Category Archives: book review

‘Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats’, by T.S. Eliot – review

Old Possum's Book of Practical CatsOld Possum’s Book of Practical Cats by Eliot T. S. (Thomas Stearns)

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It was like being transported to Hayao Miyazaki’s beautiful, fanciful animated world to discover that T.S. Eliot wrote this delightfully whimsical book because, to quote himself, he was of “a Catholic cast of mind, a Puritanical temperament, and a Calvinist heritage.” To me, Eliot was always a grim, grave intellectual who would not deign to regale himself with anthropomorphic cats. It was part of curiosity about the writer himself and my interest in anything about cats because of my first cat at home. Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a compact collection of amusingly scintillating and elegantly profound poems about why cats behave the way they do and who they are really.

And the more I read, the more I enjoyed it because it was full of wittily whimsical rhythms and brilliantly capricious expressions like a pleasant medley of amiable Dickensian characters. The psychology of the indomitable, the incredible cats through his amiably keen observation of feline behaviors in everyday life is conveyed through the live practical cats:

  • Jennyany dots, a neat, elegant tabby Molly living in a tidy, smart household.
  • Growltiger, a sailor cat., living in the harbor, who knows all the taverns and pubs around, the
  • Rum Tum Tugger, who is and will always be himself

According to nominative determinism principles, Eliot gives the inscrutably and ineffably particular names to the cats that befit their characteristics and personalities. The names become the cats, and the cats become the peculiar existence.

The poetry was the inspiration of the mega Broadway musical hit “The Cats.” However, to go against the grain, I think that rather than the famed musical version, Hiroyuki Morita’s animated version of “Whisper of the Heart” about a good-hearted high school girl traveling to the land of talking biped clothed cats because of her kindness to cats, is close to Eliot’s idea of practical cats. The anthropomorphic cats in animation are free in all expression that human actors cannot perform with theatrical effects, which forces the audience to believe that what they see are cats. It is impossible to disassociate the visual fact from visceral imagery. The humans in makeup imitating cats render the feline characters fatuous and clownish. Ben Jonson, the great Elizabethan English playwright, would have adopted Eliot’s practical cats with his superb masks and sans the ludicrously exaggerated makeup and costumes.

In conclusion, with wits and simplicity, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats is a hidden gem of Eliot’s works that is enjoyable by general readers, even if they do not have cats at home. Indeed, Eliot himself was a cat lover, and this adorable collection of poems might have been the whimsical scribbling of his cats at home from his daily lives with them. But what a way of tribute to his lovely creatures it is! Upon reading this book, you might want to write like him about your cats or other pets you have at home. I should think so, for I want to and am doing.

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From Egypt with Meow: ‘The Cat in Ancient Egypt’, by Jaromir Malek – review

The Cat in Ancient EgyptThe Cat in Ancient Egypt by Jaromir Malek

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I admit that most of my posts relate to the cat nowadays. But what else should I write about when an orphan kitten enters my castle and in need of care and love? My five-month-old cat Toro is a domestic short-haired breed as subsumed by a vet at the shelter, but his appearance and characteristics make me believe that he must be a descendent of Egyptian Mau. My conjectural reconstruction of Toro’s possible ancient scroll of his family (paternal) led me to  Jaromir Malek’s  The Cat in Ancient Egypt, which tells all about how cats became naturally harmonious with humans, which played a significant role in the anthropological and social aspects of splendid ancient Egyptian civilization.

The domestication of cats resulted from the advent of agriculture when man began to settle on the farm, and civilization came to blossom. It was about 1,500 years later than the domestication of dogs as hunting assistants to men. Of all the ancient civilizations, the Egyptians sow the seeds of love between the cats and humankind. Abounded with various fauna and flora benign to the human inhabitants, the jungle cats and African cats thrived and became familiar animals to the Egyptians, who began to use the cats to drive off pesky mice poisonous snakes threatening their lives and crops. Naturally, wild cats gradually learned to adapt their wild instinct to their new protective human environs. 

The frequency of cats’ representations in ancient Egyptian art is a creditable source to understand cats’ familiarity and recognition as pets in the overall culture and society. The images of cats first sporadically appeared in the tombs of pharaohs built during the Old Kingdom period (2647 -2124 B.C) and became widespread mural art features by the New Kingdom (1549-1069 B.C.), which is also called the renaissance of the pyramids. Maybe it was because of the mysterious aura surrounding the inscrutable demureness of a cat, or it was the otherwordly aloofness wrapt in ethereal agility. Cats became popular hieroglyphic and effigial motifs for artists and priests alike in cultural and religious contexts decorating chambers within sacred tombs and temples. Also, cats were the aesthetic muse for women’s high fashion, used as motifs for the jewelry of queens and women of high society.

What evolved from a quid pro quo relationship between man and beast for the survival of the species found its way to the high seat in the eternal world. The familiarity and recognition of cats’ usefulness blessed with physical charm elevated the beastly origin into a divine status in the statuesque form of goddess Bastet, the sister of the Sun god Ra, representing female sexuality and fertility, which reflected the specific characteristics of the animal. The Sun god himself was also called the Great Tomcat because the god meowed during what he was doing. So much so that the ancient Persians used to equip the shields with live cats at war with the Egyptians, who dared not to harm their sacred animals.

On the other hand, cats were not altogether distant from the everyday lives of the ancient Egyptians. The Greek historian Herodotus further corroborated that the Egyptians shaved their eyebrows when their cats died as a sign of mourning. The more cats became domesticated, the more multiferous their features became. Artists started using cats as a caricature of specific human characteristics illustration of fables with a moral content, representing the absurdities of reality in a humorously wise way. Such artistic trend was most conspicuous during the Ptolomy period when Egypt was under the Hellenistic influence to resist foreign cultural force. Cats were symbolized as the animal inherently Egyptian to the land of pharaohs.

Beautifully written with sentences that conjure up the images of ancient Egyptian cats, Malek’s The Cat in Ancient Egypt serves its purpose of educating and entertaining the curious reader who wants to know more about his or her beloved feline creature at home. That doesn’t mean that this book is reserved only for cat owners or lovers. This book has refreshingly excellent archeological and anthropological knowledge about human civilization, impacting animal life. The affection is the elder sister of the understanding. I personally selected this book to read because I wanted to know more about my cat. Likewise, this book is for readers who want to know more about Nature and People’s history.

 

 

‘Brief Lives’, by Paul Johnson – review

Brief LivesBrief Lives by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Biography is an ancient branch of literature that attests to the unchangeability of human nature against the flow of time. In its literary context, the Bible, composed of 66 books, is about the prophets, kings, sinners, let alone Christ and his disciples. Homer’s Odyssey and Iliad recite the ancient Greek heroes’ honors and foibles during the Trojan War and the aftermath. Plutarch’s Parallel Lives reveal the naked truth about the ancient Greek and Roman powers-that-be who seem to be no less different than their modern descendants in power. There are no other types of writing that are intuitively intriguing than an honest biography. A good biography gives the reader a sensation of reading a private diary that lays bare the subject person’s real persona. Out of this ancient tradition of biography comes Paul Johnson’s Brief Lives of the famous people he has met from all over the world told in episodic vignettes.

The book tells Johnson’s reminiscences of historically notable personalities he has met directly and indirectly throughout his long journalistic career. Ernest Hemingway was not a Pooterish famed writer but a down-to-earth bon vivant with a love of wine. John Paul II was a true vicar of Christ gifted to our mad secular world. Princess Diana had incredible intuition, which was of prime kind channeled into high and low people’s feelings. However, Pablo Picasso was the artist as rich as Croesus with the matching haughtiness. C.S. Lewis was an excellent lecturer whose populous lecture rooms were also an intellectual version of dating hippodrome. And Richard Nixon, regardless of his Watergate infamy, proved himself to be a diligent scholar of history with the admirable zeal of continuous learning. Johnson is a keen observer of people with a prism through which people’s true colors are reflected. It is refreshingly educating to learn about the other, overlooked sides of the infamous and the famous without a gloss of the uniformed panegyrics or accusations, and doing justice to the publicly ill-informed.

It is also interesting to compare the book with Plutarch’s Parallel Lives in terms of its episodic vignette form of writing, making both books more comfortable to read and stimulating to delve into. Johnson’s episodes are vivaciously sprightful and wittily feisty, grasping the reader’s attention from page to page with irresistible curiosity. Johnson and Plutarch use the ordinary language about the extraordinary to serve the purpose of writing biographies for the public with the knowledge about humankind that even the powerful and the beautiful are subject to anfractuous ridges that all humans have to climb in life.

I have read several books by Paul Johnson. All of them are packed full of his trademark wits, conservative but not chauvinistic perspectives on morality, and admirable erudition, thrown into a brilliant bonfire of words enjoyable by general readers. Brief Lives is no exception to the rule, showing that Johnson has ways with the words that make them vernacular in his choice of vocabulary he conjures and scholarly of the sentences he alloys. Samuel Johnson defined an excellent biography that should disclose the person’s human side to show that no one is utterly powerful and beautiful. The book Brief Lives echoes the same.




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‘Ancient Greek Cavalry’ and Alexander the Great’s Companion – review

Ancient Greek Cavalry: The History and Legacy of Classical Greece’s Forgotten SoldiersAncient Greek Cavalry: The History and Legacy of Classical Greece’s Forgotten Soldiers by Charles River Editors

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The image of a gallant bedight knight on a steed heading for a romantic journey for El Dorado or a noble cause for joining a loyal cavalry would have been a laughing stock of the ancient Greek soldiers. They regarded cavalry soldiers as aristocratic good-for-nothing redundant auxiliary to the mighty phalanx composed of ordinary foot soldiers called hoplites. From the Bronze Mycenean age until the emergence of Macedonia as the Greek military superpower, the historical context of the ancient Greek cavalry reflected the signs of military and sociopolitical developments in the 5th century BC Greece and the world beyond. The book informs the reader of the background of the rise of the cavalry in ancient Greek society thanks to Alexander the Great and its effects on military and societal contexts proven to be timelessly brilliant.

First of all, the geographical factor of the Greek islands, in general, made it difficult for the effective use of horse-driven chariots in battles due to its mountainous terrain as illustrated by the Oracle of Delphi in the valley, the Mount Olympus, and other divine earthly places. The rocky roads were not conducive to heavily charged chariots, preventing them from maneuvering the moves swiftly in warfare. In fact, the introduction of a horse race in the Olympic Games where the wealthy horse breeders reconciled the equestrian equipment’s military value to a sports game’s monetary value.

Secondly, horses were expensive to breed and maintain, as they still are in our time, and only a few wealthy (the oligarchs) were able to own horses. So much so that Aristotle acknowledged that horse-breeding was not easy to do unless you were rich. Accordingly, the democratic ideal of the mingling of titles and the exertion of the synchronized force from the collaboration of duties for the common good excluded the value of cavalry whose soldiers were also outside the Homerian value of Arete, the highest soldierly code of honor consisting of military finesse and personal integrity. To the democratic minds, the pampered nobility on horseback in battlefields had a better chance to escape on a horse than its hoplites on foot who had to confront the rains of lances and strokes of swords showered in blood.

However, Philip II of Macedonia and his son Alexander the Great saved the grace of the falling Greek cavalry by the brilliant military innovation that reflected society’s progress in the economy and political contexts. Along with its loyal ally Thessaly, Macedonia was an oligarchy unlike its contemporary city-states run by the democratic populace that usually lacked the foresight of tactical military strategy due to a general contempt for the art of war held by experienced noble soldiers. Macedonian nobles, especially the young and ambitious noblemen, made up most of the excellent Macedonian army that fully utilized the offensive and defensive cavalry force into the phalanx. The offensive on the phalanx’s right flank, the Companion, consisted of 2000 trusted and honored members of the king’s inner circle, the oldest noble families of Macedonia. The defensive on the left side, “The Thessalian,” proved to effectively outflank the enemy force with as least casualty as possible on the Macedonian side. Such cracking military operational order surpassed the Persian scythed chariots’ hideousness, cutting men in halves, mangling the still breathing fragments on the wheels and the scythes.

The unprecedentedly thriving economy due to the discovery of gold and silver mines and minting of coins meant a stable government and expensive military maintenance. The state’s wealth made it possible for financing a standing cavalry in peacetime and on a campaign. The minting of coins under the unified currency system paid salaries to professional soldiers, unlike the unorganized military structures where soldiers were ill-equipped and poorly trained in the other Greek city-states’ armies.

Upon reading this book, I felt that the title should have been “The Wooden Trojan Cavalry of Macedonia” or “Alexander the Great and His Cavalry” for the staging of Macedonian Alexander the Great in the arena of the world’s superpower upended the archaic military organization, let alone ineffective strategies. The role and value of mounted soldiers corresponded with the notion that the economic progress propelled by the natural wit of a leader who integrated all society members, high and low, won the war most productively. Alexander’s democracy in military strategy elevated the status of contemptuous willy-nilly horseback soldiers to gallant bedight warriors. It shows the reader that true democracy means the magnanimous participation of all classes for the commonwealth of a country.



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‘Your Movie Sucks’, by Roger Ebert- review

Your Movie SucksYour Movie Sucks by Roger Ebert

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Criticism of any kind is never a pleasantry. It stings the heart and swells in there until the natural amnesia of time heals the wound. Also, criticism is never an easy task, either. Abraham Lincoln defined a professional critic as one who has “a right to criticize, who has the heart to help.” Therefore, being a critic is a daunting profession that can fall out of favor with the public and the criticized. Yet doing it good and right is even more challenging and requires a wealth of erudition and insight to observe all things and all beings in the world without supercilious prejudice. I can think of any such critic no other than the late Roger Ebert, whose brilliantly witty anthology of unfavorable movies Your Movie Sucks discerns constructive criticism from malicious cynicism that most of his peers love to delve.

It’s a collection of movies that Ebert finds distasteful to the taste and reason. Ebert opines that filmmakers and the performers tend to patronize with their selective elements, usually senseless violence, gratuitous nudity, and infantile comedy under the pretext of the screen reflection of the realities. But to miss Ebert as an ultra-conservative white curmudgeon movie critic does a great injustice to his bona fide intention and judicious reasoning of why he thinks the movies suck, most notably, ‘Deuce Bigalow: European Gigolo,’ ‘Chaos,’ and ‘the Pearl Harbor.” The plots, characters, and narratives of these movies ignore the taste and reason universal in all human creatures regarding the principles of sense and judgment common to all humankind. They are either devoid of artistic sensibilities or willfully negligent of the humanity that refuses to cease even in the desolate wilderness of calamities, artificial or natural. Ebert seems to seek in movies a common thread that every one of us, regardless of class, race, and gender, can be bound together to understand what it means to live, ultimately.

Ebert’s credo is the arts of films, paintings, music, and books as a consolation to the hearts that need to relive the yokes of daily lives. Therefore, the artists are to look into people’s realities from all walks of life and illustrate each life’s values, however insignificant it might be, by elevating the ordinariness into arts of life to neutralize the vicissitudes of life that we all experience. In this regard, Ebert agrees with French painter Jean-Francoise Millet’s timeless adage: “It is treating the commonplace with the feeling of the profound is what gives to art its power.”

I always like Ebert’s films’ reviews because they are easy to read and intelligently passionate and witty despite his knowledge of various subjects. There is no hint of malice in the guise of intellectual sarcasm. His views on the world are agreeable to mine, regarded as outdated forseysm in today’s amazingly political world. Maybe we might belong to a previous era where our perspectives of the world would meet with more consensus and fewer disapprovals. In fact, I liken the person of Ebert to that of Samuel Johnson, the great English writer, thinker, and author of A Dictionary of the English Language for their similarities in appearance, weltanschauungs, and styles of writing that thrill the heart and pique the mind with a touch of humanity that is so rare to be found among the contemporary writers. So, if you are a like-minded appreciator of arts in general and curious about what movies someone like Ebert finds distasteful, take heart and read this book. The words leap from pages with wit and wisdom as the time entertains you like you never know. This book may also serve you as a textual trailer of a movie that you might have fallen into the mistake of paying it to watch.



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