bragan's eclectic mishmash, part 2
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40. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison by Piper Kerman
In 1993, Piper Kerman was 24 years old, well-educated, privileged, rebellious, and bored. Also very, very stupid. She got involved with someone glamorous and exciting, and when it turned out that the glamor and excitement were fueled by a job smuggling drugs, she didn't particularly care. Eventually she was asked to help out by escorting a suitcase full of drug money on an international flight and, like an idiot, she agreed. Five years later, when she'd long since turned her back on that life, she was finally arrested for the crime. Due to some weird circumstances involving extradition issues with the drug kingpin she was indirectly working for, she didn't serve her prison time for it until eleven years after the fact, when she did thirteen months in a minimum-security women's prison in Connecticut. This memoir is about her experiences on the inside.
Kerman offers us a very different perspective on prison life than the depictions you usually see on the news, or in television and movies. It's not a violent story, or a sensational one. She's not trying to impress us with how tough she is or make us feel sorry for her. Mostly, it's about the ordinary experiences of life in prison, about staying sane as you do your time, and, most especially, about the surprisingly close and supportive relationships that develop between prisoners. It's also a quiet condemnation of aspects of the US criminal justice system. Kerman never gets up on a soapbox and rants, but she does make it clear how ill-served many of these women are by the system, which does little except teach people how to live as prisoners. Overall, it's an interesting and rather eye-opening read.
41. On the Surface of Things by Felice Frankel & George M. Whitesides
This book features lots of very close-up photographs of scientifically interesting things such as ice crystals, opals, drops of water, yeast cells, and various bits of micro-technology. Each photo is accompanied by a few paragraphs of text. The writing is rather poetic, and features some fairly good metaphors for various scientific concepts, but I have to say, I found it rather frustrating, as I would much rather have had a much more plain and clear explanation of exactly what I was looking at. It's definitely a "science for artistic types" kind of book, whereas I'm the kind of person who's more likely to need art books written for scientific types.
>3 bragan: reservations noted, but onto the library list. I remember being thrilled by electron microscopy back in the day.
The reservations might be mostly just me. I see the few other people on LT who have rated or reviewed it have rated it highly, and I can understand why, even if it wasn't quite what I wanted, personally. I should probably also note that the book is from 1997, so it's a little dated in places, although not too badly
42. The Grievers by Marc Schuster
Charley Schwartz is theoretically supposed to be a mature adult, but the best approximation he can manage is a job standing outside a bank wearing a giant dollar sign costume, a doctoral dissertation he never actually works on, and some dysfunctional friendships with people he met in prep school. When he learns that one of those fellow alumni has committed suicide, he takes it rather badly despite, or perhaps because of the fact that he never really knew the guy very well. Determined to do at least one decent thing with his life, he decides to set up a memorial fund to donate to the school in the dead man's name, but the whole thing ends up getting away from him and turning into something of a circus.
Despite the subject matter, this is actually humorous as much as it is anything else, and I was a bit impressed by its ability to combine some mildly goofy elements -- the dollar sign costume, the fact that Charley's alma mater's mascot is the Raging Donkeys, the ridiculous eccentricities of some of his friends -- with some very real-feeling characterization and emotional responses. True, the "no-longer-quite-young man has trouble learning to deal with adulthood" theme is almost a little over-familiar, plus some of the main character's emotional revelations aren't terribly subtle, and, at 175 pages, it's all maybe a bit slight. But on the whole, it worked for me. I laughed in most of the right places, I felt sympathy and understanding for the protagonist, and I felt at the end like it had said a few things worth saying.
(Note: This was an ER book from the March batch.)
43. Lord of the Flies by William Golding
Unlike large numbers of schoolchildren, I was never forced to read this book for class. But it's impossible not to know the story anyway, as it shows up in zillions of pop culture references, zillions of homages and parodies and works-inspired-by. Whether you've read it or not, you know what it's about, right? British schoolboys, stranded on a deserted island with no adults, slowly turn into murderous little barbarians, more or less. I always like to go back and visit the source material for these stories everybody knows, though. Often I get some interesting surprises.
So, I did finally get around to reading this, and I I'm honestly not sure what to make of it. I have to say, I didn't always get along with the writing style, for reasons I can't entirely put my finger on. The fact that I often had trouble telling which character was speaking is probably part of it, but I don't think it's just that. I don't know... Sometimes it was oddly compelling, and sometimes it was mildly annoying, and I have no explanation for either response.
It is a powerfully symbolic book. The author has something very definite to say about human nature and the fragile veneer that is civilization. Just about everything plays into that, directly or metaphorically, and there's some pretty effective imagery behind it. On the other hand, I can't help but think that it's all a bit too symbolic. I mean, there are places where it's practically jumping up and down shouting, "Look at my symbolism! Look at it! Do you get the idea yet?" And while everything the kids do in the story is plausible enough, if you're in a cynical mood, they seldom felt to me quite like real, living, breathing kids. I always felt a certain emotional distance from them, which is too bad. I can't help but think that the more real and visceral the events in this book might have felt, the more effectively disturbing they would have been.
I also don't fully agree with the novel's view of human nature. Yes, there's a lot of ugliness in human beings, and yes, I can imagine something like this happening, but thematically, it just all seems a little too simplistic. It's also pretty clearly informed by certain colonialist ideas about the nature of "civilization" and "savagery" that are problematic. "Savage" here means both "violent, selfish, irrational and amoral" and "one of those people who paint their faces, go half-naked, do tribal dances and chants, and have beliefs that look to us like superstition." The truth is, of course, that people in tribal societies are as capable of being as prosocial as anybody, and this particular notion of savagery, which William Golding's own culture liked to congratulate itself on having long since overcome, is largely a myth, anyway. And the more I think about that, the less the whole thing works for me, however eloquently it might strive to make its point.
So. Whatever I was hoping for from this book, I don't think I quite got it. But I am glad to have finally read it, and it certainly did get me thinking a bit.
Very interesting review - thanks. I did read it at school, which is probably a better environment for something heavily symbolic (if you see what I mean - then, I felt pleased that I was able to work out the symbols - now I might roll my eyes). Anyway, I thought your review was both thoughtful and thought-provoking.
Thanks! Actually, I'm entirely the opposite. As a kid, there was nothing I hated worse than being quizzed on the symbolism in a book, when all I wanted was a story. As an adult, I'm able to appreciate symbolism much more, but I'm also probably more able to recognize when it's done well and when it's a bit much. I'm sure I would have flat-out hated it if I'd been made to read it in school. Reading it now, even if I have issues with it, at least I kind of enjoyed the way it got me thinking about various things.
Excellent review of Lord of the Flies, which I have not read yet. Your thoughts on William Golding stance on tribal societies is very relevant to people reading the book today. If you cannot put Golding's ideas about native societies in the context of when the book was written then you are going to struggle to connect with it. This begs the question should you "make allowances" for his less than enlightened views?
My own approach is that I do, to get the most out of a piece of literature.
In many cases, I'm willing to make allowances, but in this case, I think there may very well be something about the mistaken civilized/tribal dichotomy he's using that fundamentally undermines the point he's trying to make. He's making a basic statement about human nature, and it seems to be predicated partially on wrong assumptions. That's a bit different, I think, than a novel that makes passing racist statements that the modern reader can shrug off with, "Well, that's the way they thought back then, and it's unfortunate, but I'll let it go and concentrate on what he's trying to say." In fact, there's not even anything in the book that's directly racist; he doesn't explicitly talk about tribal societies at all. But the imagery is very, very much there, and the basic premise can be summed up as, "There is basically no difference between brutal, lazy, cruel, irrational savages and nice, civilized English schoolboys. Remove the strictures of society, and the civilized people will be every bit as bad. Underneath, we're all animals, barely kept in check." Well, I'm happily willing to concede that there's no real difference, in terms of human nature, and that humans are, indeed, animals in the most literal sense, but what does it do to that premise when you realize that the tribal societies these kids instinctively start aping aren't actually that bad? Leaving the racism entirely aside, what it says to me is that human nature is a lot more complex and a lot more balanced than Golding is allowing for.
And, OK, I find I have a few more things to say about Lord of the Flies, because I keep finding myself comparing it to other things I've read/watched lately. And since they're in my brain, I figured I would get them out here. Thanks for bearing with me (or, of course, feel free to skip)!
First of all, I kept thinking about Orange is the New Black, the prison memoir I read just a few days ago, because the standard image I and probably most people have in our heads of prison society is that it's full of casual brutality barely kept in check, a place where people have to be tough to survive, where only the strict imposition of "civilized" rules keeps all hell from breaking loose and the prisoners from descending into an orgy of rape, beatings, thefts, drugs, and so on. And instead, what that book shows us is a world where, more often than not, the prisoners actually support and help and are kind to one another, and where the strictness of the rules often hinders that rather than helps. Of course, we're talking about a minimum-security prison here, so the inmates aren't exactly axe murderers. Plus, it's a women's prison, and gender differences very likely play a part there. But even so, I think my assumptions about prisoners were probably very similar to Golding's assumptions about "savages," and about human beings in general, and, what do you know, they're wrong.
I've also been re-watching old Twilight Zone episodes, and, coincidentally, while reading Lord of the Flies, I happened to watch "The Monsters are Due on Maple Street," a classic and disturbing tale about a quiet suburban street that needs only the slightest little push to devolve into paranoia, chaos and violence. And I think Rod Serling gets right what Golding gets wrong. The real dark side of tribal societies, which is also the dark side of all societies, no matter how much we might like to think otherwise, is that humans come with an intrinsic "us vs. them" mentality. People we think of as "us," we treat pretty well, but people who are "them" don't quite qualify as fully deserving of human decency, not the way "we" do. You can't eliminate that from human nature, I don't think. The best you can do is to redefine who counts as "us" as broadly as you can, hopefully to the point where every member of the human race has at least some degree of "us"-ness. And the Twilight Zone ep really plays on that, with the brutality happening when what used to be an "us" is broken into a whole lot of fractured "them"s. It's not that we're all cruel animals underneath and civilization masks that fact. It's that -- actual psychopaths aside -- we're all capable of, even disposed to, being kind and cooperative with our own and horrible to distrusted outsiders. (In the prison memoir, "us" was the prisoners and "them" was the guards and the prison officials, although, of course, the power to be horrible was all one-way in that scenario.) That's a bit different from the picture Golding paints (in the medium of warpaint on pre-teen faces).
Interesting thoughts bragan. I wholeheartedly agree with you on the them and us scenario's and the need we all feel to belong to something or other.
I can't comment further on Lord of the Flies until I have gotten round to reading it. I will try and do that sooner rather than later.
Don't feel compelled to read it on my account. I did find it interesting, but I'm not sure how much I'd actually recommend it.
Interesting stuff on Lord of the Flies. I'm actually not sure whether or not I read it. I did read a book with a theme that was either this or like this back in high school... In any case, I would like to explore Golding sometime.
I think there are a lot of works that play with similar themes. Probably quite a few of them were influenced by Golding.
You expressed beautifully something more generally applicable than just to Golding--how past prejudices and systems of thought may not just repel superficially, but can compromise the very value of insight once believed to exist in a given work. It makes me wonder whether even fewer of the classics we know and were taught will survive much longer, than we think today. It's not that the values merely changed, and can therefore be salvaged using a proper lens. It's that what we (or generations before, and those before) thought was valuable, actually wasn't, at all.
A bit like how medieval bestiaries are useless zoologically, or nineteenth-century "female psychology" to psychology.
It is kind of an interesting question, isn't it? Certainly there's lots of great literature from the past where, if you maybe scrape off a superficial layer of bygone cultural attitudes, you find timeless universal truths underneath. But this certainly isn't the first time I've read something I thought was fundamentally predicated on a worldview that we're well rid of, or should be. Speaking of books set on desert islands, I remember being quite shocked by Robinson Crusoe, which seemed to regard it as the most proper and natural thing in the world for human beings to enslave other human beings. It's been a very long time since I read it, but I seem to remember it honestly being more about that than about the solo survival scenario we tend to associate with that story. I didn't find a whole lot of value there, either.
Yes--and I always insist on appreciating the style, the innovations, the invention, but in many cases there's no escaping the damning realisation that, well, not just this or that expression or idea sounds ugly, but that the observations were blind, the entire thinking corrupt.
I'd be afraid to reread Crusoe, it was one of my childhood faves (how he slowly put together a "civilised" life out of shipwrecked bits and pieces fascinated me endlessly, the concrete material stuff, collecting and making tools, building a hut, taming animals), and I know that everything that passed unnoticed then would mortify me and bug the life out of me now.
And then you think about how widely influential that story was, of generations upon generations having just the same attitudes to "Friday" as Crusoe (Defoe) and it's astonishing, what can exist in our minds without our awareness.
I love me a good survival story, but from what I remember Crusoe had it way too easy with all the supplies he got shipwrecked with. Then he really lost me when got around to, "People! Yippee! I shall rule them and make them work for me! Now, that's what I call civilization!" (OK, that's a rough paraphrase, I admit.) Also, he kept haranguing me about about submitting to God and obeying my parents, which is not something I enjoy.
You know, I'm kind of wondering now whether Lord of the Flies was deliberately meant to contrast with Crusoe and its ideas about tidy little social hierarchies being completely natural and civilization being easy for a determined individual to re-create from scratch. But I'd probably have to re-read Crusoe if I were going to take those thoughts any further, and I don't think I'm quite willing to do that.
44. Don't Panic: Douglas Adams & the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Neil Gaiman
An account of Douglas Adams' professional life, with an emphasis (of course) on the Hitchhiker's Guide series in its many and varied iterations. I wouldn't call this absolutely essential reading for the Douglas Adams fan; it's not exactly chock full of juicy details and surprising anecdotes. But it is a decent overview of Adams' career, with lots of quotes from the man himself, as well as from various other relevant folks. And it's a pleasant read, breezily and amusingly written, often with a deliberately Adams-esque sense of humor. It's also got some interesting odds and ends, including snippets of deleted scenes from the radio plays and TV show (although it's often rather obvious why they were cut) and several appendices, featuring such things as a plot-point-by-plot-point summary of the different versions of the story and some commentary by Adams on each of the characters.
Rating: a very slightly generous 4/5
Good old Douglas Adams! How I enjoyed listening to the first iteration of the Hitchhiker's Guide way back . . . when? Seventies? I think so. But at any rate, sad to say I've lost track since. Might be time for a relisten.
Back to your fascinating discussion of Lord of the Flies, when I read your review I thought, I really have to add that to the wish list because, like you, I had never gotten around to reading it. But after all the back and forth amongst you all, it is sounding more and more like an artifact to be read as a curiosity piece rather than a must read. So I'm back on the fence. I'm going to add it to the list and think about it. Excellent review, by the way!
The original radio plays were sometime in the late 70s. I'm not sure of the exact year of the first broadcast; the book wasn't terribly particular about dates. And Douglas Adams is always worth a revisit, I think. The books are infinitely re-readable, too. At least, the first couple certainly are.
"An artifact to be read as a curiosity piece rather than a must read" is, I'm afraid, pretty much how I felt about Lord of the Flies before I read it, and it's pretty much still how I feel about it now. Not that it doesn't have features I can appreciate on their own merits, or that I'm sorry I read it. But I don't actually think it's a great novel. Thought-provoking, apparently, yes. But not great.
You know, I'd been debating whether I should watch that. I'm not sure I really need to experience that particular story again, but I can't help thinking that a movie version could be interesting, and possibly even do some things better than the book. I was reading the reviews on Netflix, but they're very conflicted. Half of them seem to agree with you, and half of them seem to think the film was boring and the acting bad. Maybe I will have to watch it and judge for myself.
45. The Lateral Logician by Paul Sloane & Des MacHale
A collection of puzzles that are meant to be solved by "lateral thinking" -- that is, by questioning your natural assumptions and coming at things from a different angle.
There are really three different kinds of puzzle here. First, there are straightforward riddles or logical puzzles, where you can figure out the answer just from the information given in the question and the common knowledge in your own head, either by careful reasoning or by chewing it over until insight suddenly dawns. For me, these were far and away the most fun. While a few were familiar, there were plenty I hadn't seen before, and some of them were quite clever and entertaining and made for great exercise for the brain. (Here's one for you: "The day before yesterday Freda was 17. Next year she will be 20. How can this be so?")
A few were really more trivia questions than anything, with answers that probably you either know or you don't, and which I imagine most of us would be unlikely to be able to guess. (Example: What was the first man-made object to exceed the speed of sound?)
The majority, though, describe some odd, unlikely, or even seemingly impossible scenario and require you to figure out the explanation or the backstory. (E.g.: A man is lying dead in a field, with an unopened package next to him. What happened?) The authors recommend approaching these as a group activity, where one person knows the answer and the others get to ask yes or no questions until they figure it out. Not having a willing group of people around, I didn't get the full effect of these, I'm afraid, and the clues provided for those of us playing on our own were often either useless or too much of a giveaway, and were seldom the questions I wanted answered, anyway. I'm sure it is more entertaining to do it properly, but, well, I do actually remember doing a couple of them that way in college, thanks to a housemate who must have either had a copy of this book or one much like it. And my recollection is that it was fun for a little while, then quickly got frustrating, and that the answers, when revealed, provoked less of an "Aha!" reaction and something more along the lines of, "How the hell were we ever supposed to get that?" A lot of the answers in this collection -- not all of them, by any means, but a lot -- elicited a similar reaction from me. And several, frankly, seemed like cheats even when you're expecting a sneaky answer. Still, some of them were moderately nifty and reasonably guessable.
This volume, by the way, is actually a compilation of three books: Lateral Thinking Puzzlers, Challenging Lateral Thinking Puzzles and Great Lateral Thinking Puzzles. I'd say the first one was the best. By the time they got to the third volume, the authors seemed to be running out of creative ideas; half the puzzles in it are little more than re-purposed urban legends.
46. Matched by Ally Condie
A YA novel set in a future in which every aspect of people's lives -- including who they marry, where they work, and even when they die -- is carefully and scientifically controlled. But when young Cassia is Matched with her carefully calculated ideal marriage partner, something apparently goes wrong. She's shown images of not one boy, but two, both of whom she knows. She's quickly assured that the extra Match is a mistake, but after that, she can't help seeing the boy in question differently. And, slowly, she begins to perceive her own supposedly perfect society differently, as well.
I'm really surprised by just how much I liked this book. My only complaint, initially, was that the writing style was overly simplistic, as if written for readers much younger than its apparent target audience. But it quickly won me over, because there's something about the sparseness of the prose that's actually quite appropriate for such an inexperienced character living in such a pared-down and tightly constrained society. And the story is definitely not simplistic. I very much appreciate the fact that the culture it describes doesn't, on the surface, look all that bad. You can absolutely understand why people believe in it, which just makes its subtle evils all the more effectively disturbing. The world-building in general is good, too. There are a few small details that I have a little trouble believing in as directions any society could actually go in, but there are surprisingly few of them, and even those make sense in emotional terms, if not necessarily logical ones.
I don't think Condie is going to win any awards for originality. Arguably, she's jumping on the Hunger Games bandwagon here, but mostly this reminded me very, very strongly of Lois Lowry's The Giver. This one works for me, though, in all kinds of ways that The Giver didn't.
I absolutely must get my hands on a copy of the second book in this series soon.
A number of nice recent reviews. I'm impressed with the diversity of your books - a very eclectic mishmash.
Oooh, Matched sounds really interesting. I'll have to keep an eye out for that one.
Sorry to skip back, but that was a great discussion of The Lord of the Flies. Very thoughtful and thought-provoking.
>31 avaland:: Thank you. I was a little surprised how much it got my brain going, even though I can't really say I liked it all that much. I guess that's why it's considered a good book to make kids read in school: lots of room for discussion.
(And, hey, no need to apologize for "skipping back." I think being able to do things like that is one of the great advantages of communicating on the internet. :))
>32 janepriceestrada:: If you or anybody else here does give Matched a go, I'll be interested to see what you think. I notice the reviews here on LT are a little more mixed, so clearly not everybody liked it as much as I did, but it definitely is a book I'd recommend to people who like that sort of thing.
47. 100 Fiendish Little Frightmares edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg & Martin H. Greenberg.
This is an anthology of very short horror stories. Most are about five or six pages, with a few even shorter than that. They span several decades, from the 1920s to the late 1990s, when the collection was published, so there's a fair variety of styles. Despite the title, most of these are really not particularly frightening. A surprising number seem to just describe some random, not necessarily horrific, encounter with the supernatural -- often involving ghosts -- and are, at most, vaguely creepy in their intimation that the world is full of strange and unexplained things. Many of the best of them are interesting mainly because they feature some clever Twilight Zone-style twist that, despite the dark subject matter, I often found myself thinking of as "cute."
They're decent stories, generally speaking. Out of all one hundred of them, there were probably only a handful that I really disliked, which isn't bad, especially since horror tends to be something of a hit-and-miss genre for me. On the other hand, there weren't many more than a handful that I thought were especially memorable and effective, either. Which unfortunately means that it adds up to a mildly unsatisfying whole. It's all perfectly readable, but it lacks, well, punch. And if there's one thing very short horror stories should have, it's punch.
I will admit, though, that the fact that I tended to read these in large gulps probably didn't help much. I'd recommend spreading them out, otherwise you run the risk of becoming jaded, and at some point you'll likely find yourself going, "Yeah, yeah, something horrific is going to happen now. I bet I can guess what it is. Yup, I was right. Well... on to the next one." And that doesn't do anybody any favors.
I actually own that book, Bragan, which I picked up on a sale table a hundred years ago and have forgotten about it. Thanks for the reminder!
I got my copy at a library sale, and it took me a couple of years to get around to reading it. :)
Sounds like a good story-a-night book, or one to read a story or two in between other books.
Yes, I think it would be good for that. And would last quite a while that way, too.
48. Carl Sagan: A Life in the Cosmos by William Poundstone
This is Carl Sagan: astronomer, planetary scientist, writer, political activist, popularizer of science for the public, and the driving force that led lots of 80s kids, including me, to decide that astronomy looked so awesome they wanted to do it, too. (Me, I never got beyond a bachelor's degree and a job as scientific support staff, but I'm not blaming Sagan for that. Well, OK, maybe I am, but I forgive him.)
This biography covers both Sagan's personal and professional life, but the emphasis is definitely on the latter, making it a pretty good read for those who are interested in the idea of searching for life in the solar system and beyond. Among other things, it features a very detailed description of the 1970s Viking mission to Mars and the complicated tests it used to attempt to detect life in the soil. (Although it wasn't until 2008, well after the book's publication, that the strange and inconsistent results from those tests were finally properly explained.)
Sagan was something of a controversial figure, and Poundstone does a very good job of dealing with that in an even-handed way. He certainly makes no attempt to whitewash the man. The character flaws that people who knew him agreed on are presented pretty frankly, but his positive qualities are also very much acknowledged and respected. And where there was disagreement -- and there was a lot of disagreement -- both his critics and his admirers are allowed to offer their own perspectives. The result is a portrait of a very human guy.
My one complaint is that the book is a little choppy, being divided up into short -- usually 1-3 page -- segments that sometimes follow on naturally from one to another and sometimes don't. I sort of get the impression that the author couldn't be bothered coming up with any decent segues. Definitely worth reading, though, for those of us on whom Sagan had an impact. You know who you are.
49. I Love It When You Talk Retro: Hoochie Coochie, Double Whammy, Drop a Dime, and the Forgotten Origins of American Speech by Ralph Keyes
A surprising number of the words and phrases that we use every day are actually allusions to once-current events, people, pop culture, or technology, and many more of them originated as sports references, military terms, movie-making lingo, or other kinds of specialized language. Some of them have been used so often and for so long that they're now just part of the way we talk, long after we've forgotten what they originally referred to.
I Love It When You Talk Retro explores these expressions, with examples from various categories (names-turned-words, literary references, allusions to politics, etc., etc.) and short explanations of where they came from and how they entered our speech. Some seem very obvious, others interestingly obscure, but, as the author points out, which ones you think are common knowledge and which are new to you will vary from person to person, and depends a lot on exactly when you were born.
I've read a few other books lately that have dealt with similar topics, but I think this is far and away the best of them, or at least the most entertaining. That's largely because Keyes doesn't take a condescending "Here's some allusions you should be aware of if you want to be culturally literate" tone. He also doesn't organize things in a dictionary or encyclopedia format. Instead, he just takes a pleasant ramble through the history of American speech, and invites the reader along for the ride. And it's kind of fascinating, not least because it highlights the fact that so much of what we say can't be understood just by knowing what all the individual words mean, but is steeped thoroughly in our culture and history in ways that we don't necessarily even realize. It's also fun to speculate on what references or catchphrases that are current today will still be in use ten or twenty or fifty years from now, something Keyes indulges in a little bit in the final chapter.
It's hardly a comprehensive collection of "retroterms," but for language lovers, it's a pleasant and often informative read.
That looks great. I watch a lot of old movies, and as a kid I had access to stashes of comics from the forties and fifties, so the old time lingo is very much alive in my ears. Sixties are distinctive too, maybe even seventies, but eighties? Any discussion of the eighties? Some words, like yuppie (is that even current anymore?), but no phrases I can think of. Oh, if you can see Ball of fire with Barbara Stanwyck and Gary Cooper, slang is central to the story, and very funny!
Just yesterday I was eavesdropping--well, involuntarily hearing a very loud one-way cell phone convo in a almost empty streetcar--on a thirtyish woman (heartbreak story, she had to sit through a dinner with the jerk and his new gf, who's one of her students) counting the "likes", "and he's like", "and I'm like" and noting other phrases, "how brutal was that?" which I hear as language of the 2010s.
End of nineties I heard a teenager saying "...and I'm like, what's your damage?"--it's not said anymore, is it, "what's his damage"?
>40 bragan:: I wondered whether I should include some examples (although the subtitle features a couple of them). Well, for instance, he has a whole sidebar on the use of -gate as a suffix for any scandal. (And apparently there are young people out there who have no idea where it comes from originally). Other politics-related terms include "gerrymander," "stump speech," and "whistle-stop campaign," all of which have very definite origins.
For another set of examples, there's an entire chapter about references from TV shows (mostly pretty early ones), from "peanut gallery" as popularized by The Howdy Doody Show, to "get out of Dodge" (which I didn't realize was traceable back to a particular Western), to the way that people still reference Lucy and Ethel and their out-of-control conveyer belt of chocolates.
>41 janepriceestrada:: As I recall, the 80s were all about Valley Girl speak and featured lots of surfer lingo. Totally tubular, man! Gag me with a spoon! A lot of that has mercifully faded away, but I do believe that distinct traces of it linger. I'm trying to think what expressions from the book date back to the 80s. I'm sure there were a fair number of them. Let's see, there's "Where's the beef?" and "New Coke" (which is still used as a reference point for very bad ideas), or "Chernobyl" (used to describe any potential nuclear disaster and maybe a few non-nuclear ones, to boot), or "going postal," which originated after a series of postal shootings in the 80s.
I'm not sure I've heard "What's your damage" for a while, either. Probably that's not one that's going to survive.
By the way, speaking of "like," I've heard it convincingly argued that it's a bad idea to dismiss it as simply a lazy or substandard speech element, because the way it's used these days, it can actually convey a very useful shade of meaning. "So, he said..." generally means that what follows is something close to a direct quote, but, "So, he was like..." tends to signal a broad paraphrase. I find this sort of thing fascinating. I wouldn't be entirely surprised if, a hundred years from now, using "said" and "was like" aren't considered a perfectly standard way of making that distinction.
Oh, and just to add one more thing to this discussion: I'm particularly interested by the way that obsolete technology lingers on in language, often in ways that are almost invisible until you stop to think about them. Like the way we "dial" phones by pushing buttons (or virtual buttons!), and "hang up" afterward, even when there's no longer anything that's physically being hung on anything else. And how many teenagers today really have any idea what "like a broken record" actually means? Or used to mean...
#39 - my family still do 'billions and billions' and 'starstuff' imitations of (or, rather, homages to) Sagan. I saw 'Cosmos' as a kid and loved visits to a local observatory in no small part due to him.
#40, et al - I, too, love the sound of that book. I've read a couple magazine articles about the differences between dictionaries - ones that more readily accept new developments in language vs stronger traditionalists. I agree that it is interesting to learn about word origins and look at words and phrases that survive pop culture to make their way into accepted usage in the longer term (and those that don't), long past when we necessarily think about the origin anymore. The TV game show 'Countdown' in the UK features Dictionary Corner with Susie Dent in which she explores a word or phrase origin. Fun stuff.
Re the Carl Sagan bio, that really sounds interesting. I was always fascinated by him and loved Cosmos. This is going on my wish list. This is yet another book I would not have known about but for reading about it here in Club Read.
Nice review of I Love It When You Talk Retro, and an even better discussion about these retro terms. I'll definitely be on the lookout for it; thanks!
>45 ljbwell:: What's funny is that Sagan never actually said "Billions and Billions" (although he did use the word "billions" often enough). For a while, he actually got pretty miffed at people expecting him to say that all the time, but apparently he eventually developed at least a little bit of a sense of humor about it.
>46 Poquette:: There is apparently another Sagan bio out there, too, which I haven't read, but from what I've seen, general consensus is that this is definitely the better of the two.
>47 kidzdoc:: Always happy to add to other people's wishlists! Since other people do so much adding to mine. :)
#44 I tell my daughter all the time that she sound like a broken record, and then that she probably doesn't know what I'm talking about. Usually, she responds by repeating herself over and over again in exaggerated fashion, point made...
>49 dchaikin:: Heh. Of course, knowing what the phrase means and having an actual point of reference for the metaphor are two different things.
50. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
This is the story of two closet intellectuals: a fifty-four-year old concierge at some sort of luxury apartment complex in Paris, and the 12-year-old daughter of one of the wealthy tenants. Both are intelligent and given to philosophical musings; much of the book consists of their somewhat rambling thoughts about such topics as art, the class system, and the meaning of life (or the lack thereof), as well as their decidedly cynical observations of the people around them. Both, however, attempt to hide their inner lives from others as much as possible, until a new tenant moves in, brings them together, and begins to help bring them out of themselves.
This seems to be kind of a love-it-or-hate it book, and I was very curious to see which side I would end up on, but I think the answer is neither. Or maybe both. I don't know. It's hard to know what I think about this book. I started out feeling that the philosophical stuff was mildly interesting, even (or perhaps especially) when I wanted to argue with it, and that the writing had a certain odd charm, but absolutely hating the characters. They struck me as cowardly, wallowing in their own intellectual superiority while lacking the courage to do anything but rigidly conform to what they believe others expect of them. Worse, they both have that particular kind of arrogant intellectual attitude that assumes that everyone but them is a blind, shallow sheep of a human being walking uselessly through life with closed eyes and a brain full of nothing but meaningless banalities. Which, I am ashamed to admit, reminds me a bit of myself when I was, oh, about the age of the kid in this story. Eventually, though, I came to understand how ugly that attitude was, how lacking in any kind of perspective or empathy.... And, of course, the character flaws we've overcome in ourselves are often the ones we find least tolerable in other people. So, yeah, I hated these characters. At first. Near the end, though, I found myself warming to them quite a bit, as they began to change slowly under the influence of the new tenant, Monsieur Ozu, a man quite capable of being intelligent without being arrogant and sophisticated without being pretentious, a man who genuinely does not care what French society might think of him or his choice of friends. And I started to feel reassured by the idea that the author didn't exactly disagree with me about the two main characters and their flaws, that she was doing something much more interesting than using them as mouthpieces for her own ideas, and I began to think, you know, maybe this is a pretty good book after all. Maybe I'm starting to really feel something for these people. Maybe I like where this is going.... And then the incredibly cheap-feeling ending came along and annoyed the crap out of me.
So, yeah. I can say that I found this an interesting enough reading experience that I don't regret spending the time on it, but as to whether I liked it or not... Meh.
I love this review. It almost makes me feel like I've read the book myself!!
Totally agree with your review of The elegance of the Hedgehog which I read earlier this year.
Paloma was insufferable and I felt sorry for her sister Colombe who was just being a teenager. Having to put up with such a younger sister must be a nightmare.
The ending was cowardly. At the end of the day I found the novel disappointing.
It's not that I didn't have any sympathy for the kid. I can identify with her better than with the sister, to be honest. But that doesn't mean she wasn't obnoxious, in the way that only a kid who thinks their opinion is the most important thing in the universe can be.
And the ending... I really, really hope the message it seems to be sending isn't the one the author intended, but it pissed me off in more ways than one.
#53 - exactly!
I really liked what you said about "that particular kind of arrogant intellectual attitude that assumes that everyone but them is a blind, shallow sheep of a human being walking uselessly through life with closed eyes and a brain full of nothing but meaningless banalities." I know a few people like this.... including one who keeps recommending Hedgehog to me! - ha, wonder why.
>56 wandering_star:: Ha! I am going to very carefully try not to pass any blanket judgments on people who really liked the book, but I find that very, very amusing, anyway. :)
51. Planetary Vol. 3: Leaving the 20th Century by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday
Volume three of the collected Planetary comic series, set in a world whose secret history is shaped by vast conspiracies, bizarre events, and weird technologies. Plot-wise, this one feels like a bit of connective tissue between the revelations of the previous volume and what will no doubt be an interesting finale in the next one, with bits of backstory being filled in and our heroes working against nemeses who are, for the moment, largely unseen. But even so, it's still a wild ride. I'm still not sure exactly what the hell is going on, but, what the heck, it's fun just holding on and enjoying the view. Hey, there's monsters, famous literary characters, superpowers, creation myths, weird science, alternate dimensions, kung fu, lost jungle cities and Victorian spaceships. Stir all that stuff together and how can the result not be fun?
I'm reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog now, although I'm not very far into it. I do agree that they are tremendously pretentious characters.
Yeah, I think that's probably putting it mildly. :) I'll be interested to see what you have to say about it when you're done!
52. Planetary Vol. 4: Spacetime Archaeology by Warren Ellis & John Cassaday
The fourth and final collection of Planetary comics. I was really astonished by what a satisfying wrap-up this is. Everything finally comes together and... Well, to say that it makes sense is to completely misunderstand the nature of the exercise, but it does all hang together surprisingly well. One major point does get resolved so suddenly that I couldn't avoid a bit of a "Wait, that was it?" reaction, but even that kind of works in context, and everything around it made me happy enough that I wouldn't be particularly inclined to complain, anyway. Also, there's beautiful artwork, nifty plot twists, inventive science fictional environments, freaky drug trips, weird (but based-on-real-science!) physics, fun flashes of humor, still more bizarre twists on familiar stories, and, through it all, the exhilarating sense that there is a profound and wonderful strangeness lying just below the surface of the world, ready to break through at every opportunity. I'm so glad I stuck with this series, after a slightly uncertain start.
I haven't read anything else by him, but I just went and looked to see what he'd done. The one on euphemisms looks interesting
53. Plastic: A Toxic Love Story by Susan Freinkel
An in-depth, but very readable look at plastics, and both their wonderful properties and their worrying ones. Each chapter starts with a particular plastic object that serves as a jumping-off point to discuss various relevant topics, and although this makes for a rather loose structure, it works very well. The chapter centered on a Frisbee, for example, takes us to the plant where the toys are produced and leads into a general exploration of plastics manufacturing. A soda bottle left out for curbside collection starts up a complex discussion about plastics recycling and also the creation of new "biodegradable" plastics. A plastic IV bag demonstrates the life-saving medical applications of plastic, but also brings up the problem of potentially dangerous chemical contamination from plastics, both in hospitals and elsewhere. And so on.
It's all much more interesting than you might expect a book about plastics to be, in part because it brings up some very important environmental, economic, and public health issues, and in part because it's just incredibly eye-opening to take a closer look at this stuff that we tend to take completely for granted, stuff that's had a much bigger impact on our lives and our society than we realize. When you take a careful look around you, it's truly astonishing how all-pervasive plastics are in the modern world, and even more astonishing when you consider the fact that the substances didn't even exist until a couple of generations ago.
My one complaint about the book is the lack of illustrations. The chapter centering on plastic chairs, which talks about how designers work with plastic, desperately needed some pictures. I ended up having to look up images of the various chairs she was describing on the internet, just to be able to get any sense of the kinds of designs she was talking about, and there are a few other places in the book that could have benefited from a well-chosen illustration or two, as well. But, all in all, that's a minor (if somewhat annoying) flaw in a highly worthwhile book.
The Planetary series sounds really interesting - I'll have to keep those in mind!
The Elegance of the Hedgehog is one I picked up once from the library and by the time I had to return it I'd only gotten about 30 pages in. It just didn't grab me. Keep meaning to go back to it, but not rushing...
Very nice review of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story; I'll add it to my wish list.
Catching up here after finishing The Elegance of the Hedgehog -- I also thought it was okay. Long in the first half, manipulative near the end with all the "warm liquid eyes" (paraphrased; but it did make me sympathetic) instead of earning character change, and yes a cheap ending.
The Plastics book sounds good. I was fascinated by the author of The Toaster Project planning how to make it from propylene gas in a pressure cooker.
>65 ljbwell:: Planetary is wild and weird and probably not for everybody, but if that sounds up your alley, I'd say its well worth a look. Hedgehog, on the other hand... Well, I do think it gets more interesting after the first 30 pages, but that may be about all I'm prepared to say for it.
>66 kidzdoc:: Always glad to add to other people's wishlists the way they add to mine!
>67 detailmuse:: I don't even remember the phrase "warm liquid eyes," somehow, but, yeah, even if the book does manage to elicit a bit of sympathy, however briefly, I agree that it doesn't really earn much of what it's doing. And I could rant about the ending all day.
Speaking of wishlists, The Toaster Project is already on mine. I saw the author's TED talk and found the whole idea fascinating.
Plastics sound like a bottomless subject. The books sounds interesting.
They probably are. I imagine she could have made the book twice as long if she wanted to. (Not that it feels incomplete, just that everything involves plastics.)
54. Hippo Eats Dwarf: A Field Guide to Hoaxes and Other B.S. by Alex Boese
You really shouldn't believe everything you read, and Alex Boese has lots and lots of examples of the reasons why not. Most of what he talks about here are things you're likely to encounter on the internet: hoax websites, photoshopped pictures, e-mail scams, bizarre rumors, and so on, although he also does also include sections on things like political lies, shady business dealings, and "reality" TV. Often he'll present a number of odd little stories on a particular topic, sorting out which are true and which are false.
Since this was published in 2006, it feels a little... Well, not dated, exactly, but certainly not up-to-date. After all, six years is a long time on the internet. Still, a lot of these same fakes and urban legends and things are still very much with us; it's not like Nigerian princes in need of your bank account information are ever going to disappear. Regardless, I wouldn't recommend this as a comprehensive guide to to what real and what's not. It's a little too random for that, and not quite serious or thorough enough. If that's what you're looking for, you're much better off visiting snopes.com. But it is entertaining to browse through, and it might cause you to think twice about the next slightly-too-weird news story you come across.
Do you know Martin Gardner's Fads and fallacies? It's focus is science, and it's not recent, but as object lessons in scepticism go, it probably has more staying power.
55. By Light Alone by Adam Roberts
It's a century or so into the future, and human society has been profoundly changed by the widespread use of some kind of nanotechnology that allows people to get all the energy they need from sunlight, thanks to a photosynthetic process that takes place in their hair. Now, the rich ostentatiously shave their heads and make a point of consuming expensive real food, while the poor no longer make enough money even to eat, since eating is no longer strictly necessary.
Adam Roberts' writing is very good, in a creative, rather literary sort of way, and he has a fairly deft touch with the world-building, which is all the more impressive since his characters, especially the arrogantly apathetic rich characters, are themselves often painfully clueless about the world they're living in. I'm not entirely sure things would develop quite as he describes them, given his premise, but he sells the idea pretty well and uses it to say some pointed things about gulfs between the haves and the have-nots of the world. It's arguable that this political focus gets a bit... Well, I won't say it's heavy-handed, because that would do it an injustice, but I will say that the book's statement maybe has more substance than its story. I'm also not sure quite how satisfying I found the ending. That having been said, though, I did find it an interesting and a well worthwhile read. This is the first book I've read by this author, but I'll definitely be interested in seeking out some of his other stuff.
#75 - interesting premise. That would put a downer on rainy days and make deserts a frenetic paradise...
Indeed! Which is probably why a fair amount of the book takes place in a sunny Middle Eastern locale. Although people still need water, so the desert, while attractive, isn't quite as paradisaical as one might hope, especially when you finally get to the lake and find out that it's been fenced off for the enjoyment of the rich.
56. Wastelands: Stories of the Apocalypse edited by John Joseph Adams
An anthology of apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic short stories. As is usually the case with anthologies, I found some of these more satisfying than others, although all of them were well-written. A surprising number of them have only very lightly sketched-out apocalyptic settings, which was sometimes disappointing, and several left me wondering quite what the point was supposed to be. But the best of them are wonderfully original and memorable, making the book as a whole feel well worth my time.
"The People of Sand and Slag" by Paolo Bacigalipi. This one, which features indestructible people living happily in a toxic landscape, seriously got under my skin. I found it incredibly depressing and bleak, mostly because the characters have only the faintest inkling of what they've lost, and no idea of how depressing and bleak it is.
"When Sysadmins Ruled the Earth" by Cory Doctorow, about a group of computer nerds keeping the internet up while the rest of the world is collapsing, was admittedly a bit ridiculous, but it entertained me greatly with its geekiness.
"Judgment Passed" by Jerry Oltion introduces us to a small group of people, mostly agnostics, who have apparently missed the Christian Rapture by not being on the planet at the time. Religious folks might be justifiably annoyed at this one, but atheistic me couldn't help enjoying it.
"Speech Sounds" by Octavia Butler. In this story, the civilization-destroying plague robs people of the power of speech, making it probably the most creatively horrific doomsday scenario in the collection.
And "The End of the World As We Know It" by Dale Bailey. This one is a sort of meta-end-of-the-world story that skillfully reminds us that the world is always ending for somebody.
57. The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson
A look at ten elegant and important experiments in the history of science, from Galileo measuring the force of gravity by rolling balls down inclined planes to Robert Millikan determining the charge of an electron by observing the movements of tiny electrically charged drops of oil. In each chapter, the author describes not just the experiment itself, but other related experiments, the context of prevailing scientific belief at the time, and a few interesting facts about the researchers' lives. And yet, for me, it somehow still feels like we're only being offered a tiny, incomplete glimpse of the subject at hand. It's a very short book -- 180 pages for a prologue, an afterword, and all ten experiments -- and maybe it's just not possible to do full justice to entire fields of science in that amount of space. Still, the book does a fairly good job of demonstrating the way that science works at its best, how one beautifully designed experiment can reveal something new and profound about how the universe works, and the process by which reasonable but wrong assumptions about the world are reluctantly but inevitably replaced with a better understanding.
One word of warning, though. These experiments may be scientifically beautiful, but some of them are viscerally disturbing. It's very difficult to read about William Harvey examining the beating hearts of (temporarily) still-living animals, or Isaac Newton poking needles into his own eye sockets without wincing.
Rating: A perhaps somewhat stingy 3.5/5
That sounds like that had the potential to be a really interesting book and I think I would be left wanting for more. The whole Newton and the eye socket thing made me gag. I will not be wikiepdiaing it!
It was interesting, and I was left wanting more.
Newton did not, apparently, do any damage to his eyeball, but gaaaaah! Just thinking about it freaks me out. I guess I am just insufficiently devoted to science. :)
>75 bragan: Glad you liked the Adam Roberts. Between Dukedom and I, we've read all of them, I think. I tried to read the recent New Model Army—the premise is interesting—but the whole battlefield thing just hasn't been something I have wanted to read lately, so it languishes around as partially read. The idea, I think, is that the army is a purely democratic entity...and it has echoes in the organization of the Occupy movement (which was going on at the time I was reading it).
>81 bragan: hmm. interesting...
All caught up now! (At least on this thread.) I found all of your comments on Lord of the Flies very interesting. I wasn't forced to read it in school, either, but I tried anyway. I gave up pretty quickly because I didn't like his view of human nature. I've been thinking of giving it another go...with a mind which has hopefully become more open through the years. I still don't think I'll like it, though, so maybe I'm not more open. ;)
I also hated being quizzed on symbolism when I was in school. My complaint was that we were forced to memorize a list of symbols (I always refused to memorize ANYTHING, because even when I was a child I thought memorization was stupid--that didn't go well for my times tables in math!). I remember being really angry at my 10th grade lit teacher for asking us what the "cushion" symbolized in Ethan Frome. Since I didn't memorize the list, I answered with the symbolism of THE WRONG CUSHION. And of course, I got the question wrong. :) Personally, I feel that by asking kids to memorize a list of symbols and regurgitate them for a test, the teachers are depleting the symbols of meaning. They're like symbolic vampires!
>84 avaland:: That does sound like a really interesting premise, but I can totally understand not being in the mood for it. I am thinking I should try Yellow Blue Tibia sometime soon. It's been on my wishlist for quite a while, because I remember hearing good things about it.
>85 The_Hibernator:: I like to think I'm open-minded, but I can't say I liked Lord of the Flies, either, so, hey, you'd be in good company. :)
And, man, I thought the way we were taught books was bad. There was an awful lot of guessing what the teacher thought something met and then successfully feeding it back to her, but at least we were never asked to memorize any freaking lists. I sometimes wonder whether high school English classes could possibly do any more damage to kids' appreciation for reading and for good literature if they tried. I have a friend I went to high school with who says that even now he feels uncomfortable really talking about or analyzing a book, because it brings back memories of being quizzed and graded and looked at disapprovingly for having the wrong opinions.
My own annoying memory of Ethan Frome, by the way, was the teacher using it to point out how the author had used paradoxes to create a certain literary effect. The example she used was a reference to "the cold fires of Orion," which she had some lame and uninteresting analysis of. We were then told to split into groups and find some other examples to discuss. Which I guess wasn't a horrible exercise. But astronomy-nerd me felt the need to immediately point out that the teacher had missed something interesting about the descriptions of stars as "cold fires," which is that stars are actually very, very hot, but we don't feel that heat because they're very far away, and that actually seemed like a really great metaphor for the characters in the book. Each one burning with their own interior life, but so distant from each other, they never really feel any warmth from one another. Something like that. I was quite proud of it. And, of course, the other members of my little group glared at me and said, "She already told us what that one means!" I gave up in despair, and we moved on. So much for being taught to think.
58. Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino
Ostensibly, this consists of a series of conversations between Marco Polo and Kublai Khan in which Polo describes to the Khan the cities he's encountered in his travels. But the descriptions are all abstract, dreamlike, metaphorical, and strange. There are cities that are not the same city when you arrive as when you leave, cities with mirror images that exist above or below or inside themselves, cities whose histories are endlessly cyclical, cities that are built entirely of symbols, or memories or desires. These descriptions aren't about cities as concrete objects so much as they are about the idea of cities, about human perceptions, about... Well, it's hard to always know exactly what they're about. Often the meaning is obscure, which can be slightly frustrating, but is also rather wonderful: this feels very much like the kind of book you can come back to over and over and always find some new insight in it.
Rating: How do you even rate something like this? Call it 4/5.
I read Invisible Cities a few weeks ago, and it is probably my favorite book of the year so far.
It's kind of a fascinating book. I really do think it's the sort of thing that needs to be read more than once.
The_Hibernator > 85,
Ohh, symbolic vampires! Paging China Mieville...
bragan > 81,
Does he cover the Stern-Gerlach experiment, or does he stop at Millikan?
>90 dukedom_enough:: He stops at Millikan. (Which may seem like kind of an early point at which to stop, but he points out that modern science -- or at least, the kind of experiments that get at fundamental facts about nature -- often tends to involve massive, high-tech equipment and large teams of researchers, and thus lack the kind of elegant simplicity he's looking for.) He then adds an afterword, in which he admits that the list is kind of an arbitrary one, and that different people could come up with any number of entirely different lists. Personally, I suspect that Galileo, at least, would make it onto all of them, but other than that, well...
59. Reckoning Infinity by John E. Stith
An SF novel about a group of people investigating a strange object that's entered the solar system, which might be a ship, or might be an organism, or might be both. But things get dangerous very quickly, and once they're in, it turns out not to be nearly as easy getting back out again.
It's a decent enough example of this particular kind of SF novel. My biggest complaint about it is that the exploration isn't nearly as exciting and sense-of-wonder-infused as it really should be. There are some fairly suspenseful moments where the crew's survival is in danger, but far too much of the story involves crawling through endless, featureless tunnels, and while the artifact is interesting in an abstract kind of way, significant revelations about it are few and far between. I do, however, like the way the author pays attention to scientific details, particularly the realities of moving around in low gravity, without resorting to lots of clunky exposition or narrative-stopping physics lectures. And although the characterization is far from perfect -- one character who should be immediately sympathetic, for instance, comes across as far too self-pitying, and another who might be obnoxious in an entertaining way instead becomes annoyingly one-note -- at least there is a sincere attempt at characterization and everybody acts reasonably human, something that is by no means guaranteed in a hard SF story.
60. I Am a Pole (And So Can You!) by Stephen Colbert
A while back, The Colbert Report did a terrific two-part interview with Maurice Sendak, in which Sendak was crusty and snarky and tell-it-like-it-is in all the best possible ways. It was utterly hilarious and gave me a new appreciation and respect for Sendak, and, in the wake of his recent death, it's also a little poignant to look back on. At the end of the interview, Colbert decides he needs to break into this lucrative kids' book market, and reads Sendak his newly written tale of a pole trying to decide what kind of pole he ought to be. Sendak's memorable response is, "The sad thing is, I like it." I did, too, so I had to pick up the book version.
This is, of course, a tale written by Colbert's over-the-top, flag-worshiping, ultra-conservative TV personality, and contains at least a little of his sly, satirical, adult-oriented humor. And yet, it's also a cute and mostly innocuous story about a pole, and I wouldn't necessarily have a problem giving it to a kid who hadn't yet fully grasped the concept of satire, assuming I didn't mind them asking me what a stripper pole is and was around to explain one or two of the jokes (and probably why you shouldn't actually talk like Colbert at his most faux-clueless). The illustrations are rather charming, too.
I do suspect that only big Colbert fans are going to want this one. But if you're a big Colbert fan, come on, you know you want it.
>93 bragan: - Yup, I'm going to get that one next time I'm at the bookstore. I not only buy the books that he writes, I also donate money when he tells me to and vote for him in various competitions. Nice review - the first one!
Truly, you are a Hero.
And, yeah, I was surprised that I got the first review in on that one! I feel special. :)
Well, you are definitely a Hero as I think Hero status is automatically granted when you buy the book.
The Sendak interview was really wonderful - I laughed out loud. After he died, NPR was playing some old interviews with him and they were interesting and hilarious also.
Great to see you got to Stephen's book so quickly! And a great review as well. Hopefully, it will come out in South Africa sometime soon. We only started getting Comedy Central last year as a viewing option, but Stephen's built up quite a fan base over here already.
>96 DieFledermaus:: True, all it really takes for Hero status is giving him some money, surely.
I read Where the Wild Things are when I was very young, like most people, but hadn't given a lot of thought to Sendak since, and I'm regretting that now. He seems like he was a pretty great guy, and one with exactly the right attitude towards writing for kids. I definitely need to read some more of his stuff. I think I've already got In the Night Kitchen on my wishlist.
>97 dmsteyn:: Well, it was very short, so reading it right away let me tell myself I was making progress through the TBR pile without much actual effort. :)
I'm always a little surprised by the fact that Colbert seems to be pretty popular internationally, given how US-centric his humor is, but maybe I shouldn't be.
I think Stephen would give out Hero status to those who regularly watched his show though they might not be able to watch his Colbert Platinum segments.
I also thought I should read some more by Sendak after seeing the interviews. I'm planning to buy some of the books for my friend's daughter. Where the Wild Things Are is the only Sendak book I've read but he was on my radar because our ballet company would do his production of the Nutcracker every year.
The worldwide popularity of The Daily Show and Colbert Report is a bit surprising to me also. I think they both give all the background for their reports but a lot of times they'll reference American pop culture or politics for the jokes (I remember they got good use out of 'a series of tubes' and would repeat that without clarification). I suppose horrible politicians are something that everyone can laugh at.
Well, I think "a series of tubes" turned into an internet meme that spread well beyond the US, so that might not be one that actually needed any explication.
And, come to think of it, I have sometimes watched British stuff whose pop culture and current events references often went right over my head, but which still made me laugh when mocking their horrible politicians. That probably is entirely universal.
I notice the pole has Colbert's face! I more of a Stewart fan than Colbert, but when he is good he is very very good and when he is bad he is horrid. I appreciate what he's doing with the PAC. And the worldwide popularity of both shows also surprises me, because so much of the content is so specific. But I find Victor Pelevin funny, even if I don't completely understand the parts of Russian politics and culture he's skewering....
It does kind of have his face, doesn't it? You can tell by the eyebrows!
61. Lethal Warriors: When the New Band of Brothers Came Home by David Philipps
David Philipps examines the problems of PTSD, and the toll that it can take not just on soldiers returning to civilian life but also on the society they return to, by focusing on the disturbing stories of several infantrymen in one particular army battalion based in Colorado Springs. These guys saw some of the worst combat in Iraq, experiences that, as Philipps describes them, leave you wondering how anybody could have come out of them sane. Many of them participated in actions that anybody else would call war crimes, but which they learned to call "no big deal." And when they returned to the States, they had an anomalously high rate of violent crimes, including a number of horrifically senseless murders of both fellow soldiers and civilians.
Philipps talks in some depth about the combat, the crimes, and the toll that PTSD and related problems can take on the human psyche. He also discusses the distressing fact that the Army, while theoretically aware of and concerned about these issues, often did little or nothing to treat these people's problems, partly due to a lack of resources and partly due to a culture that discourages soldiers from reporting psychological problems and often punishes symptoms rather than treating them. (Although, as he reports in the final chapters, this is something that they are now at least to some extent attempting to fix.)
The one thing I was a little disappointed by was a lack of any real discussion about treatments for PTSD. I would have liked at least a little bit of a look at what kind of therapies have been used and how much evidence there is about whether they work or not. Maybe that's a bit beyond the scope of this book, but it does seem to me to be an important missing piece of the equation. That aside, though, it's very good. If "good" is quite the right word... It's a difficult, often very painful read. But whether you drive a car plastered with "Support Our Troops" bumper stickers or passionately believe they never should have been sent out to fight in the first place, it is, I think, far too easy to turn your head away and ignore the consequences when they come back. But reading this, it's impossible not feel that this is everybody's problem.
(Note: This was an ER book from the April batch.)
62. Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris
This small collection of humorous holiday-themed stories mixes personal anecdotes and fiction, and is written with David Sedaris' usual cynical, sardonic sense of humor. I expected to really like this one, because I remembered hearing Sedaris reading a couple of these pieces on This American Life and quite enjoying them. Unfortunately, it turned out that I'd actually already heard most of them there, and many of them weren't nearly as good the second time. Or maybe they're just funnier when Sedaris reads them.
The standout is "The SantaLand Diaries," about the day-to-day experience of working as a department store elf, which was, in fact, every bit as funny the second time (and was also a slightly longer version than the one I originally heard on the podcast, which was nice). Otherwise, well, the rest of it wasn't at all bad, but it generally didn't do more than raise a little smile here and there. And, while I'm normally in favor of a nice black comedy, I think a couple of them were a little too dark for my current mood. I really should have saved this book for Christmastime, when they might instead have made a nice counterpoint to all the annoying holiday cheer.
63. Crossed by Ally Condie
This is volume two in the YA series that started with Matched, in which a teenage girl discovers that her supposedly perfect society is very far from perfect, starting when her scientifically calculated arranged marriage match-up features a tiny but disconcerting technical hiccup.
I liked Matched a lot, but, unfortunately, I found this one disappointing by comparison. I think it suffers badly from second-book-in-a-trilogy syndrome, where the middle volume clearly exists mainly just to connect Part One with Part Three. In this case, it takes the protagonists half the book just to meet up with each other again, and then they spend the other half slowly traveling to a place that neither we nor they learn much of anything about, only to have the book end with dizzying abruptness when they finally get there.
And there's just not much here that's nearly as engaging as the first volume. Matched had two great strengths. One was the world-building, which showed us detailed, day-to-day life in a society that seemed pleasant on the surface, but was in fact oppressive, culturally impoverished, and full of small, mundane horrors. This installment takes us out onto the periphery of that society, which is potentially interesting, but it doesn't flesh its new settings out anywhere near as well, giving us a lot of tedious trekking through canyons instead. The second was the development of the character of Cassia as she slowly began to understand the darker aspects of her world and came to the realization that she could no longer be a complacent citizen of her society. By the time Crossed begins, though, that progression is pretty much done, and there's not really anywhere left to go in terms of character development, so she mostly just goes places physically instead. That's probably at least part of the reason why only half of this book in her POV, but I can't help but feel that the guy who makes up the other half was actually more interesting before we could see inside his head.
I also thought the romance angle was handled much less deftly in this one, with a lot more of the characters thinking about how in love they are and a lot less actual chemistry between them.
Despite all this, I will definitely be on board for volume three, but I'm really hoping that the story picks up significantly from here.
Rating: 3/5 (Although I'll admit that might be a half-star higher if I didn't have the first book to compare it to.)
a society that seemed pleasant on the surface, but was in fact oppressive, culturally impoverished, and full of small, mundane horrors.
How Canadian that sounds!
As far as I know, treatments of PTSD focus on symptoms such as anxiety, panic attacks, depression, memory deficits, and the medication and therapy aren't significantly different from that of non-PTSD patients with these conditions. No clue about "success" rates, but then, psych people never let on on that, do they?
I have long wondered about what is it that brought PTSD into such relief in our times. Could it be that 20th century warfare is more damaging to the brain than that of all the preceding times? Are soldiers today pre-stressed? And what happened with PTSD in WWII? One hears much about the "shell-shocked" veterans of WWI, but hardly anything, at least as far as combat is concerned (the camps, POW and other, are a different story), about PTSD of WWII. Supposedly the nature of trench warfare has something to do with it.
What about people who seek out violent situations, the mercenaries, soldiers for hire? Are they all maniacs? Can maniacs suffer from PTSD?
According to Does Stress Damage the Brain?: Understanding Trauma-Related Disorders from a Mind-Body Perspective, the more stress one receives, the easier it is to become stressed, the lower the threshold. It becomes so that anything can set off the stress response. And if your response included habitual use of violence, bullets and killings, there is no obvious reason nor perhaps mechanism to switch it off. Perhaps the mechanism has been irreparably broken.
The uniform turns everyone into a bully, combat turns bullies into killers, and our simple biology may not cope well with the niceties required to distinguish between state-sanctioned, honourable murder and the other kind.
How Canadian that sounds!
LOL! I think it was a bit worse than Canada. But it did generally seem to be a very polite society. :)
No clue about "success" rates, but then, psych people never let on on that, do they?
The unsuccessful ones certainly don't!
As for your questions on PTSD, they're all very good ones. Philipps actually addresses a lot of them. He says there is in fact quite a bit of PTSD in WWII veterans, you just don't hear about it as much. (And, of course, they didn't call it that then.) But the nature of the combat also has something to do with it. Vietnam and the current conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan are particularly bad, because they tend to involve a lot of surprise attacks and situations where it's difficult or impossible to tell innocent civilians from enemies, which means soldiers are constantly on edge even in apparently calm situations, and likely to get very trigger-happy, two things which are really not good traits to carry over into civilian life.
More than that, though, he says the difference is actually party due to technology. Better armor for soldiers and vehicles means that more injured soldiers survive (including soldiers with brain injuries, which is also not helpful for good mental health). Which is great news, but it does also mean more people who have to live with the experience afterward.
Philipps does also talk a bit about the effects of stress on the brain, although I'm sure not as much as the book you cited, which sounds interesting. But he does say more or less the same things you mention. He also talks about how some of these guys, for one reason or another, really weren't given any kind of transition between army life and civilian life, which surely must make the killing instincts even harder to turn off.
As for this:
Can maniacs suffer from PTSD?
What combat is likely to do to an actual psychopath, who knows? Philipps does talk about one guy who obviously had some kind of psychotic delusions even before he went into the army. It's really hard to say with people like that whether they would have become violent criminals anyway, or whether their combat experiences pushed them over the edge. Philipps' opinion is that it tends to make any violent predisposition might already be there worse. He talks about a study done by army epidemiologists in which they concluded that the higher violent crime rate in the battalion he was studying was not due to it having a greater number of soldiers from bad backgrounds or with histories of mental health problems or crime, which certainly does seem to indicate that it's what they went through in the army that made the difference.
64. This Is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper
Judd Foxman is not having a good time lately. First, he caught his wife in bed with his boss. Then his father died. Now he's been told that Dad, despite not being much of a believer or particularly big on Jewish tradition, expressed a dying wish for his family to sit shiva for him, meaning Judd now has to spend seven full days with his family, which might be more than any of their sanities can survive intact.
The basics of the story here feel fairly familiar. You've got a wacky dysfunctional family, complete with such standbys an over-sexualized, over-sharing mother, a ne'er-do-well younger brother, and several men so emotionally repressed they'd rather communicate by fighting than by talking. You've got various liaisons and breakups and marital infidelities. And you've got a protagonist who spends a heck of lot of time feeling sorry for himself about the state of his love life. But it all works surprisingly well, mainly because Tropper's writing is terrific. He has a real knack for coming up with exactly the right phrasing to bring out the humor or absurdity or emotional reality in the situations he's writing about, and the result is sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant and insightful, and occasionally all of those things at once.
I can't help comparing it to Nick Hornby's High Fidelity, which I read earlier this year. I know a lot of people found that one very funny and very relatable, but while I appreciated some aspects of it, it just didn't click for me very well. This one does for me all the things that I think High Fidelity was trying to do but didn't quite pull off.
This is the first novel by Tropper that I've read, but I'm thinking it probably shouldn't be the last.
Rating: 4.5/5 (Although if Crossed got cheated of a half-star because I couldn't help comparing it negatively with Matched, this one might get an extra one because I can't help comparing it favorably with High Fidelity. Such is the subjective nature of ratings.)
Fascinating discussion around the issues in the Phillipps book. (thanks!)
65. Hawaiian Folk Tales edited by Thomas G. Thrum
This collection of native Hawaiian myths and legends, ranging from tiny snippets of folklore to complex tales with rambling plots, was originally published in 1907. The stories themselves are generally interesting, sometimes just for the glimpses they give of Hawaiian culture (particularly the way in which Hawaiian folklore is intimately tied to specific places) and sometimes because they're pretty good stories in their own right, featuring the kinds of heroes and conflicts and random bits of supernatural intervention that can be found in legends all over the world. Unfortunately, many of them are not particularly well-told, and I couldn't help thinking that sometimes a little more context would be nice, for readers (like me) who have only a very vague familiarity with Hawaiian culture and history. Also unfortunate is the fact that it started off very much on the wrong foot for me; the first chapter, which is the only one to deal at all with Hawaiian creation myths, is entirely about parts of Hawaiian mythology that happen to have similarities to stories in the Old Testament, so it's pretty much just a collection of small, out-of-context pieces of stories that I'm willing to bet have been distorted at least a little bit to make for a better cross-cultural fit. The rest of the collection, at least, avoids doing any more of that. But, as the introduction points out, the stories have been edited somewhat so as not to offend Victorian sensibilities, which is annoying.
The blurb on the back cover of the edition I have suggests that this is "an excellent first introduction" to Hawaiian folk tales and mythology. I suppose one could do worse, since I do feel like I've come out of it knowing more about the subject than when I went in. But surely there must have been better examples published in the last century.
Catching up from last week. Lethal Warriors sounds intense, or at least the topic does. Interesting review, and related posts. Too bad about Hawaiian Folk Tales.
66. The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman
This is an SF novel set in a future in which people are infected by viruses that, among many other odd and interesting things, program their brains with all the cultural and factual information they're ever supposed to need. Which is perhaps useful, because it's also a future in which the human lifespan has been halved, thanks to a cure for cancer gone wrong and gone viral, and there's no time for that pesky little thing called childhood anymore. The story focuses on Milena, a young woman who is apparently immune to at least some of the viruses. She starts out as an actress, unhappily putting on virus-directed plays meant to exactly mimic the great performances of the past, then becomes a director herself, staging a massive holographic opera version of Dante's Divine Comedy, and finally ends up becoming... Well, I'm not sure I could tell you, even if I were willing to spoil the ending.
I have such complicated feelings about this book. When I try to articulate my thoughts on it, they're almost all positive. The prose is good, sometimes very good indeed. The main character is satisfyingly complex. It's full of all kinds of interesting and imaginative ideas and images, and there's a lot of subtle thematic stuff about creativity, and identity, and love, and freedom. It does get a little more mystical in the end than I'm generally comfortable with, but even that is interestingly done.
And yet, even though I appreciated almost everything the novel was doing, I still found myself constantly flipping ahead, counting the pages until the current chapter was finished and I could put it back down for a while. It wasn't that I didn't like it, just that it I felt a disconnected from it somehow. I think that has a lot to do with the writing style, which is often rather dreamlike, and tends to slide around through time in strange ways.
Rating: This one is almost impossible to rate, but I think I'll let the half of my brain that was impressed with it overrule the half that was impatient with it, and call it 4/5.
67. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
"Flow," as the author of this book defines it, is what happens when we experience the right kind of challenge in the right frame of mind so that our whole being focuses on what we're doing, and worry, distraction, self-consciousness, even our perception of time all disappear. He believes that it is this flow state that constitutes real and substantial happiness, the "optimal experience" of the subtitle.
This "flow" experience is a familiar one to me, but also mysterious and fascinating and very much worth investigating. But while most of what the author has to say about it here seems sensible enough, I think this is a rather flawed exploration of the subject. For one thing, he sometimes seems to define the concept of "flow" so broadly that its meaning becomes blurred. For another, I'm highly dubious about the idea of anything, however broadly defined, being presented as the one and only key to happiness. But the biggest problem, I think, is that the book doesn't really seem to know whether it wants to be a scientifically-based explanation of a particular aspect of psychology, or a philosophical consideration of what it is to live a meaningful life, or a sort of self-help volume meant to encourage readers to live more satisfying lives of their own. As a result, it's not terribly successful at being any of them, and far too much of it is taken up by somewhat repetitious examples of various areas in which people can find fulfilling challenges. I have a few other quibbles with it, as well, including a dislike for some of the terminology he uses, but those are comparatively minor.
So, kind of a disappointing read. And yet, it was still a fairly thought-provoking one, as I frequently found myself, especially in the earlier parts of the book, wanting to argue certain points, or coming up with my own examples of things, or pondering how our relationship to "flow" has changed in the 22 years since this book was published. (For instance, what does it mean that we're increasingly living in a world where not only are interruptions and intrusions increasingly unavoidable, but where failing to concentrate completely on any one thing (aka "multitasking") is regarded as a sort of virtue?) That's a good thing, at least, but it just makes me think that this could have been a lot better than it was.
As usual, I'm impressed with the eclecticism on display. I do like to read things about the science of happiness but I'll probably look for a different one from the Csikszentmihalyi.
I'm thrilled in the flow experience and have read so much that references Csikszentmihalyi; I look forward to reading him directly. This keeps bobbing up in my TBRs, I wasn't aware of its focus on happiness. I do believe that today's lack (specifically: avoidance) of boredom is the death of creativity.
>116 DieFledermaus:: There is definitely a reason why this thread is called "eclectic mishmash!" As for books on happiness, Stumbling on Happiness is good, if you haven't read that yet.
>117 detailmuse:: I'd read a few things referencing flow and Csikszentmihalyi's book, so I liked the idea of reading him directly, too. (Or so I recall, anyway. That book was sitting on Mount TBR for a very, very long time.) Unfortunately, it wasn't quite what I was hoping for, but I guess I'm not sorry that I read it, anyway.
He does talk about the fact that most people, as soon as they feel bored or want a distraction, just turn on the TV, which puts their brains into a sort of passive, uncreative idle. Personally, I think he's a little too dismissive of TV, and I can't help but wonder what he'd think of modern TV shows, a la Lost, which can be as much puzzle as drama and actually require a certain amount of active engagement. My own personal attitude has always been that if you think TV is a passive medium, you're watching it wrong, but I do seem to be unusual in that regard, and I can't deny that most people do seem to use it as a substitute for actual thinking.
68. Five Children and It by E. Nesbit
A classic children's story from 1902, about five children (or, really, four children and their baby brother) who encounter a slightly bad-tempered magical creature who can grant wishes at a rate of one a day, with the limitation that whatever is wished for inevitably disappears by sunset. Which turns out to be a good thing, as, of course, the kids keep accidentally wishing for entirely the wrong things, or wishing for things that seem like a good idea but turn out less than ideally. They end up missing dinner a lot.
This was a favorite of mine when I was young. Revisiting books you loved as a child is always a little worrying, as there's a real possibility of discovering that they're not as good as you thought they were, thus tinging your beloved childhood memories with disappointment. But I'm pleased to say that this is not one of those books. I found it utterly charming, and every bit as delightful as I did as a kid. I think back then, I was probably mostly taken with the cute fantasy story. Now, what I mostly appreciate is the humor, including a lot of extremely amusing authorial asides that clearly come from someone who remembers what it's like to be a child but also has an adult's perspective on kids. And both adult me and kid me can appreciate the way the book has a pleasant sort of quaintness to it, while at the same time being as breezily readable as any modern kid's story, although I'm sure the younger me wouldn't have thought of it in quite those terms.
69. The Crucible by Arthur Miller
Arthur Miller's classic McCarthy-era play about the Salem witch trials. I know I read this one in a high school English class, many years ago, but for me that was never a good context in which to read anything, and I think I forgot pretty much everything about it as soon as the quiz was over. I'm glad I finally got around to re-reading it, though. It's a good play, and one that captures very well the feel of a literal and figurative witch hunt. It does so in a way that's not terribly complex, perhaps, but I think the simplicity with which it tells the story actually makes it more effective.
One thing that didn't help its effectiveness, however, was the frequent interruptions of act one for a page or five of textual exposition about the characters, the historical context, and Miller's thoughts on the play's political relevance. Those were all interesting and well-written, taken on their own, but they stopped the drama dead. Plus, I can't help but feel as if they're kind of cheating, since an audience watching the play isn't going to have access to any of it. Fortunately, that didn't last past the first act, and after that, I was able to settle in and enjoy the story. If "enjoy" is quite the right word... It does get rather distressing by the end.
...if you think TV is a passive medium, you're watching it wrong... - a similar argument is made in Everything Bad Is Good For You which points out how much more complex TV shows have become now that they can be consumed multiple times via DVD/Tivo, discussed on online forums and so on.
I like your review of The Child Garden as I had a similar response to it - the bits that worked were brilliant but it wasn't always a book I wanted to pick up. Also loved Five Children and It as a child...
Yes, I've read Everything Bad Is Good For You, and I think Johnson is right. Personally, I've always been the kind of person who wants to watch worthwhile TV shows multiple times and discuss them with people. But technology these days makes that much easier, and television has changed because of it. Not that there aren't still plenty of stupid TV shows.
And I'm glad I'm not the only one who had that kind of a response to The Child Garden. I kept feeling like I should be more into it than I was.
>120 bragan: - I've only read Death of a Salesman by Miller, but this sounds very interesting.
>122 bragan: - I agree that there are great TV shows out now, but I think that, as with any cultural medium, you sometimes have to dig through a whole mountain of schlock to get to the gold. Interesting discussion.
>123 dmsteyn:: The only other Miller I've read was All My Sons, also in high school, which I actually remember being pretty moved by. (It helped, I'm sure, that we were allowed a choice of which plays to read that time, so I resented it less.) Possibly I should actually read Death of a Salesman sometime.
I seem to have accidentally hit on a pretty good way of weeding the quality from the schlock when it comes to TV: wait a decade or two, and then watch whatever people still remember fondly enough to recommend. And thus my Netflix queue is now full of 90s and early 00s TV
My first exposure to that play was seeing it live. Not a high quality production (might have been high school theatre!) but still breathtaking.
It does seem like it would be really worth seeing live. I kept imagining while reading it how a good actor could really bring some of it to life.
>126 bragan: - then don't bother with the Daniel Day Lewis/Winona Ryder film version. From what I recall, Ryder succeeds only in unintentionally employing many different accents in one film. An otherwise great cast is completely wasted. Awful, awful movie - and I loved the book.
70. The Discworld Companion by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Briggs
An encyclopedic guide to the people, places, things, and ideas depicted or mentioned in Terry Pratchett's Discworld books.
This kind of reference companion is generally useful for fans who want to win arguments with other fans, write their own fanfiction, or just spend a little extra time soaking in the details of their favorite fictional universe. This book is no exception; it seems pretty thoroughly researched, and several of the more significant entries actually have multi-page essays, to which Pratchett himself has apparently contributed. Or, rather, it would be no exception, if it weren't for the fact that it was published in 1997. (At least, the edition I have is from 1997. There do seem to have been earlier versions, but I don't know if there have been any later ones or not.) This is a problem, since 1997 was many, many Discworld novels ago, and the fact that this volume doesn't feature them means its value as a reference source is unfortunately limited.
It is, however, still fun to read through, mainly because, unlike other works of its kind, it's funny. Admittedly, much of the humor is undoubtedly lifted from the novels themselves, but since it had been so long since I'd read most of the books in question, it felt fresh and funny to me all over again. It also made me really want to go back and re-read those early Discworld stories, if only by reminding me how much of them I'd forgotten.
Rating: I'm calling this one 3.5/5, but if this were still 1997, it would easily be 4/5.
I think I have the same companion - is this the one with an interview between Pratchett and Briggs?
Yep, included at the end. I neglected to mention it in the review, but it was an entertaining interview, I thought.
71. Newton and the Counterfeiter by Thomas Levenson
Everyone knows about Sir Isaac Newton's great scientific discoveries, but few know about his later career as an official working for the English mint. He took the job at a time when the English economy was in a serious crisis. They were literally running out of money, due in large part to the fact that the silver in English coins could be melted down and sold for a profit in France where silver prices where higher, and a shocking number of the coins still left in circulation were in fact counterfeit. Part of Newton's job was to ferret out and prosecute counterfeiters, a job he apparently took very seriously. This book focuses largely on that part of his life, and particularly on his pursuit of an especially notorious and wily counterfeiter named William Chaloner. It's not an action-packed detective story, really, but that's fine. The background on Newton's life and career (or, rather, careers) and on the economic problems and criminal doings of the time is all extremely interesting. And Chaloner is an entertainingly audacious criminal, although the amusement value in watching him and Newton try to outmaneuver each other is mitigated a bit by the knowledge that counterfeiting carried the death penalty at the time.
All in all, this is a nicely written, interesting look at an odd little corner of history.
Newton continues to fascinate and this sounds, as you say, like an interesting look at an odd little corner of history. Apparently this was also an interest of Thomas Cromwell.
So glad E Nesbit, >119 bragan:, still holds up. I am often afraid to revisit childhood favourites, but when they still work, it is a delight.
The book also talks a bit about Newton's career as an alchemist, which I hadn't known very much about. Interesting stuff.
And It's rare that a book I loved in childhood holds up that well! Gold star to Ms. Nesbit. :)
Newton and the Counterfeiter sounds fun. Someday I need to find and read a good biography of Newton.
I'm thinking I'd like to read one, myself, or at least with a less specialized focus, but for the moment Newton and the Counterfeiter has satisfied me pretty well on that score.
72. The Void by Brett J. Talley
It's some indefinite time in the future, and humans have invented a warp drive that apparently works by ripping a hole in the fabric of space. But when that hole tears open, something looks out of it, something whose very nature would drive people insane if they weren't put into sleep for the duration of the jump. Even so, they're haunted by strange dreams, and some wake up crazy, anyway. Add in a spooky derelict spaceship, and you've got what seems like the recipe for a pretty cool SF/horror story.
Unfortunately, this book does not remotely live up to its promise. For one thing, there's a somewhat trite feel to the whole thing. There's bad guy monologs and disembodied screams. Some of the dream sequences read like the author went down a checklist of "things that are creepy" and included as many of them as possible. And the writing sometimes reads like he's trying to simulate what he thinks horror writing should be like, if that makes any sense. At one point, he actually uses the phrase "Plutonian shore." Now, all of that isn't necessarily a problem. A really good writer can breath fresh life into familiar elements, and turn self-aware, slightly pulpy writing into something fun. Unfortunately, Talley's writing just isn't that good. The style varies from okay but unexceptional to mildly annoying, and too often it just doesn't quite seem to be up to the kind of vividness that's necessary for really effective horror. Among other things, he's very, very fond of ending scenes with something along the lines of, "And then he saw something so horrible he almost couldn't suppress a scream." (That's a paraphrase, but a close enough one.) The first couple of times, that sort of works, but after a while, you start to realize that it's a poor substitute for actually describing something scary.
There's also a fair amount of characters sitting around telling each other things they already ought to know, which is a problem endemic in science fiction, I know, but which I have increasingly little patience with. And some of the science is painfully bad. (A tip for science fiction writers: Unless you're writing technically-oriented hard SF, in which case you'd really better know your stuff, it's fine to just say that your far-future spaceship has artificial gravity. You don't need to make up some nonsense about antimatter having anti-gravity -- a phrase I can't even type without wincing -- and that's even more true when it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot.) Most annoying of all, this book has clearly been edited very poorly or not at all. Especially in the earlier chapters, I kept tripping over the occasional awkwardly ungrammatical sentence, and the whole thing is littered with incorrect words substituted for their homophones. The last straw for me came when a character starts talking about "time dilution." I honestly don't know whether that's a typo or another example of scientific ignorance, but after that it was just impossible for me to take this thing seriously. Probably that's unfair, but there it is. I can't help it. (I should note, though, that it is within the realm of possibility that the review copy I got is an unedited version of a book that will get some editing later. But whenever I've received one of those in the past, the book has always been very clearly marked. Publishers really, really want to make sure you don't quote anything that might be changed later. This one had no indication of that, though, so I can only assume that this is the version that will be on sale to the public. God help us.)
I almost feel bad trashing this one so much -- almost -- because there actually is a fair amount of promise in it. It reads very much like a rough first draft of something that could end up being pretty decent. Send it back for a few rounds of revisions to improve the writing, smooth out the exposition, and maybe add some character touches; run it by someone with knowledge of the appropriate areas of physics; and hand it off to a good copy editor, and you could really have something.
Rating: 2/5, although if I'm wrong and it really is scheduled for some later editing, I might raise that to a 2.5. Maybe.
Note: This was an ER book from the May batch.
Newton and the Counterfeiter sounds like it would be a fun, slightly random book. Maybe Hollywood could do a big action flick of Newton vs counterfeiters. Isn't there something with Abraham Lincoln and vampires coming out?
I also found your review of The Void to be entertaining. Who is the publisher, by the way? Might want to avoid.
Just catching up here. There's always something interesting on your thread. I remember enjoying The Child Garden when I read it (back in the late 80s maybe?) but had little memory of it until your review refreshed it. I think dukedom is currently reading Ryman's latest collection of short fiction.
>120 bragan: Sounds like the "other" material in The Crucible should have been an afterword. The last time I saw the play was maybe a decade ago when my son was in high school - he was on the stage crew doing the lighting:-)
>140 DieFledermaus:: I think I'd watch a movie about Newton and counterfeiters! And, yeah, there's Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, which someone I know described as clearly a joke that had gone too far.
And the publisher in question is JournalStone, which might indeed be one to avoid in future.
>141 avaland:: I haven't read any other Ryman, although I've heard good things about some of his books, and may try him again.
I recently had an ER book that also felt like a first draft. The publisher had only ever published that one book, so I'm thinking that maybe I might refrain from requesting books from very small, new publishers.
Does the ease of self-publishing something that looks just like something from a mainstream, established publisher lead authors to publish things that should not have been, or that were not ready for publication?
That happened to me a while back, too. I think that occasionally people are indeed managing to sneak around the rule against self-published books by setting themselves up with a "publishing company" that only produces their one book. A little investigation that time made it pretty clear that the author was the only one involved. The fact that the "publisher" used her personal website was a bit of a giveaway.
Not that that seems to be the case for the book I got this time. I'm beginning to think that maybe printing a book is just too easy these days, though.
And I honestly think a lot of would-be authors just don't have a good sense of what's ready for prime time and what's not.
I guess it's reader-beware in the ER program.
I am reading the Ryman collection, but slowly, because his stories are too intense - can't read many in a short time.
>146 dukedom_enough:: Cool, I will check that out! (At some point, anyway. At the moment I'm on vacation and my internet access is annoyingly limited to my phone.)
73. Outlander by Diana Gabaldon
It's 1945, and Claire, a newly retired army nurse, is in the Highlands of Scotland attempting to enjoy a second honeymoon with the husband she's barely seen in the last six years. Instead, she takes a wrong turn through a magical stone circle and ends up being thrown back in time a couple of hundred years, where thanks to complicated set of circumstances, she finds herself taking up with a strapping young Highlander with a price on his head.
This book was recommended to me, if I recall rightly, as being a great romance novel for people who don't read romance novels. Well, hey, I thought, I'm someone who doesn't read romance novels! But I do like a good time travel story. Maybe I should check it out sometime. So I stuck in on my wishlist and mostly forgot about it until somebody went and bought me a copy. At which point, I felt obligated to read it, but couldn't help approaching it with a certain amount of trepidation, what with the whole not-reading-romance-novels thing. And at first, I was pleasantly surprised. It was effortlessly readable, the heroine was pleasantly down-to-earth, the romance seemed to be starting with a friendship in which the two people involved actually had things to talk to each other about, and the setting was reasonably interesting.
The more I read, though, the more I had to admit that this book has... issues. The passion between the two characters, once it develops, seems to be more presented to us as a given than convincingly shown, despite all the sex. And speaking of the sex, there's a moment or two in there that had me rolling my eyes and remembering some bad fanfiction I'd read. Also, Claire seems to experience remarkably little culture shock and to spend remarkably little time thinking much of anything about the bizarre nature of her situation, which is odd and makes things somewhat less realistic and interesting. The history and politics of the time are never as fleshed out as they could be, either, mostly just being there to keep the romantic action going and to set up situations for one of the two to rescue the other from. But strangely none of that seemed to present much of a barrier to my enjoyment. What was more of a problem was the book's overwhelming obsession with sexual assault. Seriously, there were stretches in here where the heroine seemed to be threatened with rape at least once a chapter. Hell, there were longish periods where that's all that seemed to happen. Threats of rape, jokes about rape, attempted rape, discussion of rape, over and over and over. Also, a spot or two of homosexual rape, I guess so the guys wouldn't be left out, and some no-means-yes, it's-a-good-thing-she-likes-it-because-he's-going-to-do-it-anyway borderline marital rape, which I think I was supposed to find sexy. Which... Um. Yeah. It's all simultaneously tediously repetitive and disturbing. And then, when it's not harping on rape, the book is way, way into descriptions of corporal punishment, from physically disciplining children (it's mostly pro), to flogging and torture (it's anti, but likes to watch a manly man take it), to getting turned on by beating your wife for disobedience.
And, geez, having just typed all that, I feel really embarrassed to admit that I didn't hate it. Honestly, it was pretty much the epitome of junk food literature. You know it's horribly unhealthy, and you can almost feel it giving you indigestion, but somehow it's still mindlessly pleasant and just so damned effortless to munch through. I'm sure it helped, too, that I read in on vacation, when junk food reading was exactly what I wanted.
Rating: 3.5/5. Although I'm almost ashamed of myself for rating it that high.
Don't feel guilty - nothing wrong with the occasional fun trashy read. Also, a ton of people on LT gave the book 5 stars. And reading it led to an extremely entertaining review - thumbed.
Thanks! I am generally not at all ashamed of fun, trashy reads, really. But there's something about this one that just seems to invite it. Or possibly induce it. It does seem to be a massively popular book, however. I'm not remotely sure what that says about me, it, or the tastes of the general reading public.
Maybe just the enormous length + relentless focus on rape? I could see how that might make it less of a fun, trashy read and more of a uncomfortable, trashy but addictive read.
Also - about the pro-corporal punishment stance - I read a romance series that a friend wanted me to read to we could discuss it (Sherrilyn Kenyon's Dark Hunter series) and I think that author liked to watch manly men get tortured as well. It also made them standoffish and tormented so that the heroines would have to fix them with their love.
Love your review. You've captured that love/hate relationship with fun trashy reads perfectly.
>151 DieFledermaus:: The length wasn't even a problem. It was a surprisingly quick read, really, and turned out to be just about the perfect length for my vacation. I started it the day before I left and finished it about thirty seconds before the wheels of my plane hit the tarmac on the return trip.
No, it was definitely the relentless focus on rape that makes me uncomfortable about enjoying it, mostly. It started out, the first couple of times, feeling like it was maybe an illustration of the brutality and sexism of the times. After a while, it began to seem more like a cheap plot device to put the heroine in danger. And as the incidents started to pile up (and up, and up), it just got creepy.
The standoffish tormented man who has to be fixed with a woman's love is a trope I'm very familiar with, even as a non-reader of genre romance. It often prompts large amounts of eye-rolling from me, but I admit that I'm not necessarily completely immune to it, if it's done right. Part of the problem here, perhaps, is that giant, super-macho, red-headed Scotsman are really not my type. And I've never seen the appeal in whips. So mostly I didn't particularly find the book sexy or affecting the way its fans seem to have, even if I did find it ridiculously readable for some reason. Now, if it were an intense little brainy guy being tortured in imaginative science fictional ways, I might have found that a little more intrinsically interesting. Which is probably more insight into my psyche than anybody actually wants. ;)
>152 SassyLassy:: Thanks!
It also made them standoffish and tormented so that the heroines would have to fix them with their love.
No doubt I'm weird, but such bunnies only make me want to torment them more.
Why are nice men so underestimated?
I agree with a lot of your assessment of Outlander. It was the first book I read this year and I was expecting fun, page-turning, "trash", but I was pretty disappointed. I also was pretty disturbed by all the violence, especially the violence between Jaime and Claire. I remember thinking that I hate when people equate passion with violence. That just doesn't work for me.
>154 LolaWalser:: I guess nice men aren't considered interesting enough, or something.
>155 japaul22:: I'm really glad I'm not the only one who feels that way about it. Its massive, massive popularity disconcerts me a little, and I say that as somebody who even sort of enjoyed it despite myself. Heck, one of the bookstores I was in over my vacation had a little note on the bookshelf next to it with a glowing recommendation from the staff. They described it as "smart." Which... really? So not the word I would have used.
And, yeah, I'm not a big fan of equating passion with violence, either. There's nothing wrong with liking it a little rough in the bedroom, mind you, but in my mind there's a line between games played by consenting adults and problematic violence, and the book blurs and crisscrosses that line in ways I'm not entirely comfortable with.
Outlander sounds appalling, glad it is not on my reading list. Come back Edgar Rice Burroughs all is forgiven.
I feel like I should feel way more appalled than I actually did, which is the thing that's really disturbing.
And, come to that, I do still have some Edgar Rice Burroughs on the TBR Pile...
74. Serenity: Better Days and Other Stories by Joss Whedon, et al.
The second collection of comics based on Firefly and its cinematic sequel, Serenity. This one consists of four short stories; the title tale is two issues long, and the others are all only one. Generally speaking, I found the plots unimpressive and the collection as a whole a bit uneven, but there's some great character moments and a fair amount of that always-fun Joss Whedon dialog. Far and away the best of the four is "Downtime," which has no plot at all, but just features the characters being themselves as the Serenity sits planetbound due to a snowstorm. Except for the last one, all of these are set sometime during (or maybe just after) the TV series. The last, "Float Out," is a little tribute to Wash, which is sweet, although I think I would have enjoyed it more if we'd seen more Wash and less of characters we don't really know or care about.
All in all, it's definitely better than the disappointing first installment, and probably worth a look, but it still really didn't scratch my itch for more Firefly very well.
I'm a bit late, but I got a kick out your Outlander review and the whole discussion following. Poor intense little brainy guy.
75. Blackout by Mira Grant
The third volume in Mira Grant's Newsflesh trilogy, about a group of New Media journalists in post-zombie apocalypse America. It's fun stuff, featuring massive conspiracies, mad science, strong-minded and smart-alecky characters, a bit of action, a hint of political commentary, and, of course, zombies. And, like the previous two volumes, for as thick a book it is, it's a remarkably fast read. All in all, an entertaining end to an entertaining series.
76. Semantic Antics: How and Why Words Change Meaning by Sol Steinmetz
This book presents us with a collection of English words whose meanings have changed over time, complete with explanations of where they originally came from, what they used to mean, and how they evolved to where they are now. Each word gets about three paragraphs, so it's not a terribly long and in-depth discussion, but it covers the basic ideas, and includes citations and examples.
Individually, I found a lot of these very interesting, and there were a few nice "aha, that's where that phrase comes from!" moments, as I realized that some usage or other that always seemed a bit odd to me has, in fact, merely preserved an obsolete sense of a word. But even though I consider myself something of a word-lover, and even though I generally only read through a few of entries at a time, after a while it all started to blur together and it became hard not to feel like I was reading the same thing over and over again. Still, as a whole, it illustrates some interesting general patterns in word evolution, including positive or neutral terms becoming negative, specific terms becoming general, literal meanings being lost in favor of metaphorical ones, and words from surprisingly diverse origins all ending up as disparaging terms for "a loose woman."
I did spot a couple of small mistakes here. In the entry on "browse," Steinmetz appears to be completely confused about what an internet browser is, and his contention that "the astronomical meaning of eccentric has only historical relevance today" would come as a surprise to modern astronomers, for whom the term is still entirely relevant. But those aren't exactly major problems.
Really far behind here at LT but caught up on your thread and enjoying your reviews as always.
Semantic Antics looks like fun, but how can anyone in this day and age be confused about a internet browser?
Yeah, I didn't quite get that, either, but he seems to be very confused about the difference between a browser and a search engine. I'm not sure how old Steinmetz is, but based on that error alone, I'm guessing he's really not of the internet generation.
77. The Martians Have Landed!: A History of Media-Driven Panics and Hoaxes by Robert E. Bartholomew and Benjamin Radford
This is a collection of short chapters/articles about various instances in which the mass media has created or contributed to misguided panic or widespread misinformation. It starts out with fictional broadcasts that people failed to realize were fictional, such as the famous War of the Worlds radio broadcast. (Fascinatingly, it turns out that radio adaptations of The War of the Worlds managed this feat three separate times, the last of which occurred in Quito, Ecuador, and resulted in an angry mob burning down the radio station after realizing they'd been taken in.) Then there are hoaxes, from the 19th century newspaper that reported that astronomers had discovered life on the moon in a (successful) attempt to boost ratings, to a modern radio DJ who staged his own kidnapping as a publicity stunt. There are cases of the media reporting wild rumors as facts, as in inaccurate reports of horrific crimes committed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, or serving as propagators of mass hysteria, as in a 1944 incident in which people in a small town in Indiana were convinced that some maniac was lurking around trying to gas people in their sleep. There are urban legends and conspiracy theories spread on the internet, including a global panic over a non-existent e-mail virus. And there are examples of ways in which the media sensationalizes, exaggerates and distorts real dangers all out of proportion, such as the "shark attack summer" of 2001, in which there were actually fewer shark attacks than average. (Hey, it was a slow summer for news.)
It's a little bit of a mixed bag. The early chapters feel somewhat repetitive; there are only so many accounts of people mistaking fictional broadcasts in faux-news formats for reality you can read before you find yourself muttering, "Yeah, I get the point, already." A few of the chapters, especially the urban legends, feel a little out of place, somehow. And some subjects are dealt with in a lot more depth than others; several of them could probably have used more examination than they got. But I do like the skeptical tone of the book, and think the general points they're making about the media are worth making. Some of the specific topics they address are important, too. Others are just really interesting. (I mean, come on! A phantom plague of scary clowns! How can you not love a story like that?) And,while I already knew most of the stuff covered in the section on fears the media has whipped up out of next-to-nothing, those who didn't may find it eye-opening to learn what the statistics really say about how much risk your kids are at from sexual predators or tainted Halloween candy.
I do feel compelled to point out that this book does seem to need some editing, as there were a few typos and slightly mangled sentences here and there, although I didn't find that as distracting here as I usually do. Well, except for the point where they were talking about "upholstering" a gun. That was pretty hilariously distracting.
Note: This was an ER book, from the January batch. Took it long enough to get here!
OK, with the first half of the year over, it is time for a new thread! It's not offering me the chance to make a continuation post this time -- does it have to be over 200 posts before that happens? -- but that's OK. I can do it myself. My new thread is here!
Fun reviews of interesting-sounding books (I know what you mean about wanting something to scratch the Firefly itch!).
>148 bragan:: reminds me of Clan of the Cave Bear - the sequels just started getting silly (especially looking back at them), but they were entertaining enough page turners.
>170 bragan:: upholstering one's gun - beautiful. Great potential - I'm picturing a whole exhibition or graphic arts display of upholstered weaponry.
A couple years ago, I read a steampunk book filled with zeppelins and other airship accoutrements. The author consistently referred to keeping them in a hanger, giving tours of the hanger, etc etc. Drove me batty, especially as 'hangar' shouldn't be a particularly novel word for that genre.
I gave up on the Clan of the Cave Bear books after the second one. I remember finding the first one interesting enough, but even by book two the silliness was starting to outweigh the entertainment value for me. But I think you're right, I think Outlander is aimed at the same audience and is probably meant to do pretty much the same kind of things for the reader.
Maybe the airship hangar was hanging from something? Yeah, I guess not. Lack of decent proofreading really can drive me buggy, too. Although it was interesting to note how much more it bugged me in The Void than in The Martians Have Landed!. I think maybe with non-fiction, as long as I understand what the sentence is meant to convey, I'm sort of OK, but with fiction it completely breaks the flow of the narrative and ruin my ability to forget I'm reading and just be part of the story.
This topic is not marked as primarily about any work, author or other topic.