Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Another set of excerpts from BzzAgent and Penguin. The only one I liked enough to talk about is Charlaine Harris's Grave Surprise, the second in a series starring Harper Connelly as a woman who can supernaturally find bodies, or if their location is known tell how the person died. I haven't read the first book, but I have enjoyed Harris's Southern Vampire series starring Sookie Stackhouse as a Louisiana waitress who has a lot of vampires and similarly supernatural creatures in her life. This series seems to be set in a more normal setting, meaning that Connelly is surrounded by people who may not believe in the supernatural (rather than the supernatural being accepted as it is in the other series) and closer to a sort of detective story, though most detectives can't actually sense when they have found a buried body. The excerpt I got (the first four chapters, 68 pages) definitely made me want to read the rest of the book and find out what happens, or what happened, since the book opens with the discovery of a modern body in a centuries-old cemetery where Connelly is giving a demonstration of her ability for a college class.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

I've been a fan of Lois McMaster Bujold since I read her book Barrayar serialized in Analog magazine in, I think, 1992. That was science fiction, of course (or it would not have been likely to be in that magazine) -- the story of Cordelia Naismith of Beta Colony dealing with her new husband Aral Vorkosigan's backward home planet of Barrayar and the harsh politics of the aristocracy she's married to.

Bujold's newest, Beguilement (The Sharing Knife, Volume 1) is a fantasy novel, but it has a lot of similarities to Barrayar. It is, essentially, the story of a man from one culture and a woman from another figuring one another and developing a relationship. Here, though, it is magic rather than technology that forms part of the difference between Dag, a patroller from the Lakewalkers, and Fawn, a girl from an ordinary farm in a medieval or Renaissance-equivalent world. The other difference is that the Lakewalkers are a mobile force that protects people against soul-sucking monsters, and the rumors about Lakewalkers among the rest of the population suggest that they're nearly as bad as the creatures they fight.

The comparison that actually came to my mind after finishing this novel was to Jean Auel's historical (or more accurately pre-historical) Earth Children's books, the series that started with Clan of the Cave Bear and continued with The Valley of Horses, The Mammoth Hunters, The Plains of Passage, and The Shelters of Stone (with one more eventually due). While Bujold is only supposed to make two volumes out of The Sharing Knife (and boy, is it obvious that the end of this first volume is far from the end of the story), the coming together of two people who originate in different cultures with deep distrust or even fear of each other is common to both authors' series. I found the views inside the main characters' heads to be very interesting as they figure out how to interact with each other and those who are close to their new friend, and Bujold's settings to be very well-thought-out and believable (so is Auel's, except for her tendency for Ayla and Jondalar to be the center of every new invention or advance in the entire prehistoric world, but then Auel has archeology to rely on while Bujold has to create everything). I will definitely read the sequel to Beguilement as soon as it is available.

A completely different kind of story is found in Julia Fox Garrison's memoir Don't Leave Me This Way: or When I Get Back on My Feet You'll Be Sorry, the story of the stroke she had at the age of 37 and the process of trying to get as much of a normal life back afterwards as possible. There are a lot of autobiographical books about recovering from physical problems, but this one has a black humor that isn't often seen in such "inspirational" stories. Nicknaming the professionals she deals with "Dr. Jerk" and "Nurse Doom," cursing at the aide who reprimands her for trying to get a drink of water during a transfer out of bed, and generally refusing to be treated like a child or an idiot, Ms. Garrison is much more how I would expect a normal human to act under the difficult circumstances of suddenly being half-paralyzed, and that makes her more interesting to read about than a saint who accepts every difficulty quietly. She makes jokes with family, friends, and hospital/rehab center staff and only cries in private, and so the doctors (and even one friend) feel she's in denial, rather than just trying to salvage a bit of dignity. This is difficult in a place where the start of menstruation makes the nurse get a diaper rather than a tampon. But Garrison is persistent and refuses to accept blanket predictions as to her future, and indeed is able to fight those of her doctors who want to push her into treatments for conditions she hasn't been shown to have. (And she and the one doctor who treats her like an adult turn out to be right, too.)

Coming home to her husband and preschooler son is not the end of difficulty, either. Her problems include dealing with a wheelchair, needing help in the bathroom in public places, not having her driver's license automatically revoked, and her husband having to be her caretaker ("The insurance company is unwilling to offer home nursing unless there is no other avenue for household needs. In other words, if you have relatives, you don't need a nurse.") Just making a bed is a major triumph. Getting more physical therapy than the doctors and insurance companies want to offer is a long battle. But she walks again, cooks again, and does nearly all the things that she was originally told she would never do again. Not everything -- eventually she accepts that she and her husband will not have any more children, for example. But her achievements make her an impressive example, and her advice at the end of the book on how to deal with medical professionals (and her open letter to doctors asking for patients to have an equal voice in the treatment of their own bodies) is a truly nice touch.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

Another set of excerpts from BzzAgent to review:
  • Maureen Dowd's Are Men Necessary? : When Sexes Collide

    The first chapter of the excerpt was not terribly interesting to me -- it just went on and on about the same thing over and over (how independent women are not finding relatonships with men). I've never been much for the mainstream dating scene. I find my fellow geeks are generally more interested in intelligent, talented women who understand geek conversation than in the stereotypical bimbo. (Of course, this may be because I select for a certain type in my friends and lovers pretty strongly myself.)

    The second chapter, painting the Bush administration and politicians in general as petty catfighters, was much more interesting and funnier. I like that kind of stereotype-breaking (and anything that makes fun of Republican politicians). If the book continues in a vein like that, I'd enjoy it. From just the two chapters, though, it seems like only a 50% chance that I would. I've gotta agree with the Amazon reviewer Kim Hughes' comment that "In the end, though, one wishes Are Men Necessary? went beyond simply grocery listing examples of sexual disparity to offer concrete suggestions for change."

  • Singing with the Top Down is set in the 1950s and told from the point of view of 13-year-old Pauly Mahoney, the self-designated worrier of her family and eseentially the caretaker of her younger brother Buddy, even before her parents are killed in a freak accident. The four-chapter excerpt only gets as far as the kids' finding out that they will be living with their Aunt Nora, who they've never met before their parents' funeral, and leaving Oklahoma for Nora's California home, but I am genuinely curious about how things go with two scared children and the family free spirit, who decides that the drive to California will be a camping trip to see the sights of the western U.S. and a chance for everyone to get to know one another. Pauly is a very believable voice, the child who has had to be the parent, and I really want to see how her new experiences will change her.
  • I've enjoyed John Hodgman on The Daily Show, but The Areas of My Expertise is the first time I've seen him in print. This almanac parody is definitely a book to enjoy on paper (tables printed in landscape orientation are difficult to read on a monitor where they are sideways). But I enjoyed the bits that were easier to read; I like this randomly wacky style of humor that takes the standard list of plot situations found in all fiction and adds an additional item: "Man vs. Cyborg." It's not for everyone, as the love-or-hate Amazon reviews indicate, but for the right audience it's really funny.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

I've read a lot of animal books, including several by veterinarians. However, Bradford Brown's While You're Here, Doc: Farmyard Adventures of a Maine Veterinarian is the first one to make me think, "I'm surprised the vet is still alive after all that." Brown's practice was in rural Maine in the 1950s and 1960s, meaning that first, a large number of his patients were farm animals, and second, the weather could cause major problems getting to and from the farms, and third, the roads were not necessarily up to ideal standards. This book is not for the faint of heart, because not only does it deal bluntly with the medical problems the animals encountered, but the damage done to Dr. Brown by stubborn patients, winter weather, and being in a hurry to get to the site of an emergency. It's kind of amazing that bruised ribs are the worst individual injury Dr. Brown mentions suffering, but he does point out that the general stress of the work caused him to retire early when his own doctors said he would probably not live to fifty if he didn't slow down. Despite all that difficulty, Dr. Brown really seems to have loved his work and the help he could give animals and their owners; the title comes from the many additional tasks he was asked to perform for other animals on the farm, or even the neighbors' farm, after having already made a call for some specific reason, and he seems to have retained a wry sense of humor about all those extras and all the other things that could happen. The book is full of entertaining characters, not all of them human, and gives an interesting look at farm life when it was still a family endeavor.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

More Penguin book excerpts from BzzAgent (who were cool enough to send me a full copy of Beneath A Marble Sky, which I liked best out of the last batch of excerpts).

The first one in this batch is Goodbye Lemon by Adam Davies. The excerpt was sort of horribly fascinating in its introduction to Jack Tennant, his two brothers, one of whom drowned in childhood, his mother, his father, from whom Jack is estranged, and Jack's girlfriend, who can't understand why Jack would even hesitate to go home (for the first time in 15 years) when the news arrives that Jack's father has had a stroke. A family this twisted is hard to look away from, like a train wreck. An Amazon reviewer comments that "You want to simultaneouly hug all of the characters and also shake them and kick them for their terrible decisions," and I agree. It's difficult to imagine what will happen in the rest of the book but I am kinda curious, though it might turn out to be the sort of book I have to put down because how stupid people are sometimes really gets to me.

I never read The Da Vinci Code (out of a sort of snobbishness that if so many people who aren't big readers liked it, I probably wouldn't, as well as a general lack of interest in Christian-oriented books). So I can't judge the comparison to that book that The Begotten: A Novel of the Gifted seems to invite. The BzzAgent site says that author Lisa T. Bergren wrote this The Begotten because of the "heretical 'truths' the author set forward" in The Da Vinci Code. I'm also not a Christian, so I can't vouch for heresy or lack of it, but a historical novel set in 14th-century Europe has to deal with Christianity to be accurate, and in the five chapters given in this excerpt I didn't find this book to be preaching to the reader. There are supernatural powers clearly related to the Christian God and Satan, though, so it's probably not a book for the sort of atheist who doesn't wish to read of something they'll consider fantasy. But as a fantasy novel, it seems pretty interesting.

I've also never been in a book club, and so my thoughts on The Book Club Companion: A Comprehensive Guide to the Reading Experience may not be the best quide. But I think this book would be a huge help to anyone wanting to start a book discussion group; it not only lists books and questions to prompt conversation on them, but issues like whether or not knitting during the group meeting is appropriate, and what to do about pets when meeting in a home they occupy, and it offers recipes for meeting foods and beverages. This wide range of suggestions and thought-provokers seems like just about everything a person would need to get a book club running and keep it going, rather than petering out as so many good intentions do.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

I've been visiting family for two weeks and I had a lot of time to read. I finished Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series. Well, all that were on my father's shelves -- he says he might have gotten High Five and Hot Six fron the library, but other than that he's got all from One for the Money to Twelve Sharp (and the Christmas special Visions of Sugar Plums). My dad recommended these after he saw me reading Carl Hiaasen's Skinny Dip, because the Plum books share some of the same wacky humor.

OK, these books aren't as wall-to-wall wacky as Hiaasen's work -- very few are. (Well, Tim Dorsey.) But the Plum series are interesting mysteries with fun characters. New Jersey native used to be a lingerie buyer, but she was laid off and needed a job. Since her cousin Vinnie runs a bail bond agency, Stephanie becomes a bond enforcement agent, also known as a bounty hunter, despite a lack of experience. Sometimes she's successful in tracking down people who didn't show up for their court dates, and other times she just gets violent criminals angry at her. And her mother makes the sign of the cross, her father buries his head in the newspaper, and her grandmother asks to come along (when her grandmother isn't trying to lift the lid at closed-casket funerals, that is). I couldn't put the books down, and as soon as I finished one I had to see what happened in the next volume, so I have to recommend these.

On the way home, I was reading a book I own, Norman Spinrad's 1969 science fiction novel Bug Jack Barron. As happens eventually to all all books set in the future, enough time has passed to make this into an alternate history. The book was apparently quite controversial when it came out, and still has its moments, but not all of them are the type of controversy Spinrad wanted to provoke. The political ramifications of belief that science can achieve immortality for people (and a way to involve the corpses of those who could afford to have themselves frozen) and the effect of the media on people's political opinions -- all are still quite fascinating. But then on page 143, the main female character, Sara, comes out with this inner monologue:

"Power's a man's bag, she realized. Any chick that digs power, really feels where it's at, almost always turns out to be some kind of dyke in the end. Power's somehow cock-connected; woman's hung-up on power, she's hung-up on not having a cock, understands power only if she's thinking like someone who does. Power's even got its own man-style time-sense; man can wait, scheme, plan years-ahead-guile-waiting games, accumulate power on the sly, then use it for good -- if the man's good deep inside like Jack -- like a good fuck good cat can bring a frigid chick along, cooling himself, holding back when he has to, until he's finally got her ready to come. Man kind of love, man kind of delayed-timing thinking, calculated quanta of emotion and only when the time's right, and not like woman needs to feel everything totally the moment it happens -- good, evil, love, hate, prick inside her."
If I had met Norman Spinrad right when I read this, I'd have thrown the book right in his face and wished it were a hardback copy. On the next page, when Jack is telling a friend that he and Sara have reunited, "The thrill of being owned by her fated man went through Sara as he goosed her off camera." What kind of fucking slave mentality is this? I want to smack Sara too. None of this is necessary to her character; she is an idealistic person who retained her belief in the Committee for Social Justice left-wing political party and other progressive causes as she grew into her 30s. She's just not believable as willing to put herself into a man's power, and it would be so easy to have made her more believable by not putting in these lapses into submissive, sexist claptrap. If only she were 'supportive' of Jack rather than "worshipful"!

The other problem this book for me is that I suspected the big denouement about the immortality treatment far before the characters did. Maybe I've just read too much other science fiction about life extension and immortality (particularly Robert Heinlein's Lazarus Long stories) and this made me able to guess something that 1969 fans (and the characters) might not think about. But for someone who makes a living asking awkward questions, Jack Barron seemed to miss some really important ones. However, the novel was gripping -- I read it in a day not only because I was sitting in one airport or another most of that day, since I had other books with me, but because the story, the world it's set in, and the characters were truly interesting, despite the problems I note above.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

These days, when we think of a "duel" in history, the vision is usually of two men settling some dispute of honor that could not be corrected by law. Indeed, over the years, dueling itself has been made illegal in many countries. So the idea of a duel being the result of a court case, instead of that case ending with a judge or jury's verdict, is somewhat of a surprise. Eric Jager's The Last Duel: A True Story of Crime, Scandal, and Trial by Combat in Medieval France tells the story of how in 1386, Jean de Carrouges went through legal channels to seek a trial by duel for his former friend, Jacques Le Gris, accused of raping Carrouges' wife Marguerite. It was thought that God would arrange the outcome of the duel, that only the side that was telling the truth could win (and obviously Jean de Carrouges had a lot of faith, as these duels were fights to the death, and if Carrouges lost, his wife would also be executed for making a false accusation).

This is a book that I could not put down. It combines the best parts of historical novels, non-fiction history books, and modern legal thrillers. Jager does extremely well in fleshing out the historical documents that are his sources into real people, while making it known what the records leave unclear. The politics surrounding these minor nobles and the legal system of the era are explained clearly without letting us lose sight of the individuals involved in the case and their real reactions, adding up to a truly fascinating story.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

So I'm a BzzAgent at BzzAgent.com, and they have a set-up with Penguin Publishing, where one can sign up to get excerpts from to-be-published/recently published books. It's not the same as reviewing an entire book, but it's still fascinating and gives me some ideas on what to pick up at the library and bookstore.

First Batch

Your Big Break by Johanna Edwards
This was definitely my favorite of the first four excerpts available. The first three chapters gave the setting -- a modern-day city as seen by a women who works for "Your Big Break, Inc.," a company which will send someone to do the work of breaking up with a formerly beloved person in your life for you -- as well as the first-person narrator, Dani, who is quite likeable despite (or perhaps as a necessity for) this line of work that she hasn't even told her parents about. I'm definitely going to have to see how this turns out.

Bitter Is The New Black: Confessions of a Condescending, Egomaniacal, Self-Centered Smartass, Or, Why You Should Never Carry A Prada Bag to the Unemployment Office by Jen Lancaster
This one didn't grab me as much. I just couldn't get into the narrator's snobbiness and self-centeredness, whether I thought it was fiction as I did at first, or later when I found out it was a memoir. But then, I have absolutely no interest in trendiness, expensive fashion, business ambitions, or any of the other things Jen talks about in the first 28 pages of the book. Even finding out more about her eventual downslide doesn't appeal to me -- but maybe it will be to people who are amused by her shallowness or enjoy the prospect of her getting her comeuppance.

A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel Pink
Business book. If it weren't talking about the workplace, it would probably interest me more, because I do like reading about how thinking works. Plus for some reason the available excerpt was chapters 3 and 4, so I was missing definitions of some of the terms Pink uses. While discussion of how design can influence not only business but history (the infamous "butterfly ballots" of the 2000 U.S. Presidential election in some Florida counties) is interesting, there wasn't enough of it in this sample for me to plan to run out and read the whole book.

I've managed to delete the PDF excerpt of the last book from the first batch, but I didn't like it either -- it seemed like someone trying to do the same old thing that's been going on for decades with a hardbitten private detective.

Second Batch

Everything Bad Is Good for You - Steven Johnson
That people will memorize reams of information or go through the most complex processes if they consider it fun, I already knew. Whether it was my friends' confused expressions as I tried to show them what I was doing with my knitting needles (or for that matter, explaining 30 years of Doctor Who plotlines), or listening to my younger siblings spout off which Pokemon evolved into which other Pokemon, or my own confusion when exposed to the sports my father follows, it's amazing how complicated fun things can be. So Johnson's opening discussion of the statistics and paper-shuffling of the baseball simulation games he played with dice and charts as a child and his argument that this sort of brain exercise is becoming more common in entertainment pursuits was not completely foreign.
However, Johnson takes it into a lot more detail than I had ever seen before. While he points out that reading books is still a good thing to encourage as a leisure activity, video games and other games such as Dungeons & Dragons-type role-playing games have many of the same benefits of encouraging patience and effort (do you know how LONG it can take to beat just one level of a video game?) as well as working out the decision-making functions, understanding very complex "worlds," and other things that are difficult to teach by traditional methods. "My [seven-year-old] nephew would be asleep in five seconds if you popped him down in an urban studies classroom, but somehow an hour of playing SimCity taught him that high tax rates in industrial areas can stifle development," he points out, and then goes into biological and mental reasons why this is so, unlike most arguments against games, which rely on simplistic "its violence sets a bad example" arguments. (After all, the military setting of chess is just as bad an example if you think about it, and yet chess is praised for the thinking it inspires rather than the content.) Johnson compares the type of thinking encouraged by these games to that needed for word problems in math classes, in that one has to extract the important information needed for the problem, discarding irrelevancies, and figure out what methods are needed to solve the problem. It's not the same things one gets from reading great literature, but that's what most anti-video-game arguments compare it to.
Television may not be great literature either, but Johnson points out that TV shows with complex multiple-threaded narratives have been on the rise, as have plots dealing complex social issues; neither was common in the "Golden Age" of television's early years. Those older shows were "simpler" in the sense of not dealing with difficult ethical issues and also in the way they told the story, not requiring you to remember small details or draw your own conclusions. (And, of course, only the best shows of the past are remembered.) Johnson lists many comparisons between older TV shows and newer ones, and then does the same with movies, though their running time limits the amount of complexity that can be shoved into a single film.
The "excerpt" I received was 136 pages long -- half the book, essentially, since Amazon lists it as being 256 pages total -- and I'm certainly curious to see what else Johnson has to say (since the excerpt covered the benefits of video games, TV, the Internet, and movies; I'm not sure what's left to visit!)

The Amazing Mackerel Pudding Plan: Classic Diet Recipe Cards from The 1970s - Wendy McClure
Well, the idea is not new -- I was looking at James Lileks' Gallery of Regrettable Food before a version of it came out in book form. But Wendy McClure's source for foods it's difficult to contemplate is a little more specific -- 1970s Weight Watchers recipe cards -- and recent, and just as amusingly offputting. McClure's site Candyboots has most of the same previews, so you can check them out and marvel that these were once published as serious food offerings.

Beneath a Marble Sky: A Novel of the Taj Mahal - John Shors
A historical novel, narrated by the daughter of the emperor of India who built the Taj Mahal. This is a place and time whose history I know only the vaguest outline of, so it's already of interest to me for educational purposes (even if it is a work of fiction, such novels provide a feeling for how things were, and a way to remember the names of important figures. And then the two chapters excerpted for BzzAgent readers definitely made me want to pick up the rest of the book, because we first meet Jahara in her old age, telling the story of her life to her granddaughters, and the information given there about how her life turns out differs so much from the setting of her childhood in the flashback that I really want to find out what happened in between.

California Demon: The Secret Life of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom - Julie Kenner
I'm far from the only one who thought of TV's "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" at the premise of these books (this is a sequel to Carpe Demon: Adventures of a Demon-Hunting Soccer Mom): an apparently ordinary woman hunts demons and has to keep it secret from most of the people around her. However, instead of a high-school/college student with just a mother to deal with like Buffy Summers, Kate Connors is a mother of a teenager and a toddler and even a husband with political ambitions. That's a lot more responsibilities to juggle, and the opening of California Demon (where Kate's volunteer time at a local nursing home is interrupted by staff arguing over whether a resident who was recently in a coma could possibly be recovered enough to go on an outing, and Kate's suspicions are aroused) gives a quick view of a busy life with even more people to fight for and reason to rid the world of evil forces than Buffy's. I'll probably have to recommend this to my stepmother, who already reads Charlaine Harris' Southern Vampire novels, Laurell K. Hamilton's Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter books, MaryJanice Davidson's Undead books, and Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files books (and whose copies of these books I have enjoyed as quick reads when I'm visiting).

Monday, May 01, 2006

I don't like large bugs. I see a cockroach, I yell for my boyfriend to come take care of it. So I'm still kinda surprised that I picked up Yvonne Baskin's Under Ground: How Creatures of Mud and Dirt Shape Our World at the library, given the big bettle on the front cover serving as the "O" in "Ground." But despite that slightly off-putting art, this is a really fascinating book. Certainly, I was vaguely aware before reading it that soil needed worms and bacteria to break down dead plant and animal matter that falls to the ground. However, there's a lot more to the process than that, and Baskin explains it in very understandable terms. There are a huge number of overlooked organisms that play a major role in any ecosystem -- and humans seem to be rather skilled at messing up the system by unthinkingly killing off those organisms. Clear-cutting forests and removing the leftover from the ground (with the intent of making it easier for seedling trees to grow) turns out to kill off the fungi that work with the trees' roots, making regrowth quite difficult. Fishing with nets that drag the bottom of continental shelves in the ocean can kill off mud shrimp, burrowing clams, and other organisms that not only hasten decomposition, but provide food for larger animals; hence bottom fishing may endanger the fish species not only by reducing their numbers directly but by reducing their available food supply.

Other parts of the book are just fascinating. Who thinks about tiny nematode worms in the soil of Antarctica? Some researches are not just finding them but comparing which species do best under which weather conditions. Who knew that ordinary earthworms aren't native to swaths of northern North America (but have been spread near fishing areas by people dumping their extra bait)? There are people who already knew these things; for everyone else, there's this book.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Just the first chapter of Jonathan Cott's On The Sea of Memory: A Journey from Forgetting to Remembering made me want to write about it. Cott is a wrinter who suffered from from clinical depression severe enough that he received 36 electroconvulsive therapy treatments -- and as a result, he lost his memories of fifteen years of his life, from 1985 to 2000. All those years of world events and personal experiences: gone. (And he is not alone -- electroshock treatment is still in use by psychotherapists who claim that memory loss from it is rare, but Cott assembles testimony from enough others in his situation that it seems to be something common enough to merit great consideration by anyone who might administer it or have it administered to them.)

What would I do if I lost years of memories? It's hard to imagine. I've always been a diarist -- even in 1985 when I was twelve -- so the bare facts of my personal experiences would be preserved for me to read. But waking up in a world still in the Cold War? And a time before I even knew how to type, much less spent hours daily online? (And now, I earn my living by typing, too.) It's also interesting to consider memory vs. skill -- that is, in the same way that some people who have brain damage making it difficult to speak can still sing easily, I would have assumed that what I think of as a muscle-training skill, like typing or knitting, would stay even when memory of events is gone. But one of the memory-loss victims Cott cites mentioned having forgotten how to weave, so I don't know.

The following chapters of On The Sea of Memory are discussions with memory experts of various types: a neurobiologist who made a discovery about the role of stress hormones in making traumatic memories; the author of a book on Alzheimer's disease; the author of a book on techniques of memory enhancement; a neuropsychiatrist/neurologist; the author of a book on the controversy of false memories, and experts on memory and the soul from several religions. It's all really fascinating, even though I personally don't accept all the perspectives given. I think it's rare to find a book that looks at the meaning and importance of memory from so many angles; an education for both those, like me, who are inclined to approach from the physical side, and for others who might come from a spiritual or other perspective. And it's also a great starting bibliography on the subject, as many of the people featured in individual chapters have written their own books on their approach to the subject. (I'm particularly interested in reading a copy of In The Shadow Of Memory, another account of a writer's memory loss (this time due to brain lesions).

Sunday, March 19, 2006

I'm not a Christian, but that doesn't mean I'm not interested in both the teachings of and the history of Christianity for their influence on history and current events. The various branches of Christianity seek to throw their weight around in American politics, law, and social life. I think every member of a Christian denomination that believes the Bible is the literal word of God should read Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus.

Ehrman was "born-again" at the age 15 and attended Moody Bible Institute after high school, then learned ancient Greek at Billy Graham's alma mater, Wheaton College. Then he went to Princeton Theological Seminary. No one could say he was not steeped in Christianity as a religion and not just an academic study. However, even though he started out in a faith that believes the Bible is the unerring, exact word of God, his book is about all the changes made by humans in the works that make up the New Testament in the nearly two thousand years since their composition, and the many, many variations that exist in the texts. In the ancient world of hand-copied manuscripts, copying errors abounded, as well as scribes thinking they were correcting errors but not necessarily knowing what the original said, and the manuscripts that still exist of these books disagree in many places. Some of those disagreements make quite a difference to Christian doctrine. Even if you believe that Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John were divinely inspired to to write down their biographies of Jesus, the Son of God, their four Gospels don't always agree with each other in what has come to be the accepted version of the Bible, which was put together in the late medieval/early Renaissance period from a limited number of manuscripts available to scholars at the time. Comparing all the conflicting ancient hand-written copies shows that the different verions can't possibly all be divinely inspired. (And that's before you even get into the difficulties of translation out of the original languages!)

The Bible is a human book, with human errors in two millennia of transmission. Every Christian should be aware of this before they base their opinions of modern situation on those words (and frequently on a single sentence!) in an ancient book. I'm not saying that there's nothing good in the Bible, but only that like any ancient story, it is not exactly what was originally written and should not be treated as if it were.

And now for something completely different:

I picked up Martha Stout's The Sociopath Next Door in the bookstore because I wanted to see if she related people who are conscienceless, sociopathic, to crimes such as child sexual abuse and other things, short of murder, that still evoke the question "How could anyone do that?" when you hear about them.

Instead, in reading the examination of these people who really aren't aware of and don't care about other people's feelings, I started thinking about a co-worker who left my workplace this past week. She had been found, first, to be lying to the boss about when she had college classes so that she could schedule herself three-day weekends, and second, when given the task of removing paper clip art from the master copies of newsletters and calendars that had already been printed, she been stuffing the bits of clip art into her pockets and throwing them away later, because it was too much trouble to put the pictures back on the correct storage boards to be re-used later. I was just flabbergasted when I found out about this -- she was not just slacking off at work, but actively sabotaging the company, which would have to recreate the clip art before the next time it was needed, taking a lot of employee time and effort.

I don't know if one could call my ex-co-worker a sociopath or anything even close, but this sabotaging the job that was paying her is what came to my mind as I read Stout's examples. And then Stout said that sociopaths often do things to get normal people to pity them, because people we pity are often allowed to get away with all sorts of behavior we wouldn't otherwise accept. And this reminded me that my co-worker was allowed by the bosses to give her two weeks' notice and work out those weeks, so she wouldn't be out in the cold with no money to pay her bills (and, I will admit, because the company was approaching its busiest time of the month and we could use her labor). But after giving the two weeks' notice on Monday, the bosses came in to work on Tuesday to find a message that she was just quitting rather than working out her two weeks -- leaving us short-handed during our busiest time. "Did she really hate the job that much?" I asked myself when I first heard. I couldn't think of why else she would have done any of this. But then, I feel guilty about possibly leaving them short-handed when I stay home sick. Have I too much conscience, or my former co-worker not enough?

Stout's delineation between sociopathy and narcissism, which can also be a mental disorder, particularly interested me. She says that narcissists can feel love and passion, but cannot understand how others feel (and thus might seek therapy to understand how they alienate others and end up alone) while sociopaths do not feel love -- if they miss someone who has left them, it is because they no longer have whatever services that person supplied. My own comparison is that for a sociopath, a person leaving them is like a bus route changing and no longer conveniently stopping by their home -- annoying, but not a matter of love and loss. Sociopaths, Stout says, fake feelings others if it will benefit them, but it is always an act. And up to 4% of Americans -- 1 out of every 25 people! -- may be like this! They aren't easily picked out of a crown, but Stout recommends a "rule of threes" to identify one in your life.

"One lie, one broken promise, or a single neglected responsibility may be a misunderstanding instead. Two may involve a serious mistake. But three lies says you're dealing with a liar, and deceit is the linchpin of conscienceless behavior. Cut your losses and get out as soon as you can."
As a rule of thumb (part of her 13 rules for dealing with sociopaths in everyday life), or just a "who to trust" rule even if you don't want to label all liars sociopaths, this is sound advice. I also particularly applaud another of her 13 rules, "Never agree, out of pity or for any other reason, to help a sociopath conceal his or her true character." This is probably because I apply it to my preoccupation, the area of child sexual abuse, where keeping silent merely places others at risk. The same applies to any other people who do things without regard for others and their feelings or welfaire. Stout's book can really help people realize that the liar, the deceiver, the person without conscience, will not generally look like Charles Manson and may be someone they see every day.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

The first thing I thought when I saw David Weber's new novel At All Costs was "Huh, he finally ran out of titles with 'Honor' in them." (Six of the eleven novels featuring Honor Harrington, plus three of the four short story anthologies set in the same universe, have 'Honor' in their titles.) It took me until the second novel in the series before I really got into the saga of Honor Harrington and the Royal Navy of the Star Kingdom of Manticore, but I am now sufficiently addicted that I had to keep reading this new one, despite the flaws I encountered in it.

It's always the characters that are interesting in a novel, and Weber has, over the course of the series, introduced a great number of them. Harrington herself, her family members, fellow Navy members and friends, Queen Elizabeth III of Manticore, Protector Benjamin Mayhew of Grayson, all on one side of Manticore's ongoing war with the planets making up the Republic of Haven, but the Havenites are seen as people too. President Eloise Pritchard and Secretary of War Thomas Theisman, for example, are a Havenite government the reader can sympathize with, unlike some in the earlier books, and both sides would really rather not be fighting anymore -- yet the number of battles in space in this book seems to exceed that of any previous installment. Or maybe it just seemed that way because the battles did not draw me in at all; they were near-endless strings of numbers, of how many missile pods this side can launch and how far they each have to travel and how much defense the other side can muster. It became a series of word problems out of a math textbook, and frankly I didn't want to have to work them out, so I found myself skimming the battles for dialogue that would keep me up to date on what was happening without being so boring.

However, when no one was actively in battle, the book was fascinating. Not only the political ins and outs of Manticore, Haven, and other organizations trying to influence events, but also what was going on in Honor's personal life kept the story moving and the reader interested. This wouldn't be the place to start reading the series -- it's much too complex at this point -- but it continues to be a series generally worth reading.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

When many people think of Tourette's Syndrome, they think of the (comparatively rare) variant where the sufferer's neurological problem makes them unable to control their repetition of foul language. Brad Cohen's Front of the Class: How Tourette Syndrome Made Me the Teacher I Never Had (written with Lisa Wysocky) is a memoir that not only dispels the idea that this is the only form of Tourette's, but shows how far someone with a disorder that makes them twitch, jerk, and make noises can still go. I particularly like the fact that it was the misunderstanding and mistreatment that Brad received from teachers in his own school days that made him determined to become a teacher and help children. As a dedicated reader, I can't imagine what it must be like to have difficulty keeping your eyes on a page in a book because your neck is jerking; this is how Brad lived his life and yet he graduated from college, suffered through a multitude of interviews with school administrators who couldn't believe, despite his completed student teaching, that Brad was capable of getting up in front of a classroom. And despite his success as a teacher (he won an award for the best beginning teacher his first year out of all the first-year teachers in the whole state of Georgia, and he also appears as a motivational speaker, particularly for Tourette's groups), and despite the Americans with Disabilities Act, this man is still living with the same disability -- being sometimes asked to leave restaurants and such because his noises bother people. It isn't a medical miracle cure chronicled in this feel-good book; it's achievement despite medical obstacles and people's long-running refusal to understand what things this man can't control and how those uncontrollable things don't stop him being so much more than anyone would have predicted when he was an elementary school child being told to stand at the front of the class by an angry teacher. (The book also has a site at frontoftheclassbook.com.)