Monthly Archives: March 2014

Kidding Ourselves by Joseph T. Hallinan

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Realism has its limitations

Don’t I know. But after reading Joseph Hallinan’s Kidding Ourselves, you will find a way to get rid of those extra pounds; you will finally step up and demand that raise you have been denied for the last several years; you will ask out that person you have had your eye on for so long; you will give up that nasty habit, you know the one; and you will finally get around to writing that book. All you have to do is want it enough, and think positively. Yeah, right. We have been fed a steady diet of positive thinkology from Norman Vincent Peale to Professor Harold Hill to Tony Robbins, from cultish directions like EST, and from con artists from Ponzi to Madoff.

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Ponzi – old and new

Barbara Ehrenreich, in Bright-Sided , pulled back the curtain on a lot of the sort of scamming that the think-positive sorts have been inflicting on us all. I share her views on this stuff. Most of the see-no-evil promulgators seek little more than to divert our attention from the real societal causes of many of our maladies, and in doing so pad their own pockets. Most of us, for example, are not struggling financially because we got too little education, the wrong sort of education, are lazy, unfocused, not good enough, not beautiful or strong enough, or are bad people who deserve what happens to us. It is because the rich SOBs who run the world decided to steal more than they already had, and have the power to make government hold us down while they go through our pockets, and then demand that we thank them for the privilege.

Blaming the victim is a national, no, a global past-time, and urging people to believe that the fault is in them and that if they just had a better attitude they would succeed, is the sort of tangy Kool Aid that people like Jim Jones have been peddling for a long time.

This is all to say that I approached the book with a full magazine of attitude and an itchy finger. So, is this guy another in a long line of con artists trying to blame the victim? Turns out, not so much. At ease, soldier.

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The author – from Wikimedia

Joseph T. Hallinan is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, who reported for the Wall Street Journal, has written on the prison system, and wrote a 2009 popular psychology look at some of our many imperfections as human beings, the how and why we are the way we are, Why We Make Mistakes. Hallinan’s latest, Kidding Ourselves, a relatively short book (210 pps in my proof), looks at a narrow range of human behavior, although it does manage to cover a fairly wide swath of human (and sometimes non-human) experience. He is not so much promoting the notion of looking on the sunny side of life as taking a pop-psych microscope to the behavior itself. He breaks down the many ways in which homo sap practices self-delusion, and it is not exactly all positive.

Health-wise, he offers evidence that one’s attitude definitely matters. Expecting a positive outcome has measurable palliative results, independent of the pharmacological benefit of drugs or procedures applied to a medical problem. The obverse is true as well, expecting the worst can often bring it about. One really can die from, say, hypochondria, or a broken heart. Depression does cause physical harm to those who experience it.

Hallinan looks into the relationship between our perceptions and reality. You know that right-wing uncle who insists that Obama was born in Kenya and is a Muslim? You showed him all the evidence, right? And the result? He absolutely refused to accept the facts, clinging instead to his attitudes. I’d want to smack him too. Hallinan looks into this and offers an explanation for this seemingly inexplicable dedication to ignorance.

The book is about how we need to feel some control in our lives, almost more than anything else, whether it is that the cross-walk sign might flash “Walk” sooner in response to our pressing a button, whether it is that we can, through wise investing, control our financial future, or whether we believe that by repeating some ritual behavior we might therefore succeed in some endeavor. And we kid ourselves in order to be able to feel that there is something, anything, that is under our control. Otherwise we feel completely hopeless and the implications of that are not good. One result of this is that the confidence we gain from our beliefs, regardless of their basis in reality, can sometimes make the difference between success and failure, improvement or relapse, life or death.

This is, as noted, a short book, so one does not expect a deep, heavily detailed scientific treatise. It is pop-psychology, written by a journalist, not a scientist, meant for readers like you and me. That said, my antennae started to vibrate a time or three when I felt that the analysis was particularly, and problematically blindered. For example, Hallinan cites surveys of public attitudes regarding taxation that shows a persistent degree of dissatisfaction despite changes in rates over time. Problem is that the rate change under study is the top marginal tax rate, the rate paid by the highest wage-earners. Most people are not affected by this, so why would their attitude change at all? And given that taxes on working and middle class wage-earners had not dropped, and may even have gone up over the time span covered in the study, it is no surprise that general attitudes toward taxation would have seen little change. Another section looks at the persistence of false beliefs, as if they exist in a vacuum.

How could so many people persistently believe something unsupported by facts?
“I don’t have an explanation for that,” said pollster Jim Williams. “All I can say is that we have looked at that in other places in the past and it’s never gone away.”

Fuh real? How dim are you guys? Have you never heard of the 24/7 Lie Network at Fox, the masses of newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch or Clear Channel broadcasting, right-wing radio, and the gazillions of know-nothing web-sites that sprout like algal blooms in the path of agricultural runoff? Sure, people will cling to nonsense in the absence of such assistance, but when it is blasted into your brain constantly, it will have an impact. So yeah, it does seem sometimes that the author has been a bit blind to some obvious real-world factors, which is ironic, as he points out the bias inherent in some well-known scientists here as well.

But he does offer quite a few examples of real scientific studies that indicate that sometimes mind-over-matter really….um…matters. Not, of course, in other-worldly sorts of manifestations, like making that missing limb grow back, or altering the immediate balance in your bank account. But to the extent that confidence comes into play, and it does come into play quite a bit, it might not hurt to accentuate the positive, Whistle a Happy Tune , hum a little Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah or channel a small, very, very small dose of Stuart Smalley. You may be a loser, a 97 pound weakling, too fat, too skinny, too old, too young, too tall, too short, but the extra boost that confidence, fueled by religion, superstition, and downright nonsense injects really can make a difference in many of life’s outcomes.

He makes a case that self-delusion, as a defense against hopelessness, is a crucial element in what it means to be human, and that it has provided actual evolutionary advantages. It may be that to err is human, but it would appear equally human to convince ourselves that we were right all along. Hallinan maintains that self-delusion not only exists across all human cultures but is present in animal psychology as well. Rats kid themselves too.

There will always be a danger that the limited range covered in this book will be taken by the con artists of the world as being more than it is and be presented as an “I told you so.” It isn’t. It is specific, illuminating and fascinating. I kid you not.

This book was received via GR’s First Reads program – Thanks, guys

Review Posted – March 21, 2014

Publication date – May 20, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

I did not find a web-site for the author unadorned, but here is one for his earlier book, Why We Make Mistakes.

Here is a wiki on a 1986 essay by philosopher Henry G. Frankfurt that seems germane, On Bullshit

And a few more musical links that fit right in, from Stevie Wonder, George Michael , and The Monkees. So many more could work here.

In Salon, an excerpt from an interesting book by Oliver Burkeman, Positive Thinking is for Suckers

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Filed under Non-fiction, Psychology and the Brain, Reviews

Thorn Jack by Katherine Harbour

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In the beginning was nothing. From nothing emerged night. Then came the children of nothing and night

Seventeen-year-old Finn Sullivan has the luck of the Irish, if you consider how the phrase was used during Irish immigration to the New World. When she was living in Vermont, her mother was killed in an auto accident. A move to San Francisco did not improve things for good as her older sister, Lily Rose, committed suicide there. A need for a change of scene brings Finn and her Da back to the town where he was raised, Fair Hollow, in upstate New York. Enrolled in a local college, HallowHeart, she meets the dazzling but mysterious Jack Fata. They may or may not be fated to be together, but the Fata family is very definitely a big deal in this small town, which is not exactly the epitome of exurban serenity.

“So what’s with all the little pixies everywhere? Carved into HallowHeart, the theater…”
“They were worshipped here…”
“Pixies?”
“Fairy folk. Some of the immigrants from Ireland followed the fairy faith. And the Irish had badass fairies.”

The local décor seems to favor the mythological, as if the entire place had brought in the Brothers Grimm and Arthur Rackham to consult on a makeover. The older mansions tend toward the abandoned and the locals tend toward the odd. Finn finds a few friends, and together they try to figure out the enigma that is Fair Hollow, maybe save a few folks from a dark end, and try to stay alive long enough to accomplish both.

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the author

There are twists aplenty and a steady drumbeat of revelation and challenge to keep readers guessing. Finn is easy to root for, a smart, curious kid with a good heart who sometimes makes questionable decisions, but always means well. Jack offers danger and charm, threat and vulnerability. And Reiko Fata, the local Dragon Lady, a strong malevolent force, provides a worthy opponent. Harbour has fun with characters’ names that even Rowling would enjoy. Jane Ivy, for example, teaches botany. A teacher of metal-working is named, I suspect, for a metal band front man.

Each chapter begins with two quotes (well, most chapters anyway). One is from diverse sources on mythology and literature, and the second is from the journal of Finn’s late sibling. They serve to give readers a heads up about some elements of what lies ahead. One of the things that I found interesting about this book was the sheer volume of references to literature and mythology from across the world, not just in the chapter-intro quotes but in the text as well. I spent quite a bit of time making use of the google machine checking out many of these. You could probably craft an entire course on mythology just from the references in this book. In fact the author includes a bibliography of some of the referenced works. There are references as well to painterly works of art. Harbour includes a glossary of terms used by or in reference to the Fata family that comes in very handy. The core mythological element here is Tam Lin, a tale from the British Isles about a man who is the captive of the Queen of the Fairies and the young lady who seeks to free him.

The dream scene where Finn is speaking with her older sister and things grow sinister was an actual dream I had when I was seventeen. The revision was influenced by a book called Visions and Folktales in the West of Ireland, by Lady Gregory, a collection of local stories about some very scary faeries. The Thorn Jack trilogy is influenced by Shakespeare, Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, and Frankenstein. – from the author’s site

It is tough to read a book about young attraction of this sort and not think of Twilight, or Romeo and Juliet for that matter. And where there is a school in a place in which there are some odd goings on, and mystery-laden instructors, there will always be a whiff of Hogwarts in the air. But this one stands pretty well on its own.

Gripes-section. I did indeed enjoy the mythology tutorial available here, but sometimes I felt that the author could have pared this element down a bit. One result of this wealth of material was that it made the book a slow read for me. But then I have OCD inclinations, and have to look up every bloody one of these things. You may not suffer from this particular affliction, so may skip through much more quickly than I did. Or, if you are a regular reader of fantasy fiction, you may already know the references that my ignorant and memory-challenged self had to look up. Also, there are a LOT of characters. I tried my best to keep track by making a list and I strongly advise you to keep a chart of your own. It can get confusing. Finally, the quoted passages from Lily Rose’s journal do not much sound like passages from anyone‘s journal and seem to be present primarily to offer a double-dip into mythological reference material.

That said, Thorn Jack was engaging and entertaining, offering mystery, frights, young romance, and a chance to brush up on your mythology. Think Veronica Mars in Forks by way of Robert Graves.

Harbour has two more planned for the series, The Briar Queen and The Nettle King. I would expect she would address some of the questions that linger at the end of this first entry. What did her parents know and when did they know it? Is there an actual core curriculum requirement at HallowHeart College?

Review Posted March 14, 2014

Release Date – June 24, 2014

=====================================EXTRA STUFF

The author’s personal, Twitter and FB pages

Also, definitely check out another of Harbour’s sites, Dark Faery/Black Rabbit , which includes additional entries from Lily Rose’s journal, among other things.

book cover There are some scenes in Thorn Jack that include statuary of magical beings. I wonder if, as Harbour is from Albany, and was certainly exposed to Saratoga Springs, only about 30 miles away, (my wife and I visited in Autumn 2013) she might have been influenced by this Pan statue and/or similar pieces in Congress Park there. On her site, she talks about being inspired by abandoned mansions along the Hudson. Here is a site that shows all sorts of abandoned buildings, along the Hudson and elsewhere.

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Filed under Fantasy, Fiction, Reviews, YA and kids

Fourth of July Creek by Henderson Smith

book coverThere should be fireworks shooting off for Smith Henderson’s first novel, as it is a just cause for celebration. This is not to say that the subject matter is exactly festive, but the book is a triumph.

Pete is a social worker in Tenmile, Montana, a place so insignificant it was named for it’s distance from the nearest possible somewhere. The folks he is charged with trying to help out need all the support they can get, but some can’t seem to accept any.

There are three main threads braided into this novel. Cecil is a troubled teen in a household where the biggest problem is his substance-abusing layabout mother. The two do not get along, big time. Firearms are involved.

When eleven-year-old Benjamin Pearl wanders into town alone, dressed in rags, and looking like he’d been reared by wolves, Pete is called in to check things out. Following the story of Benjamin and his family is the core here, although a portion of almost every chapter is given over to the third thread, Rachel Snow, Pete’s daughter, who has troubles of her own. Pete is the central element interlacing with the threads.

Pete Snow is basically a decent guy, bloody far from perfect, but his heart is in the right place. He really cares about the people he is charged with helping, and tries his damndest to figure out what the best thing is to do for each. That it does not always work out, and that he is better at helping others than he is himself, are foregone conclusions.

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The Author

Smith Henderson offers us a look at a place in America, rural, and sometimes not so rural Montana, but also a time. It is no coincidence that the story is set in 1980, when the promotion of “Morning in America” also encouraged the release of a lot of pent-up insanity. Benjamin’s father is a seriously scary survivalist. His paranoia may at times have a basis in reality, but his worldview is straight out of the Lunatic Fringe Encyclopedia. There have always been folks with Jonathan Pearl’s particular flavor of madness, but it looks like Henderson is signaling what lies ahead, a world in which entities like right-wing talk radio, Fox News and any organization associated with the Koch brothers foment fear 24/7 and offer a media route in which to legitimize lunacy. Ben’s father actually believes, when he sees jet contrails, that the gub’mint is spying on him. There is plenty more to that story, but the political, this-is-what-is-being-unleashed, element is quite significant, although it is only implied. The implications of freedom are given a look. At what point does your ability to be free, living a life of paranoia, infringe on the rights of those who have not chosen the same path? Where is the line between legitimate desires for non-interference and license to do whatever? Where is the line between society’s right to protect it’s children and parents’s rights to raise children as they see fit?

We get a look at institutional limitations and extreme downsides, even when those institutions are staffed by well-meaning folks. Of course not every one is so well-meaning. We also get a look at the hazards to kids of growing up working class, from screwed up homes. Children have a lot to contend with here.

Ok, now that I have made the whole thing sound like such a downer, time to shine a bit of light in the darkness. While Pete definitely has his issues, he is beautifully drawn and is someone we can cheer on, most of the time anyway. There are some good people in Tenmile, a family who fosters kids in need, a caring judge, a tonic to the extant horrors. Learning about the survivalist world is fascinating stuff, even if these days we know more about it than we should have to. The writing is powerful and stunningly beautiful. A sample of lovely descriptive:

He liked the Sunrise Cafe for its coffee and smoky ambience and the way his arms stuck to the cool plastic tablecloths in summer and how the windows steamed, beaded, and ran with tears when everyone got out of church and came in for breakfast on a cold morning. He liked how Tenmile smelt of burnt leaves for most of October. He liked the bench in front of the tobacco shop on the square and how you could still send a child to buy you a pouch of Drum from inside with no problem from the proprietor. He liked the bowling alley that was sometimes, according to a private schedule kept only by them, absolutely packed with kids from the local high school and the surrounding hills who got smashed on bottles of vodka or rotgut stashed under their seats and within their coats. How much biology throbbed and churned here–the mist coming off the swales on the east side of town and a moose or elk emerging as though through smoke or like the creature itself was smoking. How the water looked and how it tasted right out of the tap, hard and ideal, like ice cold stones and melted snow. How trout looked in that water, brown and wavering and glinting all the colors there were and maybe some that didn’t really exist on the color wheel, a color, say, that was moss and brown-spotted like peppercorns and a single terra-cotta-colored stone and a flash of sunlight all at once. That color existed in the water here.

There are plenty more examples to be found here. One particular image of native fauna coming into contact with civilization was particularly chilling.

Henderson may be new to novel-writing, but he has already had some success with other forms. I do not know if he had much success as a social worker, a prison guard or a technical writer, but he co-wrote a feature film, while at the University of Texas, Dance With The One, won a 2012 Pushcart Prize for his story Number Stations, and the 2011 PEN Emerging Writers Award for Fiction. I guess he has emerged. It should be known that you have probably seen some of Smith Henderson’s work already, without realizing. You know that half-time Superbowl ad for Chrysler, with Clint Eastwood, Halftime in America? Henderson was one of the writers. It ain’t halftime this time. Henderson, with Fourth of July Creek goes long and scores a game-winning TD.

There is satisfaction to be had in how Henderson resolves the conflicts he has presented. And even when his outcomes are not happy ones, they are believable. We have been treated in recent years to a wealth of top-notch first novels. Fourth of July Creek will fit in nicely with the likes of The Orchardist, The Enchanted, and The Guilty One, for example, and it would sit very comfortably next to works by Willy Vlautin. Smith Henderson’s is a dazzling new literary voice, and the release of this outstanding work is cause enough to light up the sky with barges-full of pyrotechnics.

Publication date – May 27, 2104

This review was first posted on GoodReads on March 7, 2014

=============================EXTRA STUFF

Couldn’t find a web or FB page for Henderson, but here he is on Twitter

In case you missed it above, here is the Halftime in America ad

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Filed under Fiction, Literary Fiction, Reviews