Sunday, June 30, 2013

Covet by J.R. Ward

Covet (The Fallen Angels, #1)Covet by J.R. Ward
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (CDs)
Narrated By: Eric G. Dove
Original Publication Year: 2009
Genre(s): Paranormal Romance, Urban Fantasy
Series: Fallen Angels (#1)

I’m a bit bemused by this one and I will attempt to explain why. It is the first J.R. Ward book I’ve read, so perhaps I’m just late to the game but this book seemed to challenge, ever so slightly, some traditional romance conventions. This is not at all a bad thing and while in the end it did not work for me, others may find it a refreshing read.

And that was how I started out – refreshed and pleasantly surprised that the book didn’t jump right into the romance. It actually took some time to develop a story (gasp!) and do some world building and introduce a whole cast of characters. In the romance I’m used to plot is a somewhat vague frame for the romance to fill, so it was somewhat refreshing to jump into a story first and a story that will carry through all the books of this series.

Jim Heron, a construction worker with a shady past, gets drafted as a quarterback in the final conflict between heaven and hell. We are told that The Powers That Be have gotten bored with the never-ending struggle between good and evil and have decided to make it a best out of seven. There are 7 souls in the balance and whichever side gets to four first is the winner. Jim has been agreed upon by both sides to essentially be a wild card in the field of battle because he is sufficiently ambiguous in his nature that he could be playing for either team. Apparently Heaven won the coin toss so they get to have a little more influence with him and he has been directed that he must help seven people make the right decisions and therefore win the world for the good guys.

It’s an interesting set up with Jim being this potentially intriguingly conflicted character as a through line to a number of romantic pairings which have the added excitement of deciding the world’s fate. And there are demons and other angels also on the playing field. In this first book, Jim must help Vin DiPietro commit himself to the right woman. Interestingly Jim gets it all wrong at first and actually doesn’t seem to play much of a role until the end. Vin is an avaricious and cold man with a violent childhood. He’s pulled himself up and become very rich through mostly legitimate but morally bankrupt ways. He can also see visions of the future. When we meet Vin he is buying a $2 million ring for his beautiful girlfriend Davina. Throw in Marie Therese, a hooker with a heart of gold and a lot of secrets, her oddly humanitarian pimp who may be an angel and a mysterious guy who appears to be stalking Marie Therese and things begin to roll.

As you can see there is a lot going on and I definitely appreciated this. I also appreciated Ward’s attention to detail and the inclusion of an adorable dog that appears singlehandedly responsible for acquainting Jim with his heart again. ‘Cause that’s what dogs do!

But this is where the bemusement comes in. This is a seriously macho book. The book spends most of the time in the guy’s perspective, Jim, Vin, Marie Therese’s stalker. And these are some over-the top Macho guys – the type who drive Harleys, would sooner punch you as look at you and seem unable to utter a sentence without a swear word thrown for no good reason and use faux gangsta slang. I found this an interesting choice, since the majority of readers are likely to be female, to spend all this time in the male perspective. And not just any male’s perspective, but the uber males featured here, overflowing with testosterone to a seriously ridiculous degree. And that was the problem for me. I find guys like this ridiculous rather than sexy and I spent most of the book giggling at the silly or rolling my eyes. Obviously though this criticism is mostly to do with my taste so it may not apply to everyone. If the type of guy I describe above appeals to you, you may very well like this book very much.

However there were also some other problems. Despite a strong beginning plot wise, it kind of fizzles as the book goes on and the conclusion to one storyline (that of the stalker) was particularly anti-climactic. I found the female protagonist pretty colorless and bland for some reason (though I am glad that she was portrayed as being resistant to being rescued by anyone and felt very strongly about being self-sufficient). There is a bad case of the insta-love followed by an even worse case of insta-personality/temperament turn-around. The change in personality does have some legitimate explanation but it still felt silly.

In the end I’m not sure whether I will continue with the series or not. I didn’t love or even particularly like this one, mostly because the main characters just weren’t my type, but I am intrigued by the idea of a traveling Jim tackling a new case. I’m also interested in how Ward is going to keep the suspense going with the whole best of seven souls idea. Is Jim going to fail in some of the books? How will that work out and be satisfying? I also noticed on Goodreads that the subsequent four books in this series all get significantly higher ratings then this first one. So maybe some of the things that diminished my enjoyment here aren’t as prevalent in later volumes?

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PS – After writing this review and saying how contemptuous I am of the uber-macho dude, I realized that there is at least one exception to this rule.  One of my most favorite guilty pleasures is Supernatural.  Maybe if I had just pictured Jim Heron as portrayed by Jensen Ackles I would have been a little more swayed? 
jensen ackles, 68


I do have to say however, that as much as I love Sam and Dean I sometimes really prefer Castiel :0)


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Friday, June 28, 2013

Much Ado About Joss Whedon

It will surprise no one that I think Joss Whedon is the bees knees.  Possibly better than rainbows and kittens rolled into one.  Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are two of my favorite TV shows of all time. I was pretty pleased that Cabin in The Woods and The Avengers have seemed to bring him to the level of universal adoration that he deserves.


So I was a little ashamed of myself that I JUST in the last week heard about his most recent project.  Joss Whedon AND Shakespeare?!  Together?!  Holy Shnikeys!  Has anything more perfect ever been proposed.  As I think about it Shakespeare was a bit like a 16th century, British Joss Whedon  with his snappy dialogue, clever wit and memorable characters.  Allright maybe I'm going too far.  It's probably more appropriate to say Joss Whedon is a modern day Shakespeare:)  Needless to say I was pretty excited. 

I immediately rushed to catch up with my favorite film podcast -  Kermode and Mayo Film Reviews (Hello to Jason Isaacs!).  They did an awesome interview with Joss Whedon and did a review of Much Ado About Nothing.  I needed no other convincing to make sure I got to the theater to see this before it went. 

It seems it was made at Joss Whedon's house during a two week break from editing The Avengers.  He just invited a bunch of his actor friends over and shot this in 12 days.  As such Whedon's fans will recognize a lot of the faces.  Alexis Denisof (Angel) and Amy Acker (Angel, Dollhouse) play the central couple Benedick and Beatrice.  Sean Maher (Firefly) takes a turn as the nefarious Don John and Nathan Fillion (Firefly) fills in as the ridiculous Dogberry. 

So what's the verdict?  Utterly delightful.  Shakespeare's original text is used in what is a somewhat vague modern setting.  It's black and white and it takes place almost entirely on Whedon's property which keeps it from being tied to a particular time or even a particular reality - it seems encapsulated in its own little world.  The actors do a good job of bringing Shakespeare's words to life and there are many laugh out loud moments.  This play is especially deft at swerving between the funny and the poignant and the cast does it full justice.  Nathan Fillion is particularly hilarious as Dogberry.   The costumes are simple but beautiful and the setting is used to great effect. It feels intimate but in no way does it look like a movie shot in 12 days on a bit of a whim. There is A LOT of booze.

A pairing of Joss Whedon and Shakespeare was going to be hard-pressed not to get a thumbs up from me but believe me when I say that if you like either or both of these witty playwrights, you will enjoy this movie. 

Anybody else had a chance to see this movie - what did you think?  What's you're favorite work by Joss Whedon?




Sunday, June 23, 2013

Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie

Dumb Witness (Hercule Poirot, #16)Dumb Witness by Agatha Christie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio (CDs)
Narrated By: Hugh Fraser (Captain Hastings!)
Original Publication Year: 1937
Genre(s): Mystery
Series: Hercule Poirot (#16)

If I learned one thing from reading Dumb Witness, it is that I suspect Agatha Christie of being a dog person. She is very, very good at writing a charming dog and reading his little doggie mind! Also, when looking up what number this particular book was in the series it became apparent that there are a lot more Poirot mysteries than I thought, which means I have a lot more to read. Considering that I enjoyed this one and all the others I’ve read featuring Poirot, that makes me a pretty happy reader!

Poirot receives a letter in the mail that intrigues him. It is from Emily Arundell, and very vague, almost incomprehensible, and it is two months late in arriving. What’s clear is that Ms. Arundell was worried about something nad that something had something to do with the dog’s ball. Poirot is intrigued enough to investigate and finds that Ms. Arundell has been dead for over a month and that there is some hullabaloo over her will which left her substantial fortune to her companion of only a year rather than her family. Despite the apparent naturalness of her death, Poirot proceeds to investigate on behalf of the deceased.

To be honest, not a lot happens in the book. There are a couple initial chapters that introduce Emily Arundell and her family and household: her nephew Charles Arundell, a corrupt roguish charmer, his sister Theresa a vain, pleasure seeking beauty, another niece Arabella Tanios, weak and cowed by her charming but seemingly overbearing Greek husband, and finally her silly, foolish companion Ms. Lawson. Once Poirot and Hastings enter the story, the action becomes centered on a series of interviews that slowly reveal the clues to what happened to Emily Arundell and her will. Despite the lack of action, I was still pretty interested in the mystery. This is likely most explained by the unique talent that is Agatha Christie. I believe she could make the phone book interesting reading for me so I don’t really require narrative fireworks to keep me reading.  The other interesting thing about this particular volume is the emphasis it places on how big a liar Poirot is.  I do love characters who are essentially quite honorable but who also don't sweat the small stuff.   

A note on the narration which is excellent. Hugh Fraser plays the role of Captain Hasting on the Poirot Mystery! Series and he does this well. His narration as Hastings is spot on and he also does a pretty impressive Poirot.

Do you prefer Christie's Poirot or Marple series or perhaps her one-offs?

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Friday, June 21, 2013

Character Assasination

Image from tvtropes.org

I've realized recently that I have a problem.  Here's the confession:  I am extremely judgmental of fictional characters.  It's a tough admission to make but it has recently become obvious to me that not everyone reacts as negatively as I do to the foibles of the characters inhabiting their favorite entertainment, whether it be books, TV or movies. A too perfect or dull character can quite quickly ruin a story for me even if there are many other aspects about it to like.  I become shrewish and overly critical and I don't like it.

It goes without saying that for me characters are the heart and soul of any piece of fiction.  Obviously there are many other elements that are important but if I do not like or can't at least relate in some way to a character, I will not like it.  On the flip side, having a good character or two while everything else sucks will not save a book or TV show.


And I don't have to love a character or even entirely like them, but they have to be well-developed in a realistic way - I need to see something recognizable in them.  Some recently read books that I liked very much despite their less then loveable characters are House of Mirth and Gone Girl.

I also have noticed that I am much harsher on female characters than male which, being female, makes some sense.  To paraphrase Darcy in Pride and Prejudice I tend to be very severe upon my own sex. And for much the same reason Elizabeth is coincidentally - these so called accomplished ladies are hard to believe.

So what kind of characters or character traits make me gnash my teeth?

1) The Mary Sue: The link will take you to a more detailed description of this trope but to quote the general gist:
  "...original female character...who obviously serves as an idealized version of the author mainly for the purpose of Wish Fulfillment. She's exotically beautiful, often having an unusual hair or eye color, and has a similarly cool and exotic name. She's exceptionally talented in an implausibly wide variety of areas, and may possess skills that are rare or nonexistent in the canon setting. She also lacks any realistic, or at least story-relevant, character flaws — either that or her "flaws" are obviously meant to be endearing."
Particularly in certain genres (romance, young adult, fantasy), I think one of the hardest jobs an author must do is create a realistically likeable character who doesn't irritate or annoy but who also doesn't fall into the Mary Sue trap.   The fact of the matter is, these type of characters are boring and by virtue of being a Mary Sue, can have no real depth.  I'd rather read the story from the misunderstood wicked stepsister's perspective than Cinderella's.  One annoying way authors frequently try to create sympathy for Mary Sue type characters is by giving them "the tragic past" but since they have no resulting flaws in their character, it has virtually no meaning and imparts no depth.  But I seem to be in the minority, because there are several popular books or books series out there that have a serious case of the Mary Sues.  Or perhaps folks that are generally annoyed by these types of characters, avoid reading the genres where they seem to proliferate.  Sigh... but I LIKE a good romance and young adult adventure, dammit.  The real answer, I think, is that most folks are more tolerant than I.

Example of popular books/Series and the Mary Sues that ruin them for me: Sookie - Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris, Daughter of Shadow and Bone by Laini Taylor, and to be fair and throw a Gary Sue in there Atticus  - The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne...and also Granauile from the same

Romance/Yong Adult books that could have but didn't: Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, The Native Star by M.K. Hobson, Lucy  - The Drake Chronicles by Alyxandra Harvey

2)Women who are Irrisistible to Men (and a little bit vice versa):  These women inspire deep, passionate love in all men that encounter them and often have multiple love interests. Lots of overlap with the above.  Some examples where it bothered me:

Evie - The Diviners by Libba Bray, Sookie - Sookie Stackhouse Series by Charlaine Harris, Anita Blake  - Anita Blake Series by Laurell K. Hamilton (this one is especially egregious because Anita is a great character in the first 3-5 books of the series and then turns into a guy magnet), Karou in Daughter of Shadow and Bone by Laini Taylor, Katniss  - The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, Tris  - Divergent by Veronica Roth

3) Elitist Bourgeosie Intelligentsia:  I don't have too many examples of this and it often won't ruin a book for me.  I feel like a lot of them take place in New York City.  And I may not like them because they make me feel dumb and yokely.  Maybe. I.E. my motivations on this one are likely unfair and 100% my own damn problem.  Where it bothers is when the characters are quite smarmy, full of themselves and also super whiny.  This would have been why, despite a great story line I wasn't a big fan of The Magicians by Lev Grossman.  Other places where I noticed it and it occasionally annoyed but didn't impact my feelings for the book too much:  The Time-Travelers Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, The Flavia deLuce series by Alan Bradley (Flavia knows shit she just really shouldn't know - it's like she has seen and remembered every movie ever made up to the fifties, heard every piece of music, read every book etc... - however I love this series!), Beginner's Greek by James Collins.

And here's where I argue with myself.  There are some characters who I very much like which I think some might say fit into one of the above categories.  What makes them different - why do they not annoy me?  I'm not entirely sure but I'll take a stab at it.  A few characters that have been mentioned to me as falling into the same group as above:  Maisie Dobbs in the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear, Seraphina in Seraphina by Rachel Hartman, Rose Tyler from Doctor Who.  I can see where Maisie Dobbs can be seen as a Mary Sue especially in book 1 where we meet her.  I think she sheds most of those characteristics in subsequent books and is quite clearly emotionally closed off and unable to really connect with others in any meaningful way.  And I think both her and Serphina are both more palatable to me for one simple fact - they are both quite clearly introverts so they speak to me in a way their extroverted brethren don't.  For Rose Tyler I would argue she's not a Mary Sue.  She is most certainly not perfect and she is singularly untalented.  She's often immature and while clever is not intellectual in any way.  She's young and has heart and compassion which is what the Doctor needs and which is why part of him becomes smitten by her.  When she does amazing things it's because she's been possessed by a spaceship.  Not a Mary Sue.

There are many more examples I could come up with (ahem...Twilight...ahem) but these are some of the most recent and/or egregious for me. So how do most readers accept and even embrace characters like this?  Is it perhaps a different way of wanting to relate to the characters?  Without a doubt I can say that I would not want to be any of the characters mentioned above, I can't imagine them as anything other than, well, other.  Maybe most people don't have this problem relating?  And then there are the folks who recognize that the character(s) is annoying but it does not impact their enjoyment of the rest of the fine elements of the story.  How do they do this?!

So does anybody have the same problems as I do and let characters have the power to ruin their fiction? What are your thoughts on this? Is there a way to read differently so that one rotten egg doesn't spoil the whole barrel?   And most importantly, which characters do you loathe and why? 

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Garden Update - June 18th, 2013

The garden isn't looking half bad considering it's been almost non-stop rain in these parts for the last month.  The worst sufferers have been the peppers which don't link they've grown an inch since planting and leaves are somewhat jaundiced and curled.  The second most worrisome are 3 Gold Medal tomato plants planted in the 2X12 foot bed - they have grown very little since planting and are a rather pale green.  Meanwhile their Beam's Pear counterparts have fully grown though not ripe fruit.  Hmmmm...  This week looks relatively free and clear of rain and pretty good temps so hopefully that helps.

What's been harvested or is ready for harvest:
Spinach - harvested and done, it bolted early
Kale - Ready for harvest
Salad Greens - Had a big salad with them tonight, Yum!
Garlic Scapes - I always struggle with what to most effectively do with them
Sugar Snap Peas
Bunching Onions

Photographic Essay:

Carrots are starting to look robust

Sugar Snap Peas

Sugar Snap Peas getting tall!

Lettuce, Kale and anemic Gold Medal tomatoes

Cukes and rather pathetic chiogga beets


Green Beans on left, Sad little peppers on right

Potatoes, Bunching onions, more sad peppers planted with parsley, Lemon tree, Blueberry bush

Up front is the one gold medal tomato I put in a pot, looking much more robust than those in the bed. Wonder why?

Garlic (and Shallots) looking large and disheveled.  Three different varieties (Thai Purple, Music, Morado gigante). Should be ready for harvest in the next 2-3 weeks.

The Beam's pear fruit - just needs enough heat to ripen.


Sunday, June 16, 2013

Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine

Ella EnchantedElla Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Paper (bought at used book store)
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 1997
Genre(s): Fantasy, Middle Grade
Series: NA

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I really love the Ella Enchanted movie. What can I say, I like Anne Hathaway and Hugh Dancy and Queen songs. Come to think of it I also have a somewhat inexplicable love for the Drew Barrymore film Ever After so maybe I have a hitherto unrecognized fascination with the Cinderella tale? If this is true, it is especially strange that it has taken me so long to read this much lauded retelling of the Cinderella story. I wish I hadn’t waited so long but I do have to say it might be a blessing because now I can love both the book AND the movie. I have a feeling if I’d read the book first the movie would have just made me angry.

Why angry? Because the book has so much more spirit and heart then the movie. And it celebrates more elements from the fairy tales we know, blending it into a more realistic story while still managing not to lose any of the magic. The spine of this tale is of a girl finding her strength to be her own person and do the right thing.  At birth Ella is given the "gift" of perfect obedience by clueless fairy Lucinda.  It is kept a secret but when the wrong people find out they turn Ella's life into a misery and show what a danger this curse is, to herself and those she loves.  I LOVED that Ella ends up breaking the curse of unquestioning obedience on her own - her freedom must come from within. The romance with the prince is also done really well being built on friendship and respect.

It’s a great book for any girl to read and makes me wish I had nieces!

What books would you mostly highly recommend for young girl readers both for the enjoyment and the message?

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Thursday, June 13, 2013

A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley

A Red Herring Without Mustard (Flavia de Luce, #3)A Red Herring Without Mustard by Alan Bradley
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Kindle
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Historical (1950’s England), Mystery
Series: Flavia deLuce Series, Book 3

It starts with Flavia, somewhat nonchalantly, burning a gypsy’s Fete tent to the ground. It’s just another normal day in Flavia deLuce’s world. When the Gypsy in question (Fenella Faa) is found brutally beaten and then the town layabout is found hanging dead from one of Buckshaw’s fountains, 11 year old Flavia can’t resist investigating.

As with the other books in this series, the strengths are the quirky, eccentric sometimes irritating charm of Flavia and the lovely, witty writing style. The mystery hardly matters and I did not find it terribly compelling or interesting in this installment. But it provides a perfectly adequate framework for spending some time at Buckshaw with the deLuces which is the real pleasure. You don’t get to spend a lot of time as this book seemed especially brief but it could have been just because it was a lot of fun and went quickly.

Some of my favorite passages:

Flavia referring to her chemistry lab as a pleasure palace!

“I had long ago discovered that when a word or formula refused to come to mind the best thing for it was to think of something else: tigers for instance or oatmeal. Then when the fugitive word was least expecting it I would suddenly turn the full blaze of my attention back onto it catching the culprit in the beam of my mental torch before it could sneak off again into the darkness.”

“The very best people are like that. They don't entangle you like flypaper.”

“Whenever I'm with other people, part of me shrinks a little. Only when I am alone can I fully enjoy my own company.”

There is one thing that has always puzzled me or struck me as wrong. Flavia’s sisters really are quite cruel to her. Granted Flavia is decidedly odd and likely EXTREMELY annoying to have as a little sister but her offenses don’t seem to warrant the level of filial animosity directed towards her. Her sister Daphne (Daffy) is closer in age to Flavia then to their older sister Ophelia and seems to have more in common with Flavia then the vain preening Feely. But instead it’s the two older girls against the younger. I can’t decide if there is some larger cause behind it that Bradley has yet to reveal or if this is how he perceives sibling relationships. OR maybe I just had nice siblings:)

As with each book we get a little more insight into the deLuce family and it does seem like there is a bigger mystery looming (Harriet’s death) that will be (very) slowly unraveled throughout the series.

So why do you think Feely and Daphne are so darn mean to Flavia? Do you also marvel at how Bradley manages to make Flavia irritating and charming at the same time?

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Copper (TV)


http://www.oliv3r.net/images/layout5/shows/copper.jpg

I've been in a bit of a TV slump lately which on the plus side has made time for more reading.  I've felt like I had definitely seen every show ever made that would interest me in any way.  So I was excited to see this pop up on my Netflix Top 10 Shows for Stephanie.  It definitely looked intriguing.

I did a little investigating.  It's BBC America's first original series and it's had one season of 10 episodes broadcast starting in August 2012. The first season did well and a second season is in the hopper and starts airing June 23, 2013 which I was relieved to see since I seem to fall in love with shows with very limited runs.

It's about cops, or actually one in particular named Kevin Corcoran, in New York City in the 1860's.  The first episode sets the scene very well - sort of a Deadwood meets Dickens ambiance - I like it! In fact the further you get in the more Deadwood appears - it's definitely not lacking in violence and debauchery. I thought the New York of today was a remarkably dirty city but apparently it doesn't hold a candle to the squalor of the late 1800s.  The basic setup is that Corcoran has returned from the the Civil War a decorated soldier to find his wife gone from their home, no sign of where she's gone or why. Also his daughter has been murdered. This is the season long mystery to puzzle our hero. His first case is investigating the murder and post-mortem rape of a young girl.  This mystery while solved is not brought to justice which is a problem for the second episode.

Corcoran is the sort of character who other characters under estimate -they view him as a dirty Irishman who doesn't deserve his place as detective.  However he's a clever and dogged pursuer of justice with integrity about the right sort of things - i.e. he's not above helping himself and his friends to a little stolen bank money and he likes to punch people but he'll freely admit when he's wrong and treats everyone with respect.   He thinks the guilty should be brought to justice regardless of who they are. He is also apparently panty-disintegratingly irresistible to all females. He isn't hard on the eyes for sure but the obsession he inspires is a little much.  He is a tad on the slutty side.

One of the most interesting characters is an African-American surgeon who functions as a forensic pathologist but on the sly. Corcoran also has a couple of sidekicks who are somewhat interesting as well as a morally suspect patrician friend/patron he made during the war.

And then there are the women. If I have one complaint or concern about the show it's the women. They are pretty universally manipulative and horrible including one very disturbing 12 year old.  And as I mentioned they are all, without exception, obsessed with Corcoran. Corcoran in turn seems completely blind to their true natures as they all suck up to him with varying levels of disingenuousness. The universality of their horribleness is almost misogynistic.  Mrs. Haverford is probably the most loathsome even though I think she is supposed to be considered a good one?  She's clever but sly and smug and comes across as completely artificial. So I'm not sure how I feel about this.  It's a little on the squicky side.

Otherwise the first season was pretty intriguing for a Deadwood fan though not really up to the level of that show.  I'm interested enough to watch season 2 but I do hope they introduce some female characters that aren't 100% despicable.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Quiet by Susan Cain

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop TalkingQuiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Format: Audio
Narrated by: Kathe Mazur
Original Publication Date: 2012
Genre(s): Non-Fiction, Psychology, Self-Help
Series: NA

I think it’s first important to note that this book is primarily a series of persuasive arguments about the under valuation of introversion. It is not meant to be an unbiased scientific comparison of introversion and extroversion. Susan Cain has a point to make and she brings to bear all the skills she learned as a lawyer to make a convincing case, supported by some data and some logic and observation, that being an introvert is a perfectly legitimate, natural and even wonderful thing to be. There is nothing wrong with this approach and in fact I think she does a stellar job as will be apparent but I think it is important to note the nature of the book. I think it leans more towards self-help than straight psychology.

But even with the above in mind, I have to say that this book pretty much rocked my world. It was like a big warm hug saying it’s okay to be you. And it wasn’t even a hug that I realized I desperately needed. Her premise is that much of the world, America in particular, holds up as its ideal the gregarious person with thousands of friends holding weekly dinner parties and always on the go. This is how a person needs to be if they are to be a happy, successful, even worthwhile human being. As I read the book, I realized that I had completely absorbed this ideal as my own and since I am not that person, the logical conclusion is that I am not a successful person and that indeed there is something wrong with me. I had definitely internalized this even if I hadn’t consciously recognized it.

The message of Cain’s book is that it is not right or logical for the extrovert to be our ideal and if it is not who you are that it is okay, there is nothing wrong with you. Introverts have much to contribute that is uniquely their own and the world needs all different kinds of people. She also presents neuro-scientific research to explain that being an introvert is at least partially genetic and physiological. In many ways, it is just how you are and you need to embrace it. Work within your strengths. I am sort of bemused as to why these pretty basic premises were so revelatory to me but they were.

Another topic the book covers that really hit home for me was the fact that many of our jobs force us to be extroverts and many of us have learned how to be pseudo-extroverted. This goes against the old maxim of “to thine own self be true”, so is this healthy? She does a good job making the argument that in some cases it is okay to pretend to be an extrovert if it is in the service of something you care and are passionate about. As long as you give yourself the freedom in other parts of your life to be the introvert you are. This was also incredibly freeing for me. My job is pretty far along the extrovert scale while I am pretty far along on the introvert scale. I love my job and care about what I do and work 40-60 hours a week but it is mentally exhausting and it is why on my evenings and weekends I am almost completely solitary and happy as a clam about it. The level of solitude I enjoy has again made me wonder from time to time “What the hell is wrong with me?” But there is nothing wrong with me – this is just what I need to do to be able to give the energy needed to my job.

One final point that she presents that was eye-opening for me was the fact that many introverts tend to be more risk averse – i.e. they operate out of fear more often. Cain points out that while this may seem a negative and perhaps in some cases it is, in many cases a little caution is a very good thing. She covers a number of other topics that were interesting but not as personal for me: how to parent an introverted child in a world that doesn’t always value introverts, what kinds of challenges to mixed couples face?

The audio version was well read and easily kept my attention. Cain’s writing is engaging and personal and her thoughts for the most part are well-organized and flow logically. Not a perfect book but because of the quality food for thought it has given me and that I do think it has helped me better understand myself, my friends and colleagues, I’m giving it a top rating.

So where do you fall on the introvert-extrovert scale? If you are an introvert, do you feel your personality is undervalued?

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Friday, June 7, 2013

Downton Abbey - Season 3 Musings

http://d2buyft38glmwk.cloudfront.net/media/images/canonical/mast-da3-icon.jpgWARNING: THERE ARE SPOILERS FOR SEASON 3 HEREIN. READ ON AT YOUR OWN PERIL!

I have, at long last, caught up to the 47 trillion folks who have already devoured season 3 of Downton Abbey.  For months I have shunned any news about and forbidden my friends to breathe a word about it in my presence.  I finally got my hands on a copy and devoured it last weekend.  To be honest I think I was somewhat unmotivated to track it down because I'd been relatively disappointed in Season 2.  I'm not sure I can even say why I didn't like season 2 - I probably need to go back and watch it.  Maybe the war broke up the rhythm, split people up too much.  I was also really disappointed that much of the romantic focus was on Mary and Matthew while Bates and Anna and Sibyl and Tom got short and in many cases rather awkward shrift.  I don't think I've ever witnessed such unromantic, chemistryless development of romance then Sibyl and Tom and the promise of their relationship in season 1 was a big reason I couldn't wait to get to season 2.  So I think I was a little wary of Season 3...what if Downton had used up all its good juju in the first season?

I was so happy to find out that there's still some life in the old girl yet.  This season was over the top and pretty phenomenal.  I think it may even be my favorite season thus far though to be fair I need to do a re-watch of Season 1.  I think it could win the award for the most heartbreakingly gut-wrenching season as well.  I shed quite a few tears. There are two or three episodes in a row early on that were just relentless in bringing on the tears. And I was flat out shocked more than once.

The great thing about Downton is of course the large ensemble cast of characters which are almost universally lovable (except perhaps O'Brien though she was pretty awesome in the final ep) in an often complex way.  It's a joy to spend time with these folks and even more fun to speculate and analyze them.  I found myself grinning helplessly at times with affection for these fictional characters. Their lives may be a crazy ass wonderful soap opera but they seem down to earth and real.

Some miscellaneous musings:

The Death of Major Characters
I am likely WAY off the mark here, but I feel like it is a staple of British TV that actors feel no real compunction to up and leave a show whenever they wish.  I have not crunched any numbers nor even done any real investigation to see if this really is a phenomena but there have been a number of British shows that I've watched that lose major characters due to actor's leaving and cheerfully and successfully soldier onward (MI-5 or Spooks is one show where I first noticed this and of course Doctor Who is rather brilliantly designed for this inevitability).  Actors in British shows seem to feel no compunction to just "Well I know the show is enormously and internationally HUGE but, you know, I've got other things on."  It's kinda awesome, if sometimes frustrating, because it frees up the show runners to go all George R.R. Martin on their cast.  No one is safe!

The death of Sibyl:  This was something I was spoiled on but her death was still a huge shock.  With their removal to Ireland at the end of season 2 I figured that was the write off for Sibyl and Branson, perhaps because of their lackluster storyline in season 2.  I thought they would kill Sibyl off screen in Ireland during some violence or something so I was pleasantly surprised to see them show up in episode 1.  And then comes the death.  It was one of the more intense death scenes I've ever seen on TV. I was sobbing and couldn't have been more wrenched if I had been in that fictional room with the family as Sibyl violently, horribly and suddenly just goes.  The distress, panic, and desperation played by everyone was spot on.

The death of Matthew: WOAH!  This I was not at all spoiled on.  When they did the rather obvious flashes of his car speeding along the narrow country track I knew disaster was in the wings and was sort of thinking confusedly "Are they going to paralyze him...AGAIN?"  But nope, he's totally and completely dead.  Huh.  I feel like Dan Stevens was the biggest star to emerge from this show and that lots of folks watch it mostly for him.  His death has the added tragedy of him making it through World War I and coming back from his injury to die 2-3 years later in a stupid car crash.  I watched this episode right before bed last night and needless to say that did not help me get to sleep!  It certainly opens up all sorts of potential dramas for a 4th season?  Is his infant son now the heir or must there be someone else in the mix? Who on Earth are they going to introduce as Mary's love interest?  Because she undoubtedly will have one.  How will Branson fit in now that his strongest ally and friend in the family is gone? 

Ch..ch..ch..ch..Changes:
This was a persistent through line in the season.  The 1920's are here and the aristocratic lifestyle must evolve if it is to survive.  But evolution isn't it's strong suit.  I really like the emphasis on this and think it worked great even if it did turn Lord Grantham into an idiot curmudgeon.  And why did he invest all of Cora's money in a single investment?  He ain't dumb but he did frequently act like it this season.

Invasion of the Yanks:
Shirley MacLaine was pretty awesome and I love that she refused to bail Downton out.

Questions I can't wait to find out the answers to (besides the ones I've already posed):
1) What new characters are we to have in the 4th season.  Obviously Cousin Rose will become part of the main cast which I'm not sure I'm thrilled about but I'll keep an open mind. I REALLY hope they don't pair her with Branson.
2) Speaking of which where are they going to go with Branson in Season 4?  I think they will need to introduce some more romance to his life but how will they do this without trampling on Sibyl's memory?
3) Edith becoming a man's mistress - what repercussions is that going to have?  And is Mr. Editor (can't remember his name) on the up and up or is there more heartbreak in store for Edith?
4) What drama are they going to introduce into the servants?  It seems there are all sorts of goodies in the wings for the toffs but the servants all seem in a happy good place at the end of S.3.  Will Mr. Barrow finally find himself a sweet young thing who loves him back?
5) How much time will have passed between the end of Season 3 and the beginning of Season 4?
6) What is Mrs. Crowley going to do? Is she going to regret gently spurning the Doctor now that Matthew is gone?
7) Will season 4 be as good as season 3?

So what did you think of season 3?  If you lived or worked at Downton Abbey who would be your best friend? What's your favorite season thus far and why?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Genius of Dogs by Brian Hare and Vanessa Woods

The Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You ThinkThe Genius of Dogs: How Dogs Are Smarter than You Think by Brian Hare
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Hardback
Original Publication Date: 2013
Genre(s): Nonfiction, Science
Series: NA

Brian Hare is a professor at Duke University’s Center for Cognitive Neuroscience. He lists his primary research topics as Domestication, Human Cognitive Evolution, and Social Cognition. His research subjects are primarily the great apes and dogs. In The Genius of Dogs, Hare and his wife Vanessa Woods focus on the uniqueness of the domestic dog’s cognition.

The book is divided into three parts: Brian’s Dog, Dog Smarts and Your Dog. Part one is the most substantial section and focuses on the elements in dog’s cognition that are most amazing and how their abilities evolved. In a nutshell, dogs are head and shoulders above other animals in being able to communicate with humans. They innately from puppyhood understand human gestures much like a human infant can. The current thought is that this ability evolved along with domestication and that it may also shed light on the evolution of human cognition. Is our ability to cooperate and live relatively peacefully in high densities a result of our own self domestication? There is lots of interesting discussion about how dogs and humans evolved in comparison to other animals particularly using evidence of present day cognitive skills.


Part two touches on some other signposts of intelligence that dogs are actually not that great at; things like navigation and basic physics. He uses an example that I know all too well – that dogs on leash are seemingly flabbergasted that the leash cannot pass through solid objects like telephone poles or people’s legs and they rarely seem to figure it out no matter how many times it happens and how many frustrated sighs they must endure from their human companion. The concept is beyond them. Dogs’ counterparts in the wild do much better at these cognitive exercises though they failed the tests for reading human signals.

My Two Geniuses: doing some heavy thinking

Part three focuses on the perceived differences between breeds, the correct method for training, and some educated musings on the true nature of the dog-human relationship. The trust that dog’s put in their human companions is similar to an infant with their mother. But they do look for opportunities where they can ignore/disobey disliked commands (i.e. lie quietly and don't eat the food just out of reach).

Overall this was an interesting and quick read. The first section is the most substantial and for me the most interesting. The other two sections are a somewhat loosely grouped grab bag of topics related to dog cognition. These sections still had some interesting tidbits like the fact that besides appearance, the difference between breeds of dogs is minimal. Section three is especially weak and grab-baggy and comes across as more anecdotal and musing rather then based on Hare’s own research. I was especially disappointed that he seems to discount the current behaviorist methods of training, but doesn’t really provide much in replacement but a few disparate ideas currently being researched.

Still if you’re a dog lover you will likely enjoy every bit of it. It’s written engagingly with plenty of examples and interesting descriptions of the behavioral trials that are used to test dogs and other animals. If you are like me and are also interested in the evolution of humans and human culture than you will especially enjoy the book, particularly section one. And if you’re like me you’ll be trying (in vain) to teach your dogs to do some of the amazing things Hare and Woods illustrate they can do. Good Luck to you!

So what kinds of dogs do you have and what cool stuff can they do? If your only answer for cool stuff is "Be Super Cute"  that's perfectly acceptable.

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Monday, June 3, 2013

Across The Universe by Beth Revis

Across the Universe (Across the Universe, #1)Across the Universe by Beth Revis
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Format: Audio
Running Time: 10 hours
Narrated by: Lauren Ambrose and Carlos Santos
Original Publication Year: 2011
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Young Adult, Mystery/Suspense
Series: Across the Universe, Book 1

A generation ship, the Godspeed, travels from Earth with a terra forming mission on a new planet 300 years away. People with essential skills have been recruited to travel as frozen cargo, to be awakened upon touchdown on Centauri-Earth. Among those chosen are 17 year old Amy’s two parents. So although she is considered non-essential she is also frozen and provided a berth on the ship. But these frozen folks aren’t the only residents of Godspeed. The ship is also home to almost 3000 souls who operate the ship and live and have children and die onboard.

When Amy is violently awakened from her cryosleep 50 years before the ship is meant to land she finds a confusing and alien situation on the ship. The only people that act normally are in the mental ward of the ship's hospital and everyone is under the tyrannical rule of the ship's leader called Eldest. His successor Elder is about Amy’s age and is one of the first people she encounters upon waking. They become allies in a rebellion they don’t entirely realize they’re waging.

The framework for the book is alternating chapters between Amy and Elder’s perspectives which I think is pretty effective and gives you two different perspectives of what’s happening on the ship. The plot is centered on a number of mysteries and ethical questions raised by the unique situation. Very little on the ship is what it seems. As happened to Amy, someone is waking the cryo-sleepers too early seemingly with the intent of killing them (two die and a few others are rescued). Who is doing this and why? Why does everyone on Godspeed act almost mindless and without independence? Who is Elder exactly and why is Eldest so reluctant to teach him what he must know to succeed him? Who is the mysterious Orion who pops up from time to time? Is there ever a time when tyranny is okay? Is it ever okay to lie? Can people really live generations in a closed ship in space without going mad?

I am of two minds about this book which is a state I frequently find myself in when reading Young Adult fiction. I think the unhappy part of my reaction usually has to do with the protagonists who are usually teenagers. Because the primary audience for young adult books is teenagers the teenage protagonists are often validated in their actions and thoughts. Now I’ve been a teenager and I look back at being that age and I realize how completely ignorant and clueless I was about life and the world. For most teenagers, I think the world is a much more black and white place and the complexity of gray that comes with more experience and age is unrecognized. So when a teenage character is screeching about the black or the white of a situation when it is very clearly gray and yet the character is validated to a degree that their screechiness leads to some leadership position which no teenager ever should ever be given…well it irritates a bit. I do realize the most fool proof solution to my irritation is to stop reading YA but apparently I prefer reading it and then being persnickety. Sorry.

So the biggest offender amongst the protagonists of this book is Amy. From the moment she awakes she does nothing but screech at people about everything. She is indignant about everything, immediately and without reflection. Yes the stuff going down on the ship is extremely sketchy but she is holier than thou practically from moment one and is convinced (and validated) after only like 4 days on the ship that everything must change though we see her giving no thought ever to the complications or implications of her brave new world on the ship. And she calls her father Daddy. I know that is a convention in some families but for me it made her seem younger and more infantile than she was and I trusted her “leadership” less and less.

Elder is more bearable. While he has some very teenage qualities he is also more thoughtful and introspective about the situation on the ship. He more fully sees that the system put into place since the plague isn’t right but he also understands why it was done. The sorts of moral dilemmas he contemplates are much more interesting though I can see that the book needed the screeching Amy character to trigger and move things along. But might it not have been more interesting to see Elder come to the point of revolution on his own with perhaps some help from his friends on the mental ward? I’m not sure but he was definitely the more interesting character then his counterpart Amy.

There were lots of elements that I thought were done really well. There was a lot to unravel and even though I guessed a number of things early it was still interesting to see how they played out. The true nature of Orion, even though I knew who he was almost from moment one, was a surprise. Eldest was an interesting character that in the end was painted as power hungry and corrupt, however some of the behavior we see from him indicate that he is a grayer character - that there is some struggle and torment. I think there is great potential for the future books.

A couple of nitpicks: 1) the shippers, or the scientists and engineers on the ship were not even touched on, I suspect because it would have been hard to fit them into the author's vision of the ship of mindless drones – it’s hard to suck out independent thought from people whose job it is to think and 2) it was a little unbelievable that Eldest would take zero to less than zero interest in protection of the cryo-sleepers once the murders begin. He takes no steps to safeguard them, leaving it conveniently to Elder, Amy and Harley to do an almost 100% ineffective job at guarding the cryo- area.

Finally, the narrators were okay. Lauren Ambrose had a little bit more flair with the reading but Amy was written sort of odd and whiny so it was hard to make her terribly convincing. I think Carlos Santos was a little deadpan in his reading but it wasn’t overly bothersome and I got used to him quickly. Both of them sounded convincingly like teenagers.

So do any other more mature adults like reading young adult lit but then get completely exasperated with the characters or is that just my special idiocy? 

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