Book Review: Tuesdays With Morrie

Book Review: Tuesdays with Morrie by Mitch Albom

In 1995, there was fighting in Bosnia, O.J. Simpson was on trial for murder, and a man named Morrie Schwartz was teaching his last class about life.  It met on Tuesdays, and the student was sportswriter Mitch Albom.  Twenty years before, Mitch had been Morrie’s student in sociology classes at Brandeis University, and now that Morrie was dying of ALS, he reconnected with his old teacher for a series of conversations.

Tuesdays with Morrie

Like many people, Mitch’s life after college hadn’t gone as planned, his musical career not panning out.  After the early death of a beloved relative, his priorities shifted, and he found success in writing about sports.  But when he saw Morrie being interviewed by Ted Koppel on Nightline (the first of three interviews), Mitch realized he had lost touch with someone important to him, and the wisdom of that man.

Morrie Schwartz had been an unusual man all along, and had dedicated much of his years to learning how to live his own life.  He had developed a set of aphorisms that distilled this philosophy into understandable chunks.  When his amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gherig’s disease) began to take away his ability to engage in everyday activities, Morrie sent out his aphorisms into the world to those he thought might be interested.  And they brought the world back to him, notably Ted Koppel, and through him, Mitch Albom.

As it happened, a newspaper strike left Mitch with some spare time to come visit his old professor, and he made more time when they reconnected.  They decided that Mitch would come again and again on Tuesdays, a day that was special to them, and they would discuss subjects like death and marriage.  The plan was for Mitch to write a book the proceeds of which would help pay for Morrie’s substantial medical bills.

This is that book, a bestseller that has spawned a TV movie and stage play, and changed many lives.  A new edition has been released for the twentieth anniversary, with a new afterword catching up with what’s happened with Mr. Albom since the end of the book.

The book intersperses valuable lessons about life and related topics with flashbacks to their relationship in college and biographical information about Morrie that helps explain how he became the teacher so admired by so many people.

It’s very well written; the outcome is known from the beginning, so the journey is the important part.  If what Morrie has to say sometimes seems trite or cliched, that’s because much of it is things we already knew, even if we ignore them in the hustle and pain of everyday existence.

My one caveat is that sometimes this sort of philosophy has been weaponized against people who are suffering systemic poverty and oppression to tell them that they shouldn’t fight back, but simply accept their lot.

The subject matter of death and dying may be a bit heavy for younger readers, but this book has been used in high school classes.

Recommended for people who haven’t gotten around to this book yet who are interested in philosophy and life lessons.

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book from the publisher to facilitate this review.  No other compensation was offered or requested.

And now, a video of those Ted Koppel interviews.

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China

Book Review: Life Learned Abroad: Lessons on Humanity from China by Brandon Ferdig

Disclaimer:  I received a copy of this book free from the author in the expectation that I would write a review.  No other compensation is involved.

The traveler’s tale is one of the oldest forms of narrative; going to a faraway place and telling those at home what was seen and learned there.  The rise of low-cost independent publishing has made such memoirs easy to make available to the public, even if it is still just as hard to convince them to read it.

Life Learned Abroad

Mr. Ferdig is a Minnesota resident who spent a year in China, primarily to teach English.  He spent most of the year in Zhuhai, a modern city in southern China, and close to both Hong Kong and Macau.  Towards the end of the year he also managed to travel to Beijing, a village in rural China, and a mountain where he spent two weeks learning Tai Chi.

This book is heavily illustrated with photos (in black and white) taken on the journey; this makes it easier in many places to understand what Mr. Ferdig is saying in the narrative.  While the vocabulary is suitable for junior high students on up, some discussion of intercultural romantic relationships and China’s sex industry may convince parents it’s best for senior high students and up.

As the subtitle indicates, the main theme of the book is the lessons learned on this voyage; about humanity, about China and also about himself.  Mr. Ferdig tried to be open to any lessons that could be learned from his experiences; some he sought out, and others were thrust upon him.  And like all of us, the author sometimes had to learn from his mistakes.

I would recommend this book as an introduction to modern China from an outsider’s perspective, as it gently brings in various topics of interest.  (A book about modern China from the perspective of a resident would be a good counterpart.)  The paperback is a bit bulky, about the size of a college textbook, so the space-conscious person may be more comfortable with the Kindle edition.

Come to think of it, with a little revision to tighten up the narrative, and appropriate study materials, this might make a good text for a community education class on China.

Anime Review: Matchless Raijin-Oh

The fifth-dimensional Jaku Empire (literally, “the Evil Empire”) has decided to conquer the third dimension, starting with Earth.  Good thing Earth has a powerful guardian spirit named Eldoran.  Or perhaps we should say had a powerful guardian spirit, as Eldoran blocks the invaders’ one-shot superweapon at the cost of crippling himself to a near-death state.

Matchless Raijin-Oh

Eldoran has a back-up plan.  He bestows the remainder of his power, in the form of giant robots that combine into larger giant robots, on a class of fifth-graders who are in school on Saturday doing make-up work.  The military isn’t too thrilled with the fact that the world’s fate is in the hands of a bunch of pre-teens, but the Earth Defense Class is the only ones who can use the mighty Raijin-Oh against the weekly monster attacks.

Zettai Muteki Raijin-Oh was a 1991 anime series for children, the first of the “Eldoran Trilogy.”  It falls into the “super robot” subgenre of the mecha genre, which means that it generally ignores questions of practicality and treats the laws of physics as mild suggestions.  (As opposed to the “real robot” subgenre where they at least handwave explanations as to how the mecha work in realistic terms.)

There are eighteen kids in Class 5-3, nine boys and nine girls of varied size, shape, social status and personality, so it’s easy for most viewers to have a favorite.  And all of them are important.  Sure, some of them get much more screen time, but even if your job is just to pull the transformation lever, no one else can do that, so if you go missing, the team will lose.

The kids who get the most screentime are:

  • Jin, the pilot of Ken-Oh, a swordsman mecha, and lead pilot of Raijin-Oh when the robots combine.  He’s a typical boys’ anime lead, spiky-haired, hot-blooded and book-dumb.
  • Asuka, the pilot of Hou-Oh, a bird mecha.  He’s a handsome and diplomatic lad, and a hit with the girls.  Asuka likes being treated well because of his looks, but doesn’t really grok why being liked by women is a thing.
  • Kouji, the pilot of Juu-Oh, a lion mecha.  He’s a dreamer and UFO nut, who’s a bit timid, but is better at understanding people than his two buddies.
  • Maria, the class leader.  She’s an all-rounder who’s good but not the best at many skills, and coordinates the Command Center when monsters attack.  Her only flaw is a bit of a temper, mostly caused by Jin’s antics.  (The series is clearly setting Jin and Maria up for a romance in their teens.)
  • Tsutomu, the class nerd.  He’s the one who handles technical issues and discovering new powers for the robots.

While the adults are shut out of being able to save the day, Mr. Shinoda (the homeroom teacher), Miss Himeji (school nurse) and the Principal (who is skilled in kung fu) often are able to help the kids out with real-world problems.  Even the General eventually is a bit helpful, though he never completely warms up to the notion that military might is not the answer.

Over on the villain side, the leader is Belzeb, who is literally heartless.  Instead, he has an evil fairy named Falzeb living in his rib cage.  He’s assisted by the bumbling Taida, a chubby, childish fellow who isn’t really cut out for the villain lifestyle.   The monsters start out as akudama (“evil balls”), round bits of darkness that are scattered around the landscape.  When activated by the word meiwaku (“troublesome”, “annoying” , “problematic”) then turn into a small monster that takes its theme from whatever was described with the code word.

Thus we have things like a pollution monster, a flu monster, a superhero monster (that one had some serious “which side am I on?” issues) and so forth.  At some point, Falzeb would energize the monster, turning it into a larger, more powerful version, and Raijin-Oh would need to fight it.

The plots do tend to be formulaic.  One of the children has a spotlight subplot, such as being afraid of dogs.  The monster may or may not relate to that subplot, but generally defeating the monster will also resolve the subplot.  There’s plenty of stock footage of the various uniform changes, robot launches and transformations and special attacks.  One episode about halfway through is a clip show, though it does answer a few pertinent questions.  (The robots combining to form Raijin-Oh takes less than three seconds real time, not the over a minute it looks like in the stock footage.)

Some of the spotlight episodes are more disappointing for fans of those individual characters, as Jin has his own secondary subplot, meaning that the character whose spotlight it is gets even less time.

The series is being brought to the U.S. by Anime Midstream, a small independent company formed for the purpose.  They’ve titled it Matchless Raijin-Oh and five volumes are currently available on DVD.  The disks have both subtitled and dubbed versions, with the dub being done mostly by enthusiastic amateurs.  (It’s okay, but not quite up to professional standards.)

The series is kid-friendly, but parents should be aware that Japan has different standards for how much nudity is acceptable for children (we see a couple of naked butts in a non-sexual context) and some old-fashioned ideas about physical discipline of children are on display.  (Jin’s  parents especially believe in the usefulness of a good smack to the head.)  The blooper reels are less kid-friendly; the worst words are bleeped out, but parental no-nos are still heard.

If your kids already enjoy loud exciting action cartoons, please consider supporting this small business.  Older anime fans may find it a bit childish, but there’s still plenty to love.

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

Movie Review: JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

The Legion of Doom’s latest plan has been thwarted by the Justice League of America, and Lex Luthor is trapped in ice for a thousand years.  He’s accidentally unleashed by two teenage heroes of the 31st Century, Karate Kid and Dawnstar.  Luthor promptly steals an hourglass that controls the power of the Time Trapper, and comes up with a new plan–get rid of Superman on the day he came to Earth, and the Justice League will never come to be!

JLA Adventures: Trapped in Time

This movie was commissioned by Target to tie into their new line of JLA toys, so it’s more kid-friendly  than some of the other recent DC Comics animated fare that’s aimed at teens and up.  It’s not in any previous continuity, blending aspects of the New 52 (the costumes, the lineup of the Justice League minus Green Lantern) and the Super Friends (Robin is on the team, the Legion of Doom’s rather silly plans, the two teen trainee heroes.)

Most of the League has rather flat characterization–Robin at least gets to be sarcastic.   Dawnstar and Karate Kid are the actual stars of the show.  They’ve swapped personalities somewhat from their classic portrayals–KK is brash and impulsive (and wears a costume reminiscent both of Super Friends character Samurai, and of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series. ) Dawnstar is introverted and a bit timid (and has vaguely-defined light powers in addition to her normal tracking and flight.)

The Legion of Doom gets to have a bit more fun in their parts, particularly Bizarro and Solomon Grundy.  The guest villain, Time Trapper, is appropriately spooky, foreshadowing that it’s much more dangerous than Lex Luthor realizes.

As mentioned above, this short film is pretty family-friendly.  There’s fantasy violence, but no one is permanently hurt, no foul language, and no sexual innuendo.  Karate Kid and Dawnstar make mistakes, and learn a valuable life lesson.

Two short Super Friends episodes are also included on the DVD, both with time-related stories.  They make the main feature look good by comparison.

I’d recommend this for Super Friends fans, and families with kids who enjoy superhero cartoons.

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