Category Archives: Reviews

Review: The Methods of Breaking Bad

The Methods of Breaking Bad
edited by
Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood

Title: The Methods of Breaking Bad
Author: edited by Jacob Blevins and Dafydd Wood
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 9780786495788
Publisher: McFarland Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad is a central work in the recent renaissance in television-making.  … This collection of new essays focuses on a variety of themes.
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

As a writer, I found Breaking Bad a ripping good story.  Which, in my vernacular means asking, “What happens next?”  And that was my reaction to Breaking Bad a lot.  Digging into the themes and subtext has helped deepen my understanding of writing as a craft, and of Vince Gilligan’s brilliance as a story-teller.  Not to mention Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the fascinatingly unlikable Walter White.

Breaking Bad is a work that facilitates, perhaps even makes possible, a dialogue about aesthetic, philosophical, psychological, and ethical elements in our culture in a way we have yet to see in television.  (p. 7)

The essays written by academics in The Methods of Breaking Bad focus on the ways in which the story is told.  I found it invigorating, inspiring and, more than a little intimidating.  At best, I am casual viewer, reviewer and writer.  One can only go so far on one’s own.

Miguel E. H. Santos-Neves’ essay, “Our ‘word … is half someone else’s’:  Walt and the Literary Echoes of Whitman” focuses on the purpose of Walt Whitman’s “Learn’d Astronomer” in Breaking Bad.  In larger context, Santos-Neves makes the point that unlike the insular community of a story like The Sopranos, the literary allusions in Walter White’s world point to something less constrained,  the entire world.  Bonus points for making me finally read Whitman.

Not many of the characters in Breaking Bad were likeable.  Most were downright loathsome, yet viewers returned episode after episode, hanging on every twist and turn.  Aside from Jesse Pinkman (Walter’s sidekick), and Mike (played so well by the always excellent Jonathan Banks) who had his own sense of honor, there was no one I liked.

Giving Skyler White short shrift was quite in vogue at the time.   After reading Rebecca Price Wood’s “Breaking Bad Stereotypes about Postpartum:  A Case for Skyler White,” I reconsidered.  Price Wood’s thesis that Skyler’s behavior was exacerbated by being pregnant for most of the series, and giving birth to beautiful Holly resonated.  Surviving in Walt’s world would be harrowing for any woman.  Trying to maintain sanity while pregnant and being mother to Flynn, who has cerebral palsy, would be damned near impossible.  And that’s where Skyler finds herself.  I still don’t like Skyler, but I do have more sympathy for her based on Price Wood’s essay.

The most fascinating essay for me was Neil Connelly’s “What Writers Can Learn From Breaking Bad:  The Risks and Rewards of Deliberate Disorientation.”  His comparison of Gilligan’s story telling style to that used by Toni Morrison in Beloved is what drove me to read it finally.

Above all else perhaps, the reader must trust the writer, must feel like an intentional master plan is being unveiled, must sense that her efforts are being rewarded with additional knowledge and understanding.  (p. 49)

That was one of my aha! moments.  As was the ensuing discussion of how disorientation is used to great effect.  Gilligan’s skill forces us to trust he’s leading somewhere, and that we will understand when we get there.  From the iconic opening scene of the RV roaring down the dirt road and a pair of khakis flying out the window to Walter’s death at his own hands, the viewer wonders “What is going on?” Followed at some later point by, “Oh!  That’s what was going on!”

Reading Connelly’s essay helped me understand that disorientation was one of the most appealing things about Breaking Bad‘s story.  Gilligan made me pay attention, and since the payoffs came frequently enough to help me understand the story at a deeper level, I came to trust the story was leading me somewhere interesting.

Overall, The Methods of Breaking Bad, led me to enjoy the show on a deeper level.  As a creative person, the collection of essays gave me much to ponder about craft and style.  Not a bad use of time, if you ask me.

Review: A Well Behaved Woman

A Well-Behaved Woman by Therese Anne Fowler

Title:  A Well-Behaved Woman
Author:  Therese Anne Fowler
Twitter:  ThereseFowler
Published:  2018
ISBN-13:  978-1250095473
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press
Publisher’s Blurb:   The riveting novel of iron-willed Alva Vanderbilt and her illustrious family in as they rule Gilded-Age New York, from the New York Times bestselling author of Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald.

 

Nancy Pearl has a the rule of 50.  I have the rule of 100.  Especially when a publisher is gracious enough to give me a free copy to read.  I just couldn’t make it past 115.

Any sympathy I might have had for Alva Vanderbilt, and the plight of women in the Gilded age just went out the window.  We are supposed to sympathize with this girl from the South whose family has fallen onto hard times so she marries into the Vanderbilts.

I tried, really I did.  As a historian, I know it’s unfair to impose contemporary standards onto ages long gone.  And i do sympathize that for women there was so little agency that marrying into a wealthy family, and gaining social status, was of the difference between a death from poverty, or living.

But honestly, Alva was so dull.  And everyone in society so mean and cruel.  And William was just one-dimensional.  And the descriptions of the unseemly wealth and how it was spent ….

I am sorry Therese Anne Fowler, St. Martin’s Press and NetGalley that I can’t give a better review of this book.  Thank you so much for providing me with the opportunity to try.

 

Review: Where Wizards Stay Up Late

Where Wizards Stay Up Late by Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon

Title: Where Wizards Stay Up Late
Author: Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon
Twitter: @KatieHafner
Published: 1996
ISBN-13: 9780684832678
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Publisher’s Blurb: Twenty five years ago, it didn’t exist.
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

DARPA had set out to link the core processing capabilities in America’s top computer science research centers … (p. 232)

The romance of the Net came not from how it was built or how it worked but from how it was used.  (p. 218)

You know I’m old when I say there was a time in my life when I didn’t know what a computer really was, and I’d never heard of the internet or the World Wide Web.  Really.  Phones were attached to walls then too.

In 1984 I moved from Texas to Silicon Valley with my then boyfriend who had a newly minted degree in Computer Science and a job at a company which made disc duplicators.

I had no idea what I was in for.  The Selectric III was the height of fashion for secretaries at the time, and I loved mine.   But because I lived with a geek, the culture seeped in.  We had multiple phone lines, various computers and modems, and … well, the rest is history, so to speak.

As I write this, I work at the Computer History Museum and am surrounded by the internet.  It’s the best place I’ve ever worked.

Katie Hafner and Matthew Lyon’s book Where Wizards Stay Up Late takes the reader through the history of the Internet.  From the wild and wooly days of ARPA, whose IPTO  was charged with developing a way for academic computers to link together allowing for sharing of information over AT&T’s phone line.

The birth of what became the internet was four enormous computers in Santa Barbara, Menlo Park, CA, Boston, and Salt Lake City, Utah.  And what an effort it took to figure out how to do that.  No one knew what they were doing, it had to be developed from scratch.

While Hafner & Lyon lay out the history, this book is not highly readable for someone who isn’t either a history nut (me) or a computer geek (partly me).  It gets technical, which is fascinating if you’re someone whose been around the lingo for almost 30 years (also me).  It reads a lot like a text book.

One of the oddities was the condescending manner in which things like “kludge” were explained, but more technical terms and phrases were often unexplained.  It was like reading a book for adults, and then finding something directed at children randomly inserted.

I like my reading to be aimed at intelligent adults, not someone who hasn’t learned to tie their shoes yet.

The end felt rushed, as though the authors realized they were running out of time and needed to pick up the pace.  As with all things computer history related, there’s a complex story to tell.  In trying to simplify the story enough to tell in one short book, Hafner and Lyon shortchanged their readers.

In other words, it’s an okay book.  But just okay.

Review: The Inkblots

The Inkblots
by
Damion Searls

Title: The Inkblots
Author:  Damion Searls
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780804136563
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publisher’s Blurb:  The captivating, untold story of Hermann Rorschach and his famous inkblot test.
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

[Rorschach] wanted to do more than treat patients:  he wanted to bring culture and psychology together to explore the nature and meaning of individual and communal belief. (p. 91)

Ten inkblots.  That’s all there are.  Just ten cards with carefully thought out art in which can be found the meaning of the innermost workings of a human mind.  There’s no right, or wrong, answer.  Merely interpretation.

Rorschach’s carefully developed test remains controversial, its use hotly debated in psychology circles.  Interpretation is key, but which method?  Its usefulness as diagnostic tool is not without debate as well.

Hermann Rorschach was working towards a tool which would help psychiatrists know how to help their patients get better.  Unfortunately, Rorschach died at the age of 37, not quite convinced his test was as finely tuned as it should be.

Damion Searls tells the story of this remarkable Swiss doctor/artist who yearned for a more holistic approach to patient care at the sanitarium for which he worked and did research.  It was his hope that his inkblots, with careful diagnostics, would be one of the tools used for better care.

As someone who worked in the Ph.D. program for psychology at a small university, I’ve been exposed to the foibles of both students and faculty who think they have much to prove.  Both to themselves and to each other.  I can now be amused at the memories, at the time it was just downright painful to be in the middle of it.

And yet, Searls’ story reminded me of what we’re all up against, psychologists and laypeople alike.  There’s a lot at stake for potential caregivers and their patients, and an overwhelming abundance of tools available.  It’s no surprise that passions flare and boil over.  Its understandable to some extent.  This is not to say egos don’t come into play.  I’ve encountered more than one “celebrity” psychologist who turned out to be a complete douche in need of some careful handling themselves.

Searls reminds me that despite all the posturing and arguing, there are people like Hermann Rorshach who are genuinely kind and caring, searching for ways to better help those under their care.  Inkblots gave me real insight into the struggle of early psychoanalysts to find footing in their new field.  Rorshach was among the pioneers, and his test has proven to be a useful tool for those who are careful with it.

Damion Searls has written the only biography of Hermann Rorschach and it’s worth reading if you’ve any interest in what makes people tick.

I received a free copy of The Inkblots as part of the Blogging for Books program.

Review: Second Street Station & Brooklyn on Fire

 

Second Street Station
by
Lawrence H. Levy

Brooklyn on Fire
by
Lawrence H. Levy
Title: Second Street Station
Author: Lawrence H. Levy
Published: 2015
ISBN-13: 9780553418927
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publisher’s Blurb
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Title: Brooklyn on Fire
Author: Lawrence H. Levy
Published: 2016
ISBN-13: 9780553418941
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publisher’s Blurb
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

“She had a magnetic aura about her, fueled by her strong spirit and her unquenchable thirst for knowledge, that only those purely interested in the superficial could possibly miss. (p. 12)

 

I enjoyed the trilogy of Mary Handley books (Last Stop in Brooklyn being the third) as light afternoon reads, and recommend them to those looking for something slight to read.

Mary is meant to be a novelty, the tough and independent, outspoken women who dreams only of being a detective.  And she isnovel, but the constant bickering with her mother over getting married wears quickly.  Hopping into bed with men she’s romantically involved with may not be shocking to contemporary readers, but it doesn’t fit well with the character we are meant to admire.  The way Levy handles makes it seem forced.  As though this is how he proves to his readers Mary truly is a novelty in this era.

She can often be coarse, without needing to be.  And she almost always rubs men the wrong way, even those she winds up engaged to.  I often wonder what sort of research writers do to prepare themselves for writing protagonists of the opposite sex.  Mary Handley is Levy’s conception of what a smart, independent woman should be.  But he gives her traits which feel forced.

In Brooklyn on Fire, it’s her romance with George Vanderbilt which feels forced.  To me, all the romances in these books feel forced.  It’s like Levy wants her to be non-traditional, but not too non-traditional.  The text clunks a bit from one plot point to the next, often telegraphing what’s coming.

And yet, Mary is fun to follow.  As are the power mongers just waiting to get their comeuppance by the brains of this extraordinary woman.  The history is fun too.  Best not to take these books too seriously and just go along for the ride.

Review: Last Stop in Brooklyn

Last Stop in Brooklyn
by
Lawrence H. Levy

Title: Last Stop in Brooklyn
Author: Lawrence H. Levy
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780451498441
Publisher: Broadway Books
Publisher’s Blurb
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

“Coney Island,” Lazlo remarked.  “It’s where intelligence and human decency go to die.”  (p30)

The third in the Mary Handley series.  By chapter 3 I knew I needed to get the first two, it’s that entertaining.  Fortunately, one doesn’t need to have read the first books to keep up with the plot of Last Stop in Brooklyn.

Mary Handley, Victorian era detective in Brooklyn, breaks all the stereotypical rules about how women should behave.  As her mother frequently reminds her, nice women get married and have a family.  They don’t traipse around Brooklyn as private detectives, solving crimes and speaking her mind to the Manhattan rich.

It starts simply as a case of possible adultery.  A friend of her mother’s son is concerned that his wife is cheating on him.  Using familial pressure, Elizabeth convinces Mary to take the case.  Which leads her to Coney Island, the last stop on the train in Brooklyn.

In her ten days of following Colleen Murphy, Mary notices that she too is being followed and confronts her tail.  Who, it turns out, is the brother of a man wrongly convicted of killing a prostitute in a similar fashion to Jack the Ripper.

Mary agrees to take on the case which leads her through New York police department corruption fed by money from the rich and powerful who run the stock market like Jay Gould, Andrew Carnegie and John Rockefeller.

Mary’s quest to prove Colleen’s infidelity (or not), and Ameer Ben Ali’s innocence takes her to the seedier part of Coney Island where racism, sexism, and violence live cheek by jowl, rarely noticed but ever-present.

My favorite kind of books are the kind which entwine history with fictive, but believable, history.  Levy does not disappoint in this regard.  However, I did find the plot wandered as though Levy were trying to get his bearings, or to fit too much in before then end.  And there were a few times when I was shocked out of the story by Mary’s profane language, and actions which didn’t seem to fit her character or the times.

Despite that, I’d gladly spend another day reading the further adventures of Mary Handley.

I received a free copy of Last Stop in Brooklyn as part of the Blogging for Books program.

Review: The Imagineers of War

Imagineers of War
by
Sharon Weinberger

Title: The Imagineers of War
Author: Sharon Weinberger
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 9780385351799
Publisher: Knopf
Publisher’s Blurb
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture
Signature page

[The space race] was always a race, but one in which the United States assumed it had a natural advantage.  The Soviet Union could not produce a decent automobile; how could it possibly hope to best the United States in rocket science?  (p. 31)

Since finishing Sharon Weinberger’s superbly researched book, The Imagineers of War, I find myself coming up short in how to describe it, much less review it.  When talking to friends about it, all I can say is, “Those people are crazy!”

ARPA was founded in 1958 with a mission of creating “the unimagined weapons of the future.”  Originally meant to beat the Soviets into space, ARPA had an unlimited budget, prestige in the Pentagon, and became a magnet for every wacky idea to come along.

The space race went to NASA, formed a year later, and weaponry became DARPA’s focus.  Nearly anyone with an idea could get through the doors to make a pitch.

One of my favorites is Ronald Reagan’s version of Star Wars, a network of missiles in space meant to stop incoming bombs.  Only, Reagan was never supposed to hear about it or take it seriously.  To say Star Wars was flawed in concept would be an understatement of massive proportions.  A lot of DARPA’s ideas made me wince and wonder how anyone thought that was a good idea.

Another interesting one was making a sort of mechanical elephant tall enough to carry supplies and personnel through the Vietnamese jungles.  It never got off the drawing boards.  That it got on the drawing boards leaves me in awe.

And then there are the little details that give me an unfair advantage on trivia nights.  That is, if trivia nights focused on weird historic stories.  In this case, it’s the story of how Agent Orange, the defoliant used to burn the jungles – and everything else – in Vietnam down.  The dangerous effects of this herbicide reverberate even now, over 50 years since its use was implemented.

The men at DARPA were so bent on stopping Communism in its tracks and making it easier for US troops to fight, they lost sight of the costs in terms of civilians in surrounding villages, and their food supplies.  A variety of chemical experiments were made all code-named Agent [some color].  They worked their way through the alphabet until Agent Orange proved to be the one that worked.

There were the experiments with psychic abilities and ways to weaponize them.  I couldn’t help thinking of the 2009 George Clooney movie, Men Who Stare at Goats

Outlandish ideas aside, this is the agency that gave us drones and the Internet.  But Imagineers of War is more than a recitation of outlandish ideas, it delves into the politics of various administrations, the Pentagon, NASA, the armed forces and this not so little mysterious agency doing things no one, not even DARPA, completely understood.

The men and, much later, women of DARPA have a vague mission.  To think up and develop weapons of the future to find the enemy and kill it.  It’s easy to understand the inter-agency contests that have arisen since the very beginning.

Weinberger puts this all into context.  The outlandish ideas, the political infighting, the successes and failures, set against the backdrop of impending disaster, imagined and otherwise.  She sets the context of the times with care.  From the Space Race to the Cold War to Vietnam and beyond, Sharon Weinberger tells us why DARPA was created and why even the most outlandish ideas were taken seriously.

Yes, these people were crazy.  But they’re the ones charged with visualizing how to keep us safe from a world that’s crazy.  They may be crackpots, but they’re our crackpots doing their best to imagine a crazy future.

Review: Spinfluence

Spinfluence
by
Nicholas McFarlane

Title: Spinfluence
Author: Nick McFarlane
Published: 2013
ISBN-13: 978-1-908211-11-8
Publisher: Carpet Bombing Culture
Twitter: @NickMcFarlane76

What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

Publisher’s Blurb

…social media in particular, [is] providing new and exciting methods of harnessing the herd.

Picked up on a lark at a museum gift shop.  The artwork appealed and I could smell the irony as I flipped through the pages.

It’s a not so ironic take on how propaganda has been working on contemporary society.  It’s painfully right.  I wanted to rebel at the language which placed the 1% as w.o.l.fs (Wardens of Language & Falsities) and the working class as c.o.w.s. (Corporate Owned Wage Slaves).

Given the roots of anger in the fight wing of the fight-or-flight response, it is no surprise … that a universal trigger for anger is the sense of being endangered.  Endangerment can be signalled not just by an outright physical threat but also, as is more often the case, by a symbolic threat to self-esteem or dignity: being treated unjustly or rudely, being insulted or demeaned, being frustrated in pursuit of an important goal.

It’s chilling, and at the same time, funny.  Chilling because the quotes from Hitler’s Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels still apply.  Funny because … well .. what isn’t funny about a picture of the cow in a business suit?

And then, the final sealed chapter arrives.  And there, literally in black and white, are the instructions to recognizing and overcoming the Hardcore Propaganda Machine.  The truth appears, and it is simple, if only we pay attention to the lessons of the manual and do the exact opposite.

We need more agitators like Nick McFarlane to show us how we got lost and how to stir things up to get back on track.  For that I am scared, and grateful.

Review: The Last Girl

#ReadingIsResistance

The Last Girl
by Nadia Murad

Title: The Last Girl
Author: Nadia Murad
Published: 2017
ISBN-13: 978-1-5247-6043-4
Publisher: Tim Duggan Books
Twitter: @NadiaMuradPeace
What’s Auntie Reading Now? picture

Publisher’s Blurb

Yazidis believe that before God made man, he created seven divine beings, often called angels, who were manifestations of himself. (p. 27)

#ReadingIsResistance to ignoring the call of bearing witness to the atrocities of the world.  Resistance to becoming complacent in our corner of the world while those around us suffer in unimaginable ways.

I expected to struggle with the content of this book.  I expected it would be hard for me to read about Nadia Murad’s horrifying experience at the hands of ISIS.  I did not expect The Last Girl to be fascinating and easy to read.

Imagine you’re a 21 year-old-woman living in a community where everyone is loved and cared for.  Things are not easy, but everyone gets by and helps each other.  The village in which you live is the only one you’ve known, and your dream is to teach history or do make up for others.  It’s all you know, and it makes you happy.

One day, all of this is torn apart and the life you once knew no longer exists.  ISIS, the most hated terrorist group in the entire world, comes to your part of Iraq and lays waste to everyone you ever held dear.  All the men are rounded up and killed.  A few escape, but not many.   All the women, girls and boys are rounded up in the school house.  These women and girls are sorted into two categories, house slaves and sex slaves.  The boys are sent to camps where they are brainwashed and become fighters for ISIS.

This is Nadia’s story.  And it happened because she is Yazidi, a religion not recognized by the fanatics of ISIS.  There is no tolerance for something different.  Different is “other,” and “other” is not human and can therefore be treated in abhorrent fashion.

For a month, she was passed around between men who raped her repeatedly, grew tired of her, and sent her to another man.  There is no sugar-coating this, no way to make it easy to take.  Nadia Murad’s memoir makes sure the reader understands exactly what happened to her, and girls like her, in state-sponsored genocide of the Yazidi people.

Murad was a “lucky” one.  She escaped and was helped across the border into Kurdistan where she was reunited with the few remaining members of her family.  There, she realized she needed to tell her story.  She’s gone from someone who had never seen an airplane to flying all over the world relating the horrors all Yazidi suffered at the hands of ISIS.

The Last Girl is a powerful book, and I’m glad to have been able to bear witness to Nadia Murad’s story, and her drive to help others become aware of, and stop such horrifying atrocities around the globe.  I, too, hope that she is “the last girl in the world with a story like [hers].”  (p. 308)

I received a free copy of The Last Girl as part of the Blogging for Books program. In return, this is my honest review.

 

#readingisresistance is a collaboration between readers and book bloggers who believe in the activism of reading; especially in the current political climate. Reading enriches, teaches, and allows us to experience the lives of others. It leads us to understanding. It forces us to confront the hard questions, and asks us to engage with the world in a way which leads to change. Join the resistance, read.

2017 Reading in Review

Everyone’s got one.  This is my reading year in review.

Total read:  23
Total acquired:  56
Number of pages read:  5906
Publishing year count:  15 unique years
Author Count:  21 unique authors (7 women)

Favorites: (in no particular order)
(Links to 7Stillwell reviews or What’s Auntie Reading Now? photos)

New (to me) authors I want to read more of:
Pat Conroy
Andrew Smith
Vivek Shanbhag
Tobias Buckell
Elizabeth Bear
Banana Yoshimoto