Tag Archives: book reviews

BBC History Magazine – review

https___www.discountmags.com_shopimages_products_normal_extra_i_8533-bbc-history-cover-2019-january-1-issueThis magazine deserves of its honors in History and Literature: the prime qualities of the articles it features on every monthly issue result from its writers who appear to master the Art of Practical English (along with the writers of The Spectator) that should exemplify all others, especially here in the States, where big words and intricate sentence structures are modus operandi of fine writing. In addition to the beauty of writing, the magazine deals with many an interesting historical fact that strikes the chords of the present era, making us realize that as long as the human race exists, human nature remains unchanged. To top it all off, this magazine is a lovely read easily and perfectly downloaded on a Kindle Fire in its entirety and keeps you amusing company on the train and at a coffee shop.

 

P.S. Happy Friday proffered me a delicious respite at the office today. Then came one of those inconsequential e-mails sent by Amazon asking its Prime members about a review of goods or a book one had ordered. As a way of improving Craft of Writing and compensating for recent lack of writing activities under the pretext of my learning a new trade and exerting my herculean power on  a long commute to and from home, I deemed it productive to write this bullet review of this great magazine that has become a darling of my regular routine reads. How much I wish I could write like the writers of this intelligently entertaining magazine! Hence, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s axiom always resonates within me: “Still achieving, still pursuing, Learn to labor and Grow…”

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‘A Summer of Hummingbirds’, by Christopher Benfey – review

A Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson HeadeA Summer of Hummingbirds: Love, Art, and Scandal in the Intersecting Worlds of Emily Dickinson, Mark Twain, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Martin Johnson Heade by Christopher E.G. Benfey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Greeks called it Ethos, and the Germans named it Zeitgeist. The world has always seen and experienced epoch-making changes of guiding ideals or beliefs that particularize ideology of an era under the cataclysmic reconstructions of social modus operendi, cultural trends, and memes. Something like that happened in the mid-late 19 century post-Civll War America, and it was something of American Renaissance. Emily Dickinson saw it as a flash of a hummingbird’s flight into a route of evanescence – of the antebellum social arrangements, hierarchies, puritanical morality, and intellectual formations, all of which seemed unseemly and even contumacious in a dawn of new era. So Christopher Benfey presents in this beautifully ethereal book his sensitive and illustrative script of Post-Civil War American literary scenes in which the likes of Emily Dickinson, Harriet Beecher Stowe, and Mark Twain are played on the same epochal screen, using the image of a hummingbird as a cross-cutting medium to interweave the lives of the American intelligentsia.

Benfey draws on his unparalleled knowledge of the American literary intelligentsia with a tender and intelligent contemplation on action and thought in the culturally sophisticated realms of East Coast America in the aftermath of the Civil War. For instance, he introduces the reader Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, a brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a passionate collector of expensive paraphernalia, whose Byronic-like charm and charisma led him to a famous scandal involving a love affair with the wife of his friend and parishioner. But Benfey sees the reverend as breath of a fresh air in the stuffy Protestant tenets of mortification of sensualism, which is only a friori natural to God-given human nature. In fact, Beecher substituted the drab and dreary Calvinist doctrines of predestination and infant damnation with the love of nature, the tender love, and mercy of God who created Beauty to be realized and appreciated, not to be despised and avoided. Besides, Charles Darwin’s Evolutionism manifested a perfection consistent with the Christian views: that all living things evolved into their most advanced forms meant the perfect beauty made in the Image of God. Indeed, such perceptions of God and his creations bespoke liberalization of Protestant moral codes that often yielded to perverted acts of unnaturally repressed desires. It was a leap into a new world of “fluidity and flux”.

All this seemed to conspire to reckon the moment of new arrival of intellectual zeitgeist with a divine revelation or a sibylline prophecy in this book, which is why it is deemed a contemporary nonfiction that reads like a classic fiction. Rich in detail and vivid in description that successfully resurrect the period, it is a riveting tale of the American literary legacy to be told with Benfey’s poetic use of simple language with a fascinating take on the felicitous subject worth the reading. The book embroiders on the lives of the American literary celebrities of the time by interconnecting their lives with the gossamer threads of contemporary providence or fortuity in one way or another, willed or unwilled, when a pre-Civil War mindset and post Civil War necessities still clashed. Nevertheless, Americans after the war came to see a new substratum of social order and diverse directions in all aspects of life, fittingly found in the figure of a hummingbird, an indigenous bird of the American continent, that is uniquely American. IT was also a time of Transit of Venus, as the new tone and sensibility for new era became dawned on the American social and cultural horizon. This book is a tessera elegantly and delicately put together by Benfey’s appealing narrative and approachable scholarship in a mosaic of American Art.

‘The Rational Optimist’, by Matt Ridley -review

The Rational Optimist (P.S.)The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you are anxious about when the sky will fall upon your head, you sure need to read this book that will awaken you from the ghastly trance  cast by populists who make living out of scaring people. The fallacy of popular pessimistic views on the impending end of the world resulting from overpopulation, a lack of food, or any other apocalyptic reasons befitting a doomsday scenario, arises out of sheer ignorance of the nature of the human progress and/or of willful negligence of acknowledging it so as to populate epidemic scare across the globe for sensational attention and personal gains on the part of the popular authors of such doomsday scenarios.

This book by Matt Ridley is a fresh breath of air that gives people of the world a beacon of truth. Ridley asserts on the grounds of rational evidence and explanation that the progress of the human race within the historical times ranging from the ancient Greek/Roman times to the modern time has been made possible by collective human intelligence by which we exchange our ideas, skills, and knowledge in the form of specialized division of labor. This social collectivism, whether tacitly or unconsciously realized by doers, appertains to synchronicity, a kind of inter-brain entrainment in which information based on experience is exchanged between individuals, which is also known as collective phenomenon. This collective intelligence is a vital essence of cultural evolution which results from selection by imitation of successful institutions and habits. It is this element of cumulative culture that makes us singularly different from beasts. Since this social trait is innately pre-programmed in mankind, there is no inevitable end to specialization of efforts and talents that keeps this collective phenomenon going. In fact, more jobs will be produced in more specialized areas contrary to brooding premonition that technology will push out manpower from work.

In sum, Ridley aims to enlighten readers about the necessities of changes as part of cultural evolution for the betterment of mankind and the world itself. In the human history, no other time period has produced the better living conditions and cultural developments than those we have now due to a continued cumulative cultural evolution, which links to the evolution of the origins by natural selection. This book renders me a feeling that how wasteful it would be fretting about the uncertain and dark future that looks darker by popular theories of dystopian economic and social future. Just as Ridley will remain a steadfast rational optimist, I will continue to perform demands imposed upon daily tasks of life as a contribution to the orderliness and constancy of the world just as my ancestors did because I know the world will not fall in calamity as long as we as a collective body of the human race exist.

‘The Memoirs of Sepp Allerberger, Knight’s Cross’, by Albrecht Wacker -review

Sniper on the Eastern Front: The Memoirs of Sepp Allerberger, Knight's CrossSniper on the Eastern Front: The Memoirs of Sepp Allerberger, Knight’s Cross by Albrecht Wacker

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Many books on Germany during the Second World War are written in a victor’s perspective. In the context of regarding the objectivity of the events, the point of views in which books on the Third Reich are written is oftentimes biased toward the perpetrators of the war without regard for the underlings, such as foot soldiers compulsorily drafted to the fronts who want to voice out for themselves. This tendency betrays ancient Athenian historian and general Thucydides’ definition of historical record as the ultimate objective to provide the most accurate record of the events “by recognizing certain commonalities, free from bias and embellishment”. One must also listen to the other side’s story to transcend the subjectivity of times and to balance objective equilibrium, wherefore my choice of this true story about the Eastern Front by a former Wehrmacht’s prime sniper was an act of impartial treatment of the history so overflown by untamed populist opinions on the volatile subject.

The narrator of the book is Josef “Sepp” Allerberger, the second most successful sniper of the German Wehrmacht and an awardee of the Knight’s Cross as a private soldier. Originally from Austria as a son of a humble carpenter, he was conscripted to the Wehrmacht as a machine gunner in the Russian Front in 1942. Allerberger’s fitness in marksmanship soon shone through and was forthwith selected as his regiment’s only sniper specialist thanks to his commendable traits of disciplined mind and bravery in the battlefield.

In his blatantly frank discourse of what he experienced and witnessed in the Russian campaign, it is unlikely to feel sympathy toward the Red Army soldiers and partisans who were as equally cruel and violent as their invaders. No German Prisoners of War were guaranteed to live once they were captured by the Soviets and the partisans alike. Instead, they were met with the most atrocious way of being tortured and executed against the Geneva Conventions. As a result, the whole scenery of the Eastern Front was the killing field of humanity, perhaps even more bloodstained and catastrophic than that of Trojan War.

Allerberger is not apologetic nor sentimental about his actions as a German sniper. Nevertheless, his narrative is honest without adding any lyrical adjectives or warm recollections of comradeship shared with a Red Army soldier as often depicted in movies and fictional stories. The book resulted from a series of interviews with Allerberger by the author Albrecht Wacker, who was also Austrian feeling a need of transcribing them and publishing the account of the veteran as a book. This telltale narrative is worth being read as a historical artifact that is important to understand what it was like to be a soldier in a war that he and his country knew was losing but tried to fight until the end with valor and might for their country and battle buddies in the face of the utmost atrocity.

 

Kinship of Aeneas, George Orwell, and J.K. Rowling

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I see them almost every day with carts chockablock with their haggard belongings at a coffeeshop in the morning. They come in disheveled, reeking of abandonment of hygiene, but they seem past caring of it, let alone resigned to unwelcome glances of strangers. They are no less than Mendicants, Vagabonds, Tramps, Panhandlers, Beggars, or the Homeless themselves, defying the laws of social evolution and Marxist dialectic changes. You see,  they have withstood epochal changes.

It was one Monday morning while I was perking up my spirit still under the spell of weekend reverie with a cup of coffee in my regular Starbucks shop nearby my workplace when a homeless woman approached me and cadged for money to buy coffee. I conceded her plea because her forlorn spirit manifesting in her once beautiful face evoked pathos, which would have stung me with a pang of conscience if I had let it foregone. Besides, the fact that she was a woman living in the street, where all foreseeable and unforeseeable risks were lurking to violate her dignity as a fair sex, vexed my mind and heart. It was all too a fortiori opportune to read the article with the lethargic face of the homeless woman still fresh on my mind.

Never mind piousness, didacticism, and self-righteousness. It goes against the grain to decry poverty at the door of the poor themselves, which is always easy and convenient to pin down based on personal faults, but that would attest superciliousness of being not one of the unfortunate kinds. That is to say, the homeless is the result of addiction to substances, laziness, and careless ways of modus vivendi; therefore, the homeless are unworthy of sympathy nor empathy.

As a matter of fact, the liberals wade in with their de rigueur weary blaming of the heartless conservatives for their preferential treatment of the given, the fortunate, the haves, while the conservatives lambast the cry babies’ importuning their sorry states as a tendency of the cossetted dependency substratum. Both of the parties do nothing but grandstanding against one another for their voting rights that exclude these “marginals” of society they could not care less. However, the causes of homelessness are one collective social evil comprising many a factor; it’s a complex one involving mental health issues for sure, skyrocketing rent fees as a result of rampant trend of gentrification, prevalent lay-offs and unresolved unemployment rates, low wages, integration of families, and a variety of personal elements that are oftentimes looked on with insignificance as trifles. George Orwell, whose brief period of impecuniousness upon returning from Paris to London forced him to live as a tramp as plainly narrated in his empirical Down and out in Paris and London, conceded: “… if they [the homeless] are worse than other people, it is the result and not the cause of their way of life.” That is to say, no one wants to be homeless with a will.

Come to think of it, our human conditions are precarious and many times operated outside the boundary of planned stratagem, for human life is woven by unexpected variables and vicissitudes that befall any one like you never know. Aeneas, a royal Trojan hero in Virgil’s Aeneid, became homeless in the wake of the fall of Troy and found himself and his homeless followers dependent upon the kindness of Dido, the queen of Carthage and her people. The great Russian writer Maxim Gorki and the American Jack London were once homeless. And there is J.K Rowling, who lived a life of near-homelessness with her infant daughter without a job before the first book of the Harry Potter series was published. Woe betides anyone who patronized them for the want of the gumption before they became somebody.

Whether or not we like it, the caste of the homeless will most likely to proliferate unless political leaders stop pontificating about their party ideologies that lose touch with the realistic world of everyday life of the ordinary people. They say the extravagant lifestyles of the aristocracy and their haughty treatment of the poor were the sine qua non of the French Revolution, which was the radical reconstruction of the class system that excluded the welfare of the poor. Then why do I yoke the images of the haughty aristocrats to those of the present-day politicians who seem to thrust the issues of rising homelessness into the bottom of a filing bin and to keep pointing fingers at the homeless for their misfortune? Maybe in an irony of fates, if these politicians wake up one morning and find themselves in the shoes of the unfortunate, they might understand it, but I hope it will not be too late then.

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