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28Nov/08Off

Dress Your Family in Courduroy and Denim

Dress Your Family...

Note: This is #59 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

After enjoying my first exposure to David Sedaris in When You are Engulfed in Flames, I clicked on over to grab something else by him and decided on Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim. Like the other, Dress Your Family is (presumably) autobiographical collection of humorous essays, but it's much less eclectic, choosing as it does to focus on tales from Sedaris's childhood. It's still great, though.

Well, on balance. Like When You are Engulfed in Flames, this book has its near misses as well in the form of stories that just didn't seem to click with me and which felt a little bit padded out, like when he discussed talking with his sister about being the subject of so many of his essays or the time he helped a child carry some coffee up to a hotel room. On the other hand, I was literally howling with laughter during "Six to Eight Black Men" in which Sedaris illustrates the absurdity of other country's version of Santa Claus (and, by ironic extension, the American version as well). And the author's younger brother, who is some kind of cross between Shakespear's John Falstaff and Jethro from The Beverly Hillbillies, puts in a couple of sublimely hilarious appearances as a foil to Sedaris's whole effete, gay intellectual shtick. When Sedaris hits, he hits really hard.

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26Nov/08Off

Week 252: Friends, Diversity, and Tools

One of the things I liked about living in San Diego was that it was very multicultural. Our immediate community included folks who were Vietnamese, Australian, Filipino, Mexican, Japanese, Chinese, and whatever our neighbor Raju was. It was nice having Sam growing up in that kind of environment, but alas our current residence can probably best be described as "blindingly white" and so we all go without the benefit of diversity.

Sam illustrated how this has impacted her the other day when we were at the library. Once again she was proving herself to be the most outgoing member of our family by walking right up to this other little girl about her size and striking up a conversation. Mostly they talked about how old they were, the number of fingers required to communicate how old they are, and Sam's shoes. I guessed that the little girl was of Chinese descent based on her appearance, though to notice this one really had to get past the immediate fact that she was apparently weaing pajamas to the library.

"That is my new friend Grace," Sam announced to me once the conversation broke off and the girl in question wandered off. Sam then leaned in and fixed me with a meaningful look. "She's a little bit Black."

I ask you, Internet, what exactly is the appropriate response here? My first impulse was to loudly announce that Grace was in fact Chinese, or possibly Korean since I didn't get a good look at her. Hell, maybe she's from Laos. I don't know. That struck me as kind of crass, though, so I lamely noted that yes, she had BLACK HAIR. Which she did. So I didn't LIE.

Sam agreed, then started flipping through a book about dancing insects while I tried to appear nonchalant to the other parents in the immediate vicinity. Of course, the fact is that to her, Sam's commentary had about as much meaning as noting that the girl was wearing blue socks or was three years old. It's weird how adults project all kinds of anxieties about discussing race, while kids seem to take it at face value. I guess I wish we had enough diversity around us so that Sam could conceive of more than two check boxes. Lord knows what she'll think if we ever go back to visit Raju.

Mandy says "Hi." She has reached that delightful age where she endeavors to get into everything you don't want her to, and by some wicked design she has proven herself better than her sister was at things like unscrewing lids, dragging chairs over to afford better access to heights, and creating tools out of whole cloth to get into things we don't want her to. I'm serious, she's like that monkey on the Discovery channel that would use a long stick to get delicious termites out of the ground. The other night I caught her in the act of taping two forks and a silly straw together so that she could snag a box of pene pasta on the top shelf of the pantry. I don't understand why she WANTED a box of pene pasta, but knowing her it was probably just to see if she could.

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21Nov/08Off

Book Review: The First Five Temeraire Books


Note: This review includes books number 54, 55, 56, 57, and 58 of my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

Outside of Terry Pratchett and a brief dip into Stephen Erickson, I had largely given up on the whole fantasy genre for all the obvious reasons. I kept hearing about Naomi Novik's Temeraire series, though, usually accompanied by the pithy but intriguing description "It's the Napoleonic Wars, except with dragons." Indeed, it turned out to be just that: a story from the war between France and Britain set in an alternate history where enormous dragons form air corps on all sides and thus rewrite the rules of warfare. This post covers the first five books in the series: His Majesty's Dragon, Throne of Jade, Black Powder War, Empire of Ivory, and Victory of Eagles.

The story starts when British sea Captain Will Laurence captures a French ship bearing an unusual dragon egg. When Laurence is unable to get into a friendly port before the egg hatches, the newborn dragon Temeraire imprints on him, linking the two together. This is at first an unwelcome shock to Laurence, who is faced with the prospect of giving up a hard-earned and lucrative career as an officer in the British Royal Navy and replacing it with the wild and largely mysterious life of an Aviator and dragon handler in the air corps. Bur Laurence rises to the challenge and warms to his new life when his training as an Aviator begins and his relationship with the curious, noble, and intelligent Temeraire develops.

From there, the books arrange themselves into basically a set of serial adventures, with Laurence and Temeraire moving from one predicament to the next and having to see their way through. Part of Novik's formula for each book usually involves a fantastic new location and travels for the dragon and his crew, so that we don't get much time to settle into one location or situation before moving on to a fresh one. The second book has them on a sea voyage to China on a diplomatic mission, while the third book has them leaving China overland through the Ottoman and Prussian empires, and the fourth has them braving the interior of Africa in order to find a cure for a deadly draconic plague that's threatening to wipe out England's air corps. The fifth book returns home to England, where Laurance and Temeraire's fortunes are reversed and they desparately try to repel an invasion by Napoleon's armies, who are proving to be much more clever at adapting dragons to the cause of warfare.

Those subplots aside, two meta plots have run through all five of the books so far. The first is Temeraire's (and eventaully Laurance's) fight for draconic equality. The dragons are intelligent and possessed of free will, but are often seen and used as mere tools or beasts of burden by their owners. Like, say, a ship or cannon that can talk and breed. Novik draws several parallels here to the problem of human slavery, which England was also wrestling with at the time. The second thread tying all the books together is the war with Napoleon, with skirmishes and major battles providing the climax for more than one book.

I liked these books well enough, not only because they're set in a time period mostly unknown to me and NOT in just another Middle Earth knockoff. But also largely because they manage to eschew many of the tired standards of the fantasy genre. Here are some of the things that you will NOT find:

  • An epic storyline to save the world (Napoleon aside)
  • Multiple points of view tracking multiple characters (Novik doesn't break form Laurance's point of view until book 5, and then only temporarily)
  • A protagonist who starts as farm boy but who is secretly of high birth (both Laurance and Temerare are already of high birth)
  • An apprenticeship to some wise teacher who awakens a hidden power
  • A quest to destroy/reclaim some magic foozle
  • A king being corrupted by a wicked adviser

Instead, we get a fairly small and personal story about Laurence and his journey into a new career set against a more epic backdrop. There's also some interesting world building going on, with Novik's descriptions of how warfare changes when you have thirty ton dragons on the battlefield, each capable of carrying an entire squad of riflemen and bombardiers in addition to their own teeth, claws, and occasional breath weapon. I also liked that dragons are the only magical things to appear in the books, and even then they're treated largely as intelligent animals. It's fantastic enough to be exciting and fanciful, but different enough from the usual tripe to keep your attention.

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19Nov/08Off

Week 251: Monkeys, Bears, and Song

Sam seems to be backsliding in her television. Used to be, we could count on her watching Sesame Street, then she moved up to Curious George. I liked both of these shows, since they were educational and had bits of humor scattered throughout them that adults could relate to. Best of all, they seemed to encourage a joy of learning and, in the case of Curious George, an appreciation of science and education. Great!

Now, though, all Sam ever wants to watch are junk like Dragon Tales and (ugh...) The Care Bears. These are light on educational value, opting instead to focus on pro-social messages like sharing, caring, more caring, sharing some more, hugs, a little more caring, and spraying colorful lights from your stomach. It's not that I mind this kind of stuff (indeed, Sam could use a little more encouragement in some of those areas), but it's just that these shows are like nails on a blackboard to watch or even overhear. I mean, would it kill Tenderheart to shut up about his feelings and talk about algebra for a few minutes? Would it?

Mandy, for her part, continues to mostly ignore the television regardless of the programming, except for a few minutes at the beginning of each show. It's almost as if by the time the opening credits and theme song are over she feels that she pretty much has it figured out and should move on to something more productive. She is, however, fond of bellowing out the lyrics to the Dragon Tales theme song:

Dragon tales! Dragon Tales!

It Dragon Tales!
Dragon Tales! Dragon Tales!

[Repeat]

Let me tell you, there's nothing like it.

Filed under: Parenting 4 Comments
14Nov/08Off

Book Review: When You Are Engulfed in Flames

When You Are Engulfed...

Note: This is #53 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008.

I'm a bit of a latecomer to the David Sedaris fan club, which is a shame. I kept seeing his When You Are Engulfed in Flames on best seller lists and decided to try the audiobook, which Sedaris reads himself. Immediately upon hearing his voice I realized that I had heard him before doing funny little stories for National Public Radio. I'm now a certified fan.

This book, like his others, is a collection of humorous and largely autobiographical essays dealing with a hodge podge of topics. Kind of like what a blog would be if it were done by someone who was actually talented, ambitious, and living in Paris with his boyfriend. The variety of topics is impressive, ranging from living next door to a crazy mean lady, getting into a fight with a fellow airline passenger, learning Japanese in Japan while trying to give up smoking, brewing coffee without running water, memories of a ghastly baby sitter, buying a human skeleton, coaching his social climbing parents on how to collect "real" art, and a lot more.

What I like about Sedaris's style is that he's not only funny, but completely open and without conceit about so many things. He cops to a lot of rude and embarrassing thoughts and reactions of the type that we've all probably had but would never admit. How would you really feel if your first class, transcontinental flight paired you with a man who couldn't stop crying over a death in his family? How do injustices done to you as a child really stack up when viewed through the lens of adult experience? How much at fault are you really when you end up sitting naked in a doctor's waiting room among other flabbergasted (and clothed) patients? It's the kind of honesty and open storytelling that makes you feel that at some level you kind of know the guy and you can commiserate with him and appreciate his self deprecation in the name of comedy.

And Sedaris often is pretty funny. Some of the essays really fell flat with me and felt like filler, but there are several in which he really had me rolling. One in particular where he makes use of a crossword puzzle to engage in passive aggressive exercises after refusing to swap seats with another airline passenger was sublime, matched only by another bit where he explains how he uses the French equivalent of "Okay, sure" as a response to every Frenchman's question he doesn't understand just to see where things go. It's funny stuff, thanks in large part to Sedaris's delivery and perceptive sense of humor. I'm definitely going to go back and read his other essay collections.

Do you like these reviews? Check out my profile on Goodreads.com.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

Lastly, while not part of a 52-in-52 challenge, one of my favorite bloggers over at Defective Yeti is reading Lolita by Vladamir Nabakokv as part of his annual "NaNoReMo" (National Novel Reading Month) project. Some great comments so far here and here. (And my review of Lolita is here.)

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13Nov/08Off

Selection Matters

I don't want to go so far as to say that my other blog, which focuses on the wonderful world of employment selection, is "back" per se, since every time I make that claim I end up coughing out a handful of posts before letting the site lay fallow for another six months. But I have posted a few things there lately:

Happy clicking, if you are so inclined. You can even subscribe to the site via the RSS feed.

12Nov/08Off

Week 250: Milestone, pajamas, and loss aversion

Woah, Week 250. Hard to believe I've written that many of these updates. I wonder how many pictures of the kids I've posted. I would guess somewhere around three klatillion. Here are a few more:

As you can see, Sam is now in possession of "feety pajamas" which are basically suits of synthetic fiber that include built-in socks. I had thought that these were strictly for babies and toddlers, but apparently they make them for older kids now, too. I look forward to this trend advancing to the point where I am provided my own pair of feety pajamas, though I would prefer some other color than pink and some other decoration than the word "HUGS!"

Edit: ZOMG! They do make them! Thanks for letting me know, Becky!

At this point, I'd like to offer a parenting trick born out of the science of psychology. There's this little kink in human behavior called "loss aversion." Simply put, we hate losing stuff more than we like gaining stuff of equal value. It's more painful, for example, to lose $5 you already have than it is pleasurable to get $5 you didn't. This is actually a very powerful effect and pretty well documented, so I decided to see if I could put it to work in getting my kids to eat their dinners.

What I did was before we all sat down to eat, I asked Sam and Mandy to pick out a desert and place it next to their plate. Before, we had held out the promise of a desert if they ate well and had good manners. Now, the desert was theirs, with the only stipulations being that they had to wait until after dinner to eat it and that they lost it if they either didn't eat well or had bad table manners. The distinction between getting a desert if they behaved well and losing a desert if they behaved poorly is a subtle one, but if psychology has anything to say about it it would be an important one.

Well, turns out we're batting .500. The effect on Sam was pronounced. The first time I took away her desert on account of playing with her food she squawked as she never had when I took away the prospect of a hypothetical desert in the future. The next night, she jealously guarded her desert and kept telling us that she wasn't going to lose it THIS time, because she was going to be good and eat all her dinner. And she kept her word, so I call the experiment is a success! SCIENCE!

Well, partially. Not only did Mandy keep trying to eat her desert before the rest of her dinner, she seemed more content to blithely ignore our threats and their executions. I'm putting this down to her tender age, since Sam seems to grok the concept much better and it works for her. We'll see if Mandy comes around.

Filed under: Parenting 3 Comments
7Nov/08Off

Book Review: Cujo

Cujo

Note: This is #52 in my 52 Books in 52 Weeks Challenge for 2008. DING!

Up through about the first three quarters of Stephen King's Cujo, I really didn't care for it. This was mainly because it didn't really feel like a Stephen King novel, much less one from early in his career when he still liked to really break out the supernatural elements. There's no haunted hotels that turn people into murderous psychopaths. There's no little girls who can burn your face off by looking at you. There's no classic cars possessed by malevolent spirits. There's no everyman who can tell your terrifying future by touching your hand, even though Cujo is more or less an indirect sequel to The Dead Zone. Instead, we get some dumb dog.

Granted, this isn't an ordinary dog. It's a huge St. Bernard weighing in at almost 200 pounds and it's been driven completely feral by rabies. Through a cascade of unfortunate coincidences, housewife Donna Trenton and her four-year old son Tad end up isolated and trapped in their clunker of a car by Cujo, having to deal not only with the animal's vicious attacks, but also the 100-degree summer heat. There's also some more mundane drama in the form of two marriages on the rocks, including Cujo's owners and the imperilled Trentons themselves. Husband Vic Trenton, in another one of those unfortunate coincidences, is out of town trying to salvage a business deal while his wife and child fight for their lives.

So, as I said, I didn't care much for this setup for most of the novel. Having a 4-year old child myself I didn't much care for the fulcrum King chose to leverage our fears this time around --parents' promising a child that he or she is safe from imaginary monsters only to be seriously tested on their ability to protect him or her from a real one. This hits pretty close to home. I don't begrudge King for this (I'm free to exit this joy ride any time I want), but it still made me uncomfortable and without any kind of horror schlock or pizaz to distract me, my opinion was one of vague dislike. Aside from some silly business with a maybe kinda sorta maybe haunted closet in Tad Trenton's bedroom, Cujo has no supernatural elements at all --just a really big and really angry dog that wants to tear somebody's guts out.

But in the last quarter of the book, things started coalesce and I started to see what King was up to. Not only did things get more exciting as the standoff with Cujo reached its tragic climax, but I began to appreciate that the book was actually an example of pretty clever plotting. Up until that point I had been annoyed with King for slinging around what I had taken for random and gratuitous plot threads. For example, there's a jilted ex-lover who takes his revenge on Donna Trenton's empty house, and at the time I considered the scene to be unnecessary padding. But that act leads to a new situation that led other characters to go where King needed them to be in order to advance the story, and it was done in a very believable way. Nobody was going from point A to point B at exactly time C just because that's what King needed them to do to get to some climactic scene. It was all very organic and believable in a way that lesser authors (heck, even King himself at other points in his career) couldn't pull off.

I also started to appreciate more about the contrasts that King set up between the sundering of the Trentons' family and the dissolution of another family, the Bannermans, who are also affected by Cujo's rampage. At the same time that Cujo is savaging one family and breaking it forever he's allowing another one to escape a dead end and move into more hopeful territory. It's subtle and the kind of thing that floats to the top of your thoughts some time after reading the book, which is a fair bit more than you might expect from horror pulp. Which, I'm always, saying, King's stuff isn't. Well, not often.

Others doing the 52-in-52 thing this week:

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6Nov/08Off

Pew! Pew! Pew!

Target

A while back I saw a post by my Internet friend Jeremy about how he and his family had a grand time at a gun range assaulting paper targets with a variety of ridiculously powerful weapons. My views on gun ownership have always been moderate and I've never fired anything but a hunting rifle, but I was still impressed by the pictures and videos and thought that the outing looked like a ton of fun. So I half jokingly told Geralyn that I wanted a similar experience for my upcoming birthday. She rolled her eyes and asked me if I were joking at the time, but it turns out she took me seriously and signed me up for a handgun class at a local shooting range. It was fun!

The guy teaching the class looked like any other middle age middle manager, but he had this weird tension under the surface. He told some (probably apocryphal) story about how he was mugged while helping a handicapped lady across the street, and when the police wouldn't/couldn't do anything, he tracked the mugger down himself Dirty Harry style. Only it turned out to be the leader of some local Cryps gang group, and after he had him arrested with the help of a Detective friend, the gangbanger put out a hit on him and now he basically spends every day assuming he's going to get shot. He showed us the gun he wears on his hip, the second one he keeps concealed in his pocket, his extra ammo clip, his flashlight, and his knife. He then ended up by tapping on his chest to produce a solid "THUNK! THUNK!" sound and said "and I wear Kevlar." At this point I began to wonder if I really wanted to be in the same room as this guy if he's constantly got people trying to shoot him.

He spent about an hour of lecturing us on how thugs are totally going to break into our homes and shoot us and eat our faces unless we shoot them first. This struck me as a bit of a stretch, I played along and began looking askance at the guy sitting next to me because that seemed to be what the instructor was looking for, even if I couldn't muster much enthusiasm about it. But when he had each member of the class take a turn to introduce him/herself it also became apparent that I was the only person there who wasn't living in constant fear of assault and wasn't in attendance to learn how to use a gun in self defense. When it came my turn and he asked the standard question of "And why are you here tonight?" I didn't really want to say "it sounded like a lark," which really would have been closest to the truth. So I babbled something about it seeming like an interesting and educational experience. Then, upon seeing the dubious and disappointed looks this earned me from everyone in the room, I amended with "Oh, and I'd like to learn about the sport of target shooting." This seemed to placate people, but for the rest of the night I was "the target shooting guy" and the instructor would glance at me and make asides along the lines of "And that kind of thing on a gun is fine for target shooters, but you don't want it otherwise." To which I'd just smile and nod as pleasantly as I knew how.

After the lecturing and reviewing the instructor's four cardinal rules of gun safety (about which my recall is hovering around 75% as of the time of this writing; I think one of them had to do with alcohol), we got to handle the weapons and go out on the range. We shot a nice variety of hand guns, ranging from revolvers to semiautomatics with ammo ranging from .22 to .45.

Despite my vast experience combating Nazis and aliens and Nazi aliens with virtual weapons, this was the very first time I had ever fired a real hand gun, and even with the .22 caliber rounds I started with I was amazed at how visceral and POWERFUL an experience it was. Really, almost every sense is assaulted --the full body jolt of the gun's recoil, the sight of the gun jumping and the hole appearing in the target, the smell of the gunpowder, and of course the booming roar that you felt through the air around you as much as hearing it. I suppose I could have licked one of the shell casings to complete the sensory experience, but I restrained myself. They were hot.

I shot pretty accurately, it seems, as all but a few of my shots were within the red bull's eye on the target, though this was at a distance of only 10 feet. But at any rate, I did better than any of the six other people in the class, except for one guy who seemed to do about as well if not a little better. All in all it was a fun experience and I'm glad I did it. If I had enough money and time, I might consider joining the club and shooting for sport, since members can borrow guns and only have to pay extra for the ammunition. But I still have no intention of actually owning a gun myself.

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5Nov/08Off

Week 249: Halloween, Candy, and Jokes

I do believe Halloween was this last weekend. I also believe that Sam and Mandy enjoyed it immensely. Ger's dad and godmother came to stay at our house and answer our door for us so that we all four could go out trick-or-treating.

Sam insisted on trying to hit every door in our substantial neighborhood, including the ones where all the lights were off and no decorations were up. As I think I've mentioned before for some reason the ritual of trick-or-treating in this neck of the woods has evolved to include telling jokes, which I guess is supposed to be some kind of "treat" though if my understanding of Boolean logic as it applies to the holiday's catch phrase is correct this would mean that telling a joke means you forfeit your rights to candy. But nobody seemed to agree with me, AS USUAL.

Be that as it may, we had attempted to prime Samantha with some canned jokes that she could use for this purpose. What is a bow that cannot be tied? A rainbow. What building has the most stories? The library. What's green and red and goes 100 miles per hour? A frog in a blender.

Samantha, showing her usual Olympic level skill in not doing what you tell her, decided to instead make up jokes on the spot, with the spot being the welcome mat of whatever neighbor she had just marched up to. Only she didn't operate too well under that kind of pressure, so she just assembled jokes like Frankenstein's monster out of words for whatever raw materials happen to by lying around. Why did the ...car, cross the ...pumpkin? Because the ...door! HAHAHAHAHACANDY! Ironically, this usually elicited more laughter than the jokes we had taught her, which actually only encouraged her.

Mandy spent most of the evening confined to her stroller and clutching her jack-o-lantern bucket, though we did occasionally let her out or wheel her op to doorjambs to receive her share of the treats. For the most part she was happy to alternately squish and examine her treats, but at one point while walking between houses I overheard a quiet "OM NOM NOM NOM!" sound. I looked down to see Mandy chewing on something and quickly demanded "Mandy! What do you have in your mouth?"

She looked up at me, more than a little surprised and eventually answered "Candy?" I think she just barely lacked the verbal skills to add "You imbecile, what else would it be? You keep giving me the stuff, what am I supposed to do with it?" At any rate, her clever little fingers had figured out how to unwrap one of the treats, and she had even neatly put the wrapper back in her bucket, possibly for later consumption.

So yeah, we had fun.

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