The Art of Steampunk, by Art Donovan

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 1, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) The Art of Steampunk seeks to celebrate the world of Steampunk: a world filled with beauty and innovation. A world in which steam power and technology intertwine to create machines that are not only functional and practical, but unique and striking.

Inside, you will find the fantastical and stunning artwork of Steampunk artists from around the world. The 17 artists featured on these pages, among the frontrunners of the Steampunk genre, have had their work displayed at an exhibition at The Museum of History of Science at the University of Oxford, UK and have attracted the media attention of BoingBoing, one of the world’s largest blogs. Their artwork consists of everything from clocks and watches to light fixtures and jewelry, but every piece demonstrates hours of painstaking work and devotion from its creator. You will find that the artists themselves are just as unique and colorful as their masterpieces. Fully embracing Steampunk ideology, many have adopted a Victorian alter ego—a mad scientist persona to match the complicated intricacies of their artwork.

The Art of Steampunk brings the vision of the Steampunk artist alive on the page, providing a unique insight into the captivating and dynamic world of a vastly underground genre.

Thoughts: I want to rate this book higher, I really do. There are so many things to like about this artbook, even once you move beyond the awesome idea that somebody did an artbook full of steampunk-inspired creations. The pictures are sharp and clear and quite beautiful, very inspirational. There’s good information about what steampunk is, its origins, why it’s gaining in popularity. The spotlights on various designers and their inspirations is really cool to see.

However (and there’s always a however), the copy of the book that I have is unfinished. I can understand why that is, since ARCs are not always the same as the finished product that hits the shelves, but I must say, it’s very hard to properly judge a book of visual art when half the art isn’t there. It’s filled with “picture goes here” notes and wonky formatting, and while I can try to ignore that and judge the book solely by what it does contain, I feel unsettled at giving the book a good review based on the fact that I had to ignore everything that was left out at the present time.

This book may be absolutely fantastic and revolutionize steampunk. It certainly will inform and entertain. But the ARC I received can’t properly convey that to me, and so I’m afraid my current review on this will remain a ackluster 3 out of 5 teacups until such time as I can see a finished and properly formatted copy.

And I have to admit, I’m pretty sad to say that.

(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley)

United States of Americana, by by Kurt B Reighley

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Author’s website
Publication date – August 31, 2010

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Young Americans are returning to the roots of a simpler culture

Americana. It’s more than mere nostalgia; it’s a conscious celebration of community and sustainability. It’s a movement born in response to the ever-accelerating pace of modern life and Internet technology overload. All over the country, people are returning to an appreciation for the simpler things in life, which are brilliantly surveyed in United States of Americana—the first comprehensive handbook to all things Americana.

Music: Renewed interest in the legends of country, blues, gospel, and folk (Johnny Cash, Emmylou Harris, Hank Williams, and Leadbelly); the rise and evolution of alt-country music and the Americana genre (Fleet Foxes, Wilco, the Decemberists, and T Bone Burnett)

Fashion: Wearing American heritage clothing and footwear (Red Wing boots, Filson jackets, Carhartt overalls, and Pendleton wool shirts)

Grooming: Returning to straight-razor shaving and old-fashioned barber shops

D.I.Y.: Taking up handmade crafts (knitting, needlepoint, and soap making), as well as home canning (pickling and preserving)

The speakeasy renaissance: Drinking Prohibition- and pre-Prohibition-era cocktails (old-fashioned, gin fizz, and sidecar)

Entertainment: Seeking out burlesque, circuses, and the vinyl LP

Thoughts: Ultimately, I can’t deny that this was a very interesting concept for a book, especially with North American’s current mindset and economic factors. More people every day are turning to green alternatives, and looking back on how things used to be done before we became a throwaway society. The author clearly did a large amount of research before putting pen to paper, so to speak, and for that, I commend him.

It was, however, not what I was hoping for in a book. While some parts were definitely interesting, with a focus on the history behind things and an aspect of DIY, long portions of it were devoted to nothing more than profiles of companies that have weathered the blast and are still going strong after 100 years or more. Which is fine… if you don’t mind reading chapter after chapter of company profiles. I would have rather seen a few more profiles of up-and-comers, people or small companies who were really getting into the DIY spirit and making their own clothes, perhaps, instead of relying on other people to do it for them. Reighley acknowledges that DIY is an essential part of the movement, but ignores a golden opportunity to showcase that.

Certainly, “buy American” is part of the culture as well, but if you actually get down to the grass roots, you’ll see a great number of people who are more interested in doing for themselves instead of letting others do for them. It’s a fine line to walk, but I wish Reighley had looked a little deeper into that instead of presenting a few food vendors and letting that be the end of it.

That being said, I did learn quite a bit, not just from the various and sundry pieces of trivial commentary that Reighley throws in but also from the sections not devoted to CEO interviews and product reviews. Though I’m not much of a drinker, the section on alcohol fascinated me, and taught me things I didn’t even know I didn’t know. There were good tips on preserving food, too.

I particularly like that he admitted that Canada exists, even if it was only as a minor footnote. Let’s face it, Canada’s got as many DIY back-to-earth sustainability as America does, but many people ignore that and act as though America’s the only one that can, and thus does, bother with it. Which is just untrue. Even if it’s just a footnote, I’m glad that Reighley acknowledged that “North Americana” might actually be a better term to use for some things.

An interesting book, but ultimately one that I’m glad I got to read for free on the HarperCollins website. If I’d shelled out money for this one, I think I’d have come away somewhat disappointed.

At Home in Japan, by Rebecca Otowa

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) At Home in Japan tells the true story of a foreign woman who has been, for 30 years, the housewife, custodian and chatelaine of a 350-year-old farmhouse in rural Japan. This astonishing book traces a circular path, from the basic physical details of life in the house and village, through relationships with family, neighbors and the natural and supernatural entities with whom the family shares the house. Rebecca Otowa then focuses on her inner life, touching on some of the pivotal memories of her time in Japan, the lessons in
perception that Japan has taught her and, finally, the ways in which she has been changed by living in Japan.

An insightful and compelling read, At Home in Japan is a beautifully written and illustrated reminiscence of a simple life made extraordinary.

Thoughts: I wanted to rate this book higher, I really did. Really, it doesn’t have any faults or flaws that I can point out as such, at least not that can leigitmately extend beyond the matter of personal taste. I found the prose a bit dry at home, but stylistically, that isn’t enough to condemn a book entirely.

It took me longer than it ought to have to get through this book, and I think ultimately the reason lies in the fact that it wasn’t what I was expecting. From the description online, I had expected something written in the style of a person’s memoirs, details of their life in a different culture. What I got instead was a collection of short articles.

Now, this is where opinions can easily differ. Reading short articles or stories can make a book easy to get through for some, because each section requires only a small amount of committment. For others, such as myself, constantly stopping and started makes me feel disjointed, thrown out of the groove, and I find myself quick to put the book down quite often. It drags out the reading time, and makes the book seem longer and more tedious than perhaps it really was.

It did, I will admit, have some interesting information on Japanese culture, history, and language, and for that, I’m glad I bought it. It’s rare now that I come across a book written about Japan that contains information that I haven’t read a hundred times elsewhere. This book accomplished what few others have in that it presented new information to me, which I greatly enjoyed absorbing.

I can’t say I’d recommend this book to many people. If you enjoy your information coming at you in the form of articles, then by all means, pick up a copy. If you simply must have any and all books on Japanese life and culture, then order it from Amazon. But otherwise, I’d say that most people can give this book a miss without losing out on too much.

The Unlikely Disciple, by Kevin Roose

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Author’s website
Publication date – June 3, 2010

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As a sophomore at Brown University, Kevin Roose didn’t have much contact with the Religious Right. Raised in a secular home by staunchly liberal parents, he fit right in with Brown’s sweatshop-protesting, fair-trade coffee-drinking, God-ambivalent student body. So when he had a chance encounter with a group of students from Liberty University, a conservative Baptist university in Lynchburg, Virginia, he found himself staring across a massive culture gap. But rather than brush the Liberty students off, Roose decided to do something much bolder: he became one of them.

Liberty University is the late Rev. Jerry Falwell’s proudest accomplishment – a 10,000-student conservative Christian training ground. At Liberty, students (who call themselves “Champions for Christ”) take classes like Introduction to Youth Ministry and Evangelism 101. They hear from guest speakers like Mike Huckabee and Karl Rove, they pray before every class, and they follow a 46-page code of conduct called “The Liberty Way” that prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, contact with the opposite sex, and witchcraft. Armed with an open mind and a reporter’s notebook, Roose dives into life at Bible Boot Camp with the goal of connecting with his evangelical peers by experiencing their world first-hand.

Roose’s semester at Liberty takes him to church, class, and choir practice at Rev. Falwell’s Thomas Road Baptist Church. He visits a support group for recovering masturbation addicts, goes to an evangelical hip-hop concert, and participates in a spring break mission trip to Daytona Beach, where he learns how to convert bar-hopping co-eds to Christianity. Roose struggles with his own faiththroughout, and in a twist that could only have been engineered by a higher power, he conducts what would turn out to be the last in-depth interview of Rev. Falwell’s life. Hilarious and heartwarming, respectful and thought-provoking, Kevin Roose’s embedded report from the front lines of the culture war will inspire and entertain believers and non-believers alike.

Thoughts: When I first found out that A J Jacobs’s “slave” was writing a book of his own, I was intrigued, and decided there and then that I had to get my hands on it. I’m happy to say that it was a fantastic book, a truly inspiration look at crossing the culture divide between religious and secular, showing how the line between left and right are not always as clear as many people want them to be.

Kevin Roose was inspired to take a semester away from Brown and transfer to Liberty University, a strict Christian university known for, is essence, being run by Jerry Falwell. It was a daunting prospect. Having to pretend to fit in while still maintaining journalistic distance, running the risk of making friends who have no idea about a very large part of his personality, spending time in close quarters with people whose ideology he didn’t exactly share. Immersion journalism is always tricky, especially in a time of such contention between the religious and secular worlds.

I was quite impressed with the way Roose handled everything – that is, with humour and an open mind. He didn’t try to instantly condemn everything from Liberty just because of its associations, neither did he attempt to fake blind acceptance. He struggled, he took chances, and he came away from the experience a changed man, but its a chance that he eventually felt somewhat comfortable with going through. He took something away from Liberty that he didn’t enter with, more than just the notes he took.

What he discovered, in essence, is that the people on both sides of the divide are remarkable similar in their good and bad points. Both sides have their misconceptions of the other, both sides have their jerks whom nobody likes, both sides have their sweet caring people who make your life better for having known them, and both sides have their secret dissidents and malcontents. It’s a prime example of not judging a book by its cover, of basing your opinions on experience rather than knee-jerk assumptions and self-imposed blindness.

You can’t help but close this book with a feeling of deep respect for what Kevin did. You can’t help but feel somewhat changed, yourself, after following along with his journey. There are things to laugh at (Jersey Joey’s constant ribbing), things to raise a wondering eyebrow at (Every Man’s Battle meetings to help stop masturbation), and things to give serious thought to (the way the university deems education as a dangerous thing that can lead students away from God), things to make readers pause and wonder just what all the fuss is about, on both sides of the debate.

Ultimately, this was a well-done experiment and a fantastic memoir that comes highly recommended for anyone on either side of the fence. Give it a chance; I guarantee you won’t be disappointed.

Made in America, by Bill Bryson

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Author’s website
Publication date – March 1, 1996

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) In Made in America, Bryson de-mythologizes his native land, explaining how a dusty hamlet with neither woods nor holly became Hollywood, how the Wild West wasn’t won, why Americans say ‘lootenant’ and ‘Toosday’, how Americans were eating junk food long before the word itself was cooked up, as well as exposing the true origins of the G-string, the original $64,000 question, and Dr Kellogg of cornflakes fame

Thoughts: It isn’t that often that you can say, “I enjoy history, linguistics, and trivia,” and have all your interests addressed and satisfied in the same book. Billy Bryson manages this in Made in America, which is, true to its subtitle, an informal history of the English language in the United States.

Bryson’s engaging style and unfailing humour shine in this book. He breaks down his research into different categories rather than just starting at America’s earliest point in history and jumping around from there. Thus, each chapter is fairly well self-contained, and it’s easy to look up a fact or idea just from the chapter categories rather than trying to remember where in America’s history something occurred.

I say “fairly well” self-contained because there are a few problems with this system, most notably in the inconsistancy Bryson has in bringing up facts that he already mentioned in previous chapters. He does his best to make sure that the earlier chapter gets the detailed explanation, and the problem doesn’t lie so much in no explanation at all but rather in getting the explanation repeated.

Still, as this doesn’t happen incredibly often, it’s easy to overlook so that the rest of the book can be enjoyed without problem.

With great style and wit, Bryson accomplishes what so many teachers cannot – he makes history, and language, intensely interesting. This is one book that comes with a high recommendation from me. It’s not for everyone, but anyone with an interest in history or linguistics will find something to appreciate. In this book, you’ll learn things that you weren’t even aware that you didn’t know.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank

I wasn’t sure I’d be able to get through this by the end of History Month here, since I’ve been so busy and my reading time has been curtailed somewhat. But it’s the weekend now, I’m not at work, and so I had time to finish the last little bit before committing myself to cleaning and packing for the day.

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Anne Frank’s diaries have always been among the most moving and eloquent documents of the Holocaust. This new edition restores diary entries omitted from the original edition, revealing a new depth to Anne’s dreams, irritations, hardships, and passions. Anne emerges as more real, more human, and more vital than ever. If you’ve never read this remarkable autobiography, do so. If you have read it, you owe it to yourself to read it again.

Thoughts: I regret to say that it was only recently that I actually finally read this book, though I’ve one edition or another on my bookshelf since the sixth grade. And while I am tempted to do something of a joke review and talk about none of the events contained within the book were realistic and none of the people were believable as characters, I think I owe it to the people who actually went through that nightmare to do this thing seriously.

I became fascinated with what civilian life was like during World War 2 after seeing a book of my grandmother’s: Robert Westall’s Children of the Blitz. Plenty of books will tell me what the political side of the war was like, what it was like for the people on the front lines, doing the fighting, but there are too few books that will detail was it was like for those who were just trying to stay alive in their homes. It’s one thing to shake your head and say it was a terrible time and to quote some statistics, but it’s quite another to read something written by somebody who was actually there, talking about their life amid uncertainty and bombing and fear of being killed in the night. It brings it all home, makes something distant and sanitized seem actually real, and, if you think about it, might actually cause a sleepless night or two.

While reading this, I was struck with just how alike Anne was to the girls of her age that I knew and know. Occupied with the same problems, thinking the same thoughts, and never mind that Anne was in hiding from Nazis and nobody I know can claim that. Reading entries about things like her daily routine, her thoughts about others, the sense that “life goes on” really came through clearly. No matter what, no matter how serious the situation, we still remain ourselves and the same old things will still bother us. We may not complain about them as much, but they’re still there.

I her thoughts about Peter to be particularly amusing. It started with, “Oh, he’s so dull,” went to, “He’s interesting, but you mustn’t think I’m in love with him, because I’m not,” right to, “I can’t stop thinking about him, I think I’m in love with him.” Oh, teenagers.

I don’t often come across books that I would recommend to everyone I meet, but it seems a shame if a person goes their life without reading this book. There are echoes of World War 2 still in our society today, and to not understand even a little of what that all means is a little bit sad. It’s not knowing your own history, particularly if you’re in, well, Europe, North America, various parts of Asia… Yeah, there’s a reason it was called a World War, after all. If you happen to live in this world, do yourself a favour and read this book if you haven’t already. It may not contain any stunning revelations about life, but you close the book at the end feeling a bit different than before.

Learning to Bow, by Bruce Feiler

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Since its publication, Learning to Bow has been heralded as one of the funniest, liveliest, most insightful books about the clash of cultures between America and Japan. With warmth and candor, Feiler recounts the year he spent teaching within the world’s most heralded school system, and through his unique perspective, demystifies contemporary Japanese life.

Beginning with a ritual outdoor bath and culminating in an all-night trek to the top of Mount Fuji, we accompany Feiler as he discovers the roots of modern Japanese culture: watching boys and girls learn gender roles; experiencing the impact of strict school rules; and understaning the reason for Japan’s business success. In school, Feiler teaches his students about American culture, while after hours, they teach him their own customs – everything from how to properly dress an envelope to how to date a Japanese girl.

Thoughts: Bruce Feiler takes us on an insightful and often humourous look at what it’s like to teach English in a Japanese junion high school. He combines classic cultural research with his own personal experiences, giving the reader a good look inside a world that so many people both love and often misunderstand.

It isn’t just the Japanese school system that Feiler lets the reader explore in Learning to Bow. All aspects of Japanese culture are up for grabs, from dating to the proper way to eat lunch to fashion. He often makes comparisons between Japanese and American methods, drawing his own conclusions but still giving us a chance to form our own without his bias. While he may disagree with the benefits of some parts of Japanese culture, he doesn’t say, for example, that those aspects are bad. Merely that he disagrees.

I’ve read this book twice before, and still love it now as much as I did when I first opened the cover to page 1. Though Feiler’s experiences recounted in the book take place in the late 80’s, the words and story themselves have such a timeless feel that they could have been written yesterday.

Most certainly, I’d recommend this book for anyone who’s seriously interested in teaching in Japan (through the JET program, perhaps), or for those who are interested in another look into Japan’s fascinating culture.

Culture Shock! Japan, by P Sean Bramble

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Publication date – November 1, 2005

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Whether you’re conducting business, traveling for pleasure, or even relocating abroad, one mistake with customs or etiquette can leave a bad taste in everyone’s mouth. International travelers, now more than ever, are not just individuals from the United States, but ambassadors and impression makers for the country as a whole. Newly updated, redesigned, and resized for maximum shelf appeal for travelers of all ages, Culture Shock! country and city guides make up the most complete reference series for customs and etiquette you can find. These are not just travel guides; these are guides for a way of life.

Thoughts: I’m sure by this point, you all know about my obsession with Japan, and my desire to learn more about the culture. So when I got the chance to read this book, I couldn’t pass it up.

I was immediately thrown off by the less-than-clear image on the cover, and flipping through I saw that all the pictures were in black-and-white. I almost put the book back of the shelf, thinking that it must have been written in the 60s or 70s and that a good deal of the information would have changed and be out-of-date. Don’t let the lousy graphic quality throw you off, though; this book was only published in 2005.

Much like the last book I reviewed about Japan, this is not a travel guide. Unlike the last book, it isn’t really a memoir, either. The author drew upon his own experiences of living in Japan and told some amusing anecdotes, yes, but this wasn’t a book about him.

Unlike travel guides, which do a good job of teaching you how to properly order sushi or how to hail a cab, this book prepares a person for living in Japan, not merely visiting. It covers things that travel guides won’t, such as how to pay your bills, or how to get by at the office. As such, I learned a remarkable amount about daily life in Japan, from a westerner’s perspective, that travel guides and memoirs often don’t speak of. Travel guides assume you won’t be there long enough, and memoirs assume that some tidbits would be too boring for the reader.

Thankfully, I’m the kind of anthro-nut who appreciates all the scraps of information I can gather.

I wouldn’t recommend this book to everyone. It doesn’t have enough information in it to appeal to a very wide audience. But for those who are curious about day-to-day tasks in Japan, or for those who are planning to move there for work, I definitely recommend this one. It may not be a definite resource, but it’s certainly a big help, and will teach you things you probably never even thought to ask about.

Japanland, by Karin Muller

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) During a year spent in Japan on a personal quest to deepen her appreciation for such Eastern ideals as commitment and devotion, documentary filmmaker Karin Muller discovered just how maddeningly complicated it is being Japanese. In this book Muller invites the reader along for a uniquely American odyssey into the ancient heart of modern Japan. Broad in scope and deftly observed by an author with a rich visual sense of people and place, Japanland is as beguiling as this colorful country of contradictions.

Thoughts: I have what some might call a minor major obsession with Japan. As such, it didn’t take much convincing for me to buy this book, which is an account of the author spending a year in Japan in search of harmony and balance for her life.

What this is not, I should say, is a travel guide to Japan. It contains a lot of fantastic insights into the culture, both mainstream and more esoteric, but if you plan to read this book thinking that it will make your trip to Tokyo easier, you’ll be disappointed.

On the other hand, if you have an interest in what Japanese culture is like for both an insider and an outsider, then I definitely recommend this book. From her stay with a host family to her Buddhist pilgrimage, Karin Muller weaves a wonderful story with skill, honesty, and respect. She’s not ashamed to reveal her own ignorance of some situations, nor is she ashamed to point out when other people are just plain baffling, at least by Western sensibilities.

I have read this book more than once now, and it’s one of the few books that I can safely say I take more away from it each time I read it. It’s an engrossing book, with plenty to amuse those who nothing about Japanese culture and those who know quite a bit.

By the end of the book, whether the author feels they’ve achieved a sense of inner peace and harmony is almost irrelevent. She’s learned a great deal, experienced more than most people ever dream of, and she’s taken away a little piece of another place to keep inside herself. In a sense, her pilgrimage toward the end of her time in Japan was only a fraction of the pilgrimage she embarked upon, and it left an impression that even the reader can feel as they share the journey from beginning to end.

Yarn: Remembering the Way Home, by Mori Kyoko

(For the curious, force of habit has me naming this author Mori Kyoko instead of the more western Kyoko Mori. It seems more natural to me to do this with Japanese names.)

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Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) A memoir of crossing cultures, losing love, and finding home by a New York Times notable author. As steadily and quietly as her marriage falls apart, so Kyoko Mori’s understanding of knitting deepens. From flawed school mittens to beautiful unmatched patterns of cardigans, hats and shawls, Kyoko draws the connection between knitting and the new life she tried to establish in the U.S. Interspersed with the story of knitting throughout, the narrative contemplates the nature of love, loss, and what holds a marriage together.

Thoughts: Having read two of the author’s YA novels, I was excited to find that one of her memoirs involved yarn, which is a passion of mine. (Big fibre artist when I’m not reading and writing, you see.) I was interested to see just what lay inside.

What I found was a frank and honest telling of many parts of her life, ranging from events in her childhood to her marriage to open self-reflection. Arranged in sections relating to specific knitted garments and how they relate to her life as a whole, it was easy to see the common threads that held everything together, that pushed and pulled and held all the events and emotions that she experienced. Following the author’s journey like this, I not only got to feel closer to her and understand her better, but I got the chance to understand myself a little better too, as though I was less a passive observer and more an active participant.

Which, I think, must have been intentional. Aside from the fact that she can tell a good story and create believable characters, it didn’t escape my notice that the theme of “common threads” can be applied between author and reader, between participant and observer, and that there’s a connection to be felt.

More than that, there’s the lesson that no matter how many threads run between people, places, or things, nothing is eternal. Nothing is so flawed that it cannot, with a little effort, be snipped and repaired until the problem has been fixed. And not everything needs to be perfect, either.

I admire her more now that I’ve read this book, and I took away from it more understanding and inspiration than I expected to. This was far more than a story about yarn, more than a story about a woman, and, much as in knitting, weaving, or spinning, the finished whole is much greater than the sum of its parts.

(Received from the publisher through NetGalley.)