Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label book review. Show all posts

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The hidden meaning of fairy tales

The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales
Bruno Bettelheim
Non-fiction 328 pages
Vintage Books, 1989, 1976

If you’ve taken courses on fiction writing or literature, it’s likely that you’ve heard about the hero’s journey. Joseph Campbell introduced this concept in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Campbell, a popularizer of mythology, drew upon themes from Jungian psychology in his structural analysis of hero myths.

Child Psychologist, Bruno Bettelheim, while acknowledging Jung’s contributions, used a more Freudian approach in his analysis of fairy tales. Although there’s some degree of similarity between Bettelheim’s later and Campbell’s earlier work, Bettelheim makes no mention of Campbell.

Bettelheim is careful to point out, however, that fairy tales are not like myths. They serve different audiences and functions. Myths end in tragedy while fairy tales end happily. Fairy tales allow children to integrate id impulses with their developing egos. Myths, instead, are the voices of the superego. They moralize, while fairy tales allow their hearers to form their own conclusions.

Referring to Hercules having to choose between two women, one representing virtue and the other pleasure, Bettelheim says, “The fairy tale never confronts us so directly, or tells us outright how we must choose. Instead, the fairy tale helps children to develop the desire for a higher consciousness through what is implied in the story. The fairy tale convinces through the appeal it makes to our imagination and the attractive outcome of events, which entice us.”

He later elaborates, “Myths project an ideal personality acting on the basis of superego demands, while fairy tales depict an ego integration which allows for appropriate satisfaction of id desires. This difference accounts for the contrast between the pervasive pessimism of myths and the essential optimism of fairy tales.” I don’t agree entirely. Star Wars is often cited as an example of the hero’s journey. That movie ended happily rather than in tragedy. While Oedipus is certainly a tragedy, I’m not convinced that all myths must be pessimistic.

Bettelheim’s approach is primarily Freudian. As such, his interpretations deal with orality, sexuality, sibling rivalry, and the child’s sense of impotence. Campbell’s myth interpretation draws from the Jungian perspective. As such, it minimizes the importance of id, ego, and superego and emphasizes Jungian personality structures such as self, shadow and anima. Since the passing of Freud and Jung, neuroscience has identified many structures in the brain, however none are identical to those structures named by Jung and Freud. Nonetheless, those elusive structures remain useful for understanding both human personality and literature.

Thursday, February 06, 2014

Talking Head

Andrew’s Brain
E. L Doctorow
Fiction 200 pages
New York. Random House. 2014

Who is Andrew? In the beginning, the narrator calls him “my friend Andrew, the cognitive scientist.” But it doesn’t take long before the reader realizes that Andrew himself is telling the story. Another man is asking him questions, apparently a psychiatrist. Andrew is baiting him, attempting to catch his attention by telling him he hears voices.

Andrew tells his psychiatrist a good deal more as well, occasionally reprimanding the doctor’s ignorance and naiveté. Apparently, Andrew is well educated, and perhaps a good bit older than the psychiatrist. Yet Andrew is flawed. As a child, he caused a fatal accident. As an adult, he fatally over-medicates his baby. Although his second wife’s death is not his fault, he seems to accept the blame for the event.

Like other books by E. L. Doctorow, “Andrew’s Brain” is a historical novel. Its history is contemporary, and its historical figures are implied rather than named. Andrew is a scientific man in a world governed by archaic ideas and values. When he delivers his message to authority, it is ill received.

His message is to stop pretending to be what we are not. We have minds, but not souls and we are less important than we think we are.

Andrew defends his pessimism through the cognitive science he teaches, “If consciousness exists without the world, it is nothing, and if it needs the world to exist, it is still nothing.” But when he falls in love, Andrew’s pessimism is replaced with joy. Andrew isn't merely a scientist who views brains as machines; he’s also a romantic idealist. Doctorow gives us a full picture of Andrew, complex and self-contradicting.
The book is witty, well-written, and delivers a few surprises. One of Doctorow’s best. 

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Space Jockey

Space Jockey (Science Fiction Short Stories)
Tara Maya, editor, multiple authors
Fiction 315 pages (estimated for Kindle)
Misque Press. 2013

As the title implies, each of these stories involves piloting a spacecraft. However, there the similarity ends. One craft is barely large enough to support a crew of two while several others have remote pilots. Just as the book supplies spacecraft in a diverse variety, it does the same with story plots.

Many of the stories deal with warfare, and some deal with military versus non-violent solutions. One such is Tara Maya's "Food, Peace, Power". In this story, two determined men, a military leader and a civilian pacifist engage in a contest of will and wits. You can't read this story without respecting both men, their differing viewpoints and their conflict resolution styles.

Philip K. Dick's "Mr. Spaceship" takes a different view of warfare. His protagonist views war as a bad habit acquired by humanity and never out grown. His solution involves a radical approach and a fresh start.

In her story, "Semper Audacia", M. Pax presents warfare at its grittiest. Leda is the lone survivor of her brigade and now her people depend on her to save their civilization. There's no room for hesitation or error, however Leda has ghosts her fallen companions' ghosts to guide her. Are the ghosts real or has Leda gone mad? This story packs action and suspense into a tight container.

Another strong female protagonist can be found in Ethan Rodgers' "Farsider". This tough pilot makes the best of her exile on Titan and finds comfort where she can.

Other stories in this collection address artificial Intelligence, quantum physics, quests to explore deep space, and the loss of one's humanity. There's quite a range of topics packed into one collection.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Best eBook version of the Nights

This post, originally written in winter 2013 is rewritten below in winter 2021.

In order to base stories on the Arabian Nights one must be somewhat familiar with them. I sought a complete translation, which ruled out a number of translations intended for children. Since it also had to be accessible, I decided to use Sir Richard Francis Burton’s translation.

Another criterion was that it had to be cheap. The Arabian Nights Entertainments is available from Project Gutenberg, however each volume of the work is a separate download. An edition available through Google Play does contain roundtrip hyperlinks. It also contains a short biography of Burton.  The MobileReference translation is a good online reference. It does not permit copying text. Most readers won’t care about this, but if they do, they can readily copy text from various internet sources.

The Kindle edition of Burton I used is no longer available on Amazon. If I were to begin again, I would go with the far costlier but far more entertaining versions by Malcolm and Ursula Lyons. Burton purposely used archaic language, thereby distancing his writing from his readers. Burton openly expressed adult sensibilities in Victorian society. It's his scandalous nature that first intrigued me.

Monday, July 01, 2013

Bullseye, but not the target I expected

The Power of Free on Amazon Kindle
Glen Chapman
Nonfiction 22 pages
Amazon Digital Services. 2013

I've read a number of books on self-publishing eBooks. Some were free; others I paid for. Just about every one of these eBooks offers clever marketing tricks. Some tricks seem to work. Others seem impractical or unethical. This book isn’t packed with tips. Its chief virtue is its discussion of how downloadable MP3s changed the music industry and how eBooks will change the publishing industry.

In previous years if you wanted to record and sell your music, or write and sell your book, you had to hook up with a record company or book publisher. These acted as gatekeepers and ensured that only those titles with presumed commercial potential were available to consumers.

That has changed. Musicians and authors are now able to self-publish their work with a minimum of equipment and cost. Enter the long tail. When publishing involved high production costs and inventories, it made sense to promote the most popular titles—those with sales represented by the peak of a statistical curve. But, when traditional costs no longer count, sales at the tail of the curve increase. The tail becomes longer as more sales occur in fringe, rather than, mainstream, segments of the market.

This is great news for online vendors. With minimal inventory cost they can profit as much from the sale of fringe products as from mainstream ones. But can the self-publishers profit as well? Chapman wonders what the future will bring for self-publishers. If you buy this eBook, do so for its discussion of traditions, recent trends, and the long tail, not for marketing tips.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Touring the stars with Myron and friends

Ports of Call
Jack Vance
Fiction 300 pages
Tor, 1998

Jack Vance
Fiction 204 pages
Tor, 2004

Myron Tany longs to visit other worlds. When the opportunity arrives at last, he readily agrees to captain his great-aunt’s space yacht. When she strands him on Dimmick, he demonstrates the resourcefulness typical of Jack Vance heroes—he joins the crew of a space freighter.

Now Myron begins the series of minor adventures that fill out Ports of Call and its sequel Lurulu. While some Vance stories are filled with adventure and danger, others are closer to a P. G. Wodehouse’s comedy of manners. This story is one of those.

Although Myron Tany is the central character, the books are not entirely about his doings. Their episodes also involve the ship’s crew members and its passengers. In the end, two themes emerge: 1) lurulu, an undefinable state of self-realization and contentment, and 2) the friendship of the freighter’s four crew members.

When Vance wrote these stories, he was well into his older years and had already lost his eyesight. The two books are uniquely Vance, however their characters are not the plucky heroes of earlier Vance novels. Myron is unexciting and conventional, yet displays enough wanderlust to join a ship’s crew. The other crewmembers are neither dashing nor daring, except perhaps Fay Schwatzendale, who compensates for his good looks with his cautious and skeptical manner.

Vance, himself, spent time on freighters. And while his freighters plied the seas, rather than the stars, Vance experienced his share of distant customs and vistas. He lived and wrote abroad with his wife during various periods. Some of the exotic customs which make their way into Vance’s fiction may be parodies of customs he encountered abroad. In his autobiography, Vance describes of a port in Chile where the strict enforcement of laws parallels their enforcement on one of Lurulu’s worlds. In many of his novels, Vance tells the story through a single perspective. Here he employs the perspectives of multiple characters of varying ages. These are books to be sipped rather than gulped.

The two women who play important parts in these books include Myron’s great aunt and the captain’s mother. Aunt Hester is depicted as vindictive and vain, while the captain’s mother is frivolous, vain, and senile. Both refuse to let go of their youth, and one wonders if they may have been modeled after some of Vance’s contemporary female acquaintances.  Another elderly character, Moncrief, is a showman who manages to muster enough of youth’s second wind to hold his troupe together.  Unlike the captain’s mother, or Aunt Hestor, Moncrief demonstrates the possibility of aging with dignity.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Amazon – It’s a jungle out there

The Martian Chronicles

Ray Bradbury
Fiction 256 pages
Simon & Schuster; Reprint edition. 2012

Out of curiosity, I looked up Ray Bradbury’s, “The Martian Chronicles” on Amazon. I read it as a child and enjoyed it immensely. However, even then, I could spot Bradbury’s inconsistencies and deviations from his basic milieu. Still, there are those who consider it a classic, so I looked.

This book, published in 1950, includes stories published during the later portion of the 1940s. That explains the inconsistencies—Bradbury didn’t set out to write a book. It emerged from his stories. Actually, that’s part of its charm. The Mars in one story isn’t quite the same as the Mars in another. And, there’s no great effort to be scientific. That’s not what Bradbury is about.

The book has 391 reviews and well over half of those display five stars. However, I was more interested in the nine one star reviews and perhaps a few of the twos. Two of the one star reviews, and at least five of the two star reviews, were written by A Customer—amazingly all on the same day. It makes one wonder how many Amazon accounts A Customer has, or perhaps multiple people use that handle and write reviews at the same time.

Two of the reviewers found Bradbury’s language graphic and/or offensive. At least three reviewers found the book dull. One called it far-fetched and another said it was the “worst non-fiction book i ever read.” Did he mean to write science fiction?

After reading some of the reviews, I’ve come to several conclusions: 1) some people don’t proofread, 2) some people are offended by 1950s era profanity, 3) some people found the book dull. Regarding the second two conclusions, I further conclude: 1) some people don’t see many movies, at least not those without G ratings, and 2) if you prefer science fiction with more special effects, you should probably stick to movies.

Before Amazon, books didn’t get 391reviews. That’s because there were only a handful of people with literary credentials available to write them. Now you don’t need literary credentials to write a review. There’s been a revolution and the people have taken the power from the critics. There are good aspects to the democratization of opinion. However, without experts to tell us what to like, we may sink to the depths of bad taste. Therefore, we still need literary critics, unless something high-minded emerges to take their place. Luckily, civilization generally survives temporary lapses of good taste.

Among its advantages, Amazon, provides a path to publishing that some authors would not otherwise have. It also provides a platform for hacks and lack wits. Still, there are some self-published gems out there. There are also thousands of me-too opinions, uneducated opinions, and trolls lurking about. In fact, it’s a jungle—so one must tread carefully. In time, the jungle will become more manageable. Let’s just hope it isn’t destroyed in the process.

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Instant Karma

The Tea Goddess
Dekker Dreyer
Fiction 156 pages
Fringe Majority LLC. 2010

Kai and Ceire died before revealing their secret. A generation later, the Tea Goddess sends Remy a book—a book that profoundly affects his future. Soon he’s running for his life without knowing why.

Soon he’ll learn about his karmic debt and will need to repay it. But in order to do that, he’ll need to survive.

In this brief novel, few words are wasted. It takes off like a shot and races to its conclusion with just enough character development and world creation to make it believable. Personal dilemmas and violent action keep the tension high until the end. That end brings peace to several of the characters, but torment to another.

The book length of 156 pages is somewhat misleading since there’s a lot of white space throughout (I read the Kindle edition). Although not necessary, readers will take a bit more from this book if they have some familiarity with Chinese Buddhism.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Tightrope Ride

Farewell Horizontal
K. W. Jeter
Fiction 249 pages

There is only the building, cylindrical and huge. And, choices are few. Most live a dull and conventional life on one of the horizontal levels. Others live a creative, yet precarious, vertical existences on the building’s exterior.

Ny Axxter has chosen a freelancer’s life on the vertical. It has its risks, including starving or drawing fire from a corporate tribe fighting for control of the building. The vertical life offers hope as well, hope of fortune and hope of freedom.

There is much that Ny doesn’t know. He knows there are stars above him, but he does not know what lies beneath the cloud wall below him. He doesn’t know what’s on the night side of the building, or what horrors live within its sealed center. He sees angels flying in the distance, but knows little about them.

However, Ny is no more ignorant of the building’s secrets than the majority of its other denizens. This is how things have been since the war. No one seems to know how things were before the war. Moreover, no one seems interested in finding out.

Ny Axxter lives in a cyberpunk world, dystopian and corporate controlled. He’s just another gutsy punk trying to cut it on the fringes of a society run by faceless corporations. His journey is fueled by the need to survive. If he’s lucky, he might learn something on his journey, but in the end his hard gained knowledge will only scratch the surface of the unknown. However, only by surviving another day, and growing slightly wiser, does progress occur. It’s an exciting journey. Come along for the ride.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

An excellent sampling of Richard Purtill’s fiction

Parallel Worlds of Richard Purtill
Richard Purtill
Fiction 404 pages
AuthorHouse. 2011

This collection contains a full-length novel, “The Parallel Man” and ten additional stories, including some never before published. Some of the stories are science fiction, some fantasy, some combine elements of both. Regardless of genre, they are all delightful. For example:

What would it be like to be so empathetic that it causes emotional distress, or to see the world through the eyes of others instead of one’s own? Richard Purtill addresses extreme empathy in “The Chrysenomian Way”, and the second theme in “Other’s Eyes”. The situations in both stories, like those of most Purtill stories in this collection, have unexpected, yet satisfying, solutions.

When live actors perform in the space faring Universal Commonwealth, their psionic technique creates rapport with their audience. In “Blackout” an actor learns that gods can also use psionic rapport. Will he be able to face down a god and stop its killing spree?

Can a vampire live a comfortable life on a Greek island among malicious and superstitious neighbors? Is the arrival of a beautiful stranger his key to escaping an eternity of lonely despair?

The final four stories in the volume are adapted from Russian folk tales. Although each of the four stands on its own, together they form a suite of related stories. Several feature a knight named Karl, a war veteran now weary of killing, who seeks nothing more than a worthy cause to serve. Karl’s heroic humility will charm those who read his adventures.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

He read it all and lived to tell about it

Robert Irwin
Nonfiction 342 pages
Tauris Parke Paperbacks. 2004

Henry Reeve discussed the translations of the Arabian Nights available during his time, saying, “Galland is for the nursery, Lane is for the library, Payne for the study and Burton for the sewers.” Burton’s version of the Arabian Nights is full of archaic language, gratuitous vulgarity, and racism. It is also the most readily available complete translation, and the one you may have to read if you want to become thoroughly acquainted with this story collection.

During the time Burton was translating it, a Middle Eastern superstition claimed that no one could read the entire Arabian Nights without dying. Author, Robert Irwin, writes that he read the entire Burton translation without dying, but not without pondering suicide as an alternative to slogging through it. Fortunately, if you wish to be better acquainted with the Arabian Nights, you can read Irwin’s Companion instead.

Irwin explores the Arabian Nights from a variety of perspectives as evident in his chapter titles, including, “Street Entertainments”, “Low Life”, and “Sexual Fictions”. Of particular interest is Irwin’s discussion of how stories mutate, merge, migrate, and reappear elsewhere. For example, a short story about partners plotting to kill each other is the plot of “The Pardoner’s Tale” in The Canterbury Tales. Later it’s a movie plot in The Treasure of Sierra Madre. Other versions of a story from the Arabian Nights, “The Tale of the Woman who Wanted to Deceive her Husband” also appears in Sanskrit in the 11th century, Latin in the 12th, and in the 14th both Persian and Italian in Bocccaccio’s Decameron. In the 20th century, Thomas Mann reused the plot once again in his Dr. Faustus.     

Besides Mann, other modern authors have found inspiration in the Arabian Nights, including James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges, John Barth and Salman Rushdie.

Irwin’s The Arabian Nights : A companion offers an expansive and thoroughgoing look at this great work. There is little that he doesn’t touch upon. If you don’t want to risk death by reading the entire Arabian Nights, then read Irwin instead.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Something to rave about

World Wide Rave : creating triggers that get millions of people to spread your ideas and share your stories
David Meerman Scott
Nonfiction 194 pages
John Wiley & Sons, Inc.  2009

The main theme of this book is that older advertising methods have gone stale and that the best way to get people talking about your product is to provide them with information that’s useful to them. Simply telling people how good your product is won’t work — they don’t care about your product  —  they only care about their needs. If you satisfy their needs, with information that is useful, novel, or humorous, then they will respond to, and spread, your message. When enough people spread your message, you’ve started a “world wide rave.”

The author calls his style of marketing a “world wide rave” in part because he wants to avoid the “sleazy connotations” of the ubiquitous term “viral marketing.” He believes that communication should be genuine and not generated by anonymous paid promoters disguised as objective reviewers.

“Viral marketing” refers to making your message infectious so that it spreads far and rapidly. Your information stands a better chance of being raved about when it is useful, novel, or humorous. The message should have a short, catchy title to engage viewer attention.

Sharing is a major key to starting a rave. Scott contrasts old-school marketers who lose sales by over-defending their copyrights with those who generate buzz by passing out goodies. More than one band has built its audience by giving music away while asking nothing in return. Many companies who offer eBooks and other information packages ask viewers to provide their email addresses. Scott claims that the practice of asking viewers to fill out forms discourages them from continuing to the downloading stage. He believes that better results are gained from offers with no strings attached.

Scott claims that anyone can start a rave and cites several examples of non-professionals who have done so. However, most of his example rave starters are large corporations. Scott provides no instructions for starting raves. There is no sure-fire method for getting a rave going — it’s a matter of trial and error — perhaps not the sort of basket to put all your eggs in.  

Wednesday, May 09, 2012

Demons Hide Their Faces

Demons Hide Their Faces
A. A. Attanasio
Fiction 183 pages (Kindle)

This collection of short fiction for Kindle contains seven stories which appeared in print in “Twice Dead Things”. As a shorter collection, “Demon’s Hide their Faces” provides a good introduction to A. A. Attanasio for those not yet familiar with his writing.

In general, Attanasio writes science fiction and fantasy — but not always — and both can be found in this volume. Two of the stories, however, don’t strictly meet my criteria for either genre. I consider “Death’s Head Moon”, like Attanasio’s novel, “Kingdom of the Grail”, to be historical fiction, albeit tinged with the fantastic and mythical. Attanasio’s character, Richard Malone, is plunged into ancient Irish myth while fighting alongside Seamus Doyle during the First World War. When the war ends, he carries his ghosts and a volume of Nietzsche, through a rough and tumble life until a hobo translates a few words of the book he carries.

Malone’s life takes several more turns and he ends up in Hawaii. Here too, he encounters the mythical, only now it wears new masks. What begins as a war story ends as a detective story and in a surprise. There is no escaping the Death’s Head Moon.

My favorite story, “Ink from the New Moon,” takes place in an alternate history in which Chinese, rather than Europeans, were the first to settle the U.S.A. In this alternate history, Attanasio is able to bring a westerner’s interpretation to Buddhist concepts while preserving the story’s Chinese sensibility. This melancholy story of love and loss opens the collection and primes the reader for the stories that follow — stories that engage both emotionally and philosophically.

Friday, February 24, 2012

The Drunk Diet - Change your life without losing your style

The Drunk Diet
Lüc Carl
Nonfiction/Memoir 272 pages
St. Martin's Press, 2012

Lüc Carl wanted to lose his spare tire without compromising on his lifestyle. And so The Drunk Diet was born. Since other diets advised cutting out booze Carl developed a plan of his own – he began exercising and eating healthier foods while continuing to drink.

If the premise seems too good to be true, take heed of the disclaimer in the front of the book. Carl says that his title is intentionally flippant and that he does not advise ignoring physician’s advice, exercising while drunk, or being alcoholic. About half-way through the book, the reader learns that Carl cut way back on his beer consumption. Toward the end it’s revealed that Carl is drinking a lot less now and sometimes abstains entirely. He also reveals that of his original group of friends, only he learned to control his drinking. The others either sobered up or sank down into addiction.

If Carl’s memoir sets an example to follow, its example is an unusual one. Many people lose the ability to drink responsibly after a long stretch of time spent drinking heavily. So if you’re a borderline alcoholic, Carl’s diet may help you lose weight, but leave you with other problems.

That said, losing weight, quitting smoking, and learning to exercise vigorously all require discipline to achieve. Carl describes how he went from contemplating weight loss to making an active, and creative, effort to achieve his goal. Along the way his attitudes and behavior changed as he neared his goal. And discipline isn’t something that can be applied for a while and then forgotten. Carl continues to use self-discipline to maintain his achievements.

The book is easy to read and some will find it inspirational, however it glorifies the inglorious. The flaw in Carl’s approach is that it fails to critically examine Carl’s former lifestyle. Although Carl drinks less now, his initial goal was to lose the extra weight caused by drinking too much and eating badly. He attacks the lifestyle’s results, but not the lifestyle itself. He comes down on the Man for pushing drugs and states that “doctors are street-level dealers,” while sparing fellow bartenders, omitting the fact that if the Man pushes pharmaceuticals, He also pushes liquor.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

Not for Virgins

The Virgin Diaries
Kimberley A. Johnson (Author), Ann Werner (Contributor)
Nonfiction 228 pages
CreateSpace. 2010

Suppose you had never visited a place but wanted to go there? You’d probably look at a map before you set out on your journey. You might also try to learn about the landmarks you’ll see on the way. This book is like a map, except that it shows you a variety of routes and landmarks.

If you wonder what it’s like to lose your virginity, such a map can be useful. However, this map shows many routes and some won’t look anything like the route you end up taking. And just as you may recognize some of the landmarks, others may be completely unfamiliar.

People’s sexual education varies. Some people get good information. Some get misinformation. Others get too little information, and some people get way more than they wanted. The survey of experiences supplied in “The Virgin Diaries” is intended for people contemplating a first sexual experience and wanting to know what to expect. For some of the survey respondents, the experience was planned, while for others, it was spontaneous. Some had no regrets, while others wished they’d waited for the right partner.

The first time experiences described in this book are provided as-is and without moral judgments. Although the stories are intended for open-minded people, readers should be aware that some touch on the unusual, if not taboo.

While many of the stories express innocence, some involve alcohol or drugs, and others express callousness and sexual predation. One man’s first sexual experience was with his girlfriend’s mother, and in another story, the girl’s father urged the couple on while he captured the act on video. Suspending moral judgment can be a good thing, but filming one’s daughter having sex crosses the line into sexual abuse. Such stories do not belong in a book that’s intended to be instructive. I cannot recommend this title to the sexually innocent.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

In a reading groove

I’m enjoying reading Jack Vance’s “Lyonesse” trilogy even more than I did the first time I read it. Midway through however, I decided to take a Vance hiatus. While visiting the library with my daughters, I noticed that a new book had been added to a series I’d begun reading years before. I remembered the author. I remembered the character. I’d forgotten the writing style.

I brought the book home. Now, I can’t put it down. That’s because I want it out of my hands and back in those of the librarian’s. But, first I want to know how it ends.

It’s a struggle to finish because it’s so very badly written. Did the author always write this badly, I wonder. Did he change, or was it me? I’ve already added him to my short list of best-selling authors whom I can’t stand reading.

It’s probably not all his fault. In my formative years, I watched cartoons all Saturday morning. One day in my teens, I asked myself why I wasted Saturday mornings on such moronic fare. On that day, I stopped watching cartoons. Sometime later, I stopped watching situation comedies.

Apparently time changes tastes. Authors I once enjoyed, I won’t read today. In this case, the author tells his story in plain and simple language. His writing lacks style and bores me. Vance has style. His language is elegant, yet pithy. With Vance, it’s not so much about what’s going to happen next, it’s about how he’ll describe it.

When I first picked up a Vance in a Hong Kong bookstore, I assumed he was British. He’s not, but he knows his English. Yet his elegance is fresh, not archaic. Other authors, born in 1916, use styles that are dated. Vance has moved with his times, and yet his writing moves beyond his times.

I wish I wrote like that.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Learning a Living

Learning a Living: a guide to planning your career and finding a job for people with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and dyslexia
Dale S. Brown
Nonfiction 342 pages
Woodbine House, Inc. 2000

Many books have been written about career planning and job hunting. This one’s a little different. While it offers all the usual stuff found in books of its type, it also offers useful information for people with learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder (ADD), and dyslexia.

People who don’t swim in the mainstream while learning can be victimized by misconceptions held by others and themselves. This book aims at dispelling some of these misconceptions and takes a realistic look at learning disabilities and difficulties.

Because learning disabilities, ADD and dyslexia manifest themselves in a variety of forms, no one career planning approach fits all. The author addresses questions like:
  • How does a learning disabled person identify his strengths and weaknesses?
  • How does he know when he is being objective, instead of influenced by his own bias or that of others?
  • How can a weakness be turned into a strength?
  • In what jobs are those strengths assets?
  • How can weaknesses be compensated for?

He also considers the relationship between the job market, the individual and the law. For example, when is it advisable to inform an employer of a handicap and when is it best not to do so? What protections are offered under the Americans with Disabilities Act and what does the act not cover? What constitutes reasonable accommodation? When can an employer refuse accommodation due to undue hardship?

Sometimes asking the right questions is more useful than knowing readymade answers. This book teaches people with, and without, disabilities how to ask good career planning questions.

Friday, December 19, 2008

The Learning Disability Myth

The Learning Disability Myth*
Dr. Robin Pauc with Jacqueline Burns
Nonfiction 213 pages Virgin Books, 2006

In his book, “The Learning Disability Myth,” Dr. Pauc addresses a number of developmental and behavioral disorders and presents the basics of his treatment methods. These disorders include: learning disabilities, Dyslexia, Dyspraxia, Childhood Turette’s Syndrome, Attention Deficit Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and Asperger’s syndrome. Each of these conditions share overlapping symptoms, causes and treatments and should therefore be reclassified as aspects of what he calls, Developmental Delay Syndrome. The cause of Developmental Delay Syndrome is that spindle cells, which appear in the prefrontal cortex four months after birth, fail to properly integrate with other parts of the brain. The treatment involves proper diet and stimulation of these cells. Dr. Pauc prescribes removing unhealthy foods and food additives from the diet while adding healthy ones. His book includes a two-week eating plan. He is less specific, however, about his therapies for stimulating wayward spindle cells. Quoting from the letter of a thirty year old patient, these therapies could include, “listening to Mozart, with a view to gain right-ear dominance, looking through a Syntonizer at different lights for an hour a day for two weeks to open the fields of vision, … walking up the stairs with my eyes shut and holding a tray with a glass of water on it to help stimulate the left cerebellum!” Has Dr. Pauc made revolutionary discoveries, or are his claims exaggerated? Dr. Pauc readily discusses neurology, but never mentions that he is a Chiropractor, not a Neurologist. If the reader wrongly infers his profession, Dr. Pauc can, at worst, be accused of omission, rather than of deception. Evidence presented in books written for casual readers tends to be anecdotal rather than statistical. Dr. Pauc’s evidence is also anecdotal. If you want statistics, you’ll need to read elsewhere. Based on the evidence offered, I am unable to form conclusions. I invite your opinions, be they based on personal, or professional, experience.

*March 12, 2021 - No longer published under title above
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Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Well known Boston surgeon, Herbert West, disappears.

Suspicions were aroused today when Dr. Herbert West and his long time assistant failed to arrive at their clinic. Dr. West’s servants were alerted and subsequently found his assistant unconscious in the mansion’s sub-cellar laboratory.

Police investigating the scene found blood profusely spattered around the laboratory, but no evidence of a body. The laboratory’s large incinerator contained recent ashes. However, it could not immediately be determined if they were of human or reptilian origin.

Dr. West was murdered by a group of men who entered the laboratory through an ancient tomb, claimed his assistant. However, police consider this doubtful since the plaster shows no sign of disturbance.

Both Dr. West and his assistant were graduates of Miskatonic University Medical School in Arkham. Their careers, though successful, have been accompanied by rumors of unprofessional behavior. Some of these go as far back as their student days. Though some felt Dr. West’s theories regarding restoring the dead to life to be brilliant, others such as, Mishkatonic’s Dean, the late Dr. Allan Halsey, found them unpractical and morbid.

Though Dr. West’s disappearance has not yet been labeled a murder, his assistant is being held for further questioning. Further details regarding “Herbert West—Reanimator,” are divided into six episodes and can be found at .

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Shroedinger’s Cat Versus Eternity

Spook : science tackles the afterlife
Mary Roach
Nonfiction 311 pages
W.W. Norton and Co. 2005

Others may be dying to find out if there’s an afterlife, but Mary Roach looks at what science has to say about it. In “Spook: science tackles the afterlife,” Ms. Roach seeks the answer on three continents. She encounters reincarnation research in India, a school mediums in England; and in the U.S.A., she encounters laptop computers viewable only by those who are temporarily discarnate.

Does she find the answer? No, her findings are inconclusive. Some of the afterlife research is badly designed. Some is downright bogus. Regardless, whatever research she analyses, Mary Roach’s writing is always entertaining and witty.

Roach’s most convincing evidence is based on near death experience (NDE) research and is presented toward the end of the book. NDE research may be the most hopeful route toward understanding the afterlife. However, it is not a straightforward route. There are both neurological and practical factors to consider. Since near death is not death itself, permanent and unyielding, to what extent can experiencing it be generalized to experiencing death itself? For that matter, since much of our experience comes through our senses, which require living organs to function, how can there even be a death experience, at least in terms that are understandable by the living?

The near death experience reminds me of the dilemma that Erwin Shroedinger’s cat found itself in. In Shroedinger’s thought experiment, the cat is both live and dead until an observer opens the box that contains it. Only upon observation can the cat be considered dead or living. That’s the thing — is a person dead or living during an NDE? Roach’s book doesn’t provide any solid answers, but it does ask some great questions.
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