[I've been
« September, 2004 »
The Parrot’s Lament: And Other True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity

Some people think animals communicate and have higher-order thinking and some do not. The author does. This book is full of different anecdotes and explanations about why he thinks this is so. Regardless of your opinions, the book is well written and an interesting look into the lives of animals by people who work closely with them. However, as someone who is skeptical about animals' intellectual capacities, I found that I did just what the author said I might, I lumped a lot of the behaviors that he was showing as evidence of higher order thinking and said “well, that’s just coincidence, that’s not scientific, there are other explanations for that behavior...” It’s not that I don’t think that animals are as valid organisms as humans, or that they don’t have their own thoughts and ideas in their heads, it’s just that we have no way of knowing or even testing what those thoughts are.

Linden has a compelling assortment of stories of animal tool usage, animal problem solving, animal “sensing” of human feelings or motivations and plain old animal ingenuity. None of these stories tell us anything about the animals' inner thoughts. This is where Linden would like to believe that they think more like we do and I like to believe that I don’t know how they think, though I wouldn’t quibble that they use tools, solve problems and relate well to humans. I guess at the end of the day I’m not sure what the point is, or why it’s important to Linden that we see animals as language users or as rational thinkers. The book is interesting, there are a lot of funny stories and he might change your mind about how you look at the way animals think, though he didn’t change mine. z

Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology

Two early problems with this book: the author admits early on that he changed some of the identifying details and all the character names in this book to protect the anonymity of the people involved, and, it was written in 1992 even though it was published just recently. As a result, this tale of an academic intellectual going “back to the land” to see what life is like without the intrusion of technology reads a little like a fairy tale [who are these people? how much did he change?] and a little quaint [1992 was before most of us had a constant mainline in to the Internet, how would this be different now?]

Like many people who are or were drawn into the back to the land movement, Brende has trouble with the frenetic pace of the American society that he lives in. He enters a graduate program at MIT and discovers, surprise!, that his professors don’t share his skepticism about the wonders of technology. The reader may wonder if brende would have gotten a more favorable reception at some institution of higher learning that didn’t have the word Technology in its title.

In any case, a chance meeting with an Amishlike man at a bus stop leads into an 18 month sojourn at the man’s community. Brende takes care to say this this man and his community are NOT Amish or Mennonite, but seem to be a gathering of folks that live in line with similar low- or no-technology teachings and a very strong church. Brende quickly marries his girlfriend and away they go to live without technology....

Many of the realizations that the author has throughout this book are not really that astonishing if you have spent any time at all living in a rural area. Work isn’t as hard if you have a lot of people doing it as a community. Life has a slower pace without technology. Cars interfere withe the way we interact with the natural world. When you don’t use electric lighting you are more keenly aware of the changing of the seasons. Along the way Brende and his wife make friends in the community, have a child and buy a house intending to stay when all of the sudden the discover that his wife is allergic to horses and so they need to leave which they quickly do. In the course of writing up his observations, Brende also tries to start some sort of a project at the house they bought with students as a simple living experiment and it seems to not go anywhere. They eventually sell the house and move to a small community in St. Louis where they run a small B&B, and he works as a soapmaker and a rickshaw driver to support their growing family. They now live a partial back to the land lifestyle and the author’s blurb is clear to state that the author only has an email account at the behest of his publisher.

This book is a fun read but it irked me. I think I have some sort of trouble with the back to the land movement’s converts' seeming superiority over people who live a life full of technological interactions and car driving. Maybe I’m just sensitive because that’s the way I live and I still feel that I have an appreciation for nature and a healthy distrust for labor saving tools. This book seems to be written for people who live lives sadly entangled with technology and who see now way out. Brende is a role model and explains the choices he makes in a “this isn’t crazy” way which I think is helpful. He’s also an anti-tech zealot and can’t help tossing in the occasional barb or righteous poke at people who use telephones, watch TV, drive cars [even though they have one they use on occasion] or use email. It’s the best of both worlds because he’s smart enough to be able to justify his usage of these technologies [how was the book printed?] while at the same time ranting against them. The people in the community he visited are still there, and still making do without, not just dipping their toes in in the subculture tourism way that Brende seems to.

The Codex

Not to be confused with the book Codex, this action mystery is gripping enough to hold your attention, while not so challenging or cloying that you grow to hate it saying “just tell me how it ends already!” The story surrounds a gruff but likeable Dad who gets his three sons together ostensibly because he is dying. When they get to his home, they find that he’s left and taken all the fine art and other pieces that he had collected after a lifetime of grave robbing and other less-than-honorable collecting. The sons, who don’t often buddy around together, need to team up to find the Dad and the Dad’s loot. It reads like a screenplay and in fact the writer has written other books that became successful films. The search for the loot takes the three sons on a grueling trip through dense Central American jungles and rivers and is fun to read for the scenery alone. Light reading but really much better than a lot of the trade paperbacks out there.

Prying Eyes

This book was on the new shelf at the library. When I read that the author had worked for some sort of data security agency, I thought “Oh no, now he’ll try to make us afriad so he can sell us something...” but it wasn’t like that at all. This book is a very thorough guide to privacy for lay people. It covers all sorts of privacy from how to stop unwanted telephone calls to how the USA PATRIOT Act changes traditional ideas of what is and is not safe from government intrusion.

Gertler fills the book with scary anecdotes that illustrate just how badly things can go wrong for people who are sloppy with their personal information, or who just happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, his general tone is not eye rolling. His perspective is that there are many simple things people can do -- outlined in bullet points at the end of each chapter -- that will do a lot towards making you more secure from data theft and misuse. He explains what identity theft is, and what you can do to prevent it. He also discusses more practical matters like getting access to your credit reports and current legislation that affects what businesses can and can’t do with your personally identifying information. This book is a great toolkit for someone who is concerned about the secureity of their personal data, but also just hobbyists who want a snapshot of the current legal status of the safety of informaiton.

The Elements of E-mail Style

This book borrows the cover style and the title of the original Strunk & White book but none of the panache. Part of the problem is that while the book was re-issued just recently, it was written in 1994. As a result, some of the directives the authors provide seem pretty obvious, while some don’t apply almost at all to the new world of graphical HTML-enabled email. The main problem, however, is that the book is trying to do too many things at once. It’s a guide to e-mail style, it’s a guide to proper grammar and spelling and it’s a guide to email in general. It does none of these things particularly well. Where the elan of Strunk and White was its brevity, this book is too long by half, filled with lists of “instead of using this long phrase, use these short words” which, if the reader cared, they could have gotten from the original style guide. There are some useful short bits like how to extinguish a flame war and basic tips on writing email using _underlines_ and *emphasis* in the old school ways but overall, despite its new reissue date, this book is a relic and not useful for today’s new emailers.

Debunked! ESP, Telekinesis, and Other Pseudoscience

This author, along with his co-author Henri Broch, has had enough of pseudoscience. He’s also had enough of people telling him that something is true scientifically when he knows that is not the case. This short book sets out to debunk some of the non-scientific things we’ve been led to believe, from the spiritual hype of coal walking to the psychic puffery of bent keys. This book was translated from the original French so the language and just the manner of assertions that Charpak makes can seem stilted at times. The book also has a tendency to be all over the place which can make for amusing reading but perhaps not what you are looking for when you think you’re learning about science. A fun intro to the subject with authors who are clearly supergeniuses but not always completely coherent.

When Raccoons Fall Through your Ceiling

Lopez works for Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Texas, or did, and her word goes when telling people how to deal with sick, injured or abandoned animals. her belief is that we have animals in our homes and yards because we have moved into their yard, and that we should learn to co-exist, not just try to keep all the animals away. To this end she has created this practical book of tips for living with animals, encoungerinag animals and helping animals when you come across one that is hurt or stranded. She dismisses many of the myths about how to treat animals -- that fawn you find alone in the field may be just fine as long as you don’t disturb it, this is normal deer behavior -- and tries to teach people when you can help and when you need to call in the professionals. Her advice ranges from how to keep the bears away, to how large a baby skunk has to be before it can live on its own to the best thing to feet baby birds. She’s practical, respectful of animals and people and has a sense of humor which it seems must be a prerequisite for a job like hers.

The Golem’s Mighty Swing

Sturm is a local guy and I was sad to miss him when he came to speak at my library. This graphic novel came out to great acclaim and it’s taken me a while to get it and see what all the fuss was about. Since I usually read meatier graphic novels, I was a bit surprised by how short this one was. It’s not that it’s short in pages, though it is that, but Sturm’s wonderful spare drawing style means that from frame to frame there’s not a lot happening. This book is about a Jewish baseball team, almost a novelty team, that plays various exhibition type local games in the 1920’s. It’s a short bittersweet story that includes a lot of anti-Semitism, a little bit of comeuppance and not much in the way of happy endings. There is also a lot of baseball so if you’re good with baseball statistics you may enjoy the “he pitches... the swing ... strike” segments more than I did. I enjoyed the narrative of this story which was marred a wee bit by too much baseball. In any case, it’s a lovely book not just the drawings but the cover, packaging, font choices, the whole nine yards. A really great accomplishment, to provide something different in the sometimes too-similar world of graphic novels.

Unveiled: The Hidden Lives of Nuns

This book was a fascinating read but I found the author somewhat annoying. Reed is one of those people who constantly wonders about the road not taken. She is married with two adopted children, but always wondered what would have happened if she followed an earlier calling and had taken up religious life. So, she decides to do some in-depth research and visits many religious communities, mostly convent-style communities, and reports on what she finds there. This woman is in love with nuns. The number of times she describes their beatific faces, or reports without skepticism the fortuitous coincidences that happen to them that the nuns attribute to divine intervention, the more she lost me as a reader.

Reed is at her best when she is describing the communities and how they differ: this group is aggressively pro-life, this group gets up at 2 am, this group is cloistered, this group lives in an inner-city house among the people, this groups wears habits, this group admits men, and so on. The sheerr amount of time she has spent with these women and the amount of access she hhas to their lives -- lives which are not often spoke of outside of religious communities -- is impressive. As a total agnostic, I was more interested in the questions that Reed takes for granted: how can you be in love with and marry someone who doesn’t exist? does physical intimacy play a part in the lives of these women at all? what about the nuns who were mean to her, what’s their story? Reed seems to play up the good communities and dismiss the bad communities as dying out relics or people with outdated ideas as opposed to not wanting to basically have reporters get in their business. Reeds reporting is admirably politically neutral in most ways, but I was surprised at her lack of self-awareness at how putting herself into the lives of these women and reporting on them, fundamentally changed what they were and what they were doing. There’s a certain irony in listening to a reporter interview a woman who is mostly hermitted because, of course, when she’s being interviewed, she’s not really being a hermit, is she?

In general, this book is readable, a wealth of good information and a compelling read. I just wanted to know a lot less about Reed and her personal spiritual journey and more about the women whose way of life she was in some way invading for the purposes of her own soul-seeking journey.

Brooklyn Dreams

Another one of those book-length graphic novels, this one outlines the narrator’s growing up and coming of age in Brooklyn. Instead of the author meeting some girls and learning a thing or two about sex and religion like in Blanket, this author slowly and roundaboutly finds religion, but you don’t realize you’re reading a story about someone who found God until the very end. The illustrations by Glenn Barr are a crucial part of this tale, carrying the story along when the plot is less than punchy and giving even more dimension to DeMatteis’s well-outlined characters. The story is told as a series of digressions so by the time it’s really started, it’s pretty well over. This can be a bit hard if you’re actually trying to keep track of the players. I think the next time I read this book I’d try to do it without always thinking “I wonder what is going to wind up happening to whatshisname...?”

Retire on Less Than You Think

Sometimes I just troll the “new” shelves at the library to see what’s been coming in. This book looked like one of those perky little financial self help books so I took it home. When I realized the guy wa a columnist for the Times, I thought “Oh no, more hype about mutual funds and IRAs being the only way to prepare for retirement...” but was pleasantly surprised to see a lot of good advice with a range of options presented depending on what sort of life you want in your retirement. Brock is all about the sane saving and spending of money and refutes the standard investment advisor advice about needing 70-80% of your current income to be able to make it in retirement. He says if you want to keep woring, that’s cool, but he outlines a few ways you can save more money earlier -- driving an older car, moving to a place with a lower tax burden, selling a large house you no longer need -- and then retire earlier. His tone is chatty but his math is solid and his advice isn’t scary it’s useful. I’m not anywhere near looking to retire but even in my situation I learned some tricks about where to put my money now that will benefit me in the future.

Attitude 2: The New Subversive Alternative Cartoonists

All too often, collections of work by graphic artists is either all art, or all interview with nothing in between. Ted Rall has done a great job combining the two in this collection of cartoonists, some who you may have heard of and some who you may not have. He does interviews with the illustrators on topics such as getting syndicated, getting noticed or not noticed, being weird or not weird and mostly asking them how they do what they do in a world that is not that appreciative of subversive folks of any avocation. He also reproduces pages of their work in big format so that you can read the words, appreciate the artwork, and even see a range of the artists' talents. It was interesting to read the words of Aaron McGruder [Boondocks] Max Cannon [Red Meat] and David Rees [Get Your War On] whose work I was familiar with. It was also great to discover artists who I didn’t know as well, or who I hadn’t heard of at all such as Mikhaela Reid, Emily Flake and Ward Sutton. Some of these folks are political and some are not but overall they care deeply about the work that they do and Rall shows it off to good advantage in these pages.

The Rule of Four

I somehow missed that this book was on the New York Times best seller list when it arrived in my mailbox as a gift from a friend. I read it because it is one of those delightful mysteries about books, with a big mysterious actual book at the center of the conundrum. As mystery books about books go, this one is great, but you sort of start to get used to the pattern. Person who is obsessed with the mystery of some odd old book. Archives are scoured for extra clues. A puzzle or two is discovered, then solved. A friendship hangs in the balance. There is some international travel. While I love all these ingreadients, and liked this book, it did represent a turning point for me -- the place where I started to recognize these sorts of smart literary mysteries as a genre, not as a few dissociated gems in the rough of mystery writing generally.

It’s good news, in my mind, that mysteries are getting more highbrow with books like The Da Vinci Code being both popular and thought provoking. On the other hand, the more authors learn that book like these sell, the more I am concerned that mystery-books-about-books will no longer just be written by passionate literary hobbyists -- as these authors seem to be -- but also by just any old mystery writer with a good research assistant. It’s a snob appeal thing and books like The Rule of Four make me very aware of my fear and concern that something that I enjoy will become popular and ruined. For now, books like this one, and Lev Grossman’s Codex and others by John Dunning, I can still feel are my little secret, NY Times best sellers list be damned.

How to Be Alone

It’s been a long time since I’ve developed a crush on anyone by reading their writing. The last time may have been when I met my current boyfriend. The first thing I can remember thinking about him was “Man, that guy can write” I got that same feeling reading this collection of essays although, apologies to Franzen, my attraction for him will have to remain unrequited. Many of these essays are taken from published magazine sources, so if you frequent Harpers or The New Yorker, you may have read one or two. In the introduction, Franzen takes the extra step of explaining how some of his ideas have changed since he wrote these essays, and he is given the luxury of being able to edit them to reflect how he feels now.

He covers a wide range of topics, from his father’s death from Alzheimers, to his rise to super-stardom as "that guy dropped form Oprah’s book club", to his weird attachment to smoking [and the weird smoking industry] and the odd banality of sex manuals. He’s so earnest, and so conflicted and yet not whiny or otherwise morose for someone this earnest and conflicted. He discusses successes and failures as things that happen, almost as if they happen to other people, and then shares some little emotional impression of it that makes you realize he was right there feeling this all along. His language is beautiful - big words, long sentences, elegant turns of phrase -- but they don’t detract from the various things he has to say, just help to drive the point home. Franzen seems to long for the days when writing was important and writers made a difference. This book, I think, is going to help keep those days in the present.

PC Annoyances

As someone who is pretty good with computers, I have a hard time with computer books because often I feel that they give people only one way of doing something when, depending on how people learn and use their computers, this may not be the best way. I was pleasantly suprised by this book. The author who is a long time writer/editor for PC world is comomfortable with computers but also well aware that many people aren’t. When he talks about dealing with an issue such as Real Player putting shortcuts on his desktop, he’ll offer many solutions that appeal to people with differing levels of skill. He’ll try to explain what causes the problem, why it’s hard/easy to fix, and how to fix it. He’ll even discuss problems that are unfixable but, in explaining why you can’t fix them, informs you about the way your computer works.

Bass does like to use applications to solve problems created by other applications, however, so if you’re not in favor of having a zillion little apps running around, this might not be the book for you. However, thi si his preferred solution to many small PC annoyances, and he’ll try to give you other ways to solve the issue if possible. The book doesn’t come with a CD but it comes with a web site with links to the download sites of all the applications [and Bass uses a URL shortener in the print version of the book so the web addresses are all easy to read and easy to use. Even if you think you’re pretty good with computers or [in my case] even if you don’t have a PC, this book is good at showing helpful ways of explaining computer errors and foibles and providing solutions in a way that even someone at the end of their rope can understand and enjoy.