Book Review: The Tao of Pooh by Benjamin Hoff


Author: Benjamin Hoff
Title: The Tao of Pooh
Narrator: Simon Vance
Publication Info: Tantor Audio, 2012 (originally published in 1982)
Summary/Review:

I read the writings of Lao Tzu and A.A. Milne for the first time when I was in college.  I read this book too, which tied all those things together. And since I loved all of what I read this became one of my favorite books.  As I’m periodically trying to revisit some of my favorite books of all time as audiobook, I listened to this version charmingly narrated by Simon Vance.

My impression is that while it is stil a good book, it really feels like the type of book someone in college would ascribe a lot more value too, if that makes any sense.  Through the characters of the 100 Acres Wood, Hoff ably introduces the basic concepts of Taoist philosophy, and through Taoist philosophy he also introduces the basic characteristics of Winnie the Pooh.  It’s an entertaining portal to these concepts that is worth reading, or listening to, even if just maybe it’s not one of the greatest books of all time.

Recommended books:

Rating: ****

Book Review: Iron and Silk by Mark Salzman


Author: Mark Salzman
Title: Iron & Silk
Narrator: Barry Carl
Publication Info: Recorded Books, Inc, 1987
Other Books Read by the Same Author: Lying Awake, The Soloist, Lost In Place: Growing Up Absurd in Suburbia, and The Laughing Sutra
Summary/Review:

When I was in high school, Mark Salzman came to speak to members of the National Honors Society (his father worked in development for my school).  I was not a member of the National Honors Society (long story – still bitter), but my English teacher had been at our talk and said he was “wonderful,” and that we should all go down and crash the NHS meeting instead of having English teacher.

I remember entering the library as Salzman was telling an animated story about astronauts that involved him walking across the top of a table.  I enjoyed his stories and his positivie attitude about embracing life, so I got a copy of his memoir Iron & Silk.  It soon became one of my favorite books and for many years I read each new Salzman book as it came out.  Since I’m trying revisit books on my list of Favorite Books of All Time, I figured it was due for a reread.

Mark Salzman grew up in suburban Connecticut and at a young age was drawn to kung fu (more properly termed “wushu”) and from there a more general interest in Chinese culture and language.  Earning a degree in Chinese studies from Yale, Salzman travelled to China in the early 1980s to work as an English teacher for two years at Changsha Medical University. This was at a time when China had been shut off from the United States for decades, so Salzman was among the first Americans to get a taste of everyday life in China.

Much of the book is about the cultural exchange among Salzman and his students and the other faculty.  There are many humorous stories of the differences of expectations in a classroom setting and the different understandings of history from Chinese and Western backgrounds.  Salzman becomes something of a local celebrity for being a tall, blond man who can speak fluent Chinese.  Some of the warmest parts of this book involved a fisherman Salzman meets who is amazed by the foreigner in his midst and basically welcomes him into the family.

Salzman also takes the opportunity to study his own interests including learning Chinese dialects and calligraphy.  The core of the book, though, focuses on the martial arts, as Salzman receives instruction from two different wushu masters whose different styles are the metaphor in the title of the book, iron and silk.  The “iron” teacher was Pan Qingfu, a legendary grandmaster who starred in Shaolin Temple, China’s first blockbuster film released in 1982.

Rereading this as an adult, I’m more aware of the gravity of the stories Salzman’s acquaintances tell of World War II and the Cultural Revolution.  I also notice when Salzman’s biases creep in.  But by and large, this is still the same charming, humorous, and inspiring book I remember reading as a teenager, albeit now it seems more of a relic of the 1980s than current.  I remember also seeing a movie adaptation of this book that somehow included a romance that doesn’t exist in the books, and wasn’t very good, even though Salzman and Pan Qingfu.  So read the book, ignore the movie.

Recommended books: The Silent Traveller in Boston by Chiang Yee, The Roads to Sata by Alan Booth, and An African in Greenland by Tété-Michel Kpomassie
Rating: ****1/2

Book Review: Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen by Sarah Bird


AuthorSarah Bird
TitleDaughter of a Daughter of a Queen 
NarratorBahni Turpin
Publication Info: Macmillan Audio (2018)
Summary/Review:

Daughter of a Daughter of a Queen is a historical novel loosely based on the true story of Cathay Williams, a freed slave who disguised herself as a man and served with the Buffalo Soldiers of the US Army.  The fictionalized Cathy’s story begins when Philip Sheridan’s Union Army liberates the plantation where she was enslaved, and mistaking her for a man, assigns her as an assistant for the cook.  The real Sheridan was a problematic figure, but the rapport and eventual friendship between Cathy and Sheridan in this novel is one of its most charming aspects.

After the war, Cathy decides there isn’t much opportunity for her as a freed person, and disguises herself as a man under the pseudonym William Cathay.  In the novel, she gets herself into the cavalry and is known as a sharpshooter.  Nevertheless, she faces the challenge of keeping her real identity secret amid bullying from the other soldiers and the fear of the danger she faced if discovered.

The earlier parts of the novel seem stronger to me as a plot in which Cathy has romantic feelings towards her sergeant dominate the latter half of the book.  I suppose it’s a natural plotline, but it seems the most obvious trope of stories in which someone disguises themselves as the opposite gender going back at least to Shakespeare.  On the other hand, if you are drawn to romance, it provides a nice balance to the grim realities of war, toxic masculinity, and racial prejudice depicted in the novel.

My enjoyment of this novel was greatly improved by the terrific voices that Bahni Turpin provides in her narration.
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Recommended booksJubilee by Margaret Walker, Blindspot by Jane Kamensky
Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Greed and Glory by Sean Deveney


Author:  Sean Deveney
TitleGreed and Glory: The Rise and Fall of Doc Gooden, Lawrence Taylor, Ed Koch, Rudy Giuliani, Donald Trump, and the Mafia in 1980s New York
Publication Info: Skyhorse Publishing (2018)
Summary/Review:

Sean Deveney follows up his book about New York City in the 1960s through the lens of local politics and sports, Fun City, with this book about New York City in the 1980s through the lens of local politics and sports.  Fun City focused on two figures, Mayor John Lindsay and Jets quarterback Joe Namath, both handsome, young men who rose to prominence alongside the 60s youth culture and offered the promise of a great future (for themselves and the city) but also had hubris that lead to colossal failures.  Greed and Glory, as evident by the extraordinarily long subtitle is not so focused.  Greed and Glory cuts from storyline to storyline with no clear theme, and often is not even arranged chronologically.

The sports angle is covered by the 1986 World Series champion New York Mets and 1987 Super Bowl champion New York Giants.  Star players Dwight Gooden for the Mets and Lawrence Taylor for the Giants each struggle with their celebrity in New York and each end up with cocaine addictions that mar their careers.  But Deveney just can’t seem to focus on these two players and what they mean to the larger story of New York in the 1980s, and instead spends a lot of time describing the experiences of other Mets and other Giants and play-by-plays of important games in their championship seasons.  And while this kind of narrative can be interesting, there are whole other books dedicated to these teams’ champion seasons, whereas this one promises and fails to tell a more relevant story of Gooden and Taylor in 1980s New York.

The other storylines focus on New York mayor Ed Koch as his third term is rocked by scandals among the Democratic party leaders throughout the city.  Future mayor Rudy Giuliani makes his mark as the United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York by aggressively pursuing cases against the Mafia as well as the political corruption in the Koch administration.  And Donald Trump carries out a convoluted plot to get a NFL team and a domed stadium in Queens (paid for with other peoples’ money, naturally) by suing the NFL on behalf of the USFL.  The plan fails, but he somehow redeems himself by restoring the Wollman skating rink in Central Park.  Pretty much every sketchy detail of his character (and lack thereof) was evident in the 1980s, but for some reason people still decided to make him famous and then elect him President.  Ugh!

These storylines – if the Mets/Giants stories were excised – could almost make a good book, but there’s still too much and it just comes out messy. Granted, the 1980s in New York were a mess and it’s still difficult to make any sense of it.  Deveney doesn’t make a dent in that mess, but I will give him credit for at least making it a pageturner of a read, if ultimately too fluffy for its own good.

Recommended books:

  • The Bad Guys Won! A Season of Brawling, Boozing, Bimbo-chasing, and Championship Baseball with Straw, Doc, Mookie, Nails, The Kid, and the Rest of the 1986 Mets, the Rowdiest Team Ever to Put on a New York Uniform–and Maybe the Best by Jeff Pearlman
  • Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City by Jonathan Mahler
  • Lillian Boxfish Takes a Walk by Kathleen Rooney
  • New York Calling : From Blackout to Bloomberg edited by Marshall Berman and Brian Berger.

Rating: **1/2

Book Review: Spinning by Tillie Walden


Author: Tillie Walden
TitleSpinning
Publication Info: First Second (2017)
Summary/Review:

Walden’s illustrated memoir tells of several years in her childhood when she was a dedicated figure skater and synchronized skater which involved rising early to get to the rink, extensive travel to tournaments, and a discomfort with the performative femininity expected of her.  Outside of skating, Walden moves from New Jersey to Austin, TX and has to adjust to a new school, deal with a bully,  and come out as a lesbian.  It’s an insightful and meditative look back on the choices made in childhood and their long lasting effects.

Favorite Passages:

“I’m the type of creator who is happy making a book without all the answers.  I don’t need to understand my past fully in order to draw a comic about it.  And now that this is a book that other people will read, I feel like it’s not really my turn to answer  that question.  It’s for the reader to decide, to speculate, to guess.  It reminds me of how in English class in high school we would always talk about the author’s intentions in every moment.  And I used to always wonder if there was ever an author who really didn’t mean any of it, and the meaning found its way in by accident.  I think I’m that author.”

Recommended booksFun Home: A Family Tragicomic by Alison Bechdel

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: Wishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher


AuthorCarrie Fisher
TitleWishful Drinking
Narrator:  Carrie Fisher
Publication Info: S&S Audio (2009)
Summary/Review:

Based on her stage performance, the delightful Carrie Fisher wryly reflects on her celebrity upbringing, her marriages and relationships, her mental health problems, and substance abuse issues.  An interesting memoir for fans and non-fans alike.

Recommended booksFuriously Happy by Jenny Lawson, Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh, and You’re Never Weird on the Internet by Felcia Day
Rating: ***

Book Review: Black Panther. Vol. 1, A Nation Under our Feet by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze, and Chris Sprouse


Author:Ta-Nehisi Coates, Brian Stelfreeze (Artist) and Chris Sprouse (Artist)
TitleBlack Panther. Vol. 1, A Nation Under our Feet
Publication Info: New York, NY : Marvel Worldwide, Inc., a subsidiary of Marvel Entertainment, LLC, [2017]
Summary/Review:

This collection includes the first four issues of this Black Panther series.  The illustrations are amazing, and Coates’ sparse, meditative text makes one thing.  I do find it hard to identify all the characters and keep up with the story, but that may just be a me problem with inexperience reading comics.  The collection also includes a reprint of Black Panther’s 1960s debut in a Fantastic Four comic when he apparently was a villain.

Rating: ***1/2

Book Review: God and Empire: Jesus against Rome, Then and Now by John Crossan


Author: John Crossan
TitleGod and empire : Jesus against Rome, then and now
Publication Info: [San Francisco] : HarperSanFrancisco, c2007.
Previously Read by the Same Author: Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography
Summary/Review:

This is a complex but fascinating book that I muddled through over the course of Lent this year.  The basic thesis of this book is that Jesus Christ taught a radical message contrary to the idea of empire, whether the Roman empire of Christ’s time or the American empire today.  Pax Romana created peace through the enforcement of Roman military strength but the Kingdom of God is a true peace built on justice and equality.  Thus the violence of “civilized” humanity if challenged by Christ’s non-violence.  This is a book worthy of a contemplative reread.
Favorite Passages:

As the greatest pre-industrial and territorial empire—just as we are the greatest post-industrial and commercial empire—Rome was the expression, no more and no less, of the normalcy of civilization’s violence, first-century style. Usually we use the term “civilization” for everything that is good about our humanity—for example, poetry and drama, music and dance, art and architecture, image and narrative. Correspondingly, to call individuals or groups, places or actions, “uncivilized” is normally a calculated insult. So I need to explain very clearly what I mean in this book by the “brutal normalcy of civilization.” The point I wish to emphasize is that imperialism is not just a here-and-there, now-and-then, sporadic event in human history, but that civilization itself, as I am using that term, has always been imperial—that is, empire is the normalcy of civilization’s violence. It is, of course, always possible to oppose this empire in favor of that one, to oppose yours in favor of ours. But if you oppose empire-as-such, you are taking on what has been the normalcy of civilization’s brutality for at least the last six thousand years.

As everyone knows, civilization began immediately with fratricide: the murder of one brother by another. But the story is more detailed than that. “Abel was a keeper of sheep, and Cain a tiller of the ground” (4:2), and “when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him” (4:8). That inaugural fratricide was the murder of a shepherd by a farmer on his own farm. That is the first act in the invention of human civilization—the farmer displacing the shepherd—and God does not punish the farmer but only marks him forever as the future of a lost past. There is no counterviolence from God—not even the appropriate divine vengeance when, as God says, “your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground!” (4:10).

I think that Jesus started by accepting John’s theology of God’s imminence but, precisely because of what happened to John, changed from that to a theology of God’s presence. John expected God’s advent, but Antipas’s cavalry came instead. John was executed, and God still did not come as an avenging presence. Maybe, thought Jesus, that was not how God acted because that is not how God is. Jesus’s own proclamation therefore insisted that the Kingdom of God was not imminent but present; it was already here below upon this earth, and however it was to be consummated in the future, it was a present-already and not just an imminent-future reality. Jesus could hardly have made such a spectacular claim without immediately appending another one to it. You can speak forever about the future-imminence of the Kingdom, but unless you are foolish enough to give a precise date, you can hardly be proved right or wrong. We are but waiting for God to act; apart from preparatory faith, hope, and prayer, there is no more we can do. When God acts, it will be, presumably, like a flash of divine lightning beyond all categories of time and place. But to claim an already-present Kingdom demands some evidence, and the only such that Jesus could have offered is this: it is not that we are waiting for God, but that God is waiting for us. The present Kingdom is a collaborative eschaton between the human and divine worlds. The Great Divine Cleanup is an interactive process with a present beginning in time and a future (short or long?) consummation. Would it happen without God? No. Would it happen without believers? No. To see the presence of the Kingdom of God, said Jesus, come, see how we live, and then live likewise.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death—or in fact the death of any martyr—a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.

It is the age-old normalcy of civilization’s violent injustice that is weakness and foolishness with God, and it is God’s nonviolent justice that is weakness and foolishness for civilization’s violent normalcy.

To turn the nonviolent resistance of the slaughtered Jesus into the violent warfare of the slaughtering Jesus is, for me as a Christian, to libel the body of Jesus and to blaspheme the soul of Christ.

Recommended books:

Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan , The Rapture Exposed: The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation by Barbara R. Rossing, Hell’s Abyss, Heaven’s Grace: War and Christian Spirituality by Lawrence Hart, and Quest for the living God : mapping frontiers in the theology of God by Elizabeth A. Johnson
Rating: ****

Book Review: 1493 : Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann


Author: Charles C. Mann
Title1493 : Uncovering the new world Columbus created
Narrator: Robertson Dean
Publication Info: Random House Audio (2011)
Previously Read by Same Author1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus
Summary/Review:

A sequel of sorts to 1491, this book investigates the wide-ranging impact of contact between Eurasia & Africa and the Americas and exchange of people, animals, plants, and micorganisms that followed in the wake of Christopher Columbus’ voyages.  This is called the Columbian Exchange and is the root of today’s globalism.  Mann investigates a wide variety of topics, places, and times right up to the present day that resulted from this exchange.  It’s a fascinating overview of social and economical forces at work through history.
Recommended books:

The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World by Michael Pollan, Vermeer’s Hat: The Seventeenth Century and the Dawn of the Global World by Timothy Brook , and Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies by Jared Diamond
Rating: ****

Book Review: What Were the Twin Towers? by Jim O’Connor


Author: Jim O’Connor
TitleWhat Were the Twin Towers
Publication Info: New York : Grosset & Dunlap, an imprint of Penguin Random House, [2016]
Summary/Review:

Following on the Hurricane Katrina book, my son and I read this history of the World Trade Center in New York City.  The book is a full history of the Twin Towers dating back to its conception by David Rockefeller in the 1960s and deals with controversies such as the removal of Radio Row by eminent domain.  There’s a lot of detail about the design and construction of the buildings, and fun stories such as Philipe Petit’s walk on the wire.  The book also dedicates a chapter to the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993.  The September 11 attacks are of course a major subject of the book, and again done in a clear manner appropriate to the age of the reader.  There is also a chapter on the memorial, museum, and new One World Trade Center building.  On the 15th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, this was a good way to remember the events of that day with someone to young to remember it himself.
Rating: ***1/2