Book Review: A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, Stacy Bierlein (2012)

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012

Enjoy it: poolside with a glass of wine and your BFF.

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I don’t always read fiction – but when I do, I almost always read science fiction and horror. (Think: Margaret Atwood, Maureen F. McHugh, Philip Pullman, and Stephen King.) Stacy Bierlein’s A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends, then, is well outside my comfort zone. I requested it through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, thinking it would make for light, entertaining summer reading. Spoiler alert! I won it, and it did.

The common thread linking the fourteen essays in this anthology is, ostensibly, sex and relationships. However, these also function as a jumping-off points from which to explore a variety of other topics, such as loss, grief, friendship, and self-expression. (As elucidated by the author in the Reader’s Guide, which is primarily comprised of an interview with Bierlein.) With the sole exception of “Ten Reasons Not to Sleep with a Poet,” I found all the stories enjoyable. “Three Naked Men,” “Linguistics,” and “Where it Starts” in particular are standouts. (I quite liked the reverse timeline in “Where it Starts,” even if it proved confusing at first. Bierlein describes herself as someone who “write[s] and think[s] in fragments” – and the nonlinear quality these stories is part of their charm, I think.)

Even so, I had trouble relating to many of Bierlein’s characters, all of whom tend to be heterosexual, cissexual, middle- to upper-class (many with seemingly unlimited disposable income, and residing in large cities on the East or West coast), and (apparently) white. This lack of diversity will no doubt turn some readers off.

Bonus points because: Bierlein self-identifies as a feminist.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

DVD Review: Kathy Smith – Kickboxing Workout (1999)

Sunday, March 4th, 2012

A great workout for beginners – but beware the Challenge workout, it’s a rip-off.

four out of five stars

I picked up a copy of Kathy Smith’s Kickboxing Workout on DVD a few months ago. Though I used to do Tae Bo religiously, my cardio routine fell by the wayside when we moved into a new house and [insert excuse after excuse here; reason #1 being that our new home has all-concrete floors and it took us a few months to outfit the gym with an appropriate mat]. Anyway, when I vowed to start back up again, I quickly decided against resuming Tae Bo. What with its quick switches between moves, sometimes confusing instructions, and uneven editing, I suspect that Tae Bo was a little too rough on my knees and ankles. Instead, I thought I might check out Kathy Smith’s workout; I have some of her other videos, including a few light weight workouts, and enjoy them…well, as much as one can enjoy an exercise DVD.

Kathy Smith’s Kickboxing Workout is just what I needed – an excellent workout for beginners. If you’re new to cardio and/or kickboxing, the 45-minute Basic workout is challenging but not impossibly so. Smith starts with a slow warm up, leads you into a moderately-paced workout (roughly 20 minutes in length), and then cools things down with a short “buns and thighs kicking drills” segment, followed by a “cool down stretch” and an “abs and back strengthening” workout. The run time is just over 45 minutes. I have a few minor quibbles – for example, switching or adding moves in the middle of a routine, which seems to me a no-no for beginners – but nothing out of the ordinary. Overall, it’s great.

If you’re expecting a more difficult routine from the 55-minute Challenge workout, forget it. Instead of putting together an entirely new routine for more experienced students – which is what I expected – Smith just adds two extra segments to the Basic workout and calls it a “Challenge.” Keith Cooke leads the added ten minutes of footage, which is divided into two segments: “Kickboxing Stances” (a review of the postures, which can hardly be called “challenging”) and “Challenge” (a few new combinations, again not super-difficult or especially intense). As much as I love the Basic workout, I’m super-disappointed in the Challenge; whereas I thought this might be a new routine I could move onto once I’d mastered the Basic workout, it’s really just more of the same. Increased difficulty isn’t just about endurance, but intensity too. 4/5 stars, with a point lost for the “Challenge” half of this DVD.

Also, can the class please stop wearing baggy pants? I need to see what your legs are doing! kthnxbai.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Product Review: Panasonic Wet/Dry Shaver

Saturday, March 3rd, 2012

An okay shave, but the charger design is a disaster.

one out of five stars

I was upgraded to this model (Panasonic ES2216PC Close Curves Wet/Dry Ladies Shaver with Bikini Attachment, Mauve) a few years ago, after my old Panasonic shaver died and the company proved unable to repair it. The razor works okay, as far as electric shavers go. Naturally, the shave isn’t anywhere near as close as with a disposable razor, but that’s to be expected. As with other electric razors I’ve tried, I usually have to go over an area several times to get all the hairs, and every time I’ve used it on my underarms, I’ve ended up with razor burn. I’ve never used it in the shower, but in dry conditions it’s somewhat comfortable and easy to operate and maintain. Not the best shaver I’ve ever tried – that distinction goes to my husband’s Norelco 5603x, much to his chagrin – but not the worst, either. In terms of function, I give it a 3/5.

That said, somewhere between this and my old model, Pansonic decided to replace the cord charger with a wall-mounted unit. Perhaps they thought this a sleeker design that takes up less counter space? However, the wall unit makes it difficult to charge the razor in tight spaces. For example, the outlet over my bathroom counter sits right under a windowsill; the lack of vertical space renders it useless for charging the Panasonic 2216. Worse still, over time the charger has ceased working altogether. Because the razor is top-heavy and curves slightly outward, it pulls forward, away from the wall – and off the base of the charger. With normal use, the connection between the razor and charger has loosened to the point that I can no longer force the razor to stand upright on its base.

[Updated to add: To wit:

2012-06-28 - Crappy Razor Charger - 0003 2012-06-28 - Crappy Razor Charger - 0004

Notice how the razor will only stand straight on its charger if I hold it there? Thanks, but no.]

Charging became intermittent and then stopped altogether. I haven’t been able to charge it in months. I hate to get rid of it, since it isn’t broken or anything – but unless Panasonic releases a replacement cord charger, it’s as good as useless.

(This review was originally published on Amazon. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: With Liberty and Justice for Some, Glenn Greenwald (2011)

Saturday, January 21st, 2012

A must read for anyone who professes to care about “democracy.”

five out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

If you read just one book in 2012, let Glenn Greenwald’s With Liberty and Justice for Some be it. (But really, please read more than one book this year. Reading is the best!)

Greenwald – a political columnist for Salon who previously worked as an attorney specializing in constitutional and civil rights issues – shows how, over the past several decades, the legal system has been bent, twisted, abused, and exploited to serve the interests of the privileged few at the expense of the many. Beginning with the Watergate scandal, he traces the evolution (or devolution, as it were) of “elite immunity,” an increasingly accepted principle which holds that some people – and companies – are too large, too important, too powerful to be made to follow the same rules as the rest of us. While this exception initially only applied to those in the highest levels of government, it’s gradually expanded to encompass government officials at the federal, state, and local levels, as well as large corporations and their earthly representatives. Thus, the law – meant to be the great equalizer (of white, cissexual, Christian men … and, eventually all American citizens) – instead works to perpetuate inequities in all realms of life.

In his discussion of elite immunity, Greenwald explores the idea through the use of two recent examples: the so-called “war on terror” (particularly the use of torture) and the financial crisis (including the fraudulent business practices that contributed to it). However, examples of elite immunity can be found far and wide: companies flout environmental regulations, face no criminal penalties for doing so – and, to add insult to injury, taxpayers foot the bill for cleanup. (That is, if the mess is even cleaned up.) Animal ag ignores the paltry animal welfare laws that exist, and are lauded for their “good” (read: profitable) business practices. (All while receiving handouts from the taxpayers in the form of subsidies and complimentary “pest” control programs, such as plans to wipe out wolves who dare dine on cows.) Police officers assault largely nonviolent Occupy protestors, in some cases forcibly holding their eyes open so that they can harm them with pepper spray, and no one but the occasional scapegoat is held accountable. (Of course, police brutality is nothing new; men and women of color, trans* people, sex workers, the homeless, those with mental and physical disabilities – all have been and continue to be targets of police abuse, with little hope of recourse from our legal system.)

Normally this is where I’d include a few excerpts or choice facts – but it’s difficult to quote any one passage, because it’s all compelling. (Insert the rage comic “I’ll highlight all the important parts.” / “IT’S ALL IMPORTANT.” here.) Really, if you’re even the least bit interested in politics, justice, or democracy, With Liberty and Justice for Some is a must read.

My only complaint is that, after working the reader into a frenzy of fury-slash-depression, Greenwald doesn’t so much as hint at a how we might go about fixing this mess. Granted, any solutions are likely to be complicated and multifacted and require more than a chapter (or even a book) to adequately explain, but just a taste of hope and optimism would be nice. Personally, I wish he’d touched upon electoral reform – particularly the public financing of elections – as a start, but I’m also curious as to what he’d suggest. Ah well, next book perhaps?

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: The Believing Brain, Michael Shermer (2011)

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

We Want to Believe!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I requested a copy of Michael Shermer’s The Believing Brain through Library Thing’s Earlier Reviewer program on behalf of my husband, who – as a fellow libertarian skeptic – is a huge fan of Shermer’s work. (I’m also a skeptic and an atheist, but economically liberal – so still a fan, but not nearly as much as he!) In addition to owning most of Shermer’s books, he even had the good fortune to interview Shermer for his podcast, The Libertarian Dime, a few years back (during the Amazing Meeting, natch!). So he was rather enthusiastic when we snagged a review copy and it arrived in the mail a few weeks later. Busy as he was at work, it then sat around for a few months, gathering dust, until I finally picked it up and started leafing through…and quickly became engrossed.

The basic premise of The Believing Brain is that people form beliefs, and then the explanations for these beliefs follow. (Which is exactly the opposite of how things “should” work – or the opposite of how we’d like to think our rational human minds function, anyhow.) Far from being logical, unbiased, free-thinking agents, we are instead driven by minds that function as “belief engines,” designed by evolution to see patterns in the world – whether real or imagined – and to infuse them with meaning. Thus, beliefs are formed, and the (selective) gathering of (supporting) evidence is secondary. Of course, Shermer’s thesis is much more complicated than this, and draws from the fields of psychology and neurobiology, with a heavy emphasis on behavioral neuroscience (biopsychology) and evolutionary psychology. (Shermer has a bachelor’s degree in biopsychology and a doctorate in the history of science.) He cites a wealth of evidence to support his argument, including research examining the link between activity in different areas of the brain and the propensity to believe in pseudoscience, superstitions, conspiracy theories and other forms of “bunk.” (The book includes a generous, twenty-three page appendix.)

The Believing Brain is divided into four parts. Part I, “Journeys of Belief,” features profiles of skeptics-turned-believers and believers-turned-skeptics, including Shermer himself. Though perhaps unnecessary (the book does clock in at almost 400 pages, after all!), this is a nice, light read, and helps to guide the reader into the meat of the book: Part II, “The Biology of Belief,” which introduces the topics of patternicity and agenicity and discusses how the brain, through neural activity, is involved in each. Part III shows these principles in action: belief in the afterlife, god, aliens and conspiracies all serve as examples of false beliefs preceding valid evidence. Finally, we see in Part IV how beliefs manifest in politics, and how a whole host of biases (e.g., confirmation, self-justification, attribution, sunk-cost and status quo, to name a few) help to trick our minds into believing that we are almost always right (and, conversely, those who disagree with us are almost always wrong). (Those who’ve ever taken a social psychology course will find “Confirmations of Belief” reassuringly familiar.) Lastly, In “Geographies of Belief” and “Cosmologies of Belief,” Shermer illustrates how popular beliefs evolve over time, and positively so through the application of science and the scientific method.

Though I mostly enjoyed The Believing Brain, I do have a few quibbles. Since his thesis draws so heavily upon evolutionary psychology, I would have liked for Shermer to have at least acknowledged some of the criticisms of the field. Additionally, while the research discussed in The Believing Brain suggests that not all of the variations in belief can be attributed to biological factors – for example, environmental and social factors may also play also a role – Shermer doesn’t seem to want to touch either with a ten-foot pole! I found myself especially frustrated by one of the book’s parting chapters, “Cosmologies of Belief,” which draws upon the history of cosmology to demonstrate how beliefs can be changed. Since all of my knowledge about space and time comes from Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, I found myself struggling to understand the science in the chapter; science in action became the forest to cosmology’s trees. A more widely understood topic might make this chapter more accessible to a wider audience.

My biggest complaint, however, is perhaps the most minor of them all (well, “minor” inasmuch as it occupies the least space – less than a page, to be exact). Early on, in his introduction on patternicity, Shermer singles out celebrities Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carrey in order to chastise them for their crusade against vaccinations (supposedly because of their link to autism). My problem isn’t with the scolding – it’s well-deserved – but with how Shermer goes about it. He describes a 2009 Autism Awareness Day episode of Larry King Live: on one side of the debate, medical researchers. “On the other side of the table were the actor Jim Carrey and his ex-Playboy bunny partner Jenny McCarthy.” Not only is this an ad hominem attack (they’re celebrities! so they must be stupid and ill-informed!) and appeal to authority (misguided at best, given how Shermer spends the next 300 pages demonstrating how we’re all subject to irrational, misguided beliefs, education be damned), but in describing McCarthy as an “ex-Playboy bunny” – instead of an actress, comedian, or (more generally) a celebrity or entertainer – he engages in a pernicious, subtle bit of slut-shaming as well. Not only is she vacuous and gullible like her partner the actor – but she takes her clothes off for money, to boot! (The horror of it all!) Reductive and sexist. I nearly quit reading the book after choking on this tripe, but pushed on and am happy to report that it’s an anomaly. Still, I hope Shermer revises his choice of words in future editions of the book. (Mine is an ARC.)

Anyhow, given the complexity of the subject matter, it’s helpful if you have some background in biopsychology; while Shermer does a good enough job of explaining the basics of neural communication, I found myself pulling out my old college textbook for extra help (and especially illustrations!). Even so, The Believing Brain is an engaging – if not always easy and breezy – read for the layperson. Methinks this book will appeal most to those in the skeptical/atheist community, as well as those interested in popular psychology books.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Discovering the Golden Compass, George Beahm (2007)

Thursday, September 1st, 2011

four out of five stars

Dust, Daemons and Disappointment

Discovering the Golden Compass is a charming little book (“little” in comparison to other HDM guides, that is!) that deals with everything His Dark Materials. Author – and fellow fan – George Beahm introduces readers to the trilogy (of course!), as well as:

– its sequel novella, Lyra’s Oxford (the prequel Once Upon a Time in a North was published a year after Discovering the Golden Compass, so it doesn’t make an appearance here);

– the unabridged audiobook (brilliant! you should definitely give it a listen if you haven’t already!) and BBC radio adaptations;

– the six-hour play staged by the National Theatre in London;

– the upcoming (eventually!) Book of Dust; and

– (groan!) the 2007 film The Golden Compass.

Also included are brief overviews of HDM-related books, collectibles, documentaries and websites, as well as copious quotes from the principals in and critics of each.

The design and artwork are the highlights of Discovering the Golden Compass. The book is primarily printed in black and white, with red and gold details throughout. A 16-page full-color insert chock full of photographs by Emma Raynaud provides a gorgeous (if all too short) tour through Philip Pullman’s Oxford, and the illustrations by Tim Kirk are both lovely and informative. This is one good-looking guide!

But the true gem of this collection is a 10,000-word autobiographical essay by Philip Pullman himself; originally published on Philip Pullman’s website (http://www.philip-pullman.com), as of this writing “I Have a Feeling This All Belongs to Me” appears to be unavailable online. Even if you read nothing else, the essay alone is worth the purchase price of the book.

On the downside, the sections concerning the film are terribly depressing. The Golden Compass was still in production while Beahm was writing Discovering the Golden Compass, and the book was published three months before the release of the film. Beahm’s outlook concerning the film adaptation is hopeful, even gushing, despite the early warning signs (for example, the filmmakers’ eschewing of His Dark Materials’ more subversive elements, such as at the 2007 Oxford Literary Festival – the panel discussion for which Beahm provides a transcript). While I can’t begrudge him his optimism, in hindsight these passages are difficult – painful, even – to read.

As someone who’d rather pretend that the film never happened, I think (some of) the precious space occupied by The Golden Compass would have been better spent looking at His Dark Materials: the plot, the setting, the characters, the curiosities. Dust and daemons, witches and armored bears, Svalbard and Bolvanger – all the details to delight a fangirl. Since Beahm aims to covers so much ground in so few pages, his discussion of the HDM trilogy is necessarily brief: Discovering the Golden Compass is a little bit of everything. Die-hard fans probably won’t gain any significant insights here, but it’s a fun romp through Philip Pullman’s worlds in any case.

Curiously, Beahm also keeps it (mostly) spoiler-free, which seems an odd choice to me; if you happen to find yourself intrigued by His Dark Materials, why not just read the source material? Picking up a book about a book you want to read, but haven’t yet, seems … silly. The primary audience for this type of tome – nonfiction written about a piece of fiction, be it literature, film, television, etc. – seems to me to be existing fans … so why not converse with one another using the language and shared knowledge of a fandom? It’s so much more fun that way!

Marzipan!

2011-08-29 - Discovering the Golden Compass - 0016

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: The Sex Doll: A History, Anthony Ferguson (2010)

Monday, July 11th, 2011

More accurately titled “The Sex Doll: Its Origins and Functions”

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free advanced review copy of this book through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

Upon requesting this title from Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, I was nervous that author Anthony Ferguson’s discussion of sex dolls would present a view largely uncritical of these increasingly popular sexual aids and, more importantly, their owners/users. (So much so that I was actually relieved when the first copy was lost in the mail!) Happily, Ferguson (a member of the Australian Horror Writers Association – a detail that seems only slightly less odd in light of chapter eleven, which turns to dolls as a common trope in the horror genre!) manages to outline the potential anti-feminist implications of sex dolls while retaining empathy for (at least some of) their users. All in all, the book manages to find middle ground, even if it is at times shaky.

THE SEX DOLL: A HISTORY might be more accurately titled “The Sex Doll: Its Origins and Functions,” as there’s more theory than fact in this volume. By Ferguson’s own admission, the history of sex dolls is somewhat sketchy – which is wholly unsurprising given society’s conservative and oftentimes oppressive attitudes toward sex and sexuality. Sex dolls present an added complication, as Western religions have historically regarded lifelike representations of the human form (i.e. dolls) with suspicion and distrust. Thus, Ferguson relies less on the historical record and more on the theories and conjectures of philosophers, psychologists, sociologists and ethicists, seemingly indiscriminately and with mixed results.

While some of the views represented are intriguing (in particular, I’m keen to read David Levy’s LOVE + SEX WITH ROBOTS after seeing several excerpts in THE SEX DOLL), others are nonsensical, offensive, and downright misogynistic. Colin Wilson, for example, is paraphrased as saying that “a subverted worship of women” drives men to rape (WTF!); elsewhere, Ferguson himself extols the “value of war in pre-technological societies as a means of channeling masculine aggression” (never you mind that physical and sexual violence against women is nearly universal, or that rape is commonly used as a weapon of war; also, gender essentialism much?). Naturally, erstwhile misogynist Sigmund Freud and his sex-obsessed, woman-hating theories litter every chapter.

Likewise, the words Ferguson chooses are sometimes problematic. For example, he uses the terms “transgender” and “she-male” interchangeably, the latter being widely regarded as a derogatory slur within the trans community. Additionally, instances of rape are often referred to using variations on the phrase “had sex with,” implying consent where there is none. (“With” suggests that the sex is a mutually shared experience, which is not the case in rape. In this vein, it’s erroneous to say that one “has sex with” a sex doll, since a doll as an inanimate object cannot consent to the experience. In this case, “masturbate with” is more accurate.)

In chapter seven, “Sex Doll Stereotypes,” Ferguson analyzes sex dolls – objectified, silent and subservient (representations of) women, the “perfect” partners, if you will – in relation to their human counterparts, namely sex workers such as prostitutes and pornographic actors, as well as other sexually exploitable women, including mail order brides and mistresses. Since each of these topics could easily fill its own volume, the discussion is necessarily brief and lacking in nuance. Rather than add to my understanding of sex dolls, I found this chapter in particular a distraction.

Perhaps the greatest missed opportunity comes in chapter eight, “The Vagaries of Masculine Desire,” in which Ferguson lets “doll users speak.” Whereas a demographic/psychological survey of doll users would have been incredibly enlightening – who are these people and why and how do they choose to use sex dolls? – Ferguson instead presents us with a Q&A involving just five respondents. It’s rather obvious that Ferguson hand-picked these individuals in order to represent the spectrum of users: they run the gamut, from a single, older disabled man who’s heavily emotionally invested in his dolls, to a sexually active younger man who regards them as just one of many sexual outlets at his disposal. Curiously, two of the subjects – or a full 40% – of the respondents are women, which must surely be out of whack with the actual statistics. (Although we’ll never know, as Ferguson doesn’t offer any such numbers.) Since women are otherwise absent his discussion (Ferguson almost solely focuses on male users of female dolls), their inclusion here is doubly puzzling.

Ferguson is at his best when looking at representations of sex dolls in popular culture, as he does in chapters ten and eleven (“Do Androids Dream of Electric Orgasm?” and “Revulsion, Lust and Love,” respectively). His discussion of sex dolls and gynoids (female robots) in literature, film, television, music and art is by far the most engaging section of THE SEX DOLL – although his omission of the Cylons in the BATTLESTAR GALACTICA reboot is disappointing at best. (Particularly since it’s in these chapters that Ferguson introduces the question of human-robot love and marriage. Caprica Six! Athena! Hera!) Additionally, while the Terminator franchise is mentioned in brief, Ferguson fails to examine the evolving representations of the cyborgs in this realm; i.e., the possibility of a romantic and sexual relationship with a terminator is only raised when the female cyborg Cameron is introduced in THE SARAH CONNOR CHRONICLES. This observation might have provided a nice window into the gender dynamics of sex dolls, and how they’re reflected in popular culture.

Ultimately, THE SEX DOLL concludes that the uses and functions of sex dolls are as varied as are the men who utilize them. For some men, a sex doll represents the “perfect” partner: silent, non-responsive, subservient, powerless, never aging, changing or evolving. For others, a doll is merely a sexual outlet: safe, both physically and psychologically, affordable (perhaps), convenient. It might be just one of many sex toys a man utilizes, or it could be more: a willing companion to socially isolated men. Whatever the case, the fact that feminized sex dolls are visual representations of women – real, flesh and blood women – cannot be escaped:

“Given that sex dolls are as of now still inanimate objects, they are understandably treated as lacking autonomy, and yet they represent real women and are utilized as substitutes for real women. Despite the fact that some sex doll owners seem to treat their dolls with affection and anthropomorphize them, it is the dolls’ inability to respond, react or reject which most attracts men. This objectification is mirrored historically in the treatment of women, the ‘thing’ most dolls represent.” (Chapter six, page 81, “Consumable Women”)

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: Pride and Prejudice and Zombies: Dreadfully Ever After, Steve Hockensmith (2011)

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Bloody good fun!

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

DREADFULLY EVER AFTER is the final installment in the PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES mashup trilogy. Whereas the first book in the series (the aptly named PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES) – written by Seth Grahame-Smith – is a rework of Jane Austen’s PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, the subsequent two novels (both penned by Steve Hockensmith) comprise original material. While DAWN OF THE DREAFULS precedes the events of PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES by five years, DREADFULLY EVER AFTER is a sequel, following new bride Lizzie Bennet’s desperate search for a cure to the zombie affliction that has overcome her beloved Mr. Darcy.

As with its predecessors, DREADFULLY EVER AFTER is bloody good fun. Action packed and filled with ninjas, zombie slayers, and reanimated corpses, DREADFULLY EVER AFTER retains much of the maudlin humor and sardonic wit that fans have come to know and love. If you didn’t enjoy the previous two books or aren’t a fan of the mashup genre in general, probably you aren’t reading this review anyhow.

I listened to the previous installments on audiobook – between housework and exercise, it’s one of my few opportunities for leisure “reading” – and slightly prefer that format for this series. But I received a copy of DREADFULLY EVER AFTER through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program, so I’m really in no position to complain. Either way, I can’t wait for PRIDE AND PREJUDICE AND ZOMBIES to come to the big screen, Natalie Portman or no. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER meets 28 DAYS LATER – and PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, of course. Score!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

This series is most likely not long in my Netflix queue.

Thursday, March 31st, 2011

Oh Eureka, how you confuse me.

One episode, you have a woman taking back her ex-husband and accepting his son as her own – even though, seven years earlier, he divorced AND SUBSEQUENTLY CLONED HER when she refused to relocate to Eureka for his job and further told him that she didn’t want to have children. (What remains unsaid is that he probably had to create several clones before he found one sufficiently amenable to his desires. What became of the others, I wonder?*)

The next, we meet a genius scientist who habitually subverts her desires to those of her (supposedly) slightly-more-genius husband, all for the greater good – only to discover that she’s the true intellectual superior in the relationship; he’s merely been stealing her ideas all along! (And their marriage is most likely an ongoing kidnapping/rape situation, built on his theft of her short-term memories…using a device he stole from someone else, to boot.)

So which is it – are you feminist-friendly, or not?

* You can call it “over-analyzing”; I consider it “taking a story line to its logical conclusion.”

Rape-rape and Money-rape

Saturday, February 5th, 2011

@TheDailyShow‘s @kristenschaaled on rape-rape and money-rape: http://bit.ly/hwWTQG Trenchant as fuck. #dearjohn #prochoice #rape #taxes

Pass this one along the the libertarians and “small government” conservatives in your circle who equate money with bodily autonomy – and taxes with rape – mkay?

Direct link: Wednesday February 2, 2011 | Daily Show: Schaal – Rape Victim Abortion Funding | Kristen Schaal doesn’t think hard-earned tax dollars should go to women who have only been rape-ished.

Book Review: The Strain, Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan (2009)

Saturday, January 15th, 2011

It’s a Nazi Vampire Plague, y’all!

Set in present-day New York City, The Strain follows Ephraim Goodweather – an epidemiologist with the CDC – as he races to stop the spread of an virus that essentially hijacks its host body, transforming human to vampire. (Nonhuman animals appear not to be affected, though this doesn’t preclude their consumption by vampires. Spoiler warning: the dog gets it!)

Transmitted via the exchange of bodily fluids (usually in the form of a “brutal” feeding frenzy as opposed to a more sophisticated and sexy neck bite), the virus is as old as the seven vampires – the Ancients – who are spread out among the “Old” and “New” Worlds. Kept under wraps by a tenuous truce between the Ancients for centuries, the virus is about to be unleashed upon humanity by a renegade vampire – the Dark One, Master, Sardu, The Thing – with the help of one especially evil, ambitious and self-involved human. (A billionaire, natch.)

Our hero “Eph” is accompanied by fellow CDC scientist Nora Martinez, along with a rag-tag team of unlikely experts, namely: Vasily Fet, an exterminator working for the City of New York and Abraham Setrakian, an elderly pawnshop owner and Holocaust survivor who has spent much of his life in pursuit of the Dark One.

I don’t want to spoil the book for anyone, so I won’t go any further into plot details than this. One rave featured on the back cover describes it as “Bram Stoker meets Stephen King meets Michael Crichton”; I don’t know about Crichton, but if you’re a fan of Stephen King and/or modern-day vampire stories, most likely you’ll love The Strain. I’ve seen a number of complaints that the book itself is “strained” – that is, drawn out, tedious and much lengthier than need be. Co-authors Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan do spend quite a bit of time elaborating on the “science” behind the vampire plague, it’s true; the vampire parasite’s history, biology, anatomy and the like are described in almost-loving detail. However, this need not be a negative; if you prefer your science fiction and horror stories served with a whiff of scientific plausibility, you’re apt to appreciate the “medical mystery” aspects of The Strain.

As an aside, I found myself both touched and charmed by Abraham’s backstory (particularly the “bubbeh meiseh” that opens the first book in the trilogy). I also wanted to throttle the Barbour parents with my bare hands. Seriously, folks, you don’t leave your “family members” chained in the shed out back, even if they are “just dogs”; doubly so if you know that one of your neighbors has beaten them in the past. “Love”? More like neglect. Yuck.

See also: Milk addictions, Nazi monstrosities & long-suffering canines: Three things about The Strain. at POP! goes The Vegan.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

the war on christmas: 2010 edition

Tuesday, December 21st, 2010

The Daily Show: Monday December 6, 2010
The Gretch Who Saved the War on Christmas
The holiday season wouldn’t feel the same without people going out of their way to be offended by nothing.
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(More below the fold…)

dolphin nom!

Saturday, December 18th, 2010

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: googly eyes make everything awesomer. Everything.*

* Which begs the obvious question: why didn’t I think to glue a googly eye on Ralphie’s sewn-up eye socket for our criFSMas card photo shoot? Ah well, there’s always next year.

your annual criFSMas update

Friday, December 17th, 2010

Even though I rarely blog here anymore – V for Vegan is my main space now – I’d planned on posting a few more FSMas tutorials in the days leading up to December 25th. Alas, exhaustion and burnout from veganmofo iv, coupled with the foolhardy decision to make many of my gifts by hand this year, have pretty much blown that plan out of the water. (Oh, the boiling, pasta-filled water. FSMas NOM!)

But seeing as I’ve already taken and uploaded a number of photos, it’d be a shame not to at least throw up a photo essay. So here’s a sampling of this year’s decorations. You can view the entire set on Flickr, along with those from years past. The dogs’ annual criFSMas humiliation is forthcoming – they deserve their own post, dontchathink?

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The “pirate altar” in our front window features a mix of relevant books, framed flying spaghetti monster photos, pirate accessories, pasta decor, gold tinsel and doubloons, and sparkly flying spaghetti monsters.
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A closer look at book collection #1, which consists of vegan/vegetarian/Italian cookbooks (including Cathe Olson’s Lick It!, which I snagged in a veganmofo contest) and – of course – a copy of The Gospel of the Flying Spaghetti Monster.
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(More below the fold…)

Book Review: Between the Fences: Before Guantanamo, there was the Port Isabel Service Processing Center, Tony Hefner (2010)

Wednesday, November 17th, 2010

An engaging, if frustrating, story of government corruption & abuse

three out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

In BETWEEN THE FENCES, Tony Hefner tells a harrowing tale of corruption and human rights abuses, committed by both the United States government as well as contractors tasked with fulfilling governmental responsibilities (in this case, caring for detained, undocumented immigrants). Employed as a prison guard at the Port Isabel Service Processing Center – an immigrant detention center in the South Texas’s Rio Grande Valley – from 1983 to 1986 and again from 1988 to 1990, Hefner either witnessed personally or was privy to first-hand accounts of various crimes that took place at Port Isabel, including the sexual, physical and emotional abuse of detainees, both male and female (and sometimes, children); the sexual harassment, assault and rape of female guards; the physical and emotional abuse of male employees; drug trafficking; blackmail; nepotism and racism in hiring and firing decisions; and countless other illegal and immoral activities, including repeated cover-ups of these incidents, and the protection of those involved.

Hefner’s account of these human rights abuses is both engaging and enraging, but his constant digression into his own life history detracts from the story. For example, as a child Hefner himself endured physical and emotional abuse at the hands of his stepfather, who thought him worthless because of his Mexican parentage. Although I sympathize with his plight – no child should be bullied, hit, or made to feel worthless, and certainly not by adults – Hefner repeatedly points to this abuse as one reason (“excuse,” you might say) for his relative inaction on behalf of abused inmates. While Hefner’s power to intervene directly was no doubt limited, he also didn’t do much behind the scenes; for example, he might have clandestinely collected hard evidence in order to build a case against his superiors, and/or anonymously leaked this information to the media, thus remaining an inside whistleblower at Port Isabel – but he didn’t. While Hefner did record those abuses that took place out in the open (in a notebook, after the fact – not exactly irrefutable proof), he also didn’t go out of his way to uncover the hidden, more egregious cruelties that were kept from him and others. Too often, he seemed content to go about his own work, nose down, ears closed – see no evil, hear no evil.

Many guards and employees tolerated the abuse of both prisoners and, not uncommonly, their own persons because of financial hardship. In the 1980s, at least, Port Isabel was one of the largest employers in an economically strapped area. Far removed from the situation, it’s easy to sit in judgment of guards who refused to speak up in the interest of self-preservation. But this unfair at best; no one can really know how he or she would react in a similar situation without actually living it. Here, though, Hefner makes frustrating excuses as well; if he had simply chalked his lack of action up to poverty, I might be able to understand. But he claims to have stayed on at Port Isabel in order to keep his ministry, the Bearing Precious Seed Ranch, viable. In other words, he was content to proselytize to vulnerable children on the one hand, while utterly and spectacularly failing to live the actual tenets of his religious teachings on the other. “Do as I say, not as I do.” In the name of “caring for” some people’s children, he ignored the abuse of other people’s children (some of them, it’s worth noting, actual children – minor boys raped by fellow inmates while indifferent guards looked on, or underage girls forced to dance naked for the possibility of clemency).

The many, many pages Hefner devoted to writing his own autobiography would have been better spent, I think, placing the abuse at Port Isabel in context. According to the book’s promotional materials, 400,000 immigrants are detained by the U.S. government every year; these individuals are held in a number of jails across the country. How do the conditions at Port Isabel compare to those at other centers? What steps, if any, are the INS and the U.S. government taking to ensure that the individuals detained in these facilities – and the guards employed therein – are treated humanely and respectfully? How does the government justify its lack of action on the complaints lodged against Port Isabel officials? What steps do Hefner and his allies plan to take next? And how does our broken immigration policy, too often marred by racism, sexism and xenophobia, contribute to these horrific conditions?

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Kick. Ass.

Tuesday, April 20th, 2010

Yes, there are debates to be had about Hit Girl and Kick-Ass. There are always debates to be had about violence and vigilantes, and what they say about us. But I’d prefer the conversation also turn to why preteen girls don’t have a movie like Kick-Ass that they could see. Let’s ask why Kick-Ass was the only script option Ms. Moretz had if she wanted to play, in her own words, “an Angelina Jolie-type character. You know, like an action hero, woman empowerment, awesome, take-charge leading role.” By now, she should have had a lot more superhero and fantasy options to pick from. There are young adult genre books that center on something other than vampires. There are comic characters who are teenage girls. It’s ridiculous that they languish on the shelf while Spider-Man goes back to high school. Again. You might even ask why Millar thought no one could relate to a teenage girl, and insisted on centering the story around Dave and his girlfriend problems.

Elisabeth Rappe, The Geek Beat: Hit-Girl Hysteria

The Nostalgia Chick on The Smurfette Principle

Monday, March 1st, 2010

I will see you a life of quiet desperation,

Monday, February 15th, 2010

and raise you several millennia of gender-based oppression.

Book Review: Marie Antoinette: The Journey, Antonia Fraser (2002)

Wednesday, July 8th, 2009

Sarah Palin in a Corset

five out of five stars

Though I’m not what you’d call a seasoned history buff – French history, in particular – I can confidently say that Antonia Fraser’s MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY is the definitive biography of Marie Antoinette. It’s hard to imagine that any historian can top this exhaustive look at the life and death of France’s most infamous Queen.

Fraser traces Marie Antoinette’s life, from privileged birth to tragic death, in great detail. (The story actually begins well before Antoinette’s birth, with a look back at the Princess’s ancestors, and ends not with the Queen’s beheading, but with the fate of her daughter, Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte.) Fraser makes extensive use of contemporary documents, most notably correspondence between Marie Antoinette and her friends and relatives, including her mother, the politically ambitious Maria Theresa. She also cites – sometimes critically – the work of historians before her. The result is a keen, nuanced examination of the life and legacy of Marie Antoinette, to whom history has not been kind.

While Antoine was, like all people, a flawed individual, she was far from the she-devil caricature drawn by her opponents. The Queen did waste the taxpayers’ money on all manner of frivolities; but then, so did her husband and other assorted members of their royal circle. (Indeed, much of this expense went towards “traditional” or “customary” labor and favors; had she tried to do away with these French traditions, the Austrian-born Queen would have been vilified just the same.) Born into privilege, she knew little of poverty, famine, or hard labor – the lot of most of her subjects. Most damningly, she actively defended France’s monarchy, positioning herself directly opposite freedom and democracy.

Even so, Marie Antoinette was a scapegoat, a receptacle for the political unrest, violence and hatred of the time. Much of the criticism directed at the Queen was predictably gender-based: she was at once stupid and frivolous – and a political mastermind capable of manipulating and cuckolding the King; a cold, frigid lover, the source of her husband’s impotence and/or asexuality – and a ravenous, insatiable whore, who either engaged in orgies with men or women, depending on whom you believe. (At her trial, she was even accused – along with her sister-in-law – of sexually abusing her own son!) Pamphlets of the time depicted the Queen in all states of undress and sexual positions, and her physical appearance was often a topic of discussion. Naturally, her body – or rather, the contents of her womb – was also a point of public interest, as her primary “job” was to bear France the next King. Sound vaguely familiar? (Hence the title of this review, which could just as easily read “Hillary Clinton in muslin.”)

Marie Antoinette was the victim not just of misogyny, but of xenophobia as well. Prior to Princess Antoine’s marriage to the Dauphin, Austria and France were rivals. The future King Louis XV had been raised on tales of “those evil Austrians,” a factor perhaps contributing to his initial indifference towards his new wife. The Princess drew no small amount of suspicion as an Austrian upon her marriage to the Dauphin, and the hatred and discrimination only grew with her unpopularity. The Queen’s loyalties were often called into question, despite the many sacrifices she made in order to become the “Mother” of France. (Imagine being forced from your family and homeland, thrust into a strange place with no friends or allies, and treated like the state’s baby machine. The Queen may have been privileged, but she was also very much oppressed.)

At 544 pages, MARIE ANTOINETTE is a hefty book; so much so, in fact, that I probably wouldn’t have “read” it had it not been available in audiobook format. Even so, it took me also a month to finish the audiobook, which clocks in at over 20 hours. Fraser’s take on Marie Antoinette is astute, informed and fascinating. Even so, I don’t think I would have made it through the print book. English is my primary language, and with no training in French, I’m certain that I would have found the French (and Austrian) names, places, words and phrases difficult to enunciate and follow. Donanda Peters makes for an engaging and charming narrator, transitioning from French to Scottish accent with ease.

My only real complaint is in Fraser’s coverage of France’s political climate during Marie Antoinette’s reign. Fraser does talk politics, but these discussions are usually framed and presented in terms of Marie Antoinette’s life, as a sort of backdrop. With no real foundation in French history, I found this rather confusing and choppy, but again, I’m a novice – history buffs will probably come to the table with all the background knowledge they need.

That said, I think hardcore history buffs and novices alike will enjoy MARIE ANTOINETTE: THE JOURNEY. The book is rife with feminist undertones (Fraser seems no stranger to patriarchy blaming!), so methinks it might make great leisure reading for feminist-minded women, as well. I look forward to devouring more of Antonia Fraser’s political biographies!

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)

Book Review: The Neck Pain Handbook, Grant Cooper & Alex Visco (2009)

Tuesday, July 7th, 2009

Neck Pain 101

four out of five stars

(Full disclosure: I received a free copy of this book for review through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program.)

I received an advance review copy of THE NECK PAIN HANDBOOK through Library Thing’s Early Reviewer program. At thirty years of age, I’ve suffered from mild to moderate neck and back pain for about ten years. I attribute the pain to a number of causes, including PMS, long hours spent working in front of the computer, poor posture, stress, and less-than-optimal sleeping conditions. (I’m a guardian to five dogs, three of which like to hem me in under the covers at night. Consequently, my back pain is usually at its worst during the first hour of my day.) Exercise, especially yoga, has helped some, but neck, shoulder and back pain is still an occasional inconvenience. Thus, I was hoping that MDs Grant Cooper and Alex Visco might be able to offer some additional advice for alleviating my neck pain symptoms.

THE NECK PAIN HANDBOOK is a nice introduction to the topic of neck pain. Cooper and Visco begin the discussion by outlining the structure and function of the human neck, so that the reader might gain an appreciation of her neck’s complex makeup. They then shift focus to the many causes of neck pain, some of which are preventable. They discuss proper posture, and offer ten at-home exercises the reader can employ in order to prevent and/or alleviate neck pain. The authors also discuss more radical treatments for neck pain, including cervical collars (of which they are not big fans), advanced imaging studies, trigger point injections, Botox, topical pain relievers, analgesics, anti-inflammatories, muscle relaxants, x-ray guided injections and surgery. They also briefly touch upon “alternative” treatments, such as glucosamine/chondroitin supplements (which I give to my two oldest furkids in order to ward off joint paint – a precaution actually recommended by my conservative, small town veterinarian), SAM-E, acupuncture and meditation. While this last batch of remedies might seem like quackery, the doctors are quick to caution that such treatments are experimental, unproven, a last resort and should not be employed unless under the supervision of a trained medical professional.

While THE NECK PAIN HANDBOOK is a quick, easy and informative read, I was hoping for more do-it-yourself advice. For example, the authors describe the ten exercises presented in THE NECK PAIN HANDBOOK as “an excellent starting point” – which makes me believe there are additional exercises they could have included, but chose not to. Which is annoying, as they also say that about 80% of neck pain can be attributed to poor posture and weak neck musculature. While the exercises presented are straightforward and relatively easy to understand, not all of them are new to me; indeed, I’ve already been performing a few for back strength and flexibility. Also, in addition to mentioning meditation for neck pain, the authors might have included a brief section on yoga, which has proven immensely helpful to me.

Other than these two small drawbacks, THE NECK PAIN HANDBOOK is a nice overview of neck pain, particularly for those who are just beginning to research the topic.

(This review was originally published on Amazon and Library Thing, and is also available on Goodreads. Please click through and vote it helpful if you think it so!)