Book Review Series: Musings and meanderings from my 2023 reading explorations – Part 5

It was never my intention to be a reporter, a critic, an advocate. It was also never my intention to provide audiences with “everything” they needed to know about a place – or even a balanced or comprehensive overview. I am a storyteller. I go places, I come back. I tell you how the places made me feel.

Anthony Bourdain

I’m a criminal defense lawyer. I do some training and lecturing, and occasionally work on rule of law and development projects. I claim no particular expertise other than in my narrow field of work. I claim no Delphic insight on history, international relations, geopolitics, or on many of the areas that interest me. “All men by nature desire to know,” according to Aristotle. I know I do. So, I read, sometimes writing about what I read. My intention was never to be a book reviewer, a critic, a blogger. Like Anthony Bourdain, that wonderful, quirky, irreverent globetrotting chronicler, it has not been (nor will ever be) my intention to provide you “everything” you need to know about the books reviewed in this series or in previous posts (or future ones). I try to be balanced but by no means comprehensive. I try to convey how visiting a particular book made me feel, and in some small measure, vicariously take you, the reader, the audience, to places you may wish to visit. In this last post of the series, I will recommend some of the memorable books I read this year for pleasure and just to know. I have loosely categorized them with a brief commentary.

On Rhetoric and Writing

YOU TALKIN’ TO ME?: Rhetoric from Aristotle to Obama, Sam Leith, Profile Books, 2011

If you want to brush up on how to construct logical arguments and persuasive speeches (opening statements and closing arguments), you will find all that you need in this book.

RHETORIC: The Art of Persuasion, Adina Arvatu & Andrew Aberdein, Wooden Books, 2015

A pocket sized book to carry around. Entertainingly, it covers all the rhetorical devices with humor and marvelous examples.

MURDER TRIALS, Marcus Tullius Cicero, Introduced and translated by Michael Grant, Penguin Random House, 1975

Some of Cicero’s finest closing arguments, I first read Murder Trials when I started out as a criminal defense lawyer in the early 1980’s. Periodically, I reread Murder Trials – aloud (sans toga). His rhetorical and oratorical skills are worthy of study.

On Writing

EXERCISES IN STYLE, Raymond Queneau, Alma Books, 2013

On a crowded bus at midday, the narrator observes an incident. This incident is retold ninety-nine times in different styles. Witty and imaginative, Queneau wrote this little gem in 1947. In this updated edition, the reader is also treated to a forward from Umberto Eco and an essay by Italo Calvino.

HOW TO WRITE A THESIS, Umberto Eco, MIT Press, 2015

Though the research and organizational methods predate the digital age, if you are writing a thesis, a scholarly article, or even a serious legal submission, Eco offers sage and enduring advice in this 1977 no-nonsense how to.

WHY READ THE CLASSICS?, Italo Calvino, Penguin Books, 2009

In thirty-six essays, Calvino elegantly defends why the classics are worth reading. First published in 1991, it is as timeless as it is germane.

CRITICAL REVOLUTIONARIES: Five Critics Who Changed the Way We Read, Terry Eagleton, Yale University Press, 2022

Eagleton presents five portraits of literary critics – T.S. Eliot, I.A. Richards, William Empson, F.R. Leavis, Raymond Williams – shedding light on their techniques and thoughts on how they approached criticism, and how they have influenced our understanding on the importance of literature and its impact on culture.

On Contemplating

IN PRAISE OF IDLENESS, Bertrand Russell, Routledge, 2004

In this collection of essays first published in 1935, Russell champions the virtues of reflection and inquiry while surveying his personal, social, and political beliefs.

PLATO AND A PLATYPUS WALK INTO A BAR: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes, Thomas Cathcart & Daniel Klein, Penguin Books, 2008

The title says it all. A hilarious read, reducing philosophical concepts to their essence with humor and zany quips. Reread it for the third time this year; laughed and learned just as much as when I first came across it when first published.

HOW TO THINK LIKE A PHILOSOPHER: Scholars, Dreamers and Sages Who Can Teach Us How to Live, Peter Cave, Bloomsbury, 2023

Thirty thinkers from Lao Tzu to Samuel Beckett, cleverly discussed with clarity and incisiveness. A fabulous philosophical journey, crammed with information and lessons from which to learn.

EPICTETUS – THE COMPLETE WORKS: Handbook, Discourses, and Fragments, Edited and translated by Robin Waterfield, University of Chicago Press, 2022

Timeless as Epictetus’ stoic wisdom may be, his works occasionally need a contemporary translation. Waterfield’s does just that. This newly edited and translated version of Epictetus has a freshness that even those who are well familiar with Epictetus’s work will find it an enjoyable and rewarding read.

LOGICOMIX: An Epic Search for Truth, Apostolos Doxiadis and Christos H. Papadimitriou, with artwork by Alecos Papadatos and Annie Di Donna, Bloomsbury, 2009

A graphic novel, it traces Bertrand Russell’s ten-year search for truth through mathematical logic and beyond. Along the way, the reader encounters some of the greatest mathematical minds of that time, historical facts, and philosophical musings – all told through elegant graphics and engaging prose.

On Plays and Myths

TRAGEDY, THE GREEKS AND US, Simon Critchley, Profile Books, 2020

Greek tragedy is like the gift that keeps on giving. It forces us to examine the present through the past – something that in these times of conflict and confoundment and craziness and contradiction militates for reflection. In meditating on the meaning of tragedy, Critchley challenges and provokes and nudges us to rethink about tragedy, drawing from films, plays, pop songs, and philosophers.

ARISTOPHANES – FOUR PLAYS: Clouds, Birds, Lysistrata, Women of the Assembly, Aaron Poochigian, Liveright Publishing, 2021

Poochigian’s translation is fresh, contemporary, erudite, and hilariously absorbing. Even if familiar with these plays by the brilliant and irreverent Aristophanes, it is well worth revisiting them. Devious pleasure guaranteed.

AGAINST DEMAGOGUES: What Aristophanes Can Teach Us about the Perils of Populism and the Fate of Democracy, Robert C. Bartlett, University of California Press, 2020

In a new translation of Aristophanes’ ACHARNIANS and the KNIGHTS, Barlett comments on how in these two masterful plays Aristophanes, satirically, shows the dangers of demagoguery. His analysis that follows each play is essential in understating the genius of Aristophanes in using humor, making powerful political figures seem less serious: “Laughter can be an acid that corrodes the pretensions, and prerogatives, of the powerful.” Much can be learned from these timeless plays; lessons that resonate as we look around and see how Trump and his collaborators and enablers and enthusiastic imitators mislead the polity with false promises, lies, and gaslighting, and demonizing those who call them out.

PANDORA’S JAR: Women in the Greek Myths, Natalie Haynes, Harper Perennial, 2020

With humor and erudition, Haynes examines the roles and the lessons to be drawn from ten mythological Geek women. Finally, they get their proper due (and some men deservedly put in their place). Haynes’ wicked wit and impressive writing style will have you laughing aloud.

On Detection & Crime

Japanese mysteries are fun, imaginative, quirky, well-crafted, and stylistically appealing. Here are but a few I polished off this year, all guilty pleasures.

THE MILL HOUSE MURDERS, Yukito Ayatsuji, Pushkin Vertigo, 2023

TOKYO EXPRESS, Seichō Matsumoto, Penguin Books, 2022

THREE ASSASSINS, Kotaro Isaka, Vintage, 2023

THE HONJIN MURDERS, Seishi Yokomizo, Pushkin Vertigo, 2019

THE VILLAGE OF EIGHT GRAVES, Seishi Yokomizo, Pushkin Vertigo, 2021

On Spycraft

THE IPCRESS FILE, Len Deighton, Sterling, 2011

Longing for a good spy novel since the passing of the peerless John le Carré in 2021 (Silverview in 2021 was his last of his many extraordinarily subtle, cerebrally-inviting novels), I searched for a replacement – someone with near-equal talent. Casually browsing in a bookstore one day (I prefer to patronize bookstores, my modest contribution to keeping them alive in the face of Amazon’s market domination that risks local bookstores in becoming extinct), I came across Deighton’s first novel THE IPCRESS FILE, published in 1962. I had known of Deighton but had never read him. Not quite le Carré, but exceptionally satisfying. His plots are complex, his dialogue punchy and spicy, his style quirky and engaging. I have since polished off much of what he has written. All of what I have read has been riveting and entertaining. But do start with THE IPCRESS FILE if you have not read it – as a first novel it’s remarkable. Then treat yourself to the original 1965 film with Michael Caine.

On Fiction 

THE PASSENGER and STELLA MARIS, Cormac McCarthy, Picador, 2022

At age 89, McCarthy published his final two books. McCarthy, often likened to the American Nobel laureate William Faulkner, was in a class of his own. I had read The Road years earlier – a disturbing dystopian novel that has relevance today when we think about how the world as we know it may end up if climate change is not seriously tackled with all deliberate speed. When I learned that at his age McCarthy put out two books simultaneously, and after reading some glowing reviews, I decided to start my 2023 reading journey with THE PASSANGER and STELLA MARIS. In their own way, they deliver the goods, big time. If you have a mathematics background, you are in for an added treat. I was so impressed that I went on a McCarthy spree, reading the rest of his novels. I recommend all of them, unreservedly. Mind you, like Faulkner, his are slow burning reads that require time and a dictionary handy. If you only have time for one, my highest recommendation would be his magnum opus, BLOOD MERIDIAN. McCarthy was writing a screenplay for it when he passed.

THE PRAGUE CEMETERY, Umberto Eco, Harvill Secker, 2010

Reading Eco’s HOW TO WRITE A THESIS, mentioned earlier, prompted me to pick up one of his novels. Decades ago I read THE NAME OF THE ROSE when it came out. I still recall it being a real page-turner. THE PRAGUE CEMETERY is a nineteenth century mystery. Superbly crafted, it is a worthy read, especially if you are looking for something different in style and construction. Eco was a gifted writer and a remarkable storyteller.

UNCLE PETROS AND GOLDBACH’S CONJECTURE, Apostolos Doxiadis, Faber & Faber, 2000

Doxiadis (co-author of LOGICOMIX) is a mathematician turned novelist. A brilliant, charming, tragicomic novel which at its core is an absorbing mathematical detective story. Mathematics need not be your strong suit to enjoy it.


As I’ve noted in the previous post, I am fascinated with how memory affects us. At a café in Tokyo, one can revisit the past – a particular time when both the person going back, and the person being visited upon, were at the café. The length of time is limited – as long as it takes for a steaming hot cup of coffee to turn cold. The rules are strict and the consequences of failing to abide by them irreversible. After reading the first collection of short stories (each book has four), I was hooked. All sixteen short stories in the four little gems movingly explore issues of the human condition that at one point or another we all experience.


Another fiction dealing with memory. After a head injury suffered seventeen years earlier, an esteemed professor is left with a memory that lasts only seventeen minutes. This is a heartwarming story, cleverly told. I found this novel particularly stirring.

On More Japanese Fiction

For some reason I was on a Japanese-novel reading spree this year. Here are some I found worthy to recommend:

SWEET BEAN PASTE, Durian Sukegawa, Oneworld, 2017

DIARY OF A MAD OLD MAN, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, 2000

SANSHIRŌ, Natsume Sōseki, Penguin Random House, 2009

RASHŌMON AND OTHER STORIES, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa, Tuttle, 2018

On Nonfiction  

KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: Oil, Money, Murder and the Birth of the FBI, David Grann, Simon & Schuster, 2017

Martin Scorsese’s film is fabulous in every way. Superb acting, perfect casting, sublime cinematography, engaging dialog, mesmeric story. Yet, justice is not done to Grann’s engrossing, disturbing, elegant book. I won’t give away anything of the film  in case you have yet to see it and plan on doing so. I decided to read the book before seeing the film in a theater – Scorsese’s films compel a big screen cinematic screen. I could not put the book down; read it in a couple of sittings, mostly because I wanted to make it last, stretch the experience. Grann’s uncomplicated writing style is smooth, sophisticated. He is also a terrific investigator, chasing down leads, tying up loose ends, weaving threads, and, despite the near-century passage of time, effectively solves all that went on in Oklahoma’s oil rich Osage County in the 1920s. The subtitle tells you what to expect. There are even numerous ethics lessons to draw from, just as there is much to learn from the investigative methods employed at the time and those used by Grann. My advice is read the book before seeing the film; it will make much more sense of what really took place in Osage County. If you are interested in learning more on the Osage Tribe, I highly recommend you watch Wahzhazhe: An Osage Ballet.

THE GEOGRAPHY OF THOUGHT: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently, Richard E. Nisbett, Nicholas Brealey Publishing, 2003

A must read for anyone who wants to understand why and how Asians think differently from Westerners. Having worked in Southeast Asia off and on for nearly three decades, I found this book profoundly insightful. I wish I had read it years ago for better cross‑cultural understanding.

WORLD TRAVEL: AN IRREVERENT GUIDE, Anthony Bourdain with Laurie Wooler, Bloomsbury, 2021

Published after his death, Bourdain recounts memorable places and advises on local eateries. If you enjoyed his series of traveling the world, immersing himself in culture, mixing with the locals, indulging in their food and drink, this food travel book will bring a smile to your face, a desire to travel and explore, and an appetite to your stomach.

End of series.

 Happy Holidays and Happy reading!

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About Author


Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

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