BOOK REVIEW: Bliss by Sean Lewis

BlissBliss by Sean Lewis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This eight-issue graphic novel blends sci-fi and mythology to tell a story of the double-edged nature of memory – bringer of both bliss and trauma. At the story’s core is a father-son relationship in which both the father, Benton, and son, Perry, must come to grips with the fact that contained within the former is the greatest possible range of virtue and vice, a nearly irreconcilable mix of good and bad.

I enjoyed that the author instilled an intriguing strangeness to the book’s world using a mix of futurism, mythology, and creativity while at the same time dealing with primal human concerns. The book asks whether being free of memories can contribute to our being worse versions of ourselves (being able to forget misdeeds,) and whether healing (forgiveness of both self and others) can happen without memory.

I found this book to be provocative and well-composed. There were points at which it felt like the scale of deviation between the good and the bad Benton were unfathomably great. In other words, it felt like the motivation for his actions strained credulity. However, that encourages one to think about how a person might behave if he knew he could be freed of the memory of ill deeds.

I loved the story, the art, the world, and the characters. I’d highly recommend the book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Iranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard & Deloupy

Iranian Love StoriesIranian Love Stories by Jane Deuxard
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 14, 2021

This graphic novel shows what life is like in Iran. A French couple engaged in immersion journalism converses with Iranian men, women, and couples. As the title suggests, the theme of the book is intimate relationships (and marriage, when it – sadly – doesn’t fall into that category,) and the trials of love under an ultra-conservative theocratic regime. The book offers insight into how singles sneak love, how arranged marriages work (or don’t,) and how the bizarre in-law dynamics of arranged marriage are navigated. One also learns about non-amorous elements of Iranian life – i.e. the illicit nature of dog owning, workplace dynamics, etc.

The people Deuxard talked to were overwhelmingly wealthy, educated, and unhappy with the regime. That said, there’s a range of views presented. There were a few who were mostly happy – e.g. one young woman complained about the impossibility of openly dating, but said she was ultimately happy not to live in the West where she would probably have to work and / or take on other responsibilities she was freed of as an Iranian housewife. Additionally, one girl said that a relationship in Europe would offer no thrill because, you know, no one will murder you for smooching your boyfriend in Denmark. There were also many who desperately wanted out of the country, some of whom felt trapped and others who were working toward getting away (there are measures in place to make this difficult for many – e.g. if you have an Iranian degree, you have to pay it off before you’re granted an exit visa.) Some were hopeful that the theocracy would be overthrown, but most were resigned to a tormented life.

As a traveler, I’m fascinated by how people live at various places around the world, and so I found this book intriguing and thought-provoking. However, I can see how those who aren’t interested in such questions might find it a bit dull. It’s essentially documentary-style interviews in graphic novel format. That said, I thought the artist and writer did a good job of conveying mood. If you want to know what life is like in Iran, check it out.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle

The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes (Wisehouse Classics Edition - With Original Illustrations)The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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The dozen stories in this collection make up the final book in the Sherlock Holmes canon. It’s not the most beloved of the Holmes’ books, but Doyle did take some bold diversions from the usual Sherlock formula (probably in an attempt to maintain his own interest in the character.) Some of the experiments are regarded as fails. I’ll discuss the anomalous tales, with the understanding that most of the other stories follow the recipe.


In “The Adventure of the Creeping Man” Doyle ventures into what some have called bad sci-fi with a tale in the vein of “Island of Doctor Moreau.” While the farfetched nature of the story stands in contrast to the usual enlightened rationality of Holmes, to be fair, it’s hard to fault anyone living through the early decades of the twentieth century for imagining some outlandish possibilities — given the wild scientific and technological advances being seen. In this collection we see microscopes and other disruptive technologies.


In “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” Holmes, himself, takes up narration (i.e. Doctor Watson’s job.) In my view, besides Holmes’s occasional chiding of Watson and his writings, there didn’t seem to be as great a distinction in voice as Doyle might have hoped to achieve.


“The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane” is also narrated by Holmes, but is also anomalous for the nature of its solution. While a murder investigation is solved using Holmes’s arcane knowledge, it might leave many readers feeling that it was an anticlimactic variation on the formula.


A couple stories, “The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger” and – to a lesser extent – “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” skip the usual necessity of Holmes solving the case and taking part in the explanation of discoveries, and – instead – the solution is presented entirely by individuals involved in the mystery. This harms the protagonist’s agency.


Despite the lack of love this collection receives, generally, it does still present some interesting cases and I credit Doyle both for taking chances and for showing an evolution of Holmes and his world.


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BOOK REVIEW: Marvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente, et. al.

Marvel-Verse: Shang-ChiMarvel-Verse: Shang-Chi by Fred Van Lente
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is a collection of issues involving Shang-Chi. The early issues present the “Master of Kung Fu” in cameo / secondary roles within headliner characters’ comics – notably Wolverine and Spiderman. In those early issues, Shang-Chi mostly serves as the invincible master showing quippy superheroes that their kung fu lacks vigor and precision. In the later issues, those in which Shang-Chi is the lead, he becomes more well-rounded leading man material and less of a stoic, exotic Yoda-figure. In those issues, Shang-Chi combats the elusive ninja organization called “The Hand,” as well as “Lady Deathstrike.”


There is one issue, “Shang-Chi’s Day Off,” which is written as one-liner laden low comedy. Its tone stands out as distinct from the rest of the volume, but it has a few genuinely amusing lines, and so it’s not so bad. Those who take their superheroes somewhat seriously will hate it.


This collection isn’t a bad way to gain insight into the character and his evolution over time. Don’t be thrown off by the campy and stereotyped way he’s portrayed in his 70’s Kung fu cinema iteration, it gets more balanced and sophisticated later in the volume. I read found it on Amazon Prime.


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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide by Dylan Evans

Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Evolutionary Psychology: A Graphic Guide by Dylan Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Ever controversial, one can’t help but see some appeal in evolutionary psychology, at least with respect to certain aspects of human behavior (e.g. mate selection, parenting, and certain questions of cooperation versus competition.) As a social scientist, I was often struck by how much social science theories were like zombies – you couldn’t kill them, but if you moved fast enough you could ignore them. Which is to say, even as evidence of incorrectness piled up, theories would be tweaked to seem more consistent with reality – slap a “neo-” prefix on the front end and insert a few choice rationalizations into the theory, carefully worded so as to avoid direct contradiction the original idea. But in Darwinian Evolution one has a well-validated, powerful theory that is so simple and elegant that it’s hard not to see its merits.


While not explicitly divided up this way, this book could be segmented into three parts. The first part presents background information about evolutionary biology and cognitive psychology, the “parents” of evolutionary psychology. The meaty middle of the book investigates the areas of human behavior and decision-making where evolutionary psychology makes its most compelling arguments – e.g. familial relations, dietary decisions, disgust, cooperation, altruism, etc. The final section explores some of the criticisms that have been leveled against evolutionary psychology. These critiques are restricted to three scholarly complaints about the discipline (i.e. Pan-adaptationism, Reductionism, and Genetic Determinism.) It doesn’t delve into the current popular criticisms of evolutionary psychology – e.g. that it seems to justify womanizing and “toxic masculinity.” However, the author does explain that the discipline only comments on the “is” part of the “is-ought” dichotomy – i.e. explaining the way things are shouldn’t be taken as endorsing them as the way things should be. [This explanation is made regarding the discipline’s earliest blackeye – i.e. being used to justify eugenics.]


I found this to be a thought-provoking overview of this intriguing – if controversial — branch of psychology.

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BOOK REVIEW: Epicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson

Epicureanism: A Very Short IntroductionEpicureanism: A Very Short Introduction by Catherine Wilson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Like all ancient schools of philosophy, Epicureanism birthed an adjectival oversimplification that has eclipsed the word’s original meaning and obscured the full story of this philosophical system. Platonic refers to the teachings of Plato, but platonic is a friends-without-benefits scenario. A Cynic is a minimalist who eschews comfort and rejects social norms, but to be cynical is to think the worst. A Stoic believes that there are things one can control and things one can’t and that one should act virtuously in the former case and indifferently in the latter, but a stoic is an emotionless automaton. Epicureans developed a comprehensive system of philosophy that included metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, and political philosophy, but an epicurean is a hedonist, probably dripping butter from his chin. The tenet that there is nothing wrong with seeking pleasure became the whole picture, and lost was the understanding that moderation is a virtue.

Being unacquainted with Epicureanism, I was surprised to learn that it was the least superstitious, as well as the most compassionate, of all the ancient Greek philosophies. Like most people studying ancient philosophies, I’m most interested in those aspects that might be called “philosophy of life” – i.e. ethics, politics, and other aspects that deal in how one should live. [As opposed to the more arcane questions of metaphysics and epistemology.] The reason is simple; the former ideas have aged better, while ancient metaphysics, for example, appears ridiculous in light of all the science that has come along. For this reason, I tend to overlook the long-discredited ideas of ancient philosophers. However, I’ve come to see that these ideas informed the life philosophy of each school (and, also, that there are degrees of wrong.) For example, the Epicureans, being atomists, were correct to a point, and in rooting their entire system in nature (rather than gods and the supernatural) they avoided preoccupation with pleasing the gods and developed an acceptance of the fact that sh!% happens (and it’s not due to angry gods.) So, while many of the details of Epicurean atomism were far from the mark, it did yield a less superstitious outlook (and was less wrong than most ancients.) My point is that I ended up benefiting from this guide’s comprehensive approach.

If you’re looking for an overview of Epicureanism, or you think the defining characteristic of an Epicurean is a love of heavy sauces, you should definitely check this book out.


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BOOK REVIEW: Yoga Anatomy, 3rd Ed. by Leslie Kaminoff and Amy Matthews

Yoga AnatomyYoga Anatomy by Leslie Kaminoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book has several competitors, and so this review will focus on a few of the features that I believe make it one of the best books on yoga anatomy, and the most appropriate for many users. To clarify, H. David Coulter’s “Anatomy of Hatha Yoga” has some advantages over this book, but Coulter’s book is also denser and will send neophyte readers to the glossary / internet / library much more often. On the other hand, some of the other yoga anatomy books fixate entirely on postural yoga and treat it entirely as a matter of skeletal alignment and muscular engagement. While a lot of this book (and any such book, really) focuses on skeletal alignment and muscular engagement, I appreciated the books exploration of breath and the nervous system – topics that are often neglected. In short, this book offers a mix of reader-friendliness and detail that makes it at once approachable and tremendously informative.

One important feature of this book is that it avoids the dogmatism of some yoga texts, encouraging experimentation and recognizing that a one-size-fits-all approach to bodies is bound to fail. This can best be seen in the “Cueing Callout” boxes that explore the pithy adjustment directives for which yoga teachers are famous (and often satirized,) advice that is often misunderstood in ways detrimental to a student’s progress.

A second key feature involves keeping anatomy and physiology distinct from the folk science of yoga / ayurveda. While Kaminoff and Matthews do refer to ideas like prana and apana, they do so in a broad, conceptual way that doesn’t conflate said ideas with science. A common problem in yoga texts is conflation of science with folk science such that confused readers are left with a muddle of puzzle pieces that don’t belong to the same puzzle.

Finally, as one who’s found pranayama (breathwork) to be one of the most profoundly transformative elements of a yoga practice, I appreciated that the book not only had a chapter on breath dynamics, but that all the posture discussions included a “breath inquiry” section that encouraged readers to reflect upon the effect of the posture on breathing, as well as suggesting ways in which a practitioner might experiment to improve one’s breathing.

The only criticism I have is that many of the text-boxes in the early chapters seemed to contain random information that could have been incorporated into the text, into footnotes, or edited out altogether. [In contrast to the aforementioned “Cueing Callout” boxes that had a clear and distinct purpose.] If you’re a yoga teacher or dedicated practitioner without a deep scientific background, you’d be hard-pressed to do better than this book for learning about the anatomy of yoga.


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BOOK REVIEW: The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka, et. al.

The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1The Old Guard: Tales Through Time, Vol. 1 by Greg Rucka
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Out: December 21, 2021

This six-issue graphic novel collects twelve standalone short stories from “The Old Guard” universe. For those who’ve neither read the comic nor watched the Netflix movie, it imagines that a few immortals walk among us, or – if not immortals – at least extremely long-lived people. The oldest known among them, Andromache the Scythian (a.k.a. Andy,) is somewhere between six and seven thousand years old. (She appears in about half the stories in some capacity or another, ranging from cameo mention to main character.)

As the subtitle suggests, the dozen stories jump through time offering vignettes from the lives of the various immortals. The locales also vary, though primarily involving places that are known for their belligerency, intrigue, or noir ambiance — e.g. the wild west, samurai era Japan, 197o’s New York City, Berlin in 1932, etc. Some of the tales, e.g. “How to Make a Ghost Town,” “Zanzibar and Other Harbors,” and “Lacus Solitudinus,” are story-driven. Other pieces are more conceptual, focusing on an intriguing idea that comes with immortality. For example, “My Mother’s Axe” explores the Theseus’s ship idea of what it means for a thing to be itself when it’s replaced piece by piece over time.

I enjoyed this collection a great deal. The artistic styles vary to be apropos to the time and place in question, and the storytelling approach also shifts, owing not only to the different settings but also to the numerous authors involved. If you’re attached to having extended story arcs told over several issues, this might not be for you. The storytelling is necessarily terse and / or truncated, owing to space constraints. But if you go in expecting the two story-per-issue flash fiction format, you’ll likely find it compelling.


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BOOK REVIEW: Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein

Tibetan Buddhism: A Very Short IntroductionTibetan Buddhism: A Very Short Introduction by Matthew T. Kapstein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book outlines the philosophy, theology, history, and future prospects of Tibetan Buddhism. It’s a big topic because Tibetan Buddhism is a unique amalgam of Buddhism, indigenous beliefs (e.g. Bön,) and adapted teachings from Yoga and Tantra.

For a concise guide, the discussions of history and philosophy can get deep in the weeds. However, to be fair, Tibetan Buddhism has a long and complicated history, and has produced deep metaphysical ideas, particularly with regards to philosophy of mind. Furthermore, it’s not a unitary religion, having schismed into a number of sub-sects.

Special attention is given to Tibetan Buddhism’s teachings on Enlightenment and death. Even those who aren’t familiar with Tibetan Buddhism may have heard of the “Tibetan Book of the Dead,” and may not be surprised to learn the topic is given its own chapter. I learned that the Bardo (e.g. a lobby between death and rebirth) was in part hypothesized to help reconcile the idea of Anatta (there being no persistent self, or soul) with reincarnation. [i.e. The question arises, what’s reincarnated if there’s no persistent “I” (i.e. atman, soul, etc.?) The book doesn’t really explain how the existence of a Bardo achieves this reconciliation, but achieving accord with the two ideas appears complicated, and -arguably- spurious.]

The book ends with a look at the religion’s prospects for the future, which are darkened by the Chinese government’s desire to subvert the religion’s influence, but may also be brightened by the fact that the current Dalai Lama has been open to dialogues, and – in particular – has made Tibetan Buddhism arguably the religion with the most cordial relationship to the scientific world. (No mean feat for a religion that is as superstitious as any in the modern world.)

If you’re interested in a concise overview of Tibetan Buddhism, give it a read.


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BOOK REVIEW: Fine Print, Vol. 1 by Stjepan Šejić

Fine Print, Volume 1Fine Print, Volume 1 by Stjepan Šejić
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: November 30, 2021

This erotic graphic novel intertwines a “real world” star-crossed love story with a storyline set in a fantastical realm that mixes Greek Mythology, the lore of incubi and succubi, and elements from the author’s imagination. The central premise is a Faustian bargain, but with some twists.

The artwork is beautifully done, colorful, and in some cases quite explicit. Readers who are a bit prudish or who are considering buying this for someone as a gift should beware that there are many graphically explicit scenes of nudity and a wide variety of sex acts.

It’s best read in a single sitting because the non-linear depiction of events combined with the crossing between two different story worlds can result in the read being a bit disjointed / confusing.

I found this story to be engrossing and evocative with likable characters.


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