Review of Bird by Bird

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird (Amazon affiliate link) offers a different look at writing than you are likely to see in other writing books. It does so with passion, zeal, and above all else a sense of clarity and purpose which combine make it refreshing.

I’ve read or listened to quite a few books on writing recently, like John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which I also highly recommend (my review), but Lamott takes an approach that is conversational and cordial, making the reader (or listener) a co-conspirator with her in the ups and downs of life as a writer.

Two of the most challenging parts of writing are finding a spark, figuring out what you want to write, and then figuring out how to transfer it to paper. Lamott focuses on these two subjects almost to the exclusion of everything else, but she does so with such depth and from so many different angles that she never repeats herself and covers a good portion of everything else that you would want to know as a writer on the side.

Lamott captures the spirit of writing without feeling preachy or over-romantic. I think of Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (my review) as an example of a book that is sentimental rather than practical, basically a collection of calls to action and motivational speaking rather than an example of what writers are likely to encounter. Lamott, on the other hand, takes the experiences from her own personal perspective, giving the reader emotional attachment and lending them part of her drive.

Lamott is bitingly sarcastic and incredibly funny. She is transparent about her personal crises, leading to a book that shows both the bigger picture of the publication process and the smaller moments that make up the triumphs and ordeals of the writing process; from the feel of getting galley copies in the mail to the shared anxiety of calling another writer on the day of publication to realize that neither she nor he achieved the runaway success that they had dreamed of.

I wouldn’t suggest this book to younger readers due to some of the language and content in it, but it is still one that I would recommend to novice writers because Lamott never does anything that might come across as intimidating or elitist (at least, not without lampshading it in a devilish self-aware fashion). You get a feel for her personality and character and how her life has motivated her to write:

“I try to write the books that I would love to come upon, that are honest, concerned with real lives… and that can make me laugh… Books, for me, are medicine.”

I think this is a meaningful outlook, and it’s worth noting that unlike some authors Lamott leaves it to the writer whether they want to have any overarching message or ideas. If all you have to say is a small truth that you learned from something that happened to you, Lamott gives as much encouragement as you would expect if you were to say that you had figured out the way to fix the universe. She also avoids giving too much of a dogma. A large part of her advice is to figure out methods that work for the individual writer, as a more airy and vapid individual or someone who wishes to sabotage their potential rivals might, but she actually gives enough advice and framework to make it possible to follow that path.

I went into this book with no knowledge of Lamott or her work, and left feeling like she had given me an intimate look into both her writing process and her advice for writers. Comparing it to something like Stephen King’s On Writing, which is definitely more autobiographical and takes longer to get into the craft side of things, or John McPhee’s Draft No. 4, which is heavily predominated by craft.

I’d recommend Bird by Bird without reservation. It’s like having an intimate conversation with a great writer, and even barring an interest in writing it’s funny enough to be worth reading. That it has surprisingly practical and down-to-earth writing moments tucked underneath every joke and anecdote is a triumph that makes it sublime.

Review of Unbroken

I recently read the book Unbroken (Amazon affiliate link), written by Laura Hillenbrand. Unbroken came out as a “major motion picture” a few years back, and I saw it in theaters and thought it was pretty good, but the problem with any film is that they have to choose between making things interesting and dumping a bunch of information on you.

A book, on the other hand, offers the potential to provide both information and engagement, since good writing can carry even a dry and boring subject to an amusing or fulfilling conclusion.

I’ve been meaning to read the book, written by Laura Hillenbrand, ever since I watched the movie. It tells the story of Louis Zamperini, an Olympian and WWII veteran, as he goes from a youth during the Great Depression to a man who overcomes some of the worst situations and harshest environments that people have ever found themselves in.

The book doesn’t pull any punches (a young-adult version is also available, aimed at students), but this helps it overcome the potential boredom that a 500 page book could descend into. A good portion of the book is dedicated to footnotes and notes, which turn Unbroken from mere story into a well-researched history and biography.

The story by itself would still be inspiring. Louis finds himself in Germany for the 1936 Olympics, joining the likes of Jesse Owens and others. Although Zamperini doesn’t directly experience or witness any persecution in Germany (which was trying to hide its crimes from the world at that point), he does see the gathering storm through a variety of signs, both subtle or otherwise.

Louis’s role as a bombardier in WWII is one of the more harrowing parts of the book. The sheer toll of the bombers on their crew and the number of airmen lost not just to the enemy but also to accidents sets a bleak precedent.

When Louis’s bomber crashes and he escapes along with two others (from a crew of around 10) to rafts, the story gets even more desperate, culminating in his eventual capture by the Japanese.

The POW experiences are captured well by the film, but the book goes into more detail about Louis’s fellow prisoners, showing them with a depth and richness that the film was incapable of replicating.

The film also ends with Louis’s freedom at the end of the war (a sequel was made, but went direct-to-disc), where Hillenbrand’s book carries through to the end of Louis’s life, with a major focus in the immediate postwar years.

It adds a level of complexity and hope to the story, showing not just what Zamperini went through but also what he accomplished.

Unbroken tells a tremendous story through its subject, but it matches the strength of its narrative with precise and deep language, the willingness to slow down to explain where necessary coupled with the skill to keep the pace flowing, and a raw and objective look at important events in history.

Unbroken may aim to tell a single person’s story, but it manages to speak to the human condition through its remarkable subject.

I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Review: Of Dice and Men

I recently read David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men (Amazon affiliate link), a book that provides an overview of what roleplaying games are and how they came to be.

I’m a game designer myself, so I’m fairly familiar with the industry. However, Ewalt’s work is intended for anyone; a novice or outsider can benefit just as much as an old-school gamer.

This can be credited to his journalistic work, actually going on the ground and talking to people who were intimately involved with the advent of Dungeons and Dragons.

And the book predominantly focuses on D&D. There’s a few reasons for that; not the least of which being that D&D is the largest game and that the events surrounding it tend to have to been played out over and over again within the industry. Ewalt’s own gaming hobby extends beyond D&D, though most of the examples of gaming are given from the context of D&D’s “3.5” edition.

With that said, it’s worth pointing out that in a 250 page book, more mention could be made of alternative games. Ewalt has a connection to D&D that runs deep, both in terms of the game itself and the interviewees throughout the book, but he misses a lot of potential by not looking outside the box. While he is able to draw a few connections that would be difficult to draw from scattered details and show a side of the industry that you don’t always get to see from the outside by getting an inside look at how the sausage is made, so many of the events are part of “nerd canon” as it were that there’s a little bit of overlap.

And it’s worth noting that Ewalt’s story is deeply personal. If you have no experience with D&D at all, this serves an illustrative purpose. I can appreciate it as a journalistic device as well, since it’s giving an insight to how the game is actually played.

These interludes are not poorly written, though I wouldn’t describe it as being made up of grand narratives. They’re evidentiary, not epic, and somewhat romanticized and streamlined (at least compared my own experiences).

I personally enjoyed the book quite a bit. It covers a variety of angles: personal interest, living history, explanation of a phenomena, and so forth. However, the one place where I will give it a bit of grief is this: Of Dice and Men really wants to be incredibly dramatic, and there are places where it is willing to sacrifice to do so.

Let me give an example. There’s a section where Of Dice and Men covers the whole history of gaming, but goes through it in maybe twenty or thirty pages. It also spends thirty pages on wargaming, which directly preceded D&D (Gary Gygax was primarily involved with wargaming when D&D became the new hot thing, as was Dave Arneson). The legal woes of TSR practically get a chapter unto themselves (which is not necessarily bad), while the decade and a half following them gets largely blipped over until we come to D&D Next.

Admittedly, this is the time which would be familiar to most gamers at the time of publication, but at the same time it feels like it’s a bit of a jarring transition. When you’ve already got 250 pages, what are another 50? Some incredibly influential games, like White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade get hardly any mention, and despite the in-depth history of TSR almost none of their other games get any serious coverage.

I don’t think that this is accidental, but I do think that if Ewalt had wanted to cover the full phenomena of roleplaying games as a culture he could have included some of the more notable alternatives, both because they’ve had a huge influence and because they serve as a potential gateway to people who don’t have an interest in the swords-and-sorcery setting that D&D is most known for. Likewise, the main discussion of D&D’s many settings is limited to Greyhawk and Blackmoor, both of which are noteworthy and meaningful, but the transition to different settings marks noteworthy philosophical shifts.

Do I recommend this book? Yes, I enjoyed it quite a bit. It has a lot of good ideas for people who want to get into gaming, and it has stuff that even an old hand like myself can get into and learn from. However, it doesn’t quite achieve what I think it set out to achieve. If you rely on it for all your knowledge you’ll be left with gaps. This is true of almost any book, but Of Dice and Men comes so close to greatness that it legitimately hurts when it only nears its potential.

Review: The Role of the Scroll

The Role of the Scroll (Amazon affiliate link) is a non-fiction book by Thomas Forrest Kelly, a professor of music at Harvard. It focuses primarily on how scrolls were used in the Middle Ages in Europe (but also covers the global use of scrolls in passing), and gives plentiful examples from a variety of contexts.

When I say that The Role of the Scroll covers a niche topic, I do not mean to say that it is strictly scientific and bland. Far from going into meaningless specifics about minutiae, it focuses on the historical significance of scrolls both as a class of document and as individual examples of manuscripts that changed or represented the world.

I generally enjoyed the book, though I have a few complaints that I’ll get to later. First I’d like to start with what I liked about it, and I’ll get to the rougher patches in a bit.

The strongest point of this whole book is that it elevates a very humble thing and dives into it in a way that to my knowledge has never been done before. As someone who likes reading quite a bit and has a connection with the written word, it’s interesting to see examples of a device that is not quite as dead as it may seem (I am typing this review in a text-box, a sort of digital scroll), and which had a tremendous value for shaping our world.

The opening chapters are strictly limited to scrolls themselves, giving examples from across world history and not just Europe (something I consider a strong point), and they’re probably the most similar to the sort of history book you’d expect.

Once you get past the opening chapters, Kelly moves into overviews of the various types of scroll used in the Middle Ages. Each overview uses examples from surviving scrolls, and the overall style is more lively and deep.

Kelly is professor of music, but he handles history fantastically well. The only hint that one gets that Kelly’s focus is in music and not history is in his deeper focus on musical works than some of the other documents, but even this is handled in a way that’s tremendously accessible.

The print edition I had was printed on thick glossy paper and had beautiful illustrations. The actual printing itself is fantastic and the book feels both good in the hand and easy to read. Some text for the captions around the illustrations of scrolls was hard to read in certain light (white text on a glossy black page background), so I might recommend the digital edition for anyone who would find this to be an issue. The scrolls themselves are not always able to be read; the reproduction is good, but often a whole scroll of several feet in length winds up on a page. Fortunately, Kelly points out interesting excerpts from the text, sometimes in captions by the illustration and sometimes in the main body text of the book, and one gets a feel for the beauty and majesty of the scrolls without necessarily being able to read them.

My only gripe is that The Role of the Scroll feels like it’s half-way between being a book for laypeople and a book for historians. On one hand, Kelly goes into a lot of detail explaining what people might need to know and establishing the human condition that led to the creation of scrolls. This is generally done in a way that even those not familiar with European history would be able to appreciate.

On the other hand, Kelly’s focus on making things immediately comprehensible to a layperson also means that basic things that would be common knowledge for people with a good knowledge of history get expanded upon greatly. This is then mirrored by an abstention from going into the most deep and complicated elements of the situations surrounding scrolls (except as pertains to music, where Kelly goes into greater detail). It may be that some of this information is not immediately available or would quickly veer off topic (for example, only a very cursory account is given of alchemical scrolls, but to give greater detail would definitely require going on a tangent).

Ultimately, this is a good book for an interesting read, and the illustrations stand out wonderfully throughout. It gives both a personal and serious look at its historical subjects, and leaves one with a greater understanding of the topic.

Writer’s note: Because The Role of the Scroll has no reviews on Amazon, I cross-posted this text there. I gave a five-star review, though if given more granularity I’d probably give it more of a 4.5 or 4.7 out of 5. It’s far from a perfect text, but it is a pioneering one.

Review of An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth

Chris Hadfield is something of a surprise celebrity, but when you look at the sum of his career it is no mystery how he came to be so successful.

The biggest question I had when I started reading An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth (Amazon affiliate link) was whether Hadfield’s celebrity would translate into success as a writer. I listened to the audiobook (narrated by Hadfield), and I have to say that I was quite impressed.

I’d say that An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth is 50% memoir, 50% useful advice, and 100% interesting. Of course, as someone who grew up with sci-fi and fantasy of all sorts as their main reading staple and a lot of nerdy interests, space holds an immediate appeal to me, but it’s actually the strength of the personal stories that helped it.

I think that this is where it is elevated above self-help. A lot of self-help books have to distance themselves from the question of their author, because the author always sounds like they’re being arrogant and bragging. I think that An Astronaut’s Guide is in line with something like Carnegie’s How to Make Friends and Influence People (full disclosure: I started reading the latter and then misplaced my copy very early on, so I’ve only read a little of it) because both are incredibly intimate and written by someone who can claim astronomical success (ha!).

An Astronaut’s Guide is great because it includes examples. There’s a hybridization of stoic philosophy and kaizen, the art of continual improvement, that is brought together without any use of technical language or pretense.

Tied so closely as it is to personal narratives, I find Hadfield’s advice easy to emulate. It’s already helped me to refocus my efforts on writing and getting into shape (my usual morning walk became a walk-run this morning in part because Hadfield reinforced in me the importance of striving toward goals incessantly, and I was pleasantly surprised by the enjoyment it brought me).

The greatest idea here is that there’s a resolution between the great unknown of potential (both limitations and boosts) and the need for personal effort that Hadfield communicates so subtly that one could assume he’s not even trying. He literally makes it look easy.

One example of this is his -1/0/+1 philosophy. It’s probably the largest example of him using numbers to describe success, but it’s also incredibly simple: you need to ask whether you’re adding to or taking away from a team. When you start, it’s a good idea to just aim for being a 0, because you might think you’re improving things when you’re really just causing problems for everyone else. Learn to fit in, then learn to excel.

It’s mesmerizing and hard to put down, and An Astronaut’s Life ate up a lot of my time as I was going through it. Hadfield is genuinely funny, too, which leads to lots of fun laughs throughout.

I could ramble on with more praise, but suffice it to say that it’s probably my top self-improvement book this year so far, and by such a large margin that I find it unlikely to be displaced (with apologies to previous books, whose recommendations I must now rescind).

To quickly talk about the audiobook, it’s narrated by Hadfield. As a Canadian, he has the particular Canadian vowel sounds (e.g. in “again”) that always sort of rattle US listeners (or me, at least), but he’s got such a fluid performance and presentation that you’ll get used to it quickly and it really does benefit from him doing the reading. Not having the text to compare to, I’d still say that the audiobook is a safe bet.

So, basically, is this a drop everything and read it book? Perhaps. It certainly helps with setting and meeting goals, though it’s not going to teach complex systems. If, like me, you enjoy simplicity in your search for self improvement plus a yarn that’s worth paying attention to, it’s a good option for you.

Review: Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician

I was a member of one of the last classes of Latin students at my public high school. Originally, I had signed up for the language because it has no spoken assessment component. As a language that is strictly phonetic it was not considered necessary to test students’ speaking ability, and even an amateur can pronounce Latin correctly (despite the differences in modern and classical pronunciation, both methods are simple).

However, my days as a youth had also instilled a love of studying classical culture. Some of my fondest early memories are of my father reading to me from books detailing the rise and fall of ancient civilizations and of the way these societies changed the world.

Cicero: The Life and Times of Rome’s Greatest Politician (Amazon affiliate link) by Anthony Everitt is a great picture of one particular moment in time: the end of the Roman Republic and its replacement with the Roman Empire.

Of course, such a transition is arbitrary, since it was a transition of power from Rome to Rome, but in our peculiar way of categorizing things it seems a tangible milestone.

I listened to the audiobook (by the way, Audible has a deal where you can get two free books when you join up, even for a free trial; it’s a great way to start on an audiobook library and the selection is expansive), which was read by John Curless. I’m not enough of an expert to critique audiobooks on their quality (though by my count I’ve listened to 22 over the past year or so), so I merely say if I thought they were done well or if there were any problems that I had with the book. In this case, I’m happy to announce as I can usually announce that the audiobook is well-done.

I have often considered Cicero to be a role model. His moderation, both politically and personally, makes him someone who can be praised by everyone despite his faults. As with all people, there are some complexities to his life. There are certainly times when he seems to fail to uphold his values, but that is perhaps only because we do not understand him as a person in the same way that all historical figures become inscrutable beneath the sands of time.

In any case, the book follows Cicero through correspondence and other documents and accounts of his life. As a historian, I appreciate its methodology greatly. It is the sort of work that provides information rather than shallow interpretation, and while there is still much interpretation the reasons for Everitt’s judgments are made clear so that the reader can choose to accept or reject them.

The prose is well-written. Falling somewhere between a biography and a general history, this book falls into a category that is rife with opportunities to fail horribly or succeed greatly. I don’t think I would say it is a tremendously exciting read, because much of its subject matter is dry and even an expert handling cannot fix that, but for someone interested in the classics you could go a long way before finding a similarly interesting book.

Some of this is also probably me being spoiled by similar books, like M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (my review), which can take advantage of the contemporary subjects and the greater knowledge we have available for them to present a picture with more intimacy than one can find of classical figures with the information that is available.

Editor’s note: Symphony for the City of the Dead also includes audio excerpts from compositions created by its subject, Shostakovich, which make it a prime example of an audiobook elevating its medium above what a book can be.

With that said, one of the strengths of Everitt’s work is that it is both immensely accessible and tremendously deep. As an English teacher, I taught Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar to students, and one of the parts of the unit was a crash course in Roman history and society so that students understood what was going on with Caesar’s ascent. In addition to my own general interests in the Classical era, the research I did while preparing that content means that I have a decent amount of familiarity with that point in Roman history.

This book taught me things that I had never heard, but it also covered the key points the I shared with my students so that they could understand Julius Caesar. I think it’s fair to say that this book is valuable both to a beginner who wants an overview of a great historical figure but lacks understanding of context and historical methods, and more learned readers who want a deep dive into a particular figure and period.

I would consider it similar to Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live (mentioned in my first reflections on Montaigne’s work, though I seem to have forgotten to write about it!), a biography of the philosopher Montaigne, in that it presents as intimate a picture as we can have of its subject with the information which is available while also providing historical context so that we can understand what shaped their life.

In terms of writing, this book is not thrilling. However, it is clear and while it is not thrilling it is also not boring. As a biography, it is meticulously detailed, as a book on such a well-known figure has to be. Where it is able to give an intimate picture it does so, and one does get a feel for Cicero’s triumphs and sorrows. As a historical inquiry, it presents a detailed picture of a transitional period in Roman society, but is anchored by the life of a single subject so that it does not become too confusing.

As such, I think I would feel good recommending this book to most readers. It might not make a top 10 list of all books of all time, but it’s certainly a good entry in the field of Classical history and Roman history in particular.

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.

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: 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 The Examined Life

The Examined Life (affiliate link), by Peter Grosz, is a book based on his practice as a psychoanalyst. I was led to it by an article that I had read on The Guardian about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. The article itself is more in-detail in its findings than I care to be here: you can read it for yourself if you so desire.

When I was in college, I had to read one of Freud’s case studies for a course. It was a survey of the humanities, and while I greatly enjoyed the class in general I remember being somewhat put off of the whole notion of psychoanalysis by Freud.

It is only through the work of Joseph Campbell that I wound up making a connection to Jung, and from Jung I discovered that psychoanalysis of the sort practiced by Freud was not the extent of the field.

Grosz provides case studies of psychoanalysis that are both analytical (as they should be), but also personal. While there is a limit on how much can be said for the sake of the patients’ privacy, there is also a lot of depth, which makes reading the case studies an interesting and intimate process.

There is something about the way that Grosz recounts things that makes the whole affair into something like a biography of the ordinary man. While it is true that many of the clients that Grosz works with would not technically be considered wholly ordinary, the humility that he expresses and the earnest, down-to-earth practice (including admissions of his own errors or misjudgments) goes a far way toward making the read worthwhile.

All-in-all, I finished The Examined Life in two days. The book is structured into sections and chapters based on topics, though the majority of chapters focus on just one or two cases.

There’s something transcendental in reading such things. Our human minds are capable of weaving mysteries hidden from ourselves, but seeing that same process go on in others shows us something of our essence, to borrow a notion from ancient philosophy.

The structure of the book, as it is, is probably one of its best achievements. I’ve also been reading the essays of Montaigne and listening to a sort of biography-cum-analysis centered on his life and works, and I am immediately struck by the similarity in the broad-topic specific-analysis correlation between the two works, written centuries and languages apart.

I think that it’s possible to see something of ourselves when we read a work like this, both in Grosz and his clients. While some of the examples are extreme (for instance, a child who engages in increasingly oppositional defiant behavior), there are also more common examples.

Upon reflection, I can easily draw connections between Grosz’s patients and the work of Ibsen, or of Miller. There is something that is literary and timeless in the individual mortal experience; an archetypal connection between the being of an individual and the Being of reality as a whole.

There is another side here, a side that Tolstoy illustrates in his magnificent Death of Ivan Ilych, the notion that we are incapable of believing that which we do not wish to believe, as Grosz’s patient who has every possible piece of evidence that her husband is having an affair, but only draws the connection after discovering a neatly loaded dishwasher in his apartment away from home.

However, the art of the psychoanalyst goes deeper; the mind is deep and multilayered, and there are things within it that remain unconscious to the individual, shown in dreams and complexes but not in conscious thought. These things cannot be believed not because they are necessarily abhorrent or because a person is in conscious denial, but rather because they are entirely unknown to us: Jung’s conception of this took the form of the Shadow.

The Shadow is the part of the mind that we are unaware of, the subconscious. Confronting the Shadow is important, because it bears strengths and weaknesses that otherwise are occluded from our awareness. Having these known to us provides us with a great tool to improve ourselves, both by extending our potential and by allowing us to shield ourselves from our greatest weaknesses.

Grosz’ work involves voyaging into that realm, that unknown part of the mind, and retrieving from it treasures. To do so, he must often help his patients vanquish the dragons that guard their inner keeps.

I think that this is why The Examined Life is such a compelling read. It is not merely the fact that it presents a deep picture of each of us as individuals, something which we want dearly to believe for the sake of avoiding the oblivion of meaninglessness. This is an expansion upon the explanation given for its popularity in The Guardian’s article, which I mentioned earlier. However, I think that this is just part of the appeal: it is a compelling read not only for its picture of the human individual as a being capable of worth, but also because it is a reflection of the heroic process.

After all, the individual is meaningless if their actions are also meaningless, but when an action becomes meaningful it provides the actor with meaning. Carry that further, to the greatest possible good, and you have a sort of deity in the form of Meaning: values strong enough to justify the pain and suffering of existence.