BOOK REVIEW: Power Born of Dreams by Mohammad Sabaaneh

Power Born of Dreams: My Story is PalestinePower Born of Dreams: My Story is Palestine by Mohammad Sabaaneh
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

Out: October 7, 2021

This graphic novel reflects upon the Israel-Palestine conflict through the lens of the author’s (artist’s) time in prison. At first, I found the story to be an evocative personal account of life in prison, but as the story continued it felt progressively less personal and more propagandistic. The central theme is that Palestinians feel imprisoned by circumstance, regardless of whether they are actually in a jail or not.

Still, it’s not the kind of work that will constructively advance a dialogue. It will rub those who sympathize with Israel the wrong way because it’s far from an unbiased account of events, vilifying the Israelis while glorifying (or failing to acknowledge) the Palestinians who engage in violence. This bias is particularly notable in the back matter, which presents accounts that seem journalistic, but which selectively present information to make it appear that all fault lies exclusively on one side.

To be fair, the author spent time in jail for (as best I could learn from the internet) what sounded like consorting with unsavory characters. [Which reeks of Soviet-style “justice,” but the book doesn’t really delve into the reason for his imprisonment, and – even if it did – I’m not sure that I’d trust that it’s the complete truth – given the way the general narrative is presented. So, I couldn’t tell you whether the author is an artist wrongly imprisoned for expressing himself, or whether he did something that was truly and legitimately seditious.]

The art is linocut to create a chiaroscuro effect (i.e. white lines, black background) and is stylistically interesting.

I enjoyed the art and found this to be an interesting read, but I wouldn’t recommend readers take it at face value as a fair account of the conflict, but rather as one man’s personal message about the conflict.

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BOOK REVIEW: Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz

Fiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your MicrobiomeFiber Fueled: The Plant-Based Gut Health Program for Losing Weight, Restoring Your Health, and Optimizing Your Microbiome by Will Bulsiewicz
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book advocates a high-fiber (i.e. plant-based) approach to eating. The book pairs a pop-sci dimension (explaining the science of why more fiber and plant-based foods would benefit most readers,) with a self-help dimension that supplies readers with a program by which they can pursue such a diet.

The book explains how the body’s microbiome breaks down fiber, producing Short-Chain Fatty Acids (SCFAs,) and discusses all the great things these molecules do for us. Speaking of the body’s microbiome, the book discusses how to keep it operating at its best, explaining all you need to know about prebiotics, probiotics, and postbiotics. It also explores the benefits of fermented foods, and the pros and cons of a range of other foods.

I liked that the book, by-and-large, takes both a scientific / pragmatic approach. For example, Bulsiewicz rejects the hype that everyone needs to abandon gluten (not just those with Celiac Disease.) I can’t say that the book is perfectly scientifically-objective. It does advocate that everyone quit dairy products. The author does present some of the evidence of benefits of dairy, but dismisses these as studies that must be supported by the dairy industry. [While I’m sure the dairy industry does fund studies, I doubt that they have a lock on the scholarly debate, i.e. sending out milk-goons to break the knee-caps of researchers.]

I didn’t find the dietary plan (Ch. 10) to be useful. While I eat a high-fiber / plant-dominant diet, I don’t take the extreme position that all non-plant food must be eliminated. That stance makes some of the recipes impractical. One needs a neighborhood Whole Foods to get some of the ingredients.

That said, the book offers a great explanation of why one should eat more foods that feed one’s microbiome, and it’s an excellent resource for those wishing to learning more.

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BOOK REVIEW: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on PurposeHurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose by Leigh Cowart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: September 14, 2021

Humans devote a lot of effort to avoiding unpleasant sensations. I’ve even heard people philosophize that all human activity is about moving toward pleasure or away from pain, but this claim fails on two grounds. First, people don’t invariably flee from pain, sometimes they run into its arms. Second, the dichotomization of pleasure and pain, categorizing them as opposites, also fails for a wide variety of human endeavors.

This book reflects upon a diverse set of cases in which the pleasure-pain dichotomy breaks down, attempting to glimpse why this is the case. Cowart investigates pepper-eating contests, ultramarathons, Polar Bear Club mid-winter dips, flagellation by religious adherents, and sexual sadomasochism. One thing these diverse activities have in common is that individuals voluntarily and purposefully subject themselves to intensely painful sensations. Throughout the book, the author is forthright about the varied ways that she has been attracted to pain, including: ballet dancing, an eating disorder, and sexual masochism.

This book takes a story-centric approach. As the subtitle suggests, it does present scientific findings, but this information is tucked in amid the stories – both her own confessional tales and the stories of the masochists (broadly speaking, i.e. not referring only to sexual pain-seekers) she meets during her research trips.

As a student of both martial arts and yoga, I found that the changing of one’s perception of, and relationship to, sensation is one of the most profound and empowering aspects of these practices. I, therefore, was curious what brought people to the purposeful pursuit of pain and what benefits others found. Not surprisingly, there isn’t just one reason for all cases, and Cowart discusses neurochemical, social, and psychological reasons. If you’re curious about why people engage in pain purposefully and voluntarily, this book is a must-read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Immunity by Jenna Macciochi

Immunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune SystemImmunity: The Science of Staying Well—The Definitive Guide to Caring for Your Immune System by Jenna Macciochi
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

This is a book about how to keep one’s immune system firing on all cylinders, and it reports on the scientific findings about how a range of lifestyle activities (e.g. exercise, sleep, and nutrition) impact upon the robustness of one’s immune response. The book was exceedingly timely, having been put out last spring in the early days of the pandemic [though I was delinquent in getting to my review until now.]

The book consists of just seven chapters, though they are substantial in length and extent of discussion of the respective topics. The first chapter offers a primer on the immune system, its components, and how it does its crucial job. This chapter also explains how vaccinations work, what autoimmune diseases and allergies are, and what role genetics (nature) and lifestyle / environment (nurture) play in immunity.

Chapter two investigates a range of topics at the nexus of lifecycle and immunity, including: differences between male and female immune responses, pregnancy and immunity, and the effects of aging and menopause on immune system activity.

Chapter three is about our intestinal microbiomes and immunity. If this seems like a strange topic to devote an entire chapter to, you probably haven’t been following the voluminous outpouring of research findings about how our helpful microbiological lifeforms are being shown to have a profound impact on all aspects of human health and well-being from mental health to, well, immune system robustness.

Chapter four explores how immune system activity is compromised by lack of sleep or poor-quality sleep. However, it also looks more broadly at how our immune system responds to the various cycles in which it finds itself — from the daily cycle of days and nights to the yearly seasonal cycle.

Chapter five considers the nexus of mental health and immune response. As was mentioned with respect to the gut, the connections between physiological activity and mental health are becoming ever more apparent – though there remains much to be understood.

The penultimate chapter is about fitness and physical activity and what is know about why exercise is so good for one’s immune response. Of course, there seem to be diminishing marginal returns (less benefit for a given additional workout) and even diminishing returns (negative outcomes) if one goes too crazy with one’s exercise regiment and doesn’t give one’s body adequate amounts of rest.

The final chapter is about the role of nutrition in immune system activity. The approach is very much accord with my own beliefs which are that if one eats right, there is little need for supplements, and no volume of supplements will save you from a poor diet. The emphasis is upon a high-fiber diet rich in plant nutrients and balanced to provide all necessary macro- and micronutrients, while debunking fads and dietary myths. There is discussion of many of the foods that are traditionally associated with immunity (echinacea, elderberry, turmeric, etc.,) and what claims seem to hold and which are unproven.

If you don’t know a lot about the science of healthy lifestyles, this book offers an additional benefit in that it approaches the topic from a quite basic level. That is, it provides a lot of background information that would be useful for a complete neophyte to understand the points about immune activity. So, for example, the author lays out rudimentary explanations of micronutrients or sleep cycles before getting into the relevant information about how these impact on immunity. Of course, the flip side is that for those who have studied this science, it may take some skimming because there is a lot of material that will probably be elementary to those who practice healthy living.

I found this to be an extremely beneficial book. Its focus upon what one can do to improve immune robustness makes it tremendously useful for the average reader. It presents the science without getting too deep in the weeds of detailed physiological activity. I felt the author did an excellent job of walking the line to produce a book that is useful, readable, and digestible.

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BOOK REVIEW: Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham

Cognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short IntroductionCognitive Neuroscience: A Very Short Introduction by Richard Passingham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This book provides a brief overview of cognitive neuroscience, a discipline that has really only been around for the past few decades, one that uses technologies allowing scientists to see what parts of the brain are active during a given mental activity. The reader learns what parts of the brain are involved in the various activities of being human from perception through action, and what can go wrong with these processes. While that sounds simple and straightforward, the immense complexity of the brain makes it anything but, and there is a lot of medical jargon and qualifying statements to explain how a given relationship between brain location and activity isn’t as simple or well understood as we are frequently led to believe. [Any plain and direct explanation of the brain workings is likely to be at best partial truth, and more likely outright deceptive.]

I found the organization of this book to be logical and conducive to learning about this complex and technical topic. The first chapter, “A Recent Field,” describes what cognitive neuroscience is and where it fits in among the various sciences that deal with mental activity including, psychology, psychiatry, etc. This gives one an idea of both how cognitive neuroscience can contribute to our understanding of mental activity, but also where its limitations lie and why it has not displaced all the other disciplines.

Chapters two through eight make up the core of the book and present an exploration of the various aspects of mental activity and what has been learned about them through studies in this field. The progression is logical and elementary: perception (Ch. 2,) attention (Ch. 3,) memory (Ch. 4,) reasoning (Ch. 5,) decision (Ch. 6,) confirmation / checking (Ch. 7,) and finally action (Ch. 8.) In each chapter practical questions are discussed, questions that will be of interest to readers whose goal is not vocabular expansion, in addition to the discussion of what brain region is involved with what activity. What kinds of questions? How amputees “feel” pain from the missing part of the body? Why humans suck at multitasking, and under what circumstances they can do better at it? How come people who have amnesia remember how to talk and engage in physical activities? Is there free will, and – if so – in what sense? Do we think in language? Etc.

The last chapter reflects upon the future of the discipline. Over the course of the book, the reader learns the limitations of what functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) and Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans can tell one about what is happening with the brain, and in this chapter one is introduced to the next generation of technologies that may take our level of understanding to another level.

This book has an excellent feature that I don’t recall seeing in other AVSI books. (That is probably, in part, because many of them don’t need it like this one because their subject matter is more readily grasped.) Said feature is a text box at the beginning of the chapter that asks some relatively rudimentary and practical questions, and then – at the end of the chapter – those questions are answered in another box. I think the author recognized that there was a high degree of risk of losing readers if the entire book was, “and when you do decide how many minutes to microwave your Hot Pocket, the temporo-parietal junction works in conjunction with the …” [not an actual quote fragment] he would produce book of limited benefit. [i.e. it would be too technical for the neophyte reader who just wants some practical insight (the AVSI target demographic,) but not technical enough for students of brain anatomy.] These text boxes help keep the reader focused on what is being conveyed while not getting too caught up in arcane terminology.

Other ancillary matter includes graphics (photographs of technology and readouts and diagrams showing where brain areas are located,) references, and a further reading section.

I found this book to have some intriguing discussions on interesting topics. That said, those discussions are interlaced with some necessarily complicated and dense subject matter (that’s the nature of the discipline.) That said, I think the author recognized his challenge and the question boxes and answer boxes that bookended the core chapters were very useful in offering focus for a non-expert reader. It you want a bare-bones overview of cognitive neuroscience, it’s worth reading this slim volume.

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BOOK REVIEW: Tokyo Junkie by Robert Whiting

Tokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and BaseballTokyo Junkie: 60 Years of Bright Lights and Back Alleys . . . and Baseball by Robert Whiting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Tokyo is the river that runs through this book, which for large tracts reads like a memoir and at other turns reads like a broad overview of things Japanese. I’ve only been to Tokyo once, for about a two week stay, but it’s impossible to miss the almost alien level of distinctiveness of the city. It’s the largest city in the world, but in many ways feels like a small town. The subways shut down at midnight, creating an alter ego to the city, aptly depicted in Haruki Murakami novels.

Whiting’s Tokyo journey begins with his time posted there in the military, a time which happens to correspond with the city being readied for the 1964 Olympics, through the present day COVID Pandemic challenges (which happens to correspond with the 2020 Tokyo Summer games being delayed — and it remains to be seen whether these games will ever happen given the fact that the COVID virus is not taking our plans for vaccine-driven herd immunity sitting down.)

As Whiting’s book is part memoir, it gives particular scrutiny to the subjects of his earlier books, in as much as those topics touch upon life in Tokyo. One of these subjects, the more extensively discussed, is baseball and the very different way the game is played and reported upon in Japan. The other key subject is organized crime and the legendary Yakuza. Crime in Japan is a captivating topic because it is both invisible and infamously brutal. I enjoyed the view through these niche lenses because (particularly) the latter is not so conspicuous, but is riveting stuff. [When I was in Japan, I was taken to a bathhouse (not considered strange in Japan as it sounds to an American.) Before we went, I was told that if I had big tattoos, I couldn’t go; and, if I had a small tattoo, I’d need to use a washcloth to keep it covered the whole time. This is apparently because reputable establishments don’t want the taint of Yakuza on their premises. So, this is how much they keep things on the down-low.]

Whiting led various lives in Tokyo, he was an airman, a student, a salaryman, an unofficial advisor to a Yakuza gang, a journalist, and a nonfiction writer. These allowed him to see the changing city from a number of varied perspectives, offering much deeper insight than the run-of-the-mill expat.

In addition to the modern history of Tokyo, Japanese baseball, Yakuza, and Whiting’s various lives in the city, the book makes a lot of fascinating dives into a range of Tokyo topics, such as: sumo wrestling, the aftermath of the Fukushima disaster, the city’s distant history, salaryman drinking habits, the demographic crisis (i.e. its aging population has been approaching the point of too many retirees per working taxpayer,) etc. The book offers a no-holds-barred look at the good, the bad, and the ugly underside of the city. It at once praises the city’s politeness, cleanliness, and smooth-running order and rebukes its dark side – dirty politics, toxic workplaces, xenophobia, etc.

I enjoyed this book tremendously. It offered great insight into Tokyo, Japanese culture, as well as many niche areas that I probably would never taken the time to investigate, otherwise. If you are interested in learning about Tokyo, particularly modern Tokyo, this is an excellent read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Drawing is for Everyone by Kateri Ewing

Drawing Is for Everyone: Simple Lessons to Make Your Creative Practice a Daily Habit - Explore Infinite Creative Possibilities in Graphite, Colored Pencil, and InkDrawing Is for Everyone: Simple Lessons to Make Your Creative Practice a Daily Habit – Explore Infinite Creative Possibilities in Graphite, Colored Pencil, and Ink by Kateri Ewing
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page

Out: July 20, 2021

True to its title, this book presents an excellent set of lessons for rank amateurs to develop drawing techniques in a way that helps keep their inner critic from being their undoing. It does this by using mostly abstract and still life subjects as a means to convey the technique, such that the early lessons in each section aren’t expected to look like anything recognizable, and there is not the disappointment of off-kilter drawings. [There are some little birdy drawings in the higher numbered lessons, but nothing particularly complicated.]

The book consists 21 lessons evenly divided between three parts: graphite pencil, colored pencil, and ink. Each lesson gives some background information, presents the list of needed supplies, provides step-by-step textual instructions matched with a series of drawings to graphically demonstrate said step, and a section with creative options that show what some of the author’s students produced with the same exercise. This is also a nice feature for those with an intense inner critic, a tendency to compulsively copycat, and / or a conviction that they aren’t capable of drawing. It does this by presenting numerous different ways a project could turn out – all attractive but all very different.

Besides the lessons, there’s a brief introduction to set up the project. And, in addition to the aforementioned drawings, there are numerous graphics, such as photographs of still life subjects and supplies.

I thought this book was smartly arranged and organized. It’s a small book, but presents the dabbler with all they need to start building their skills, plus it’s beautifully presented. If you’re a neophyte looking to get into drawing but worried that you have not talent for it, this is an excellent place to start.

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BOOK REVIEW: Poetics by Aristotle

Poetics. EnglishPoetics. English by Aristotle
My rating: 5 of 5 stars Page “Poetics” is the surviving volume of Aristotle’s guide to literary criticism. This volume explores Tragedy. [The lost volume covered Comedy.] Considering the age of this book and that it came from the student of one who was not a fan of poetics at all (i.e. Plato,) it is surprisingly readable and much of the information presented has aged well. [That said, there are some ideas that will be controversial – including, for instance, a blatantly sexist comment or two. Also, it should be pointed out that there is disagreement about what Aristotle was trying to say on a number of points.]

This short book is organized to dissect tragedy along many lines, laying out the four kinds of tragedy (complex, pathetic, ethical, and simple,) the segments of a tragedy (prologue, episode, exode, choric song, parode, and stasimon,) etc. But the work is probably most famous for two ideas. First, there is the idea that stories provide catharsis. For his teacher, Plato, the stories conveyed via poetry were all risk and no reward. That is, there was a risk that young and impressionable minds would take away the wrong lessons, and there wasn’t much to counterbalance that risk. Aristotle believed there was in fact something, and it was catharsis, the purging of emotions through vicarious living.

Second, there is the idea that there are six crucial elements of a tragedy (i.e. plot, character, diction, thought, spectacle, and song,) and that they are of importance in more or less that order. A good bit of the work is devoted to breaking down these elements. For example, with respect to plot, Aristotle writes at length about reversals and recognition (the moment a character discovers some key piece of information,) telling us a little about how these actions best work. With respect to character, Aristotle tells about the kind of character that generates the best story, and it’s the same advice one sees in writing books today that talk about flawed but good characters. Perfect characters are boring and bad characters get what they have coming in a tragedy.

I was surprised how relevant this book remains, considering that it’s perhaps the first extant book of literary theory. It’s definitely worth a read. At less than fifty pages (not including the ancillary material you’ll find with many editions) it’s a quick read, and while it’s a bit dry at times, it’s not brutal by any means. So, given its historic importance, give it a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds

Children's Literature: A Very Short IntroductionChildren’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction by Kimberley Reynolds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

To make an ineloquent (and possibly disturbing) comparison, what’s been said to be true of pornography is also true of children’s literature – i.e. we take for granted that we’ll know it when we see it, but trying to define its boundaries runs into difficulties at every turn. One imagines an illustrated book, simple of language and subject matter, featuring a child as protagonist, and avoiding the most traumatic or shocking subjects and themes, but none of those conditions has proven necessary and / or sufficient. Reynolds presents a landscape of children’s literature (and the debates swirling about it) through history, one that keeps in mind that the subject is slippery.

The book consists of six chapters and some ancillary matter. The first chapter sketches an overview of the history of children’s literature [restricted to English language books.] Here we see the changing face of kid’s lit over time, and learn how children’s literature only gradually became a distinct field, moving from the earliest English translation of “Aesop’s Fables” in the 15th century to the multimedia literary experiences of today.

Chapter 2 is the longest chapter and it investigates the many ways children’s books have been studied, and to what ends. As with adult literature, there are many different perspectives by which literary works can be analyzed, and many that apply to adult books are also seen here with their own child-oriented considerations: e.g. psychoanalytical, gender-centric, linguistic, stylistic, and historical. There are also some uniquely child-applicable considerations that are presented as well, such as how well adults can write in ways which optimally resonate with kids.

Chapter 3 investigates how the field has moved beyond the book to convey stories – old and new – in ways that might be more effective in reaching a diverse body of children. Emphasis is given to how the story experience can be more interactive and flexible to the needs of a broad audience.

The fourth chapter is about genre. In one sense, children’s books are considered a genre, but then there are many cross-genre books such as science fiction or fantasy books directed at a youthful readership. Special focus is given to the family story. The advantage of the family story genre is that it’s one area in which the child can be expected to have some level of experience. [Even orphans will have some sense of interpersonal dynamics by which they can relate.]

The penultimate chapter is about children’s literature as a means to prepare children for a future, from personal level considerations of mortality to societal level issues like ecological tragedy. Children’s fiction that looks to the future has become an increasing trend in the modern era.

The final chapter is where Reynolds gets to the most controversial aspect of children’s literature, which is whether (and, if so, how) subject matter should (or shouldn’t) be limited. One worrying concern is that children’s stories can become thinly-veiled means of indoctrination into political or religious (or anti-religious) dogma. It’s not just a matter of adults having greater discernment, but also that they have greater freedom to choose what books are available to them. The other major issue is to what degree children should be protected from traumatic, complex, or controversial subject matter, e.g. sex, suicide, etc.

The ancillary matter mostly consists of graphics (often historic art / artifacts of relevance) as well as a references / further reading section that is arranged by chapter.

If you’re looking for a concise overview of children’s literature and the debates and challenges that exist around it, this book provides a quick outline of the subject which references many exemplary works that can be looked into for more in-depth investigation.

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BOOK REVIEW: Good Writing is Like Good Sex by C. S. Johnson

Good Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on WritingGood Writing is Like Good Sex: Sort of Sexy Thoughts on Writing by C.S. Johnson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars Page

Sex sells. This book attempts to capitalize on that fact to achieve a foothold in the concise writing guide market, a class of books for which there is no shortage and whose entrants include established masters such as Stephen King, Ursula K. Le Guin, and Ray Bradbury. Given the nature of this market, having hinted at sexiness as a hook, it behooves the writer to boldly embrace that hook, but this isn’t done. I’m not suggesting the author needed to venture into pornographic territory, and I understand that the book is not about writing erotica, specifically [a point that is made quite clear.] However, the banal and disembodied references to sex make the material drier than it otherwise would be. In creating a book that could be read by, say, the Pope or the chairwoman of the Southern Baptist Convention Lady’s Auxiliary without so much as the hint of a blush, the book draws attention to just how much it’s failing to follow its own advice. [I would go as far as to say that if a person had a rare condition in which the slightest sexual arousal would cause his or her heart to violently explode, killing everyone in a ten-foot radius, I would feel safe sitting next to that person on the couch as they read this book.]

The book takes a soup-to-nuts approach, reflecting upon the usual range of topics including: prep work, characterization, tension building, and editing. The information is good, and it’s presented in a brief and readable fashion. That said, it would be a much better first guide than one for someone who has read extensively on the subject because there isn’t much that is novel, either in the advice or the way in which it’s presented. If you’ve read other books on writing, you’ve probably read this advice before – and, in many cases, read it stated in a much more interesting fashion. There are some odd inclusions. At one point the author discusses the parts of speech. If you don’t understand the parts of speech, no writer’s guide will help you, and you probably need to revisit elementary school.

In this kind of book, examples are essential, and, here too, some odd choices were made. One such choice was the author using her own writings. [If you’ve read writing guides by well-known authors, you’ll note that they don’t even use their own writing, and instead tend to use stories like “Macbeth” or folktales – works that are well known to the broadest imaginable readership.] Among examples that weren’t from her own writing, there was a mix of more and less obscure references. It’s not so much that insufficient information was presented to get across the author’s point, but rather that a kind of affinity is achieved with readers when they have familiarity with a story, and that is sacrificed when the couldn’t possibly.

The long and the short of it is this, I think the book was a fine concise writing guide. It presents the information clearly and in a logically arranged fashion. That said, choices were made that felt odd – mostly in using sex as a hook and then eschewing any sense of sensuality. If you’re looking for an introduction to writing, you could do worse than this one [but you could probably do better as well.]

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