Yokainoshima: Island of Monsters by Charles Fréger

A rich collection of photography explores the Japanese mythology that both celebrates and protects longstanding traditions.

yokainoshima

Yokainoshima is a lushly beautiful collection by photographer Charles Fréger (Wilder Mann: The Image of the Savage), with commentary by experts on his Japanese subjects. Yōkai are “spirits, ghosts and other monsters,” or, literally, “bewitching apparitions.” On Yokainoshima, the “island of monsters,” and in Japanese culture, these gods and ghosts emphasize links to other worlds, in which humans are not the only inhabitants.

The bulk of Yokainoshima is filled with nearly 200 glossy color images of masked and costumed performers representing specific yōkai in grassy fields, beaches, forests and snowfields. Standing alone, these powerful, vibrant photographs offer stories and evoke emotions. Descriptions of the depicted characters, groups and customs (located at the back of the book) elucidate the mysteries offered by the images: seasonal rites requesting fertility, abundance and protection. Short essays portray a culture defined by its spirits, monsters and connections, enriching Fréger’s striking visual art.


This review originally ran in the November 22, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 8 pieces of straw.

A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura by Eileen Markey

One of the four churchwomen murdered in 1980 El Salvador is honored with a detailed biography.

radical-faith

In 1980, four United States churchwomen in El Salvador were raped and murdered by members of the U.S.-trained National Guard, calling into question U.S. support for the right-wing military dictatorship and leading to several high-level and international investigations. The four were treated as symbols and martyrs; journalist Eileen Markey wanted to make them individuals again. A Radical Faith: The Assassination of Sister Maura pursues that goal by examining the life of Maura Clarke.

Markey follows Maura from a close-knit Irish Catholic family in Rockaway, N.Y., to a Maryknoll convent at 19 in 1950, part of a staunchly anti-communist Catholic Church. Maura served in the Bronx, and then for 17 years in Nicaragua, where she was horrified by poverty and want. She gradually experienced a massive transformation of worldview, eventually becoming an outspoken activist, even as Markey outlines a parallel if gentler shift at the Church’s highest levels. When assigned to El Salvador, Maura worked a few short months before her murder.

A Radical Faith is not an objective inquiry: it assumes that Maura had few flaws and that missionary work in cultures abroad is good work. Markey nevertheless powerfully establishes Maura as an individual, and animates the story of her death. Her work brings an extraordinary level of detail, from Maura’s own journals and correspondence as well as redacted government documents, to a decades-old crime with higher-level instigators who have not been brought to justice. Though not impartial, A Radical Faith is a carefully researched and flattering portrait, moving and evocative.


This review originally ran in the November 18, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 flights.

Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement by Frank Appleton

This personal history of Canada’s craft beer movement, from a distinctive and accomplished participant, amuses as well as instructs.

brewing-revolution

Books on craft beer and the craft beer movement abound, and readers may feel underwhelmed at the prospect of another. But Frank Appleton’s memoir, Brewing Revolution: Pioneering the Craft Beer Movement, is different. For one, his focus is on British Columbia, rather than the much-discussed scene in the United States. And Appleton’s unapologetic, lively personality communicates a story both personal and national, even global, in scope. Brewing Revolution also expands into an impassioned indictment of mass-market adjunct lagers, as well as a manual for the next generation of brewers.

Appleton, a native of Manchester, England, applied his studies in microbiology to food science and later, after immigrating to Vancouver, B.C., to brewing. His science background, appetite for innovation and uncompromising insistence on quality in food and drink led him through an unplanned but inspired career. He began in one of Canada’s “Big Three” brewing conglomerates, where he developed a scorn for adjunct ingredients (or “added junk”) like corn, rice and corn syrup, where traditional, quality brews use only malted grains like barley.

Retiring in frustration to a cabin in the woods, he learns that an article he’d written comparing adjunct lagers with “tasteless white bread and the universal cardboard hamburger,” and calling for a do-it-yourself response, has drawn the attention of an ambitious pub owner. From there, Appleton’s career as a consultant begins. After helping to open the first craft brewery in Canada–which required lobbying for a change in legislation–he consults on the design and launches of dozens of new breweries in Canada, several in the United States and one in France. Along the way, he trains new brewers, invents new equipment and creatively tackles problems in brewing-related architecture, physics, sanitation, welding, human resources and more.

While Appleton is occasionally acerbic in railing against brewing practices and certain former employers, he stops short of bitterness. This distinctive voice may be off-putting for some, but his readers will likely share his disdain for adjuncts and his passion for the details of malt, hops, yeast and water. Enjoying the irreverence of Appleton’s fervent campaigning, craft beer fans will find his character amusing, quirky and sympathetic.

Brewing Revolution tells the story of a country’s craft beer movement and of the author’s life work, but it doesn’t stop there. In his enthusiasm, Appleton can’t help but offer troubleshooting advice for ambitious brewers, and a healthy review of brewing techniques, including the niceties of equipment, yeast cultivation and malting. Humorous asides include Appleton’s dodging of U.S. customs agents and his exasperation with the hired help in Lyon, France. As a history of a movement and a personal memoir brimming with zeal, Brewing Revolution is educational, entertaining and, perhaps most of all, thirst-inducing.


This review originally ran in the November 8, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 liters.

Gamechangers: The Unsung Heroines of Sports History by Molly Schiot

This photographic survey of trailblazing female athletes through history celebrates a diverse range of inspirational talents.

gamechangers

Molly Schiot created the Instagram account @theunsungheroines to celebrate pioneering female athletes the world has scarcely heard of. Game Changers expands that concept: a collection of historic photos Schiot found in libraries and archives, paired with short narratives of a page or less, tell the stories of groundbreaking and little-known female athletes.

The women featured here include some better-known names like Kathrine Switzer, Wilma Rudolph, Billie Jean King and Nadia Comăneci. These are joined by early mountaineer Annie Smith Peck, powerboat racer Betty Cook, judo champion (and mother to Ronda Rousey) AnnMaria De Mars, the “Sea Women” of the Korean island of Jeju and many more: boxers, billiard players, swimmers, skateboarders, players of team sports, Olympians, referees and umpires, sports journalists, coaches and policy makers (for example, the legislators behind Title IX). While women from the United States dominate these pages, every continent is represented except Antarctica. Women of color and those of non-binary genders are given special consideration as well. Among the strange and wonderful, don’t miss the first woman to hike the Appalachian Trail’s entire length in one season: she was 67 years old at the time.

These stories are brief but breathtaking. Not only athletes, these women were often activists and advocates as well as accomplished in business and the arts. Their photographs, naturally, speak volumes on their own. To be read in small pieces or cover-to-cover, Game Changers is an obviously indispensable choice for athletes, fans, parents or anyone else stirred by courage, talent and determination.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 balls.

Water Tossing Boulders: How a Family of Chinese Immigrants Led the First Fight to Desegregate Schools in the Jim Crow South by Adrienne Berard

Chinese immigrants to Mississippi challenged school segregation a generation before the famous Brown v. Board of Education case.

water tossing boulders

Thirty years before the Brown v. Board of Education decision made school segregation unconstitutional, a case originated in small-town Mississippi to challenge the same injustices. Journalist Adrienne Berard’s Water Tossing Boulders reveals the little-known experience of the Mississippi Delta Chinese population, including the Lum family, whose two daughters were sent home from the local white school they attended in Rosedale, Miss. The resulting case, Gong Lum v. Rice (1924), made it as far as the United States Supreme Court, but failed.

Berard has done rigorous research, as detailed in her author’s note, and offers a storytelling style with momentum. She expertly evokes her characters. Jeu Gong Lum and his wife, Katherine Wong, were Chinese immigrants who met and married in the Delta; their daughters had divergent personalities, Berda rebellious and Martha an ardent scholar. Their lawyer, Earl Brewer, spent his career fighting for social reforms. Ultimately an anti-lynching campaign would take his attention away from the Lums’ case, perhaps ruinously. Other legal players are profiled, including Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis and Chief Justice William Howard Taft, who penned the Court’s unanimous decision in favor of segregation. This is the story of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution and the tortured arguments of eugenics, racism and segregation as much as it is the story of a family who simply wanted a decent education for their children. Told with precision, sympathy and context, Water Tossing Boulders is a brief but incisive history of great significance.


This review originally ran in the October 28, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 7 children.

A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies, and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament by John Preston

John Preston energetically recounts extraordinary crimes of British political high society.

very english

Novelist John Preston turns to nonfiction with A Very English Scandal: Sex, Lies and a Murder Plot in the Houses of Parliament. In this thrilling story, a member of Parliament almost gets away with murder.

Jeremy Thorpe was an MP for the Liberal Party in the 1960s and ’70s, became his party’s leader and looked poised to lead a coalition government. His charisma enchanted everyone he met. But he had secrets. When the battle to legalize homosexuality was being fought, Thorpe had affairs with other men, harassed and abused them, and eventually–when one young man wouldn’t go quietly–conspired to have him killed. After years of posturing and payoffs, and a final dramatic scene of attempted murder worthy of fiction, Thorpe faced charges of conspiracy and incitement to murder at London’s Old Bailey.

Preston tells this salacious tale with a mostly straight face. The characters he portrays are often ridiculous: Thorpe’s relentless optimism and self-importance is countered by his victim Norman Scott’s sad struggles with mental illness, and the worshipful devotions of Thorpe’s friend and helper, David Holmes. Preston’s central source, Peter Bessell, is a fellow MP and fervent friend deeply mired in Thorpe’s intrigues. Bessell is perhaps the most vulnerable character in this drama: a bit absurd, but earnest, he is powerless to resist Thorpe’s magnetism. A Very English Scandal is a story of human weaknesses and outrageous spectacle. Preston’s play-by-play will captivate readers of true crime, British upper-crust history and classic tragedy alike.


This review originally ran in the October 25, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 6 letters.

movie: The Finest Hours (2016)

Our very first television event in the new home. Hops (the littler dog) was so grateful to see a couch again!


finest-hoursI think I can sum this one up briefly. Good: astounding story (based on a true one), fine acting, very fine action & cinematography; exciting, suspenseful, moving. Bad: weak romance, lack of character nuance, laughably unrealistic action & technical details.

The U.S. Coast Guard’s rescue of much of the crew of the SS Pendleton tanker in 1952 – a true event – is an impressive story, and that was captured here. The broadest details of the rescue are hard to believe, but they are a part of recorded history. This action/drama is both an appropriate recognition of this event, and a little bit of a sullying, because it made such a mess of it in smaller ways.

The romance between hero Bernie Webber (who piloted the rescue craft) and Miriam is a little flat, and both characters are caricatures. The evolution Miriam experiences in the course of the movie is predictable and therefore less moving than it might have been, if the characters had been more complex and realized. I’m not sure the romance was necessary to make the movie work, although Miriam is of course a character in real life and so perhaps did deserve to be there… in which case I wish they’d either done more with her (let us see a multifaceted human), or done less (show that the man had a girlfriend who worried when he did his dangerous job; we can all extrapolate from that).

The technical details of the action scenes were flawed. In a huge storm, the rescue boat repeatedly goes under big waves – waves ten times its height – with two crew members sort of hanging on its deck. They remain there; one even keeps his hat. C’mon, guys. Could that little boat really submarine like that?? Lights on and everything, like it was meant for underwater use. I don’t know the answer to this question. But it looks implausible to this laywoman; and if indeed this was a true capability of a little teeny boat in the 1950’s, I wish they’d explicated that fact, because wow. The precise dropping of crew members from big tanker into teeny boat in high seas was wildly implausible as well. It’s very cold, but rarely does anyone’s breath show foggy, and repeated dousings do no harm to our rescue crew. Oh, and when their compass was swept overboard, I admit I laughed out loud at the notion that the Coast Guard wouldn’t have known to strap its compass down somehow (not to mention the 36 eventual passengers on this small vessel, seamen all, none of whom carries a compass in his pocket). Add to this goofs like the pipe wrench being used backwards… that’s the sort of small-scale mistake that wouldn’t have shown up or bothered this viewer much, if it weren’t for the bigger things. How about Bernie’s magical ability to steer straight towards the tanker, and then again straight back toward the docks of home, with no visibility or compass? Movies are about some suspension of disbelief. But the movie has to earn that, or confess itself a fantasy, and this one fell a little short.

Again: great story, great scenery, action and acting. Poor technical execution of a true history that probably deserved better. For entertainment, I do recommend it as an exciting ride. But if you’re as persnickety as I am, you may have some problems.


Rating: 6 or 7 knit hats on the boat, depending on your personal preferences.
%d bloggers like this: