BOOK REVIEW: Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear

Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide (Introducing...)Introducing Jesus: A Graphic Guide by Anthony O’Hear
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book offers concise answers to some of the key questions that circle about the life of Jesus and the religion spawned by his existence. It tells the reader what is known about the life of Jesus, providing insight into what life events are well supported and which are only described in accounts written long after the fact (e.g. the gospels.) It describes which factions believed Jesus was a god and which didn’t. It describes opposing views of what Jesus was (i.e. if he wasn’t just a run-of-the-mill human being, was he wearing a human suit or was he some sort of divine hologram.) A lot of the book is more about Christianity than Jesus, proper, exploring how the religion came into existence, how it changed, why it became schismatic, and how it was influenced by other domains of human activity (e.g. governance and philosophy.)

As the subtitle suggest, the book uses graphics throughout – primarily drawings and monochrome artworks depicting Jesus, events from his life, and other characters in his story (e.g. apostles, disciples, and such.) Besides graphics, the only ancillary matter is a “Further Reading” section that discusses Bible versions and scholarly works on Christianity and the life of Jesus.

I found this book to be concise, interesting, and informative. If you’re looking for an outline of Jesus’s life that offers insight into the evolution of Christianity from a non-theological point of view (i.e. having no dog in the fight of whether Jesus was a god) you may want to give this guide a look.

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BOOK REVIEW: Shamans, Mystics and Doctors by Sudhir Kakar

Shamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing TraditionsShamans, Mystics and Doctors: A Psychological Inquiry into India and its Healing Traditions by Sudhir Kakar
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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In this book, Freudian psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar examines a range of alternatives to mainstream psychiatry / psychotherapy that are pursued across India. They are largely traditions that predate psychiatry, and which weren’t developed primarily as a path to mental health, but rather as methods to develop mind and spirit – but which came to fill a void. Included in this exploration are a Sufi Muslim Pir, a Balaji Temple exorcist, an Oraon bhagat, Tibetan Buddhist / Bon healers, cultists, tantrics, and Ayurvedic doctors. The chapters are organized by the type of healer, and the ten chapters are split between shamans (Pt. I,) mystics (Pt. II,) and Ayurvedic healers (Pt. III.)

This book is at its best and most interesting when it’s describing the author’s visits to various temples, shaman huts, and other places where healers reside. He tells what he learned and experienced at these places, which ranges from reassuring (shamans and healers getting at least as good a result as their mainstream psychotherapeutic counterparts) to mildly horrifying (people chained to cots, or being blamed for their condition — i.e. being told their faith is inadequate.) I found many of the cases under discussion to be fascinating, and learned a lot about how mental illness is perceived by different religious and spiritual traditions.

While Kakar is trained in a Western therapeutic system, he maintains a diplomatic tone about these indigenous forms of therapy – some of which are quite pragmatic but others of which are elaborately pseudo-scientific. I found this book to be insightful about various modes of treating the mind that are practiced in India

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BOOK REVIEW: The Physics of Fun by Carla Mooney

The Physics of FunThe Physics of Fun by Carla Mooney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: September 15, 2021

This book uses skateboarding, snowboarding, trampolining, music concerts, and video games as a vehicle to teach (middle school-aged) kids some basic physics concepts. I’m not sure why this isn’t the usual textbook approach, teaching lessons via what is of greatest interest to students, but it certainly wasn’t the mode when I was a kid.

While I’m no expert on middle school science curricula, I suspect this book wouldn’t work as a primary classroom text because it doesn’t systematically cover the subject. The chapters on skateboarding, snowboarding, and trampolining explain many terms and concepts of mechanics, but not necessarily everything taught in science class. The penultimate chapter is about waves, both sound and light, and uses the idea of music and laser light shows to elaborate on the topic. The final chapter uses video games as a way to introduce the fundamentals of electricity and circuits.

I think this book is at its best when it is breaking down the physics of tricks in the first few chapters. That’s where it separates itself from the usual dry textbook approach, and any improvement in the book would be seen following that line. Granted, some topics are more amenable than others.

The book has a glossary and each chapter ends with hands on exercises students can do to improve their understanding of the material considered. The graphics are widespread and include cartoons, diagrams, and photos.

If you’re looking for a book to get a child excited about science, give this one a look – particularly if the child is interested in extreme sports.


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BOOK REVIEW: (Mis)Diagnosed by Jonathan Foiles

(Mis)Diagnosed: How Bias Distorts Our Perception of Mental Health(Mis)Diagnosed: How Bias Distorts Our Perception of Mental Health by Jonathan Foiles
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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Out: September 7, 2021

I’m fascinated by the challenges of mental health diagnostics. From the Rosenhan experiments (mentally well researchers checked into psychiatric hospitals) to the perpetual disappointment with new editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM,) a lot has been written about the difficulties of diagnosing disorders that largely express themselves through subjective experiences. Foiles’ book looks at how this challenge (combined race, gender, and gender identity biases) leads to differential diagnoses between various demographic groups.

The book serves as a call to action to be more aware of biases, and how they play into diagnoses. Though, in some cases it does a better job of that than in others. The six chapters present six faces of the problem: race and psychosis, race and ADHD [Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder,] sex and Borderline Personality Disorder, and changing (though skewed) views of gender dysphoria, trauma, and intelligence.

Overall, I felt I learned something from the book, but sometimes it wasn’t as strong in supporting assertions and objectively presenting evidence as other times. For example, Chapter three examines how borderline personality disorder was (at least until recently) overwhelming seen as a female disorder. It went on to say that now it’s believed to have the same incidence in males, but that men present with different symptoms. To a neophyte, this sounds a lot like: “The Smiths eat meatloaf 50% of the time for dinner on Wednesday. Until recently, it was thought that the Joneses only ate meatloaf 10% of Wednesdays, but then it was discovered they also had meatloaf 50% of the time – but the Joneses meatloaf was made of ingredients such that it usually looked like chicken pot pie.] What?

For the most part, I found this book intriguing and informative, and would recommend it for those interested in the issue.

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BOOK REVIEW: Indian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton

Indian Philosophy: A Very Short IntroductionIndian Philosophy: A Very Short Introduction by Sue Hamilton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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A concise guide to Indian Philosophy is a tall order. Over millennia, the discipline has had time to swell. This necessitated some careful pruning and selection on the part of the author. While the book does present key distinctions between all six of the orthodox schools of Indian Philosophy (i.e. Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Samkhya, Yoga, Mimamsa, and Vedanta,) the only one of the heterodox schools that it substantially addresses is that of Buddhism. (There are three major heterodox schools of Indian Philosophy by most accounts – Caravaka, Buddhist, and Jain, though some also include Ajivika and Ajnana to make five.)

This book focuses on the most novel ideas of each of philosophical schools under study, and it particularly focuses on points of debate where there is disagreement within or between schools. The book, therefore, moves metaphysics, ontology, and epistemology, but doesn’t explore all major philosophical questions for all the schools.

If you’re looking for a book that sums up the key points of debate between and within major schools of Indian philosophy, this is a great book. It does the job quite well and with a minimal page count. If you need a book that offers insight into more than the major points of contention, but extends into a given school’s stance on some of the less provocative questions, I’d recommend Chatterjee and Datta’s “An Introduction to Indian Philosophy” (it’s much longer and denser, but dives deeper and farms wider.)

I like how this book was organized and thought it did a good job of being both concise and clear (a duo that doesn’t play well together with regards complex philosophical subjects.)

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BOOK REVIEW: Proust & the Squid by Maryanne Wolf

Proust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading BrainProust and the Squid: The Story and Science of the Reading Brain by Maryanne Wolf
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Time to get meta, and do some reading about reading. Wolf’s book explores the neuroscience of reading, the evolution of writing systems, and what keeps some children from learning to read as rapidly as most. If you’re wonder about the seemingly arcane title, Proust’s essay “On Reading” planted a seed of thought that would become this book. The squid bit reflects the aquatic creature’s famous neurological adaptability, which is also witnessed in the learning human brain. Reading as both a mystic experience and as the unanticipated consequence of an extremely plastic brain are among the book’s recurring themes.

Another recurring idea is that reading has a cost. This view was famously expressed by Socrates, who believed reading would contribute to diminished memory, intellectual laziness, and other problems. Wolf reflects upon Socrates’ criticisms, but also draws a parallel between Socrates’ ideas on the subject and the present-day argument that the internet / social media is driving us inexorably and inevitably toward an “Idiocracy” type world.

The parts of the book that deal with the neuroscience of reading do get a bit complicated. It would be hard for them not to as reading is a complex task unfolding within the most complex system that we know of. However, wouldn’t say that this book is any more dense or incomprehensible than most pop neuroscience books – especially as it’s mixed in with less challenging material.

My understanding of dyslexia (Ch. 7 & 8) grew considerably while reading this book. I learned that it isn’t a unitary affliction, but can come about at any of a number of cognitive tasks that have to transpire during reading.

If you’re interested in how humanity learned to read, the benefits and costs of this capacity, and what dyslexia really is, this book is definitely worth reading.

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BOOK REVIEW: Avadhūta Gītā by Dattātreya

The Avadhuta Gita - Song of the AsceticThe Avadhuta Gita – Song of the Ascetic by Dattātreya
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Free Online: Sankaracharya.com

An Avadhūta is a mystic who’s transcended a dualistic view of the world, avoiding distinctions between self and everything else. Often, these sages are compared to those of various spiritual traditions who display divine madness, theia mania, crazy wisdom, or whatever one wishes to call it (e.g. the Nyönpa of Vajrayana [Tibetan] Buddhism, or sages such as Ikkyu [Zen] or Saint Simeon [Christian.]) That’s because said individuals may behave in ways that seem strange because the conventions of society often doesn’t make sense in the context of the Avadhūta’s worldview.

“Avadhūta Gītā” translates to “Song of the Free Soul,” and it consists of eight chapters of poetry that read like sutras or epigrams (concisely stated bits of wisdom.) The poem can feel a bit redundant as it repeatedly hammers home the experience of a world free of duality and distinction, singing the virtues of oneness in oh so many ways. That said, other valuable lessons are eloquently conveyed throughout. For example, chapter two explains why one shouldn’t worry on the bona fides of one’s teacher, but rather take from him or her what is of use and not worry if a teacher doesn’t know everything. It makes the apt comparison that one doesn’t need a freshly-painted and ornately-trimmed boat to cross the river, anything with essential boat-like qualities will do.

There are many English translations of this poem. I compared two, and they read quite differently but conveyed the same gist. I’m not qualified to speak to how either compared to the original Sanskrit, but I didn’t feel either translation greatly outpaced the other in terms of conveying ideas (though one was more eloquently composed [though arguably with less clarity.])

If you’re interested in Yogic and Indian philosophy, I’d recommend giving this poem a read.

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BOOK REVIEW: Power Born of Dreams by Mohammad Sabaaneh

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

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Out: October 7, 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Fiber Fueled by Will Bulsiewicz

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOOK REVIEW: Hurts So Good by Leigh Cowart

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

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Out: September 14, 2021

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

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

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

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

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