Monday, November 29, 2010


Why We Buy: The Science Of Shopping

Don Draper would scoff and say "what?"

I could barely finish this, and I'd say he ripped off Don Draper were it not for the fact that Mad Men was written after this book was. Is advertising really all about love? Hmph.

This book is written by Paco Underhill, who presents himself as an arrogant, simple-minded know-it-all who left (cue schlocky singsong playground bully voice) "academia" to go out in the Real World to actually apply all these "scientific" things that he learned in the ivory tower to the retail world. If you don't want to read the book, and I don't recommend that you ever do, this is essentially what it is:

'I mean, these retail simpletons were practically barring customers from their stores before I came on the scene! When I told them to get rid of the flaming spike viper pit in front of the cash registers and to move the Metamucil display from the volcano-based trapeze obstacle course to a middle shelf, sales went up three thousand percent, the store owners became billionaires, and they recommended my company, EnviroSell (tm), to all their friends. Ha, ha!'

Okay it's not that bad. Mostly. But that's the impression I got from Chapter 1 to the end. He does go through what retailers should know, and this book is ten years old. It's an interesting idea, and should have been a good book. Some retailers don't think about what would be easy for their customers, or who their customers really are, or what draws attention most effectively. But he presents this information as both a pool of knowledge only his company provides through the Miracles of Science, and also simple stuff that these stupid retailers should know, and rely on me, in my brilliance, to tell them for a fee. It doesn't work. Organizational, behavioral, cognitive, and linguistic psychology more than covers all of the "science" he trumpets as his own genius oeuvre that No One Else In The World thought of before he went corporate.

He does manage, in his headlong blind horror movie chase scene of a narrative pace, to accidentally step on some mundanely interesting insights. People watch you while you shop, locking things in glass cases hurts sales, people look at flashy things, customers like to do whatever's easiest, waiting in line feels longer than it actually is, parents will buy things to shut up their kids, women like to shop longer than men do, people fall for "deals," customers like interaction and information when making large purchases, and people like to pretend they aren't spending money. If this guy wasn't such a sad little goober, some of these insights, presented in a completely different way, and multiplied by about 17, would have made the book almost tolerable. I think he didn't quite get there.

If I needed one more thing to convince me that he's not some retailing psychology genius, his chapter on internet shopping (written in 2000), sealed it. Essentially this whole stores-using-internet-to-sell-stuff will never take off. People like being in stores too much. How can you replicate the shopping experience on a monitor with tiny images?

I want Roger Sterling to rough him up a bit, verbally.


Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency (Dirk Gently, #1)

I love me some Douglas Adams, and have been putting off reading the two Dirk Gently books because I've read the Hitchhiker series, I read Last Chance to See, I've read the Salmon of Doubt, and once these two books are done, I won't have any more of his books to read. That's one of the saddest thoughts on the planet - DNA has been unable to write more books for us for some time now due to the fact that he is dead.

Anyhow, I finally brought myself to read Dirk Gently's Holistic Detective Agency, and I won't tell you what it's about, or who Dirk Gently is. I didn't find out until nearly halfway through the book, so why spoil it for you? I'm still trying to figure out the ending (Spoiler Alert: it involves time travel), and the plot is complex enough to prompt you to begin reading it again as soon as you finish. Now I know where Chuck Palahniuk got it. Instead I will, in the rich tradition that has preceded me, give you funny quotes from the book that only someone as awesome as Douglas Adams could come up with.

"Two figures in particular seemed ill-matched. One, a young man, was tall, thin and angular; even muffled inside a heavy dark coat he walked a little like an affronted heron. The other was small, roundish, and moved with an ungainly restlessness, like a number of elderly squirrels trying to escape from a sack."

"Richard stood transfixed for moment or two, wiped his forehead again, and gently replaced the phone as if it were an injured hamster. His brain began to buzz gently and suck its thumb. Lots of little synapses deep inside his cerebral cortex all joined hands and started dancing around and singing nursery rhymes."

And just to prove that he's not just skilled with his sardonic wit rifle, he can also do grief, where this character reacts to the death of a family member:

"I'm sort of embarrassed by not having a reaction ready. Talking about it would be all right except that you have to use the past tense and that's what..."

I don't want to read The Long Dark Tea-Time of the Soul, because there won't be any more Douglas Adams to read after that. Maybe I'll reread Hitchhiker's next year.


The Elements of Cooking

The Elements of Cooking is an interesting almost-narrative glossary of most things you'd need to know to understand what a cook is talking about. I learned the definitions of lots of terms that you see on fancy menus (or hear thrown about on Top Chef or on food blogs), what beurre blanc and beurre rouge are and how to make them, and also how to make stock. We made a great deal of that using the Thanksgiving turkey, which was spectacular. I'd highly recommend this book for the non-cook, the cook, and he experienced, snooty cook.


Common Sense (Great Ideas)

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense at a time when essentially all governments in the history of the world had been monarchies, ruled by despotism, or small enough to be totally and functionally nonexistent at a societal level. His articulation of the injustice of hereditary monarchies, military dictatorships, and colonial rule (of white people) is brilliant and ... wait for it... revolutionary.

His reasoning is clear, concise, and absolutely correct. The examples he uses, which range from biblical stories to the political landscape of the 1770s are fitting when one considers that the only information most people had at the time was printed in a bible, printed in small newspapers, read to them from a bible, or told to them by people who had read newspapers. I didn't need the story of the Jews' choice of a king to show me that kings are bad, but when most people learned to read by their bibles, I'm sure it was a smart move.

What is hilarious is that the Glenn Becks of the world use Common Sense as a manifesto for the evils of government. Well yes, he does castigate monarchies pretty thoroughly, and with good reason. And yes, they are governments. Governments that overreach and are fundamentally unstable in a changing world. But Paine speaks with passion, reason, and vigor about the brilliance of an elected representative government. Democracy is good. That is his thesis. We still have a democracy, as do most "socialist" European countries. Therefore it's folly to interpret this brilliant long pamphlet is a conservative treatise that gives you proof that the Founding Fathers wouldn't like liberals.

Highly recommended if you haven't read before.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010


The Good Earth (House of Earth, #1)

Well, and I think that a review of The Good Earth needs to start with a "well, and" and end with a "well, now" because literally every other line of dialogue in this classic starts with one of those phrases. I assume it's a translation thing she was trying to get across, and I assume that she knew what she was talking about because she spent a good chunk of her life in rural China after having been born in West Virginia.

Anyhow, it's a classic, won a bunch of awards in the 30s and is seen as an accurate picture of Chinese rural life by much of the world. I'm not sure about that - it was interesting and it seems feasible she got the setting and customs right - but it was really a bildungsroman. For those who had to Google that, that means a coming-of-age story, but she really takes it into almost allegorical form by making it about all people (and by that she means men) and about all lives. Regrets, success, forgetting, making your mark, fear, the tenuousness of happiness, materialism - all of these are a part of Wang Lung's life.

(Spoiler alert.) He goes from poor farmer to happy poor farmer to farmer-ruined-by-drought to city beggar to extremely lucky draft-dodger to extremely lucky thief to wealthy farmer to wealthy landowner and happy old man. There are plenty of twists and turns in there for him, but that's his arc, and I was struck by how different his life would have been had he not lucked out and not come across a scared old rich guy carrying a lot of money. Buck tries to make it a story of success - poor farmer turns into the rich lord he once groveled before - but I just took the point that some people are lucky and some people are not. His hard work had very little to do with his later success.

And let's not get started on the famous misogyny - his wife and mistresses and daughters barely rate a mention, though his wife is one of the more admirable figures in literature. Maybe that's how Buck chose to make a feminist point - I sincerely hope so.

Well, now I really enjoyed it for the most part, I'm glad I read it.


Cat's Cradle

I love me some Vonnegut. Need to read more of him. Especially after reading Catch-22, this was the perfect springboard. Still absurdist and funny, but not repetitive. The plot is meandering, but it works perfectly. He starts looking into one of the creators of the atomic bomb, and then ends up with the scientist's children in a banana republic where the end of the world happens and he gains a new religion that someone made up a few decades ago. It does make more sense in Vonnegut's telling, but it's not supposed to. Quotes like this make me want to read more of his books:

"When we got into Dr. Breed's inner office, I attempted to put my thoughts in order for a sensible interview. I found that my mental health had not improved. And, when I started to ask Dr. Breed questions about the day of the bomb, I found that the public-relations centers of my brain had been suffocated by booze and burning cat fur. Every question I asked implied that the creators of the atomic bomb had been criminal accessories to murder most foul."

The book does meander and doesn't have a whole lot of focus, but it's still a fun ride.


Foundation (Foundation, #1)

Isaac Asimov enabled many of the science fiction books I've grown to love, so I had to try his most famous classic. It's barely science fiction - he wonders what would happen if social science advanced enough that it became predictive with enough complex math so that a "psychohistorian" could know what would happen in the future with only a few percentage points margin of error. The book is essentially five successive short stories exploring if Hari Seldon (a psychohistorian) made correct predictions about the downfall of a Galactic Empire. We follow various people that think he has, and find out how those predictions come to fruition.

I enjoyed the book for the most part, but could only do so in the context in which it was written - the 50s. Really interesting ideas, and the writing's actually pretty good. The sequels look very uninteresting to me, but I'm glad I read this. It's not for everyone. He doesn't describe very much, but then he wasn't really trying to in this book. It was mainly a way to explore this predictive history idea, and I'm sure in the 50s, that was a very alluring idea. I'd be curious about other titles of his that would be interesting in a more modern context.


Log of the S.S. the Mrs. Unguentine

From the jacket:

"Forty years ago I first linked up with Unguentine and we made love on twin-hulled catamarans, sails a-billow, bless the seas... So begins the courtship of a certain Unguentine to the woman we know only as Mrs. Unguentine, the chronicler of their sad, fantastical tale. For forty years, they sail the seas together, alone on a giant land-covered barge of their own devising. They tend their gardens, raise a child, invent an artificial forest--all the while steering clear of civilization. Log of the S.S. The Mrs Unguentine is a masterpiece of modern domestic life, a comic novel of closeness and difficulty, miscommunication and stubborn resolve. Rarely has a book so perfectly registered the secret solitude of marriage, how shared loneliness can result in a powerful bond."

This is a weird, short book about marriage. It's a bad marriage on the surface, but comfortable in its ways. It's told through allegory - this awesome fantastical barge that is essentially a steerable island. The lonesomeness of marriage is made physical, the focus on the day-to-day, the miscommunication, the love, the ability to ignore huge things to keep your existence moving forward. You're literally on an island, with the outside world nowhere to be seen, and your routine, though it changes, is what you rely on to keep your sanity. You pass notes to your spouse without talking to them, though you love each other. Sometimes when I'm working long hours at my job and barely see my wife except briefly at night and in the mornings, and mainly exchange information through email and IM, this portrait rings true. It took a few dozen pages to get used to the flow of the narrative, and then you're almost halfway done with the book. I think I'll be casting my memory back to this book for quite some time. Kudos.


The Poisonwood Bible

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. I'd thought The Poisonwood Bible was more about, say, the bible in Africa than about Africa dealing with those who love the bible. I was wrong - Kingsolver really did some research to be able to speak with such strong voices.

Missionary family goes to jungle in the 60s, reverend father is a little crazy and racist and a lot misogynistic and deluded. Wife is long-suffering and does her best, and the four girls are each a different take on the West's perception of Africa. From the privileged disdain to the scholarly study, and from the wholehearted acceptance to childlike wonder and immature misunderstanding. The story is actually quite interesting, and you find yourself relating to some of these voices as you go. The African characters become more developed as a few of the Price family allow themselves to get to know the natives. They do end up richer, but I wish they'd gotten even more so by the end. You learn a bit of the history of Belgian Congo/Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo. The view that the book tries to impart is not only how difficult it is to get to know the continent from the West, but how much daily life of regular people could care less about King Leopold, Lumumba, Mobutu as long as they are left alone and not oppressed.

I most identified with Adah, and in addition to her fun word games and brilliant observations, I thought this was interesting:

"When Albert Schweitzer walked into the jungle, bless his hear, he carried antibacterials and a potent, altogether new conviction that no one should die young. He meant to save every child, thinking Africa would then learn how to have fewer children. But when families have spent a million years making nine in the hope of saving one, they cannot stop making nine. Culture is a slingshot moved by the force of its past. When the strap lets go, what flies forward will not be family planning, it will be the small, hard head of a child. ... For every life saved by vaccination or food relief, one is lost to starvation and war. Poor Africa. No other continent has endured such an unspeakably bizarre combination of foreign thievery and foreign goodwill."

Monday, November 22, 2010


Naked Pictures of Famous People

Meh. I love me some Jon Stewart and Daily Show, and I love how his work over the last decade has become timeless. The Daily Show has a long shelf life. This book does not. I bought it in a bargain bin maybe eight years ago, and forgot about it. After the Rally To Restore Sanity, I thought I'd give this a try.

It's a bunch of short essays about pop culture of the late 90s, where Hanson Christmas cards detailing their decline, a Martha Stewart sendoff, and Princess Diana's immature letters to Mother Teresa all seem very dated. Somewhat "heh" but not enjoyable. The other pieces that are older (the secret Gerald Ford tapes, Hitler's Larry King Live interview, JFK's Jewish schoolboy chum's trip to the Kennedy Compound) should have more staying power but somehow don't.

I'm glad Jon Stewart is doing what he's doing now. We're all better off this way.

Thursday, November 18, 2010



Once again, in reading a classic, I can't really add anything worthwhile to the discussion of Catch-22. I enjoyed reading it on the whole, and appreciated its contradictory absurdist use of symbols to explain some of the problems of modern life. I liked how each character was a different symbol of absurdity: status, economics, greed, leadership, opportunity, violence, sex. I did think, however, that it could have been done in 100 less pages. If you want to know what Catch-22 is, here's the distillation:

"Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them."

Also, not that it necessarily was meant to be, but this is certainly not a feminist book. The women are there to serve functions for the men. It's set on an Army base, so it's somewhat predictable, but nonetheless disappointing.


What the Dog Saw and Other Adventures

Once again, Malcolm Gladwell releases a book, I read it, I like it a lot, and tell people about it. This one isn't even new material - just a collection of his New Yorker articles in book form. They're still fascinating. He looks into infomercials and Ron Popeil to explain sales and selling. Ketchup to explain taste and marketing. The Dog Whisperer to explain what animals see when they look at us. Birth control methods to explain reproductive cycles, historical change, and religion's effect on private matters. Mammograms and spy satellites to give context to supposedly foolproof methods of observation. Etc etc.

It doesn't have a central thesis like Tipping Point or Outliers did, but it's still fun and informative and challenges your brain. What more can you ask for?

Wednesday, November 17, 2010


Nightmares and Dreamscapes

I picked up this audiobook quickly at the library and decided to try it after seeing that a bunch of celebrities narrated each one - including Whoopi Goldberg, Lisa Simpson (the voice), Rob Lowe, Kathy Bates, and Tim Curry. What it took me a little longer to realize was that the book is actually 826 pages long. But I'd say it was worth it.

The stories ranged from a moving, alive finger sticking out of a bathroom sink drain that torments a husband, long-dead rock and roll legends that inhabit a rural town in Oregon, a mafia boss getting buried in his Cadillac for revenge from the perspective of the burier, and a nocturnal vampire aviation enthusiast.

I don't usually go for horror - I've read King's The Stand, which isn't really horror, and loved it. This year I read Richard Matheson's I Am Legend, which I enjoyed as well. I don't like horror movies - those tend to scare me after the movie stops. While the stories in this collection are scary and creepy and freaky, they're also well-written, engaging, funny, and smart. He does what he does as good as you can really expect. He's even able to talk about larger issues. Color me impressed.


The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World

I read A.J. Jacobs’ “A Year Of Living Biblically” last year, and judging by my review of it, it’s hard to imagine why I tried his other famous book. I thought his attempt to chronicle living by the words of the bible was a little juvenile and disappointing in its lack of historical analysis. I wanted to hear more about why things made their way into the bible, how people have interpreted it over the years, what it meant to him and people in our age. It ended up being a scattershot personal journey that was more about the importance of family than his intended subject matter.

This was also a lot more pop-psych than I would have hoped for. His “investigation” into what intelligence actually is amounts to various gestures toward common clich├ęs, rather than his opinion about what being smart means. As he reports on interesting bits from the encyclopedia, he goes for the quick yuk-yuk joke rather than absorb the info or tell you what he thinks it means. “Apparently, there’s a whole group of people – and by people I mean losers – who also comb the Britannica looking for mistakes.” Ha, ha! Ha! Sigh.

All this said, it borders on informative, and it sounds like a fun way to increase your understanding of the world. A survey course of existence, forcing you to know about things you’d never read about.

I did find the entry on Thomas Paine interesting enough to want to read more of his stuff, if only to have ammunition in a theoretical fight with a Tea Partier: “His ideas were solid – relief for the poor, pensions for the aged, public works for the unemployed, a progressive income tax. But in England, where he was living at the time, it got him charged with treason. Things worsened with he wrote another pamphlet attacking organized religion. Though he made clear in the pamphlet that he was a deist and believed in the Supreme Being, he still got charged with being an atheist.” Sounds like Glenn Beck hasn’t read Paine.

I did have to identify with Jacobs in this respect:

“I’m wondering if – to continue Ezekiel’s metaphor – I bit off more than I could chew when I announced this Britannica project to the world. Because I have to tell you, I’m not sure I can go on. I’m not sure I can hear another one of those tissue-thin pages crinkle while turning. Or see another black-and-white picture of an old man with elaborate facial hair. Or learn about the average cubic meters of water discharged by another African river. Or crack open another volume with a spine emblazoned with the Scottish thistle – a plant with sharp thorns that serves as Britannica’s weird-looking and aggressive logo. Why exactly did I think this was a good idea again?”

This book was also the last one I read on a Kindle - I'll post about my thoughts on e-readers soon.

Monday, November 15, 2010


In Me Own Words: The Autobiography of Bigfoot

This was recommended on a few lists that contained mostly grown-up books, and I understand why - but I wasn't expecting such a short book when I ordered it online. In Me Own Words isn't in any library system I belong to, so I had to try Amazon. It's supposed to be Bigfoot's tell-all autobiography. It's more of a short graphic novel with a lot more words than you'd think. "Me have opinion. What happen world me ask? Me once believe in good. Now, no. World go shit, just like bigfoot screenwriting career." It gets better and better, and the illustrations are funny and graphic and weird and not what you'd expect. Definitely recommended.


Born Standing Up: A Comic's Life

So far this year in books written by comedians, I've read Craig Ferguson's book "American on Purpose" and Bill Maher's book "New Rules." Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" is much more Ferguson's than Maher's. I truly enjoyed a thoughtful, sincere, and funny novel-length biographical essay on comedy. Martin's book doesn't try for laugh-out-loud moments, but manages to make you chuckle to yourself here and there, smile, and furrow your brow with "ahhhhhh" moments. His take on what comedy means is refreshing. He begins with a brief childhood sketch and then gets right into his career, education, and stand-up failure through success through departure to movies. I think this quote will illustrate what I liked best about the book:

"I recently viewed a musty video of an appearance on The Virginia Graham Show, circa 1970, unseen since its airing. I looked grotesque. I had a hairdo like a helmet, which I blow-dried to a puffy bouffant, for reasons I no longer understand. I wore a frock coat and a silk shirt, and my delivery was mannered, slow, and self-aware. I had absolutely no authority. After viewing the show, I was - especially since I was writing an autobiography documenting my success - depressed for a week. But later, searching my mind for at least one redeeming quality in the performance. I became aware that not one joke was normal, that even though I was the one who said the lines, I did not know what was coming next. The audience might have thought what I am thinking now: "Was that terrible? Or was it good?"

Tuesday, November 9, 2010


The Hunger Games (Hunger Games, #1)

I was not expecting to like Hunger Games - young adult books rarely satisfy me. But Collins' voice was intelligent and interesting, the story pulls you along from about page ten, you want to know exactly how far things will go, and what it all means. The meaning of this book has more to do with just how far voyeurism, reality entertainment, and exploitation will go. With these subjects it manages it does well. The larger political meaning I'm told will have to wait until books two and three - which makes me want to read them. I want to know what a post-second-civil-war-brought-on-by-resource-battles-and-regional-infighting United States looks like from another perspective than its cruel sacrificial exploitainment game system. Collins seems like she's got more to say and I'm willing to give it a shot.


The Wordy Shipmates

Sarah Vowell’s most recent book is The Wordy Shipmates, and I wanted to like it more than I did. It’s the story of the second wave of pilgrims/immigrants to Massachusetts in the 1600s. After the Mayflower landed, John Winthrop showed up with a dozen ships and became the first Governor of Massachusetts. I grew up playing the town of Winthrop in track and lacrosse, so I always find it fun to learn about the origins of Massachusetts names. Newton was a new town, Swampscott was… a swamp?

Anyhow, Vowell’s contention is that the pilgrims were nerdy religious types. When talking about how few books they were able to bring over, she says: “Winthrop and his shipmates and their children and their children’s children just wrote their own books and pretty much kept their noses in them up until the day God created the Red Sox.” Perfect.

She takes us through the voyage over from England, and this passage jumped out at me:

“To see a ship similar to the Arbella, you can go to Plymouth, Mass., and climb aboard the replica Mayflower II, which to me is a claustrophobic floating vomitorium I couldn’t stand to be on for more than nine minutes, much less nine weeks. (A replica Arbella was built for Massachusetts’ 300th anniversary in 1930; but, according to Francis Bremer, it ended up beached at Salem’s Pioneer Village and the city of Salem tore the thing down after it “became a haunt for youths indulging in various questionable activities.”

Sounds like the north-of-Boston suburbs I grew up getting to know. The book is interesting, and well-researched, but I found it dragged here and there. I liked Assassination Vacation better, which I absolutely did not expect. There’s a lot about the religious philosophy behind what drives these people, and though the colonists’ interactions with the Native Americans looms large in the narrative of the book, for some reason I thought those parts weren’t as interesting as they should have been. Though you can see the importance of these relationships and, knowing bits of the history that unfolds through the next few centuries, you have a sense of dread as alliances are made and broken. Your mind runs through possible alternative futures – how could America have developed in peace with the people who’d lived there for millennia? Would it have been possible? It must have been. What could they have done? Something. The book doesn’t talk about this at all (it’s not its bailiwick, so that’s fine), but I was hoping for a little more. My disappointment is only a 4 out of 5 kind – I did enjoy the book and learned a lot, and her voice is very enjoyable. Definitely recommended.


Silent Spring

Silent Spring is a classic, helped push the federal government to create the EPA, and was a large reason we finally banned DDT and other incredibly dangerous chemicals from agricultural and pesticide use. I admired her expert understanding of the science and how critical she saw the need to action to be. Good for someone in the environmental movement to read to know where most of everything came from.

The science she explains is so clear that it reminds me of the science behind the dangers of tobacco and greenhouse gases. The blowback she received from industrial interests reminds me of tobacco companies and fossil fuel interests. Definitely recommended.