Tag Archives: Nonfiction

Hero Wanted- Dead or Alive: ‘Heroes’, by Paul Johnson – review

Heroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de GaulleHeroes: From Alexander the Great & Julius Caesar to Churchill & de Gaulle by Paul Johnson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Let’s admit the truth. Whether we like it or not, we live in a paradoxical culture of hero-worshipping and anti-hero admiring and that the idea of heroism seems to belong to an antediluvian ethos of the misty past when heroic mortals became divine immortals enshrined in pantheons of gods and goddesses. So much so that the ancient Greeks regarded a hero as a paragon of Arete, a prized quality in the Homeric hero, a blend of soldiery valor and moral integrity, a perfect union of moral and physical virtues. However, human heroism is constant of every age, universal of every culture and boundless of race and gender, which the public will always find it appealing and compelling because it shows how one can transform the impossible into the possible with a shot of gusto for courageousness in a cloak of confidence. That said, Heroes by Paul Johnson bears the witness to historical heroes and heroines whose dauntless spirits flew over the mountains of obstacles and brings them close to us with their human sides of fallibilities and follies.

From Samson and King David of Israel to Alexander the Great of Macedonia and Julius Cesar of the Republic of Rome, and to Joan of Arc to Margaret Thatcher of the U.K., what these people have in common is not supernatural feats of magical physical power or omnipotent knowledge, but natural courage winged by the independence of mind arising from the ability to think things by themselves against dominant waves of compromises of their times. In this regard, heroes, as we generally define per se, are anti-establishment, anti-totalitarianism, and anti-supremacy in the sense that they challenge the subjectivity of popular beliefs or received norms to unpick the validity of truths, even if doing so will require their sacrifice and cruelty at the same time. It’s a sacrifice that they should endure the pains of persecution, and cruelty that they should vanquish the signs of human frailties to act upon their resolution without fail. Alas and alack, it sometimes results in pyrrhic victory, not only of the hero but also of those the hero intends to bring the triumph of the collective glory. Being a hero is akin to being  a Hamlet whose mental pendulum vacillates between “To be” or “Not to be.”

This is my fourth reading of Johnson’s books on history elaborately ornamented with his trademark natural wits, deeply saturated with his dazzling erudition of subjects, and deliciously narrated in a common language that always invite all, learned or novices, all of which are the essential key components of being a great writer who can share his knowledge and put people before ideas. In this book of heroes, Johnson is a sage raconteur of the heterodoxic history of mankind whose goal is to educate the public to illuminate the parts of our human history in the context of regarding the universal principles of reason and taste. With his scintillating story-telling skills, Johnson pivots deftly from the unknown interesting truths about his heroes to the cosmic principles of heroes that hold true today. If you are a history buff who always hungers for those unknown truths about famous people in history that are known to a few backstages of history, this book will satiate the appetites of your senses and nourish the mind with reason married with pleasure.

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‘Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell’, by Susanna Clarke – review

Jonathan Strange & Mr NorrellJonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Magic and fairies are not the proprietary subjects of teenage novels or esoteric pagan reference books that are exclusive to a select few. They were part of a belief system kept by your distant and not-so-distant ancestors, learned or unlearned, which was a fountain of their norms and mores and acculturated even into a Christian organized religion. So much so that the world of supernatural was thus believed to be hidden in this world of terrestrial, enveloping the outer circle of the earth with a gossamer of ethereal air, thinning the boundary of corporeal and incorporeal. This system of belief has survived particularly in the British Isles, where Celtic mysticism has produced its fairy progenies and dispersed them beyond the watery boundaries of the Isles. Out of such British fairy progenies comes this wonderfully imaginative Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrel by Susanna Clarke whose mission is to prove the world that there are more things in earth and heaven than are dreamt of in your rational impulse.

The story is a fascinating hybrid of history, adventure, and fantasy all entertainingly interwoven in the magical tapestry of literature. It’s also a great house of imaginativeness built upon Clarke’s erudition of the subjects ranging from the rise and decline of English magicians to the changing social customs and values, all the marks upon her mastery of storytelling that will make you steeped in the pages after pages as if you were enchanted by her alchemy of words. Her characters are extraordinary, but their personalities are not far from the ordinary, which endows a sense of verisimilitude upon the story and leads you to a seemingly obvious path to the maze of her fascinating tale. It is Clarke’s own magic that creates this wondrous make-believe world of magicians and fairies who are indeed very much alive in her mind’s theater to which she invites you to join her in the bewitching festival via witchcraft of literature.

Her vivacious creativity doubled with her alchemy of words accounts for a thick volume of the handy little book, which is also extraordinary for a customary semblance of a paperback. This also shows Clarke’s ability to record supernatural events and things in the ordinary subjects with her dazzling narrative skills and ingenious composition of plots seamlessly connected to one another that would have been an infelicity of redundant multiplication of stories as a result of insufficient creative ammunition. Which is to say that this book will take you from the rut of your ordinary reality to the world beyond where you can summon a fairy to your service and make a wish, especially at this epochal moment of time when you need something delightful to read.

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‘Stupid Ancient History’, by Leland Gregory- review

Stupid Ancient HistoryStupid Ancient History by Leland Gregory

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The purpose of history is to transcend the subjectivity of times in the discovery of the truth about human nature with multidisciplinary approaches that aid in our understanding of the continuity of mankind. In this sense, history is an artifact of a collective human enterprise of culture and society, which mirrors how we humans have been, what we have done, and who we really are from the times immemorial to this date. If this sounds too stuffy and boring with the gravitas of an academic subject filled with dates and names and events to remember for exams, then you will love Stupid Ancient History by Leonard Gregory because it will make you both learned and amused with a course of delightful Amuse- Bouches throughout a solipsistic feast of reading to your heart’s content.

Filled with many unknown tidbits of ancient Greek and Roman history, this book is a pleasure to your brain overtly fed by fake-news, ego-inflated memoirs of successful people, revisionist histories in favor of political ideology, and vehemently subjective narratives of self-proclaimed outsiders away from the realities of daily lives. It’s also refreshingly accessible to all, average and academic, which shows the humble and benign character of the author who, despite his wealth of knowledge on the subject, translates the words of an academic into those of a student seemingly with a general reader in mind. The book reveals it all; it ranges from Cleopatra VII Thea Philopather, (aka Mark Anthony’s Egyptian Lover, who wasn’t really Egyptian) to Pliny the Elder, who believed that pouring vinegar over ships gave them some slight protection against storms, to Emperor Nero, who didn’t play the violin during the Great Fire of Rome but paid out of his pocket for the provisions and housing for the homeless due to the fire, to the great ancient thinker Plato, the name meaning “wide, broad, broad-shouldered” betrayed his real name Aristocres, and to many others that will wow your brain conditioned to believe what they weren’t really.

It’s a really a Eureka experience that you will get from reading this delightful book, and you will feel effortlessly erudite in the knowledge of history and positively enriched with the knowledge of humankind that has not changed a bit according to the racy but playfully innocent scribbles found in the ruins of the ancient city of Pompeii. What’s more, by adopting the in-vogue trend of using short episodic vignettes, the book doesn’t require your following the entire chapters to sequence the narrative and makes it a very pleasing and flexible read for the benefit of simple mental pleasure. So, if you want to be conversant with the history of ancient Greece and Rome without being overwhelmed by stuffy words and boring typography in one sitting, this book is the genie to your wish.

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The Pathfinder of the American West – review

John C. Fremont: The Life and Legacy of the Legendary American Explorer Known as The PathfinderJohn C. Fremont: The Life and Legacy of the Legendary American Explorer Known as The Pathfinder by Charles River Editors

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Before the dawn of civilization set on the American West
With metal horses and electrical messages and gold mines,
The braveheart John Charles Fremont opened unpathed trails,
Uncharted rivers, and undreamed regions of the unknown
Crossing from the east of the Appalachians to the west of the Rockies,
Following the watery highways of the west of the Mississippi rivers
Enduring the perils of nature and hostilities of the ancient tribes
Defying the temptations of returning to civilization with all might
In the discovery of new hopes, new opportunities, and new beginnings
For those wishing for a surrendering of old yesterdays and a trust in new tomorrows.

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‘The Remains of the Day’, by Kazuo Ishiguro – review

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ask anyone and you will find everyone has something to talk about life with natural octaves from the highest note to the lowest and best registrar recorded over the vicissitudes of life as if living an ordinary life without a material curriculum vitae were a sign of defeatism synonymous with rootlessness. More often than not, a straightforwardly elliptical, honest-to-goodness narrative is not considered a smashing subject matter for a bestseller that merits an entire aisle of any bookseller, but the story of English butler Stevens shoehorns his ordinary work experience into a suitably fashionable stance for a modern-day memoir that reads like a continual fugue of flattering hopes, misguided beliefs, despotic self-denials, cruel disappointments, and smothered pleasures, all elegantly interwoven into a polyphony of life in The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

The Moment of Reckoning Stevens falls into, pace the general opinion of the mass, results not from his disillusioned loyalty toward Nazi sympathizer Lord Darlington but from his own disoriented value and belief systems in accordance with the changing zeitgeist in the wake of the two great wars. Lord Darlington epitomized what dignity and magnanimity meant to Stevens in a way that his position as a butler was as equally prestigious and sovereign as that of his aristocratic employer Lord Darlington, a figure of respectful English peerage that deserved of his dedication and devotion. It’s really a case of ‘Qualis rex, talis glex,’ meaning “As is the king, so is the people.” And it was this belief system that made Stevens endure occupational humiliation from arrogant guests of high birth, the grief of the death of his father, and tender feelings toward Ms. Kenton, a former head housekeeper at the Darlington Mansion. In fact, such belief system based on seemingly antediluvian values in the post-modern era was Stevens’ lifeline that had kept him going until he took a trip to see now married Ms. Kenton, a kind of Beatrice-like figure guiding Dante from Hell and Purgatory to Paradise.

Stevens’s existential dilemma stems from his existential vertigo in the aftermath of the wars and the subsequent social changes that upended the foundations of the collective value and belief systems of society. Stevens’s inner world was put into an existential vacuum, a void that can only be filled by a sense of purpose and new attitudes toward life in search of finding meaning therein. Rather than bemoaning his life as a boring butler, Stevens kept trying to find meaning in what he had been doing, what he was still doing, and what he would do by asking himself the question of his own life to which only he could answer; that is, to a life he could only respond by being responsible. And it was not a reactionary response with his fists clenched in bitterness and a sprit of French Revolution against the privileged few, but his own examination of his life that felt a void in a sense of direction in life.

Kazuo Ishiguro created a character whose existential dilemma is relatable and pitiable with his mastery of characterization, the wealth of imaginations, and study of human nature, in his signature elliptical narrative skills laced with nuanced emotions that never lay the whole character bare to the eyes of the public. He’s a fantastic writer who shows readers that a good writer is capable of travel and metamorphoses no matter where he was born or what he looks like. I wonder how many writers tried to break free from their biological planes and even dreamed about being who they wanted to be, confidently and naturally crossing the boundaries of culture and race just as Ishiguro did without branding his Japanese cultural and Asian traits as a convenient foundation for suitably fashionable “ethnic” literature. All in all, this is a fascinating book to observe how social changes can affect an individual and how one copes with such historic and cultural juggernauts in search of meaning in life. This book is a testament to the magical craft of writing that a writer should be all that he is capable of becoming no matter who he is. For a writer is also a magician of words, a wondrous sort of shapeshifter in letters.

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