Book Reviews: Buddhism and Prison Ships

Totie Fields
I’ve been on a diet for 2 weeks and all I’ve lost is 2 weeks.

Hadn’t realized until the last moment, but with books on yoga, Tokyo, New Guinea, and ancient Japan. . . definitely an accidental theme here.

Ours to Embrace: ES Siren 7
It’s the 7th in the series, not all by this author; a shared universe, I believe they call it. There’s a prison ship going from Earth to another planet, and all the stories take place on this platform. This particular plot deals with a shuttle pilot and one of the prisoners, of course a gorgeous woman. There seems to be a lot of backstory to her, no doubt in previous books, while he’s easy enough to grasp: just think Han Solo or Malcolm Reynolds.
Though there’s a conspiracy by a few of the prisoners to not just escape but take over the ship, at heart this is a romance, with the usual jumping to conclusions and bad choices that get in the way of what they want. Setting it on a prison ship heading to a new world is certainly different, but the plot feels more complicated than it really needs to be. I can’t help thinking I would have enjoyed this more had I read the previous ones.

The Superyogi Scenario
At first I thought the premise was corny—yoga can turn you into a superhero!—but it ended up being very enjoyable, in a science-fiction kinda way. I mean, is that really any different than being bitten by a radioactive spider or shot in a rocket from a dying world on the other side of the galaxy? Why not?
I had a few questions about the first scene: If she can shapeshift, why does she need to change clothes? And why bother disguising yourself if there aren’t going to be any survivors/witnesses? These are the types of little things that annoy me, but fortunately the writing gets better. Later on a magnificent new character is introduced, only to be killed off by the end of the chapter; fortunately she got better too.
There are a few well-done drawings of the main characters in their superhero uniforms, but I didn’t like them much, because they didn’t seem to match the earlier word descriptions. And quite frankly they didn’t show off the beauty of these two ladies that had been an integral part of their characters since we were introduced to them.
Parts do get a bit silly, but if you don’t take it too seriously you’ll be fine with it. There are bad yogis who want to destroy the world, or at least New York, with a main villain we never meet who has brainwashed others to do his bidding. Instead of all these characters being Superman, they each have their own unique powers, which makes things a lot more interesting. There’s a lot to like here, but it could have been better, or will be, once the author has more experience; I’d be shocked if there aren’t sequels.

Beauty and Chaos
Here’s a book of essays on Tokyo, told by an American who’s lived there for a while now. It reads like blog entries, which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s certainly better written than most blogs, not including this one (up to you to guess if I’m joking).
I’ve been to Japan a half dozen times, but never for more than a few days, certainly not long enough to gain the type of insights he has on the culture. His is an interesting point of view, a Westerner in Tokyo but someone who’s lived there for years, more than just a tourist, so he fills the inbetween.
There’s a whole chapter on how people hold themselves up on trains; he says women have better balance, even in heels, holding on to the straps with their fingers, while men use the whole palm. That’s the kind of close detail you can expect in this book. There’s also a piece on why Japanese women go even more overboard with pink than American women, yet the color is also used to attract men to sex stuff. And everything else is white, black, or grey. Hmmm. . .
This book is filled with interesting tidbits that most people, including the residents, wouldn’t notice. There’s a chapter on how ubiquitous maps are, which I certainly don’t remember from my trips to Tokyo, and I would have remembered, cuz I love maps. . . which is why I’m enjoying this anyway, vicariously. Another entry talks about shopping bags, including how they would save civilization in a major earthquake; that’s too silly even for Japan. But for someone who’s never been there, or only for a short time as a tourist, it gives a sense of wonder, almost like science-fiction, reading about a whole new world. And isn’t that what travel books are supposed to do?

Lost in Shangri-La
This is one of those amazing true stories that you would think everyone has heard of but has been lost in the mists of history. In World War Two the United States has established bases in New Guinea, and a few soldiers and WACs go off on a joyride to look at the almost Stone Age natives in a hidden valley in the interior. The plane crashes and most of the passengers are killed, with only three survivors. This story is about how they managed to stay alive, befriend some natives, and ultimately be rescued from this desolate area too high for choppers, too hilly for planes, and weeks away by foot from any outpost.
As one would expect there’s a lot of background in the beginning, setting the scene. Once the crash happens the story narrows down to what the three do to survive, as well as asides on why the natives are always at war with each other, and a piece on a white explorer in the area that none of the players here knew about. Frankly, I’m quite surprised the author managed to get so many pages out of this, as the whole thing could have been told much more succinctly, especially once the rescue operation gets underway, with medics and troops parachuting in to keep the survivors safe from what turned out to be friendly natives.
The way they’re finally rescued left me incredulous. Still can’t believe it worked.

Wow, this is not your typical comic book/graphic novel. For one thing, it’s historical, set in 13th century Japan. For another, there’s no superheroes or such, unless you count the main character, a Buddhist monk, and his attempts at social change, dealing with a government that doesn’t care.
Though not by any means a Buddhist, I’ve read some of the main texts, so it’s not surprising for me to find some familiar stuff, like the old story about collecting mustard seeds from a house that has not experienced death in order to bring the dead back to life. Such familiarity helps set the scene, but its really jarring to believe this takes place 800 years ago when the writing is modern and simple, with the occasional “Whoa!”
My favorite line: “There’s a ghost in the outhouse!”
As far as the story goes, there’s three chapters that give examples of his attempts to make things better for the population, especially the poor. Not knowing how true to history these episodes are, I wonder if the people in this time period really were that gullible, believing all the lies told about Nichiren. As for the Buddhist priest himself, he considers himself so enlightened yet is incredibly stubborn. He knows people who have much to lose aren’t going to listen to him; he knows he’s in danger from them, but he never changes his strategy. As much as I would have liked him to succeed, I’m not at all surprised he didn’t. But I suppose since these events actually happened, I shouldn’t be criticizing the book for them.
All in all this is a quick easy read, though perhaps there’s too many characters to keep track of for too long; there’s a guide for that at the end, which I think proves my point. Some of the story was interesting, others not so much. I doubt the lack of color had anything to do with that, but yes, it’s in black and white.