Category Archives: book reviews

There is no such thing as a free gift

The Gift by Marcel Mauss

The Gift by Marcel Mauss

“There is no such thing as free lunch.” To this, Mauss would add ‘free gift‘ For him, free gift is an oxymoron. A gift comes with three obligations: to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. A person must give, and the other must receive, and give back something of equal, if not greater, value.

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A New History of Western Philosophy: An Exhausting Read

School of Athens

This article reviews A New History of Western Philosophy by Anthony Kenny

While intellectual history is a bird’s eye view of the intellectual landscape, a history of philosophy is a x-ray version of that landscape. A Gothic church has her beautiful stained glass windows, paintings and all other exquisite adornments but they merely suggest or altogether fail to tell us the underlying structure that supports the church itself. The relation between ideas and philosophy is similar. Philosophy reveals what is the underlying flows behind the intellectual ideas. It is, therefore, an x-ray version of the intellectual history.

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Masterpieces in Intellectual History: A Panoramic Picture of Western Civilisation

The Landscape of Ideas

The Landscape of Ideas

This article reviews two masterpieces of intellectual history: From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life (by Jacques Barzun) and The Modern Mind: An Intellectual History of the 20th Century (by Peter Watson)

Reading intellectual history is like looking out at the window when the plane takes off. The colossal buildings become smaller and smaller until they are no more than little blocks of lego. It is then you realize how those distinct and individual blocks are connected through streets and roads, so that a coherent image of cityscape begins to emerge. Intellectual history is such a bird’s eye view of the whole intellectual landscape.

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Capital in the Twenty-First Century – A Review from a Layman’s Perspective

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

Capital in the Twenty-First Century

With economics knowledge only at the high school level, I am not in a position to judge the merits of Capital in the Twenty-First Century (‘Capital’) written by the French economist, Thomas Piketty, and translated by Arthur Goldhammer. Economist and Financial Times, the vanguards of free market and capitalism, have launched their, sometimes scathing, reviews of the work (also see the links in the extended readings below). Numerous other professional economists and experts must have also put forward their own learned views. What I wish to do here, however, is to review the work from a layman’s perspective; that is from a perspective of a curious reader with a keen passion to know more about the world. Although Piketty intends to write for the general audiences, the length of this work – running more than 600 pages – is formidable even for a non-fiction reader like me. This is especially so as the idea that he espouses does not seem a particularly insightful one.

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Empires of the Word or Empire of Words? – A Review of Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World

Khmer Inscription in Banteay Srei (Angkor Wat) The Khmer language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit

Khmer Inscription in Banteay Srei (Angkor Wat)
The Khmer language is heavily influenced by Sanskrit

Empires of the Word: A Language History of the World , written by Nicholas Ostler, is an immensely learned book with an ambitious project: to recount world history from the births and demises of languages. From the cuneiforms engraved on the baked clay in 3000 BC  to the gloablisation of English in the twenty-first century, Ostler narrated this 5000 years of history from the perspective of languages – an approach, in his terminology, called ‘language dynamics’.

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The British Empire in English Novels: Kim and Burmese Days

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880's

A family photo from northeastern India, c.1880’s

At her zenith, the British Empire governed a quarter of the Earth’s land and brought roughly a quarter of the word’s population under her dominion. The Empire was so huge that it was hailed as the empire ‘on which the sun never sets’. Yet by 1920s, the very word ’empire’ became an object of ridicule. David Low, the satirical cartoonist, even represented the British Empire as Colonel Blimp – a middle – aged man who is pompous, aggressive, shallow and slow – witted. The unwarranted self-assurance in the late nineteenth century has descended to self – doubting and deteriorated into shattered confidence. This process has been illustrated in many English novels, among which Kim (Rudyard Kipling) and Burmese Days (George Orwell) are ones of the most representative works. 

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Travel the World with Van Loon

‘ “But what,” as Alice might have asked, “is the use of Geography without a little Travelling?” ‘, Van Loon concluded in his Geography: A Story of the World (1937). Van Loon was a prolific writer, most reputedly known for his Story of Mankind that won the first Newbery Medal – an award for distinguished book written for children. Full of humanity and compassion, his works provided a rich source of knowledge for children and adults alike.
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The Last Emperor (1987)

Puyi: ‘Do you think a man can become an Emperor again?’
Johnston: ‘Yes’

China after 1911 witnessed a rush of unprecedented optimism that welcomed foreign ideas like republicanism, democracy and freedom. Using the Georgian calendar, driving mobile car and wearing western suit became a sign of culture and modernity – a final victory of the civilized West. In another secluded place, the high red wall insulated an ancient culture from this rush, trying, rather obstinately, to protect the old traditions in keeping the lunisolar calendar, riding horses and wearing Qing robes. This is the Forbidden City.

The Inner Court within this Forbidden City which itself is a city within the Peking city resides a person representing these futile or noble, depending on how you see, attempts. He was hailed as the Lord of Ten Thousand Years but was stripped off any effective power by the age of 6. He was the absolute lord in his own court but a powerless commoner beyond the red wall. He is Puyi – the last emperor of China.

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七種武器之 拳頭


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A Few Words on Titus Andronicus

‘If one good deed in all my life I did, I do repent it from my very soul’ said Aaron the Moor

Rape, murder, human sacrifice and cannibalism are the last things you’ll associate with William Shakespeare, and yet, that’s what Titus Andronicus is about. 

In essence, the plot is the revenge of Titus Andronicus, the glorious Roman general who lost 22 sons to conquer the Goths, against the villainous Aaron, sadistic Chiron and Demetrius and the scheming Tamora (Queen of the Roman Emperor).

The violence starts when Titus insisted on taking Alarbus as sacrifice for his 22 lost sons in the war, despite a strong pitiful plead from the mother – Tamora. Aaron, out of pure vice, plotted with Chiron and Demetrius – Tamora’s remaining sons, to put Titus’ two sons to deaths and to get Lavina raped and have her tongue and hands cut off – as an attempt to prevent her uttering the rapists’ names.

Titus eventually found Chiron and Demetrius as the wrongdoers. He killed them, ground their bones, mixed their blood and meat into paste, and served it to their mother at banquet. Aaron was later buried and starved to death.

The distinction between the civilised Roman and barbarous Goth blurred. Titus’ killing Alarbus as sacrifice, then serving the sons’ cooked flesh to mother is no less horrible than Demetrius and Chiron raping and then mutilating a girl they supposedly love.

Like the love of Romeo and Juliet and indecisiveness of Hamlet, Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus presents yet another universal life theme: the endless cycle of revenges. When Titus started the human sacrifice,  the whirlpool of revenges begins to draw everyone in

This whirlpool of revenges, along with the blurred line between civilisation and barbarism, bear such striking relevance to today context that once again proves the timelessness of Shakespeare. American involvement in the Middle East, notably the support for the repressive Bahrain, and the subsequent pursue of the al Qaeda only serve to remind me of Titus and the Goths.

‘Justice has been done’ said Barack Obama to the killing of Osama Bin Laden. I doubt that.

Indeed, the point here is not justice as such but the endless rounds of revenges that trap people into a quagmire.

Forgive and forget is easier said than done. But that’s what Titus Andronicus warned us to do.

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