BOOK REVIEW: The Golem of Venice Beach Vol. 1 by Chanan Beizer

The Golem of Venice BeachThe Golem of Venice Beach by Chanan Beizer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

The title is the premise. The Golem of Prague is now living in Venice Beach, CA. However, the protagonist is a human hipster with a sunglass kiosk near the beach named Jake. Jake is a secular Jew with a penchant for all manner of drugs who falls in love with a neighbor who is some sort of chosen one for a Santa Muerte cult that’s protected by some drug-dealing gangbangers. The connection to the Golem is that Jake’s bloodline is protected by the Golem.

This is one of those titles that’s hard to rate. The art is well done. The character development is great. And it’s a compelling premise. (Though I think we may be experiencing a Golem zeitgeist as this is the second or third Golem story I’ve read recently. But, it could also be an anecdotal coincidence.) That all sound pretty good, but I have no idea whether the story is any good because it’s one of those one-story-arc-split-over-two volumes, and so the resolution-to-cliffhanger ratio is not good. [i.e. It ends all cliffhanger and with nothing having been resolved.] To be fair, the last line does promise to conclude the story in the second (next) volume. (i.e. As opposed to: “We’ll see if it’s popular and then string it out until there’s no hope of tying up all the loose ends.”) So, I guess it comes down to whether you’re a trusting soul. I don’t think I’ve read this author previously, and thus have no basis for drawing a conclusion.

So, my recommendation is…


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BOOK REVIEW: Free Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton

Free Speech: A Very Short IntroductionFree Speech: A Very Short Introduction by Nigel Warburton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This concise guide outlines the debate on the perennially precarious issue of freedom of speech and expression. What factors (if any) should determine whether speech is restricted or not? Only when harm will be done to other individuals or to society at-large? Under a set of predefined conditions designed to advance societal harmony, or, perhaps, jingoism?

Some of the most interesting discussions in the book involve questions of whether any individuals or entities should have special privileges vis-a-vis freedom of speech? Historically, religions have claimed to be beyond criticism, but even as blasphemy restrictions have been softened (or applied equally to minority as well as majority religions,) there are still other groups seeking special status. For example, should a renowned artist who produces something that would otherwise violate public decency standards be able to publicly display said work because it has some redeeming artistic merit? (One can imagine the challenge presented by this question, given the inherently subjective nature of “artistic merit.”)

The book generally describes two or more opposing stances on any given issue, almost ensuring there will be points with which one agrees and others with which one doesn’t. I found the book thought-provoking, which led to a couple interesting realizations. For one thing, while I’ve been dismayed about how some groups are trying to carve out sacred spaces in which they are beyond criticism, challenge, or even [the nebulous] “being offended,” I was reminded that this is nothing new, and that whether it’s royal families or “the Church” there’s always been some group who wanted “freedom from” offense, challenge, or critique. It’s just a question of which groups make said demands that’s changing. For another thing, while I’m generally about as close to a free speech absolutist as one sees, I did learn that there is one question on which I don’t take the most pro individual liberty stance (in part because I didn’t recognize it as part of the debate.) The issue in question is copyright protection. There are those who argue that access to knowledge should be free and unimpinged, and that – furthermore — this would advance creativity. [I don’t really understand this stance as it seems to assume that creators of intellectual property will work even harder if they don’t get paid, but that’s a discussion for another time.]

If you’re interested in questions of free speech, particularly as they pertain to religious beliefs, pornography, and the changing state of intellectual property, you may want to read this book.


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BOOK REVIEW: Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2 by Brandon Beckner, et. al.

Project MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIAProject MK-Ultra Vol. 2: Sex, Drugs, and the CIA by Brandon Beckner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 15, 2022

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Volume Two continues the story of CIA’s crazy “experimentation” with LSD, ultimately leading to the fall of the MK-Ultra program. The story is built around strange but true events, but there is a fictionalized element, particularly with respect to the investigative journalist (Seymour Phillips) whose presence in the story is used as a mechanism to tie together events that may or may not have had much overlap in terms of common personnel. That is to say, fiction isn’t just used to make the story more intriguing (a tale this strange hardly needs much help in that department,) but to both fill in knowledge gaps (famously, most of the MK-Ultra files were destroyed) and to make a throughline connecting somewhat disparate events. The focus is on events surrounding Ronald Stark as well as the widening spillover of LSD from CIA programs into the civilian space – e.g. the birth of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.

The art in this book is amazing. Of course, much of it has to capture the sensory bizarrerie of psychedelic experiences, and it does that creatively. However, even the “sober” panels are colorful and present a captivating world. There’s a full-page depiction of Chinatown that blew my mind.

If you’re interested in a story built around the CIA’s dalliances with LSD, and the subsequent spillover into the civilian world, I’d highly recommend the two volumes of this book.

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BOOK REVIEW: Lessons by Ian McEwan

LessonsLessons by Ian McEwan
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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This book not only shows the characters learning their lessons, it has a few teachings for the reader, as well. The story follows the protagonist, Roland Baines, as he receives a series of harsh life lessons, at the center of each is a woman. There is Miriam, his piano teacher at boarding school, a woman who enters into a manipulative sexual relationship with Roland while he’s still a minor. There is Alissa, the wife who abandons Roland and their seven-month-old child to pursue her writing career. Finally, when a woman, Daphne, comes along with whom he can at last have a healthy relationship with a dependable partner, he has difficulty embracing the relationship because of his earlier experiences. We also witness the intergenerational learning of Alissa, whose mother never made good on her own potential as a writer.

The lessons for the reader are profound. First, after developing an intense and visceral dislike for Alissa because she abandons a baby and seems so oblivious to the suffering her actions have caused (e.g. her husband being suspected of a murder that never happened,) we are reminded that disappearing dads are par for the course; we may think poorly of them, but we rarely have an intense emotional response to such situations. Second, we are offered insight into the “intentional fallacy” – i.e. thinking one knows the author’s intentions and subjective thought processes from what she writes.

I found this to be a powerful story that asks one to confront all manner of intriguing questions. (e.g. If an individual ditches her [or his] family for career, does it make a difference if that person is the best at what she does or if she’s mediocre or if she stinks?) I’d highly recommend this novel for readers of literary fiction.


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BOOK REVIEW: Making a Masterpiece by Debra N. Mancoff

Making A Masterpiece: The stories behind iconic artworksMaking A Masterpiece: The stories behind iconic artworks by Debra N. Mancoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Release Date: November 1, 2022

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In this book, Mancoff discusses a dozen works of art considered masterpieces, explaining how the paintings came to be, what influenced the artist, and what influence these paintings had on art or culture that contributed to their widespread designation as masterpieces. This background information is presented by way of helping to understand what it is about these paintings that made them stand out.

It’s an interesting selection. There are paintings, such as Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” and Hokusai’s “The Great Wave,” that one would imagine being on any short list of artistic masterpieces. There are others that one could imagine making the cut or not, but which are certainly iconic (e.g. Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”) But there are also painters who one would expect to see included on the list, but whose most well-known or iconic work isn’t the one presented – e.g. Klimt’s “Woman in Gold” is discussed instead of “The Kiss” and Van Gogh’s “Fifteen Sunflowers” is included rather than “Starry Night.” The most controversial inclusion is the last, “Michelle Obama” by Amy Sherald – not because it’s not a beautiful painting and interestingly arranged for a portrait (which are usually pretty boring to a neophyte such as me,) but because it hasn’t been around for sufficiently long to know whether it will lodge itself in the collective conscious the way all the other entries have, so earning the designation of masterpiece. [It’s also owned by the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, and thus hasn’t had the commercial distinction by which masterpieces are usually determined – i.e. being auctioned for insane sums of money – e.g. Warhol’s soup cans (which are included in the book.)] That said, I liked that there were some “outliers,” as it was more opportunity to learn something new.

The book not only includes pictures of artworks as well as closeup details, but also pictures of works that were influenced by each and sometimes photos relevant to the story behind the paintings.

I enjoyed reading this book and learned a great deal about these important works of art.


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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: A Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans

A Transcendental JourneyA Transcendental Journey by Stephen Evans
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Release date [for 25th Anniversary ed.]: September 10, 2022

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A Transcendental Journey intersperses a quirky travelogue of a rambling road-trip through America with a book report on selected essays of Ralph Waldo Emerson. On a positive note, the book offers genuinely funny lines within a generally amusing wandering discussion of events, and there’s something authentic about the voice – you may find yourself hearing the words in the voice of someone you know (or a character) who is idiosyncratic and nerdy in a way that is not uncommon in America. I did. In addition to the funny lines, there are statements that feel profound and are definitely thought-provoking.

Some of the offbeat elements go a bit too far, reaching the point of distraction. For some reason, the author decided to note not only each time he drank a Coca-Cola, but the size of the beverage. At first, it’s just a bit of weirdness that seems to contribute to the aforementioned authentic voice, but eventually one is made sad by the idea that this guy is giving himself diabetes and involving you, as reader, in the process. I can’t say that the philosophy bit is particularly well integrated into the travelogue, and the author often seems like an Enlightenment guy more than a Transcendentalist. (Transcendentalism being an offshoot of Romanticism, a philosophy meant to counteract the perceived cold, hard rationality of Enlightenment thinking and take a more mystical / spiritual [though not necessarily religious] view of the world.) That said, I can’t fault an inability to keep these schools of thought in boxes, as my own philosophy and worldview are fairly ala carte. My point is just that someone who picked up the book expecting to have a clearer view of what distinguishes Transcendentalism from other philosophies might come away confused.

If you enjoy travelogues, particularly of the United States, you’ll find this book a fun read. If you’re familiar with the works of Emerson, I wouldn’t expect any deep philosophical insight, but there are some fine quotes and discussions to remind you of Emerson’s great ideas and beautiful language. (And there are certainly many varied insights to ponder.)

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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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