Culture

Brain Candy by Garth Sundem

Date of Publication: 2010, Three Rivers Press

Number of Pages: 266

Synopsis (from back cover): Tastier than a Twizzler yet more protein-packed than a spinach smoothie, Brain Candy is guaranteed to entertain your brain – even as it reveals hundreds of secrets behind what’s driving that electric noodle inside your skull.

These delicious and nutritious pages are packed with bits of bite-sized goodness swiped from the bleeding edge of brain science (including the reason why reading these words is changing your hippocampus at this very moment!). Shelved alongside these succulent neurological nuggets are challenging puzzles and paradoxes, fiendish personality quizzes and genius testers, and a grab bag of recurring treats including Eye Hacks, Algebraic Eight-Ball, iDread, Wild Kingdom, and Logic of Illogic.

Review: This is one of those books that never gets old, no matter how many times you read it. It also has an almost magical ability to make you feel either really dumb or really smart. I found out things that made my various and very weird idiosyncracies seem justified. Did you know that my fear of teenagers actually has a name? It’s called ephebiphobia. And I’m right in thinking that my boyfriend has the handwriting of a serial killer…he matches up well with the Zodiac Killer. And it seems my hours spent daydreaming are actually making me smarter! There are personality tests (I found out that I’m an intelligent, incredibly introverted, absurdly liberal neurotic), intelligence tests (despite the aforementioned personality test that proved my intelligence, I also seem to have a slight case of dementia), puzzles, eye teasers, incredible brain facts, and hundreds of other tidbits that altogether make for hours of kind of depression, often hilarious, and always enlightening fun.

Rating: 10/10

Travel as a Political Act by Rick Steves

Date of Publication: 2009, Nation Books

Number of Pages: 205

Synopsis (from back cover): There’s more to travel than good-value hotels, great art, and tasty cuisine. Americans who “travel as a political act” can have the time of their lives and come home smarter–with a better understanding of the interconnectedness of today’s world and just how our nation fits in.

In his new book, acclaimed travel writer Rick Steves explains how to travel more thoughtfully–to any destination. He shares a series of field reports from Europe, Central America, Asia, and the Middle East to show how his travels have shaped his politics and broadened his perspective.

Review: As a long-time fan of Rick Steves’ PBS travel show, “Rick Steves’ Europe”, including his special Iran episode, I was really excited to read this book. I was certainly not disappointed! Steves’ writing is honest, open-minded, thoughtful, and humorous. He challenges his readers to travel with a purpose, to go outside their comfort zones and learn what the world around them is really like. America does not have all the answers to the world problems…in fact, there is no country on Earth that does. What makes Rick Steves unusual is that he is willing to consider solutions from other places. Does universal health care in Europe really work? According to the Danish people, yes it works wonderfully. Does legalizing marijuana really reduce crime? Just ask the Dutch. Is America the only country struggling with immigration? No, just look at England, France, and Germany. Can we learn from their solutions? Yes. And they can also learn from us. There is no anti-Americanism here.

Steves also challenges Americans to look at the effect their country has had on the rest of the world. During three trips to El Salvador, over the course of almost twenty years, Rick Steves saw the effects of the brutal civil war fought between the leftist FMLN forces and the America-backed, right-wing ARENA party and their infamous death squads. The leftist rebels were seeking economic equality, something that went against American corporate interests. Today, the defeated poor of El Salvador still revere the memory of Archbishop Oscar Romero, a Catholic priest who advocated freedom and justice, and who was gunned down in front of his congregation. Although this chapter depressed me and made me feel shame for my country’s leaders, it still didn’t feel unpatriotic, something that many of Steves’ critics have accused him of being. Acknowledging that your country has made grave mistakes and that those in power often have different priorities than the average American, is not hating your country. Throughout this book, Rick Steves strives only for understanding and peace.

This is accomplished not only in war-torn El Salvador, but even in Iran, that great “axis of evil”, as named by our rather thoughtless former president. Probably the most surprising fact about the people of Iran is that they don’t hate America. Yes, our governments do not agree on many things, and most Westerners find the rhetoric of the president of Iran to be, at best, horrific (such as denying the Holocaust, wishing for the elimination of Israel, etc.). But the people of Iran live lives surprisingly similar to ours.

There are many lessons to be learned throughout this book. At the outset, Steves makes clear that he is writing from his own perspective, and he stays true to this through each issue he examines. But even if you disagree with his views, you can still learn how to “travel as a political act”, how to travel with an open mind, ready to learn from those whose lives are different, who tolerate different things, and who value different things, and how to bring those lessons home with you.

Rating: 9/10

Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics by Paul Gravett

Date of Publication: 2004, Collins Design

Number of Pages: 176

Description (from back cover): Manga: Sixty Years of Japanese Comics presents an accessible, entertaining, and highly illustrated introduction to the development and diversity of Japanese comics from 1945 to the present. Featuring striking graphics and extracts from a wide range of manga, the book covers such themes as the specific attributes of manga in contrast to American and European comics; the life and career of Osamu Tezuka, creator of Astro Boy and the originator of story manga; boys’ comics from the Sixties to the present; the genres and genders of girls’ and women’s comics; the darker, more realistic themes of gekiga – violent samurais, disturbing horror, and apocalyptic science fiction; issues of censorship and protest; and manga’s role as a major Japanese export and global influence.

Review: As a first introduction to manga as art and product, this book is fantastic. I started reading having only been exposed to a few manga titles and knowing almost nothing about manga in general, besides the stereotypes that exist in the American imagination. The author, Paul Gravett, dispels all of the popular misconceptions about manga and the Japanese people’s relationship with it and provides a concise history of the medium, from its roots in Tokugawa-era prints to the revolution of artists like Osamu Tezuka, and finally to the modern adaptations of many manga into films and television series.

Gravett’s writing is easy to follow, and he seems to be extremely thorough in his research. He includes chapters on underground manga, erotic and pornographic manga, as well as the more well-known boys’ (shonen) and girls’ (shojo) manga that Americans are so familiar with. Since the book is large in size, the pages and pages of manga excerpts are easy to read and provide excellent examples of pretty much every genre of manga that exist.

I recommend this book to anyone who is just beginning to venture into manga, or anyone interested in the modern Japanese psyche. Gravett’s history of manga is also a study of modern Japanese people and the way they look at the world around them.

Rating: 10/10

Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America by Ann Powers

Date of Publication: 2001, Da Capo Press

Number of Pages: 287

Description: Writer Ann Powers delves into her past and her past relationships to find her bohemia, the one she had always looked for. From Seattle, to San Francisco, to New York City, Powers finds her bohemian America is both likely and unlikely places: record stores, universities, punk clubs, suburban backyards, and pricey New York lofts.

Review: This is a much more personal book than I had anticipated. Ann Powers traces her own bohemianism from her childhood in Seattle to her present life in New York, all the while relating the life stories of friends and acquaintances who have defined their lives by their own versions of bohemia. Some of the ideas presented, like those regarding drugs and drug use, appear to be simply justifications of poor choices and bad behavior: junkies masquerading as bohemians. It’s almost as if one can’t be a bohemian without doing drugs. At the same time, Powers makes allowances for many of the “selling out” behaviors that would normally be scorned by true bohemians, such as working in corporate America.

Powers focuses mainly on her own brand of bohemianism, that of the punk scene of the 1980s. But, she never really delves that deeply into it. After reading this book, I don’t feel like I understand the punk scene any better than before. The punk rockers and bohemians, as presented by Powers, feel superficial and somehow as if they’re trying too hard. Another drawback is how outdated this book is. Powers devotes a whole section to the Speakeasy internet cafe in Seattle, which actually burned down in 2001, the same year my edition was published. Many of the cultural references are old, which some may think is excusable, but in all honesty, a book devoted to any cultural phenomenon or philosophy should be able to transcend time. This book doesn’t do that.

All in all, I enjoyed this book, but there were several aspects of it that disappointed me. But I would still recommend it to anyone interested in counter-culture or music.

Rating: 5/10

The Geeks’ Guide to World Domination by Garth Sundem

Date of Publication: 2009, Three Rivers Press

Number of Pages: 245

Synopsis (from back cover): Sorry, beautiful people. These days, from government to business to technology to Hollywood, geeks rule the world.

Finally, here’s the book no self-respecting geek can live without – a guide jam-packed with 314.1516 short entries both useful and fun. Science, pop-culture trivia, paper airplanes, and pure geekish nostalgia coexist as happily in these pages as they do in their natural habitat of the geek brain.

In short, dear geek, here you’ll find everything you need to achieve nirvana. And here, for you pathetic nongeeks, is the last chance to save yourselves: Love this book, live this book, and you too can join us in the experience of total world domination.

Review: Yes, I consider myself to be a geek. But despite what the author claims, this book seems to be meant for geeks and nongeeks alike. For nongeeks, topics such as nuclear energy, thermodynamics, and the subtleties of the Klingon language are explained in easy-to-understand terms that even the nongeek brain can grasp. For geeks, there are ample opportunities to indulge in our various geeky obsessions…for me, the sections on J.R.R. Tolkien were particularly satisfying. This book gives geeks a reason to be proud of their geekiness, and gives nongeeks the ability to pretend that they are geeks…which of course, all nongeeks wish they could do.

Reading this book will give one the ability to impress anyone he or she encounters. You’ll be able to show off your shadow puppet-making skills, impress people with your expert martial arts moves, and help out your friends be making them chain mail armor. In all seriousness, this book is both entertaining and informative. I would recommend it to anyone who wants to improve their knowledge of both absurd and useful topics.

Rating: 10/10

Bohemian Manifesto: A Field Guide to Living on the Edge by Laren Stover

Illustrations by IZAK

Date of Publication: 2004, Bullfinch Press

Number of Pages: 265

Synopsis (from inside cover): Bohemianism is a way of life, a state of mind, an atmosphere. It’s about living richly and irreverently, beyond convention. It’s about being uninhibited, unbuttoned, creative and free.

Bohemian Manifesto is your entry into this world. It distills the penchants and peccadilloes of every kind of Bohemian and examines their vanities, vehicles, poetry, performances and passions – everything that makes the Bohemian so deviant yet so divinely seductive. What’s on their shelves? In the tub? On the turntable? What’s running wild? Bohemian Manifesto shimmers with all the incandescent ingredients that give counter-culture lifestyle its romantic reputation.

With humor and charm, this book inspires the way out of a brand-washed mass-market consumerist culture and into decadently delicious Bohemianism. Feel it, smell it, taste it, inhale it, and embrace, if you dare, its manifesto!

Review: This is one of those books that you can read over and over again. It’s not only humorous in its descriptions of Bohemian living, but it’s a wonderful escape from the rampant materialism that drives our everyday world. The Bohemian doesn’t worry about cleaning or working or any of those things that we think about constantly. Instead, Bohemian life centers on sensual and intellectual pleasures. Instead of “playing the game”, they do what they really want to do, whatever that may be, despite the consequences. It’s an incredibly seductive image to those like me who are scared of being trapped in the corporate box, which seems to lie in wait for everyone at some point in their lives.

Laren Stover obviously has knowledge of her subject, unlike some other writers who treat Bohemianism academically. Instead of presenting us with a romanticized image of care-free Bohemians, she presents us with the human side of the Bohemians. Although she does not dwell on the downside to to Bohemianism, the picture she paints is no less real. This book does not inspire me with the urge to abandon my home, family, and friends and hit the road with some traveling band of street performers. But it does inspire me to look at my life in a new way, and to adopt ways to live more naturally, outside the confines of the narrowly-defined norms that dictate our behavior, and sometimes even out thoughts. Bohemian Manifesto indeed provides us with a way out. I recommend that everyone read and take from this book something that will rescue them from the trappings of modern society.

Rating: 10/10

Entre Nous: A Woman’s Guide to Finding Her Inner French Girl by Debra Ollivier

Date of Publication: 2003, St. Martin’s

Number of Pages: 237

Synopsis: Provocative and practical, lively and intelligent, Entre Nous unlocks the mystery of the French girl and the secret of her self-possession. Why do French women always look inimitably stylish? How do they manage to sit in a cafĂ© for a three-course lunch and a glass of wine…by themselves? What gives them the certainty that allows them to refuse anything – whether a man, a job, or a little black dress – that doesn’t suit them perfectly?

More than just a book on fashion, Entre Nous is about the essence of French living – its observations about French women and their ways will help you take the best of all pages from the French girl’s book: the page that reveals how to really enjoy life. ~From inside cover

Review: As an admirer of all things French, I knew that this book was a must-read for me. I’ve read other books on the same subject, but this book not only explores the fashions and the food that we love so much, but really delves into the rules that the French girls lives by: discretion, self-possession, and taking the time to find quality and sensuality. The French girl seems mysterious only because she is so completely in control of herself – and not in the way we think. She understands herself to a degree that we Americans or English women rarely achieve. This book teaches us how to slow down our lives and how to find ways to bring into it a little of that French je ne sais quoi. I found this book to be not only entertaining, but inspiring.

This book includes chapters on work, home, fashion, and relationships. It also includes recipes, film and literature suggestions, and tributes to some of the world’s favorite French women, like Coco Chanel, Audrey Tautou, Catherine Deneuve, and Edith Piaf. Some details will shock readers (like the accepted practice of a French man taking a mistress). But aside from that, or even because of it, this book is universally charming and intriguing…just like a French girl herself.

Rating: 10/10