Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Game Change


By John Heilemann & Mark Halperin

A behind the scenes look at the presidential campaign, detailing the primary bids of Obama, Clinton, and Edwards and of John McCain. A peak into the private lives of these public persons with all the nasty little warts revealed.

I liked reading about the stuff that doesn't usually make the news. About the squabbles, the deals, the posturing, the truth behind the pretty picture. Honestly, if people knew this kind of information about candidates before an election no one would ever vote for them because they are just like the rest of us, with all our faults and all our stupidity. They must really be fabulous salesmen to convince the public that they should be our leaders.
My favorite quotes from the book are from John McCain. From the book:
He [McCain] was disgusted by Republicans in Congress and talk radio gasbags such as Rush Limbaugh who bashed immigrants. "They're going to destroy the fucking party," he would say.
As McCain's town hall meetings devolved into shouting matches over immigration, the candidate let his frustration show through. He called Lindsey Graham in despair. Listen to these people, McCain said. Why would I want to be the leader of a party of such assholes?

It was worth reading the whole book just to get to that line. You gotta love it.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Super Freakonomics


By Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner

A follow-up to the first book, Freakonomics, like that book, this one also looks at the small picture, not the macroeconomics but the microeconomics. It looks at the hidden costs and benefits of how people live their lives. It even tackles the big issue of global warming and how to best address it or if there is even a need to address it. Some of the things they explore are drunk driving vs drunk walking where it turns out you are less likely to die if you drive drunk than if you walk drunk. (Drunk walkers have a tendency to get run over when they stumble out into traffic.) Which is more dangerous, sharks or elephants: elephants because they kill more people in a year than sharks do. They look at the gender pay gap and how it is still a fact of life for women in the workplace. They look at how financial data is mined to give authorities leads on potential suicide bombers. They take a look at medical issues and at how people rely on treatments for diseases that are pretty much a waste of time. They cover lots of fascinating subjects and wind up the book with a arresting chapter on how a group of monkeys was taught to use money and the effect it had on them: it pretty much corrupted them. A very interesting and informative book and not only that, it's just a fun, easy read.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Dogs and Goddesses


By Jennifer Crusie, Anne Stuart, and Lani Diane Rich

What happens when an ancient Mesopotamian goddess suddenly appears in a small college town in Ohio and expects people to fall down and worship her just like they did back at the dawn of civilization? She's probably going to be hugely disappointed...
Kammani Gula is the goddess concerned and she has been called back from oblivion by her millions of followers. But where are the millions of adoring followers? Why are they not dancing attendance on her at her temple which was dug up and moved from the Middle East to this small college in Ohio? She does have one minion, a college student named Mina who fancies herself Kammani's high priestess of death. Kammani knows her seven high priestesses are near. It is just a matter of drawing them to herself and reinvesting them as her priestesses. Mina is the one who comes up with the idea of a dog obedience class. Kammani and her followers are closely associated with dogs, and the women destined to be her priestesses are bound to have dogs also.
And it works, the chosen women do show up to the class, dogs in tow, where they are given a magical beverage that enables them to understand what dogs are saying. And that is just the beginning of the weirdness, as these women learn more about Kammani and about their own strange histories and it all adds up to a confrontation of Biblical proportions.

This book was just plain fun. I especially enjoyed the talking dogs. At one point an ancient Mesopotamian god resurrects in one of the women's bedroom and her dog goes after him and she stops him, but he begs, "Lemme me bite him, lemme bite him again." Yeah, if dogs could talk, that would definitely be one of the things they would say! I think I liked the talking dogs best of all. I also really liked the ending, with the women coming together to protect their town and coming into their own power and casting Kammani into the outer darkness, which turns out to be a place that sounds a lot like Los Angeles. Yep, this was a really fun read.

My Heart Stood Still


By Lynn Kurland

Thomas McKinnon is a very successful businessman and when he is asked to renovate an old keep in the north of England he agrees. It's the kind of challenge he enjoys and he is rich enough that he doesn't need to work. So as a fun break from the ordinary he sets up his base at an inn in the nearby village and proceeds to take a look at the project.
McKinnon is of Scottish ancestry and is somewhat psychic. Before he even left the US to head over to England, he was seeing a Scottish-looking apparition occasionally. So perhaps he wasn't too startled to find that the old, abandoned keep was the home of several ghosts, most of them Scottish. But the one that caught his eye was the beautiful ghost of a young Scottish woman who was murdered at the keep centuries ago. The ghost of Iolanthe MacLeod has been haunting the keep since she was killed there and her haunting is the reason the keep was abandoned centuries ago and left to crumble into ruin.
As Thomas gets to know Iolanthe and learns her tragic story he finds himself falling in love with a dead woman. He also develops quite a friendship with some of Iolanthe's ghostly attendants. Delving more deeply into her history, he becomes convinced that there is a way he can travel back in time, prevent the murder, and hopefully have a life with the flesh and blood woman from the past to whom he is a total stranger.

This was a pretty good story if you can get past some of the fantasy elements. Like the TWILIGHT vampires, the spirits in this story are not the traditional type, being a lot more interactive. In fact, they are more like living people, eating and drinking, changing clothes, growing a garden, chatting and making small talk just like they were alive. In fact, if you didn't try to touch them, you wouldn't be able to tell they were ghosts. So that was a bit different. Also, the time travel thing was made to seem like there is a time slip behind every bush. But never mind, it is still a pretty good story about a man trying to rescue a woman from a terrible fate and then when she is rescued, trying to convince her that he is the man of her dreams and that they belong together several hundred years into the future, which is a bit of a tall order. It was a pretty fun and interesting read.

Two Weeks of Life


By Eleanor Clift

At about the same time as Terri Schiavo was dying in hospice and many folks in the United States were in an uproar about her feeding tube and hydration being removed, Eleanor Clift, an editor for Newsweek and a regular panelist on The McLaughlin Group, was dealing with the gradual fading away of her husband, journalist Tom Brazaitis, who was dying of kidney cancer. Coincidentally, the pope at that time, John Paul, was also fading rapidly and died a few days after Terri and Tom.
Dealing with her husband's decline gave Eleanor a more intimate perspective on what was happening with Terri and her family. In Terri's case, her parents wanted her to be kept alive, believing that she could eventually make somewhat of a recovery. But Terri's husband, after watching her remain unresponsive for more than a decade, declared it was time to end it and let Terri go. Somehow, the government decided to stick it's big nose into what was really a family disagreement and Terri's situation soon became front page news, and all the freaks and weirdos on both sides rushed to Florida, not wanting to be left out of the media spotlight and the opportunity to generate publicity for their points of view.
So Eleanor writes of watching her husband's decline and the Terri Schiavo media circus also and since she is a reporter she ties it all together, with lots of information on the process of dying and confronting those end-of-life issues that most of us would rather not think about at all.

This was a very engrossing, compelling and informative book. It has given me lots to think about and I have made a note to myself to review with my primary physician some of the provisions of my own living will. Clift says that medical experts claim that withholding hydration is not a painful or uncomfortable way die, which is something I didn't know. You would think dying of thirst would be unbearable, but according to this book, it isn't.
It seems wrong to say that you enjoyed a book about the deaths of three people, but I did enjoy this book. It is not only hugely informative, but it was also just simply very interesting and engaging. It's a really good read.

Monday, March 08, 2010

The Innocent Anthropologist: Notes from a Mud Hut


By Nigel Barley

Nigel Barley was an anthropologist and as anthropologists like to do, he went off to study some primitive tribal people, in his case the Dowayo people of Cameroon in western Africa.
Of course, he was prepared for his adventure. But nothing can really prepare a person for the real experience, as he soon discovered. From officials who seemed to enjoy wasting his time demanding endless forms and fees to the bank that refused to give him the money he deposited, he experienced unexpected delays and difficulties before he ever even managed to reach his study location.
It didn't get any easier once he got out of the clutches of officialdom and on the road to the little back-country village where he would be living. The road alone was seemingly designed to kill unwary drivers. The Dowayo people were rather reticent and, while not unfriendly, had their doubts about the stranger who had suddenly appeared in their midst. Plus Barley didn't speak their language and had to hire a young man as interpreter. Not understanding their customs and traditions, Barley at times inadvertently offended and upset the people he was trying to study, including his young assistant.
Barley also had his brushes with illness and injury, contracting both hepatitis and malaria. He had to turn to the local missionaries for aid, loans, food, a hot shower and truly wouldn't have been able to continue his studies without their kind help.
But as his skill grew with the native tongue and as he became more adept at steering his way through their customs and culture, he got to know and in many ways admire the Dowayo's simple and basic lifestyle, free from the pressures of modern urban life.

I really enjoyed this book. Barley's struggles are told with lots of amusing anecdotes like the time he thought the lady next door suffered from terrible indigestion because he heard what he thought was flatulence and belching. But it wasn't her, it was her goats. Another time, Barley was yearning for eggs for breakfast. The Dowayos don't eat eggs, but they do keep chickens for their meat. They find the idea of eating eggs repulsive because eggs come from a chicken's behind, like poop. But Barley craved eggs, so he got himself a few skinny hens and started fattening them to the point where they were finally getting healthy enough to produce eggs. Soon after, he came home after being away for a few days to find his assistant had slaughtered the hens because they had started laying eggs and according to the assistant egg-laying would ruin the chickens for meat. So he killed them as a favor to Barley.
It was fascinating to read about a people whose view and knowledge of the world are so different from mine. It's hard to believe such isolated people still exist. They are so inexperienced of the world that they thought Barley was a Dowayo magician, who, if he wanted, could take off his white skin and reveal the true black man beneath. They believed his blond, straight hair was really black and frizzy, like theirs, and couldn't understand why he went to the bother of changing it, wondering if he did it to attract women. It's a vastly different world, and after reading about it, I'm just glad I live here and not there.