BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Impossible by Steven Kotler

The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance PrimerThe Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


Steven Kotler’s new book, “The Art of Impossible,” shares territory with two of his previous books [“The Rise of Superman” and “Stealing Fire” (the latter co-authored with Jamie Wheal,)] but it also takes a step back to reveal a broader landscape than those previous books. Whereas the earlier books focused on how to achieve a high-performance state of mind called “flow” (or “peak performance,”) this one looks at the bigger picture of how to achieve success with daunting projects. So, while the fourth / final section of the book presents information that will be familiar to past readers, the first three sections – on motivation, learning, and creativity, respectively – are not addressed in the earlier works. [It’s worth pointing out that even section four (Ch. 19 – 23) presents some new information and organizational schemes because this is a fast-moving research domain of late.]

The book’s first six chapters (i.e. Part I) are about achieving and maintaining motivation. This starts from the logical bedrock of finding an “impossible” task for which one is likely to have sufficient passion and interest to follow through. The reader learns how to formulate goals that are challenging enough and clear enough to facilitate sustained interest, effort, and productivity. The importance of autonomy is discussed at length, and the reader learns what companies like Google, 3M, and Patagonia have done to make gains via employees energized by increased autonomy. The kind of motivation that allows one to knuckle-down under adversity, grit, is given its own chapter, and the author discusses six variations that are important to success.

Part II (Ch. 7 – 14) is about the learning process and how one can organize one’s pursuits to get the most learning per effort. Chapter ten is the heart of this section, offering a detailed approach to organizing one’s learning activities. Chapter fourteen offers yet another critique of the 10,000-hour rule that was popularized by (and oversimplified in) the Malcolm Gladwell book, “Outliers.” [This “rule,” developed by Swedish psychologist Anders Ericsson, has come under intense criticism in large part because every time the explanation shifted downstream it became less of an approximate rule of thumb that was applicable to some specific domains and more of an iron-clad rule deemed applicable to every activity that benefits from practice, resulting in insane behavior such as parents who pick their child’s sport in the womb so that the kid can get the requisite number of practice hours before the college recruiters come to see him or her play.]

The third part (Ch. 15 – 18) is about fostering creativity. Here, Kotler takes the reader on a tour of changing thought about creativity, ranging from the ancient stories of muses to today’s state-of-the-art neuroscience. Like the section on Flow, there is an elaboration of where the neuroscientific understanding of creativity sits at the moment. Having read a range of books discussing such descriptions, this approach is falling out of favor with me. First, whenever I’ve read a book by an actual neuroscientist, I’ve learned that these simple attributions of activities to certain brain regions are either vastly oversimplified, more tentatively agreed upon than suggested, or both of the above. Second, I have realized that learning a name like Anterior Cingulate Cortex (ACC) and an oversimplified explanation of what it does doesn’t really help me. That said, I understand there is interest in these descriptions that drive their inclusion in such books. (I, too, have been interested in reading about it, but less and less so.)

The final part is about Flow, and this is where readers of “Rise of Superman” will be well-primed for the information that is covered. Chapter 21, which elucidates the twenty-two “Flow Triggers,” is the heart of this section. As I mentioned, Kotler has changed the way he organizes this discussion since his earlier book, but the material is still largely from Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s work on the subject. In addition to explanation of what it means to get into the state of Flow and of how to improve one’s chances of getting there, there is a discussion of “Flow Blockers” – four mind states that hinder Flow. The last chapter lays out a plan consisting of daily and weekly activities, and – as such – it serves as both a summary and an outline for moving forward.

Writers may find this book particularly beneficial because Kotler relies heavily on anecdotes from his own work to clarify and explain the points under discussion. By contrast, “Rise of Superman” relied almost exclusively on stories from extreme sports athletes, and “Stealing Fire” drew on silicone valley and the special forces heavily for examples. I actually enjoyed that Kotler spoke from his own experience. As someone who has read a fair number of books on peak performance, I’ve seen a lot of the same stories repeated within popular books. That said, readers who haven’t read much on the topic may wish the book had a broader set of narrative examples and less definitional / conceptual discussion. The author may be aware that many of his readers will have fatigue from reading the same stories and examples. When Kotler does mention such widely-discussed examples (e.g. Steve Jobs putting bathrooms in the Pixar building in a central location that created cross-pollination of people on different projects) he does so briefly and without preaching to the choir.

I found this book to be an interesting overview of how to approach a large-scale life mission. It’s well-organized and readable (though it might benefit from less vocabulary-based neuroscience discussion.) If you are feeling a bit rudderless, this is a good book to look into.

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BOOK REVIEW: Empire of Ants by Susanne & Olaf Foitzik

Empire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth's Tiny ConquerorsEmpire of Ants: The Hidden World and Extraordinary Lives of Earth’s Tiny Conquerors by Susanne Foitzik
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: May 6, 2021


In love with our own grandeur, most humans don’t give a thought to the magnificence of other species, and this is particularly true of ants. People use ants as their go-to being to fill in the SAT Analogy “Gods are to Humans as Humans are to ______________.” When we want to explain how some more capable entity (be it a god, a trans-galactic alien species, or an advanced artificial intelligence) is more likely to kill us through indifference than through maliciousness, we draw upon the image of an ant about to be crushed under the boot of a person who’s just going about his day, harboring no ill-will towards his six-legged neighbors.

This book will roll back that smug attitude, impressing the reader not only with all the little-known but intriguing behaviors of ants, but also with the range of skills employed by ants that we humans have always thought of as our unique bailiwick – e.g. city building, agriculture, slavery, war, and communication of complex ideas.

The book consists of fourteen chapters and a brief epilogue. The introductory chapter not only prepares the reader to be more impressed by ants, it also explains how crucial ants are collectively to our ecosystems. Chapter two explores the ant caste system in much more detail than the usual queen / worker / drone distinction, and it also explains how sex is determined in a manner quite different than that to which we are used. Chapter three continues an extensive discussion of reproduction that was begun in the previous chapter.

Chapter four dives into what might be called the governance of ant colonies. That may sound grandiose (and, in some sense, it is) but we are talking about huge populations living in a relatively small space. While sci-fi might have one imagining the queen ruling with an iron first while all others act as mindless automatons, the truth is very different, and – in fact – after establishment of the nest, the queen leaves the the thinking business altogether. Chapters five and six investigate the subjects of communication and navigation, respectively. Ants have a tremendously varied set of chemical emitters and receptors, allowing them to communicate a wide range of messages with great clarity. They also communicate through physical contact. Anyone who has ever seen a line of ants in convoy probably suspects that ants must be skilled at getting where they need to go and back. This chapter explains the methods by which ants achieve this purposeful motion, from chemical signals to navigation by the sun to – in some cases – an internal magnetic compass.

Chapter seven takes the reader into the realm of ant militaries, elucidating how they hunt, bivouac, and carry out the various tasks required of them. Chapter eight introduces the question of how colonies (that can be on par with human cities with respect to population) feed everyone, and gives special attention to leafcutter supply chain logistics and in-colony fungiculture. Chapter nine examines the lives of tree-dwelling ants. In this chapter, we learn that not only do ants engage in activities we think of as human; some also perform activities we associate with other species – such as silk weaving. Chapter ten continues the book’s examination of ant agriculture by explaining how some ants keep aphids as livestock [the aphids consume leaves and excrete sugars as a waste product because there is far more of it than they need for their own purposes.]

While chapter seven indicated how ants share some of the less palatable habits of humans – specifically, war, chapter eleven delves into some of the downright loathsome activities these insects share with our species – including: enslavement and theft. Chapter twelve identifies some of the threats to ant health and well-being, including tape worms and fungal parasites. You may have read about the fungus that can hijack an ant’s nervous system to turn it into a zombie (Ophiocordyceps camponoti-floridani,) eventually the fruiting body of the cordyceps pops out of the ant’s head to release spores (after the fungus has “driven” the ant high up into a tree from which the spores can be widely distributed.)

Chapter 13, entitled “The Path to World Domination,” is largely about how invasive species have come to take over in many parts of the world. This includes fire ants, which the Spanish (unwittingly) hauled from Mexico to the Philippines, from which the insects were dispersed all over the world via trade routes. While — throughout the entire book — intriguing ant behaviors are mentioned, the final chapter collects together a group of particularly unlikely skills that are witnessed among ants. My favorites were ants that could glide back to tree trunks when knocked off a limb, as well as another species that could catapult themselves through the air.

The book is well-illustrated, employing both drawings and color photographs. The photographs are particularly useful for showing some of the stranger species and – in a few cases – behaviors that can be difficult to visualize. There is an extensive “further reading” section that is organized by chapter.

“Empire of Ants” provides a fascinating look at an underappreciated species. Just as Peter Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees” changed the way I looked at trees, this book changed the way I see ants. I’d highly recommend the book for anyone interested in the natural world.

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BOOK REVIEW: Breath Taking by Michael J. Stephen

Breath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our FutureBreath Taking: What Our Lungs Teach Us about Our Origins, Ourselves, and Our Future by Michael J. Stephen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: January 19, 2021


This book explores the crucial role of breathing in human existence, discussing evidence of how breathing practices can contribute to healing of numerous illnesses, investigating the range of threats — from pollution to smoking to toxic dust — that can threaten our ability to breath, and examining a number of diseases that can disturb a person’s breathing. This book is primarily a popular science look at pulmonary medicine. Unlike other breath-related books that I’ve reviewed, this book is mostly about what can go wrong with our lungs and what medical science is doing to combat these threats. The story of how breathwork and changing breathing patterns can improve health and well-being is addressed, but that’s not the book’s central focus. The book uses plenty of stories (e.g. case studies) and what I call “fun facts” to keep the reading from becoming too dry or clinical for a neophyte reader.

The book consists of fifteen chapters. The first two chapters provide basic background information to help understand how the Earth happens to have the oxygen-laden air necessary for our type of life (Ch. 1) and how the lungs exploit that air in fueling our bodily activities (Ch. 2.) Chapter thee explores how breathing begins in newborn babies, explaining that the lungs are the only major organ that doesn’t start working until we are out in the world, and lung inflation doesn’t always go smoothly. The fourth chapter discusses how breathwork (including — but not limited to — yogic pranayama) has been shown to improve health for those experiencing a range of conditions, including: depression, addiction, PTSD, and pain, as well as how breath and meditational practices contribute to better health, generally.

Chapter five investigates the intersection of the respiratory and immune systems, explaining how autoimmune conditions, allergies, and asthma come to be. In chapter six, the author discusses one of the most common and widespread diseases in the world, tuberculosis (TB,) a disease which not only threatens the lives of many, but also sits dormant in a huge portion of the population.

Chapters seven through nine each deal with hazardous materials that are inhaled into the lungs. The first of these chapters is about smoking, and it focuses on the question of how nicotine acts in the body to create intense addictions – as well as what has and hasn’t worked to help people break said addiction. Chapter eight is about pollution. (As resident of a city of twelve million people, I found this to be a particularly disturbing chapter because air pollution is a hazard that is too easy to be blind to if one doesn’t suffer from respiratory problems.) Chapter nine investigates a range of breathable hazards including smoke, dust, and asbestos, and it does so through the lens of the rescue and cleanup at the World Trade Center after the dual collapse of the twin towers on 9-11, an event which released all sorts of toxic material into the air, hazards for which most responders were ill-equipped.

Chapter ten through twelve are about ailments that may or may not be linked to environmental causes like the ones mentioned in the paragraph above. The first of these is idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis, which, by definition, is a condition that arises from an unknown cause, an ailment which involves a stiffening and thickening of lung tissue (which must be thin and supple to allow gas exchange and the expansion and contraction of the breath cycle.) Chapter eleven focuses on lung cancer, which is often due to an inhaled hazard (most notably, smoking,) but not necessarily. While the other chapters of the book focus on breathing as a process by which we take in oxygen and expel carbon dioxide, chapter twelve turns to a different role played by breath, one that is crucial to the activities of our species, breath as a means to control the voice.

Chapter 13 describes the process and challenges of lung transplant. As mentioned in the discussion of pulmonary fibrosis, lung tissue is rather delicate material, and so it was no easy task to transplant it. Furthermore, because the lungs are a point at which the external world (air) contacts the body’s internal systems the challenges are even greater than for those organs that are hermetically sealed within bodily tissues.

The last two chapters focus on cystic fibrosis (CF.) Chapter fourteen explores the nature of the disease and the slow, but promising, path towards treating it. CF is a genetic condition in which the lack of a single amino acid wreaks havoc on the ability of cells to process minerals. The last chapter tells the story of two cases of CF. The first story – involving a ten-year-old whose family had to struggle against a policy that essentially locked their child out of the lung transplant list – is particularly engrossing.

As someone who practices breathwork, I found this book to be interesting and insightful. While it is heavily focused on pulmonary medicine, it does offer insights that will be beneficial to those who are not afflicted by respiratory ailments. If one wants to know more about medicine as it pertains to respiration, this is definitely an interesting and readable choice. However, even if one is infatuated with breath more generally, I believe you’ll find in this volume a great deal of beneficial food-for-thought.

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BOOK REVIEW: Pandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen

Pandemics: A Very Short IntroductionPandemics: A Very Short Introduction by Christian W. McMillen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

This book explores disease pandemics through the lens of History. I open with that because this is a topic that can (and has) been addressed through many different disciplines, and a reader expecting biological or epidemiological insights is likely to be disappointed. However, if one is interested in questions of how, where, and with what impacts various diseases spread, this book provides a concise overview for seven select pandemics: The Plague, Smallpox, Malaria, Cholera, Tuberculosis, Influenza, HIV/AIDS.

This book belongs to Oxford University Press’s “A Very Short Introduction” series, a massive collection of brief guides outlining a wide range of scholarly topics. This title complies with general guidelines of the series, presenting the basics of a subject in a manner accessible to a neophyte, citing sources and providing recommendations for further reading, and offering graphics to support the text where beneficial.

As mentioned, the book delves into the seven pandemics listed in the opening paragraph, and does so in the order in which they are listed. Each disease is presented in its own chapter – so the book consists of a prologue, seven chapters, an epilogue, and back matter (i.e. citations, recommendations for additional reading, and the index.)

Obviously, these seven pandemics don’t represent a complete history of disease pandemics. The book was published in 2016, well before the COVID-19 pandemic (though readers will certainly read some prescient-sounding statements — particularly in the epilogue,) but not even all past epidemics classed as pandemics are addressed. [It should be noted that there is no perfectly agreed upon dividing line between epidemic and pandemic.] Still, this book includes the biggest and most globally-widespread pandemics, but it also covers a diverse collection of diseases, including: contagious, vector-borne, and water-borne illnesses, as well as bacteria- and virus-induced diseases. It’s worth noting that The Plague is a worthy first case not only because it’s one of the diseases that has most shaped human history, but also because there’s not a great deal known about disease before then. (During the relatively recent 1918 “Spanish” Flu pandemic, the medical community still didn’t know anything about viruses, and so one can imagine how little ancient people would have understood about these causes of death.)

As the book shares information about the pandemics and their impact on the world, it also teaches one something about how medicine and science progressed as a result of these events. This is famously evident in the case of Cholera, a disease whose unusual characteristics with respect to spread baffled doctors until a clever investigator learned that cases were tied to a common water well. The case of Cholera is a prime example of how changing one’s approach can resolve a stubborn question, looking at the cases spatially offered an immediate insight that other modes of investigation had failed to present.

I found this book to offer interesting insight into pandemics. If you are looking to understand the history of disease pandemics, this is a great book with which to start one’s study.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want

Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Aesthetics: A Graphic Guide by Christopher Kul-Want
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This volume is one in a large series of books that provide concise outlines of various subjects using graphics for support. In this case, it examines the philosophy of aesthetics. Aesthetics (the study of perception, sensation, and beauty) is a sub-discipline of axiology (the study of value), which – in turn – is a sub-discipline of philosophy.

The book consists of over one-hundred short (1 to 2 page) sections that present aesthetics from various angles. Some of that chapters focus on philosophers that had a particular impact on the subject, including: Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Kant, Hegel, Adorno, Nietzsche, Barthes, Derrida, and Lyotard. Others examine the approaches to evaluating aesthetics during various eras, including: ancient, medieval, Renaissance, the Enlightenment, Romance, Modern, Post-modern. Some define key terms, and others relate the subject to the broader human world. Still others relate the subject to other philosophical concepts, such as: reality, semiotics, or modes of governance and economy. There are sections that explore the subject’s classic questions, such as: “Are truth and beauty synonymous?” and “Should art have a purpose, and – if so – what?”

This entire series uses graphics as a support for the text. As with many of the books in the series, this volume mostly uses cartoon drawings that repeat key lessons from the text, sort of like an elaborate text-box. I can’t say that there was any point at which these graphics made anything easier to understand, but they don’t hurt either.

I found this book useful in getting a basic overview of the topic. There were times when it felt like it was straying from the topic of aesthetics, but I think that was just because so much of philosophy from post-modernism onwards looks at everything through a certain lens, regardless of whether such an examination seems particularly relevant or not (e.g. psychoanalysis, Marxism, etc.) [It’s interesting to think about “Communist Aesthetics” as the very term seems like an oxymoron. If you’ve ever seen the brutalist architecture or sculptures of Cold War Eastern Europe, you might conclude that the absence of aesthetic viewpoint was the prevailing Communist aesthetic viewpoint.] At any rate, while the book is not highly engaging reading, it’s a quick and concise outline of the subject (which is what it’s meant to be.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Building Great Sentences by Brooks Landon

Building Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to ReadBuilding Great Sentences: How to Write the Kinds of Sentences You Love to Read by Brooks Landon
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

The Great Courses page

This book goes along with a video course of the same name from “The Great Courses,” but it can be obtained independently as well.

Landon’s book is one of the most beneficial writing books that I’ve read, and is the most beneficial one about sentence-level composition. The book’s core premise is that crafting richer, more interesting, and more artful sentences requires the ability to build longer sentences. This doesn’t mean there is no room for short and simple sentences. It simply means that if all one writes are short and simple sentences, one’s writing will read choppily, will provide limited detail, and – let’s face it – one probably doesn’t need to read a book on the subject after successfully completing elementary school.

Of course, it’s not enough to build longer sentences; the sentences must be enjoyable and readable. This is where learning how to write the right kind of long sentences comes into play. Landon argues the benefits of cumulative sentence syntax, using free modifiers to add propositions about a base clause (and / or about other modifying clauses.) He’s not suggesting that one only use this type of sentence, shunning the other varieties of syntax, but he does show how this approach allows one to build longer sentences that won’t lose the reader, a trait that cannot be claimed of sentences using fixed modifiers.

The first half of the book introduces cumulative syntax, showing how it compares to other syntactic patterns, presenting evidence of its superiority, and demonstrating how sentences using it can be improved and pitfalls avoided.

The second half of the book explores the various directions one can take one’s writing via cumulative sentences. Chapter eight discusses two types of information that can be introduced via free modifiers: comparisons and speculation. If one was taught to avoid injecting personal guesses and commentary into one’s writing, speculative propositions might seem particularly strange, but part of the beauty of this book is that it discourages mindless obedience to writing dogma, a trait that is in rare supply among writing books.

There is a chapter on prose rhythm. As in other sections, the focus is on cumulative sentences, but even with respect to cumulative syntax, the discussion is limited to a few key concepts because the topic is just too complex to address in great detail.

There are two chapters on suspensive sentences. Like the punchline of a joke, a suspensive sentence puts the most surprising or intriguing information at the tail end. This can be used to make sentences that are not only humorous, but also ones that are surprising or memorable. However, suspensiveness is not without a cost. Suspensive sentences are typically left-branching (or middle-branching) such that part or all of the base clause is at the very end. Throughout the book, Landon gives special emphasis / preference to right-branching cumulative sentences, meaning the base clause is the first thing one reads and the modifiers are tagged on behind. The benefit of the right-branching sentence is that it can be made quite long while maintaining readability. On the other hand, a suspensive sentence can lose the reader before they reach the base clause because they don’t have any central concept on which to tag what may read like a disparate collection of modifiers.

Chapters twelve and thirteen delve into writing in a balanced rhythm (Ch. 12) or in a rhythm of threes (Ch. 13.) Balances are phrases, clauses, or sentences presented in opposition. There are many technical terms to describe ways of balancing (e.g. anaphora, epanalepsis, epistrophe, polyptoton, etc.) but the emphasis isn’t on vocabulary building but rather on examples of these effective modes of sentence building.

Chapter fourteen discusses the idea of “master sentences” — long sentences skillfully crafted to not only convey information and to be readable, but also to make for pleasant reading experiences. The final chapter is a wrap-up but also makes an argument for valuing education in sentence-level writing, an area of the discipline that has apparently gone by the wayside in recent decades.

I found this book to be incredibly beneficial. If you are interested in how to grow your sentences longer without having them become an impenetrable thicket of incomprehension, this is the book for you. The author provides plenty of examples to make his meaning clear, and he also references other books that can be of benefit to writers seeking to hone their sentence crafting skills.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Description by Mark Doty

The Art of Description: World into WordThe Art of Description: World into Word by Mark Doty
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


Usually, when a book isn’t what one expected, a feeling of disappointment accompanies that mismatch between expectation and experience. For me, this was the rare exception to that situation. I expected more of a how-to manual and less of a collection of essays. [I also expected a book that was less poetry-dominant and which touched upon prose writing to a greater extent. But that was entirely my oversight.] Anyhow, I think I got far more out of this book than I would have if it had been the book I expected. It encouraged me to revamp my thought process about writing description — be it poetic or prose.

The book is short, consisting of six chapters that take varied approaches to the subject. The first few chapters build on an idea that the art of description requires insight both into perception and into the nature of that which we become conscious. That is, one is not trying to perfectly describe the full extent of the world that lies before one. If one did that: a.) one would fail; b.) the reader would not be granted insight into what captures the writer’s eye – i.e. insight into the mind of the artist; c.) one’s writing would become drudgery to read. [I recently started Yukio Mishima’s “The Temple of Dawn” and he begins the first chapter with dense, wall-to-wall description of the story’s Bangkok environs, and I found the thicket of description was losing me. It should be noted that after that opening, the readability becomes excellent – i.e. very story- and character-centric.] There are certainly other issues discussed in the first four chapters. One idea that resonated with me was Chapter two’s discussion of the importance of how we perceive time (as opposed to the orderly pace at which it unfolds,) and the role of temporal perception in description.

The penultimate and final chapters are quite distinct, both different from each other and from the preceding chapters. Chapter five, entitled “Four Sunflowers,” presents four poems that feature sunflowers to show how various poetic masters take on a given subject. The four poems are by William Blake, Alan Shapiro, Allan Ginsberg, and Tracy Jo Barnwell. The final chapter follows a glossary format, and is entitled, “Descriptions Alphabet.” This section actually makes up about half of the book, and it considers a range of relevant topics in an ABC format. Some of these topics are discussed in more detail than others, and are of greater importance than others. Discussions that particularly resonated with me were one on “Economy” versus “Excess,” one about metaphors, similes, and Figures of speech, and those on Qualifiers, Sonic quality, and Verbs. In this chapter, the author delves into the value of common advice that is often (unfortunately) delivered in Biblical – i.e. “thou shall” / “thou shalt not” form. The point being that it’s often bad practice to follow such advice so dogmatically.

As I said, I got a lot out of this book. It’s a quick read, but loaded with food-for-thought. I’d highly recommend it both for poets and for prose writers. (Though, as I mentioned, it’s very much directed toward poets, e.g. all of the examples come from poetry. That said, the approach to thinking about description can be of value to any writer.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Spillover by David Quammen

Spillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human PandemicSpillover: Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic by David Quammen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page


SPILLOVER is a fascinating and in-depth exploration of zoonoses – i.e. diseases that can jump from various animal species into humans. This continues to be a germane topic in the face of our current zoonotic pandemic – COVID-19. The book came out in 2012 / 2013, but has seen a groundswell of interest because it’s the most well-known popular work on this subject. One will read a few sentences in the book that seem prescient, but the author and the many experts he consults would be the first to state that this is no act of mystical precognition. Rather, a zoonotic pandemic seems to be an inevitability given humanity’s huge and growing population and the nature of our interactions with the rest of the animal kingdom. Of course, no one could say precisely when or what pathogen would lead to “the next big one,” of which – it so happens – we are currently amid. Though coronaviruses do come up as potential candidates, but so do others (e.g. certain strains of influenza.)

The book is organized differently than most. It’s cut up into bite sized chunks, with 115 chapters that are usually not more than a few pages each. However, chapters aren’t the relevant unit of interest so much as the book’s nine parts, each of which takes on a particular zoonosis, or class thereof. Because zoonoses are such a huge topic, the author focuses on a few that are of particular interest for varied reasons, including: the challenge of tracking the disease’s origins, the potential to be the next big one, the global influence of some diseases, as well as other reasons a particular zoonosis generates an interesting story.

The first part explores one of the lesser known zoonoses (except for in locales where outbreaks have occurred, e.g. Australia,) Hendra virus. While a common species of bat (the flying fox) is the reservoir for Hendra, what makes the story gripping for humans is that humans contract the disease through the intermediary of horses. While interaction with exotic wildlife is the the mode throughout the book, the fact that, here, transmission occurs from one of humanity’s closest animal friends increases the closeness-to-home effect.

Part two shifts into one of the most dramatic and well-known of the zoonoses, Ebola virus. Ebola is familiar from Richard Preston’s book “Hot Zone,” though Quammen does explain how Preston sensationalized and overstated the physical effects of the disease. [Presumably what Preston did was take the most vicious looking case and describe it through as dramatic of analogies as possible, such that it became unrecognizable from the typical case.] At any rate, it’s a disease that grabs one by the fear center because – while it doesn’t spread readily – it’s highly lethal and is unarguably an unpleasant way to go.

Part three delves into malaria and P. falciparum, the bug that causes it. Malaria has profoundly shaped human existence in the tropics. A vector-borne disease carried and passed by mosquitos, Malaria is widespread throughout much of the world and continues to generate debilitating effects. Many concepts are drilled into one while reading this book, and one worth mentioning here is the differentiation of reservoirs and vectors. A lot of the stories in this book revolve around scientists’ searches for reservoirs – the species where the pathogen resides in waiting. It’s often much more difficult to uncover a reservoir species than it is a vector (vectors invariably coming into direct contact with humans, whereas reservoirs can be far removed from humans.)

Part four investigates Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS.) This is one of the most relevant sections because SARS is a corona virus — like COVID-19 — and it served as a harbinger of a corona virus pandemic. SARS is also at least vaguely familiar to most people as it was a relatively recent epidemic.

The next two sections zoom out a bit and, instead of diving down into one zoonosis, they each consider a range of bacterial and viral zoonoses, respectively. Part five discusses Q fever, Lyme disease, Psittacosis, and other bacterial diseases that enter humans by way of other animals. Part six explores a range of viral diseases and – in the process – gives a bit of a lesson as to why viruses present such a risk as well as how different viruses work. This section covers rabies and Nipah virus.

Part seven tells the story of the search for the Marburg virus origin and reservoir. Marburg is similar to Ebola, but the story of the epidemiological search for it makes for intriguing reading. Part eight discusses HIV-AIDS and its simian predecessor, SIDS. What made this fascinating to me was that I learned that HIV has been around (at least) since the first decade of the twentieth century. If you’re like me, you associate the origin of AIDS with the 1980’s. However, with so many people regularly dying from so many different conditions in central Africa, it wasn’t obvious that those killers were getting an added help from a virus that crippled immune systems. It also took scientist a while to realize that SIDS was resulting in the death of chimpanzees. (It’s possible for a reservoir to be unaffected by a disease, and this is what they first thought to be the case.)

The final part is a wrap up that zooms out to look at the nature of episodes of ecological imbalance and “outbreaks” of species. In this case, “outbreak” is used to describe any explosion of population growth of a species. While the section opens with a species of caterpillars [forest tent caterpillars] that would occasionally flare up, killing off trees on a large scale, it discusses human population growth as an outbreak that – like all others – will inevitably end one way or another. This section also discusses influenza (which isn’t a major topic earlier in the book,) presumably because it had been the lead candidate at the time for the “next big one.” And “the next big one” is a related overarching theme in this section.

The book is annotated and has an extensive bibliography. There are few graphics, but there are maps that are helpful for those who aren’t familiar with the areas where many of these disease outbreaks originated (e.g. central Africa.)

I found this book to be intriguing. It teaches the reader some basics of epidemiology as it goes about telling the story of the spread of these diseases. [e.g. It will help one distinguish virulence and transmissibility – terms that are often used by neophytes interchangeably, but which are distinct in important ways.] However, the focus is always on the story and, therefore, it keeps these lessons interesting throughout. I’d highly recommend this book for those who are interested in the pandemic, zoonoses, or the challenges of combating disease.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This book was written to explore the intriguing cross-cultural similarities between various heroic mythological and folk tales from around the world. However, it’s had a second life on writers’ bookshelves because it nicely explains a story arc, commonly called “the hero’s journey,” that serves as one of the most popular approaches to narrative plotting. Many of the most celebrated works of fiction and film, from “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to the first “Star Wars” movie, explicitly follow the hero’s journey arc. Campbell draws examples from a wide range of traditional hero stories. These involve central figures who must leave their familiar life in the world they know in search of some objective or change that they will bring back to their everyday life. Campbell doesn’t stick to well-known systems of mythology — such as Greek, Norse, Egyptian, and Hindu — but delves into small and less well-known tribal stories from Africa, Latin America, indigenous North America, and other far-flung lands. [That said, he does pull heavily from the world’s major religions, as well as from the most broadly known systems of mythology – e.g. Greek Mythology.]

The book is divided into two parts. The first of these parts is the one that will be of greatest interest to writers and other storytellers because it describes the hero’s journey story arc in great detail and using a variety of traditional stories. Part I is divided into four sub-parts and – within them – eighteen chapters. The first three sub-sections each investigate about a-third of the seventeen stages of Campbell’s monomyth, i.e. his name for the hero’s journey. [It should be noted that there’s no claim that all heroic myths contain each and every one of these elements, but only that if one wants to capture the bulk of all heroic stories, one needs to consider some formulation of each of these categorizations.] The first subpart consists of the five stages that take the hero from his work-a-day world into the new world [that is typically of a supernatural nature.] These stages include: a.) the call to adventure; b.) refusal of the call; c.) the supernatural aid or guide; d.) crossing the first threshold [into the supernatural / foreign world]; and e.) the belly of the whale (i.e. being swallowed into the unknown / self-annihilation.)

The second sub-part is called “Initiation,” and it covers the six stages within this strange, new world — including the attainment of the hero’s objective. This section begins with a “road of trials” to challenge the hero. This maybe the stage most associated with the heroic journey in the popular mind. The other stages of initiation include; meeting / marriage with the goddess (i.e. mastery of life,) temptation by a woman, atonement with the father, the elevation to an enlightened or divine state, and the ultimate boon (e.g. immortality or a great bounty.) [The middle portion of this section is where Freudian influence is most intensely felt.]

The third sub-part is about the hero’s return trip back to the familiar world. This section also includes six chapters including: 1.) refusal to return; 2.) the magic flight; 3.) rescue from without; 4.) crossing the threshold into the regular world; 5.) as a master of both worlds; 6.) with freedom to live. This idea that the hero returns not only with a great boon but as a master of two worlds is central to the hero’s journey.

The final sub-part / chapter recaps the entire process in a restatement and summary. Given the complexities and wide variation of the matter at hand, this is beneficial. This section opens with a helpful diagram that summarizes and depicts the stages of the hero’s journey in a cyclical format.

The second half of the book, Part II, takes a step back to look at the cosmogonic cycle — i.e. looking at mythological approaches to the story of the universe from its origin to destruction, though still with special focus on heroes. Again, Campbell finds many consistent elements among a broad and disparate collection of cultures and religions. Part II also features four sub-parts, this time including twenty chapters. The first sub-part (6 chapters) focuses on the origin of the universe. The four chapters of the second sub-part delve into mythology surrounding virgin birth among heroes, which is much more widespread than the well-known Christian story of Jesus’s birth. The third sub-part considers the lifecycle and varied roles of a hero, starting with the origins and childhood of the heroic figure, ending with the hero’s demise, and in between examining a number of the facets of a hero including: warrior, lover, leader, redeemer, and saint. The final subpart discusses how mythology and folklore treat the world’s end.

This book has many pages devoted to front- and back-matter including an introduction, a prologue, an epilogue, and an annotated bibliography. There are graphics throughout. Besides the explanatory diagram mentioned earlier, these are mostly renderings of artworks depicting events in mythological stories.

The broad sourcing of myths is necessary to tell the tale that Campbell sought to convey – i.e. that there are common narrative elements seen among varied cultures that had little to no interaction. With regard to one’s reading experience, the inclusion of myth and folklore unknown to most readers is a mixed bag. On one hand, it ensures that everyone – except perhaps professors of Mythology and Folk Studies – will learn about new stories and cultural traditions. On the other hand, it’s not always readily apparent what Campbell’s point is when he launches into a myth or folk story because it’s frequently done without any preemptory remarks that would clarify said point. This can make for some clunky reading in which one has to reflect and reread — as if reading a textbook as opposed to a popular work. This book sits near the edge between popular and scholarly reading. The reading isn’t terribly dense, but it does jump around from myth to myth in a way that presumably felt logical to the author but isn’t always readily so to a neophyte reader.

One quickly notices that Campbell was heavily influenced by Freudian ideas that haven’t weathered scholarly scrutiny well over the past several decades. It’s hard to be too critical about this as, when the book first came out in 1949, Campbell wasn’t alone, by any means. And, more importantly, Freud’s influence only really undermines certain ideas about what undergirds mythological tales. It doesn’t adversely impact the central argument that there are these common story elements across a diversity of cultures. In the chapter on “Woman as Temptress” one will see the most explicit examples as Campbell discusses “Hamlet” and the “Oedipus Trilogy.” Still, one could argue that Campbell’s ideas have survived more intact than did Freud’s.

I’d recommend this book for individuals interested in learning more about either mythology or story crafting. It’s extremely thought-provoking throughout, if – sometimes – a slog to read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Places Lost and Found ed. Ronald Koury

Places Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson ReviewPlaces Lost and Found: Travel Essays from the Hudson Review by Ronald Koury
My rating: 5 of 5 stars page

Out: September 30, 2020


If good travel writing is virtually travel, then this essay anthology mixes global travel with time travel. It’s a collection of travel (or at least locale-centric) writings previously published in “The Hudson Review.” While the oldest of the included pieces consists of translations of Tocqueville’s journals from his trip to America, the bulk of the works are from the twentieth century to recent years (and almost all from latter twentieth century onward.) This temporal aspect offers the reader unique insight into how various destinations have changed – particularly if it’s a place one has visited. Only about one-fifth of the essays feature locations in the United States, and the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North America, Latin America, the Caribbean, Australia, and Oceania are all represented among the twenty-five pieces presented.

While most of the pieces are straightforward travel essays, there are a couple that – while focused on location – aren’t what one might typically consider travel writing. One of these, which is probably the most evocative piece of writing in the book, is called “Blue Grotto” and it tells the story of the author being regularly taken to a bar by her father when she was a child [an occurrence that could probably not happen at the time of publication, let alone today, without child services becoming involved.] The other outlier is entitled, “Making it Uglier to the Airport,” and while it sounds like it would be about cutting it close while traveling, it’s actually a review essay about changing architectural notions regarding aesthetics.

The other essays include not only run-of-the-mill style travel writing that uses vibrant descriptions to make a location sound appealing (e.g. see the pieces on County Cork and the Hudson River,) but also include a number of essays about what might be termed “dark tourism” in today’s parlance. Dark tourism is travel to places that are or have been (in recent history) war-torn, crime-ridden, disaster damaged, or otherwise prone to turn up in the nightly news. The essays on Cambodia and Haiti (of which there are two) are prime examples. There are also pieces that fall somewhere in-between, featuring destinations that are a bit rough or challenging, but which are by no means dangerous. A great example of this – oddly enough – was a story of travel to Fiji, but only because the author chose to stay in the home of tribesmen of a remote village.

As a traveler, I found this book to be fascinating. As I mentioned, I got a lot out of the fact that it offered insight into temporal, as well as geographic, destinations. For example, I’d made a similar trip to Cambodia, but about twenty years after the one made by the author, and so it was intriguing to read about similarities and differences. (The trip in the book was much sooner after the disastrous reign of Pol Pot, and so there were many differences.) If you enjoy travel writing, I’d recommend you give this book a look. I was impressed with how broad a range of locales were explored.

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