Author Archives: Sarah

Brain Candy by Garth Sundem

Date of Publication: 2010, Three Rivers Press

Number of Pages: 266

Synopsis (from back cover): Tastier than a Twizzler yet more protein-packed than a spinach smoothie, Brain Candy is guaranteed to entertain your brain – even as it reveals hundreds of secrets behind what’s driving that electric noodle inside your skull.

These delicious and nutritious pages are packed with bits of bite-sized goodness swiped from the bleeding edge of brain science (including the reason why reading these words is changing your hippocampus at this very moment!). Shelved alongside these succulent neurological nuggets are challenging puzzles and paradoxes, fiendish personality quizzes and genius testers, and a grab bag of recurring treats including Eye Hacks, Algebraic Eight-Ball, iDread, Wild Kingdom, and Logic of Illogic.

Review: This is one of those books that never gets old, no matter how many times you read it. It also has an almost magical ability to make you feel either really dumb or really smart. I found out things that made my various and very weird idiosyncracies seem justified. Did you know that my fear of teenagers actually has a name? It’s called ephebiphobia. And I’m right in thinking that my boyfriend has the handwriting of a serial killer…he matches up well with the Zodiac Killer. And it seems my hours spent daydreaming are actually making me smarter! There are personality tests (I found out that I’m an intelligent, incredibly introverted, absurdly liberal neurotic), intelligence tests (despite the aforementioned personality test that proved my intelligence, I also seem to have a slight case of dementia), puzzles, eye teasers, incredible brain facts, and hundreds of other tidbits that altogether make for hours of kind of depression, often hilarious, and always enlightening fun.

Rating: 10/10

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Solanin by Inio Asano

Date of Publication: 2006, Viz Media

Number of Pages: 224

Synopsis (from back cover): Meiko Inoue is a recent college grad working as an office lady in a job she hates. Her boyfriend Naruo is permanently crashing at her apartment because his job as a freelance illustrator doesn’t pay enough for rent. And her parents in the country keep sending her boxes of veggies that just rot in her fridge. Straddling the line between her years as a student and the rest of her life, Meiko struggles with the feeling that she’s just not cut out to be a part of the real world.

Review: In a way, this is the manga version of Reality Bites. A group of misfit college graduates are struggling to find their place in the world of adults. They wish for independence and success, while at the same time wishing for the familiar security of childhood. This is a story that transcends culture and geography. One could find the same group of kids in any city, town, or hamlet in any part of the world. I definitely found myself identifying with each of the characters, as they found themselves questioning their direction in life. I, too, have felt that same detachment from the “real world”, as if I just don’t belong with the rest of society. But I’m convinced that even a reader who doesn’t feel that kind of societal alienation will enjoy this story.

Inio Asano does a beautiful job of developing her characters, combining her graceful artwork with her soulful words. Besides Meiko, the disillusioned office worker longing for something she can’t yet define, we have her boyfriend, an underemployed freelance artist/wannabe rock star, and his band mates: the drummer who obediently works in his family’s store, and the bassist is lingering on in his seventh year of college, refusing to grow up. They are all searching for happiness in a world that doesn’t seem made for them. And when life becomes tragically real for them, they realize that it is their friendships that make their lives meaningful.

Rating: 10/10

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Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Date of Publication: 2009, Nation Books

Number of Pages: 205

Synopsis (from back cover): There’s more to travel than good-value hotels, great art, and tasty cuisine. Americans who “travel as a political act” can have the time of their lives and come home smarter–with a better understanding of the interconnectedness of today’s world and just how our nation fits in.

In his new book, acclaimed travel writer Rick Steves explains how to travel more thoughtfully–to any destination. He shares a series of field reports from Europe, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East to show how his travels have shaped his politics and broadened his perspective.

Review: As a long-time fan of Rick Steves’ PBS travel show, “Rick Steves’ Europe”, including his special Iran episode, I was really excited to read this book. I was certainly not disappointed! Steves’ writing is honest, open-minded, thoughtful, and humorous. He challenges his readers to travel with a purpose, to go outside their comfort zones and learn what the world around them is really like. America does not have all the answers to the world problems…in fact, there is no country on Earth that does. What makes Rick Steves unusual is that he is willing to consider solutions from other places. Does universal health care in Europe really work? According to the Danish people, yes it works wonderfully. Does legalizing marijuana really reduce crime? Just ask the Dutch. Is America the only country struggling with immigration? No, just look at England, France, and Germany. Can we learn from their solutions? Yes. And they can also learn from us. There is no anti-Americanism here.

Steves also challenges Americans to look at the effect their country has had on the rest of the world. During three trips to El Salvador, over the course of almost twenty years, Rick Steves saw the effects of the brutal civil war fought between the leftist FMLN forces and the America-backed, right-wing ARENA party and their infamous death squads. The leftist rebels were seeking economic equality, something that went against American corporate interests. Today, the defeated poor of El Salvador still revere the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest who advocated freedom and justice, and who was gunned down in front of his congregation. Although this chapter depressed me and made me feel shame for my country’s leaders, it still didn’t feel unpatriotic, something that many of Steves’ critics have accused him of being. Acknowledging that your country has made grave mistakes and that those in power often have different priorities than the average American, is not hating your country. Throughout this book, Rick Steves strives only for understanding and peace.

This is accomplished not only in war-torn El Salvador, but even in Iran, that great “axis of evil”, as named by our rather thoughtless former president. Probably the most surprising fact about the people of Iran is that they don’t hate America. Yes, our governments do not agree on many things, and most Westerners find the rhetoric of the president of Iran to be, at best, horrific (such as denying the Holocaust, wishing for the elimination of Israel, etc.). But the people of Iran live lives surprisingly similar to ours.

There are many lessons to be learned throughout this book. At the outset, Steves makes clear that he is writing from his own perspective, and he stays true to this through each issue he examines. But even if you disagree with his views, you can still learn how to “travel as a political act”, how to travel with an open mind, ready to learn from those whose lives are different, who tolerate different things, and who value different things, and how to bring those lessons home with you.

Rating: 9/10

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A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle

Date of Publication: 1962, Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Number of Pages: 211

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): It was a dark and stormy night; Meg Murry, her small brother Charles Wallace, and her mother had come down to the kitchen for a midnight snack when they were upset by the arrival of a most disturbing stranger.

“Wild nights are my glory,” the unearthly stranger told them. “I just got caught in a downdraft and blown off course. Let me sit down for a moment, and then I’ll be on my way. Speaking of ways, by the way, there is such a thing as a tesseract.”

A tesseract (in case the reader doesn’t know) is a wrinkle in time. To tell more would rob the reader of the enjoyment of Miss L’Engle’s unusual book. A Wrinkle in Time, winner of the Newbery Medal in 1963, is the story of the adventures in space and time of Meg, Charles Wallace, and Calvin O’Keefe (athlete, student, and one of the most popular boys in high school). They are in search of Meg’s father, a scientist who disappeared while engaged in secret work for the government on the tesseract problem.

Review: Having only very vague memories of reading this as a child, I was pleasantly surprised this second time around. I immediately fell in love with the Murry family, especially oddball Meg, who seemed to be a mirror image of myself as an awkward adolescent. This story is completely enchanting, from the very beginning, and L’Engle’s writing totally drew me into her world. I found myself tearing up at certain, heartbreaking moments in the story (I don’t want to give anything away). Also, I found that reading it as an adult allowed me to grasp the writer’s philosophical theme. Normally, I steer clear of books with heavy Christian overtones (my one exception being The Lord of the Rings), but L’Engle masterfully weaves together science and spirituality. This is not, by strict definition, a “Christian” book. Jesus is mentioned only once as being one of many people from Earth who have battled evil throughout human history. And it somehow delightful that the most pious characters in the story are the aliens of the planet Ixchel. The three Mrs. Ws (Mrs. Whatsit, Mrs. Who, and Mrs. Which) act as guardian angels (and are referred to as such by Calvin), and various mythological names and beings make appearances throughout the story, a further demonstration of the un-religious (as in specific, organized religions) spiritual theme of the book.

A Wrinkle in Time is a book that teaches. It teaches the importance of love, as both a simple emotion and as a weapon against great evil. It teaches the importance of trust, as the children’s trust, in each other and in those around them, is repeatedly tested and shaken. And it teaches that the simple pleasures of family, friends, good food, and good health are all that are needed to live a good life.

I recommend this book both to children and adults, as it has lessons and delights for people of all ages.

Rating: 10/10

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MW by Osamu Tezuka

Date of Publication: Serialized 1976-1978 Biggu Komikku, Shogakkan (my edition: 2010, Vertical, Inc.)

Number of Pages: 582

Synopsis (from Amazon.com): During a boyhood excursion to one of the southern archipelagos near Okinawa, Yuki barely survived exposure to a poison gas stored at a foreign military facility. The leakage annihilated all of the island’s inhabitants but was promptly covered up by the authorities, leaving Yuki as an unacknowledged witness–one whose sense of right and wrong, however, the potent nerve agent managed to obliterate.

Now, fifteen years later, Yuki is a social climber of Balzacian proportions, infiltrating the worlds of finance and politics by day while brutally murdering children and women by night–perversely using his Kabuki-honed skills as a female impersonator to pass himself off as the women he’s killed. His drive, however, will not be satiated with a promotion here and a rape there. Michio Yuki has a far more ominous objective: obtaining MW, the ultimate weapon that spared his life but robbed him of all conscience.

There are only two men with any hope of stopping him: one, a brilliant public prosecutor who struggles to build a case against the psychopath; the other, a tormented Catholic priest, Iwao Garai, who shares Yuki’s past–and frequently his bed.

Review: Osamu Tezuka is often referred to as “the godfather of manga”, and his prolific career lasted decades and includes some very familiar titles, such as Astro Boy, Metropolis, and Black Jack. For the most part, his stories feature friendly and somewhat goofy characters, but MW is very different. The story is dark and disturbing, with no real hero to be found. But Tezuka manages to make even the psychotic and sadistic Yuki seem tragic and wronged, as if none of his crimes are his fault but are instead the result of events outside his control. At one point, I even found myself rooting for Yuki, as he struggled to find out who was responsible for covering up the MW leak.

Tezuka weaves many themes through his story and tackles difficult subjects: the involvement of the United States in Japan, the acceptability of homosexuality, and the pressures of the business world. For those unfamiliar with manga, MW is a great place to start as it tells a compelling story through Tezuka’s amazing artwork, deep character development, and even a delightful yet sinister twist at the end. Overall, it’s a great read!

Rating: 10/10

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Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics by Paul Gravett

Date of Publication: 2004, Collins Design

Number of Pages: 176

Description (from back cover): Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics presents an accessible, entertaining, and highly illustrated introduction to the development and diversity of Japanese comics from 1945 to the present. Featuring striking graphics and extracts from a wide range of manga, the book covers such themes as the specific attributes of manga in contrast to American and European comics; the life and career of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and the originator of story manga; boys’ comics from the Sixties to the present; the genres and genders of girls’ and women’s comics; the darker, more realistic themes of gekiga – violent samurais, disturbing horror, and apocalyptic science fiction; issues of censorship and protest; and manga’s role as a major Japanese export and global influence.

Review: As a first introduction to manga as art and product, this book is fantastic. I started reading having only been exposed to a few manga titles and knowing almost nothing about manga in general, besides the stereotypes that exist in the American imagination. The author, Paul Gravett, dispels all of the popular misconceptions about manga and the Japanese people’s relationship with it and provides a concise history of the medium, from its roots in Tokugawa-era prints to the revolution of artists like Osamu Tezuka, and finally to the modern adaptations of many manga into films and television series.

Gravett’s writing is easy to follow, and he seems to be extremely thorough in his research. He includes chapters on underground manga, erotic and pornographic manga, as well as the more well-known boys’ (shonen) and girls’ (shojo) manga that Americans are so familiar with. Since the book is large in size, the pages and pages of manga excerpts are easy to read and provide excellent examples of pretty much every genre of manga that exist.

I recommend this book to anyone who is just beginning to venture into manga, or anyone interested in the modern Japanese psyche. Gravett’s history of manga is also a study of modern Japanese people and the way they look at the world around them.

Rating: 10/10

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Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 2006, Penguin Classics

Number of Pages (including notes): 268

Description: Considered to be one of the greatest national writers of Japan, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa had a short but brilliant career in the early twentieth century. This collection includes some of his best known short stories, such as “Rashōmon”, “Spinning Gears”, “Loyalty”, and “The Nose”, as well as some of his lesser-known works. The stories range from humorous, to historical, to agonizingly autobiographical. The Penguin Classics edition also includes a wonderfully insightful introduction by Haruki Murakami.

Review: For much of Akutagawa’s early career, he delved into Japan’s literary past. The story “Loyalty” is a complex tale based on a true event that took place during the Tokugawa period, when the young head of a noble family went insane, creating a crisis among his samurai retainers. Samurai were meant to be loyal to the death, but that loyalty also extended to the Shogun. If one’s master posed a thread to the Shogun, where should your loyalty lie? This is the problem that faces two very different retainers, each of whom must make an almost impossible decision. The story explores not only loyalty, but the issues of sanity, respect, obligation, and shame.

Some of the more humorous stories include “Horse Legs” and “The Story of a Head That Fell Off”, both involving dead men who suffer terrible humiliations, one at the hand of some spiritual bureaucrats, and the other because of a medical miracle. But the final section of the book, which include those selections that tell Akutagawa’s own story, is possibly the most moving and compelling. Akutagawa’s childhood was difficult, as his mother went insane shortly after his birth. He was afraid of mental illness for the remainder of his life, and the final story of the book, “Spinning Gears” tells the tale of his last months spent in depression and constant anxiety. He suffered from insomnia, hallucinations, and constantly worried about his own sanity. It is the final passage of the story that conveys Akutagawa’s overwhelming despair:

I don’t have the strength to keep writing this. To go on living with this feeling is painful beyond description. Isn’t there someone kind enough to strangle me in my sleep”

The story was published posthumously in 1927, the year Akutagawa took his own life. The story progresses toward that inevitable conclusion, and gives us an insight into Akutagawa’s tortured mind.

Rating: 10/10

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Kappa by Ryunosuke Akutagawa

Date of Publication: 1927 (my edition: 2000, Tuttle Classics)

Number of Pages: 141

Description: A mental patient tells his doctors about an adventure he had with the Kappas, known to most Japanese people as mythological creatures who drag children into rivers to drown them. The madman, known as Patient No. 23, tells a remarkable story, of Kappas and Kappaland, Kappa government, Kappa philosophy, Kappa friendships, Kappa culture, and the Kappa’s link to our own human world.

Review: This is an enchanting story, mostly because it doesn’t try to be. The narrator tells the story of his life with the Kappas very matter-of-factly, which is what allows readers to suspend their natural disbelief and accept the reality of Kappaland and its inhabitants. Kappas are as different from each other as humans. Some are shy, some are arrogant, some are friendly, and all are unique. The lone human is accepted into their world readily, and they are all eager to teach him about their world. He is given lessons on Kappa philosophy, Kappa culture and literature, and Kappa relationships. He befriends several of the creatures, experiences loss, and ultimately becomes disillusioned with what at first seemed like a utopia under the ground.

Most people are familiar with Akutagawa’s other works, such as Rashomon, but Kappa is a wonderful place to start if you are unfamiliar with Japanese literature. I enjoyed every page of this book, and recommend it to anyone who loves fairy tales and modern adventure stories. Although the narrator is presented as a madman, it’s really left up to the reader to decide if his experience was a dream, or if it really happened. And if it did, could it happen to you?

Rating: 10/10

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Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America by Ann Powers

Date of Publication: 2001, Da Capo Press

Number of Pages: 287

Description: Writer Ann Powers delves into her past and her past relationships to find her bohemia, the one she had always looked for. From Seattle, to San Francisco, to New York City, Powers finds her bohemian America is both likely and unlikely places: record stores, universities, punk clubs, suburban backyards, and pricey New York lofts.

Review: This is a much more personal book than I had anticipated. Ann Powers traces her own bohemianism from her childhood in Seattle to her present life in New York, all the while relating the life stories of friends and acquaintances who have defined their lives by their own versions of bohemia. Some of the ideas presented, like those regarding drugs and drug use, appear to be simply justifications of poor choices and bad behavior: junkies masquerading as bohemians. It’s almost as if one can’t be a bohemian without doing drugs. At the same time, Powers makes allowances for many of the “selling out” behaviors that would normally be scorned by true bohemians, such as working in corporate America.

Powers focuses mainly on her own brand of bohemianism, that of the punk scene of the 1980s. But, she never really delves that deeply into it. After reading this book, I don’t feel like I understand the punk scene any better than before. The punk rockers and bohemians, as presented by Powers, feel superficial and somehow as if they’re trying too hard. Another drawback is how outdated this book is. Powers devotes a whole section to the Speakeasy internet cafe in Seattle, which actually burned down in 2001, the same year my edition was published. Many of the cultural references are old, which some may think is excusable, but in all honesty, a book devoted to any cultural phenomenon or philosophy should be able to transcend time. This book doesn’t do that.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but there were several aspects of it that disappointed me. But I would still recommend it to anyone interested in counter-culture or music.

Rating: 5/10

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Girl, Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen

Date of Publication: 1993, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 169

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1967, after a session with a psychiatrist she’d never seen before, eighteen-year-old Susanna Kaysen was put in a taxi and sent to McLean Hospital. She spent most of the next two years on the ward for teenage girls in a psychiatric hospital as renowned for its famous clientele – Sylvia Plath, Robert Lowell, James Taylor, and Ray Charles – as for its progressive methods of treating those who could afford its sanctuary.

Kaysen’s memoir encompasses horror and razor-edged perception while providing vivid portraits of her fellow patients and their keepers. It is a brilliant evocation of a “parallel universe” set within the kaleidoscopically shifting landscape of the late sixties. Girl, Interrupted is a clear-sighted, unflinching document that gives lasting and specific dimension to our definitions of sane and insane, mental illness and recovery.

Review: First, be warned: this is nothing like the movie. Some of the characters are the same, but this book does not follow the same linear, safe direction as the film. Most of the events of the movie don’t even take place in the book. This is a memoir of the truest sense, in that the author explores simply her own understandings of her experience, her illness, and her surroundings. Kaysen’s diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, although not discussed until the final chapters, is the overall theme of this book. Kaysen, like many of her fellow patients, is straddling the line between sanity and insanity, between the world outside the hospital and the world inside. She identifies with both the other patients and the nurses, who each represent the world they inhabit. Even though she feels a kinship with her fellow “insane” patients, she also longs for the sense of normalcy that the nurses bring in from the outside.

Although she is declared “recovered” upon her discharge in 1969, Kaysen freely admits that once you’re insane, that other world never really disappears. It hovers around the edges, and even affects people who have never been inside a hospital, as if she carries a “crazy cloud” around with her. Kaysen explores the difference between insanity of the brain and insanity of the mind, arguing that each need to be treated differently. She also includes actual documents from her medical records from her time at the hospital, which provide an interesting backdrop for the narrative of the so-called “insane” person. This isn’t The Bell Jar. There is no real mental breakdown, no literary examination of one’s own insanity. Although Kaysen does explore her own illness to a degree, this is mostly an exploration of the dual worlds that mentally ill people must inhabit: the world of the sane, and the world of the insane.

Rating: 8/10

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