Review of Draft No. 4

Draft No. 4 (Amazon affiliate link) by John McPhee is one of the clearest and best books on writing I have ever read, if not the best book on writing I have ever read. It really helped me break through some of the blocks I’ve had as a writer and move on with my writing in a way that I hadn’t been able to before.

When I started reading, I didn’t know who McPhee was. Over the course of reading, I discovered more about him, but the goal of Draft No. 4 isn’t to provide a biography, it’s to provide guidance.

The best way that I can describe this is as follows: McPhee shows how he earned his place in the writing world by giving an overview of what a writer has to do to get there.

This doesn’t mean the book is perfect; it doesn’t cover a lot of adiaphora and is generally focused on non-fiction writing (including creative non-fiction, a field I don’t have much experience in), and also on the general practice of writing.

Now, maybe I’m just a nerd, but I found McPhee’s constant insights to the writing world to be actually quite fun. Like, even in lieu of the whole “oh hey, I can learn something here” aspect of such a book, you get to have the pleasure of hearing about people and places and how those people and places got turned into a story.

The best example of this comes at the end of the book, where McPhee recounts an encounter with Eisenhower (yes, that Eisenhower). Eisenhower was painting a still-life and had left out some grapes, and McPhee recounted that:

“Ike said, ‘Because they’re too God-damned hard to paint.’”

This is just one example of how McPhee recounts lessons (the lesson here is that sometimes a writer just can’t capture something in words) by combining practical, but theoretically presented, advice with personal anecdotes that go beyond just serving as evidence and instead are used to add some vibrancy to the text.

Draft No. 4 is a book that I often found myself saying “Just one more chapter” to, even though each chapter is rather substantial. The organization of the book is such that each chapter focuses on a particular domain of the writer.

The great thing about the book is that McPhee has actually written some very impressive books and he recounts a lot of his process within Draft No. 4. Not only is it full of personal anecdotes, it also features fairly detailed accounts of the making of a couple of his personal favorite works.

The first couple chapters in particular do this quite a bit. At first when I started reading, I felt overwhelmed. McPhee starts with technical writing advice, explaining his work using diagrams and terminology that even I, an English major, struggled with at first.

Then he gave an example of how he wrote in process, and it all made sense. It was a showcase of how to tell a story and how to lay out a text, but also how to figure out the methods you want to use for each, and how to move from writing simple things as a novice to more complicated things as a master.

Couple that with more domain-specific overviews of the writing process and you’ve got a great book that can help both someone with relatively little professional writing experience (like myself) and someone like a veteran writer looking for tips and inspiration.

It’s worth noting that while McPhee showcases his own experience, he never does it out of self-indulgence. It’s always part of an object lesson, and sometimes he points out embarrassing or foolish mistakes on his own part to make sure that a lesson learned painfully can be passed on to people who hopefully listen and learn from his mistakes. That’s the mark of a great teacher.

Draft No. 4 is a tremendous book, and I highly recommend it. There is some harsh language, in academic or mimetic context, and a couple more adult moments described in the context of journalism, so it’s not something that I would feel comfortable using in anything lower than a college classroom, but it’s something that I would find invaluable for any student with the maturity to see McPhee’s talent and advice for what it is.

Review of Craghorn Twighorn’s Discount Spell Emporium

Disclosure: I received a free copy of the PDF of Craghorn Twighorn’s Discount Spell Emporium from Kian Bergstrom for the purposes of writing this review.

Craghorn Twighorn’s Discount Spell Emporium (affiliate link) offers a bunch of spells for 5e that are designed to be deliberately unhelpful (or, at least, carry some extreme caveats). Obviously, there’s a lot of utility for this in the right game; a few of the spells are so situationally useful that they don’t make any sense until a perfect moment comes along, while others are simply comedic.

These are generally intended to be used as scrolls, magic items, or perhaps even effects brought down by an NPC, and no PC spell lists are provided. Some could logically fall into particular spell lists, but I’ll make a note on this later.

I’d broadly divide the spells into four categories: the referential, the situational, the comedic, and the scatalogical. The value of each of these categories differs.

A lot of these are referential, and as such they’re definitely down to taste. “Animal Farm” for instance, is a spell that makes beasts obey other beasts in a nod to Orwell’s classic novel. “Cassandra” gives the power of prophecy, but nobody believes the prophecy. There’s an 7th-level enchantment simply called “The Rock” that makes a creature incredibly charismatic and bold, at the cost of later suffering fatigue and exhaustion.

The referential spells generally feel good, though there are a couple places where the mechanics are a little iffy (e.g. “affleck”, which should really have some removal condition for its effects), which of course comes down to them being a humorous reference. Since, again, these spells are unlikely to feature as the centerpoint of a campaign, I don’t think this would be a giant issue.

Then you have the situational. These are spells that I could actually see a character using as a serious spell. “Mist Hand”, for instance, is an illusory hand similar to Mage Hand, but has some distinct qualities that people might actually use in its own right (e.g. it can go further away, and be used to lure enemies as a result). “Gentle” lets you target another creature and make them only deal nonlethal damage, which is cool.

In some games, especially more humorous games, it makes sense that a character might actually have some of these spells on their spell list (or, of course, that a powerful mage with a sense of humor may possess them in a more serious campaign).

My biggest gripe here is that there’s such a focus on being deliberately useless that many of these spells that are otherwise quite interesting are placed at a higher spell level than they should be and one almost gets the feeling that they’re not being taken seriously. If players have access to buying Twighorn’s scrolls, or at least the particular subset that fits into a particular game, they may actually be able to get some powers that are cool and play into things that other spells for 5e often don’t do.

Then you get into the comedic spells. These are ones like “Goat Friendship” and “Pork Entrail” that just exist to make the game more spontaneously weird. When used in the right context (which may require some setup), these can bring good value to the right game. Heck, I had a DM who would’ve killed for some of these.

Unfortunately, here is where you also find some small issues with balance. For example, “Mouthy Ward” has a permanent effect that would enable the detection of any creature in a 15-foot space (without specifying which creatures it can detect, which makes it a 2nd level illusion spell with an unintentional high-level divination effect) and then yell abuse at it. Of course, this is where the DM would come in to make sure that everything flows smoothly. Generally, however, the majority of these do work well, so take the nit-picking with a grain of salt: they’re not the tightest spells in terms of game mechanics, but they’re intended for a narrative effect and if you don’t want them to become prevalent in your game you can just excise them.

Then there’s the scatalogical. This is really the low point of the spells, though they tend not to be excessively vulgar. They’re maybe a half-dozen in total, and don’t deserve further note. It will entirely depend on the age and sense of humor at your particular table as to whether or not these go over well.

There are also a couple spells that are just plain powerful and useful, but they’re all within balance limitations (at least as far as I’m concerned; some of them do things that other spells don’t, so I’m going with my gut on how to balance some of the effects). Especially as spells read from scrolls with limited availability, I don’t see any problem with them.

There’s an additional overview of Twighorn himself, found at the end of the spell list. As a comedy-centered character with access to many of the spells included within, he won’t fit into every campaign (though a DM could play him as more of a tragicomic figure), but his stat block looks good and he could be an interesting adversary or ally.

The feeling I got from the spells overall was a little hard to define, so I’ll resort to a comparison. If you’ve ever played SJG’s Munchkin, this is basically taking the references and jokes from that and transplanting them into 5e. As with Munchkin, there are a lot of great things and some okay things blended together. If you’re running a game, you don’t necessarily want to give players unrestricted access to these spells, but they can be wickedly funny in the right context.

Review of Memories, Dreams, Reflections

I listened to Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections (Amazon affiliate link) on audiobook. It’s a large book, and it was of interest to me largely because I’ve studied a lot of Jung’s ideas (and their derivatives as presented by Campbell. Pearson, and Peterson) and I wanted to get a more intimate picture of Jung’s views and life so that I could put his work in context.

As a memoir, it’s interesting. It’s definitely one of the more difficult memoirs out there, but it’s still got the sort of personal interest that you’re going to see in most memoirs. Because Jung is something of a revolutionary thinker, it’s often a little difficult to follow what he talks about, and I was glad to have read Man and His Symbols (my review) and Modern Man in Search of a Soul prior to tackling Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

Those hoping for an intimate picture will be perplexed. Jung is entirely open about his outer life, and most of his inner life, but there are things which he withholds from his memoir that would be of particular interest given that they would have peculiar interest in a psychoanalytic context. This is a vague description, but it’s the best I can do, because the withholdings are themselves eclectic: seemingly minute but yet significant enough that Jung mentions them in their exclusion.

At the same time, one gets a picture of who Jung is; albeit one that is scattered between significant points in his life. His adult life is largely unmentioned, sometimes explicitly out of respect for those who are living and who might be impacted, but at other times one has to wonder why Jung chose to skip over so much of his own personal life and whether it is that he considered some things self-evident, if they escaped his notice, if they were intentionally withheld, or if they simply weren’t able to be worked into the book.

Jung’s early life and religious experiences get an intensive focus at the start of the book, and his father plays a particularly interesting role as a sort of anti-Jung: someone who has stifled his visions and stuck comfortably with the role of a conforming member of society. Jung’s first symbolic dreams and impulses are recorded here, and one can get a picture of him as a unique individual very early on.

As someone who had to read some Freud in college, I find Jung’s recounting of his professional and personal relationships with Freud as particularly interesting (not to mention the letters published in the appendices which Freud wrote to Jung). While going into depth about their relationship would require either a crash course in the teachings of both men or an assumption that the reader is familiar with both, it’s worth noting that Jung’s perspective on his time spent both as heir apparent and then disgraced pariah in Freud’s eyes is covered, albeit not in great detail when compared to Jung’s early life.

Letters from Freud were included in the appendix, which give Freud’s perspective (at least as he communicated it to Jung), and Jung has interesting thoughts on Freud that are not necessarily unique to Jung but benefit from the personal relationship they shared.

Jung’s travels make up another section of the book. While some of the language he uses is outdated, and he is not an anthropologist, he has a great deal of insight and respect for what he calls “primitive” people, and particularly respects their beliefs as being no less sophisticated, though perhaps less well communicated and developed by exposure to other ideas, than those of the modern West.

On one hand, he goes into much less detail here than he does in Modern Man in Search of a Soul, but he also adds the personal element of his experiences into the mix, giving some context that is otherwise missing, and he also recounts particular events in greater detail, like his experiences with Native American solar faiths.

As is usual, one gets the impression of Jung that he is so brilliant that people have a hard time telling where he is right and wrong: sometimes giving him too much credit and at others discounting everything that he has discovered. As a visionary, he presents a view of the world that has a sort of mystical magnificence to it, where dream and reality blur.

Of course, dream and reality are perceived through the same faculties, and there’s an element of truth to Jung’s ideas, but one also gets he sense that he lets himself descend into revelry. He espouses strong support for metaphysical persistence of the psyche (I mean, as a devout Christian I do as well, but my own approach is to accept on faith, not to have intuited it myself), but does so almost entirely based on the notion of logic driven from experiences of the unconscious, intuition, and precedent in cultural and religious phenomena.

There was a fairly long section of Memories, Dreams, and Reflections which could be described as positively New Age, but if one considers that Jung expresses the totality of his beliefs without reservation, there’s probably not so much airy dreaming as actual thought in most of his claims. It’s also worth noting that a lot of Jung’s terminology has come to mean something else than it originally had (e.g. psychic meaning “to have a relationship with the psyche” rather than charlatan fortune-telling), so what sounds like quackery may have a firmer empirical foundation than otherwise expected.

Near the end, there are very interesting questions about the role that individualism, spirituality, and social progress will play in the coming era, and I actually found it to be one of the most well-reasoned discussions of what has become an in vogue topic. Jung’s assertion that individuals have to accept the unknown and the unconscious to pursue individuation within the pattern of complete being (I simplify at the risk of causing confusion) as an antidote to the totalitarianism of the 20th century is something that I think is incredibly valuable, and echoes my own personal experiences of self-development in recent years.

Jung also gives a great breakdown of his concept of archetypes, though he doesn’t go into depth about particular archetypes.

The audiobook is read by James Cameron Stewart, who does a good job of it. I don’t have any complaints with the audiobook, and Stewart sounds like one would expect Jung to sound (though not necessarily a match for Jung). There weren’t any issues that I found as I listened on Audible.

Basically, if you want an introductory overview of the work of Jung, this probably isn’t what you’re looking for. As a memoir it frustrates its purpose by being so deeply tied to Jung’s theories and work that I would have a hard time recommending it to anyone who is not already familiar with Jung’s ideas.

However, as a companion to Jung’s other work it is illuminating.

Review of When We Were Orphans

Kazuo Ishiguro’s When We Were Orphans (Amazon affiliate link) tells the story of a British detective in the master writer’s hallmark style.

All of Ishiguro’s work that I am familiar with–The Remains of the Day, The Buried Giant (my review), and When We Were Orphans–shares similar storytelling methods and a common motif of how memory leads and misleads us through our lives.

When We Were Orphans is stylistically closer to The Remains of the Day, and if you had told me that Christopher Banks were the protagonist of The Remains of the Day I would need to seek out biological trivia to prove you wrong. This is the sort of character that Ishiguro seems to have the strongest affinity for, however. If people complained that The Buried Giant was muddled because of the constant shift between focal characters, they will be happy to know that all the mystery and confusion that comes from When We Were Orphans is a result of Christopher’s own confused memory.

Unlike the two other novels I’ve read by Ishiguro, When We Were Orphans focuses more heavily on action through its sole protagonist’s eyes, though it is written in the form of letters recounting events.

The Buried Giant certainly has some action, but it’s told only through a few characters’ eyes (three out of several, and two of these only barely).

What Banks encounters in When We Were Orphans is more personal and builds up tension better, at least in my opinion. This external tension is paired with internal tension, so while Ishiguro’s other work is primarily reliant on psychological suuspense one also gets the feeling that Banks’ life could very well be in danger at many points.

Whether this is an improvement or not, I am actually unsure. I will say that When We Were Orphans reminds me a lot of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich in terms of the protagonist’s development. Where the other novels by Ishiguro often dwell on themes of self-deception, this one goes more heavily into it, to the point that an astute reader should quickly see where Banks has deceived himself.

Set in the period immediately preceding the Second World War, it should not be particularly surprising that this theme would play a key role in the novel, as the question of what to do in light of growing totalitarianism and the crisis this spread through the free world is one that forms a central element of the conflict. Banks’ self-deception is matched by an equally good effort by almost every other character in the novel.

However, it is worth noting that Ishiguro does not let this descend into triviality.

Banks is a man of singular conviction, a master detective who also at many times has things escape him because he is not prepared to see them. He is someone who struggles with his memory and putting his perceptions into order, but like the elites of Britain in his day, who he hobnobs with, he has a certain amount of naivete. Despite claiming and earnestly believing that there is a struggle between good and evil, he parrots the notion that he is one of the good guys doing good work while holding on to deep cynicism in other ways; he doesn’t have the hero’s spirit, but he has the hero’s role.

The delusional excesses of the period are played out over and over, and much of the novel’s appeal lies in how it handles the role of an evidently exceptional individual trapped in a declining culture.

The childhood period of Christopher’s life in Shanghai, where the novel spends much of its time recounting his relationship with his mother, raises many of the questions that the book is going to continue to develop over its course.

And that is something that I would cite as a great strength of When We Were Orphans. It raises a large number of questions, like the masters would, but unlike Dostoevsky and Tolstoy he doesn’t feel compelled to provide us with a clear answer and spoil half the point of the exercise. This is in no way a criticism of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy–they were guides trying to lead society away from perdition–but Ishiguro asks questions about the nature of the hell that the great novelists of the 1800s were trying to steer us away from.

When We Were Orphans is a darker novel, thematically speaking, than Ishiguro’s other work. The Remains of the Day deals with personal tragedy, The Buried Giant deals with historical injustice and the depravity of the world, and When We Were Orphans deals with both.

As with his other novels, Ishiguro expects the reader to keep up with him, but the reward for that is a depth and authenticity to the characters and a mystery that the readers can try to solve. When We Were Orphans delivers intrigue and depth, and there’s a great story here. Just be forewarned that it takes a long time to get to where it’s going, and if your main focus is on figuring out “what happens” you’ll get to the conclusion before Ishiguro finishes asking the questions he poses.

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 of Joseph Anton: A Memoir

I recently listened to Salman Rushdie’s memoir, entitled Joseph Anton (Amazon affiliate link), which is a general overview of his life with a particular focus on the time he spent hiding from a fatwa declared against him by Ayatollah Khomeini.

Salman Rushdie landed himself in controversy with his novel The Satanic Verses. I’m not at all familiar with Rushdie’s work. It seems like it might be my cup of tea in the sense that I like difficult literary fiction and magical realism. I definitely enjoyed his writing style here, but I’ve also heard that some of the content might be a little explicit for my tastes (I am, after all, a stodgy English teacher rather than one of the more free-spirited ones). I’m planning to read his YA fiction book Haroun and the Sea of Stories shortly and will post a review, since I’m probably a little too Puritan to enjoy some of his other work and it fits my field of interest.

However, I can say that nobody’s writing should earn them persecution, and I feel a need to Rushdie on principle even without particular knowledge of what he has written.

However, I wish to evaluate Rushdie’s memoir as a book, not merely make a statement of political support for marginalized voices.

I found it to be quite enjoyable, and though I’m not particularly picky when it comes to memoirs and biographies (I like them all, unless they’re truly execrable) I do have to say that it might be one of my favorites, taking a close second to the historically significant work of Elie Wiesel. It’s written in a third-person style, which is quite interesting. I don’t know what thought process went into that, but it seems to permit a very objective perspective, and Rushdie avoids going off on tangents despite the distance it could otherwise enable, which is not something that can be said of every memoir writer. It also is more willing to stray from the author’s own perspective than many memoirs, presenting information that he found out later and explaining its sources.

Only part of the introduction of the audiobook was read by Rushdie, with Sam Dastor reading the rest. I have no complaints with either reader, as the audio is clear and crisp and the enunciation is perfect. There was more emotion, albeit subtle, than I’ve heard in most other recordings, which really helps to draw one in more than some of the dry readings. The third-person presentation helps to lend a more emotionally detached atmosphere in general, so this isn’t underselling the work.

Salman Rushdie is able to talk a lot about some of the issues of the day in a refreshingly clear manner. Even though I’m tangentially a literary type (after all, my favorite read of 2019 so far was written by Kazuo Ishiguro) I often think of that social circle as snooty and detached (courtesy of my background), but Rushdie is personable and humble.

As a tragic figure, he goes into the darkest moments of his life and takes responsibility where he deserves it (namely, his marriages which ended unhappily, though there are other examples), but he also examines the circumstances that led to issues beyond his control: the places where he was subject to mistreatment by the world.

One of the things that I found most interesting is how he depicted many of the people he was around. He avoided gossip, though he would admit to not liking certain people, and you get an insight to some famous people that you don’t get to see in their public persona. For instance, as someone from a religious background I’ve always thought of Christopher Hitchens as a bit of a jerk, but Rushdie paints a picture of him as someone who was willing to put his skin in the game to help his friends in need: certainly an admirable trait.

And that’s part of what makes the memoir so meaningful as a read. Rushdie doesn’t hold back: he shares his questions about God (and whether or not God exists) and the universe, as well as the life lessons that he often learned though painful and embarrassing failures. It’s so tangibly honest that one would almost assume its author to be a saint, were he not confessing to his occasional (and sometimes predictable) moral failings, like his infidelity.

There’s real intimacy, and not just in the flaws. He describes his relationships with his son and his ex-wives, which are often less rocky than one might think. While he often demonstrated a certain amount of short-sightedness, one can never accuse him of lacking earnest affection for his son Zafar, or not sticking by his ex-wife Clarissa in her battle with cancer.

Rushdie’s connection to India, a country which he loves dearly as his motherland, is a key factor in his life. It is India which first banned The Satanic Verses, perhaps creating enough of a controversy to spark the fatwa (whether or not the political debate that was sparked in India was truly responsible is uncertain, but Rushdie mentions it as a potential cause), but it is also where he was born and spent much of his youth. As a writer, he often focuses on India, especially its independence movement, and he retained such an intimate understanding of the country that he was able to write a later novel set in India without returning to the country. This earned messages from acquaintances asking how he snuck into the country.

Joseph Anton is a long book, but it doesn’t drag on. It’s detailed, but it doesn’t get lost in a quagmire. It’s also a book that could be of great interest to those interested in current affairs surrounding the Middle East and the relationship between the West and Islam, and Rushdie speaks with an expertise that few laypeople can claim to have.

The experiences that Rushdie had while in protective custody (Joseph Anton was the pseudonym he used during the period he was in hiding) make up another core element of the book. Rushdie humanizes the people that he met during that period, giving them intimate pictures as well as talking about his experiences in hidden houses and clandestine meetings. It’s not quite a thriller, but if you want some pulse-pounding moments scattered in with reflections and a life story that would be interesting enough without them, you won’t go wrong here.

You can tell that Rushdie is tremendously smart without being condescending about it, and the memoir feels like a conversation with him about himself. I highly recommend Joseph Anton, with the caveat that there is some harsh language in it (not terribly gratuitous), because it just checks so many boxes. It’s funny, informative, has real meaning, and puts it all together with a narrative flow worthy of a great novelist. I don’t like giving a numerical rating to books, but if I did Joseph Anton would consistently get perfect scores in all categories.

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: 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.