BOOK REVIEW: Classical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales

Classical Mythology: A Very Short IntroductionClassical Mythology: A Very Short Introduction by Helen Morales
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book examines the mythology of ancient Greece and Rome, reflects upon how these myths have come to be understood and used in the modern world, and proposes how these understandings may represent partial or incorrect views – in some cases. This approach can be seen from the book’s opening chapter, which investigates how Europa (a figure primarily known for being raped by Zeus) came to be namesake of the continent where classical mythology developed. In later chapters, there’s an exploration of how partial or erroneous understandings of Classical Mythology have been applied to psychoanalysis (ch. 5,) sexuality (ch. 6,) and New Age practices such as astrology and goddess worship (ch. 7.)

I learned a great deal from this book. I particularly enjoyed the discussion about what might have been if Freud had picked a different mythological figure to fixate on, other than Oedipus. How the famed psychiatrist might have extracted lessons that better stood the test of time than those that came about in reality.

While there’s not a great deal of room in a book such as this to explore the full scope of classical myths, the author does use a variety of myths – often well-known stories that don’t require a great deal of backstory – to make the book interesting and thought-provoking.

If you’re looking for a book on Classical Mythology, particularly one that discusses how it (for good or ill) appears in today’s world, I’d highly recommend this brief guide.

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BOOK REVIEW: War & Peace: The Graphic Novel Adapted by Alexandr Poltorak [from the work by Leo Tolstoy]

War and Peace: The Graphic NovelWar and Peace: The Graphic Novel by Leo Tolstoy
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: September 27, 2022

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Ambitious. Many readers will feel it’s overly ambitious or even impossibly ambitious. It’s not just the challenge of capturing a sprawling 1,220-page tome in a 220-page graphic novel. Tolstoy’s work has a vast cast of characters and captures a broad set of both fictional and factual events whose broad contours are determined by Napoleon’s wars in Europe, culminating in his adventures into Russia. (In other words, the narrative arc wasn’t organized in such a manner as to be readily compressible, but to capture real world events.)

I must make a confession. Usually, when I’m reviewing a graphic novel adaptation of a work of literature, I’ve read the source material. In this case, I haven’t, and so I may not be the best person to comment on how accurately Poltorak and Chukhrai condense events. I can say that the pacing of the book – particularly in the latter half – is a bit like taking in the world through the window of a speeding train. Of the two most important characters, this is particularly true of the experience of Prince Andrew, whose major moments are “blink and you’ll miss them.” Pierre’s arc seems to be covered in greater detail, though still at breakneck pacing.

Given all that, many people will say to themselves: “Realistically, I am never going to read a 1000+ page novel about the experience of Russian aristocratic families leading up to and during the Napoleonic French invasion, even if it has love triangles, conniving inheritance disputes, and plenty of good ole family dysfunction.” The early part of the book is mostly rich people sitting around at soirees discussing war (in peace) as they live out their various familial and romantic dramas. If you’re that person, this graphic novel maybe the perfect solution for you, and I’d recommend it.

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BOOK REVIEW: Social and Cultural Anthropology [VSI] by John Monaghan & Peter Just

Social and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short IntroductionSocial and Cultural Anthropology: A Very Short Introduction by John Monaghan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was one of the most interesting “Very Short Introduction” books — of the many titles in the series that I’ve read. The authors use stories and examples to convey the basics of the subject in way that’s not mind-numbingly dry (i.e. the scholarly norm) – in fact, there’s a fair amount of humor laced throughout the book.

Most of the examples come from the two tribes that these two authors study – i.e. one in Mexico and the other in Indonesia. However, those two groups provide a rich arena of interesting anecdotes, and the authors do use social groups outside their research focus when necessary.

In addition to learning about the nature of ethnographic fieldwork and what anthropologists do, there’s an exploration of culture, the various ways in which people are socially organized (i.e. kinship, castes, societies, etc.,) and how different societies view religious belief, economic activity, and selfhood.

If you’re starting from zero and are seeking an introduction to anthropology, I’d highly recommend this one.

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BOOK REVIEW: Enter the Dangal by Rudraneil Sengupta

Enter the Dangal: Travels through India's Wrestling LandscapeEnter the Dangal: Travels through India’s Wrestling Landscape by Rudraneil Sengupta
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Enter the Dangal offers a fascinating discussion of the sport of wrestling in India, be it the dirt-pit Kushti variety or on the mats in the highest stage the sport has to offer, the Olympics. Sengupta offers a glimpse into the fully formed subculture that exists around akhada, live-in wrestling academies. We see India’s wrestling world through both the tradition- and virtue-oriented training grounds that produced greats like Gama and Sushil Kumar, but the book also takes forthright dips into the darker reaches of the sport.

The book is divided into three parts. The first part both provides background and tells the story of one of the most profound experiences of modern Indian wrestling, Sushil Kumar’s match for the gold medal in the 2012 Olympics [he took silver.] The second part explores the long wave of the rise and fall of Indian wrestling, and the third part takes the reader back to the golden age of wrestling, telling of the international matches of Gama and the movement by some Indian wrestlers into both the legitimate and staged wrestling domains of Europe and America.

There are two discussions that I found particularly intriguing. First, there’s the matter of women entering this all-male domain. Historically, not only did women not wrestle, mothers and sisters didn’t even go to the akhada to see their son’s and brother’s training. Second, the book answers an interesting question: why is India such a non-contender in the Summer Olympic games? [India falls between Uzbekistan and Ireland for total Summer Olympic medals, not even making the top 50 – which, for a country of its size and talent pool across a range of body types, is pretty dismal performance.] The answer is rooted in patriarchy, corruption, and downstream problems resulting from those problems (i.e. lack of best practices vis-à-vis sports science and poor facilities.)

I found this book to be compelling read and would highly recommend it for those wishing to learn more about wrestling in India.

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BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Epigenetics by Cath Ennis

Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Epigenetics: A Graphic Guide by Cath Ennis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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I’m old enough to remember when the human gene sequence was first being decoded, and there was a widespread belief that it was going to end genetic diseases in one fell swoop. It didn’t do that, and – in fact – seemed to result in whole new levels of confusion. It’s fascinating to me that now Epigenetics, a subject that grew out of that confusion, is also being seen as the ticket to ending disease. Epigenetics investigates what traits are expressed and why, given that a specific gene sequence has a vast array of potential for various traits to be (or not to be) expressed.

For those familiar with this series (the “A Graphic Guide” series,) this book is more difficult to digest than most titles, certainly than any of the several others that I’ve read. To be fair, the subject matter is more technical than most, leading to it being more jargon- and acronym-intensive. In addition, the subject isn’t cut up into as small of pieces as most of the books. This one has far fewer and longer chapters than the others that I’ve read.

That said, while it reads technically for the general reader, there are a few concepts (methylation, demethylation, and histone modification) that are frequently revisited throughout the book, and so one can get a basic grasp of those concepts. The book also explores some issues that are more readily understood by the lay reader, such as: nature v. nurture in gene expression, the role of twin studies, and how pseudo-scientific individuals and organizations have made fraudulent claims involving Epigenetics.

If you want to learn about the fundamentals of Epigenetics, you may want to look into this book — but keep in mind that it’s not a smooth read.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Exquisite Machine by Sian E. Harding

The Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the HeartThe Exquisite Machine: The New Science of the Heart by Sian E. Harding
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release date: September 20, 2022

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In this book, a renowned heart researcher presents an overview of what we know (and don’t know) about the human heart: i.e. what can go wrong with it and why, how [and to what degree] it fixes itself, and what modern medicine can do to treat or replace a damaged heart. I learned the most from the middle of the book – i.e. chapters five through seven. Chapter five explores plasticity in the heart, plasticity is a concept that most people associate with the brain and its ability to rewire itself to contend with damage or changing needs. The other two chapters look at how the heart can be damaged, specifically as a result of emotional experience. A “broken heart” isn’t necessarily a misnomer.

Chapter four is also intriguing but takes the win for “which one of these things is not like the others.” It deals with big data, though not in a general sense but rather as it applies to gaining a better understanding of the heart. This chapter discusses a common challenge of medical research: that it’s hard to come up with large enough study groups of patients with close enough to the same problem to draw solid conclusions. Four also discusses the potential of the vast amount of data that exists, e.g. Fitbit heart rate figures.

The last couple chapters deal largely with the future of heart repair through genetic / biological means (as opposed to via mechanical hearts and technologies, which are dealt with in Chapter nine.) This is where the book gets to be a challenging read for a readership of non-experts. It gets technical and jargon- / acronym-heavy.

The heart is an astounding entity, relentlessly at work, rarely giving up despite regularly being subjected to intense shocks, an organ tied to our whole being in a way that humans have always felt – if only just begun to understand. If you’re interested in learning more about this magnificent organ, check this book out.

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BOOK REVIEW: Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire

Little Monsters, Vol. 1Little Monsters, Vol. 1 by Jeff Lemire
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 11, 2022

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It’s vampiric Lord of the Flies in a dystopian wasteland. Checks a lot of boxes. To begin on a positive note, I loved the character development in this book. Each of the kids is distinct and one rapidly develops an affinity for some of them and a distrust of others. Long story short, you want to know what happens to these kids, and why they’re in the situation in which they find themselves.

What I didn’t like is what I call the “resolution to hook” ratio. When something is written with serialization in mind, it’s a challenge to provide a satisfying story arc. There’s an incentive to end with a big hook, so as to draw readers farther down the line, and often the whole climax-resolution-conclusion bit is skipped or glossed over. Often, this leaves no (or a weak) resolution, such that reading the volume doesn’t scratch the itch that good stories do. Steamrolling through the end of the story arc to end on a cliffhanger may attract some continuing readers, but for those of us wary of the sunk cost fallacy (giving into an investment made with the assumption that it will eventually turn out positively,) it’s a sign to move on to the next story. (Lest one be Lost-ed – i.e. to be drawn in by a brilliant and inventive story only to see it become increasingly muddled, ultimately to end in a sad crash landing.)

The art is somewhat crudely rendered, but I suspect that was a conscious choice to achieve the desired atmospherics. And, I think it worked. The art clearly conveys the action.

If you have faith that you’ll eventually get that narrative itch scratched, you may want to check this one out. It does have a lot of potential. For my part, I’m once bitten, twice shy.


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BOOK REVIEW: By Water by Jason Landsel & Richard Mommsen

By Water: The Felix Manz StoryBy Water: The Felix Manz Story by Jason Landsel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: March 21, 2023

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This is a graphic novel-style biography of Felix Manz, a Protestant (Anabaptist) reformer from Zurich during the sixteenth century. Manz and his compatriots had a few beefs with the Catholic church, broadly classified. The first (and most religious / doctrinal) grievance was with respect to how the Church handled baptisms; specifically, infant baptism prevented baptism from being a free choice for the baptized. The second set of grievances involved the priesthood and how priests were moved around at the convenience of the Church and how much money they cost the citizenry. (i.e. They wanted local priests and not to be forced to pay a lot of overhead.) The third complaint was more an entire slate of complaints about resources. In that era, Swiss commoners couldn’t just go hunting in the woods or chop firewood as they needed because the land was under the ownership of the powers that be.

The story of Manz and his followers is intriguing, if one is interested in history. It’s kind of a strange topic to read in comic book form, but as history can be tedious in historical / biographic tomes, this makes for a quick and painless way to take in the story. There are a couple points where the book seems to shift into hagiographic territory (i.e. being difficult to swallow for the non-believer.)

The art is clear and neatly rendered, but I wondered how time-accurate it is. Maybe it is, but the inside of the houses looked pretty much like today (e.g. curtains and furnishings) and I found myself wondering whether its anachronistic or not. Ultimately, I have to give the artist the benefit of the doubt as I know virtually nothing about how Swiss commoners lived in the 1500’s. At the end of the book, there are some appendices that provide more information in prose text.

If you’re interested in European and / or Religious History, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Candide by Voltaire

CandideCandide by Voltaire
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Do we live in the best of all possible worlds? “Candide” attempts to wrestle with this question. The protagonist, Candide, is taught by his tutor – the renowned philosopher, Pangloss – that their’s is the best possible world. However, as the story unfolds as one bad turn of events after the next, it becomes harder to argue that there couldn’t be a better world.

Candide is forced to flee from his love (Cunegonda,) is conscripted into wartime military service, is arrested for heresy, becomes a serial killer, acquires and subsequently loses a fortune, is robbed, finds himself in the middle of war and other conflicts, and stumbles into and then flees what might be the closest his world has to a utopia, el Dorado. And, it could be argued, Candide gets off relatively easy. Cunegonda is raped, sliced open, and enslaved. Her brother, the Baron, is run through and is also enslaved. Pangloss gets syphilis, is hung, is partially dissected, and is enslaved, as well.

And yet, to the end, Pangloss retains his (and Liebniz’s) belief that they live in the best of all possible worlds. Candide (kind of) does as well, though at the book’s end he’s fatigued by the question and just wants to distract himself from it with some gardening. The degree to which Candide sticks to his guns is impressive, not only because of everything that goes wrong, but also because he gets a new mentor / friend, Martin, a mentor diametrically opposed to the views of Pangloss. Like Pangloss, Martin is also a philosopher, but Martin’s worldview is much less optimistic, but it also reflects the crucial idea that how bad or good the world is has more to do with one’s perception of it than the events that one experiences. (When Candide asks Martin who has it worse: one of the deposed kings they met or Candide, himself, Martin said he couldn’t know without experiencing what’s in the mind of each.)

Despite the steady flow of negative happenings, the book doesn’t definitively answer the thematic question. How could it? The most it can say is that we don’t live in the best of all imaginable worlds, but we can’t know whether those worlds we imagine are possible. For one thing, we are forced to recognize that humans are flawed and that nature is indifferent, and these factors might play a role in the variation between best imagined world and the world we know. For another thing, maybe we couldn’t handle a more perfect world. The old lady character asks the group whether all the trials they’ve collectively suffered are worse, or better, than sitting around doing nothing – as they happened to be [not] doing at that moment.

This book provides a thought-provoking journey, and it’s well worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book by Ed Brubaker

Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5Follow Me Down: A Reckless Book Vol. 5 by Ed Brubaker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: October 18, 2022

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This hard-boiled crime graphic novel is a gritty PI story turned grittier revenge journey. In the manner of Hollywood films, it’s over-the-top in places, but it’s also a visceral and (at times) touching story. (Perhaps, because the pacing and drama of the love story are more realistic than the depictions of action – which isn’t a criticism. The book knows what it is, given the almost camp tone of a lead with the surname “Reckless.”) The protagonist, Ethan Reckless, is hired to track down a missing young woman. Ethan isn’t a PI but engages in “problem-solving” activities – often of a legally questionable variety. Finding the girl draws him into a greater mission.

I think pacing is what this book does so masterfully, such that even though the lead character may be a functional psychopath there’s a strong emotional resonance to the story.

This is supposedly the last volume in the “Reckless” series (volume #5,) and I love that it functions so well as a standalone story. If you enjoy crime stories, this one is worth looking into.

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