Books I’ve Read Recently

Company: A Novel
by Max Barry
Amazon Description: “With broad strokes, Barry once again satirizes corporate America in his third caustic novel (after Jennifer Government). This time, he takes aim at the perennial corporate crime of turning people into cogs in a machine. Recent b-school grad Stephen Jones, a fresh-faced new hire at a Seattle-based holding company called Zephyr, jumps on the fast track to success when he’s immediately promoted from sales assistant to sales rep in Zephyr’s training sales department. “Don’t try to understand the company. Just go with it,” a colleague advises when Jones is flummoxed to learn his team sells training packages to other internal Zephyr departments. But unlike his co-workers, he won’t accept ignorance of his employer’s business, and his unusual display of initiative catapults him into the ranks of senior management, where he discovers the “customer-free” company’s true, sinister raison d’être.”
We read this for book club, and although it was a quick read and funny, we ultimately didn’t have a huge amount of discussion about it. I’m not sure if that’s because we all work for a big corporation and the subject is a bit too familiar, or if we really don’t think working for big companies as as bad as portrayed in this novel. Although the book was funny, I had to admit that it was pretty depressing. Logically, though, the company portrayed here couldn’t function in real life, and part of the conceit of the novel — removing the customers from the equation — is both the reason why it wouldn’t, and what keeps companies from spiraling out of control in this fashion.
Adventures from the Technology Underground: Catapults, Pulsejets, Rail Guns, Flamethrowers, Tesla Coils, Air Cannons, and the Garage Warriors Who Love Them
by William Gurstelle
Amazon Description: “What is the technology underground? According to engineer and technology consultant Gurstelle, it’s a community of like-minded amateurs–inventors, mostly, although some of them might more accurately be characterized as daredevils. Men and women who have devoted their lives to the things that conventional science has dismissed as unworkable, impractical, or just plain pointless. Flying cars, for example, or newfangled catapults, air guns, and flamethrowers. Or fighting robots and, of course, LDRS (large and dangerous rocket ships).”
This is Gurstelle’s second book – his other — Backyard Ballistics: Build Potato Cannons, Paper Match Rockets, Cincinnati Fire Kites, Tennis Ball Mortars, and More Dynamite Devices — is an older favorite of mine. Both are an entertaining read about technology and the people who, in the spirit of at least one of our founding fathers (Benjamin Franklin), enjoy experimenting with science for the sheer love of learning. These are folks who take science out of the realm of the academic and bring it to the masses, where it becomes a hands-on experience and a subject that everyone can learn and respect.
Hornswoggled (An Alafair Tucker Mystery)
by Donis Casey
Amazon Description: “Set in the prairie town of Boynton, Okla., in the spring of 1913, Casey’s nostalgic, folksy second novel to feature Alafair Tucker finds the full-time mother of 11 and part-time sleuth worried about one of her grown daughters, Alice. Alice is sweet on barber Walter Kelley, an attractive widower whom the determined and discerning Alafair mistrusts; Walter is just too popular with the ladies. Since Alice is set on having Walter, Alafair seeks distraction by investigating the unsolved murder of Louise Kelley, Walter’s late wife, whose stabbed body surfaced in a creek bordering the Tucker farm eight months earlier.”
This was really light reading, but fun, and it held together pretty well — no huge plot holes that make you put the book down in disgust. The author spent a lot of time on the pioneer homelife of the main character, which was a bit overkill for me, and the mystery sort of solves itself towards the end, but it was a nice relaxing book.
And then there’s the book that I picked up several times, but just couldn’t read at all:
My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time
by Liz Jensen
I love the book title, I love the cover (I even took a picture of it when I spotted it in the bookstore in Chicago) and I loved the book’s premise, but I just couldn’t get further than a few chapters into it. For some reason, I just couldn’t identify with the main character. Here’s the description, if you want to give it a shot, though:
“When 25-year-old Charlotte Schleswig begins telling her madcap tale in 1897, she’s a successful prostitute roaming the suburban streets near Denmark’s capital. A random meeting in a bakery leads her to begin working as a domestic for Fru Krak, an anxious woman whose husband has recently disappeared under mysterious circumstances and who may now be haunting the very streets Charlotte walks. Charlotte soon sets out to find the missing Professor Krak, and in the course of her investigations discovers 21st-century London, a whole new world of mobile phones, microwaves, flavored condoms, suicide machines and a handsome archeologist named Fergus.”

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Books I’ve read Recently

Garden Accents: Simple-To-Build Projects to Enhance Your Yard or Garden (How-to Gardening)
Quite a few interesting building projects for hardscaping your garden. I read this over while drawing up plans for our flowerbeds.
Pit of Vipers (Nancy Drew (All New) Girl Detective) #18
by Carolyn Keene
There are 21 books out now in this all new series of Nancy Drew stories. These are brand-new tales, not revisions or updates of the originals, and they set Nancy squarely in the present, complete with cell phones, hybrid cars (Nancy’s, of course) and high-tech surveillance equipment. And another change that’s somewhat jarring — they’re told from Nancy’s first-person point of view.
Indianapolis Hoosiers’ circle city
by Geib, George W.
Indianapolis Through Our Eyes: The Indianapolis Star 1903-2003
by Indianapolis Star
Indianapolis: a circle city history
by Tenuth, Jeffrey
Greater Indianapolis: the history, the industries, the institutions, and the people of a city of homes
by Dunn, Jacob Piatt, 1855-1924

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Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things

Sneaky Uses for Everyday Things: How to Turn a Penny into a Radio, Make a Flood Alarm with an Aspirin, Change
by Cy Tymony
ISBN: 0740738593
NON-FICTION – A small guide to how to MacGyvver yourself out of situations using objects you may have with you. I checked the book out from the library, so no time to tinker around making anything. Some of the descriptions are pretty loosy-goosy, so you’d want to build some of these gadgets at home and see them working before you tried to build one in a tight spot. I get the impression that the author compiled the book from a gathered list of ideas, rather than building them all at home in his own basement.
A parent would probably have fun guiding their kids through some of these amateur science experiments to show kids how to build their own radio or make a working compass. But they might want to skip the chapter on how to make your own weapons. Leave that to the adults.
I’m guessing the target market for this book is “teenage boy.” Hmmm. Probably why I read it. There are follow-up books, too: “Sneakier Uses for Everyday Things: How to Turn a Calculator into a Metal Detector, Carry a Survival Kit in a Shoestring, Make a Gas Mask with a Balloon…”.

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Short Book Reviews

How Nancy Jackson Married Kate Wilson
and Other Tales of Rebellious Girls and Daring Young Women

by Mark Twain and John R. Cooley

Library Journal: “A dozen minor Twain pieces to show how Twain used some of his slight fictions to idealize his daughters Clara and Suzy Clemens as romantic, rebellious, and daring adolescents in the decades that glorified the sassy Gibson Girl. Twain probably considered his stories of transvestites, lesbian relationships, and sexual oddities almost scandalous, and he must have viewed “Little Bessie,” in which a child questions her mother about God, as dangerously blasphemous.”

A not terribly captivating book, in all, probably of more interest to Twain scholars than to women interested in tales of daring and rebellious women. The best story in it is Little Bessie about a girl who vigorously tears apart her mother’s Christian mythology — a story that wasn’t ever published, probably because it’s the most true thing Twain wrote.

Geography Club
by Brent Hartinger
Geography Club is a gay teen novel about 16-year-old Russel Middlebrook who comes out to himself befriends other gay teens at his high school, while battling bullying and homophobia from other classmates. It’s number 2 Book Sense’s list of favorite banned books. It’s been challenged at some school libraries due to homophobia, although it’s quite chaste in subject matter.

It was a quick and pleasant read and is a nice counterpoint to popular teen lesbian novels like Annie on My Mind. It’s nice that books like this exist nowadays. When I was a teenager, I was stuck with reading all the cross-dressing plays of Shakespeare, and checking out Collette novels.

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The Great Gatsby

The Great Gatsby
By F. Scott Fitzgerald
I first read this book when I was still a kid — either in junior high or high school, and I don’t remember caring too much for it, and feeling impatient to ge to the end. We read it again for our book club, and I’m very glad we did, because although I remembered the basics of the story, I didn’t remember how beautifully written it was. I’d say now it makes my list of favorite books. I don’t think it’s a book that young people can relate to easily, so I didn’t really understand it the first time. It’s only after you experience intimate personal relationships — love, betrayal, disappointment, and the indifference of someone you thought cared for you — that you recognize what the characters are saying and feeling, and that’s when the story comes alive. Like youth, Gatsby is wasted on the young.

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Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life

Emotions Revealed: Recognizing Faces and Feelings to Improve Communication and Emotional Life
by Paul Ekman
NON-FICTION – Paul Ekman is a scientist and psychologist who has studied human emotion for several decades, especially how emotion is expressed in the face and voice. Ekman provides insight into a number of questions — When do we become emotional and why? How do we reconize the emotions we’re feeling and can we changed them, or change how we react to them? How do we recognize what others are feeling, even when they may be hiding their emotions?
You start the book by taking a test in the appendix — a quiz on your ability to quickly recognize facial expressions. You may get a lot wrong, but by the end of the book when you retake the test, you’ll do much better.
In his early studies, Ekman sought to answer a controversy in emotional science – do all humans use the same facial expressions to indicated emotion, and are those expressions learned, or innate? To solve the question, he spent three months with a stone age culture of people in New Guinea that had virtually no contact with the outside world. After working with and photographing the people in a small village, he came to the conclusion that facial expressions are universal — all people make the same expressions for fear, anger, sadness, enjoyable emotions, etc.
Ekman walks through a number of different emotions and illustrates how they are expressed in the human face to help recognize subtle, partial or hidden expressions that will help you understand what emotions are being expressed by others.
One of the expressions I found really interesting is the “Duchenne” smile — a smile we express when we’re really happy, versus a “social smile” that we use to be polite or when we want to conceal unhappiness from others. I’ve always been able to reconize the difference between the two (I described them as a “real smile” versus a “fake smile”) — particularly in my girlfriend, but also in other people I know well, like my mom and some of my friends. A “Duchenne smile” — a smile of true happiness — involves not just the mouth but muscles around the eyes, and is impossible to fake because the eye muscles can’t be controlled voluntarily.
Ekman’s current studies are about how emotions are expressed by individuals — do some people have different levels of response to the same emotion than other people do? If so, how does that affect them, and can they learn to handle those emotions in ways that stimulate good communication with the people around them?
I sought out more about Paul Ekman after reading about him in Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, where Gladwell discusses Ekman’s ability to “thin slice” human expression because he’s spent so many years studying the human face. I checked the book out from the library, but it’s definitely one I’d consider adding to my personal collection, because I’d like refer back to it from time to time, especially the sections on becoming more emotionally attentive — aware of what I’m feeling so I can control how I react to improve my relationships with others.

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More Gatsby

“Self-control!” Repeated Tom incredulously. “I suppose the latest thing is to sit back and let Mr. Nobody from Nowhere make love to your wife. Well, if that’s the idea you can count me out. . . . Nowadays people begin by sneering at family life and family institutions, and next they’ll throw everything overboard and have intermarriage between black and white.”

Flushed with his impassioned gibberish, he saw himself standing alone on the last barrier of civilization.

Before they blamed the “breakdown of the family” on gay people, they used to blame it on interracial marriage. Of course the character quoted–Tom Buchanan–was running around cheating on his wife, but only breaks out this diatribe when his wife is in love with someone else. Fitzgerald called out this hypocrisy in 1925, and we’re still having it stuck down our throats 81 years later.

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Gatsby Quotes

He smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished—and I was looking at an elegant young rough-neck, a year or two over thirty, whose elaborate formality of speech just missed being absurd. Some time before he introduced himself I’d got a strong impression that he was picking his words with care.

One autumn night, five years before, they had been walking down the street when the leaves were falling, and they came to a place where there were no trees and the sidewalk was white with moonlight. They stopped here and turned toward each other. Now it was a cool night with that mysterious excitement in it which comes at the two changes of the year. The quiet lights in the houses were humming out into the darkness and there was a stir and bustle among the stars. Out of the corner of his eye Gatsby saw that the blocks of the sidewalks really formed a ladder and mounted to a secret place above the trees—he could climb to it, if he climbed alone, and once there he could suck on the pap of life, gulp down the incomparable milk of wonder.

His heart beat faster and faster as Daisy’s white face came up to his own. He knew that when he kissed this girl, and forever wed his unutterable visions to her perishable breath, his mind would never romp again like the mind of God. So he waited, listening for a moment longer to the tuning-fork that had been struck upon a star. Then he kissed her. At his lips’ touch she blossomed for him like a flower and the incarnation was complete.

Through all he said, even through his appalling sentimentality, I was reminded of something—an elusive rhythm, a fragment of lost words, that I had heard somewhere a long time ago. For a moment a phrase tried to take shape in my mouth and my lips parted like a dumb man’s, as though there was more struggling upon them than a wisp of startled air. But they made no sound, and what I had almost remembered was uncommunicable forever.

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Progress Report

So far this year, I’ve read 30 books, and many of them have been pretty light reading. I guess I’m quite a bit behind Bush. At this point, I’ve pretty much abandoned my New Years Reading List and gone off on wild tangents, which seems to be a commentary on my life in general somehow. And it’s probably a good thing.
Here’s the run-down so far:

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The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists

The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists
by Gideon Defoe

Description from

Not since Moby-Dick… No, not since Treasure Island… Actually, not since Jonah and the Whale has there been a sea saga to rival The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists, featuring the greatest sea-faring hero of all time, the immortal Pirate Captain, who, although he lives for months at a time at sea, somehow manages to keep his beard silky and in good condition.
Worried that his pirates are growing bored with a life of winking at pretty native ladies and trying to stick enough jellyfish together to make a bouncy castle, the Pirate Captain decides it’s high time to spearhead an adventure.
While searching for some major pirate booty, he mistakenly attacks the young Charles Darwin’s Beagle and then leads his ragtag crew from the exotic Galapagos Islands to the fog-filled streets of Victorian London. There they encounter grisly murder, vanishing ladies, radioactive elephants, and the Holy Ghost himself. And that’s not even the half of it.

Of course I loved this book — it’s about Pirates. And as a bonus — monkeys!

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