Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts
Showing posts with label non-fiction. Show all posts

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang by Chelsea Handler

Rating: WARTY!

I watched a couple of Chelsea Handler's TV shows and while they were mildly entertaining, they were not enough to make me want to keep on watching. I picked up this book out of curiosity since it was on close-out, but when I read it, I was far less impressed with this than with the TV show. I now have absolutely zero interest in this woman!

The biographical stories were boring and juvenile and presented like she was the only one that anything remotely like this had ever happened to. I had no interest in what she wrote and took quickly to skimming and finding less and less to engage me the further I went into it. In short order, I gave up on it entirely.

Does anyone really want to read about her OCD with masturbation at the age of eight? Do we really find it funny that someone pulled a prank on her that she'd killed a dog? I have zero interest in any of this juvenile stupid behavior and I cannot recommend this, not remotely, not even if you're actually a dog-handler from Chelsea in London.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Atom Land by Jon Butterworth

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This is Jon Butterworth's second book on physics. I have not read his other book. The author is a Professor of Physics at University College London and also works at CERN on the ATLAS particle detector experiment. This was one of two large hadron collider experiments which were instrumental in discovering the long-sought-after Higgs Boson.

I have to say up-front that I was very disappointed in this book. For me, it confused things far more than it clarified them, which is unfortunate. I'm not a physicist by any stretch of the imagination, and I have only a lay-person's understanding of the topics covered here, but I have read extensively on these subjects, so I know my way around them in general terms. I was hoping for more clarity or new learning here, and I felt I got neither. The author used the metaphor of exploring oceans and islands to pursue the investigation of forms of energy and sub-atomic particles, but it didn't work and it felt much more like a shallow tourist trip where it's all about superficiality and gewgaws, rather than an actual exploratory voyage during which we really learn something about the venue we're visiting.

But before I really get started on content, I find myself once more having to say something about formatting. This book is laid out as a typical academic-style text, with very wide margins, lots of white space, and lots of extra pages up front that strictly aren't necessary. The publisher determines how a book should look, and supplicants to the publishing world are required to conform whether the antiquated rules make sense in a modern world or not.

For me, the bottom line is that we cannot afford to sacrifice so many trees in a world where climate change is running rampant and may be irreversible. We need trees alive, not crushed and sparsely printed on. Naturally in an ebook, this is irrelevant except in that bulkier books eat up more energy in transmission over the Internet, but for a large print run, this slaughter of forests has to stop, or at least be contained. Wasting so much paper is unacceptable.

This book had an extensive contents which served no purpose at all because it contained no links to the actual chapters nor did the chapters contain a reverse link to get back to the contents. Neither was there an index in the back. I assume there was no index because ebooks are searchable and therefore an index and a contents are really irrelevant. Who reads a contents page? Maybe some do, but I never do. I don't read prologues, forewords, introductions, or prefaces, either. If you want people to know what's in the book, make the back cover blurb serve a real purpose and put a brief contents list on that cover!

The real problem here though was the margins which ate up (by my estimation) at least a quarter of each page in white space. The chapter title pages wasted more, and each book section wasted yet more by having its own title page. I'm sure authors and publishers think this makes a book look pretty but you know what? Trees are far prettier than any book I've ever seen or heard of. The book could probably have been two hundred pages instead of three hundred, had more judicious margins and a slightly wiser use of overall space been employed. I can't sanction that kind of wastefulness in formatting.

Another issue was that while the publisher very wisely did not publish this using Amazon's crappy Kindle format, which mangles anything but the plainest of text, the book was published in a format which lent itself poorly to being read on a smart phone, because every page insists upon presenting itself as a complete page. Like an atom, it's not easily broken down into smaller component parts and the entire page is too small, especially with those margins, to be read comfortably on a phone screen. It's really designed for a tablet computer which is far less easy to tote around than is my phone.

On the phone, the reader is constantly having to stretch the page to fill the screen. Shrinking those large margins made it intelligible, but that also rendered it 'unswipeable': you can't swipe to the next page, so you have to reduce the page back to original size - sometimes requiring two shrinking efforts to achieve this properly - swipe it, enlarge it, read it, shrink it, rinse and repeat. It makes for an irritating reading experience at best.

The real problem or joy of any book though is the content (as opposed to contents!). Does it do the job? For me this did not because there were so many confusing metaphors here that it really muddied the water rather than clarified it. It was like comparing the pristine Inverness river of the thirteen century with the disgustingly polluted Thames of the Victorian era.

As I mentioned, the metaphor of sea-travel and island visits is employed here, and the book even includes maps of them of these locations, but this struck me as completely fatuous and an entirely wrong-headed approach. Illustrations of some of the concepts he was discussing would definitely have clarified things, but none of those are to be found anywhere. Instead, we have fake maps of fictional seas and islands that really have nothing whatsoever to do with the subject under discussion. To me this was ill-advised.

It didn't help that the author continually jumped around like he was in Brownian motion between one topic an another. First we sail to this island, then we sail back to where we started, then we take a train journey, then we re-board the ship and sail to another island, oh look at that island over there, but here we are at this island instead. It made for a nonsensical text in which the reader struggled to follow the topic instead of being helped along by a favorable breeze as it were.

I can't test the whole document since I don't have the text, but out of curiosity I typed in this one tiny section which struck me as being obtuse:

The sprays, or jets, of hadrons will be collimated roughly in the direction of the initial quark and antiquark. The energies and directions of the initial quark and antiquark can be calculated in QCD, and the calculation agrees well with measurements of the jets.
This scored marginally over a forty four in Flesch reading ease, where a score for comfortable reading would be sixty or seventy. Low scores are bad! The Flesch-Kincaid grade level was 12.5 which indicates a person who has started college (beyond twelfth grade in the US means graduated high-school - or post-GCE-A-level student in Britain). Although this was hardly a random sample, I believe it's representative since it isn't atypical of how this book is written, so be warned that the reading level isn't exactly aimed at the general populace! I think this is a flaw perhaps induced by having only scientist colleagues read the text? I don't know.

By the time this book reached chapter 19, roughly halfway through, and very accurately titled 'The Weak Force', and went rambling on about W and Z particles, once again without really explaining anything, but instead comparing the whole thing to an airline, I had pretty much lost all interest in this book. This chapter seemed to be one of the most confusing and therefore the weakest in the chapter list so it was aptly named, but maybe this was simply because I was so tired of these meaningless meandering and overblown metaphors that I really had no heart left in it at all, and I decided my time would be better spent elsewhere.

Even when we got down to the actual topic under discussion, the text really didn't do very much to educate or illuminate. As I mentioned, it was like a tourist version where we see the sights, but learn little to nothing of local color and history. We got a scientist's name tossed in here and there, but nothing in depth about the subject before we were whisked-off to the next. Every topic got the same short shrift no matter how easy or hard a topic it might have been to explain.

For example at one point (page 127 of the book, page 145 of the screen page count, which is an indicator of how many fluff pages there were at the start of this book), there was a brief discussion of the elements and how well-bound (or otherwise) they are, with iron standing out as tightly-wrapped no-nonsense kind of a fellow, but nowhere in this section was there any sort of discussion as to exactly why iron, of all the elements, is like this! There were hints all around it but nothing as solid as iron itself is.

Why is iron such a problem in star formation and development such that when a star starts making iron in its belly, it's doomed? Iron is like the legendary black spot in pirate lore, predicting your demise if you get it, but we learn nothing of exactly why this is so. We're told only that this is why iron is so common. I had expected, in a book like this, that there would be something to learn here, but it seems that either there isn't or the author thinks it not worth sharing, and we were never party to which of those options it was. To me this was a starting point: begin with trusty old iron, talk about the elements, and use those discussions of elements and their properties to launch the other topics covered here.

Another such issue was when the text started in on the color of quarks. Color when used in this sense has nothing whatsoever to do with what you see on the TV or movie screen, or in images on your camera. It's an idiosyncrasy of science which Richard Feynman detested. Red, green and blue are used to describe various quarks, but their opposites are not cyan, magenta and yellow! Instead, they're woodenly named: anti-red, anti-green, and anti-blue! There was an opportunity for humor there which was missed a in a community which seems fine with quarks named strange and charm! In physics, the color of a sub-atomic particle has to do with the charge of the particle, not with color, but beyond that I have no idea what it really means and this book utterly fails to explain it, or even broach it. This to me was emblematic of the overall skimpy approach employed here. I'm surprised the ship didn't run aground in such shallow seas.

The fact that topics got short shrift - or more à propos, set adrift, as opposed to being anchored solidly in something people have an instinctive grasp of, really sums up the problem: I expected a lot more from this than I got, and it was a truly disappointing experience. I wish the author all the best in his career, both academic and literary, but I cannot recommend this book.

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage by Sydney Padua

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a fat tome of a graphic novel and it's the author's debut. It grew out of a single comic strip posted on the web for the woefully misnamed Ada Lovelace day, and then morphed into a webcomic and finally a print version which is what I read.

The author did an awesome job in both in the drawings (line drawings black on white with some shading) and in the text. It was highly educational, and highly amusing. Be warned that since this story is rooted in reality (if given to soaring flights of fantasy once the real historical details have been established), there are extensive footnotes on almost every page. I thought these might be really annoying, but they were not, and I simply skipped the ones which didn't interest me, so it was fine. I found myself skipping very few as it happened. There are also chapter end notes, and two appendices.

It tells the story of Ada King, née Byron, daughter of Lord Byron, and Charles Babbage. Ada is best known as Lady Lovelace; she was actually the Countess of Lovelace, which was a title derived from her marriage. 'Lovelace' was never her last name. She is also known as the world's first computer programmer and as a sterling mathematician. She died of cancer at age 36, curiously the same age as her father was when he died.

The book tells the story of the childhood and formative years of these two people, of their meeting, and of their collaboration working on Babbage's Difference Engine (a mechanical calculating machine) and his Analytical Engine - a next generation machine. The amusing thing is that Babbage never built either of his engines despite getting some seventeen thousand pounds in government grants for his work on it. This equates to very roughly one and a half millions dollars today!

He did have a small working portion of the Difference Engine, and extensively detailed plans for building the whole thing. He seems to have lost interest in it when he conceived of the Analytical Engine and in that instance, he seems to have spent so much time on refining it, that he never got around to building it! The difference Engine at least, actually worked, We know this because one was built based on Babbage's plans and drawings, and was completed in 1991. A second was built in 2016.

Babbage wished to automate the laborious process of creating tables of numbers which were in common use for a variety of functions. His plans proved that he succeeded - at least in planning such a machine! Ada, Countess Lovelace collaborated with him extensively. This story tells those factual details at the beginning, but then moves into a parallel universe where the story takes on a turn for the fantastical and pretends that they actually built Babbage's machine and used it to fight crime.

If you have any ambition at all to write a steampunk novel, I highly recommend this book to get you in the right frame of mind, and to help you appreciate the wealth of talent in Britain over this time period. One of the most thrilling things about their era is that it was loaded with people who are household names today. Scientists such as Michael Faraday and Charles Darwin, for example, writers such as Charles Dickens. Lewis Carroll, Mary Shelley, Charlotte Bronte, and Mary Evans better known to us as George Eliot, and engineers such as Isambard Kingdom Brunel. It's quite stunning to think that all of these people - and very many more - were alive over the early to middle years of the nineteenth century, and that Countess Lovelace and Charles Babbage met and knew very many of them.

I recommend this book

Saturday, February 17, 2018

The Fifth Beatle by Vivek J Tiwary, Andrew C Robinson, Kyle Baker

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a great graphic novel, beautifully drawn and colored, and with an intelligent text which never wandered far from the truth, about the life of Brian Epstein, the man who put the Beatles on the world map and one who was described by Paul McCartney in these terms: If anyone was the fifth Beatle, it was manager Brian Epstein (but he also said that of George Martin!).

That said, it's really about Brian Epstein in relationship to the Beatles before his death (suicide or accidental remains an open question, I think) at the age of thirty-two in late August of 1967. We learn nothing of his childhood or early life. We meet him shortly before he meets them. Brian was gay in a time when it was literally illegal in Britain (the punishment for which was to be locked away with a bunch of guys. Was it really a punishment then? Yes it was. Neve underestimate how violently fearful people can become of others whom they consider different.

Brian Epstein had a problem with drugs which he used to overcome his tiredness and stress, and irresponsible doctors doled them out especially when he became wealthy and successful as the Beatles's manager. It was these which took him away, but before then, he found the Beatles playing in The Cavern, a hugely successful band on a local level but largely unknown outside of Liverpool and Hamburg. He fell in love with them and promoted them into superstardom.

The people closely associated with the band are almost as famous as the band themselves. The story of them being turned down by several record companies is legendary. Guitar playing bands are on their way out, the idiots at one record company told Brian Eventually a novelty record company, a small piece of a bigger corporation, and which was run by George Martin, and known for its comedy records, finally took them on and the rest is legend and history.

One the Beatles became uproariously, insanely popular and had stopped touring; there was not a lot for Brian Epstein to do, and perhaps it was this which pulled the last plank from under him. Gay in a item when hatred was even greater than it is now, lonely, feeling less than useful, perhaps he really did want it over with, or perhaps he just wanted his pain to go away. But he died and something in the Beatles died also. They broke up not so very long long afterwards.

I highly recommend this graphic novel It's as gorgeous as Brian Epstein was.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Boys Keep Swinging: A Memoir by Jake Shears

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Jake Shears, aka Jason Sellards, is a founding member of Scissor Sisters and while I'm not a huge fan of the band, I do like some of their music, in particular, I Can't Decide (the third track on their second album, Ta-Dah), which I think is brilliant, and deliciously bitchy. I'm rather interested in how people go from an everyday life to a stage performer in a band, so I was initially interested to read this, but I found it to be a real disappointment. I read it to fifty percent, and then skimmed to about 70% and gave up on it after that.

The band part of this memoir doesn't appear until the halfway mark and it's very thin. That part of the story doesn't truly get underway until about 70% and even then it's not as interesting as I'd hoped. The first half is taken up with the author's childhood and his college days. This part was slightly depressing. He went through a lot and had a lot to put up with, but that said, there really was nothing here that scores of other men and women haven't had to face, particularly if they're in the LGBTQIA community, so this didn't bring anything new to the table.

What bothered me about this, apart from the author never really seeming to want for money!) was that he appeared to have learned nothing from these events, or if he did, he sure wasn't interested in sharing his insights and thoughts on the topic. This was one problem with the book - it read less like a diary even, than it did a daily planner, with a litany of events and people trotted out, yet none of it had any depth, resonance, introspection or observation.

I never felt like I really got to know the author. We were kept largely at arm's length (as indeed was his "best friend" Mary, it would seem), and learned of him only through what he obsessed on or what seemed important as measured by how much space and repetition he gave to it. Judged by that latter criterion, casual sex and partying are his greatest loves. This second-hand perspective delivered an impression of shallowness and inconstancy, as though we were reading about the natural history of a gadfly rather than a person's life. As the New York City portion of the story ever unfurled, things only deteriorated. It felt like the story became even more shallow.

He was there to pursue a degree, but even when he got it, he did nothing with it. Admittedly the job market wasn't great, but what was the point fo the college education? From what we're told here, he was far more interested in dressing up, dancing, partying, and picking up guys than ever he was in a career.

His musical forays happened pretty much by accident and in a very desultory way to begin with, like he couldn't be bothered unless it fell into his lap, as it actually did in effect - at least that's the impression he left. I know the author has no control over the blurb their book gets, but this blurb mentions "...a confusing and confining time in high school as his classmates bullied him and teachers showed little sympathy." That kind of thing is entirely inappropriate and all-too-common, but what the blurb doesn't mention is what the author tells us, about how he liked to dress out even though he hadn't yet come out. This must have attracted entirely the wrong kind of attention.

And if you think a person ought to be able to dress how they wish, then I completely agree with you, but we don't live in a perfect world. In the world we do inhabit, one populated with ignorant jackasses and moronic dicks, this freedom brings a price and that price is exactly what the author suffered: bullying and little sympathy. A bit more attention to the wisdom of certain modes of dress and certain behaviors might have saved him a lot of this hassle. But the real problem here is that he doesn't talk about this in any detail, or offer any thoughts or insights here any more than he does on any other such topic. Maybe how he behaved and dressed would have made no difference, but we'll never know because it's one more important discussion we don't get from the author; one more cogent observation we're denied.

The casual sex was rife and disturbing. At first we're told it was oral only, which isn't exactly safe sex, but then we're not told anything about it other than it happens - frequently, and with a variety of one night stands and some dating in between. There is nary a mention of safe sex even though AIDS is mentioned. Even here though, the topic is dealt with so cursorily that it was like the ongoing AIDs problem never really happened or if it did, it impinged very little on his life or on the life of anyone he knew. I didn't expect the author to keep harping on it (or on any other topics for that matter), but I did expect to feel something of the impact of it and how it was dealt with, and how he felt about it all, but again we;re denied that.

There's really no mention of disease concerns or risks from casual sex, and there ought to have been, even if the author never had any such problems himself. As it is, it looks like not only the author, but no one he knew ever had any issues. Maybe that was the case, but it's hard to believe. As it is, the author plays right into homophobic stereotypes of the gay community and that's never a good course to follow, especially from the pen of someone who liked to plow his own furrow, so to speak.

One issue with memoirs for me is: how can someone recall events and conversations with such clarity from years before? I know some people can, and I know some people conflate several events into one for the sake of brevity and moving the story along, and this is fine, but nowhere are we told whether these particular recollections are amalgamations, or if they happened word for word (or close enough), or if they're simply impressions with some dramatic license taken. It would have been nice had a word been said about that. There are some events which feel like they would leave an indelible impression such that recall, even if a bit vague, would be authentic, but most of what we're told here wasn't of that nature, so I have to wonder how reliable some of this is, and I guess I found out. More on this later.

Starting with New York, the name-dropping became so rife in this book that the din from it was a distraction from the actual story, and it seems to serve little purpose except for the author to say, "Hey, look at all these people I know!" It felt so pretentious, and there were so many repeated mentions of going to parties and spending the night with guys he just met that the whole thing quickly began to feel sickeningly self-indulgent, shallow, thoughtless, tedious, and even dangerous.

This shallowness really came to the fore when the events of 9/11 were related. He was in New York City when the planes hit the towers, but none of that seemed to make any impact on him, because all we got was a brief paragraph sandwiched in between a night he spent with three other guys and a complaint that because of the fall of the towers, it was hard to party in the city and parties had to move out to the suburbs! The author didn't specifically say that himself; someone else did, but his lack of any sort of commentary on that attitude appalled me.

The shallowness he displayed over this entire thing was sickening. He was living within a few blocks of the event and saw part of it happen from the roof of his apartment block, and this one short paragraph and a couple of mentions later was it. I didn't expect him to agonize over it and put ashes in his hair and rend his clothes or anything like that, but his mention of it was so fleeting and cursory that it seemed like it was just another party in a long line of parties he attended - or perhaps more accurately another hangover after one such party. It's almost like he said, "Oh well, that's that, let's get dressed for the next fancy dress party!" This really turned me off the author. Another such incident was the New York blackout. That turned out to be just another opportunity to party, pick up a guy he didn't even really like for a one-night-stand, and that was it. Even then we got more about that than we did about 9/11!

I was ready to quit reading this memoir at the halfway point, but I still had read nothing about the band as such, so I pressed on. It was right around this point that it looked like the forming of the band was about to get going, but even then the story about it was awfully thin and sketchy, lacking any depth or insights, and it was still riven with never-ending tales of casual sex and partying. The monotony of it all made me uncomfortably numb, and I started skipping everything that didn't touch directly on the band from then onward. It was this that I was interested in, and I honestly felt cheated out of it by this point.

In the end I simply gave up on it. I honestly did not care about this shallow life I was seeing stretch-out meaninglessly across screen after screen. I cared about the music and the band and the dynamic and the energy, and we got so little of that, and almost nothing about the other band members. In the end it was a Scissor Sister, in the singular, and it was disappointing because it seemed to suggest that the very thing he had been heading towards since page one meant so little to the author that he could barely bring himself to write about it.

It was around this time that I read, "I hadn't had a boyfriend since Dominick" and this was just a screen or two after he'd told us he was dating a guy named Mark. Was Mark a girlfriend then, or is dating someone not the same as having a boyfriend?! What this confirmed for me was how unreliable this book was: something I touched on earlier in this review. One of the many names dropped in the book was Amanda Lepore, and I read her memoir some time ago and found it to be just as shallow as this one was. I'm now really soured on celebrity memoirs! Maybe if Ana Matronic wrote one I might be tempted to read it, but other than that, I'm done with this kind of thing. I wish the Scissor Sisters all the best in their career, but I cannot in good faith recommend a book like this.

Sunday, January 21, 2018

Terminally Illin' by Kaylin Andres, Jon Mojeski

Rating: WORTHY!

This was a beautifully drawn and colored, and very amusingly-written bittersweet story about Kaylin Marie Andres who was diagnosed with Ewing's Sarcoma in 2008 at only 23. Instead of succumbing to paralysis and mute acceptance, she chose to fight it tooth and nail with determination and humor, and not only went on with her fashion career, but also created a graphic novel to illustrate her fight with an amusing graphic story.

The book begins with her going for her first treatment and ends with the promise of a visit to a fantasy-land cancer fun park. There never was a sequel because Kaylin had to endure four major surgeries and attendant radiation treatments to four different areas of her body. And she died a year ago last November at the age of 31.

This book is probably one of the best memorials she could have because it was an awesome read and I highly recommend it. The last entry in her blog was five days before she died - on the day before she was due to fly back home for the last time. Hopefully this graphic novel will serve as a lasting inspiration to others.

Friday, January 19, 2018

Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose

Rating: WARTY!

Have you ever noticed how all the books which tell you how to write great novels ware written by people you've never heard of, and who've never had a best-seller? Even if they had, it doesn't mean they can show you how to emulate their success.

his was another Audiobook. This time it was non-fiction. It was read, a little stridently I thought, by Nanette Savard, whose voice I don't feel I can recommend, but that was less important to me on this occasion than the content, which was about how to read a book from a writer's perspective so you can learn how to a reader? I'm kidding. I like this idea in theory because reading a lot is a good way to equip yourself with writerly tools, but the question is what kind of a writer do you want to be? Francine Prose (great name for an author of a book about writing, right?) repeatedly neglects to ask this question as she fails to ask many others, and for me that was why this book is a huge fail.

Francine Prose is (amusingly to me) a Visiting Professor of Literature at Bard College. I don't know how often she visits, but it would seem that she has all the tools: her name is Prose and she teaches at a college named Bard for goodness sakes! Her book progresses from words to sentences to paragraphs, which was about halfway through and where I gave up on it as a bad job. I wasn't learning anything useful to me, and most of what she said was painfully self-evident. You'd have to be an idiot not to know it already if you're a prospective a writer.

he teaching method is to constantly refer us, the listeners in this case, back to classic novels of yesteryear, as though no modern novel has anything to tell us. I found this peculiar, but I have to confess I'm not a huge fan, nor a big respecter of the so-called classics. I don't get why schools insist upon inflicting these on children. It seems to me to be a self-fulfilling prophecy: that they're classics because the schools teach them and the schools teach them because they're classics.

Obviously it's a mite more complex than that, but even so, that pretty much sums it up. Very few of these 'classic' authors were loved in their lifetime. Like many artists, many of them died in poverty or near obscurity. It's only with the sorry patina of age that the stories they told became 'classics', and I have to wonder whether that was because they were so brilliantly written or more likely, simply because they evoke a bygone age and perhaps do it a tad better than some of their contemporaries. Just because a person does something a little better than someone else doesn't mean they're a paragon! The title genius and hero are squandered far too cheaply in this age of superlatives and soundbites, to the point where they've become practically meaningless.

The author's apparent position is that these antique authors agonized over every word and were heroically genius in their brevity and communications abilities, but to me their work seemed ordinary and no different form what modern authors are doing. My main beef is that all of her prognostication is done in hindsight after these works have been pored over so much by scholars who apparently have nothing better to do with their time, that the very words have been leached (or even leeched!) of all color and meaning. Worse, no-one ever asked the authors of these obsolete opera how they wrote or why they wrote in that way.

It occurs to me that if we could go back and ask them, they'd simply tell us that they wrote what they wrote and didn't sweat it; although they probably wouldn't use that exact phrase! I know some authors did and do agonize over every word, but they're morons. This is where the author's lack of insight shone so brightly. She seems to be laboring under the misapprehension that every writer wannabe out there wants to create clones of these 'classic' works, but few do. If you take a look at Wikipedia's list of best selling novels, very few of the writers Prose mentions are in it, at least not near the top. The ones who are up there are the ones who explicitly did not clone the classics.

I know there are many pretentious writers who desire to transmogrify themselves into wan duplicates of their idolized forbears, but most writers simply want to make a living through writing, and in this era you're not going to do that via writing classic literature. The way to accomplish that goal these days is to get a best seller. Even one best seller will set you up for life. Very few people want to write literature and those who do are doomed to make a poor living at best. Prose doesn't seem to grasp that.

All that most modern writers are interested in is writing cheap romance, paranormal romance, thrillers, whodunnits and YA. They don't care about great writing and neither do their readers. For better or for worse that's the way it is, and Prose teaching her readers and students to clone earlier authors isn't going to cut it, because it's not the people who clone the work of others who have the big success, it's the people who are willing to step out from the crowd and plow their own furrow who get the attention: people like JK Rowling and Suzanne Collins for example.

For this reason I cannot recommend this book. I don't think it serves any purpose. The only way to succeed is to familiarize yourself with the genre(s) you wish to write in, and then write, write, write and never give up!

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Your Creative Career by Anna Sabino

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I am very skeptical of self-help books which is why I do not read them. I have read one or two in the past, and this one seemed like it might offer something different, but in the end what it offered was no different form a hundred other such books: at best it was simple common sense and at worst, misleading distractions. You cannot be creative if you're spending your time reading books like this when you should be creating things yourself instead of frittering time away on things others have created.

There's an apocryphal story about a writer who was giving a lecture, and many would be writers were present. The story may have happened or it may not. The author in question may have been Sinclair Lewis or they may not. The lecturer may have been drunk or not, but the story I heard is that he came out onto the stage and the first thing he asked was for a show of hands from anyone present who wanted to be a writer. Everyone raised their hand of course. The guy responded with, "Then why the hell aren't you writing?" And he wandered off the stage.

Like I said, this may be a true event or it may not, but there is a truth here, and it's in the message: you can't be writing that best-seller if you're off attending lectures on how to write best sellers, or if you're reading self-help books all the time when you could be working on your own project. For example, reading novels of the kind you might be interested in writing will be of much more help, but if all you're doing is reading and not writing your own, then you're wasting your valuable time.

The common theme of books of this nature is that the author is typically someone you've never heard of or read about. You don't get best-selling authors like David Baldacci, and John Grisham, or Dan Brown writing books about how to write best sellers, and the reason why they don't is because while they may well be able to write best sellers, they don't know how to teach others to write them. Plus they're too busy turning their ideas into finished novels!

It's not a magical power that can be passed on. You can take courses to learn how to write well, but you cannot be taught how to write a best-seller. You can only write one or fail to write one, and you can't even fail if you never write one. The same with musicians and artists, actors and movie-makers, and technology innovators and engineers. They know how to do it, but they cannot pass on their talent, or industry, or inspiration to others and have it magically work the same way for them. It doesn't work that way, sorry to say!

The only way to find out if you have it, is to do it! I know it's a big-business purveying self-help books, but you know what? I've never read a single one which has helped me, and more damningly, I've never read of any of these people who've had big success stories praising a self-help book for their success! They don't read these books because they're too busy pursuing their dream! What they do consistently emphasize is how hard they worked to achieve their aim and how diligently they kept chasing it.

Granted, this book does urge that, but it really doesn't offer a lot in the way of helping other than, as I mentioned, simply passing-on common sense. The problem is that if you're so lacking in common sense that you need to get tips on it from a book, then you're already in serious trouble. In the end, the only help you can count on is your own industry. It may be a cliché, but it's inspiration and perspiration that will get you there if it's going to happen for you, and there are no guarantees.

We always hear about the success stories: the ones where people have worked for their dream and got it, but we so rarely hear about those who worked just as hard pursing their dream, but who failed for whatever reason. If this books motivates people to motivate themselves, then that's a good thing, but I think it's wise to ask who really benefits most from books like these? Is it the people who write them or the people who read them?

One piece of advice offered for writers was: "Keeping score of the amount of words written or the time you spend writing will create an internal contest with yourself." This may work for some, but not for all. It doesn't work for me because it impedes my work and makes it seem like work. I don't want that! I'd rather just enjoy writing than become bogged down in, or worse, become disheartened or disillusioned by a scoring system. Scoring is boring! Worse, demanding 'x' amount of words or pages per day is not only soul-destroying, it's actually counter-productive to the very creativity this author is supposedly promoting!

There are some odd observations in the book. The first of these I noticed was when I read, "...usually we have to wait for months if not years before seeing our work published" but this completely overlooks this era of self-publishing through outlets such as Barnes and Noble's Nook press, Kobo, Lulu, Google Play, iBooks and others which has been going on for years. How the author could overlook such a roaring industry is a mystery and speaks of poor preparation.

I read in this book a lot of observations by and on people I've never heard of, including assorted quotes from these people. I am not one to take hints and tips from people I have no reason to trust when it comes to advice, especially when it's in the form of bon mots and pithy phrases which are more designed to show-off their originator than to offer concrete help. One of these asides was: "Peter Shankman flies more than 250,000 miles a year and does most of his writing in transit." I've never heard of this author, but whoever he is, that travel rate is getting on for 700 miles per day, so he really has no choice but to write in transit! Duhh!

This was in a section devoted to choosing the location for your creativity. It seemed focused on whether your desk was cluttered or clear, but you know what? Who cares? If you're working as a writer, then your focus needs to be on your writing, most typically on a computer screen, not on whether your desk is cluttered or clear! This seemed to me to be adding a distraction rather than helping to remove it. Ignore your environment focus on your work. If your environment intrudes, then include it in your work! I'm all for getting out and doing and seeing new things and meeting new people. You never know where your next idea will come from, but in the end a writer is someone who writes, an artist someone who paints, and so on, and it really shouldn't matter where you are or what surrounds you! Get focused on your art because in the end, it's all that matters when it comes to creativity.

There were some really oddball references too. One which particularly struck me was: "Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald who worked from cafes at the turn of the 20th century." I have to wonder why these two are mentioned in this context, but not Jo Rowling. I have no idea where those two antique authors wrote, but it's legendary that Rowling, impoverished, wrote in a café in Edinburgh because it was warmer than her apartment. She did not let a cluttered table or a noisy street get in her way. Did this author not know that much about an author who is more successful and arguably better-known these days than either of the two she mentioned?

That wasn't the only such item. I read, "The times when an artist worked in solitude on his creations," His creations? Seriously?! She continued: "revealing them for the first time during a launch, have passed. Now the audience wants to be co-creators, co-actively giving input throughout the process." This could not be more wrong or more misleading. Unless you really are looking to share your work - and the credit and rewards, this is appallingly bad advice. Yes, there are people who put materials out there and work collaboratively, but this isn't the norm. Perhaps it will be in some distant future, but we are not there yet and personally I doubt we ever will be. I can't see a bunch of stage actors welcoming advice and interruptions for the audience! Steve Jobs certainly did not want people telling him how to do what he did!

I also read: ""Experiencing the creative process live, while it’s happening, is now the norm." I'm sorry but this is bullshit. Maybe in the narrow, blinkered world in which this author operates it is, but seriously, I doubt even that. You don't find fashion designers posting their work online! They're more secretive than ever the Soviet Union was during the cold war!

Writers I know, are not given to doing this although some do this experimentally. For most, writing is a solitary profession and for good reason. You start posting your ideas online and someone is going to steal them and race you to publication, so they can accuse you of stealing their idea when you finally publish! Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your perspective), ideas for stories are not copyright, only the finished work.

I'm not a fan of Stephen King, but he is one of the few really successful authors who have actually written a book about writing books (On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft)! I never read that, but when he experimentally started publishing his novel The Plant online that same year, in installments downloaded on the honor system (you voluntarily paid a dollar per chapter downloaded), the story quickly folded. Sales fell-off and he lost interest in it. He never did ask for fan input!

There's a difference between seeking crowd-sourced funding for a project say, or in getting some feedback on some generalized ideas on the one hand, and on the other, in quite literally sharing your work before it's ever properly established as your own, and thereby risking losing ownership and a chance at copyright. I think talk like this is dangerously misleading and risky, and if misunderstood or misapplied, is going to lead only to loss and misery as your stock of creativity is frittered and dissipated without you getting any reward: not even so much as recognition for it.

It was at this point that I gave up reading this as a bad job The title is Your Creative Career, but it felt to me like there was precious little emphasis on the creative (a trilogy of chapters at the start), and far too much on avarice and maximizing profits. There's nothing wrong with making money and being financially rewarded for your creativity, but first you have to have that creative resource up and running. You have to be credited with it before you can look for credit from backers. You can't make money on vaporware, empty promises and unfulfilled dreams.

I cannot recommend this book, because for me it failed to accomplish what it promised in its title, replacing an offer of creativity advice with nothing more than simple common-sense observations that anyone worth their salt already knows, and worse: wrong-headed advice and flashy, but ultimately empty quotes and catch-phrases from obscure people who may have been successful in their sphere or not, but even if they were, this doesn't mean their advice is worth the paper it's printed on.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Drawing Cute with Katie Cook by Katie Cook

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book is an awesome introduction to illustrating, aimed at younger children. And even adults for that matter who might want to get into the fun business of creating a cute children's book. I had never heard of Katie Cook, but despite looking barely older than a teen herself, she's a mature illustrator who has worked on a variety of projects for, for example, Marvel comics and on My Little Pony, so she's well-known in the business for her illustration skills.

She should also be known for her writing skills since she's also a writer and her comments throughout this book were hilarious and it was worth reading it just for those. The illustrations are really the cherry on top though, because in a handful of steps she shows how to create a bewildering variety of images of animals (would that be bewilderbeasts?), assorted inanimate objects, sports and hobbies, and food - which seems to be a special favorite of hers despite her trim figure. Maybe Cook isn't just a name?!

The steps are easy. As she says, if you can draw a potato, you can draw anything, and anything and everything populates these pages. The chapters cover Animals, Foodstuff, Hobbies and Sports, Holidays and Seasons, and Handy-Dandy Objects. There's getting on for a hundred thirty pages of illustration, and each page contains about two things to draw, including domestic and wild animals, flying and swimming animals, cute and scary animals, and even fantasy animals. And insects and arachnids are animals, remember, no matter how much you might want to dissociate yourself from that end of the family.

There are cakes and ice creams, teapots and milk cartons, pineapples and avocados. You'll like her grapes a bunch! When you see her apples you'll say "Core!" Drawing peppers will no doubt ring a bell. The broccoli looks very cubby, but it's with the sandwiches that you'll earn your bread. Okay, enough pun-ishment! There are also kayaks and racquets*, knitting and football, jigsaws and books - enough to keep you busy making variations on a theme until before long, you're launching into your own original drawings in short-order Cook style! (Okay, I lied about the puns).

I really liked this, the drawings are good and simple enough for anyone to follow and create your own. The results are very cute, just as the title promises. The supporting text is, well, supportive, and funny, and this book makes for a great gift! If there's one thing we really do need, it's a lot more talented illustrators, especially of cute, and from a diverse background. This book is a great way to encourage that and I recommend it.

*Isn't racquet a weird word? Seriously? Who would even think up a word like that? Just sayin'.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Science for Sale by Daniel S Greenberg

Rating: WARTY!

I got this book from the library thinking it might be interesting, but it was as dry as week-old bread that has been overly-toasted and then freeze-dried. That's how dry it was. I expect academic-style tomes to be dry, but I don't usually have the issues with them that I had with this, with its uninspired cover and its academic margins. What's with that?

By academic margins I mean they are unnecessarily wide. I know this is traditional, but do not these bozos in colleges and universities care about trees? It's still possible to format it decently and have it look good, while using more of the page and saving a few trees, but none of them seem to get that. I think from this point on I'm going to automatically rate a book negatively if it looks like they're wantonly slaughtering trees, regardless of the quality of the book.

The margins in this book were an inch at the outside and on the bottom, and three-quarters of an inch at the top and in the gutter. The page was six by nine. That means the print area, even as admirably dense (yet readable) as it was, was occupying only roughly 60% of the paper. With less generous overly-margins, it could have occupied more, and thereby used fewer pages.

There were indented quotes, too, which were identified not only by a slightly smaller font, but also by huge indentations. These could have been adjusted too, so that instead of being a three-quarter inch shift further into the page than even the text was, they could have been a half or even a quarter inch. Whoever designed this book would appear to be either a moron or a tree-hater.

I cannot recommend this at all unless you're in dire (and I do mean dire) need of something to put you to sleep. If you're an insomniac, this will likely cure you, but in terms of helping a reader to understand what's going on with college finance, it's of no help at all.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Good Food, Strong Communities edited by Steve Ventura, Martin Bailkey

Rating: WORTHY!

Note that this is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher; because it is an advance copy though, the chapter headings I listed below may have been changed before publication.

According to Wikipedia, the "Human Development Index (HDI) is a composite statistic of life expectancy, education, and income per capita indicators" and by these measures, the USA ranks tenth. It is also the is twelfth richest in the world according to, yet according to Do Something 1 in 6 people in America face hunger. How is this possible?

This book takes a look at one issue in a bigger picture of food security and sensible nutrition. Written by an assortment of people in the know about urban farming and related topics, this book, subtitled " Promoting Social Justice through Local and Regional Food Systems" is a great starting point for anyone thinking of trying to start a locally-sourced food community or of joining one that already exists, or even just learning about these topics. it "shares ideas and stories about efforts to improve food security in large urban areas of the United States by strengthening community food systems. It draws on five years of collaboration between a research team comprised of the University of Wisconsin, Growing Power, and the Michael Fields Agricultural Institute, and more than thirty organizations on the front lines of this work in Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, Minnesota, Los Angeles, Madison, and Cedar Rapids."

In short, it's quite comprehensive on a vast and wide-ranging topic, and one which is of grave importance to very many people. The chapter headings are these:

  1. Connections Between Community Food Security and Food System Change
  2. Land Tenure for Urban Farming: Toward a Scalable Model
  3. Growing Urban Food for Urban Communities
  4. Distribution: Supplying Good Food to Cities
  5. Food Processing as a Pathway to Community Food Security
  6. Markets and Food Distribution
  7. The Consumer: Passion, Knowledge, and Skills
  8. It All Starts With the Soil
  9. Uprooting racism, Planting Justice in Detroit
  10. Achieving Community Food Security Through Collective Impact
  11. Education and Food System Change
  12. Community and Regional Food Systems Policy and Planning
  13. Cultural Dissonance: Reframing Institutional Power
  14. Innovations and Successes
There are many subsections to each chapter, which can be seen on Google Books.

There were two technical issues I had with the review copy I got. This doesn't include my usual complaint that it was in Amazon's crappy Kindle app, but I believe it is connected. Amazon's conversion system is barely adequate, and while this was readable on my phone, some of the chapter headings had bizarre capitalizations which seemed to be tied to the same few letters. here are a couple of examples: ConStraintS on the deMand For FreSh FruitS and vegetaBleS, and SoMe eConoMiC Context: the Supply oF MarketplaCeS and Marketing. You can see how it's the same letters each time (B, C, M, S) which are capitalized regardless of where they appear in the word. The other issue was the images. They were not enlargeable on the phone and were consequently too small to really see anything of value in them. Other than that it was readable on the phone.

Food security - in a local and personal sense as oppose dot a federal sense, is critical, and good 'business'. It's far better for a community to rely on itself rather than faceless and nameless remote suppliers. Be warned though that this book is very academically inclined, so it is dense and packed with information. It is not light reading, but it is good reading for anyone who is seriously interested in getting involved. I recommend it.

Monday, December 4, 2017

The Myth of the Oil Crisis by Robin M Mills

Rating: WARTY!

Subtitled 'Overcoming the Challenges of Depletion, Geopolitics, and Global Warming', this book did not impress me mainly because it failed to address the fact that no matter how much technology we bring to bear, and how much we can squeeze from a rock, the fact is that oil is a pollutant, is causing climate change, and is inevitably going to run out at some point. The more we can wean ourselves off it, the less it's going to bite us in the ass. That's the bottom line, and this author seems to be in denial about that.

We're producing oil at the rate of about 35 billion barrels per year. The total world reserves are optimistically estimated at 1.6 trillion barrels. At that rate, this means the reserves will be used up in less than half a century. So yes, we have passed peak oil.

The author seemed to have a problem with the concept of easy oil, idiotically arguing that no oil is extracted easily. I guess wells never gushed, huh? I know what he means, but the fact is that these are not absolute terms; they're relative, and yes, it's harder work to find new oil now than it used to be. Deal with it. His own discussion of retrieving oil in Kazakhstan belies his claim!

He's also flat-out wrong in other regards. When he published the book, oil may have been at one hundred dollars a barrel, but (as of this blog post) is less than half that. The problem he fails to recognize is not that expensive oil is a problem, but that cheap oil is and has always been a problem. The oil crisis isn't that there isn't enough or that it's expensive, it's just the opposite: there's too much for our own good, and it's selling too cheaply. This needs to stop.

He talks about the so-called 'peak oil theory' being consistently wrong, but fails to address the fact that it was predictably wrong in the past because of poor information and no foreseeable technology. You can't fault someone in 1904 or 1940 for failing to see where the world would be in 2014, but that doesn't mean we can keep mindlessly sucking oil out of the Earth indefinitely and with no consequences. His failure to address this means just what the blurb says: Robin Mills is an oil insider and therefore not trustworthy as a disinterested commentator. Of course he's going to put a gloss on it. I cannot recommend this one.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Why Cats Paint by Heather Busch, Burton Silver

Rating: WORTHY!

I'm not a big cat fan, that is, I am not a big fan of cats, but when I saw this book I had to take a look at it. My conclusion is that either these two authors are either high amongst the most tongue-in-cheek authors ever, or they're dangerously delusional. I shall be charitable and go with the first of those options, mainly because I share their evident opinion that the art world is just as bad as the fashion world for being puffed-up, vacuous, and ridiculous.

Seen in that light, this book, subtitled "A theory of feline aesthetics" is brilliant, and I salute the authors. The tone is pitch perfect, the images gorgeous, and the overall effect hilarious. Cats are not the only animals that paint. By 'paint' I mean daub a surface with color. Chimpanzees and elephants do it, rhinos and meerkats (Google's idiot spell checker wanted to change that latter to 'marketeers' LOL!), raccoons and pigs, goats and lemurs, parrots, and even seals, and not just at Easter (or estrus)!

Employing the word 'paint' suggests a purpose. Do they have a purpose? Clearly it attracts them, but what exactly is going on in their sub-human brains remains to be seen. Something does however compel animals to daub the paint, yet no one can possibly know what's going on in the animals' mind, except, of course, these two authors who deliberate over it and quote references, and have a high old time extolling both art and artist!

I recommend this not only because it's intriguing that animals do this, but because of the images of the artists, which are charming and adorable, and also the art itself, which is inspiring for anyone who, like me, who all to often thinks he can neither paint nor draw. I recommend the book as a coffee table book, a reading book and a guaranteed conversation-starter.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Adventures in Veggieland by Melanie Potock

Rating: WORTHY!

Subtitled "Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 101 Easy Activities and Recipes", this was an awesome book. It's beautifully presented, colorful, full of pictures, and it's aimed at persuading kids in the 3 - 8 age range to eat their greens. My feeling is if you follow this and that doesn't succeed, then nothing will! Not that I have three to eight year olds to test it on, but I sure intend to try some of these recipes. The blurb says the book "features 20 vegetables" although some are technically fruits (which the author makes clear in her text, which is full of interesting snippets). The book is divided up by season, so there's going to be something all year to try.

I liked the way she incorporates games into the cooking and offers hints, tips, asides, and advice, always explaining why she suggests this method rather than that method. I found the book to be an engaging read just for those items, regardless of whether you try the recipes, but why wouldn't you try them? They sound great! I loved the way she incorporates suggestions about which part of the food preparation that kids who are younger and kids who are older can help with. Obviously this is common sense, but it doesn't hurt to get a reminder when it comes to kitchen safety and good hygiene practices.

I would not recommend this for the phone! The text is too small to read and if you enlarge it, the page is randomly jumping all over the place forcing you to reselect the area you were reading. It's readable on that device, but a nuisance. Obviously, it's really designed as a print book, but it worked fine on a tablet. I really liked this and I recommend it.

You can never over-estimate the importance of good nutrition for raising healthy adults-to-be, but in doing so, one cannot afford to overlook the element of stress which so few health books address. I'm happy to recommend one that automatically seeks to eliminate stress by making cookery - and eating - fun!

Monday, November 6, 2017

Real Quanta by Martijn van Calmthout

Rating: WARTY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

This book was a disappointment to me, a dark body with little radiation. The first problem, I felt, was that the blurb completely misrepresents it. You can't blame the author for the blurb, unless the author self-publishes, but it's not the blurb that bothered me so much. Blurbs often misrepresent content. It's rather their job. What truly bothered me was the content itself, which was all over the place. There was a great teaching opportunity here, a chance to focus light on some potentially obscure subjects, but instead of a neat rainbow from a prism we got a scattering effect that failed to focus anything. The author is actually a science journalist, so this was doubly disappointing for me.

The conceit here is that the author, a Nederlander, is sitting down at a table in a fancy hotel in Brussels and discussing quantum physics with the German, Albert Einstein and the Dane, Neils Bohr, both of whom are dead. The problem with that is that neither Einstein nor Bohrs manage to get a word in edgewise; it's all Calmthout all the way down. And what he has to say was about as gripping an atom of a conducting material is on its electron shell.

According to the blurb, the book is supposed to be a discussion of "the state of quantum mechanics today" but it's far more of a history book than ever it is a modern electronics book, and the history, as I said, is terse and it bounces around so much that it makes it hard to get a clear picture of what was going on when. Unlike electrons which, when they jump, emit light, the text here typically failed to illuminate, hence my dark body allusion.

Additionally, there is a lot of repetition in the text, which is annoying. If this had been a first draft, I could have understood how it might end up like this, but this is supposed to be the publishable copy, or very close to it. In my opinion it needs a rewrite. And it needs properly formatting. This was obviously written with the print world in mind, without a single thought spared for the ebook version which is ironic given the subject matter! In my opinion, it should have been published only as an ebook.

The formatting was atrocious, with the titles of each chapter running into one word with no spacing, so they were unintelligible without some work to disentangle them. The drop-cap at the start of each chapter was predictably normal-sized because Amazon's crappy Kindle app cannot format for squat. Normal-sized, would have been fine had the drop-cap not been on the line above the rest of the text it was supposed to lead off. Also, quite often, when a term employing the indefinite article was employed, the 'a' was tacked onto the next word after it, which I suppose in one small way was an eloquent representation of Heisenberg's uncertainty principle.

But back to the topic: the only way to have a conversation with Einstein or Bohrs is to read something they've written, or in the case of a book set up like this, to tread carefully and quote from them, using their published views as 'answers' to or explanations satisfying, your questions. The author didn't do this. Like I said, he seemed to feel that his own opinion was much more important than that of either of these two legendary and Nobel prize-winning historical figures!

He even puts words into my mouth so I shudder to imagine what he would have done to those two characters had he actually let them speak. For example, he says, "You instinctively wonder how on Earth an electron knows what is up and what is down. Aren’t those concepts a bit too human for a particle that shouldn’t really even be called a particle? That confusion is the core of the quantum mystery," but this is nonsensical, and do rest assured that I have never wondered how an electron knows what is up or down!

I can reveal to you here and now for the first time, that in the real world, electrons honestly don't give a damn. They are what they are. The fact that we project simplifying human 'explanations' onto them in an effort to understand their behavior doesn't mean the electrons care what we think! It's immaterial to an electron which way up it is. I know this because I interviewed a few for this blog and the truth is that electrons do not act alone! They're consummate team players - an example to us all!

The author doesn't seem to get this, and lets himself be dazzled by the reflection of our projections onto electrons, mistaking them for something real emanating from the electron itself! This same flaw is evident in the author's approach to the history of quantum physics: singling out great figures, but never successfully turning them into a refined-prose condensate. I wish this author all the best, but I fear we must await another author to get us a Grand Unified Theory of modern quantum mechanics - at least one that will energize the masses and give us the chain reaction we crave.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

What are the Odds by Tim Glynne-Jones

Rating: WORTHY!

There's nothing in this book that you can't readily find on the Internet, and some parts in it were hardly more accurate than the average quality of information that's available on the Internet, but there's something to be said for having something like this in the bathroom for visitors to read!

The leaps of faith we see on occasion are a bit scary. For example at one point the author asserts that drug abuse is prevalent in men because 4 out of 5 deaths are men. Wile the result is likely, to my mind, to be true given that men take more risks than women, the conclusion the author draws, if it's based solely on this statistic doesn't necessarily follow the premise. Of course, one can quibble about what one means when one uses the term 'abuser', but perhaps men and women are equally prevalent abusers of drugs, whereas men tend to be more risky in their chosen dosage than women? Things like this made me skeptical about other claims the author made.

Some things were amusingly wrong like, for example, the section on the odds of being left-handed being illustrated by an image of a right hand. Other things were just plan wrong, such as when the author claims that the ratio boys to girls is 1.05 to 1 which means that 1000 girls there is 1005 boys! Nope! My math sucks but even I can see the flaw there. The author himself admits to this mistake three paragraphs later when he correctly translates similar ratio to numbers.

the book talks solely - and briefly in each section - about the odds of things happening and covers a wide variety of topics, mostly related to human health, adventures, experiences, stupidity, and welfare. There's an introduction (which I never read), followed by sections on: Life and Death, Sport, Money, Achievement, Crime, Health, History, Man v. Beast, and A Higher Power. There's nothing that's truly surprising to anyone who is reasonably widely read, but there are nonetheless things which make a reader stop and think, and for that reason I consider it a worthy read.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Kid Authors by David Stahler

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

I could have done without the illustrations by Doogie Horner, but maybe those will appeal to the age range at which this is aimed. The actual content on the other hand was at times entertaining and interesting, but the racism and genderism inherent in the choice of writers featured here bothered me immensely, and it's why I cannot recommend this book. It's long past time to take a stand against white American males being the only important people in the world. We see it on TV, we see it in movies, and we see it in books. It needs to stop.

The book is not about children who are authors, but about the childhood of now well-known authors. The details are necessarily brief: each author gets ten or eleven pages on average, of quite large, liberally-spaced print and some of that space is taken up by the illustrations. At the back there is a half dozen or so pages with one paragraph 'also-rans' which is interesting because it includes writers like Alice walker and Maya Angelou who apparently didn't make it into the 'big time' here, but even in this section, most of the writers appear to be white American males like no one else is worth listening to.

The book has an introduction which I skipped as I routinely do, because introductions (prefaces, author's notes, forewords, prologues and so on) are wasteful of paper, are antiquated, and really tell us nothing useful. I rather get right into the body of the work than waste my time on frivolity.

Some of the stories are upsetting, when you realize what some kids had to go through to get where they got, and that isn't over today either, but how much more of a struggle is it for some authors to get ten pages in a book like this? Other stories are endearing or amusing, so there's something for everyone, but that said, the vast preponderance of coverage is of white American male authors which represent eleven out of the sixteen - almost seventy percent - who get ten pages here. Four of the others are British, and one is French.

That's a seriously limited coverage in a world where two-thirds of the planet's population is Indian or Chinese, fifty percent of the planet is women, and most of the planet isn't white. There are only three are non-white (two African Americans and one American Indian) authors represented here so it bothered me that children reading this might get the impression that only America (and maybe Britain) has anyone who can write, and nearly all those who can write are white men. This is neither an accurate nor a realistic impression, nor is it a useful one to give children in a world where whites are the real minority.

This is a skewed view which is already being hammered into young peoples' heads by the appalling number of novels coming out of the US which are also set in the US (or if they're set abroad, they star Americans, like no one else ever has anything to say or any adventures to write about), and largely written about white characters.

This Trump mentality is isolationist and very dangerous, so I would have liked to have seen a much wider coverage and more female authors (who get less than forty percent representation here). Also the youngest writer represented here was born in 1971! Almost half of them were not even born last century! 13 of the sixteen were born before the 1950's! It's not being ageist to ask for a sprinkling of younger writers! And could there not have been more females, more people of color, including an Asian or two?

Could there not have been a Toni Morrison or an Octavia Butler? A Clarice Lispector or a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie? A Zadie Smith or an Elena Ferrante? A Lu Min, a Zhang Ling? No Jenny Han or Tahereh Mafi? No Jhumpa Lahiri or an Indu Sundaresan? There are so many to choose from, so it's a real shame that this book evidently went with the easiest, the commonest, the path of least resistance? It felt lazy to me at best.

These are the authors which do appear:

  • JRR Tolkien (white, English, b. 1892)
  • JK Rowling (white, English, b. 1965)
  • Edgar Allen Poe (white, American, b. 1809)
  • Sherman Alexie (American Indian, b. 1966)
  • Lewis Carroll (white, English, b. 1832)
  • Laura Ingalls Wilder (white, American, b. 1867)
  • Zora Neale Hurston (black, American, b. 1891)
  • Mark Twain (white, American, b. 1910
  • Judy Blume (white, American, b. 1948
  • Langston Hughes (black, American, b. 1902
  • Jules Verne (white, French, b. 1828)
  • Roald Dahl (white, Welsh, b. 1916)(
  • Stan lee (white, American, b. 1922)
  • Beverly Cleary (white, American, b. 1916)
  • Lucy Maud Montgomery (white, American, b. 1874)
  • Jeff Kinney (white, American, b. 1971)

The book had at least one inaccuracy: it proclaims that Joanne Rowling (now Murray) was Joanne Kathleen Rowling, but she never was. It was only Joanne Rowling (pronounced 'rolling'). The 'Kathleen' came about because her weak-kneed and faithless publisher declared that boys wouldn't read a book written by a girl. They insisted that she use her first initial and a fake middle initial. Not having any clout back then, she chose the 'K' for 'Kathleen', the name of her grandmother.

This is why I despise Big Publishing, but at least I have the knowledge that a dozen idiot publishers turned down her Harry Potter series and thereby lost a fortune. The sad thing is that now they're trying to make up for it by buying every idiotic magician series ever produced, which is cheapening the whole genre. This why I self publish. I refuse to let blinkered publishers try to tell me what my name should be. I'd rather sell no books than deal with people like that.

So, in short, this could have been a hell of a lot better and I cannot recommend it.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Secrets From the Eating Lab by Traci Mann

Rating: WORTHY!

I have to say that I'm a little suspicious when I see a book about dieting or health and the author has a string of letters after their name. You never see highly-regarded science authors like Stephen Gould, or Carl Sagan, or Richard Dawkins doing that. In this case, it's just PhD which all too often in these situations seems to stand for PinheaD judged by some of the crap I've seen published accompanied by initials, but in this case, Traci Mann is not only completely legit, she's smart, perspicacious, interesting, and full of useful information and ideas.

She's the leader of the Mann lab at the University of Minnesota, which despite some slightly less than PhD English ("We are a psychology laboratory, under the direction of Dr. Traci Mann, that focues [sic] on how people control their health behaviors" is a going concern, testing out why people behave the way they do vis-à-vis food and dieting and fads.

This book is subtitled "The Science of Weight Loss, the Myth of Willpower, and Why You Should Never Diet Again" and though I've been fortunate enough never to have felt like I had to go on a diet, it's convinced me that I now never will because diets are useless and pointless, serving only to enrich the fat wallets of those fatheads who devise these idiotic and ultimately fruitless schemes.

Why don't diets work? They do in the short term, but with very rare exceptions, people always put the weight back on, and sometimes more than they shed, because your body is predisposed to keep you within a certain weight range, usually of thirty pounds wide, and no matter what you do, you will have a hell of a time in trying to nudge it out of that zone. Biology, advertising, evolution, and other factors are all against you.

That sounds depressing, but the author also offers a better reason not to diet: you are not necessarily unhealthy even if you are deemed 'overweight'. If you're eating healthily and exercising, it doesn't matter what your weight is, because your overall health and life expectancy is going to be the same as those skinny people you seek to emulate so much.

One thing I (and evidently other reviewers) had an issue with is that on the one hand, the author says we have this weight range we tend to stay within which is why dieting is pointless, but on the other hand, there has been a steady increase in average weight among Americans over the last few decades. How is this possible if we have this natural weight baseline that makes it just as hard for us to seriously overeat as it does to shed weight?

The author doesn't seem interested in trying to reconcile this discrepancy in her reporting. Is her 'weight range' shifting upwards, and if so how did this happen and doesn't it overturn her claim that we have an immutable range for our weight, within which we're stuck? Is this weight range very large, which means there is hope for people who do want to try to shed many pounds? Genes do not change this fast, so is there an epigenetic factor in play here? Or is there something wrong with her whole philosophy? It would have been nice to have seen this addressed if not resolved.

The book is in four parts with several subsections: 'Why Diets Fail You', 'Why You Are Better Off Without the Battle', 'How to reach Your Leanest Livable Weight', and 'Your Weight is Really Not the Point'! You can't argue with the science or the clear information and suggestions laid out here. I recommend this book not only because it offers sound advice, but as an interesting read about weight, health, and dieting, and also about psychology and societal pressures.

The book isn't perfect by any means, but it takes a rational approach, and offers simple and scientific advice on what works and what doesn't, and tips on how to make what works, work for you. I've seen a lot of negative reviews of this book complaining about how it talks about your leanest livable weight but never tells you how to calculate it. These reviewers completely missed what had been said earlier! You don't have to calculate anything, because you're already in your weight range. It's your baseline! You can lose a few pounds within your range by eating healthily and exercising, and you're there. No calculation required!

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Bunk 9's Guide to Growing Up by Adah Nuchi

Rating: WORTHY!

This is from an advance review copy for which I thank the publisher.

Subtitled "Secrets, Tips, and Expert Advice on the Good, the Bad, and the Awkward," written by the endearing if fictional girls of bunk nine at the Silver Moon Camp Sisterhood, and illustrated adorably by Meg Hunt, this book was freaking awesome! it;s a fast, simple, easy read and packed with useful information - useful, and essential.

I like to think I know a lot about women, but anyone who knows about women also knows there is always so much more to learn, and while many parts of this were quite familiar to me, many other parts were an eye-opener, and served only as yet another reminder of what women have to put up with even if they lived in a world which was totally devoid of men!

The girls of bunk nine are: Abby (from Eugene OR), Brianna (from Austin TX. Yeay!), Emma L (from NYC), Emma R (San Jose, CA), Grace (Princeton NJ), Jenna (Philadelphia PA), Lea (Paris, France), Makayla (Charlotte NC), and Sage (Eugene, OR, and full of sage advice...). They are smart, diverse, feisty, teasing, assertive, full of good humor, and more importantly full of tips and good advice.

Different chapters cover different aspects of these changes, and they go into detail but are never too long or too detailed. The chapters are amusing, with observations 'penned in' by various girls in the bunk, and by some boys too. In chapters labeled for the week of camp, we get to learn of Puberty in general, of hygiene, breasts, menstruation (shouldn't that be 'womenstruation'?!), boys, health, and feelings - in short, completely comprehensive as it ought to be.

Be warned, this book is explicit, both in in the text and in Meg hunts colorful depictions. The book is presented as a 'hand-written' guide book to be passed from girl to girl (and to be chased-down mercilessly if the boys in bunk 8 ever get their hands on it!) But the boys did, so again, be warned, they added their own chapter about how boys change as well during this time. I thought this was a smart move on the part of the author, because girls need to understand this just as much as boys need to understand what girls are going through.

I don't have any daughters I'm sorry to report, unless you count two pet girl rats whom I adore. I wish I did have daughters, but I guess my brutal Y chromosomes viciously overpowered my gentile X's and Oh! I feel so dirty. But if I had had daughters I would have no problem handing this book to them once they reached the age of seven, eight, or nine, depending on their development and progress.

My view of this is that I and my wife would have covered a lot of this with said daughter(s) before they reached that age, not as lecture, or worse, a series of lectures, but as the simple act of honestly answering all her questions without evasion in age-appropriate 'sound bites' to keep her moving along.

If she's satisfied with the answer, you're done! If she has follow-up questions, tackle those head-on in the same way. It's the only sensible way to deal with this. Tell her what she needs to know, imbue in her the advice that not everyone wants to talk publicly about some of these things, so there's a time and a place, and a choice of friends and other people with whom these things can be discussed.

In this way, you teach her no shame, and she learns caution and wisdom, and you let her know that you're the source of trustworthy, straight-forward information, and she will readily come back for more answers when she's ready for them. Whatever approach you take, you'll have a lot better answers to give after reading this book! She may or may not have more questions, or she may prefer to share it with her friends and talk about things with them. Either way you've done your job (as long as you're sure her friends parents won't object to her sharing the book or what's in it!).

If I have a criticism of the book, it's not in the occasional use of an old song title for a section header (Ch-Ch-Ch-Changes on page 17 and Get Back later - although the song title was just Changes). Actually I'm not sure if that last one did refer to the Beatles song and it's not really important whether girls in this age range ever heard of the Beatles or David Bowie, because this book is for parents too! That criticism I reserve for Middle Grade or Young Adult authors who older than their intended reader, yet are too lazy to research the kind of music these girls would actually listen to, and instead make up some lame excuse that has their main characters addicted to precisely the same music the authors knows and likes. Yuk! That didn't happen here!

No, the one criticism I had was in the color scheme. Overall I really liked it - it was bright and sparkly and attention-grabbing, but I have to question, purely in terms of legibility, some of the color choices for some of the splash balloons. Light blue on light gray, and pink on light blue tend not to work!

Here's is where there is another major difference between men and women other than the pubertal changes and most obvious gender differences, ans it's one that's not well known. Women tend to see subtle shades of color better than men do. Evolution has given them better-tuned color receptors in their eyes. We have three types of receptors, and guess what? Two thirds of your color reception comes from the X chromosome! Guys only have one of these and if the color receptor genes are faulty, they're screwed! Women have a back-up on their second X chromosome, Men have no back-up X! This is why men tend to color blindness far more than do women!

In the light of this knowledge, I have to ask if these color schemes looked good to the author and the illustrator because they're women, but looked bad to me because I'm a guy?! It's definitely possible! In the case of the light blue text on light gray background I quite literally could not read it until I enlarged that balloon greatly. Then I could make it out, and the final insult hit me. It was advice specifically referring to dads! LOL! The one thing aimed directly at dads was not legible to them because we don't see shades as well as women! Was this done on purpose?! This was on page 24. Other such instances, although not quite as bad, were the note 'taped' to the bottom of page 35, light blue on pink, and also on page 84, pink on light blue. although this was, for me, easiest of the three to read. Note that this is in the ebook version, which is all we amateur reviewers get to see, so I can't speak for the print version. And I can only speak for myself of course, maybe my color vision is just muddy?!

On a note that has nothing to do with this but which is fascinating, I learned from recently reviewing a book about the human genome, that there are women who are tetrachromatic. There are not many, maybe 3% of women, but what a thrilling thing to have a fourth color channel! Assuming the brain can avail itself of the information! Dr Gabriele Jordan of Newcastle University in Northern England is actively investigating this phenomenon.

In conclusion, this book is in my opinion the perfect primer for young girls who are nearing puberty or who are already in it. I was impressed by how full of information it was. Obviously as a lifelong male, I haven't been through female puberty, so how do I judge it? For how inclusive it is, how diverse, how wide-ranging, and how intelligently it's presented. And how visually too: the text flooded the page without swamping it, and was very eye-catching and inventive.

I was, for example, pleased to see that when talk turned to one aspect of puberty - interest in the opposite sex - there was also repeated mention of interest in the same gender, which is what even hetero children can experience. The constant reassurance about this being normal and expected was wonderful. That and the endless good advice, the hints, tips, and revelations, and the honesty and humor all contributed to make this a super-special read. I advise parents to buy it, read it and give it to your daughter(s) - and sons because they need to wise-up too! I recommend it.