BOOK REVIEW: Iranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard & Deloupy

Iranian Love StoriesIranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 14, 2021

This graphic novel shows what life is like in Iran. A French couple engaged in immersion journalism converses with Iranian men, women, and couples. As the title suggests, the theme of the book is intimate relationships (and marriage, when it – sadly – doesn’t fall into that category,) and the trials of love under an ultra-conservative theocratic regime. The book offers insight into how singles sneak love, how arranged marriages work (or don’t,) and how the bizarre in-law dynamics of arranged marriage are navigated. One also learns about non-amorous elements of Iranian life – i.e. the illicit nature of dog owning, workplace dynamics, etc.

The people Deuxard talked to were overwhelmingly wealthy, educated, and unhappy with the regime. That said, there’s a range of views presented. There were a few who were mostly happy – e.g. one young woman complained about the impossibility of openly dating, but said she was ultimately happy not to live in the West where she would probably have to work and / or take on other responsibilities she was freed of as an Iranian housewife. Additionally, one girl said that a relationship in Europe would offer no thrill because, you know, no one will murder you for smooching your boyfriend in Denmark. There were also many who desperately wanted out of the country, some of whom felt trapped and others who were working toward getting away (there are measures in place to make this difficult for many – e.g. if you have an Iranian degree, you have to pay it off before you’re granted an exit visa.) Some were hopeful that the theocracy would be overthrown, but most were resigned to a tormented life.

As a traveler, I’m fascinated by how people live at various places around the world, and so I found this book intriguing and thought-provoking. However, I can see how those who aren’t interested in such questions might find it a bit dull. It’s essentially documentary-style interviews in graphic novel format. That said, I thought the artist and writer did a good job of conveying mood. If you want to know what life is like in Iran, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Symposium by Plato

SymposiumSymposium by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg (FREE)

Symposium is a collection of speeches in praise of Love (the Greek god and the emotional experience) given at a banquet in Ancient Greece. The participants are men of renown, including: a playwright, a physician, a philosopher, a statesman, etc. The narrative is delivered as a secondhand telling after the fact, and isn’t intended as a verbatim transcript of all the speeches.

There are seven speeches, each unique and most playing off the others. Phaedrus starts by emphasizing the underrecognized importance of the unsung god, Eros. Next, Pausanias stresses that there isn’t one kind of love, but two. Eryximachus focuses on the all-pervasive nature of love and, as a physician, mentions the bodily dimension of love. Aristophanes’s speech seems largely in jest, but stresses the fact that people don’t comprehend the power of love. Agathon rebukes the others for emphasizing love as a gift to humans, and, instead, suggests one should focus on praise of the deity. Socrates’s encomium is a departure, as one might expect given his love of questioning and hatred of speechmaking. First, he questions Agathon about whether love is really synonymous with beauty or good, as the youth’s speech had suggested. Second, he recounts his instruction on the subject from Diotima, which is mostly a recounted dialogue between her and he.

The last speech is afield. A drunken Alcibiades wanders in late. [The others decided not to drink because most drank too much the previous day.] Alcibiades gives a speech in praise of Socrates, his once lover, with whom he’s on the outs. From Alcibiades we learn not just about his relationship with Socrates, but also some interesting biographical facts about the philosopher, such as his proclivity to get lost in thought for extended periods and his bravery in combat.

This is an interesting work, and well worth reading.


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BOOK REVIEW: Lysis by Plato

LysisLysis by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This early Socratic dialogue addresses friendship and love — philia to the Greeks. In it, Socrates questions Lysis and Menexenus (two young friends) on the basis of friendship, whether it can be unrequited, and whether like or different individuals are better matched. The interrogation of Lysis illuminates Socrates view of the basis of friendship, wisdom. He questions Lysis about those things the boy’s parents won’t allow him to do, and those things for which they’d seek him out, ultimately suggesting that one’s wisdom is what attracts others to one, as friend or otherwise.

Later, Socrates questions Menexenus about whether the good befriend the good or are better suited to befriend the neutral individual. [The presumption that the bad are friends to no one takes them out all equations.] Socrates, with Menexenus’ consent, briefly concludes that friendships develop best between good and neutral individuals, but the dialogue ends with Socrates being skeptical of his own conclusion – perhaps feeling the weight of problems that a listener might contemplate (e.g. the idea that there are good, bad, and neutral people – rather than all of us being a melting pot of good, bad, and ugly.)

It’s not dissatisfying that the dialogue ends without an answer. Its value lies in triggering readers to contemplate the question. For my part, I considered the poor analogy between how people view relationships between doctor and patient, versus between friend and friend. The doctor isn’t put off by a patient seeking a practical benefit from them (improved health,) but many a friendship has died from one side seeking personal gains. [And yet, I still draw no conclusion because clearly there is some benefit each half of a friendship perceives, if not one as coldly rational a Socrates describes.)

This dialogue is worth a read to trigger contemplation of friendship.

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BOOK REVIEW: Phaedrus by Plato

PhaedrusPhaedrus by Plato
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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“Phaedrus” is one of the middle Socratic dialogues of Plato (experts propose that the middle dialogues increasingly contain Plato’s own ideas [versus those of Socrates, himself.]) The subject of the dialogue is love and whether it is worth pursuing. Phaedrus has a speech by Lysias that he’s is quite excited about, one which claims that it’s better to have a “platonic” relationship than a loving one. As Phaedrus and Socrates walk, they debate about the speech. Phaedrus presses Socrates to deliver his own speech on the subject. Socrates delivers two; the first aligns with Lysias’ view and the second takes the opposing side.

Socrates concludes that, while love is a form of madness, it’s not the madness of human infirmity. Instead, it’s a form of divine madness, and – as such – should not be poo-poo’d too quickly. Socrates proposes that there are four varieties of divine madness (theia mania): prophetic, ritual, poetic, and erotic, and – of these – the latter is best and (again) shouldn’t be dismissed lightly.

After Socrates’ second speech and conversation that summarizes and clarifies it, the philosopher discusses how one can be led astray by elegantly formulated words, and how a philosopher should evaluate what is said to determine whether the speaker is wise or whether he (or she) just sounds sage by virtue of his (/her) poeticism.

While this dialogue can be a bit ethereal and mystic for my taste, it has some fascinating things to say. While I don’t necessarily believe in the “divine” part of divine madness, I do see that there are some people who are able to become unyoked from custom and convention, and to do so in a way that is not anxiety-riddled. I think this is a useful state to understand, and this dialogue is an excellent place to start.

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BOOK REVIEW: Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari

Untamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of BhartrhariUntamed Heart: Pritish Nandy Rediscovers the Love Poems of Bhartrhari by Pritish Nandy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

 

This is the first in a series of [at least] three short, illustrated collections of love poetry. As with the others in the series, the poems are said to be based upon the work of historical poets (in this case, Bhartrhari) though not – strictly speaking – translations of their work. The books were release in 1994 by Rupa & Co. with the sub-subtitle of “Classic India: Images of Love.”

The book begins with a short introduction by Nandy that seeks to both introduce the reader to Bhartrhari and to explain that the poems are not translations but rather work with the gist of that poet’s verse to create new works, and why he took that approach.

Beyond the introduction, the 50-ish pages are covered with poems and colorful drawings. The poems are sparse free verse poems, and it’s not always clear where one is meant to begin and another end. Because the topic throughout is love, sex, and romance, and the imagery thereof, the poems often flow together — whether that was intended or not is not clear.

The artist who did color drawings (the look to be colored pencil drawings) is Samir Mondal. The plates are always erotic, sometimes symbolically so, but in most cases explicitly so – involving nude figures or sensuous lips.

Despite the campiness of the titles, which are based on American pop tunes (except this one which appears to be taken from an American romantic comedy film), these books have insightful moments amid language that can sometimes drip with cliche and bland – if lustful — imagery.

If you read love poetry and run across a copy of this book, it’s worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: How We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto

How We FeelHow We Feel by Giovanni Frazzetto
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Frazzetto’s book tells us what neuroscience can and can’t tell us about seven core emotions: anger, guilt, anxiety, grief, empathy, joy, and love. Doing so puts the neuroscience of emotion into a broader context of art, philosophy, the humanities, and the legal / political domains. Most often this serves to make the book more interesting by offering stories beyond the case files of neurologists and neuroscience researchers, but it does result in occasional editorializing.

The book consists of seven chapters, each of which is linked to one of the emotions listed in the preceding paragraph. These chapters always tell us the rudiments of what science has learned about the brain’s role in said emotion, but they often offer insights from other disciplines as well as providing more general information about the brain that the author found particularly relevant to the topic at hand.

The first chapter delves into anger. Besides the neuroscience of rage, we learn a bit about the expression of emotion (e.g. through facial appearance; a theme revisited in other chapters), and the degree to which genetics plays a role in proclivity towards anger. This chapter serves to set up general concepts, and so we also learn about what an absence of emotion looks like (e.g. indecisiveness.) And in compliance with the law that every pop science book on neuroscience tell the story of Phineas Gage (the foreman who got rebar shot through his brain and lived to tell the story—though in an uncharacteristically hostile way), Frazzetto knocks it out early.

Chapter two explores the topic of guilt. It should be noted that some of these chapters discuss more than one related emotion, and here we learn how shame and regret are differentiated from guilt. There’s an interesting story about Caravaggio and how his own guilt-ridden story influenced one of his most famous paintings.

Chapter three is about anxiety, and also takes on fear. In addition to the neuroscience, we get a discussion of relevant philosophy, specifically that of Heidegger. Here, the author also describes brain plasticity.

The next chapter investigates grief. As I suggested above, there are multiple points where emotional expression is discussed, and this chapter has one of the most extensive of such discussions. In terms of general concepts, Frazzetto introduces the reader to neurotransmitters. One also learns how grief is related to physical pain.

Chapter five elucidates empathy. A lot of this chapter discusses acting, and the need for actors and actresses to be able to acquire empathy from the audience. The reader learns the story of Stanislavski, and how he went about creating his self-named acting system which remains widely used. This chapter also explains mirror neurons that allow one to recognize expression and to mimic others.

The penultimate chapter is about joy, and here we learn more about expression of emotions and, specifically, the seeming universality of smiles. There is a discussion of poetry as it pertains to the emotion at hand. Having introduced neurotransmitters earlier, the reader learns about dopamine, its role in happiness, and how a number of drugs have been created that increase our natural dopamine’s effect or mimic it.

The last chapter is about love. Of course, we learn about oxytocin and vasopressin, two neurochemicals famously associated with loving behavior. There is also a fascinating discussion of Capgras Syndrome. In this condition, the patient feels that his loved ones have been replaced by impostors. That may not seem relevant until one realizes that the proposed mechanism for this illness is damage to parts of the brain that control emotional connection. Without an emotional connection, the person feels that said individuals can’t be his / her dearest friends and family—though his senses register that they are exact duplicates in every way. The brain builds a rationalization that they must be impostors. Of course, no emotion evokes more resentment towards materialist explanations rooted entirely in biology than that of love.

The book is extensively annotated and also has a bibliography. There are many graphics throughout the book from line drawn diagrams of brains to photos of brain scans to the artwork “David with the Head of Goliath” mentioned relative to the discussion of Caravaggio’s guilt.

There are a number of books in this domain (i.e. the neuroscience of emotion) and if you were only going to read one, I don’t think I’d recommend this one as it. However, if you are into this topic, it is definitely worth a read. It’s interesting and insightful, and has a unique approach.

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BOOK REVIEW: Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes by Deepak Chopra

The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the WorldThe Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes: Harnessing Our Power to Change the World by Deepak Chopra

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is Deepak Chopra’s attempt to capitalize on society’s fascination with superheroes. By “capitalize” I’m not necessarily saying to “make money off of,” but perhaps to “use to his advantage in conveying his lessons.” [I’ll leave it to the reader to make judgments about the former.] There are books on the physics of superheroes, the philosophy of superheroes, and the mythology of superheroes, so why shouldn’t there be a book on the spiritual life of superheroes?

The book uses both the superheroes of mythology—i.e. Indian, Greek, Judeo-Christian, Muslim, and others—as well as the superheroes of comic books. While Chopra’s knowledge of the former is considerable, he enlists the co-authorship of his son Gotham (not named after Bruce Wayne’s hometown) to offer insight into the latter.

This book is also intended to capitalize (again, take that as you see fit) upon Chopra’s best-selling book, The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success, but without rehashing the same laws. The Seven Spiritual Laws of Superheroes format is as straightforward as its title. There are seven chapters, each corresponding to one of Chopra’s laws. Said laws address balance, transformation, power, love, creativity, intention, and transcendence.

As I read the book, there was something that rubbed me the wrong way about the writing. It wasn’t that I had major disagreement with Chopra’s ideas, but rather the way he was stating them. At first I thought this was the use of gratuitous assertion. He often began chapters with detailed statements about what superheroes are, do, believe, and understand without much—if any–substantiation of these claims. However, as I got into the first chapter I noticed that he would put one section in each chapter that discussed an example in-depth, offering at least anecdotal support for his claims.

This still left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth. It was because he used general statements like “superheroes know…” and “superheroes understand…,” and then provided a solitary example that fit his statement well, but leaving a vast cast of heroes that didn’t. It seemed a low form of inductive reasoning. In other words, he was attributing an enlightened way of thinking and acting to characters like Hulk and Wolverine.

Chopra and his supporters might make the claim that saying, “The Hulk understands X [insert any of the laws here]” doesn’t necessarily mean he understands them as an intellectual exercise, but rather that he shows this understanding through his behavior. Let me give a story that may make my meaning clearer.

An economist is giving a lecture on consumer behavior. Someone in the audience says, “Professor, how could consumers possibly behave in the way you suggest? Your theory requires complex Lagrangian optimization mathematics, which very few of them understand?”

The Professor replies, “Most of them don’t understand Newton’s work either, but they obey the Law of Gravity without fail.”

I thought about Chopra’s statements from this perspective, but concluded that his point was probably something entirely different. As an author of self-help books about the mind, when Chopra says “Superheroes understand X,” he’s not saying “Each and every superhero understands X,” but instead he’s saying, “If you want to be a superhero, you need to understand X.”

Accepting that that’s what Chopra meant, only one more qualm with the book remained. Laws can be clearly stated (OK, perhaps not tax law, but laws of physics—which seem to be more the kind of law he seeks to emulate), but Chopra’s discussion of his “laws” is vague and ill-defined. Each chapter begins with a large-font italics statement. I don’t know if this is supposed to be “the law” or not. It usually begins with a definition (some vaguely stated) and then statements that superheroes comport themselves in accordance with said definition. Maybe the unstated laws are supposed to be, “Superheroes live a life of balance,” and so on for the other chapters. As one trained as an economist, I’m well-aware of the wide-spread overuse of the term “law,” and maybe the ill-defined nature of Chopra’s laws is a recognition of this.

This book is written for Chopra’s usual audience of seekers of enlightenment. I don’t know that it’ll do well with hard-core science fiction or comic fans, and I don’t know that the Venn intersect of “spiritual self-help readers” and “comic book fans” is as big as Chopra would like. (But, I could be wrong.) Some of Chopra’s ideas about the potential spiritual ramifications of “quantum entanglement” are quite popular with sci-fi fans, but I’m not sure that that offers this book a clear audience. (It might. Chopra is a trained physician, and has some scientific bona fides—unlike many who share shelf space with him and who exist in a spiritual plane entirely unrelated to the world as we know it.)

All this being said, there are some thought-provoking ideas in this book, and the superhero and mythological examples help entertain and—in doing so—become the spoon of sugar that makes the medicine go down. Another testimonial is that I read most of this book in a single sitting, and I tend to jump from a chapter in one book to another book unless something really holds my interest.

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TODAY’S RANT: Stupid is as Cupid Does

Attribution: Ricardo André Frantz Nothing says lovin' like  a prepubescent archer.

Attribution: Ricardo André Frantz
Nothing says lovin’ like a prepubescent archer.

This isn’t a generic rant about Valentine’s Day. I am not the curmudgeon of ardor or the Grinch of St. Valentine’s Day. All I’m saying is that nothing is less sexy than a naked baby archer.

I guarantee that if you polled paramedics who’ve responded to bow-hunting accidents, none would say that their patients reported sexual arousal as a symptom of arrows sticking out of thighs. How being impaled with a razor-sharp implement came to be associated with the transmission of love, I’ll never know. Yes, little boys have been known to sock a girl they like in the deltoid, but breaking out the device single-handedly responsible for Mongol hordes sweeping across Eurasia is taking that dysfunction up a notch.

I have no problem with nudity. Nudity and erotic love is like getting your chocolate in her peanut butter– so to speak. My problem is with prepubescent nudity. All that does is remind one of the end product of amour, and that’s terrifying, not arousing. No one needs that kind of pressure in a budding relationship.

I know I said this wasn’t a blanket condemnation of the holiday, but I’ve got one more sub-rant. What is with flowers and chocolate as the iconic gifts of the holiday? Is it that nothing says everlasting love like a bouquet that will be shedding wilted petals by day’s end. And chocolate says, “I love you so much that I’ll even love you if you get fat. Furthermore, I’m willing to prove it by doing my damnedest to make you fat.”

I won’t even get into the jewelry ads. “Show her you love her by implying that you think she’s in it just for the swag.”