Thursday, July 29, 2010

Nothing's Sacred

By Lewis Black

The abbreviated story of Lewis Black's life, with numerous shots at religion, school, economics, Americans, and, of course, politics and politicians. Lewis grew up in the suburbs, a Jewish kid in a not very religious family. A child of the 60s and an active participant in the counterculture movement, Lewis did all the typical things kids of that era were supposed to do, drugs, sex (not so much) and rock and roll. Still, he managed not only to graduate college but to go on to earn a Masters in drama from Yale.
Lewis has a real nose for bullshit and he loves bringing it to our attention and good for him. We need people like Lewis to point out the absurdities. Talking about gay marriage, here is his take on why the Old Testament states that man must marry woman:
Now, to be fair, there's a good reason why the Old Testament states that man must marry woman. It's because at that time, the Jewish people weren't civilized, and the Bible was, in large part, written for that very reason—to civilize people. So the leaders were forced to come up with a God who was such a prick he could keep those peckerheads in line. And I don't want to get any mail about this, but we were, as a breed, only ten hairs away from being baboons back then. So they came up with this really scary God and a list of rules, and they told everybody that God was there to enforce those rules.
They needed to do this because as the Jews were wandering around willy-nilly in the desert, one of them no doubt led a camel up to a rabbi and said, "I met her at an oasis and it's been wonderful. She looked at me in a way that I've always wanted to be looked at. We're in love and, well, Rabbi, we want to be married."
And the rabbi said, "Perhaps you didn't notice, but she's a fucking camel." Then he went back to the other rabbis and informed them, "Son of a bitch, we have to come up with another rule! Today a guy came back with a camel and yesterday one of them showed up with a snapping turtle. God knows what's going to happen tomorrow. We've got to get these people on track." Hence, the man-woman marriage rule in the Bible.

This is a funny, profane, vulgar book and I really enjoyed reading it. It is not for the easily offended though.

Lost and Found

By Alan Dean Foster

Marcus was a Chicago commodities broker enjoying a nice placid vacation on the shores of a lake high in the mountains. Until the aliens showed up and grabbed him. And his tent and the ground under it and even a slice of the lakeshore. In effect, it was a little habitat, ready made for the new addition to their collection of strange and unusual creatures from the far-flung reaches of the universe, all destined to be sold as pets, slaves or entertainers for the more heartless denizens of galactic civilization. And their captors don't care if their captives are intelligent, thinking beings; no, all they care about is their monetary value.
Marcus lives a life of unbearable loneliness and boredom, eating the same bland rations provided by his captors, drinking the water provided to him daily. When he misbehaves, tries to break through the force field confining him to his little slice of Earth, he is punished by being deprived of food. He despairs.
His captors, to ease his despair, open one side of his prison to his neighboring captive, which is revealed to be a small dog, captured from an alley in Chicago. The dog's habitat is the noisome Chicago alley and a junked car. Marcus is so pleased with this new roommate and even more so when the dog actually talks to him. It seems the aliens, in order to facilitate communication, have boosted the dog's intelligence and installed universal translators into all the captives. And as Marcus soon learns, if he behaves nicely, he will be allowed into the huge common area where all the many captives are permitted to congregate and socialize. Of course, these new privileges are just a tool to bludgeon the captives with. The least step out of line and it's back to the tent and its slice of lakeshore.
Marcus and the dog, whom Marcus names George, manage to make friends with two of the most reclusive captives among all the aliens. One an octopus-like creature of such vast intellect that she regards all her fellow captives as beneath her notice. The other a huge, voracious beast that the other captives are simply terrified of. In fact, the captors toss Marcus into the beast's habitat as punishment for misbehaviour in the hopes, maybe, that Marcus will be eaten. Instead, Marcus manages to break through the monster's seeming beastliness to discover the fragile and sensitive heart of a poet, but a poet who is prone to violent rages.
Together, this unlikely foursome are going to try to use their talents to bust out of their hated prison.

This was a pretty good story. Marcus is an enterprising fellow and his sidekick George the dog adds a lot to the story also. The other two members of the foursome are less charming, as the monster tends to speak in haiku and the octopus is frankly unbearable, conceited, and rude. Still it was fun reading about their adventures aboard the capture ship. I do wish that the dog, George, had been more doggy. Most of the time, he sounded like a human. I mean, even if you could make a dog more intelligent, wouldn't it still be a dog? Wouldn't it still get a kick out of sniffing butts and eating garbage and rolling in manure? Other than that, I enjoyed the story a lot.

Year of Wonders

By Geraldine Brooks

Its the 1660s and the young village woman Anna had a pretty good life, a strong, loving husband and two healthy, vigorous young boys. She was blessed, she knew it and was grateful to God. But then it all went horribly wrong. Her husband died in a mine collapse. But she managed to cope, working part time as a maid and she also took in a border, a tailor from London.
The tailor had recently moved to the village in an effort to escape the plague that was currently making life hell in the big city. People were dying in droves, in such numbers that the gravediggers didn't have time to dig individual graves so people were being tossed into bigs pits and buried. The tailor was so glad to be away from the plague zone. He was a nice young man and seemed to take a liking not only to Anna but to her two youngsters also. He even made Anna a beautiful dress as a gift, a dress unlike any she had ever owned. But the dress ended up in the fire because some cloth the tailor had ordered from London came with something extra...plague.
Pretty soon the tailor was dead and Anna's two boys soon sickened too. Since no one really understood the source of the disease, it spread rapidly. The village took the brave step of voluntarily isolating itself from the rest of England, setting up boundaries beyond which no villager would go and no outsider would pass. They managed to maintain the boundary even as the disease ravaged them, even as the stress and horror turned them against each other.

This was a pretty engrossing story about Anna's struggles & about how the village coped with the crisis. It starts out kind of strange in that it begins the autumn after the plague first appeared, so Anna's husband and children are already dead. Then it switches to the time before the plague, with the husband and children all alive and happy and all the bad stuff yet to come, basically adding details to the bare bones of which you already know from the first chapter. Yet, despite knowing the basic ending, the story is still fascinating, heartbreaking and awe-inspiring. Imagine, a whole village voluntarily quarantining itself and having the resolve and courage to maintain that quarantine through the worse crisis they ever faced. An the amazing thing about it is that there really was a village in England during the time of the plague that did exactly that. It is based on a true story.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010


By Curtis Sittenfeld

Lee wants a different life. A middle class kid from Indiana, Lee wants to be more. She is pretty smart so she is able to earn a scholarship to an East Coast prep school. The scholarship won't cover all her expenses but her parents are willing to pay for what the scholarship doesn't. So at age 14, Lee goes off to boarding school.
It doesn't take her long to figure out that most of the students at the school come from money. And that kids like Lee who don't come from affluent backgrounds are the exception.
Teen years are years when most kids want desperately to fit in. But now Lee, who formerly was a popular, outgoing person, finds herself an outsider. She just doesn't feel comfortable around these rich, seemingly self-confident upper class teens. She becomes silent, withdrawn, and angry.
Yet, oddly, she chooses to stay. Year after year, never feeling quite at home, always conscious of the gap between herself and the others, she stays on. She makes a few close friends but never dates, never attends dances, never lets on to her fellow students just how lonely and sad she really is. She is always on the fringes, a hanger-on, closely observing but keeping her distance. She is never really accepted as one of the gang, probably because she is never able to relax and just be herself. She is always on guard, always trying to protect herself from imagined rejection.

This was an OK book. The first half was better than the last because the novel seemed to stall and not really go anywhere towards the middle of the book. It doesn't pick up again until Lee becomes involved with a boy she has been yearning for since first attending that school. Also, I didn't really like Lee, I found her to be very off-putting. But other than that, the book is a close look at life at a boarding school for children of the wealthy, a glimpse of the lives of the privileged few.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Look Me in the Eye

By John Elder Robison

Ever since he was a little kid, John Elder Robison felt like the odd man out. He couldn't figure out why he seemed to be such a misfit. Add to that his parents' failing marriage, his father's alcoholism and abuse and his mother's slow slide into insanity and it was a recipe for disaster. But John rose above his disadvantages and managed to make a success of himself on his own terms. And it wasn't until he was in his forties that he finally learned he had Asperger's, a milder form of autism.

I really enjoyed this book. Robison writes a fascinating and compelling story about his journey through life learning to cope with his trouble relating to other people and using his amazing talents to have four different successful careers: developing sound systems and special effects for top bands, including KISS; becoming a toy engineer for Milton Bradley without even having a college degree; having a high-end car restoration and repair business; and finally, successful author. His is an amazing story and very much worth reading.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

God's Problem

By Bart D. Ehrman

Ehrman looks at what the Bible has to say about why there is so much suffering in the world. Ehrman is a professor of religious studies and an expert on the Bible and the life of Jesus. He used to be a devout, fundamentalist Christian but now considers himself an atheist. He lost his faith because of this very question: how can a loving, caring God permit so much misery, pain and suffering?
So he began studying what the Bible had to say about this. He figured out that the Bible has several things to say about it. Suffering is punishment for sin, suffering is God's way of reproving his people and getting them back on the right track, suffering is the result of a fallen creation, suffering is caused by evil people and/or evil spirits, and that suffering, like God, is mysterious. But delving into what the Bible had to say didn't provide Ehrman with answers that satisfied him, leaving him to conclude that there simply is no God and that this life is all there is so best enjoy it while you can. And while you're at it, try to make things a little better for your fellow humans.

This was an interesting book to read. While I don't agree with his conclusions, still it provided a lot to think about, plus it has lots of information about the Bible. It was kind of a mini-tour through the Bible. Very inspiring, in its odd way. I enjoyed reading it a lot.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Good Samaritan Strikes Again

By Patrick F. McManus

A collection of stories by humor and outdoors writer Pat McManus which includes, of course, the title story where Pat tries to help at the scene of a crash, only to be mistaken for the victim and hauled off to the hospital despite his protests. In the last paragraph, the actual victim is finally discovered:
Fortunately, the folks at the wrecking yard found the true victim under the dashboard and rushed him off to the hospital. He was released the next day, hardly the worse for wear. I heard he kept asking the identity of the Good Samaritan who covered him with a blanket, but no one knew. Once again the helpful stranger vanished without so much as leaving his name. I think it's better that way, I really do.

This book does contain a few tall tales of his childhood days, which are the most fun to read, still the other stories in this collection are amusing and enjoyable too.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Other End of the Leash

By Patricia B. McConnell PhD

Patricia McConnell is an expert on dog behavior, especially on dogs who are troubled. She looks at dog training from a different point of view, that our human tendencies get in the way of communication with our dogs. In her advice on how to handle your dog, she points out that our human instinct is at variance with the canine instinct, since we come from different biological backgrounds. The things we do instinctively are not well received or maybe not understood by the dogs in our lives. For instance, dogs don't hug. Hugging is one of humankind's favorite ways to express caring. But for dogs, it just isn't natural. In fact, dogs may find hugging rather threatening.
Another thing dogs do is they are very good at reading body language. They not only read body language, but it is a huge part of their communication, so learning to understand your dog's body language is very helpful in understanding your dog.
She also discusses the importance of consistency in training and in using verbal commands. She describes how to train your dog using rewards, both food, praise, and play rewards to let your dog know he has performed correctly. She also debunks the idea that you have to physically dominate your dog to win its respect. As she points out, a dog displays its tummy voluntarily to a dominate dog, but the dominate dog doesn't roll the other dog over and force it to display its tummy. She says that doing this to a dog is humiliating and unnatural for the dog and, according to McConnell, totally unnecessary. Your dog comes to recognize your authority through proper training, not by putting the dog on its back.

This is a really interesting book not only about dog behavior but also about human behavior and about how our instincts thwart our good communication with our dogs. It has lots of great tips on training dogs and on having a happy, loving, safe relationship with them.

Mother of Demons

By Eric Flint

The people from Earth set out to explore a new planet. But something went very wrong. Some managed to land on the planet in the ship's lifeboats but the ship itself and the supplies were destroyed. So the people are stranded with no hope of rescue for hundreds of years. Worse, they discover that all the animals are toxic to them and the plant life, while edible, makes them ill. Still, they manage to survive. Barely.
The animal life on the planet seems to be solely based on mollusk-type creatures, most commonly slugs, snails and something that is similar to squids except adapted to life on land. In the place where the humans landed are very large squid-ish animals; peaceful, slow grazers. Like earth squids, these land squids have the ability to change the color of their skin in a kind of emotional code to their fellow squids. One day, one of the human children wanders into the vicinity of one of the squids, wearing a garment of the same color that the creature's offspring use to signal hunger. The squid feeds the child by regurgitating into its mouth. It doesn't take the humans long to figure out that the squid vomit is the only thing humans can eat on the planet without becoming ill. They also figure out that the squids are mildly intelligent and soon a system is in place where the humans plant and grow the crops the squids like to eat and the squids repay them by feeding the humans.
It soon becomes clear that these squids are not the only squids. There are other, smarter, carnivorous, dangerous squids. And these squids are intent on capturing and enslaving or eating the good, gentle squids. So the humans find themselves embroiled in tribal warfare to protect the squids that are vital to human survival. But what ultimate effect will contact with the more technologically advanced humans have on the bronze-age population of the intelligent, aggressive squids who became the allies of the humans in their war to protect the gentle, grazing squids and the brutal, enslaving enemy squids?

Despite its intriguing premise, this book is mainly about battles. Squid vs squid, squid vs human, with a lot of lectures about human history included. I found it rather dry going. Descriptions of battles have never interested me. I also found the idea of people living on squid-puke just disgusting. And the long discourses on history and religion and biology were too much like reading a text book.

And just a note: the demons in the title refers to the humans. The squids think the humans must be demons because they are so strange looking.

Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Prominent American Ghosts

By Susy Smith

A visit around the country to old buildings and houses rumored to be haunted by the author. She recounts the stories connected to these hauntings along with much background information about the history and people involved. Although she never actually gets to see any of the ghosts, still her reporting makes for lively and interesting reading and it is also quite a stroll through early American history. Some of the stories are very amazing, especially the ones dealing with poltergeists like the Bell Witch, a poltergeist that tormented a young girl and her family for many years, eventually resulting in the death of the girl's father. The author also details her own experience with a poltergeist that afflicted a warehouse in Florida, believed to be activated by a teenage boy who worked there, since poltergeists are said to be attracted to teenage children. It makes for pretty fascinating and somewhat chilling reading.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Gentle People

By Era Zistel

Era and her husband Eric owned a house on a large acreage in the Catskill Mountains. They both loved animals, acquiring many cats, at least one dog, several goats and a few rabbits. In the course of the years, and through Era's efforts mainly, they also had some wild guests too: chipmunks, pack rats, skunks, raccoons, opossums and flying squirrels. Era's affinity for wild creatures is just amazing, as she becomes fast friends with animals most people would prefer to avoid, much less have living within their own house, like skunks, rats and opossums. Most, like the skunks and raccoons, just stop by to be fed and admired but for a few years, Era had opossums living in her house until one died from a life of too much ease and comfort at which point she concluded they were better off on their own. She also had cages of chipmunks, rescued from her cats, and later a cage of flying squirrels, those elusive spirits of the forest, common but only rarely seen. She and Eric also kept goats for a while and rabbits but couldn't bear to eat them or sell them for meat, which became a problem.

It was great fun reading about Era and her critters. She has an incredible knack for communing with wild animals that almost seems like magic. It's a talent that only a lucky few have. One of the most enchanting chapters is the one about the chipmunks; charming, amusing little rodents. I also enjoyed the chapter about the pack rat and her family of baby rats. I especially like the chapter about the opossums, having had a few close encounters with opossums myself, one of which my dog attacked and wounded. Unlike the opossums in her book, my opossum played dead and I was able to pick it up by its tail and put it in a box to transport to the humane society. It wasn't much damaged, just a small wound on its throat, which the people at the society treated and they took care of the opossum until it was well enough to release. I also disturbed an opossum sleeping under an old pillow inside a tractor tire laying on the ground. I had picked up the pillow to toss in the garbage and a little opossum was curled up under it fast asleep. So I carefully laid the pillow down and left it. I didn't remove it until spring so the opossum could have a warm spot in which to sleep through the winter.
If you like stories about animals, this book is sure to please.