Review: Am I Dreaming? by James Kingsland

Am I Dreaming? The New Science of Consciousness and How Altered States Reboot the Brain [2019] – ★★★

From lucid dreaming and hallucinations to hypnotism and various effects of LSD and DMT, science journalist James Kingsland takes the reader on a journey explaining the altered states of consciousness and the present state of knowledge in this field, making his case that inducing altered states of consciousness is beneficial, and much can be gained by experimenting with psychoactive substances. Am I Dreaming? is an unnecessarily chaotic book, but if you are prepared to sift through the author’s more obvious statements on consciousness and his not-always-so-clear scientific explanations, there is some insight gained as the author talks about more recent studies and people’s first-hand experiences.

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Review: The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century by Joel F. Harrington

The Faithful Executioner [2013] – ★★★1/2

A technically proficient and reliable executioner was himself the very embodiment of the sword of justice in action – swift, unwavering, deadly, but never appearing susceptible to arbitrary or gratuitous cruelty” [Harrington, Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publications, 2013: 67].

This book is a biography of Franz Schmidt (1555-1634), a public executioner who lived in what is now Germany in the Renaissance period. He kept a diary for the majority of his professional life, which lasted some forty-five years and included the execution of at least three hundred and sixty one people. Harrington traces Schmidt’s life, from his apprenticeship to him becoming a master of his craft, a healer, a family man and, finally, “an honourable member of society”, grounding his research in Schmidt’s dairy. After gaining technical skills, Schmidt travelled several years across the country, performing executions for a fee (as was customary), and though associating with a dishonourable profession, always tried to challenge the social stigma and strived to be part of the honourable society, taking pains to avoid associating with the world of immorality, including gambling, drinking and fighting. Harrington’s non-fiction is not for the squeamish and the biography presented is a bit misguided, but those who are interested in the history of criminal punishment will find much here to consider at length.

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Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: The Electric Chair, & Empireland

I. The Electric Chair: An Unnatural American History [1999/2009] by Craig Brandon – ★★★★

This book is on the history of one of “the elephants in the room” in the US – death penalty by electrocution. It talks in depth about the case of William Kemmler, a vegetable peddler from Buffalo, who became the first person to be executed by electric chair in America on 6 August 1890. Previously, Kemmler was convicted of murdering his common law wife Tillie Ziegler. It is this man, or rather his death, that became a pawn in the complex business and political game of inventors, investors, entrepreneurs and politicians, at the centre of which was the so-called “current war” waged by Edison (a proponent of the direct current (DC)) and Westinghouse (a proponent of the alternative current (AC)), both eager to prove that only their patented electricity was the way forward for American society, both for domestic and penal purposes.

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Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Phantoms in the Brain: Probing the Mysteries of the Human Mind [1998] by V. S. Ramachandran★★★★★

This entertaining book presents the most mind-boggling medical cases from the field of neuroscience. In the vein of Professor Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat [1985]), Professor V. S. Ramachandran discusses and seeks explanations to such bewildering medical conditions as Capgras delusion, where a person thinks that their relatives are imposters because of the break between their emotional and visual brain inputs, various forms of anosognosia, such as the one where a person denies that their left side of the body is completely paralysed (one possible explanation is that their brains “adapt” reality to their internal world-view “to save” their sanity), phantom limb syndrome, where a person experiences sensations in a limb they no longer possess, as well as blindsight and savant syndrome, among others. Though this book was published in 1998, it remains as informative as at the time of its publication. There have been some developments in neuroscience since 1998, but the science is still very much in the dark regarding all the curiosities about the brain presented in this book. Answering the questions posed by Professor Ramachandran will be akin to finally finding the answers to the biggest mysteries of our existence and psychology.

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Review: A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome by Alberto Angela

A Day in the Life of Ancient Rome [2007/09] ★★★★

This book about ancient Rome is written in a conversational style, and we walk through the ancient city with the author who acts as our guide, pointing to us various curiosities we encounter in our journey through the day. From 6:00 a.m., the time to explore one as yet silent domus of a wealthy Roman citizen, to 9:00 p.m., the time when, ordinarily, a Roman banquet nears its end, we spend the day exploring the lives of the wealthy, the poor and the slaves in the world’s most populous city in the year 115 CE, while the author also comments on such topics as Roman religion, professions, education, money, games and food. The book, translated from the Italian by Gregory Conti, is quite introductory, but still wondrous, and even those who are familiar with the lives of Romans are bound to pick up some interesting facts to explore further.

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“The Great Pianists” Non-Fiction: Lang Lang’s Memoir & Van Cliburn’s Biography

This month I have intensified my piano-learning (finally finishing all the piano method books I once started and jumping on Duvernoy, Schytte and Lemoine’s studies) and been listening to a lot of piano music (especially to Godowsky’s Java Suite this month), so I have also decided to share some piano-related books I have been reading recently.

I. Journey of a Thousand Miles: My Story [2008] by Lang Lang – ★★★★1/2

Chinese pianist Lang Lang is considered to be one of the leading figures of today’s classical music world and one of the most accomplished pianists of our modern time. This is his memoir in which he tells his story, from his birth in 1982 in China’s north-eastern city of Shenyang, his early musical education and upbringing, to his hard-work and his family sacrificing everything to see him become “the world’s no. 1”. It is a moving autobiography of a child once living in near-poverty, but always working very hard and dreaming “big”, and then of a young man, not always believing in himself, but always being clear in his mind what he wants to achieve next, overcoming his tricky family life and the Chinese competitive system. There are no “self-indulgent” paragraphs in this memoir. It is clear and to the point, with very short chapters, in which Lang Lang, first and foremost, pays tribute to his family and his teachers, who always believed in him and enabled him to become what he is now, an immensely popular classical pianist.  

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Review: Music in the Castle of Heaven: A Portrait of Johann Sebastian Bach by John Eliot Gardiner 

Music in the Castle of Heaven [2013] – ★★★★

I was obliged to be industrious. Whoever is equally industrious will succeed equally well“. Johann Sebastian Bach

The music of Bach is complex, inventive, awe-inspiring and brimming with mathematical precision and religious fervour. The man behind it appears equally stern and unreachable. But, who was Johann Sebastian Bach really and how it came about that a cantor operating in a rather small region of Germany managed to compose music of such brilliant contours, imaginative force and spiritual depth that it now forms much of the foundation of our classical music and is worshipped by many across the globe? In this non-fiction, British conductor John Eliot Gardiner aims to shed light on these precise, still puzzling questions. Music in the Castle of Heaven is an illuminating account of Bach’s life and music that starts from the premise that to understand Bach’s art we have to first immerse ourselves in the very essence of his time and place of birth. Numerous factors influenced Bach and made him into a musician we know today – familial, historic, socio-economic, cultural, educational – and without knowing these we cannot fathom Bach’s mind and how it worked. Gardiner strikes at the very heart of Bach’s genius, presenting us with a complex and sometimes contradictory musician who was also a very empathetic man.

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Recent American True Crime Non-Fiction Reads

I. The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking [2013] by Brendan I. Koerner – ★★★★

This book by journalist Brendan I. Koerner focuses on the “Golden Age of Aircraft Hijacking” and on a peculiar case of an airplane hijacking operation carried out by Vietnam veteran William Roger Holder and his girlfriend Cathy Kerkow in 1972. Before airport X-ray machines and the careful vetting of all passengers, Holder and Kerkow had accomplished a crime feat in the air of unbelievable proportions, later escaping to and from Algeria and much later even becoming “celebrities” in France, mingling with the elite. This book is not only a fascinating story of their case that often reads like an exciting thriller, but also a deep insight into the most unbelievable period in the American commercial aviation history when airplane hijacking was so common people thought of it as just “one of those annoying inconveniences of flying” similar to jet lag.

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Recent Non-Fiction Reads

I. Making Movies [1995] by Sidney Lumet ★★★★

This book on movie-making is by American director Sidney Lumet (1924 – 2011) who was probably best known for directing a number of “legal” films including 12 Angry Men [1957], Murder on the Orient Express [1974] and The Verdict [1982]. It provides a deep insight into the “magical” process of making movies, from deciding whether to do a movie (Lumet almost always decided “instinctively”) to the final editing process and running previews. Lumet was a “trier” and a “doer”. He tells us in his book that he did not believe in waiting around for opportunities and liked to create his own luck. His eagerness to create chances reflected the sheer variety of films he directed. Cinematic success is hard to pin down, he states. That is also his first lesson to us: “nobody knows what that magic combination is that produces a first-rate piece of work” [Vintage, 1995: 9]. Even a great script or a great star-actor does not guarantee success.

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Review: The History of Chess in Fifty Moves by Bill Price

The History of Chess in Fifty Moves [2015] ★★★1/2

I got inspired to read this book because of the World Chess Championship 2021 currently held in Dubai where now the defending champion Magnus Carlsen of Norway is playing Ian Nepomniachtchi of Russia. This book by Bill Price traces the history of chess from its very likely origin in northern India circa 7th century to the game’s expansion in Muslim countries, and then to it making its way to the heart of the Christian community through Islamic ports. Chess was then a game played by the royalty and was seen as “an expression of social standing, rather than an intellectual pursuit” [Price, Apple Press 2015: 56]. Certain historical and other developments then led to it being played by a wide variety of people and the game spread rapidly across Europe, played in coffeehouses across the continent in the 17th century. Though this book is more on a superficial side, it is still an entertaining journey into chess, offering some curious insights into the game, for example, into the women’s chess and into the origin of certain chess terms, such as a gambit.

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Review: Shamans, Healers & Medicine Men by by Holger Kalweit

Shamans, Healers, and Medicine Men [1987/1992]★★★★★

“Shamanism…is not a somehow obscure or incomprehensible or mysterious magical path, but a simple heightening of the emotional experience of the world; “the goal of the shamanic path of initiation is to broaden and deepen the normal emotionality that we all know” [Kalweit, Shambhala Publications, 1987/92: 219].

It is time for me to continue with my “Non-Fiction November” reading challenge. This book, translated from the German, is by Holger Kalweit, a German ethnologist and psychologist who studied shamanism in different corners of the world, including in Hawaii, the American Southwest, Mexico and Tibet. With concrete examples drawn from the Ainu, Siberian, Yahgan and other shamanic traditions, Kalweit delves into the very heart of shamanism and explains detailly the nature of being a shaman, “a possessor of profound knowledge that cannot be grasped in words”. From shamanic training, testing and rituals inducing trance to shamanic healing powers, and duels and competitions, Kalweit touches on many topics and hardly stops there, elucidating further on such concepts as consciousness, reality, dreaming and on a variety of parapsychological phenomena, including “magic”, visions and near-death experience. The result is a comprehensive, endlessly perceptive and inspiring book.

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Mini-Review: The Genius of Birds by Jennifer Ackerman 

The Genius of Birds [2016] – ★★★★

November is a “Non-Fiction” month, so I am trying to read more non-fiction books. Nature books are something I have been neglecting for some years now, so I have picked up Ackerman’s 2016 bestseller The Genius of Birds. Birds are some of the most remarkable animals on earth, but they have also been very misunderstood and it was only in the second half of the previous century that the scientific community had finally started realising their full complexity and intelligence. Now, in lists (for example, see list 1 and list 2) of the most intelligent animals in the world, birds (parrots, crows and pigeons) take their places alongside such animals as chimpanzees, gorillas, dolphins and octopuses. Some birds are capable of inventing new solutions to problems, making and using tools, leading active social lives, recognising themselves in a mirror, remembering people or places they have not seen in months or years, and reproducing up to sixty different songs which they have heard only a few times. Ackerman’s book explores the technical, inventive, musical, artistic, spatial and social abilities of birds, opening up a side of birds and their intelligence you never knew existed.

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Review: Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea by Richard Ellis

Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life in the Sea [2001] – ★★★★

That we live on land is, in the grander scheme of things, best regarded as an anomaly, or even an eccentricity – albeit with sound evolutionary justification. The story of life is, if we retain a true sense of proportion, a story of life at sea(Philip Ball)

After I read Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf last year, I wanted to read a deeper work on this topic and chose Aguagenesis by marine biologist Richard Ellis. The author aims to demonstrate how life originated in water some 3.9 billion years ago, what species evolved first in water and why, what species followed them and how evolution changed courses multiple times with various animals choosing to dwell on land next and then returning to waters. Richard Ellis starts his book by discussing the origin of water itself and a 2 inch-long shrimp-like creature without eyes capable of subsisting on hydrogen sulphide alone, which is poisonous to most living creatures, before talking about more complex and diverse marine life that roamed the oceans in the final stages of the Cretaceous period, some 65 million years ago. “More than 99% of all the species that have ever lived on Earth are [now] extinct” [Ellis, 2001: 22], says the author, and that makes that extinct life even more fascinating, especially in what it can tell us about the diversity of life and our own, human, origin. This book may be on an academic side and now a bit dated, but it is still a perceptive and engaging account of the mysteries that still surround the evolution of life in the sea.

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Recent History, Science & Music Non-Fiction Reads: Five Points, When Brains Dream & Year of Wonder

I. Five Points: The Nineteenth-Century New York City Neighborhood That Invented Tap Dance, Stole Elections and Became the World’s Most Notorious Slum [2002] by Tyler Anbinder ★★★★

I love reading about the history of New York City, for example see my review of Mark Kurlanskys The Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006]. In Five Points, Tyler Anbinder focuses his attention on once the most notorious area in New York – the infamous Five Points, once a densely-populated, poverty, crime, riots and disease-ridden area. The area, which was once a green place with a lake called “The Collect Pond”, became by the end of the eighteenth century “a putrid nuisance” (due to local industries’ contamination) [Anbinder, 2002: 14] and, later, a place to be feared and ruled by criminal gangs. However, what became a place of danger for some, also turned into a place of fun and unthought-of opportunities for others. This non-fiction book is a very detailed account of the history of Five Points in the nineteenth century. Through documents, contemporaries’ accounts (each chapter starts with a “personal story” prologue), maps, graphs and old photographers, the author shows how Five Points gained such a vile reputation around the world and what made it so different from other New York neighbourhoods.

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Review: The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives by Christopher Harding

The Japanese: A History in Twenty Lives [2020] – ★★★★★

In this new book, Dr Harding traces the history of Japan through the lives of twenty remarkable people that helped to shape the country, making a powerful impact on either its politics, business, religion, science, culture or just society at large, and – more often than not – against all odds and in very challenging times. From heroic personalities from mythology and ancient politics to people who changed business, music or literary scene, the author introduces each extraordinary individual in turn, focusing on their childhood, on Japan of their time and on their contribution to the country, with the result being that Japan finally became what it is now – a culturally rich country full of so many paradoxes, intricacies and hidden treasures that a lifetime will not be sufficient to know and understand them all. In this book, we get to know royalties, warlords, samurai, Buddhist monks, politicians, businessmen, scientists, poets, singers, revolutionists and Manga creators. Dr Harding’s book is a history of Japan in a bright new form that is a pure pleasure to read.

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Review: Hiroshima Nagasaki by Paul Ham

Hiroshima Nagasaki [2011] – ★★★★★

An eye for an eye leaves the whole world blind.” M. K. Gandhi (attributed)

The Japanese collectively were to blame…Truman drew no distinction between civilian and soldier; mother and murderer; child and monster”; “America [sic] annihilated 100.000 persons, most of them civilians, at Hiroshima…and then…,in spite of the “universal horror”, repeated the performance at Nagasaki” [Paul Ham quoting, 2011: 420, 422].

Paul Ham is an Australian author and correspondent, and in his non-fiction book Hiroshima Nagasaki he presents a true account of what happened to the two Japanese cities in 1945, dispelling myths that still persist about the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, including that the bombs were somehow “necessary”, or that their usage led to Japan’s surrender. Starting in winter 1945, when “Roosevelt and Churchill arrived bound by a private agreement…not to share with the Soviet Union…the development of an extraordinary new weapon” [Ham, 2011: 15], continuing to the secret development of the world’s first atomic bomb, and ending with the aftermath of the tragedy, the author goes into incredible depth about what happened in the final year of the war, demonstrating the situation through statistics, broader situation invoking key actors and through personal accounts. The result is a well-researched book about one of the most unbelievable and traumatic events in the world history. Since the scope of the book and the topic is so broad, I have decided to structure my review in the following manner: (i) Events leading up to the atomic bombings; (ii) Four myths and four corresponding realities; (iii) Immediate aftermath; and (iv) Long-term consequences.

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Review: A People’s History of Tennis by David Berry

A People’s History of Tennis [2020] – ★★★★1/2

Lawn tennis was different. It was played “as much with the head as the hand” and it encouraged playfulness and enjoyment of performance” [David Berry, Pluto Press, 2020: 23].

This new non-fiction book is about the history of “lawn tennis”, as viewed through the prism of class and gender politics. Rather than being just a sport for the privileged and well-off, David Berry argues that tennis has also historically provided important battlegrounds for “freedom” movements, for the rights of women, immigrants, black people and people from the working class segment of the population. Referring to the sport’s “amateur” beginnings and explaining the business side of the game, Berry talks about tennis between the wars, about the history of tennis clubs, as well as details the rise of first tennis stars that helped to transform tennis from an amusing hobby played on the British Isles to a global phenomenon and industry worth millions of pounds. Often referring to Wimbledon, the oldest and most prestigious tennis tournament in the world, Berry demonstrates with a great narrative flair the constant battle to shed away the “exclusivity” of tennis, a sport which remains one of the few in the world that, from its very origin in the nineteenth century, was designed to be played by both men and women.

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Review: The Minds of Billy Milligan by Daniel Keyes

The Minds of Billy Milligan [1981/2018] – ★★★★1/2

This non-fiction book comes from Daniel Keyes, the writer of classic sci-fi Flowers for Algernon [1959]. The Minds of Billy Milligan tells the amazing story of Billy Milligan, the first man in the US history to successfully plead the insanity defence in court based on his proven multiple personality disorder and, therefore, be held not responsible for his major crimes (three counts of robbery and rape). Billy Milligan had twenty-four personalities (or “people”) living inside him, competing for spotlight (or consciousness) at any one time, and some of them developed when he was a toddler and suffering from trauma. This is no fiction as numerous eminent psychiatrists who observed Milligan for years testified repeatedly to his condition and the chances that Milligan could have somehow faked all twenty-four personalities over so many years are close to zero. This is because his personalities were truly different people, observed to have different body temperatures, hand-writing, accents, vocabulary, speech patterns, mannerism, IQ, skills, knowledge, experience and even brain waves. Daniel Keyes traces Milligan’s case, beginning from his arrest and childhood and culminating with Milligan being dragged from one hospital to another, battling public prejudice. This is a mind-blowing account of the most remarkable case of a disorder that lies at the very heart of uncovering the mystery of the human mind and consciousness.

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Review: The Bilingual Brain by Albert Costa

The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us About the Science of Language [2017/21] – ★★★1/2

Albert Costa was a Research Professor at Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) in Barcelona, and in this short book, which was translated from the Spanish by John W. Schwieter, he explores bilingualism, the mysteries surrounding a human brain that is used “to juggle” two languages daily. “How do two languages coexist in the same brain?…What are the implications of this coexistence? and “is there anything special about being bilingual?” [2017/2021: ix], asks Professor Costa. Referring to many studies and evidence from neuro-imaging techniques, the author meditates on such topics as (i) how bilingual babies acquire languages, (ii) why some people with brain injuries lose their language abilities, (iii) what effect a second language may have on a dominant one, and (iv) how the choice of a language affects human judgement. Instead of providing convincing or concrete arguments, the book rather emphasises the awesomeness of bilinguals and the fact that many questions are still open to debate in this field. However, where Professor Costa’s essay lacks in rigour and depth, it certainly makes up in piquing curiosity and stimulating conversation.

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Review: Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces by Laura Tunbridge

Beethoven: A Life in Nine Pieces [2020] – ★★★★★

Did you know that a music piece (a Septet) that made Beethoven’s name in the nineteenth century is hardly ever played today? Or that later pieces by Beethoven that are now known to everyone were considered in the composer’s time too complex and brazen to merit any attention? Beethoven’s elusive “Immortal Beloved” is still without identity, and his attempts at self-promotion were not always successful. Through just nine musical pieces, Laura Tunbridge places Beethoven in a particular time and place in her well-researched book, presenting an intimate and detailed image of the great composer. Rather than Beethoven being an isolated genius making music masterpieces on his own, the author talks of Beethoven as a gifted person that was depended on others (such as on his friends and patrons), as well as on the particular time, norms and politics, as well as on the musical tradition in which he lived. Tunbridge demonstrates how Vienna and Beethoven’s own personal life affected his music, and how changing perceptions, as well as tastes of nobility, ultimately dictated and shaped the man and his music that is now admired by millions.

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Review: Mad in America by Robert Whitaker

Mad in America: Bad Science, Bad Medicine and the Enduring Mistreatment of the Mentally Ill [2002] ★★★★1/2

Robert Whitaker opens his book with this quote by David Cohen: “We are still mad about the mad. We still don’t understand them and that lack of understanding makes us mean and arrogant, and makes us mislead ourselves, and so we hurt them”. His book is an engaging overview of the methods to treat mentally ill patients through centuries (starting in the pre-1750s period and continuing to the present day), and how changes in societal attitudes and perceptions, as well as in psychiatry politics and business considerations impacted the treatment. “Scientific” and “therapeutic” approaches to treating mentally ill had competed with each other for centuries, and Whitaker shows how politics of this or that time period ultimately dictated what mentally ill patients were supposed “to need”, with mentally ill people often caught in a trap of doctors and businesses’ ambitions to make a mark in science or earn money respectively.

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Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World, & Rubicon: The Triumph and Tragedy of the Roman Republic

I. Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World [2004] by Jack Weatherford – ★★★★

They can do all because they think they can“. Virgil

“Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are not expected. The supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”. Sun Tzu 

Based on the ancient account The Secret History of the Mongols (dating c. 1227), this book tells of the life of Genghis Khan, his first foreign campaigns and his later conquests of other countries. Although dramatised and sometimes not entirely objective, the book is a very engaging, endlessly fascinating and perceptive account of the world’s most successful invaders. It demonstrates all the reasons for Genghis Khan’s unprecedented success in conquest since, historically, the Mongol army was the one to whom fell numerous countries and millions of people kneeled, as the army started to dominate virtually two continents, including the majority of China, India, Russia, Persia, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and the South-East Asia.

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Review: A History of the Universe in 21 Stars (and 3 Imposters) by Giles Sparrow

A History of the Universe in 21 Stars [2020] – ★★★1/2

In this new non-fiction book, the author explains key scientific discoveries through stars: from Polaris and the calculation of sky angles/directions and the discovery of Mizar’s double nature and what it ultimately said about star systems, to the mysteries of sunspots and the discovery of the existence of black holes through the exploration of Cygnus X-1. Although A History of the Universe does engage in a lot of confused “cherry-picking” of scientific facts and discoveries, and the language does get quite annoying, the book can still be described as a pure “starry” wonder and a good read for all those interested in stars and key scientific discoveries related to them.

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Review: Monarchs of the Sea by Danna Staaf

Monarchs of the Sea: The Extraordinary 500-Million-Year History of Cephalopods [2017/20] – ★★★★

This book is about the magnificent, enigmatic and elusive cephalopods (a class of molluscs to which octopuses and squid belong), their origin and 500-million-year history. Danna Staaf, a marine biologist, traces their evolution from the very origins of life on Earth in the sea, to the demise of some cephalopods in the Cretaceous period and our modern age. From the causes of the “Great Dying” that happened in the Permian period (when up to ninety-six percent of all marine species perished) to our present day threat of global warming and dangers that face nautiluses, Dr Staaf explains clearly the many issues that concern cephalopods, as well as introduces a whole variety of weird and fascinating sea creatures: from the first sponges and worms, to now extinct ammonoids and a variety of curious present-day octopuses and squid (for example, the pygmy squid and the mimic octopus). This well-illustrated book, which is written with surprising humour and succinctness, will completely delight all those who are interested in marine evolution and curious about the history of present-day cephalopods.

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Review: A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara W. Tuchman

A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century [1978] ★★★★★

In this book, Barbara Tuchman explores the 14th century Europe focusing in particular on the situation in France and on the powerful clan of lords – the Coucy of Picardy, whose ambition at that time almost rivalled that of the King. The centre of the narrative here is the lifetime of Enguerrand VII de Coucy, whose double allegiances and adventures could be compared to some mythical storytelling. Providing vivid insight into various aspects of the medieval life, from childhood to tournaments, and from the state of medicine to the status of women, Tuchman’s book makes one truly step into the intriguing world of the Middle Ages and into the mentality of its people. This was a historical period that was deeply paradoxical and chaotic, in which famine, peasant revolts, foreign wars, the bubonic plague and religious struggles were all taking place in a non-stop succession amidst the existence and the proclamation of a high moral code of chivalry among the nobility, and where magic and superstition reigned inexplicably alongside one strict religious canon.  

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Review: A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie by Kathryn Harkup

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A is for Arsenic: The Poisons of Agatha Christie [2015] – ★★★★★

15 September 2020 marks 130 years since the birth of Agatha Christie in 1890, and this review is meant to pay tribute to the ultimate Queen of Crime. The author of A is for Arsenic is Kathryn Harkup, a chemist by profession, who decided to plunge into all the poisons that Christie used in her books to come up with her perfect crimes. In A is for Arsenic, we first read about the scientific properties of each of the poisons used by Christie in her fiction, from arsenic and belladonna to opium and phosphorus (including their histories and the ways they kill), before the author illuminates the real cases involving these poisons, and finally talks about the fictitious cases in Agatha Christie’s books. It is clear that reading about different poisons has never been as morbidly fun or interesting as with this book since Harkup is an intelligent and succinct writer with a great sense of humour. A is for Arsenic is sure to fascinate and delight this Halloween season.

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Review: Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet by Jennifer Homans

Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet [2010] – ★★★★

This book is about once purely aristocratic and social dance that was elevated to an art of purest form and principles, which then required almost inhuman perseverance and training, and whose spectacle simply takes one’s breath away – classical ballet. From France and Russia, to Denmark and the US, and from Giselle [1841] and Swan Lake [1877], to Cinderella [1945] and Spartacus [1956], Jennifer Homans traces the history and tradition associated with classical ballet in this book, from its origins in the royal courts of France and Italy to its modern variations of the twenty-first century. The result is a well-researched book that pays as much attention to the dates and principles as it does to the aesthetics and social context.

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Review: The Good Neighbour: The Life & Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King

the good neighbour book cover

The Good Neighbour [2018] – ★★★★★

This comprehensive biography talks about the life of an American icon – Fred Rogers (1928 – 2003), the man behind the famous American television show for children Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1962 – 2001). Fred Rogers was more than just a presenter, his show was more than just one’s usual children’s programme, and, hence, this biography is so much more than a book about one celebrity. Always championing children’s rights and their needs, Rogers has always been known for valuing each viewer “just the way they are” and a child was truly someone who mattered on his television. Unassuming, humble and even shy, but with captivating presence, Rogers hence revolutionised children’s day-time television in the US, believing that television can be uplifting, fun and educational for everyone [2018: 172]. From Rogers’ childhood to his last TV appearance, the biography touches on many aspects of his life, including Rogers’ unparalleled-on-television authenticity, his commitment to child development, and his love for music and swimming. The Good Neighbour is a book to read because Fred Rogers was one of those people whose efforts and commitments should never be forgotten. Fred Rogers’ life is a life worth knowing. 

Continue reading “Review: The Good Neighbour: The Life & Work of Fred Rogers by Maxwell King”

Mini-Review: The Woman with a Worm in Her Head by Pamela Nagami 

The Woman with the Worm in her Head The Woman with a Worm in Her Head [2002] – ★★★★

The Woman with a Worm in Her Head is a topical non-fiction book since it talks about those infectious diseases which present a real puzzle for medical staff. Referring to her experience of working as an infectious disease doctor, Nagami talks about real patients with such seemingly surreal diseases as cocci or valley fever, leishmaniasis, chickenpox and falciparum malaria, and, of course, with live worms loose in their bodies which cause havoc and distress. Nagami’s book is definitely not for the faint of heart or the squeamish, but those who are interested in mysterious diagnoses or in unusual and rare medical illnesses will find much to appreciate in this book. Continue reading “Mini-Review: The Woman with a Worm in Her Head by Pamela Nagami “

Mini-Review: A Year in Marrakesh by Peter Mayne

A Year in Marrakesh [1953] – ★★★

This non-fiction book is Peter Mayne’s account of his life in Marrakesh, Morocco in the 1950s. Mayne recounts his bewilderment and mishaps as he tries to live the life of a local in a country that is very different from his own. He tries to learn Arabic and make friends with local people only to find that his attempts lead him to the myriad of unsaid etiquette rules and cultural intricacies still to be learnt. Though Mayne tries his best to capture the mentality of people living in Morocco and their culture, his account turns out to be predictable and exasperating, though with welcoming doses of humour.

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Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade

shamanism eliadeShamanism [1951/64] – ★★★★

Shamanism is by a Romanian historian and author Mircea Eliade [1907 – 1986], and is considered to be one of the first attempts to approach shamanism so systematically and scholarly. From costumes and drums to spirit animals and dreams, Eliade elucidates one of the most misunderstood practices/traditions in the world. The great thing about the book is that it talks about shamanism as it is applicable in different regions of the world, from Siberia and India, to South America and Oceania, attempting to draw parallels between them and talking about their general concepts, including similarities in initiation processes. The result is a quite fascinating account of shamanism, even if somewhat dated. Continue reading “Review: Shamanism: Archaic Techniques of Ecstasy by Mircea Eliade”

Recent Biography/Memoir Reads: The Railway Man and Mozart: The Man Revealed

the railway manI. The Railway Man [1995] by Eric Lomax – ★★★★

Those who experienced evil may forget it, but those who committed it – never” (A. Mare).

This is a true story of Eric Lomax, a British Army Officer and ex-Prisoner-of-War (POW) during the World War II, who was tortured and held in confinement while he and his fellow comrades were forced to work on the Siam-Burma railway line. Years after the WWII, he came face-to-face with one of his captors – Japanese interpreter Takashi Nagase, a meeting that finally led to a reconciliation. This is Lomax’s incredible true story, which is an inspirational and moving read. 

Continue reading “Recent Biography/Memoir Reads: The Railway Man and Mozart: The Man Revealed”

Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts

The Way of Zen [1957] – ★★★★★the way of zen book cover

“…the true practice of Zen is no practice, that is, the seeming paradox of being a Buddha without intending to be a Buddha” [1957: 95, 96]. “The basic position of Zen is that it has nothing to say, nothing to teach. The truth of Buddhism is so self-evident, so obvious that it is, if anything, concealed by explaining it” [1957: 163].

This non-fiction book by a British philosopher and writer illuminates one of the least understood concepts in the world – Zen. Patiently, Watts traces the origins of Zen Buddhism– its Mahayana Buddhism and Taoism foundations, and then explains very clearly some of its basic principles and practices (such as the nature of direct experience, “no-mind”, the present “Now” and sitting meditation). The last chapter in this book is devoted to the application of Zen to a number of arts: from haiku (a form of Japanese poetry) to archery, with the author explaining how Zen started to permeate virtually every aspect of life. The Way of Zen is a short and remarkably lucid account of Zen which is very informative, on top of being a pure pleasure to read. Continue reading “Review: The Way of Zen by Alan Watts”

Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

The Denial of DeathThe Denial of Death [1973] – ★★★★

It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours[Becker, 1973: 56].

Ernest Becker (1924 – 1974) was a cultural anthropologist whose book The Denial of Death won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize. It deals with the topic that few people want to consider or talk about – their own mortality and death. The paradox is that, although this topic is considered to be a societal taboo, everyone on this earth will have to confront it sooner or later. In fact, Becker argues, everyone is confronting and dealing with it from the moment that they are born – they just do it subconsciously or unconsciously. The Denial of Death delves into the works of Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard, as Becker puts his thesis forward that all humans have a natural fear (or terror) of death and their own mortality, and, thus, throughout their lives, employ certain mechanisms (including repression) and create illusions to deal with this fear and live. Though the book relies heavily on the works by other authors, it is also a very deep and insightful read – a cry of the soul on the human condition, as well as a penetrating essay that demystifies the man and his actions. Continue reading “Review: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker”

Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky

the big oysterThe Big Oyster: A Molluscular History of New York [2006] – ★★★★★

The history of New York oysters is a history of New York itself – its wealth, its strength, its excitement, its greed, its thoughtlessness, its destructiveness, its blindness and – as any New Yorker will tell you – its filth. This is the history of the trashing of New York, the killing of its great estuary” [2006: xvi], so begins this marvellous non-fiction book by Mark Kurlansky, who is also the author of such popular books as Cod [1997] and Salt [2002]. The Big Oyster tells the story of the city of New York through the prism of once one of its most famous and prized commodities – its unparalleled oysters. Currently, New York is known for its skyscrapers, its shopping and its business (among other things), but for a long time in history when you thought of New York, you first thought of its delicious and plentiful oysters [2006: xvii]. There was, indeed, a time when New York was known for its “sweet air”, enviable water and tidal systems, and its marine produce, especially its oysters. Through engaging historical accounts, literary anecdotes, culinary recipes and some of the most famous New Yorkers, Kurlansky tells a story of New York like you have never read or known it before and one we should never forget, especially in today’s ever-rising environmental and climate change concerns.  Continue reading “Review: The Big Oyster by Mark Kurlansky”

Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner

Quantum Enigma Book Cover Quantum Enigma: Physics Encounters Consciousness [2011] – ★★★★ 

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you” (Matthew 7: 7- 8, The King James Version of the Bible).

The universe begins to look more like a great thought than a great machine” (Sir James Jeans).

Did you know that it has been experimentally proven in physics that the way you decide to look at something (your observation) changes that something or dictates/creates its locality/position? This happens on the atomic level and no one disputes that finding in the scientific community because this has been proved through the so-called “double-slit” experiment. However, virtually no one in the scientific community wants to consider what this finding means beyond its practical application. Quantum Enigma is a book that explores the divide that has emerged in science between Einstein’s theory of relativity, governing big objects in the universe and, the quantum theory that governs objects on the atomic level. The book provides a good historical overview of the knowledge so far on quantum mechanics, delving into the famous “double-slit” experiment and the Schrödinger’s Cat Paradox. In this sense, it is a great book for those completely unacquainted with the topic because it explains concepts in a very clear and unhurried way. The downside of this, of course, is that the book is needlessly repetitive and provides very few, if any, fresh ideas beyond the already established knowledge.  Continue reading “Review: Quantum Enigma by Bruce Rosenblum & Fred Kuttner”

Review: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb

Book Cover If the Universe is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody?: Seventy-Five Solutions to the Fermi Paradox and the Problem of Extraterrestrial Life [2015] – ★★★★1/2  

I am continuing with my Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge with this curious book on the Fermi paradox. This paradox states that, if there are billions of stars out there in galaxies, and they are similar to and much older than our Sun, there is a high probability that those distant systems have planets that resemble our planet Earth. In turn, the typical nature of our planet means life must have developed and accelerated on other planets too, and, if beings there developed interstellar travel, they should have visited Earth already (or at least sent their probes). The paradox is that we do not see/perceive any extraterrestrial activity. Dr Stephen Webb is a theoretical physicist who proposes and discusses seventy-five solutions to the Fermi paradox in this book, solutions which he divides into three sections: (i) Alien Are (or Were) Here; (ii) Aliens Exist, but We Have Yet to See or Hear from Them; and (iii) Aliens Do Not Exist. This is an enjoyable, mentally-stimulating book that impresses with the number and diversity of different solutions and theories that may explain the Fermi Paradox. Continue reading “Review: If the Universe Is Teeming with Aliens…Where is Everybody? by Stephen Webb”

Review: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams

The Mind in the CaveThe Mind in the Cave: Consciousness and the Origins of Art [2002] – ★★★

This month is dedicated to the Non-Fiction November Reading Challenge and therefore I am trying to read more non-fiction books. My first non-fiction book of this month is The Mind in the Cave, which I have been meaning to read for years (given that I am interested in anthropology, cave art and in the origin of consciousness). The Mind in the Cave is by David Lewis-Williams, a South African archaeologist known for his research into South African rock art, and, in his book, he describes the most breath-taking cave art from the Upper Palaeolithic Period (examples found in the Cave of the Trois-Frères, France and in the Altamira Cave, Spain), tracing the way people thought about cave art through the ages and trying to theorise why Upper Palaeolithic people made such art and what it represented for them. Although the book is engaging, with interesting case studies and beautiful illustrations, it is also problematic. The Mind in the Cave is chaotic, repetitive, not as insightful as one would have hoped, and centres almost exclusively on shamanism and altered states of consciousness. For me, it was only sporadically informative, and made a very feeble attempt to answer one main question for which I picked the book up in the first place. Continue reading “Review: The Mind in the Cave by David Lewis-Williams”

Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy Book CoverHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis [2016] – ★★★★1/2

Whenever people ask me what I’d most like to change about the white working class, I’d say “the feeling that our choices don’t matter” [Vance, 2016: 177].

Hillbilly Elegy is a memoir of a man J. D. Vance, who talks about his childhood (being raised by his single, troubled mother with two children), adolescence and early adulthood, growing up in one of the poorest regions in America. This deeply personal, eye-opening book, which is also both sad and inspirational, provides a glimpse into the Appalachian culture and various (historical, socio-economic, psychological and cultural) circumstances that shape its people. It is about the state of one part of America some would not like to acknowledge fully or whose issues some misunderstand. J. D. sheds away some of the stereotypes surrounding his people, while, at the same time, fairly and bravely acknowledges (people’s) personal and societal responsibilities for many disastrous societal and economic circumstances. This memoir on how class and family affect the poor, as seen through the eyes of one boy raised in one disadvantaged family, is a book hard to forget. Continue reading “Review: Hillbilly Elegy by J. D. Vance”

Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Twelve Who Ruled; Rome: A History in Seven Sackings; & Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium

twelve who ruled book coverI. Twelve Who Ruled: The Year of The Terror in the French Revolution [1941] by R.R. Palmer – ★★★★1/2

This book may be dated, but it did not lose any of its power from the time it was first published in 1941, and was re-issued many times (the last edition dates to 2013). In this book, R. R. Palmer looks at one particular time period in the history of France, and its Revolution – the year 1793-1974. But, what a year that was! Chaotic, unbelievable, bordering fantastical. After the death of Louis XVI, twelve people (virtually strangers to each other) started to govern the country and their slide into dictatorship gave the name to the year of their rule – The Year of the Terror. The year’s main symbol – the guillotine, operated alongside democratic ideas put in speeches and on paper. France has not seen anything like that before or since. Palmer’s engaging, illuminating account traces the months leading to the Year of the Terror, then focuses on the twelve men in charge of the country. The narrative further details the twelve men’s town and country policies, laws and actions, as they purported to stand for liberty, democracy, unity, justice and peace, but, actually, became the embodiment of the opposite. Foreign and civil wars, rebellions within and outside the country, as well as economic disasters, growing paranoia and the inability to maintain the central rule, are just some of the challenges that faced the twelve men after they were left in change of the country under the innocuous name “The Committee of Public Safety”.   Continue reading “Recent History Non-Fiction Reads: Twelve Who Ruled; Rome: A History in Seven Sackings; & Milk of Paradise: A History of Opium”

Review: Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado

Miracle in the Andes Miracle in the Andes [2006] – ★★★★

The author of this book – Nando Parrado – is one of the sixteen survivors of the crash of the Uruguayan Air Force Flight 571 deep in the Andes in 1972. After the crash, twenty-eight survivors battled inhumane conditions high in the mountains to survive and only sixteen made it alive after seventy-two days. Even though the previous book Alive [1974] detailed the story, Parrado’s book, which came out in 2006, is a completely different account of this experience which enables us to understand what it is really like to face death every minute of one’s life period, and then  – after surviving the unsurvivable –  do it all again twice. Paying a special tribute to the determination and courage of others, Parrado’s very moving and personal book is a “must-read” for everyone – so life-changing its observations and conclusions can be for a reader.  Continue reading “Review: Miracle in the Andes by Nando Parrado”

Review: A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey by Sybille Bedford

A Visit to Don Otavio Book Cover A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey [1953] – ★★★★1/2

“The first impact of Mexico City is physical, immensely physical. Sun, Altitude, Movement, Smells, Noise. And it is inescapable. There is no taking refuge in one more insulating shell, no use sitting in the hotel bedroom fumbling with guide books: it is here, one is in it” [Bedford, 1953: 39].

Sybille Bedford wrote about her year-long adventure in Mexico in 1953, and her book, initially titled The Sudden View: A Mexican Journey, became a classic in travel writing. In it, Bedford portrays colourfully her stay with her friend E. all over Mexico, taking journeys from Mexico City to Morelia and Guadalajara, and then to Oaxaca. At one point, Bedford visits a hacienda of one Don Otavio, situated near Lake Chapala, a place of both natural beauty and local intrigue. This is no ordinary travel writing, however – the book is written with humour and certain pathos, and Bedford ensures that there are many insightful observations on the history, geography and social conditions of the area. Even though now dated, A Visit to Don Otavio is still a very pleasurable read, not least because it often reads like an exciting adventure novel set in Mexico, rather than one’s usual travel log. Continue reading “Review: A Visit to Don Otavio: A Mexican Odyssey by Sybille Bedford”

Review: Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright

Narconomics Book Cover Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel [2016] – ★★★★1/2 

The title should not frighten anyone because this non-fiction book will not involve any difficult finance theories or the like. In this book, Tom Wainwright looks at the functioning of a drug cartel from the point of view of an ordinary business. If we view drug operations through the same prism that we use to evaluate an ordinary company then maybe it will be possible to devise solutions that will actually reduce mobsters’ business and stop the reach of their operations. Wainwright embarks on his own exciting investigative work to show us how a drug cartel, like any other legal business, seeks to control the supply side, diversify, multiply its offshore locations to reduce its cost, as well as makes movements into the domain of the Internet to reach a wider pool of customers. Interesting comparisons are made with McDonalds, Walmart, Coca-Cola and Amazon, and, in light of these, Wainwright proposes unorthodox solutions to change policies to better tackle the issue. A dramatic and interesting picture emerges of the situation and functioning of drug cartels in the world.  Continue reading “Review: Narconomics: How to Run a Drug Cartel by Tom Wainwright”

Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette

The World That Made New Orleans Book Cover The World That Made New Orleans: From Spanish Silver to Congo Square [2008] – ★★★★★ 

Since my previous post related to Mardi Gras celebrations, it is fitting now to talk about New Orleans, and I am presenting a curious non-fiction book by Ned Sublette, the author behind Cuba and Its Music [2004]. The World That Made New Orleans is a fascinating book that traces the history of New Orleans, Louisiana, from around 1492 to the nineteenth century: from the city’s humble beginnings on swamp soils to the French Spanish, British-American colonisations, and finally the city’s growth and ultimate urbanisation in the nineteenth century. This is not one’s ordinary history non-fiction book, however. Ned Sublette pays due attention to the music tradition of the area, its unique and changing slavery regimes, and spends time explaining why New Orleans became the diverse, jazz-pioneering and carnival-hosting city it is known today. Ambitious and well-researched, this insightful book provides an eye-opening journey into historical and cultural peculiarities of New Orleans. This is definitely the story of New Orleans like you have never read before.  Continue reading “Review: The World That Made New Orleans by Ned Sublette”

Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet

the innocent anthropologist coverI. The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut [1983] by Nigel Barley – ★★★★

In the late 1970s, Nigel Barley went to North Cameroon to study the Dowayos, and choosing those that represent the most “ferocious” mountain tribe existing at that time. This is his debut non-fiction account of his travels and exploration in Africa as he embarks on his fieldwork. In this book, Barley is really an “innocent” anthropologist, an idealistic young man who is a bit ignorant about what to expect in the real world outside the academia. Barley tells us how he encountered the mind-boggling bureaucracy, got lost in “the vast range of loose kingship” in the country, overcame malaria, as well as survived a horror-trip to a local dentist, among his other stories. Barley’s style of writing is appealingly laid-back, and this concise book turns out to be funny and engaging as a result. It may not be the book on the Dowayos, but part of the charm is that the account is surprisingly honest and humorous.  Continue reading “Recent Travel Non-Fiction Reads: The Innocent Anthropologist, and Magic & Mystery in Tibet”