Short Book Reviews 3

No Mud, No Lotus by Thich Nhat Hanh


Thich Nhat Hanh, a global spiritual leader, poet, and leader brings the purpose of suffering to light in No Mud, No Lotus. He stresses that suffering and happiness are tied up with each other. "Where there is suffering, there is happiness. "

Thich Nhat Hanh explains how suffering is an integral part of being human and how it can be transformed into happiness. Running away from it is counterintuitive. Through mindfulness, we can navigate through it without getting overwhelmed. First, we need to accept its existence by taking mindful breaths that bring our minds home to our bodies. In this way, our minds stop rambling.  Then, to make the transformation easier, we understand the root cause of our suffering by examining ourselves first. The pain of our ancestors is ours, too, so if we heal ourselves, we are also healing them. Breathing exercises are the main practices to transform suffering into happiness.  These breathing exercises are included in the last part of the book. Thic Nhat Hanh also offers how to handle life's small and big sufferings and how to sustain happiness. 

I enjoyed reading this book. It is a short book but packed with thought-provoking nuggets on suffering, happiness, and life. The breathing practices are easy to understand and follow. I recommend it to those who are interested in the power of breathing and the art of transforming suffering into happiness. 

The Spy by Paulo Coelho


A world-renowned writer deciphers the innermost feelings and thoughts of the most famous exotic dancer in Paris in the mid-1910s a week before her execution. Paulo Coelho depicts the life of a Dutch woman, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle, also known as Mata Hari, in his biographical fiction, The Spy, in a form of letters written by her and her lawyer, Edouard Clunet, who was also her lover.  

Mata Hari recounts her life from the time her father went bankrupt and her mother died to the time she was imprisoned in France. Her life is a story of survival. She used her charm and courage to take risks, creating a dangerous fire she played with until she got burned. At 18, she married a captain who was living in Dutch East Indies now known as Indonesia, 21 years her senior. His alcoholism and physical abuse had taken a toll on her so she left him and went to Paris, penniless and all alone. She reinvented herself as an exotic dancer that made her famous overnight. From Margaretha Geertruida Zelle to Lady MacLeod to Mata Hari, she became "the fascination of men and the envy of women."

Eventually, as she came to be a  courtesan to military men from different countries, she was approached to spy for Germany and then later on to be a double agent for France. Contrary to stories that constructed Mata Hari as a femme fatale, she was ineffective as a spy as she only provided unhelpful information. Despite this,  the head of the French military intelligence who recruited Mata Hari as an espionage agent, Captain Georges Ladoux, had her arrested for spying against France. On October 15, 1917, she was shot to death by a firing squad. Many years after, it was found that the  Mata Hari trial was a sham.

The Spy is a creative, reflective narrative infused with Coelho's own interpretation of what Mata Hari may have felt and thought about God, life, love, and power. The prologue was exquisitely written. The detailed sequences of events-- from the time she woke up in her cell at 5 in the morning to the moment she was declared dead-- give a slow-motion effect that evoked a feeling of sympathy for the woman who was sentenced to die for an accusation founded on weak evidence.

On the other hand, The Spy is my least favorite Coelho book.  The use of figurative language fused sentimentality into the narrative but it didn't fit my expectations. Perhaps, watching Mata Hari's documentary and reading her history first ruined the experience for me.  I've learned my lesson.

Learning to Love Math by Judy Willis


I was a school teacher before and I taught Math to elementary school students. I know how frustrating it is for many students when they don't get the lessons. It's just hard to love Math.  In her book, Learning to Love Math, Judy Willis shows that, with the right mindset and teaching strategies,  it's not hard to love this subject. 

Needless to say, the brain is the organ that we use in learning. Understanding how it works helps students open their eyes to their learning needs, strengths and weaknesses, and their ability to improve their performances.  In addition to the "Gray Matter" sections that talk about brain functions, Willis also offered the  Brain Owner's Manual that teachers and parents can use as a reference in discussing the three main components of the brain responsible for absorbing and processing information. 

To support students through the learning process, Willis shared loads of strategies to help students change their attitudes towards Math,  accomplish challenges, reduce mistake anxiety, increase motivation, and apply Math in real-world situations. It must be noted, though, that the strategies are garnered from Judy Willis' experience as an elementary and middle school teacher.  Nevertheless,  both elementary and high school students can still find the information in this book helpful.  

Our brain has the ability to change, adapt, and modify. It takes time, though, but with motivation and practice, we can develop positive attitudes towards things that we find difficult such as Math. I recommend Learning to Love Math to teachers and parents who want to help their kids love Math.


Smaller and Smaller Circles  by F.H. Batacan


One theory why there aren't many serial killers in the Philippines is the prevalence of gossip culture in neighborhoods and workplaces. Anything suspicious will be on the radar of prying eyes and ears. But in FH Batacan's Smaller and Smaller Circles, a serial killer was able to slaughter scrawny and feeble boys and dump their dead bodies in a landfill in Metro Manila without being caught for seven months. A Jesuit priest, Father Gus Saenz,  investigates this gruesome crime with the help of his colleague and protege,  Father Jerome Lucero.The investigation plays out against the backdrop of social injustice, the Catholic Church sexual abuse scandal, and government corruption. 

It was exciting to follow the fast-paced story as the two main characters gather pieces of information and lead. Father Gus Saenz is likable and his expertise as a forensic anthropologist makes his character more believable. His character works well with Father Jerome Lucero, Saenz's colleague and protege who is a clinical psychologist. As the story advances, the author throws morsels of the killer's thoughts, revealing his state of mind that piqued my curiosity about the reasons why he murders young boys. 

The social issues touched in this novel add another dimension to the story. F H Batacan worked in the Philippine intelligence community for ten years witnessed the inept system of the Philippine government in providing security and justice to Filipino citizens especially the poor ones living in slum areas. This angers her that's why she wrote the book. But then,  she didn’t show the reaction of the community where the victims live.  She factored out the gossip culture. In the prologue, the body of a victim was found in the landfill by a boy and he told the other priest who oversees the parish in the community.  A throng of people gathered around the site. For sure, the news about the murder would spread like fire, parents would be scared for their kids, schools would be alarmed, and the local politicians would know right away. I want to know how these factors affect the serial killer’s plan and the priests’ investigation. In spite of this, it's still a good read.

The Book of Beautiful Questions by Warren Berger


Warren Berger's The Book of Beautiful Questions is a cornucopia of questions that help us become better versions of ourselves. It has more than two hundred questions about decision-making, connecting with others, leadership, and inquiring about life.  Berger's further discussion of these topics is illustrative and illuminating but can be dragging. I love the Index of Questions. It's easier to find the contents that are valuable to me. 

The Bookbinder's Daughter by Jessica Thorne


Why do we have libraries?

Some say that libraries serve as gateways to knowledge and culture that support learning,  innovation,  and creativity.  In Bookbinder's Daughter, Jessica Thorne, the author, conceives a story about the role of libraries in our society with a magical twist. It's my first time reading this kind of story and I couldn't stop myself from reading on until I find out the connection of the enigmatic Ayredale Library to a possible apocalypse triggered by the selfishness and greed of some people working in this library.  

The main character is unforgettable and relatable. Sophia's love for her mother and struggle with depression and trauma caused by the disappearance of her mother who was a bookbinder in Ayredale make me root for her.  Relief washed over me when her elusive childhood memories gradually returned to her as she worked at the library. Her courage and sacrifice, in the end, kindled my appreciation of maternal and familial love. 

The most exciting part for me is the revelation of the power that the library possesses through one of the characters whom I didn't expect to be the conduit of apocalyptic magic.  The descriptions of the images and the sound carried me to that scene, invoking the emotions of awe and fear. The effects they have on me are still the same even on the second or third reading. Experiencing as if what I am reading is real is the reason why I love sci-fi and fantasy stories and The Bookbinder's Daughter is one of the best I've read so far. 

Thank you, Jessica Thorne, Bookouture, and NetGalley for the ARC (ebook and audiobook) in exchange for an honest review. 

Feeling & Knowing by Antonio Damasio


Feeling and Knowing by Antonio Damasio, a Portuguese-American neuroscientist,  is the most difficult book I've read this year.  Curious about how and why we have feelings, I got down to it but with a little apprehension that I might not fully understand what I am reading. True enough, it was challenging to comprehend the science behind feelings and thinking but I did get some golden nugget of information. In this short book, Damasio talks about being, mind, feelings, and consciousness from the point of view of a neuroscientist.  For Damasio, "feelings are not purely mental; that they are hybrids of the mind and body; that they move with ease from mind to body and back again; and they disturb mental peace." Feeling and Knowing is a kind of book that I must reread to grasp its contents. 

Thank you, Antonio Damasio,  Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Pantheon, and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.

Partner Pursuit by Kathy Strobos


Kathy Strobos' Partner Pursuit is a light, heartwarming chick lit about Audrey Willems, a lawyer working in New York who fights tooth and nail to become a law firm partner but also pulls out all the stops to find a romantic partner. It isn't an easy journey for Audrey. Along the way, the internal and external conflicts jeopardize the realization of her goals and they bring out her likable traits-- resilience, loyalty, and determination. 

I also love how the author showcases New York City's famous places and interesting restaurants. I kept checking these places on Google Map and imagined the characters walking on the side streets, buying groceries, waiting and dining at restaurants, or bicycling around the park. I also checked Kathy Strobos' favorite place to buy cookies, the Levain Bakery. This is why I love reading. It's like traveling to different places without leaving home.  

Partner Pursuit is a fun read that is reminiscent of a typical rom-com but does not fall short of sending its message about finding a balance between career and love.

Thank you, Kathy Sobros, Strawbundle Publishing, and NetGalley for the ARC in exchange for an honest review.