Review: Dark Phoenix

I’m trying to improve my review styles by being more terse, so I’m going to try to limit myself to 350 words. Feel free to give feedback.

Dark Phoenix feels like a pre-MCU superhero film.

It’s not bad, by any means. I got a discounted ticket, so I figured I’d see it early before looking at reviews.

Dark Phoenix trailer courtesy of 20th Century Fox

Great special effects, tremendous cast and acting, writing that didn’t take me out of the mood, and a decent soundtrack don’t help it rise to the point of being memorable.

The tone feels much darker than Marvel’s superhero films, but it’s not that much darker than X-Men Apocalypse or Logan, other 20th Century Fox entries.

I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that just casually goes unexplained, and the big elephant in the room is how Dark Phoenix compares to Captain Marvel.

The answer is:

Not great, but not poorly.

Throughout Dark Phoenix, there are some really cool special effects moments (and ones that are good enough to make me forget that I’m looking at special effects). The X-Men universe is proving to be a great exploration of some darker social themes, especially with mutant prejudice, though Dark Phoenix is no Logan.

Fight scenes are intense, but there’s a lot of getting to the chase that doesn’t answer any questions. It doesn’t have a whole lot of effective comic relief, but it’s not quite satisfying enough with a purely dramatic approach. It’s serious, but fails to build emotional payoff.

Ultimately, it feels like it lives in the shadow of Captain Marvel. Pretty much every gripe I had with Captain Marvel is absent. However, while Captain Marvel was a 9/10 movie buried in a 7/10 movie, Dark Phoenix is just a 7/10 movie.

Basically, Dark Phoenix takes itself too seriously, and doesn’t go off into deep exploration of its subject and themes. However, it’s a good movie, and I certainly enjoyed it. If I get another discount, or if it comes to streaming services, I might watch it again because there’s some seriously cool special effects and moments throughout.

Review: Raise Your Game

Raise Your Game is written by Alan Stein, and it’s the sort of performance principle laden book I read when I get an itch to study being effective.

I liked it. It is more brief than many of the other books of its type, but it manages to use this brevity well. Anecdotes and examples in practice from both business and sports, particularly basketball in the latter case, help to illustrate the points very well.

I have a limited knowledge of basketball, just enough to know that when you throw the ball into the hoop it is not called a touchdown. It is not necessary to know much about people or just because many of the anecdotes does not mean that you will need to be intimately familiar with it.

The approach that Stein takes is to look at the various skills that individual members of the team, leaders of the team, and everyone in general on a team need to have. Personally, when I look at my own experience and successful and unsuccessful endeavors, I find that all of the methods and practices can be applied by anyone, but certain ones are more important for certain stages of life.

One of the strong points of the book is that it includes plenty of exercises that anyone can apply. This isn’t the sort of book where you will learn theory but not get enough help begin practicing it.

Another selling point is that Stein is able to use examples from some of the most well-known figures in modern business and sports. In many cases, he has had interviews or other personal connections with them, and the result is that you get a feel for whether the advice given is authentic or not. I believe it is authentic. If you know people who are successful from the context of your own personal life, listening to this book can help you to identify some of the traits that helped make them successful.

This may sound somewhat limiting. If you already know successful people, why can’t you just figure out what they’re doing right?

These notions are difficult and hard to understand without the right perspective, and Stein is a great communicator. It helps to understand things if you can put words to them, and Stein manages to be approachable, interesting, and most of all clear. Many of the concepts that he talks about are familiar to me from the likes of Stephen Covey, but where Stein excels is in making every lesson immediately comprehensible. You won’t get lost in navel-gazing over what he means by technical jargon, because he rarely uses any.

I listened to the audiobook, which Stein narrates himself. He does so with a clear voice and an inflection that helps drive the point home. One does miss out on infographics from the book (they are available online, but it is not necessarily convenient to go and look them up), but I didn’t feel lost without them.

I think perhaps the best testament that I can give to this book is that it manages to communicate great ideas very efficiently. This is where many writers run into issues.

It is easy to have great ideas, but it is not always easy to make them clear and to convey them in a way that respects the reader’s time.

Raise Your Game (Amazon affiliate link) manages to do this very effectively, and I highly recommend it.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant Review

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant (Amazon affiliate link) is a book that I enjoyed quite a bit, though it’s definitely less accessible than some of his other work.

Set in post-Arthurian Britain, it has fantasy trappings that support a great literary story.

The story follows a man and his wife as they travel to see their son. I could draw comparisons to Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and also to classic Arthurian stories simultaneously; it’s a fusion of modern narrative trappings with the worldview and storytelling style of ancients.

Along the path, the couple meets a variety of interesting characters. Most of the characters have an almost mythological role in story, and even those who are recycled from Arthurian legend have a very different presence in The Buried Giant, where they are turned into new and complex figures.

As a study in storytelling, The Buried Giant is tremendous. It switches between perspectives, develops a deep mythos that its characters explore, and plays with and subverts expectations.

If I had one criticism to give, it would be that it is unapproachable to the average reader. I do not know if this is necessarily the case, but it certainly feels like in The Buried Giant there’s a book that wants you to meet it where it stands, instead of coming to you. However, Ishiguro has not won the Nobel Prize for literature without reason. The read may be difficult, but it is difficult because it seeks to challenge the reader. My only other experience with Ishiguro’s work is The Remains of the Day (Amazon affiliate link), which I found really enjoyable. I thought I had written about it, but apparently I have not (or at least I can’t find it, which wouldn’t necessarily be that strange).

The Buried Giant is almost a hundred-and-eighty degree turn from The Remains of the Day. Some common themes are found in both books, especially around memory, and both focus heavily on characters in a deep way, similar to what you would expect from a Tolstoy novel. One major difference is the amount of dialogue. The Remains of the Day is largely introspective and focused on going back into memories, but The Buried Giant has a little more action and deals with the present and the desire to recall the past.

This is where I have seen the most criticism for The Buried Giant. It is written in Arthurian language, or rather, the dialogue and introspectives are, si9nce there are points where the author addresses the reader directly. This is an intentional stylistic choice, and to me feels comfortably like Lewis or Tolkien doing similar things in their works; in fact, I found the opening chapter to be very reminiscent of Tolkien in its storytelling format. However, these stylistic anomalies and the complexity of the text and storyline make it a matter of taste whether someone will like The Buried Giant or not.

My reading was split across two sittings, which is a testament to how compelling the book was, but it was certainly hard to follow and I had to go back and re-read passages a few times.

This is where another connection to Faulkner can be made. The Buried Giant is very much presented as a stream-of-consciousness, and it does a great job of having characters with secrets who are motivated by those Secrets but don’t give away the plot. An unfortunate consequence of this is that it is not particularly exciting in terms of action; many of the events are talked about a lot. There is some drama in looking at how people feel about the various events; Gawain, the knight who accompanies the couple, is particularly interesting for how he views his own role in the universe and how it has changed in his mind from what others would view as objectively true.

In short, if you want the story about adventurers going out and fighting dragons and triumphing over their foes, you would do better with a swords and sorcery novel. There are high stakes, and even directly violent conflicts in the book. However, this is not what Ishiguro chooses to focus on; his protagonists are old and weary, and hardly seek any excitement, though they do manage to find some.

I don’t want to spoil the book, but it has Ishiguro’s trademark style of the ambiguity of memory and asking but never answering philosophical and psychological questions. It’s deep to its core, and I’m still pondering what some of the symbols and events represent. The unremembered histories of the characters, slowly recovered over the course of the novel, are a source of excellent dramatic tension, and also ask questions relevant to modern life.

Let me make it clear: The Buried Giant is not a fantasy novel. If you are interested in it because you’re interested in Arthurian legend, it will be interesting only in the sense that it is a reinterpretation of the stories. The characters are used as a sort of shibboleth, a representation of archetypal forces, not in the more traditional sense. They simply are taken from familiar forms so that we can connect with them more quickly.

I actually believe that this is one of the best parts of the book. The husband of the couple on whom the book focuses, Axl, provides an entirely different viewpoint on the Arthurian legend than you’ll find in modern retellings.

It reminds me in many ways of Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife, which I reviewed some time back.

I can’t necessarily recommend The Buried Giant. I liked it a lot. I would definitely recommend reading it if you want a book that can be studied deeply, and which has incredible meaning when interpreted. However, there’s an uneasiness to it. I believe this was intentional on Ishiguro’s part, a deliberate intention to not make a point, but it’s still frustrating in some ways because one can only guess what it intends to mean.

Stories about forgetting often fail to satisfy because they lack significance. The act of remembering something does not usually make for a great heroic act. Ishiguro was able to overcome this in The Remains of the Day, and he is able to overcome this in The Buried Giant. However, it’s more about the mystery than any active process, and even the greatest central action ties into the desire to remember more so than changing the world than it currently stands.

Perhaps that is Ishiguro’s point.

I heartily recommend it, but only with the caveat that it requires investment. Unlike The Remains of the Day, it’s not an easy read, but I found it just as profound.

Review of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum

Went and saw the third John Wick film yesterday.

I was happy with it, but it wasn’t quite as good as I was expecting. Solid, still, and I’m actually more confident about the next film (because of course they set up another film in the series).

If you just want spectacle, Parabellum delivers. The storytelling is decent, and matched by tremendous visuals and acting, but there’s too little focus.

I’m going to be avoiding any spoilers in the review.

Continue reading “Review of John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum”

Review and Reflection: Skin in the Game

I listened to Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that Grow from Disorder a while back (you can find my write-up about it here) and found it to be tremendous, so I got Skin in the Game on Audible (it seemed to be the next-closest thing to my interests).

Continue reading “Review and Reflection: Skin in the Game”

Review: Age of Ambition

I’ve recently listened to Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China. I found it an interesting read, but I don’t know that I would necessarily place it on my best books that I have listened to in 2019. Of course, that list has grown rather long of late, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto series has claimed more than one spot on that list (I finished Skin in the Game yesterday), which seems unfair to other authors.

What I find interesting about Age of Ambition (affiliate link) is that it is a very personal narrative, but it is one which backs up that personal narrative with other events that are meaningful, so that one gets a feel for the people who are presented throughout the book.

However, while this approach is engaging as a writing style, the author’s experiences often dominate the text.

This is not necessarily a flaw, since it does give a certain amount of character to what is presented, but it does come with the drawback that not everything is particularly interesting from an academic perspective. As someone who is not really a scholar on China, I was a little disappointed by how little I learned from the book. Of course, I am a student of Cold War history, and I was already familiar with many of the major figures named in the book, like Han Han and Ai Weiwei, so perhaps I simply have a slightly higher level of familiarity with China than the target audience of the book has.

The book does excel in providing interesting information. It just doesn’t present quite as much of the big picture as I would have liked. Again, I think to someone who knew less about China than I did it would have been a very interesting and educational read, and there were some parts that were very interesting, like talking about how visiting lecturers were able to achieve great success discussing philosophical and moral questions in China. There were also places where the author was able to work his own experience in to talk about the parts of China that an outsider would never see, the day-to-day experiences of people who would not normally make the news.

Lest I sound overly harsh, I did actually enjoy Age of Ambition. The big issue I had with it is merely that as much as I enjoyed it, I don’t feel like it’s going to be a book I will remember. If you want a very Broad survey of China it could be wonderful. However, I’m just not convinced that it’s anything more than a survey.

It does give a unique Western perspective on China, which I suppose has some merit in and of itself. However, it feels like Osnos wants to avoid jumping to judgment. This is a shame, because the times when he is most willing to engage with subject and give his personal reactions are also the times that have the most character shown. For instance, he discovers that ferrets have taken residence in his lodgings, not directly in the living space, but in such a way that the smell became a nuisance. He recounts how in China, ferrets are considered lucky, add many people urged him to keep the ferrets almost as an ersatz pet (albeit at a distance). Despite initial flirtations with having them exterminated, he decides to live and let live, and while he doesn’t embrace the Chinese superstition surrounding the animals, he bids farewell to them fondly as he leaves, mentioning that they have recently welcomed new members into the family.

The personal moments like this make age of ambition worth listening to or reading. Again, Osnos definitely knows more about China than I do, and his experiences with important Chinese personalities are of great value. However, he has an odd approach of at times analyzing, and at times leaving as inscrutable, his subjects. This inures him against falsehood, which I appreciate on an academic level, but also means that the reader is going to do much drawing of conclusions as they go through the book, not fully gaining from Osnos’ expertise.

The book is definitely a success in the notion that I feel much more confident explaining some of the phenomena of China, but as someone who’s read prolifically about current events and reporting following China at the same time as Osnos seems to have been in China, and as someone who is familiar with the psychology and philosophies surrounding the major forces of the Cold War (that is to say, conflict between eastern and western thought), I found it to be moderate interest as far as learning new things goes. Where I can see offering a much less reserved recommendation would be to someone who simply wants an immediate overview a China with both historical and relatively up-to-date information.

Unfortunately, being up-to-date is a minor weakness of the book. For those unfamiliar with China’s current events, Xi Jinping has taken over much of the Chinese government at least in terms of influence. This happened primarily after Age of Ambition was written, so those seeking a read on what would be called very current events might find themselves disappointed. Nonetheless, understanding anything is a product of understanding its context.

Nonetheless, Osnos offers what would be called a nonpartisan view of the situation. He talks to people influential and minor, and from those he provides some individuals we would consider Western aligned and some whom we would consider hardliners. As far as I can tell, he is fair to all his subjects, which does make for an interesting read for those who may not have had access to on the ground reporting or biographies of some of the more esoteric figures whose lives are detailed in the book. The count of one of these, college student made the viral hit aligned with Chinese nationalist ideals, was a particularly interesting perspective to look at from a Western viewer, considering that the Chinese nationalist that Osnos interviews is well-versed in Western philosophy and has quite sophisticated reasoning. If one evaluates books from the perspective of using them as a mirror to see the human condition, Age of Ambition is great for that.

Ultimately, the real question of whether I would recommend Age of Ambition has to come down to availability and time. If you are interested in it, if you have the time to read or listen to it, and if it is not a major financial burden, and I would recommend it. This is not a particularly stellar recommendation, and you can’t hear the somewhat humorous tone with which I would express it in speech, but I don’t want to disrespect Osnos. His work is really good from an objective standpoint. My question would be whether it is the best. If you have my interests, it is a great book. If you deviate from my interests, say, if you’re not at all interested in China but you enjoy something like a contemporary history, it may also be an enjoyable read.

Is it, however, a “drop everything and read this right now book”, or a “book to add on your list of books to read” book?

Definitely more of the latter. I enjoyed it in the same sort of way that I enjoy most movies. If you’re looking for a similar interest piece which is more historically removed but still has a richly personal connection, I might recommend Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), a sort of historical biography of Shostakovich. Of the two, Symphony for the City of the Dead is my favorite. But both are similar, both are well-written, both audiobooks are quite good, and I am not complaining about spending time listening to either.

I don’t typically like giving a numerical review score. I feel like it fails to encapsulate all the potential difference between one work and another to put it on a rating scale. However, I feel comfortable saying Age of Ambition is a four out of five. It’s interesting, it didn’t bore me, but it didn’t challenge me either. I wouldn’t be assigning it as course-work, for instance, and requiring other people to read it. However, I feel it was worth the money I put into getting it, and I’m not wishing that I had listened to something else instead.

Perhaps it would be possible to distill my whole review into a very short statement: good read, not fantastic.

Review and Reflection: Antifragile

I listened to the book Antifragile (affiliate link) last week, and it has some really interesting lessons. Although the author, Nassim Nicholas Taleb, might be classified in some ways as an economist (though not in the traditional sense–he writes about the economy but he rejects the notion of it as a field to be studied–classifying him as simply a scholar is probably the best definition), he applies his theory of antifragility to more than just one discipline.

One of the big takeaways I got from the book is a very different way of viewing risk.

The antifragile approach is to identify things that thrive under change. Obviously, change may still cause problems for these if it is a large negative change, but such things tend to change for the better under the sorts of changes that are common and not generally catastrophic.

When combined with robust things, which can persevere through change, the antifragile becomes highly valuable.

I am afraid, however, that much of the greater wisdom of the book is lost on me. This is not to say that I learned nothing, but rather that there are depths that I have not been able to explore.

Part of the reason for this is simple: the book is complex and broad, and while it uses anecdotes and common sense to great effect it also is willing to move very quickly. It is challenging, and for this reason I intend to return to it again at a later date.

However, even with the partial knowledge that I have gained of Taleb’s ideas, there are still many great lessons to be drawn from the book. One of them is to consider carefully actions. Many of Taleb’s assertions are nothing particularly controversial, but when viewed in total, Antifragile becomes a sort of philosophical treatise against thinking that you are more clever than you are.

To use an example, Talib cites traders on the stock market who have no formal economic training, but who make incredibly good decisions. Of course, for every success there are failures, but Taleb notes that there are common trends in these successful traders that would cause economists to tear their hair out.

They overwhelmingly use heuristics, rather than more complicated methods of coming to decisions. This means that rather than using abstract theories, they make decisions based on gut instinct.

This is perhaps more important outside the field of stock trading.

Heuristics, going with available information but not seeking to over rationalize it. Taleb shows through various examples that heuristics can be as useful as complicated theories. For starters, they are much more easy to adjust.

When a theory is wrong, it is easy to rationalize the reason for its failure, to blame problems on unconsidered external factors. This allows the shifting of blame away from the people who make the decisions and toward abstract theories. A person can avoid responsibility, and the theory need not necessarily be abandoned, because it can still be dressed up in new clothes and given a new name. If they made a decision that will cause consequences for others, they only pay the price if they had put their money where their mouth is.

On the other hand, by going and blaming theories, someone who makes foolish decisions can they restore their credibility by attaching themselves to a different school of thought, often not even so much a different school of thought as a rebranded version of the same foolishness.

Taleb is brutally honest. He is also brave enough to make enemies, since he openly names people who he believes to be guilty of infractions against good ethics. Where his skepticism may initially be perceived to cloud his judgment, it quickly becomes clear that his skepticism is based off of experience.

I find it difficult to call Taleb’s work full of wisdom. This is not because of absence of good ideas, but rather because it seems to contain something almost different than wisdom itself. It would definitely warrant the title of philosophical. Rather than simply call the notion that Taleb’s work pursues wisdom, I would call it meta-wisdom. It looks at patterns to determine how wisdom can be found and applied in many different ways.

An example of this is Taleb’s distaste for intervention in fundamental affairs (for instance, using gym machines when more natural workouts are available). While some intervention is praised (vaccines, for instance, are great in Taleb’s eyes), others are derided (an unnecessary surgery carries risks beyond just financial cost).

The fundamental notion of antifragility is this: find things in which loss is limited, but potential gain is not.

Another key notion of determining fragility is to look for places where people gain antifragility at the expense of others: bureaucrats who keep their jobs even if the systems they control fail, and indeed go back to ask for more money to overcome the difficulties their idiocy caused are a major target of Taleb’s ire.

Of all the books I’ve gotten into so far this year, none has inspired me quite so much as Taleb in a sense that I think I can apply his teachings to daily life. He cites Montaigne, who is probably my other top writer I’ve read this year (go figure), and has a sort of similar wisdom and methodology.

I don’t have the time and experience to make a categorical statement about whether all of Taleb’s ideas work, but his work was recommended to me by someone whose intellect and savvy I respect, and the read or listen is itself enjoyable. The Audible audiobook I have is read by Joe Ochmann, and I’d say that it’s pretty well-done.

I’ve picked up his book Skin in the Game (affiliate link) on Audible as well, so expect to see a review and reflection on it once I’ve finished it in a few weeks.

My current listening material is Age of Ambition (affiliate link) by Evan Osnos, which I’m enjoying, and Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (affiliate link). I’m reading through Montaigne’s essays, as well, though I’ve had less time to just read of late.

Review of Avengers: Endgame

I went and saw Avengers: Endgame today, and I was not disappointed. I will keep this review as spoiler-free as possible, so feel free to enjoy.

I was somewhat on the fence about Endgame. I enjoyed Captain Marvel, but I was worried about some of the choreography (I felt Captain Marvel suffered from over-long fights) and the impact of a new character introduced so recently in the MCU on a story which is predominantly about the characters we’ve been following for years now.

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Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

I recently listened to M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), which is a biographical history of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It is one of my favorite audiobooks I’ve listened to so far on Audible. In addition to just being a generally enjoyable listen (it is read by the author), it presents an interesting look into Soviet culture. Shostakovich lived through some of the most terrifying parts of Stalin’s purges, and as a high-profile artist he found himself frequently in the crosshairs of the regime.

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Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1

I have been loosely interested in the works of Montaigne for a while (i.e. I knew of his name), but I was not yet ready to read them for myself; I just hadn’t worked up the interest and have a lot of other stuff on my reading list.

Continue reading “Reflections on Montaigne: Part 1”