Category: Book Reviews

2018 Stats

In 2018 I read twenty-five books, fourteen of which were nonfiction, nine fiction, and two poetry. This is nowhere near my pre-martial-arts numbers, but coming off a 75% decrease in reading since 2016, it is exciting to finally have a year that doesn’t represent a downward trend from the one before!

I read 1 book written in the 1800s
2 books written between 1900-1949
6 books written between 1950-1999
16 books written between 2000-2018

Books that I rated 1 star: 0 (0%)
2 stars: 7 (28%)
3 stars: 5 (20%)
4 stars: 5 (20%)
5 stars: 8 (32%)

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Tapisserie de Bayeux

tapisserie de bayeux editions artaud freres 2011Tapisserie de Bayeux: Photos and Captions of Bayeux Tapestry, published by Éditions Artaud Frères, 5/5

This high-quality souvenir book contains photos of the complete 11th-century Bayeux Tapestry and terse captions in six languages, outlining events leading up to the Norman conquest of England and culminating in spoilers King Harold’s death at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.  The needlework is charmingly quirky, from the multi-colored horses to the occasional nude figures in the border, proudly displaying their embroidered nethers to my extreme amusement.

Why I read it: this book has been in my to-read pile for so long that I can’t remember where or when I bought it. Glad I did, though!

A Fighter’s Heart

a fighters heart sam sheridan grove press 2007A Fighter’s Heart: One Man’s Journey Through the World of Fighting by Sam Sheridan, 3/5

Sheridan put a lot of blood and sweat into this appropriately self-deprecating foray into the world of martial arts, which sees him train Muay Thai at the Fairtex camp, MMA with Pat Miletich of UFC fame, BJJ with Brazilian Top Team, tai chi, and boxing with Virgil Hunter and Andre Ward, before veering off-topic for a unsettlingly positive take on the sport of dog fighting and finally ending a bit lamely on a Hollywood set. While Sheridan is a thoughtful and competent writer, he is by no means an insightful one. I found it frustrating that he rarely achieved more depth than a men’s magazine article would, despite being surrounded by legends and, as a paid writer, enjoying opportunities beyond the reach of the average amateur fighter. Still, it was an entertaining read and could have been unimaginably worse if written by a less enthusiastic personality.

Why I read it: Jake from the gym recommended and lent it to me.

Sugar and Salt–Foods or Poison?

sugar and salt axel emil gibson will a kistler company 1913Sugar and Salt–Foods or Poison? by Axel Emil Gibson, 3/5

As a sugar addict in a state of near-constant relapse, I have first-hand experience with the bizarre, drug-like power of sugar and the rarely-acknowledged withdrawal symptoms that accompany any serious attempt to resist it. Over-dramatic as this may sound, it’s positively restrained compared to Dr. Axel Emil Gibson’s opinion on the topic:

The dominating ingredient in most of our dishes, sugar perverts our taste, blinds our instincts, bewilders our gastric consciousness, and leaves us guidelessly and aimlessly adrift in the rapids and breakers of morbid and despotic cravings, not infrequently decoying the individual into body-and-mind-destroying excesses (13).

Though a proponent of naturally-occurring sugars in fruits and vegetables, Dr. Gibson fervently denounces “free sweets” (extracted or concentrated sugar) and has no qualm about addressing the metaphysical and moral implications of one’s nutritional choices. Written in 1913, this eyebrow-raising rhetoric, accompanied by old-fashioned science, makes it tempting to dismiss the book as outdated and of historic rather than practical value. After all, if current, more-enlightened times see numerous fad diets fueling a multi-billion dollar weight loss industry, what crazier, more ignorant, unscientific advice might this doctor from over 100 years ago recommend? The answer is extremely embarrassing. Gibson’s dietary recommendations are simple, commonsense, and inarguable: he preaches moderation and “[nature’s] own faultless cuisine, where the sun does the cooking and the earth the seasoning” (26).  And yet, it is just in recent years that science and popular culture have started to catch up with this hundred-year-old wisdom, after spending decades hardheadedly demonizing fat. To me, this supports the “sugar conspiracy,” which is a rabbit hole well-worth traveling down since the “evidence” against it actually seems to argue for it instead. Just read a summary of Science magazine’s article claiming to prove there is no “sugar conspiracy,” or this Verge article on the topic. Both focus on salvaging the scientific community’s credibility and denying the conspiracy, while at the same time verifying and attempting to excuse the sugar industry’s underhanded dealings.

Why I read it: The title caught my eye in an antique store and for $5, I couldn’t resist discovering 100-year-old opinions on a still-controversial topic.

Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance pirsig harpertorch 2006Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values by Robert M. Pirsig, 2/5

Reading this philosophical novel was, for me, like trying to experience a song by simply reading the lyrics–I understood the words, but I couldn’t hear the “music.” I suspect this is due in part to my reflexive antipathy for the 1960s zeitgeist and a general shift away from academic thought in my life. However, I’d prefer to think that the fault is the author’s, for alternating arbitrarily-detailed descriptions of a motorcycle road trip with dry, preachy philosophical rants that fall into the trap described by C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man:

“…But you cannot go on ‘explaining away’ for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on ‘seeing through’ things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? It is no use trying to ‘see through’ first principles. If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To ‘see through’ all things is the same as not to see (81).”

In an attempt to understand my negative experience with such a popular, respected book, I read a lot of user reviews afterwards and learned more about the author. I now know that the book is highly autobiographical and wonder if my dislike of it reflects a basic personal incompatibility with the author/narrator and a recognition of how his pursuit of personal catharsis might taint the intellectual integrity of his arguments. I didn’t feel any sort of sympathy, connection or respect for the main character, suspecting that I would dislike him if I met him in person, which is certainly not a great basis on which to approach a book. With this understanding, I might re-read it in a few years and see if I can get something more out of it than I did this time.

Why I read it: I was browsing Half Price Books for reading material for a trip to Scotland and recognized the title.

Far from the Madding Crowd

far from the madding crowd thomas hardy bantam classic 1982Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy, 5/5

Far from the tidy Victorian romance I expected, this short novel has a plot as fast-paced and dramatic as a play and stars a cast of four flawed personalities engaged in a brutal love rectangle. I enjoyed it as thoroughly as I later despised the shallow and cliched 2015 film version.

Why I read it: my sister, Grace, recommended it to me.

Seabiscuit

seabiscuit laura hillenbrand ballantine 2002Seabiscuit: An American Legend by Laura Hillenbrand, 4/5

This true story wasn’t quite as readable as I’d expected, having been absolutely blown away by Hillenbrand’s later work Unbroken. I was partly to blame for approaching the book with a skepticism that made me look disconsolately for footnotes where there were none. For some reason, I just couldn’t escape the nagging question “does she really know what all the people in her story said and felt, or is she just making it all up?” I would have had a much more enjoyable experience if I’d read the end notes, acknowledgements and interview with the author at the end of the book first. These sources helped me realize the insane amount of time and energy Hillenbrand, already an accomplished equestrian author, put into researching the story of Seabiscuit.

I just have to point out how bizarre it is that the horse’s face didn’t make it onto the cover of the book! Even the image on the spine is of the jockey, not his famous steed.

Why I read it: I was looking for something light to read while traveling and Seabiscuit had been on my radar for quite a while.