Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: Another Kind of Cowboy [2007]

Another Kind of Cowboy, by Susan Juby, is a bit of a strange book because it's all about horses, riding, and training, but ultimately it doesn't have that many scenes where riding and competition feature prominently. Juby splits the narrative between Alex, the closeted dressage enthusiast, and Cleo, the spoiled rich-girl character who is exiled to riding school in Canada for her poor behavior. Alex learns to enjoy the company of people as well as horses, and the book is in some ways the story of the reunification of his family. Cleo learns to exercise her judgment (at least a little), and, of course, Alex finally comes out of the closet. I felt like the horsey details of the book and its supporting cast were its strongest points. Alex's twin sisters, who are convinced they will be martial arts movie stars when they grow up, are hilarious. I didn't quite understand why Alex's narrative was presented in third person while Cleo's was in first person--because Alex's motivations are supposed to be more mysterious? Because the author is female and felt more comfortable using the "I" with Cleo? I felt that this division really did Alex a disservice (his story is to me the more compelling one). It's a quick, easy read, and its engaging characters rise above the somewhat predictable storyline to create a pleasing package.

Grade: B-

The author's website.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Book Review: King of the Screwups [2009]

Liam always seems to be screwing things up, but when his businessman father catches him making out with a girl on the desk in his office, he finally gets kicked out of the house. Instead of going to his uptight grandparents in Nevada, however, Liam's mother (who used to be a famous runway model, and has passed all her knowledge and beauty to her son) arranges for him to stay with his cross-dressing, glam-rocker uncle Pete, who lives in a trailer in upstate New York. Liam decides that in order to win his father's approval, he needs to be something other than the "popular kid" he's always been in the past. Despite his keen fashion sense and designer clothes, he tries dressing in Pete's t-shirts, reads the morning announcements, and generally acts as "uncool" as he can manage. Fortunately for him, his plan backfires in a variety of spectacular ways, and he learns that it might just be better to be himself than try to please his father (who is, frankly, an abusive jerk).

What I liked about this book the most was Liam's character. When he is being himself, he loves clothes, loves modeling, and cares about other people. It's also nice that Uncle Pete's gayness (and the sexuality of his bandmates), rather than being a major focus, is downplayed. I felt the book cried out for a sequel--will Liam get together with Darleen? Will Liam's mother ever leave his father? What is Liam going to do with his life? I hope he will become a world-famous model!

Grade: B

The author's website.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Book Review: How I Became a Famous Novelist [2009]

I really couldn't stop myself from reading a book about a guy who decides to become a famous novelist in order to completely humiliate his ex-girlfriend at her wedding, the aptly titled How I Became a Famous Novelist, by Steve Hely. Pete creates his best-seller, The Tornado Ashes Club, by assembling every hackneyed convention and tired metaphor he can muster and meshing it all together with overpoweringly "lyrical" prose. Pete's list of rules for best-sellers (hastily assembled during a research trip to Barnes & Noble) include: "Abandon truth," "At dull points include descriptions of delicious meals," and "Evoke confusing sadness at the end." Hely primarily uses Pete's transition to author to provide a searing criticism of the publishing industry. Publishers are portrayed as having no idea how to recognize quality writing:
You know like when a kid is just screaming and screaming, and the mom just keeps throwing toys at it, but the kid keeps screaming, and it looks like the mom's about to cry, too? . . . That's what it's like! The editors are the mom! Readers are the kid. And the editors just keep throwing stuff at them, but they don't know what to do!
Readers buy poorly written books by the millions, and literary masterworks are consigned to the pulping machine. Hely opens almost every chapter with an example of wince-inducing prose from a "best-selling" author.

In retrospect, it probably would have helped if I'd been able to identify the real bestselling authors that no doubt are represented by the broad caricatures with whom Pete finds himself interacting. However, I've read enough books to be amused by the faux bestseller list (including A Whiff of Gingham and Pecorino: On a hilltop villa in Sicily, an American divorcee finds new love with a local cheesemaker involved in a blood feud.), and these lines alone made me laugh out loud (after Pete expresses his views on the "con game" of writing on national TV):
"You might have to apologize to Oprah."
"What'd I do to her?"
"She's just--that's who you apologize to."
Although the book didn't hang together as well as it could have, and ended with a whimper rather than a bang, it was worth a few laughs as a reminder to appreciate literature (but never take anything too seriously).

Grade: B-

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Book Review: The Magicians [2009]

How could I not pick up a book that George R. R. Martin blurbed with "The Magicians is to Harry Potter as a shot of Irish whiskey is to a glass of weak tea."? Although at its heart the book is an homage to Narnia, and it does contain some Potter-ish elements (notably a school of magic and division between magicians and the "real" world), it has a profoundly adult and dark sensibility that is rooted more in twentysomething angst than a child's magical adventures. Lev Grossman's protagonist Quentin Coldwater--I hesitate to call him "hero"--feels out of place and listless in Brooklyn until he receives the opportunity to study at Brakebills College for Magical Pedagogy. Despite his growing affinity for magic and a close-knit group of friends, Quentin feels a rising sense of panic as graduation approaches:
Any one of a thousand options promised--basically guaranteed--a rich, fulfilling, challenging future for him. So why did Quentin feel like he was looking around frantically for another way out? Why was he still waiting for some grand adventure to come find him?
Becoming a magician is not the cure-all he always felt it would be when he read children's books about the enchanted land of Fillory. When the opportunity to pursue his childish dream finally arrives, the outcome turns out to be more brutal and harrowing than he could ever have imagined. I found the book's premise intriguing, but stalled several times while I was reading it, probably because it was so darn depressing and filled with relatively unsympathetic characters. Still, Grossman does an admirable job of capturing Quentin's ongoing existential crisis.

Grade: B

[Edited to Add: So, I am still thinking about this book the next day, which is, I guess, a good thing. But what I am thinking is more along the lines of: Maybe the book would have been stronger if Quentin had never actually had a big magical challenge. I thought its strength was in the heaviness, the overpoweringly terrible ennui of the magical life, which allows the group to pretty much do whatever they want with no consequences. They have no purpose and no direction. One of the reviews of the book suggested that, unlike Harry Potter, The Magicians doesn't have a Big Bad on which all attention is focused. Except . . . it kind of does. I half expected it to end--as it was in 3rd person--with Quentin's miserable death after his listless, unfulfilled life. Perhaps by alcohol or stupidity. I think I might even be disappointed that Grossman went for the big battle instead.]

Saturday, August 15, 2009

A Meditation on Personality Tests

Generally, I feel that personality tests are like horoscopes: you take out of them what you feel applies to you, and the rest of the information just drifts by like empty candy wrappers the day after Halloween. However, I recently learned that I place greater value on personality tests (specifically the Jung-derived Myers-Briggs personality test) than I had previously thought. The Myers-Briggs test divides the personality into four dichotomies: Extraversion/Introversion, Sensing/iNtuition, Thinking/Feeling, and Judgment/Perception. From these dichotomies, 16 personality "types" can be created.

The other day I took the Facebook version of the Myers-Briggs test, which I had last taken (perhaps even in its official format) during high school. I'm not sure why they were having us take the test--whether it was for fun or to help us figure out what careers would be best for our looming future--but I clearly remember my original "type" as INFP, or Introverted, iNtuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving. As I recall, it was quite heavily weighted toward the "I." I clutched the paragraph associated with this identity close to my heart, discussed it with my mother at length, and have spent the last fifteen years thinking of myself as, well, an introvert. However, when I took the Facebook version, I was labeled instead as an ENFP. I felt like the whole foundation of my identity had shifted; was I really that far from the wallflower of high school that I could be comfortable with the label of "extrovert"? Not only that, but unlike the "real" test, the Facebook version doesn't show you a handy breakdown of your answers that lets you know how close you are to the division between the different types, which is very frustrating. I decided to do some additional research in the face of this potential crisis.

I took a battery of online Myers-Briggs or similar personality tests, as well as one from the book Please Understand Me, by David Keirsey and Marilyn Bates, which we happened to have on the shelf at work. The book told me I was an I, an F, and a P (which was comfortable), but also that I was tied between Sensation and iNtuition. Another wrinkle in the previously smooth fabric of my self-perception! I began to feel as if I would never be able determine my own personality by means of ten-minute personality tests! However, I gamely carried on, receiving an INFJ (Judging!!! Really?), an ENFP, another ENFP, and an ENFP/ENFJ. The latter has a really cool way of displaying your percentages and, rather than either/or questions (a lot of which have no right answers for borderline personalities), has you move a bar along a scale between two options. Nevertheless, that test gave me a potential J, and I'm still not so sure about that. After all this, I was confronted with the quandary: was it possible that my personality has migrated all the way from INFP (presuming that the original test was absolutely correct, which for my mental model it was) to ESFJ or ENFJ? It would seem that the only stable part of my personality is the Feeling part, which is pretty much a no-brainer if you have ever been around me. Those tests that did have percentage breakdowns had me at about 5% Thinking and 95% Feeling, which is probably about right.

If I take a rough average of all the tests I took, I do end up as an ENFP, which was what Facebook had indicated. Reading descriptions of ENFP, a lot of the observations seem to ring true, especially the flattering parts and "zany charm." I feel exactly the same way when I read stuff about the Libra star sign; it fits pretty well. I guess I like the generalizations that this kind of categorization yield, and the feeling of "you're special and unique, and just like everyone else who tested this way." Mostly, it has been interesting to realize how much unconscious emphasis I have always placed on being an introvert--so much that I was deeply startled by my new test results. Subsequent discussions with friends and coworkers have revealed that . . . yeah, I am kind of extroverted at this point. I don't know when it happened, but I enjoy being around people more than I enjoy being alone. Lucky for me! Lucky for the people upon whom I inflict my company! I will enthusiastically embrace this new vision of myself . . . until I take my next personality test.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Museum Review: Bodies Revealed

I am generally a fairly squeamish person, but I must say that I thoroughly enjoyed a recent trip to the Bodies exhibit at Foxwoods Casino. We had planned for some time on visiting an incarnation of the exhibit--a traveling show that features Real! Human! Bodies!--but missed it in the Boston area and didn't want to make the drive to New York City. Thank goodness for Foxwoods, which also enabled our "bonus" museum visit to the Mashantucket Pequot Museum & Research Center. The coolest part of the Bodies exhibit was definitely the veins revealed by some obscure and deliciously gruesome process. The display was ultimately clinical, rather than gory, and ended up feeling more like an anatomy lesson than a House of Horrors. We didn't even have any qualms when faced by the row of fetuses in various stages of growth. The only downside was probably the steadily cautionary tone of the descriptions ("these are a smoker's lungs--you shouldn't smoke!" and "obese people are more likely to have deformed organs like this--watch what you eat and exercise!" and "are you sure you don't want to stop smoking RIGHT NOW?"). Despite the proselytizing, it was more often than not that we couldn't figure out the real difference between the regular lung and the cancerous lung . . . I would be hard pressed, if given a sample and told to identify them, to figure out which one looked more like my mother's lungs upon her death. Not to mention the cancerous breast. I'm not sure the museum was worth the $20 per person price of admission (we cheated and shared the audio tour), but it was interesting. If anything, it wasn't informative enough--not enough things were labeled, especially the "cross-sections" (basically people sliced from top to bottom, side to side, and front to back, then positioned with space to see between the slices), which were otherwise really cool. I have never been at an exhibit that made me so often stop and examine myself physically.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

Reading more about the controversy surrounding the exhibit . . . the bodies may be executed Chinese political prisoners. Hmm. It would really be nice if this sort of scientific/educational/commercial endeavor could be achieved without exploitation. Aren't there fat, white, middle-class guys out there who are willing to give their bodies for science? I maintain that the theory behind the exhibit--educating people about their own bodies--and the process by which the bodies are preserved--is worthwhile, but in retrospect I hope those who provided their bodies received some compensation.

A lot of the people at the exhibit were pretty juvenile, despite appearing to be adult. I'm looking at you, former frat boys, and YOU, giggly (possibly drunk) ladies. Yes, those were genitalia. I blame Foxwoods.

We didn't leave nearly enough time for the Pequot Museum. For some reason, I thought I could breeze through in an hour and 45 minutes (like the Uffizi in Florence, no I'm not proud) despite the ticket-seller's warning, and I was wrong. I will have to return with a penitent air at some point in the future and cough up another outrageous amount of money. Also, the viewing tower offers a super view of . . . the casino. Which is really fairly ugly, compared to Mohegan Sun . . . which is no great shakes.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Book Review: The Girl Who Played With Fire [2009]

I read and enjoyed The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo when it came out last year, although I felt that it was a bit heavy-handed at times. The Girl who Played with Fire is the second of the trilogy written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson before his untimely death. Fire, like the previous novel, features the characters of Lisbeth Salander (socially awkward hacker extraordinaire) and Mikael Blomkvist (investigative journalist and ladies' man). Larsson's characters are for the most part deeply flawed, and a refreshing number of them are women. This book, unlike the first, focuses on Salander's past and has as its main plot point her fugitive status after three mysterious killings shake Stockholm. As one of the victims is Salander's court-appointed guardian and her fingerprints are found at both crime scenes, she is naturally under suspicion from the outset. Blomkvist and the rest of the staff of Millennium magazine, the police department, and the security firm where Salander was once employed are all on the hunt for her, as well as a group of thugs that would rather she disappeared for good. I can't tell if I thought there were too many characters because there really were--several minor story lines seemed to disappear by the end of the book--or because they all had similar (and therefore somewhat confusing) Swedish names. I am all for Scandinavian naming conventions, but it was occasionally hard to remember who individual characters were when they popped up after being absent for some time. The book is gripping, however, and ended on a bit of a cliffhanger, leaving me eager for the final installment.

Grade: B+

Random Thoughts: There were lots of comparisons between Salander and Pippi Longstocking. I used to really love Pippi--I think I need to re-read those books. And I seem to remember a movie?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Book Review: To Kiss a Spy [2002]

It has been quite some time since I picked up one a Jane Feather romance novel. I started borrowing them from my mother's shelf at quite a young age (*cough*), and still have a sentimental attachment. When I was between books--by which I mean there was a book upstairs that I meant to start, but I was downstairs--I saw one on the paperback shelf, yielded to my old impulses, and picked it up. To Kiss a Spy is, unlike some of the other Feather series I have read, set in the reign of Edward Tudor, and involves a great deal of intrigue about the succession. Lady Penelope "Pen" Bryanston is Mary Tudor's closest confidante, but she is haunted by the loss of her child under mysterious circumstances. Owen D'Arcy is the premier spy for the French in the English court. They strike a bargain: she will give him information about Mary if he helps her find her child. Result: love. (Surprise!)

Apparently this is the second book of a trilogy. It was a quick and pleasant read, although Feather really didn't do much to make her villains anything more than one-dimensional, and the outcome was--of course--never in doubt.

Grade: B

Random Thoughts:

I did learn that Jane Feather's real name is Dzhein Feizer, which is cool. I always assumed it was a pseudonym, but I didn't realize how it was related to her real name.

Someday I will have to look more closely at our culture's absolute fascination with the Tudors. It's really quite amazing.