BOOK REVIEW: The Diving-Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby

The Diving Bell And The ButterflyThe Diving Bell And The Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If it had been written under ordinary circumstances, this would be a fine book. It offers some beautiful imagery and language, and – more importantly — is heartfelt, touching, and nakedly honest. But it wasn’t written under ordinary circumstances, which makes it an astounding book. Its author suffered a severe stroke that, after leaving him in a coma for a time, resulted in a condition called “Locked-In Syndrome,” which resulted in his inability to move any part of his body save his left eyelid. It was by moving this eyelid that he painstakingly dictated the book. As one might suspect, the book is concise and sparse in tone, but it read like that could have been a stylistic choice, rather than a necessity.

The title becomes less nebulous once you know it’s about a man with Locked-In Syndrome. The diving-bell represents his body, a clunky cumbersome entity that limited his perception to narrow slices of the world. The butterfly is his mind, which remained free to go anywhere and create anything he could imagine. Some of what I found most fascinating about the book was the author’s discussion of the mental world he created. Though the book deals even more extensively with how the condition changed his interaction with people. Loneliness is a central theme. Because of the severity of the condition, he is restricted to a special facility and can only see his children on weekends. While his children are the most important to him, he also reflects back to people that he worked with in his role as a magazine editor or who he counted as friends.

The organization is not strictly chronological, and I felt this was beneficial. By presenting flashbacks to before he was injured and, eventually, to when he had his stroke, he broke up the tragedy to keep it from becoming overwhelming.

I found the book to be extremely powerful. I would highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: A River in Darkness by Masaji Ishikawa

A River in Darkness: One Man's Escape from North KoreaA River in Darkness: One Man’s Escape from North Korea by Masaji Ishikawa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This tragic memoir tells the story of a man of mixed Japanese – Korean heritage who was, as a boy, moved to North Korea under a “repatriation” program that was designed to provide North Korea with laborers while conveniently reducing a minority problem for the Japanese. During the Second World War, Japan had imported labor from Korea for the war effort. As it happens, Ishikawa’s father was from South Korea, but – in the wake of the Korean War — it was North Korea that was looking for rank-and-file laborers.

The author’s father was eager to get out of Japan because he was treated as minorities frequently are – especially ones as rough around the edges as he, and so he swallowed the propaganda of Kim Il Sung’s regime hook-line-and-sinker. The author’s mother (and the author, himself) didn’t want to leave Japan because she didn’t speak the language and was ethnically Japanese (putting her in the minority shoes.) Little could any of them have known how bad life in North Korea would be, and how dire a mistake it was to agree to the move.

Life in North Korea was hard on everybody (except the party elite), but it was particularly hard on this family because: a.) they were discriminated against and could only attain the lowest-of-the-low in farm sector jobs; b.) they were accustomed to life in Japan and so they knew exactly how backwards North Korea was compared to its neighbors; and, c.) the wife’s family in Japan disowned them, and so even when other transplanted families began to be able to receive wealth from their kin in Japan, their family was cut off (but assumed by neighbors to be receiving packages.) From constantly having to game the system to get enough calories to survive to a series of tragic events that were largely tied to the country’s impoverished nature (e.g. inadequate healthcare,) the book features one soul-wrenching turn of events after the next.

Ishikawa grew to manhood in North Korea, married twice, and had children, but when the famine struck in the 1990’s he fled the country into China across the Yalu River, leaving his family behind. The book’s last chapter deals with Ishikawa’s challenges living in an expensive first world country – Japan – while trying to get his family back. It’s difficult to know whether Ishikawa ever serious could have thought he could get his family out once he was gone. Certainly, he proposes that he did think that, and he spoke to Japanese diplomats (who felt horrible about what had come of people like him) about it. Still, it’s hard to imagine how he could have thought so, being familiar with how the Kim dynasty operated. Still, one may have to grant a man his delusions when he makes such a hard decision while he is literally starving to death. Ishikawa was able to discover what happened to at least some of his family members, and that information is in an epilogue.

I found this book gripping and fascinating. It’s depressing reading throughout, there’s no getting around that, but it gives insight into how people live in the villages of North Korea that is not so extensively described elsewhere – not to mention what it’s like to be a member of a minority group, labeled a “hostile” and essentially relegated to a low-caste life. I would highly recommend this book for all readers. It’s one the best books of 2018 that I’ve read this year.

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BOOK REVIEW: Going Solo by Roald Dahl

Going SoloGoing Solo by Roald Dahl
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the second installment of Roald Dahl’s autobiography, and it covers the period from the time when the famous children’s author left home to work Shell Oil in East Africa, through his adventures as a pilot in the Royal Air Force (RAF) during World War II, concluding with his return home to England. In short it covers the earliest years of his adulthood, before he wrote such classic books for children as: “BFG,” “Matilda,” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.”

In fifteen chapters, Dahl discusses his mysterious shipmate on the ship to Africa, a lion attack, an unwanted visitor in the form of a green mamba snake, and Dahl’s early experience of the war before he became a pilot. Becoming a pilot represents a shift in the book’s tone. From that point, it’s more of a war story, with the higher tempo of life and death situations that entails. That isn’t to say there’s no life and death in the first part, but it’s more quirky and humorous. In the chapters about his life as a pilot, Dahl describes crash landing in the desert and his subsequent recuperation, how he was posted to Greece where the German Air Force had a fleet of planes that made Britain’s look minuscule by comparison, and then his squadron’s move to Palestine to what would be his last battle-filled days before he was relieved from flight operations and sent home.

The stories throughout are as well crafted, as one might expect from a master storyteller. Dahl follows the advice (often-attributed to Elmore Leonard, but which has been around for decades in some words or another) to, “…leave out all the parts readers skip.” There is a tension throughout the book. It’s a much different approach than the previous volume, “Boy” which plays off the dramas of the adult-child interaction.

There are many graphics throughout the book, mostly black-and-white photos, but also maps and documents, but no other ancillary matter.

I’d highly recommend this book. If you want to know how to write a memoir that people will read, this is how it’s done. Dahl doesn’t try to take us from cradle to grave. He’s happy giving us the parts we won’t skip.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lab Girl by Hope Jahren

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book is in part the autobiography of a female scientist with a career in a field that is both male-dominated and in which basic science is the meat and potatoes—by which I mean a discipline with few of the commercial applications at which companies, foundations, venture capitalists, and governments are willing to throw millions. Interspersed into the autobiographical chapters are short essays on trees and the ways they survive, grow, and interact with each other and their environments. So it’s a mix of biography and pop science, and was one of the most well-received science-themed books of last year (2016.)

The book is arranged into three parts. The first 11 chapters are entitled “Roots & Leaves” and these cover Jahren’s path to becoming a scientist from her childhood in an unexpressive Scandinavian family in rural Minnesota, through her college job in a hospital lab, and onto her graduate education. Part II consists of 12 chapters that cover Jahren’s years as a junior faculty member, most of which takes place at (my alma mater and former employer) Georgia Tech. The title of this chapter, “Wood & Knots,” gives one some indication of where the author’s story sits in this part of her life. She experiences both growth and set-backs during her time in Atlanta. The last part, “Flowers & Fruit,” describes the period in which not only her professional life, but also her personal life begins to bear fruit. During these years she moved her lab to Johns Hopkins, got tenure, built a family, and eventually moved to Hawaii to work for the University of Hawaii.

Besides Jahren, the only other major character in the book is her side-kick Bill, who was an undergraduate where she did her doctorate in California. The two met when Jahren was the Teaching Assistant for a course that Bill took, and subsequently he followed her from lab to lab as her research assistant. Bill’s mix of workaholic diligence, nerdiness, dysfunction, and adroit sarcasm made him a sort of soulmate of science. Their strange, platonic relationship is at the heart of the book, and is in part what keeps the reader wondering and turning pages. Her dog, her husband, and her child are all secondary characters by comparison (perhaps not in her life but in the science-centric story she is telling) though her son becomes a central player near the book’s end. The other people are cameos by grad students and other faculty members.

Jahren’s use of language is skillful and at times poetically beautiful. There’s a great deal of humor in the book, much of which stems from the dialogue between her and Bill. While the parts of the books about trees didn’t wow me as much as Wohlleben’s “The Hidden Life of Trees,” that may be because I read his book first and, therefore, was clued into some of the fascinating arboreal secrets. That said, these botanical sketches are intriguing and readable. The only place that the book bogged down for me was in incessant complaints about the difficulty of keeping a lab funded. (And this is from a person who was paid from grant money—job perpetually at risk–at the same Institute where Jahren struggled. But now I’ve lived in India for the past four years so… first world problems, right?)

I’d recommend this book for readers generally. I think it may be particularly insightful for young women choosing a career in science, but the book shouldn’t be shunted into a parochial box. There are a number of elements that will keep one reading. For some it will be a fascination with the unexpectedly complex life of trees. For some, the tension of this life story may have a lot to do with the mental health issues that Jahren struggles with. These issues aren’t put front and center in the book, but there are points at which their impact is felt. A few will just be wondering what exactly is going on with her relationship with Bill.

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BOOK REVIEW: Boy by Roald Dahl

Boy: Tales of ChildhoodBoy: Tales of Childhood by Roald Dahl
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This is the first of a two-volume autobiography of the writer of children’s books, Roald Dahl. You probably know of Dahl from his fictional works such as: “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” “Matilda,” “The BFG,” “The Twits,” or “Fantastic Mr. Fox.”

I initially picked up the second part, “Going Solo,” which is about Dahl’s adult life–particularly his early post-school years in which he was an expat serving with Shell Corporation in Africa and—when the war broke out—a fighter pilot. I figured I should read the first part first because it’s short, readable, and might have bearing on his later life. I’m glad that I did, but not because it’s necessary to make sense of “Going Solo.” Rather, because this volume provides great insight into Dahl’s body of work.

Dahl was Norwegian, but spent his school years in Britain, attending boys’ schools and a boarding school. The English schools provided much inspiration for Dahl’s villains and fueled his adversarial view of the child-adult interaction—a view that serves writers of children’s literature well. While I suspect the teachers and administers were just strict and reserved as one might expect at a prestigious school in Britain, it’s easy to see how this lack of affection becomes villainy in the mind of a child. (Not to mention the upperclassmen, who too easily become like the kapos from Nazi concentration camps.)

One feels this child’s perspective throughout the book. The book is written for an audience of children, not so much in the language [which is approachable for young readers] as in the attitude. Dahl presents the world from a kid’s-eye view. He also makes occasional notes to emphasize to children the ways in which the world was changed. Travel and communication for today’s youth are completely different enterprises than they were in the interwar years.

Besides seeing how the teachers, administrators, and upperclassman provided Dahl with villains for books like “Matilda,” one also learns about the origins of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” Dahl and his classmates were given sampler boxes of prototype chocolates from Cadbury in exchange for a product review. This started Dahl thinking about laboratories and research facilities inside a chocolate factory, and a book and movie enterprise was born.

Quentin Blake, illustrator for most of Dahl’s books, provides numerous illustrations in the style of the other books. However, there are also many photos and notes from Dahl’s personal archives. The back of the edition that I have has a number of short ancillary features that are oriented toward kids.

I’d recommend this for anyone who is interested in Dahl’s life specifically, but also for anyone who’s interested in writing for children. I think writers can learn a lot from how Dahl presents his childhood in this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Road by Jack London

The RoadThe Road by Jack London
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like to be a freight-hopping hobo, you need look no further than Jack London’s autobiographical account of the hobo life. If you’re like me, you probably didn’t know London had been a hobo, or anything about the man other than that he wrote a book called “The Call of the Wild” that you read in high school. When you read “The Road” you’ll learn skills like how to avoid getting kicked off a train, how to survive being jailed for vagrancy, and how to tell a story that will get one a free meal. The events of this book took place in the 1890’s, during the worst economic depression prior to the Great Depression, and London—like scads of others—was out of work. (However, London does admit that the appeal of this adventurous lifestyle was a major factor in his own movement in these circles.)

The early part of the book deals with London’s life as a free-wheeling hobo riding the rails, and the latter part delves into his time in Kelley’s Army—a.k.a. Coxey’s Army. This was a confederacy of out-of-work men who engaged in protests and lived off the charity of compassionate folk.

It’s a short book, only about 200 pages. In nine chapters it tells London’s story over this phase of his life. Sometimes it reads like a memoir, and sometimes it reads like a manual.

I’d highly recommend this book. It was readably written and fascinating. While it was written and published during first decade of the 20th century, it’s about the late 19th century—and, let’s face it, the 19th century got short shrift in our education because—except for the Civil War—it just wasn’t sexy. But London will intrigue you with stories of America’s dark underbelly.

[Oh yeah, and you can get it for free on Kindle. And, it’s one of the most interesting and readable public domain free reads that I’ve gotten.]
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BOOK REVIEW: Inside the Lion’s Den by Ken Shamrock

Inside the Lion's Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken ShamrockInside the Lion’s Den: The Life and Submission Fighting System of Ken Shamrock by Ken Shamrock

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Inside the Lion’s Den is two (thin) books in one. The first, and longer, part is an autobiography of MMA fighter Ken Shamrock, and the latter part is a guide to his approach to submission fighting.

The first fifteen chapters form the biographical portion of the book. As is common in the modern biography, it doesn’t follow a chronological format. It begins at the height of Shamrock’s UFC career in the mid-1990s and introduces Shamrock and the Lion’s Den (his dōjō in California.) The book does, however, go back in chapter 3 and pick up with Shamrock’s childhood, beginning in 1969 in Savannah, Georgia. Shamrock had a suitably turbulent childhood to merit inclusion in the book. He lived with an abusive father and then a step-father unprepared for such a handful as Shamrock, before he ended up at the ranch of Bob Shamrock who would eventually become his adoptive parent and an important member of his entourage. Ken Shamrock had a raucous and—as is constantly repeated—rage-filled youth.

As might be expected of the biography of a fighter, one trained to psych himself up and psyche opponents out, the book can read a bit narcissistic in spots. Having said that, a fair amount of space in the biographical portion is devoted to topics beyond Shamrock’s fight career. There’s some space devoted to the development of UFC, but even more devoted to Shamrock’s fighters. There’s a chapter that follows a day of tryouts to get a slot as a Lion’s Den fighter. It’s entitled “500 Squats,” reflecting the fact that individuals must first do an insane number of squats as the first round of elimination during the tryouts. Later they’ll have to engage in sparring/rolling with legs burned out as an indicator of how the individual can gut it out. The book offers insight into how an individual goes about breaking into a career in Mixed Martial Arts.

An important theme of the biographical portion of the book is how Shamrock becomes less rage-prone and grows into an adult. This is both the result of the practice of martial arts and his familial relationships–most notably his spousal relationship. This is the human interest part of the story that centers around the man’s most prominent UFC accomplishments.

Perhaps the most important question one can ask about an autobiographical account is whether it’s accurate or not. There’s obviously an incentive to paint oneself in a more favorable light than an objective account might. There’s a professional co-writer of this book, Richard Hanner. One might expect that a professional journalist co-author would lend credulity to the work as that individual has a professional interest–based on reputation–in making sure the details are accurate. Whether Hanner’s presence lends credibility is hard for me to judge (he’s not a national name), but the work does read authentically. Shamrock, unlike politicians, admits many mistakes over the course of his life, and lets the reader know what his takeaway lessons were. Of course, as a public personality, there’s a lot that he couldn’t be duplicitous about if he wanted to, e.g. his fight record and details in the ring.

The last nine chapters are Shamrock’s guide to his submission fighting method. He covers a lot of ground from nutrition to advice for the day of a professional fight. Martial artists will not find a lot of groundbreaking information in this section, but rather will have to dig for nuggets of wisdom in the details. The submission techniques will be well-known to practitioners of judō, jujutsu, and submission fighting. The “crucifix” was the only technique I hadn’t seen before, and for all I know that one may be well-known to Greco-Roman / Pankration wrestlers. The photographs in this section are helpful in communicating Shamrock’s message, but are relatively sparse and small-format compared to the typical martial arts manual.

I enjoyed this book. Shamrock came across as an intriguing multi-dimensional character, and the manual offers a good overview and some important tips on subjects including nutrition, fitness, striking, grappling, and submissions.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Tao of Bruce Lee by Davis Miller

The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts MemoirThe Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir by Davis Miller

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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While one expects this to be a biography of Bruce Lee, the first half of it is much more an autobiography of the author that is loosely themed around Bruce Lee’s influence on his life. It’s an unusual book in this regard. However, while my description may induce visions of a dismal read by a self-absorbed author, it’s really not so bad. The latter half of the book is much more tightly focused on the events of Bruce Lee’s life—or, more dramatically, his death.

To be fair, there’s not much material for a Bruce Lee biography. Few lights have shone so bright that, while brief, they provided decades of afterglow. Bruce Lee was just in the news last week as he was made a character in a new MMA video game—over 40 years after his death. (It might seem odd for Bruce Lee to be featured in an MMA game, but while movie Bruce Lee showed us high-flying, high-kicking kung fu, Bruce Lee the founder of Jeet Kune Do emphasized the ability to fight at all ranges, against opponents of any style, and in a pragmatic fashion.) But Bruce Lee the movie star delivered only four completed movies as an adult (though he had a childhood acting career unrelated to Kung fu.) Martial Artist Bruce had only one real fight that anyone knows about and even it remains a subject of great controversy to this day. There are competing claims about who came out on top, to what degree, and how. According to the book, there’s not even much of a sparring record of which to speak.

With the proceeding information in mind, it might not be such a surprise that the author took the tack he did and still produced only the slim volume that he did. Miller’s description of his own life pulls no punches and he spares himself none of the embarrassment incumbent in being a young man seeking to emulate the squealing man with the fists of fury. He doesn’t come across as the narcissist that one might expect from a person who devotes at half of a biography of a global superstar to his own obscure juvenile years. In fact, his profile is of a scrawny kid who got his fair share of wedgies and other bully-induced torments. The autobiographical parts are more homage than self-aggrandizement.

Just as Miller is honest about his own lost pubescence as a scrawny kid, he will win enemies with his frankness about Bruce Lee and those in the gravitational pull of the kung fu superstar. Those who deify Lee will no doubt be displeased to read intimations that he died not on a walk with his wife and from a rare adverse side-effect of a prescription—but non-illicit–drug, and instead died on the bed of a lover from a hash or pot overdose.

Furthermore, Miller tells of how Bruce Lee told his students to stop teaching Jeet Kune Do, because Lee was worried about where it was going. Miller goes on to report about how Bruce Lee’s martial art went awry according to many. Then there is the suggestion that Lee had little first-hand fighting (or sparring) experience on which to build such a combative art in the first place.

However, the overall portrait of Lee is of an exceptional human being, and one who had such a wide range of influence, from fitness to philosophy. While the Bruce Lee physique is now much sought after and regularly seen among movie stars, all the leading men of Lee’s era were doughy by comparison. (One may look no further than his Way of the Dragon nemesis, Chuck Norris.) Lee wasn’t just a movie star and martial artist; he was also a philosopher and thinker. While it’s true that he didn’t produce much in the way of novel ideas, by Hollywood standards he was a regular Algonquin Roundtable member. Lee oozed charisma so powerfully that after all these decades he’s almost as likely to be seen on a T-shirt as Che Guevara—don’t ask me why the Latin American Guerrilla fighter is so popular in silk screen, but that’s beside the point.

To sum it up, this isn’t a book about Bruce Lee, it’s about how his life and death shaped so many other lives—starting with Miller’s. While I didn’t count pages, there seems to be about as much space devoted to the events surrounding Lee’s death as the events of his life. Of course, there’s a bit of sensationalism, but inquiring minds want to know. People are intrigued about how a man who looked to all appearances to be one of the healthiest men on the planet could have died so young. (It’s an interesting irony that Bruce Lee’s almost complete lack of body fat—estimated at under 1%–could well have exacerbated his oversensitivity to whatever substance killed him.)

I’d recommend this book for anyone curious about the life and death of Bruce Lee.

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