BOOKS: The Mind of Adi Shankaracharya by Y. Keshava Menon

The Mind of Adi ShankaracharyaThe Mind of Adi Shankaracharya by Y. Keshava Menon
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book does a good job of that at which the title hints, offering the reader insight into the philosophy of Adi Shankaracharya. Along the way, Menon presents clear descriptions of Indian philosophical concepts such as Maya, Avidya, Antahkarana, etc., and also compares and contrasts Shankaracharya’s philosophy with those of other philosophers (from both the East and West) as a means to clarify ideas that can be subtle and complex.

That said, what the book isn’t is an unbiased and objective look at Shankaracharya’s ideas. While Menon doesn’t go as far as to support the supernatural myths of Shankaracharya’s life (which are only discussed in the Appendix,) and he skirts that 800-pound gorilla of Hindu philosophic controversy, caste, he does present the philosophy as an advocate for Shankaracharya rather than as an indifferent scholar who merely wishes to deliver arguments and ideas while inviting thought among his readers.

While the book deals with epistemology, ethics, and various aspects of metaphysics, the biggest single subject is Self. I found the explanation of this topic to be fascinating. I had previously understood that among the major differences between Shankaracharya and Buddha was on this question. While I still find the Buddhist approach to Self (or, more properly, lack of Self — i.e. Anatta) to be the more compelling and parsimonious explanation, I feel that I was provided with about as clear an explanation of the Hindu (generally) and Shankaracharyan (specifically) views on Self as one could wish for.

I’d recommend this book. If you’ve come away from reading about subjects like “Maya” (Is it illusion? Is it NOT illusion?) this book can definitely help offer clarification, and (as books on philosophy go) it’s readable and not too jargon-laden. That said, if one is looking for a book that is not advocating a philosophy but, rather, objectively providing ideas and contrasting explanations, this book may bias your views.

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BOOK REVIEW: Meeting the Dog Girls by Gay Terry

Meeting the Dog Girls: StoriesMeeting the Dog Girls: Stories by Gay Terry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This collection consists of 30 pieces of short fiction that might be put in the bucket of speculative fiction. (“Speculative fiction” being defined as existing in a world unlike our own–i.e. sci-fi, horror, strange tales, and fantasy.) The stories are cross-genre, but “tales of the weird” is a common theme. Many of the pieces are too long for flash but on the short side of short story, though there are also a number that are of typical short story length.

It’s a mixed bag not only in terms of genre, but also in terms of the appeal. There were a few stories that I enjoyed, others that I didn’t care for, and—worst of all–a number that were utterly forgettable. Besides the strangeness, there’s another quality that might be called “quirky humor” that sparkles here and there throughout the collection.

Among the pieces that I found most interesting and readable were: “Spirit Gobs,” “Barbara Hutton Toujours,” “On Orly’s Border,” “Icon,” and “Meeting the Dog Girls.”

There’s a mini Tai Chi theme running across a couple of pieces, so I dig that.

If you enjoy tales of the strange and you can pick this book up at a good price, you just might like it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman (Art: Andy Kubert)

Marvel 1602Marvel 1602 by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is anachronism done right by Neil Gaiman. The title gives one the jist of this graphic novel’s theme. It’s the Marvel Universe circa 1602. There’s a big cast of Marvel characters in this collection of eight comics. However, those who don’t follow comics might not recognize some of the characters because they are decidedly less comic-esque in this take. The characters mostly go by their given names rather than their superhero nom de guerre and not one of them wears spandex—and even capes are fairly few and far between. While the cast is large, there’re just a few main players and some major Marvel superheroes play only minor or unheroic roles.

The principal heroes in this book are Nicholas Fury (as head of the Queen’s Intelligence Service), Carlos Xavier (principal of a school for mutants), Virginia Dare (the first girl born in the Roanoke Colony), Rojhaz (the–decidedly Caucasian but–Native American protector of Dare), Stephen Strange (close to his modern-day namesake), Matthew Murdoch (think Daredevil), and a smattering of other X-men, Avengers, and Fantastic 4 members.

The principal villains are King James I (as himself), Count Otto Von Doom (similar to the modern character), The Inquisitor Enrique (a Magneto-esque character), David Banner (advisor to James I and–it would appear–the gray Hulk), and Natasha (think Black Widow). Before one bemoans the fact that the slate of heroes seems much stronger than the slate of villains, it should be noted that there is a threat that far exceeds the likes of Von Doom.

The world of Marvel 1602 is quite similar to Earth 1602, but there are differences such as the existence of pterodactyls and dinosaurs in some locales. The plot includes political intrigue in the form King James I of Scotland’s desire to nudge an ailing–but beloved—Queen Elizabeth I out-of-the-way. We soon find out that three assassins have been dispatched to target Fury, the Queen, and Virginia Dare, but finding out who hired them and why takes up a fair piece of story line. There’s a substory that features Matthew Murdoch and Natasha on a mission to retrieve what can only be described as a McGuffin (a highly sought after artifact whose value and purpose remain completely unknown until a big reveal, but for which characters are none-the-less willing to lay their lives on the line on pure faith) that offers its own intrigue. There is also the matter of strange weather that increasingly comes to be considered a harbinger of doom (not Von Doom the character, but actual doom.) Ultimately, this is a bigger threat than is presented by any of the human villains, and it can only be overcome through a combination of Richard Reed’s brilliance, Nicholas Fury’s courage, and Rojhaz’s sacrifice of what matters most to him.

I enjoyed this graphic novel. First, having a top-rate writer like Gaiman was certainly a help. There was none of the juvenile / poorly written dialogue that usually plagues comic writing. Gaiman is his usual clever, witty self. Second, while the anachronisms often border on silly (e.g. 1602 Reed’s noodling out Einstein’s discovery of 300+ years later), they are intriguing and recognize real science. Third, the last being said, there’s a lot of effort put into making the comic appropriate for the era in which it’s set. It’s not just putting frilly shirts on modern-day characters. The blending of fact into the fiction is thought-provoking.

If you read graphic novels–even sparsely–this is one that you should definitely check out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer

Into the WildInto the Wild by Jon Krakauer

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Nature is a harsh teacher. That was the last lesson Chris McCandless ever learned. A recent college graduate, McCandless struck out for the Alaskan wilderness with minimal resources, his body was found by a party of moose-hunters several months after he’d begun his Alaskan adventure.

Into the Wild gives us a well-researched explanation for how McCandless died, but it also tells us a great deal about how he lived– and that story is fascinating in its own right. Many thought McCandless must have been crazy, but refusing to acquiesce to the work-a-day world is often incorrectly diagnosed as insanity.

McCandless had an obsessive desire to find out whether he could make it on his own, not just separate from his parent’s wealth but from all the trappings of modern society. McCandless’s most iconic indicator of insanity-by-way-of-thwarting-convention was when he gave away the entirety of his $25,000 savings account and burnt all the money in his wallet. He wanted to know whether he could survive if he was returned to the state of nature from whence mankind came. Sadly, the answer was no.

It would be easy to dismiss McCandless as a dumb kid who got in over his head. Though he certainly was that. On his deathbed, in a bus carcass in the remote Alaskan wilderness, McCandless likely had a revelation that most teenagers pass into adulthood without ever realizing, that he was mortal.

However, McCandless was more than a kid with an underdeveloped sense of his own mortality. He was a kid with the courage to confront a question that most of us just let nag in the back of our minds. That question being,do we have what it takes to live not as a cog in a machine but as a human in the natural world.

I know many are intrigued by this question in part because there are entire TV channels that are practically devoted to survival shows. Yet most people don’t take it beyond sitting on a couch contemplating whether they could survive. Will thinking man (Homo sapiens) be replaced by doing man (Homo effectus)?

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There was a movie based on this book. I didn’t see it, but here is its trailer.

BOOK REVIEW: Job by Robert Heinlein

Job: A Comedy of JusticeJob: A Comedy of Justice by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In “Job: A Comedy of Justice” the protagonist, Alexander Hergensheimer, finds himself randomly drifting from one alternative universe to another. After his initial shift, he’s joined by a lover, Margrethe, who knows him from her world as Alec Graham. The couple stay together through many other ill-timed world shifts, and are only separated when Hergensheimer finds himself in heaven. Facing the question of what he’d do to be reunified with the woman he loves, the novel really gets interesting.

As you may have expected, the name of the book is the Biblical name “Job” (i.e. rhymes with lobe) and not “job” as in an occupation.

Each time the couple shifts, they are poor anew. While geography remains unchanged, history and money are different from one world to the next. Hergenshiemer washes dishes to make a living because he can’t engage in his trade, preacher, in these worlds. He can’t do anything else without valid identification.

Just as Dante inadvertently convinces us that the first circle of hell is preferable to heaven (who wouldn’t rather be in the company of Socrates and Virgil than that of Jerry Falwell and Jimmy Swaggart,) Heinlein creates an afterlife that is a good deal more complex but also more just than the Biblical version.

I recommend this humorous and thought-provoking book.

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BOOK REVIEW: On Killing by David Grossman

On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and SocietyOn Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society by Dave Grossman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grossman’s work reports on a line of research started by Army historian and author of “Men Against Fire” S.L.A. Marshall. Grossman not only brings us up-to-date on this thesis, he shows us its ramifications for modern society-at-large.

A two-part thesis was advanced by Marshall and continued by Grossman and others.

First, humans, like other species, are reluctant to kill within their species. (Marshall noted that in World War II about 75% of soldiers would not fire on the enemy when they had the opportunity. There is evidence this was true for earlier wars as well.

Second, the percentage of soldiers firing on the enemy could be increased by training that conditions them to shooting targets that look more human. i.e. Instead of shooting bulls-eyes, they should at least shoot a shape that looks like the silhouette of a man’s head and shoulders.

It turns out that the ability to condition combatants proved correct. There was a progressive increase in genuine engagement of the enemy by soldiers in subsequent wars (i.e. the Korean and Vietnam Wars.)

Grossman goes on to say that this type of conditioning is not limited to soldiers and police officers. He suggests that video games in which gamers shoot at humans and humanoid creatures will desensitize players to trigger pulling. Many scoff at this idea because they think that he is saying that such games make killers. What he is suggesting is a bit more subtle than that. He is saying that a person who is pre-dispossessed to go on a killing spree will be less reluctant if they have undergone the conditioning of this type of gaming. In essence, an high barrier to going on a killing spree will be lowered.

Grossman covers many other issues related to killing, such as the importance of distance. One intriguing fact is that an infantryman that kills a single enemy soldier in war is more likely to have problems such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) than a bombardier who drops bombs that may likely resulted in hundreds or thousands of deaths.

The book also talks about the role of authority, famously addressed by the Milgram experiments. Stanley Milgram found that most people would turn a knob that they believed was delivering a severe shock to a complete stranger, if they were told to do so by someone who seemed to be an authority figure.

I highly recommend this book for those interested in the subjects of:
– the role of violent video games in mass killings
– the psychological effects of killing

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Book Review: JOHN DIES AT THE END by David Wong

John Dies at the End (John Dies at the End, #1)John Dies at the End by David Wong

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If the movie Alien was “Jaws in space,” then John Dies at the End is “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure in the Nether World.” Except that, unlike Bill and Ted’s, Wong’s book is hilarious.

The gist of this book is that two likable anti-heroes ingest a drug, “soy sauce,” that gives them the ability to pass into an alternate universe. They’re inexorably drawn down the rabbit hole (so to speak, there is no actual rabbit hole in this book.) What they find is not what they expected. It’s not what anyone expected, because it’s so mind-boggling ridiculous and richly complex.

The title character, John, oddly enough is not the main character. The author, David Wong, uses a self-named protagonist as narrator and lead. The book unfolds as Wong (the character, not the author) tells a skeptical journalist about the strange goings-on in his small, Midwestern hometown.

We see John mostly through the lens of the narrating Wong. We know that John is a storyteller. Which may sound a lot like “liar,” but that’s not the case. Have you ever known a person who would never deceive you for personal gain, but will never fail to engage in hyperbole to make a story funnier or more interesting? That is John. He has one of my favorite lines of the book:

“We’re talking about a tentacled flying lamp fucker, Dave. What are you prepared to call unlikely?”

Despite the fact that John is a booze-hound and exaggerator, he remains an endearing character. As Wong gets to know Amy, a classmate who lost her hand after they knew each other in school, we get an insightful testimonial about John:

“Let me tell you something about John. The reason I was surprised by your hand was because John never once described you as, ‘the girl with the missing hand.’”

As for Wong’s character, he is hapless but hilarious. When he gets to know Amy, he is shocked to find that she’s not retarded or crazy. They had vaguely known each other from a “Special Needs” school, but it never occurs to him that she might be at least as sane as he.

The book is a pan-genre mélange. While it’s mostly a combination of horror and humor, there are points at which it feels like action/adventure and towards the end it seems largely like sci-fi. Horror and humor are not easily mixed, but this book does it about as well as one can imagine it being done. John Dies at the End is campy, of that there can be no doubt, but Wong writes descriptions of creatures and murderous events in a way that offers grim clarity. As a lover of humor more than horror, I was obviously not put off by this dark comedy.

Throughout the book, one suspects that the whole surreal bag of events is just a bad hallucinogenic trip, and that the “soy sauce” is just LSD on steroids. Happily this is not the case… or is it?

Don’t worry; John dying is not the intriguing twist at the end of this book. There are a couple such twists though.

If the movie that comes out today (January 25, 2013) is not awesome, it’s not Wong’s fault. The trailer shows us the quirky horror, but not the humor of the book. Much of the humor is in the language – i.e. the word choice. Some of that will likely come out in dialogue and narration, but who knows how much.
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Book Review: ROBOPOCALYPSE by Daniel H. Wilson

RobopocalypseRobopocalypse by Daniel H. Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author of Robopocalypse, Daniel H. Wilson, has a unique perspective on the novel’s subject because he’s a Carnegie Mellon trained PhD-level roboticist. His unique insight makes the book an interesting read despite the fact that the concept will be familiar to anyone who’s watched the Terminator movies. An artificial intelligence (AI) decides that machine life requires that humanity die, and soon thereafter our mechanized helpers begin to turn on us.

The book is organized as a series of records pulled together by a survivor of the war. Said survivor is the protagonist –to the extent there is one (it’s really an ensemble piece.)

The cast of characters is introduced in the first part of the book through a series of what seem like machine malfunctions, which turn out to be harbingers of the war to come. These malfunctions include a military robot, the air traffic control system, and a “robotic wife.” The book follows these human characters through the beginning of the war and the development of centers of human resistance. The resistance ranges from Japanese man who fights fire with fire to Native American tribesmen who survive in part owing to their limited exposure to technology. It all culminates in a fight in Alaska to gain control of the buried server in which the AI resides.

It’s an old concept, humanity replaced by the species it spawned. However, it’s much less outlandish than the Terminator series which relies heavily on time travel. Wilson’s vision is much scarier because it’s much easier to imagine coming to fruition.

Robopocalypse is being made into a movie by Steven Spielberg that is due out on April 25, 2014

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Book Review: We Are Soldiers Still

We Are Soldiers StillWe Are Soldiers Still by Harold G. Moore

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is a mix of the story of meetings between American and Vietnamese military men a couple of decades after the war and a treatise on leadership and war –plus some filler material. It’s a follow-up to a book written by the same authors on the Battle of Ia Drang, We Were Soldiers Once… and Young. That book was the subject of a movie starring Mel Gibson.

Both parts of the book are interesting, but this book is at its best when it discusses the meetings with Vietnamese officers. General Moore (Lt. Col. at the time of Ia Drang) gets to meet with the opposing commander at Ia Drang, Lt. Gen. Nyugen Hu An, and get his perspective on the battle. While the meetings go from being tentative to cordial with changing political winds, one gets a feel for the tension and the melting away of those tensions. With the latter meetings, additional U.S. fighters from Ia Drang are present, and not all have as easy of a time letting bygones be bygones as Gen. Moore. The group of U.S. soldiers spends the night on the Ia Drang battlefield (in an area that was near the border and not entirely settled at the time of their return.)

I don’t wish to suggest that the second part, which talks about leadership strategies and views on war, is not worthwhile, but it very much felt like padding to get the book up to a salable thickness. Gen. Moore is obviously quite competent to address these subjects, but the shift in the book is glaring and jarring.

This is very different kind of book than its predecessor. If you are expecting a tale of war, that’s not what you’ll find. If you are interested about how mortal enemies can be come close friends, you’ll find this book intriguing.

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