Reading: “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman

The Ocean at the End of the LaneThe Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely loved this book. Neil Gaiman is so skilled at crafting a fantasy story and giving his reader just enough of the details via such beautiful, literary language that you manage to sustain a sense of wonder throughout even through the ending. The mysteries in the book didn’t leave me wanting more explanation, but rather made me think about the themes in the novel — growing up, the subjective view each individual has of the world, and more.

The book reminded me a bit of the Discworld “witches” novels of Terry Pratchett, or some of the fantastic-realism novels of Tim Powers.

One of my favorite quotes from the novel:
“Grown-ups don’t look like grown-ups on the inside either. Outside, they’re big and thoughtless and they always know what they’re doing. Inside, they look just like they always have. Like they did when they were your age. The truth is, there aren’t any grown-ups. Not one, in the whole wide world.”

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Reading: How We Decide

It’s that inevitable moment in the car, again. My wife and I are sitting there, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon, just a little past the peak of hunger, and I am about to turn the key. We both know what’s going to happen, but the question is who is going to ask it first.

“Where shall we have lunch?”

Why is that question so vexing? A million thoughts come to mind, and some are even delicious. But…I can’t settle on one. This one is a little expensive. That one’s a little too far. Do we have coupons for that other place?

How We DecideHow We Decide may very well help me with my dilemma. The author, Jonah Lehrer, provides vivid examples of the decision-making process, from why people take out a sub-prime loan to how airline pilots land a plane they can no longer steer, and explains the neuroscience behind good decisions and bad ones. I feel more capable of investing in the stock market thanks to this book, which is more than I can say for most finance books I’ve read. The book makes me think about thinking, and that can be a very good thing.

I most enjoyed reading about the rational brain versus the emotional brain. I tend to try to be a rational decider. Before I bought a dishwasher, I spent hours poring over the interactive charts on consumer sites. I read endless reviews. I compared prices. This had to be the best way to make a decision. And yet, in the end, I still struggled with which dishwasher to buy.

How We Decide points out something I had missed. We humans are emotional deciders. The grandest circuitry in our brain is tied tightly with our emotional state. I should have learned this from years of watching Star Trek certainly — Kirk would get the technobabble details from Spock, but in the end, he’d go with his gut. That’s not to put down the value of the rational mind, the scientific approach; it’s a necessary and powerful tool in the decision-making process, especially when you’re making an emotion-wrought decision. As Lehrer says,“The rational brain can’t silence emotions, but it can help figure out which ones should be followed.”

Best of all, there’s a final chapter that outlines how to use the tools at your disposal to make decisions, a fantastic guide to what you should take from the book.

So, if you find yourself sitting in the driveway, trying to decide where to have lunch, go to the bookstore instead.

 

Are We What We Eat?

So, I went on a diet recently. I don’t do that lightly. In fact, I don’t think I ever admitted to doing it before. But, as the Barenaked Ladies song goes, “I’m gaining pounds / at the precipice of too late…”. I’ve felt like I needed to do something for a while, and I’d done some reading about the science around healthy eating, and never really come away with anything that felt like reality to me.

Oddly enough, I got a nudge in the right direction by Paul Thurrott on his “Windows Weekly" podcast over on the TWiT network. He happened to mention that one of his new year’s resolutions was to lose weight. And he said it with the confidence of a practiced gunslinger facing down a kid with a spud gun.

What was his secret? He mentioned a book called “Why We Get Fat and What To Do About It” by a science writer named Gary Taubes. Since I’m addicted to the Kindle and eBooks now, and it was available there, I picked it up.

 

The book absolutely fascinated me for Taubes’ ability to tell the health establishment to go flip itself like a pancake. The food pyramid is wrong. The calories in/calories out method of maintaining weight is wrong. A lot of the advice we’re given about how to control cholesterol is wrong. I left the book trying to decide if it could be correct.

Thing is, this is actually the second book Taubes has written on the subject. His initial 500+ page treatise, “Good Calories, Bad Calories” was a book aimed squarely at the establishment, to challenge them with detailed science. “Why We Get Fat…” is the populist version. So it seemed like the science was really there, and it rang true to me, despite there being a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation about what Taubes’ point is. (It mostly has to do with carbs and insulin.)

Not having much to lose (or maybe too much to lose) I decided to give the science a try.

One of the appendixes in the book is the handout Duke University gives people that are embarking on their low starch / low sugar diet. So I’m following that plan now. In the first two weeks, I dropped 10 pounds (at least half of which is probably related to water retention). I’m just into the third week, so I’ll try to occasionally update about how things are going.

Definitely take a look at the book if you’re interested in the science of nutrition. It’s an interesting, challenging read. And let me know if you have any favorite ways of losing weight.

The End (And I Like It That Way)

My roommate and I in college once had a big argument about books.

We both loved the “Apprentice Adept” trilogy by Piers Anthony. We bonded over those books, which was good because we didn’t always have a whole lot else in common.

Apprentice Adept Series Collection
Apprentice Adept Series Collection

But then, the unthinkable happened. Piers Anthony wrote a sequel.

My roommate was ecstatic. He raced out to the bookstore and brought it home. Held it before me like he’d claimed the grail. He cleared his calendar, scampered to the top of the loft, and buried himself in his sleeping bag and the book.

For me, it was like he’d just brought home a copy of the Venus de Milo, but with groovy arms cemented on, and painted to look realistic.

“That series…it was over. There was an ending,” I said to him, and he looked up from his book, startled.

“Yes! And now there’s more!” And he plunged back into the book, nestling deeper into his sleeping bag.

Over the ongoing days of his reading the book, it ate away at me. But the ending was beautiful. The entire reason for the story disappeared, closed, done forever. No possibility of sequel. The story was over. Everything was tied up in exactly the way that life truly and exactly never is. Happily ever after achieved, check the box and close the curtains.

All of this I argued at him, on and off as he read it.

And all he would say was, “You have to read it, though.”

Eventually, I did. At least the first 50 pages or so. But every word was like a slap in the face to your fairy godmother. I mean, come on…you told me everything worked out the way it worked on. And now, you’re saying, “Oops, I was wrong?”

I think Anthony even had an author’s note at the end of his book, where he said something like, “Hey, the fans wanted more.” I know an artist has to please the audience, but really, writing more Xanth, or something new, probably would have achieved the same thing.

I never finished the book. I sold it at a used bookstore some months later. Probably bought more Xanth novels with it.

I still have the original Apprentice Adept books. To me, they’re the only ones that exist in that series.

I guess I just like to believe in the “ever” in happily ever after. What about you?

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides

So they announced something at the D23 Disney Fan Convention that totally blows me away. No, there won’t be free massages from the princesses in a totally revamped Fantasyland. They actually announced the sub-title of the new Pirates of the Caribbean flick — On Stranger Tides.
Reading this announcement caused me to spit shredded wheat and soy milk. Why, you ask? Because I just read that book!

On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers
On Stranger Tides by Tim Powers

On Stranger Tides is actually a piratey novel written by Tim Powers. I read a few months ago that Ron Gilbert had quoted it as being more of an inspiration for his Monkey Island computer games than the PotC attractions that most people thought were the inspiration.

Of course, technically you can’t copyright a title…

I’m not really certain whether to be excited or a bit disappointed about this. On the one hand, I have to admit to casting a bunch of the PotC actors in the movie in my head when I read the book. On the other hand, I really loved the book and I’m feeling that normal dread of them totally screwing with it to get it to fit into the PotC world. There’s been speculation that Depp’s Sparrow would be placed in the role of the protagonist of the book, Jack Shandy. I think it’s more likely it will be like the other movies, where Shandy will be the pirate wanna-be played by the Orlando Bloom replacement, and Sparrow will replace the Piratey mentor character, Davies.

It’s funny, I had heard a while back that Pirates 4 was going to have them going after the fountain of youth, and I was surprised when I read OST that the fountain was the object of their search. Go figure. I guess that’s further confirmation that they’re adapting it.

The book is well worth the read, if you want a head start on the movie. Powers is a great writer who really knows how to wrap you up in a larger-than-life adventure story.

Reading: This Is Your Brain On Music

Did music ever stir your emotions? Make you cry? Laugh? Feel afraid? Feel like getting out of your seat and moving?

Yeah, you macho guys are sitting there, going, “No way…music only makes me want to rawk!” Well, maybe so. But what about the stirring, high-pitched violin string as the stalker sneaks up on the helpless, giggling co-ed, rusty hatchet drawn back over one shoulder? Yeah, that got you. Imagine watching that scene without that gut-wrenching music in it. Watch that scene with the sound turned down. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

Something was missing, wasn’t it. It almost seemed kind of funny. It defnitely wasn’t the same emotional state without the music.

What about, did you ever have an ear worm? You know one of those songs you can’t get our of your head?

Did you ever wonder why you rock at Guitar Hero or Rock Band, but you never became a great piano player?

This Is Your Brain On Music book cover
This Is Your Brain On Music book cover

This Is Your Brain On Music is about that, and a whole lot more. It’s a study of how the human brain and music are wrapped up and entwined in an amazing way. How music is so much a part of being human that it’s easy to see why many of us experience it as often as we can. Our very nature is musical.

Daniel J. Levitin carefully constructs both a course in music and in neuroscience in this book. Early chapters explain music theory in a way the accordion lessons I took as a kid never could. (I actually think if someone had explained music to me the way Levitin does in this book, I would have actually learned how to play something more than scales.) He goes on to relate this to how the brain works to perceive things, but rather than just writing a remarkable book about the science of music, he begins to talk about how perception affects emotion, and how when that happens…you get Art. (Yes, with a captial A.)

“The appreciation we have for music is intimately related to our ability to learn the underlying structure of the music we like — the equivalent to grammar in spoken or signed languages — and to be able to make predictions about what will come next. Composers imbue music with emotion by knowing what our expectations are and then very deliberately controlling when those expectations will be met, and when they won’t.”

I can think of how many ways that statement applies to art of all kinds — if you’re a writer, you keep the lovers in your latest novel apart for as long as you can to make their final moment of joining ecstasy. If you’re a comedian, you time your punch line perfectly for the biggest laugh. How fascinating it is that all of this relates back to the same brain adaptations that make humans musical.

Before he was a brain scientist, Levitin was both a performer and a producer, and most of all, he’s a lover of music, and this comes across in his style — he has a passion for music that makes him easy to relate to. Check out the book’s web site, yourbrainonmusic.com for more info.

A MAD Gift I Got for Christmas

So, I got a lot of books for Christmas, being a reading nerd, and one of my favorites is “Good Day and Mad” by Dick DeBartolo. Dick is the Giz Wiz, as well as Mad Magazine’s Maddest Writer. He’s been writing for the magazine so long he must have been born writing a satire of his time in the womb.

The book is a remembrance of Bill Gaines, the publisher of MAD, and the amazing way he ran the magazine. It’s really a fascinating journey through what it was like to work for one of the most interesting bosses the world has ever known. I finished the book in about 24 hours, wishing for more, and especially wishing that I could someday get the chance to work somewhere like MAD was in its early days.

The great thing about the book is, although it’s out of print, you can buy it directly from Dick at his web site, or you can get it for making a donation to the Animal Haven Shelter, which is one of Dick’s favorite charities. And you get an autographed copy!

If all that isn’t enough to make you grab a copy, how about Sam Cat’s ringing endorsement. Look how much he was enjoying it!

From 20081225 Christmas Day
From 20081225 Christmas Day

More On The New Hitchhiker’s Book

Some interesting notes on the new Hitchhiker’s book from The Guardian.

  • It’s being published by Penguin, not Hyperion as I reported earlier. (I thought the NPR thing mentioned Hyperion.)
  • It’s sanctioned by Adams’ wife.
  • It’s plotted as a way of bringing Douglas Adams’ work to the next generation of readers.

Um…on that last point, wouldn’t it make more sense to allow Douglas Adams’ work to bring new readers to Douglas Adams’ work?

Still seems greedy to me. And artistically void, since Adams’ books are so unique that even the people involved in this new book admit no one can write like him. And really, they weren’t about plot or character, they were about style. (I remember once having an argument with my cousin about who was a better writer — Douglas Adams or Terry Pratchett. I still hold that Pratchett is the better writer, because his books actually follow narrative structure, and have a beginning, a middle, and an end, and a theme, and all that general mishmash of novel stuff. And, oh yes, Pratchett generally tends to finish books, which is why he has turned out so many more than Adams. Errr, well, that and he is still alive and all….)

Why Are They Jumping Up And Down On Douglas Adams’ Grave?

Eoin Colfer, who wrote the popular childrens book series Artemis Fowl has been tapped to write a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Now, I like Mr. Colfer okay. I understand his reasoning for not turning down the offer out of hand. And I hope he does a decent job. I read the first Artemis Fowl book, and thought it was okay, but it didn’t make me really want to read another one. I’m probably not his audience anyway.

But I’m really pissed at the greedy book publishers over at Hyperion (a book company owned by Disney, the company I work for) Penguin, who just won’t let that series sit. It’s over. No one else can write it. For goodness sake, do something original, and don’t sully up the brand trying to continue to make money on it.

Reading: Star Wars – The Clone Wars Novelization

I have a confession to make. I didn’t rush out to the theater to see Star Wars: The Clone Wars. I hear you gasp. I hear you ask what has happened to my fandom. And no, I will not turn in my Jedi Knights membership card. Mind tricks are far too useful.

The characters are horrendously ugly to me. I always hated Thunderbirds. Just not my form of geekdom. Nothing against puppets. I love everything the Henson company has ever done. But the whole action/adventure marionette thing doesn’t work for me.

I’ll see it when it the TV show hits.

In the meantime, despite the fact that I have sworn off most Star Wars novels, I decided to pick up the novelization so I could get an idea of what the series was like. Add the fact that it’s written by Karen Traviss, and it didn’t seem so bad. She’s a great writer. I especially enjoyed her Republic Commando books. Her New Jedi Order (NJO) books are involving, but none of the NJO books really fit in my fan canon of Star Wars, so I can’t really bother to read them anymore.

The Clone Wars is really a pretty good story. It’s somewhere halfway between a kids book and an adult book. We get to listen to Anakin’s inner struggles about the war. We get to see a lot of the story from Clone Trooper Captain Rex’s perspective. We even get a little bit of insight into Assaj Ventris, while leaving some mystery. Bake that all in the cauldron of non-stop Star Wars action, and you get a great tasting Star Wars cookie.

I did find the character of Ahsoka, Anakin’s padawan, kind of annoying at first. She’s the whiny little kid who wants to play with the big kids. She’s the gateway character, who gives Anakin someone to talk to. She also provides Anakin a way to grow a bit. And I did grow to like her a bit by the end of the novel. But I still kind of feel like she’s way out of place in the story. I wanted to hear about Anakin and Obi-Wan’s adventures together. I didn’t so much want them always separated and meeting up at the end.

From what I hear, there’s a characterization of a Hutt character as Truman Capote in the movie that’s kind of annoying. Thankfully, you don’t get voice-acting in the book. And I think the characters are drawn a little more shallowly in the TV series. It’s a testament to Traviss as a writer that she can elevate a kid’s cartoon to something that feels like an adult story. I really did enjoy the book, and my suspicion is, I won’t like the toon as much. But maybe it will take some of the edge off the toon to have read the book first.

If you’re a fan of Karen Traviss’ Star Wars work, I recommend this one. If you haven’t read any Traviss, definitely do. If you’re a fan of Mandalorians, Clone Troopers, or Storm Troopers, you’ll really like her books. She gives them a depth and a military real-ness that gets you involved in their stories. And if you haven’t played Republic Commando, I highly recommend it. One of the most fun Star Wars games, ever.