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.