Tag Archives: book reviews

grand fanfare for the heart

Sometimes, life surprises us with its unexpected in-between amuse-bouches when all seems drab and dreary. So here was something bright and cheery for my routine existential life; my letter to the editor of  BBC History Revealed was published in this month’s issue. AWESOME!

I was reading it on my Kindle Fire on the train and was delighted to read my own writing in print. It was written following my reading on celebrities who had fought in wars featuring on the June issue of the magazine. The original letter is as below, but the last paragraph was omitted in print.:

Dear Editor:

Although it isn’t about a celeb served in WWII, I would like to stretch the time and the theater of war to further and farther because the following celeb is worth noting.

James Garner was an excellent actor as well as an exemplary citizen. His major roles in “Maverick” and “The Rockford Flies” commanded his screen presence carved in the American television firmament with his rugged good looks and no-nonsense parlance that embodied proverbial American machismo. But what the public eyes saw in the actor was a reflection of his virtues: Garner was a decorated Korean war veteran, a recipient of Two Purple Hearts for his selfless service, valor, integrity, and honor demonstrated as a US Army private assigned to a combat team which sustained heavy casualties. In fact, Garner sustained several wounds on his face and hands resulting from shrapnel and a mortar round. Nevertheless, he was a fearless warrior in its true sense and threw himself against the showers of bullets to save his wounded battle buddies and to accomplish his missions with all his might. After the war, Garner pursued his career in acting and began to star in a number of war movies, such as “The Great Escape”. James Garner was a man of respect and honor.

Thank you for your reading! By the way, I am a subscriber to your magazine living in California. I enjoy reading every issue thereof during my lunch hour and commute to and from work on the train.

I am planning to get hard copies of the magazine as a keepsake and for distributing them to my family and friends. I am also glad to know that a magazine like BBC History Revealed featured my humble, imperfect writing. It is my opinion that a British magazine knows how to educate the public with universally interesting topics in plain English and witticism with a general reader in mind in comparison with its hyper intellectual transatlantic counterparts.

I am writing this on my Blog, so that I can remember in writing that it happened and that my writing was communicative to the editor despite my textual foibles. Nevertheless, I have the temerity to write in English to speak of Reason and Taste for its being a lingua franca, a modern-day equivalent of Akkadian. With timeless adages of George Orwell, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Kurt Vonnegut as patient and encouraging ethereal guardians, I write for sheer egotism of making my soul grow and expressing myself to the world, come what may. For this reason, I want to pat myself on the shoulders 🙂

hrev

‘In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England’ by Keith Thomas – review

In Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern EnglandIn Pursuit of Civility: Manners and Civilization in Early Modern England by Keith Thomas

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


We live in an age of casual manners that would alarm the folks who still remember when letters and rotary telephones were the prime means of communication, not to speak of those in days of yore. But the leniency of manners is not a thing of our age, but it has been constant of every age as a note faintly scribbled on a tablet discovered in an ancient Roman archaeological site reveals, “Today’s kids are rude imps.” Which also brings us to the ensuing questions of what defines civility. Does civility equate submissiveness with anachronistic fogyism and therefore must be overruled with unrelenting individualism? Keith Thomas’s In pursuit of civility delves into the history of civility in England in an attempt to reach the subjectivity of civility as a universal social cohesion to live harmoniously as citizens of the world.

Civility is a tacitly agreed social duty, a state of refinement equivalent to one’s moral character that subsumes civilization in its widest sense, opposite barbarism, a primordial state of beastliness dispossessed of all things antonymous with humanity. Originally derived from the Greek word, “barbarous,” meaning a person whose speech was incomprehensible, a dichotomy between the civilized and the barbarian has retained its rhetorical utility throughout the centuries: Civility is of good manner and good citizenship, whereas barbarianism denotes vulgarity, ignorance, and violence. Thomas discourses that civility as the crucial index of a country’s social harmony and political stability has set a template for a leviathan module of defining civilization, the end product of cultural, moral, and material condition of the civilizing process. That is, where civility reigns, there is civilization and therefore humanity. For civility sprang from a necessity of communal life rather than from an abstract ideology to subjugate the unseemly at the low rungs of the social ladder. Surely, the aristocrats refined a distinctive code of manners as the merit of the elites to distinguish themselves from the melee, but in a wider picture of a society, civility was a must to make all lives easier to live as they, especially the middle class and the working class, strove to progress by being interdependent of each other for economic gains. Thomas points out that intensive labor raised people above rude and sordid barbarism and begets arts by which human life is civilized because productive, labor-driven industry is the bedrock of civility from which economic, artistic, and intellectual benefits ensue.

Thomas unpicks that nowadays politeness is synonymous with effeminacy, acquiescence, servility, foppishness, kowtowing, even, as opposed to the fierce slogan of “equality to all.” Politeness is politically and socially and liberally misconstrued as a weakness of character or diffidence of self-esteem or an exotic cultural custom. People misidentify politeness, a set of good behaviors as servility because they are foolishly led to a belief that politeness is an anachronistically incoherent legacy of the racist conservative history of the past that they must thwart with full force and effect. However, Thomas benevolently keeps us in a positive light in this vacuum of civility by saying that what we have these days is “a new and more equal form of civility,” which indicates that we as a collective human enterprise is not retrogressing but progressing toward the better future if we understand that civility is as important in an egalitarian society as in a hierarchical one by learning to disagree without being disagreeable. All in all, this is a highly informative read accessible to the general reader who regards politeness as sweetness of the mind and who extends it to all humankind as a citizen of the world.

Afterthought

I didn’t anticipate her response, let alone her thanks. After all, she’s a celeb in the constellation of high stars, a goddess in the pantheon of divine knowledge, and a grand master in alchemy of literature, Or in recognition of her self-titled epithet, she’s the Comma Queen who will not/does not suffer from the grammatical benightedness of ambitious literary proclivity. But it happened, and she did; Mary Norris, author of Greek to Me about which I wrote a review, responded thereto in the following fashion:

Well, it’s nice to be complimented for my work by someone who is famous, and I certainly wouldn’t mind being rich and famous if I turned into an overnight sensation in literary firmament. Yet, I do not write to make a living nor to be popular with hundreds of likes. Writing to me is an act of sovereign remedy for the existential ills, of personal treatise on the workings of the mind and of sheer egotism of relieving the creative urge from within. Come what may, a little tweet from the celebrated writer will not turn love of the book into worship of the writer. For it is the work of her intellect manifested in her literary craftsmanship, not the person herself. Whether or not the author liked my review does not/will not/should not affect my reason for and act of writing with a million dollar memento from Kurt Vonnegut: “To practice art, no matter how well or badly, is to make your soul grow. So just do it.”

‘Socrates: A Man for Our Times’, by Paul Johnson -review

Socrates: A Man for Our TimesSocrates: A Man for Our Times by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In the constellation of philosophers in the intellectual firmament, there is none other than Socrates whose influence on humanity, ranging from academic disciplines to everyday cultural memes, strikes the chords with the contemporary minds at its simplest form. It is this essence of Socrates’s simple but profound moral philosophy that has been enshrined in the pantheon of Immortal Knowledge of our collective human civilization for thousands of years. In Socrates by Paul Johnson, this immortal philosopher is hard to resist and difficult to find fault with through the author’s cicerone guide to the streets of the ancient Athens, where Socrates is in his usual convivial mood to speak in public and welcomes the reader with his genuine warm smile to join his conversation.

The stratagem of moral education in the form of philosophy is to tame the appetites (the senses or the id) and to guide spirits (emotions or the ego) in man to reach the highest level of humanness, which is the reason (the judgment or the superego). The process of this moral education is civilization, a standard by which barbarism is judged and separated from the educated mind, and Socrates thought it essential to implement it in all aspects of Athenian life because it was the surest avenue to happiness, meaning of human life. In fact, Socrates was the first philosopher to democratize the concept of philosophy from lofty abstraction of an academic plane to practical realism of a living guide. Johnson describes Socrates as something of a Prometheus, who translated the heavenly into the terrestrial in the sense that Socrates wanted to unlock the goodness of life for the benefit of mankind. For Socrates was the one who brought philosophy down from the wondering skies, domesticated it the huts and villas of people, and familiarized it with the ordinary life in examination of good and evil.

Socrates seems even more likable thanks to Johnson’s historical accounts of Socrates’s personal traits and physiognomy: the corroboration comes from his young, handsome, controversial, but nonetheless valiant aristocratic friend Alciblades that (1) Socrates was a selfless comrade in battle, fearless in fighting, and artless in helping his battle buddies: (2) commendable hardiness enabled him to wear thin clothing despite the cold and the snow; (3) he disliked letting his emotions show on his face; (4) he regarded poverty as a shortcut to self-control; and that (5) he kept fit in the stadium and gymnasium and even danced because he believed that a healthy body was the greatest of blessings. It is also well known that Socrates was an ugly man with a flat, broad nose and beer belly, especially by the standards of Greece in the 5th century that highly valued regularity of features we would call Byronic today. And yet, Socrates, ever imperturbable and optimistic, was not depressed by his ugliness because to Socrates beauty was not inherent in itself but was by the virtue of its use. It was more of utilitarian nature for practical purpose. Socrates’s way of accepting himself as he is relates to logotheraphy, neuroplasticity, and habit of positive thinking, now bestriding the domain of self-help literature.

I have always been a fan of Paul Johnson’s writing style in harmony with his wealth of erudition and fountain of humor, a fascinating combination that makes his reads so likable and interesting. And here again, he did it again: with his customary witty narrative packed full of lots of unknown anecdotes and personal tidbits on subjects he writes about, Johnson tells the reader about Socrates as precisely and candidly as possible based upon historical evidence to resurrect him in the textual theater of literature. His interpretations draw on his exceptional knowledge of the philosopher and the history of his time, but he wears his learning lightly and always writes with a general reader in mind. Hence, the figure of Socrates in his book is no longer seen as the ancient adumbral thinker but a jovial, avuncular teacher who really cares about the lives of his students of all walks of life in this highly entertaining book. This book presents a pleasant banquet of the mind and spirit hosted by the consummate storytelling narrative of Johnson in the honor of Socrates, the people’s philosopher.

metamorphosis

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The mind is its own magical universe

Transforming the raw senses of experience

Into the tamed thoughts and ideas of reason

At the signals of its stars that fire from within

as crude caterpillars becoming beautiful butterflies.

 

Author’s Note: Finally, I had a lull moment during my lunchtime today. Hence jotting down this poem… I took the inspiration of this poem of mine  from a synthesis of the two wise men, John Milton and Robert Waldo Emerson. Both of them knew about the power of the mind that could change heaven into hell, and vice versa, even before the advent of neurology. The gist of the wisdom of these two great minds is that a human being is said to be a corporeal manifestation of the mind through a mysterious process of idealizing the raw senses in the most intelligently positive way in the working of the brain. It is akin to a process of becoming a beautiful butterfly that yearns for coming out of the cocoon. This poem is intent on being my own mantra to learn to deal with the existential vertigo in the spirit of Amore feti, love of fate, and the Nietzschean guide of “That which does not kill you makes you stronger.” For life is primary after all, and thoughts about it secondary to those of us making a living out of a full-time job.