BOOK REVIEW: Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es

Shakespeare's Comedies: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions)Shakespeare’s Comedies: A Very Short Introduction by Bart van Es
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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I picked up this guide because I recently finished reading through a superset of Shakespearean comedies. By a superset I mean all the plays that are unambiguously classed as comedies (e.g. “The Comedy of Errors,” “The Taming of the Shrew,” “The Merry Wives of Winsor,” etc.,) but also the ones called “problem plays” (i.e. “Troilus and Cressida,” “Measure for Measure,” and “All’s Well That Ends Well”) and some late plays that are sometimes called “romances” (e.g. “Pericles,” “Cymbeline,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and “The Two Noble Kinsmen.”) Having read 18 plays [in some cases] called Shakespeare’s comedies, I had questions that I hoped the book would help to answer.

The first such question is “what’s a comedy?” I was somewhat familiar with various literary definitions, but still plays like “Measure for Measure,” “The Winter’s Tale,” and even [in ways] “The Merchant of Venice” seem a bit dark – regardless of how things worked out for the lead character in the end. I was pleased to learn that I’m not the only one befuddled by this question. It turns out there is a great deal of debate among scholars on the topic. This topic is discussed in the introduction, in an epilogue, and at various points in between. The epilogue looks at one variation on the question, which is “When did Shakespeare stop writing comedies?” The reason is that his latter plays that are classed as comedies (on folios, playbills, and by scholars) tend be much more mixtures of tragedy and comedy.

The book is organized into five chapters, each of which takes on a different characteristic of the plays. I liked this arrangement as it allowed the author to compare and contrast Shakespeare’s work with his contemporaries on crucial aspects of a play. A recurring theme throughout the book is to consider what the norm was for comedies during that period and then to look at how Shakespeare followed, bent, or blew up the rules.

Though I liked the organization, I found some of the chapters more intriguing than others. The first, entitled “World,” explores setting. One major distinction between Shakespeare’s comedies and those of his peers is discussed in depth. While it was common to set comedies in urban environs, Shakespeare wrote a lot of forest scenes, and while he employed even more urban settings, van Es argues that the urban settings are forest-like in terms of expansiveness.

Chapter two examines wit in the works of Shakespeare. In doing so, it differentiates humor and wit and suggests the latter was more Shakespeare’s forte. The author also considers where Shakespeare’s wit is most clever and where it is ham-handed or even out-done by his contemporaries. One thing that I wish there was more of would have been elucidation of peculiarities of humor and wit of the day. There is some of this, and I did learn some new things. Still, when one is reading Shakespeare, no matter how much one is engaged by the story, there are references that one doesn’t know what to make of because while they must have made perfect sense in the lexicon of the time, they are meaningless (or divergently meaning) in today’s language. Some of these can readily be Googled, but not all. I have seen books that systematically explain such terms and phrases, but this one only offers a few examples.

Chapter three is about the theme of love. There is a lot that seems strange to modern sensibilities in Shakespeare’s work as pertains to love and relationships. Take “All’s Well That Ends Well,” Helena can have anything she wants from the King of France (who she cured of a fistula) but she insists on marrying Bertram — a man who despises her, resents her for what he views as having tricked her, thinks he is vastly better than her, and (worst of all) is not. How tricking a disgruntled jerk – Count or no – into moving back to live with one is considered a happy ending is hard to fathom. This was another area in which I was reassured to find that I’m not the only one who found some of the relationship matters bizarre.

Chapter four is about the element of time. During Shakespeare’s era it was normal for a comedy to take place over the course of a day – i.e. a short period. A couple of Shakespeare’s early comedies comply with this norm, but that is less and less the case as his works progress. “Pericles” and “The Winter’s Tale” both see infants grow into marriageable age (granted that was like 12 in back in those days, but still) over the course of a play. [Granted, not everyone would class those works as comedies.]

Chapter five was by far the most interesting to me. It discusses the idea of characters, and it does so largely by employing E.M. Forester’s conception of flat versus round characters. Comedies of the day relied heavily – if not exclusively – on flat characters. Characters that were like caricatures, having simple motivations and little of the depth that might make them relatable or sympathetic. The author argues that Shakespeare increasingly wrote characters that were – to a person — round. Shakespeare was often able to gain comedic effect by making characters seem flat at times for which it was called. However, it’s also considered that this need for roundness might explain why Shakespeare’s late “comedic” plays are far less clearly comedic than one might expect.

The book has graphics, references, and a further reading section.

Chapter five and the epilogue really improved my view of this guide. I was not displeased with it prior to that point, but didn’t think it offered any great value-added to my understanding of the topic. However, in the end I found the book highly informative and useful. If you’re looking for a concise, no-nonsense guide to Shakespeare’s comedies, it’s worth having a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: I Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operation by Paul Marer

I Participated in Wallenberg's Rescue OperationsI Participated in Wallenberg’s Rescue Operations by Paul Marer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Inquiries about purchasing the book can be made here.

 

In 1944, the Nazis were working to eradicate the European Jews. Among the last major Jewish populations accessible to Hitler that had yet to be shipped to the death camps were those from Budapest. Among the most effective forces arrayed against the Nazis and the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascists) in the days before the Red Army arrived were neutral nation diplomats who issued protective documentation, offering at least a thin shield of legal protection that saved thousands of lives.

Perhaps the most intriguing story of such diplomats is that of the Swedish envoy, Raoul Wallenberg – not because his operation was bigger or riskier than those of the others, but because his story didn’t end with the war. Wallenberg was captured by the Soviets at the end of the Siege of Budapest for reasons that remain speculative, and he died in a Soviet prison. This book draws on the experience of Marianne Bach, a young member of Wallenberg’s team. Given the loss of Wallenberg, and the fact that the other members of his operation are now deceased, Bach’s story is an important last chance to learn more detail about what happened in Budapest during those dark days.

The book is chronologically arranged. The first two and the last three chapters discuss Marianne Bach’s life before and after, respectively, her days working as part of Wallenberg’s team. A reader might dismiss such chapters as humdrum, if necessary, background information, and starkly contrast them with the more high-octane, life-and-death, fascist-fighting core of the book. However, Marer fixes his sights on an intriguing focal point throughout these chapters, identity (and crises, thereof.) Both before and after the war, Bach was challenged by questions of identity – religious, cultural, and national identity. Living abroad, she was a foreigner, but at “home” in Hungary there’d been a great effort to eliminate her people. It was smart to focus on events and questions at the crux of identity. It makes these chapters engaging to a degree that a broad biographical sketch would be hard-pressed to achieve.

The core of the book (ch. 3 – 8) doesn’t just tell Bach’s story – in fact, it doesn’t just tell the Wallenberg story, it delves into the broader question of the fate of the Budapest Jews and all those who intervened to save whomever they could. This isn’t to say that the closeup story is absent. Readers get a detailed view of the operations that Bach was involved in and an overview of the Wallenberg story – including discussion of his fate as a secret Soviet prisoner. It’s just that those closeup stories are embedded within a broader context that includes activities like Carl Lutz’s Glass House operation, Hitler’s order to take over of Hungary before it could defect from the Axis, and the Danube executions by Arrow Cross Militiamen that followed that takeover.

This book provides a gripping examination of a disturbing time, and I’d highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Literary Criticism by Owen Holland

Introducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Literary Criticism: A Graphic Guide by Owen Holland
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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As the title and subtitle suggest, this book is an overview of the field of literary criticism that uses graphics (mostly cartoon drawings) to assist in conveying the information. This is one volume in a large series (Introducing Graphic Guides) that covers a range of subjects, mostly in the humanities (at least as far as the titles I’ve seen.) I picked up this book because it’s a topic I’ve developed a curiosity about, I knew almost nothing about, and it – like many titles in the series – was available to borrow via Amazon Prime.

As far as I can tell, the book covers all the major schools of criticism. Having looked around a little bit out of curiosity, I found the same headings are widespread. I do feel that the book would have benefited from being less personality-driven and more conceptually driven. By that I mean to say, it felt like the author thought his primary task was to list all of history’s most major literary critics. There’s a large number of individuals mentioned, but with little insight into how these critics engaged a piece of literature. I know that this is supposed to be a concise introduction, but I was dismayed by how little I felt I understood of the topic at the end compared to books that I’ve read of a similar nature (e.g. Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series.) In short, while I understand there’s limited space to cover a vast discipline, I don’t think the space available was used well.

I must admit that part of my confusion stems from the fact that literary criticism seems to be very different from what I thought it to be – and has been becoming increasingly so. So, I assumed that literary criticism had something to do with questions of how effectively elements such as language, narrative arc, metaphor, metrical form (or formlessness), character development, etc. are used in creating a resonance between writer and reader. [When I do reviews, these are the types of questions that inform my commentary. i.e. Is the story intriguing? Are the characters believable? Is the language skillful / beautiful? Is meaning conveyed in as approachable a manner as the subject allows (or if it’s more complicated, does that complication serve a reasonable end? etc.] To the degree these questions were ever of interest to literary critics, they seem have been replaced by another question: “Does this writing make ____________-ists feel warm and fuzzy, or mean and prickly?” [Where the “-ist” in question might be a feminist, a Marxist, or an environmentalist – just to name a few.] I may be misinterpreting what modern literary criticism is and does, but the fact that I’m doing so after having read this introductory guide supports my argument that maybe there was better use of space than having such a great number of critics cursorily mentioned – not to mention the cartoons (which seemed to serve little purpose.) The one thing the personality-driven approach does is give one plenty of examples of works to read to learn how various schools of literary criticism take on their appointed task, but I’d have rather had a clue about that from just reading the book.

I suspect that there are titles in this series that are able to use graphics to greater benefit – given their subject matter. In this work, the graphics are mostly cartoons that restate key points from the text in speech bubbles – so the art essentially fulfills the role that text-boxes do in some magazines and books, but in a more space-intensive way. If there were no graphics in this text, I don’t think I would have felt that I missed out on anything.

This book will show you how the field of literary criticism progressed and who the major players were, but doesn’t offer much insight into how critics engage with works of literature. Early in the book, this doesn’t make much difference, but — given the direction the field went in — it raises a lot of questions. There is discussion of whether art should be judged on its artistic merits or whether it rises and falls by its morality and social merit. I guess the answer the field collectively came to is the latter. [i.e. What matters is how happy or unhappy a work makes the segment of society the critic represents – I guess?] However, this makes it much more difficult to conclude how critics evaluate works. Do feminist critics dismiss all of Shakespeare as garbage because it disregards the agency of female characters in the way of that time? Do ecocritics toss “Moby Dick” in the trash because its about whaling? Or do these critics not engage with such texts because they are irrelevant to them? It would have been nice to have some insight into these questions, because it matters as to whether the field has anything worthwhile to say if you are a reader as opposed to an ideologue.

If you want a who’s who of literary criticism combined with some vocabulary building, this book has you covered. However, to see how critics engages with texts to produce criticism, you’ll probably need to go elsewhere.

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BOOK REVIEW: How To Make a Zombie by Frank Swain

How to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind ControlHow to Make a Zombie: The Real Life (and Death) Science of Reanimation and Mind Control by Frank Swain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The title of this book might lead you to believe that it’s either frivolous or that it’s an examination of a successful sci-fi subgenre. In fact, the book presents some serious (if disturbing, and often unsuccessful) science on two concepts that are disparate except by way of analogy of the Zombie – the brain-obsessed walking undead popularized in film and fiction. Those two ideas are: 1.) how definitive of a state is death, can people be brought back from it, and – if so – under what conditions and at what costs? 2.) is it possible to completely usurp an individual’s will, and – if so – by what means?

The book consists of seven chapters that are topically organized. The first chapter introduces the idea of Zombies, discussing early reporting on them from interested parties visiting the cane fields of the Caribbean. But it also delves into the idea of how drugs and freezing might create temporary death (or the appearance of death) from which individuals can be [partially or fully] successfully roused.

Chapter two explores the history of research about how to bring a deceased person back from the dead. Squeamish readers should be forewarned there is discussion of such things as partial dogs (i.e. the head end) being temporarily revived. The book touches on various ideas related to resuscitation. There is a discussion of one researcher’s study of katsu, techniques used in judo and jujutsu to revive an individual who has lost consciousness [or worse.] Near Death Experiences [NDE] and Out-of-Body [OoB] are also covered. These strange phenomena reported by revived individuals are too common to ignore, but — while they are often presented as evidence of an afterlife and /or the divine, there’s little reason to believe that they aren’t perfectly natural phenomena. [e.g. Neuroscientists are able to induce an OoB with a carefully placed electrode.]

Chapter three shifts gears from the question of death and resuscitation to the one of mind control. While the bulk of the chapter is devoted to pharmaceutical approaches to mind control, it also examines mind control by other means – e.g. authority as an agent of mind control as seen in the famous Milgram experiments, as well as hypnosis. Most of the drug related sections deal with psychedelics (and their naturally occurring precursors.) Swain describes the CIA’s varied shenanigans with LSD in MK-Ultra, Operation Midnight Climax, and the Frank Olsen death. [Long story short, you can’t control someone’s mind with psychedelics, but you can still achieve some despicable ends.]

Chapter four continues the exploration of mind control, but focuses on more invasive approaches — from lobotomies to electro-stimulation. Of course, even as these procedures got more sophisticated, they could still only reliably make vegetables.

If you think the history of lobotomies from chapter four was as scary as it can get, I’ve got news for you. Chapters five and [particularly] six are the ones that I found both the most fascinating and by far the most terrifying. These chapters, together, uncover how mind control is achieved in the natural world by parasitic creatures. Clearly, if there is any risk of successfully taking over a human will, it will not be with doses of Acid or icepicks stuck in the brain, it will be from figuring out how some of nature’s parasitic masters of mind control do it and copying from their playbooks.

Chapter five discusses wasps and fungi that successful take over their [fortunately non-human] hosts. I wasn’t familiar with how many mind-controlling wasps there are, but I had heard of the fungus, Ophiocordyceps unilateralis. Said fungus infects an ant, steers it up into a tree, forces it to secure itself by locking in its mandibles onto a branch, and then the fruiting body blooms out of the ant’s frickin’ scull. It’s chapter six, however, where things really get creepy. There’s an extended discussion of rabies, but the wildest part was a discussion of Toxoplasma gondi. T. gondi likes to infect cats, but if it can’t find a cat, it’ll infect a rodent and selectively (not only turn off the rat’s fear of cats but also) make the rat attracted to cats. What’s fascinating is that all of the rat’s other usual fears remain intact (bright lights, sharp noises, etc.)

The last chapter is on the various intriguing things that happen after a person dies — from cannibalism to organ harvesting. I think the most interesting discussion to me, however, was one about keeping a brain-dead accident victim alive long enough that her baby could live to term within her. (There was also an intriguing – if unnerving – case of a mother who wanted her deceased son’s sperm harvested.)

The book’s only graphics are black and white photos at the head of each chapter, but it is footnoted and has a chapter-by-chapter bibliography.

I found this book riveting. I learned a lot from it. The cases are presented in amusing and enthralling ways. If you are interested in the questions of what it means to be dead and how safe your free will is, this is an engrossing look at those subjects. I highly recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Adventures of a Tantra Girl by Liberty Storm

Adventures of Tantra GirlAdventures of Tantra Girl by Liberty Storm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Let me begin by addressing the standout titular word: Tantra. Please forgive this diversion, but I do so because tantra means different things in different contexts, and I review a lot of books on yoga – a domain in which it has a vastly different meaning than it does in the book under review (particularly in India, where I currently reside.) What is meant in the context of this book is what is called “neotantra” or “Western neotantra.” (The author uses “neotantra” at various points for clarification.)

Before moving on with the review, let me clarify the connection. The original Tantra was (and is) a ritual- and practice-centric (versus scriptural-centric) system that is said to predate (and serve as basis for much of) yoga. In old school tantra, there are right- and left-handed practices. The latter involve activities that had the potential to be addictive distractions but which, practiced mindfully and conscientiously, were also seen to be routes to an elevated state of consciousness (i.e. activities normally prohibited and / or frowned upon by mainstream religion.) The left-handed practices include, but are not limited to, sexual practices that build bodily and mental control as part of the act of sex. Having been around for over a millennium, Tantra has experienced a number of break-away schisms (e.g. Buddhism has a set of Tantric practices that began from Tantra and was adapted to the uniquely Buddhist needs.) The most recent of these schisms is neotantra, which took the sex-based practices from among a much broader body of practices, and then added to them (both from other systems, e.g. Taoism, and by way of practices invented by present-day practitioners.) While Tantra isn’t well-known in the West at all, when it’s spoken of it’s almost entirely in the context of this sex-centric collection of practices – hence the fact that it’s often called “Western Neotantra.”

Now, to the point: This book consists mostly of exposé style stories about the author’s life as a tantric masseuse, with a few poems and artworks peppered in here and there. I gradually warmed to the book over the course of reading it. My early feeling was that, for an exposé meant to show one a behind-the-scenes look at an environment most of us have no interaction with, it felt guarded. In part, this might have been because the book goes from more to less idyllic events, but it also felt like there was an attempt to give the reader more of what they wanted to hear rather than to expose them to reality. For example, there is a scene involving one scantily (or un-) dressed girl feeding another a banana, and one thinks, “I see what you’re trying to do here, and it’s more an attempt to appeal to what a horny man-child thinks beautiful women do in each other’s company than what they actually do.”

That said, it did feel that the author opened up gradually over the course of the book. The last few chapters deal more with the author’s personal relationships than with her work and these parts seem to be both more emotionally open as well as more sexually adventuresome (as the limits of activity in her relationships presumably surpass those in her work.) There are few places in which the author seems judgmental for someone for whom one might be inclined to think should “judge not lest she be judged,” but there is an intriguing insight in which she is going to tell a co-worker about her own (daddy issue-related quasi-taboo kink) when she is mortified to find herself shut-down by said co-worker [who thinks it’s over-the-line.]

The core of the book tells stories of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the author’s clientele. She starts with clients she enjoyed working with, then those that she didn’t, and then those with whom the experience was some form of waking nightmare.

The drawings and poetry I will leave be as expressions of author’s personality. The inclusion of them is a bold choice, and I don’t know whether they are meant advance the impression that one is reading a diary or not, but add to an amateurish feel. That said, they also don’t account for much of the page space and may offer some psychological insight that is beyond me.

If you’re curious about what the life of a sensual masseuse is like, you’ll certainly get a taste of it from this book. I found it interesting and educational.

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BOOK REVIEW: Neurotribes by Steve Silberman

NeurotribesNeurotribes by Steve Silberman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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A combination of mystery and proclivity for lightening storms of controversy surrounds autism and related conditions (e.g. Asperger’s.) On one hand, it seems like the number of cases has skyrocketed in the past few decades. On the other hand, it’s hard to tell because long after autism began to be seen as a condition in its own right, children were being diagnosed with a range of other conditions from schizophrenia to brain damage to just plain “being difficult.” So, the question of the degree to which autism is more prevalent versus being more visible and readily-diagnosed remains.

Tellingly, Silberman’s first chapter describes an 18th century English scientist named Henry Cavendish as a way of refuting the notion that Autism is a wholly new phenomenon. The appearance that Autism is new and growing at epidemic proportions has facilitated some spurious thinking, most famously the idea that childhood vaccinations cause of autism. [To be fair, it’s easy to see why parents would want to find a simple, single-point cause, given that one of the previous hypothesized causes (which turned out to be also wrong) was that autism was caused by cold and detached parenting.] However, decades of intense investigation without a consensus conclusion suggests that a simple, straightforward cause-effect dynamic is unlikely and that more complexity is involved.

But the controversy doesn’t stop there. As within the deaf community, an argument has been on the rise that autism shouldn’t be treated as a disability to be cured but rather a difference that can be managed and which offers strengths that can be leaned into. And one of the most intriguing aspects of Autism and Asperger’s Syndrome are the mental strengths that can accompany the condition. Anyone who’s seen “Rain Man” (a chapter is devoted to it) will be aware of how savant-like mental capabilities can accompany the immense social difficulties displayed by people on the Autism Spectrum. Silberman takes on all of this and more as he presents a history of Autism.

The book is arranged into twelve chapters. As mentioned, the first chapter proposes that autism is nothing new and can be seen if one looks closely into select biographies, such as that of Henry Cavendish. While appearances in the historical record may be rare, the fact that some autistics have great mental capacities has resulted in instances in which they produced results so impressive that they remain noteworthy across the ages, despite the fact that such people were often socially isolated. The book next looks at modern-day examples of autistics who are changing the world. After that, having hooked the reader, Silberman proceeds chronologically through the advancements in understanding of autism — giving extensive attention to the work of Hans Asperger, Leo Kanner, and Bernard Rimland — but also addressing others such as Oliver Sachs and Bruno Bettelheim. In addition to discussing the research (which presents many of its own controversies,) Silberman shows how societal views of autism have changed from being considered either a form of retardation or of psychosis to being seen as a difference in abilities that should be respected.

Along the way, one learns a bit about the history of eugenics, and not just among the Nazis. (Hans Asperger’s reputation was sullied by the widespread belief that he’d worked with the Nazis.) Silberman explores the Second International Eugenics Congress that was hosted by the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. We also learn about the movie “Rain Man” and how Dustin Hoffman prepared for the role, and how the movie became a game-changer for the autistic community.

The final chapter shifts gears from what has been happening with autism to how to move forward. It presents the idea of neurodiversity, and considers how it can be accommodated. There is a brief epilogue that revolves around the son of Bernard Rimland. Rimland, while already a psychologist, shifted into the study of autism because he had an autistic child of his own.

I found this book quite intriguing. It is a fascinating exploration of the spectrum of states that we think of as autism. If you have any interest in the mind and neurological conditions, you’ll likely find it an educational read.

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BOOK REVIEW: A Little History of Poetry by John Carey

A Little History of PoetryA Little History of Poetry by John Carey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Out: April 21, 2020

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This book offers a wealth of biographical insight into poets, stretching back beyond Homer, but without getting caught up in the minutiae of full biographies. Rather, it’s more about presenting tidbits of information that help uncover why a given poet’s verse is as it is – both mixing an understanding of where the world was during that poet’s time and what the individual was going through. But that’s not all the book does. It also shows the reader how poetry changed over the centuries, how changes in society influenced poetry, and – sometimes — how poetry influenced society.

If covering poetry from “The Epic of Gilgamesh” through poets of the 20th century in a book with the word “little” in the title seems impossible, it is. It’s done in this volume by being English language poetry-centric. (Some might prefer to call it Western-centric because it discusses the likes of Ancient Greeks and Romans, as well as some German, French, Russian, and Italian poets, but these discussions are largely in the context of those poets interacting in the larger world of poetry.) That is, while it discusses foreign language poetry, it’s mostly with respect to poetry that influenced (or in some cases was influenced by) English-language poets. This focus is most profoundly seen in the book’s dalliances with Asian poetry, which are few and brusque. The book discusses a few Chinese poets as well as Japanese haiku poets, but explicitly in the context of how they influenced Arthur Waley and Ezra Pound. (Also influencing the minimal mark of Indian and Zen schools of poetry is the fact that the Beat poets were lost from the selection process as well.) The only other noteworthy mention of poetry of Asian origin is about Rabindranath Tagore, mostly because he was a Nobel Laureate and was globally prominent enough to influence poets of the English-speaking world (most of his work was originally in Bengali, though he did a lot of his own translations to English.)

The previous paragraph is not so much of a criticism as it might sound. It’s clear that any book that opts to take on an artform with as much longevity and universality as poetry in a single compact volume is going to have to be highly selective. However, I wouldn’t want anyone entering into the book thinking they would learn something about where Norse poetry or Hungarian poetry or Arab Ghazals (none of which bears a substantial mention) fit in the broader poetic scheme, and I can see how someone from an African or Asian tradition would come away offended by the lack of acknowledgement of global poetry. In short, what the book does, I felt it does very well, but its title could make people think it’s a different book than it is.

As a history, the book’s forty chapters are, quite logically, chronologically arranged. However, there are sometimes overlapping time periods because of how poets are thematically grouped. Each chapter shines a light on anywhere from one to about twenty poets (two or three is most common) who were exemplars of the time period. Generally, the chapters describe key details about each poet and his or her place in the art, and then dissects a particularly important work or two from said poet. Except in the case of a few short form pieces, whole poems aren’t presented, but rather illustrative lines or stanzas. (In many cases, I found myself pulling up whole poems on the internet because of curiosity that Carey aroused. Except for a few of the most recent poems, almost all the works discussed are in the public domain, and can be readily accessed.)

I learned a great deal from this book, and I was turned on to some poets that I hadn’t thought much about before by learning of their lives. I’ll definitely be reading more Spender, Wheatley, Auden, and Rossetti. There are many poets I’ve read without any touch of biographical insight beyond a vague notion of when they lived, and so it was interesting to gain an inkling of the world of each.

If you’re interested in poetry or the history of literature, I’d highly recommend this book. While it is English language-centric, if one approaches it knowing that, I think you’ll find it well worth your time.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman

The Immune System: A Very Short IntroductionThe Immune System: A Very Short Introduction by Paul Klenerman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a volume in the “A Very Short Introduction” [AVSI] series put out by Oxford University Press on a wide variety of scholarly subjects. As the series title suggests, the central objective of AVSI books is to pack as much of the fundamentals of a topic into as slim a package as possible. I read quite a few of these to get the gist of a subject without a lot of extraneous information. In short, they are brief and provide a high caliber understanding of the topic, but they aren’t written to be entertaining and they assume a basic scientific literacy. They usually weigh in at between 100 and 200 pages. (In this case, 144 pp.)

I found the seven chapters were optimally arranged. Chapter 1 describes and delineates the immune system, which isn’t as easy as it might seem. Putting the immune system inside neat borders is hard. If you simply describe it as the body’s defensive system, you quickly run into problems at the edges of competing classification. Sure, B cells and T cells are clearly part of the immune system, but what about skin and mucus membranes? Where does the lymphatic system end and the immune system (which uses it extensively) begin?

Chapters two and three explore the two major divisions of the immune system: the innate and the adaptive. These days, with COVID-19 at the center of global attention, the distinction is probably clear to most. The innate system isn’t geared to take on specific invaders. It has the advantage of being able to fight almost any invader, but the disadvantage of not being able to keep up with invaders that grow rapidly, are good at disguise, or both. An adaptive system response is what we all lack for COVID-19 because it only recently jumped to our species (well not “all of us,” those who had it and are recovered have adaptive immunity and that’s why they don’t have to worry about getting it again [those who have properly working immune system, at least.]) The adaptive response recognizes specific invaders and can raise an army against them tremendously quickly. Vaccines train the adaptive system to build such a response (typically by injecting a weakened strain into the body, but more detail is provided in the final chapter.)

Chapter four is entitled “making memories,” and it is an extension of chapter three. It further investigates adaptive immunity by focusing on the question of how the body develops a memory of those invaders it’s crushed in the past (or that it learned to crush by way of vaccination.)

The next two chapters delve into the two opposing ways the immune system can fail. Chapter five is about immunological failure, or how and why the body sometimes isn’t up to defeating invading adversaries. Most famously this is seen in HIV / AIDS patients, but there are other ways that the system fails in its job as the body’s bouncer. Chapter six looks at what happens when the immune system is too aggressive. [It’s important to realize that not only does the immune system check out foreign bodies, it also checks the tags on the body’s own cells, killing those that don’t display a proper “tag.”] The two major categories of over-performance are: autoimmune disorders (when the body wrongly attacks its own cells) and allergies (when the body goes all “This is Sparta!” on relatively benign foreign objects.)

The last chapter looks briefly at what work is being done in medicine these days involving the immune system, including approaches to vaccines, immunotherapy, biological therapies, and work on inflammation and the how the immune system is linked to aging.

If there was one topic I wish was better (more extensively) handled it would be discussion of what is known about how and why lifestyle choices influence immune system operation. There was a mention of how smoking has been linked to a specific immune system deficiency, and a general comment on how diet and exercise appear to be linked to increased effectiveness of autophagy (the body’s process of self-consumption and recycling of cells,) but that’s pretty much it. As there is a lot to cover in a small space, it’s hard to be too critical about this, but it seems like a crucial topic (if not as scientifically sexy as vaccine research, which is discussed relatively extensively.)

I found this book did as advertised, give me the immune system basics in a quick read. It has simple illustrations to support the text, and has a table of abbreviations — which can be beneficial given the hugely abbreviately nature of the immune system physiology. There is also a “further reading” section, but it’s heavily focused on textbooks – versus presenting popular science books that cover the material in a more light and entertaining manner.

I’d highly recommend this book if you have a basic scientific literacy and want just the facts on immunity without a lot of meandering narrative.

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BOOK REVIEW: Why Dylan Matters by Richard F. Thomas

Why Dylan MattersWhy Dylan Matters by Richard F Thomas
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Obviously, in the annals of popular music, the work of Bob Dylan matters. To make sense of the title and related objective of this book (which might otherwise seem presumptuous and demeaning) one has to know a little about some recent history of the politics of the Nobel Prize for Literature. (No, not the internal scandal that delayed the issuance of the 2018 Prize to 2019.) In 2016, an American hadn’t won since 1993 (Toni Morrison,) and given the relative volume of publications from America this was coming to be seen as a major “screw you” to the nation’s literary community. The Nobel committee claimed it was because American authors didn’t get their works translated and were too insular with respect to the global literary community. Still, the disparity was on the minds of many. Then, Bob Dylan was issued the Prize. While some who were offended by this disparity were placated, many thought it was an even bigger “screw you” than if the Committee again hadn’t issued it to an American – like it was a “you asked for it, you got it; now shut up for at least the next 15 years!” kind of award. I doubt anyone would deny that, as a pop music lyricist, Bob Dylan is brilliant – if not the best — but for many that still just made him a middling poet. (Dylan wrote one piece of prose poetry, “Tarantula” as well as “memoirs” [that were apparently largely an act of creative writing,] but only his lyrics could feasibly merit issue of the award.)

It was with that mess in mind that Thomas delivers this book. It seems to be his objective to not just prove that Dylan matters — generally speaking — but that Dylan’s work matters as literature – presumably, such that he’s at least as deserving of the Nobel Prize as any living American poet, story-writer, or novelist. The thrust of Thomas’s approach is in showing that Dylan’s work is dialed into the global literary canon. As a classicist, Thomas puts particular emphasis on Dylan’s stealing from, and referencing of, Greek and Roman figures like Homer and Ovid. (I mean “stealing” only in the sense that word used by artists, and there is considerable discussion of that subject, herein.) However, he does also show how Dylan uses and references other poets from Shakespeare to an obscure Confederate poet.

So, the logical question is whether Thomas answers his book’s titular question with enough authority to convince the reader that Dylan does matter. Thomas certainly convinces us why Dylan matters enough to have classes taught about him, like the one Thomas teaches a Harvard. However, I can’t say that I was convinced that Dylan is on-par with… for instance, Cormac McCarthy or Salman Rushdie (who resides in the US, as I understand it) as a major literary figure. While Thomas does show that Dylan’s work is literature because Dylan’s work is wrapped up in literature, the only real argument he offers for whether Dylan is at the highest echelon of literature is his intense fan-boy devotion. We see a lot of comments like: “He had all that he needed to write ‘Masters of War,’ the greatest anti-war song ever written.” Not “one of the best,” not “the best, in my opinion,” not “the best rock-n-roll anti-war song,” but a gratuitous presumption that nothing else could be considered in the running enough for there to be a debate. Thomas’s enthusiasm that Dylan is among the biggest artistic geniuses of our time – if not all time – is certainly potent, but not necessarily compelling.

The book is annotated, has a bibliography and a graphic discography.

I enjoyed this book. I learned a lot about the works of Bob Dylan and I found the author’s fervor for Dylan’s songs contagious — if not altogether convincing that it merits Dylan’s inclusion with Hemingway and Faulkner as an American literary icon. [Though I would not in the least challenge his inclusion as an icon of folk, rock, or pop music.] If you’re interested in Dylan, or this question of whether he’s the best American for the job of Literary Nobel Laureate, this book is worth a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dhammapada trans. by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita

Dhammapada: a practical guide to right livingDhammapada: a practical guide to right living by Acharya Buddharakkhita
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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The Dhammapada consists of 423 sayings attributed to the Buddha. There seem to be numerous versions of the Dhammapada as translated by Venerable Acharya Buddharakkhita in circulation, so your results may vary for good or bad from what I report here. (Not to mention there are many other translations which may vary tremendously)

The 423 sutras or maxims included in the book are arranged into twenty-six topical chapters. The version I have presents no analysis, it’s just the text of the verse in Pali (i.e. the Roman / English language alphabet spelling out the phonetic Pali words) with an English translation below.

First, the pros of the edition I read: There are some explanatory notes offered as necessary (38 of them,) there are a few graphics (drawings and photos in B&W,) and there are two indexes. The first of the two indexes wouldn’t be of much use to me, but it would be for the Pali literate because it indexes the Pali verse. The second index is in English and is organized by analogies (i.e. analogies employed in the verses,) and that could be a tremendously useful feature. For the Pali literate, having the original phonetic Pali included must be an excellent feature. (There’s also a page in the front matter that shows how the pronunciation works.)

As for the cons of this edition: First, there were a few typos (mostly of the type that wouldn’t be caught by spellcheck – though this translation was pre-spellcheck — so I’m referring to the kind of typos that aren’t easily caught.) Second, while all the verses are translated, there is some text that remains in Romanized Pali [I suspect prayers, but can’t say for sure.]

This is the second translation of the Dhammapada I’ve read, and I found it worthwhile. It’s easily readable, not too flowery, and not bogged down with needless analysis or exposition. I can’t say how it compares among all translations (either in terms of skill of translation or in accurately capturing the Buddha’s meaning,) but it reads pretty fluidly.

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