Wednesday, May 30, 2012

REVIEW: The Winter of Our Disconnect by Susan Maushart

The Winter of Our Disconnect:
How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with her iPhone) 
Pulled the Plug on their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale 
by Susan Maushart

"'If you ever want to know what was going through Frodo Baggins' mind as he stood clutching the evil ring over the lava pits of Mt. Doom in The Return of the King,' wrote Norman, 'buy an iPhone.'"

Susan Maushart sleeps with her iPhone. Her kids are always listening to their iPods, playing computer games, or surfing the web. Finally, Susan has had enough and she decides to do an experiment: the family will unplug for 6 months. This means no TV, no computers, no iPods, no cell phones. They go from constantly being connected to actually making a connection.

This was one of those books I put on my list never really intending to read. Non-fiction isn't really my thing. However, immersive journalism is. I was struggling with my own media addiction and needed a palate cleanser after so many YA and juvenile fantasy books, so I picked it up.

While this book is rather frustratingly structured (she tries to go chronologically, but then also by theme, so you end up with a lot of repeated information and you get lost in the timeline), the content really struck a chord with me.

There are two large worries that prevent the modern person from attempting an experiment like this: the fear that we will be bored, and the fear of loosing connection. The family struggles with both of these. The children whine and go to friends houses to use their technology, at first (the experiment is limited mostly to the house). However, then a transformation occurs. The family starts talking to each other. The kids spend time in each other's rooms looking at magazines and listening to CDs. They help their Mom cook dinner, and actually spend time at the table, rather than gobbling and racing off to play more video games. Friends came over for board game nights and sing-alongs around the piano. They looked at actual photo albums and told stories.

The most incredible change really resonated with me: the son used to love the saxophone, but then when he got a monster gaming station, he let it fall by the wayside, and said he would pick it up again "when he had more time." I say the same thing about my violin. However, when technology was forbidden him, he picked up the sax again, practiced for hours every day, had jam sessions with his friends, and started a band. He discovered he wanted to be a musician as a career. Think of what we could do if we didn't have computers. Susan makes an excellent point that often boredom is the mother of invention. It pushes you to fulfill unmet needs, to be determined, prepared, patient and experimental.

Another element to the boredom debate that Susan touches on is the myth that parents need to entertain their children 24/7. That they feel like a deficient parent if their kids are bored. Not only that, they feel deficient if they are not on call to help their kids out with every little problem. Susan learns through this experiment, and through her research, that boredom is actually a good thing. Kids learn best when they are able to figure things out for themselves. It gives them ownership over the knowledge. However, if a parent is constantly trying to IV entertainment into their kid's bloodstream, or doesn't let their kids get lost and have to find their own way back (even at age 23), they will never be self-sufficient. It is no wonder that 30 is the new 20. People remain children a lot longer because they don't know how to take care of themselves.

Fear of loss of connection was a huge issue for them (and would be for us). 1) Cell phones. What if an emergency happens? What if I am late to pick up someone, how do I tell them? It turns out, if there is an emergency, they will find you some how. The son was in a car accident, got a ride home, and called his mom afterwards. He handled the situation himself. And it turns out that if you set up a time to pick someone up, and neither of you have a cell phone, they will be there on time. Planning ahead. Who knew?

2) Missing news: newspapers. A huge theme of this book was, if you need to know, you will find out. You don't need to drown in minutiae. If something important happens, you will be told. Relax.

3) Loosing connection. It turns out, people feel more connected when they don't have the internet. The surfacey texting, IMing, Facebook messaging and e-mailing does a lot less for you than sitting down with someone face to face and having a conversation. This connected feeling we crave is really the need for human contact. Which is ironic, because the internet makes us feel like we are getting that, when we are really not.

The book also touches on the now well-known research about the Millennials (and us now) and how they (we) are lateral readers (surface over depth), and think the easiest research is the best research. No concept for reliable sources, multitasking actually doesn't exist and is detrimental to focus and performance, high computer/tv use leads to depression and atrophied social skills (possibly autism), those kids who had family meal times at the dinner table had more well adjusted kids than those who didn't, etc. She actually mentions a lot of books I had already read about the subject.

One thing that surprised me, though is that what we think of as normal teenage behavior (unresponsiveness, weird sleep patterns, surliness, sitting on the couch, eating junk food, and watching tv for hours, AND not expressing natural adult behavior until -gasp- 28) is actually not natural. People say it is natural because it is an epidemic, and every teenager does it now, but that was not always the case. It is a combination of inactivity, over-parenting, lack of sleep due to technology, and the perpetuated myth of the "this is how I am supposed to act" surly teen.

Within all the studies and research, Susan gives the reader concrete examples about how her family has reflected the studies.

Another nice thing about this book is that she does not take sides. It may seem that she is heavily anti-technology, but the relief she feels when she gets back her technology says otherwise. She has learned from the experiment to live in moderation.

I really recommend this book for anyone who had that nagging feeling that they should be doing something else other than Facebook.

More Books Like This:
The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Eat, Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
A Year of Living Biblically by A.J. Jacobs
The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment by A.J. Jacobs

Monday, May 14, 2012

REVIEW: Un Lun Dun by China Mieville

Un Lun Dun
by China Mieville

"'There it was in the index. "Shwazzy, Sidekicks of the.'' Below that were subheadings, each with a single page reference. 'Clever One,' she read. 'Funny One.' 

'Look...' the book said. 'It's just terminology. Sometimes these old prophecies are written in, you know, unfortunate ways...'

'Was it Kath who was supposed to be the clever one?' Deeba said. She thought about how she and Zanna had become friends. 'So... I'm the funny one? I'm the funny sidekick?'

'But, but, but,' the book said, flustered. 'What about Digby? What about Ron and Robin? There's no shame in -'

Deeba dropped the book and walked away. It yelped as it hit the pavement."

Deeba has noticed something strange about her best friend Zanna. There was a picture of her face in the clouds. Animals behave strangely around her. Someone spray painted "Zanna forever!" on the wall. When Zanna and Deeba follow a strangely animated umbrella one night, they leave London and enter Un Lun Dun where Zanna is proclaimed "the Shwazzy": the Chosen One who will help save their city from the Smog. Only things don't happen exactly as they were prophesied and Deeba has to take on her friend's mantle to save the city she has come to love.

This book was pretty insane. And awesome. It took me a while to get used to the world; trash with a life of it's own, city bus airships, men with pins in their heads and clothes of books, houses with forests in it, a man who is a bird with a human body as it's vehicle, "binjas" (trash can ninjas), bookaneers (librarian adventurers), the Umbrellissimo (the man who controls the broken umbrellas that find their way to Un Lun Dun). It helped as soon as I started picturing it animated like a Studio Gibli film.

I loved the way it played with the idea of choice and free will, of prophecy and how it limits us. How those who were not supposed to do things can just say "fuck it" and do them because they need to be done.

This is another juvenile fiction book that does not coddle the reader in any way shape or form. Mieville paints, waltzes and plays chess with words. It doesn't matter that a word is not supposed to be in the vocabulary of a child. There is an incredible sequence with Mr. Speaker, the leader of words, who speaks and Utterlings appear to do his bidding. Deeba cleverly banters with him that words do not always mean what we want and turns his words against him.

Deeba is an amazing heroine. First, she has brown skin, which I am sorry to say is rare in science fiction and fantasy. I was so happy to see a non-white heroine! Second, she is urban London, lower class, and speaks in London slang. Another anomaly in sci fi/ fantasy. Third, she is clever as all get out. She outwits and logics (or un-logics) her way around Un Lun Dun, learning the rules, using them, and breaking them as she sees fit. She goes from being a side kick who just wants to go home to a true heroine and full-blooded citizen of Un Lun Dun.

Yet another kickass heroine who must lead her troops into battle, deal with losses, make mistakes, and outwit terrible enemies. And in the end, when she must choose between Un Lun Dun, and real London, she turns convention on its head!

And I must say, the epilogue is one of those pump-your-fist-in-the-air-yelling-WOOO! moments. Damn, it's a fun ride.

REVIEW: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making by Catherynne M. Vanente

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making
by Catherynne M. Valente

“There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. The Green Wind said that, so it must be true. It will be all hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or else why bring me here at all? And it's the wonders I'm after, even if I have to bleed for them.”

September is a heartless girl, bored of her life, fed up with her mom who works in a factory all the time, and with her dad who left for war. So, when the Green Wind comes to abduct her to Fairyland, she doesn't even say goodbye, or leave a note. She must do favors for witches, befriend a wyverary (a wyvern whose father was a library), outwit the evil Marquess, and, as the title implies, circumnavigate fairy land after she looses her shadow and her heart.

This was an exceptional book, even more exceptional that it was juvenile fiction. It did not pull punches, either emotionally, complex-ily (if that is a word... meaning that it did not paint the world in black and white), and vocabularically.

It reads as a modern day Alice in Wonderland. September is just as curious, just as impertinent, and just as heartless as Alice, and she meets strange and fantastic things, like the herds of bicycles that roam the land, or the half-people who can only speak in complete sentences when joined together, discarded furniture that takes on a life of its own when it is 100 years old, or the land of Autumn.

While Alice simply wanders and has things happen to her, however, September struggles with morality in a morally grey world (does she aquiess to the evil queen to save her friends? Is the evil queen very different from herself?). There is a wonderful theme of what it is to be chosen and what it is to make a choice.

Early in the journey, she is given the choice to loose her way, lose her mind, or loose her heart. Since she was heartless, she chose to loose her heart. She managed quite well until she grew to deeply care for the friends she made. When she looses them, all hell breaks loose, and you can see what a twelve-year-old girl is really capable of.

This is not pretty Narnia adventure hardship. September must make a raft using her clothes and her hair so she stands naked and shorn against the elements. She bludgeons a fish to death out of desperation, and nearly die horribly several times to get where she needs to go, and even then, she has not faced the worst.

She is the embodiment of badass heroine who does what needs to be done and sacrifices what she has to to save the ones she loves.

It also make an incredible statement about regulation. The marquess has started to bring over rules and regulations to Fairyland to make it "safe" for children who cross over. But that is not the point of Fairyland. It must be dangerous and hard, so the children can emerge strong and confidant and brave. Same thing could be said with a lot of things in our world, including regulation of books and education.

I recommend this to everyone!

There are so many good quotes, I have to add this one at the bottom:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in awhile, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you’ll never be brave again.”