Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Clan of the Cave Bear

Title: The Clan of the Cave Bear
Author: Jean M. Auel
Series: Earth's Children, book 1
Genre: Historical fiction
Published: 1980

Recommendation: Good read for those who like character-driven stories with more depth than action.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: Everything Ayla knows is destroyed by an earthquake. The starving 5-year old girl is picked up by the Clan of the Cave Bear who are looking for a new home. The story follows Ayla as she grows within the Clan, as one of them, but very different at the same time.

Reactions: The Clan of the Cave Bear is a pretty unusual book. It's set in 30,000BC and deals with the interaction of Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal race. The main character is a Cro-Magnon orphan adopted by a clan of Neanderthals. She comes to live with them and learns their ways, but never quite fits into their society.

The book is very detailed showing the societal structure, culture, and technology of Neanderthals. While I don't know how much of it is accurate, most of it sounds at the very least plausible. A lot of the observations on the society are quite interesting. There are three characters who stand out in their roles within the clan. The Mogur, Creb, is the clan's magician of whom everyone is scared as he is the only one capable of dealing with the unpredictable spirits. The Leader, Brun, is an excellent hunter and logician who thinks about the benefits of the clan before everything else. The Medicine Woman, Iza, is one of a long line of medicine women and has a status of her own due to her usefulness. Each one is particularly good at their role to contrast their foils. Clearly painted as villain is Broud who is Brun's son and heir apparent, but very different in character from his father.

Ayla stands out from the rest of the clan members. She looks different. She is able to make many more sounds while Clan members mostly talk in gestures. She is the only one who can cry or laugh. In many ways, the author clearly extols the virtues of Cro-Magnon race in comparison with the Clan. Ayla is capable of everything: she learns medicine, she learns to hunt, she is a mother, and she is more stoic than anyone else. I really liked Ayla as a character, but sometimes I felt the author was overdoing the contrasts.

The book itself is hardly fast paced. More than half of the 500 pages detail the surroundings or descriptions of Clan's mundane activities. The amount of dialog increases as the book progresses, but at the beginning the pacing is pretty slow and it never really speeds up a whole lot.

Overall it was a pretty good reading experience. I enjoyed the main character and the thematic material of the book. Still deciding on whether I'd want to pick up the next book in the series since the reading of the next one is likely to go as slowly and this one has taken me almost 3 weeks to complete. Still, I don't regret spending the time on it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand

Title: Kitty and the Dead Man's Hand
Author: Carrie Vaughn
Series: Kitty Norville, book 5
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Published: 2009

Recommendation: A fine beach read for anyone already following the series.
Rating: 6.5/10

Summary: Kitty and Ben decide to elope in Vegas. The studio schedules Kitty to do a TV show from Vegas at the same time. Upon arrival the couple finds that a Gun Show is being hosted in the hotel where they are staying. And some of the attendees are not werewolf friendly. Will Kitty have time for her wedding with all the excitement?

Reactions: There isn't a whole lot to say about this book. It was a typical Kitty style adventure with all the usual suspects in place. If anything, it seemed more cliche than usual in terms of plot and pacing. It was pretty obvious what's going to happen and how the book will end. Still, it was a decent read for when you want something cheesy and easy to read.

The Vegas setting had it's nice touches and obligatory jokes on Vegas vampires. Some of them were perhaps a little obvious. All the typical facets of Vegas were covered: gambling, cheating, mafia, weddings, strip clubs, Elvis, magic, etc. Overall, reading the book was quick fun, but the story did not leave me particularly impressed.

Friday, April 9, 2010


Title: Blink
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Genre: Non-fiction
Published: 2005

Recommendation: Some very interesting psychological phenomena, but not a cohesive book as a whole.
Rating: 8/10

Summary: A popular psychology book on how first perceptions affect our judgment and decisions in some very non-intuitive ways sometimes.

Reactions: I spent the last few weeks reading Blink. I primarily read fiction and I found it was quite difficult to keep motivated to come back to this book. While Malcolm Gladwell examines some very interesting phenomena, the moment I put the book down, I felt no compunction to return back to it. Hence I came out of the reading experience with a feeling that the book dragged on whereas it might not be the case for someone with a different mind set.

The subject matter of the book was pretty interesting. I've always been fascinated by psychology and Gladwell discusses some very interesting experiments in the book. He talks of a psychology team studying tapes of couples discussing their marriage and being able to predict the outcome of the marriage by watching very small portion of the conversation. He discusses a case of four policemen shooting an innocent man in Bronx with 41 bullets. He illustrates powers of cognition with some military examples where the teams win against all odds.

Throughout the book, Gladwell attempts to match case studies to psychological studies and explain the phenomena. In some cases, the correlation is clear, in others I felt the connection was a little thin. Even though most of the book deals with how people form initial impressions, how unconsciousness is able to make many decisions, and how it's able to affect decisions negatively which are all related; I did not find that the book was cohesive. I felt the experiment results contradicted each other or were applicable only to narrow situations. I wouldn't say that after reading the book a reader is able to practically take advantage of the subject matter and become better decision makers. But there is certainly valuable food for thought.

The example I found close to my heart was one dealing with how the hiring practices were changed for musician. Apparently in mid 20th century, most orchestras had an overwhelming number of men and only a few women until the blind auditions started to become a popular practice and all of a sudden the hiring rate for women in orchestras soared. The example certainly made me wonder what would happen if we were to adopt the practice for computer science interviews. Put the candidate in a room with a computer and have them solve a problem while using IM as a means of communication. Would we still hire the same people as we do now?

So to sum it up, Blink was an interesting book and I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested in popular psychology subjects. At the very least you will come out with some interesting studies to tell your friends about.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

March Recap

To say that March wasn't a big reading month for me would be an understatement. I finished exactly one book in March and I didn't even like it that much. I can't possibly call it out as March's favorite.

Instead I've been slowly reading Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. It's a fairly interesting popular psychology book on how we are affected by first perceptions, but somehow every time I put it down I don't find too much motivation to pick it back up.

A big chunk of March was spent playing Final Fantasy XIII. While I do not play video games a whole lot, I've been convinced to try this one and find myself enjoying the experience. I like that at the start there is a whole lot of story and slow introduction to the gameplay itself. While the characters may feel a little cliched and extreme in their emotions, overall the story ends up being sufficiently interesting to keep you playing. I also enjoy the auto-fighting mode which picks particular attacks for you. As someone new to this genre of games, that makes the game go a lot easier, but at the same time doesn't reduce the difficulty to the point where it's just tedious.

Overall, I hope in April I will find the motivation to go back to reading more, finish Blink and finish playing Final Fantasy XIII (I am on chapter 11). Onwards to spring!