Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Switch by Chip and Dan Heath

About six weeks ago I came across a video in the Crossfit Journal by a nutritionist, Dr. John Berardi where he talked about the differences in knowing what to do and doing the right thing. He was inspired by change psychology and discussed some really simple things people can do to lose weight. The first thing was to eat slowly. I have always been a very fast eater and I've known that that is a problem with my eating habits. I once tried eating with chopsticks as a way for me to slow down my eating and instead I just got really good at eating quickly with chopsticks.

Nonetheless, I really tried to focus on slowing down my eating and being aware of my actual hunger levels. I'll eat because there's something tasty around, even if I'm not hungry. This is especially true at my parents where they always seem to have delicious junk food that I don't buy.

The result has been a loss of almost ten pounds. I haven't really been paying attention to the numbers, just to what I'm eating, when I'm eating it, and how fast I'm eating. So that's been going well.

Dr. Berardi recommended some books on change psychology, one of which was this book, Switch by brothers Chip and Dan Heath. They also wrote Made to Stick which I seem to recall reading but was either unimpressed with it or I actually didn't read it (I'm 75/25 sure it's the former).

I really liked Switch. Although it related more to businesses, there is some individual application to be found. The essence of the book is that changes rely on three things which they label The Elephant, The Rider and The Path.

The Elephant is your emotional side. It's the part that craves the junk food or the Coach purse or says that we've always it done it this way so we'll keep doing it this way. The Rider is the rational side of you. It wants the healthy body to live longer. It wants to innovate. It sees the long-term picture.

The Heaths use the two terms because the rational side is in charge of the emotional side, as best as a person riding an elephant can be. It's hard. One of the reason why it's hard is that there is often little concern about external influences or The Path. Say I crave food. My mind is trying to control my belly but my belly wants to be satiated. How can I change my path? Maybe not visiting my parents would be an example. Or for most people, staying away from buffets. I go to buffets and I always joke that I have yet to see a supermodel at one of them. Coincidence? Or, a scientifically proven example, use a smaller plate at meal time. With a small plate, you don't put as much food on it and you tend to eat less.

Fooling with the path is also good because it lets your Rider use its wits to affect the Elephant with its own emotions. The Heaths use an example of getting a business to change their habits in filing expense reports by appealing to workers on an emotional level to make things easier for the well-liked HR person.

There are a lot of good tips, many of them common sense, like shrinking the change. Instead of focusing on losing fifty pounds, focus on losing five. Then once you hit that, go for five more. Etcetera.

Despite my examples, the book has very little to do with individual change. It is definitely a book geared to businesses and one I think should be essential reading for any business. It is primarily case studies and not a whole lot of "how-to". Given the business focus and the lack of practical implementation ideas on an individual level, I'm giving the book one star.

Monday, November 28, 2011

The World As We Know It by Joseph Monninger

I definitely was concerned about reading Joseph Monninger's The World As We Know It. His book A Barn in New England is one of my all-time favorite books and one of my most read books. It is one of those few that I will go back and re-read (that seems like a good topic for a Friday Fave). I really doubted Monninger could write two books that I thought were awesome. Plus, The World... is a novel while A Barn... is non-fiction. I had a degree of skepticism.

I shouldn't have. It was really good. The World... is about two brothers living in the little town of Warren, New Hampshire (where Monninger lives). The story begins with the two brothers in their early teens. It is winter and they are trying to ice skate up a river to Canada. They round a bend and find a young girl and her dog have fallen through the ice. The two rescue her and the girl, who is the youngest brothers age, and the younger brother fall in love.

The book goes on and details the very idyllic life of the trio and their families. The girl, Sarah, has recently moved to Warren because her father won the lottery and they were looking to "get away from it all". The brothers, Ed and Allard (Allard being the youngest), have dreamed of starting their own film company, making nature documentaries. Sarah helps them and the three grow up in a wilderness filled with love for nature, their families and each other.

Once they reach college age, Ed goes out west for college and meets up with a noted nature cinematographer and begins working for him. Allard goes to school and gets an internship with Ken Burns. Sarah pursues journalism at an Ivy League school. Even being apart from one another can't break apart the bonds of the trio. Sarah and Allard decide to get married.

By this time I'm more than halfway through this book. I'm really enjoying it but I'm bothered by a few things. First, the absolute perfection of these folks lives. It's like they grew up in the Garden of Eden, pre-apple. Even the spat Sarah and Allard get into is resolved quite quickly and painlessly. Which leads to the second point that bothers me. Uh, Mr. Monninger....novels are supposed to have conflicts. And choosing which Ivy League school a character goes to is not a conflict (why doesn't anyone ever send their characters to St. Olaf College? Some smart college PR person needs to pay filmmakers or authors to insert their liberal arts school into their work. I'm tired of people going to Yale and Harvard and Stanford. I digress.).

It takes a long time - just after the point when I started wondering where it was and yes, more than halfway through the book - but Monninger gets his conflict in with a doozy. Everything is shaken up. The marriage does not go off. Tragedy strikes. Allard vanishes. Sarah finds another. But then it all works out in the end. Love conquers all.

I did enjoy the book. Monninger is a great writer, especially when it comes to writing about the outdoors. I was reminded a lot of another great nature writer, David James Duncan, as I read it. But Monninger also does a nice job with character development and dialogue. The story is what prevents me from putting him in the two two-star book author category. It's a little trite and sappy. The conflict takes way too long to appear and given how long it takes to get there, it doesn't leave a lot of time for the resolution. Also, the lives of the characters are just way too perfect. Ken Burns? Ivy League schools? Lottery winners? Oh, and Sarah just happens to work for National Geographic upon graduation. Not the Frog Blog or the Montpelier Times or something. Just one of the premiere magazines in existence. Why not?

I can understand wanting to provide contrast for when the conflict occurs but a great life is fine for that. You don't need perfect. So that rubbed me the wrong way. Still, Monninger's writing is great. It has a masculine feel to it but he yanks on your emotions, too. It's like coming across a group of flannel-clad lumberjacks crying. Not easy to do, I don't think.

So check it out. I think you'll like it.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Friday Faves #3 - Favorite board games

I'm a lifelong board game player and not surprisingly at an early age I found myself straying from the mass-marketed fare (Candy Land, Sorry, Monopoly, etc.) and moving into the more complex games. At age 8 I bought Avalon Hill's War at Sea at a garage sale for a quarter and played the heck out of that which exposed me to wargames. At age 9, I got into role playing games (Dungeons and Dragons, of course, was the first there).

I also was into sports games at an early age, too. My first sports board game was Charlie Brown's All-Star Baseball. Tim Wiles, the Director of Research at the Hall of Fame, had a copy in his office and that was a blast getting to see it again when I was at the Hall (my copy vanished long ago). From there I went to Cadaco's All-Star Baseball, then Avalon Hill's Statis-Pro Baseball. Statis-Pro held me through high school when my girlfriend at college got me Strat-o-Matic (SOM) for Christmas which led to me becoming a delinquent and having to transfer to a college in North Carolina. That, in turn, led me to my first job out of college as Technical Manager of Pursue the Pennant (PTP). Despite not getting SOM baseball until college, I did have football, basketball and hockey during my grade school years. Go figure.

Board games were a huge part of my friendships. Myself and four friends in particular would often game on the weekends through high school. Once I transferred colleges, I stopped playing until I worked for PTP and then I only played PTP. When I had kids of my own, I started getting new games (I had pretty much sold off or given all my old games to my friend Eric, who is obsessed with games as I am baseball). My sons both enjoy playing a lot and we try and make a weekly thing out of it.

Keith Law put up a post of his top thirty games this week so I thought I'd keep with the theme for this week's Friday Faves. All of them are current faves. I'll address old-timey faves in the honorable mentions.

#1 - Settlers of Catan. This game is my favorite because it has just the right blend of luck and strategy. The board changes every game which keeps it interesting and there are multiple ways to go about winning. It is rare that a game of this isn't fun.

#2 - Dominion. Keith Law kept Dominion and Dominion: Intrigue separate but I'm lumping Dominion and all it's expansions together. We have the original game, Intrigue, Seaside, Prosperity, Alchemy and some promo cards and our method of playing is to randomly generate ten sets of Kingdom Cards from the combined sets for each game. This is the most played game in our household and it also holds a lot of appeal because every game is different (and we usually play three games at a time when we break it out) and there are multiple ways of winning. I also like both this and Settlers in that everyone usually has a shot of winning, even if you're playing someone with decades of gaming experience (important as a Dad if you want to keep your sons playing).

#3 Strat-o-matic baseball. I got rid of my set once I went to work for PTP but then reacquired the game once I moved on with my career and when SOM put out their 1911 cardset. I can't get anyone to play with me so I play solitaire when I play and it saddens me sometimes to think of the pages of notebooks and scoresheets I have filled over the years in a J. Henry Waugh-esque compulsion for playing these games. Is the time and energy devoted to playing "worth" it? Could I or should I have been doing something more "productive"? Of course, I'm mulling this piece of existentialism as I "productively" blog (and as you productively read after taking time off from Angry Birds). All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy.

#4 Um Reifenbreite. Another game that no one will play with me. I didn't think it possible but this is actually a pretty accurate recreation of a professional bicycle race. The game is in German and so I had to translate it all. It's a lot of fun. Each person has four riders. Each rider has different riding ability but each team is comprised of the same four rider sets of riding ability. The majority of the game involves determining when to breakaway and when to draft and figuring when to best expend a rider's energy. I love the strategy and I think no one will play because as a former bicyclist and fan of cycling, I knows me my bicycling strategy and so I make this game no fun for novices. It's still a very cool game.

#5 Puerto Rico. It takes forever to setup but I think this is the closest thing to an old school strategy game that we play. We don't play it enough that any of us have figured out the best way to approach the game which is part of the charm. From things I've read, frequent playing reveals optimal strategies. Plus, this game has a real minimal amount of luck so once those strategies are identified, I expect this game will cease being enjoyable.

Honorable mentions:
Talisman - Of all the games I played as a youngster, this is the one I miss the most. Eric had all the expansions and it seemed as if each game took hours but was never boring. The characters you could be were really interesting (I loved being either the Chainsaw Warrior or the Swashbuckler) and somehow every game seemed competitive.

Formula DE - I never played this much thanks to an intervention by Eric. He had it with most of, if not all, the expansions. It's a very detailed auto racing game and each expansion contains two different tracks. When I played it, I could see myself drawing up detailed schedules and keeping all sorts of stats and playing entire auto racing seasons (speaking of which, congratulations Tony Stewart on championship #3!!!). Thankfully, this never came to fruition as Eric would not let me borrow it.

Bossman Baseball - this was a game that PTP tried to sell on the side that someone else had created. The game has nine innings and you go around and acquire Hall of Famers and try and build a team. The trick is that you have to pay each player on your team their salary every inning. So if you acquire Babe Ruth for $2 million in inning 1, you're shelling out $18 million over the course of the game which is a lot of money to be paying for one player. Despite the baseball theme, it's actually a money game and I never win which makes it really fun for people who think "How could YOU possibly lose a game involving baseball?". The answer being that I have favorite players and will pay 27.3 million for Christy Mathewson and then be stuck paying $100,000 for Rick Ferrell, Rabbit Maranville and not having enough for outfielders or any other starting pitchers. I'm smart like that.

Elixir - This was once fun but my youngest son abuses the rules as to make the game unfun. The game is played with two decks of cards, a spell deck and an items deck. Everyone starts the game with so many points worth of spells, usually around 9-11 depending on the number of players. Each spell is 1-4 points and takes 1-4 ingredients to cast it. Level 3 and 4 spells change the game. Level 1 and 2 are more goofy. My youngest likes to stock up on Level 1 spells which tend to have things like "Your opponent must say "Well, I'll be a monkey's uncle" before they speak for the rest of the game. We had to limit the number of level 1 spells you can cast because it was tough remembering what everyone was supposed to be saying. It really turned the game into a farce and who wants that?

Grass - a card game about dealing marijuana. Wholesome? No doubt. Competitive? The game had a card labeled "Screw Your Neighbor". We played this a lot in high school. A lot of different people had the game. Once I was married I picked up a copy and there was no better way to anger my wife. The last game of it we played ended when she threw her hand of cards in my face. The game wasn't over. She just had had enough of playing it. I ended up giving my copy away. One of, if not the most, cutthroat games I ever played.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

I'm often torn when it comes to meta-fiction. Is it clever or is it gimmicky? I think it can be a fine line and Charles Yu's How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is right on that line.

The main character in Yu's book is Charles Yu. He's a time machine repairman and is a lonely fellow. As a child, his father was passionate about time travel and he recruited young Charles to help him in his pursuit of a working time machine. One day his father disappears and story Yu longs to find his father and learn why (and where or when) he vanished.

Story Yu suffers from a general ennui. He puts his time machine in a sort of neutral, keeping himself from moving through time except for the occasional call to help others with their machines. His only companions are his female computer system, Tammy, and a non-existent but existent dog named Ed.

When Yu is called in to have his own machine serviced, he is stunned to discover his future self appearing. Despite having been trained to run from one's future self, Yu instead draws a gun and shoots his future self then escapes in his time machine into the future. He discovers that his future self has left him a book that he will write in the future called How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe. As he reads the book, he sets out to write it knowing, however, that he will eventually go back in time and be killed by himself.

See what I mean? Clever or gimmicky? I think it's clever in that usually when you have a story about time travel, the future person goes back to change the past. It's sort of novel to have the present change the future while the future is on it's way back to the present.

While in this loop, he discovers a little more about his father and seems to be making headway right about the time he goes back to the point where he shoots himself.

Despite the meta-fiction aspect, it's a nice story about father-son relationships with a special guest appearance by one L. Skywalker. Well, of course, you may say. Is there a more notable science fictional father-son relationship than Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker? Well, it turns out the L. Skywalker is Linus Skywalker, Luke's son, who has really had a tough time coping with his father's fame. Funny little twist but really the only external reference to science fiction.

There's quirks like that. The number 31 plays an important part although I don't know why. Yu's time machine model is a TM-31 and he travels through Minor Universe 31. The book How To Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (the one I read, or the one Yu wrote or both?) has 31 chapters. Nice number, 31, but I must have missed the significance.

Then there's all the book references to itself. He mentions something happening on a page in the book which is the same page that it appears on in the book you're reading. Stuff like that.

It's a cute book. Very brief. I'd put it at like a 55/45 clever/gimmicky split which makes it enough to recommend.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Someone you should read

My friend Jason, an excellent writer who is currently shopping his first novel, has suffered horribly for some time. Why? NO WEB PRESENCE! Ridiculous! It's like they said in Glengarry Glen Ross. ABC - Always Be Celling. Or something like that.

Anyway. He commented in my last post and I am happy to be able to link to some reviews of his.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Friday Faves #2 - Favorite female authors

I have to talk about books. I can't help it. I'll try and mix up the themes of these from week to week and I did a listening/watching one last week so we'll go with books this week.

I had been thinking about female authors a lot this week for a few reasons. One, I'm reading a collection of short stories by women. Two, I just got done reading a not particularly enjoyable book written by a woman. Three, I got to thinking a lot about a trio of my favorite women authors and their capacity to write more than one excellent book. I figured I'm thinking about them anyway, I might as well write about them.

So here we are.

#1 Laura Hillenbrand - One of the things I was thinking about this week, after reading Joseph Monninger's latest novel, was the difficulty in writing more than one masterpiece. I loved Monninger's A Barn in New England and I approached his new book with a lot of trepidation. Could he possibly match the quality of Barn in New England? No. It was a really good book but creating multiple masterpieces is a hard thing to do. I tried to think of, say, my top fifty books. Who would have two or more on there? Not Michael Chabon. Not T.C. Boyle. After thinking and thinking, I came up with two. Jonathan Safron Foer and Laura Hillenbrand. And Hillenbrand is questionable. I loved Seabiscuit. You can't do a non-fiction book better than that. I don't care what your interest in horses, non-fiction, or reading is, you'll enjoy Seabiscuit. Unbroken was superb as well. Top 50? I don't know. I gave it two-stars. But I'm nitpicking the right tail of the bell curve. Hillenbrand is immensely talented and that's why she's number one on this list.

#2 Aimee Bender - based on two excellent novels - The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake and An Invisible Sign of My Own and a short story in the collection I'm reading which should be reviewed in the next couple of weeks. Bender is really quirky and I think that's what appeals to me the most about her writing.

#3 Elizabeth Gilbert - based on her TED talk and two excellent non-fiction books - Eat, Pray, Love and The Last American Man. Eat, Pray, Love is funny in that I think I regard it more highly now than I did at the time I read it. I may have bought into the hype a bit. I didn't care as much for Committed and I still need to read some of her fiction.

#4 Alison McGhee - likely the least recognized name on this list. Four strong novels, all of which probably made me tear up. Rainlight, Shadow Baby, Was it Beautiful? (my favorite), and All Rivers Flow to the Sea. She seems to have made the transition to children's books which I find disappointing. Her books tend to be about families and grief, which is what makes them so sad. They're lovely, though, too.

#5 Jeanette Winterson - very much in danger of becoming a Friday Fave Emeritus in that she's in my top five based on two awesome books - Written on the Body and Sexing the Cherry - which were published in 1993 and 1990, respectively. She went downhill from there. I enjoyed the writing, but not the stories, of Gut Symmetries, The Powerbook and Lighthousekeeping. I picked up The Stone Gods not too long ago and put it back because it looked goofy. Like McGhee, she seems to be turning towards a younger audiences (although not as young as McGhee). Winterson released a memoir a few weeks ago which I might read.

Honorable Mention:
Suzanne Clarke - Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is one of my favorite books. Like top five favorite. I read a collection of short stories by her which paled in comparison and one book isn't going to get you into the top five, no matter how fantastic.

Mary Roach - really oddball non-fiction in Packing for Mars and Stiff. Before I read her books, I used to read her column in Reader's Digest, the only reason I even picked up the magazine.

Pre-hack Anne Rice - the first female author I really enjoyed. Feast of All Saints and Cry to Heaven were incredibly enjoyable and the first two books of The Vampire Chronicles are almost legendary. What came after and the stuff she wrote under a pseudonym is just a mess of horrible.

What do I mean by pre-hack? Interview with the Vampire came out in 1976, Feast of All Saints in 1979, Cry to Heaven in 1982, and The Vampire Lestat in 1985. See a trend? Three years, like clockwork. With The Vampire Lestat, the Vampire Chronicles put Rice on the map and people started buying the brand. Her next books came out in 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991, 1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000 (x2), 2001, 2002 (x2), and 2003 (x2). That's ridiculous, especially when you consider she had health problems and spent time in a coma.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Just A Geek by Wil Wheaton

I don't think my opinion of a person has ever swayed so much across the like/dislike spectrum as it has for Wil Wheaton. I first encountered Wil as the extremely annoying Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG). Good googly moogly, I hated that character. It made me long for original Star Trek episodes where a landing party would beam to another planet and some extra on the show would buy the farm. Oh, how I wanted Wesley Crusher to be that unfortunate landing party soul.

I'm hard pressed to think of another character that evoked such distaste. Maybe Sarah Jessica Parker's character on Sex and the City. The sad part is (outside of my admitting I've watched Sex and the City enough to dislike Sarah Jessica Parker's character) that Star Trek: TNG was my entire exposure to Wheaton. I never saw the movie Stand By Me (his other notable role), and then he sort of vanished. In the late nineties I remember reading about his starting a blog popular among Trekkies and other assorted geeks and nerds. I checked it out but it didn't particularly interest me (watching Star Trek: TNG was after-school decompression. He-Man and the Masters of the Universe served the same purpose. Only reason I was watching was because I was in front of the TV and it happened to be on).

Years and years passed. Almost as if I were on a spaceship exploring unknown planets or something. But instead, I was watching a show by Felicia Day called The Guild. This show I was watching because of my internet crush on Felicia Day. In the third season of the show, an absolutely splendid bad guy shows up. "Oh, wow. I don't know who that actor is but he is awesome", I said to meself. Lo and behold, it's none other than Wil Wheaton. And in my opinion, he was the best part about The Guild, Day-crush and all.

As it turns out, while Wheaton was struggling to land acting jobs, he became a writer and put out several books, mostly about his life as a struggling actor. Goodreads recommended a different one but Just A Geek was the only one available near me. So I read it. Wheaton's not a bad writer. I wouldn't say he's a good writer, either, but definitely on the good side of the spectrum.

A lot of the book came from his blog. It's an interesting look at the difficulties actors face, especially when type-cast. More so, it's interesting from the standpoint of Wheaton's deciding whether or not he should try and detach himself from TNG. On the one hand, Star Trek is a huge thing and to have been a part of that has its perks. But more to the point and something everyone has to deal with, your past is part of you. You can't escape it. When Wheaton finally accepts that fact and embraces his past a bit more, he feels better about himself.

Just A Geek was a fun, quick book to read. I'd have to think long and hard as to whether or not I've ever read a book about or by an actor before. Hold on while I think about that.......Steve Martin, but he's a polymath, not an actor. Oh, and I read Hugh Laurie's The Gun Seller. But I think that's it. The book was a departure for me and, wait a minute....why did Goodreads recommend the other Wheaton book? Hmmm. Because I read The Soloist. Go figure.

If you're a nerd/geek/fan of TV, I think you'll like Just A Geek. But I know that most of the people reading my blog are far from being nerds and geeks. You're cool like me.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

More questions answered - this time on autographs

Mark answered some questions that Nachos Grande had on his blog concerning autographs. I figured since I'm in a question answering mood and looking to get away from pure book reviews, this would be a fun post.

1. What is the best autograph you own?
I've written about this one already.

2. What is the best autograph that you've ever pulled from a pack of cards?
Like Mark, I don't buy a lot of cards. Again, I previously wrote about this one. An autograph in a pack from a dollar store? Have to love it.

3. What is the worst autograph you've ever pulled from a pack of cards?
I'm pretty certain the above autograph is the only one I've pulled from a pack.

4. Do you try to get autographs through the mail? If so, what sort of success (or failure) stories do you have?
Yes, I do. My favorite failure story....I've written about. Success story....hmmm...I think I have to go with Ken Johnson. Johnson threw a no-hitter in 1964 for the Houston Colt .45's. There was no score in the game going into the ninth. Johnson got the first batter to ground out then Pete Rose laid down a bunt (just wrong and this alone should keep Pete out of the Hall of Fame). Johnson fielded it and threw the ball away putting Rose on. Rose went to second and then scored when Nellie Fox booted a ball. It was the first complete game nine-inning no-hitter that resulted in a loss for the pitcher that threw the no-hitter.

When I wrote Johnson, I asked him if it was still difficult for him having cost himself the no-hitter with his own error. Johnson, now in his seventies, responded with a simple two word reply: "Hell Yes!!!!".

5. Who was the subject of your first ever autograph?
Pittsburgh Pirate catcher Ed Ott. A friend of the family worked for a bank that had box seats at Veteran's Stadium right on the edge of the visiting team's dugout. He took my family to a game. I'm pretty sure it was this game. In the middle of the game, as the Pirates were coming off the field, my Dad asked Ed to sign my baseball glove. Ed obliged. I initially thought that maybe my Dad knew Ed since he asked so nonchalantly which I thought was neat. We're also originally from western PA and being a little kid I thought the Pirates actually all lived in the Pittsburgh area or something. Maybe Ed and my Dad went to high school together (I didn't realize that my Dad was ten years older than Ed). Then I realized he didn't know Ed which upset me because I would have really liked Dave Parker's autograph instead. As I've gotten older, I've realized just how unusual (and nice) it was for Ed to do that in mid-game.

6. Do you actively collect any autographs (certain players, teams, brands, etc)?
The actively portion has died out. Perhaps some day I will renew a couple autograph projects.

7. Which is better: Autographs or Relics?
Autographs. It saddens me that a company would destroy a piece of memorabilia to insert into cards.

8. What do you think of cut autos?
I don't like them. Again, you're destroying something original for the sake of making a card.

9. What is your favorite autograph design (say in the last 5 years)?
I couldn't tell you. I don't pull enough cards. Anything where the autograph is on card. Autographed stickers and cuts are lame. Oh, and there's the Upper Deck Sweet Spot cards with the faded signatures. That was horrible.

10. If you could get the autograph of any five people (dead or alive) who would you want a signature from (and why)?

1. Rowland Office for less than $25.
2. Christy Mathewson. My all-time favorite ballplayer. Ideally, it would be a checkerboard that Mathewson owned and signed that was sold in the Barry Halper auction. I believe Penny Marshall (Laverne) owns it now.
3. Niccolo Paganini. Because I'm not going to pull one from a pack of violins.
4. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Have to have an author and I can't think of one that would be cooler.
5. Augustus Herring. Some day I might write a book about this overlooked aviation pioneer.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Friday Faves #1 - Favorite music videos

I hadn't realized just how much this had turned into a book review blog so I'm going to try and mix things up a bit. I used to enjoy the Friday Fives or media mixes on this and previous blogs I kept. So I'm going to start my own here. If you'd like to contribute your responses or suggest future versions in the comments, please do so.

A few weeks back I had been thinking about music videos so I'll start with my five favorite music videos. Early caveat: I haven't seen a televised video in many, many years. I'm also disqualifying OK Go because I view them as makers of videos first, band second. Love their videos, don't much care for their music. And these are favorites, not necessarily "best".

#5 We'll Be Together - Sting. There is a serious dearth of black and white music videos. Why is that? I can name at least five such videos involving Sting (this one, Fortress Around Your Heart, Every Breath You Take, Be Still My Beating Heart, Englishman in New York, and Russians) but can think of only two by other artists: Welcome to the Black Parade by My Chemical Romance (more on them later), and it's partly colorized, and Chris Isaak's Wicked Game.

#4 Islands - The XX. The group is in purgatory. Neat concept. Plus, the song is pleasantly simple.

#3 Her Morning Elegance - Oren Lavie. I'm a sucker for redheads and Shir Shomron is quite the looker. I also like Lavie's voice and the general cleverness of the sleepwalking.

#2 Dance With Me - Old 97's. Just a fun video. Awesome nerd/geek dream.

#1 Helena - My Chemical Romance. People think I'm crazy but I think this is a beautiful video. The black/white/red combo is fantastic. The overdone makeup on Gerard Way (the lead vocalist) and "Helena". The choreography. The red and black umbrellas at the end. I think it's a work of art.

Thanks, Warner Brothers, for not allowing embedding. I'm sure you did it so people could be kept in suspense until they clicked the link.

Also meriting consideration:
Weapon of Choice by Fatboy Slim - if it were anyone other than Christopher Walken starring in it, it wouldn't be considered.

Sometimes You Can't Make It On Your Own by U2 - another artistic video (with some black and white elements). I always liked how the song crescendoed as the curtain went up on the theater.

Pictures of You by The Cure. There's nothing really special about this video. Just your typical band video but I always remember it. The home movie feel, the fake palm trees in the snow. It's probably the video I remember the most from my teen years. And it's The Cure.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Dead Boys

Another Goodreads recommendation I enjoyed. Dead Boys, a collection of short stories by Richard Lange, was a fantastic read. I'm finding myself getting into short stories more after a lifetime of not really getting them (outside of T.C. Boyle). I have two collections signed out from the library right now. And speaking of Boyle, Lange thanks him in the acknowledgments. I had to think that was a pretty good sign.

All of the twelve stories take place in Los Angeles and focus on men, all who are facing demons of some sort or another. There's a house painter who has been robbing banks on the side with some buddies in an effort to save enough money to move out of their seedy neighborhood. In another story, the main character discovers he has an ex-con half-brother when the brother comes and visits the narrator and his wife. The visit exposes the narrator's insecurities about his job and marriage. Another story involves a guy on a bender largely because he believes he is haunted by the ghost of his ex-wife.

Lange is an excellent writer. I love some of the phrases he used in his stories. The stories were all really good. There weren't any clunkers and while there was a lot of similarity in the stories, they weren't formulaic by any means. His characters have a hard reality about them, different from say, Donald Ray Pollock's characters which are just creepy and far-fetched.

My only problem was that they were short stories. Nothing stood out about any of them individually. None of them made a lasting impression. It's not because they weren't any good - they were fantastic - there just was not enough there for me to look back and say, "Wow, that story about x was just awesome". The similarities of the stories don't help in that regard either.

I definitely liked it. In another year, I could see this book cracking my top ten. Once again, though, I'm going with a one-star rating.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Bad Marie

You to have love a writer who can get you rooting for the protagonist, a woman who just got out of prison after serving a sentence for accessory to murder. The same woman who is now trying to steal the husband of her lifelong best friend. That's not an easy task but Marcy Dermansky pulls it off in her novel, Bad Marie.

Marie works as a nanny for her friend. The friend, Ellen, gave her the job to help Marie get back on her feet. Marie fell in love with the Ellen's husband, the French novelist Benoit Doniel, whose book Marie read and re-read then re-read a few gazillion more times, while she was in the pokey. Marie also falls in love with Ellen and Benoit's toddler, Caitlin.

The first line of this book is right up there with Don Winslow's Savages. "Sometimes, Marie got a little drunk at work". The story begins with Marie and Caitlin in the bathtub, Marie falling asleep from a little too much booze. Benoit and Ellen return home to find the pair naked and that is enough to get Benoit interested as Marie is a tall, voluptuous, babe. Marie also is supposedly a dead ringer for Benoit's sister, who killed herself years before.

Marie convinces Benoit to take Caitlin and the three of them flee to France. On the plane ride over, Benoit encounters an old flame of his and he dumps Marie for her. Marie takes Caitlin on the lam and travels throughout France before fleeing to Mexico.

The thing about this book is that while there are lots of proclamations of love, the only people anyone in this book truly loves are themselves. They love how other people make them feel but really, there isn't a whole lot of caring going on. Benoit is fickle enough to switch from his wife to Marie to his ex in less than 24 hours. Ellen is more concerned with Marie not getting Benoit than she is about her own relationship with Benoit and Caitlin is an afterthought to both of them. Marie is looking to fill holes in her life brought about by an uncaring mother. And when the truth about Benoit's novel comes out, Marie is over Benoit almost as fast as Benoit was over her.

Needless to say, the characters of this book aren't traveling the moral high ground. Even so, like I said, you find yourself rooting for Marie. And the book moves. I couldn't put it down. I recommended it to a co-worker and she, too, could not put it down.

While I did find it gripping and a really enjoyable read, the ending was a bit abrupt and while I rooted for Marie, I don't know that I ever really liked her. As a result, I'm keeping it out of the two-star books but definitely recommending it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Body Language

I'm not going to bother with the Amazon affiliate links anymore for the books. No one has ever bought anything through the site and I encourage people to use their libraries anyway so if you want an image of a particular title I've reviewed, you'll have to find it yourself.

I mentioned last month how I've become enamored with Derren Brown. Well, I thought I would read some stuff on body language to see what I could learn. I read Janine Driver's You Say More Than You Think and Allan Pease's The Definitive Book of Body Language and watched a DVD called Secrets of Body Language. I also thumbed through Joe Navarro's What Every Body is Saying, which my son recommended as he read it a year or two ago, but it seemed to be the same content as the other materials. None of them were of much use. Pease's book and the DVD spent a good deal of time using retroactive looks at celebrities and politicians and pointing out poses/stances/actions that potentially indicated one thing or another.

Potentially is the key word here. You really have to have an understanding of an individual's "baseline" before you read anything into their body language. If you know someone regularly does A and then they do B, you probably know they're mad/lying/want to have sex with you/whatever. But if you don't know what A is and you try to interpret B, well good luck. Is that person fidgeting because they are lying or because they are nervous or because they downed a few Red Bulls? Who knows? The folks behind these materials seemed to think they know. Amazingly, with hindsight and body language analysis, they were able to tell that Richard Nixon was often times lying. Astounding.

Driver's book had the benefit of being a seven day program to learn about body language. There were exercises at the end of each chapter, several of which required a camera to videotape yourself so you could see how you look to others. Not exactly convenient. But the exercises promote observational skills which are always a good thing.

I didn't find either book to be useful and therefore am not recommending either.