July Books To Read: The Dresden Files, Bill Bryson, A City of Thieves

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The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files: Storm Front & Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

Many friends recommended this series so I finally decided to check it out. It sounds like it fits my interests. The main character is a wizard named Harry Dresden. I guess Harry is a popular wizard name. But Dresden is different, okay. He’s in the yellow pages.

Essentially book 1, Storm Front runs like a P.I. novel. Dresden runs a private investigation service but also works with the police department at times. Since he is involved in wizardry, the department are skeptical of him. Even to the point of basically accusing him of the plot-point murder. Everyone is against him. Everyone thinks he did it. As an introduction to a character, it’s a weird one. So he spends the whole time trying to prove his innocence. It’s weird.

As a character, Dresden is a mess. Your stereotypical bachelor. He is a super powerful wizard! But can’t take care of himself. He can’t clean, pay his bills on time, or even eat & sleep without someone reminding him to do it. He just keeps falling apart.

This wouldn’t be annoying except this caricature behavior didn’t change in the slightest from Book 1 to Book 4, Summer Knight. After not liking the first book, I was told to jump straight to book four. The first three weren’t edited very well and the later books pull together the bigger plot. I was told that would make it more interesting.

Four books later and Dresden is still sitting in his dark apartment because he forgot to pay his electric bill. Sometimes he cares about money, but sometimes he doesn’t. His personal behavior is inconsistent and frustrating. I get it. He’s so smart and powerful yet he can’t pay his bills. I just don’t like that it is such a defining characteristic of him. Why doesn’t he get another job? How do other wizards make money? I want to see Harry Dresden create a budget.

Admittedly, Summer Knight wasn’t nearly as predictable as Storm Front. I was able to see that there is an over-arching plot. Unfortunately, I just don’t care about it. I can see the appeal here, but overall it’s just not my type of story. I did enjoy in this one that he was able to bring an outsider into the wizard world. And this book seemed to be less The World V. Harry Dresden. That made it easier to read.

I do not plan to read the rest of the books. I wish Butcher would write an essay about how much Toot Toot loves pizza.

Author: Jim Butcher
Genre: Fantasy
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Harry Dresden is a different kind of wizard. Kinda. Not really.

bill bryson the lost continent small town life

Bill Bryson’s cross-country trip across the United States; he is miserable the entire time

The Lost Continent by Bill Bryson

It’s unfortunate I have to say this, but this book has completely turned me off from Bryson’s writing. I have no further interest to read anything he writes. Being young isn’t an excuse to be a fat-shaming, arrogant, pretentious, racist asshole. His humor in this is so over the top, at first I thought it was a satire. But nope, it’s just an American calling all other Americans dumb.

According to Bill Bryson, all tourists are idiots. Although he, of course, wasn’t one of those tourists. All fat people are food experts, but he wasn’t one of those greedy food grubs. All Americans are idiots but he’s not an one because he lives in Great Britain.

The hypocracy in this book is too much to count. Aside from his “I’m perfect, you’re the problem” attitude. He steps on his own toes a lot. There’s a whole paragraph dedicated to him as a kid persuading their father to visit a tourist attraction. His dad gives in then also buys them toys in the gift shop, though begrudgingly. Later Bryson dedicates a paragraph to how his father thought anyone who stopped at roadside attractions were idiots and never paid for anything because he was so cheap.

After about 30 pages, I had grown accustomed to Bryson being a curmudgeon. Then he went too far, even for me. And then this brash attitude continued the rest of the book. Here’s a direct quote from The Lost Continent:

“I share a birthday with Eisenhower myself,” the lady with the bluish hair went on, still loudly, consolidating her position in front of me with a twitch of her ample butt. “And I’ve got a cousin who shares a birthday with Harry Truman.”
I toyed for a moment with the idea of grabbing the woman by both ears and driving her forehead into my knee, but instead passed into the next room.

Here is another paragraph of Bryson at a roadside cafe in Vermont judging a husband and wife, wanting to hit their child:

Poor guy! And on top of that here he was married to a woman who was slovenly and indiscreet, and had a butt like a barn door. Even his kids were ugly as sin. I was half tempted to give one of them a clout myself as I went out the door. There was just something about his nasty little face that made you itch to smack him.

Please tell me this is a satire.

It’s not a satire. So I bailed on the book after 200 pages. I read all of his trip through the Eastern part of the United States. I just couldn’t bare to read what he had to say about the West. Actually I started it but the first bit was just mocking Nebraska and I couldn’t take it anymore. The saddest part is his mocking is so repetitive. I mean, there’s only so many ways to make fun of hicks & southerners. Bryson exhausted them after the first few pages. The rest of the book are just the same jokes over and over.

Aside from Bryson’s horrific writing style, the book itself was laid out oddly. Comparing it to A Walk in the Woods, he never explains why he’s taking this trip. He never explains the route. He skims over a lot of his travels. He dedicates about 100 pages to the south (because there’s plenty to complain about) and barely 10 pages to all of New England.

Even his incorporation of facts, practically what he’s known for now, was scarce. Any interesting information he gave was immediately buried under him berating everyone and everything.

Author: Bill Bryson
Genre: Travel Memoir
Rating: 0/5
Summary: A misanthrope travels around the US complaining about everything repeatedly.

A City of Thieves; Historical Fiction of the Siege of Leningrad by David Benioff

A City of Thieves; Historical Fiction of the Siege of Leningrad

This story was based on Benioff’s grandfather’s experiences during the Siege of Leningrad as a teenager. And most of the historical references are correct. The story itself is fictional. But it’s a good one.

We are immediately introduced to the two main characters: Benioff’s grandfather Lev and Kolya, as they meet in a prison. Instead of being executed, they are sent off to see a colonel. And are given the mission to find a dozen eggs in a week. This begins the story.

City of Thieves is most certainly a coming of age story. Excluding the war context, two teenage boys are given the punishment of having to scour the country-side to run an odd errand in a certain period of time. It’s been done before. And it’s predictable. However, the journey is absolutely worth it. As a reader, going along on this literal and figurative journey with Lev and Kolya really is an entertaining ride. I say that with caution because this is a war story, some parts are gruesome. Most parts are not happy. But I have read worse on the subject.

This is the first book by Benioff I’ve read and I enjoyed his writing style. It’s an easy read. And the scenes are pretty theatrical. But not overly simplified. Besides, he really seemed to put in some effort to the historical accuracy. Granted, I haven’t read many books on the Russian perspective of the war. So this was a good change for me. Most of the places he references are real. And the descriptions of hunger and loss felt very real.

There are a few things that help keep this story fresh. It is a war book but not about the front lines. It is about the people who were left behind. Boys too young to go out to the war. Doctors without supplies. Women conflicted between loyalty and survival. Also, it is based on true events. Sure there are exaggerations and dramatizations. But some parts of it are real, and that alone is pretty amazing.

I should also point out that I’m a sucker for coming of age tales, so this story was definitely right up my alley.

Author: David Benioff
Genre: Historical Fiction WWII
Rating: 4/5
Summary: A teenager’s life during the Siege of Leningrad.

Netflix Instant Picks: Wayne’s World, What About Bob?, Short Circuit 2

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Wayne’s World (1992) / Schtick Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks wayne's world

Wayne’s World! Party time! Excellent!

Oh Mike Meyers. Pre-Austin Powers Mike Meyers. SNL Mike Meyers. This movie has it everything you could want a SNL spin-off movie. The iconic Bohemian Rhapsody scene. Lots of buzzwords (schwing!). A goofy plot. Breaking the fourth wall. So much stuff and it all works.

No one in this movie takes themselves seriously, which is why it works so darn well.

Starring: Mike Meyers, Dana Carvey
Runtime: 94 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: SNL spin-off that knows exactly what it is


What About Bob? (1992) / Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks what about bob

This 90’s movie pairs Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss as a perfect team. Dreyfuss plays the stuffy psychotherapist, Murray (Bob) the obsessive-compulsive patient. Bob does not take it very well when he learns his therapist will be gone on vacation with his family for a month. He shows up at his doctor’s vacation home… and hilarity ensues.

In predictable nature, Dreyfuss warms up to Murray by the end of the movie. But it still plays out well and has solid good banter.

Starring: Bill Murray, Richard Dreyfuss
Runtime: 99 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: A patient follows his therapist on vacation


Short Circuit 2 (1988) / Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Short Circuit 2

There are few classic 80’s movies + sequels better than the Short Circuit series. Thankfully they only made two of them but both are definitely worth watching. Enjoy being uncomfortable while Fisher Stevens plays a stereotypically exaggerated Indian immigrant… The 80’s, right?

In the first movie, we learn that Johnny 5 was a trained killing machine for the military. After some plot device happened, he becomes alive! And is just a nice friendly robot that everyone is trying to steal or destroy. The second movie is basically the same plot.

I’m not quite sure how well the movie holds up as actual entertainment. I’d say it’s more of a good/bad movie. But a classic nonetheless.

Starring: Fisher Stevens
Runtime: 111 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: Robot, Johnny 5, has to survive being almost sold, getting involved in a street gang, and being kidnapped.

June Books To Read: The Martian, Spousnomics, Tell-Tale Brain

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for books to read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

The Martian by Andy Weir

The Martian by Andy Weir

This novel has quite a few things going on. The plot is that of an adventure sci-fi story. A mission goes awry and a NASA crew leaves behind one of their astronauts on Mars. He is stranded on the red planet and needs to figure out how to survive/escape. Fortunately for him, he is an engineer & a botanist. Unfortunately for us, the writing comes off as a DIY blog written by an engineer who just happens to be living on Mars.

It is an exciting story. There are explosions. And near-death situations. Space is scary (although the main character never seems to be scared). This isn’t a story about aliens or monsters. But, a la Gravity, is about being alone in space. The absolute only person that is on a planet. It is crazy to think about. That’s probably why the main character rarely thinks about it. He also rarely expresses any emotion that isn’t the excitement of a 15-year old girl or sarcasm.

The problem is the narrative. The novel’s first sixty pages or so are told in a diary format. This is the astronaut’s log. So we get to learn about everything after he’s already done it. Brilliant strategy for a first-time author. This means all Weir had to do was tell the reader what happened. Instead of showing what happened, like good writers are supposed to do. (Here is an example)

The reader never feels suspense if one of his macguyver-esque schemes was going to work or not, because the beginning of every diary entry gives it away. “I didn’t blow up! Now let me tell you what I did.” This is easy writing but not very interesting as a reader. To make matters worse, Weir changes the narrative numerous times. Abruptly, the story switches to the third-person at NASA headquarters. I’m guessing the author didn’t think the whole “diary” narrative through but didn’t want to go back and change everything. It switches between the astronaut first-person and the NASA third-person a lot, especially towards the end. Then, for no real reason, there are a few paragraphs that are about the astronaut but in the third person. It was very odd to read.

Again, the plot is great and creative. They are going to make this a movie and I can definitely see why. I actually think I would love the movie. See, a big part of the book is the Macguyver-esque solutions the main character comes up with to survive. It is believable since he is an engineer-botanist. And if you too are an engineer-botanist, you would love this book. But I’m not. So, I don’t need a technical manual to growing potatoes or creating water. It is neat and interesting. But half of the book is basically non-fiction. It’s not suspenseful or even interesting. It’s also easy writing because it makes for lots and lots of filler.

But still the plot is so good! Which doesn’t make up for the fact that the main character has zero depth to him. It’s amazing because the reader is with this stranded astronaut on Mars for over a year. A year! Yet, he never talks about holidays in an emotional context. Thanksgiving is mentioned because he finds potatoes to eats. He doesn’t actually talk about feeling lonely on Thanksgiving.

There is no mention of his birthday. No talk about missing his friends or family. Everything is a joke to him. I don’t even know if he was single or married. He joked about wanting to get laid. But never discussed wanting human contact. Never mentioned being sad in an emotional way. There were statements, “It’s very lonely here.” But again, this is the author simply telling us the character is lonely. We never see him sulking around the ship. Or reminiscing while looking out the window.

I wanted the main character to survive because he’s a human being but there was definitely no emotional connection there. I will bring up Gravity again because I felt the emotional aspect there was a bit forced. But after reading this, I realize that a survival story needs that to work.

Fortunately, I’m certain Hollywood will trim down some of the technical engineering stuff & throw in a love interest somewhere.

Author: Andy Weir
Genre: Sci Fi
Rating: 2/5
Summary: An engineer astronaut is lost on Mars and Macguyver’s his way to survive.

They Called Me God by Doug Harvey

Doug Harvey is one of three umpires in the Baseball Hall of Fame. I did not know that until I read They Called Me God. I’m a sucker for memoirs and this was no exception. It was definitely geared more towards a baseball fan, as there were some aspects of the game I wasn’t really sure about. But it’s more so about his life and early baseball. That is definitely fascinating.

The writing was a bit simplistic and repetitive but I get it. The guy’s an umpire not a writer. His personality does come through in the writing. He seemed like a very loyal/fair person. Sometimes to an extreme but he never apologizes.

There were lots of aspects of the profession that were interesting to learn about. And he definitely has an unique story to share. Even if you’re not a baseball person, I still recommend this.

Author: Doug Harvey & Peter Golenbock
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Memoir of one of baseball’s greatest umpires.

Spousonomics

After I finished Spousonomics, I learned they reprinted it with a different title, It’s Not You, It’s The Dishes. Dumb name. I doubt I would have read it with that on the cover. Thankfully I didn’t see that one because I really did enjoy this book.

It is sort of marriage self-help but the economics angle really changes things up. I’m not anywhere near married right now and still found the book helpful. You can think of most of the situations in relation to standard human interaction. Many of these things come up in every day life all the time. Loss-aversion. The hot-cold empathy gap. It doesn’t just have to be for economists. It’s an interesting different way of thinking about relationships.

Honestly, I’m giving the book a good rating mainly because it taught me the term “limerence”. Which is essentially that “crazy in love” feeling. Or “butterflies.” Or that “magical first kiss.” I never knew it had an actual name!

Whether you’re in a relationship or not, Spousonomics is a light-read interesting book bringing economics into real-life situations.

Author: Paula Szuchman & Jenny Anderson
Genre: Non-Fiction / Relationships / Economics
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Interesting take on personal interactions with an economics angle.

Tell-Tale Brain

I am such a sucker for these neuropsychology books. I’ve read several now. One of them actually cited Tell-Tale Brain so I was looking forward to reading it. It got a little bit heavy toward the end. But over-all is quite readable for someone with zero neurology background.

There were so many fascinating topics discussed! The book starts out talking about Phantom Limb Syndrome. This is when an amputee can still feel their amputated limb. Sometimes it itches or it is in pain. They don’t visually see an arm where there is not one. But they do truly feel it. Parts of the brain truly think the limb is still there. The author was one of the first to discover a therapy to help with this.

He discovered that you could place a mirror next to a patient so it would reflect the real arm. This way it visually looks like there are two arms. Surprisingly, this actually tricks the brain! Many patients, especially over time, said that when seeing the other arm in the mirror, the pain in the “limb” would ease. Or disappear completely. Incredible! Our brains are weird!

One of the other super interesting conditions mentioned is Blindsight. Now, I had heard of this before. But hadn’t actually realized how it worked. The author describes a situation where he is sitting with a patient who is completely blind. He shines a small light and asks the blind patient to point to where the light is. Even though the patient cannot visually see the light, they correctly identify the position of the light most of the time. Far more times than to be considered “a lucky guess.”

This is explained in the book; I’ll paraphrase a bit. When viewing something, that information goes on a journey through our brains to our eyes where the image is actually shown to us. Of course this happens so fast we don’t even know it. When blind, part of this journey is no longer working, but some of it is. The brain can still see and process the information. It’s just that it cannot pass that information along to the eyes.

There are many other weird/interesting stories about the weird/interesting things our brains do. I really enjoy this topic and recommend the book if you do too.

Author: V. S. Ramachandran
Genre: Non-Fiction / Neuro-psychology
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Interesting studies of how weird our brain really is

Netflix Instant Picks: The Avengers, Dredd, Goon

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The Avengers (2012) / Comic Adventure

Netflix Instant Picks The Avengers

Over the weekend, I watched the second Captain America movie in theaters. Having never seen the first one, I surprisingly enjoyed it. I’m pretty new to the marvel universe. While I like graphic novels and comics, I’m still not really into DC or Marvel’s superhero universe.

When watching any of these movies, I have nothing to compare to them to, which means I typically enjoy them for the fun action adventure movies they are. Since I really enjoyed the Captain America story, I thought it would be make sense to follow that up with The Avengers.

Unfortunately, this wasn’t the best idea. Scarlett Johnasson is amazing as Black Widow. She’s truly the only character I liked. I still can’t get over Robin (as in How I Met Your Mother character) being cast in a movie like this. I know she has little screen time but I just really can’t take her seriously.

For whatever reason, this combination of characters just didn’t work for me. I turned the movie off about an hour into it. There is a huge fight between Iron Man and Thor (even though they’re on the same side) that totally killed all interest for me. I also didn’t like Loki being the villain.

My personal preferences aside, if you want a superhero action movie this is definitely a good pick. You’ll get Iron Man, The Hulk, Thor, Captain America, Hawkeye, and Black Widow.

Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson
Runtime: 143 min
Leslie Rating: 2/5
Summary: Marvel action flick with a decent superhero round up


Dredd (2012) / Action Future

Netflix Instant Picks Dredd

Want to watch a totally dumb action explosion shooting movie? Here it is! This movie has it all. A by-the-book invincible police officer (called judges in this world). A rookie officer being trained. The projects. A futuristic world. Mass murder. Machine guns. And a happy ending. There’s not even a love story to interfere with the explosions.

This movie remake knows exactly what it is and it does it well. There is little plot. Lots of violence. And it ends right when it should.

Starring: Karl Urban
Runtime: 95 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: Futuristic world where cops are ‘judges’ (judge, jury, & executioner) and they take their jobs very seriously


Goon (2011) / Sports Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Goon

Watching Goon is a perfect way to celebrate the NHL play-offs. Sean William Scott plays his role as a bruiser hockey player perfectly. He wasn’t picked by the team for his game skills, he was picked specifically to fight.

There is enough of a plot to keep the story going along. He is paired up with a roommate who needs some inspiration to get back into the swing of the game. There is also a bit of a love interest. Plus just the right amount of comedy without it becoming too ‘low hanging fruit’ humor. (Even though there are plenty of 69 jokes, the number of his jersey).

Warning: The end scene involves a broken ankle and can be a bit cringe-worthy. So be prepared if you get grossed out by things like that. Try to watch the scene if you can though, it’s a solid ending.

Fun sports movie that knows what it is and doesn’t try too hard doing it. Even if you don’t like hockey or sports, you’ll enjoy this.

Starring: Sean William Scott
Runtime: 91 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: Light-hearted sports comedy about a hockey player picked solely for his fighting skills.

April Books To Read Recap: The Scar Boys, A Highly Unlikely Scenario, Kurt Vonnegut

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for books to read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

A Highly Unlikely Scenario, or a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World: A Novel by Rachel Cantor

This is Cantor’s first novel. There is some serious potential here and I hope she continues writing. I am looking forward to what she comes up with next. With that said, there is definite room for improvement with story development.

The writing style and pacing is fantastic! But the plot device and elements were rather weak for me. Part of this is personal preference that I just can’t get into Jewish mysticism stories. Remember how much I disliked Yiddish Police Men’s Union?

At it’s heart, this is a fun, wacky time travel book. The main characters are kids but it’s not kid oriented. Cantor creates a world that could be very interesting but doesn’t develop it enough to really pull us in. I would have loved to know the actual reasons for the different factions and all the fighting. I kept waiting for an explanation but it never came.

The story also did this strange thing where it solved a problem that never existed. As is possible with time travel books but it was strange to put in. One of the characters “saved the world” before we saw that it ever needed saving.

I do recommend this book as a light, fun read. But mainly suggest you keep an eye out for Rachel Cantor in the future.

Author: Rachel Cantor
Genre: Time Travel/Sci Fi
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Strong writing, great style, undeveloped plot & world.

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

Breakfast of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

As an enjoyer of Vonnegut’s novels, I was looking forward to finally reading this one. His satire, as always, is on point. I loved how it was written in a “Welcome to the Western World” handbook style. However, towards the end of the book this grew tiresome. The illustrations also started out hilarious then just grew overboard. Yes, I understand that’s the point and Vonnegut does it well.

The humor never stops but I did find myself getting bored of the whole thing about three-quarters way through. The plot was too open, the characters too wacky, the satire too strong. Maybe this just wasn’t quite the Vonnegut book for me.

I did love that the plot revolves around a writer going to a festival. His works were mainly published in dirty magazines as filler. The descriptions of his stories were wonderful. I liked what should have been the plot. But then things unraveled pretty quickly toward the end and I just couldn’t keep up. So it goes.

Author: Kurt Vonnegut
Genre: Fiction; Satire
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Typical Vonnegut.

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

The Scar Boys by Len Vlahos

Also reviewed in my Weekly Updates.

Trust me, don’t let the words “coming of age” or “young adult” scare you. I loved this book. I read it in a day.

The beginning involves the main character being tied to a tree (kids!) then struck by lightning and practically burned to death. We get an insight into how difficult his life was afterwards, as he was literally scarred from the incident.

Then he makes a friend and they create “the greatest punk rock band you’ve never heard of”. This part of the story is predictable. The bassist is a girl, someone in the band sleeps with her (this isn’t a spoiler). There is some tension. Friendships end. Friendships rekindle. It’s typical and original all at the same time.

It’s setting was interesting for me, Westchester; suburbs of NYC. Since it is set in the 1970’s/1980’s time period, there were fun descriptions of the NYC punk scene during that time. The band, of course, goes to CBGB’s. They get their van illegally inspected in the Bronx. That stuff was fun for me.

The ending isn’t completely predictable but things do come full circle. Everyone grows but without a sappy, sentimental ending. It doesn’t quite end happy, but it ends as it should.

Author: Len Vlahos
Genre: Coming of age; Young Adult
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Lively coming of age story about high schooler’s who form a punk band. Oh yeah, the main character was struck by lightning and almost burned alive.

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

Sisterland by Curtis Sittenfeld

This is not a book I would typically read. But one of my favorite friends said it described motherhood very well, so I was curious. I actually enjoyed the depictions of a SAHM of two. It was subtle but weaved into the story well. As someone childless myself, I haven’t thought about how shopping for clothes would be different with a child with you.

Unfortunately, some of this made the main character come off as stuck up. Pretentious. Condescending. A downright bitch. Reading Sisterland reminded me a lot of reading Big Brother by Lionel Shriver . Both novels revolve around sibling tension. Both main characters have a sibling who is doing nothing with their life, though has lots of potential. This sibling is childless, single, selfish; essentially a train wreck. Oh, and of course both siblings are fat. Because, you know, if you’re fat then you definitely can’t have anything skinny people can have.

To be fair, the end of Sisterland puts a sort of balance to the fat shaming. But it wasn’t enough for me.

The plot device is the psychic powers the sisters have and their prediction of a major earthquake. It at least kept me interested in the story. However, it really is only a device because the story is essentially about the lives of these two sisters. The main character is just a terrible person all the way through. I mean, she’s supposed to be, but it made it a bit of a drab read.

Author: Curtis Sittenfeld
Genre: Fiction; Family
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Good writing, interesting ESP plot, weak characters

DNF’s

I started but did not finish Art of Happiness by Dalai Llama & Howard C. Cutler and Double Feature by Owen King. As I previously mentioned, these two just weren’t worth the time.

Art of Happiness is more of a memoir from an American psychiatrist. It’s mostly about his therapy, his life stories, and some case studies. With bits and pieces of his discussions with the Dalai Lama thrown in there for good measure.

My only caveat with Double Feature was it’s formatting. Also, I’m not a filmmaker. Much how Cormac McCarthy’s lack of quotation marks defines his style. Owen King’s style is defined by the lack of paragraph breaks; especially after dialogue. Maybe okay in theory, but in practice this creates large walls of text on every page. I just couldn’t do it.


Paying for Media You Can Get For Free

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We should all pay for things to support those who made them so they continue to make them. And yes downloading media you didn’t pay for and don’t already own is illegal. Even if this doesn’t morally bother you, it may be a waste of your time regardless. Sometimes sifting through tons of free files just isn’t worth it when you could have spent $10 (or $10/mo) and found exactly what you wanted. I’ve previously written about how free is rarely worth it. Here are just some more examples.


Music

It’s been a long time since you could just download single songs from Napster. Now, you generally pay a dollar or so for a song from Amazon or iTunes.

Music can still be obtained from torrent sites of course, but it’s usually found there as entire discographies. That can be useful sometimes. But sometimes you just want to hear one song. And sometimes things are mislabeled. You can also use various online storage sites and search engines to find random music files. But this can be tedious and difficult to find more obscure things. At the end of the day, you get what you pay for.

While I have never bought individual tracks or albums digitally, I am currently paying monthly for Spotify. I love that it’s easy. When I want to hear a new band, I can instantly find their entire album history and pick & choose the songs I want to hear. I can see which of their songs are most popular. Find out more information by them. See related artists. And since I pay for it, I can also listen to Spotify music offline. This is perfect for my iPod Touch when I’m not on a wifi connection. And means I don’t have to use the horrendous piece of bloated software that is iTunes.

This isn’t a shill for Spotify, but for any music service. It took me a bit to be open to paying for digital music, when I could acquire it for free. I’ve found it to be more than worth it as far as selection and time-management goes.

Porn

It’s the Internet! Of course there’s free porn! There’s tons of pictures and videos available online all over.

Unfortunately, many of the free videos on websites are edited. While there are sites that have a whole library of free videos, most are usually bad. Bad quality in terms of video and actors. Although, if you prefer amateur stuff, this probably works for you. Many of these free videos don’t cover specific niches. And most are edited down to 10 minutes, or have commercial interruptions, enticing you to subscribe to see more.

The other free alternative is, again, torrenting. While you will get the full version here, mislabeling is a big issue. Or even if isn’t mislabeled, you just don’t know if you will like it. Downloading takes some time/energy, so if you don’t like any of them, it can be a waste.

For a year, I split a subscription with a friend, costing us $50 each total to a well-known site. (I was going through a serious Asa Akira phase.) For the price of Netflix, there was a huge selection of top quality full-length videos available. You could also download videos to keep forever. New videos were added all the time. It didn’t have commercial interruptions or the best parts edited out. I could even be notified when new videos featuring my favorite actors were added to the site. I didn’t have to sift through tons of files. Or be emotionally disturbed when a video turned out to be something completely different.

After that one year, my friend and I let the subscription run out. Although it was much better than dealing with free sources, it’s still a difficult cost (albeit low) to justify.

(I know there are other free sources and invite-only places but I’m not familiar enough with them).

Apps

Once upon a time, I had a jailbroken iPhone (2008). It was very useful as at the time it was the only way to disable all notifications. But jailbroken devices also allow you the opportunity to install paid apps for free. Sure, you’ll save a few bucks here and there. But unless you really know what you’re doing, jailbreaking can be a bit scary. Even with as simple as it is today, when going through it at one point I was certain I bricked my phone. Scary moment!

After one of the upgrades, I reformatted everything and just kept the native installation on there. Then I sucked it up and started paying for my apps. At least it made me think twice before just downloading something willy nilly.

Movies

Like the other media, you can download movies online for free. Sometimes while they’re still in theaters. Screeners (when someone videotapes a movie in the theater) are notoriously bad quality and definitely not worth it. Sometimes there are Award releases that are high quality. Either way, it’s generally a crapshoot until the dvd is released.

Even on the best torrent site, some obscure movies are impossible to find. Sometimes it is worth ponying up the ten bucks to just buy it in good quality.

Plus, with options like Netflix and Hulu Plus, it’s become less necessary to use other means to watch movies.


Time is a huge factor when thinking about getting certain things for free. Aside from media, most free giveaways, especially for food, end up costing you more in time than what you’re getting. I understand the allure of the word free (as does marketing departments everywhere). But most of the time, it’s worth spending ten bucks to get yourself a decent meal.


Books To Read Recap: Alex Versus the Universe, Anthony Marra, Allie Brosh

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for books to read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence

universevsalexwoods

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

The Universe Versus Alex Woods sounds like it would make for an interesting story. And the first hundred pages would you lead you to believe this as well. The first half of the story is strong, funny, and a really good read. Then the tone changes rather abruptly and the second half of the story goes in a completely different direction. The writing stays strong throughout. But the wit the book starts out on, gets lost as the plot becomes more and more serious.

Alex Woods was hit with a meteorite, lives with his eccentric mother, suffers from epilepsy, reads a lot, and gets bullied at school. This makes for a really interesting character and he is still a relate-able character for the reader. Extence’s description of school and bullying is on-point and hilarious. It just didn’t stick around in the story long enough.

What starts out as a strange and light-hearted story about a young boy in highschool, quickly turns into a Tuesdays With Morrie style plot. It’s not nearly as syrupy but gets pretty close. The story turns on a dime when Alex begins spending time with an elderly neighbor. This starts out as penance for destroying his property. But then they become friends. Of course the elderly man typically kept to himself and wasn’t fond of Alex right away but then he grew to like him quite well. Of course the elderly man lived alone and Alex soon began taking care of him. Of course the man is dying of some incurable disease. Of course Alex thinks he can save him and learn from him, etc. Any other predictable stereotypes you can think of for a teen + elderly platonic emotional relationship, it’s there.

I’d suggest knowing more about the story before going into it. If you’re looking for a witty uplifting story about a teen learning life lessons from the elderly, this is your book. Oh! There is also a quirky addition of Kurt Vonnegut. All of his books get discussed and summarized. I’m guessing the author is a fan? That helped to cut out some of the sugariness from the Tuesdays With Morrie part.

Author: Gavin Extence
Genre: Coming of Age
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Strong writing, witty first half, sappy second half.

save_yourself

Save Yourself by Kelly Braffet (DNF)

Being honest here, this book is a DNF for me. Did Not Finish. There wasn’t any reason in particular why I bailed on it. It was more so the combination of teenage-style writing, mediocre characters, and an obvious plot device. After 100 pages, I simply didn’t care what happened in the story or to the characters. There wasn’t a connection to any of them. I’m not even sure the book was about anything. There was a lot of rambling. And a lot of stereotypical character traits.

I won’t rate DNF books. Just because I bailed doesn’t always mean the book was bad. But it does mean I didn’t feel any desire to continue reading the author’s reading style or learn more about the characters. So take that as you will.

Author: Kelly Braffet
Genre: Fiction
Rating: DNF
Summary: Simplistic writing, mundane characters, obvious plot

Have You Found Her? A memoir by Janice Erlbaum

Have You Found Her? by Janice Erlbaum

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

Just because I finished this book in one sitting (four hours) doesn’t mean it was good. Often I lose interest in predictable stories. And this one was predictable from the get go. But every time I thought the reveal was going to happen, things just continued. To the point where I thought that maybe my cynical thoughts were wrong. For that reason alone, I kept reading. However, I did consider bailing to look up the ending on line. Instead I trudged through it.

Don’t get me wrong, the story is interesting. Stories of manipulation are always fascinating for an outsider to see. The problem with the story is the pretentiousness of the author. This is a memoir from Erlbaum but is about her relationship with a young girl she met in a women’s shelter in Manhattan. Erlbaum’s ego is too big to hide. She really thinks she is saving the world by “helping” this girl. She really thinks she is a saint. Sometimes she becomes self-aware of this. For maybe half a sentence. But then goes right back to thinking she did something amazing.

Even by writing a story about how she was completely duped, she still manages to turn it into how much she sacrificed for someone she didn’t know at all. She details all of her good intentions even if things didn’t work out in the end. No apologies for these mild spoilers because the ending is completely obvious less than fifty pages in.

Author: Janice Erlbaum
Genre: Memoir
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Strong writing, pretentious attitude, obvious ending

Hyperbole and a Half: Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

I’ve known for a long time that I don’t have a sense of humor. If you ever doubted me on that, this review will confirm it. The Hyperbole and a Half book was fine. It was an enjoyable read. Eh. It’s difficult because I’ve seen some of the drawings before. Sure, they’re still funny and entertaining, but it did take away from the book for me.

I couldn’t tell what the book was trying to do. The organization was strange, especially the latter half. The beginning started out silly. Clearly her letters to herself and the self-deprecation those included were supposed to be funny. The second half featured her drawings on depression. These are great. But then right in the middle of these serious thoughts, was a funny piece, then it went back to serious mode. Not much new was added.

It seemed like she was trying to put herself out there then changed her mind mid-way and pulled back. Or was trying to please two groups of people. It just doesn’t work.

Allie Brosh is loved by lots so I realize this will be an unpopular opinion. Seriously, I just don’t have a sense of humor at all.

Author: Allie Brosh
Genre: Comics/Auto-Biographical
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Cop-out autobiography, drawings you’ve already seen

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra (DNF)

This novel has some truly beautiful writing. Unfortunately, the jumpy story makes it difficult to keep track of and care about the characters. Flashbacks in time, between characters, and between story lines happened far too frequently. Just as you’re getting back into the voice of one character, you get jumped to another.

With all that said, the writing is absolutely wonderful. Beautiful prose, descriptions that are magical. Anthony Marra takes a horrific subject and makes everything sound romantic and graceful.

For example, here is the most beautiful paragraph you will ever read about a man trying to take a shit:

The Silver Mkarov pistol was all Ramzan thought about for the two weeks preceding Dokka’s disappearance, in which he failed to produce a single bowel movement. Each morning, venturing into the cold in nothing but a robe and lambskin boots, he turned the corner of the house, passed icicles filling the gutter’s missing segments, passed the frostbitten fingers of fallen birch limbs, and waded down the sharp incline to the scattered pine cones that had amassed into an ankle-deep mound at the outhouse door. Inside, he sat with his elbows burrowed into his knees, a full-bodied clench that left him red-faced and winded. Snow flurries fell through the roof’s missing half, landing on the back of his neck, and melted into sweat. His scrotum was an empty coin purse flattened between his legs. He was enable to father even a soft dollop of excrement.

There’s 384 pages of that. It’s beautiful, don’t get me wrong. And it is this beautiful writing that keeps you from feeling absolutely horrible after reading such a sad story. This is a story about wars, and lost lives, and lost people. It is sad. Yet the writing is beautiful and flow and descriptive and it felt like I was floating while reading it. I would love to read a linear story by Marra.

Author: Anthony Marra
Genre: Historical Fiction
Rating: DNF
Summary: Chechnyan War, Flashbacks, most beautiful prose

Netflix Instant Picks: Jumanji, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Click

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Jumanji (1995) / Family Adventure

Netflix Instant Picks Jumaji Robin Williams

Not only is this a fair adaptation of the book but after nine years it still holds up. Sure, the movie is predictable but it’s a family film at heart. The special affects also hold up when comparing to today’s visuals. They do a good job presenting the past and the future and making sure both are separate.

The story of Jumanji tells of a board game about the jungle that actually comes to life. You can actually be taken into the jungle. Lions can appear in your bedroom. You can turn into a monkey. The movie shows all these things very well without it coming off as too hokey. There are times things are forced and silly. Remember, family movie.

Besides, Kirsten Dunst is adorable.

Starring: Robin Williams, Kirsten Dunst
Runtime: 103 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: A game about the jungle that becomes real life.


Click (2006) / Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Click Adam Sandler

I remember watching this movie at the theater, in some mall in South Jersey. I was with some friends, two of whom might have been on a date. I don’t quite remember. The movie hadn’t sounded interesting to me but I went with the group anyway.

Turns out, when given the power to control your life with a remote, being able to pause and fast forward and rewind, not fun things happen. Click starts off with the basic use of the remote having Adam Sandler fast forward until he receives a promotion. He thinks he will get it within the next few months but it actually takes several years. Of course in that time he has missed part of his family’s lives.

Then it gets weird. And it’s not funny at any point. We’ve seen this story before… he sees how his selfish ways are ruining his family then he gets a chance at a do-over. Predictable and boring.

And that’s all I have to say on the topic of malls in south jersey.

Starring: Adam Sandler, Kate Beckinsale, Christopher Walken
Runtime: 107 min
Leslie Rating: 2/5
Summary: Being able to control life as though it’s a movie isn’t as great as it seems.


Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) / Foreign Action

Netflix Instant Picks Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon

It took me a while to warm up to foreign martial arts films but now I can’t get enough of them. This is definitely in my top three for the choreography alone. It’s not just people fighting each other.

These are beautifully choreographed fighting scenes. Dances almost. It’s about skills not just strength. Really beautiful to watch.

Among the eye-catching action scenes is a very strong story. The plot revolves around Chow Yun-Fat attempting to avenge his master’s death. With a tasteful side of romance thrown in. This film is beautiful and should be seen by everyone.

Starring: Yun-Fat Chow
Runtime: 120 min
Leslie Rating: 5/5
Summary: Beautifully choreographed martial arts movie to supplement a story of romance.


Netflix Instant Picks: Gattaca, Taxi Driver, Men in Black II

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Gattaca (1997) / Sci-Fi

Netflix Instant Gattaca

Gattaca, starring the talented combination of Ethan Hawke, Jude Law, and Uma Thurman, is in my top 5 list of best sci-fi movies.

A world where all babies are genetically engineered. No diseases. No imperfections. But some were born off the grid, In-Valids. Ethan Hawke’s character is one of these imperfects and is seen as weak by society.

The plot revolves around Ethan Hawke trying to assume the identity of someone who was genetically engineered. There are plenty of close-calls and suspense. Some parts are cringe-worthy as becoming someone else includes leg lengthening to match their height.

The take on genetic engineering is interesting and everyone plays their parts, perfectly.

Bonus: This is Jude Law’s first major movie role.

Starring: Ethan Hawke, Uma Thurman, Jude Law
Runtime: 106 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: The lengths people go to for perfection.


Men In Black II (2002) / Sci-Fi Comedy

Netflix Instant Picks Men in Black Sequel

Taking a good concept and keeping it going, Men in Black II, is really more of the same. This isn’t bad but don’t expect a whole different story or anything. Will Smith’s character is still strong. And the aliens are still silly.

Starring: Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones
Runtime: 88 min
Leslie Rating: 3/5
Summary: Strong follow-up with more silly alien antics and Will Smith.


Taxi Driver (1976) / Classic Drama

Netflix Instant Picks Taxi Driver

Watching Taxi Driver for the first time in a New York City theater was strange experience. The movie’s atmosphere was perfectly gritty and creepy. De Niro’s character is perfectly delusional.

The movie is very New York. I would say it is one of the most quintessential New York movies. Everything about the feelings it portrays is accurate including characters, neighborhoods, and caricatures.

There are many memorable lines from the movie (you looking at me?) and a killer ending. For a movie from the 1970’s this definitely holds up and I can’t recommend it enough. .

Starring: Robert De Niro, Jodie Foster
Runtime: 114 min
Leslie Rating: 4/5
Summary: An intense look at someone becoming psychotic.



Books to Read in March: Horns by Joe Hill plus Warren Ellis & Leo Babauta

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I’ve started writing individual thoughts for each book I read per week in my Weekly Updates posts. Look at those to stay on top of what I’m reading. At the end of the month, I’ll list all the books read here with a mini-review of each.

Top Pick: Horns by Joe Hill

Joe Hill's Horns

Joe Hill’s Horns

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

If you’re looking for books to read in March, start right here with Horns by Joe Hill. This is one of the more intriguing and well-balanced novels I’ve read in a while.

First there’s the plot. Main character Ig woke up after a long night of drinking with a hangover and horns on growing of his head. Yes, like devil horns. Along with the horns comes the ability to see into someone’s mind at just a touch. Along with other’s telling him their sins. Both things are more of a boon than a gift.

On top of this, is the real meat behind the story. About a year ago, Ig had been accused of raping & killing his girlfriend after they had a loud public break-up. He was never charged nor cleared. Using his new-found ability to see people’s memories at just a touch, he is able to go back in time and discover what happened that night.

Hill technique of writing different perspectives from different characters works very well. Some characters are left in the dust but that can’t be helped. Everyone in the book is terrible. Except Ig and his girlfriend I guess. I suppose we would all sound terrible if you only knew us by our sins.

The book doesn’t go too supernatural or too horror at all. It is curious and adventurous. You really start to feel for the main character which is a strange emotional conflict because at the same time he is turning into a devil. The ending was all that I hoped it to be. No letdown. No soft ending.

I haven’t read any other of his novels but am certainly looking forward to what Hill brings us in the future.

I recommend Horns if you like light supernatural or light mystery novels.

Author: Joe Hill
Genre: Supernatural
Rating: 4/5
Summary: One morning Ig woke up with a hangover and horns growing out of his head.




The Signal and The Noise by Nate Silver

Economics & Forecasting; Nate Silver's The Signal and The Noise"

Economics & Statistics; Nate Silver’s The Signal and The Noise”

As a web analyst and someone who likes numbers & spreadsheets, I thought this would be more interesting than it was. Silver stays to his argument pretty well, which is that forecasts should be flexible to various environmental changes (whether that’s biological or economical).

Unfortunately, his writing and multiple examples muddle this argument throughout the entire book. He is very long-winded and repetitive. For a book on numbers, there are far too many words.

His examples are good, following the recent economical recession, baseball, and the weather. The weather section was the most interesting for me, probably because it directly affects me most regularly. With that said, reading this did motivate me to watch Moneyball, which I recommend. In fact, I suggest watching that movie over reading this book – something I don’t do very often.

I recommend The Signal and The Noise if you like economics.

Author: Nate Silver
Genre: Economics
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Long-winded argument about flexible predictions using plenty of examples




Gun Machine by Warren Ellis

Detective Novel; Warren Ellis' Gun Machine

Detective Novel; Warren Ellis’ Gun Machine

Warren Ellis is known as a comic book writer and that is very clear in the novel Gun Machine. It is also clear that without the support of illustrations, Ellis cannot tell a complete story.

I absolutely loved this story right up until the end. Seriously, the last 5 pages were SO BAD that it completely ruined everything before that. Which is a shame because boy were the first parts good!

Ellis does a great job setting a scene and atmosphere. Since the story is set in NYC (kind of in this world, kind of not), there were definitely times that I felt creeped out reading this in my apartment alone. There is a real sense of fear, dread, and mystery built around the killer. Unfortunately, what starts out as brilliantly ominous turns into a joke by the end of the book.

I recommend Gun Machine, if you like comics, detective stories, and creepy atmosphere’s. With that said, be prepared for a shallow ending.

Author: Warren Ellis
Genre: Crime/Detective
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Crime novel set in nyc with very strong beginning and horribly weak ending




Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town by Kelly McMasters

Kelly McMasters' Welcome to Shirley

Kelly McMasters’ Welcome to Shirley

Also reviewed in my weekly updates.

This part memoir-part environmentalism story works surprisingly well. This is the book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks tried to be. McMaster’s grew up in the Long Island town she writes about, providing the reader with a unique and emotional perspective of growing up in a town where the near-by national laboratory happens to have a leaky reactor. The juxtaposition between her warm childhood memories in the first part of the book, with the sudden change in tone when the community starts getting sick is a perfect balance.

The second part of the book involves more of her research and discussions on activism within the community. The first part is straight-forward memoir. I could complain that the research is a bit soft but it’s actually perfect for the type of story she is trying to tell. Being able to see the experience through the eyes of someone who lived through it and just as important as reading legal transcripts and government reports.

I recommend Welcome to Shirley: A Memoir from an Atomic Town if you like memoirs, like Long Island area stories, like reading about the health impact of toxins released into the environment.

Author: Kelly McMasters
Genre: Memoir / Environmental
Rating: 4/5
Summary: Part memoir, part environmental essay on a town in Long Island with a nuclear reactor in their back yard.




Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher's Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams

Butcher’s Crossing by John Williams (not that John Williams) is a tricky one. The writing is great as to be expected. The plot is very western as it’s about buffalo hunting and exploring the wild west. It is West in the sense that the only female characters in the book are whores. And the novel focuses on four men. One man in particular reminds me of the gruff western characters in True Grit. Then another man is softer, fresh from an Ivy League school on the east coast wanting to explore the new wild country. This should be a coming-of-age tale but falls a bit short.

The middle section of the book is pretty dry and I almost gave up on it, thinking I already knew the ending. But Williams surprised me. The ending was not quite what I expected and actually pulled everything together very well. But first, you have to get through some pretty gruesome buffalo hunting scenes involving killing animals for hide (and leaving the rest of them to rot). Williams also goes into detail on the skinning process. It was a little bit graphic and I have no idea if it was accurate.

There is kind of a lesson told in the story but again falls short there too. After some thought, I’m really not sure what the story was supposed to tell. A lot of it was predictable and then nothing really happened afterward. This is the second Williams book I’ve read so I might wait some time before checking out another one.

I recommend Butcher’s Crossing if you’re interested in westerns, men’s men, and hunting.

Author: John Wiliams
Genre: Western
Rating: 3/5
Summary: Four men explore the western territory for Colorado to find a mythical valley of buffalo.




The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

The Power of Less by Leo Babauta

I love Zen Habits but really did not enjoy this book. Leo Babauta has a great personality, a good life story, and excellent writing style. Zen Habits is very easy to read and never comes off preachy. This book would have been better as a collection of his essays or even an autobiography type of story.

Unfortunately, it is straight-forward self-help which really leaves little explanation of how to do anything. Babauta can write too well to be using bullet points.

I recommend subscribing to Zen Habits for motivation and productivity. Skip the book.

Author: Leo Babauta
Genre: Productivity / Self-Help
Rating: 2/5
Summary: Typical self-help topics that are better written on the author’s blog.