Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The Power of Habit
Why we do what we do in life and business
by Charles Duhigg
1 star - Oh, come on!

I wasn't even going to bother reviewing this book, but the more I thought about why I tossed it aside after less than 200 pages, the more I felt the need to vent, so here goes.

Starts off great. Mr. Duhigg discusses recent studies on brain function, how habits are formed, and how they can be modified. That was all pretty cool. Of course I could have skipped the electrodes in monkeys and rats. Heck, anybody with a dog knows about how habits setup cravings. Ever do clicker training? It works because the dog starts to associate the sound with the reward and pretty soon you don't even have to time the reward close to the click. Or how about the other night when my dog came in from outside with big slobbers hanging from his face and I thought he was sick until I remembered that usually when I leave him out in the evening I setup for "hide the liver treat" and so he had learned to associate closed door in the dark with noms.

But I digress. The real reason I couldn't finish this book was the use of "manzamples" to support theories. You know what I'm talking about. I'll give him a pass on the men with memory loss examples (although I'm pretty sure that women suffer head injuries and memory loss as well).

Then there was the Febreeze marketing campaign example which I was kind of OK with (after all, most housework is still done by women). On the other hand, being the only woman related example in the first part of the book, why did it have to be about women being gullible dorks? Could he not have found a product that had universal appeal? 

But it was the pages and pages of discussion about the Buccaneer football team that killed it for me. Yes, friends, another use of sports to drive a point home because, after all, we can all relate to sports, right? But it wasn't just sports, it was long detailed stories of guys looking at shoes and shoulders and how the plays went down, etc. To top it off, I don't even think the example really worked. By the end, it sounded more like retrofitting an outcome to support what you think is true. A more objective observer might have seen things differently.

From there, we go to the usual armed services story (men) and the Mr. White Man Turns Corporation Around story. There's also Olympic athlete Michael Phelps and Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz. Ugh. Seriously? 

I'm telling you, I'm so fed up with crap like this. How about looking at women CEOs for a change (if you can find any) or if you want to use medical examples, go to a freakin' nursing home (where the majority of residents are women). 

Now then, Mr. Duhigg, you have a pretty impressive resume and I liked your interview on NPR, so here's a challenge for you. The next time you want to write a cool book about something that is universal, try finding a more universal population from which to draw your examples. I know, it might take some work, but being an investigative reporter and all, I'm sure you can figure it out.

Final note. I did learn a few useful things about consumer products.

  1. Unscented Frebreeze works just as well as the foo foo smelling stuff.
  2. That tingly sensation you get from toothpaste is from additives which have nothing to do with keeping your teeth clean.
  3. MacDonald's french fries are designed to melt in your mouth, thereby providing a faster absorption of all that yummy fat and grease and a bigger rush.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Orange is the New Black - Season 2

Orange is the New Black
season 2
5 stars - for many reasons

Having read the book this show is based on, I was a little less enthusiastic about season 1. I thought that it missed out on the real insidious horror of prison (at least for the first part of the season). 

Not so with season 2. This season is grittier, uglier, realer, and ultimately desperate and awful. 

The central character is Piper Chapman. She's based on the author of the book, Piper Kerman. Ms. Kerman is a stereotypical middle class career woman who did something stupid when she was in her twenties. That being, she was a drug money mule. Once. Just once. One stupid time. But when the feds finally catch up with her, there's no way out and she is sentenced to 15 months in prison.

Incarceration, friends, is a terrible thing, even in a lower security facility (as depicted in the show). The total loss of privacy, constant threat of getting caught up with the wrong crowd, boredom. And worse still, people with mental health issues, violent people, sharing space with folks who just made some really stupid mistakes. Prison isn't safe, it isn't sane, and in season 2, that's what the viewer sees.

This season also focuses more on the other inmates and shows some of their pre-prison stories. The main thing we learn is that prison is like real life Facebook. You just have no idea who you're really dealing with.

That's all good, but what makes Orange unique is that it is a show about women. A show about women without bogging things down with fashion, boyfriends, and stereotypical snarky behavior. There are all sorts; smart, not so smart, crazy, sane, sick, well, good, bad, old, young. All mixed together in a random stew of humanity. 

Now, on a related topic...

So you know how sometimes you're watching a TV show or movie and saying to yourself "I KNOW that actress is familiar, but I can't place her." Two full seasons of this show and every time I saw the character Red, that was going through my head.

Yeah, I could have googled, but I save that as a last resort since I like to prove to myself I can still ignite dormant neural pathways.

And then it hit me...
It's Captain Janeway! Whoa! How weird is that?

Doctor Sleep by Stephen King

Doctor Sleep
by Stephen King
4 stars - classic Stephen King
ALR Blue - no animals 

One of the problems with following an author is that you can never really tell if the earlier books were better or if they were just new to you. So, yeah, I'm going to say not as good as The Shining, but actually I don't know since I haven't read The Shining since it came out. Does that make sense?

Regardless, this is classic Stephen King. Flawed, yet heroic characters, wicked bad nasty people creature things, good v. evil, supernatural stuff, pain and suffering, the works.

Dan Torrance, the kid from The Shining, is all grown up and seriously messed in the head. Seems he followed his father into alcoholism and general messing up his life. But he bottoms out and finally gets sober and settles down in a nice little New Hampshire town.

Meanwhile, a really icky clan of immortals, known as The True, are wandering around in their RV's and torturing kids to death to steal their steam (steam being the power of people who shine and shining being the ability to "see" stuff, like dead people or sickness or even missing car keys).

Turns out that the little town in New Hampshire is also home to Abra Stone who shines so brightly that The True are over the top rabid to get their hands on her. Well, Dan has a bit of a shine himself, so eventually we get a big confrontation between RV people and Dan and Abra (with help from less shiny locals).

It's a good story. Stephen King once again shows off his talent for creating three dimensional characters who come across as ordinary people (well, except for that whole shining thing). The way Dan and Abra plot to take on The True is great and doesn't leave anything out (meaning I saw things unfold and wasn't asking "Hey, but what about...."). It all made sense. 

Now, one always hates to see a good book end and it's usually a letdown, but this ended smoothly. Do read the author's note that follows the story. That personal touch made me like the book even more.

Saturday, June 21, 2014

The Absent One by Jussi Adler-Olsen

The Absent One
by Jussi Adler-Olsen
translated by K. E. Semmel
4 stars - even though I didn't finish it
ALR Yellow - brief scenes of animal abuse

I'm making an exception here and giving four stars to a book I just couldn't finish.

This is the second Department O novel about Detective Carl Morck who has been assigned to cold cases. In this one, he responds to a file left on his desk regarding the brutal beating murder of two young people.

As with the first Department O novel, the translation is exquisite, the characters are complex, the playing out of the mystery challenging. Once again, the writing alternates between past and present as we learn more about the crimes themselves in parallel with Detective Morck chasing down clues in the present.

So what's the problem? It's just too icky for me. Way too icky. In this case, the protagonists are a group of privileged youths (now adults) who delight in torture and killing. They've moved their childhood "pleasures" into adulthood, but one of their former comrades is ready to put an end to things. I was happy enough reading the parts where Morck and his associate look for clues and question suspects. But I started to dread the horrific flashbacks and scenes placed in the present that showed what the bad guys were currently up to. Just couldn't take it.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Parasite by Mira Grant

by Mira Grant
3 stars - predictable, but fun (until the total 2 star ending, ugh).
ALR Green - nice black lab in a supporting role and a cameo by a bulldog

Suppose I told you that you could swallow one pill and be free of almost every malady known to man. Yup, never get the flu, no more diabetes, cholesterol in check, the works. You'd say, "yeah, baby, bring it on," right?

Well, what if I told you that the pill just happened to contain a genetically modified tapeworm? But don't worry, the worm only lives a couple of years and then it dies and after a simple procedure, out it comes and you take another pill and you are good to go.

Feeling a little squeamish? Don't. After all, this protocol was invented by SymboGen and they tested it totally and there are no side effects and just look at all your healthy friends who already took the plunge. Gosh, don't you wish you could be more like them?

I have no doubt that the pill popping public (at least in the US) would totally be taking this miracle cure like you read about it. After all, it has to be safe or the FDA wouldn't have approved it. 

Yeah, well, doesn't take a rocket scientist to know that maybe that little tapeworm isn't really as symbiotic as advertised. Maybe it really is still a parasite as in it is to totally going to take more than it gives and perhaps even turn you into a throat crushing, neck biting "sleepwalker." Uh oh.

The book is fun, but kind of obvious right from the start. That's OK. I don't always have to think deep thoughts. The narrator is Sally, a young woman who suddenly awoke from a coma with no knowledge of her previous life whatsoever. That's OK too. Her parents have room to take her in and she meets a handsome doctor who totally wants to be her boyfriend and then she adopts a black lab (awesome).

Of course along the way there are those pesky sleepwalkers who seem to be getting a bit more abundant and more and more is revealed about the actual development of the miracle worm and there is danger and blood and stuff. It's all good.

About 50 pages from the end I started to get a bad feeling about how things were going to conclude. Unfortunately I was right. These things happen.

I labeled this as "science fiction" because that's where the library filed it, but honestly it seems a bit arbitrary to me. Plenty of books in the regular fiction section with far less plausible stories, but what do I know?

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Fool Moon by Jim Butcher

Fool Moon
Book Two of the Dresden Files
by Jim Butcher
4 stars - what fun!
ALR Green - just werewolves

Yes, yes, I know, this is technically science fiction (at least that's where the library put it), but it isn't really.

What Fool Moon is, is an action packed mystery, detective sort of book.  

Do you doubt me? Here's the plot. You've got grisly murders happening in Chicago. Murders of associates of the local crime king pin. You also have nice police detective lady person (Murphy) who sometimes hires Harry Dresden to help out with investigations. Then the FBI decides that the murders are their jurisdiction and they try to push aside detective lady and Harry is kind of on the outs with her from the last time they worked together since he sort of withheld information. Oh, and Harry, of course, is a klutz when it comes to social situations and relationships, so even though he's trying to do the right thing he frequently winds up pissing people off and otherwise making a bad name for himself.

As Harry and Detective Murphy work on figuring out whether they are allies or not (Murphy keeps trying to arrest him), they also both try to track down the killer or killers. In the process, Harry gets the crap kicked out him several times and he and Murphy find themselves in impossible situations which add safe excitement and action (as in I totally know they won't die since there are more books in the series, but how the heck will they get out of this one).

Got it? Now, the fact that Harry happens to be a wizard and it turns out there are werewolves involved in whatever is going on is really beside the point, right?

Caution - death by werewolf is not a pretty thing.

Sunday, June 1, 2014

Five Stars, One Star

Let's Pretend this Never Happened
(a mostly true memoir)
by Jenny Lawson
5 stars - brilliant

ALR Green - plenty of animals, some of them dead, but nothing horrible (well, unless, of course, you'd be too freaked out by reading about Dad eviscerating a dead squirrel and using it as a hand puppet to entertain the kids, then you might want to take a pass, but the squirrel was totally dead already and I have to admit that the whole "dead squirrel as hand puppet" is kind of clever and cool when you think about it).

I'm going to start with a totally random quote (yes, I just closed my eye, jiggled the book, and let it open up).

When Hannah was a kid she'd had this Betsy Wetsy doll that she carried around everywhere. You were supposed to feed her with a bottle and then she'd pee, but Hannah would always just pry off Betsy's head and fill her up to her neck with the garden hose. She also decided to skip the whole diaper thing and would simply squeeze Betsy's distended midsection, and a half-gallon of faux pee would squirt out of Betsy's rudimentary plastic urinary tract onto the neighbor's bushes. "She takes after her father," Hannah would explain. "Runs right through her." Eventually Betsy's neck hole became stretched out from her head being pulled off so much, and the body was lost, but Hannah held on the Betsy's head, possibly as a reminder that she probably shouldn't have children.

I'm trying to figure out how to describe this book without flattening the impact or providing spoilers. 

What we have here, is a life story full of both fantastic and pedestrian events, good and bad. The writing style is extraordinary (and makes me bristle that gifted authors who write amusing books are rarely granted writing awards). Ms. Lawson has some issues. Yup. Primarily anxiety and paranoia. Big deal. She copes. 

In the book, she lays out her life thus far. She just tells it like it is. Some of the stories are bizarre, some are ordinary, but viewed through a bizarre lens. I don't know. Whenever I try to write about this book I feel like I'm setting you up to expect some light writing with deep undertones. That's kind of what it is, but the undertones are so subtle, that it isn't until I barreled through to the end that I really thought about it. And the writing isn't light. Yeah, it's humorous, but with an amazing flair for language and pacing.

You know what? Just read it, because I don't know what else to say except that I totally give it five stars. 

Victor and I were still poor college students at the time, so we rented a tiny one-bedroom apartment in the worst part of town, and it was surprisingly wonderful. Except that the guy next door to us was some sort of mentally ill hermit who never left his apartment, but would wave to me from his window occasionally wearing pants. I'm not sure where the comma goes in that last sentence, since "occasionally" modifies both "waving" and "pants." As in, he waved to me occasionally, and (on those occasions when he waved) he was occasionally wearing pants. But he seemed to do it with less of a lurid "Look-at-my-penis" motivation, and more of a sad "I'm-simply-too-unstable-to-know-how-pants-work-today" sort of way.

by Tony Ballantyne
1 star - remind me to avoid science fiction, please

I'm not even sure what prompted me to put this in my queue, because 99% of the time I'm no fan of science fiction novels. Sure enough, this had the two things that frustrate me, a great premise with icky writing. I'm not saying the guy is a bad writer, just that the style of science fiction isn't to my taste. So if you like science fiction in general, this would be a pretty good read.

The book takes place in 2252 where "personality constructs" co-exist with "atomic beings" and one can have multiple copies floating around at once, some of whom are real, some of whom are digital, and all of whom are having very real experiences.

Cool, right? And the author does a pretty good job with the different realities, but, as I said, just not my thing (bailed out after just over 100 pages).