BOOK REVIEW: William Blake: Selected Poems ed. Paul Butter

Selected PoemsSelected Poems by William Blake
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon doesn’t carry this edition.

So, e-Bay

Blake’s “The Tyger” is one of my favorite poems, and one of the few that I’ve bothered to memorize. Even if the words made no sense, they sound beautiful together, but not only do they make sense they forge powerful imagery. Blake wrote many poems that managed to be both pleasing to the ear and meaningful.

This collection consists of about 80 poems and fragments (of longer poems) that are pulled from Blake’s collections. Much of Blake’s work is about nature, though the worlds of man and the divine also feature prominently. With respect to the human world, poems about children are particularly common. Most of the poems and partials fit on a single page or two, but some are as short as a four-line stanza and others are as long as a dozen pages.

The compiler of the poems, Peter Butter, doesn’t feel the need to pile in rambling prologues and introductions—a plus in my opinion. The only ancillary matter consists of two timelines: one of Blake’s life, and one of with key events that happened over the course of his life. I will say that these two timelines are confusingly arranged in the edition that I read. They are two pages each, with the pages of each facing each other. So, as one flips, one reads a page of life history, one of world history, one of Blake’s history, and one of world history. Either rearrangement of pages or formatting changes would fix this right up.

This is a great little collection with which to get a taste for Blake. I’d recommend it for those who want some of his classics and some others, but without the need to wade through unabridged collection—in case he turns out to not be your cup of tea.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite lines from the collection: “Wisdom is sold in the desolate market where none come to buy,”

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BOOK REVIEW: How Pleasure Works by Paul Bloom

How Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We LikeHow Pleasure Works: The New Science of Why We Like What We Like by Paul Bloom

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Paul Bloom’s book is about why we take pleasure in peculiar actions, proclivities, and objects. These are the pleasures that aren’t readily or directly explained by our evolutionary hardwiring. Evolution has programmed us to experience pleasure with sex and eating to encourage procreation and nourishment. In other words, those who experienced pleasure with sex had sex more often, and passed on their genes more successfully. Those who had a healthy appetite, ate more, became stronger, survived, and passed on their genes.

However, just because the pleasure of sex is readily understood through biology, doesn’t give us insight into the panoply of activities that people find pleasurable in a sexual way that have no value for procreation whatsoever. Bloom uses the example of masochism, but there are all sorts of kinky fetishes out there that one might also consider. It’s the peculiar pleasures that Bloom tries to explain. This is not to suggest that Bloom’s book is entirely about food or sex. He addresses each of those subjects with a chapter of its own, but they aren’t the sum total of the book. Both he and I, no doubt, rely heavily on food and sex because they are such fundamental pleasures and ones whose domains have blossomed far beyond the dictates of biology.

So what does the book address besides food and sex? It examines why people collect things that were once owned by famous people? Bloom sites a study showing that Joshua Bell anonymously playing violin in the subway in street clothes can barely garner a collective $32 in an afternoon, even having been passed by people who will pay $200 each to hear him later that evening as he wears a tuxedo in a concert hall, though playing the same songs on the same $3.5million violin. Why do we sit around watching television and movies? If any of these pleasures seem self-evident, I would encourage you to ask yourself why they should be? It’s by no means clear that we should value something more highly because of who previously owned it, and it’s certainly not clear why we should get value by watching others play act lives that seem more interesting than our own.

The theory that Bloom presents is called essentialism. It’s the idea that each of these things that give us pleasure represents the essence of something or someone in our minds. So a person who pay’s 500 times the going rate for a used guitar solely based on the fact (x-factor) that it once belonged to John Lennon is, according to Bloom, imagining that there’s some sort of essence of Lennon that rubbed off onto the guitar. Yes, the guy buying the guitar could be buying it entirely based on economic considerations, but the only reason there’s an economic benefit (economic rents in economist terminology) to be made is that there are people out there (many of them) who desire to possess a famous artist’s instrument even though it costs them far more than an equivalent guitar not owned by a famous person. Things become even clearer when one looks at an item like JFK’s tape measure—i.e. a mundane item that is not tied to the man’s fame. (Said tape measure sold for an absurd amount.)

Bloom discusses art forgeries to elaborate this concept of “essence” versus the intrinsic value (i.e. the beauty of the art.) There are many cases of paintings being sold for millions because they were believed to be painted by a certain “artistic genius” and then they become trash when it’s discovered that they were painted by a nobody—a nobody who’s genius was clearly sufficient to convince all the experts that he was some other genius for a while, mind you. If what we cared about was the beauty of the painting, its value would have nothing to do with its origins. In this example, it might seem to be all about rarity (a dead artist paints no more, and, thus, has a limited stock of paintings), but there is reason to believe that’s not the whole story.

We can see the value of these essences ubiquitously. There have been a number of blind taste test experiments that show that oenophiles (wine lovers/experts) can’t tell nearly as much about a wine’s delicate intricacies when they don’t have its label on hand. Famously, there was the CEO of Perrier who couldn’t pick his own company’s water out of a blind line up of waters, though insisting it was a superior product. (It took him five tries out of seven waters.) Even after that event there were people willing to spend twice as much for Perrier because it gave them some pleasure that was completely delinked from its taste or nutritional characteristics.

Bloom’s thesis is interesting, and he presents a lot of fascinating examples in this book. What the book doesn’t really explain is how come certain essences act heavily on some people and not at all on others. It also seems like a theory that begs for another level of explanation. Why should such essences exist, i.e. what is their root cause? The latter may prove difficult given the degree to which individuals vary in their peculiar pleasures from one to the next.

I found this book to be intriguing, and would recommend if for people with interests in the oddities of human behavior.

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BOOK REVIEW: Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

Flow: The Psychology of Optimal ExperienceFlow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Recently, I read and reviewed Steven Kotler’s The Rise of Superman, which is about how extreme athletes use a mental state called “the flow” to pull off some miraculous feats (e.g. “hanging righteous air” to use an appropriate term of art.) That book got me intrigued about the flow, and wanting to learn more. The logical next read was the book by the man considered the godfather of flow, the man who coined the term, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. Csikszentmihalyi is a Professor of Psychology at the Claremont Graduate University and formerly of the University of Chicago.

A Note on Editions: The book I read is the 2013 edition of a book that was first published in 1990. The two editions have different subtitles. The 1990 edition was entitled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience and the 2013 edition is Flow: The Psychology of Happiness. It’s not hard to imagine what happened. The 1990 version was titled to appeal to scholars, and the former title both has more syllables and suggests that one might be able to use LaGrangian Methods (the calculus of constrained optimization) to maximize bliss—which would be double bliss for an academic. As Csikszentmihalyi’s work attracted widespread attention, there was a need for a title that didn’t sound painfully dull. To be fair, the word “happiness” has gained some purchase in scholarly literature in recent years, but in 1990 saying one was studying “happiness” would be akin to saying one would study the “cuddliness quotient” of kittens (actually the latter, having the word “quotient” in it, would test better with department chairs and funders.)

Flow is a state in which one’s entire mind and body is devoted to overcoming a challenge that is intrinsically rewarding. There’s a lot packed into that definition. First, the task must be difficult but within the skill-level of the individual. If it’s too easy, it’s too boring for flow. If it’s far too challenging relative to one’s skill, it may become frustrating before one can build enough skill to achieve it. Flow states can be achieved via many different kinds of tasks, and the middle chapters of the book are devoted to different types of flow-inducing events. Chapters 5 through 8 address, respectively: physical activities like yoga and the martial arts, mental activities like poetry, word play, and chess, work activities, and solitude and social activities.

Second, tasks must usually be autotelic, or intrinsically rewarding. If the only reason that one is doing an activity is for a paycheck, to stave off nagging, or to attract attention, one will be unlikely to find the flow. That doesn’t mean that one can’t receive external rewards, but the activity has to have something intrinsic that keeps one at it. Csikszentmihalyi’s approach was to interview people to access how happy they were, and what activities allowed them to achieve said happiness. He shares many anecdotes about individuals who were blissful, including people who derived happiness from work activities such as factory work, work that most people would find unpleasant and only tolerable to earn a living. Of course, these happy individuals didn’t just do the job in the manner of the poor schlubs who hated their work-life. Instead, they found ways to make the work challenging and, in doing so, they often made themselves indispensable and gained not only job security but also the respect and admiration of others. What is key is that one’s mindset determines all of this, and the book focuses on the notion of controlling one’s inner life to achieve happiness via the flow.

Third, flow is not achieved in a distracted state; all of one’s being has to be surrendered to the act at hand. Multi-tasking is not conducive to the flow.

The ability to override one’s evolutionarily-programmed instincts is key to being able to obtain a flow state. One must be able to stay on task and devote one’s consciousness to the action at hand. This is the central theme in chapter 2, entitled “The Anatomy of Consciousness.” The book also speaks to a subject that I’m currently interested in, which is how states of mind and body that have been known since ancient times, but whose mechanism of action weren’t well-understood, are explained in the world of modern science. Csikszentmihalyi refers to yogis and Taoist masters as he describes the flow. Flow state isn’t new; it’s just newly put in the context of science, rather than mythology.

I enjoyed this book and found the chapter on the flow in movement and bodily activities particularly educational. Csikszentmihalyi has written a few related books on creativity and the flow applied specifically to sport. I would like to learn more about the neuro-anatomy and neurochemistry of the flow, as this book doesn’t delve into the hard science of the flow, and much of this science has occurred since the time this book was first published anyway.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

The Novice: A Story of True LoveThe Novice: A Story of True Love by Thích Nhất Hạnh

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Amazon page

The Novice is the retelling of a Vietnamese folk tale about a young monk who is repeatedly wronged, but who always does the virtuous thing. As I read this book, I thought the story seemed familiar, and I realized that I read the same story as The Martyr by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa does a much better job of story building. The Japanese writer doesn’t reveal to the reader that Lorenzo (his novice and the equivalent of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Kihn Tâm) is a female until the end—thus definitely resolving the claim that the young monk fathered a child out-of-wedlock and in contravention of vows f0r the reader at the same time as the characters in the story learn it.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the novice is a female at the beginning, and he does so via backstory that serves both to give justification for why Kihn Tâm chooses to disguise herself and become a monk and to pile onto the injustice. We learn that Kihn Tâm’s female alter ego had been married, but the marriage ended with a false accusation of attempted murder of her husband. This backstory probably isn’t worth the drag for either of the aforementioned purposes—but the former is more justifiable than the latter.

What Thich Nhat Hanh lacks in gripping narrative structure, he gains in provoking thought. The Zen monk and poet gives the reader insight into how Kinh Tâm manages to be preternaturally virtuous. In The Martyr this is a black box affair. Hanh also encourages the reader to see Kihn Tâm’s accusers as the novice does, i.e. with compassion. Akutagawa does what any writer would do; he vilifies the accusers so as to make the story resonate with the average, petty, martyr-complex prone reader—as opposed to the enlightenment-aspiring reader. Hanh leaves the other monks in Kinh Tâm’s corner, i.e. when everyone else is condemning the novice, they still believe in her. In Akutagawa’s story, monastics are not inherently so perfect.

The book offers some interesting back matter. The most substantial of the appendices is an account by Sister Chan Khong of the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers both during the war and afterword when they tried to establish a monastery in Communist Vietnam. The essay echoes the themes of loving-kindness and compassion that form the core of the novella, as does the essay by Hanh that brings the book to a conclusion. While this back matter is filler to make up for the fact that the story is not novel length, it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.

I’d recommend this book for those with an interested in Zen. If you’re looking for a good story, read Akutagawa’s The Martyr, but if you want to be inspired to compassion, read Thich Nhat Hanh.

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A Few Thoughts on Writing Book Reviews

UlyssesOne gets an entirely different perspective on reading and writing when one starts doing book reviews. One finds that many of works that have been capturing one’s attention are, in fact, crap in one or more dimensions.

 

I think about books along five dimensions. I’d like to claim that I synch these five dimensions to the five-star rating system that I inherited from GoodReads, but I don’t. How I rate the book is more subjective than that, though the five dimensions are roughly the basis of my scoring. One will note that most all of my ratings are three through five. This may make it seem like I’m a softy, but it’s because I review what I want to read. By passing the twin threshold of having been started and having been finished, the books I review have generally shown themselves to have some merit in my eyes. I’ve occasionally given a lower rating to a book that was intriguingly bad or deliciously bad—or because it seemed good until the ending was botched. Just know that if someone else were picking my books, my rating distribution would be much more bell-shaped.

 

So, back to the five dimensions:

1.)    Language: For a book to get a five-star score, it’s usually got to impress me with its use of language. Note that I didn’t say “dazzle” me. Authors that try to “dazzle” are as likely to get points deducted for lack of readability. Not that I don’t agree with what Neil Gaiman said, “…, if one is writing novels today, concentrating on the beauty of the prose is right up there with concentrating on your semi-colons, for wasted effort.”  Still, I like to find something that intrigues in the use of language. It’s as likely to be successful use of sparseness as it is colorfulness. And, if you’re going to thwart convention, do it artfully and thoughtfully. Incidentally, it’s not just fiction in which I’m looking for creative and intriguing use of language, but it’s more likely to be pursued in that domain.

2.)    Organization: In fiction this might be a narrative arc that builds and maintains tension. In nonfiction, it can be narrative, but more likely it’s just a logical arrangement so that the information is easily consumed.

3.)    Readability: This is related to the previous items, but it’s not identical to either of them. It’s also hard to define readability except to say that it’s as easy to read and comprehend as it can be and still get the message across. Obviously, some works have a more difficult message to get across, and some works have to be purposefully vague in places. I also grade on a curve or older literature which might be needlessly purple, but right for its time. However, writing is always and everywhere and act of communication and, therefore, the clearer one can be the better. If I can read through once and not have to go back to figure out what’s going on because of what seem like conflicts, I’m usually pleased.

4.)    Uniqueness: Sure, there’s nothing new under the sun, but if you’re the four millionth teenage vampire novel, good luck getting my attention. That’s not to say that any hackneyed-looking concept can’t be done up with new and interesting specifics. Unless you have a James Patterson-like sweatshop of writers in your basement, you’re not going to catch the latest fad while it’s still a fad so give it and think creatively. It’s like they say about taxi drivers and stock market advice. You know when to sell a stock when a taxi driver gives one a hot tip to buy it.

5.)    Thought-provocation: This is simply, does the book offer food for thought. This applies not only to nonfiction works that are trying to inform. A novel, too, is hard pressed to get a five-star rating unless it makes me go “huh” about something.

 

It’s worth pointing out that I use GoodReads as my platform for building reviews. I use it because it’s very simple. One drops the review into a box and, when one publishes it, the cover photo and hyperlinked title and author are right there without ever having to mess with finding a photo of the book jacket or deal with building links. They also have a quick-study guide to the html code one may need for font manipulation and so forth. I do write the reviews in Microsoft Word and paste them into the GoodReads form because I’ve been twice bitten with accidently pushing some random combination of buttons that irrevocably deletes my post—inevitably as I’m putting the final edits on it.

BOOK REVIEW: Understories by Tim Horvath

UnderstoriesUnderstories by Tim Horvath

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Amazon page

Two traits of Tim Horvath are rapidly revealed in reading the collection of stories entitled, Understories. First, he’s an academic to the core. Second, he loves words and the way they can be jigged around to create not only meaning but feeling. Combined, these characteristics yield both positive and negative outcomes.

On the positive side, Horvath writes what he knows, and this can be seen in tales like: The Understory, The Discipline of Shadows, Tilkez, and even Circulation. Horvath paints a vivid picture of life in academia with The Understory and The Discipline of Shadows in particular, replete with scholarly rivalry and interdepartmental politics. While that may make the book sound stunningly boring, those two stories are among the strongest–in part because the author knows how to build tension and character in this domain. His bookish characters are constructed with wit and depth.

On the other hand, this book is for the ones who love language more than they love story. The readability isn’t high. Horvath peppers the text with words that many of us memorized to take our GRE test but never used after receipt of our acceptance letter. Many avid readers never learned such words in the first place. This is where the Kindle edition, and its capability for instantaneous word lookup, comes in handy. (Though, the author does manage to stymie Kindle’s internal dictionary on a number of cases.) The shorter pieces tended to leave me wondering if Horvath had a point other than to dazzle with verbiage. To be fair, it’s not just monosyllabic and pretentious words that Horvath loves. He has a taste for all sorts of words that are evocative and powerful, be they whimsical, sexual, or emotional.

Understories consists of 21 short stories, but I use the term “story” loosely. Some of the chapters are stories in a conventional sense. That is, they have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a character who takes some sort of personal journey. Other pieces are the literary equivalent of the masturbatory orgasm; they’re pleasant to experience but beg the question of what the objective is. The contents of the book are below. I’ll restrict my commentary to the more substantial pieces, and leave the reader to figure out what Horvath was trying to get at with the others.

1. The Lobby: This is really an artistic introduction and rules for reading the book.

2. Urban Planning: Case Study #1: This is the first of 8 such “case studies.” With the exception of one, they’re all flash pieces.

3. Circulation: If I had to pick a best story of the anthology, it would be this one. It’s about a man whose eccentric father is in the hospital with mind and body that aren’t what they used to be. The man is Director of Circulation for his hometown library, and the father has one published book and spent much of his life working on an unfinished Atlas of the Voyages of Things. The sub-story about the books as a reflection of the man is what gives this something extra beyond the usual “Cats in the Cradle” (Harry Chapin reference) narrative.

4. Urban Planning: Case Study #2: Another brief piece.

5. The Understory: This is one of the full length stories, and is one of the best pieces. It’s about the bringing together and falling apart of a platonic relationship between two scholars. Set in pre-war Germany, the story opens with a scholarly rivalry between two professors who become good friends. However, one of the men is a Jew and the other is promoted to a Deanship because he has appeal with the Nazis.

6. Urban Planning: Case Study #3

7. The Discipline of Shadows: This is the story of a professor in the Department of Umbrology. What’s Umbrology? It’s the study of shadows. An interdisciplinary department with a unifying theme of shadows provides and intriguing background for a story that’s not so out of the ordinary. The story delves into scholastic politics and a sordid intradepartmental love triangle.

8. Urban Planning: Case Study #4

9. Planetarium: This is story proper. It’s about the reunion of two high school buddies, and their differing recollections of a seminal event of their youth involving shenanigans at a planetarium. The story is an odd sort of confession.

10. The Gendarmes: This story will appeal to lovers of the surreal. It’s about a man who discovers that a team of scientists are playing baseball on his roof.

11. A Box of One’s Own: An eloquent tale of the curiosity inspired by boxes.

12. Internodium: This is another short piece.

13. Urban Planning: Case Study #5: This one probably ties for my favorite flash piece. It’s about a city that evolves into all restaurants.

14. Runaroundandscreamalot!: There’s a lot of humor sprinkled throughout this book, but this is the one story one might put in the humor genre. It’s funny from the title onward, which is the protagonist’s pet name for a generic Chuck-E-Cheese-esque place called “Playalot”—which is a medieval-themed kid’s play palace. The protagonist, a divorced man, takes his daughter there and meets a woman that he proceeds to try to get to know better despite only knowing her as “Hanh’s Mom” for most of the story.

15. Urban Planning: Case Study #6: This is the other tie-holder for best flash piece. It’s about a city in denial.

16. Pocket: A flash piece on, well… pockets.

17. Altered Narrative: A short and experimental piece.

18. Urban Planning: Case Study #7: This is the only one of these “Urban Planning Case Studies” that is a short story in the usual sense. It’s about a [grown man] film projectionist who abandons his post after seeing his wife with another man.

19. The Conversations: There’s a fair amount of surrealism sown throughout this book, but this is one of the more speculative pieces. That said, it’s really just about the death and resurrection of the conversation—along with “mint.” The sci-fi component revolves around speculation about precisely caused it and what the difference is between a “Conversation” and a “conversation.” The latter being what we normally think of (i.e. and informal discussion), and the former being the subject of the story.

20. Tilkez: The protagonist is a creepy little man who writes down everything and the story is about his relationship with both a female and language (I think. The female might be symbolic.)

21. Urban Planning: Case Study #8: One last flash piece.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Color of Magic by Terry Prachett

The Color of Magic (Discworld, #1)The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Amazon page
The Color of Magic is a hero’s journey tale done in comedic fashion. It’s the first book in Prachett’s disc world series. An incompetent wizard, Rincewind, becomes the guide to a goofy but wealthy tourist named Twoflower. However, as it happens the events that confront these two on their journey are part of a game being played between gods. I loved the humor, liked the story, but wasn’t a fan of the organization of the book.

I should admit up front that fantasy is–hands down–my least favorite genre, and I can’t say that view didn’t jaundice my perception of this book. However, it’s a testament to Pratchett’s humor and readability that I continued reading it.

What is my beef with fantasy in general? First, once one introduces magic, how does one maintain tension in an environment in which anything can happen effortlessly? Obviously, fantasy fans find plenty of tension to keep them reading, but I just don’t get it personally. I know that one retort is that the same could be said of other speculative fiction genres. To the degree that is true, I also don’t care for those other genres so much either. However, sci-fi (for example) has a basis for constraints that can be widely agreed upon. Second, the appeal of feudal society for setting perplexes me. I guess there is a certain romance to these periods for fans (perhaps because they imagine themselves in the statistically-unlikely role of king or knight as opposed to the much more likely position of serfdom, but whatever), but I see this type of society as backward and unsustainable (a ten millennia old kingdom maybe possible in a world of magic, but not in a world as we know it.)

I know fantasy fans will be able to come up with examples of how their favorite authors avoid both of the pet peeves mentioned. In truth, Pratchett does a good job of negating these pitfalls. With respect to the magic problem, he makes the protagonist wizard really inept and, therefore, easily in situations over his head. Simply put, he makes his lead weak relative to those confronting him. With respect to the setting issue, Pratchett creates an entirely different kind of world, the disc world. This is not Charlemagne’s Europe with wizards.

Prachett is often compared to Douglas Adams. In fact, if you Google “the Douglas Adams of fantasy,” you are sure to pull sites pertaining to Pratchett. One can see the same type of absurdist humor in Prachett’s work. Here’s a compilation of a few of my favorite lines:

“Being Ymor’s right-hand man was like being gently flogged to death with scented bootlaces.”

“No, what he didn’t like about heroes was that they were usually suicidally gloomy when sober and homicidally insane when drunk.”

“Yah. I outnumber you one to two.”

“He wondered what kind of life it would be, having to keep swimming all the time to stay exactly in the same place. Pretty similar to his own, he decided.”

“But the captain had long ago decided that he would, on the whole, prefer to achieve immortality by not dying.”

“Your affected air of craven cowardness does not fool me.”

Pratchett appeals to the downtrodden in all of us. This can best be gleaned from the tale of Goldeneyes Silverhand Dactylos. Dactylos is a superb craftsman who is blinded, has his hand cut off, and suffers ever greater indignities because the Emir wants him to never again produce anything as lovely. It’s like the myth about Shah Jahan having the hands cut off Taj Mahal craftsman, except Pratchett’s Emir keeps asking the same man of increasing handicaps back to construct ever greater marvels of engineering.

The book is arranged in just four chapters. This is a bit of an oddity for commercial fiction, and I don’t really care for the sparse employment of breaking points in this book. Again, if I was enough of a fan of fantasy to read this in a single sitting (or even a few sittings) I would likely not find this to be an issue. However, I read it over time and interspersed with many other books (a lot of which were more captivating to me personally.) This might seem like a ridiculously nit-picky point, but for those of us who have a lot of reading up in the air at once, being able to readily put a book down and pick it up seamlessly later without losing the story is of great benefit.

If you like humor, this book will appeal to you. If you like fantasy, I suspect you’ll doubly like it–as long as you have a sense of humor. If you don’t like either, this book will not be for you.

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BOOK REVIEW: Ishmael by Daniel Quinn

Ishmael: An Adventure of the Mind and SpiritIshmael: An Adventure of the Mind and Spirit by Daniel Quinn

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A man answers an ad that says, “Teacher seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.” Expecting to find a charlatan, the man is surprised to find his new teacher is, in fact, a gorilla.

Like Socrates, this gorilla, Ishmael, uses questions to guide his pupil toward crucial knowledge. Ismael teaches his student to challenge some of his most deep-seated beliefs such as, the world was made for humans, humans are the ultimate culmination of biology, humans are inherently separate from (and above) nature, and that humans are fundamentally flawed in such a way as to make ruination of the planet inevitable.

The core of the book differentiates two human cultures. The author calls them the “takers” and the “leavers,” but they correspond to what we might call “us” and the “aboriginal peoples.” Takers are specialized, agricultural, and technologically advanced (if you’re reading this review on a computer and not chiseled on a cave wall, you, my friend, are a taker.)

The lives of “Leavers” aren’t that different from those of humans 10,000 years ago. They are tribal as opposed to (to borrow Desmond Morris’s term) super-tribal. [In a tribe everyone knows everyone else. Morris suggests that things go to shit –re: war, crime, and deviant behavior– in super-tribal societies.] Leavers live like animals in that they tend towards equilibrium within their ecosystem. Takers do not.

If you long for thrillers or potboilers, this isn’t the book for you. It’s a thinking person’s book. The nice thing about Ishmael’s use of the Socratic method is that one can think through the questions in parallel to the narrator’s discovery. In this way, the reader can install himself or herself into the conversation.

At the most generic level, the book’s value is in showing one how much one takes for granted. We can’t see forests for trees.

One may agree or disagree with the author, but either way one will be subjected to powerful food for thought. Some of the discussion may evoke a visceral emotional reaction that one may have trouble reconciling with logic, such as the discussion of the morality of feeding the starving.

The downside of the book is that the dialogue can be strained in places and it can get a bit repetitive. The latter serves to reinforce key concepts, but some of them feel as though they are reinforced inordinately. In making the narrating protagonist struggle, Quinn creates a lead who seems a bit dense sometimes. Also, as I indicated, the journey is by-and-large in the mind, and so the tension is limited. There is some drama when the narrator shows up one day to find that Ishmael has been evicted. However, this is resolved without too great a difficulty and they resume lessons with  Ishmael’s irritability being the only change to be seen. There is drama at the end that will remain unspoiled herein.

I’d recommend this book as a thought-provoking exercise for the mind.

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BOOK REVIEW: Dracula by Bram Stoker

DraculaDracula by Bram Stoker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Dracula leaves Transylvania to find a new pool of victims, and the only thing standing between him and the people of London is Dr. Van Helsing and his cast of allies.

The novel begins with the arrival in Transylvania of Jonathan Harker, a real estate agent from England. Both Harker and his beloved wife, Mina, play an important role in unraveling the mystery of Dracula. Soon after a ghost ship rams into port, Lucy Westenra (a friend of Mina’s) begins to suffer an unusual illness. A Dr. Seward brings in Dr. Van Helsing who has a rare expertise in her particular ailment. Professor Van Helsing’s knowledge is essential to driving Dracula out of London and back to Transylvania. They pursue the vampire– resulting an a final show down.

Bram Stoker uses a series of journal entries, letters, and memos to convey the story. This is an interesting approach, and popular at that time, but it does have its limitations.

Dracula was written early in the age of science and reason. While it was an age of superstition, there is an attempt to elevate vampirism from a strictly supernatural phenomena to one in which science has something to say.

The 19th century language and approach to tension makes for a less gripping tale than one would likely see today, but it is still a very readable book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Comedy of Errors by Shakespeare

The Comedy of ErrorsThe Comedy of Errors by William Shakespeare
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The premise is simple: mistaken identity. Twin boys separated at birth, neither knowing the other is alive, wander about Ephesus inadvertently wreaking confusion by their mere appearances. To add to the confusion (and hilarity), each of these men has a man-servant that is an identical twin of the other man’s servant. Servant and master confuse each other’s doppelgangers. There is a wife thought to be crazy by the man she only thinks is her husband. There is a merchant who is trying to collect from the wrong man.

It’s not the play’s leads, but rather Dromio of Syracuse (one of the identical servants) who I find to be the most clever and compelling character. Some of his witty lines are:

– “Was there ever any man thus beaten out of season?”
– “…she is spherical, like a globe; I could find out countries in her.”
– “…he must have a long spoon that must eat with the devil.”

If one can accept the strained credulity of the play’s premise, it’s an enjoyable and light-hearted read.

It may not offer the most clever of Shakespeare’s wordsmithing, but Shakespeare at his worst is pretty damn good.

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