3.31.2010

Review: How to Eat Fried Worms, by Thomas Rockwell

I don't remember a lot of what I read in Elementary School. I remember the Babysitters' Club series. I remember Goosebumps. But I don't recall a lot of what I read outside of that. I know there were other books, it's just difficult for me to place them. Until I see them, that is.

In the building in which I reside, many of my neighbors use a bench in our lobby on which to leave clothes and housewares and books - thins they don't need, don't use, or can't sell. As a result of one of these examples I picked up an almost complete set of encyclopedias on WWII.

On my most recent venture, I picked up three history books, a photo album, and a copy of Thomas Rockwell's How to Eat Fried Worms. At last, an unserialized book that I can remember from my kid-dom. At least I thought I remembered it. I recalled that it was about boys, and that one of their mothers was involved but that's all I could glean from my memory. So I sat down and read it.

I was surprised, a little, at the violent lengths these children went to, simply to win a bet. But I was also surprised at some of the vocabulary. I don't think I knew what a cistern was until I was in high school. And yet there's a cistern with no explanation of what it is, or a picture, or anything.

The strangest thing, though, was the involvement of the chapter titles. The book has 41 chapters across a total of 116 pages. So the average chapter length is a whopping 2.8 pages. Yeah. But Rockwell (son of artist Norman Rockwell, by the way) has given some of the chapters names that might make sense to adults, but perhaps not to children ages 6-9.

Chapter 23 - Admirals Nagumo and Kusaka on the Bridge of the Akagai, December 6, 1941.
Chapter 25 - Pearl Harbor
Chapter 26 - Guadalcanal
Chapter 29 - (the name of this chapter is actually a large blob. I thought initially that it might be shaped like the USSR or Russia, but on closer examination no, it's more like a blob of mud, which is appropriate for this chapter)
Chapter 38 - $%#!Blip*+&!
Chapter 39 - The United States Cavalry Rides Over the Hilltop

I get that Rockwell wanted this to be a chapter book, but there's really not enough material here for all that. So what we end up with is a page covered only 60% by story text (at a 12pt font) and then a blaring chapter title across the top of 70% of the pages (each title spans two pages) and that's in 22pt font, which is blaring.

What I'm trying to say is, from an adult perspective, it's distracting. And in terms of being a book for kids that, according to my younger cousins, teachers are still reading in class, it doesn't seem to teach much at all.

It's a cute read and I'm sure children will continue to enjoy themselves with it, but it seems a little dated now in the way that parents these days watch their children - four 10-yr-olds hanging out each afternoon in a barn, out of parents' sight? In 1973, maybe. Not today.

3.29.2010

Review: The Meaning of Life: A Very Short Introduction, by Terry Eagleton

Believe it or not, I actually got through this one. After the failure that was Game Theory, I was worried that I was losing my feel for nonfiction. But nay, I say.

Now, obviously this book doesn't have an answer for anyone asking what the meaning of life is. That would be kind of silly. If that were the case, it would have sold more copies than the Bible, and Terry Eagleton would be the new Jesus. He's not quite that, but he IS Britain's most influential living literary critic. He's written something like 40 books, many of them about literary theory and postmodernism. I know, I know, you're already shaking with anticipation. I was surprised that he did not write Very Short Intro's book on Literary Theory, however he did write a book called Literary Theory: An Introduction, which is probably very similar, but maybe longer. I guess I'll have to read it.

As I said, the book doesn't really offer an answer so much as an analytical study of what meaning is, and what life is, and what "meaning"...well....means. He uses examples from Freud and Nietzsche and a few others to back up his findings which, in the end, gave me a new point from which to view how one lives ones life. It wasn't really life changing....I had this conversation with a friend the other day (briefly) about whether or not books can change your life or if they simply give you a new set of options by which to live it. This book showed me those options without making them completely accessible. This is because it's highly philosophical and I never really did well in Philosophy. My first class on Philosophy in college was taught by an ancient woman who often wore these opaque cerulean stockings. My second class on Philosophy was taught by a man who wasn't even old enough for me to respect his knowledge of philosophy, and he talked mostly about Seinfeld. I like Seinfeld, but I don't care about how it relates, okay?

I do, however, believe that books can change one's life, beyond simply providing the tools or by allowing for a new perspective on life. I'm going to make a list of the books that I know have changed my life beyond all of that. I won't make it here, but I'm sure it'll crop up some day.

Going back to the book, it was enjoyable and had enough points of humor to keep me interested, but it still felt a little over my head. But then, I suppose that given the subject matter, it kind of has to be.

3.22.2010

Review: The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company, by David A. Price

I hate biographies. Histories, I can do. But biographies lack a certain personality, as if they're hiding something. Histories are different because any American can write a history of America, but no one can write a biography of Laurence Olivier and claim to be Laurence Olivian. So I was happy when I realized that my long-anticipated read, The Pixar Touch was treated like a happy mix of the two mediums.

David Price has certainly done his research and Pixar's story flows beautifully on the page. I knew the basics already. I knew that Pixar had started in a garage like so many of its computing contemporaries, that Steve Jobs had acquired the company in the 80s, and that Disney had acquired the company in the past few years. I was already familiar with all of their feature films (the only one I haven't seen is Cars) and about half of their animated shorts. But the story is so much richer than the bare factual bones. The desire to make better animation goes so much deeper than the first 3-D-like effects achieved in the first Toy Story.

I didn't know anything about the core of the company. I didn't know the trials that the artists had suffered before and after their initial success. And I certainly lacked an appreciation for computer animation. Before reading this book, I liked a lot of what Pixar had to offer but I still felt like even that was a betrayal of my love for hand-drawn 2-D animation. Oh I was so wrong. Price managed to take me on a journey so rife with emotion that I actually cried while reading it on the train when I got to the part where Toy Story was first released.

At the root of my being wrong was my dreaded enemy*, Michael Eisner. Because of his actions, the upward spiral of 3-D animation went hand-in-hand with the closure of Disney's 2-D animation studios. It was him, all along. Not computer animation. This is not to say that I don't still have my reservations** about computerized animation and its potential, but my appreciation for the process has increased tenfold.

I only wish that the book was updated to now. Since the book was published in 2008, Pixar has released two films (Wall-E and Up). Wall-E is, by far my favorite Pixar film and Up is arguably the best*** of theirs according to most people I talk to. If the book were updated to this point, I would feel complete in my knowledge. I would love to be as aware of the process for Wall-E as I am for Toy Story and Monsters, Inc. Perhaps I'll just have to wait for Ed Catmull and John Lasseter to write their autobiographies. I might even read 'em.

* Michael Eisner has been my dreaded enemy for nearly 15 years.
** Dreamworks can suck it
*** I disagree