BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Making a Masterpiece by Debra N. Mancoff

Making A Masterpiece: The stories behind iconic artworksMaking A Masterpiece: The stories behind iconic artworks by Debra N. Mancoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release Date: November 1, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

In this book, Mancoff discusses a dozen works of art considered masterpieces, explaining how the paintings came to be, what influenced the artist, and what influence these paintings had on art or culture that contributed to their widespread designation as masterpieces. This background information is presented by way of helping to understand what it is about these paintings that made them stand out.

It’s an interesting selection. There are paintings, such as Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” that one would imagine being on any short list of artistic masterpieces. There are others that one could imagine making the cut or not, but which are certainly iconic (e.g. Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”) But there are also painters who one would expect to see included on the list, but whose most well-known or iconic work isn’t the one presented – e.g. Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” is discussed instead of “The Kiss” and Van Gogh’s “Fifteen Sunflowers” is included rather than “Starry Night.” The most controversial inclusion is the last, “Michelle Obama” by Amy Sherald – not because it’s not a beautiful painting and interestingly arranged for a portrait (which are usually pretty boring to a neophyte such as me,) but because it hasn’t been around for sufficiently long to know whether it will lodge itself in the collective conscious the way all the other entries have, so earning the designation of masterpiece. [It’s also owned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and thus hasn’t had the commercial distinction by which masterpieces are usually determined – i.e. being auctioned for insane sums of money – e.g. Warhol’s soup cans (which are included in the book.)] That said, I liked that there were some “outliers,” as it was more opportunity to learn something new.

The book not only includes pictures of artworks as well as closeup details, but also pictures of works that were influenced by each and sometimes photos relevant to the story behind the paintings.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a great deal about these important works of art.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales

Classical Mythology: A Very Short IntroductionClassical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This book examines the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, reflects upon how these myths have come to be understood and used in the modern world, and proposes how these understandings may represent partial or incorrect views – in some cases. This approach can be seen from the book’s opening chapter, which investigates how Europa (a figure primarily known for being raped by Zeus) came to be namesake of the continent where classical mythology developed. In later chapters, there’s an exploration of how partial or erroneous understandings of Classical Mythology have been applied to psychoanalysis (ch. 5,) sexuality (ch. 6,) and New Age practices such as astrology and goddess worship (ch. 7.)

I learned a great deal from this book. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about what might have been if Freud had picked a different mythological figure to fixate on, other than Oedipus. How the famed psychiatrist might have extracted lessons that better stood the test of time than those that came about in reality.

While there’s not a great deal of room in a book such as this to explore the full scope of classical myths, the author does use a variety of myths – often well-known stories that don’t require a great deal of backstory – to make the book interesting and thought-provoking.

If you’re looking for a book on Classical Mythology, particularly one that discusses how it (for good or ill) appears in today’s world, I’d highly recommend this brief guide.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: A Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans

A Transcendental JourneyA Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release date [for 25th Anniversary ed.]: September 10, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

A Transcendental Journey intersperses a quirky travelogue of a rambling road-trip through America with a book report on selected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a positive note, the book offers genuinely funny lines within a generally amusing wandering discussion of events, and there’s something authentic about the voice – you may find yourself hearing the words in the voice of someone you know (or a character) who is idiosyncratic and nerdy in a way that is not uncommon in America. I did. In addition to the funny lines, there are statements that feel profound and are definitely thought-provoking.

Some of the offbeat elements go a bit too far, reaching the point of distraction. For some reason, the author decided to note not only each time he drank a Coca-Cola, but the size of the beverage. At first, it’s just a bit of weirdness that seems to contribute to the aforementioned authentic voice, but eventually one is made sad by the idea that this guy is giving himself diabetes and involving you, as reader, in the process. I can’t say that the philosophy bit is particularly well integrated into the travelogue, and the author often seems like an Enlightenment guy more than a Transcendentalist. (Transcendentalism being an offshoot of Romanticism, a philosophy meant to counteract the perceived cold, hard rationality of Enlightenment thinking and take a more mystical / spiritual [though not necessarily religious] view of the world.) That said, I can’t fault an inability to keep these schools of thought in boxes, as my own philosophy and worldview are fairly ala carte. My point is just that someone who picked up the book expecting to have a clearer view of what distinguishes Transcendentalism from other philosophies might come away confused.

If you enjoy travelogues, particularly of the United States, you’ll find this book a fun read. If you’re familiar with the works of Emerson, I wouldn’t expect any deep philosophical insight, but there are some fine quotes and discussions to remind you of Emerson’s great ideas and beautiful language. (And there are certainly many varied insights to ponder.)

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Enter the Dangal by Rudraneil Sengupta

Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling LandscapeEnter the Dangal: Travels through India’s Wrestling Landscape by Rudraneil Sengupta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

Enter the Dangal offers a fascinating discussion of the sport of wrestling in India, be it the dirt-pit Kushti variety or on the mats in the highest stage the sport has to offer, the Olympics. Sengupta offers a glimpse into the fully formed subculture that exists around akhada, live-in wrestling academies. We see India’s wrestling world through both the tradition- and virtue-oriented training grounds that produced greats like Gama and Sushil Kumar, but the book also takes forthright dips into the darker reaches of the sport.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part both provides background and tells the story of one of the most profound experiences of modern Indian wrestling, Sushil Kumar’s match for the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics [he took silver.] The second part explores the long wave of the rise and fall of Indian wrestling, and the third part takes the reader back to the golden age of wrestling, telling of the international matches of Gama and the movement by some Indian wrestlers into both the legitimate and staged wrestling domains of Europe and America.

There are two discussions that I found particularly intriguing. First, there’s the matter of women entering this all-male domain. Historically, not only did women not wrestle, mothers and sisters didn’t even go to the akhada to see their son’s and brother’s training. Second, the book answers an interesting question: why is India such a non-contender in the Summer Olympic games? [India falls between Uzbekistan and Ireland for total Summer Olympic medals, not even making the top 50 – which, for a country of its size and talent pool across a range of body types, is pretty dismal performance.] The answer is rooted in patriarchy, corruption, and downstream problems resulting from those problems (i.e. lack of best practices vis-à-vis sports science and poor facilities.)

I found this book to be compelling read and would highly recommend it for those wishing to learn more about wrestling in India.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: The Exquisite Machine by Sian E. Harding

The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the HeartThe Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart by Sian E. Harding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release date: September 20, 2022

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

In this book, a renowned heart researcher presents an overview of what we know (and don’t know) about the human heart: i.e. what can go wrong with it and why, how [and to what degree] it fixes itself, and what modern medicine can do to treat or replace a damaged heart. I learned the most from the middle of the book – i.e. chapters five through seven. Chapter five explores plasticity in the heart, plasticity is a concept that most people associate with the brain and its ability to rewire itself to contend with damage or changing needs. The other two chapters look at how the heart can be damaged, specifically as a result of emotional experience. A “broken heart” isn’t necessarily a misnomer.

Chapter four is also intriguing but takes the win for “which one of these things is not like the others.” It deals with big data, though not in a general sense but rather as it applies to gaining a better understanding of the heart. This chapter discusses a common challenge of medical research: that it’s hard to come up with large enough study groups of patients with close enough to the same problem to draw solid conclusions. Four also discusses the potential of the vast amount of data that exists, e.g. Fitbit heart rate figures.

The last couple chapters deal largely with the future of heart repair through genetic / biological means (as opposed to via mechanical hearts and technologies, which are dealt with in Chapter nine.) This is where the book gets to be a challenging read for a readership of non-experts. It gets technical and jargon- / acronym-heavy.

The heart is an astounding entity, relentlessly at work, rarely giving up despite regularly being subjected to intense shocks, an organ tied to our whole being in a way that humans have always felt – if only just begun to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about this magnificent organ, check this book out.

View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar

Introducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic GuideIntroducing Cultural Studies: A Graphic Guide by Ziauddin Sardar
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

Culture is a deep and fascinating topic, but a dirty little secret of academia is that there are two words used to signal subjects and courses for the not-so-bright kids: one is “Studies” and the other is “for.” (As in “Math FOR Economists,” a course that I once took that was – I’m sure of it – greatly dumbed down from what Math majors learned. “Economics FOR Business Majors” is a more widely known example; it’s Economics for people who are afraid of equations and who can’t figure out which way is up on a supply and demand curve.) So, I wasn’t sure what to expect from a guide to “Cultural Studies,” as opposed to a book about, say, Cultural Anthropology, which I believe is the big-boy pants version of the discipline under discussion.

The author is forthright that cultural studies is a bit amorphous and that it struggles to find its place amid the established disciplines that touch upon culture from varying perspectives (i.e. psychology, philosophy, anthropology, etc.) The book begins before there was a “Cultural Studies,” per se, discussing competing definitions of culture and related precursor disciplines, e.g. semiotics. It then describes the evolution of the subject and its varied points of focus and ideas across its major epicenters: Europe, North America, Australia, and South Asia. It investigates colonization and its influence on indigenous cultures, and it looks at how a range of concepts intersect with culture, including: science, technology, race, gender, sexuality, and media. It concludes by reflecting on globalization and the discontents who wish to end or replace this homogenizing force.

I did learn quite a few new things from this book, and if you’re looking to understand culture as a landscape of academic study, it’s worth having a look at it.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Training and Conditioning for MMA ed. by Dias / Oliveira / Brauer & Pashkin

Training and Conditioning for MMA: Programming of ChampionsTraining and Conditioning for MMA: Programming of Champions by Stéfane Beloni Correa Dielle Dias
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Release Date: September 15, 2022 [It may already be out in some formats and markets]

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This book provides an overview of fitness building for Mixed Martial Arts athletes. It covers program design, athletic assessment, nutrition, exercises and conditioning practices, and injury prevention methods. On the positive side, it’s not only comprehensive, but – also – presents some of the best and latest methods in combative sports training based on sound scientific research. On the other hand, the book does assume a certain level of understanding of sports science, and it gets pretty deep in the weeds with respect to technical detail and to scientific and specialty jargon. If one doesn’t have such background, one may find some of the content (particularly the early chapters) a bit daunting. That said, it offers an excellent reference for those who are interested in methods and sports science not just for MMA, but for combative sports, in general.

The book uses color photographs throughout. I found the photos to be clear, well-sized, and well-lit. While there is definitely an attempt to keep the number of photos to a reasonable level, they do offer multiple angles where necessary and – generally – give enough pictures to make the action clear. There are also tables after each of the methods sections to give a handy summary of sets, reps, and scheduling suggestions for various exercises. In the early chapters, the ones that convey more technical content, there’re charts, graphs, and diagrams as needed. There’s an extensive bibliography, though it should be noted many if not most of the references are not in English. (The team of editors and contributors is large and international.)

This book offers an excellent reference for coaches, trainers, and athletes. While it does get quite technical, it’s great that it offers insight into cutting edge science and training methods.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Myth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal

Myth: A Very Short IntroductionMyth: A Very Short Introduction by Robert A. Segal
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

This book situates myth amid the broader body of scholarship by examining what role myth plays within – or in opposition to – various academic disciplines, including: science, philosophy, religion, the study of ritual, literature, psychology, structuralism, and social studies. The book is organized so as to compare competing ideas of various major scholars in each of the aforementioned domains. So, as the blurb is upfront about, the book doesn’t spend much time talking about what myths are, and the discussion of how myths are structured is only made as relevant to distinguishing various hypotheses.

One does obtain some food-for-thought about what myths are as one learns how different scholars have approached myth. Questions of how narrowly myth should be defined (e.g. only creation stories v. all god and supernatural tales,) and how myths compare to folktales, national literatures, and the like are touched upon. One also learns that some scholars took myths literally (and, therefore, saw them as obsolete in the face of science and modern scholarship,) but other scholars viewed myths more symbolically.

If you’re looking for an introductory book to position myth in the larger scholarly domain and to examine competing hypotheses about myths, this is a great book for you. However, those who want a book that elucidates what myths are (and aren’t) and how they are structured and to what ends, may find this book inadequate for those objectives. Just be aware of the book you’re getting.


View all my reviews

BOOK REVIEW: Funny on Purpose by Joe Randazzo

Funny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy: Standup + Improv + Sketch + TV + Writing + Directing + YouTubeFunny on Purpose: The Definitive Guide to an Unpredictable Career in Comedy: Standup + Improv + Sketch + TV + Writing + Directing + YouTube by Joe Randazzo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon.in Page

Get Speechify to make any book an audiobook

Former editor of the hilarious faux-newspaper, The Onion, (Joe Randazzo) provides a broad overview of the humor creation industry, and the many jobs, therein. Whether you’re interested in scriptwriting, performing stand-up, or starting a YouTube channel that provides color commentary of crippling skateboarding accidents, this book has tips and insight into how said job works, how to do the job, and how to avoid the pitfalls. And, as expected, the book offers humor throughout. That said, the first priority is educational, so one shouldn’t expect a laugh-a-minute humor extravaganza.

The book is divided into five parts. The first four parts delved into the various humor content creation jobs (writing, performing, making pictures, and making internet content,) and the last part is about the common business aspects like understanding intellectual property rights, knowing the difference between an agent and a manager, and learning how to get people to give you money for a product you don’t yet have.

One nice feature the book offers is brief interviews with various experts such as Judd Apatow, Weird Al, Joan Rivers, many people you’ve never heard of but I’m sure are good at what they do, and a few that you will have heard of if you have obsessive niche tastes in humor. The interviews are short, but it does help to have insight from someone whose life has largely focused on a particular dimension of humor creation. Randazzo has a diverse background, including writing, performing, and television and internet work, but there are fine insights to be gained from a specialist.

I got a lot out of this book and would recommend it for those interested in the humor content creation industrial complex.

View all my reviews