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Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson

Book Review: The Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley RobinsonSummary:
Imagine a world where the Black Death of the 14th century wiped out the majority of the European population, rather than one-third of it.  This is the world Robinson imagines, one where Buddhism and Islam rise as the two major religions of the world (with no religion a close third).  See the history of the world through the eyes of two souls who keep reincarnating in different cultures, struggling to better both themselves and their world that could easily have been ours.

Review:
I originally picked this book up because I have long held a fascination with the various religions of the world (I was actually a Religious Studies minor in undergrad).  The “what if” at the center of the book seemed like a great starting place to me.  Indeed, what if most of the followers of currently largest faith (Christianity, source) had died off?  What things would change and what would have stayed the same?  Robinson chooses to tell this tale through reincarnating souls, which sometimes gives us a lot of access to these changes but other times leaves the reader feeling like they got just a passing breath of a culture and a century.

I didn’t realize going into this that Robinson had chosen to tell this story through the eyes of the same souls reincarnating over and over again.  It’s an interesting choice that I am uncertain about as it lends a sort of “this much we know” to the spiritual side of the story.  We, the readers, know that the souls of people in this world definitely exist, they go to the bardo to await judgment and reincarnation.  The bardo they go to appears to reflect whatever faith they had (Muslims have their own, Buddhists have their own, etc…)  The idea is also put out there that each of the faiths is a different path to the same end (enlightenment).  Much as I may personally believe this idea, I’m not sure how I feel about this particular story being so mythology heavy.  The History BA in me very much wanted to see a more analytical power-structure play-out, which we do get some of, but not as much as we get of the how to better our souls question.  I suppose what I am trying to say is that, although I was anticipating a book that was scholarly with a dash of spiritual, what I got instead was the reverse.  That’s not a bad thing, and I still enjoyed it, but it definitely wasn’t what I was expecting, and I do wonder how the story may have played out differently if Robinson wasn’t so tied to the same souls over and over again.

One aspect of the same souls reincarnating that niggled at me a bit was that throughout history, no matter where they were born (or what gender or species), their names always started with the same letters.  So a character whose first name in the first incarnation started with the letter K always had a name that started with the letter K.  It got so I could predict who was who and, to a certain extent, how they would act in each incarnation.  On the one hand, it was a cool idea, although highly unlikely someone’s name would start with the same letter throughout time and cultures and languages.  On the other hand, it distracted me from the more interesting story of the different world developing with the rise of different cultures than actually appeared in our own history.

Similarly, I think there is far too much story and richness in this idea and timeline to limit it to one book.  There were multiple incarnations that I really wanted to know more of.  I wanted to know the whole story of these lives and this place.  Instead, the reader gets a quick glimpse into one time in their lives, and then we are left jumping ahead to the bardo to find out how they died and oh here comes the next incarnation.  Perhaps the point was to make the reader feel as if each life is only a blink, but the scholar in me was left wanting to know so much more about every area and life the book briefly visited.  It was like getting only a small morsel of each chocolate in a box of delicious chocolates, instead of getting to savor them all over a long period of time.

All of this said, let me now discuss the parts of the book I really enjoyed (and would have liked to have seen more of).  My favorite is how Robinson reimagined the Americas.  The same essential problem of real history still exists for the Native Americans even with the change of the Christians mostly dying off.  Mainly, they lacked easily sourced heavy metals to make higher-tech weapons and they were susceptible to all of the germs European explorers brought with them.  (I learned about this in my classes in US History for my BA, but my professors told me this whole idea is also presented in the book Guns, Germs, and Steel, written at a level for those who are not history scholars, if you are interested in the topic).  Robinson figures out a creative way for select tribes in North America to avoid entirely succumbing to this fate, thus allowing them to band together and become the nation Hodenosaunee.  This means that one matriarchal, communal culture survives into the 20th and 21st centuries.  (Also of note, the West Coast is colonized successfully by the Chinese, so it is also vastly different in this imagining).  I was so intrigued by the idea of a Native culture surviving and holding on to their land against invaders.  But, on the other hand, I do feel that the author cherry-picked those tribes whose values most closely aligned with his own to “save” in this imagining.  (For instance, all human sacrificing tribes still die out/are enslaved, the Plains tribes are all presented as extremely violent and thus not eligible for inclusion in this forward-thinking group).  To a certain extent, the Hodenosaunee save the rest of the world with their communal and matriarchal ideas, and that verges a bit close to the stereotype/idea that select Native American tribes were/are just simply more spiritual than the rest of us, and we could all be saved if we would just listen.  (Think of the old commercial about littering and the Native man in traditional dress crying over our hurting “Mother Earth.”)  This stereotype removes humanity from Native Americans.  Native Americans consist of diverse nations with pluses and minuses, just like every nation in the world.  If Native Americans hadn’t been decimated by invasion, persecution, and disease, their existence as a power in the world would have been much more nuanced than presented in this book simply because Native Americans are humans, and humans are flawed. Just as no culture is all bad, no culture is all good.

Robinson does a much better job painting Islam and Buddhism with a nuanced brush.  Since their cultures dominate the book, this means most of the book is much more gray area, rather than presenting everything as black and white.  One element that demonstrates this, is how Robinson handles Islam and women.  All sides of the arguments about Islam and women are presented here.  There are incarnations of the souls that are Muslim women who argue strongly that the men are misinterpreting the Quran, what Mohammed said, etc… There are of course other incarnations that say no, the extreme fundamentalism is the right interpretation.  Through showing Islam through many different lenses in a world that is different from our own, Robinson demonstrates how religion is so incredibly open to interpretation, and good and bad people can shape it to their own agendas.  One passage that I think demonstrates how well Robinson walks this line is a conversation some characters have about the women wearing the veil or not:

The veil has a kind of power, in certain situations.  All such signs stand for other things; they are sentences spoken in matter.  The hijab can say to strangers, ‘I am Islamic and in solidarity with my men, against you and all the world.’ To Islamic men it can say, ‘I will play this foolish game, this fantasy of yours, but only if in return you do everything I tell you to.’ For some men this trade, this capitulation to love, is a kind of release from the craziness of being a man.  So the veil can be like putting on a magician queen’s cape…. Or it can be like putting on a slave’s collar, certainly. (page 592)

If this passage appeals to you in how it presents the various nuances and gray areas of religion and culture, then a lot of this book will appeal to you.

One final issue with the book I will note that may turn off some readers is that out of all the many incarnations, only two are in Native American bodies (and then, they are both Native Americans in North America.  South America is completely left out for incarnations, although incarnations visit there).  Similarly, there are no incarnations to Australia, New Zealand, Central America, or any island nation anywhere (Caribbean, Pacific Islands, United Kingdom, Iceland).  There is only one incarnation where one of the souls is in an African, and that African is a slave on a Chinese slave ship who then goes to China (we thus spend very little time in Africa, just at the beginning on the slave ship).  One character in an incarnation mentions that in the past she went to Africa but the reader does not see her time there.  I definitely think that it’s a weakness that so many areas of the world are left out.  For instance, I have zero idea what happened in Australia now that it clearly was never a penal colony of the UK (since the UK never existed).  Similarly, it seems Africa would be very different with all the changes in global power, and yet the only passing mention we get of modern Africa in the later incarnations is that one of the characters visits there to fight against Female Genital Mutliation (FGM).  If so much else changed, why not in Africa?

I know it may seem like I listed out a lot of issues, but it is a very long book that tackles a huge task.  My review is almost as if I was reviewing an entire series in one fell swoop.  Each individual part had issues, as did some of the overarching ideas, but I mostly really did enjoy reading it.  It’s a fascinating thought experiment that wasn’t as well executed as it could have been, but parts of it were brilliant.  I also enjoyed the feminist themes throughout.  Men and women are both just souls, reincarnating into a woman is not a punishment.  In fact, neither gender nor race is a punishment for previous incarnations, just species.  Similarly, the more a society advances the more equal their genders and races are.  There is a lot of thought given to what it means to be a woman in various areas of the world, which could easily have been passed over or not handled well.

Overall, this is a book that tackles a huge philosophical question in a fantastical way.  It is a large task that probably would have been better suited to a series to fully flesh-out the world, the lives, and the nuances in both.  Readers interested in spiritual questions with a tendency to view all religions as different paths to the same enlightenment and a curiosity about how the world might be different with different religions in the lead will be most suited to the book.  Readers interested in a more thorough exploration of an alternate history will most likely be disappointed by the reincarnation aspect and the brief time spent in each time period and culture.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: PaperBackSwap

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Counts For:
Bottom of TBR Pile Challenge
and
Once Upon a Time IX

Book Review: Nexus by Ramez Naam (Series, #1)

Gray book cover.Summary:
Science is moving forward to and through transhumanism to posthumanism, and no society seems to quite know how to handle it.  China is using the tech in their armies, Thailand is interested in its use to enhance meditation and zen, and the US government banned many of the different treatments and drugs after they were used by cults to make cloned children into killing machines.  Kaden Lane knows about the potential dangers, but he and his lab partners are still invested in making their brain nanotechnology drug, Nexus, work.  It makes minds meld together, able to feel others’ suffering, and they think it will lead to world peace.  Samantha Cataranes was a victim of a transhumanist mind control cult as a child, now she fights on the side of the FBI putting a stop to any science deemed too dangerous.  When Samantha and Kaden meet, their worlds and worldviews start colliding.

Review:
I had honestly kind of forgotten what this book was about, beyond it being scifi, by the time I picked it up to read it.  I thus was able to experience most of it as a surprise.  It’s a book that’s a modern twist on cyberpunk with plenty of action to boot.

Jumping far enough ahead that some transhumanist elements already exist is a smart move.  It lets the book think forward further than the initial transhumanist elements that it’s generally easy to see the advantages of, like fully functional robotic hands, into the grayer areas with things like cloning and mind control and making soldiers who are super-soldiers.  This is a more interesting ethical dilemma, and the book doesn’t take very long to set up the world and get into it.

Nexus itself is a fascinating drug that combines nanotech and drugs.  It’s easy to see that the author knows his science and has extrapolated into a possible future with a lot of logic based on current science.  That’s part of what makes reading the book so fascinating and slightly frightening.  It feels like an actual possibility.

The world building is done smoothly, incorporating both in-plot mentions and newspaper clippings and internal briefings to establish what is going on in the greater world around Kaden and Samantha.

The characterizations are fairly strong.  Even if some of the secondary characters can seem two-dimensional, the primary characters definitely are not.  Seeing a woman as the world-wise, transhuman strong fighter, and the man as the physically weaker brains was a nice change of pace.  Additionally, the book embraces the existence of gray areas. “Bad guy” characters aren’t necessarily bad, and “good guys” aren’t necessarily good.  This characterization helps tell the nuanced gray area story of the overarching plot.

The beginning of the book was weaker than the middle and the end.  The first chapter that has a character testing out Nexus by using it to land sex with a hot woman almost made me stop reading the book entirely.  It felt like some pick-up artist douchebro was imagining a future where tech would make him irresistible to women.  Frankly, that whole first chapter still feels extremely out of place to me now.  It doesn’t fit into the rest of the presentation of the character throughout the book.  It feels like an entirely separate story altogether.  I would encourage potential readers to skim it, since it barely belongs, then get to the rest of the book.

After the first chapter, the next few chapters feel a bit overly rose-colored lenses at first.  Almost as if the author sees no gray areas and only the potential good in humans.  Thankfully, this is mostly the rose-colored lenses of a main character that quickly fall away for the more nuanced storytelling of the rest of the book.  But it did induce a few eye-rolls before I got further along.

The middle and end of the book look at human potential for both good and evil within the context of both science and Buddhism.  It’s fascinating stuff, and makes a lot of sense since quite a bit of modern psychiatry is working hand-in-hand with ideas from Buddhism, particularly about meditation.  This is where the more interesting insights occurred, and also where I felt I could embrace the book a bit more.

Each of us must walk our own ethical path. And together, men and women of ethics can curb the damage of those without. But for you…if you keep vital knowledge from others, then you are robbing them of their freedom, of their potential. If you keep knowledge to yourself, then the fault is not theirs, but yours. (loc 5597)

Overall, this cyberpunk scifi that mixes transhumanism and posthumanism with nanotechnology, fighting big governments, and Buddhism tells a fascinating tale full of gray areas that will appeal to scifi fans.  Some may be turned off by the first few chapters that lack the nuance and likeable and strong characterization of the rest of the book, but it’s worth it to skim through the first few chapters to get to the juicier middle and end.

4 out of 5 stars

Source: Netgalley

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Book Review: To a Mountain in Tibet by Colin Thubron (Audiobook narrated by Steven Crossley)

Building in front of a mountain.Summary:
After the death of his mother, who also was his last living family member, Colin set out on a journey to the mountain of Kailas in Tibet.  The mountain is holy to both Hindus and Buddhists and is closely associated with the process of dying and crossing over.  Through his eyes we see the people of Tibet and his emotional journey.

Review:
I am not sure if words can describe what an epic miss this book was for me.  The combination of British western eyes othering Tibetans, an entire chapter dedicated to his father’s big game hunting, a surprising lack of emotional processing of death, and the *shudders* British accented narrator imitating Indian and Tibetan accents…..oh god.  It was painful.

I see nothing wrong with a Western person traveling and appreciating something revered in another culture.  If it is done right, it can be a beautiful thing. A lesson in how we are all different and yet the same.  Yet through Colin’s eyes I felt as if I was very uncomfortably inhabiting the shoes of a colonizing douchebag.  Perhaps part of it was the narration style of Crossley, but it felt as if Colin was judging and caricaturing all of the Tibetans and Indians he met.  There was so little empathy from someone supposedly on this journey to deal with death of loved ones.  You’d expect more from him.  I could accept this perspective more if either Colin learned over the course of the trip or this was an older memoir, but neither is true!  This is a recent memoir, and Colin is the exact same self-centered prick he was when he went in.

Similarly, Colin when he is not othering the Tibetans and Indians is either reminiscing joyfully on his father’s exploits as a big game hunter and basically colonizing douche in India or giving us a history lesson in Hinduism and Buddhism.  Ok?  But he’s not an expert in these religions and also that was not the point of the book?  A few explanations here and there, sure, but if I wanted to learn about Buddhism or Hinduism, I sure wouldn’t be getting it from a travel memoir from an old British dude.  I’m just saying.

Overall, this is an incredibly odd book.  It is a book out of time that feels as if it should have been written by an understandably backward gentleman traveler in the early 1900s, not by a modern man.  I honestly cannot recommend it to anyone.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: Audible

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Book Review: Natural Brilliance: A Buddhist System for Uncovering Your Strengths and Letting Them Shine by Irini Rockwell

March 12, 2012 5 comments

White cover with a slowly assembled flower on it.Summary:
Utilizing the traditional Buddhist five wisdoms–presence, clarity, richness, passion, and action, Rockwell seeks to show readers their own personal strengths and possible weaknesses.  Rockwell then seeks to demonstrate how to bring out the other three to four wisdoms within your personality to achieve more balance.

Review:
Before I had a book blog, I read quite a bit of Buddhist literature.  My minor was Religious Studies, and I also had an interest in it from a psychiatric and personal perspective.  Certain aspects of Buddhism are used in modern psychiatric treatments, for instance.  In any case, this is not my first Buddhist read.  I am familiar with a lot of the terminology and ideas.  This book though was nearly impossible to follow.  Quite possibly the worst book on Buddhism I’ve ever come across.

First, there’s how Rockwell talks about the five wisdoms.  Instead of consistently calling them by either their English name, Sanskrit name, or a hyphenated version of the two like most Buddhist works do, Rockwell bafflingly switches back and forth between English and Sanskrit without any rhyme or reason.  Particularly in an ebook where it’s difficult to flip back to the earlier pages where the wisdoms were introduced, this makes it really hard to follow the author’s thought-process.

Similarly, random information is inserted but then not fully explained.  I wonder if in the print version these are set apart in boxes?  Not sure.  For instance, the section introducing the five wisdoms has a completely random blip about the colors Tibetan Buddhism associates with them inserted in the text between the fourth and fifth wisdoms.  It’s just jarring and odd.

Finally, I didn’t really learn anything of value from the book.  Rockwell talks at length about what a person who is mostly possessing the wisdom of passion might look, behave, and even dress like, but not much is discussed about how to put this knowledge to good use.  It’s almost as if Rockwell got so caught up in describing the wisdoms that he forgot to talk to us about how to put this knowledge to much use.  Besides, does it really help to know to label the person who is passionate as exhibiting the passion wisdom?  We already know instinctively what they are like and how to deal with them.  Labeling it doesn’t really help, does it?

Overall, I found this book to offer very little in a way of self-improvement or aid in dealing with people.  It is confusingly organized without much valuable information within it.  Although it is a readable book that is not at all offensive, it just doesn’t seem like reading it is worth the time.

2 out of 5 stars

Source: NetGalley

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Book Review: Buddha Volume Three Devadatta by Osamu Tezuka (Series, #3) (Graphic Novel)

December 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Siddhartha in a cave.Summary:
Siddhartha is now a young monk pursuing knowledge and education.  He runs into a one-eyed monk who attempts to educate him on the concept of ordeals–essentially punishments for the body designed to help attain enlightenment.  The childhood of Devadatta is also depicted.  He is bullied and becomes a killer at a young age, thrown out to the wolves who then raise him.  Thus his hatred of humanity is explored.

Review:
I am consistently finding this series to be decidedly meh, yet I persist in reading it.  I think the art is a large piece of why.  It’s almost immediately relaxing to look at, so much so that it doesn’t really matter too much to me what the story is that’s going along with it.

I was intrigued to see a “raised by wolves” myth in another culture.  It’s interesting that instead of turning Devadatta into a great warrior, though, it makes him hate humans.  A great section is where the wolf mother tells Devadatta that humans are the only animals who kill when they are not hungry.  The kindness of and lessons to be learned from the animal world is a persistent theme throughout the series that I enjoy.

Siddhartha’s journey here though does not read at all the way I read it in Siddhartha in college.  I appreciate that we’re seeing how no one seems to have answers that ring true for him.  For instance, he does not agree with choosing physical punishment purely to suffer an ordeal for no apparent reason.  It’s interesting to see his nature depicted as one that just happens to be able to sniff out falseness.  It’s a different perspective on the Buddha that I value seeing.

It is odd though for a graphic novel series on an important topic like the Buddha’s life to feel as if it is best read by those already educated on the Buddha.  I assumed it would read like an easy introduction, but instead it is so subtle and leaves out so many key details that it is actually best read by those already well educated on Buddhism and the Buddha’s life.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Buddha, Volume 1: Kapilavastu (review)
Buddha, Volume 2: The Four Encounters (review)

Book Review: Buddha Volume Two The Four Encounters by Osamu Tezuka (Series, #2) (Graphic Novel)

November 16, 2011 1 comment

Image of a mountainSummary:
The second entry in the novelization of the Buddha’s life takes us through Siddhartha’s youth spent as a prince.  He meets a mysterious Brahmin who tells him he is destined to help the whole world, not rule a single kingdom.  Siddhartha is weak, frequently sleeps, and has visions.  He is discontent as a prince yet reluctant to abandon his people.  On an adventure outside the castle walls he meets a grown-up Tatta and falls for a slave woman, Migaila.  Conflict between what he believes and his duties as a prince seem central to the plot, yet in fact it is Siddhartha’s reluctance to follow his calling and leave the castle to be a monk that is at the core of the conflict.

Review:
I was pleased to see this entry in the series jump right into Siddhartha’s life instead of those on the periphery, yet Tezuka also brings in the major characters from the first book as minor characters in this one.  It works well, definitely better than the first book.  However, I am left wondering if the love between Siddhartha and a slave woman was based at all on fact or hearsay or purely came out of Tezuka’s mind.  It would definitely give a new perspective on Siddhartha to know he once had an ill-fated love affair.

Although it’s important to know where the Buddha came from, it is difficult and not particularly enjoyable to read about the time in his life when he was a spoiled brat.  Siddhartha does not treat his wife or his father well.  Although he has natural talents with meditation and visions, he surprisingly lacks compassion for others.  One of the things I like, of course, about the Buddha is that he did start out this way.  He’s not perfect; he just learned and worked toward Nirvana.  So it’s important to see this part of his life, even if it is uncomfortable to read.

I again felt distracted by the characters Tezuka made up though.  I wish he had stuck to a straight-forward graphic novelization of Siddhartha or the legends of the Buddha at least.  The weakest points of the book are the parts including characters Tezuka made up purely on his own.

The art is again enjoyable but not amazing.  The pictures show the story but do not suck you in.  They give the feeling of being there to do a job, not necessarily to provide a memorable visual experience to the reader.

Overall, it’s an interesting new way to explore the life of the Buddha, but I would not recommend it to someone completely new to Siddhartha.  It is an improvement over the first entry, and hopefully they will continue to improve, but an idea that could have been great is simply average.  That’s disappointing.

3.5 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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Previous Books in Series:
Buddha, Volume 1: Kapilavastu (review)

Book Review: Buddha Volume 1 Kapilavastu by Osamu Tezuka (Graphic Novel) (series, #1)

November 9, 2011 1 comment

Man holding rabbit up to the sky.Summary:
The tale of the Buddha’s life is told peripherally to those of fictional, central characters.  There is Tatta, an untouchable who can inhabit the bodies of animals.  He is joined by Chapra, a slave who wants to become a warrior.  Also there is Chapra’s mother and a young monk.  Their lives are impacted by the birth of the Buddha.

Review:
I picked this up randomly from the shelf in the library, and I must say I was expecting a bit more focus on the Buddha than is present in the story.  Instead this is one of those tales about fictional people living in the shadow of a world-changing person.  I honestly was really excited about the idea of the story of the Buddha told in the graphic novel style, so that was a bit of a disappointment to me.

The art style is interesting.  Somewhere between manga and more western-style animation.  The characters are really easy to tell apart, though, which was a nice change from some manga.

Although the Buddha is mostly gestating and being born during the course of the book, Buddhist ideas are still present periodically in the storyline. One of my favorites is when a saint chastises the monk for how he orders Tatta to use his talents:

To save just one human, you mindlessly harnessed numerous beasts to an impossible task…and killed them one by one! The beasts you bent to your purpose all suffered greatly and died cruelly! You believe that human lives are sacrosanct while animal lives are worthless?!?! You saved [the human], but the beasts that you sacrificed for his sake are now beyond saving. Life is sacred whether or not it is human! (page 350-1)

It was fun to see these sorts of ideals in the context of a story, and I do always enjoy reading a graphic novel.  The main story itself fell flat for me though.  It mostly focuses in on Chapra attempting to become a great warrior and save his mother from being a slave, which I fail to see how that relates to the Buddha.  As I said, though, this book was not what I was expecting, and I don’t tend to really go for warrior/mother tales.  Except Oedipus.

Overall, the art is an interesting style and some of the ideas contained within the book are fun to see in fiction, but the main storyline separate from Buddha’s life simply did not resonate with me.  Perhaps it will with you.

3 out of 5 stars

Source: Public Library

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