Monday 24 November 2014

The Future of the Mind

Finished November 22
The Future of the Mind: the Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind by Michio Kaku

This book is wide-ranging in ints scope. It is organized into three main sections. The first section deals with understanding the mind. It looks at the mind and consciousness, exploring what we know about the mind and how we view consciousness.
The second section covers enhancing the mind, going beyond what is traditionally thought of. This covers using the mind to communicate (telepathy), using the mind to control matter (telekinesis), memory control and thought direction, and enhancing intelligence.
The third section covers empowerment. Topics including dreams, controlling what we think and how we use our mind, altered states of consciousness, artificial minds and the nature of them, the different projects now underway to reverse engineer the brain, what the future may hold for our understanding, enhancement and use of the mind, the mind as a form of energy, and alien minds and what they might look like,
There is also a short appendix on quantum consciousness, Kaku's own topic of research. The book includes a list of further reading suggestions as well.
There is a lot to think about here. I learned a lot and started thinking in new ways about some of these topics. The book is very well-written, and easy for a layman to understand.

Wednesday 19 November 2014

Dead Men

Finished November 18
Dead Men by Stephen Leather

This spy thriller centers around Spider Shepherd, an agent with SOCA, previously Special Forces. Shepherd specializes in going undercover, infiltrating himself into people`s lives and discovering the evidence needed to put them away. This case is a bit different.
Back in 1994, five masked men forced their way into the home of a RUC Special Branch officer in Belfast, and executed him in front of his wife and young son. Recently, under the Good Friday agreement, those who were in jail for this crime have been set free, and the one man who escaped overseas is back for his show trial that will have him serve no time for this crime. But one by one, the five men are being hunted down and executed, in exactly the same manner the RUC officer was killed.
Suspicion for this crime has fallen on the widow of the police officer, and Shepherd is being sent in to get close to her and learn whether she is the killer.
Meanwhile, a powerful man in the Arab world has been given information that says Shepherd`s boss Charlotte Button and an American agent, Yokely are responsible for the death of two of his sons. He has taken out a contract on them, and is willing to pay whatever it takes. Shepherd is brought into the picture on this situation and he finds it becoming personal. But he must find out just how far he is willing to go to protect Charlie and those he cares about.
This book is gripping, and has both action and sexual attraction going on. Shepherd is a man with a strong sense of ethics, and a character I liked immediately. A great addition to the spy thriller genre.

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Keep Quiet

Finished November 17
Keep Quiet by Lisa Scottoline, read by Ron Livingston

In this novel we have the point of view of Jake Buckman. Jake is a financial planner, and has his own business, one he developed a few years back when he lost his job. He's doing well, but he's spent a lot of time focusing on his work and no longer has a close relationship with his son Ryan. Ryan is on his high school basketball team, and also a good academic student. Jake's wife Pam is a judge, a self-described good girl, and the one who keeps her family on track. She has been encouraging Jake to make efforts to get closer to Ryan and so Jake is picking Ryan up at the local movie theatre where he has seen a movie with his friends.
Ryan has had his learner's permit for some time and begs Jake to let him drive the car when they get to a quiet road in an industrial area. Jake is reluctant as he knows the time of night means it is outside the rules for Ryan to drive, but gives in hoping to make a connection to his son.
But, distracted by their animated conversation, Ryan looks away from the road for seconds on a blind curve and all of their lives are changed forever. At first, although horrified, Jake tries to do the right thing in the circumstances, but then Ryan reveals another piece of information that causes Jake to make a terrible decision that he thinks will protect his son.
As Ryan and Jake try to cover up what happened that night and deal with their emotions around this terrible incident, their secret widens.
This is a story of well-meaning parents, trying to do the best by their kids, but reacting with emotions rather than thought. A story of the nature of guilt. A story of family dynamics and the dangers of the modern world.
I found the resolution to be a bit too nicely worked out and thus felt manipulated. Not one of her better reads for me. Not a bad read by any means, but just not one of her best.
I have seldom discussed the reader in audiobooks, a failing I will be trying to address more going forward. Here I found Livingston's reading too lacking in emotion for me, a bit flat. He read clearly and matter-of-factly, but his reading didn't add to the story in any way. It was right that it was a male reader given the point of view, but felt too controlled.
The cover art also leaves something to be desired, not reflecting the relationships between the family as described in the book at all. Even the height of the woman, presumably meant to be Pam, in relation to the man, presumably Jake, isn't right. Minor points perhaps, but I like to see a cover that gives an accurate feel for the book I'm reading.

Sunday 9 November 2014

Kilometer 99

Finished November 8
Kilometer 99 by Tyler McMahon

This novel is set in 2001 in El Salvador. Malia is from Hawaii, and after finishing her engineering degree she decided to see a bit of the world through volunteering in the Peace Corps. She has been in El Salvador working on an aqueduct project for the last couple of years. In January 2001, a devasting earthquake hits the country, and Malia's aqueduct is destroyed. After checking out her own home and the aqueduct, she heads inland to find her boyfriend Ben. Ben is also in the Peace Corps, He is from North Carolina and working on an agriculture project. Ben's house is destroyed, but he has not suffered major injuries. However, the emotional impact of the earthquake has Ben urging Malia to pull out of their Peace Corps work, and move forward with their plans to travel into South America surfing the coast as they go.
The two met through their Peace Corps affiliation and their love of surfing. Both have surfing experience from their home states, and the surfing conditions in the popular relaxation spot of La Libertad are good. While their projects have them living in separate villages at a distance from each other, they often meet up for weekends and holidays at La Libertad to surf.
Just after they resign from their Peace Corps work they are approached by another American, one who has plans for a resort at another surf spot nearby, Kilometer 99. We only know this man by the nickname he has been given locally, Pelochucho. A local crackhead and former surfer gives out nicknames for money. Malia is known as Chinita, and Ben as Chuck Norris. Malia isn't sure of the new American, but Ben convinces her that the money they get from the short-term work they will do for him will be very helpful for their travels, and won't delay their trip by much.
It is at this time that things start to fall apart. People get hurt, money and documents go missing, and bad decisions are made.
A good novel with an interesting storyline.

Serious Things

Finished November 8
Serious Things by Gregory Norminton

This novel jumps back and forth between two time periods, In the current time, Bruno Jackson is thirty-one, working for the Ministry of Transportation on road toll pricing policy. He is overweight, single, gay, and depressed. When he encounters his estranged best friend from his boarding school days, the guilt and sadness that he has been carrying for years are reawakened in him, and have devastating consequences.
In the early 1990s, when Bruno lived with his parents in Malaysia. As he entered high school, his parents decided to send him to a good boarding school in England to better prepare him for university. He is one of the few boys there who is a British expatriate, meaning that he isn't familiar with the same cultural knowledge as his peers. He is also shy, academically-inclined, and not athletic. He befriends another boy Anthony Blunden, whom he has a secret crush on. He and Anthony spend a lot of time together at school, but Anthony can often be cruel, and thoughtless in terms of how he treats Bruno. Both boys are taken under the wing of a new teacher at the school, Mr. Bridge, who shares his love of literature with the boys, bringing them for visits to his home, and encouraging their reading beyond the syllabus.
As the book jumps back and forth between "Now" and "Then", we gradually learn the story of Bruno's boarding school days, his friendship with Anthony, and the circumstances that drove Bruno to the life he is now living.
This is not a happy book, but it is a book that shows the power of influence and guilt. This would be a very good book for book clubs, offering much for discussion.

Durable Goods

Finished November 6
Durable Goods by Elizabeth Berg, performed by Natalie Ross

This short novel follows 12-year-old Katie as she goes about her life on an army base in Texas. While the novel doesn't say specifically when it is set, it has got a feel of the 1950s or 1960s about it. Katie lives with her older sister Diane, 18, and her father. Katie's mother died from cancer some years ago. While her father always had a violent streak to him, it seems to have gotten worse since her mother's death. Both girls try to avoid situations that set him off, but they often can't predict what will do so. Katie often hides under her bed, having imaginary conversations with her mother to figure out things in her life. Katie also has a good friend, seemingly her only real friend, next door in a girl slightly older than her, Cherylanne. Cherylanne's mother also plays a motherly role in Katie's life, often having her over for dinner.
Diane, in her last year of high school, and with a long-term boyfriend Dickie Mack, is starting to push back. When the girls are told that they will be moving again, Diane states her intention to finish her final year, of which only a few weeks are left here in Texas, staying with another family. This results in an eruption of her father's rage, and a change in the family dynamic. When Katie discovers that Diane has plans to run for Mexico with her boyfriend, she feels the pull to leave as well.
A moving book of a family struggling with the loss of a mother, and looking for new ways to move forward. The issue of domestic violence that is present here, isn't really addressed, but that also fits with the time period the book is set in.

Wednesday 5 November 2014

Year of No Sugar

Finished November 3
Year of No Sugar: a Memoir by Eve O. Schaub

This book came out of a blog that Eve wrote over the course of the year that she and her family tried to nearly eliminate sugar from their diet. She starts with information about how she was introduced to information about the dark side of sugar, and how it affects our bodies. She talks about how she and her husband planned ahead for the year, and how they introduced the concept to their two daughters.
The main body of the book deals with the experiences of the family over the year. Her older daughter Greta also kept a journal and some of her entries are included in the book as are a couple of thoughtful pieces by her husband. Eve talks about the difficulties of the task of eliminating sugar, discussing the pervasiveness of sugar in prepared foods, even those as basic as bread. She exposes the existence of sugar in foods one wouldn't have associated with the ingredient.
She talks about the interesting effects of nearly eliminating sugar on her and her family's bodies, their digestive systems, their sense of taste, and their reaction to sugar on those rare occasions when it is allowed. She particularly deals with the reactions of her children, eleven and six to this change in their diets, showing how they came up with a set of rules to follow, giving the children some slack, and the ability to make their own decisions in certain situations.
She also provides some recipes, learned through the trials and errors of finding new foods to fill the gaps left by sugar.
I found myself cleaning out my cupboards of those foods harbouring hidden sugar, of looking harder at labels when shopping for food, and finding that things in a large city a few years after her experience were somewhat easier. I easily found appetizing bread that didn't have sugar, pasta sauces, cereals, and canned soups. But sadly, even the organic, no preservatives bacon have sugar, and I do like the occasional glass of wine. So I don't think I will go to the extremes of her year, and even she didn't stay at that level after those first twelve months. But I will make more food from scratch, using healthy and local ingredients, and I will look more closely at labels, choosing those without sugar whenever I can.
This was an eye-opening book and provides a lot of useful information for those wishing to make a change for healthier eating.

Saturday 1 November 2014

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Finished October 31
The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski

It took me ages to read this book. I had it, along with several others, by the bed, and dipped into now and then. Because I had heard it described as a retelling of Hamlet, I had approached it with something like dread as I got further in, both wanting to read it but also not wanting to find out what happened to Edgar.
The prologue takes place in 1952 in South Korea where a man makes an exchange of a life-giving drug for one that takes life. We don't know who the man is.
The story then begins in 1919, starting with Edgar's grandfather, John, and his delivery of a puppy in exchange for another. After completing the exchange John was driving around the backroads and came across a farm for sale, was attracted by what he saw and bought it. John rented out the fields, got a job at the mill in town, and began to raise dogs. John and his wife Mary had two sons, very different from each other. One left, Claude, and one stayed and the son that stayed, Gar, was Edgar's father. Gar and his wife Trudy took on the business of raising the dogs, with Trudy taking on the majority of the training. Gar and Trudy wanted children, and after several disappointments finally had a son, Edgar, born in May 1958. But Edgar was born different, unable to make a noise, even able to cry as a normal baby. There appears to be no physical reason for his silence.
One of the dogs, Almondine was treated more as a pet, stayed with them in the house and grew up with Edgar. She is one of his earliest memories. There are chapters in the book from her voice, that I found some of the most moving chapters in the book.
Early in Edgar's life someone is brought into their lives that alerts Trudy and Gar to the potential of sign language for Edgar, and they beginning learning it so that they can teach him,
When Edgar is as tall as Trudy, Claude comes back into their lives. He was in the army but is out now and staying with them until he gets settled. But he and Gar don't get along, and by the time he leaves, the brothers are at odds with each other.
Edgar observes others closely and understands both people and dogs. As his life goes forward and things in his family change, he also finds himself frustrated by what is not within his ability to fix or control. It is here where I found myself reluctant to go on, both wanting to know and not wanting to know how things with Edgar would end in this novel.
A moving book, with wonderful writing.