Thursday, December 29, 2011

Approachable Star, Approachable Story

After a hiatus of, what has it been, 3 weeks? and 1 book, I'm back with *yet another* AMS.  This one actually just published, the latest Isabel Dalhousie.  I've reviewed at least one of these before on the site, but I'm not going to go back and read it, because, as you know, I like my reviews fresh :) This series is the least popular one amongst the Swia. public - that is, the Sp's don't even read it.  It used to be my favorite, since it featured a very satisfying, if a little unusual (the unusual is what bothered the Sp's) romance.  But that's been long over (or long-settled), so what's left? Isabel herself and her many musings.  AMS is fond of philosophical ramblings of course, but in these books he's given extra license to digress on whatever he fancies, possessing of the perfect mouthpiece in one who philosophizes by profession.

As you can imagine, that can get annoying.  Especially when I disagree with Isabel, but also because spending so much time delving into every perceived moral dilemma does not make for thrills and chills all day (not that that's what I'm looking for anyway :)) And at times, that was definitely my prevailing feeling while reading Isabel #... 8? I think it's 8 - The Forgotten Affairs of Youth.  She goes on and on about this or that and my feeling is, it just doesn't matter that much, lady.  AMS presents her as the gentle, refined, and cultured woman, but it's hard not to find her boring at times.  And because she's boring, she becomes unlikeable, since AMS is so clearly enamored of her carefully crafted thoughts, feelings, and lifestyle (in other words, we have a Mary Sue).

That was sometimes... and more at the beginning, I'm glad to say.  As usual, somewhere along the way, the pace picked up.  But it wasn't just the plot development - interestingly enough, I actually found myself liking Isabel, a lot more than I have in a while.  For once, she isn't left as this rather inhuman pillar of morality and thought  - to a much greater extent than I think ever (or at least in the past few books) previously, we are invited into her inner life.  A vacuous phrase, but what I mean, we see how much she loves Jamie and Charlie, how she cares about Grace, how she gets frustrated with Cat.  These are things we know about, but I think not ones that took as central a role before this.  Even the obligatory "mystery" feels more personal, more about Isabel meeting people than about finding something out.  And I think it's a good change.  It's amazing how important it is to like the people you are reading about. And in this book, I find that I did like most everyone.  Cat was annoying as ever, but AMS acknowledges her "impossibility" with that very word (maybe in a different form, but that root :))

The plot itself may have been a tiny bit lacking, in that, except for the central story, loose ends were for the most part not tied up.  Not sure what happened with Charlie swearing, with Max Lettuce, with Sinclair+Cat... but I guess none of those were very important, and that was the point.  It was all about Isabel and how she handled them - and I think she did it very well, getting it right and keeping it real too.  Isabel is fun again, at least for the moment. (Ok, not sure she ever was, but she certainly wasn't always as stodgy as lately).

Verdict: 3.25/5

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Too Short to be Really Sweet

Wow it's been a while... indicative of my tiredness every morning, my busy Shabbosim (Bubby, the in-laws...), and a slightly lengthier (well maybe just really slightly) work, and well, yes, one that failed to hold my interest consistently.  It's an Austenprose pick, and in a big way - Laurel Ann, proprietress of Austenprose, edited a collection of short stories from Janite writer - mostly of JA paraliterature - with the common theme of somehow being inspired by the woman herself.  This book was not at the library when it came out, but I was eager to read it, since not only did Laurel Ann talk about it pretty incessantly, but Lauren Willig and Margaret Sullivan (Austenblog) contributed, so they mentioned it as well.  So I told Dov to buy Jane Austen Made Me Do It for me from B&N when he wanted to get me a present for Succos - yes, Succos - well actually, the last days.  But you know how it is - if you own it, you don't read it.  Which is why it had to wait for my library backlog to empty in order for me to pick it up.

I did pick it up of course, I think over two weeks ago now.  The stories are, of course, completely self-contained, so there's very little compelling you to go on to the next when you've finished one.  And they, also of course, held varying degrees of charm, humor, and romance.  The genres were (I might be dropping a story here or there), in parallel with Austen paraliterature as a whole, sequels/prequels/durings of the novels, real-life Jane Austen stories, modern spooky Austen ghosts, and chic lit with an Austen touch.  Of these, I'd say the ones I enjoyed the most were the last, which is kind of sad, since a lot of those were quite tangentially inspired by Jane, I'd say.  But of course, that gave their authors the freedom to develop plots/tones suitable to short stories.  So many of the others (well ok, some of these too) felt like they could have made promising novels... but the first lesson of short story writing is... a short story is not a novel.  Back in ninth grade, we studied some characteristics - irony and whatnot - but the point is, you need to manage to develop something we care about in only a few pages.  Or it just kind of falls to nowhere.

I'm not saying the stories were that bad - some of them were cute ideas, and one or two (sadly it was really only one or two) had decent romances going on.  There were definitely some I'd be excited to here were going to turn into a real novel (one, I think it was the Rubino one mentioned there is some possibility) and plenty, that, up to the abrupt ending, I was getting into.  Not surprisingly, most of the ones I liked were the authors I like.  Lauren Willig, Rubino, Jo Beverly (ok, I don't read her, but she's a legit romance writer, not Austen paraliterature) but surprisingly, I enjoyed the amateur one and Laura Viera Rigler's tales as well.  In short, these authors are people (mostly women :)) after my own heart.  There could be nothing too objectionable in a few pages meant to amuse.  And indeed, I found nothing to object to... but nothing to make me wish for a sequel either.

Verdict: 2.9/5

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Ordinary Life, Slightly Stale

In the back of your minds, I know you've all been wondering, every time I update this blog, what happened to AMS? It's like what, 6 months since he published something? What's with the guy? Never fear, my trusty followers - the fault is mine.  AMS *did* publish a new book, sometime in the summer - the next in the 44 Scotland St series (#7 maybe?), as he always does in the summer (of course, only in England, but my wonderful cousin Sarah Sp. orders it special :)) Anyway, she got it in the summer, and I was supposed to be first (or maybe second) on line to read it, but you know... I was kind of busy then.  And once I didn't read it immediately, and I wasn't living in Queens (i.e. within easy access of the book) it kind of slipped my mind.  But I remembered eventually, and had Elisheva Sp. bring it down to Baltimore when she stopped there on her way to her Thanksgiving Tenessee getaway (I just felt like putting some life details in for color there, if you're wondering).  I had to finish my library books first, of course, but once I did, I got right down to this one.  Finished it unexpectedly fast too, due to an unusually long bus ride yesterday and a ridiculously long wait today (left for work late because I got officially married, more life detail for color :)).

So how was it? 44SS was at one point, I think, my favorite of all the AMS series.  Of course, most of them were at one point my favorite, but the reason I liked 44, I think, was how real it all was.  The characters were so varied, and kept plenty busy, but it was just their lives, basically.  And, for the most part, the characters were likeable enough, so reading about their lives wasn't painful.  I sound rather unenthusiastic, but the point was, these books can be a perfect mix of light-hearted mundanities and absurd little incidents, all about people we care about.  Add to that the finely-painted picture of Edinburgh, the real Edinburgh, we get from these books, and they can carry their own weight (it still thrills me when I recognize the locales that are mentioned with great regularity).  On the downside, there's never much of a plot, since the novels are serialized - what plot there is often doesn't start till the middle and doesn't always end either.  But you get used that after a while.

That's the series, what about the book? Well the book is #7... that means AMS is probably feeling some fatigue, and, the truth is, I am too.  The characters, once so likeable, now seem faintly annoying in many cases. Or too smug, or a little too pathetic, or just a little too cruel.  Bertie is a delight, as always, but I found myself more annoyed than not with Matthew, with Domenica, with Big Lou even.  And of course there's Irene and Olive and Bruce, who are as unlikeable as ever.  The lives themselves... well, the improbable incidents, I'd say, are continuing - Matthew with his triplets, Antonia and her nuns... but the mundanities consist a little too often of philosophical jaunts.  Now, AMS is no stranger to asides, and often asides that I do not agree with, but I felt that, here, there was sometimes little else of significance happening.  Towards the middle/end, that impression started lessening - not surprisingly, the plot was finally picking up.  But even then, I felt like there was just a slowness to it all, or at least a heavy weight pulling back on the faster-pace incidents.  Lou meets another unsuitable man, but it all just peters out before much happens.  Matthew buys back his flat for 300,000 pounds more than he paid, but no one seems to care.  Domenica meets her lost love, but realizes he's just that...

What I'm saying is, it just wasn't that engaging.  I would find myself interested, only to have it either go nowhere at all, or be resolved far too quickly.  And I didn't feel like the usual humor was there either, at least not generously distributed.  I can't say the book was awful, just that Edinburgh doesn't have *quite* the same homey sound as it did before I read this.  And like I said, it's hard to stay fresh, and keep me interested, after 7 books.  With all that though, I still want to know what's going to happen to them all... well I guess there's not that much left dangling right now (other than Pat actually), but I'm sure AMS will find something new to visit upon the denizens of 44 Scotland by the next book.  And, of course, I'll be reading it.

Verdict: 2.9/5

Monday, December 5, 2011

My Unconscious Mind Has Preconditioned Me to Disagree With This Book... Or Something Like That

Man it took me a while to finish this one - took me a while to get it too.  Back in I don't know when, Google had an Author@ for David Eagleman, whose latest book is Incognito.  This was right around the time (I guess that' when :)) when I read Joshua Foer's book, Moonlighting with Einstein, that I found so unexpectedly fascinating.  So I was more than a little open to another neuroscience title.  Plus there were lots of reserves on it, always a goodish sign :) So I put it on hold... and it was the same old story - hold expired, got it out, couldn't renew it... etc. until now (or a few weeks ago) when I finally managed to get a hold of it without reserves and actually had time to read it.  I was slightly hampered by tiredness, since, I have started to go to the gym in the mornings (yes I had to say this, of course I did :)) which means I feel like sleeping, not reading on the bus in the mornings (though it's morning right now and I am writing my blog, that's how dedicated I am :))

So about the book... well in the beginning, I was just unimpressed.  He kept going through all these examples of how what we see isn't reality and how our brain does so much unconsciously for us.  He said these things like they were a revelation, instead of which, almost all of what he said was familiar to me.  I suppose his framing of it was something new in a few cases - that we really don't tend to realize the role the brain plays in composing our view of the world.  But mostly it was like, uh yeah, our brain processes a lot unconsciously, that's what it's there for.  And along with his dramatic reveal of the unconscious, Eagleman continuously refers back to evolution as the cause and impetus of all this - evolution dictates that this was better for survival, this was advantageous... Without offering one iota of proof or even acknowledgement that evoking evolution as a magical force does not cement its place as the most logical explanation of how intelligent life (us) came about.  I mean it's not like I expected the guy to launch into a defense of evolutionary theory, but given the utter lack of any backup when he mentions that this or that was better than some other scheme for survival and that's why it has survived, why mention it at all?

Ah, because my early annoyance at his constant noddings to that origins of life theory was, in fact, a pick-up on his not-so-hidden agenda.  Because once the book finishes showing us how our conscious minds are the smallest, most unimportant, and late-to-the-party part of our brain, it launches into the next phase of Eagleman's exploration of the psyche.  Given that so much of "us" is unconscious, do we even have free will? Well he posits this - the conscious mind is that which decides between warring factions in the unconscious - and in that, I think he's pretty much on the nail.  Why aren't we animals? We have the ability to choose between right and wrong.  But my agreement with his theory of consciousness notwithstanding, I diverge quite far from him at the next juncture.

And that is twofold - 1) that our ability to make decisions is influenced by innumerably many factors that are out of our control and 2) we haven't found a place in the brain that isn't looped in with other parts, making an independent, self-reliant conscious mind impossible.  Now as far as the first point, he is undoubtable correct - we are put into this world with a given set of circumstances about which we have no say - but we all know the big but, and that is that every person has the ability to choose right and wrong *within his personal circumstances.*  No one gets let off the hook just because they had an alcoholic mother or grew up below the poverty line - if you do something wrong, you are culpable.  Of course, we know that we're not the ones who can judge what's wrong (or at least what's a wrong choice) for any one person, so there's no question he has some point - more on that anon.  His second point is the one that really irks me (not surprisingly).  So here's my first needle poke in his balloon - have you isolated the area of the brain that you claim constitutes the conscious mind, that is, the place where arbitration between dueling unconscious processes takes place? I think not.  Which means you haven't explored the whole brain yet, so there very well could be a place that doesn't "take orders" from anywhere else.  And, more importantly, what if you don't find such a place? Well it just proves (or ok, not proves, but indicates strongly) exactly what I (and lot of other people) believe (know) - the seat of the unconscious is the non-material, intangible soul.  It's actually beautiful in a way, to see the scientific arguments in favor of a spiritual consciousness :)

In any case, I really can't expect Eagleman to know all this, I just need to vent when I hear him spewing ideas that are to me so very wrong.  And when it gets down to the practical, I don't think there's anything *very* wrong with his ideas.  He points at that the current criminal justice system, with its notions of blame, is fundamentally flawed.  Well we all know the criminal justice system is fundamentally flawed, and I actually, I disagree with him that it's all based on blame. I think far more of sentencing is based on two things - get 'em off the street and make sure no one ever does this again.   But yeah, jail time isn't the best way to accomplish this in all cases, and I think we're all in favor of rehabilitation over incarceration, if we knew rehab could work.  So as far as neuroscience can help rehab, I'm all for it.  Am I as sanguine as Eagleman when it comes to the possibilities? Well, obviously not, but who knows? We certainly are gaining a better understanding every day of the inner workings of the mind.

Which brings me to my last (side) point - whatever the mind is like, it is not a computer and I find it patently ridiculous that Eagleman attempts to explain its myriad functions as a series of subroutines, that get programmed in some vague manner.  I don't think that's how the brain works, and I don't think we're going to achieve AI via modeling it that way.  But he probably knows  more about AI than I do, and I'm sure they've gotten somewhere with that approach :) In any case, I found this book to be mostly hand-waving in the important parts (that is, the science) and, unsurprisingly, mistaken in its conclusions.  Disappointingly enough, I don't feel like I learned anything much at all from this book... but I suppose it made me understand my own faith just a little bit better - so there's something to be said for that :)

Verdict: 2.5/5