Review of The Hero With an African Face

I read Clyde Ford’s The Hero with an African Face (Amazon affiliate link) this week and found it to be one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Now, with that said, it’s not a book I’d recommend to a disinterested novice. It targets an audience already familiar, to an extent, with the work of Jung and Campbell. While this knowledge isn’t strictly necessary, it helps. People familiar with literary criticism in general should not have difficulties.

The Hero with an African Face shines in its respect and depth of interaction with the myths it presents. Ford does a tremendous job bringing everything together in a meaningful way. Likewise, he builds from simple to complex themes and topics.

He also does not try to cram the whole of African mythology into a single schema. He addresses the contrasting and parallel elements within individual cultures without over-simplification. Ford talks about both the myths and the culture surrounding them with great detail. This allows Westerners with different cultural assumptions than Africans to better appreciate the myths.

As is common among surveys of mythology, Ford groups the myths by topic. He spends some time with creation myths, then on to myths about the underworld, and so forth. He also, as mentioned earlier, focuses on the cultural origins of the myths. The Yoruba oreishas’ stories come separate from the stories of ancient Ghana. The exception to this is when they are deliberately compared, which is always marked.

I’m not an expert on African myth. My limited knowledge of the subject is much less than Ford’s, so I can’t critique his own knowledge. I can say with confidence that my knowledge of African mythology has grown by reading this book.

A book like this has three ways it can provide value.

The first is its information. Assuming Ford’s work is correct, The Hero with an African Face delivers. His work is recommended by experts, which I will have to satisfy myself with. While the body is just 200 pages long, each page carries new and significant information. The book cannot cover the entirety of African mythology, but it gives a foundation.

As a source of stories, the book has more ambiguity. Its length limits it, and its stories are often abridged. Despite this, it still offers glimpses at captivating, and unfamiliar, stories. Many of the stories show the deep archetypal underpinnings of storytelling. These stories are absent in the Western canon, and give a feel for the breadth of human expression. It gives a whole new context for understanding the modern African writer.

The last criteria is how pleasant the book is to read. Ford uses diagrams and images to great effect, and bolsters the text. He intersperses personal and historical experiences with stories and literary theory. The whole text rings with passion and conviction, and carries such meaning that it is hard to pull away from.

Ford is a master wordsmith. Although he contents himself to apply others’ methods to a new frontier, he elevates their work. By applying a different perspective, Ford unlocks secrets that others were blind to. In particular, his take on the heroic cycle is refreshing. Ford contrasts the fact-based Western culture with the expression-based African culture. This paints the picture of a hero who gains qualities, instead of one who passes waystones.

This is an easy book to recommend. It’s academic, but also bears intrinsic interest. It tells stories that touch on universal themes, and helps us interpret all stories. It deals with the individual and the whole of humanity in one marvelous attempt.

Review of Letters to A Young Writer

I recently listened to Colum McCann’s Letters to a Young Writer (Amazon affiliate link), and since I often write reviews I figured I’d write a review of it.

If that feels like an uninspiring opening, you might not be too far from the truth.

Letters to a Young Writer was born out of the seeds of a blog, which McCann mentions in an early chapter, and it feels kind of like a blog.

So, with that said, you have the crux of the weakness in the book. It’s a collection of essays, but they’re all largely independent of each other. The result isn’t terrible, but it means that the entire book has very little build-up and delivery.

If you’re looking for a more comprehensive book on writing, I’d suggest John McPhee’s Draft No. 4 (my review), or quite frankly any of the longer-form books.

With that said, there’s only a couple criticisms that I would care to level McCann’s writing itself instead of the format of the book.

First, it’s overly flowery, and this is keeping in mind that it’s written for writers, and we tend to be flowery sorts. When McCann’s trying simply to inspire, this works really well. However, there are times when he could be giving a practical insight but it’s lost under layers of wanting to look good.

Second, it’s very experiential. McCann acknowledges this and provides plenty of places where he confesses to not knowing things (which I consider a great positive), but the problem is that when you combine this with the flowery nature of the prose you wind up with situations where you get an almost Montaigne-esque “Oh, but I don’t know for sure.”

While that’s certainly better than pretending to know, and it does enable McCann to explore some avenues he might not otherwise want to talk about because he wouldn’t feel authoritative on them, it feels like he’s going off the cuff and hasn’t done research (the idea of whether writers should go for a MFA in writing, for instance, is one where he prevaricates in a particularly noticeable fashion).

As for inspiration, McCann is very inspiring in the sense that he offers good pick-me-ups and a lot of encouragement. Some of the work feels overly political or, perhaps, not political but attached to the notion that the current moment is radically different than all past moments.

To clarify what I mean, it feels like McCann tells the writer to write because only writers can bring truth and purpose to being. Now, I’m not necessarily opposed to that, as someone who is very into the theories of Jung and Campbell and the roles stories play to our psyche, but this sort of weird teleological devotion sends him off-topic.

If you’re into that, it works well for inspiration. It’s very emotional, however.

All-in-all, the fifty-two essays feel almost like they’re intended to be a once-a-week thing, but the question then is why one wouldn’t just look at a blog. McCann certainly is a gifted writer, and he hits some high points, but with an average length of about three pages the essays generally don’t build on what there is to know about writing beyond a very elementary level.

There are also parts that would be a little too crude for a young writer (i.e. a child), with McCann letting his language get a little coarse. It’s not excessive vulgarity, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable putting it in a classroom library or giving it to a student.

The audiobook was read by McCann himself, and I actually found him to do a really good job of putting emotion into it and making his meaning clear. He has an Irish accent and musical cadence that really makes his point build to a crescendo and carries more than just the letter of the word.

So do I recommend it?

It’s hard to say. At its price ($14 for a Kindle version at the time of writing), there are a lot of alternatives that could serve just as well, either in the form of blogs or more authoritative volumes. If you like McCann, or you’re looking for something like a writer’s devotional, then it might be more of an option.

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 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 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: 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 and Reflection: Skin in the Game

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

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

Review: Age of Ambition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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