Monday, August 25, 2008

Talent, by Zoey Dean

Pretty awful YA, but fun except for one thing. I didn't like Zoey Dean's A-List series, but mainly because I thought they were so weak compared to Gossip Girl. I HATED How To Teach Filthy Rich Girls, because it was stupid as a slug.

This had a good premise, 3 Beverly Hills girls, one a surfer, one a wanna-be pop star like her diva mom, and one the daughter of a power agent, who has no talent of her own- unless it's the skill to spot talent?

Anyway, Mac, the agent's daughter, spots Iowa tourist Emily gazing her way around, and decides that Emily has star quality, and finagles her way around until Emily agrees to audition for a part in a movie that Mac's mother is casting. All well and good.

The part that bothered me, is that Mac's arch-enemy, Coco's popstar rival, and the girl whose best friend steals the surfer girls boyfriend, the total bitch of the series, is called Ruby Goldman. It's the only ethnic name in the book. Make of that what you will.

The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future, by Mark Bauerlein

This was intense!

I read it all in one horrified sitting, and can't get it out of my head.

Now, sure- I know (as Bauerlein admits right off the bat) that every age has had it's elders (god, I guess at 33 I'm an elder? I don't know) looking at it's youth, and saying what a pack of idiots they seem, but Bauerlein comes at this armed with an almost overwhelming array of studies that seem to point pretty damn conclusively to one tragic fact- that the high school graduates of today have learned less, comparatively, than high school graduates of previous generations, and by a lot. Also, high drop out rates skew those numbers further, and test scores of young Americans have plummeted over the past 15 years in comparison with other developed nations. Add to that rapid drops in college students being judged ready for college work, and even more disturbing drops in students majoring in maths, physics, or engineering, and we're looking at Idiocracy, man.

Oh so many tidbits and statistics pounded it home, with a passion and an eloquence that was really impressive.

One of the most interesting aspects for me, was the impact of a large vocabulary upon entering kindergarten, and the incidence of "rare words" on television and in print. I'll just give this one bit:

"One criterion researchers use is the rate of "rare words" in spoken and written discourse. They define "rare words" as words that do not rank in the top 10,000 in terms of frequency of usage. With the rare word scale, researchers can examine various media for the number of rare words per thousand, as well as the median-word ranking for each medium as a whole....

Rank of median word Rare words per 1000

  • newspapers 1690 68.3
  • adult books 1058 52.7
  • comic books 867 53.5
  • children's books 578 16.3
  • prime-time adult tv 490 22.7
  • prime-time children tv 543 20.2
  • Sesame Street 413 2.0"

All very interesting, no? And add to this that the kids today, our so-called Digital generation spend so much of their time online- for some reason, this seems to fill folks with all sorts of giddy hope that these kids are going to learn things online. Well, I have seen teens online for hours- hour after hour of gorgeous sunny day, and they can't tear themselves away for the stupidest junk available online. It's pathetic. They can't spell, they can't type, they are not learning how to program or design games, they are learning to buy and shop and that it's cute to misspell things and in general being misled in every possible way by the only adults who are looking at them in an interested fashion, the marketers.

Bauerlein makes the sad but true point that adults who wish to influence the future can't pretend that all this MySpace/Gaia crap will let them absorb computer skills, let alone language and maths skills that will not only allow these kids to get a job, but might help our country survive.

Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are, by Rob Walker

Interesting but not groundbreaking book on consumerism as identity creation. I think James Twitchell covers this area better, but still, a tasty read anyway. In fact, Walker spent quite a lot of time quoting Twitchell and Paco Underhill, which I guess is inevitable when crossing such well travelled territory.
Walker did delve a little more into some kind of underground/pseudounderground consumer niches, like the sneaker freaks, etc, and the influence these subgroups have is pretty incredible. Still, it was nothing I hadn't read or known before. I guess I wouldn't really pass it on to a friend who I thought would be interested in this stuff- I would, however, recommend Twitchell's Living It Up: Our Love Affair With Luxury and his Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism without hesitation.

Deadly Persuasion: Why Women and Girls Must Fight The Addictive Power of Advertising, by Jean Kilbourne

Another solid and interesting book by Kilbourne on the way women are represented in media. Solid, not thrilling.

In fact, in this book, at least, I felt a little frustrated with her insistence on bringing her own experiences and addictions into it- while much of the media and advertising she discusses is obviously damaging, I can't help but feel that the men and boys targeted by these same companies are in many ways equally vulnerable to ugly manipulation.

When an ad for vodka (or perfume, or shoes or handbags or whatever) shows a man behaving aggressivley towards a woman (and there are many bizarre examples of that she highlights in the book), it's not just the woman who might get a weird idea about that image- especially as these ads are usually in women's magazines, so a guy flippping through it would be doubly hard pressed to understand what was going on. If it's scary and not cool, why is it in a Gucci ad, a guy might think, am I supposed to act that way? I'm just saying, it's not just women who are affected by fubar messages in media.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Real World, by Natsuo Kirino

This was intense, disturbing, and wonderful.

Four Japanese high school girls become involved in a murder, and their lives are never the same.

I am not sure if this was aimed at adults or teens, but I think it has equal appeal to both- to teens who might be fascinated with the murder and with the descriptions of Japanese high school life, so different from America and to adults who just appreciate a hell of a good book.

The story is told in a rotation of voices, each unique and intense, and by the devastating end, I was reeling.

Audrey, Wait by Robin Benway

Really fun YA!

I can't help but think that this whole book was inspired by that song Delilah by the Plain White T's, but that's pretty great.

Audrey Cuttler breaks up with her boyfriend Evan, and as she's walking down the stairs, she hears him call Audrey, wait! but she keeps on going.

His band is playing later that night, and their friend of a friend of a friend finally lured an A&R guy to one of their shows, where they play their new song, Audrey Wait!

Of course, Evan and the band are promptly signed to a major label, and The Song goes into heavy rotation on radio stations around the country. Audrey's newfound notoriety gets her all access passes at great shows, but then she is constantly hounded for interviews. After a badly judged parking lot hookup with the lead singer of another band (which gets videoed and leaked onto YouTube), Audrey is in magazines as indie rock's new muse, and it gets crazier from there.

The whole thing was well done, funny, and the music mentioned throughout the book was so good, I want to listen to Robin Benway's playlist. It was straight from Deliliah, though, because I remember when Delilah was the inescapable song in 2006, reporters drudged up the girl who had inspired it, and she seemed so uncomfortable with the attention.

Dramarama, by E. Lockhart

Fun, quick YA.

Sarah decides to reinvent herself at a summer theater program as Sadye, along with her long-closeted best friend, Demi, who takes the opportunity to come out as gay.

In a competitive atmosphere, Demi shines, but Sadye begins to realize that loving theater doesn't mean that you have the talent to make it in the business.

It was really good, though, and the love for theater was so solid through the book it made me want to listen to cast recordings, and although I can't help but think bloody Disney is responsible for all of this through High School Musical, it's pretty cool to see the theater geeks as the cool kids in a book.

A Certain Chemistry, by Mil Millington

Ok book, not nearly as well done or as funny as Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About.

In fact, this kind of had God as a narrator of bits, and that annoyed the hell out of me, and the story was kind of depressing.

Tom is a ghostwriter, happily living in Edinburgh with his girlfriend Sara, when he is given the job of ghosting an autobiography for nighttime soap star Georgina Nye.

Tom falls for Georgina, writes his best book ever, giving Georgina political and feminist arguments that she can't discuss on the book-tour talk shows, etc, and fucks up his relationship with Sara.


It really was kind of a bummer.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About, by Mil Millington

Hands down, one of the funniest books i have ever read. This was a re-read, actually, but still, I was at that point where loud laughs were just erupting form me as I read. Pel and Ursula are fantastic. Love this book.

Babes in the Wood, by Ruth Rendell

Excellent dark police procedural mystery by the always amazing Ruth Rendell. Set during epic floods in England, Cheif Inspector Wexford sets off to investigate the disappearance of a 13 year old girl, her 15 year old brother, and the 30 year old who was supposed to be housesitting/watching over them while their parents were on holiday. Brooding and atmospheric. Rendell is good.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Maxed Out

This was a really fantastic documentary about American debt, both personal and national, and how corporations prey on the most disadvantaged members of society.

Disturbing, but really entertaining, it was so so well done, I watched it twice. Seriously, as soon as it was over, I watched the special features, and then went right back and watched the whole thing over again, it was that good. I even tried to talk Mr. Lexacat into watching it when he got home at midnight, and would have happily watched it again with him, but he wasn't into it.

So, it was that good. Yup.

Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer

You know what? To hell with it. I give up.
This was unreadable.
I have never mentioned before on this blog a book that I started and put down, but I've spent half my weekend forcing myself to pick this up, and feel like it earns at least a mention.

Present Value, by Sabin Willet

Really enjoyable novel set in a post 9-11 Boston suburb, where an exec at a company which sounds suspiciously like Hasbro has an epiphany which, naturally, leads to chaos in his previously well ordered life. A bit too much Tom Wolfe influence, but, really, that's fine. It was really good, actually.

A Good Year

Sappy but gorgeous romcom set in Provence. The villa, the vineyards, etc, etc.

The Year of The Horse, by Eric Hatch

Couldn't find a pic of the cover!
I read it because the blurbs on the back compared it to Mr Blandings, but I didn't think it was anywhere near that good. Still, it was fun and quick.

Saturday, August 9, 2008

Secrets of My Hollywood Life: On Location, by Jen Calonita

Fun and frothy YA. Teen movie star Kaitlin Burke is back at work, after her self-imposed exile of the first book, Secrets of My Hollywood Life. On set, her sleazy ex, Drew, and her arch nemesis Skye are causing trouble, and at home, her mother has taken to wearing Seven jeans and hanging out with "Lynne" and "Dina", which is kind of funny. I don't know, it's not great lit, obvs, but fun and kind of refreshing.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Love Actually

I feel like I am probably among the very last people to see this who ever had any interest at all in seeing it, but I finally got to it!

Despite A Very Trusted Source (Hi Mom!) seeing it earlier in the week and pronouncing it "utter slop" I gave it a shot anyway.

It might be because of major sleep deprivation, but I thought it was sweet- definitely sappy, sentimental, string-pulling like a bloody ocean-casting fishing line, but still cute. Very much a Hey-It's-That-Guy movie for me- I kept losing track of the plot trying to figure out which other English romantic comedies I'd seen all the actors in, but maybe that helped with some of the admittedly goofy plotlines?

Still, a feel-good movie, and those are pretty rare, I reckon.

Did I mention sleep deprived?

How Nancy Drew Saved My Life, by Lauren Baratz-Logsted

Well, this was nowhere nearly as good as the other Nancy Drew themed adult fiction I read this week, I'll tell you that much.

Maybe it suffered by comparison, but, it is a Red Dress book, which usually bodes pretty ill of a title.

Um- cross Jane Eyre with Nancy Drew and a smidge of Ian Fleming-lite with a twist of Mary Poppins, and you would have this steaming pile of nonsense.

Yup. Awful. The only thing that came close to redeeming it is that there was blessedly little talk of shoes.

Haunted Rhode Island, by Thomas D'Agostino

Eh, what is there to say about this?
A listing of towns in Rhody and the ghosts that supposedly haunt them.
It is what it is!

Panic in Level 4, by Richard Preston

Very disappointing book. I loved The Hot Zone, and The Demon in the freezer, both thrilling non-fic about infectious diseases, and even really enjoyed his novel The Cobra Event, but this was, to me, jumbled, incongrous, and not that interesting. From ash borers to the unicorn tapestries, I never felt like I understood the theme that linked the chapters. Really disappointed in this one.

Monday, August 4, 2008

Nature's Art Box, by Laura Martin

Nifty book with (mostly) green ideas for kid's crafts. Nicely done.

Nothing really, new, if fact, I definitely remember Martha Stewart hammering ferns onto napkins, but well done, beautifully illutrated, and a great resource.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Upper Class, by Hobson Brown, Taylor Materne, and Caroline Says

Well, I guess it's been a while since I read any YA, and this was awful.

Fish out of water story- Nikki Olivetti is a nouveau riche Long Island girl who gets sent to exclusive Wellington boarding school, where her roomate is field hockey star Laine Hunt.

blah blah blah.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, by Naomi Klein


This was a major book, and one that I had to read and absorb slowly, and with much pondering.

Klein argues that Milton Friedman's economic theories, as embodied by the Chicago School of thought, have created a disturbing situation where governments led by true believers not only use psychologically traumatic incidents as opportunities to force economic change into a desired area, but will also create such incidents intentionally.

From Latin and South American government overthrows to 1950's shock treatments designed to "wipe clean" a persons personality, to torture at Abu Ghraib to the land grabs after the South Asian tsunami to everything in post-Katrina New Orleans, this book argued persuasively that many of these things didn't just happen, that they were purposeful and resulted in major wealth creation for interested parties.

The war profiteers...

Read this book. Really.

Creative Wire Jewelry, by Kathy Peterson

This was (sorry) staggeringly bad.
Bad ideas, bad instructions, bad finished projects, and bad photographs.

Bottlemania: How Water Went on Sale and Why We Bought It, by Elizabeth Royte

Really good book. Despite it's title, it's really not one of those trendy 'little histories' (Like Salt: A World History, or Cod: A Biography Of The Fish That Changed The World).
This was more a look at the conflicts between public interest, corporations, and health and safety officials in an era of diminishing availability of clean water, which the UN says is a basic human right.
Some major nuggets:
"Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute estimates that the total energy required for every bottle's production, transport, and disposal is equivalent, on average, to filling that bottle a quater of the way with oil."
"Unless cities invest more to repair and replace their water and sewer systems, the EPA warns that nearly half of them will, by 2020, be in poor, very poor, or "life elapsed" status. The bill to take care of the drinking water part, to hell with the sewers, will run $390 billion, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers..."
Nestle's virtual takeover of Fryeburg, Maine is a frightening look at what might be lying ahead for American water, and some parts of the book made me gasp in fury.
Aside from the carbon dioxide pollution resulting from shipping Fiji Water 5000 miles just to get to San Francisco, "the bottling plant, in need of a steady power source, runs three diesel generators twenty-four hours a day...
Away from the rain forest, Fiji's urban areas are chronically water-stressed - not because there isn't enough water around, but because the infrastructure to deliver and protect it is inadequate...In 2007, half the nation didn't have access to clean water."
And, in a this-is-the-final-straw, Fuck Starbucks and the Gap (the whole RED thing makes me mad)
"(Starbucks) sells Ethos water, for $1.80 per half liter, with the copy line "Every bottle makes a difference." How much of a difference? A nickel for every bottle, up to $10 million over five years, goes to nonprofits that focus on water delivery, sanitation, and hygeine. To reach the goal of $10 milion, Starbucks will have to sell forty million bottles of water a year - water trucked from springs in Baxter, California and Hazelton, Pennsylvania - leaving behind $350 million in revenue when all is said and done."
This was an excellent book. I think I enjoyed The Blue Death:Disease, Disaster and the Water We Drink more, because the municipal water systems' crumbling infrastructure is so much more vivid and visible, but this was great. Highly recommended!

Confessions of a Teen Sleuth, by Chelsea Cain

This was so strange and great, and so surprising.

I found this book because Chelsea Cain is now writing very gory sounding thrillers, which are getting great reviews- Sweetheart, and Heartsick, which are being so widely praised that I was curious about the author. I know they'll be too beastly for me to read- anything with a character that gets compared to Hannibal Lecter is out of my flavor, but still, I thought I'd try to see where this Chelsea Cain came from.

Imagine my surprise when this popped up.

In this ridiculously well done piece of wierdness, Nancy Drew is a real person, still angry at her old college roommate Carolyn Keene for stealing and distorting Nancy's stories about her teen sleuth experiences. She marries Ned Nickerson, but always has a burning flame for hunky Frank Hardy. Bess is so traumatized by Carolyn's always calling her plump that she's anorexic, and George has a great roommate, V., who enjoys herbal tea.

Cherry Ames and Vicky Barr are there, and Flossie Bobbsey is an international birth control advocate. Encyclopedia Brown is pudgy, middle aged, and wears bright swimshorts. It was all hallucinatory and wonderful.

One of the strangest things I've ever read, but so much fun.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Random Acts of Senseless Violence, by Jack Womack

This was intense, and disturbing. 12 year old Lola is a Brearly student, living in NYC with her parents, and by the end of the book, she has changed into a wild survivalist.

I've read a lot of dystopian near-future fic, and this felt chillingly possible. The assasinations, the riots, the fires in California, the National Guard and the Xanax, all seen through the eyes of a girl who (occasionally) studies for chemistry and is struggling through Tess of the D'Urbervilles...

Intense. I hadn't heard of it until I read a Boing Boing post asking why this book wasn't better known, and I agree- it should be.

Why We Fight

Fantastic documentary.

This was just so good. A well paced, brilliantly done look at America's military industrial complex, and the way industry has affected foreign policy.

I wept, watching this, it was that well done.