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: The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris

The Tattooist of AuschwitzThe Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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At its core, this is a love story set in the most unlikely of places, the Auschwitz Concentration Camp – which was in reality an extermination camp where Jews and others were executed as part of the Nazi Final Solution. Lale, the lead character, owing to his skill with languages and his survival instincts, was a prisoner chosen to be the assistant tattooist and in short order the tattooist’s replacement. As tattooist, Lale was responsible for writing numbers indelibly on the arms of the adult prisoners coming to the Auschwitz and Birkenau camps. This position offered him an unusual freedom of movement that allowed him to carry on a secretive relationship with one of the young women that he’d tattoo’d and become instantly smitten with. It also allowed him to carry out a small-scale relief mission in which he purchased food and medicine from a couple of sympathetic Poles. Still, this covert charitable work didn’t erase his guilt of believing he was participating in the atrocity by way of the tattoo-branding of his fellow prisoners. In a place where everyday was a test of survival, it goes without saying that both his love affair and his covert purchases created a heightened risk of being killed. The tension is perpetually high as one never knows whether Lale or those dear to him will survive from one scene to the next.

It’s testament to how tight and engaging the narrative arc is that I was under the impression that it was completely fictitious until I got to the back matter – which included an epilogue, an afterword, and a photo section that clarified that the book was based on interviews with the real-life tattooist, Lale Sokolov. The book is presented as a novel, and that’s how it reads throughout, but it’s in some measure a memoir. It’s hard to know how much is fictitious, but it seems reasonable to suspect that the author took some liberties – otherwise it would presumably have been presented as a history / biography.

I found this to be one of the most intense and gripping books I’ve read this year, and I’d highly recommend it for all readers.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe

The Electric Kool-Aid Acid TestThe Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book offers an account of the activities of Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters during the mid-1960’s. Kesey is best known as the author of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” a best-selling novel that was adapted into an Oscar-winning film starring Jack Nicholson. The charismatic Kesey led a group of nomadic hippies who came to call themselves “the Merry Pranksters.” There were many counter-culture strains during those years. Some looked East, and pursued spiritual traditions like yoga and Zen. Some were academics who sought to maintain scholarly rigor in adventures through the doors of perception. Kesey and the Merry Pranksters occupied more whimsical territory. As the “prankster” name suggests, taking things seriously wasn’t their way. Their mythology was in comic book superhero tales, and their moral code hedonistic. The titular prank had to do with spiking Kool-Aid with LSD (a.k.a. Acid) – not to be confused the Jim Jones cult which poisoned Kool-Aid and engaged in collective suicide over a decade after the events described in this book took place.

LSD plays a major role in the events of this book. While it’s not mentioned in Wolfe’s book, an interesting thing to note is that Kesey was introduced to hallucinogens through a program funded by the CIA’s nefarious MK-Ultra program. Kesey was working as an Aide at the Menlo Park Veterans’ Hospital, and he volunteered for a study on the effects of a number of psychoactive / hallucinogenic drugs. It seems that Kesey took a shine to these substances (most notably LSD) because he kept pursuing psychedelic experiences long after the study was over and even after he’d run afoul of the law (though his arrests were marijuana-related and not about hallucinogens.)

Tom Wolfe used beat-poetic prose to convey the feel of Merry Prankster life. There are even a few free verse poems in the book as well. And, of course, the dialogue conveys the tone of this community. The language is often fun and trippy in a way that contributes to the story. Wolfe put an author’s note amid the book’s back matter that explains his desire to not only tell people about the events but to convey the atmosphere, and I felt he did a nice job in that regard.

The central story hinges on Kesey faking his death (not skillfully) and fleeing to Mexico to evade punishment on his initial marijuana charges, and then — after some time in Mexico — he returned to the US, ultimately doing his time. Over the course of the book, the Pranksters develop a rapport with the Hell’s Angels, they cross paths with the likes of Beat giant Allen Ginsberg and the founders of the Grateful Dead. While it’s nonfiction, and thus not meant to follow a story arc approach beat for beat, Wolfe does tie things up with a nice bow, ending with the Prankster “Graduation” which would see the end of that group before Kesey went off to serve time on his combination of marijuana and evading justice charges. We see a change in Kesey in the last couple chapters as he’s advocating pursuit of the psychedelic state of mind without the use of drugs. It’s hard to say how much of this is trying to cooperate to get better terms, how much it was just growing up, and how much it was a true change in his core beliefs.

I enjoyed this book. It’s fun to read and offers insight into an era with which I wasn’t particularly familiar. I’d only known Kesey from his blockbuster book and a vague reference to his being a participant in a MK-Ultra funded program, and so it was interesting to learn about the intriguing life of this author.

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BOOK REVIEW: Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins

Edgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called LivingEdgar Allan Poe: The Fever Called Living by Paul Collins
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Edgar Allan Poe is one of the most intriguing writers in American literature. His short life (he died at 40) was productive and inventive. He’s often credited with the invention of the detective story (i.e. “Murders in the Rue Morgue”), and was prolific as a writer of stories, poetry, and criticism. We know him for macabre tales like “Tell-Tale Heart” and the poem, “The Raven.” Few authors invoke such a benighted image.

Yet the popular image of Poe is a bit of a dark caricature, reflecting truths but exaggerating features for effect. Part of this exaggeration probably owes to our collective desire to romanticize the tortured artist – and Poe is as tortured as they come. However, some of the exaggeration of Poe’s faults owe to the fact that he was a harsh critic, and at least one of the authors who felt the sting of his pen found an opportunity to amplify the “drug-addled lunatic” aspect of Poe’s nature in a biography after the great author’s death. That’s not to deny that Poe had an addictive personality. He was both an alcoholic and prone to gambling away whatever funds graced his pockets.

This short biography (less than 150pp.) gives one insight into Poe’s life from birth to death in five chapters. The first of these chapters describes Poe’s childhood, which was marred by the death of his mother, abandonment by his father, and being taken in — but not adopted — by a foster couple. Granted the foster couple was wealthy, but Poe’s foster-father could be a harsh man and the uncertainty of not being formally adopted seemed to have weighed on Poe’s mind.

The middle chapters give special attention to Poe’s life as a writer, noting under what circumstances he was published, starting with a self-published chap book and moving through to becoming one of America’s great men of letters (though he never made enough money to live in comfort.) Poe famously married a cousin who was very young (though of legal age) at the time, and we get some insight into that relationship, which ended not terribly long before his own death. The last chapter gives the details of Poe’s demise.

I found this book interesting and educational. Collins neither gets lost in the minutiae nor give’s Poe’s life short shrift, and it feels as though he reveals the true Poe and not the T-shirt version. I would recommend this book for fans of Poe’s work and for those who are interested in the literary history of America.

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BOOK REVIEW: Raoul Wallenberg by Ingrid Carlberg

Raoul Wallenberg: The BiographyRaoul Wallenberg: The Biography by Ingrid Carlberg
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This is the most recent of the many biographies of Raoul Wallenberg. Wallenberg was a Swedish diplomat during the Second World War who is credited with saving thousands of lives. He was posted to Budapest with an assignment of issuing protective passports to Hungarian Jews. Hungary was a last bastion of Judaism among Nazi controlled / allied countries, but in the summer of 1944 they began mass deportation to the death camps in Poland. Protective passports from the neutral country of Sweden staved off deportation for many.

As dangerous as Wallenberg’s life was during his assignment to Budapest when he was constantly at odds with the Arrow Cross Militia (the Hungarian fascist party) and the Nazis who put them in power, the most intriguing part of Wallenberg’s life story may be his disappearance. In January of 1945, as he was seeking contact with the commander of the Red Army in Hungary to facilitate a post-War reconstruction of Budapest, he was arrested by the Soviets and surreptitiously moved to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow. The Soviets denied having Wallenberg, but facing overwhelming evidence from released prisoners who came into contact with Wallenberg in Lubyanka and Lefortovo prisons eventually made the Soviets recant. In the 1950’s they admitted they’d had him while making the suspect claim that he’d died of natural causes in 1947. There remains a great deal of mystery surrounding the case. Why they arrested Wallenberg in the first place? Why didn’t they release or exchange him like other foreign diplomats they had in custody. If they executed him – why’d they do it and why’d they do it when they did it. [There were claims by prisoners stating that they’d met Wallenberg in Gulag camps in the 1960’s and even into the 70’s (though the latter claims are more suspect.)]

In a bold move, this book is written in the old school style, which is to say chronologically. This may not seem odd for those who’ve been reading biographies and autobiographies for a long time. It’s how historians always used to write their books, and it certainly seems like a logical arrangement for the telling of historical events. However, the mode today is to start in media res, or in the middle of the exciting bits, and to sprinkle in only what is absolutely necessary of backstory as one goes along. Because of a combination of intense competition for one’s reading time and what seems like the diminished attention span of today’s average reader, it’s really quite brave for Carlberg to start with 150+ pages discussing: Wallenberg’s parents and grandparents, his days in America as an architecture student studying a form of building design that would be considered virtually useless when he returned to Sweden, and his attempts to get started in business in the years between his return to Sweden and his entry into the diplomatic corps. That said, this first of the three parts that make up the book is well done and more interesting than one might expect. It doesn’t suffer from the painful dryness that is so common when one discusses ancestors and the subject’s childhood. It’s not just that Carlberg keeps an eye on what data might be useful for the reader later in the book. In fact, I’d say that what makes the first part interesting isn’t that it shows us how Wallenberg’s youth forged him into an inevitable hero. Rather, it’s that we come away with a picture of a somewhat shiftless kid from the least wealthy limb of a family tree of a rich family. It’s not that he was born to be a hero that makes his background fascinating; it’s that he was in many ways an ordinary fellow whose decisions at critical moments made him a hero.

As mentioned, the book’s 23 chapters are divided into three parts. The first part, as described, is Wallenberg’s background. The second part explores his actions while posted to Budapest. This is when he had to deal with the likes of Adolf Eichmann and – at the very end – rogue elements of the Arrow Cross Militia who were engaged in killing sprees. The third part covers the period of Wallenberg’s arrest and disappearance at the hands of the Soviet Union. Many of the popular biographies of Wallenberg were written in the 1980’s, during a period of reawakened interest in his fate but when the Soviets were just beginning to loosen up, and so this version does contain a little bit of new information that came out during the Glasnost years and subsequently.

The book has a substantial group of black and white pictures of relevant people and documents. There are also modern-day descriptions of the author’s visits to various key places in Wallenberg’s story including various offices and residences, as well as Lefortovo prison. These are short (a few pages at most) and are interspersed with the chapters around which that locale was relevant. Some of them involved talking with people who had insight into Wallenberg’s life and other places are occupied by individuals with little to no knowledge of Wallenberg. There is a detailed accounting of sources, including both a bibliography and lists of interviewed individuals and unpublished sources.

I found this book fascinating. I will admit that I didn’t get hooked right away. While there was enough in part one to keep me interested, the book doesn’t become truly gripping until the second and third parts. In part three, it becomes genuinely hard to put down.

That said, if one is hoping for a work that resolves all questions, that work doesn’t yet exist, and it’s less and less likely that it ever will given the way the Soviets purged Wallenberg from documentation (very few references were found during the Glasnost era investigation) and apparently cremated his body. Few people remain alive who were involved and their memories are adversely effected by time. Still, Carlberg offers excellent insight into what went wrong on the Swedish side that may have contributed to Wallenberg’s demise. The Swedish diplomat jumped to conclusions that probably hurt Wallenberg’s survival odds. There are a few brief scenes in the book that are visceral, and one of these involves the degree to which that one diplomat was haunted by his missteps in the case. (Another involves a cudgel-wielding former KGB-interrogator who threatened Wallenberg’s step-brother when the relative tried to visit to find out more. If the sparse documentation is to be believed, the retired KGB man may have been the last person to speak with Wallenberg. But the man clearly wanted to put that behind him.)

There were just a couple of questions that I wish had been addressed by the book that weren’t. Carlberg is keen to point out that it appeared that the Soviets were hinting that a teen-aged Baltic refugee, Lydia Makarova, could be a possible exchange for Wallenberg. (The Swedish diplomats were too dense to get this at first because one had concluded Wallenberg died in Hungary and another – higher up — didn’t believe in quid pro quo life trades.) I can see how this Lydia Makarova wasn’t really relevant to Wallenberg’s story. She was just an extremely high value subject, but I couldn’t help but wonder why they would want a teen-aged girl so badly that they’d have been willing to take the public relations nightmare of admitting they abducted a diplomat regarded as an international hero. With the book weighing in at over 600 pages, I can see why there was reticent to investigate this further just to scratch an itch of curiosity, but still the itch remains.

I’d highly recommend this book. I’ve read other books on Wallenberg, and believe that this book offered substantial value added – particularly regarding the investigation of Wallenberg’s disappearance.

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BOOK REVIEW: Rasputin by Maria Rasputin and Patte Barham

Rasputin: The Man Behind the Myth - A Personal MemoirRasputin: The Man Behind the Myth – A Personal Memoir by Mariia Grigor’evna Rasputina
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This was an impulse buy made at my local used bookshop. How could I not pick it up? There are few historic figures with as much swagger, and who are as steeped in mystique and myth, as Grigori Rasputin. This Russian mystic has been fictionalized as a villain by Disney and in the “Hell Boy” universe. If one knows anything about this holy man, it’s that he proved exceedingly hard to kill and that he is believed to have had great sway with the Tsar and his wife (i.e. the Tsarina) in large part owing to the apparently miraculous effect his presence had on the healing of their hemophiliac son, Alexei. (Skeptics will note that it’s widely believed Rasputin did – in fact – save the boy, but probably not through communion with a deity. Instead, he did it through a combination of luck in keeping the doctors from giving the boy aspirin [its blood-thinning nature wasn’t yet recognized], old folk wisdom [i.e. stressing the kid out with a dozen poking / prodding doctors is as likely have a deleterious effect on health as a positive one] and a placebo effect arising from the holy man’s larger-than-life charisma.)

It’s always hard to know what to expect with a biography written by a family member. In this case, the lead author is one of Rasputin’s daughters, Maria. While there is the same potential for bias in an autobiography, in a relative’s biography one never knows whether the writer will deify or vilify they subject – but one strongly suspects they will do one of the two. This is made all the more difficult in this book on the life of Grigori Rasputin because the author is at once exceedingly forthcoming about the man’s drinking and womanizing but simultaneously rails against Rasputin’s enemies and always holds that he was fundamentally virtuous and pious (outside of sleeping around, sousing it up, and taking bribes [which the author claims were redistributed Robin Hood style and which it’s further suggested didn’t result in promises to intercede with the Tsar / Tsarina that he wouldn’t have agreed to on the grounds of virtue and merit alone.]) It should be noted that there was a journalist co-author who may have rounded of the coarse edges of personal bias, though – as I suggested – Maria Rasputin comes across as being at ease with her father’s less godly proclivities.

The book begins in media res with a description of the night that Rasputin left his home and daughters never to return. This intro presents his daughter’s perspective as she experienced that night at the time – i.e. without any of the insight of later investigations and research that comes later at the book’s end. It’s a skillful set up for the book, and in general this book avoids becoming bogged down in minutiae of personal interest as is common in biographies. The book then proceeds chronologically from sparse coverage of Rasputin’s youth with particular emphasis on the events and indications that he wasn’t the typical farm boy through to the aftermath of his death. In between the book charts the rise of Rasputin from peasant farmer to personal friend to the royal couple who visited them freely while abandoning all the protocol that was required of others on visits to the Tsar’s court.

I did do a bit of research out of curiosity about how biased or neutral the book was. In general, it seems to be a reasonably accurate portrayal of events. While I did find information that seems to conflict with the author’s presentation, it doesn’t appear to be a matter of an attempt to propagandize but rather a result of differences of perspective. One type of bias revolves around the belief in supernatural powers that can readily be seen in the case of Tsarevich Alexei mentioned above. Maria Rasputin was clearly a believer that her father had powers, and so she presents the healing as being divine (though she does state that keeping the doctors away probably had a role and she says that her father never claimed responsibility for cures but always said thanks should be given to God.) Another example is the belief of the authors that Rasputin was still alive when he was thrown into the river that is based on abrasions on his wrists as if he was struggling in the water, but supposedly there was no water in his lungs. (With respect to the claim of Rasputin being hard to kill, after healing up from having been disemboweled with a knife, on the night of his assassination Rasputin was [allegedly] poisoned, shot multiple times, castrated, and then dumped into a frozen river. The author suggests it was the drowning that finally got him, but the more common view is that the gunshot to the head had already done the deed – and furthermore, the assassins probably in some way fouled up the poisoning because there wasn’t any posthumous evidence of it. It should be noted that the authors, too, suggest that the assassins must have gotten it wrong with the initial attempt to poison Rasputin because of the lack of evidence of poison – i.e. they make no supernatural claims on that issue.)

Concerns about bias aside, the book is highly readable. It is fascinating throughout and it complies with Elmore Leonard’s advice to novelists to “cut out all the parts people skip over.” The author captures the political intrigue as well as Rasputin’s mix of seedy and saintly sides that combine to make his story so fascinating. We see his ups and downs as he became immensely popular (always with powerful enemies) and then how he lost influence in World War I when his pacifism conflicted with the jingoistic outlook of the day.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the life of Grigori Rasputin.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Life of Milarepa ed. by Lobzang Jivaka

The Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the TibetanThe Life of Milarepa: A New Translation from the Tibetan by Lobsang P. Lhalungpa
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Superhero stories can be surprisingly hard to make interesting. The hero’s vast powers make it hard to build obstacles that seriously challenge him. Make no mistake; while this book may be the biography of a Tibetan Buddhist yogi who was born in the eleventh century, it’s a superhero story as well. At various points, the titular character can control the weather, fly, read minds, predict the future, and cover a distance that would take a mere mortal months in just days. Milarepa is basically the entire cast of the X-Men rolled into one monk. [Note: the introduction of 1962 Lobzang Jivaka edition features a series of rants against Westerners that put a bad taste in my mouth early in the reading–basically suggesting the reality of these magic powers should be taken as a given even though the deficient Western mind has trouble wrapping its head around difficult concepts. It made me think I’d probably not like the book, but I’d forgotten it by the time I got around to the end of the book.]

“The Life of Milarepa” is essentially a hero’s journey, which begins with his widowed mother, his sister, and he being taken advantage of by a mean Uncle and Aunt. Milarepa takes up Black Magic to influence the weather so that he can exact revenge. Doing so makes him feel great shame, and puts him on the path of a religious ascetic. After his initial training, he is put through a great series of trials by Marpa, the man who will eventually his guru. Were it not for the encouragement and support from Marpa’s wife, Milarepa would never have made it through the training, and at one point—in fact—he goes away to learn from one of Marpa’s most advanced students because it seems Marpa unwilling to teach him.

Eventually, Milarepa ends up returning to his home and, thereafter, meditating on his own. Here he runs into the aunt and uncle (now separated) who made his family’s life hell after his father died. These elders aren’t the only ones who think Milarepa is a ne’er-do-well. However, most people are too scared of his superpowers to create problems for him, at first. He eventually wanders off and becomes the poorest of ascetics—with not so much as covering for his naked body as he live off nettles.

There are oddities in the book. The Buddhist teachers he studies under both use him as weapon (i.e. his hailstorm magic) as a requirement to taking him on as a student, despite the fact that this will pile onto his Karmic debt (and ostensibly theirs), and it leaves him feeling horrible—as well, it seems, these black magic powers make Marpa hostile to the young man and not take him seriously as a student until the guru receives an omen.

So why does this story turn out to be so satisfying? For one thing, for all his powers, Milarepa is constantly confronting challenges that keep the story tight. (I should again emphasize that this is nominally a work of biography. It just doesn’t read like one because of all the magic and the classic story elements. Few people have such a novel-shaped life. A hagiography is a more apt descriptor but instead of only displaying Milarepa’s good side (boring), this book presumably dances around facts to make a more engrossing product.) While Milarepa could concoct all manner of magic, he mostly doesn’t with the exception of some ESP. After Marpa has taught him, Milarepa deals with people with calm and compassion. (His return home is a little like Alex’s from “A Clockwork Orange” in that people have ill feelings about him because of his past, but at first they are afraid of him. When they discover he can’t defend himself, they start to lay into him.) For another, we can see Milarepa’s growth and we come to respect his intense devotion tremendously as he becomes quite virtuous of the course of the book. While he is a superhero, he’s also an ascetic who denies himself with the utmost of discipline in pursuit of liberation.

I’d highly recommend this book for those who like biographies—especially if you like to learn about Buddhism in the process. In the latter half of the book there are some lessons transmitted through the text as Milarepa interacts with students and other people. Eventually, even his loathsome aunt becomes a student.

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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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