Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Truly Devious: A Mystery

Truly Devious takes place at a boarding school because boarding schools always make good places for books. This rural Vermont school takes the "best", but has no strict admission standards. You just ask to get in, and they decide if you should get in. Attending are a budding novelist, an actor, an engineer and an artist. The protagonist feels a little out of place. Her skill is "solving mysteries". And she is drawn to the school for the unsolved kidnappings and murders from the 1930s. (And it also gets her away from her parents who are employed by a right-wing senator)
The budding actor recruits her and the writer to help write a script for him about the murders. He knows that one of the long-closed tunnels from the incident is now opened. They go down there to film. However, things turn tragic as he dies. Now there is a new murder to solve. She finds a real mystery different, but still uses her skills. In the process she also finds a boy and is really caught with emotions there. (However, her sleuthing ends up causing problems.) She gradually comes of age as she solves the mystery. In the end, the book gives some potential answers, but lives more things untied. This is the first book in a series, rather than a fully standalone book.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

If I Stay

A teenage girl lives with her family in Oregon. One day they go on a car trip in snowy conditions. Her parents die immediately. Her brother dies in the hospital. She is alive, but barely. If I Stay is narrated from the girls perspective. She "sees" what is going on. She can wander around in the hospital to see the people that are working there and those that come to visit. She gradually unfolds her history. She comes from an artistic family. Her dad was a punk drummer before becoming a school teacher. She, however, "rebelled" against punk and became an accomplished cellist. She managed to fall for a punk boyfriend. They seemed nothing alike. However, they shared a common love of music. The boyfriend went through great effort to be able to see her in the hospital. (He even involved a famous musician to try to district people.) Eventually, a friendly nurse showed up and let him in. He finally convinced her that it was worth it to keep on living. The book does a good job of providing the traditional coming of age love story from a very different angle.

Saturday, July 20, 2019

The Loneliest Girl in the Universe

[plenty of spoilers] Romy Silvers is all alone in a space ship heading towards Earth 2. Her only human companionship comes from messages sent from a psychologist on earth. However, it takes a long time for the messages to travel back and forth, so she spends a lot of time in her own thoughts. She spends a lot of time writing "fan fiction" for one of her favorite shows. She learns that a new ship has been sent after hers. It moves much faster and will catch up with her in a year. It will then dock, and together the ships will arrive on earth two. She is excited to be able to arrive and meet other people before she is too old. She starts to communicate with the captain of the new ship (J). As they become closer and closer, they can almost begin to carry out a normal conversation. She feels she has a strong bond with him and eagerly anticipates meeting him. In her mind, she portrays him as a character in one of her favorite shows. However, as the ship gets closer, she learns that there was a war on earth and a new regime came to power. Her old psychologist no longer communicates with her. However, the new regime begins communications and starts to send proposed efficiency improvements. It does feel a little bit odd that they they would go down to super micro-level improvements from such a great distance away. (If it is taking them a year to get feedback, why would they gradually move to slightly reduce shower times?)
The author does a brilliant job of unfolding the novel. I had a strong desire to know how she ended up all alone in a space ship. The details gradually came out as we learn about her and the history. She had not been entirely truthful in her communications with earth regarding what had happened. The ship had a large number of astronauts in stasis. Her parents were supposed to be caretakers for some time before alternating with another couple. However, her mother became pregnant with her, resulting in them staying primary caretakers for longer. Then the stasis chambers failed and all the astronauts ended up dying. Her mother had gone mad in the process, and also tried to kill embryos and even killed her husband before putting herself in stasis. Romy was haunted by these fears.
The ending of the novel seems to come out of nowhere. All of a sudden, she Romy realizes she has been had. The guy she had been communicating with had been carrying out an elaborate ruse and was really just trying to get there to kill her. His parents died on the ship and he held her responsible. If her mother had not removed her birth control, she would not have been there, and her parents would have done a better job taking care of the other astronauts. He blocked communications with earth, fabricated the wars on earth and kept carrying out different sets of lies. He kept putting on a show, even telling lies as he tried to carry out truth. He managed to kill Romy's mother before Romy killed her.
The psychology of J is baffling. How could he be so caught up in such an elaborate plan of revenge? What were his motives? How was he so clear to not be caught? And how did she manage to find out at the last minute after not having a clue earlier. (She happened to find out by seeing that earth communications were coming from his ship. He later explained that his ship was a relay for them. If she was so "in love" with him, wouldn't she have just trusted that explanation?) And wouldn't those planning the space mission realized the psychological challenges of leaving too small a group of people "alone" on the ship for a long period of time? The novel was so well written. It is a shame that it ended so poorly.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight

The recording of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight included both a verse translation and a reading of the original version of the poem. In the original, bits and pieces are understandable, but it is only a little more understandable than Dutch to the native English speaker. The tail centers around Arthurian knights a duel and a quest with a lady.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fangirl: A novel

Fangirl follows Cath, an introverted uber fan of Simon Snow (a Harry Potter-like fantasy series.) She is also one of the most popular fan-fiction authors, with a large following for her series. She grew up with her extroverted identical twin sister and bipolar father in Omaha, Nebraska. (Their mother left them when they were in elementary school.) The story follows her in her first year of college at University of Nebraska. She tries to avoid people, yet has a super outgoing roommate that forces the issue. Her roommates's hometown boyfriend, Levi hangs out there a lot and is super friendly towards Cath. Her twin sister Ren also goes to school there, but seems to spend most of her time partying. Cath is taking a writing class where she excels. She partners with Nick to do a lot of writing. She has almost all As. Then her world starts to turn upside down. Her writing teacher gave her an F on an assignment because she turned in a fan fiction story in the Simon Snow universe. She gradually does more stuff with Levi and helps read Outsiders to him. (He has a reading disability.) They kiss. Then she goes to a party and sees him kissing somebody else. Her father suffers from an episode and is hospitalized. Nick decides to turn their story in as his. She hardly talks to her sister. Even her mom tries to reappear in their life. She goes home and decides not to go back to school. However, she is convinced to go back and things end up happily ever after. (She talks to mom. Her sister is hospitalized for drinking, is forced to go sober. The novel then has a whirlwind end. Cath gets back together with Levi, re-ups for next year with her roommate, reconciles with her sister, shames Nick, and finishes her writing. It seems that the author just ran out of steam and tied everything up. The ending destroys the book. Cath's heartless rejection of Nick's proposed co-writing credit invalidates much of her growth. The hook-up with Levi was telegraphed from the first time they met, so it had to happen. However, it would be nice to see some more growth in his character. The book had potential, but did not quite deliver.

Monday, July 15, 2019

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis

First the bad: Upheaval is an academic book pitched at a popular audience. The narrative can be very long and detailed for a popular book. (But at the same time lacking in details for an academic book.) The audiobook narration further emphasizes the dryness. The author from the outset states that it is not a comprehensive analysis, but just a focused view of case studies of modern upheaval in a few countries that he is familiar with.
With the bad out of the way, the book has a nice story to tell. Countries and people got through periods of significant "stress". Sometimes this comes from the outside. Other times it is purely internal. It may happen in response to a single event, or it may be something that happens gradually over time. Using a "crisis framework", he analyzes the different ways that they react.
Finland shares a very long border with Russia and has a language and culture very different from the Russian and Scandinavian neighbors. When attacked by Russia, Finland did not give in, but fought back against overwhelming odds. This allowed them to remain independent (even as other Baltic States were subsumed by Russia.) After the war, Russia demanded reparations and trials of Finnish leaders for "war crimes". Finland acknowledged their week position relative to Russia and complied. (By charging the leaders with war crimes, they were also able to dictate the "punishment") The reparations paid to Russia were a sacrifice that benefited the country by forcing industrialization. Finland was further able to maintain good relations with Russia and western Europe by self censoring. They willingly sacrificed some democratic principals in order to maintain freedom and democracy. This seemed an anathema to many in the west, but it served Finland quite well.
Other countries did not have such a positive experience. Chile was one of the most stable democracies in South America. However, democratically elected Allende moved too far to the left for his military, thus setting the position for a coup and the rise of Pinochet. He stayed in power longer than expected and killed a large number of leftests. However, he still allowed for a peaceful transition, even though only a narrow majority voted to not extend his term. The new government allowed for Chile for all Chileans and kept many of Pinochet's positive reforms. The country had to go through the challenging experience to realize that compromise is the best policy.
Similarly Indonesia found itself ripe for a dictator after the leader became too involved with external affairs at the expense of internal needs. Unlike Finland, Indonesia had very little national identity, and needed to foster one. Corruption was a big problem and needed to be reined in.
Australia had a national identity tied up in England. Despite being in a totally different part of the world, Australians thought of themselves as British. Only after the fall of Singapore in World War II, did Australia realize they had to depend on themselves more. They gradually moved away from the "white Australia" to a more cosmopolitan, independent country. (They there was a shock of policy changes that were carried out at the start of one government.)
Japan had change thrust upon them. After Perry sailed in, Japan was no longer isolated. The leaders realized they could not compete with the western powers, so they spent time trying to learn what they could from them. They picked and chose to adopt the best policies. They realistically knew what they were capable of. However, by World War 2, they had built up a significant military and the new "young guns" lacked they global insight of their elders. Thus, they went on a multi-front war that would be difficult to win, and ended up being defeated. Today, Japan still has some trouble with introspection. History courses treat Japan as a "victim" in World War 2 (due to the nuclear bombs) without regarding that they were the aggressor. This has lead to weaknesses in relationships with its neighbors. (Germany, on the other hand, has apologized profusely and done much to prevent the Nazi past from resurfacing.) Japan also faces on oncoming demographic crisis with a very low birth rates and almost no immigration.
Countries and individuals got through many crises in their lifetime. Being honest in the approach to them can be the difference between a positive growth experience and a long struggle.

Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last

John Gottman did an extensive study on couples and how their relationships succeed or fail. The majority of marriages fail. However there are a number of signs of success. One key is to have 5 times as many "good" interactions as bad. A bad sign is when even initial memories of the marriage are recalled negatively.
He identified a few different types of personalities and their interactions. Some are very communicative. Some avoid conflict, while others appear to thrive on it. All styles can succeed with the proper effort. (Though mismatching styles can be challenging.
Some common problems seen include stonewalling. Often one person (often the man) will be so upset that they will not give way or communicate. Other problems include (usually erroneously) inferring negative thoughts or motives to the other party. The key to resolving issues is often as simple as being open with listening and communicating. People will often communicate fine with strangers, and then get into a rage with their spouse. Just because we know them well does not mean they don't have needs to be validated and respected.

And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives

John Gottman had made extensive study of what makes marriages succeed and fail. This book focuses on one of the key "stress points" of a marriage - the birth of a child. Children throw a knot in even a well-calibrated marriage. They provide joy but also stress. (3 AM feedings and diaper changes are never easy.) They also alter mom's hormones and dynamics in a relationship. this book was appropriately written with his wife who is also a psychologist. (Perhaps they will have a follow up written with their child?)
One of the key points is that life will change with baby. It becomes more difficult to keep communication open, but that is a requirement. Parenting styles may be different. Sexual desires and needs from each couple will also be very different. There must be work done to ensure that it is balanced appropriately. Maintaining intimacy and romance after baby requires more effort, but is important. It is also important to create new family traditions by synthesizing the traditions of each family. Neither couple should assume that things will be the same as they experienced growing up. It is also important to realize that your memories are more colored by later childhood and adulthood. The "young child" traditions take some time to cultivate and develop.
The involvement of mother and father are also very different. The father role is typically more playful and chaotic. The mother role is typically more guided and attentive to needs. Baby needs some of both. A couple that loves and respects each other will often be more helpful for the growth of baby than one that attempts to provide every last little benefit fad for the child. Couples should respect the different styles of parenting to help baby to be loved and develop well.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Next: The Future Just Happened

Next details some of the drastic societal changes caused by the internet. It was written 18 years ago, and thus provides an interesting insight into where we thought things were going. Amazon would continue on its path to dominate retail. Ebay is still around, but it was Craigslist that played a bigger role in sucking the gas out of local newspapers. The financial markets recovered from the dot com bubble, only to hit the housing bubble and now are on their way to the next bubble. Many old school careers have died away. However, there is almost a greater clinging to "credentialism". Lawyers are still needed to perform legal activities, even if most of it can be done by a computer or somebody in India. Doctors still need to prescribe medicine, even if the diagnoses can be found on the internet. However, people are taking much more of this into their own hands.
Privacy is one area where Lewis's trajectory was way off. He saw people willing to give up their privacy for their own benefit or even to be heard. Today, however, things have flipped to an almost polar opposite. People are paranoid about exposing too much, and laws are made to give a great deal more privacy rights.
He did catch on to the corporations co-opting the rebels. Social Media like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and SnapChat were nowhere to be found when he wrote this book. However, they are now behemoths in their own right. And they are now heavily utilized by companies as part of their social media strategy. Google had barely been founded when this book was written. Now they are staring down the eyes of regulators. Tech has gone from "upstart" to regulated utility.
The story of media did not follow the expected path, but has actually managed to gain more control, while at the same time losing it. File sharing has faded as people can new just stream music and video. Network, Cable and Satellite television watching has become archaic. There were cord cutters. And now there are just "never had a cord" households. The book details the launch of the DVR with TiVo and ReplayTV. Tivo is still around. However, the set-top box has been adopted by most cable providers. They did help get people accustomed to TV on demand. However, most people took it a step further and just subscribed to Netflix. Today, however, most studios are launching their own streaming services. This fragmentation seems a last-ditch effort that could lead us back to the bad-old days of piracy. Music streaming is fairly available with services like Spotify. Bands don't see much revenue from it. But they rarely did earlier. The book talks about Marillion's direct relationship with their fans. Today, bands need the direct communication to survive.
The book talks about a few "whiz kids" that had run ins with adult society. A teenager made money promoting stocks. Another gave free legal advice. Another helped write computer programs. These still exist. However, they don't make news. Society has almost brushed aside the kids and filled the internet with so much "garbage" that it is hard to find reliable advice outside official channels. Democratization has sewed its own fall.

Marvel Comics: The Untold Story

I've thought of Stan Lee as the person always willing to take credit for other people's work. This book doesn't dispel that. However, it does show that the business side really is what matters. They were the ones that have made a killing. There have been many people that have contributed to the various characters in the marvel universe. Very few received anything more than small payments for their work. However, they helped contribute to the overall value of the product. The value would have been less if each character had an individual owner. Also, without the correct moves on the business side, the value would have disappeared. (The many poor moves made by the business nearly did evaporate the value.)
Comic books did experience an early 1990s mania in collection, followed by a popping of the bubble. Marvel helped fan the flames of the bubble by introducing many new titles with multiple variants and crossovers . (This helped provide momentary gain, but also led to buyer fatigue and a glut of product. Value increases based on rarity, making it ludicrous to think a best selling run could be super valuable. My comic book collection dates from the early part of this mania. Looking at the current values, It seems it is mostly the oddballs that have gained in value, while the "sure things" have stagnated.)
During the last few decades, there has been an increased emphasis on "artists", with certain comic book creators drawing name recognition and earning big paydays. Comic book distribution has also focused on specialty shop, with significantly higher price points and print quality. The casual comic book reader is now out of the picture. Comic books are now just an IP factory to be mined for movie characters.

A Study in Charlotte: Charlotte Holmes, Book 1

Descendants of Sherlock Holmes and Watson meet at an easy coast boarding school and become involved with a murder mystery. James Watson narrates and comes across as a normal teenager. Charlotte Holmes is pure fiction. Watson admits to fantasizing about her, and this helps justify the narrative. However, as a young teenager, she is just too good and deductions - and too worldly. (She is a drug addict, can seamlessly pose as anybody, runs a poker club and has been raped while high.) The story was engaging with a nice growth arc with the main characters, even if their lives seemed a little too vulgarly mature. The parental relationships, on the other hand, were a little on the odd side.

Sugar: The World Corrupted: From Slavery to Obesity

Easy access to sugar was once limited to the upper class. However, with new world sugar plantations and alternative sugar sources (such as sugar beets), it has become well used by all classes of people. This has lead to multiple public health issues. The author begins with the story of his World War II upbringing. Despite rationing, sugar was a regular part of everyday life. Many people would have their teeth removed at a young age. It was cheaper to have fake teeth then to maintain them in face of abundant sugar consumption.
The author then goes on to show how slavery was rooted in the need for sugar. He does have some good points. He seems to push it a little too for, however has some basis in reality. Would slavery been so important for cotton if it were not already in place for sugar? What would land be like without sugar terraforming?
Now I have second thoughts about pure cane sugar.