Saturday, June 7, 2014

Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips

I like quirky books.  I read so much, that sometimes the plain old plot lines and story telling methods are just humdrum and predictable; a quirky book, that will come at the reader with a unique point of view, or characters, or plot, is one of my favourite things to discover.  And boy, did I ever find that it my latest read, Gods Behaving Badly, by Marie Phillips.  

Gods Behaving Badly tells two connected stories, both set in modern London.  The first is the story of Alice and Neil; Alice is a cleaner and Neil is an engineer.  They love each other, but are so shy and nervous around each other that they’ve had a two year, chaste, friendship.  The second story is about an odd family, living a life of declining fortunes; this is because they are the gods of the ancient Greek pantheon.  Of course, they might be living is squalor at this point, but they still enjoy meddling with the lives of mere mortals, and this is where Neil and Alice come in.  Miffed with Apollo, Aphrodite gets her son Eros to make Apollo fall madly in love with Alice.  When Alice rebuffs him, things don’t go well (and the last time it happened, he turned the chick into a tree).  The rest of the story is a delightful updating of a hero saga, with the modern twist of ‘who the fuck would believe that the ancient Greek gods are living in London?’.

Of course, a quirky plot isn’t enough to keep me happy.  The characters have to be engaging too, and they certainly are.  Phillips is able to write the human and relatable characters of Neil and Alice, who are retiring and afraid of their own shadows, as well as a pantheon of gods, such as Artemis, Hermes and Hera.  Each of the gods have all the characteristics you would expect, but Phillips has also humanized them; Artemis is a dog walker who is constantly hoping to find a spark of wildness in her charges, Hermes is constantly on the go as the god of money and enjoys wearing pin-stripped suites, and Hera is still a vengeful bitch.

Phillips’ writing style is refreshingly tongue-in-cheek; she knows this is a quirky plot and a quirky cast of characters, and she doesn’t appear to take herself too seriously as a result.  The writing style is quick-moving and easy to follow, and turns into a plot with a bunch of twists that are really enjoyable.  Phillips has melded the modern world with the ancient in a completely believable and interesting way.  Hats off to Phillips for creating such a wonderfully unique story-scape.

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  It’s quirky, hilarious, well-written, and unique.  In a world that sees oodles and oodles of books published weekly, Gods Behaving Badly is one that stands out.  Phillips has another book coming out this summer (about King Arthur’s court) that I can’t wait to read; I’m definitely adding Phillips to the list of authors I keep an eye on, and whose books I snap up as soon as they’re published.

The Devil's Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis

One of the best inventions of the last 20 years has got to be PVR systems.  As much as I like to read, I’m also a fan of binge-watching television shows, so when the PVR came along, it was a god-send for me; no longer was I forced to watch television weekly – instead, I was able to record an entire season of a show, then sit down and watch it back to back to back.  This is exactly what I did with the CW show “Reign.”  Now, I knew going into the show that it was likely to be a mix of “The Tudors” and “Dynasty,” and boy was I right.  The historian in me struggled against the horrible representation of historical facts for about 20 minutes, and then it gave up and approached it more as if it were “Game of Thrones,” that’s to say, a parody of historical European politics.  What watching “Reign” did do, was inspire me to read more about the era, which led to my latest read The Devil’s Queen, by Jeanne Kalogridis.

The Devil’s Queen is the story of Catherine de Medici, daughter of the famed House of Medici in 16th century Florence.  When political turmoil rocks Florence, Catherine’s future is in doubt, and her uncle (then Pope, and a Medici) works to secure it, as well as his own power; the best way to do so was to marry Catherine to a powerful family.  Catherine ends up married to the second son of the King of France, but all is not well in the marriage – Catherine is dealing with a husband who has a mistress he won’t leave and who is exerting power over him, a hostile foreign court, and the inability to have children.  In an age where a woman’s security depended on her marriage, all of this led to a very tenuous position for Catherine, and so she resorts to magic to get pregnant.  The novel is really the story of Catherine’s efforts to hold together her life and those she loves in the face of a hostile destiny.

As far as historical fictions go, this one is incredibly engaging.  I was caught in the first few pages, and couldn’t put the book down after that.  Kalogridis’ writing style is straight forward and uncomplicated – she’s able to easily and clearly convey the thoughts of her characters, as well as the movement of the plot.  This might seem like an obvious thing for an author to do, but having read The Devil’s Queen so shortly after The Woman in White, I really appreciated this level of skill.  

As for characters, Kalogridis has created for her readers a personality and soul for Catherine that is engaging and touching.  The historical view of Catherine tends to be negative; she’s remembered as the woman who ruled France while shunting aside her sons, and as being the architect to a massacre of Protestants in Paris.  All of this contributes to a historical impression of a real harpy of a woman, and yet Kalogridis portrays her more as a woman with an iron backbone who would do anything for her husband and sons, and the royal house of France.  The modern feminist in me is now asking if I’d have the same negative view of a male historical figure if they had been the architect of the St Bartholomew Day Massacre?  Probably not – he’d be taking care of business, while she’s seen as being a monstrous bitch.  Funny how that works.

My one complaint about this book, and it’s come up before in books like this, is that Kalogridis uses actual magic/demonic presence to explain some of the harder plot points.  I find when authors do that, it’s a bit of a cop out – it’s almost as if they can’t find a real explanation for where their plots/characters have ended up, so they swing for the fences with a really odd explanation.  I can understand why Kalogridis did it (it fits with the rumours that have persisted through history that Catherine was dabbling in dark magic), but given she did such a good job reforming the rest of Catherine’s historical memory, I don’t appreciate Kalogridis conceding ground on this point.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It’s a really great historical fiction of this era and this historical figure.  Kalogridis did such a great job with Catherine’s story, that I’ll be looking for her other books in the future.  What I don’t recommend is that you check out “Reign.”  Honestly, I can look past the odd fashion choices, and the use of Lorde’s song “Royals,” and the fact that they check in momentarily with reality then take a real left turn with the historical records, but the fact is, it’s a horribly cheesy show.  Rather than waste your time watching it, read Kalogridis’ book instead; not only is it better for your intellect, it’s more enjoyable and less bonkers.

Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson

As always, when I find an author/series that I really enjoy, I can’t rest until I’ve collected all the related books so I can binge-read them.  That’s what happened with my latest read, The Men Who Stare at Goats, by Jon Ronson – after reading The Psychopath Test, I wanted to read everything else he’d written.  The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a movie a few years ago, but I haven’t seen it yet, so I was coming to this book with very little knowledge about it, other than the brief write up on the cover: “This story is about what happened when a small group of men – highly placed within the United States military, the government, and the intelligence services – began believing in very strange things.”  It seemed like classic Them-Ronson, and I was really looking forward to reading it.

I realized though, within the first couple of chapters, that even though I hadn’t seen the movie by the same name, I was influenced by it.  I had figured that, because it had been made into a movie, and because of the use of the term ‘group’ in the write up, that there must be a running plot/characters through the book, and so I was reading it and looking for those common threads.  But, this was a mistake on my part; this book is classic Ronson – there is no plot, but rather a collection of stories and observations about interesting people that have something in common and, in this case, that was the exploration of the metaphysical to advance the strength of the US armed forces.  Once I caught on that I was super-imposing my expectation onto the book, and let them go, I was able to really get into Ronson’s work and enjoy it.  

As always, Ronson has collected an eclectic combination of people to tell his story.  Some of them, highly-placed commanders in the US armed forces, other, like a media-hungry spy (think about that combination for a minute) all come together to confirm that, yes, the US armed forces have explored various metaphysical ways of gaining an advantage over the enemy.  These ‘interesting’ techniques include approaching enemy combatants with lambs and soothing music, to the more hostile methods of stopping their hearts by staring at them.

Ronson was writing shortly after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, and if you think back to that era in world history, you might remember it as one of insipid panic: the Bush administration was constantly reminding the population (domestic and global) that more attacks were imminent.  For a while, everyone seemed caught up in the case that Bush was building against extremists who were lurking around every corner.  So, maybe exploring the concept of using psychics to find bin Laden, or stopping the hearts of any plane highjackers, or using subliminal messages buried in Fleetwood Mac songs at Guantanamo during interrogations wasn’t the worst way to spend time and money on the off-chance that they would work.  But, as Ronson shows, these methods weren’t developed in response to the 2001 attacks; rather, they had been developed as early as the 1970s.  

Ronson takes his readers on a curious journey from the new-age movement that emerged in 1970s California to a dilapidated building at Fort Bragg that is supposedly filled with debleated goats, who are used for a variety of training exercises (medical and metaphysical).  The Men Who Stare at Goats is classic Ronson in that it meanders along an odd little path, with many curious stops, that all build to show that, in fact, what might have appeared insane in the beginning of the journey actually has a rational foundation.  But it’s still an odd foundation, no doubt.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Ronson’s book.  Lobby Ronson to write more.  There is something so charming and engaging about Ronson’s writing style that, even though it may appear disjointed at first, it contains an innate sense of logic that never leaves the reader behind.  The Men Who Stare at Goats is a curious little read, about a curious time and course of events in American history, that is worth exploring.

The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins

Often times, I get inspired to read a book based on something else I’ve read.  That’s what happened with my latest read, The Woman in White, by Wilkie Collins.  While reading The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher, Kate Summerscale makes multiple references to how the case she covers in her study of Victorian crime influenced authors of the era, and Collins was one of those authors she discusses.  So, while reading Summerscale’s work, I pulled Collins’ book from my shelves with the intention of reading it right away; nine months later, I finally got around to it.

A word on the plot to start with: This story is told via multiple narratives, as if the people speaking were testifying to events in a court of law.  Walter Hartright, a drawing master, begins the tale and sets things in motion – while walking home one night, Walter meets with a young woman dressed entirely in white who has escaped from a private asylum.  She and Walter part ways, but when Walter arrives at his new position in Cumberland, he realizes that the woman in white looks remarkably similar to one of his new pupils, Laura Fairlie.  As the story progresses, Walter falls in love with Laura, but she’s engaged to another man and so they part ways.  As it turns out thought, Laura’s fiancé is not all he appears to be.  Unfortunately, I can’t say much more without spoiling things.

This book has a lot of the tropes that drive me bonkers about the novels of this era.  The major trope that bothers me is that the plot is dependant on coincidences to move forward; the woman in white just happens to be acquainted with the household that Walter is going to in Cumberland, the woman in white just happens to look remarkably like Laura, and Walter and Laura reconnect at just the right time.  Another common device that’s used by authors of this period is the idea that women can’t get wet without developing a life-threatening fever; if that were true, I’d be dead a million times over – apparently, Collins, the Brontë sisters, et al had very little faith in the fairer sex.  Finally, I have the feeling that Collins was another author (like Dickens) that got paid by his publisher by the word.  I read an unabridged version of the story, and it seemed never-ending – a judicious editor could cut this sucker down by a few hundred pages and still not loose the meat of the story.  I’d highly recommend that you find yourself an abridged version, or read the complete story if you’re looking to torture yourself.

What I will say in support of Collins is that he masterfully captured the voices of multiple narrators.  As mentioned above, the story is told by individuals involved as if they were testifying in a court of law.  Collins really made it seem as if there were multiple people writing the story – from a young lady of leisure, to a drawing master, to an Italian Count, to a country manor housekeeper, to a downstairs maid – all read as if separate individuals were involved in writing The Woman in White.  I found this a masterful piece of authorship that almost allowed me to overlook the other flaws in the book.

So, final verdict?  Menh.  I honestly can’t recommend this book as I read it.  The plot is interesting, but the extraneous content kills its flow more than once; the characters are well written, but there’s just too much filler to really enjoy reading their voices.  I would be interesting in hearing from someone who has read the abridged version to see if these problems were fixed, but I don’t think this is one worth reading in the complete format.  Instead, read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher – there’s a Victorian mystery that I can highly recommend!

Thursday, May 15, 2014

History's Worst Decisions, by Stephen Weir

Part of my recovery/self-improvement while I’m off work has been to improve my ‘sleep hygiene.’  When I first heard the term, I hadn’t realized I was sleeping dirty, but once it was explained to me, I realized that I might, in fact, be a dirty sleeper.  Sleep hygiene is all about creating a relaxing environment for yourself before you try to fall asleep.  Previously, I had been listening to music or watching TV.  Turns out, doing that is dirty and wrong…. Okay, so maybe I’m blowing that thought up a bit too much, but still.  

My new, cleaner sleep habits include getting into bed and using some guided meditation apps on my phone, then turning off all electronic devices.  I was shocked at how instantly relaxing it is to completely unplug from technology – my thoughts seemed easier to put into order and calmer almost immediately; with the added benefit of the guided meditation, I feel even more relaxed.  But guided meditations only take five to twenty minutes, and the sleep hygiene school of thought recommends an hour of calming activities before you try to get to sleep, so what am I supposed to do with the next 55 minutes in my routine?  Why, I’ve been reading, of course!

The thing is, I can’t bring my current novel to bed with me, because I’d stay up all night reading.  Instead, I need books that include shorter passages that you can pick up and walk away from without a lot of thought.  This led me to my latest read, History’s Worst Decisions by Stephen Weir.  The book is a collection of short entries on events in humanity that led to disaster.  The biggest disaster of all though is the book itself.

I found a lot of the entries to be really off the mark.  Each entry, when you read the title, makes sense in a list of knuckle-headed human decisions, but once you get into the reading, you realize that you’re getting a lot of extraneous information about the situation, often times the title and the entry’s contents don’t really match (like the title was meant to catch your attention, but the meat of the entry is boring/different from expected), and in some cases, I questioned whether there was really a decision at the heart of the situation Weir was profiling (like the case of the missing hyphen which caused NASA’s Mariner mission to fail – that was just a mistake/oversight, after all).

More than that thought, I found the history to be a bit shoddy.  Weir is really quick to highlight incidents that he blames the British Empire for.  Now, I fully admit that I’m an Empire apologist (hey, I wrote my thesis on it, and lived with it for 2+ years; I know it wasn’t all good, but I’ll still defend it), but it seemed like every other entry in the first half of the book was somehow the Empire’s fault – yes, they were involved in a lot of the problems that came up, but to blame the Empire is to blame a faceless, impersonal body, and is a cheep cop-out for holding people accountable for their actions.  I didn’t like it.  In other instances, he’s really quick to assign blame to people that can’t fight back, but he put on the kid-gloves when dealing with those people who are still alive and might be litigious.  There’s a lot of bias on each page that the savvy reader needs to wade through; I realize this is a ‘popular’ history, but still, a little honestly would have been nicer.

The introduction to the work talks about the seven deadly sins, and each entry highlights which of the sins the situation refers too, and Weir has added three more, so his list includes anger, charity, envy, faith, gluttony, greed, hope, lust, pride and sloth.  While each entry highlights which ‘sin’ is involved, the actual entry rarely, if ever, mentions them.  It seems like a gimmick that the book really didn’t need and that detracted from the content.  

So, final verdict?  If you need something really boring to put you to sleep (which is what I needed as part of my new sleep hygiene routine), then this book is for you.  This is also a good book to keep in your bathroom, but I would never recommend that anyone approach it as anything other than a biased and truncated history of humanity’s cock-ups.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

The Psychopath Test, by Jon Ronson

I once worked with a girl who seemed to have the ‘touch’ when it came to finding interesting books to read and recommend.  She never steered me wrong, and I enjoyed every book she recommended that I check out.  This included a book by journalist Jon Ronson, titled Them: Adventures with Extremists.  I read the book, and laughed my way though Ronson’s exploration of the world of the nutty, the conspiracy theorists, and the dangerous.  I was happy to hear that his book The Men Who Stare at Goats was made into a movie (I still need to read and see it, actually), so when I was last in the book store, I poked around to see if any of his other works were on hand, and found my latest read, The Psychopath Test (in the psychology section of all places – that felt like a miss-filing to me).

Like Them, The Psychopath Test is an account of Ronson’s exploration of a specific part of our society, in this case, the psychopath.  Ronson’s work sees him meeting with a whole host of people in an effort to understand psychopathy and what makes these people tick.  Supported by research into the field and his own journey to educate himself on how to spot these people, Ronson gives his reader an account that is at once light-hearted and chilling.  From meetings with incarcerated psychopaths, to individuals whom you’d feel more comfortable knowing weren’t out of society, to well-known mental health professionals, Ronson incorporates multiple points of view in his assessment of the way our society deals with the psychopathic.

As I learnt through reading The Psychopath Test, the psychiatric world is governed by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (known as the DSM, currently in its fifth edition), which provides a list of all recognized mental disorders, as well as checklists that mental health practitioners should use to assess their patients.  At the time of Ronson’s writing, the fourth edition of the Manual did not include an entry for psychopathy, rather, the traits these individuals exhibit were classed under other personality disorders.  I don’t know if the newest addition addresses this short-fall, but the people in the mental health field that Ronson spoke with believed it should be.  In the spirit of the DSM’s checklists, Bob Hare developed his own checklist for identifying psychopaths, known as the Hare PCL-R Checklist.  This tool is currently used internationally to identify individuals with psychopathic tendencies.  

As with Them, Ronson’s writing style is incredibly interesting and engaging.  I found I was drawn into his journey and wanted to know as much as I could about the people he was meeting with and learning about.  The one aspect I wasn’t a fan of in this book was the subtitle, which is “A journey through the madness industry.”  I get the feeling this was tacked on by an editor or publisher after the manuscript was turned in – there is very little discussion about the ‘industry’ that is supported by mental health experts, and much more on the identification of psychopathy.  The book seems to be at war with itself in what the title implies, and what the content actually is.  But, if you take the title out of the equation, the book stands on its own as an interesting and dynamic read.

A final thought on the psychopath test and The Psychopath Test: I don’t think Ronson could have gotten away with publish a book on this topic without including Bob Hare’s list of indicators.  If, like me, you read through the list and see psychopathic tendencies in yourself, not to worry.  In the best point made in any work I’ve read recently, Ronson points out that, if you’re worried you’re a psychopath, you’re probably not, after all, you’d be counter-indicating item 16 on the checklist: Failure to accept responsibilities for your own actions.  Sooooo…. phew. 

So, final verdict?  Definitely read this book.  Then read Ronson’s other works – he’s witty, intelligent, and a wonderful communicator through the written word.  A big thanks to my friend Hala for recommending I check out his work, because I’ve enjoyed it for year.  

The Fool Books, by Christopher Moore

It’s no secret that Christopher Moore is one of my favourite authors (for proof, see here and here).  So, just because I’m off work on disability, and tight on cash, doesn’t mean I can forego picking up his newest work when it comes out.  I’m that dedicated.  And foolish.  But that foolishness fits in with his latest book, The Serpent of Venice, which is a sequel to Fool. 

Both books are the story of Pocket, originally a fool in King Lear’s court.  Yes, Shakespeare’s King Lear.  Moore has taken some historical liberties with Shakespeare’s characters – and by ‘liberties,’ I mean he completely made up when and where they lived.  Moore’s King Lear lives in Medieval England, with his base of power being in London’s White Tower.  There’s a lot wrong with that sentence for a historian and it would usually drive me nuts, but Moore wasn’t pretentious about these flagrant disregards for fact, instead, he plays into the ridiculousness of the situation by including some Cockney and modern British language cues.  It’s a real hodgepodge that isn’t aiming for historical accuracy, so mistakes can be ignored.  Kind of like Monty Python, really.

Pocket, as far as characters go, is very Moore-ish.  Moore specializes in creating engaging characters whom he’s characterized in past books as the “Beta Male” (as opposed to the Alpha Male).  Pocket fits this mold as well; he has no real power in the situations he finds himself in, but he has a streak of intelligence and cunning, as well as an innate sense of humour that sees him through the worst of times. 

A word on the plots of both books:  Fool is centered on the story of King Lear, that is, Lear’s decision to split his kingdom amongst his three daughters, depending on how much they love him.  When Cordelia refuses to be overly flowery in her description of her love for her father, he disowns her.  (You know what, just read the play your self for the details).  Enter Pocket, who is in love with Cordelia, feels filial devotion to Lear, and dislikes how the situation played out.  While learning about his own personal history, Pocket also has some time to incite a couple of plots of treason and save the kingdom.  The Serpent of Venice picks up a few years (?) later, when Pocket is sent to Venice as a diplomat to talk the city out of launching a crusade.  While there, Pocket is waylaid and has to escape mortal danger and get revenge on those who’ve wronged him.  Oh, and there’s a water dragon.  And a lot of talk of bonking.

Both books draw heavily on the Shakespeare cannon for plot development, characters and dialogue, and it’s a delightful mélange.  As always, Moore’s writing style is quick and witty – lots of insults and bon mots to keep the reader engaged in not just the story, but also in the story-telling of it all.  I honestly have no complaints about these books; they speak directly to my sense of humour, and I find them to be a lot like Alice in Wonderland; they are silly and non-sensical at heart, but there is so much logic built into them that you can look past that silliness and enjoy the humour they bring.

So, final verdict?  Read these books, duh.  This is, yet again, a wonderful addition to Moore’s cannon, and I can’t speak highly enough of his skills.  I only wish he’d publish more often!  But, regardless of when his books come out, I’m clearly impelled to pick them up as soon as possible.  Maybe there’s some eye of newt embedded in the paper of the books…. I wouldn’t put it past Parsley, Rosemary and Sage….

Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs

When my granddad died, we were left with the task of cleaning out his home.  As he was something of a tinkerer and a packrat, it was full of old appliances and machines that had seen better days.  It wasn’t a fun task.  And yet, somehow, from the pile of microwaves and computer towers, my dad found a box of pictures and paperwork.  I was sorting through the pictures a couple of years ago, and came across one that was maybe two-inches square, and showed three Nazi officers in the back of an open-topped car, talking and laughing.  There was no note on the back of the photo to show who they were, or how my granddad got it (obviously, it was during his time in Europe during the war, but more than that, we can only speculate).  For a historian, it’s a frustrating thing to have a great piece of history with no provenance information. 

I hadn’t thought of that picture for ages until I picked up my latest read, Hollow City, by Ransom Riggs.  Hollow City is a sequel to Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children, and picks up directly where the first novel ended.  Just like MPHfPC, Hollow City is peppered with contemporary pictures that help drive the story along.  In this case, the story is set in war-time London during the days (and nights) of the Blitz.  While the first book in the series was driven by curiosity pictures, this book is driven more by pictures from the war and its effects on the population.  There is the occasional curiosity picture included, but nothing like in the first book.  This kind of bumed me out, and I wish there had been more of the odd photos.

While I enjoyed where the plot went with this sequel, I felt that the characters suffered a bit.  In the first book, Jacob is described so wonderfully and completely, but it seems that Riggs feels he put in the time he needed to to define his character, and anything more wasn’t required in this book.  There is a bit of character development near the end with Jacob, but then the plot undoes that growth.  It’s hard to be clearer without some massive spoilers, and as this is a book that I enjoyed, I don’t want to give anything away.

As for the other characters, it seems to me that Riggs left a few children behind in this book; the first book seemed to describe multiple children at Miss Peregrine’s home that weren’t the focus of the story (kind of like background noise), but in this book, it was only the children actively involved in the first part of the story that make it into the book.  I could be wrong about this (my abilities to concentrate/remember details has slipped in the last year), but I found I was distracted by that point.  And yet, there was the introduction of several new characters along the way that I found really interesting and enjoyed.  So, a bit of a hodgepodge, really.

And yet, for all these minor flaws, this was still a great read.  I really enjoyed picking up where the last story left off and the development of the story and the mythos that Riggs had created for his characters.  As the story progresses, so to does the readers’ knowledge of the ‘peculiar’ landscape, which, as you might imagine, is an interesting and intriguing place.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a book to read.  I really enjoyed the first book in the series, and the second book was nicely done as well.  As with the first book, Riggs left his reader with a cliff-hanger, and I know I’ll be back for more.  As for that picture of the Nazi officers we found in my granddad’s paperwork, I now wonder if I missed something in it; I’ll have to take a closer look someday to see if I can see their eyes and mouths clearly…. you never know; I might have proof of a hollogast on my hands.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins

Five years ago, I was absolutely honoured to be asked to do a reading at my cousin Danny’s wedding (okay, so most people call him Daniel at this point, but as I’m older than him by three days, I feel the need to remind him that he’s the younger one with his childhood nickname).  I think I had met Danny’s finance, Michelle, once before that, but we had Facebook stalked each other enough at that point that, while the invite to do the reading was a delightful surprise, I felt comfortable in doing it.  When I met Michelle during the wedding prep, she was lovely and open, and I knew she was a great foil for the shyer Danny.  The wedding was great, and I know it was Michelle’s goal to start a family as soon as possible, so I was thrilled when I found out that she would be a mother.  Drake came along, and Michelle fell into the Mommy Role like it was made for her; after spending some time with her on a trip to visit family, I learnt that she was really hoping to grow her little family, so was thrilled to learn that she was expecting when she let us know late last year.

Then, one morning, I was logging onto Facebook, and found out that Michelle had lost the baby.  She had commented several times about how active he was in the womb, and in being that way, he had done something to his umbilical chord, cutting him off from his loving mother.  When Michelle went for a routine check-up, she found out that the baby had passed away.  Michelle, Danny and Drake are such an engaging little family, that I think when the news got out, hearts broke for them all over the country.  If you know Michelle, you know how important this second pregnancy was to her.  In order to cope, Michelle started a blog about her experiences, and I strongly encourage you all to read it (you can do so here).

It was Michelle’s post about her challenges with her faith that encouraged me to read my latest book, The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins.  Michelle is (was?) a religious person, and she’s now having a hard time reconciling her experiences in loosing a long wished-for child with her faith (and who can blame her?).  I lost my own belief years ago, but I respect those that still have it.  When Michelle wrote about her own struggles with faith, I wanted to see what one of the publishing world’s foremost atheists had to say about the matter.  

The God Delusion is Dawkins’ well-laid out thesis against the existence of a deity.  He walks his reader through the biological and sociological conditions that created the belief in deities, the theological arguments for a god, and the counter-arguments he often faces when talking about his own beliefs in public (mainly that we need ‘god’ to have rules about how to be good people).  The book is peppered with examples of people who believe in a higher-power, and the damage they can do to society.

Dawkins is very unapologetic about his stance.  And that’s fine, there’s nothing wrong with having an opinion and standing by it.  What I do have a problem with, though, was that he was sometimes petulant about it.  Frequently, he’ll write a passage countering a person of faith’s comments with a glib bon mot, or an insult, as if that person was dumb.  You don’t have to agree with someone, but you don’t have to be dismissive of their beliefs, either.  But I understand what has driving Dawkins’ to this attitude.  We’re living in a world where religious faith is the last bastion of political incorrectness;  a person’s religious beliefs are held to be infallible and untouchable, but a person without religion or faith is derided for that same sense of belief.  I get the impression that The God Delusion was written after Dawkins’ long career of being called dumb by a lot of these religious leaders.  It seems like Dawkins was no longer able to rise above (or turn the other cheek, hoy-oh!) to these religious extremists who hide behind their belief, but feel non-pulsed about criticizing Dawkins’ own lack of belief.

Another flaw I found in this work is that Dawkins seems to understand faith and religion as interchangeable.  I was heading down the path of becoming a lapsed Catholic throughout my undergrad, and one of the big nails in the coffin was an interview between Jon Stewart and the Bishop Desmond Tutu.  Tutu pointed out to Stewart that faith and religion shouldn’t be confused; faith is a pure belief that requires nothing but a person and a higher power.  When faith becomes religion, faith begins to breakdown, because a person’s energy goes into perpetrating the religion (i.e. maintaining a holy book, or a building to house that holy book).  Tutu’s comment made sense to me, and since then, I’ve always separated faith and religion in my mind, something Dawkins doesn’t seem able to do, and I think this is, once again, a knee jerk reaction to a career’s worth of going head to head with those responsible for perpetrating religion above faith.

I’ve talked a lot about what I didn’t like about this book, but I think there are a lot of good points too.  I liked Dawkins’ scientific approach (he’s a biologist by training) to explaining the human mind’s creation of deities; I liked his constant reminder that children should never be forced to adopt their parents’ religious morals; and I liked the way he calls out creationists and other pseudo-scientists who try to mingle religion and science.  Because of my current situation, I think a lot of what he was writing was going over my head, but I got the gist, and I look forward to reading The God Delusion again when I’ve got a clearer head.

So, final verdict?  This book isn’t for everyone.  If you’re a die-hard religious/faith fanatic, you’ll read it in a spirit of finding flaws.  If you’re questioning your religion and/or faith, this might shed some light on the dark corners of the question.  And if you’ve left your religion or faith behind, this book provides a justification for what that’s okay.  As for Michelle, I think (and this is just my opinion) what happened was that her god broke their social contract.  She promised her god to be as good a person as she could be, and in return he would look after her and the ones she loved.  She held up her part of the bargain, but her god fell short.  And in her “Rant” posting, it’s heartbreaking to read her anger, but perfectly understandable; her God Hypothesis (the opposite of Dawkins’ God Delusion) has been tested, and it’s up to Michelle where she’ll go from here.  Regardless of where she ends up on the question of a higher power, I know we’ll all stand beside her – she’s too good and lovely of a person for anyone to do anything else.

(Michelle’s blog, Griffin’s Flight, is a well-written explanation of the medical and mental process of what happened.  I commend her for being brave enough to educate the rest of us on her experiences, and encourage everyone to read her account, if for no other reason that to learn how to be more compassionate for mothers who have had similar experiences.)

Precious, by Sapphire

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – the depth of depravity which we humans can sink to to inflict harm on one another is never-ending.  But I’ll add a caveat to that statement now; it’ll never stop breaking my heart or surprising me.  Where did these melancholy thoughts come from?  From my latest read, Precious, by Sapphire.  This is a re-read for me, but for those that missed it, this book was turned into an award winning moving about five years ago.  I read the book for the first time then, but it’s been so long that a lot of the smaller details were lost to me, so I was able to come to the book with fresh eyes.

About the plot: Precious is about a girl by the same name.  Based in the ‘80s in New York, we meet 16 year-old Precious on the day she’s being expelled from her school because she’s pregnant.  Precious is larger and older than her classmates, and it’s clear that she’s fallen through multiple cracks in multiple systems; she can’t read, though this is her second pregnancy (by her father – and there’s no spoiler on that; she tells you in the first 10 pages or so) children’s aid isn’t stepping in, and her mother is using Precious and her first grandchild to cheat the welfare system.  In the first 20 pages, the reader is subjected to so much heart-break on behalf of Precious that it’s difficult to carry on reading, but somehow, it feels like you owe it to the young woman (and all the women she represents) to keep going.  Expelled from her school, Precious enrolls herself in an alternative school, where she’s finally taught how to read and write, inspiring her to want better for her and her children than she could have expected before her expulsion.  

Now, I’d like to stress (yet again) that I’m not racist.  I fully admit that I can be culturally insensitive, but that comes from a place of un-education, not malice.  I read a story like Precious sitting in a world removed (financially, educationally, culturally, and racially), and try to understand.  I part of me will never fully comprehend the struggle of minorities (and Precious’ story isn’t beyond the realm of the possible), but I can empathize.  As a woman, I can understand Precious’ desire for safety and security, and her drive to educate herself for her own betterment and the betterment of her children.  So, when I read Precious, I might not be able to sympathize with Precious’ story, but I can empathize, and that’s down to a shared bond of humanity, and the skills of the author in brining Precious to life.

This story is all character driven, and Sapphire delivered in the creation of well-rounded and engaging characters.  Precious is dynamic and believable; I rooted for her to succeed in everything she tried, no matter the odds.  When the odds kept stacking up against her, and I started to loose hope for her, she kept plowing through them, which made me respect the character even more.  Precious’ fellow students and the people she meets out and about in her daily life are equally engaging and dynamic – each one adds to the rich tapestry of the story weaved around Precious.  But, the real stand-outs in terms of secondary characters are Precious’ parents.  Sapphire managed to create two fictional characters that have absolutely no redeeming qualities, and that act as a perfect foil for Precious.  Her relationship with her parents moves the story forward in such a way that makes you root for Precious all the harder because she doesn’t (overtly) encourage the reader to dislike them.  It’s odd, now that I think about it – usually, the protagonist has negative feelings about the antagonist(s) that they share with the reader.  In this case, Precious never passes judgment on her parents, but lets their actions and characters speak for themselves, to great effect.  It’s a delicate dance that Sapphire plays with her characters, and it’s eloquently done.

In terms of plot, Precious never lags.  There is always forward movement, driven by Precious, and so the engaging character creates an engaging plot.  In terms of writing style, Sapphire’s past as a poet really comes thought; not feeling the need to stick to proper grammar and spelling, Sapphire writes in Precious’ voice, which is that of an uneducated young person; as such, it might take a couple of passes here and there to understand what it being said.  But, as Precious educates herself, the narrative voice becomes clearer and clearer, making it easier to read.

So, final verdict?  I would say this is a book to read by anyone with a social conscious.  We’re always so concerned about making sure large atrocities in our human history are never repeated (like genocides), but we seem to be ignoring the little atrocities that happen all around us; I think Precious and Precious represent a part of our society that exists and experience heartbreaking conditions everyday.  Be it for systemic reasons, or just a quirk in humanity that allows us to look the other way from the human suffering that happens around us, this book is a good reminder of what we owe each other as human-beings, regardless of race, sex or social standing.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You, by The Oatmeal

Like all of us who work a desk job, there are certain times during the day when I need a little pick me up to get through the afternoon.  My go-to pick me up is the Bobcats, a series of cartoons by The Oatmeal, an online collection of cartoons that are always worth a read.  To cash in on his on-line success, The Oatmeal (actually named Matthew Inman), decided to publish a collection of his cartoons from on-line, as well as some new ones in my latest read, How to Tell If Your Cat is Plotting to Kill You.

Now, I’ve had cats in my life since I was 4 years old.  And I have observed their behaviours and actions for years, under a whole host of conditions, and I have surmised the two following facts:

1-      Cats are assholes.
2-      Given the chance, your cat will kill you.  (Sometimes as revenge, but more likely, just because they can.  For a reason for this, see number 1.)

How do I know number 2 is true?  My last cat, Buster, proved the point – there would be nights were I’d wake up to the evolutionary hold-over feeling that I was being watched, and he’s be standing or sitting in the doorway to my bedroom, just watching me.  It was unsettling, to say the least.

When Inman published his book, I knew I wanted to read it.  As a collection of cartoons, the book presents a solid cat-related field with a lot of insights that all cat owners will recognize and sympathize with.  With his usual sarcasm and wit, Inman points out the flaws of our fluffy little companions, and makes us realize that we, as humans, aren’t crazy – they are plotting our downfall.  But we love ‘em, so we’ll keep feeding them and cuddling them (on their schedule, of course).

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  It takes about 20 minutes to get through, and it’s worth it.  The problem is The Oatmeal website – you can spend hours trolling through there.  But even that’s worth it.  The Oatmeal will remain my go-to online comedy emporium, and this book is just one reason why.

Blink, by Malcom Gladwell

Have you ever been walking down a street, and see someone ahead of you with a gait and/or body shape that you recognize immediately as a loved one or a good friend?  Honestly, this happens to me a lot.  I never gave it much thought until I read my latest book, Blink by Malcolm Gladwell.  I’ve been a fan of Gladwell’s ever since reading Outliers, so when I picked up Blink, I was interest in seeing what his theories on our cognitive thought process was, and I wasn’t disappointed.  

The main theme of Blink is the exploration of the human thought process, specifically trying to understanding what our initial reactions and thoughts are when confronted by certain situations, and how that first moment of confrontation (the first blink) impacts how we handle the situation.  

Using a whole host of case studies, Gladwell walks his readers through the reactions of experts when confronting new examples of their domain, and our reactions to unknown situations, to politics, to human emotions, and to race relations.  Using a wide brush, Gladwell pulls in a whole host of examples of his main thesis, which is that the human mind makes quick (really snap) judgments a thousand times a day, in a whole host of situations and, for the most part, these quick judgments are most likely the ones we should follow.  Our brains are characterized as a huge processing unit and, just like your home computer, it operates on two plains – the observable and the background.  While we can moderate the observable (such as deciding if we want to drink coffee or tea this morning), it’s the background processes that governs most of what we do (it makes us heat water for our tasty morning beverage, but it keeps us from touching the heating element).  

The snap judgments that we make throughout our day is actually happening in the background portion of our brains – that part of our consciousness tells us when to duck if something is flying at our face (I’m looking at you, pigeons), or that the person standing on the street corner asking for your credit card for a charity isn’t all that trustworthy, or your doctor is a dick who can’t take the time to walk you through your course of treatment.  All of this type of assessment happens in the back of our minds, and is then translated to the conscious part; you may decide that the person yelling duck is pranking you, or you support that charity so you’ll hand over you credit card happily, or your doctor went to Harvard so she knows what she’s talking about, and you ignore those snap judgments.  But when you get a pigeon in the face, or your identity is stolen, or your doctor leaves her Jag’s keys in you, you have no one to blame but yourself; you should have trusted that first blink’s worth of impressions.  And that’s Gladwell’s point – while in some situations, long, drawn out, rational though might be worthwhile, our initial responses shouldn’t be ignored, and should play a major part of our decision making.  

Some of the critics of Gladwell claim that his type of writing is a simplification of a whole host of psychological, biological, sociological, and a bunch of other ‘ologicals’ work into writing that is palatable for the masses; these critics dismiss Gladwell’s work for this reason.  But I tell those critics to stuff it.  I’m a fairly intelligent and highly educated individual that is interested in understand why and how the universe works, but I have no experience in reading and interpreting ‘ological’ studies and reports – I’m not entirely sure I’d be able to understand one if I ever tried.  So I appreciate Gladwell, which works collects these types of reports, synthesizes them, and draws out the larger conclusions they present as a whole, and makes them accessible to people like me.  To Gladwell’s critics, I invite you to try it.  I’ll bet you can’t, or at least, not as well as he can.

The only thing I wasn’t a fan of with this book was the lack of biological/historical explanation of this initial blink reaction that humans have.  While mentioned in passing once or twice, I think this ‘first blink’ reaction we have is a hold-over from our evolutionary phases where we had to decide if Urg from them neighbouring Grunt tribe was friendly, or if that tree branch would hold us while we slept, or if that cut on my sister Rung’s leg is likely to kill her, or if we should take her with us when we move on to our next hunting ground.  I think the ‘blink’ reactions we still have are a hold out of a time when snap judgments would likely keep up alive, and I don’t think Gladwell addresses this possibility with enough evidence for or against, he just brushes over it.

So, final verdict?  I’d say this is a book to read.  There’s a lot of technical talk, but Gladwell makes it accessible to the average reader by relating it through case studies and examples.  The theories he presents are well explained and their role in his larger thesis is clear.  As always with a Gladwell work, subject matter that could be considered very dry and hard to read is made interesting and engaging, and so I would recommend Blink to everyone, along with his other works.

Four Sisters, All Queens, by Sherry Jones

My latest read, Four Queens, by Sherry Jones is one of those books that have been kicking around my place for ages, and that I haven’t gotten around to reading before now.  And that probably wasn’t a bad thing.  I’m a little torn about whether or not I can praise this book, or if I should pan it.  Let me explain….

Four Queens is about a quirk in history.  During the 13th century, the House of Savoy (rulers of Provence in France) married four of its daughters very well; each of the four girls, Marguerite, Elénore, Sanchia and Beatrice married powerful men.  The eldest two married kings, and the younger two married men who became kings.  For a time in history when daughters were only worth what they could bring their families through marriage, the House of Savoy cashed in big time.

My problem with this book is that each girl needed a book of her own.  Marguerite married the King of France (Louis IX), who had a mother that was a terror (Blanche, the White Queen).  Marguerite’s struggles the claim the love of her husband over his love for his mother, then his love for God, then his love for saintly behaviour would have been a compelling study of human natures.  Elénore married Henry III of England, who at the time was dealing with the fall out of the signing of the Magna Carta, which gave the barons of England unprecedented power over an anointed king, and the loss of lands in France.  All of this created an unstable political environment that would have been ripe for examination.

And don’t think the younger girls lived boring lives in comparison.  Sanchia, a quiet girl with aspirations of entering a nunnery, married Henry’s younger brother, Richard, who was the richest man in England, both in terms of wealth and ambition.  Unhappy with his lot in life, and captured with the beauty of Sanchia, Richard married her in hopes of making them power brokers.  But, as Jones portrays her character of Sanchia, this wasn’t too be.  Sanchia, a retiring sort of person didn’t have the strength to stand up to Richard.  (They ended up King and Queen of Germany.)  And Beatrice, the youngest daughter of Savoy, probably takes the cake in terms of potential for a book of her own.  Beatrice was married to Charles, Louis IX’s younger brother who, like Richard, was an ambitious man trying to carve a place for himself in the world.  Charles and Beatrice, to a lesser extent, didn’t seem to care who they had to step on to make it happen.  It’s a real cluster-fuck of a relationship between them, and would be horribly compelling in its own book.  (They ended up King and Queen of Italy – but not the Italy was we know it: Sicily, Naples, Albania and Jerusalem.)

So, keeping in mind that you should never expect a book to be something it’s not (because, in the words of my thesis supervisor, you should write that book yourself), I just wish it had been fleshed out, and made into a series of four books.  As it is, one book doesn’t leave enough room for a full exploration of situations and characters.  It was frustrating to be flipping from one sister to the next, because you didn’t want to leave one narrative for another.  While Jones is a capable author (the characters are engaging and the writing style is solid), she appears to have bit off too much to handle in one book.  And that’s the major flaw in this book that keeps it from being a good read.

So, final verdict?  If you’re looking for a quick overview of the history of the time, then this book might be for you.  However, if you get easily frustrated by switching narratives, or a lack of exploration of a character’s thoughts/feelings, then this book isn’t for you.  On a whole, I’m not saying I’ll never read another Sherry Jones work, but Four Queens isn’t the best of calling cards – there’s just too much information packed into one book for an enjoyable read.

Monday, April 21, 2014

The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides

Isn’t it odd how the universe works?  Here I am, struggling to find my place in this world and understand what’s going on with my emotions, and I pick up my latest read, The Marriage Plot, by Jeffrey Eugenides, which addresses just such issues.  I had no real clue what to expect when I picked up this book, other than a great read, because Eugenides had never disappointed me with his books (see here and here).

The Marriage Plot is a modern-day nod to the Regency and Victorian authors who wrote about life, love and marriage.  The story revolves around three people; Madeleine, who is from an affluent family and graduating from Brown University with a degree in English, Leonard, a brilliant biology student from the wrong side of the tracks and who is Madeleine’s boyfriend, and Mitchell, a religions-major who is in love with Madeleine.  On the day of Madeleine, Leonard and Mitchell’s graduation, Madeleine learns that Leonard has been committed to a psychiatric ward for depression/a break down.  Even though they had broken up earlier in the semester, Madeleine leaves her own commencement ceremony to rush to Leonard’s side, there by setting up a pattern for their relationship.  Meanwhile, in order to escape his unrequited love for Madeleine, Mitchell is planning a back-packing trip to Europe and Indian for post-graduation.  The truth in this story is the quest that Madeleine and Mitchell are on to find themselves; both are in love with people that can’t, for different reasons, return their love.  So, when you’re young, educated, and have the world in front of you, how do you deal with that?  How do you find a place in the world that you can be comfortable in knowing that the one you love isn’t in love with you?  What plans can you make, and how can you adjust when those plans have to change?  Eugenides explores all these issues (and I’m sure more that I just couldn’t pick up in my condition), with aplomb and honesty that characterizes his work.

In The Marriage Plot, the narrative shifts mainly between Madeleine and Mitchell, and once to Leonard.  In this case, I wasn’t such a fan of the device; I found Madeleine to be a bit vapid and wasting her potential, and Mitchell the much more interesting of the two – I would have appreciated more of him and less of her.  But I guess that’s a sign of a good author with engaging characters; I have a strong feeling about spending time with the author’s creations, and that’s indicative of engagement.   

I think what really drove me nuts about the situation was that Madeleine wasn’t living up to her full potential and was selling herself short.  We all know people like this (and if you don’t, you’re the one in your social group that your friends think of as ‘that person’), and I’m at a point in my life – removed from the post-graduation glow/freak-out – where I don’t have the patience for these people.  But, again, I think that’s a sign of Eugenides’s skill, that he has me so engaged in his characters that I’m rooting for them, and want to sit down and give them life-advice.  

In a book like this, the characters are so wrapped up in the plot that they’re inseparable.  Given this, it’s hard to discuss the movement of the plot without also discussing the characters.  The plot moves quickly enough, but it gets caught up in the journeys of self-discovery that the characters are on.  If you’re not interested in seeing a young man grapple with his religious feelings, or a bipolar man’s efforts to find a comfortable spot in his own body, or a young woman’s fight for self-identity, then you won’t enjoy the plot.  But it’s those internal quests that move the story and plot forward, and Eugenides exercises his mastery of the written word to create the engine for the plot through his character’s thoughts and emotions.

So, final verdict?  Read this book.  Read all of Eugenides’ books – they’re great.  While I didn’t like this one as much as Middlesex or The Virgin Suicides, it is still a great example of Eugenides’ skills as an author, and contributes massively to his canon.  I’ll admit that I might not have been in the best head-space to read about quests for self and a character dealing with a massive depressive episode, so I’m looking forward to re-reading this book in the future, when I may be able to better appreciate it.  But, regardless, this was an interesting book that the universe put in my way at an interesting time of my life.

The Priest's Madonna, by Amy Hassinger

This review is going to be short and sweet, and to the point.  My latest read was The Priest’s Madonna, by Amy Hassinger.  This is the story of a young woman in 1890s France, who falls in love with the priest in her town.  While repairing the church, they find what appears to be a Cathar-era treasure map.  Suddenly, the priest is flush with cash and begins a massive building project.  There’s also a really unnecessary side-story about Mary Magdalene and her time with Jesus; basically, this book is trying to be The Da Vinci Code, but classy.  

It all sounds very sexy when you put it that way, and that sex-appeal is what the write-up and recommendations on the back of the book implies, but the reality is far less.  This is an innocuous book; there’s nothing that really captures the reader’s imagination – while the potential in the plot sounds great, the reality is ho-hum.  I don’t know if Hassinger felt stymied by the historical resources she had, or if she just lacked the imagination to fill in the gaps those resources surly left, but this book is not what the book-jacket implies it will be, and that’s a shame because according to the write-up, it could have been great.

So, final verdict?  Skip it.  It’s not worth the time.  Even if you remove yourself from what you were expecting (which is really how you should approach all books), it’s still not that interesting of a read.  There are moments in the book where, with a bit extra imagination, it could have been great, but Hassinger didn’t exploit them.  Because of that, I can’t recommend this book, not even for those with an interest in the time period, or Cathar history.