Monday, February 28, 2011

Book Report: Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare

Two Gentlemen of Verona, by William Shakespeare

Interestingly, William Shakespeare is one of the few authors widely read today who does NOT have a web site. Or rather, he has hundreds but does not maintain any of them personally.

Must be some kind of Luddite.

Of course, reviewing a Shakespeare play is a bit like trying to gut a live whale with a dessert spoon. You don't have the right tools and, really, you're just not equal to the task. So, in lieu of a review, I present a plot summary in the spirit of those which are entirely accurate and yet somehow miss the point:

"A young woman enlists the aid of a bandit and a cross-dresser in discouraging a duplicitous suitor."

Actually, although I enjoyed this play, I felt it lacked the emotional weight that later work carried. The play ends with Proteus being forgiven for all he has done, which took about 2 minutes and lacked any real rationale. After all that Proteus had done to Julia, Valentine and Silvia, I expected a duel at the very least. But then, this is light romantic fare and I suppose a deserved death would spoil the mood.

Ulysses Rating: 3 - I enjoyed this, but who cares what I think? It's SHAKESPEARE, for crying out loud!

Book Report: The Shifter, by Janice Hardy

The Shifter, by Janice Hardy

I don't usually indulge in Middle Grade fantasy... or Middle Grade anything, except perhaps cheese, but this author's blog has been interesting and valuable reading, and her discussions piqued my interest in her book. Is her skill with story as strong as I would expect given her observations and opinions on the subject?

Well, yes.

The Shifter is the story of Nya, an orphan who lives in a conquered and occupied city. She and her sister both have the rare ability to absorb another's injuries, but where her sister can dump those injuries into an inert metal called pynvium, Nya can only transfer the pain of them into another person. When her sister goes missing, Nya enlists a handful of friends to find and rescue her. Unfortunately, doing so pits their wits and skills against the leaders of the Healer's temple, uncovers hints of a conspiracy larger than Nya's sister or her city, and reveals that Nya may be more powerful and dangerous than anyone realizes.

It's a great adventure, not just for younger readers but for adults as well, tightly plotted and well told. It's also outside the scope of standard magical fantasy, reminding me of something like Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay. The book's portrayal of the post-war existence of a subjugated people is harsh and believable. Nya is compelling enough to make me forget that in this book, as in most child-targeted fantasies, parents and adults are either malevolent, incompetent, or absent (Nya heals one character's father, but the man is never on stage). Her courage and resourcefulness are well grounded, while her wit and candor make her an entertaining guide to the world.

All in all, I really enjoyed this and look forward to Blue Fire.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

A Dissertation on Depression, Happiness, and a Book report: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl

Well, anything that labels itself as being a "complete idiot's guide" sets the quality standard rather low for a non-fiction book. I don't consider myself a complete idiot, although certainly I display the characteristic traits rather more frequently than I'd like.

Regardless: I am a man of a certain age, and as such it should come as no surprise that I occasionally suffer from depression. It happens. I'm the right age for the archetypal mid-life crisis, which recent research suggests is as much a biological side effect of hormonal change as a sociological or psychological condition. It was during a particularly inconvenient down period that I took myself to the bookstore with the aim of buying something different from my usual run of speculative fiction. I'd heard that biography was quite enlightening, and I was looking for something about Gandhi or the Dalai Llama, both men who seem to have it together. Unfortunately, these are not sufficiently popular to make it onto the shelves of a back-woods small city bookstore.

I'd given up and turned away, only to find, right behind me, a cardboard display of bright orange books. Second up from the bottom on the left was one with a big flower on it and "The Psychology of Happiness" in bold letters.

Now, to understand the synchronicity here, you have to know that depression has come to visit rather a lot over the last few years. It moves right in, sleeps on the couch, cleans out the fridge, hogs the remote and uses up the toilet paper without replacing the roll. It wears out its welcome in about an hour, but lingers for days (or weeks). It is not a fun companion, and because I believe one of the measures of a man is not just being able to offer help but being able to ask for it with equal pride, I've sought professional counseling. It's helped, and for those men contemplating getting a divorce, transplanting hair, buying a Porsche and dating a twenty-year-old, I recommend it highly.

It's WAY cheaper.

But here's the thing: counseling takes the approach, "here's how you can get un-depressed, and how you can prevent recurrence." Which is all fine and good and is a life preserver any drowning man would welcome. But it's like most of therapeutic psychology in that it concentrates on treating pathology, countering the negative.

So here's a book about positive psychology, the study of what makes humans happy. This is the opposite approach, one that doesn't counter the negative but encourages the positive. Positive psychology doesn't say, "here's how you avoid depression," it says, "here's how you foster happiness."

It's the difference between running away from a thing and running toward another thing. In the first instance, you can go any direction and not many of them are going to put you in a better position than you were. In the second, there is a goal, a destination of your choosing.

So in the depths of my despair (I'm depressed, and there's no Gandhi section), a big orange book about happiness drops into my life. At $4.99 Canadian, even a complete idiot would have seen the sense in picking it up.

It contains a survey of the current research in positive psychology, a field of study just over a decade old. Although there are numerous references to scholarly papers, it's written for the layman, and provides a quick, accessible overview of some pretty complex topics. Along the way it provides a definition of happiness, breaks it down into its ingredients and includes a few tips and techniques that promote happiness in the individual.

It's not a practical guide, or a workbook, but it does provide a road map of the territory and the appendices direct the reader to outside resources that may help shape a plan to work toward happiness.

Does it work?

It's a book, folks. It's not so full of itself that it tells you one of the keys to happiness is "read more books about happiness." So, by itself, no.

Likewise, if you're expecting to learn how never to want to cry again, or feel sad, or how to be constantly "up," then you're going to be disappointed. You're also being unrealistic, but this isn't a book about how to deal with THAT.

It's a book about how people manage to increase their general happiness (called the "set level"), and condition themselves to better withstand the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

The things that it promotes as being factors in a happy life are things of which many of us who characterize ourselves as "unhappy" (or "depressed") feel a distinct lack. It's an interesting book, and I've learned a great deal about what I should be doing to get myself a little more happiness. Herewith, a sample:

- Exercise. The release of endorphins gives a short-term emotional boost, and regular exercise creates long-term effects.
- Meditation. Analysis has documented that meditation can change the structure of the brain, adapting it to better weather stress and misfortune.
- Altruism. Giving to and helping others does as much for us as for those we help.
- Spirituality. Apparently it doesn't matter what you believe, so long as you believe it devoutly.
- Social Interaction. We are meant to connect to each-other.
- Exercising Our Skills. You know that feeling you get when you're engrossed in doing something, the hours fly by and you really don't want to interrupt yourself to eat, or sleep or go to the bathroom? Get a couple of hours of that feeling into your day and your happiness will increase accordingly.
- Gratitude. Habitual recognition of the good in your life provides a perspective that places even misfortune in a positive context.

The most interesting thing about this study of happiness is the conclusion that anyone can be happy. Money is not required. None of the suggestions it makes require material outlay or access to facilities that may not be available. It takes a desire (particularly difficult for those who suffer from depression, as one of the primary symptoms of the disease is a "can't do" attitude), dedication of time and effort, and a willingness to step outside our own sphere of comfort.

Possibly the best news I've ever had.

Ulysses Rating: 4 - I loved this. How could I not?

Monday, February 14, 2011


Current Reading: Shifter, by Janice Hardy

Inspirational Quote: "He felt now that he was not simply close to her, but that he did not know where he ended and she began." -- Tolstoy

Ah, Valentine's Day, that one day in the year when we are encouraged to throw caution to the wind and declare our passion via conspicuous consumerism.

Fields of flowers are amputated on this day because tradition tells us that a handful of dying weeds is a suitable way to convey esteem. Buckets of chocolate in all its forms are consumed in the fervent hope that pancreatic shock will somehow lead to intimate bliss (Yeah, okay, so it works on me... but that's just the way I am). Jewelry stores are emptied of things that sparkle on the off chance that polished rocks might inspire passion. Trees are leveled for card stock and dime-store poets squeezed to produce high-saccharine verse in order to somehow convey depth of insubstantial emotion.

Of course, they're using a language that grew out of the need to tell other monkeys where the good fruit hangs and where the tigers prowl, so conveying abstract concepts is no mean feat.

Does it work? It seems to. It's like a self-fulfilling prophesy. Because we believe these things convey affection, they convey affection.

I myself got a card with a very sappy verse, and was happy to have it. Penelope got a hand-written sheet of notepaper on which were scribbled the top ten reasons why being her husband is a decent gig. She accepted it with her usual inspiring grace.

Of course, neither missive yielded the archetypal rush of passion. At the time, Cassandra was feverishly scribbling class names on mass-produced Valentines cards, Aeneas was demanding we tell him on which floor he dropped his shirt last night, Telemachus was complaining that unloading the dishwasher was a task simultaneously beyond and beneath him, Penelope was making breakfast and I was on my way out the door.

We didn't exactly fall into each other's arms.

On the other hand, we did that twenty-one years ago and it seems we did it well enough to last a lifetime.

So: I'm happy. I think she is too. And really, what more can anyone ask?

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Unillustrated Man

Current Reading: The Complete Idiot's Guide to the Psychology of Happiness, by Arlene Matthews Uhl

Inspirational Quote: "Your body is a temple, but how long can you live in the same house before you redecorate?" -- Anonymous

Last Sunday, Cassandra and I went swimming at the local pool. We were splashing around in the water surrounded by scores of other parents and children and teens all doing much the same thing.

What struck me was the abundance of tattoos. It seemed like everywhere I looked, I saw ink. This pool is close to a military base, and the military has always had a tradition of marking themselves. However, that alone couldn't account for the sheer volume and variety of stuff on display. It wasn't just men, of course, but women too and one of the teenage lifeguards had the Chinese character for luck emblazoned on one shoulder.

Why is this so popular? I think my head is the wrong shape for this idea.

In the old days, a tattoo marked you as part of a social group... usually something a little more formidable than the bridge club, maybe even actually dangerous: bikers, criminals, and for some reason, sailors (my father was a sailor, but he remains unmarked. I think that, had he gotten one, something along the lines of "If found, please return to..." would have been appropriate). Now, anyone and everyone seems to sport ink.

I've seen everything from microdots of butterflies to half-body dragons in blue and red and yellow and green. They're impressive for the sheer ingenuity and stamina required to create them and inject them onto the human body, but I don't find them attractive and so I wonder what the incentive is.

I'm not a particularly handsome man, and if someone were able to tattoo a picture of someone who WAS a handsome man over my features, why then I'd go right out and get one today. Sadly, that seems to be beyond the current state of the art.

I wonder if anyone's ever gone out and gotten a tattoo done in flesh-colored ink?

My sister-in-law has a butterfly just east of her collarbone. It's "cute," I guess, in the way that small bugs often can be. However, I have no desire to decorate my body with members of the order insecta. I have enough nightmares about bugs on my body as is without waking up to discover one permanently etched on my skin.

The same goes for just about every species of fauna, real or imaginary. I have no need of tigers, dragons, or snakes in real life so I don't see any reason to carry their image around with me. True, such images speak to one's courage or ferocity, but if the only way you can display those characteristics is to go under the needle, then a tattoo isn't going to do much for your insecurity.

Some tattoos I see are very small. When I ask why so small, the usual reply is, "I didn't want anything gaudy." My audible reaction is polite acknowledgment, but inside I'm thinking, "oh, then you shouldn't have gotten a tattoo." Some are very large, taking up a quarter of the body or more and demanding some degree of nakedness to be fully appreciated. I figure, if you're beautiful naked, then don't colorize perfection. If you're not beautiful naked, coloring your skin blue and black and red isn't going to improve things. It's just going to make you look like a victim of incredibly precise and artistic domestic violence.

I've seen a lot of Chinese characters. Few people, including some of my Chinese friends, know what they mean. 'Luck' is popular, supposedly, but if you don't read Chinese ideograms how do you know what you've really got? You might think you're walking around with the word 'Brave' on your ankle, but the first time you run into someone with a translation fetish you might find out you've labeled yourself 'Spongecake' by mistake.

Words and phrases are common as well, beloved quotes or names of significant people. I'd be honored if someone immortalized me by inking my name on their skin, but I think far too many people have inked someone's name on themselves only to regret the action after they've fallen out. I suppose "Mom" is safe. She loves you even if you're practically invisible under all that markup. The quotations are a neat idea too, although I'd stop at one or two lines. War and Peace, for example, would be almost unreadable due to the required font size. I suppose you could end with "Continued on next body," down around your heel...

And who reads these? The owner? I think that if you have to write something down on your body in permanent ink in order to remember it, then you have issues that a tattoo won't solve. Casual passers-by are unlikely to stop long enough to read what's been written. They rarely stop long enough to read billboards, and saying to someone "Stop a moment, I want to read your body," is likely to get you a slap or a punch depending on the sex of your reading material.

I have an Oriental friend who has no tattoos, but once considered getting "Made in Taiwan" tattooed on the bottom of her foot.

One thing I see a lot is stylized spiky things. Like barbed wire. I've encountered barbed wire in real life, courtesy of an upbringing in farm country. I've been marked by it sufficiently that I feel no need to wrap an imaginary strand around what passes for my biceps. If you think it looks tough, try wrapping real barbed wire around your arm. THAT will impress just about anyone.

And of course despite the availability of laser removal, tattoos are permanent. Which means that whatever you acquire when you're twenty will still be there when you're thirty, or fifty, or seventy. As a result, I think that before you get a tattoo, you should give some serious thought to what it will look like on that loose, baggy skin you're going to be sporting in the distant future. That eagle on your chest is going to devolve into a gothic vulture after forty years, which is going to send a very different message to viewers than I suspect you intended.

I am unmarked, as should be obvious, but I deny no one the right to decorate themselves as they see fit. Those of you who have chosen to be tattooed have your reasons, and I respect that.

I just don't get it.