Thursday, September 25, 2014

Ten Books, Volume 8

I asked CPA Boy what one of my favorite things to do is. Criticize books!

Here's the latest crop:

  • What If?: Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe
    • The author of this book has a webcomic named xkcd. I had never heard of it before I picked up this book, which is an expanded version of some of the comics and also has brand new questions.
    • Each one features his cartoons drawn in a minimalistic stick figure style. The specific math and physics is also included. I am so far past my calculus days (I remember NOTHING!) that I tended to skip over the math stuff and stuck to the pictures and explanations instead.
    • Sample question: How fast can you hit a speed bump while driving and live?
  • Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
    • I started reading this book about 3 years ago and then it got waylaid by all the library books I check out. Last week I was between library visits so I polished this off in a couple of hours.
    • I watched Ken Burns' documentary series "Prohibition" (aired on PBS in October 2011) and I have been watching the show "Boardwalk Empire" all along too. The combination of these three things has given me a better understanding of 1920s history.
    • Anyway, some Prohibitionists thought that a lot of suffering by women and children would be eradicated if they could keep men from getting drunk. Men would drink away their paltry earnings and some would beat their families while in a drunken state. (Unfortunately it turns out you don't need to be drunk to be a wife beater.)
    • Other Prohibitionists were xenophobic. Many of the newest immigrants were from Southern and Eastern Europe, not the mainly Northern Europeans who had already immigrated and assimilated earlier. (Notable exception to this: the Irish.)
    • Because the Sixteenth Amendment (Income Tax) had passed it was felt that the revenue generated by alcohol taxes was no longer needed (it was a HUGE portion of Federal revenue, something like 40%!).
      • This would help doom Prohibition by the 1930s because the Depression meant there was little income tax revenue by that point. The government needed the alcohol tax revenue and the creation of jobs that would occur if alcohol could be legally produced again.
    • Many people ignored the law. And once that happened it becomes easier for people to break other laws they don't like.
    • This book was fascinating. The people involved on both sides of the issue were fascinating. Highly recommended!
  • Dr. Mutter's Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O'Keefe Aptowicz
    • Thomas Mutter lived from1811-1859, dying at 48 of a fatal lung condition. He was a Philadelphia surgeon who had a special fascination with "monsters", people who were so deformed that they were willing to be operated on without anesthesia.
      • Well, all surgeries were performed without anesthesia in those days but usually as last resorts.
    • Mutter was among the first practitioners of plastic surgery. He was also open-minded about advances in medicine and immediately began using anesthesia when it came available. He really cared about his patients and their sufferings.
    • His method of care contrasted sharply with other doctors of his time. It used to be that not only would you have surgery while awake and without the benefit of anesthesia, they also sent you home immediately afterwards. Mutter created a section in the hospital for aftercare where patients could recover for a few days first.
    • The book also covers other doctors, contemporaries of Mutter. One, Dr. Meigs, a renowned obstetrician, would not and could not believe that doctors were responsible for the transmission of puerperal fever (also known as childbed fever) which was an infection of the reproductive organs that killed many women. 
      • Despite scientific evidence that proved hand-washing by doctors and midwives to be effective in preventing its spread, Meigs said "Doctors are gentlemen, and gentlemen's hands are clean" and refused to wash his before each delivery. He also thought anesthesia was the work of the devil and that women (thanks to the Bible) were meant to suffer pain. Ass. He went to his grave thinking he was right.
    • Dr. Mutter collected medical oddities and other specimens which he donated to create a museum. The Mutter Museum still exists in Philadelphia today.
    • Mutter added an umlaut over the "u" in his name but I don't know how to render it in Blogger. Sorry.
  • The Supernatural Enhancements by Edgar Cantero
    • This was a good story, complete in itself but with the possibility of future adventures should the author desire to write any.
    • A young man inherits a home from a distant relative. He arrives in Virginia with his companion Niamh who is a mute teenager.
    • A ghost story ensues and lots of mysterious happenings occur before the final chapter.
    • The story is told using journal entries, security camera footage, letters, Niamh's handwritten notes and more. A fun read.
  • The Valley of Amazement by Amy Tan
    •  The story was interesting, about a half-Chinese, half-American girl who grows up in her mother's courtesan house and then becomes a courtesan herself.
    • Amy Tan is a great writer but I feel like I have read this book before. Every novel I have ever read that takes place in China always seems to have the same basic structure. Granted, I have probably only read about a half dozen of them (Lisa See is another popular author in this genre) but they are always the same!
      • A woman or women living in a the cosmopolitan Chinese city (almost always Shanghai) sometime in the last 100 or so years faces hardship and is left with nothing. Then she somehow ends up in the country where the other women are all horrible and catty to her, if not worse, (the men are all patriarchal and cruel) but the main character perseveres and triumphs.
      • That said, I do enjoy learning details about life in China. But perhaps a history book might be better than reading a different version of the same old story.
  • The Miniaturist by Jessie Burton
    • Not to repeat myself but I have probably read about half a dozen novels that take place in Amsterdam (or another town in the Netherlands) sometime in the 16th or 17th centuries. A young girl gets married to a man she barely knows. People are all strict Calvinists so everyone wears drab colors and conforms. Things happen to the new bride, she triumphs by the end, blah, blah, blah.
    • So this book's extra little hook is that the new bride receives a dollhouse exactly like her new home. She begins to order items to furnish the dollhouse but the miniaturist not only sends her what she ordered but also things that seem to predict the future. There are a bunch of mysterious circumstances. There is a man who is revealed to be a homosexual, another very popular trope in novels taking place any time before current times.
      • It seems that there are so many plots (not just in books about the Netherlands) where the naive girl marries a man who doesn't want to sleep with her. Then she walks in on her husband and some teen boy.
        • Obviously homosexuality was something to be hidden in times when you could be sentenced to death for it but do these characters always need to be so careless about not locking doors?! (I guess there wouldn't be a SHOCKING SCENE if the doors were locked.)
    • Here is a line direct from the novel: "The air is hot, the atmosphere a bruise."
      • WTF does that even mean?!?! Yesterday CPA Boy and I were waiting at a red light and I said, "The atmosphere is a bruise!" And he laughed because I shared this line with him already. 
      • This is one of those things that takes me right out of a book because all I can hear is the author's voice saying, "Look! I'm WRITING!"
  • Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
    • Another novel that takes place in a post-apocalyptic world (some deadly disease kills most of the world's people). This was a complete story, not part of a new trilogy, which helps immensely. I was disappointed by part of the ending in that a couple of characters should have had a more meaningful interaction before one died and there was a lot of coincidence considering people are roving around the desolate countryside. But it was pretty good overall.
  • Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
    • Three moms of new kindergarteners become friends and secrets come out. You know right at the start of the book, in the middle of the school year, that a character dies (but not which one) and then the book flashes back to the kindergarten orientation day.
    • I liked What Alice Forgot by this author (I remember little of it, however) but disliked The Husband's Secret. I loved this book though. It had a very satisfying ending and the characters were interesting.
  • The Hundred and One Dalmatians by Dodie Smith
    • I was between library books again and picked up my copy of this book because I knew I could polish it off in an hour or so. It's one of my childhood favorites. I saw the cartoon movie years ago and didn't love it. In the book the two main characters are Pongo and his wife Missis. Then another dalmatian comes to live with them named Perdita. In the movie they omit Perdita completely but use her name for Missis instead. Guh.
    • I hadn't read this for quite a while and I was horrified to see how sexist it is! Context is everything and this book was written in the mid-1950s so I guess that's to be expected.
      • But Missis and Perdita are such stupid dogs compared to Pongo. There are places in the book where Pongo exchanges looks with other (male) dogs indicating something like, "Awww, look how cute my stupid wife is!" Pongo can count and add numbers while Missis gets confused with more than 4. Pongo understands human speech completely but Missis and Perdita only know a few words.
      • You can't look to this book for lessons in feminism (which is advocacy for political, social and economic equality to men, by the way). Oh well. I still love the story though.
  • California by Edan Lepucki
    • This book gained fame because Stephen Colbert promoted it on his show as part of his segment on Hachette (a publisher) and Amazon.
    • First, I have no idea why this book is named California. One of the main characters is named Cal, short for Calvin. Another character nicknames him California. There is another main character named Frida. Their points of view trade off in each chapter so it doesn't make sense that the title refer to just Cal. The story is never clear where the action takes place. The Sierras? They are in California to be sure but since the author goes out of her way to never specifically place the action there it's odd.
    • The characters live in the mountain forests because they are refugees from a post-apocalyptic world. I am getting bored with these books. Maybe it's time to reread The Stand, which is the best of the post-apocalyptic books!
    • This book also commits the crime of taking forever to get questions answered. Cal and Frida live alone in the woods and eventually visit a nearby enclave of people. They ask questions...well, Cal asks questions. Frida takes her lead from Missis in The One Hundred and One Dalmatians. She's a WOMAN; it's not her place to question things, you silly reader!
    • So Cal asks questions and this is what happens:
      • "Oh, we'll talk about all that later!"
      • A character smirks and looks away.
      • A character pretends they didn't hear the question.
      • Etc....
      • Bah!
    • I am pretty sure this book is going to have a sequel. Screw it, I'm giving out spoilers here!
      • Another main character plans to infiltrate a nearby Community (with a capital C, dontcha know?) and plant bombs. He apparently wishes to create anarchy. This is revealed towards the end of the book. At the very end of the book, Cal and Frida have moved to the Community. They know about the bomb plot but seem unconcerned. Whuh? The end.
    • Another weird thing is that every single woman kowtows to the men and they don't question anything, even when the main leader takes all their children away and resettles them in the Community (As inside spies maybe? Who knows?). Does apocalypse make women stupid?
      • Apparently so.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Yesterday, during Tuesday's errand run with Pops, we were in a slight car accident. I started tp make a right turn onto a four-lane boulevard. The right lane was clear at first and I stated to go but then a truck in the left lane moved to the right line so I had to stop again. Unfortunately the large white truck behind me didn't see that I had stopped and hit my car. It wasn't hard enough to set off the airbags and was a fairly minor accident.

Or rather, the trucked kind of pushed my car forward a bit. We pulled over and checked out the cars. Mine had miniscule damage but the guy's truck's front bumper and license plate were pushed in an inch or two. Who knew Priuses were so tough?

Anyway, we were fine but I certainly have the kind of personality to create whiplash out of a tiny twinge in my neck or shoulder! But then I also watched 2 movies yesterday so sitting on the sofa for 5 total hours could cause the same shoulder ache!

  • One of the movies I watched was Bridge on the River Kwai. Along with Marty and All Quiet on the Western Front I am up to 50 total Oscar Best Picture winners. And later this week I will be recording The Apartment and 12 Years a Slave.
    • I figure if 12 Years is too intense I can always stop watching it, right?

I have made some good progress on reading a bunch of the books on my own shelves while still getting through quite a few library books. It seems a lot of books I am interested in reading are being released in the next couple of months. My library queue, which is limited to 20 books at a time, is completely full, mostly with books that are "on order" or are "in process".

Our library has self-checkout which I love. I am in and out so quickly. Since I request my books on-line, the library has a set of shelves right at the front so you can grab them, self-checkout and go.

CPA Boy has a bunch of upcoming Oakland A's games so I am getting through a bunch of movies and books.

Tonight's dinner will be Stuffed Pork Chops, using my mom's recipe. I will share the recipe soon. Maybe with pictures!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Ten Books, Volume 7

CPA Boy made fun of me. All because I said that I needed to finish my book because it was "number 70".

Him: Why does it matter?

Me: Because I can't blog about books again until I finish one more!

Him: [Hysterical laughter]

Pffff. It seems obvious to me that I can't blog about 9 books when I have already been writing in blocks of 10 this year.

Yeah, yeah, obsessive-compulsive, blah blah blah.

Anyway, I finished book 70 so now here I am to blog about them.

  • Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes by Matthew Kennedy
    • Joan Blondell was one of those actresses who was never a superstar but she was a constant presence in films and television.
    • She was in: Public Enemy, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Desk Set, and Grease to name a very few.
    • She was married to Dick Powell and then Mike Todd.
    • Miss Blondell had a pretty interesting life so this was a good read.
  • Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s by Matthew Kennedy
    • I liked this book a lot but it could have used a stronger fact checker/proofreader. The song "If Ever I Would LEAVE You" is referred to as "If Ever I Would LOVE You". Peter Sellers' name is spelled "Sellars". 
    • Every movie studio in the 1960s wanted to have a success like The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins or My Fair Lady. Many films were produced and, for the most part, quality and interest in them plummeted.
    • Here are some examples of unsuccessful films: Camelot, Finian's Rainbow, Hello Dolly!, Sweet Charity, Doctor Dolittle, Star!, Goodbye Mr. Chips, Man of La Mancha, Paint Your Wagon, Darling Lili and On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.
      • How many have YOU seen? I am a huge movie watcher and I have seen none of these except for the first 1/2 hour of Finian's Rainbow and that was only because of Fred Astaire. 
    • One thing this book covers is the terrible behavior of the male actors. Rex Harrison would decide to do a film and then change his mind. Everyone basically kissed his derriere and he would change his mind again. He decided he didn't want to work with Sammy Davis Jr because he was not an actor, just a dancer and singer. (Never mind that the movie was a MUSICAL.) They hired Sydney Poitier at Rex Harrison's insistence and then cut the part out completely. Anyway, his poor behavior goes on and on.
      • Peter O'Toole and Richard Harris were both heavy drinkers in those days (though O'Toole didn't drink on the job). Their "bad boy" behavior was legendary but boys will be boys, ya know.
      • Then comes Barbra Streisand who, while completely professional in all ways, disagrees strongly with the director and is a perfectionist so she's considered a raging bitch who's completely out of control. SUCH a double standard.
        • Granted, she could have played Rex Harrison-like mind games with the producers or come to work hungover and she still would have been considered a bitch. But I bet if Rex Harrison or the other "boys" wanted a camera angle changed everyone would have jumped up to placate them.
        • It reminds me of something I read recently by Sheryl Sandberg: Girls aren't "bossy". They are exhibiting "executive leadership skills"! 
          • Hear, hear!
  • Of Time and Chase by Edison B. Allen
    • This book, from 1969, is a compilation of editorial cartoons by John Churchill Chase. He was the cartoonist for New Orleans newspapers from 1925 to about 1964. Then he started drawing his cartoons on the air during the nightly local news show. He was the first cartoonist to do this.
    • There was a copy of this book at my grandparents' house. My brother Everest and I loved it because it had a personal inscription inside the front cover to my grandparents. It was really cute because it was a written dedication to my grandfather, Bill, along with a cartoon drawing. And then at the bottom as a postscript it said: "And Ida too!" Unfortunately the book disappeared so maybe someone out there has it and wonders who Bill and Ida were.
    • John Chase was born in New Orleans in 1906 the same year as my grandfather. I wish I knew how they knew each other. From high school maybe? 
    • The editorial cartoons themselves are interesting, covering local, national and international news from the late 1920s to the 1960s. The editor of the book includes commentary for each year of cartoons.
      • I think Pop will enjoy this book because he will understand a lot more of the local stuff. I remember hearing the names on the news but that's about it.
  • The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean by John Julius Norwich
    • This book took me a couple of months to get through as I read a few chapters a week. 
    • When you read history like this you are struck by how little things have changed over time. This book only continues until the years just after World War I but the same old things are still causing trouble even now. 
    • The Carthaginians hate the Romans. The Romans hate the Christians. The Christians hate the Muslims. The Muslims hate the non-Muslims. The Venetians hate the Sicilians. The Ottomans hate the Christians. The Spanish hate the Moors. The Pope hates anybody who threatens the Papal States. The Cypriots hate each other (it's half Greek and half Turk). And as Tom Lehrer sings in one of his brilliant satirical songs, "And everybody hates the Jews."
      • NOTHING EVER CHANGES. The groups may change names or location but every child is still taught to hate.
      • This is one of those fraught questions but why do these hatreds need to keep going generation after generation? 
    • I love history so I really enjoyed this book. The biggest issue is trying to keep everyone straight. Lots of dynastic names repeat several times so it's easy to get confused.
    • I am more a student of English history so this was a different angle to learn about general history. 
    • War and conflict are a constant in human history. No leader is ever satisfied. Most people just want to live their lives: grow/buy their food and raise their families. So many of the tales of war lead to the same basic conclusion: the people are massacred or sold into slavery. The brutality is horrific. You read of sieges, deaths by disease, beheadings, slavery and then you think: Hey! This is all still happening today! Groups like ISIS have always existed in history and will always exist most likely.
    • Man, I should really stop reading history. It's depressing.
  • No Dawn Without Darkness by Dayna Lorentz
    • The concluding third book to a Young Adult series. This book was not as good as the first two. A main character in the first two books is absent from this one for almost the entire book. And like I mentioned in the last book installment one of the characters who murdered people gets no punishment but to go on with his life. Weird.
  • Doctor Sleep by Stephen King
    • This is a sequel to The Shining. In this book Danny Torrance is all grown up and a mess. He gets his life together just in time to fight a supernatural group who feed off the energy of children like Danny who have the "shining" power.
    • This was a pretty quick read and I really liked it. It takes a while for adult Danny to straighten out but once he does the story just zips along.
  • Frog Music by Emma Donoghue
    • By the author of Room, this is a complete departure from that book. That book was about a kidnapped woman who's kept locked up in a storage shed for years along with the son she bears in captivity to the kidnapper. It's told from the point of view of the 5-year-old son.
    • This book takes place in 1876 San Francisco and is based on real people. A woman known for wearing men's clothes is murdered. Her friend Blanche thinks she knows who did it and sets out to get justice.
    • I read the first few pages and wasn't gripped but I persevered and in the end I really liked it. At the end of the book you find out about the real people in the story. The author read about the circumstances of an unsolved murder and created a story around it.
  • The String Diaries by Stephen Lloyd Jones
    • A horror novel of sorts although it's not very scary really. A supernatural creature falls in love with a woman. He, however, had raped another woman and was under sentence of death by his people. His true love is killed while he is being tracked by his executioners and from then on he stalks her descendants who, naturally, are her spitting image. One of his powers is to shapeshift so he keeps trying to turn himself into their husbands and friends.
    • This was okay but could have been even better if you just understood the motivation more. Why would her descendants fill the bill just because they look the same? Is the creature insane? Plus it's always nice to read the details about a fictional group of supernaturals. They were given short shrift and the story focuses on the line of human descendants instead. 
  • That Night by Chevy Stevens
    • A mystery about a woman whose younger sister is murdered and the woman goes to jail for the crime. When she gets out she tries to make a new life for herself and reconcile with her parents. Then her old boyfriend, also convicted for the crime and newly released from prison, convinces her to help find the real killer.
    • I really liked this including the narrative skipping where there are three timelines: one present day, one leading up to the murder and one from the murder to her release form prison.
    • The only thing I thought was odd was that the woman insisted on returning to her small hometown where everyone thinks she's a murderer. Really? Go to some big city where no one knows you! But there wouldn't be a story if she doesn't go back so there you are.
  • The House We Grew Up In by Lisa Jewell
    • This is a novel about a family whose mother ends up hoarding, which is exacerbated by a tragedy that happened years ago.
    • This was really enthralling; I read it in one evening because I couldn't put it down. There's a mystery to the tragedy and I am not sure it lived up to its full potential but overall the story was satisfying. 
    • I kept waiting for all the "egg foils" (the story took place in Great Britain) to make a dramatic reappearance. They did not. (The mother kept every foil wrapper from the children's' Easter Candy.) It seemed a clue but I guess it was just an interesting way to show the mom's hoarding tendencies always existed.