BOOK REVIEW: Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Plant Science for Gardeners: Essentials for Growing Better PlantsPlant Science for Gardeners: Essentials for Growing Better Plants by Robert Pavlis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: June 7, 2022

This book provides a basic overview of botany for gardeners. It’s written in a way that’s readable to a science neophyte, and both uses garden-relevant examples as well as considers biological concepts primarily as is germane to the ornamental plants and vegetables gardeners tend to cultivate.

The big takeaway for me was that gardeners are being sold bogus technologies and techniques that seem intuitively sound if one doesn’t have the requisite understanding of science to see where the fallacies lie. Throughout the book, there are sections that refute common botany myths. To give some examples, there’s the idea of painting over cut limbs that can trap water and contribute to rot, and there are soil treatments that are superfluous.

There were a couple of points at which I had to re-read to make sense of what was being said, not because it was complicated but because of issues like explanations that didn’t include all the information necessary for clarity or statements being made in such a way as to mislead the mind a bit. The two cases that spring to mind dealt in physics more than biology, so I couldn’t say whether this just reflects my limited understanding of botany – relative to that of physics. At any rate, I don’t believe any wrong information was given. There were just a couple instances where information was presented in a way that could be confusing, but – for the most part – the explanations were clear and seemed consistent with my understanding of the subject.

If you want to enhance your understanding of botany and some of the myths that lead to poor practices in the garden, you may want to look into this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Stranger in Tibet by Scott Berry

A Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen MonkA Stranger In Tibet: The Adventures Of A Wandering Zen Monk by Scott Berry
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book tells the story of a Japanese Zen Buddhist monk, Kawaguchi Ekai, who traveled to India, Nepal, Lo (now Upper Mustang,) Sikkim, and Tibet in the early years of the twentieth century in search of Buddhist scriptures and teachings. His ultimate goal was Tibet, which he’d heard had the complete Buddhist canon in Tibetan. However, at that time, Tibet (like some of the other nations he traveled through) was xenophobic and strictly controlled / prohibited movements of foreigners, sometimes under penalty of death. This necessitated Kawaguchi first spending a year-and-a-half in Darjeeling to become fluent in Tibetan, and then using a range of disguises to facilitate travel. There was a book published after Kawaguchi’s trip entitled, “Three Years in Tibet,” but there are reasons why one might prefer Berry’s work, reasons that will be addressed below.

Kawaguchi was an interesting figure, a skilled polyglot, a fast thinker, and an iron-willed pursuer of truth. He was also bigoted and held uncompromising moral beliefs upto which few could live. The travelogue is sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, but always interesting. Sometimes Kawaguchi comes across as a Buddhist Don Quixote, but other times he’s a valiant scholar / adventurer.

As for why one might enjoy reading Berry’s account better: first, “Three Years in Tibet” is rather bloated and wasn’t written directly by Kawaguchi but rather by way of journalists. Second, Berry explores the truth behind some of the intolerant and sectarian views of Kawaguchi. Third, Berry offers broader context into the intrigues and geopolitics of the times that led to the shunning of foreigners in the first place.

This book delves into a fascinating time in a little-known part of the world, and it’s a compelling read throughout. I’d highly recommend it for those interested in learning more about the region and its past.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Botany of Beer by Giuseppe Caruso

The Botany of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 Plants Used in BrewingThe Botany of Beer: An Illustrated Guide to More Than 500 Plants Used in Brewing by Giuseppe Caruso
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: July 26, 2022

This is an excellent reference for those with a serious interest in beer, botany, or both of the above. For the amateur brewer, it offers insight into some new and exotic ingredients for experimental brews. For the amateur botanist, it offers greater understanding of how plants are used by mankind — in one prominent domain, at least. For the beer connoisseur, it provides examples of some brews with unusual ingredients that might just expand one’s palate. The book is well-organized, easy-to-use, and has some fine ancillary features to make it an even more valuable tool.

For each of the 500-ish plants, there’s an orderly entry. Entries are arranged alphabetically by scientific name, and the book also provides alternate names, as well as common names and variations. There are drawings that break parts of the plant out for better identification, and there are sections offering both physical and chemical textual descriptions of each plant. There are also sections listing related species and cultivars (cultivated variants.) There is a geographic section that describes, if known, the place of origin of the plant, as well as the domain the plant has expanded to, or in which it’s now cultivated. One section describes what parts of the plant are used in beermaking, another provides a list of the styles of beers the plant has been (or might be) used in, and another (where applicable) an example of a beer in which that ingredient is found. As applicable, there’s also information about plant toxicity and – in some cases – fun facts related to the plant’s use in brewing. There’s a glossary, bibliography, and common name index, as well.

I’d put the included plants into three categories: 1.) plants that are common cultivated foods somewhere on the planet (note: that doesn’t mean they will appear in grocery stores in your particular neck-of-the-woods;) 2.) trees whose wood is used in barrel-making or smoking, but aren’t ingredients, per se; and 3.) ingredients that aren’t likely to appear on your plate unless you’re a hardcore forager or a deep-dive foodie with connections to a botanist or native population.

I found this book to be a well-crafted guide to beer-relevant plants, and would recommend readers interested in beer (or – more broadly – food and beverage ingredients) give it a look.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Genius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson

Genius: A Very Short IntroductionGenius: A Very Short Introduction by Andrew Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book examines the myths and realities of that state of capability we call genius. It’s not about “geniuses” as individuals who test well on IQ exams, or who are eligible for Mensa membership, but rather about those luminaries who’ve made breakthroughs that changed the course of their discipline. It considers artistic and literary type geniuses (Shakespeare and Picasso) as well as scientific geniuses (e.g. Einstein and Darwin,) as well as discussing the differences (perceived and real) between these groups and the intriguing rarity of crosscutting figures (e.g. Da Vinci.)

The bulk of the book evaluates characteristics that are (rightly or wrongly) commonly associated with genius, including: heredity, education, intelligence, creativity, madness, personality traits, and discipline. Don’t expect clear and straightforward connections. That’s not the author’s fault. There just aren’t any traits unambiguously linked to genius in an uncomplicated way. One might expect education would be an unequivocal boon to genius, but it can be a hindrance to genius in its training of conformity. There may be a disproportionate number of geniuses with mental health issues, but there are even more without them. Hard work maybe a necessary condition, but it’s clearly not a sufficient one.

The book addresses a few other related subjects, beyond the traits associated with geniuses. For example, the degree to which genius can be defined and what it means if we can (or can’t) do so. Few individuals would be unanimously judged geniuses, and to the degree some are, mightn’t that say more about the public’s role in bestowing genius rather than the individual’s earning the designation. There is also discussion about eureka moments versus slow-builds.

This book is thought-provoking and raises intriguing and counter-intuitive debates. If you’re interested in the perception, the reality, and the interplay between the two with regard to genius, check it out.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Ashtavakra Gita Trans. by Bart Marshall

Ashtavakra Gita: (bootleg version)Ashtavakra Gita: by Bart Marshall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

There are many translations of this Hindu classic of Advaita Vedanda, a non-dualist school that teaches the oneness of all things and the illusory nature of the universe that we think we know. “The Song of Ashtavakra” explores self-realization and the path to liberation (i.e. Moksha.) [Ashtavakra was a sage with birth defects from which the name “8 angles” derives. Yoga practitioners will know the name from an arm balance pose that involves balancing the kinked body on bent arms in a manner that was apparently reminiscent of the look of this sage’s body.]

The translation that I read, one by Bart Marshall, is clearly written in readily understandable language. It’s presented as a series of short-form poems arranged into twenty chapters that also form a dialogue between Ashtavakra and Janaka. This version doesn’t contain commentary and analysis as some translations do. Because it’s both highly readable and inexpensively acquired, I’d recommend one give it a chance. If you later decide you’d benefit from commentary, you’ll not be at a loss by having read this version first.

As is common enough in such tracts, the book can be repetitive as it reiterates ideas like the need to avoid desire and aversion and the nature of oneness. That said, there were some quite powerful statements that genuinely expanded on the ideas of the work. (e.g. 18.100: “One of tranquil mind // seeks neither crowds nor wilderness. // He is the same wherever he goes.” Or 3.12 “Why should a person of steady mind, who sees the nothingness of objects, prefer one thing over another?”)

If you’re a student of philosophy or of yoga as a philosophy, I think this is well worth a thoughtful read.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The One-Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka

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

Amazon.in Page

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

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

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

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


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction by Antulio J. Echevarria II

Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction (Very Short Introductions, #523)Military Strategy: A Very Short Introduction by Antulio J. Echevarria II
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This concise guide to military strategy is well-organized and can be readily understood by an amateur reader. The book provides an overview of the domain of military strategy by comparing and contrasting related pairs of strategic paradigms.

After an overview chapter (ch. 1) that broadly defines the subject and lays out the organization for the rest of the book, chapter two explores strategies of annihilation and how they are similar to and different from strategies of dislocation. Chapter three investigates attrition and exhaustion, strategies that deal in destroying warfighting resources and will to fight, respectively. Chapter four elucidates how the threat of force can be used to keep the enemy from making a move (deterrence,) or force them to make a desired move (coercion.) Chapter five looks at strategies that rely on instilling fear to change an opponent’s behavior, including aerial bombardment and terrorist tactics. Chapter six considers different approaches to using selective targeting to achieve strategic goals: i.e. decapitation and targeted killing. The penultimate chapter (ch. 7) contrasts the various approaches to cyber warfare with cyber-power, more generally.

The final chapter (ch. 8) briefly examines the determinants of success and failure of military strategy.

The book is straightforward and uses historical cases to provide clear examples of each type of strategy. It doesn’t go much beyond definition and some classic examples, but it is an excellent starting point for organizing one’s thoughts on the topic in preparation to learn more.

If you’re in need of a concise overview of (or refresher on) military strategy, this is a fine guide to consider.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Ways of Seeing by John Berger

Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book challenges one to not just look at what’s in a picture, but to reflect upon the nature of seeing and what it tells one about the deeper meaning of a painting or photograph. For example, who is seeing – i.e. whose perspective would the picture be from and what might the artist be saying about such a person? Also, what are the subjects looking at, and what does that convey (e.g. come-hither, lost in thought, etc.)

The book’s seven chapters alternate text + picture chapters (the odd chapters) with ones that are only pictorial (i.e. the even chapters.) The first chapter lays out the concept of ways of seeing, and subsequent chapters consider how those ideas can be applied to specific questions. Chapter three, for example, discusses what the differences between how men and women are depicted says about inherent societal biases. Chapter five explores the relationship between possessing and seeing, and also how everyday people begin to be rendered in art. Chapter seven investigates what the author calls “publicity” and how pictures are used to evoke dissatisfaction with what is and desire to be something else. Here one sees how advertising and marketing exploits these concepts.

The picture-only chapters are intriguing. One can see the commonality in the pictures and practice discerning what the author is trying to convey. One of the book’s central ideas is that seeing precedes reading, and that we learned to extract information from images before we did so from words.

The book has strange formatting, employing bold text and thumbnail art. The font didn’t bother me. I don’t know whether it was used to raise the page count on a thin book, or what. I will say that the thumbnail art can be a little hard to make out, even in the Kindle edition where it can be magnified somewhat. Most of the paintings can be internet searched quite easily, but the advertisements that are used to show how art is applied to marketing, not so much.

I found this book to provide excellent food-for-thought, and would recommend seeing / reading it.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch

The Heart of American PoetryThe Heart of American Poetry by Edward Hirsch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Out: April 19, 2022

This book presents forty poems from prominent American poets, interspersed with essays by Hirsch offering background on the poet, the poem, and how the poem reflects upon America. It’s a fine collection of poems, and a thoughtful discussion of them. There will be something new to most readers. While most of the poets are well-known and while there are a few highly anthologized poems: e.g. Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus,” Dickinson’s #479 [Because I Could Not Stop for Death,] and Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” there are many more off the beaten path selections to be discovered.

As for whether the selection captures the heart of American poetry, on that wouldn’t necessarily agree. That said, it’s presented as Hirsch’s personal selection; the pieces in it are great poems, and he has as much right to his views as anyone. The anthology does capture many elements of the American poetic voice. It does a fine job of capturing the many strains of dissent, critique, and resistance from the Harlem Renaissance (e.g. Langston Hughes) to that of the indigenous peoples (e.g. Joy Harjo) to the Beats (e.g. Allen Ginsberg.) What Hirsch seems less comfortable with is the Whitmanian voice of affection and admiration for the country. In writing about Whitman and Frost, Hirsch makes comments about their lack of appeal to him, apparently their respective unbridled positivity and folksiness were found unbecoming of a poet. I felt the fact that Hirsch had to search out one of Whitman’s more angsty and dark compositions in order to be happy with Whitman’s inclusion was telling (Hirsch could hardly leave Whitman out and present the book as capturing the essence of American poetry.)

The anthology reflects much of the cultural and artistic diversity seen in America, but it eschews the middle America voice (i.e. 70% of the poems are from New Jersey and northward up the Atlantic coast, and while New York may be the country’s cultural and publishing capital, skilled poets from South of the Mason-Dixon and more than 150 miles from the Atlantic coast aren’t as much rare flukes as this anthology would suggest.)

I enjoyed reading this anthology, and I learned a great deal from the essays that went along with each poem. The book is definitely worth reading. Mopey Plath-loving New Yorkers are more likely to find it representative of the voice of American poetry than sanguine Whitman-loving Hoosiers, but it’s an enlightening read, either way.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel

The Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermitThe Stranger in the Woods: The extraordinary story of the last true hermit by Michael Finkel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

This book delves into the fascinating case of Christopher Knight, a man who lived twenty-seven years in central Maine without human contact. Knight survived by stealing food and other supplies from cabins and other unoccupied buildings in the area. By his own admission, Knight conducted about forty burglaries per year for the more than a quarter of a century he lived in solitude. In addition to providing a biography of Knight, his hermit years as well as his capture, his trial, and his challenging reentry into society, the book discusses the psychology and philosophy of reclusive living in some detail.

This book was riveting to me, in part because I’m pretty deep into introverted territory and I recognize some of Knight’s personality traits in myself, and even I can’t fathom how he managed that degree of solitary living over so many years. What seems to be most difficult for people to comprehend was how he lived with only a tent-like shelter through the Maine winters, sometimes below zero Fahrenheit, while never building a campfire. (He did have a propane stove, but wouldn’t build a fire for fear that it would bring the authorities right to him.) That is astounding, but what I find even more amazing is the psychology, how Knight maintained sanity with that degree of self-imposed isolation, prisoners in solitary confinement have gone stark-raving mad with shorter and less intensely solitary stints.

Another issue that makes Knight’s story so compelling is that in so many ways he wasn’t your typical hermit. While he seems to have been uniquely wired to thrive on solitude and had the intelligence necessary to problem solve his survival, he wasn’t a spiritual seeker; he wasn’t particularly a minimalist (he accumulated lots of stuff;) and he did listen to the radio, as well as listening to television shows over his radio. While he went to great lengths to ensure he didn’t come into contact with people and that his camp wasn’t found, it’s interesting that he did stay fairly close to people [granted that might have been entirely owing to the need to steal from them, but one has to wonder if proximity didn’t have other causes as well.] Knight is an engaging character, it’s hard not to have some respect – begrudging or otherwise — for his ingenuity and unique capacity for extreme solitude, but he’s also a felon whose burglaries disturbed a lot of people’s lives.

This is one of the most captivating books I’ve read in some time, and I’d highly recommend it.

View all my reviews