Thursday, February 25, 2016

The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera ****

Before writing about The Unbearable Lightness Of Being by Milan Kundera, a little history lesson is in order. In January 1968, Soviet Russia (aka USSR) satellite Czechoslovakia elected a reform government. Democracy and liberal arts flourished until the country was invaded in August of the same year and totalitarian rule was harshly reinstated.

The author lived through this period of hope followed by despair. Imagine the fall of the Berlin Wall (1989) followed 8 months later by tanks rolling into Berlin and all the intervening reforms swiftly reversed. This novel is a dramatic and philosophical telling of the aftermath of this shock.

Published in 1984, this book in an introspective/philosophical novel of life under a totalitarian regime, reminiscent of 1984.

One interesting section is about the etymology of the word compassion. This is fun to think about because the novel was written in Czech, (after the author had escaped to France), and translated to English. In a similar vein, the book includes a section on misunderstood words, such as: woman, music, and parades, also reminiscent of 1984, Newspeak.

In light of current events, this might be a book worth (re)reading.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs ****

There is a fundamental difference between a TV adaptation and a movie adaptation. With few exceptions (notably The Hobbit), the movie is significantly shorter than the book, while a successful TV adaptation is significantly longer. For this reasons, readers often complain about movie adaptions, "The book was better." On the other hand, the opposite might be true for TV adaptation.

In order to counteract this bias, my advice for those who were introduced to Temperance Brennan, the forensic anthropologist, through the wildly successful (11 seasons) Bones TV series is "Forget the TV series when you op[en the book." The coincidence the the protagonist of Deadly Decisions by Kathy Reichs has the same name as the lead in Bones must be forgotten. They are not related. (I understand this is difficult as at this date you are probably only picking up the book because you likes the series.)

The book is a murder mystery, like other murder mysteries with multiple puzzles and red herrings, which are all solved in the end. For me, this was a middle-of-the-road mystery. Specifically several of the mystery threads foreshadowed their resolution too clearly too early.

My other disappointment is that the book ends with a sermonette against motorcycle gangs. I don't mind if fiction writers showcase their research (Kathy Reichs does this also with regular breaks in the narrative for little lectures), but I do not expect long editorials, no matter how important the message.

I enjoy reading novels as little anthropological digs. This book, written less that two decades ago, highlights the speed of technological advance. In addition to pagers and paper phone messages, reports are written on paper and passed to the secretary pool to be typed. When I started my professional life in the 1960s, these secretarial pools were everywhere, but I surprised to read that they survived into the 1990s.

A fine mystery, well plotted and written.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer by Unni Turrettini *

The secret of reading tea leaves is that given no data, you can say anything you like. The The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer by Unni Turrettini is an exercise in reading tea leaves: an interesting mix of fact and fiction ultimately based on … nothing.

The book is based on the lives of  Kaczynski b. 1942, McVeigh b. 1968, and Breivik b. 1979, three lone wolf killers, three men over 50 years from a population of one billion. Given something that such men occur so infrequently, any conclusions are certainly conjecture. This book proves that point.

That said, with (in)appropriate suspension of disbelief the biographies if these three intelligent, isolated, and ultimately sad, men make for interesting reading. Just don’t expect any solutions to the mystery.

How confused (arrogant) can the people investigating this tiny population be, and how willing are they to generalize from these three data points out of the lives of the billion plus people living in North America and Europe? Here is an example: When discussing online gamers, specifically people playing World of Warcraft (disclosure: I played this game for many years with over 10,000,000 others), they conclude, “All of these people who live online are dissatisfied with their person-to-person contact in real life.” To this I can only respond ROFL and maybe STFU.

Looking for data where there is none: “if one were to examine it closely, [Breivik’s early life] offered hints as to how he might have veered from what is frequently viewed as ’normal’ behavior.” Here the author veers from the humorous generalizations about online gamers to the dangerous idea that these three men could have been detected by their childhood behavior. These three had troubled childhoods not dissimilar to millions of other. No matter how “closely examined,” no childhood examination is going to spot these three without snaring many, many false positives into the same net.

The author takes her self-appointment as expert and seer even farther to embark on a long diatribe against gun control mixing fact and fiction, and another in favor of citizen surveillance. The citizen surveillance is supported with the idea that over a period of a few years 100s of lone wolves have been identified (by the FBI) and stopped (?) and placed into psychiatric care (?). This is all stated without any thought as to why a phenomenon that happened three times in fifty years, now occurs every three days.

If you were ever curious why people are trading away their civil rights for some vague assurance of safety, here it is. Enjoy.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Antique Swap by Barbara Allan ****

First a funny story. I grew up in New York and eventually went to school in Salt Lake City, Utah. My mother, still in New York, sent me a letter addressed to Salt Lake City, Iowa. (This was pre-zipcodes, and the letter was delivered without a problem.) I reconstructed my mother's thought process like this: "one of those states, but with a short name,"

I regret to inform you that what I know about Iowa (flat, corn) is still not much. Today I know more, because Antiques Swap by Barbara Allan is placed in Iowa. In 1911 Iowa because famous for life-size cow sculptures fashioned from butter at the state fair. The same state fair offers fried butter. This book includes a recipe for said fried butter. Nothing that encouraged me to go out of my way to try it.

Antiques Swap is a cozy mystery in the town of Serentiy, Iowa on the shore of the Mississippi River. The two amateur sleuths are Brandy Borne and her mother Vivian Borne. As is typical for the genre the story is told first-person point-of-view in a chatty style with the protagonists occasionally directly addressing the reader. For most of the story, Brandy makes loving, but disparaging, remarks about her mother. For a few chapters Vivian assumes the narration responsibilities to a humorous result.

Surprisingly, a major plot element is a wife-swapping group in Serenity. This is quite a bit of sex for a cozy mystery, but rest assured that nothing happens within the narrative beyond vague gossip, mild shock, and general disapproval.

There is a murder and the murderer is caught amid confusion and small town excitement. Overall, a pleasant addition to the canon of cozy mysteries.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The Confidence Code by Kay and Shipman ****

The Confidence Code by Kay and Shipman is one of many advice books for women, girls, and their parents, of the the 21st century, the most popular of which may be Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg , though if the references in this book are any indication, the list might be endless.

The premise of this volume is that confidence is more important to success that intelligence. I find this hard to believe, unless they mean that if you're already smart, some more confidence might be more beneficial than some more intelligence.

The second premise is that women are genetically programmed to blame themselves and expect personal perfection, while men blame anything but themselves and have no concept of perfection. This genetic state of affairs makes confidence, already declared to be more important than intelligence, a challenge for women.

The book is generally optimistic that the stack deck dealt to women is not the last word. Much of this optimism is built on recent brain science that shows plasticity is possible well past puberty, over turning previous thoeries that one's lifetime destiny was determined early in life.

Much research has shown the importance of confidence. One experiment had men outperforming women of a spatial reasoning test. This difference has been well publicized for years. In this case, the experimenters noticed that much of the difference was due to women skipping the hard questions (lack of confidence). When the women were forced to answer every question, they closed the gap with the men. So it was confidence, not intelligence.

A successful women based her confidence on parental advice, "everything would work out -- if I worked twice as hard as everyone." The kicker was that the parent had no confidence in this advice, but "is was the best [advice] they had." I took this as showing the importance of parents in raising girls, something that is both empowering and terrifying.

More brain research explains the different timing for brain development. It is well known that generally girls can work independent in grade school while boys can not. New research has shown that high school girls are challenged in math as high school boys are challenged with Shakespeare. However, by their twenties, the gap disappears.

One last gem. No book that mentions parenting can avoid complaining about the self-esteem fiasco of the 1980s and 1990s. You know the approach where everyone was a winner and everyone's effort was perfectly wonderful. The confidence spin here is that confidence comes from overcoming significant challenges, not from praise.

To spite the obvious sexist predisposition of the two (female) authors, the book contains lots of useful advice for anyone wanting more confidence.