Tuesday, March 29, 2011

"Where's My Wand? One Boy's Magical Triump over Alienation and Shag Carpeting" by Eric Poole

"Perhaps it was my parents' relationship - which seemed to be devolving into nightly performances of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? sans the Edward Albee script and intermissions - that sparked my interest in magic. Perhaps it was because my new third-grade teacher, a sadist in stilettos named Mrs. Locke, had it in for me. Today, Mrs. Locke would be able to positively channel her aggression into a career as a bounty hunter or an Attica prison guard, but in 1969, her only outlet was a group of unsuspecting third-graders, and one in particular. Whatever the cause, I worshipped the TV show Bewitched. The notion of being able to snap my fingers, wave my hands, or twinkle my nose and magically alter the circumstances of life was intoxicating, akin to learning voodoo or having Jesus owe you one."

From an early age, Eric Poole was obsessed with Endora of TV's Bewitched. Just days after his family's Pontiac pulled into the driveway of the Pooles' new home in St. Louis, Missouri, eight-year-old Eric had staked out the basement as his special place: a spot where he could secretly perform magical incantations, draped in a flowing white bedspread he furtively hoped his compulsive mother wouldn't miss. At every rocky moment in his life, or when he was desperate to change future events before they could unfold, Eric would turn to his magical tools, close his eyes tight, and try to make everything all right. From his friendship with a fearless girl who has no arms, to his attempt to perform an exorcism on the cute boy in his Vacation Bible School, to his anxiety that his magical wish to be superior has caused the death of a family friend, Eric Poole's stories take you into the mind of someone trying to make sense of the world and his place in it. Where's My Wand? follows Eric from childhood through adolescence - a journey in which the magic in his life slowly morphs from childhood wonder to religious dogma to, finally, the grown-up understanding that the real, true magic is believing in yourself.

Can I just tell how much I loved this book? I don't know if it was reading about the 60s and 70s that made me nostalgic for my childhood (highly doubtful), or the family dynamics (more likely), or the wonderfully touching story of a young child searching for friends and being snubbed at almost every turn (BINGO!) but something really resonated with me while reading this hopefully introductory work from Poole.

The above blurbs from the dust jacket should pretty much give you all the information you need. I will say that I thought the book was going to be a lot more about Poole growing up in this time period as a young gay man, how that would make him feel isolated, how hard it would be to come to terms with those feelings, etc. But the sexuality issue is barely touched upon, except for one very hilarious scene where Eric tries to "exorcise" a "demon" from his friend that he's made through church. Even then, I got the impression that his intentions were still honorable; he thought his friend was possessed because he found himself attracted to this new friend, and that couldn't be because there was anything wrong with him, Eric.

The other thing that I thought was interesting was his relationship with his mother; it pretty much blows all the old stereotypes right out of the water. His mother does not dote on him, nor are they particularly close. (She does stand up for him in one completely brilliant scene, which made me like her a bit more). On the other hand, he and his father do seem quite close, and take an annual trip every year to have the family car worked on by an old friend of Eric's dad. They get to ride the bus (not Greyhound, as it's a bit too pricey), stay in a nice motel (12 stories!) and spend some time together without having to worry about raking the shag carpet back into pristine condition (yep, that would be Eric's mother's OCD rearing it's ugly head).

There are some strong family dynamics here, and I learned a lot more about the Baptist faith than I knew before. I would highly recommend this to anyone who wants a touching story about growing up as a nerd/loner, as well as anyone who wants a good laugh. I sincerely hope that Poole has another book in the works, as I would love to read about his life again.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

"If You Can Read This: The philosophy of bumper stickers" by Jack Bowen

Long before blogs and tweets, people were telling the world how they felt through bumper stickers. Even now, whether they're political or religious, passionate or proud, controversial or corny, these brightly colored, boldly lettered mini manifestos are declarations of who we are, where we stand, and what we'd reather be doing. But as bestselling author and noted philosopher Jack Bowen reveals, there's much more to the pop-culture phenomenon than rolling one-liners - no less, in fact, than a wise, funny, poignant, contentious, and truthful discourse on the human condition. Mixing pop culture with the ideas of historically prominent philosophers and scientists, If You Can Read This exposes the deeper wisdom couched behind these slogans - or, as need be, exposes where they have gone wrong. If you brake for big ideas, now's the time.

This was not exactly the book I thought it was when I put it on my "to-be-read" list so long ago. I thought it was going to be more of a historical look at the bumper sticker itself; how they came about, have evolved, why people love them, etc. Imagine my surprise when I realized that I was going to get a lesson in philosophical theory instead!

But it works, it really does. I thought it was very clever of Bowen to use something we all know (and mostly love), something as simple as a bumper sticker, to delve into some pretty tough topics. This small work covers just about everything: "reality", "the self", "values", "morality", even "the big questions". Each chapter has one of these general titles, then we get the bumper stickers.

For example, under the chapter "God and Religion", there are bumper sticker slogans ranging from "God Said It. I Believe It. That Settles It." to "God, Please Save Me, From Your Followers!". No sticker is safe, and Bowen discusses the philosophy behind them all. And brings up some valid points that I hadn't really thought about, either. Such as when he discusses the sticker "When You Pray Get Off Your Knees". I'm pretty sure I've seen this one somewhere before but have never really given it much thought. Bowen talks about the driver's selection of this sticker, that this person most likely believes that you need to do something to change things other than pray. Or that you can pray, but still need to get off your butt and do something to help yourself as well. Bowen uses a quote from Frederick Douglass to illustrate this point: "I prayed for freedom for twenty years, but received no answer until I prayed with my legs." Perhaps the driver would have the companion sticker on the other side of the bumper (just my thinking here....), "God helps those who help themselves."

It's a very interesting look at such a small, common thing, one that really makes the reader think about the "slogan" being advertised. Some stickers have a good, solid philosophical theory behind them; others are completely destroyed by Bowen, who points out a lot of faulty logic. A fun read, and one that will teach you something while entertaining you at the same time.

Monday, March 14, 2011

"Dear Undercover Economist" by Tim Harford

In Dear Undercover Economist, the first collection of his wildly popular Financial Times columns, Tim Harford offers witty, charming, and at times caustic answers to our most pressing concerns - all through the lens of economics. Does money buy happiness? Is "the one" really out there? Can cities be greener than farms? Can you really "dress for success"? When's the best time to settle down? Harford provides brilliant, hilarious, unexpected, and wise answers to these and other questions. Arranged by topic, easy to read, and hard to put down, Dear Undercover Economist lends an outrageous, compassionate, and indispensable perspective on anything that may irk or ail you - a book well work the investment.

I'd read "The Undercover Economist" a few years ago, and it wasn't too bad a book, a bit hard to get through at times, but still informative. I saw this title and thought it might be a better choice, seeing as how it's written as letters rather than chapters full of information. And it is - to the extent that it was much easier to decide when to close the book at night and go to sleep.

Even with the shorter format and such, I still had a difficult time getting through this title by Harford. Perhaps I was spoiled by "Freakonomics" - another book that attempts to use common, everyday life to explain the weird world of economics. I think the authors there did a brilliant job of not only explaining but entertaining, and as anyone who has ever tried to teach anyone knows (esp. when trying to teach children), it's so much easier if you can keep your audience entertained.

The only really cool thing about this book was one of the letters in the "how to fool a wine snob" section. No, the letter itself isn't exciting - it's the author. George Pollitt of Buckinghamshire, UK, submitted a question about his favorite pub table getting too crowded. Why is this important? Well, "Pollitt" happens to be my family name, and I'd been told by my grandfather and my dad down the years that "Pollitt" is very common in England. Not on par with "Smith" or "Jones" here, but probably along the lines of "Mason" or "Carpenter". And here's the name! And no, I do not know George Pollitt, or at least, I don't believe I do. I've never heard his name mentioned in the family tree. But it sure was neat to see my family name appear in a book!