Friday, July 10, 2020

TALKING HANDS


Review of TALKING HANDS by MARGALIT FOX

In an isolated village in Israel, there’s an unusual percentage of deafness. Given the seclusion, an indigenous sign language has developed. TALKING HANDS follows the linguist who set out to study this unique language.

Although the book focuses on a specific sign language, this is as much a book about linguistics in general as sign language or the village’s particular language. The chapters alternate between focusing on the village versus focusing on the history of sign language linguistic research. I found the discussion of the Forbidden Experiment particularly interesting as I’m intrigued by science’s struggle to obtain new knowledge with as few ethical violations and moral sacrifices as possible.

As one might expect, the content also lends itself to a social history of deafness and sign language. Again my own interest in emotionally complex matters made me most drawn to a particular topic: that of internalized prejudice, such as when deaf people side with the hearing about limiting deaf rights.

The more scientific content is no less fascinating. Fox discusses how studying individuals who have sustained damage to the left side of their brain helps us understand the neurobiology of language. I also appreciated her mention of how the deaf both sign in their sleep and sign to themselves when they’re alone. (I didn’t specifically think one wouldn’t; as a hearing person, those are simply aspects of deafness that I had never considered.)

I will confess that the introduction put me off at first. I didn’t like that “speak” is in quotations when referring to sign language. There are multiple official definitions of speak, but most refer to using any language, not specifically oral language, so it’s society’s hearing bias when people think using sign language isn’t technically speaking. I’ve also encountered several deaf people venting about this phenomenon that hearing writers feel they must use “signed” instead of “said” (or “replied” or “asked,” etc.). There’s a subtext with that attitude that sign language isn’t a real language. Of course, I know we often say (or write) things that don’t across as we mean them and this writer’s overt passion for sign language counterbalances a perhaps misguided use of quotation marks.   

TALKING HANDS is a thoroughly engaging book packed with interesting content about the linguistic and social history of sign language through the lens of a specific, very unique village.

Friday, July 3, 2020

FIRE BRINGER


Review of FIRE BRINGER by DAVID CLEMENT-DAVIES

This book is a re-read for me, and it more than lives up to my memory. I also find it a good example of the weight of execution versus hook in a good book. What I mean is that the premise of an epic fantasy tale starring deer instead of humans doesn’t grab my interest. Until I read it. FIRE BRINGER is considered a fantasy classic for good reason!

As a traditional high fantasy novel, our story opens with the almost obligatory prophecy: foretelling a hero’s dispatch of a villainous leader. Of course, all these characters are deer. Those well-read in high fantasy and/or familiar with the hero’s journey will find the plot of this story very classically familiar. Yet the animal characters do provide a unique spin on a done-to-death formula.

We meet our hero Rannoch from his very birth, starting the story with his brave parents and their tragic fate. In terms of personality, Rannoch is a classic quiet, strong male figure – but that cliché just seems so fitting on a large buck! (Though I do find it humorous reading in depth about Rannoch’s handsome physical appearance when, again, we’re talking about a deer.)

The antagonist is more of a mindset and movement than one single villain. Drail perhaps sets things in motion. Driven by fear, he places increasingly restrictive rules on his herd. But it’s his advisor Sgorr who poses a deeper threat – with his cunning manipulations and drive to push their control much farther than one herd.

As for supporting characters, there’s a huge cast, again typical for an epic fantasy. Rannoch finds himself aligned with an assorted crew of misfit deer not to mention other unexpected creatures.

The story follows a standard hero’s journey formula, but the animal characters do make it more unique. That and Davies’ distinct prose. The novel feels deep and layered and really pulls the reader into this world with lush sensory description and thorough detail about deer behavior. The bones might be predictable but each plot point is fleshed out with unexpected complexity and numerous small twists.

For those who like their epic fantasies a little furry, FIRE BRINGER may be one of the best anthropomorphized novels in the genre.   

Friday, June 26, 2020

THE EDUCATION OF BET


Review of THE EDUCATION OF BET by LAUREN BARATZ-LOGSTED

While fantasy remains my favorite genre, I also have a taste for some historical fiction now and again. I like juxtaposing modern values against historical ones in search for the overlapping commonalities. I admire historical fiction writers who find that ideal balance between historical accuracy and modern relatability. THE EDUCATION OF BET doesn’t break much new ground, but it’s a familiar, enjoyable, endearing read, and a quick one at that.

Will hates his school obligations while Bet wishes she had the educational opportunities that he does. So Bet disguises herself as a boy and takes Will’s place at school, leaving Will free to pursue other opportunities. To no surprise, Bet finds her impulsive plan far more difficult than she anticipated, not to mention learns a few life lessons that weren’t on the curriculum.

EDUCATION is set in the Victorian era. I’m working on a short story in that era as well and have done extensive research – mostly nonfiction but also some fiction written in the era – so it was fun reading a modern novel in the same vein. Personally, I especially enjoy reading a lot of similar-subject-matter historical fiction, because I like seeing how each author handles the same periods or even historical figures differently.

At its root, this story is a Shakespearean retelling. There are familiar tropes and formulas, but the characters feel distinct. As a character-driven reader, I will happily read the same story again and again with different players (and many writers are happy to oblige).

Friday, June 19, 2020

SELFISH PIGS


Review of SELFISH PIGS: ADORABLY AWFUL LITTLE SWINE by ANDY RILEY

I love Riley’s more well-known series, THE BUNNY SUICIDES. His style certainly appeals to anyone with a slightly twisted sense of humor. SELFISH PIGS has an equally self-explanatory title. Instead of bunnies who have had enough of the world and now creatively seek an innovative end to it all, Riley now presents pigs who, well, maybe they’re the reason the bunnies are depressed.

I didn’t enjoy SELFISH PIGS quite as much as THE BUNNY SUICIDES. I expect it’s because in real life I encounter far more selfish pigs than suicidal bunnies. The latter seems amusing in its over-the-top morbid hyperbole, but the former feels at times too realistic. See below: eating all the pizza and deliberately blocking someone’s view.



That said, there are more creative, ridiculous, and extreme version of selfish pigs in here and I find the truly exaggerated ones most amusing. We covered blocking someone’s view, but the following gets even more strategic about it:


And we all know remote hogs, but I hope you don’t know anyone this extreme:


Sadly, even the hyperbolized cartoons still carried a thread of truth by my measure. But the satiric overstatement makes them more entertaining and less like poking a bruise.

Friday, June 12, 2020

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT


Review of TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT by MARIA SEMPLE

When I visited a close friend, we – of course – went to the bookstore, where she bought two books I was interested in reading. So she challenged me to read both of them in the less than 48 hours remaining in my visit. Now the other one was a challenge – THE GENE by SIDDHARTHA MUKHERJEE – at 495 small-print pages with dense nonfiction content. However, I tore through TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT in a matter of hours.

TODAY WILL BE DIFFERENT is verrrry similar to Semple’s other bestselling book, WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADATTE. That’s fine with me. When I read something I like, I’m happy to read several that feel familiar, because familiar means good. To specify for those who find “similar” possibly off-putting: the protagonists of both novels feel like the same base character to me, the husbands in both also feel close to interchangeable, the only child is definitely different but the close mother-child relationship will feel familiar, and even the general plot runs along a lot of the same ground – even if the scenery has some variation. My last comment on this is that between the two similar books, I found BERNADETTE better, so for anyone only looking to read one of Semple’s books I’d recommend BERNADETTE over TODAY.

In TODAY, anxiety-racked mother Eleanor is a remarkably talented illustrator who lost her creative drive after a big move. Already sounds pretty familiar, huh? She’s determined that “today will be different,” today will go according to the plan. Well, obvious spoiler alert, but it doesn’t go to the plan at all. In fact, it’s one of the catalyst days that highlights all the problems in her life and in herself.

My primary criticism with both of these books is that the stakes feel quite low as the characters’ problems are definitely privileged, wealthy people problems. You need to have a lot in your life that’s going your way before you can afford to spend so much time obsessing over your anxiety and especially little perfectionist details about how your errands or housekeeping isn’t meeting your fantasy ideal. I felt BERNADETTE did a better job of burying the privileged aspect beneath a sincere emotional struggle and an intriguing plot, but TODAY seems to have the same drawbacks with less powerful strengths.

That said, one of my favorite aspects about Semple’s writing is the way she can turn a phrase. I love the quote: “What’s the secret to a long marriage?...Staying married.” There’s a dry witty humor in Semple’s work (though, yes, the narrators sound like the same person). I also like this longer quote about creative struggles:

“To make any kind of impact requires self-will bordering on madness. The world will be hostile, it will be suspicious of your intent, it will misinterpret you, it will inject you with doubt, it will flatter you into self-sabotage….But you have a vision. You put a frame around it. You sign your name anyway. That’s the risk. That’s the leap. That’s the madness: thinking anyone’s going to care.”

This is an entertaining and very quick read, but go into it with certain expectations. It’s almost the same book as WHERE’D YOU GO, BERNADETTE, except BERNADETTE is better.

Friday, June 5, 2020

KORGI: THE COSMIC COLLECTOR


Review of KORGI: THE COSMIC COLLECTOR by CHRISTIAN SLADE
(second in the KORGI series)

This graphic novel series follows a young fairy and her adorable Korgi companion. It’s unique. It’s beautifully illustrated. It’s heartwarming. It’s a book for any age. I could go on and on. This series has entirely won my heart.

This second installment has a slightly darker tone, though more through subtext. Most of the tale unfolds with illustrations rather than text and it depends on the reader how much more they will read between what’s not shown or said.
I like that this book’s new antagonist was hinted at in the first book. While the story feels wildly different and episodically separate, there is a definitely a sense of larger story across the different short tales.

That’s probably in no small part because these wonderful illustrations suggest a depth and complexity to this world that pulls the reader in deeper. The mind naturally wanders beyond where the story goes, and mine will happily return back to the little Ivy and loyal Sprout for years to come.



Friday, May 29, 2020

THE POWER OF POSITIVE DOG TRAINING


Review of THE POWER OF POSITIVE DOG TRAINING by PAT MILLER

I love that dog training has shifted over the last decade towards positive methods. Behavioral science research has pretty much debunked dominance theory; it’s based on outdated and faulty research observing poorly socialized wolves kept in captivity. Current studies are finding wolf packs are much more cooperative than that misinformation, and there isn’t the now iconic alpha dynamic at all. Personally, I think our need to dominate dogs and make little puppies submit says far more about human psychology than dog psychology. I have worked as a dog trainer in addition to raising three Guide Dogs for the Blind, and I’ve always preferred positive training approaches to any harsh discipline techniques. Most often when dogs disobey, they are not challenging you; you have failed to make clear what is expected of them or they are trying to tell you something. I strongly believe that the best doggie/human relationships are based on trust and communication, not scolding and dominance. In other words, focus on teaching what is right, not on reprimanding what is wrong.

Miller’s book focuses a bit more on making a case for positive training than on the training itself, though that’s not to say training content isn’t here, too. I’d particularly recommend this book to anyone previously inclined towards dominance theory, as Miller makes a strong, well-written argument for why we should focus on reward and not punishment.

That said, she does include plenty of very helpful specifics, especially for new trainers. I love that she discusses dog body language; she even provides a list of ear, teeth, eyes, tail, etc. positions and what it likely suggests about the dog’s emotional state. There’s also a list of training terms, so no one gets left behind by jargon, and she breaks down the various types of training: capture, shape, model, lure, offer, etc.

A good chunk of the book is devoted to a week by week guide for working with your dog. Personally, I found that – and the daily training planner – less helpful, only because I already have my own “puppy curriculum” system. That said, it’s a fantastic addition to the book, as many people won’t already have detailed plans like that in place or even know where to begin.

This book is a short, worthwhile read with helpful lists along the way summarizing the most important takeaways.