Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Pursuit of Happiness

"I don't know many happy people.  What are they like?"  ~Meg Tilly as Chloe in The Big Chill

There is an interesting branch of social psychology that studies happiness and what makes people happy.  Is it true that money can't by happiness?  Children make us happy? Marriage makes us happy?  Religion?  I have been to several presentations on the origins and truth about what makes people happy.  I find them infinitely fascinating as the topic of who is happy and why they are happy seems to come up frequently in my life.  I am reminded that even our own Declaration of Independence bases itself squarely on the side of the pursuit of happiness. 

This new book, The Happiness Equation: The Surprising Economics of our Most Valuable Asset by Nick Powdthavee, studies happiness now from an economic standpoint.  The author is an economist by training and attempts to translate economic studies on happiness from economics journals to studies and stories that the rest of us can use and follow.  Most of it asks and answers interesting economic questions about the pursuit of happiness. 

In general, much of it reads like an economics primer and would be interesting if you followed economics news and had a head for the vagaries of the study of the economy.  I was a C student in economics, and it often made my head swim, so I was perhaps not the best early reviewer for this book.  Parts that piqued my interest most of all were the discussions on the happiness factor of parenthood (really none of us is very happy) and the fact that perhaps we have an overblown sense of the right to be happy.  Some people prefer to pursue a more interesting life rather than a pleasurable one.  The books asks, who makes us think that we have to be happy? 

I was also pleasantly interested in the discussion about the ability of a government to coerce their people into doing things that will make them happy through the right kind of policies and legislation and marketing.  Have you ever heard of libertarian paternalism?--now there's an oxymoron.  And of course no book on the study of happiness would be complete without a look at the famous country of Bhutan whose monarch actually put into place the idea of GDH-Gross Domestic Happiness.  Who cares about the product when what you really want is to make the people happy.  Really?

I close this post with the fond memory of one of my favorite Peanuts cartoons.  Charlie Brown and Linus are discussing the meaning of life.  Linus says, I think we were put on this earth to make others happy.  To which Charlie Brown turns to the skies, raises his fist and yells, "Someone is not doing their job!"

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Girl Interrupted: The book vs the movie

Had some fun this week reading the 1993 classic Girl Interrupted by Susanna Kaysen.  Ms. Kaysen wrote a really thought provoking series of non-fiction pieces about her life in a mental institution over about 18 months in the late 60's.  The essays are roughly chronological and in between chapters she shows artifacts from her patient file:  doctors notes, official admitting papers and discharge papers.  I liked that it was a very nuanced look about a teenagers life in a mental hospital: was she crazy or was she just a typical teenager?  Sometimes I felt genuine madness was afoot and sometimes she seemed to be the only sane one on the ward.  I liked that she played with my perceptions and that life in the hospital was neither all good or all bad.
This book came out early in the memoir writing craze and is probably one of the better ones to take a look at mental health.  

Winona Ryder played Susanna Kaysen in the 1999 movie of the same name.  Angelina Jolie won an Oscar for best supporting actress for her portrayal of Lisa, Susanna's crazy best friend in the asylum.  What is most interesting about the book to movie is how much the producers had to add to Kaysen's fairly simple story in order to make it an interesting movie. 

While Kaysen simply mentions the existence of underground tunnels in her memoir, in the movie they become part of illicit rituals in which the women on the ward participate in order to gain a little control over their lives.   A woman who leaves the ward and goes to live on her own commits suicide.  It is a sad mark in the book; in the movie it becomes a major plot point. And the most fantastic part is the homoerotic/lesbian overtones between Susanna and Lisa. This was so far from the book it was almost laughable, but it really works in the movie and in some ways makes a lot of sense.

The movie managed to portray the character's ambivalence about her situation fairly well. I loved seeing how the script writers wove together the author's voice and minor plot points to make an interesting narrative arc.  It had a great cast including Elizabeth Moss (Peggy from Mad Men) and Whoopi Goldberg.  I suddenly feel like I am stepping out of my comfort zone reviewing a movie here--but I did enjoy reading the book and seeing the movie together. It is easily a weekend project with time out for soup and a walk in the woods.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Dick Cheney Saves Paris: A personal and political madcap sci-fi meta-anti-novel by Ryan Forsythe

For those of you who expected yet another memoir review of a sad lonely twenty something girl struggling with depression/eating disorders/drugs, look again.  I got to read and enjoy a science fiction novel this week.

Full disclosure:  An old friend wrote that he was publishing his first full length novel and did anyone with a blog want to read and review it?  I do, I do!  (To my long time readers, all 6 of you, you know I am kind of a book whore.)

So I really didn't know if I could expand my very limited idea of what a good novel is and enjoy something billed as a sci-fi meta novel.  I am a pretty literal reader and don't like a lot of extraneous distractions from the plot, but I'm game,  and in the name of supporting new writers and old friends, I put it on my stack.

First, let me say that this is a very funny book.  If you are up on your current events (especially politics since the Nixon administration) you will probably laugh a lot. Many of the jokes pertain to the antics of Dick Cheney (time traveler and our hero), Donald Rumsfeld (an alien), Joe Lieberman (a robot), Ralph Nadar (time traveling spoil-sport) and of course, Al Gore (who?).

Dick Cheney travels back in time and while there decides to please his old man from the 27th century and make sure Al Gore never gets elected.  Several nefarious agents and time travelers are in on the scheme for various reasons and they all come together on one madcap night in November of 2000 (remember that night?) so that good prevails over evil and time can be re-written so that Al Gore does not become president which will lead to the ultimate evil...which I cannot reveal, or it would spoil it for you, dear reader, and that is part of the fun.

I also loved the varying discussions about the ins and outs of time travel (fueled by yogurt) and the future history regarding the regulation of time travel and some of the problems that arise in the future because we are so able to change history.  It makes just enough sense to be fun and thought provoking.

The meta novel part appealed to me as well.  Ryan Forsythe, the author, chronicled what I assume is a semi-autobiographical tale of how he came to write and publish this time traveling caper novel on the same day that the real Dick Cheney published his memoirs.  I really hope that John Stewart gets a hold of this because Ryan Forsythe would be an excellent guest on the Daily Show.  There would be much hilarity.

So friends, you can find this lovely little time traveling sci-fi adventure novel on amazon or you can borrow it  from me.  Please support a young aspiring novelist, and I might be able to get you his autograph.

Friday, September 9, 2011

The Woman in the Fifth by Douglas Kennedy

My mother recommended this one.  She said it was written in an unusual way.  Different.  Not exactly a thriller but just different.  Well, I am always looking for something different, was an odd read, mostly plot driven about a man named Harry Ricks who runs away to Paris to escape a sex scandal he gets tangled up with in the US.  The plot seemed driven only by dialogue.  Every scene was plodding dialogue.  It moved things a long but it felt painful and contrived.

Then, I got into it.  It was a thriller and a kind of a crime novel and I was clipping along wondering how our fearless hero would get out of this jam and reunite with his daughter when wham, the author pulled the rug right out from under me.  (spoiler!) I did not expect the twist into the supernatural at all.  I really hated it after that.  I kept thinking, how can he pull this off?  I kept waiting for it to be a joke or explained, but no.  It was just a weird kind of hell in which the main character found himself.

Anyway, like a thriller that's not really a thriller?  Try this book.  Or just wait for the movie which I understand is due out this fall.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Paranormality by Richard Wiseman

I have said that I love science books written for people who don't understand science.  It takes a very special academic to pause from the rigors of real scientific research and publishing, to write books meant to bring the rest of us in on the secret.  Again and again, I find these writers to be fascinating and oftentimes poetic.

Richard Wiseman attracted my attention with some video on youtube.  It led me to his books 59 Seconds (self-help in a minute or less) and Good Luck (the science of luck).  He also publishes a quirky little blog where he introduces readers to interesting illusions, puzzles and the latest in the world of psychology research.  Sometimes he invites readers to take part in psychological studies.

He recently published Paranormality: Why We See What Isn't There and asked American readers of his blog especially to order it.  It seemed that no American publisher would pick it up since too many Americans believe in the paranormal phenomena that he discusses.  American publishers would not distribute because they thought no one would buy it.

Wiseman uses psychology to explain and understand about every paranormal phenomenon that you can think of:  ghosts, mind-reading, dream prognosticating, seances, table tipping and all kinds of other spooky stuff. He writes using short chapters, stories about mediums, psychics, and hauntings from history, and gives great lessons in how to have your own psychic readings or out of body experiences.  There is a great appendix to the book called The Superhero Kit where he gives you all kinds of tricks for impressing people at parties. Think spoon bending and predicting the card you picked will turn up.  Amazing.

You can get this book now off Amazon.