November 21-26, 2010: In Brief

Non-Fiction Books:
The Means of Reproduction: Sex, Power, and the Future of the World, by Michelle Goldberg (****) [2009] – This is an excellent overview of the global struggle for reproductive rights covering the past fifty years of history in the U.S., as well as on-the-scene descriptions of the reproductive struggles in Central America, Africa, India, and Europe. Goldberg shows how in each case, governments trying to control reproduction aren’t able to meet their goals unless women themselves are given the freedom and means to make their own choices. 

The U.S. first got interested in the politics of reproduction when conservatives feared that large unplanned families in the third world made a country particularly vulnerable to communism.  Many on the right companioned birth control as a way to fight communism, but they were not able to make much difference until women became a part of the movement and stressed that the rights of third world women be considered a part of the process. At one point, the program was so popular with conservatives that the senior George Bush was then known by the nickname, "Rubbers".  Once globalization began challenging traditional social arrangements and women had a more prominent role in birth control policy, conservatives fought against birth control.

As Goldberg explores the issues of underpopulation in Europe, sex imbalances in India, and the AIDS pandemic and poverty in Africa, she notes the connection between women’s rights and the success in solving each of these difficult problems. For example, in Europe, she describes how the countries with the highest birth rates (at replacement level) also are the countries with the most programs designed to help women both work and have children.  Whereas the countries with the lowest birth rates (below replacement level) still have systems that force childbearing women into a second-class citizen status.

The book has excellent sections on how women in Africa are helping to change genital mutilation rituals in their own villages, how in Central America, even women who want to be pregnant can end up dying because of the harsh abortions rules there, and how women in India and Africa are working to improve the economic status of their people by fighting for more reproductive rights.  Goldberg gives example after example of how harsh abstract abortion laws and conservative gag rules on U.S. money hurt women, children, and families– even women who wish to be pregnant.

According to Goldberg, "it’s fascinating how much research there is showing the connection between women’s rights and economic development. Giving women more control over their bodies and their lives is one of the most important things you can do to fight poverty.  One of the things I hope this book does is show how that works." [Adult non-fiction read on Kindle for Droid]

Web Links:
The True Size of Africa – Check out this cool graphic I found at Tree Hugger showing just how large Africa really is.  Since most flat maps exaggerate the poles, it’s easy to underestimate Africa’s actual size.  (Click on the link for a larger, clearer image and more details.)


November 14 -20, 2010: In Brief

TV Quote:
"I’m not asking you to dye your hair red and call me Mulder, I would simply ask that you consider the possibility that Marie had knowledge of, or had contact with something up there." 
Richard Castle (to Kate Beckett on the show Castle)

Middle Grade Fiction Books:
The Carnival of Lost Souls:  A Handcuff Kid Novel, by Laura Quimby (****) [2010] After years of searching, foster child Jack Carr and his social worker Mildred think they may have finally found him a home. An elderly professor specifically asked for a child who likes magic tricks. Handcuff-collecting, Houdini-loving Jack fits that description perfectly.  

Jack’s new home with the professor and his doting housekeeper, Concheta, is a dream come true until the Professor dares Jack not to peek into an old carnival chest in his office. Of course, Jack has to peek.  It’s too late that he realizes he’s been tricked into taking on the professor’s debt, a deal the professor made long ago when he was just a boy.

Now Jack’s soul belongs to the great Mussini.  As Jack is pulled into the land of the dead, the professor urges Jack to use his love of Houdini to help him get free.  Jack’s skill of escaping from handcuffs helps him in his new role, entertaining the dead in one of the acts of Mussini’s traveling carnival.  Could Jack’s skills also help him escape and return to the land of the living?  That’s the trick Jack needs to figure out.

The Carnival of Lost Souls is an entertaining tale.  Quimby creates an intriguing land of the dead where life seems much like the days when there were traveling carnivals with seedy edges, a group of lovable kids, and creepy surprises along the way.

Full Disclosure:  Laura is another member of one of my writer’s groups.  Her book is a delight and one of those action-filled tales that are hard for older elementary-schoolers to find. [Middle grade fantasy for ages 10 and up.]

Web Links:
Avid Writing Kids–  If you have a child who writes a mountain of stories or poems, you’re probably wondering how to help them grow as a writer.  Rosanne Parry at From the Mixed-Up Files offers three sound ways to encourage your budding author.  Her advice:

1. Help them save and safely store their work.
2. Help them find a time and place for writing.
3. Help them find a writing community.

Check out the details here.

November 7-13, 2010: In Brief

TV Quote:
 "I find zombies dancing in choreographed synchronicity implausible.  And also it’s really scary."
[Sheldon on The Big Bang Theory explaining why he can’t watch Michael Jackson’s Thriller video]

Non-Fiction Audiobooks:
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, by Barbara Kingsolver, with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver (****) [2008] Writer Barbara Kingsolver describes her family’s yearlong experiment growing most of their own food and raising their own chickens and turkeys on their Virginia farm.  The book isn’t so much a how-to manual as an overview of what’s possible and what this endeavor looks and feels like in its day-by-day realities. Her biologist husband and college-age daughter also add their own short entries to the mix.

This is a wonderful introduction into the world of local foods, gardening, canning, and animal husbandry.   Yes, Kingsolver can get a bit literary and preachy at times, but I could forgive those elements because of her storehouse of information, inspiring you-can-do-it spirit, and general thoughtfulness about local eating.  She narrates her own book with a pleasant reading voice that sounds a lot like actor Mary Steenburgen. Her husband and daughter narrate their short entries too.  [Listened to in audiobook form from]

Web Links:
Dog Evolution – Check out this short blog post about how the domestic dog can help you understand evolution. 

In her blog, Observations of a Nerd, Christie Wilcox says, "While we usually think of evolution as a slow and gradual process, dogs reveal that incredible amounts of diversity can arise very quickly, especially when selective pressures are very, very strong. It’s not hard to see how selection could lead to the differentiation of species — just look at the breeds of dogs that exist today." She briefly takes us on the journey from early man’s experiences with wolves to our present day situation with 400 different and very specific breeds of domestic dogs. 

Then Wilcox explains how feral dogs (the great-grandchildren of dogs that had been abandoned and are now wild and raising their own families in the wild) can teach us more about how the environment continues to shape the selection process.  She describes a study of the four different types of wild dogs in Russia: guard dogs, scavengers, wild dogs, and the Moscow dogs.

The most interesting sub-group of Moscow dogs is called "metro dogs".   Wilcox explains, "In these packs, the alpha isn’t the best hunter or strongest, it’s the smartest." 

Evidently these dogs are able to navigate the subway, know the stops by name, and have specific stations in their territories.   They rarely get hit by cars, cross streets with people, and have even been observed waiting at a street corner alone until the light turns green to cross the street.  Because their presence in Moscow has reduced the number of "pack wars" with more violent wild dog groups, the city allows them to stay.

October 31 – November 6, 2010: In Brief

Weekly Format Experiment: I’m now posting weekly reviews on Wednesdays around midday. Yay health! Since I’m an obsessive blog reader with a 100-plus blog reading habit, I’m going to share the best links from the posts I read, too.  Can I keep up the weekly format?  We’ll see.  The experiment begins… now!

Fiction Books:
Firelight, by Sophie Jordan (** 1/2) [2010] – Jacinda is a member of the rare draki species that can change between human and dragon form.  She’s especially valued by her pride since she’s the first draki with fire-breathing capabilities in centuries. Now her pride has big plans for Jacinda.  All she wants is the freedom to fly in the daylight and not care if humans see her draki form.  It’s this flight that changes Jacinda’s life forever. 

Jacinda doesn’t know who to side with in the battle between her mother and her pride.  Her mother wishes for Jacinda to let her draki-side die, flee her pride, and become a full-time human.  While the pride seems to want to use Jacinda to breed a pack of fire-breathers.  To complicate matters, Jacinda meets Will, a boy at her high school who she feels an instant fiery connection to.  Now Jacinda has to decide who to believe and what kind of life she wants.

I loved the concept of the draki species and the romantic aspects of this book.  Unfortunately this book sets up a lot of cool possible scenarios that aren’t fulfilled.  I guess the book is planned as a part of a series, but the end left a number of unresolved problems.  The most disappointing part, for me, was that Jacinda starts out as strong-willed girl, but by the end is reduced to a girl who thinks independent thoughts but doesn’t really do much.  [A YA paranormal romance for ages 13 and up. The romance is restricted a few make-out scenes.  Read on Nook for Droid Phone.]

Web Links:
Dutch-American Parent Study on Attitudes about Teen Sex – Check out this thought-provoking article on the different approaches to teen sex between Dutch and American parents.  The Dutch parents thought of sex as a natural part of growing up, allowed their older teens to have sleepovers with serious boyfriends or girlfriends, and didn’t see a difference in the ways boys and girls look at sex and love– thinking both girls and boys like sex and are able to fall in love.

The American parents didn’t approve of sex "under my roof", distanced themselves from their kids when they began having relationships, and looked at sex as a war between the genders– where boys only want sex, not love, and girls only want love, not sex.

As a result, sex in Dutch culture is naturalized as something teens feel comfortable seeking their parents’ guidance and advice with, whereas American culture dramatizes young adult sex as a war between teens and parents.  So teens often hide their relationships from their parents and feel alone in making relationship decisions.  

How does the teen pregnancy rate, abortion rate, and STD rate compare in the two cultures? Surprisingly, the U.S. teen pregnancy rate is 8 times higher than the Dutch teen pregnancy rate and Dutch teens have a low abortion rate.  U.S. teens have a higher incidence of STDs too. 

The article goes on to discuss teen dating studies about both cultures.  While teens in both countries most often have their first sexual experience in a monogamous relationships, as the teens reach their twenties, Americans tend to have more non-monogamous partners than Dutch young adults. 

American girls also often report feeling "down" about their first romantic relationship –even one without sex– because their relationship with their parents deteriorated.  In addition, many teen girls "confronted dilemmas of desire because of a double standard that denies or stigmatizes their sexual desires, making girls fear being labeled ‘sluts’ ".

Many Americans boys reported feeling pressure to lose their virginity, have sex, and treat girls as sex objects.  Interestingly, many American boys also reported that though they thought others boys were just out for sex, they were a "romantic rebel" and cared very much about their girlfriend. 

Meanwhile, the majority of Dutch teens described their first sexual experiences as "well-timed, within their control, and fun." Both Dutch teens and their parents described the teens as being in love. The article also notes that "the acceptance of adolescent sexuality in the family creates the opportunity for Dutch girls to integrate their sexual selves with their roles as family members, even if they may be subject to a greater level of surveillance." 

It’s a fascinating article worth checking out.  I think even parents who don’t agree with the idea of pre-marital sex will gain a new understanding of how romantic guidance can help their teens and how gender stereotypes hurt teens.

October 2010: In Brief

Life Highlights:
Walking on Sunshine (The Gluten-Free Version): I used to think maybe I’d be well, now baby I’m sure.  And I just still love that I feel like I’ve now found my cure.  Now every time I wake up, my head feels so light and so goo-od.  Cause now I don’t have so much snot hanging round me no more.  Now I’m walking on sunshine. Who-ah. I’m walking on sunshine. Who-ah.  I’m walking on sunshine. Who-ah. And don’t it feel good!

(If you don’t know the real song from the 80’s, here’s the You Tube link.)

Fiction Books Finished:
Mamba Point, by Kurtis Scaletta (*** 1/2) [2010]  After his family moves from the U.S. to Monrovia, Liberia, anxious twelve-year-old Linus is determined to break through his fears and become adventurous.  His older brother, Larry, has decided he’s now going by the much cooler nickname "Law".  When the new Linus discovers his connection to mamba snakes and the new Law discovers the U.S. Embassy teen world, things become a little more interesting than either brother planned. Set in 1980’s Liberia, Mamba Point is a unique coming of age story with a touch of African folklore and magic realism spun into the plot. It would make a good family or classroom read aloud.  

Full disclosure: Kurtis was a member of one of my writing groups. Despite my personal connection, I think even readers that don’t know him will enjoy his story as much as I did.  [For ages 10 and up. Read on Kindle for Droid Phone]

Foxes (** 1/2) – The movie The Runaways made me curious about Cherie Currie’s life story.  Foxes, a movie which Currie made during her acting period, is an almost documentary-like fiction movie about four teen girls growing up in the dysfunctional drugged-up world of Los Angeles during the late 70’s.  Currie plays the girl with the most troubled home and Jodie Foster is the stand out of the four new actors. From a historical point of view it was an interesting movie, though it’s a bit on the depressing side. [Rated R for drug use, language, and a bit of sexuality.  Watched on DVD from Netflix.]

Jennifer’s Body (****) [2009] Amanda Seyfried stars in this fun horror movie as Anita "Needy" Lesnicky, just a regular high school girl in a dysfunctional friendship with her best friend Jennifer.  Everything changes the night Jennifer drags Needy to see the band Low Shoulder at the local dive bar.  Now something seems wrong with Jennifer, boys at school keep dying, and Needy is the only one who can save them.

While Jennifer’s Body isn’t exactly a feminist movie, it comes a lot closer than most horror films.  It’s also more of a gore-and-parody kind of horror movie than a truly scary one.  How much you enjoy it depends on your view of Diablo Cody’s writing.  If you thought the writing in the movie Juno was fresh and clever, you’ll probably have a ton of fun watching this movie too.  If you thought Cody was trying too hard, this movie isn’t for you.

Amanda Seyfried has the acting chops to pull off the starring role and Megan Fox is perfect as hot mean girl Jennifer. There are a number of fun cameos too.  Adam Brody (Seth from The OC) gives a deliciously slimy performance as Low Shoulder’s lead singer and Kyle Gallner (Beav… I mean, Cassidy, from Veronica Mars) plays a tasty looking Emo-Goth boy.  [Unrated on DVD but probably for mid-teens and up.  Watched on DVD through Netflix.]

I tried out a bunch of new shows this season to choose my dozen regular shows for the Fall season. And the winners are: The Big Bang Theory, Castle, The Event, Fringe, Glee, The Good Wife, How I Met Your Mother, Modern Family, Nikita, Supernatural, and Terriers. I’m also watching season two of the X-Files in French on DVD. What TV shows made your cut?