Monday, June 30, 2008

Different Kinds of 'Smart'?

Social Intelligence: the New Science of Social Relationships / by Daniel Goleman, Ph.D.

In tense moments of verbal confrontation, why do some individuals come out better than others? How will developmental stages in childhood affect an individual's social skills as an adult? Are there signs during conversations between couples that could determine whether a relationship will (or won’t) succeed? Sociologist Daniel Goleman ponders these issues and more in his book examining the neuroscience involved with personal interaction. Correlating the biological mechanisms of brain chemistry with observed social habits, Goleman dissects the essentials of social conduct, substantiating the ‘why’ of certain habits and personalities with the ‘how’ of physiological function. Using newly modified fMRI (brain scan) technology, an entire world of data is now available to researchers who, like Goleman, have been making some Bunyan-esque strides in the realm of social behavior. This 'new data' together with the ever-evolving field of neuroscience has given a wholely different meaning to the term 'street smarts'.

As with psychology, certain behaviors (in the form of social output) can be traced to formative patterns in developmental years, an aspect Goleman especially highlights in his conjectures on the various 'empathy' personas. Backing up the 'hard science' are the quota number of ‘studies have shown…’ and ‘In a recent survey among…’ used to bolster analysis, but these reinforce theoretical knowledge more than celebrate any new [universally credible] discoveries. Where Goleman succeeds is at illuminating the nuances of interpersonal relationships, comparatively explaining--in very adaptable language--the world of human interaction and its neurological framework. Not that he’s another guru telling you ‘what to do’ or directing needy readers to this or that remedy. The book is more—in sociology-speak—an I=>IT reference rather than an I=>YOU instructional resource, just making a case for the reasoning why someone may react harshly to an offhand comment or a certain person will routinely withdraw from intimacy.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Lord of the Flies / by William Golding

"Fun and Games..." (ch. 12)

During wartime, a plane carrying a group of schoolboys crashes on a desert Island. With the pilot perishing in the destruction, the boys--ages 6-12--must fend for themselves with no food, provisions, or hope of rescue. Initially, a called assembly reveals the lack of authority to be a blessing; some of the older boys loosely laying out guidelines amid a vibrant atmosphere of jubilation. Yet with immediate necessities needing constant attention, a long-term plan for survival is all too evident. Leadership is initially undertaken by Ralph, a rational--if naieve--sort, with little objection until sightings of a mysterious "beast" incite an uproar over its potential danger. The debate ongoing, Ralph's authority is soon challenged by Jack, leader of the "hunters", who proposes a relocation of the camp for more protective measures. Deliberation becomes anarchy when continued attempts at arbitration and self-governance descend into chaos, transforming the already primitive island society into savagery and martial law.

The title "Lord of the Flies" is a literal reference to the Hebrew word Beelzebub, also meaning "chief devil" or "prince of the air". The term is more commonly associated with the biblical Satan following his fall to Earth. Allegorical in nature, the book mirrors how civilization orchestrated by man inevitably fails. Even positive motives toward a harmonious society are an illusion; witness how quickly Ralph's plan for everyone "to have fun" dissolves into rancor and grievance. Golding wasn't solely concerned with the 'man against man' conflict though. Deeper aspects of the book point out man's obstinacy and rebellion as the primary source in undoing the natural world, ultimately seen through the destruction of the island itself.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Muriel's Wedding (DVD) 1994 / w/ Tony Collette & Rachel Griffiths

"You're terrible, Muriel."

Muriel Hislop likes life . . . even if the favor's not exactly returned. Just out of school, she's two things a girl's not supposed to be: un-hip and unattractive. She’s also unintelligent, untalented and irresponsible but that's not enough to interfere with her ambitious fantasy-life of wanting--more than anything--to be a bride. Grabbing out at ‘friends’, fashion, and good times in an aimless effort to corral her desire, Muriel finds that her intentions, genuine as they may be, just aren't lining up with her disco-ey montage of a white wedding. Neither do they line up with other people's expectations as her antics prompt some abrupt (and vivid) recoils among family and peers. Left alone but still intent on her desire, Muriel embarks on her next best option: she agrees to marry a foreigner seeking citizenship.

This movie is comedy but it still captures a lucid realism following Muriel--a bit dim but no pretender--in her search for fulfillment, ultimately realizing that life's zest isn't always about where (or how) you look. Even juxtaposed events like her mother's suicide tend to clarify her world of emotional isolation and deferred enthusiasm. Priceless comic relief is never far off though; Muriel's impeccably satirized queen bee counterparts, all hopelessly into themselves and out of touch with reality, filling the gaps where necessary. Juggling both humor and drama doesn't always work, but exceptions like this almost credit the failures for trying. "Toni Collette doesn't play Muriel as much as she inhabits the role"*; realizing the offbeat heroine with enough authenticity to flesh out, not just a character, but an entire persona. Throw in Rachel Griffiths performance as the bosom buddy, and you have two Oscar nominees in a film which wasted no time adopting cult status.

*Schneider, Steven Jay., ed. 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die. Hapuppauge: Barron's, 2005. p. 247.

Monday, June 16, 2008

New Stephenie Meyers -- no vampires this time

The Host / Stephenie Meyers

Stephenie Meyers, wildly popular with teens and adults alike for her Twilight vampire series for Young Adults, has made her first foray into general adult fiction with The Host.

This book belongs to the science fiction genre, but it also has a strong romantic element. On her website, Meyers, calls it, "science fiction for people who don't like science fiction." She's right -- despite the fact that she uses an alien invasion of earth as a major plot point, the romance, the character development and Meyers' exploration of what it means to be human take precedence over the over the science fiction elements of the novel.

The setting is Arizona, sometime in the near future, after body-snatching aliens have taken over the human race. The main character is Wanderer, one of said aliens, who inhabits the former body of a lovely young woman named Melanie, whose consciousness inconveniently refuses to disappear. Instead, she lives in the back of her former brain -- now mostly controlled by Wanderer -- and periodically provides a commmentary on Wanderer's actions in her former body. Melanie is understandably frustrated with her new situation. She has an orphaned 13-year-old brother and a lover who've managed to avoid capture by the souls, and she misses and worries desperately about both. Wanderer, a soul unused to the intensity of human emotions, becomes caught up in the swirl of Melanie's love and pathos, and sets out on a dangerous journey to find them.

If you're a fan of Sharon Shinn, Mary Stewart's Merlin trilogy, the Battlestar Galactica t.v. series, or if you just have a penchant for unusual love stories, check this one out.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Me Bad Want Money Now

People want [more] money so bad that other people get rich writing about ‘how to get rich’; and with today's high gas prices, money management is all the rage. So how do you know which ideas will fit your lifestyle? Here are some popular books by the folks who know, or think they know, what you need for financial prosperity.

The Road to Wealth: A Comprehensive Guide to Your Money: Everything You Need to Know in Good and Bad Times / by Suze Orman
The queen of personal finance, Suze Orman's latest book shares more money-wise insights on maintaining your economic stability. Readers familiar with Orman's radio show and seminars will recognize her up-front style and abrupt directives in this Q & A chronologue of her finer points. In addition to addressing typical financial quandaries, Orman offers advice for investors wishing to take that next step in money management, providing investment insight into both long and short-term market options.

Easy Money: How to Simplify Your Finances and Get What You Want Out of Life / by Liz Pulliam Weston
In the age of identity theft, universal debt and a fluctuating economy, financial adviser Liz Weston outlines her three principles of financial stability: consolidate, automate, and delegate (or CAD). Easy Money is as much about organization as it is fund placement and account management, advocating a hybrid method of online/automated transactions together with more traditional practices of simplification for ensuring your personal and financial security.

The Ultimate Cheapskate's Road Map to True Riches: a Practical (and fun) Guide to Enjoying Life More by Spending Less / by Jeff Yeager
Yeager retired from his job at 46 after he and his wife re-evaluated their priorities and began to practice "good living" habits. By acting prudently through conservation of resources (soft-boiling eggs in the dishwasher), "frugal fasting" (1 week of not spending money) and cutting long-term medical expenses with exercise and healthy eating, Yeager advocates that everyone can successfully preserve their finances while still enjoying a fruitful and luxurious lifestyle.

The Busy Family's Guide to Money /
by Sandra Block
Block is a well-known reporter and finance columnist for USA Today who's authored a number of books on investing over the years. Drawing on her extensive background as an investment banker and market analyst, she outlines her financial plan for American families in today's current economy. Though the title would indicate a more family-friendly book, the content is very universal with applications for individual account management, investment options, and saving for the future.

Get Rich, Stay Rich, and Pass It On: the Wealth Accumulation Secrets of America's Richest Families / by Catherine S. McBreen
McBreen claims to have the secret(s) of not just becoming rich, but accumulating wealth enough to pass down to other generations. Apparently, there are two distinct ways of doing this: (1) owning profit-earning real estate inter-generationally, and (2) perpetual variation in investment endeavors (i.e., continually re-conditioning your portfolio to adust to the market). Though other philosophies along the lines of trusts and mutual account banking are shared also, it's these two primary methods which increase the chances for developing the credit and equity needed to maintain wealth.

and for the really risky...

Das Kapital / by Karl Marx; updated ed. by Frances Wheen
Karl Marx figured it out; that is to say he didn’t, necessarily. In Das Kapital, Marx argues that personal wealth is oppressive, that being rich is ou
tdated and that independent capital’s too volatile to sustain the market. Bottom Line: commercial enterprise (capitalism) is bad for all involved. Marx says that wants, or hypothetical necessities derived of self-sufficiency, counteract the basic nature of economic synergy. It’s not about “trying to gain”; rather personal ‘wealth’ has everything to do with autonomous functionality, an individual’s applied aptitude apart from the [theoretically] commercial world but within the group dynamic. Despite all the bad stuff that happened as a result, Das Kapital still stands as one of the most widely-read (and controversially panned) book on economics and finance.

Six Wives: the Queens of Henry VIII / by David Starkey

Perhaps no other monarch in the history of the world has been as scrutinized as King Henry VIII (1491-1547). Above all, it was his six marriages (along with several publicly acknowledged affairs) which have so long carried his legacy. Assuming the throne at 17 following the premature death of his older brother, Henry had little leisure for a normal youth there being the political urgency to wed his brother's widow, Katherine of Aragon (Spain). By all accounts the marriage between Katherine and Henry began happily enough, the pair hitting it off 'royally' for the first few years. But England being a kingdom ruled by monarchy, a proper successor was desired and the fact that Katherine bore 3 healthy children—all girls—availed little good graces from Henry who, along with his advisers, would accept nothing but a legitimate son and heir. On trumped up charges of infidelity Henry divorced Katherine in 1536 and had her abdicated from the royal court, allowing the King (and subsequent "Head of the Church of England") to lawfully wed his--now pregnant--mistress, Anne Boleyn.

More than any partner of a King, Ruler, or Pontiff and certainly among the six wives, Anne Boleyn's tenure as queen has been the most renowned. Meriting appraisal on par with Henry himself, commentary on Anne has widely diverged, herself depicted simultaneously as a vixen, adulteress, homewrecker, heretic, and martyr. Yet it was Anne’s influence beyond all others which prompted Henry’s renunciation of papal authority over Great Britain, a move spearheading the country’s protestant reforms and inciting centuries of religious conflict. But any fanfare for Anne as heroine soon died with her after she too failed to bare Henry a son (her daughter Elizabeth would be queen anyway). Over the next 2 decades Henry would wed four more times with one more wife beheaded, one divorce and one dying in childbirth before his final wife ultimately outlived him. His only son Edward, born to third wife Jane Seymour, would last only 7 years on the throne.

Starkey details everything. Along with the conditions and political climate at the time of each marriage, he comments on the degree of influence advisers--some beheaded with the wives--would have had in relation to Henry's own convictions. While more weight is allotted to the first two marriages, Starkey does well to layer the evolution from Henry's youthful vigor to the aged but still hopeful King wedding his sixth wife, Catherine Parr. For those looking for details behind one of history's most celebrated soap opera's, 'Six Wives' does not disappoint.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

The Virgin Suicides / by Jeffrey Eugenides


"On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide—it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese—the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope…" (p.2).

In a quiet suburb in the late 1970’s on a street known for its picaresque tranquility sits the Lisbon house, home to Mr. & Mrs. Lisbon and their 5 daughters: Therese (17), Mary (16), Bonnie (15), Lux (14), and Cecilia (13). Little is gathered as to how such perfectly blonde and vivacious young girls were had by Mr. Lisbon, a high school math teacher, and his rigidly pious wife--neither of whom resemble their offspring. The mystery stays all the more shrouded amid the ultra-sheltered lives endured by the Lisbon daughters; all of whom, despite an obvious flare for life, remain virtually non-existent outside school. It's not until the youngest, Cecelia, nearly dies from cutting her wrists that intrigue really builds as seemingly every neighbor on the street becomes caught up in the Lisbon drama. All eyes monitor the young girl’s return home from the hospital only to witness her second--successful--attempt a month later, this time impaled on an iron-tipped fence after jumping from a second story window.

The sudden death of their younger sister incites a change in the Lisbon girls who, amidst of their parents' detached sorrow, transfuse their own grief into a desperate yearning for 'life' outside their heavily-guarded bedroom walls. Lux especially becomes more "open" to frequent advancements, maintaining several clandestine affairs in spite of her diminished freedom. 'Living' carries a price though as, after returning past curfew from the homecoming dance, the girls are deposed to ultimate exile, now parentally restricted from all contact with the outside world. Understanding little but curious to the point of obsession, neighbor boys (themselves narrating events 20 years later) keep a close watch on the Lisbon house. A few of the braver ones eventually establish contact through alternative means (morse code w/ lamp lights, records played over the phone, anonymous postcards, etc.); all eager for connection until the very end.
Even for a book on suicide the language is awfully high-flown, detailing the bits and pieces with enough 'airy' erudition for a dozen or so requiems. Still, the author's incandescence is hard to ignore, illuminated in the story's twisted appeal with words like "effluvium" and "crenellations". Even the book's serious-ness bends more toward the poetic, concentrated on deconstructing the flowery Lisbon mystique rather than conjecturing about the 'why' element. The wordy effervescence, its nostalgic conscious and re-"collective" (first person plural) narration all contribute to 'Virgin Suicides' achieving its aim as a book rendering a moment in time forever embedded into the consciences of those confronted by it. Readers drawn to suburban voyeurism or books involving the idiosyncracies of domesticity (think The Ice Storm by Rick Moody, Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold, Election by Tom Perrotta, etc.) will like this.


***SATURDAY, JUNE 21 @ 11:00 AM***

Charley Wilson’s War: The Extraordinary Story of the Largest Covert Operation in History / by George Crile

Despite his reputation as a womanizing playboy, there was no denying Charlie Wilson's patriotism. In fact, the Texas congressman was such a walking contradiction that few suspected the inner visionary hidden beneath his cowboy get-up and raw-edged persona. A persistent positivist, Charlie'd grown worried in the wake of Watergate and Vietnam as he saw American losing face abroad. When the Soviets invaded the third-world country of Afghanistan, Wilson (with the help of his Houston socialite mistress and a renegade ex-CIA man) took matters into his own hands, personally orchestrating the military backing needed to turn the tide against the oppressors. It was Wilson’s personalized ‘war’ which took its toll on the Russians, greatly contributing to the Soviet Union’s ultimate implosion. In his book chronicling this outrageously wild—but true—story of a man wagging the dog by the tail, Crile accurately portrays the dynamic world of Charlie Wilson.

***Additional copies of the book are available for readers wishing to participate***

Monday, June 2, 2008

Black Powder War (Temeraire, Book 3), by Naomi Novik

Although I started this series with book three, that was no obstacle to my enjoyment. While I might have been briefly confused as to plot, the main character, Captain Will Laurence, is quickly caught up in one predicament after another, and my interest in his fortunes never waned. Naomi Novik has created an alternate history fantasy series, which is set in the time of Napoleon. The actual flavor of that era and its military details felt authentic to me, due to Novik’s special interest in that era. The only difference is that dragons are present and utilized by different countries in different roles. The Captain is British and acquired his dragon, Temeraire, by chance as chronicled in the first book of the series, His Majesty’s Dragon. England does not afford its dragons the respect and rights as China does, and one of Temeraire’s main concerns is to rectify that situation. But first the Captain receives orders to leave China, where the book opens, and to travel to Istanbul to pick up three dragon eggs and transport them to England.

Temeraire’s character and his close relationship with Laurence are some of the most delightful aspects of the book. All the dragons and companions are well-sketched, with surprises at every turn throughout their journey. With the first two books to be read, as well as two more now following in the series (Empire of Ivory and Victory of Eagles), I look forward to spending many more entertaining hours in her characters’ company.