn’t mean anarchist ideas haven’t made an impact.

The book starts with definitions and an overview of those thinkers who made anarchism seem potentially viable. It examines anarchist history and how anarchism related to competing ideologies. There’s a chapter that looks at the individualist / libertarian approaches to anarchism (in contrast to the leftist / socialist strains that dominated the early history of anarchism.) There’s a chapter that investigates the connection between anarchism and federalism. The book ends with a discussion of the green anarchists and how anarchism might move forward (to the degree it does so.)

This was a fine overview, offering insight into anarchist history, philosophy, and the divergences of thinking between anarchist scholars. It’s dry reading, and while that’s almost unavoidable in a book that’s brief, scholarly, and on a specialized subject, I’d say this volume is probably in the lower half of VSI titles for readability. Still, if you’re interested in the subject, it’ll give you the gist in a small package.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Native American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton

Native American Literature: A Very Short IntroductionNative American Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Sean Teuton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This VSI (Very Short Introduction) stimulates curiosity from its very title. One might be interested in, but not necessarily intrigued by, titles such as: “Native American Folklore,” or “Native American Mythology.” However, when one thinks of the world of Native American story and language-centric art, one is likely to first think of oral storytelling, and then, secondarily, about the immensely popular genre / commercial fiction of someone like Stephen Graham Jones. Even if one is aware of some of the Native American literary works that got widespread attention and praise, works such as Momaday’s “House Made of Dawn” or the poetry of Joy Harajo, one may wonder whether there’s the basis for such a broad overview style book.

That’s just the notion that this book seeks to challenge. That said, until the final two chapters, it doesn’t always feel like the topic is as advertised. That is to say, with the exception of chapter two — which discusses the oral storytelling of various Native American tribes, much of chapters one through five is historical and cultural background designed to provide context for the creation of a Native American literary canon, but without talking about the canon’s components much. Some of the questions addressed include: how Native tribes came to written language, in general, and then to the English language, specifically; how self-image of tribal peoples shifted over time (and how that impacted the nature of written works;) the nature of various strains of Native literature (e.g. literature of resistance v. literature of assimilation, and so on.)

I learned a lot from this brief guide. I’m not going to lie, it does have some sections that are dry and quite scholarly, but it also raises some interesting ideas while introducing the reader to books that will be wholly unfamiliar to some and largely unfamiliar to most.

If you’re interested in how Native American literature came to be, I’d recommend one check it out.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Romanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber

Romanticism: A Very Short IntroductionRomanticism: A Very Short Introduction by Michael Ferber
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Romanticism was a literary, artistic, and philosophical movement of the late 18th and early 19th century. It’s commonly believed to have been a response to the Enlightenment, a desire to not throw out the baby with the bathwater as the influence of religion waned. In this book, we learn that that’s a misleading oversimplification, but not one completely devoid of truth.

Like a lot of “movements,” Romanticism is a fairly loose set, containing a disparate band of entities. This is exacerbated because it’s not just, say, a style of painting or of music, but rather it cuts across a diverse range of activities. Because of that, the book offers the least clarity in the opening chapters (ch. 1&2) and in the last one (ch. 6.) The first two try to rope in Romanticism and to differentiate it from “sensibility,” a movement oft-confused for Romanticism. The last chapter attempts to show the commonality that cuts across different domains, e.g. how are Romantic paintings similar to Romantic novels, or – for that matter – Idealist philosophy.

However, starting with chapter three, the book provides clear insight into the nature of Romanticism. Chapter three investigates poetry. Chapter four examines philosophy and Romantic attitudes towards religion and science. This was quite eye opening to me because I’d previously contrasted Romanticism with the Enlightenment, and here I learned that the Romantics’ views on religion and science were far from the opposite end of a spectrum. Chapter five shines light on the social context of Romanticism, focusing on politics, the French and the Industrial Revolutions, and War, but also evaluating what influence, if any, Romanticism had on changing views toward women.

I feel I came away from the book with a better understanding of Romanticism, and so I’d recommend it for others interested in learning more.

View all my reviews