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.

Thursday, 25 May 2017

REVIEW: "Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win" by Paul M. Barrett

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

Law of the Jungle: The $19 Billion Legal Battle Over Oil in the Rain Forest and the Lawyer Who’d Stop at Nothing to Win
by Paul M. Barrett
Copyright September 2014
Hardcover, 304 Pages

An intoxicating legal spectacle with an extraordinarily melodramatic progression of events from beginning to end. Set in Ecuador’s unorthodox judicial climate, the multibillion-dollar environmental class-action suit Aguinda v. Chevron—the follow-up to Aguinda v. Texaco Inc.—convoluted and containing multiple plot twists, is beyond astounding and even sadly laughable. An absolute page turner, this book is extremely engaging and entertaining, providing a greatly enjoyable reading experience further enhanced by highly-polished writing. 

Starring Steven Donziger, a principal player in the plaintiffs’ counsel and a Harvard-educated attorney, this legal narrative serves as a near perfect cautionary tale to legal practitioners. This book grippingly recounts Donziger’s efforts in spearheading a series of questionable actions and therefore engineering his own ultimate professional downfall; as the mastermind to the environmental suit featuring a target verdict that ludicrously ballooned at whim, Donziger unwittingly became the poster boy for lawyerly greed, arrogance and lunacy. 

In this immensely colorful narrative of a lawyer gone rogue, “legal warfare” has indeed taken on a whole new meaning—on the part of the prosecution, the legal battle suspiciously devolved into a political scheme, a business machine, and a media spectacle with full-blown sensationalism. Under Donziger’s direction, the strategy of the plaintiffs’ counsel came to include a flurry of tactics seemingly divorced from the actual and earnest practice of law—political pressuring ploys, deceitful collusion, the scripting of partisan trial narrative for the media, the engineering of showy media stunts, and the manufacturing of media outrage against the defendant. 

With Donziger’s reckless sidelining of the sanctity of the legal process—he notoriously proclaimed that “all this bullshit about law and facts” was secondary and observed that “rules and evidence mattered far less than emotions and personal relationships”—in addition to his unabashed attempts at transforming the environmental suit into “a vehicle for financial speculation,” and into media fodder spotlighting himself as the “heroic” protagonist, he at best might have seemed unconventionally resourceful. At worst, he gave the impression of being a fraud. However genuine his initial desire to champion the rights of the vulnerable, Donziger’s aggregate actions made the suit come across as a blasphemous legal veneer concealing his pursuit of a range of egoistical, superficial, and self-serving projects.

The reader is offered the arguably priceless opportunity to trace Donziger's precarious and unretractable spiral into the black hole of illusion that winning the case is a must, and that the end justifies the means. Blinded by his desire to win the suit, he surrendered himself to delusions that “extreme countermeasures” and “irregular tactics” would be the right remedy against “a malevolent global oil giant” reminiscent of a “muscle-bound Gulliver” supposedly guilty of “extreme corporate misconduct.” Donziger might have self-alluded when he proclaimed a Texaco lawyer as “corrupt;” his fantasies and imagination came to reign supreme and superseded any remnants of legal reasoning and moral compass.

The book aptly explored an ironic angle featuring Donziger's transition from being an adequately decent administrator of justice committed to serving vulnerable populations and “to saving Indians and the rain forest” to one perpetuating injustice. With his sights set on the winning monetary prize, Donziger paradoxically attempted to impede remediation and to end “the mopping up of the waste oil.” Subsequently showering himself with lavish self-praise on his supposedly innovative role in litigation finance, he also conveniently failed to realize that such deals effectively sidelined the plaintiffs’ cause financially. 

This book amusingly contains an array of anecdotes that convinces one that Donziger possessed a rather cringe-worthy knack for alienating allies and ruining professional relationships. His exaggerated hubris was described as verging upon “megalomania.” On a peculiar note, the reader might have been impressed by Donziger’s journalistic gifts, instincts, and creativity nearing the start of the book where these talents appeared to be strategically used to facilitate the lawsuit. It seemed almost a misfortune therefore that it would later dawn upon the reader that Donziger’s seemingly abundant but actually misguided creativity, as exacerbated by his short-sightedness, would ultimately contribute to his undoing and even to the potential premature end to his legal career.

In this bittersweet narrative of a lawsuit spanning almost two decades, and which the prosecution’s “legal” strategy consisted mostly of the theatrical “demonizing” of Chevron and of underhanded tactics, Donziger seemed not only to be back to square one but he stood to lose even more. Faced with retaliating lawsuits, the possibility of professional discipline, personal bankruptcy and more with possibly crescendoing consequences, Donziger might have been described to have “a virtuoso’s touch” when it came to handling promotion and finance for his suit, but this ingenuity certainly did not appear to transfer over to his practice of the law.

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. 

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

BLOG TOUR: "The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction" by Neil Gaiman

Book Review by Sapphire Ng

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfiction
by Neil Gaiman
William Morrow Paperbacks
Paperback, 544 Pages

Predominantly entertaining and profoundly inspiring. Most priceless of all, Gaiman wows with his unorthodox perspectives rendered in lyrical and masterful writing one would come to expect from an accomplished author. This book is a hodgepodge of writings, speeches, book introductions and more as penned by Gaiman within the span of his extensive professional career, with subject matters centered around literature, fiction, literary genres, and the creative arts. 

Literature lovers familiar with Gaiman and his work might most enjoy this book. Aspiring writers and readers who love or enjoy writing, and reading, would also appreciate Gaiman’s uniquely invaluable perspectives on the craft of writing, other details related to his writing career, and the occasional philosophical rumination and probe into this medium only the way a skilled practitioner could. Certain Gaiman fans might possibly even be familiar with a sizable amount of his work included in this collection, but this book surely potentially remains a tantalizing item on a wish list. 

Whilst a writerly audience in their element in the fiction universe would find themselves most at ease reading this book, those personally unacquainted with Gaiman’s works however might find writings referencing his prior works less compelling due to the general lack of context provided for the additional commentary. Nevertheless, Gaiman’s writings will indiscriminately transport fiction and nonfiction lovers and readers alike into the magnificent professional world of fiction and fiction writers. It was astonishing for me, particularly with my scant knowledge of the fiction markets of any country, to learn for example, that dedicated professional settings exist where academics could congregate and “talk wisely and intelligently about Snow White, and Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood.” 

This book could be a timely breath of fresh air for busy professionals in diverse fields seeking a quality read to wind down from everyday work, or simply to take pleasure in devouring the beautifully composed writing. Diehard nonfiction readers could even challenge themselves to step out of their comfort zones by assigning themselves the possibly daunting task of perusing this book. I personally swear by nonfiction books and have not read a single fiction title or book about fiction for at least five years. This book was however a welcome challenge that I envision would influence my reading choices in time to come; I certainly made a mental note to myself to peruse at least one fiction book this summer. 

I treasure most the astute, intriguing and even unusual comments Gaiman made in his writings. Whilst Gaiman freely admitted that it was of his personal subjective opinion that “books have genders,” it does not take away from the profoundness of that perspective. Another fascinating though rather peculiar notion was that Gaiman apparently attributes a sentient quality to works of his own conception—regarding his novel American Gods, Gaiman curiously said, “Not, I should say, that I had much say in what American Gods was going to be. It had its own opinions.” 

The reader might even perceive Gaiman’s offerings of thought-provoking and unconventional perspectives to be one of his greatest strengths. It was astounding for me to read such assessments by Gaiman including that “the best thing about comics may well be that it is a gutter medium,” or that “the reasons why Dracula lives on, why it succeeds as art, why it lends itself to annotation and to elaboration” could be “because of its weaknesses as a novel.” Other times Gaiman would make bold proclamations and then follow up with satisfactory explication, such as for the following statement, “The power of comics is simply this: that it is a democracy; the most level of playing fields.”

The reader could be assured that this book contains well-reasoned writerly discoveries and reflections, along with informed opinions about various facets of literature. It might be novel but unsurprising to some that Gaiman perceives his readers as “collaborators” to his writings, and others might be pleased that he endorses “fury” and “anger” as a reasonable psychological foundation to and emotional driver of a writer’s work. A profound statement mentioned several times in the book that I absolutely loved was “You never learn how to write a novel,” “You just learn how to write the novel that you’re writing.”

While many Gaiman speeches given at literary award ceremonies, literary industry conventions, symposiums, seminars and other events do not originally address the majority of potential readers of this book, the content of the transcriptions remain highly meaningful, inspirational and encouraging to the reader. A persistent idea repeated in the book was to “make good art” no matter one’s life circumstances. For fellow artists or even readers in STEM fields, certain sentiments will still resonate—“Trust your obsessions,” “go where your obsessions take you,” and “there are other people around who can do the mediocre, meat-and-potatoes work that anybody can do. So let them do that.” For struggling writers, to read Gaiman’s invigorating words reconnecting one with the artist within the self might just be the panacea to woes from professional setbacks. 

The reader might want to consider accompanying his or her reading of this book with active recording of splendidly crafted sentences that resonate with the self. I absolutely loved Gaiman’s use of musical references as he pondered the tastes of “a great malt whisky”—“It plays a chromatic scale of flavor in your mouth, leaving you with an odd sequence of aftertastes.” As a recent graduate of Berklee College of Music and with no affinity for food and beverages, I certainly appreciate the visual imagery as I imagine the flavors of the malt whisky in question materialize in delightful and escalating degrees. 

It was also strangely comforting to hear Gaiman’s honest assessment as a distinguished practitioner in the literary industry that he would consider “the Eisner Awards, like all awards, [to be] flawed.” This book was certainly not entirely solemnly contemplative, as several instances in the book stood out as being genuinely and shrewdly hilarious; Gaiman’s comment about having been “chronologically challenged” was astoundingly endearing, and in my opinion, perfectly crafted and positioned for comedic effect. 

My reading experience of this book was however not wholly pleasurable and satisfying. Certain pieces of writing felt rather dry and tedious, and prompted me to skip ahead. It would have been illuminating should the author write about other authors in ways that reference and contextualize details in terms of the specific author’s professional literary career and identity. In certain writings about authors Gaiman personally knew, the impression given was that the content would mostly interest and be appreciated by people who are actually individually acquainted with the author in question. 

The piece “Reflections: On Diana Wynne Jones” for example was clearly a glorious tribute by Gaiman to one of his favorite authors. The nature of the content however was such that the reader who might not have any personal connection with Jones could have potentially found it dull. Details related to literary lessons Gaiman might have learned from specific accomplished authors are undoubtedly fascinating, mundane details and unremarkable narrative embellishments however on for example, daily happenings in a certain author’s relationships divorced from the craft of writing seemed at worst irrelevant for the general reader. 

Fortunately with Gaiman’s informed remark about self-censorship in this book—that “kids censor their own reading, and dullness is the ultimate deterrent”—, he would have utterly understood if any of his readers, including me, for one reason or another might find certain writings of his dull. On the other hand, it might have been a blessing that I was to write a review for this book. Without this commitment, I would have quickly and effortlessly deserted this book for another the instance I found some earlier portions of this book unappealing, and therefore would also have missed the precious gems in subsequent pages of the book. 

One of the most profound lessons I’ve learned from reading this book was that I might have conscientiously engaged in the activity of writing almost throughout my entire life as part of my formal education or otherwise, Gaiman’s appraisals however on the craft of writing and the extensive domain of writing remarkably made me feel as if I’ve never actually really known anything about writing. 

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

Wednesday, 10 May 2017

Sapphire Ng | Boston Women’s Parkour Workshop, by Parkour Generations Americas (1/2)

Writer: Sapphire Ng

Saturday, May 6th 2017, 9am-1pm
Location: Josiah Quincy School
Lead Coach: Natalia Boltukhova
Coach: Isabel Andrews

This was an incredible experience. This well-designed 4-hour women’s parkour workshop might just be the ideal avenue for my very first experience with parkour. In hindsight, it might have been a little too ambitious for me to attempt parkour for the very first time in a rather intense 4-hour workshop session, but it turned out to be the perfect experience for me, and at the right time in my life.

It was of remarkable significance to me that parkour instructors of the female gender will conduct this workshop that will introduce me to, and leave me with first impressions of this enthralling sport. Both instructors were very professional and friendly, and exceptionally encouraging and helpful to me.

I absolutely loved this session, and even more so because I was actively seeking a challenge. This workshop was physically demanding, and I got what I sought, possibly even beyond what I expected or imagined. There were 3 other students who attended this workshop, all of whom had prior experience in parkour. I was delighted to learn that one of them, Mara, is a mother who decided to pick up parkour after watching her own children do parkour. I myself might be graduating from music school this Summer and heading to law school in the Fall, but parkour sure sounds like the right sport for me at this point in my life.

I shall recount the activities of the workshop chronologically, and as accurately as my memory would allow. One exercise in particular during the warm-up session stood out—we had to “walk” with our hands in a circle in the standard plank and reverse plank position, with our feet remaining at the same spot throughout as a pivot point. We “walked” around ⅓ of the circle in a standard plank position, flipped over and then walked another ⅓ of the circle in reverse plank position, and then completed the last ⅓ of the circle in the standard plank position. A takeaway was that I ought to give my palms—yes, palms—more, and even regular, workouts in the outdoors and in natural terrain in order to build up tolerance toward the rough textures and grounds that will be inevitably encountered in the actual practice of parkour.

As a beginner, I have much to work on for the quadrupedal movement and its coordination. Doing the movement backwards on flat ground was enough to command my utmost focus. On the other hand, I was familiar with the front kicks, back kicks and fan kicks—movements that are rather routine in dance training—that we did for the warm-up. We were given 3 waiting positions that we should assume as we wait for others to finish a particular drill—one can choose to “wait” in the standard plank position, the basic squat position, or hold the v-sit starting position.

We were then led to do basic drills incorporating some man-made obstacles present on location, starting with jumps over the concrete benches. From my point of view as a newbie, the outdoor space of the Josiah Quincy School certainly looked like it was designed for the sport of parkour. For the jumps, we were supposed to make 2 jumps at each of the 3 benches, the first jump from the left side of the bench to the right side, and vice versa for the second jump. The instructors demonstrated that we would place one hand on each side of the benches to assist the jump, to launch one leg up into the air first with the other leg closely following, and to have one leg landing after the other. The basic idea is to not land on both legs at the same time.

The instructors gave a really useful tip that helped to bridge the movement especially for someone such as me attempting to jump over benches for the very first time. One can try first to lightly touch and bounce off with both feet on the surface of the bench itself as an intermediary and additional movement before landing on either side of the bench, eliminating the movement thereafter once one might feel confident enough to do the jump. I was also really happy that I successfully attempted the quadrupedal movement along the length of the narrow top surface of a wall for the very first time, even though the effort required extra reassurance from my instructors that I will not fall off the wall.

We were still at the preamble of our workshop when I encountered my first physical hurdle. I learned that a sizable number of squats ought to be incorporated into my regular workout routine should I want to establish a solid foundation for parkour. My thigh muscles increasingly ceased to respond as we had to do an incremental number of squats for each step we jumped onto as we descended 2 flights of stairs. I struggled especially with balancing as we immediately ascended another 2 flights of stairs where we were supposed to land on the steps only on the balls of our feet, and lowering our heels at each step. I finally made it but felt like I was passing out; I certainly should have had breakfast before the workshop.

The final exercise we did before our first 5-min water break proved to be a rather daunting physical challenge for me as well. Immediately following jumps over 3 benches, we had to go into a cat hang position on an adjacent wall (a railing is present at the top of the wall which we can hold onto with our arms, and our feet should be firmly planted on the wall.) That is certainly not all, we had to do a cat hang shimmy—a move that requires a tremendous amount of arm strength—and shimmy along the entire length of the wall in the cat hang position. I could barely move myself along the wall in the position, not to mention that I could also barely maintain the cat hang position by itself. It was nevertheless an exciting experience of firsts where I was discovering the various possibilities that my body could be trained to attain.

Next was a really fun session conducted by Natalia. Moving us over to a different section of the outdoor area with broad steps, Natalia asked us for the 3 physicalities of parkour. They are jumping, climbing and running, and we are to build on our parkour vocabulary targeting these 3 categories of physicalities.

Our first drill was related to jumping. Natalia had each of us stand on any of the brightly-colored geometric shapes painted on the ground parallel to the broad steps, marking the starting point of our jumps. We then had to jump and land on the balls of our feet on the first broad step. As it was my first time, Natalia allowed me to start closer to the step, and I chose to position myself at around ¾ of the original distance. I was pretty certain that for the first jump I made and landed on the edge of the first step, I wobbled almost comically and even melodramatically trying to balance and steady myself. With further advice to lean forward, to stabilize myself in a squat, with my gaze at eye-level, and with my feet not too far apart, I was certainly sensing progress. We could choose to work with running and then jumping onto the step, or to simply jump from a stationary position. One thing we were reminded to work on is precision in landing.

In a perfect reminder that creativity can come in all shapes and sizes, and be applied in almost any context that warrants it, Natalia had us conduct an exercise in creative thinking—to think of anything remotely creative that could be used to embellish our jumps and landings. For example, we could choose to land facing sideways on the step, to land on 1 leg, to land after an 180 degree turn, and more. We were even encouraged to observe others and pick up any movements that we could personally use.

In a continuation of the creative process, we were asked to come up with a way to get from the lowest step of the concrete block we were working at to that of another adjacent block. I ran up several steps and clumsily—but absolutely having fun—tried to enact an elegant drop using the railing at the top of the first concrete block before jumping onto the next block.

Our next activity was to climb railings, and we were first individually tasked to find 3 different ways of climbing or moving across the railings and then making our way back to where we started. Following this individual experimentation, we were put into 2 groups—I was paired with a girl named Emelie, and the other group consisted of 2 other students, Mara and Angelina along with one of our instructors, Isabel. Within our groups, we had to teach each other or one another a move we just did. Emelie smoothly swung herself onto the railings, one leg immediately following the other, and swiftly landed in a sitting position on the 3rd railing from the ground (which is above our hip level). I tried but struggled with this move, realizing that I probably lacked the arm and upper body strength to fling myself up onto the railing in this fashion.

Our 2 groups were then gathered together, and we had to teach the other group our sequence. I announced that the other group would first show us their move, and Isabel promptly went into a kind of upside-down ninja position that looked almost impossible to me. Facing the railing, I was to lift my body up and then tilt my body downwards on the other side of the railing so that my legs would be dangling high up in the air, and then to have my body further tilted into the space between the railings to lower my legs thereafter. To make everything more exciting and even higher stakes, the rain was pouring heavily, everyone was soaked to the bone, our instructor was cautioning us that the railings could get slippery, and still we were attempting “stunts” integrating the rounded and smooth railings.

Shortly after I learned the most basic vault in parkour, the safety vault, and I attempted part of it to get across from the outside of the railing to the inside. It was slightly scary at first especially in the pouring rain, balancing at the top of the 4-rung railing (which was in turn situated at the top of the concrete block of around 5 to 6 steps) with my right leg on the highest rung and left hand grabbing the railing to the left of my body, as I attempted to move my left leg to the front from behind the railing in order to jump off to the ground. Another quick tip I learned was that by crisscrossing our arms and grabbing the top rung of the railing around 2 to 3 fists apart, right palm to the left facing upwards and left palm to the right facing downwards, we could smoothly move or pull ourselves into the space of the railing between the highest and the second highest rung. What follows next would be left to creativity.

The final part of this sequence involved scaling a wall that appeared almost double my height. Feverishly excited, I ran head-on toward the wall thinking I could execute a wall run and climb up the wall to a cat hang position. Hahaha I mostly didn’t have the right technique for a wall run and when I did manage to place my hands on the top of the wall, my arms could barely support my body weight for even 1 second. At this point Natalia would remind me that I could use the railing next to the wall to assist in the climb, no wall run necessary. It is certainly my goal to be able to eventually ditch the need for the railing or any other form of support in the scaling of a high wall. But of course, that might just be everyone else’s goal too.

As of now, I inevitably needed the help of the adjacent railing to get to the top of the wall. Once up there, I had to shift my body to the other side of the wall, laid my tummy on the top surface of the wall, and then jumped. The impact of the landing felt surprisingly immense despite the seemingly short distance of the drop (there was less height at the other side of the wall due to steps leading up to the wall), and I distinctly remember telling myself that it felt as though my entire body weight was crushing down on my legs. Natalia responded to my concerns by pointing out that I should work on my landing, to focus on landing on the balls of my feet with control in my knees, and especially to avoid landing on the heels or on the entire feet. This advice though simple was actually rather difficult for me to execute as I scaled the wall and jumped from it multiple more times. The mere act of jumping from the wall, having the courage to jump off the wall, and actually landing on my feet was enough of a challenge for me.

On another note, Natalia also mentioned that I should lean slightly forward in the jump from the wall to avoid falling backwards upon landing on the ground to prevent hurting my wrists or even forearms as my arms reach out instinctively to break the fall. With repeated attempts at this activity, we were encouraged to actively focus on polishing up our movements for flow and even to incorporate any additional creative ideas we might want to do as we reach the top of the wall.

These separate drills were then combined into a single sequence. Starting with the jumps from the steps of the first concrete block to those of the second concrete block, we would then make our way up the rest of the steps to reach the railing, complete several maneuvers at the railing and then scale the adjacent wall and jump off the wall. It was incredibly fun, and even more so when the 6 of us did our last run-through of the entire sequence all at the same time; the need to accommodate more than one person at any one time at any of the “activity stations” implied the need for improvisation and even the possibility for interaction.

To be continued…