Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb

This is one of those books that is hard to categorize. It is alternately fascinating and disturbing, historically important and tragic, accessible and thought-provoking. This is a perfect mix of what I think we should feel when confronted with the history of The Manhattan Project and the world’s entry into the Atomic Age.

Trinity: A Graphic History of the First Atomic Bomb strives and succeeds at two tasks. It tells an accurate history of the facts and events leading up to the creation of the first atomic bomb through its use by the United States in the destruction of the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasake. It also successfully prompts the asking of philosophical questions that humanity must wrestle with when faced with such destructive power.

Throughout the black and white illustrated book, the graphics are clear and compelling. You feel the emotions of each moment, the fears and the excitement, the hope and the despair. You look into the eyes of the participants and feel their complexity and depth. This set of people were not monochrome in their beliefs, but complex and this comes through.

The events are told clearly, using a linear style that also incorporates both flashbacks and foretelling. It does so to great effect. Throughout, we get just enough scientific explanation to make the complexity of the topic clearer, using descriptions that are easy to understand while also technically accurate and complete enough to be meaningful.

All this is good. But there is one thing that this book accomplishes that is even better. It makes you think. This is no mere scientific or historic text, although it is both of these. It is also a philosophical springboard to deep meditation. This is a very good thing. You start by feeling alongside the participants the excitement of a scientific quest as they ask, “Can it be done?” You end with the same question most of them ended with, “Should it be done?”

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Survive! Inside the Human Body

This is a special review. This time around, I am including three books in a new educational manga series. I originally intended to produce three individual reviews, but I’m pretty excited about these books and don’t want to make you wait. The series was just published, so if it isn’t on your local bookstore shelves now, it will be soon.

Survive: Inside the Human Body, Volume 1: The Digestive System, Volume 2: The Circulatory System, and Volume 3: The Nervous System are being published by No Starch Press, the same people who brought us the Manga Guide to series, several books from which I have reviewed here in the past. Like that series, this set of books was originally published in another country (Korea, this time) and licensed by No Starch and translated into English. During this process, the information in these books was reviewed by medical doctors for accuracy. The story line was also updated in a few places to adjust the fun to an English-speaking audience.

There is much to love in this series. The information is useful and detailed. I’ll tell you more about that in a paragraph dedicated to each volume. In all the volumes, the illustrations are beautifully done, colorful (not black and white!), and genuinely add to the experience without distracting from the information or the story line. There are lovely samples to view on the No Starch site at the links above.

The three volumes have one story line that arcs across the set. It is a cute story that is pretty typical in its use of standard manga motifs like overstated graphic representations of emotions. In all three volumes, at the end of each chapter, there are a couple of pages that step out of the arcing story line that give more academic details with just enough detail to tie up any loose ends that the reader may have without crossing the line into overwhelming the reader.

The first volume covers the digestive system. It covers everything from the mouth to the anus and all the stuff in between. Beautiful illustrations show useful details and help the reader understand what the action describes. We learn about how food is processed, how nutrients are absorbed, how beneficial gut flora are vital to the process, and how waste is eliminated.

The second volume covers the circulatory system. Here we learn about blood and its components, the liver and filtration, the heart, the lungs and oxygenation, the bones and blood creation, blood types, and we even get a few bonuses with side tracks into skin, the nose, and the ears.

The third volume centers on the nervous system. Topics covered include the brain, different kinds of cells in the nervous system, and the diagnostic tests that can be used by doctors to investigate when problems occur.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Diabetes and Me

I don’t have diabetes. However, I know people who do. I also know people who are at risk. Some of these are kids. This book will be useful to anyone who has diabetes or is close to someone who does, especially if a child, adolescent, or teenager is involved.

Diabetes and me: An Essential Guide for Kids and Parents is filled with excellent information and advice that make the book worth reading accompanied by hand-drawn illustrations that transform the information into a comic book format that is a bit more accessible for both younger and older readers. It does so with a tone that is positive and hopeful about the future. The author, Kim Chaloner, is a middle school science teacher who was diagnosed with diabetes at age sixteen. Her husband and the book’s illustrator, Nick Bertozzi, is an award-winning and established illustrator and author in his own right.

The book acknowledges from the beginning that a diagnosis of diabetes is a life-changing event. It is with this perspective that the author gently takes the reader on a journey through the maze of fear, uncertainty, and confusion that is common and normal in such a moment and beyond all this to help the reader figure out how to answer the question, “What do I do now?”

The book is filled with practical information about doctors and specialists and what each one the diabetes patient is likely to interact with and why. It discusses common treatment options, monitoring, diet, and exercise. The book acknowledges various doctors and treatment centers for their assistance vetting and guiding the content and gives a solid warning to the newly diagnosed to be careful about what sources of information they trust, especially when it comes to internet searches and potential snake oil treatments.

As someone with no personal experience with diabetes, I learned a lot. I can easily imagine that someone struggling with a new diagnosis would find the book a welcome resource, as well as someone who has had diabetes for years but doesn’t feel like they really understand what is going on.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics

The is the second statistics-cartoon/manga mashup book that I have reviewed. The first one was about four years ago. Both books are pretty good, but they each present the topic differently. The previous book tells one main story as the book progresses, and statistics is taught because this story exists. It contextualizes the academic topic while expressing it in a simpler way and then adds the complex mathematics at the end of each chapter of the story that fit that chapter’s needs.

The Cartoon Introduction to Statistics teaches the basics of statistics using comics to illustrate various portions of the greater topic. Each chapter in the book covers a very specific facet of statistics, and each of these chapters build upon those that came before it. We start with a nice introduction that gives a high level view of what statistics can do for us and why we should care. This leads into discussions of numbers, random raw data, sorting, sample size, variables, simple and complex analyses, generalizing from a sample to a wider population, parameters and the central limit theorem, normal distributions, probabilities, inference, confidence, hypotheses and testing, and what statistics can and can not tell us (probability vs. certainty). All of the mathematics are contained in the back of the book and are referred to in the text when and where appropriate.

What makes this book stand out are the illustrated examples used throughout the book. Rather than being a book with one main narrative or plot, this is a non-fiction prose book that has occasional illustrated stories used to clarify complex concepts. Some are simple, like talking about how to determine how many fish in a lake fit a certain category. Others are more imaginative, like exploring whether male or female dragon riders are faster while taking into account dragon size. Regardless of whether the examples are more realistic or more whimsical, they are well thought out and useful. The illustrations throughout the book are nicely drawn and consistently appropriate.

I’m sure the question out there is whether I like this book better or the first one I reviewed. The honest answer is that I think both books are very well done, but each will appeal to a different audience within the population of people struggling to grasp the main concepts of statistics. Some, especially the math-phobic, will find this book more useful with its authors’ decision to move the mathematics to the back of the book and concentrate on the bigger picture and its parts. Others will appreciate the similar progression of topics of the other book, which puts the math at the end of the chapter and immediately reinforces what was just taught. Both are worthy entries in the education-focused manga/comic library.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Legends of the Blues

Computers are not the only thing I am interested in. Not by a long shot. I have so many interests and hobbies that I haven’t yet mentioned on this blog. One of my interests is music. Some of you know I am a musician. I play bass in a local band. I have played guitar for more than 20 years. I love music. One style of music that has been a strong influence is the blues. Not only modern stuff like post-British-Invasion bands, but the old stuff, too. I also enjoy comics and manga and I’ve reviewed several titles that combine these with educational topics.

Legends of the Blues is filled with 100 one page biographies of blues musicians. The artists in the book were chosen by the author, William Stout, because he both loves their music and because he thought it would be fun to draw a picture of each of them. And draw he does! Stout calls on the style of R. Crumb as he creates beautiful portraits of each artist. Part of the process of selecting artists was that Stout had seen an older book by Abrams titled R. Crumb’s Heroes of Blues, Jass & Country. Stout tried not to repeat any of the artists from Crumb’s book, but in the end there were a couple he loved too much to leave out of his own book.

So, to the point. Who is in here? There are tons of big names you should recognize like Bessie Smith, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Blind Willie Johnson. There are also some less-well-known artists who music really deserves to be better known, people like Cow Cow Davenport and Big Joe Williams.

Each biography in the book lists the artist’s main instruments, when and where they were born and died, and some recommended tracks along with a one page synopsis of their place in the history of the blues. Each one is interesting and worth reading. Then, on the facing page, you have a beautiful portrait of the artist being discussed. Very cool.

That would be enough for me to give this book a recommendation.

There is a bonus that I did not expect and appreciate greatly. Accompanying the book is a CD of 14 songs chosen by William Stout. The CD is titled “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” and is an eclectic mix of traditional blues from both the juke joint and the Gospel sides. This CD includes several songs I have not heard before and did not have in my library, but which will be in regular rotation in my play lists from now on.

If you like blues, this book is worth the price of admission.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy. See also: Are All Book Reviews Positive?

Economix: How Our Economy Works

I live in the United States of America. It is an election year. The election is next month. The atmosphere is charged with political conversation and rhetoric. Some of it is based on knowledge. Some of it is based on fancy. Some of it is so obviously false that it is stunning that the speaker/writer believes that anyone will buy in to what is being said/written. On many occasions it is obvious that too many people have no understanding of economics, how an economy works, or even basic history. This book weaves all three together beautifully.

Economix: How Our Economy Works provides an up to date, well researched, well presented, and detailed look at the economy. The book presents multiple economic theories clearly and with a flair that is hard to describe but which will thrill all but the most dry-textbook-loving reader. It is a comic that is also a better textbook than most I have read, especially for people who do not already know the history of Western economic thought. Ever wonder what differentiates a free market from a controlled market? What has historically caused economies to grow or shrink? Why government spending, inflation, and interest rates matter and how each can affect an economy? This is the book to get you started.

As a bonus, you will also learn what differentiates capitalism from socialism from communism and other systems, what has influenced each, and what is driving and influencing the current worldwide and U.S. political and economic climates. Want to understand the basic ideas of the big and influential people in economic theory like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or John Maynard Keynes or maybe the basic ideas that drive past and present Chairmen of the Federal Reserve Bank like Alan Greenspan or Ben Bernanke? This book will give you enough detail to help you understand the theoretical underpinnings of their policies and recommendations and it does so in a way that my (admittedly really smart) 10 year old can understand most of it.

If you ever mention the economy, but don’t really know with certainty what you are talking about, read this book. If you hear people being called “socialist” or “fascist” and wonder what that means, read this book. If you have heard of oligarchies and monopolies and don’t really know what they are or why they would matter, read this book. If you only read one book on the economy, read this one. Yeah, I’m recommending it that strongly. I got my copy for free, and I’m thinking of giving it away so that I can go pay for one and help support the author so that the book stays in print and finds a wider audience.

Oh, and the comic art is quite good, too, but suddenly that seems anticlimactic. Too bad, because that really isn’t fair to the artist, who is quite talented in his own right.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra

It has again been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action and another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.  I keep requesting review copies of each title in the series as they come out, and I have yet to be disappointed. This is an impressive series that consistently makes very difficult academic topics more interesting and a little easier for students. I would not consider these a replacement for a textbook, and neither would the publishers of the series, but every book that I have reviewed from the series would make an excellent supplement, especially for the struggling student.

The Manga Guide to Linear Algebra follows the actions of a Reiji, who wants a black belt in Karate and to gain the interest of the girl of his dreams, Misa. She happens to be the younger sister of the captain of the university Karate club, and although her brother is intimidating, he offers to give Reiji lessons in exchange for Reiji tutoring Misa. You will have to read the book to see how that turns out.

The book starts with an introduction to the characters, then an introduction to linear algebra. I admit, it has been many years since I studied the topic and I was interested to see how quickly I would pick it back up. The book made it easier than I anticipated, partially because it gives context for each concept presented. Knowing why something is important and how it fits into a greater scheme makes it much easier to understand and remember.

Topics covered in the book include fundamentals like number systems, implication and equivalence, set theory, functions, combinations and permutations. We then transition into matrices with a “what is a matrix?” section, calculations, special matrices and lots more. Once matrices are covered in depth, vectors are introduced along with calculations, geometric interpretations, linear independence, bases, dimensions, and coordinates. Once we move into linear transformations and spend some time trying to get a handle on this difficult topic, the presentation turns to an interesting discussion of the relationship between linear transformations and matrices–again, this helps provide some useful context to a difficult idea to grasp. Finally, the book discussed Eigenvalues and Eigenvectors, including how to calculate them, multiplicity, and diagonalization. Then, the storyline surrounding the mathmatical topic is brought to a close.

Studying linear algebra? This won’t replace your textbook and doing your homework, but it may help you figure out the context for and gain a deeper understanding of what you are doing. That alone makes the book valuable and earns it my recommendation as a quality introduction to the topic.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

The Manga Guide to Relativity

It has again been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action and another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.

The Manga Guide to Relativity follows the actions of a high school class president who steps in to save the rest of the students at the school who were being threatened by the school headmaster with a punishment for their lack of scholastic success. To save them, the brave student leader agrees to take a special summer course on relativity and write a report for the headmaster. The student doesn’t know what relativity is, but a kind and attractive teacher volunteers to teach him all about it. The story line is okay, but not as good as some of the other stories in the series. However, it still succeeds in its main task of easing the reader into the topic.

The book covers all the main questions and topics you would expect such as the definition of relativity, the Urashima Effect (where times slows down as speed approaches the speed of light), mass and the contraction of length (again, as speed approaches the speed of light),and the difference between Special Relativity and General Relativity. Each chapter contains a manga section with an introduction to and discussion of the topic. This is followed in each chapter by a more detailed and technical section filled with equations and deeper explorations of the chapter’s subject.

I’ve studied physics, and although I am rusty, I believe the book is accurate and it is quite clear. The story created to assist with that presentation is kind of silly, but does fulfill its mission of making a difficult topic a bit more approachable and the science communicated in both the manga and the technical sections is clear and well expressed.

My kids are too young to really understand all of the details of the topics covered in this series, but they continue to read the books with great interest. Most of the science is above the grade level even of my oldest (age 9), but their attention remains fixed on the art and the story and the kids are absorbing some of it as they read.

Overall, I would say the book is a success and recommend it without reservation for anyone wanting an accessible introduction to Einstein’s Theory of Relativity and how it changed our understanding of physics.
Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology

It has been a while since I have reviewed a manga book. This is one of several atypical educational books that use graphic art to help teach difficult concepts or illustrate the action. This is another wonderful entry in the “Manga Guide to…” series that I have been reviewing.

The Manga Guide to Molecular Biology follows the actions of a two students who failed their molecular biology class and have to take a special summer course. The story line is enjoyable and eases the reader’s entry into the topic rather than being a distraction.

The book covers all the main questions and topics you would expect: what is a cell, what are the common parts of a cell, how do cells combine to make various organisms, what are proteins and how do they function within a cell, what is DNA and what are genes and how do they work to express the information coded in them? My favorite part was chapter 5 which focuses on potential applications for everything discussed earlier and theorizes what the future may hold in the field.

I work in a software project that is helping biologists do research, including helping process the vast amounts of data that comes from genetic sequencing. As a result, I have become familiar with most of the content this book presents. I believe the book is accurate and it is clear. The story created to assist with that presentation is enjoyable as well. I have a seven year old daughter that is reading the book with great interest. Some of the science is above her grade level, but her attention remains fixed on the art and the story and she is absorbing some of it as she reads.

Overall, I would say the book is a success and recommend it without reservation.

Disclosure: I was given my copy of this book by the publisher as a review copy.

Footnotes in Gaza

Henry Holt and Company recently sent me a complementary advance, prepublication review copy of Joe Sacco’s history in graphic novel format Footnotes in Gaza.

This may be one of the most heart-wrenching books I have ever read. This well-researched history relies on both interviews with eyewitnesses and official documents to provide the information for its powerful telling of a bloody event in 1956 in Gaza when 111 Palestinians were shot dead by Israeli soldiers and many others wounded and scarred. Some call it a massacre, others a dreadful mistake. No one disputes the number of dead nor the painful events of one incident in a long and difficult struggle.

This book is written from the perspective of a historian who is seeking the facts of an event that happened a full 50 years before the research began and shows his struggles with differing accounts, even from people on the same side of the conflict, and the difficulty, or perhaps impossibility, of separating the events of previous generations from the events of the current day. The people involved are human, fallible, full of pain and longing for safety, security and a life of peace.

To tell the story, Joe Sacco uses powerful drawings and shows an impressive understanding of the comic/graphic art style. Every word and image are vital. Not one moment of the reader’s time is wasted. My full attention was on the book from the moment I picked it up until I (grudgingly) had to put it down to do something else. This was true until I finished reading the final page. The author spent a significant amount of time in the Gaza Strip, living in refugee camps and towns with Palestinians. He conducted many interviews and took hundreds of photos while staying in people’s homes and walking the very streets where the events occurred. This dedication shows in the final project which is written and drawn with a voice and perspective that is unparalleled in my research on the region (which is extensive).

This, and other events in the region, deserve far more attention than they receive, but not merely from the angle of politics and warring opinions. These are not covered in this book. Rather, what needs to be seen and understood is how real people and their lives are affected. This book shows that in a way that never succumbs to sappy attempts to provoke pity. It is a dispassionate and clear sharing of personal memories from diverse sources of one main event, often pointing out moments of disagreement or comments that could not be corroborated. It is the events, not any attempt to manipulate the reader, which provokes the response.

If you only read one book about history and foundations for current day conflicts in the Middle East, read this one. I give it my highest recommendation. I will also warn you that it is the first book in a very long time that genuinely moved me to tears, so be prepared.