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

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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.


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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

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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.

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BOOK REVIEW: Radium Girls by Cy

Radium GirlsRadium Girls by Cy.
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: April 6, 2022

This is a graphic novel that tells the same story [based on actual events] as the similarly titled, but otherwise unrelated, popular book by Kate Moore. The “Radium Girls” were women who worked at watch factories, painting luminescent numbers on watch dials. Unfortunately, the luminescent material being used was radioactive, and the painting process that these women were taught involved touching paintbrushes to their lips between strokes, causing them to ingest minute amounts of it everyday, often over many years. In today’s world, a person who found themselves glowing in the dark from a job (without protective equipment) would know something was radically wrong, but this took place about a century ago and understanding of radioactivity was much less – though scientists clearly understood that precautions needed to be taken when working with radium.

This book captures the highs and lows of a small group of workers from one of the watch / clock factories involved, the one in Orange, New Jersey. Ultimately, this is a sad story of deteriorating health and premature death, but it also shows a relatively new phenomena of women holding jobs that allowed them to increase control their own destinies. By showing the women as they tasted the good life, the experience of the bottom falling out created a more visceral experience. The women did earn a good wage — not the kind of money that makes cancer worthwhile, but higher pay than the usual salary available to women of the day.

I thought the story was well told and touching. The art was in an interesting style – sure to be the cup of tea of some but not others – but nevertheless clearly conveying events of the story. I’d recommend this graphic novel for readers interested in the subject.


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BOOK REVIEW: Angels: A Very Short Introduction by David Albert Jones

Angels: A Very Short IntroductionAngels: A Very Short Introduction by David Albert Jones
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers an overview of angels in the Abrahamic religious traditions (i.e. Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.) [It does take a quick dip into angel-like beings from other religious traditions – e.g. Hindu and Parsi – but generally comes down on the side of it doing a disservice to everybody to equate such beings across mythological traditions – with the possible exception of the New Age angel which is predominantly an offshoot from Abrahamic mythology.] The book considers the evolution of theological thinking on angels: how they’ve been portrayed in art; what they are [made of;] what their purposes are (i.e. messengers, healers, guardians, warriors, etc.;) and, occasionally, how they play into popular culture.

I took away a great deal from this book. For example, I learned about the differences between the djinn of Islam mythology and demons of Judeo-Christian mythology, and the theological underpinnings of this difference (i.e. Muslims do not believe angels have free will, and thus angels can’t be fallen, and so the djinn are a separate entity altogether [rather than being fallen angels.]) I found the book to be readable, interesting, and balanced in its approach to the topic. If you’re looking to learn more about how angels (and related beings, e.g. fallen angels / demons) have been treated by thinkers of various ages, without getting deep into the minutiae, this is a fine book to consider.


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BOOK REVIEW: Saints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow

Saints: A Very Short IntroductionSaints: A Very Short Introduction by Simon Yarrow
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is an overview of the history of sainthood in Christianity: how the canonization process changed over time (i.e. from mostly dispersed to increasingly controlled by Rome,) what types of individuals have been selected (from ascetics and martyrs to the heads of orders and other more conventional candidates,) the changing incidence of women saints (while always far less than males, at times almost nonexistent,) and who were some of the more prominent (or atypical) saints.

The book’s organization is primarily a chronological flow, but there are a couple chapters that are of a more topical nature (e.g. on female saints and about hagiographies [“biographies” of saints that mix fact and fiction.]) It was fascinating to me to learn that we are amid a resurgence of canonization. The making of saints had fallen off for a time around the 1800’s (presumably at least in part because it became increasingly challenging / embarrassing in an “Enlightened” age to argue for miracles [“proof” of which is necessary as part of the process.]) However, that can’t be the full story because since John Paul II there’s been a substantial increase in canonization, while we have less reason to believe in supernatural phenomena than ever.

The book takes an agnostic / scholarly stance on the rightness or wrongness of sainthood and doesn’t go out of its way to discuss the scandalous. However, it does not shy away from – here and there – mentioning misbehavior of the Church (e.g. Papal Indulgences and political canonization.) The economist in me found it fascinating that Indulgences gained fungibility – i.e. tradable as an intermediary of value, i.e. like cash.

I found the book interesting despite its occasional drifts into obscure theological / historical territory. It’s readable and, at times, fascinating.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge

The Devil: A Very Short IntroductionThe Devil: A Very Short Introduction by Darren Oldridge
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This brief guide examines the shifting landscape of thought about Christianity’s Devil. Over the centuries, the Devil has been considered a person, a fallen angel, a metaphor or abstraction, a voice, and a literary device. Satan’s stock has risen and fallen, up with the Dark Ages, down with the Enlightenment, and, on the verge of outright demise, reconsidered when the mid-20th century brought such horrors that the human mind couldn’t cope with them sans supernatural explanations. At the same time, the power of the Devil waxed and waned in the face of philosophical challenges. There’s the Devil so strong he can give God a run for the money, a Devil reduced to whispering in ears, and a Devil who’s practically irrelevant – having no power whatsoever beyond making for an entertaining plot device.

I thought this book did a laudable job of showing the Devil through the light of history, philosophy, art, and literature. It offers a great deal of food for thought about how the Devil has been viewed over time, and what factors influenced these changes in perception. If you’re interested in the role the Devil has played in theological thinking over time, this book does a fine job of shining a light on the subject.

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BOOK REVIEW: Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler

Darjeeling: A History of the World's Greatest TeaDarjeeling: A History of the World’s Greatest Tea by Jeff Koehler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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As Bordeaux or Tokaj are to wine, Darjeeling is to tea, producing a quality beverage considered by many to be the best in the world. However, this isn’t merely the story of how this region of northern Bengal (or, alternatively, Gorkhaland) came to produce a unique kind of tea that would be sought-after around the world. It’s also a story of empire and how Britain’s insatiable demand for tea drove major developments in geopolitics. It’s yet further the story of recent troubled times of Darjeeling tea, from labor shortages to environmental degradation, and what tea estates have done to adapt – from management / organization changes to organic production techniques.

Lessons in the history and geography of tea may seem niche and uninteresting, but the story of tea is actually quite fascinating, involving Opium Wars, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and an industry shakeup resulting from India’s independence.

I found this book compelling, and thought it did a good job of zooming in and out between local and global (and past to present) to maintain the interest of a diverse readership. Whether the book is exploring attempts to transplant tea shrubs and expertise from China or the changing customer base for Darjeeling tea, it’s an engaging and thought-provoking story. If you’re interested in tea, world history, or agribusiness, you’ll likely find something in this book to hold your attention.


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BOOK REVIEW: Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein

Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short IntroductionTibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book outlines the philosophy, theology, history, and future prospects of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a big topic because Tibetan Buddhism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, indigenous beliefs (e.g. Bön,) and adapted teachings from Yoga and Tantra.

For a concise guide, the discussions of history and philosophy can get deep in the weeds. However, to be fair, Tibetan Buddhism has a long and complicated history, and has produced deep metaphysical ideas, particularly with regards to philosophy of mind. Furthermore, it’s not a unitary religion, having schismed into a number of sub-sects.

Special attention is given to Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings on Enlightenment and death. Even those who aren’t familiar with Tibetan Buddhism may have heard of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and may not be surprised to learn the topic is given its own chapter. I learned that the Bardo (e.g. a lobby between death and rebirth) was in part hypothesized to help reconcile the idea of Anatta (there being no persistent self, or soul) with reincarnation. [i.e. The question arises, what’s reincarnated if there’s no persistent “I” (i.e. atman, soul, etc.?) The book doesn’t really explain how the existence of a Bardo achieves this reconciliation, but achieving accord with the two ideas appears complicated, and -arguably- spurious.]

The book ends with a look at the religion’s prospects for the future, which are darkened by the Chinese government’s desire to subvert the religion’s influence, but may also be brightened by the fact that the current Dalai Lama has been open to dialogues, and – in particular – has made Tibetan Buddhism arguably the religion with the most cordial relationship to the scientific world. (No mean feat for a religion that is as superstitious as any in the modern world.)

If you’re interested in a concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, give it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Henry VIII by William Shakespeare

King Henry VIIIKing Henry VIII by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This play takes place over a period of time, for want of a better measure, straddling the first two [of six] marriages of Henry VIII. It doesn’t reach the ill-fated end of Anne Boleyn, but rather finishes with the baptism of the girl child she birthed [Elizabeth, who will later be Queen.] [Of course, the failure to produce a male child was the downfall of Katherine of Aragon’s Queenship, so the birth of Elizabeth doesn’t bode well.]

In as much as a history has a theme, this one would be the conflict between the aristocracy and the clergy. This is first, and most extensively, seen through the rise and fall of Cardinal Wolsey, who wins the favor of the King in the Cardinal’s conflict with the Duke of Buckingham, but later Wolsey gets ousted after an aristocratic cabal diverts the Cardinal’s mail to the King. Henry discovers that Wolsey has recommended denial of an annulment of Henry’s marriage to Katherine, despite the fact that Wolsey was telling the King to his face that the marriage’s end had his endorsement. Later, we find aristocrats (the King’s Council) taking on the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cranmer, but Henry sides with the Archbishop as he once had with Wolsey.

The play’s major events are the execution of Buckingham, the divorce from Katherine, the marriage to Anne Boleyn, and the birth of Elizabeth.

This isn’t the most compelling of the Shakespearean histories, but it does have its intrigues. No doubt it would be a bolder play in the absence of the authoritarian nature of monarchy, but it’s still worth reading.

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