Book Reviews

Book Review - Buddhist Meditation

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I’ve read a lot of meditation books on my quest in an effort to deepen my own practice, but Buddhist Meditation by Edward Conze is without a doubt the most scholarly text on the subject that I have come across thus far. Originally published in 1972, this book wastes no time at all before diving deep into the material. In the introduction, Conze briefly discusses the meaning and purpose of Buddhist meditation, its range and principal divisions, the literary sources from which the practice stems, and a comparison of this Eastern science of mind with modern-day Western psychotherapy.

From there, the book is broken up into four major sections. The first goes over devotional exercises that Buddhist meditators can work on while meditating. The other sections go over three aspects of the practice—mindfulness, trance, and wisdom. The book features advice on how to cultivate and maintain mental and physical awareness, which includes instructions on postures, breathing, rejection of the sensory world, and above all the recollection of the ultimate goal: nirvana.

Buddhist Meditation is considered by many to be a classic text. It’s included in the list of suggested books to read at the end of Ram Dass’ seminal spiritual book Be Here Now, which is where I probably first heard of it. Unfortunately, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I had hoped I would. It’s a very dry read. All in all I found it to be a bit esoteric and unhelpful, frankly, which was a disappointment because I think it probably contains helpful information that I would benefit from putting to use in my own meditation practice, but I just couldn’t get past the writing style to those nuggets of wisdom.

I did finish reading this book, and I even highlighted some of the pages. There were some parts that I really liked, and on the whole I have a positive opinion of it. Maybe it’ll be good review material in 20 years after I’ve learned more about these concepts from more entertaining authors and teachers. While I wouldn’t recommend Buddhist Meditation to most people, if you consider yourself to be really interested in Buddhism and want to learn more about the role of meditation in this tradition, then maybe you’ll appreciate it. Anyone else should probably steer clear and pick out a more accessible book on the topic.

3/5 stars. 192 pages.

Book Review - Fran

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This was the third book in the Frank series of unpredictable wordless comics that I have had the chance to read so far. It’s a bit newer compared to almost all the other books in the series, which cartoonist Jim Woodring started pumping out more than 25 years ago. Fran was published in 2013, and it features Frank’s soulmate (named Fran), who was a new character to me. Allegedly, it is somehow simultaneously both the prequel and the sequel to Woodring’s 2011 book Congress of the Animals, but I haven’t read that one yet.

A typical Frank comic takes the reader along for one of Frank’s kooky misadventures after another. The books are usually set in the Unifactor, which is the alien landscape that Frank inhabits. However, Frank apparently left his home in Congress of the Animals for uncharted lands, where he ended up finding and wooing Fran.

In Fran, the two lovebirds start their day with ample cordiality, but they end up getting into a heated lover’s quarrel and Fran sets off to have some alone time. She embarks on a hair-raising solo adventure, seemingly untouchable by an array of dangers, even though she comes across several would-be threatening and intimidating creatures and situations.

Heartbroken and regretful for his actions during the fight, Frank and his two adorable pets Pupshaw and Pushpaw follow Fran’s tracks in an effort to find her. Along the way, Frank travels through time and space to otherworldly locales and ends up confronting a mirror version of himself in a random house. While all of this is happening, Fran is off lackadaisically enjoying herself in her own happy-go-lucky way.

As I found in the other books of his, Woodring’s unique sense of humor is quirky and playful in Fran, with an spiritual undercurrent running throughout every page of the book. I love this funny quote from the inside of the dust jacket:

So do yourself a favor and take the plunge. You can’t stay cooped up on the outside of this book forever!

I got a good chuckle out of that. And it’s not too often that I laugh even before I start reading a book!

So what did I think about Fran? Worry not—it’s another mindbending Woodring masterpiece and I thoroughly enjoyed the ride it took me on. However, I didn’t like it quite as much as the other Frank comics I have read—Weathercraft and The Portable Frank. In fact, if you’re considering taking a plunge into this world, I’d suggest you start with one of those two instead. Similar to Weathercraft (and Congress of the Animals), Fran features one long narrative instead of several vignettes.

Aside from comparing it to other books in the series, Fran is an awesome story and definitely worth checking out. No matter which one you start with, you can’t go wrong—there’s nothing quite like Jim Woodring’s Frank series.

3/5 stars. 120 pages.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my reviews of Weathercraft and The Portable Frank.

Book Review - The Portable Frank

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A few days after reading Jim Woodring's Weathercraft, I moved onto another strange tale in the Frank universe—this time it was The Portable Frank. Unlike the first Frank comic I read, which is a full-length graphic novel with a cohesive plot through and through, The Portable Frank is a more typical book in the Frank universe because it contains various vignettes that are only tangentially related to one another.

This book's description reads:

[A] unique, visionary comic, exquisitely drawn and so fully realized that adults and children alike find themselves drawn deeply into Woodring's hallucinatory landscape. The stories, almost entirely wordless, unravel like a good puzzle, rewarding re-reading, providing an experience as immersive as that first love affair, that first samadhi, or that first breath. Simply put, the world of Frank must be experienced to be understood.

I couldn't put it better myself. The Portable Frank is a special book, capable of launching readers on a journey into outer (and inner) space without the use of any psychoactive substances. The main character, who goes by the name of Frank, is a fun-loving anthropomorph that looks like a cross between Mickey Mouse and Goofy. Frank lives in a peculiar landscape called the Unifactor, where he wanders around on surreal adventures with his housedog-like pet Pupshaw. On their way, they encounter Manhog, the main character from Weathercraft, as well a variety of several other creatures ranging from adorable to downright terrifying.

I really enjoyed this book and I imagine if I read it a few more times I'd probably love it even more. If you're into weird art of the mind-bending variety, then you should get your hands on a copy of The Portable Frank.

4/5 stars. 200 pages.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my reviews of Weathercraft and Fran.

Book Review - Weathercraft

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This is a pleasantly (and at times, downright terrifyingly) strange book created by a weird visionary artist and creator by the name of Jim Woodring. I first heard of Jim on the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast a couple years ago. Their conversation went to several interesting places—art, vedanta, meditation, and of course Jim's Frank series of graphic novels. Even though I'm not necessarily a devotee of the anime/comic book/manga/graphic novel genre, I knew I had to check out this series because Jim's genuine interest in esoteric topics and Duncan's fantastic description of his artistic style really piqued my curiosity.

So I checked out three Frank books from my local library a few months ago and took them to the beach with me for a two-week vacation. My travel partners and I ended up eating a fairly large dose of psilocybin mushrooms (5 grams) in the middle of our vacation and it was during the come-up of that trip that I pulled this book out and started to enter the Frank universe.

Weathercraft seemed like the best Frank comic to start with compared to the other selections I had (The Portable Frank and Fran) because of the book's description on Goodreads:

For over 20 years now, Jim Woodring has delighted, touched, and puzzled readers around the world with his lush, wordless tales of “Frank.” Weathercraft is Woodring’s first full-length graphic novel set in this world—indeed, Woodring’s first graphic novel, period!—and it features the same hypnotically gorgeous linework and mystical iconography.

Without much knowledge about the Frank series, I thought that the "first full-length graphic novel set in this world" would be a good place to start. And I found out that although the reader can certainly jump into this universe with any of the comics, the main character in Weathercraft is merely an extra in the other books, not the protagonist of the series. This one isn't really about Frank much at all.

Even though Frank has a brief supporting appearance in this book, which actually stars Manhog (a pathetic, brutish everyman who regularly shows up in other stories), I really enjoyed reading it. Especially while I was tripping on magic mushrooms—the psychedelic art and bizarre story mixed quite well with them.

So what happens in this story? Well, after enduring a nearly unbearable amount of unfathomable suffering, Manhog sets off on a transformative journey and attains enlightenment. Along the way, he encounters the cruelest foes imaginable, mind-bending landscapes, and various flavors of truly twisted torment. Weathercraft is horrifyingly magnificent and similar to the psychedelic experience by being frustratingly ineffable. It's all very strange and beautiful and must be experienced firsthand to be understood.

Ultimately, even though I was a bit disappointed when I realized that Weathercraft was not about Frank very much at all, I did find it to be an excellent introduction to this world. If you're looking for a trippy book to spend an afternoon or evening with, you should definitely owe it to yourself to check out a Frank book, and Weathercraft would be an excellent one to start with.

4/5 stars. 104 pages.


If you enjoyed this post, you might also enjoy my reviews of The Portable Frank and Fran.

Book Review - Breakfast with Buddha

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Have you ever wondered what it would be like to take a cross-country road trip with the Buddha? If so, you should check out Roland Merullo's spiritual novel Breakfast with Buddha, which will give you a glimpse of that experience.

My mother recommended this book to me a couple years ago and I filed it away on my "Want to Read" list but had mostly forgotten about it until an alert from Bookbub informed me that it was on sale for Kindle last year. So I bought it and then promptly forgot about it again. But I eventually got around to adding it to my list of "Books I'll Read Next" and started reading it in July.

The book sucked me in pretty quickly. It's narrated in first-person by the protagonist, a nice and caring family man named Otto Ringling. He is a highly intellectual editor of food books who has a bit of a skeptic streak running through his veins. At the beginning of the story, Otto's parents pass away, and he plans to drive his eccentric sister from New York to his home state of North Dakota in order to settle their family's estate. But somehow he ends up traveling with a Siberian monk by the name of Volya Rinpoche instead of his sister. Otto's disbelief toward spirituality or religion makes for a hilarious dynamic as the pair teach each other about their different backgrounds, cultures, and views on life—all while stuck together in a car for 1800 miles.

Breakfast with Buddha is perfect for someone who is looking for a lighthearted tale to kick back and relax with. But it's not all just fun and games. While there are plenty of laughs, there are also inspirational life lessons scattered throughout this book, and I look forward to one day reading the other books in this trilogy: Lunch with Buddha and Dinner with Buddha. I don't know much about them at this point, but my mom says that each one is better than the last. And she might be right—after all, she was about this one!

4/5 stars. 353 pages.