The Adapt Me Podcast is Here!!!!!!!!!!!

Hi Everybody!

I launched the Adapt Me Podcast this week! It’s available on Spotify and Amazon Music as of now. It’ll be on more in the coming future. I plan on releasing episodes on a monthly basis.

If you want to be a guest, feel free to email me here!

Solo Leveling Manhwa Series

When many people think about graphic novels, they usually think of comics or mangas. The latter is the Japanese version of the former, but there are more iterations. In fact, there are webtoons. They are a type of digital comics that originated in South Korea. Today, I’ll be reviewing my first webtoon series, Solo Leveling by Chugong. Its visuals are to die for.

Translated by Hye-Young Im, Solo Leveling is about a hunter who is labeled “The Weakest Hunter of All Mankind” and how he proves his peers wrong. Sung Jinwoo is an E-rank hunter – the lowest of all ranks. While participating in raids, all that he is able to do is not to be killed. Then, he experiences a reawakening – a rare occurrence which allows him to level up. But in order to do so, Jinwoo has to go through daily quests and to keep mum about his rapid evolution. Word eventually gets out about his ever-evolving abilities, and many guilds come knocking on his door. Will his need to protect himself come in the way of keeping his friends and family safe?

Before I get started with this review, I understand that Solo Leveling started off as a webtoon before being turned into a manhwa (Korean version of a manga). This is something that I’ve never come across until now. With that being said, I’ve only finished the first six volumes, yet I hope to get my hands on the 7th and 8th ones because I’m a completionist. In addition, there are apparently some changes between the two mediums. I hope to dissect this once I read the original webtoon series. For now, I’m reviewing the novel.

Each of the volumes covers about two or three arcs in the webtoon. The first one tackles the D-Rank Dungeon and Reawakening Arcs, and the second one goes over with the Instant Dungeon and Dungeon & Lizards Arcs. The third volume has the Dungeon & Prisoners, Yoo Jin-Ho Raid Party, and Job Change Arcs, while the fourth one contains the Red Gate and Demon Castle Arcs. Finally, the fifth one consists of the Resting Rank and Hunters Guild Gate Arcs, and the sixth covers the Return to Demon Castle Arc and a bit of the Jeju Island one. Some of these spill into one another, so one might read a bit of say, the Return to Demon Castle Arc in the fifth volume.

I can definitely see why this series has struck a chord with the manga/manhwa/anime/webtoon community. Jinwoo is like a video game player. He completes various quests and purchases items that could aid him in leveling up. In fact, there’s a game menu that informs Jinwoo of his progress and that only he can see. Also, true to the life of a gamer, he unintentionally alienates the people he cherishes all while developing his hand-eye coordination, problem-solving, and perspective skills as well as intelligence and strength. However, he still strives to be the best person possible. Jinwoo waking his mom up from a sleep disease with a potion he bought while leveling up is emotionally devastating.

The series is mainly focused on Jinwoo, so the rest of the cast feels incredibly minor in comparison. But, that doesn’t mean that they aren’t memorable. For instance, Yoo JinHo is a young man who is desperate to head the guild his father (who is the head of a construction company) created. He sees Jinwoo as a bridge to that goal while comically clinging to him. The first time readers see JinHo is in armor even though he is a D-rank hunter (one higher than E-rank). A gamer can easily identify a JinHo in real or virtual life.

Of course, I had to mention the strongest element of this story (no pun intended). The visuals are amazing! The colors and how they blend into each other to reflect the tone of the story are highly effective and memorable. They are at their most unforgettable during the fight sequences. They include the one in the temple with its blues and blacks in the first volume and the battles in the Demon Castle with its intense yellows and oranges in the fourth and sixth ones. In addition, the ways that the fight scenes are depicted need to be put into motion, for the stills and the onomatopoeia can only do so much. 

With all of its praise, there are two main issues with the series. For starters, some of the facial expressions the character makes don’t always match what they are saying. This is most apparent in the earlier volumes, especially during the first arc. I don’t know if it was Chugong’s intention, but some of the characters reacted stronger than what their lines suggest. It gets better as the series goes on. The other problem is the pacing. The battle sequences move by pretty quickly, but once the non-fight scenes start, it slows down considerably, but not to a grinding halt. These bits require a little more patience from the reader.

Overall, the Solo Leveling manhwa series by Chugong is delightful. It portrays the life of a video gamer without even saying it with great accuracy, and the graphics are stunning. I would recommend this series for those who like fantasy/action anime and stories as well as to those who’ve consumed the webtoon. Like I said earlier, I plan on reading the 7th and 8th volumes once they become available because I can’t wait to read what happens with Jinwoo as he levels up.

Before I go, I want to let you all know that I’m going to post the latest episode of the Adapt Me Podcast later this week. It discusses how guest Ali Wishah from the Awkward Silence Podcast and I would adapt Solo Leveling as an anime, so keep an ear out!

Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!

A Farewell to Arms 1932 Movie Review

When I’ve discussed adaptations in the past, the subjects tended to be on the more faithful side for good or for worse. This week’s topic – the 1932 movie version of A Farewell to Arms – is a little different. It’s based on the novel of the same name by Ernest Hemingway in the most basic way. It retains the core elements of the story, but it changes the tone. Even though the film doesn’t fully capture the spirit of the book, it’s still a fascinating watch. 

This is where I would normally discuss the changes from the page to the screen, yet writers Benjamin Glazer and Oliver H. P. Garrett condense everything but the love story between soldier Frederick Henry (played by Gary Cooper, who is no stranger to this website) and nurse Catherine Barkley (played by Helen Hayes). Many of the supporting characters are drastically reduced to the point that I don’t think their names are even mentioned. What secondary roles are left are more integrated into the story. The priest (played by Jack La Rue) unofficially weds Frederick and Catherine, and Rinaldi (played by Adolphe Menjou who charmingly says baby a lot) intercepts letters between the lovers when the nurse flees to Switzerland. Additionally, the cynicism about the war is only present when various soldiers discuss how much they want the conflict to end and when the montage of Frederick and the other men (injured and non-injured) walking in the rain on their way to the next battle occurs. 

This is the only adaptation of a Hemingway novel that I’ve seen which understands the entire plot is simple. After all, that author’s strengths lie mostly in writing short stories. There’s plenty of filler in the book, so director Frank Borzage trims a lot of fat out to emphasize the Florence-Nightingale-Syndrome romance. And since that love story is already the focal point, this move makes a lot of sense.

Speaking of that romance, it was still ok. Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes have fine chemistry, which made me believe in their love for each other. However, I couldn’t help but notice the absurd height difference between them. I know that there are couples like this in real life, so it may be a me thing. Also, it’s a bit rape-y in the beginning. Granted this is present in the novel, but after Catherine slaps Frederick, they have sex off-screen with the former yelling “No, no, wait!”

In addition, their individual performances were okay. Gary Cooper is fine. He plays Frederick as one would if he was assigned to embody a stoic alpha male who is surprisingly able to hold his liquor aka a Hemingway Hero. His best work involves humor like his nonchalant reaction when the nurse discovers the alcohol under his hospital bed and describing the woman’s arch in architectural terms while drunk at the beginning of the movie. He’s also great with his surprise reactions, especially after Frederick discovers that Catherine is pregnant. Even though Gary Cooper has the reputation of being stiff and not always 100% there, I wonder if it was the little things that made people like Hemingway himself like his performance. As for Helen Hayes, she plays Catherine with kindness and love-stricken well. She also captures the character’s maturity (something I forgot to mention in my book review of A Farewell to Arms) well. She tackles this with dignity and some confronting. This is especially when she handles the character’s feelings about the rain. However, even though Catherine is from England, Hayes never attempts to do an English accent, but this is just a nitpick. 

Another reason why I couldn’t get that much invested in the romance was that I admired the filmmaking more. Borzage is considered to be an auteur kind of director known for his romantic melodramas with beautiful cinematography. A Farewell to Arms is a great example of his work. The overall story is one of love set in the backdrop of war, so naturally, he emphasizes the romance even though there are plenty of times where both aspects could’ve been integrated more instead of one being here and the other being over there (side note: I like the bombs going off during the opening credits).

As for the cinematography, it’s gorgeous to look at. Cinematographer Charles Lang Jr. imposes a haze on most of the movie along with charcoal grays and black shadows. It’s a fantasy element that’s not present in a novel by an author best known for his objective realism, yet it still works for the film because it’s saying that love blurs reality. Moreover, I have to talk about the two crowning jewels which allowed the movie to win the Oscar for Best Cinematography at the 1932-1933 Oscars. One involves the closing shot, in which Frederick lifts Catherine from her hospital bed after she dies. He holds her by the window like a groom carrying his bride into the threshold. Although the ending is not what Hemingway wrote in the book, I love the composition and how it’s juxtaposed with the celebration of the war ending. Frederick can’t honor this event because he just lost the love of his life. My only complaint is that the “Peace, peace” line is too on the nose for the comparison. Moreover, there’s the long, single POV shot when Frederick is taken to the hospital in Milan after he gets injured. Viewers never see his face while various characters like Catherine and other nurses tend to him (side note: I love how it gets away with a makeout session between Frederick and Catherine). It definitely shows a patient has to deal with while being bedridden. From what I understand, it was one of the first films to have this kind of shot. These days, it’s mostly taken for granted as people constantly see this technique employed, especially in video games. But back at that time, it was something new that audiences hadn’t seen before. The gorgeous and unique cinematography is likely the reason why the movie received the Academy Award in that category.

With all the wonderful things to say about the movie and its filmcraft techniques, there were some decisions that demonstrated more of Borzage’s skills as a filmmaker as opposed to enhancing the story. For example, when the injured Frederick is taken to the hospital in Milan, there’s a shot of a train moving along on the tracks. Above it, the word Milano magically appears above it and fades away. I get that it wanted to indicate where the train was going, but having a physical sign saying Milano would’ve done the same trick, but more effectively. Later, as Frederick and Catherine spend more time together at the hospital while the former is recovering, the movie decides that it’s a good idea to have a weird puppet transition. It starts off with the months being shown on screen with each letter on a string. It concludes with two Italian marionettes singing a hand organ version of “Largo al factotum” (the Figaro song) from The Barber of Seville as Frederick, Catherine, and their friends watch. I get that this was to indicate the passage of time, and it does its job well. However, it took me out of the movie because of how strange it was. And yet, I admire it since it’s probably the only time that filmgoers like me will ever see a transition like that.

To summarize, the 1932 movie version of A Farewell to Arms is an interesting one to watch. It doesn’t capture the spirit of the novel, yet it’s translated well to the screen. Critics, filmmakers, and movie buffs can all admire the craft put into the film. Of course, this admiration for the filmmaking itself can distract from the story. Along with the people mentioned above, I would also recommend this movie to those looking for a war romance, and they already watched Casablanca and The English Patient. In addition, watch it on Blu-ray because that one contains the complete version. Of all the adaptations of Hemingway books that I’ve seen, this is the best one so far because it understands the source material in a specific way. Also, it turns out that there was another adaptation made in 1957 starring Rock Hudson and Jennifer Jones. Stay tuned for that review!

Also, I recently recorded a guest appearance on The 300 Passions Podcast with Zita Short talking about the 1932 movie adaptation of A Farewell to Arms! We discussed the novel, Hemingway’s legacy, the film, and why the latter failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…100 Passions list. It’ll be my fourth time on that podcast. I had a blast like I usually do while on that podcast. Stay tuned for that episode!

A Farewell to Arms Book Review

It’s time once again to talk about the man, the myth, the soldier Ernest Hemingway. I had discussed him prior with my review of his 1940 book For Whom the Bell Tolls. Since that novel was considered to be part of his later career, I’ll dive deep into one of his earlier works – the 1929 novel A Farewell to Arms. It’s the oldest story that I’ve reviewed on this website. Much like the former, I found it to be simply okay with some parts that worked better than others.

A Farewell to Arms revolves around a Florence-Nightengale-Syndrome of a love story. Frederick Henry is an American Lieutenant in the Ambulance Corps during the Italian campaign in the First World War. After he gets wounded in a shell explosion, English nurse Catherine Barkely tends to him as he recovers. They fall in love during that time despite the harsh realities of war and struggle between loyalty and desertion.

This is the third story that I’ve read by Hemingway, and I have to mention this: there’s often a lot of filler in his novels. I understand that he started off as a journalist. This explains his strength at writing short and simple stories. However, when he wrote full-length stories, there are plenty of times in which nothing or barely anything happens. I forgive For Whom the Bell Tolls for this since it felt like nothing and everything was occurring at all once as the guerilla group was waiting for orders to blow up a bridge. 

As for A Farewell to Arms, I’m not so kind. After all, the main story centers around a romance between a soldier and a nurse. There are lots of passages, in which the narrator aka Frederick describes various Italian landscapes and villages as well as hangs out with other servicemen at the front. At first, it was good since it established the objective realism that Hemingway is often known for. Readers have pointed out that these sections are purposefully mundane as a way for Frederick to distract himself from the boredom of war. That makes sense since I have pointed out in my For Whom the Bell Tolls review, a lot of fighting involves waiting and strategizing. Personally, A Farewell to Arms felt like a travel log written by a soldier who fought during World War I (Surprise! Hemingway was an ambulance driver at the Italian front during that conflict. Also, I would’ve paid money to see him host his own travel show). But after a while, it felt tedious, for a lot of the people that show up only do so for a handful of scenes mainly discussing when the war was going to end. There were only two supporting characters that were interesting. One was the priest – a socially awkward man whom Frederick has long in depth conversations with about the war and pities in a way. The other was Rinaldi – Frederick’s roommate who is a surgeon and lieutenant and likes to say baby a lot. Oh, and he gets syphilis. Also, there are not many sentence variations. For example, there were plenty of “He went there and had a beer” or “They went over there and had a good time.”

When something did happen, it was intriguing. The descriptions of the wounded men after the shell explosion were particularly gruesome. In addition, after Frederick recovers and rejoins his unit, he finds himself thinking about Katherine more. So much so that when he retreats while fighting, he goes back to the hospital where Katherine is at and wears some civilian clothes to search for her. In other words, he deserted the army just to be with her. They even row to Switzerland to avoid arrest.

As for the romance, it was ok. Catherine is like every other woman in a Hemingway novel: dealing with some form of trauma and fawning over her love. In this case, it’s that she was engaged to another man for 8 eight years before he was killed during the war. There were several times in which she would say something like, “I’ll go wherever you go” or “I’ll do whatever you say.”

This got annoying after a while. However, there was one thing that made her stand out. In their early interactions, Catherine resists Frederick for putting his arm around her and even slaps him when he tries to kiss him. This certainly shows her agency and how the relationship is defined somewhat on her terms despite her fawning. 

There’s also an underlying current of the lack of commitment for both lovers. I’m not sure if Hemingway intended for this, but knowing his back story with nurse Agnes von Kurowsky, I wouldn’t be shocked. Not only does Frederick abandon war to be with Catherine, but he also reminiscences about his comrades while he’s with her. Moreover, they constantly talk about getting married, but they put it off for various reasons even though Catherine gets pregnant during that time. Catherine’s friend Helen Ferguson even berates Frederick for ruining her because of this. They always hope that their love will last forever, yet there’s always the sense that doom is right around the corner.

Overall, A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is fine. It could’ve been better if it was shorter and Catherine was more defined as a character. At the same time, when something occurred, it was interesting, and I found the romance to be somewhat compelling. As for the war elements, they were more intriguing in For Whom the Bell Tolls, but then again, I don’t know if this would’ve held true if I read A Farewell to Arms first. I would recommend it to those who like war stories, romance during a conflict, and Hemingway. Despite how I feel about this one, I do plan on reading more from that author.

Before I go, I want to let you all know that I’ll be talking about the 1932 movie adaptation starring Gary Cooper and Helen Hayes with Zita Short on her The 300 Passions Podcast! We’ll be discussing the novel and the film as well as why the latter failed to make the cut on the American Film Institute’s 100 Years…Passions list. It’ll be my fourth time on that podcast. I had seen the movie before, and it motivated me to read the book, so it’ll be a fun time talking about the changes that the movie made when adapting the book. Stay tuned for my movie review as well as for that episode!

Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!

Interview with VoyageMichigan Magazine

Hi Everybody,

I wanted to let you all know that I was interviewed for VoyageMichigan Magazine recently! For those who don’t know, they focus on promoting small businesses, independent artists and entrepreneurs, and local institutions in Michigan. It was an amazing experience sharing how I started this website and getting my work highlighted along with other local professionals.

Check it out here: https://voyagemichigan.com/interview/life-work-with-emily-malek-of-sterling-heights/

Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!

Dalva Book Review

Have you ever read a book in which it’s going good only until you get to a part that’s not? It doesn’t work for you for some reason, but everything else before and after are worth it. I’m sure that this has happened to me in the past, but not in the way I’ve experienced it like I have with Dalva by Jim Harrison. It’s a fascinating look about a woman coming to terms with her family’s and her own past, and yet one section doesn’t gel in the same way that the others do.

Dalva is about a woman whose one-eighth Sioux who gave up her son for adoption years ago. At age 45, the title character embarks on a journey that will take her back to the crux of her family, the half-Sioux man whom she loved when she was a teenager, and her great-grandfather whose journals recounts the annihilation of the Plains Indians. She discovers a story that stretches all across the country, and finds a way to heal her wounded soul.

Harrison tends to have a masculine style of writing, but it’s nice to see him getting less indulgent and depicting women beyond one defining character trait. He pens more concisely than he did with Legends of the Fall. He still digresses, yet it’s only with certain characters, so at least he knows when and when not to use it. As for the female characters, Dalva herself is 45 years old and still hasn’t figured out her life. Her younger sister Ruth is trying to get a man after she divorces her gay husband, and their mother Naomi always senses something is up even though she may not admit it. Unfortunately, I had a problem trying to imagine Dalva in my head. I know a drawing of her is on the book cover, but I couldn’t conceive of her being 45 and being built like Wonder Woman. I’m not saying that a woman that age can’t have a hot, sexy body. She had a baby, so her physique was going to be altered. I think Harrison was playing into his own fantasy of what a woman should look like as opposed to what they actually have. 

A lot of the female reviewers on Goodreads pointed out that Dalva was a man’s woman, as in she’s what men think women are. Don’t get me wrong. Even though I get where those people are coming from, she has an inner life as she conflicts over her identity and past actions. Also, some women are more masculine than others. The book was published in 1988, nine years after Legends of the Fall, so it’s an overall improvement. 

Another part that I liked was the journal entries from Dalva and Ruth’s great-grandfather John Northridge. It was nice seeing a fictional account of someone who lived alongside the Sioux, embraced their culture, and tried to get them the governmental help they needed before the Massacre at Wounded Knee (coincidentally I wrote most of this review on the anniversary of that event). Those records can digress, but characters like Michael the historian and Dalva acknowledge this throughout the book. Despite that, I really felt for Northridge. He seemed like he was trying to do the right thing, but his actions weren’t enough. To an extent, a lot of readers might know about this rich and violent history of the Native Americans, and these (albeit fictional) entries add more of a human component.

Ok, I had a lot of good things to say about it, so what’s holding it back? Before I get into that, I have to provide context. The book is divided into 3 sections. The first and last ones are narrated by the titular character, while the middle one is through the eyes of Michael. Michael is an alcoholic, gluttonous, and neurotic man, who is entrusted to go through Northridge’s journals and share them with the world at large. In other words, he’s simply pathetic. He’s so pathetic that I imagined him sounding like James Corden. Because of that, I constantly kept thinking of the image of Corden’s head on a mouse’s body from the Amazon Prime Cinderella, and that made things worse. Those two things made the section with Michael’s point of view laborious to get through. However, I liked the part where he gets beaten up by Lundquist – a Swedish farm hand for Dalva and her family. The reason will not be surprising to those who have read the book. Also, the novel wasn’t trying to portray him as a saint, so I really couldn’t get that annoyed at it. Knowing how Harrison writes, I wish that it was its own separate story.

Overall, I like Dalva by Jim Harrison much more than Legends of the Fall. I liked getting into the mindset of its main character and how she reconciles her family’s and her own past. Harrison’s depiction of various female characters are improved from the earlier title. I wish the second third wasn’t such a slog (but then again, a part of that was because of me and how I imagined the historian). I would recommend this to those who like Harrison’s works; character studies on strong, but flawed women; and reading stories that involve Native Americans. This shows that even good novels can contain some bumps.

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Dog Man Book Review

When I was a Children’s Librarian, my job was to know what the kids were reading. This allowed me to order titles that they wanted to read.  One of the titles that I quickly knew was popular was Dog Man by Dav Pilkey – the same guy who wrote the Captain Underpants series. After reading it, I can understand why kids and even adults can enjoy it.

Dog Man by George and Harold (uh, I mean Dav Pilkey) is about the titular character – part dog, part human – and his adventures in fighting crime as a canine cop, especially those committed by his nemesis Petey the cat. It’s the first in a series, and it details his origin story and three other tales of justice.

As a kid, my sister and I loved reading Captain Underpants because of how silly the series were. I mean, it’s a superhero whose schtick is that he’s only wearing underwear. No one can take that seriously, and yet, he’s able to fight crime and put the villains like talking toilets and evil lunch ladies in jail.

I get the same vibe from Dog Man. As mentioned earlier, the main character is a half dog, half man who fights criminals as a police officer. Also, it can get very silly. For example in one story, Petey discovers that the reason that Dog Man is so smart is because he reads a lot. As a result, he invents a machine that eliminates all text from every book in order to make everybody stupid. This is the kind of silly stuff that a kid with an active imagination can come up with.

The book consists of 4 chapters, and each of them contains separate stories. The first one details Dog Man’s origin, which involves Petey the cat. The other tales contain other adventures that the titular character gets into. They are all fun. My favorite is Petey the cat using a ray gun to make inanimate objects come to life. There’s a great running gag of the hot dog wieners (who came to life because of Petey) trying to cause trouble in the town, but no one is taking them seriously because of their size.

Moreover, its graphics look like they were drawn by a kid with an active and sometimes gross imagination. The boxes are not made with complete straight lines, and some of the letters are retraced over to make sure that they are legible. The latter results in some of the letters looking darker than others. The characters are also illustrated with little dimension. Do you expect kids to be like Jerry Pinkney when they first start drawing?

Now, let’s get to the characters. One will not find a whole lot of substance with them, but they are very entertaining. Dog Man is a loyal half man half dog despite the shenanigans he gets into. He’s the typical hero in a comic book. There’s also Petey, who’s basically the evil scientist in cat form. He acts like the usual super villain. Another main character is the police chief, who gets annoyed whenever Dog Man ruins his stuff like his new couch. However, the former realizes that he needs the latter during the course of the book. I heard the police chief with Mr. Goldenfold’s voice from Rick and Morty, which made the read all the more entertaining. Yes, the characters are tropes that one can find in superhero comics, yet that’s the point because it’s written by first graders. Kids at that age are becoming familiar with those cliches, so they won’t most likely know how to subvert them.

Another element that makes Dog Man worthwhile is the flip-o-ramas that appear throughout. These were so much fun to do while reading it, and they don’t overstay their welcome. After the first one, I was secretly looking forward to the next flip-o-rama. I could do those for an hour if I wanted to, but alas I had to be an adult. It made me feel like I was 7-8 years old again much like the rest of the book did.

If there are complaints with the graphic novel, they are usually about the misspellings and the filth in it. I wasn’t bothered by those aspects. I talked about how the book looks like it was written by an actual kid, and that usually involves words that are incorrectly spelled. A kid’s spelling is not going to be perfect all the time. Heck, I know plenty of adults that need spell check. It’s a relatable element that the novel displays. As for the filth, there are scenes that involve poop and pee on the couch. Sure, not everyone will like the toilet humor that book sometimes gets into, but Dog Man is written by the same person who created a superhero who fights villains like talking toilets. Even Pilkey makes fun of these kinds of people with a report “written” by Harold and George’s 1st grade teacher expressing disappointment at their work and their supposed inability to follow the rules. Sometimes, one has to know what they are getting into when they read certain books. 

In conclusion, Dog Man by Dav Pilkey is a great graphic novel for both kids and adults. The stories and the graphics were highly enjoyable and believable as written by children. It contains tropes familiar to comic book fans, but the framing makes it understandable. I would recommend it to kids ages 7 and up, to adults who don’t mind a good juvenile book every now and then, and to anyone who likes cruder humor. It was a quick read, so I’m going to devour the rest of the Dog Man series soon!

Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates. Also feel free to email me here for any review suggestions, ideas, or new titles!

Blankets Book Review

Content warning: Sexual abuse, nudity, and religion are discussed in this review.

Graphic novels have always been contested in the literary world. Some don’t see them as real books because they have plenty of pictures in them. At the same time, they can help struggling readers to build their confidence and understand what’s going on in the story. One such graphic novel that has the ability to aid people in enhancing their reading skills is Blankets – a memoir by Craig Thompson. Its illustrations beautifully demonstrate the feelings of a teenager growing up in a religious family in rural Wisconsin.

Set in a Wisconsin winter, Blankets explores the coming-of-age story of Craig – a teenaged boy who has trouble expressing himself creatively because of his strictly fundamentalist Christian family and community. At a winter church camp, he falls in love with a girl named Raina. They reveal their struggles with their faith and dreams of escape. However, their personal demons resurface, and the relationship falls apart. It’s a portrait of adolescent yearning, first love, a crisis of faith, and the process to move beyond all that.

Let’s get one aspect out of the way now: it’s nearly 600 pages. It seems silly now, but at first, I thought it would take me a while to read it because of that amount. That was not the case. I was able to complete it in a week since it was *surprise a graphic novel. Along with that, the story was comprehensible enough that I didn’t have to go back and reread certain passages. Ok, I lied. I only went back to some pages just to look at the illustrations.

The themes of snow and blankets are present throughout the graphic novel. The former is shown as something that could be isolating as well as fantastical. Craig feels alone for a lot of time growing up, but when he’s with Raina, he’s able to escape reality by running around in the snow and making snow angels. In one part, Craig and Raina stay out in the wintry forest near her house until late at night because they wanted more time to themselves. Blankets in this story represent comfort and security – things that Craig didn’t always have. When he was younger, he and his little brother Phil slept in the same bed, and they would constantly fight about the cover, especially during the colder seasons. Later, when Craig is with Raina, she gives him a blanket she made herself using various quilt patterns. They end up sleeping with each other underneath that quilt. However, once the relationship is over, Craig burns all of the papers and drawings that remind him of Raina, yet he realizes that he could never destroy that blanket. I’m not going to lie. I literally shouted, “Nooooooooooooooooo” right before Craig sets various things on fire because I thought he was going to smolder the quilt. Luckily, he didn’t.

The black-and-white (and occasionally blue) drawings beautifully show the author’s feelings towards his body, his love for Raina, and religion. He has issues with his body because both he and Phil were sexually abused by their babysitter. He never wanted to grow into an adult body because of how grotesque it looked to him. There’s even a page of a young and naked Craig with some angels that look like they are about to drop him in the hellish world of a grown man’s body.

With his love for Raina, his emotions are more complicated. When they first meet, Craig is smitten by her because of how beautiful and kind she is. There are several panels in which he depicts her as a goddess to show how much she means to him. Granted, there’s a valid argument about how Raina doesn’t have much of a personality. At the same time, she has her own feelings like being stressed by taking care of her special needs siblings and coping with her parents’ divorce, and to her, Craig is an escape and provides security much like she is to him. Also, people have their own versions of the stories they tell themselves. This is even explored briefly between Craig and Phil at the very end of the novel. Back to Craig, and Raina, their love and need for each other like Linus needing his blanket made me root for them. Sadly, their relationship ended after Craig spent two weeks with Raina in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Since Craig grew up in a strict fundamentalist Christian community, he is expected to do things for God and not sin. While he is spiritual and reads the Bible, he constantly grapples with Christianity’s contradictory elements. Towards the end of the book, when Craig is in college, he looks through the Book of Ecclesiastes, and he discovers that certain passages were added to level out that section’s pessimistic tone. The darker elements of that biblical book are portrayed with a naked malnourished man wandering through a creepy forest and looking scared. This contrasts the more optimistic parts, which are shown as the three little pigs building a house and enjoying their rewards. This all culminates into Craig feeling like he’s wandering through said forest and the big bad wolf blowing the house down once he realizes that the word of God has been manipulated by several generations of writers. The way Thompson depicts these with starkly different animation styles perfectly conveys the feelings Craig has while questioning the Bible.

To summarize, Blankets by Craig Thompson is a great graphic novel memoir that perfectly conveys what it was like growing up in an overzealous religious community in rural Wisconsin. It’s an easy read because the story is comprehensible, and the illustrations are inventive and perfectly convey the mindset of a teenager struggling to express emotions creatively. I would recommend this to those who like graphic novels and Bildungsroman (coming-of-age) stories, specifically involving outcasts, growing up in a religious family and questioning religion; are Midwesterners; and are older high schoolers and up given some of the subject matter. Never count out a graphic novel because they are great gateways into reading.

Before I go, I want to let you all know that I posted the latest episode of the Adapt Me Podcast. It discusses how guest John Marszalkowski and I would adapt Blankets as a miniseries, so give a listen at this link!

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Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free advance reader copy of this book by Books Forward in exchange for an honest review.

As with many of the books that I’ve reviewed on this website, I’ve come across ones that discuss certain walks of life. This includes last week’s subject Lifeline to a Soul, which covered prison life, albeit from an outsider’s perspective. For this week, I’ll look at a book called Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain. Written by Francesca Grossman, it paints a realistic, but hopeful picture of what it is like to have constant pain.

Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain is a memoir that strives to understand what chronic pain sufferers go through. After thyroid cancer, Crohn’s disease, and other autoimmune conditions that raided her body in her 20s and 30s, Francesca felt alone in dealing with her chronic pain. It affected her whole life from intimacy to mental health. And yet, it was invisible, which made Francesca feel alone. After 20 something years of living, she realized that if she was living with this pain, then others would be too. As a result, she set out to interview women with similar conditions. At first, it wasn’t easy because she was surrounded by women also battling in silence. However, the more she spoke to people, the more she found common themes and experiences. This proved that her stories of her pain as well as feelings of loneliness and isolation weren’t unique. Liberated by this discovery, Francesca realized that even though she couldn’t alleviate others’ pain, she could share their stories to make them as well as herself feel less alone.

For the record, the only experiences that I’ve had with chronic pain was through other people. For example, while studying abroad in Ireland, I had a roommate who had Crohn’s disease. She limited herself in what she could eat to lessen the inflammation. There were also times where she couldn’t do a whole lot when her intestines swelled up. In addition, my dad has had arthritis in his hands for a while now. How I read this book is going to come from interactions like the ones I just described. 

Each one of the chapters details an aspect that is affected by chronic pain. These include shame, addiction, mental illness, being fat, intimacy, motherhood, wellness, and kindness. Grossman would first describe how these elements were involved in her life, utilize various resources to justify her reasoning, and reveal what the interviewees had to say about them. These are about 10-20 pages long. She succinctly explained her arguments in a way that would make readers understand where she’s coming from even if they didn’t have chronic pain themselves. 

The most impactful were the ones on silencing, mental illness, kindness, and acceptance. The silencing section involves why Grossman and many of the other interviewees had a hard time getting treatment because they were often dismissed by doctors, so they silenced themselves in regards to their pain. One woman named Kate who was diagnosed with a rare neurological disorder called trigeminal neuralgia (TN) went to an Ears, Nose, and Throat specialist after experiencing chronic sinus infections. When a medical fellow came in and asked her why Kate was there. After Kate gave her preface on TN using medical terms, the fellow put her hand up and said, “I’m sorry…[a]re you a physician?”

Kate replied no, and the fellow told her to show her where it hurt. Kate felt so embarrassed that she didn’t want to speak another word to that professional (p.23-24). I was furious to read that part because of how condescending the specialist was. It doesn’t help that studies have shown that it’s harder for women to get treatment for certain ailments because medical professionals have a tendency to dismiss their concerns as overreacting. No wonder why these women felt ashamed in revealing their conditions.

The chapter on mental illness was eye-opening. Grossman talked about her time in a mental hospital and why she felt depressed. She made it clear that depression is not sadness. To her, it was “feeling nothing connected with feeling everything” (p.65). 

In other words, she felt so much that it made it impossible for her to do stuff. The thing that stood out to me the most about that chapter was the discussion revolving around empathy. She cites new evidence that the “areas of the brain that are connected to physical pain and are also the origins of empathy” (p. 71).

To her, this made sense since she and the interviewees had a heightened sense of empathy. One of them, Sheree, who was in a car accident that left her spine twisted, remarked, “I know it sounds insane, but I have always felt like I knew what people around me were feeling before they did” (p. 73).

I too am empathetic to a fault. When my mom was having pain in her leg because of a tumor that was pressing on her sciatica nerve, I would go over to her house every weekend just to see how she was doing and to help her out. Afterwards, I experienced an ache in my hip and leg. I wouldn’t be shocked if my body mimicked the symptoms of having sciatica after seeing what my mom went through. The fact that the body is emotionally and physically connected should make doctors reconsider how to treat people with chronic pain and for those patients to see a therapist.

After criticizing the health care system, Grossman delivers hope that it could change. This is important for a book like this because without it, it may read as taking an anti-doctor stance, and that’s clearly not her intention. For every practitioner that dismissed and ignored her ailments, there were more than were attentive and kind to her. Grossman recalls a time in which she had lost control of her bowels, and she was not able to make it to the bathroom on time. At the gym she went to, a staff member noticed her and helped her wash her clothes without any explanation. Grossman pointed out that she didn’t need to do this, but she cleaned her outfit without any judgment (p. 35-36 and p. 129). In another instance, when she was at a hospital overnight, she had a nurse named Cherylanne. Cherylanne was able to save her from falling on the floor after Grossman woozily got up to go to the bathroom. The nurse hugged her tightly and sang her “Blackbird” (p. 132-134). It’s in moments like these that gives Grossman and other patients to keep going and voice their pain.

The strongest argument that Grossman postulates is about acceptance. In the chapter regarding that aspect, she proclaims that acceptance is not surrender. Specifically, she said the following:

“Acceptance contains hope – hope that things will not get worse; and hope that our lives can be lived with humor and happiness, acknowledging some days will be worse than others. It contains hope we can do things that bring us success – in our work, families, and lives; hope we can love and be loved; and hope we can continue to hope” (p. 145).

Acceptance is the strength to carry on despite the constant pain. Although not every interviewee agreed with that sentiment, they were allowed to give their opinions regarding acceptance. For example, Dolores, who has fibromyalgia, proclaimed, “I’ve accepted it. What choice do I have? If you accept, you can move forward. I’m just too tired to fight it anymore…That’s not defeat, by the way. Maybe it’s calm or something?” (p. 152).

This reinforces the notion that acceptance is the strength to carry on, especially in the awareness of the physical and emotional pain and that no one is alone in suffering from them.

All in all, Not Weakness: Navigating the Culture of Chronic Pain by Francesca Grossman is a part memoir/part journalism book that successfully sets out to show what living with constant sores and aches is really like. It paints a realistic picture, especially what many of the interviewees experienced when it came to getting a diagnosis and eventually treatment. However, I stress again that this isn’t an anti-medical-help book. It offers hope with stories of kindness offered by people like friends, relatives, and medical professionals. Above all, the idea that acceptance is not defeat, but of carrying on despite the circumstances is a powerful one. I would recommend this to those who love stories about dealing with chronic pain, the medical field, and those involving the notion that no one is alone. After all, no one should be left to suffer in silence. The book is out now, so go get it wherever you can!

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Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners Book Review

Full disclosure: I was given a free physical copy of this book by the author in exchange for an honest review.

I’ve reviewed memoirs in the past, but there’s one type that I haven’t covered: the stranger-in-a-strange-land subgenre. This discusses how a person went to a place that they’ve never been in before and what they’ve learned from the experience. This kind of memoir is nothing new, so the titles have to stand out in other ways. John K. McLaughlin published a memoir in this subgenre recently called Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners. It’s an easy-to-read tale about a life-altering experience with a realistic depiction of prison life and an emphatic portrayal of the inmates.

Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners is exactly what it says. After spending half of his life developing his start-up business into a multi-million dollar industry leader, John wanted a change in his life. More specifically, he wanted to teach business to others. Because of his lack of teaching experience, the only job that was available to him was as an entrepreneurship instructor at a minimum-security camp in North Carolina. John gradually builds an effective program until a scandal involving the prison officers blindsides his progress and threatens to bring his teaching career to an abrupt end.

When I began reading Lifeline to a Soul, I initially worried about how much business jargon was going to be in it. I know only so much about that subject, so I felt that it was going to be hard to follow. However, it was comprehensible. The main goal that McLaughlin would have for his students was for them to each create a business plan. This included “a feasibility blueprint and [followed] with a business profile, a business model, the business structure, risk management, money management sales and marketing, and, finally, an executive summary” (p. 57).

This makes sense. He would help them design this during the course, which usually lasted 11 weeks, to get them to think about their potential businesses in a realistic manner. McLaughlin kept the business language to a minimum since his main focus was on what he learned as an entrepreneur teacher in a prison.

Throughout the memoir, McLaughlin compares his perceptions of what prison life was like on television to what he actually experienced. For example, when he was on a tour of the prison as an interviewee, one of the first things he noticed was how immaculate the landscape was. According to McLaughlin, it contained “patches of daisies, tulips, and pansies all mixed together with a budding sunflower centered perfectly in the mix” (p. 11).

There wasn’t a single weed in sight. He later found out that a prisoner named Kendall Willaimson ran the garden, and he was devoted to that.

In another instance, McLaughlin discusses how he saw prisoners as “crazed killer[s] wearing … orange jumpsuit[s] and shackles and constantly looking for an opportunity to escape” (p. 219).

This perception came from the shows that he watched on television. Over the book, he gets to know the inmates and realizes that many of them came from broken environments and/or didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that were given to them if any. Honestly, I had a similar perception of prisoners because the only experience I encountered outside of television and movies was my friend working at a prison library.  At the end of the book, he proudly states the views that he gained after teaching entrepreneurship in a prison like humanizing the prisoners, giving them second chances (even if not all of them can be helped), and teaching them financial literacy (p. 220-221). It’s clear that teaching in a prison had a profound impact on him and that he’s willing to be an advocate for that kind of reform.

Finally, what made this book truly work is how he shows the inmates themselves. He wanted to humanize them, so the majority of the stories were about them and their goals for their businesses. Some of them even had epilogues, and he displays their logos they created for their business plans. As I mentioned earlier, Kendall tended to the garden at the penitentiary. He grew flowers as well as fruits and vegetables. According to McLaughlin, he talked about “his plants as if they were children” (p. 136).

Above all, Kendall was a religious person and wanted to continue his ministry after he got released. McLaughlin was able to search for some suitable property, in which the inmate jumped on the chance to purchase it once he was free.  Another inmate that made an impression on the author was Josh Proby. To the author, Josh came off as intimidating and seemingly aggressive with not smiling nor breaking eye contact. Soon after, McLauglin found out that the inmate was planning to write a book with each chapter dedicated to “a charitable cause and compare the disease or problem the cause stood for to a personal problem that needed to be overcome by the reader” (p.68).

McLaughlin realized that he mistook Josh’s determination for aggression. Before Josh got released, the author helped him with his business plans and any questions about publishing his book. After his release, Josh published his book The 30-Day Journey From Prison to Spiritual Peace, ran a successful trucking business, became a motivational speaker, etc. McLaughlin even used clips from Josh’s speeches for his classes to show them that inmates like themselves can make it if they put their mind to it. Josh even confided to the author as to the root cause of why he acted the way he did at one of his presentations. There were so many other prisoners that McLaughlin got to know, but listing all of their stories here would be impossible. Without knowing the stories, it would feel like a savior narrative like Freedom Writers.

Lifeline to a Soul: The Life-Changing Perspective I Gained While Teaching Entrepreneurship to Prisoners by John K. McLaughlin is a powerful tale of one man instructing business classes in a minimum-security prison camp. The author makes his work accessible with the language used. He also confronts his previous conceptions that he had about prison life. And most importantly, he portrays the prisoners as humans, many with ambitions and goals that they wanted to get off the ground once they were released. I would recommend this to those like reading about prison life, teaching, and giving second chances. This is definitely a standout in the stranger-in-a-strange-land memoir. It was published last Tuesday, April 4, so go get it wherever it’s available.

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Goodbye to Goodbye, Mr. Chips Adaptations

Welcome to the fourth and final part of my series of analyzing various adaptations of Goodbye, Mr. Chips and how they hold up to the 1939 movie version. It was an interesting journey to take, but I’m glad that I did it because it made me appreciate the art of adapting a book to the screen even more.

To summarize, I watched the 1939 black-and-white film, the 1969 movie musical, the 1984 BBC miniseries, and the 2002 Masterpiece Theatre television flick.

I came up with these conclusions after watching all 4 versions:

  1. No matter if it’s in the novella and the subsequent adaptations, Katherine will always have that “I’m-not-like-most-schoolmasters’ wives” vibe to her. This is usually code for saying that she’s beautiful, which carries a level of sexism and misogyny (*cough 1939 film). The 1969, 1984, and 2002 adaptations give her more to do, so she stands out in various ways like being a theatre person or simply wanting to improve the students’ well being through unique ways. Also, the 1984 miniseries had the best Katherine since not only does Jill Meager is charming in the role, but she also brings the spryness that allows Katherine to show Chips the ways that he could enjoy life and to see other perspectives. 
  2. Despite the age difference between Mr. Chips and Katherine, they are two consenting adults. They respect each other and don’t take advantage of each other as well as other people.
  3. Even though each actor playing the titular character brought out certain sides, Robert Donat is still the best Mr. Chips. He embodies the sentimental, the sternness, the somberness, and realism when each of those are required. He also gets bonus points for the warmth and humor of the interpretation. However, I would say Martin Clunes comes the closest because his portrayal is the most layered, while capturing everything else.
  4. Although none of the adaptations are perfect, certain versions perform specific story beats more effectively than others. For example, I think the moment in which Mr. Chips finds out that Katherine has died is best expressed in the 1969 version. Also, the flashbacks are best utilized in the 1984 miniseries, and the confrontation between Chips and Headmaster Ralston is the most impactful in the 2002 television movie. Nonetheless, 1939 movie version still does many of the plot points most effectively, especially when capturing the relationship between Mr. Chips and the students, the first meeting between him and Katherine, and the ending.
  5. Even though the 1939 adaptation is the most definitive, the 2002 version is the one that comes the closest to capturing the spirit of the novella in its own way.
  6. Bonus! Here’s my one word to describe each of the adaptations covered. 1939: sentimental. 1969: misguided. 1984: somber. 2002: realistic.

It was fun taking a look at each of these adaptations, but it’s time to go, so I’ll leave you with this clip. Goodbye, Mr. Chips!

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