BOOK REVIEW: Around the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch

Around the World in 80 BooksAround the World in 80 Books by David Damrosch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: November 16, 2021

David Damrosch’s comp lit world tour has a simple premise. You’re a traveler and the pandemic strikes, how do you travel by book while trapped at home? For those who think travel and reading are unrelated endeavors, I disagree. As a traveler and avid reader, I’ve always found the two intertwined in building a greater understanding of the world. Reading is an essential part of traveling, and I read literature from every place I visit. Why? Because people the world over are guarded, yearning to make good impressions. Because of this, one gets a partial and distorted view of other cultures. Poets and novelists round out the picture by airing the dirty laundry of their people. It’s not that revealing the dark and ugly edges of a culture is their foremost objective, but those are good sources of tension in a novel and of emotional resonance in a poem. [Seeking out what’s not so pretty about a culture might seem like a tawdry undertaking, but falling in love with a place is like falling in love with a person, if you do so without first seeing their bad habits, it’s not really love. It’s just childlike infatuation.]


The book’s organization is straightforward. There are sixteen locales, and five books are discussed for each. I enjoyed Damrosch’s “syllabus.” The eighty books included a pleasant mix of works I’ve read, those I’ve been meaning to read, and [most importantly] those I’d missed altogether. Any source that reveals new reading material to me will definitely find favor.


The book starts in London (apropos of its titular connection to the Jules Verne novel) and moves through Europe, the Middle East, Africa, over through Asia, back around to Latin America, and finally to North America to conclude (as trips generally do) back at home.


The book is weighted heavily toward the literature side of the travel-literature nexus. That’s not a criticism, it’s just worth noting for travelers who aren’t avid readers of literary fiction and poetry, because they may find this book gets a bit deep in the literary weeds. (The sections don’t focus single-mindedly on the listed book, but meander through the author’s oeuvre and influences.) While many of the selections are indisputably excellent choices for traveling by book, others lack a connection that is readily apparent (e.g. the final book, Lord of the Rings.) Again, I didn’t find that to be a negative as there was always something to be learned from the discussions, and – who knows – it may have even expanded my thinking.


If you’re a traveler / reader, you should definitely consider giving this book a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Why I’m Not a Hindu by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd

Why I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political EconomyWhy I Am Not a Hindu: A Sudra Critique of Hindutva Philosophy, Culture and Political Economy by Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As a foreigner living in India for almost a decade, I’m always looking for books that offer insight into cultural and political realities that remain obscure even after many years in country. I stumbled upon this book and the diametrically titled book, “Why I Am a Hindu” by Shashi Tharoor. I figured the two books might cover the pro / con accounting of Hinduism through two personal accounts of how a couple of thoughtful individual’s perceptions of the religion differ.


Having read this book, chronologically the first, I discovered that the two books might not mirror each other as well as I’d thought. For one thing, this book is really more about: a.) why dalitbahujans shouldn’t be considered Hindu, and b.) why following the dalit cultural framework would be better for India than following Hinduism. That’s not to say that the book doesn’t count off many theological points that rub the author the wrong way, socio-politically speaking. It also displays no shortage of anger (which one could certainly be argued is righteous, but nonetheless detracts from the feeling of scholarly objectivity that one might hope for in such a book.) But, at the end of the day, this is a book about caste, and how the system is used by the few to oppress the many. [It also turns out that both books cast themselves in opposition to the Hindu nationalist movement.]


In short, the author argues that the “high castes” of Hinduism (i.e. Brahmins and Kshatriyas) are parasitic, misogynistic, violent, oppressive, corpulent, and demanding of “spiritual fascism.” On the other hand, the Dalitbahujans are painted as productive, egalitarian, democratic, creative, less materialistic, and capable of creating a sustainable path toward a healthy India of the future. I don’t know whether I came away with a much better insight into the truth of the situation, but as a social scientist I learned that what is true is often not so important as what is believed to be true – the latter can have huge impacts regardless of its objective truth. I say this because the author does make a lot of gratuitous assertions – unsupported statements — and these are particularly difficult to process when they address the motives of high caste people. He also sometimes whitewashes the “sins” of other religions to make the argument that Hindus are the worst / most unreasonable of all religions.


While it’s certainly true that the caste system has been oppressive and that the oppressed are within reason to be angry and to insist upon change, it’s hard for me to get a good read on what is true regarding the details because the author takes a preaching-to-the-choir route and doesn’t really provide the evidence an outsider would need to judge. That said, the book still offers a great deal of value because it tells one what the author (and presumably many others) feel to be the truth of the situation.


I found this book insightful and thought-provoking. There may be better books out there in terms of supporting arguments, but it’s a solid counter to the throngs of books by the Hindu intellectual elite. [FYI – The book will drive typo-haters insane, it’s loaded with missing letter typos, etc.]

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BOOK REVIEW: Three Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō, Chōmei, and Kenkō

Three Japanese Buddhist MonksThree Japanese Buddhist Monks by Saigyō
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book collects three essays composed between the twelfth and fourteenth centuries. They are in chronological order, but also in order of increasing length, i.e. Saigyō’s piece is a short excerpt, while Kenkō’s essay makes up the bulk of the book.


An excerpt from Saigyō’s Senjūshō tells the story of the monk’s meeting with a wise reclusive meditator on Mt. Utsu. Saigyō tries to talk his way into living / meditating with the hermit, but the sage convinces him that that wouldn’t be good for either of them. The monk goes away, planning on visiting the hermit on his return, but he wistfully tells us that he took another route.


“The Ten-Foot Hut” is about the benefits of a simple, minimalist existence. It discusses Impermanence, and takes the view that having more just means one has more to lose. A quote that offers insight into the monk’s thoughts is, “If you live in a cramped city area, you cannot escape disaster when a fire springs up nearby. If you live in some remote place, commuting to and fro is filled with problems, and you are in constant danger from thieves.” The author’s solution? Build a tiny cabin in the woods and – in the unlikely event it burns or gets robbed while one is away – what has one really lost?


The Kenkō essay makes up about eighty percent of the book. Its rambling discussion of life’s impermanence delves into morality, aesthetics, and Buddhist psychology. There are many profound bits of wisdom in this piece. Though it’s also a bit of a mixed bag in that some of the advice feels relevant and insightful, while some of it hasn’t aged / traveled well.


I enjoyed this book and found it thought-provoking. Some may be disappointed by finding how little of Saigyō’s writing is included (he being the author of greatest renown,) but I found each author had something valuable to offer.


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BOOK REVIEW: Writing Haiku by Bruce Ross

Writing Haiku: A Beginner's Guide to Composing Japanese PoetryWriting Haiku: A Beginner’s Guide to Composing Japanese Poetry by Bruce Ross
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: March 15, 2022

With this guide, Ross offers a compact guide to navigating Japanese poetic forms and the offshoots and variations that have evolved in America. The book does have a particular focus on the American and international style of haiku, and related forms, though the author always lays the groundwork by first exploring the “rules” of the traditional Japanese form. He also discusses concepts, such as wabi and sabi, that heavily inform Japanese poetry. However, most of the examples come from English language writers, and there’s extensive discussion of how American haiku differs in form and substance. This makes the book particularly useful for English-as-native-language writers who wish to capture the flavor of this spare and elegant poetic form, but who have limited acquaintance with the Japanese language and culture.

I didn’t think I’d need another guide for writing haiku after reading and re-reading William Higginson’s The Haiku Handbook, but Ross does cover a few topics in greater depth and detail, particular haiga (combining graphic arts with haiku,) renga (a partnered / team style) and several American variations, and ginko (a nature walk-based practice.)

The book has graphics as needed (i.e. in the haiga section,) and offers and extensive set of recommendations for further reading as well as resources.

While I’ve been writing haiku, tanka, and senryū for some time, I learned a lot from this book, and it got me excited to try some of the forms with which I’m inexperienced. I’d highly recommend this book for beginner, intermediate, and advanced haiku poets.


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BOOK REVIEW: Real Food Fermentation, Revised and Expanded by Alex Lewin

Real Food Fermentation, Revised and Expanded: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home KitchenReal Food Fermentation, Revised and Expanded: Preserving Whole Fresh Food with Live Cultures in Your Home Kitchen by Alex Lewin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 21, 2021

This is an expanded edition of a book that explores the process of fermenting a wide range of foods and beverages, including – new to this edition – sourdough bread. It’s a great book for a neophyte such as myself as it covers all the basics without getting too arcane (though it does include natto and some other regional foods that may not be widely familiar.) The book provides step-by-step instructions for making sauerkrauts (and variations such as Kimchi,) yoghurt & kefir, fermented fruit condiments, beverages (alcoholic and non-,) bases / starters (e.g. vinegar,) and sourdough products (including, but not limited to, bread.) It describes some of the challenges one may run up against as well as showing what equipment one will need. It also proposes some of the ways a curious person might experiment with variations.

Color photos are used to clarify the production processes as well as to show appetizing finished products that will whet one’s appetite.

If one is looking to get into a narrow domain of fermentation, e.g. making beer or other alcoholic beverages, one may want to look elsewhere for a more specialized and in-depth guide (of which there are many.) However, this book may introduce one to ideas for brewing adventures one wouldn’t have otherwise considered.

This book is an awesome choice for someone looking to get into or to expand their food fermentation activities. It’s well-organized, beautifully presented, and – as I mentioned – not overwhelming. With the mounting evidence of the benefits of fermented foods, this is a great guide to learn more about how one can best begin producing such foods at home.


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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: Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley

Zen Buddhism and Its Relation to ArtZen Buddhism and Its Relation to Art by Arthur Waley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Project Gutenberg (FREE)

This essay reviews the history and key personalities of Zen Buddhism, and then has a quite brief discussion of Zen influenced art. The thin book at its most interesting when it discusses Zen Buddhist teachings by way of the life events and sayings of its historical figures (e.g. Bodhidharma.) It does have some nice straightforward explanations of concepts.

What’s not to like? First, it’s just an essay, so if you’re expecting a full book, you might be displeased. Second, the opening discussion about the sectarian divides of Buddhism is very biased in favor of Mahayana Buddhism and against Theravada. (Of course, if one is reading about a Mahayana sect, e.g. Zen, one probably expects as much.) Finally, the title might lead one to think the book will help one understand the Zen mind’s influence on creativity, but it’s not a great source for that.

If you know what to expect, this little piece has something fine to offer. Waley was a prolific translator and a renowned expert on things Asian (particularly poetry,) and he has an insightful way of communicating difficult concepts.


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BOOK REVIEW: MonsterMind by Alfonso Casas

MonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-DoubtMonsterMind: Dealing with Anxiety & Self-Doubt by Alfonso Casas
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: October 12, 2021

This comic offers a clever and insightful look at the voices inside one’s head. The use of cute graphic depictions of fears, doubts, and past traumas – along with lighthearted narrative analogies – allows the reader to explore the subject matter in a manner that is neither dry nor anxiety-inducing, in and of itself. This apparently autobiographical book shows how a comic artist, beleaguered by the monstrous occupants of his own mind, goes from being overwhelmed to learning to manage his mind.

At the end of the book there are a few pages of tips, both for dealing with one’s own anxieties but also for interacting with others who have intense embattled minds. It’s a book that may even be more beneficial for individuals without crippling issues themselves, but who know or love such individuals. The use of graphic depictions and adroit portrayals of anxiety may help individuals who haven’t faced severe issues to gain a better understanding of what goes on in the minds of those who do. Having said that, these “monsters” will be familiar to everyone on some level, though for many that that level doesn’t necessarily interfere with living their lives.

I’d highly recommend this book for anyone looking for a gentle and amusing introduction to the topic of the runaway mind. It’s delightfully drawn and amusingly told.


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BOOK REVIEW: Anecdotes of the Cynics by Various

Anecdotes of the CynicsAnecdotes of the Cynics by Robert F. Dobbin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of brief stories and sayings from famous Cynic philosophers – notably, Diogenes of Sinope, Crates of Thebes, Hipparchia, and Bion. It opens with the longest piece, a dialogue [allegedly] by Lucian the Cynic advocating the Cynic’s minimalist approach to life. [Cynics were ascetics who shunned customs and cultural conventions and thus often ran afoul of the conservative societal base / rubbed people the wrong way.] The dialogue uses Socratic method, but also contains prolonged exposition. [Not like the Platonic dialogues in which Socrates tends to ask brief questions and attempts to demand brief answers – granted not always successfully.] However, most of the pieces are just a paragraph or two brief excerpts.

Most of the entries report on what various Cynics said or did, though there are a few that are biased commentaries of non-Cynics about these “dog philosophers” – e.g. there is a Catholic tract denouncing the Cynics while talking up Paul. [It reads as though the early Christian church (which was teaching Jesus’s ideas, including: in part, the virtues of poverty, of simplicity, and of a lack of deference to the world of men) might have been concerned about being outcompeted.]

There’s not a tremendous amount that remains of direct Cynic teachings, and so a book like this is a way to get a taste of the highlights. Just as Buddha found that extreme forms of ascetism didn’t yield the optimal result, Cynicism lost ground to the upstart school Stoicism, which borrowed some Cynic ideas while jettisoning the most extreme aspects of the philosophy.

One can find these stories in old public domain sources such as Diogenes Laertius’ (no relation) “Lives of the Eminent Philosophers,” but this is a good way to get the condensed version without too much extraneous information.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson

Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Political Philosophy: A Graphic Guide by Dave Robinson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers a concise overview of the philosophy of governance and political affairs. After a few pages that describe the domain of political philosophy and the questions that guide it, the book takes a chronological approach to exploring the shifting landscape of political philosophy from Ancient Greece through the Postmodernist schools of thought. Along the way, it presents the ideas that have undergirded a range of forms of governance from anarchy to authoritarianism.

Political philosophy hinges on a number of key questions, such as: Is man fundamentally good or evil? [the Hobbes – Locke debate] What rights do individuals have? What makes a government legitimate? There is widespread agreement that societies need some form of governance to avoid devolving into Mad Maxian wastelands. However, any power that a leader or government has to govern inherently restricts the freedom of other entities (i.e. individuals, businesses, organizations, etc.) Attempts to think through how this dilemma can best be managed have resulted in a huge and longstanding body of philosophical thinking.

Furthermore, there is no indication that these questions will resolve themselves in a consensus agreement about what kind of governance (or lack thereof,) is best. While democracy, rule of law, protection of minority rights, and a strict limitation of the State’s monopoly on use of force have gained widespread following across an increasing number of nations, those ideas haven’t ended the debate altogether.

I found this to be a fine overview of the subject. As with other books in the series, it uses short sections and cartoon graphics to make the material readily digestible. It’s highly readable and well-organized.


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