Non-fiction

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

Shinto: The Kami Way by Dr. Sokyo Ono

Date of Publication: 1962, Tuttle Publishing

Number of Pages: 112

Synopsis (from back cover): Shinto, the indigenous faith of the Japanese people, continues to fascinate and mystify both the casual visitor to Japan and the long-time resident. This introduction unveils Shinto’s spiritual characteristics and discusses the architecture and function of Shinto shrines. Further examination of Shinto’s lively festivals, worship, music, and sacred regalia illustrates Shinto’s influence on all levels of Japanese life.

Fifteen photographs and numerous drawings introduce the reader to two millenia of indigenous Japanese belief in the kami – the sacred spirits worshiped in Shinto – and in communal life, the way of the kami.

Review: As someone who is interested in all things Japanese, I was really excited to read Dr. Sokyo Ono’s Shinto: The Kami Way. This book is held as the standard introduction to Shinto for Western readers, and for the most part, I wasn’t disappointed. The author, a recognized expert on the subject, presents Shinto to the reader in plain, simple language. The bare essentials of Shinto are explored, including the architecture and layout of Shinto shrines and the rituals and festivals that are celebrated within. Unfortunately, I was seeking a more philosophical discussion of Shinto, and the author really only includes a short chapter in the back of the book that delves into the actual beliefs of Shinto. Still, the influence of Shinto on the daily life of the Japanese is addressed throughout the book and gives Western readers a glimpse into the way the Japanese have evolved along with their indigenous beliefs. I would recommend this book to all readers interested in world religions and philosophies. This is definitely a must-read for anyone who hopes to understand the Japanese people even a little bit.

Rating: 7/10

Poisoned Love by Melanie Cane

Date of Publication: 2008, Bascom Hill Publishing Group

Number of Pages: 395

Synopsis (from back cover): In 1993, Jimmy Breslin wrote a front page story for New York Newsday, about Melanie Cane, a troubled young psychiatrist who “let love take her too far.” Fifteen years later, Melanie tells her side of the story in Poisoned Love, a heartbreaking and staggering account of her spiral into the depths of mental illness and what she did under the guise of love.

With extraordinary courage, Melanie provides intimate access to the thoughts and feelings leading to her desperate act, as well as an unvarnished account of her subsequent psychiatric treatment and the legal and social consequences of her crime.

Melanie’s steady progress toward recovery involves an emerging understanding of the relationship between her various diagnoses and her attachment to an abusive mentally ill father.

Her story teaches people about survival and success in the face of severe mental illness.

Review: I received this book only a few days ago, courtesy of a very nice woman at Bascom Hill Publishing Group. I had known the gist of the story (woman goes crazy, poisons her ex, gets committed, gets better), but I was unprepared for how intimate and tragic the telling of that story was going to be. Suffering from depression myself, I am unfortunately aware of the difficulties of living with a mental illness, but the heartrending pain that Melanie suffered as her rationality crumbled around her is far beyond anything like a run-of-the-mill mental illness. She had everything stacked against her: a severely mentally ill and abusive father, a resentful and angry mother, and an emotionally immature and abusive boyfriend. The rapidity and the extent of her recovery is staggering. She came out of her experience a better and more well-adjusted person than she had been before her breakdown. To those that would judge her (and have judged her), I would ask this: how would you have coped with the immense betrayal, pain, and abuse that Melanie went through? To retreat from reality seemed to be the only thing her mind would allow her to do.

At times, the writing does seem a bit amateurish, and at times the author’s descriptions of her illness and conversations with her doctors struck me as something from a psychiatry textbook…but then again, how else does a medical doctor explain her illness? The flow of the story also seemed stilted to me. Details were left out and referred to later as something that the reader should have known, and memory flashbacks were sometimes inserted into the story at awkward times. But all in all, this book is an engaging read, as Melanie allows her readers a most intimate glimpse into her pain and crumbling sanity. I would recommend this to everyone, as everyone can benefit from getting to know this highly intelligent and courageous woman.

Rating: 9/10

The Audacity of Hope by Barack Obama

Date of Publication: 2006, Vintage Books

Number of Pages: 427

Synopsis (from back cover): The Audacity of Hope is Barack Obama’s call for a new kind of politics – a politics that builds upon those shared understandings that pull us together as Americans. Lucid in his vision of America’s place in the world, refreshingly candid about his family life and his time in the Senate, Obama here sets out his political convictions and inspires us to trust in the dogged optimism that has long defined us and that is our best hope going forward.

Review: To be fair, I should say up front that I am a very enthusiastic supporter of Barack Obama. This bias of course affected my reaction to this book, so please take that into account when reading this review. First of all, this book is superbly written. Obama has an immense talent for writing and for clearly putting forth his views. There is no more doubt about who the real Barack Obama is…all you have to do is read this book. It’s easy to get a sense of his intelligence, his thoughtfulness, and his idealism, all of which have affected the way he approached politics. He comes across not as a perfect person, but as a real person, someone to whom all Americans can relate.

In this book, Obama explores all aspects of American politics, like race, family, and relations between the two major parties. It’s obvious that he’s a Democrat, but it’s also apparent that he respects Republicans. His approach to politics isn’t one of exclusion and strict party loyalty. He knows that all Americans, no matter their beliefs or political leanings, have worth and he fights for all of them. He doesn’t just represent Demorats…he represents Americans.

All this may sound like an endorsement of Obama’s presidential candidacy (you can take it that way if you want), but this book truly opens one’s eyes to who the real Obama is (a funny, friendly, intelligent, and thoughtful man), what he stands for (liberty, freedom, and opportunity for everyone), and how he thinks politics should be exercised in America (with an open dialogue and a real debate of the issues). If you want to get to know Obama, or if you simply want to be inspired and believe that America is still a great country, then you have to read this book!

Rating: 10/10