Thursday, 20 July 2017

REVIEW: "Warcraft: War of the Ancients #1: The Well of Eternity (Book 1)" by Richard A. Knaak

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Warcraft: War of the Ancients #1: The Well of Eternity (Book 1)
by Richard A. Knaak 
Pocket Star
Copyright April 2004
Mass Market Paperback, 384 Pages

Breathtakingly told and exceptionally written, the narrative of this book climaxes in an epic and heart-thumping battle against the fearsome demons of the Burning Legion. I absolutely relish the astounding and spellbinding fantasy world that the author conjured, and admire the skill to which the author masterfully weaved together the intricacies in the plot which evoked a deafening sense of suspense. This is certainly a novel that I look forward to rereading in the future. 

The narrative generated much foreboding and eventually thankfully resolved into a dramatic triumph of good over evil. Before the change of luck and surprise victory for the forces of good in the narrative, I can’t help but sigh with a sense of resignation in anticipation of the heartbreaking consequences of what I perceived would be an actualization of a tragic tale of delusion, greed, egoism, and depravity of inhumane proportions.

It is this sense of impending tragedy and doom permeating almost the entire narrative that I feel makes this book so incredibly riveting. The dreadful irony of the queen of the night elves facilitating a brutal carnage of her own people, who were rendered especially vulnerable by an idea of her own conjuring, makes the narrative so sad but deliciously captivating. It is the queen and her counselor’s painful delusion, and the depiction of her almost sociopathic witnessing and even fascination by the sight of her own city being razed to the ground alongside unparalleled suffering and death befalling her own people that I feel defined a narrative apex.

I admire especially the author’s linguistic prowess, particularly in fluently articulating matters I personally could not translate with integrity from visual to written form. I’ve always adored and been captivated by the in-game peculiar beauty of fantasy creatures, and I’ve seen similar creatures to the hounds of the Burning Legion in various videogames I enjoyed but always never could quite put into words their peculiar beauty and grand magnificence. As such, it was so invigorating to read of the author’s masterful presentation of such creatures—“The beasts” whose “scaly hides were colored a deathly crimson accented by savage splattering of black and on their backs fluttered a crest of wild, shaggy brown fur,” and “atop their backs thrust two long, whiplike, leathering tentacles that ended in tiny sucker mouths.”

Having personally played the Warcraft 3 game when I was young, and now just finished reading my very first book in the vast Warcraft franchise, I’ve come to be convinced of the perfectly complementary roles to which the game and the novels served each other. I believe that my having engaged with the game universe of Warcraft 3 allowed me to experience a heightened sense of enjoyment as I devoured this book. I also returned to the game with a renewed appreciation and understanding of this much loved fictional world after reading this book.

I felt nevertheless that this novel additionally offered a cherished experience that eclipses that which the videogame format could offer. As a reader, I savored how I was privy to for example environmental stimuli from the intimate perspective of characters and creatures directly involved in the plot. This distinctly contrasts with the mostly top-down point-of-view as offered by the Warcraft 3 in-game experience, taking into account as well relatively brief cutscenes in-game that only temporarily bring the reader closer in vantage point to the action in question. As with the free availability of our rich human imagination as well when I immerse myself in this fantasy world as conjured by the written word, I personally felt that the Warcraft world appeared more real to and better integrated into my consciousness than offered by the in-game experience.

If anything, I relished the way the action in the narrative was capable of making strong emotions pulse through me, even if it meant experiencing vicarious fear and dread for the various protagonists in times of stressful predicaments. This was especially so in the instance when the spirit of a friendly night elf Malfurion, in his fearless attempt to sabotage a rival operation by treading in the realm of the Emerald Dream, was captured when the reader least expected it, and taunted with the ominous question, “How long do you think it will take your body to die without your spirit within?”

It was almost a magical experience in itself as I worked through the pages of this novel. Whilst the plot clearly contained common narrative themes such as time travel and the use of magic, the way the author adroitly marshaled these themes into a creatively extraordinary plot would remain a skill I could only dream of attaining in time to come. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Monday, 17 July 2017

REVIEW: "Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance" by Oliver Bowden

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance
by Oliver Bowden
Copyright February 2010
Paperback, 496 Pages

A phenomenally entertaining and engrossing read culminating in a stunningly jaw-dropping and affecting climax and ending. This is a profound narrative of valor, duty, loyalty and resilience set in a captivating world spotlighting the antagonistic factions of the Templars and the Assassins, and which shadows a remarkably endearing Assassin by the name of Ezio Auditore. I personally enjoyed this book immensely and love the plot, and upon devouring the final sentence of this book instantly feel compelled to immerse myself in the next title of the series.

This book is exceptionally well-written: The dialogues are especially compelling and engaging; the rich and masterful writing, of the sensory, the scenic, and the architectural give goosebumps to the zealous literary and language lover; and this book is virtually never dearth of captivating details that suitably fortify the narrative. 

This narrative is extremely but comfortably fast-paced, and filled with a continuous stream of purposeful and refreshing action and plot twists. Most preciously, the plot pulses with a steadily captivating rhythm of excitement and sense of mystery. The flow and movement of the narrative felt seamless and was almost cinematic; one’s visualization of the Assassin’s Creed world fittingly aided by the author’s proficient and expressive writing. 

I devoured this novel alongside occasional watching of the gameplay of the Assassin’s Creed 2 videogame. With the game’s substantial emphasis on plot and character development, in addition to this novel’s religious adherence to the in-game plot, dialogue, action sequences and more, I personally found my engagement with this famed franchise in the written form to be sufficiently and even strongly satisfying. 

The in-game experience certainly would have offered elements such as interactivity and graphics unavailable in a written book form, I nevertheless am duly convinced that the novel is capable of offering an alternately enriching experience unattainable by the videogame. I savored the vivid narrative brought to life by the author’s linguistic prowess; there were plentiful sensory, psychological details and more in the novel that were rather simplistically portrayed or sometimes even absent in the videogame. This is especially so when the in-game graphics and sound were less able to capture with full integrity the subtle details in the dynamic range of human emotion and expression as compared to the written form where each reader’s individual imagination also come into play as one makes sense of and interprets the written word. 

Considering as well that this book was published after and explicitly based upon its videogame brethren, one could do well to expect that the author would conduct the necessary research to appropriately embellish and enrich the plot. Concerning the abundant cutscenes as found in the videogame, I’ve found the correlated scenes as depicted in this novel to feature distinctly more circumstantial details that enrich one’s experience with the narrative. 

Superfans, followers and avid gamers of the Assassin’s Creed series could complement their gaming experience, and augment their immersion in this popular franchise and its memorable characters by reading this novel. With this novel, literary fans and general readers disinclined toward videogames could also engage creatively and intellectually with the expansive Assassin’s Creed world through a favored or preferred medium. 

Character-wise, the magnetism of the protagonist Ezio is irresistible, and I found myself becoming increasingly smitten by this character as I progress along the narrative—Ezio’s near invincibility, his fearless shouldering and assuming of the most perilous tasks and roles, his uncanny talent and proficiency of the art of the assassin, and his ease at accomplishing the gravest and toughest of maneuvers were flawlessly rendered in the novel, topped off with delightful traces of sensuality. 

Despite the action, fights, deaths, and the virtually incessant spill of blood, profound words and lessons remain to the discovered within the pages of the book—notions of being an independent people, stories of loyalty to family, faction and cause, and of unsolicited wisdom and help in times of supreme hardship. This is made even more profound when the protagonist of the narrative Ezio, a practitioner in the “trade of death,” was celebrated for his heroism within the context of the plot.

This book isn’t entirely unblemished. The beginning of the novel wasn’t exceptionally riveting, with the quick progression of a series of events lacking in intrigue, mystery or wonderment, nor sufficiently generating reader anticipation. The general lack of context of these various happenings early on in the book left the reader with countless unanswered questions. I wished that the author would have included for example, an element of foreshadowing when it came to the mystery of the woman overseeing a bordello who seemed mystifyingly well versed and informed in the craft of stealth and murder.

At another rare instance near the beginning of the book, I wished the author wrote more illustratively and expressively. When I came across the use of the adjective “disgusting” in context within the following sequence—one that depicted a man hurled into “the water among the sewage and debris that had washed up around the foot of the first pier of the bridge” and thereafter “was too busy choking on the disgusting water that had poured into his mouth to notice that his companion had by now suffered the same fate”—I can’t help that other potentially more lyrical, creative or compelling descriptive possibilities to which the author would be capable of flitted through my mind. But of course, most might have considered this to be but an almost inconsequential detail. This book also contained a few minor editing errors, none of which are capable of detracting from the overall enjoyability and fluency of the narrative. 

One thing I’m absolutely certain of, I’m glad that my inaugural exposure to geographical, architectural and even historical traces of medieval Italy was through this exceptional novel, Assassin’s Creed: Renaissance

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Thursday, 13 July 2017

BLOG TOUR: "Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves" by Lee Daniel Kravetz

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Strange Contagion: Inside the Surprising Science of Infectious Behaviors and Viral Emotions and What They Tell Us About Ourselves 
by Lee Daniel Kravetz
Harper Wave
Copyright June 27, 2017
Hardcover, 288 Pages

This book is delightfully entertaining and educational. The author conscientiously charts his steadily progressive intellectual quest in researching and deciphering the significance of the phenomena of social contagions to the tragic occurrence of suicide clusters in the famed Silicon Valley, specifically the city of Palo Alto, California. This book makes for a pleasantly enjoyable read with its abundance of thought-provoking and fascinating material. 

Despite the seeming formidability of the subject matter, the ultimate essence of the discussions in the book boiled down to the condition of being human. Academically-inclined readers with an interest in psychology might most appreciate this book, readers from all walks of life however are also encouraged to read the book for the profound learning points embedded within. 

Personally, I feel that perusing this book has equipped me with a new kind of awareness and clarity in viewing life and its various constituents and stimuli. It is by no coincidence that the author’s competent tackling of the subject matter of social contagions eventually led to the realm of the intimate and the personal, of each and every person’s susceptibility to being subconsciously influenced by even seemingly the most unnoticeable detail in one’s surroundings. 

In further testament to the intellectual stimulation readers could expect from reading this book, the author meticulously documented progressively acquired knowledge and information as he crossed paths with various professionals ranging from scientists, psychologists to epidemiologists in his pursuit of remedies to the Palo Alto suicide clusters, and his eventual realization of the immense intricacy of the problem at hand. 

The author’s probing of the “strange contagion” led to incredibly fascinating territory. Discussions of the social contagion of violence along with associated concepts such as a city’s “threshold of tolerance for violence” was particularly compelling. When it came to purposeful and intentional use of the media to bring about changes in behavior in populations, a particular example stood out, namely that “a music video campaign in Nigeria led to a fivefold increase in the number of people seeking contraception every quarter.”

Certain psychological findings and assessments in the book was especially astounding. I really love this thought-provoking question posed by the author, “When is an emoji not just a shorthand emotional expression but a vessel carrying active ingredients of a virulent strange contagion?” Another remarkable revelation pertained to the potency and even insidiousness of “subtle priming” in allowing us to “register an idea and behave as though it has originated from within,” ideas related to for example one’s pursuit of goals. 

The author goes beyond impressing the reader with his quality research and cogent ideas to stunning with his elegantly eloquent writing. The following sentences about fear encapsulate the author’s writing proficiency, "As casual observers of life, our internal instrumentation, our antennae, our infrared understanding of the world, registers the way in which others respond to everyday objects and situations. Fear in particular trades in a unique currency, a kind of superstitious magical thinking that offers people a sense of control in situations that warrant none.”

Perusing this book distinctly expands one’s knowledge base. The notion of the “placebo effect” would have been a moderately familiar concept to the general reader; the “nocebo effect” on the other hand might be considerably more alien. I personally encountered the concept of the “nocebo effect” for the first time in this book, insightfully discussed within the context of the unfortunate suicide clusters in Palo Alto. The notion of a “laughter epidemic” was also a welcome addition to my vocabulary. Similarly cerebrally satisfying was when the author fascinatingly delved into the contagiousness of afflictions the likes of obesity and bulimia; I’ve never even vaguely perceived eating disorders or emotional disorders to be possibly contagious. 

With the book containing astute statements such as that “sometimes fear has a way of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy,” one could presume that the resourceful reader intent on maximizing gains from perusing this book would treasure each and every ideational opportunity available to come away with a more profound level of emotional intelligence and self-awareness that could better inform his or her approach to living life. 

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

REVIEW: "Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA" by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Then Comes Marriage: United States V. Windsor and the Defeat of DOMA
by Roberta Kaplan, Lisa Dickey
W. W. Norton & Company
Copyright October 2015
Hardcover, 336 Pages

The United States v. Windsor case—previously Edith Schlain Windsor v. United States of America—competently examined from a legal and anecdotal vantage point. Legal concepts and issues of the Windsor case are delightfully intriguing, its underlying love story between Windsor and her spouse, Thea Spyer, intimately heartwarming. This legal recount boldly forefronts the human facet of the gay rights struggle additionally through narratives of the author’s personal journey and struggles as a lesbian, and other illustrative circumstances of homosexuals “scarred” by the inherently loaded legislation, the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA). 

This book, in charting the success of the Windsor case, is a rather heartening and uplifting read for homosexuals. The unique plights and struggles of the homosexual community as described in the book would also be most readily relatable to gays and lesbians. Parents of gay children would potentially find this book to be deeply meaningful and even spiritually transformative, and thus ought to read it. This book could be a timely gift for people who have gay relatives, friends and acquaintances; there will be much to gain in terms of greater knowledge and awareness of the legal climate encompassing the issues of gay rights and marriage equality.

This book is a compelling read for those intellectually and emotionally vested in the advancement of gay rights, those passionate about the gay rights movement, or about social and civil rights issues in general. Enjoyable and easy-to-read, this book is particularly suited for the general reader interested in uncovering the nuts and bolts of the landmark Windsor case. 

Furthermore, the extraordinary legal victory as achieved by the plaintiff’s attorney of the Windsor case despite having “never argued a Supreme Court case before” might just be the ideal narrative to reinvigorate a weary and uninspired practicing lawyer. The very unmistakable human facet of this case and its contribution to humanity might also serve as a powerful and opportune reminder to current legal practitioners of the motivations underlying their very first foray into the law, be it to champion the rights of voiceless minorities, to right wrongs, or otherwise. Most of all, the reader will have the opportunity to share in the intoxicating excitement and sense of purpose as experienced by the fiery plaintiff’s attorney as she tirelessly worked on the case. 

The most intriguing content in the book is justifiably the revelatory insights into the legal strategies employed by the plaintiff’s counsel for the Windsor case. The details never fail to be titillating from arguments persuading the Supreme Court to consider DOMA under the judicial review of heightened scrutiny, to the combined legal and emotional strategy for the case. It is beyond fascinating to learn of the shrewd legal strategy devised that helped to avoid “branding everyone who voted for the [DOMA] statute in 1996 a bigot or homophobe.” It is also astoundingly eye-opening to be privy to unconventional but brilliant anti-DOMA arguments—the peculiar fact that for same-sex couples, DOMA apparently aided in the couple’s or a spouse’s sidestepping of certain tax laws, federal laws and ethics rules. DOMA for example, notably “allowed same-sex couples to engage in tax avoidance in ways that opposite-sex couples couldn’t.”

It is also especially riveting to learn of the ingenious ways the plaintiff’s counsel tailored their arguments to subtly lobby certain justices on the Supreme Court—by echoing a justice’s language, and taking advantage of the knowledge of another justice’s “obvious” disapproval of “cases brought solely to advance social causes.” Along the way, the reader learns the essence of the plaintiff’s counsel’s argument through memorable catch phrases such as “already married, already gay,” and “all about dignity,” and recognizes the intent of the team to frame the Windsor case as more than “just an LGBT issue but a human rights issue.”

To the author’s credit, the book aptly painted a brief picture of the inching progress of gay rights in America prior to the Windsor case. In addition to discussing other prior and existing legal challenges to DOMA, the book noted the nature of discrimination homosexuals were subjected to—the lack of recognition of their marital rights, employment rights, and more. It was absurdly a “felony” and illegal “to be gay and employed in any capacity by the federal government” or by companies with federal government contracts at “the height of the McCarthy period.”

This book elegantly eviscerated the Defense of Marriage Act. The legislation was brazenly referred to as one that quintessentially and “officially sanctioned discrimination against one group of Americans,” that perpetuated “sweeping, undifferentiated and categorical discrimination” against homosexuals, and that shamelessly expressed moral and even insidious disapproval of homosexuality. With the additional use of immensely loaded descriptors such as “antigay,” “irrational,” and “terrible” in reference to DOMA, the reader would be coaxed to perceive the law as one that indeed did not seem to possess even any remotely redeeming qualities. 

The structure of this book appeared to mirror the plaintiff counsel’s tactical approach for the Windsor case, for better or for worse. The complaint the plaintiff’s attorney filed with the Supreme Court remarkably and unusually began with and gave preeminent emphasis to the romantic narrative of Windsor and her spouse; the legal issues in the complaint in turn seemed to be relegated to the sidelines, addressed disproportionately less, and some might even say, attributed secondary importance.

Whilst the title of the book explicitly proclaimed the Windsor legal case as its primary subject matter, the narrative appeared to primarily forefront Windsor’s love story. With a sizable bulk of the beginning of the book thus almost uniquely dedicated to the romantic past of Windsor and her spouse in a near vacuum absent the interposition of meaningful references to the Windsor lawsuit, the reader might feel occasional tinges of confusion and even start to harbor a bubbling question, is this book actually a romantic memoir? The narrative disconnect between the Windsor love story and the Windsor legal case early on in the book certainly bolsters such an impression.

Additionally, despite the distinctly practical and remarkable emphasis on the human angle of the Windsor suit in an attempt to humanize the legal battle, such an approach when unchecked however seemed poised to erode the merits of the book. It was more than faintly puzzling to realize that the issue forming the legal backbone of the case—the matter of tax-bill injury and estate taxes—mysteriously evaporated as the case progressed, not even to be mentioned again at the very least at the culmination or conclusion of the case. 

The general reader might get tripped up at a particular juncture nearing the end of the book—the Windsor case court dialogue between the defendant’s counsel and the Supreme Court justices. The inclusion of snippets of the court transcript, complete with undiluted and unsimplified legal discussion involving potentially elaborate legal concepts might pose some difficulty to the general reader. Considering the rather minimal inclusion of such potentially formidable legal dialogues however, the reader certainly ought to feel free to exercise the freedom to simply skim or even skip the dialogues.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion. 

Monday, 19 June 2017

REVIEW: "Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations" by Brandon L. Garrett

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Too Big to Jail: How Prosecutors Compromise with Corporations
by Brandon L. Garrett
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press
Copyright November 2014
Hardcover, 384 Pages

An absolute legal delight. Greatly comprehensive and extraordinarily fascinating, this book nimbly surveys corporate prosecutions and white-collar crimes. With trained focus on dissecting deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements, the book engagingly addresses an eclectic range of legal issues pertaining to the world of corporate prosecutions. Apart from furnishing a plenitude of statistics and legal case citations, the author unobtrusively inserted his personal commentary and recommendations into the book. 

This book seems functionally versatile. It promisingly offers enjoyment and education for law students, legal academics and the general reader alike. The book’s skillful examination of the fascinating intersection between the legal and commercial spheres makes it a godsend for those captivated by the ins and outs of both law and business. Whilst the abundance of data and statistics provided in the book is certainly dazzling, it is the wealth of citations and references to relevant legal cases that truly serve as inspirational fodder for further independent legal research. 

The general reader would be kept engaged by the eclectic variety of legal cases and precedents introduced with lucid explanation and sans excessive technicality and depth. The data and trends on deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements are also considerably accessible to the average reader without any legal background. Most of all, the author’s overarching arguments as pertaining to corporate prosecutions tread the realm of universality—the issue of effectiveness. 

The author’s stance toward the subject matter of the book is unmistakable; he systematically built the case that “corporate convictions should be the norm.” Forefronting the theme of leniency, the author highlights potential shortcomings of deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements—inconsistencies in the imposition of corporate monitors and effectual structural reforms; oversights that in turn seemed to license “cosmetic” compliance, superficial adjustments to corporate culture, and insubstantial reforms; the distancing of judicial oversight, and more.

The international and extraterritorial legal cases are arguably the most fascinating in the book. The notable foreign bribery case of the German multinational firm Siemens Aktiengesellschaft is one such example, where the firm was prosecuted for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) through its multinational bribery operations. 

Whilst the legal case involving UBS—the largest bank in Switzerland—is especially fascinating due to the notion of incompatibility of certain aspects of US law with Swiss law in relation to the banking sector, the case where the recidivist Big Five accounting firm Arthur Andersen was prosecuted for obstruction of justice is particularly enthralling due to the vigorously intellectual series of legal issues and precedent raised. 

No less astounding are discussions of the HSBC money laundering case, the intriguing tax shelter case implicating the accounting firm KPMG—Arthur Andersen’s prior competitor—and the notorious Deepwater Horizon case involving the persistent recidivist, BP. One will be brought on an engrossing journey where one discovers potential incongruities between crimes committed and the corresponding legal consequences. HSBC for example was miraculously served with a mere deferred prosecution agreement after violating multiple federal laws pertaining to anti-money-laundering compliance and economic sanctions. The author similarly highlighted interesting tidbits with regards to the prosecution of BP for the Texas City refinery explosion, noting for example the mutual significance of BP to the “Bhopal Provisions” and vice versa. 

Whilst educational, this book is also amazingly delightful. It was an unexpectedly hilarious moment to learn that a subsidiary company could sometimes be perceived as having the sole function “to plead guilty,” as in the case of Pfizer and its subsidiary Pharmacia & Upjohn Co. Inc.. Fascinatingly, the reader could also supplement the book’s discussion of Bristol-Myers Squibb’s deferred prosecution agreement with the US attorney by locating the agreement online and thereby contemplate certain terms mentioned in the book within the context of the entire and actual agreement. With further exploration of cases involving companies the likes of JPMorgan, BAE Systems, Ford Motor Company and more, this book is indeed intellectually-stimulating at virtually every juncture.

A sampling of legal issues the author fittingly employed to beef up and enrich the discussion includes the strategic prosecutorial strategy of offering immunity and amnesty deals in tackling antitrust; the seemingly problematic lack of adherence to, and excessively lenient interpretation of, the U.S. Sentencing Guidelines; the seeming insignificance of a company’s recidivist status in determining its sentencing; the puzzlingly disparate justice standards that apply to street criminals versus corporate criminals, as brazenly manifested through for example, the war on drugs; and the likes of the constitutional rights of corporations, the idea of judicial supervision, the applicability of whistle-blower statutes, relevant legislations such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, and of course, the notion of whether certain corporations are indeed “too big to jail.”

This book is a paradise for data geeks. Various configurations of data pertaining to deferred prosecution and non-prosecution agreements are exhibited in the book in numerous charts. The statistical comparison of the presence or lack thereof of certain clauses and terms that the author deemed essential in prosecution agreements is most pronouncedly fascinating, more so because comparisons of such data points seemed rather uncommon. With the book’s solidly stimulating legal inquiry further bolstered by the enclosure of additional charts in the appendix of the book, it would seem almost preposterous should any reader come away without learning at least a thing or two. 

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.

Saturday, 10 June 2017

BLOG TOUR: "The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead" by Kristen Ulmer

Book Review by Sapphire Ng 

The Art of Fear: Why Conquering Fear Won’t Work and What to Do Instead 
by Kristen Ulmer
Harper Wave
Copyright June 13, 2017
Hardcover, 320 Pages

An idiosyncratic exploration of Fear, with the occasional dabbling into themes of spirituality. This book offers an unmistakably distinctive frame of reference in which to regard the emotion of Fear, and is for the most part insightful. Depending on the individual reader, the book’s occasional plummet into debatable territory might potentially detract from a mostly pleasant reading experience. 

The inclusion of the author’s personal narratives on her journey and experiences with Fear, and the incorporation of a smattering of other illustrative anecdotes and tales to aid in conveying and furthering the author’s arguments constitute the more engaging contents in the book.

Ulmer’s philosophy of Fear and the unique analogies she has employed to help convey her thesis about Fear are highly intriguing. She paralleled a person to a corporation with 10,000 employees, or to a parent with 10,000 children. In perusing this book, the reader would almost inevitably garner the firm impression that the author possesses greater than average insight into the almost mystifying, and sometimes frustrating, phenomenon of human emotions. 

The nature of subjectivity of the contents in this book makes it susceptible to a variety of reader reactions. The author herself acknowledged traces of subjectivity in her writing stemming from her personal experience as a “pro extreme athlete” and a “Fear educator/facilitator.” The reader should not expect to agree readily and whole-heartedly with everything raised within the pages of this book. 

I personally am ambivalent regarding the merits of this book. Most ideas appeared practicable and potentially useful, but others seemed problematic. A handful of ideas prompted an intuitive reaction of skepticism to swell within me, and several other ideas appeared unworkable. 

In isolated instances where the author proclaimed the correctness of her perspective and the speciousness of that of others in irreverent and blunt language, these transpired as effective turnoffs. One might be able to imagine that the author’s quick dismissal of conventional therapeutic methods and wisdom utilized to address Fear in addition to overt references to the associated therapy industry and its professionals might not sit well with the practitioners in question. Such hasty repudiation of such an extensive body of existing work unfortunately only seemed to usurp the author’s own credibility as an authority on the subject matter. 

This book nevertheless qualifies overall as a decently inspirational read for the community of readers open to renegotiating their relationship with the emotion of Fear to that which is proposed by the author. The conversational and highly accessible writing along with the intimate and articulate presentation of ideas make this book a satisfying read. This book is even a re-readable material in the hands of the right reader—the individual who earnestly relates to the alternately proposed mindset, is mentally and emotionally ready for change, and who is focused on assimilating the contrasting mindset into his or her life.

I greatly appreciate the countless shrewdly insightful points made in the book pertaining to Fear and the scope of other human emotions. The reading experience was not wholly enjoyable however. The writing and delivery felt rather dry at times and compelled me to put the book down. Other times, I found myself debating internally on whether I should persist in the tedium of the reading process just so I could learn an additional useful point or two. At more than one occasion especially in the first half of the book, I found myself skipping over certain rather wordy portions of the book. 

Nonetheless, I especially loved the author’s complementary use of language to support her thesis about Fear. I enjoyed the unconventional coupling of words with the universal and unavoidable emotion of Fear and other “sibling” emotions—phrases such as “the wisdom of Fear,” and being “a student” of Fear, the peculiar notions of “honoring Fear” and even “savor[ing]” Fear, or the refreshing perception of the emotions of “Fear, Anger, Sadness, Misery, Shame, Unworthiness, and more” as “wise assets and allies” to our lives. 

I surely appreciate a little anecdote in the book where the author recounted her experience in heeding the wisdom of her Fears which led to her abortion decision. I also value her reasonable and rather successful effort at supporting one of her premises, “Modern violence is repressed Fear, not Anger.” The highlighting of the presence of the act of Fear shaming is refreshing, and I absolutely loved the imagery the author conjured in further discussions about Fear, where she referenced the translation of the word “hell” and “heaven” in Japanese within the Zen tradition.  

The author’s distinctly flippant tone in conveying some of her clearly subjective opinions earlier in the book seemed inappropriate. In an attempt to communicate her perspective on the mutability of the Thinking Mind, she rather tactlessly went, “you can meditate all you want, but unless your skateboarding passion results in a traumatic brain injury, the Thinking Mind is not going to go away.” A minimal level of respect ought to have been accorded to readers, whether her readers included earnest meditation practitioners, or athletes who have suffered traumatic and debilitating forms of injuries. 

The author is certainly entitled to her judgments and criticisms of the extensive practice of therapy. Labelling the professional therapist who “specializes in ‘the mind’” and who graciously attempts to help a client use his or her “cognitive Intellect to solve an emotional problem” as a “waste [of] time” however might have been overstepping the boundaries. Additionally, the author’s declaration of “Western therapy” as an accomplice in keeping one “firmly stuck” behind emotional and mental “cage bars” would also probably not sit well with experienced industry practitioners, and existing and prior clients of therapy, especially those, including myself, who have experienced life-changing improvements from such sessions. 

Some claims the author made also seemed dubious, especially the instance where she placed two conditional statements related to Fear and Fearlessness immediately following a supposedly “control” and “indicative” conditional statement. The third conditional statement that went, “If you seek Fear, that means you don’t have [Fear]. Which means you are living in Fearlessness” supposedly led to the “logical” conclusion that one can thus attain fearlessness by seeking fear. That notion might have been true, but the process for which the supposed conclusion was derived seemed wrought with non sequiturs. 

Ulmer might not fit perfectly into the mold of the humble and even self-deprecating author. Considering however the requisite creativity for her to conjure intriguing equations such as “suffering = discomfort x resistance” where one’s level of suffering is said to be equal to one’s level of discomfort multiplied by one’s level of resistance, the strengths of this book might just be adequately redeeming of any perceived shortcomings of this book.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from HarperCollins and TLC Book Tours for this review.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

REVIEW: "Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial" by Alison Bass

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial
by Alison Bass
Algonquin Books
Copyright June 2008
Hardcover, 260 Pages

Greatly informative and factually useful. Set in the psychiatric drug industry, this book predominantly explores the theme of the ever consequential tension between the profit-oriented medical pharmaceutical establishment versus the issue of consumer safety. Culminating in the investigation and settlement of the symbolic People of New York v. GlaxoSmithKline case, a suit launched by the New York State attorney general against GlaxoSmithKline targeting the antidepressant Paxil, this is a compelling read for the psychiatric and medical community. 

This book would be of value to the American healthcare and mental health consumer, and the general public. The writing of the book is however rather dry and for the most part does not come across as particularly engaging or exciting, which aridity can be potentially accentuated for those mostly unacquainted or less enthusiastic with learning about details pertaining to the psychiatric and medical world.

The less than electrifying writing of the book does not negate its fact-based examination of the psychiatric drug industry, and particularly the intersection between research and drugs. This book might not be thrilling for some, but it humbly raises pertinent issues pertaining to academic medicine with potentially far-reaching implications. In highlighting issues and anecdotes that could nurture the average consumer’s healthy skepticism of drugs marketing and research, stimulate a more evaluative and less gullible approach toward publications of seemingly authoritative drugs studies and findings, and help cultivate a sharper eye in looking at data from clinical trials and the like, I daresay this book would have served its purpose.

The unostentatious and earnest look at the psychiatric drug industry from a legal perspective makes this book an interesting read for law students. The investigation of the GlaxoSmithKline case through the lens of the fiery and tenacious litigator Rose Firestein is fascinating; the reader would be privy to interesting details of the case through Firestein's legal thought process, discovery, investigation and negotiations. 

This book rather satisfactorily tackled the issue of the integrity of the spheres of academic medicine and drug research, and their practitioners and psychiatric researchers. Highlighting financial conflicts of interest as a pertinent issue, the book rightly explores the disproportionate influence of the pharmaceutical industry on supposedly non-biased medical and scientific research. By further highlighting the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), a legislation which seemed to facilitate the FDA’s financial dependence on the very industry “it was supposed to regulate,” the dual forces of academic researchers and institutions, and America’s federal health agency similarly beholden to the pharmaceutical industry—their sponsor—only seemed to impress upon the urgency of addressing such conflicts of interest, potential for bias, lack of transparency, and hidden agendas.

In further substantiation of the weighty matter, the author aptly highlighted certain norms in the academic publishing industry that would only unfortunately aid in perpetuating mispractices. Psychiatry journals were noted to singularly harbor “bias against negative findings” and that apparently “most medical journals were (and still are) not particularly interested in publishing negative findings.”

The point at issue of drug companies’s potential campaign against scientific truth fittingly culminated in the People of New York v. GlaxoSmithKline suit in the final third of the book. One of the three pediatric trials for the antidepressant Paxil, study 329—as authored by Dr. Martin Keller—was remarkably in the hot seat, and was an exemplification of GlaxoSmithKline’s seemingly deliberate attempts to “mislead” doctors. As the author recounted the seasoned litigator Firestein’s systematic journey in dismantling the contentious study 329 into its various allegedly misleading elements—flawed conclusion, underreporting of unfavorable results, use of misleading code words, and more—Firestein’s infectious excitement did not dwindle. 

It surely appears to the reader that the vivacious Firestein is a major contributor to the narrative’s inspirational touch. It is hard not to feel inspired in one way or another by the fiercely resilient lawyer who is also certified as legally blind. It is beyond amazing to learn of the ways Firestein bravely refused to let her disability hamper her legal and humanitarian ambitions. Her heartening characterization imbued the narrative with energy and vitality otherwise absent, definitively helped better engage the reader, and even appeared to serve a rather important function in the book—as indispensable glue holding various elements of the narrative together.

It is admittedly challenging for the author to weave together a narrative comprising multiple significant personalities and micro plots coalescing in a defining lawsuit nearing the last third of the book. The beginning of the book however with the various seemingly discrete anecdotes spotlighting different personalities engendered the impression of a lack of cohesion and integration in the overall narrative. The presence of a thematic relation between the separate set of circumstances at the start of the book does not obscure the author’s seeming oversight in failing to unite and communicate the relevance of the disparate narratives to the eventual GlaxoSmithKline case. 

With a variety of key characters in the narrative—namely Dr. Martin Keller, head of psychiatry at Brown University and a key opinion leader; Martin Teicher, psychiatrist, neuroscience researcher and co-inventor of R- fluoxetine for Sepracor; Donna Howard, an employee at Brown’s psychiatry department and whistleblower; the litigator Firestein as previously mentioned, and more—introduced and chronicled seemingly without explicit or implied indication and distinction of their relative importance, role and relevance to the overarching narrative and to the GlaxoSmithKline case, it seemed inevitable that it might sow confusion amongst readers and affect the overall enjoyability of the reading experience.

The resulting sense of disjointedness from such lack of narrative signposting to meaningfully bind and reconcile the separate anecdotes which feature different protagonists at the beginning of the book conveys a less than ideal first impression. It certainly felt rather unfortunate that it seemed to require at least making through the first two-thirds of the book before one could begin to realize fully how the various constituents of the book work together in the final big picture.

The title of the book, “Side Effects: A Prosecutor, a Whistleblower, and a Bestselling Antidepressant on Trial” also seemed to exude a certain ambiguity. Considering that the blurb of the book did not clarify nor explicitly state the presence or not of an actual court trial in the narrative, certain readers might be in for a surprise, positive or negative. Having personally interpreted the title of the book as implying the existence of a legal court trial, I felt somewhat disappointed by its subsequent lack thereof for the GlaxoSmithKline case in addition to the case’s rather abrupt settlement at the end of the book. The author certainly could not be faulted for such an ambiguity in the book’s title and blurb, but it surely is less than gratifying for the reader who might have persisted through the book in hopeful anticipation of an exciting court trial.

Disclaimer: I am not affiliated to the publisher nor the author of the book. This book review is the result of my personal reading and honest opinion.