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Books Podcasts

Warlight (Review for The Slow Reader)

I posted the review for Warlight last week on my feed for The Slow Reader (https://slow-reader.pinecast.co). Here’s the text! Please excuse any minor typos – I didn’t really write it to be read, but to be heard.

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje  

Welcome to the Slow Reader – a podcast about books. I’m Steve and in today’s episode I am reviewing Warlight by Michael Ondaatje. 

About the book  

Publish date: May 8, 2018  

Back of the book summary:  

In a narrative as mysterious as memory itself – at once both shadowed and luminous – Warlight is a vivid, thrilling novel of violence and love, intrigue and desire. It is 1945, and London is still reeling from the Blitz and years of war. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his sister, Rachel, are apparently abandoned by their parents, left in the care of an enigmatic figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and grow both more convinced and less concerned as they get to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women with a shared history, all of whom seem determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all he didn’t know or understand in that time, and it is this journey – through reality, recollection, and imagination – that is told in this magnificent novel. 

Warlight is a book that, because it’s by a renown Canadian author, is going to be found prominently displayed at most large bookstores in Canada, so that’s how it first appeared on my radar. I’ve never read Ondaatje before (even though I was supposed to read In the Skin of a Lion in university), so it didn’t immediately go on my to-read list. It wasn’t until I read the back-of-the-book description that made me want to read it. I also knew that it was critically acclaimed and on several book prize lists. So that’s what really sealed the deal and prompted me to add it to my library hold list. 

The book has different chapter headings, but they’re not numbered. I might not have had a good idea of how the chapters were divided, reading an eBook copy. Unfortunately, in preparing this review, I didn’t have a physical copy to rely on and can’t really elaborate further. But the way it worked in the eBook was that the novel was split into 3 overall parts, and within those parts were chapters (with headings such as “Wildfowling”), and within those were other, smaller breaks.  

I found it really easy to read full chapters at a time, as they were all small chunks. It made for some easily digestible reading sessions – and as I’ll elaborate on in a little bit, this was really helpful in trying to decipher the book. 

My Reading Timeline 

I started reading the book on November 13th, and finished reading it on November 28th. That’s 16 days, which is quick for my standards – but the reason for that was because it was a library eBook that I had no opportunity to renew.  

My copy had 272 or 292 pages (depending on my font settings), so it was a short book to move through as well. Because I read it in my Kobo Clara HD, I was able to get some good stats: it took my 8.6 hours to read, with my average minutes read per session at 6 minutes, and an average of 0.9 pages per minute. 

Questions to Answer 


I didn’t come up with any questions before I started reading Warlight, mostly because I had to just dive right into the book. The summary I read earlier is actually a fairly good indication as to what the book is about. But to really understand it, I need to delve into spoiler territory. From this point out, while I won’t get into every detail, I recommend reading the book before continuing with the podcast. 

What’s the book really about? 

This is a complicated question, and a complicated answer. On the surface, I don’t think the book is “about” anything in the sense of conflict. It really feels like it’s three different stories mashed together. It starts out as what appears to be a coming of age story, but at the end of part one, it becomes a spy story when there’s an attempted kidnapping of Nathaniel and his sister. But given the details weaved throughout the first part, you can see that it also has always been a spy story. In Part Two, it becomes a fact-finding mission – Nathanial as an adult trying to uncover secrets about his mother. And the third part is his mother’s story – but in the end, all three parts are woven together and tied up neatly.  

I’m not going to lie, I had to do a little bit of extra reading to try to pick apart this book. There’s a section in the Warlight Wikipedia entry devoted to “interpretation”. I’m grateful for it, because it helped distill some of the more confusing aspects of the story (and also helped inform my own interpretation of the book). There’s a New York Times review by Penelope Lively where she suggests the theme of the novel is that “the past never remains in the past”, and “the present reconstructs the past”. I think this interpretation is bang on – and fits with some of the observations of the main character at the end of the story.  

When I think about it personally, I can’t help but come to the same conclusion about the present “reconstructing” the past. It’s really easy to look back at past events and remember them in a different light. “Hindsight is 20/20” is a saying for a reason, after all.  

Another part of the novel that I picked up on, and confirmed in Lively’s interpretation, that the narration is deliberately vague and not revealing. The term “warlight” is mentioned several times throughout the story, referring to periods in the war where England would create blackouts to make it difficult for German bombers to see the landscape at night. There’s also a point in the novel describing a small village outside of London where during the war, they removed all signposts from the countryside to make it virtually impossible for anyone on foot to navigate.  

Ondaatje does this in the novel as well – he makes it deliberately difficult to navigate the narration and follow along, forcing us to fill in the gaps ourselves with a close reading. There’s a quote from the main character: “I know how to fill in a story from a grain of sand or a fragment of discovered truth.” 

This really made my reading sessions somewhat overwhelming and hard to get through. I mentioned earlier that my reading sessions were short and easily broken up, but there were times where I just couldn’t keep reading because of how much information is just thrown at you to try and digest. It’s very difficult to follow and you really need to concentrate on what you’re reading. 

Highlights from the Book 

I highlighted a lot of lines from the book – for various reasons, these passages spoke to me. Unfortunately, I neglected to get the page numbers or which chapter they’re from before I returned the book, so it’ll have to remain a mystery to you. 

“Nothing lasts. Not even literary or artistic fame protects worldly things around us” 

– I’m not entirely sure why I highlighted this line. I think maybe I picked this out as one of the underlying themes of the novel. I don’t think that’s the overall message I got after finishing the book though. 

“It was strange to consider their world being organized in such a godlike way by a woman who was remembering less and less of her own universe” 

– This was referring to a bee colony and a woman from, whom Nathanial was buying a house. I just enjoyed the contrast displayed in this short sentence, which at the same time made a somewhat sad statement about the mental state of the woman it was describing. 

“In any case, this was the government job I had enigmatically referred to that afternoon in Mrs. Malakite’s garden while the bees moved uncertainly in their hives and she had forgotten who I was.”

 – There’s nothing particularly special about this line – I just highlighted it because it reminded me of how we sometimes tell stories. Something mentioned in passing gets elaborated on further. There was a lot of that happening in the novel. 

“There was a hasty, determined destruction of evidence by all sides”

 – The destruction of documents that was being described by Ondaatje put in my mind the image of the various Ministries in 1984

“In this post-war world twelve years later, it felt to some of us, our heads bent over the files brought to us daily, that it was no longer possible to see who held a correct moral position” 

– I think this might be referring to the kinds of atrocities committed on both sides of the war. Part of what Ondaatje illustrates in the novel is that we have this idea of the “good guys” winning the war, but – alongside the previous quote about destroying evidence – as his mother put it in the novel, “sins were various” no matter which side you look at. 

“She was not in her right mind, of course, then. She was exhausted. A seizure had been activated in her and she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” 

– The fact that Nathanial’s sister, Rachel, had seizures in the novel turned out not to be an important detail. It helped to weave some minor points together in the story; but what made me highlight this was that I recently experienced a seizure for the first time. This part of the description: “…she was probably never clear about the details of what had happened” resonates with me completely. One minute I was cooking breakfast, and the next thing I remember after is waking up in the back of an ambulance. I don’t know what happened other than what was told to me. 

“Do we eventually become what we are originally meant to be?”

 – This idea of pre-determined fates was explored a little bit in the novel. I’m not sure that the question was ever really answered. But personally, I believe that yes, we all have some sort of destiny and life exerts itself to put is in a particular path. We have some control over what direction we go, but ultimately, we end up where we’re supposed to be. 

““So how long are you here? What do you do with yourself?” 

It felt to me that both questions, side by side, showed a lack of interest.” 

– I laughed a little at this quote. The way these questions were written, that’s exactly the tone I imagined. They feel like small talk made to say something and doesn’t require attentive listening. 

“But above all, most of all, how much damage did I do”

 – To be honest, I’m not sure why I picked this line out of the book. I think it was Nathanial realizing who he was and what his past meant to him and others. 

“We are foolish as teenagers. We say wrong things, do not know how to be modest, or less shy. We judge easily. But the only hope given us, although only in retrospect, is that we change” 

– This is a very bleak outlook on how we act as youth. Still, it’s fairly accurate. I think we all acknowledge that we do stupid things in our youth (from teenagers on up including even our 20’s). As adults, we look down on teenagers and chalk up their actions to “they’re just teenagers”.  So I guess I highlighted this line for truth. As for the previous line – I think it followed this line so now I understand it in context. Nathanial is asking how much damage he did as a teenager – and I suppose, asking himself if he changed. 

Wrapping Up 

I liked the book – I wasn’t really bored while reading, except for a few places here and there. But this was not an easy read, by any means, and I really feel like I need a palate cleanser in between. Luckily I have a couple of lighter books on the go that help in that regard – the only problem being that I feel the need to take a short reading break. 

On Goodreads I rated Warlight 3 out of 5 stars. After reading through I like to read other reviews, and a lot of what I saw matched my opinion. It’s a solid book, but Part Three suffers a little compared to the rest of the book. This is where it really slows down, when Nathanial starts to recount his mother’s childhood and how she learned to become a spy.  

I didn’t really think it fit with the rest of the book – I’m not sure I even understood how Nathanial knew all of these details. I think maybe he was making a lot of it up based on small bits of information he learned over the years. That could very well be what happened here. But to me it felt very unimportant to the overall story and I just wanted to breeze through it. 

I recommend the novel, with the caveat that you should give yourself time to get through it. Don’t rush through it as I felt I had to. 

What’s Next on the Podcast 

So, what’s next for The Slow Reader? I have two books that I put on hold while I read Warlight: The MVP Machine and Master and Apprentice. The latter is a Star Wars novel set before The Phantom Menace. I intend to finish these books before the end of the year, but I’m not sure if I will get to the recording process before then. I anticipate that you’ll see a new episode in January 2020.  

After those books I think I want to get through some shorter material, so I’ll have a look on my shelf and pick out some thin reading.  

The music at the start of this episode was called Labile Polvere, recorded by Mattia Vlad Morleo. Find out more at Jamendo.com. 

If you enjoyed this episode, be sure to check out previous episodes and books at https://slow-reader.pinecast.co. Share this with other people and leave me a comment on Twitter, @stephen_g. Thanks for listening! 

Categories
Movies

The Role of the Protagonist in Dystopian Films

I wrote this essay in March 2004; I was in first year University and this assignment was for “FILM 1000B”. I recently found it while cleaning up my basement studio, and saw that I scored 18 out of 20 on the paper. I thought I’d share it online for all to see.

Stephen Gower
FILM 1000B
Genre Essay
Prof. Mark Langer
MAR 17 2004

The Role of the Protagonist in Dystopian Films

It is suggested that in the musical film, a utopian community exists where the protagonist acts as an active participant in its construction. The overwhelming result is that a situation, having wronged itself at some point during the film, rights itself in the end as a direct result of the protagonists’ actions. The musical community is often cheerful and there are no false pretenses surrounding it. Conversely, the dystopian community is based on control and power. There is often a strong policing force that keeps the population in line. In dystopian films, the protagonist is still aparticipant, however partakes in destryoing the oppressive society he or she lives in rather than working to preserve the community as it once was.

As mentioned, dystopian communities are usually structured governments, and are accompanied by some sort of policing force (or in cases like Nineteen Eighty Four, self-policing methods1George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty Four. (England: Martin Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1949).) to control the population. In A Clockwork Orange(1971), it is an actual police force; in Brazil(1985), it is the Ministry of Information; and in The Matrix(1999), it is the Machines/Agents who control the delinquents. On the surface, this is not something out of the ordinary; every society needs to be policed to enjoy a sense of personal security. But in the case of dystopian films, this policing force does more than just enforce the law. In the case of Brazil and The Matrix, the police force not only stops but eliminates errors within the system. However, since A Clockwork Orange is set in a modern time frame, it operates more like our society, using prisons. It is the government that uses its experimental treatment that eliminates the problem, while the police force works to try and correct it, and then benefits from the reversal of Alex’s conditioning. These are all quick and easy example-s of an outside force controlling the protagonist, but there is more to it than simply a policing force.

The idea of the outside force controlling the protagonis comes into play when he feels compelled to change the society for the better – whether to bring edown the government or shutting down the artificial intelligence controlling the humans. The protagonist is allowed to believe he is working to make the community better, or more than what it is, but in the end, he is stopped by the controlling force (usually the government). For instance, in Brazil, Sam Lowry thinks he is helping to bring down the government, and actually believes he succeeds in escaping the Ministry of Information. However, not only is Sam broken down by the series of torture performed on him by Jack Lint, but his grand escape (which takes up approximately the last five or ten minutes of the film) is all in his mind; this reinforces the notion that the protagonist merely undergoes the illusion of de-constructing the dystopian society.

Invariably, the protagonist also has a meaningless job2Fred Glass. “Brazil,” in An Introduction to Film Studies. Edited by Mark LAnger. (Pearson Custom Publishing), 2004. p.373. with no aspirations of advancing. In Brazil, Sam has a dull job with little to no advantages, and refuses every offer of promotion sent his way – to the point where his boss, Mr. Kurtzman, assumes that Sam still wants to turn down the latest offer of promotion and forges his signature. Since Sam has no initial desire to move beyond his current position (for he proclaims himself to be happy), there should be no problem with this (and there is no problem until Sam decides he needs a higher level of security clearance to locate his dream woman, Jill).

Likewise, in The Matrix, Neo/Thomas Anderson has a cubicle job at a nameless software company. He has no ambition or plans of advancing his career with the company, and it appears that it would not phase him if he lost his job. However, his meaningless job is not as important to the plot as it is in Brazil. What is important is that Neo, within the Matrix, conducts software piracy; he is under the impression that he is circumventing the system by performing this piracy. Of course, the machines who have set up the Matrix, who are ultimate responsible for controlling the actions of their crops, probably do not care that an insignificant human is conducting acts that are only illegal in a computer simulation of 20th century New York City.

A common relation between the protagonist and the dystopian society is that the protagonist is often watched closely by the ruling government. In the case of Brazil, Sam’s actions are watched immediately after he accepts his promotion in the Ministry of Information. For all of his efforts to hide his activities, the Ministry is always aware of what he does and is a step ahead of him. Because of this, he cannot escape his eventual fate of becoming trapped in his own fantasy.

Likewise, Neo is watched, even more closely. However, he is watched by more than just the machines; revolutionaries such as Morpheus and Trinity are watching him through the Matrix, and even guide him around his office, seeming to know Neo’s surroundings better than even him. In the sequence where he has to choose to leave with the Agents or leave with Trinity, Morpheus informs Neo that “they” have been watching him – indicating the Agents/machines – and that he is not safe. The scene immediately following Neo’s capture features a set of TV monitors watching Neo. We are not sure who is watching those screens, but it is certain that someone else is watching Neo (it is quite possible that these are the TV screens from the scene where Neo interacts with the Architect in The Matrix Reloaded(2003), but that movie is not in discussion).

The most important aspect of the dystopian film is that the protagonist is not in control of his actions, even though he thinks he is. This was touched on before, when the illusion of the protagonist being able to bring about change was mentioned. Sam’s manipulation at the hands of the Ministry of Information was mentioned; as in the novel Nineteen Eighty Four (for which Brazil was based on3Glass, 371.), this is key, because in the novel, the Inner Party knew Winston was going to commit “thought crime”, and eventually eliminated him when he had gone too far. In Brazil, the Ministry of Information knew Sam had committed the crime of aiding a suspected terrorist, and had him eliminated after he had gone too far. In both cases, the government knew of the protagonists’ actions, were watching him, and eliminated the problem.

As a point of reference, in the dystopian novel Brave New World by Aldous Huxley, the members of that particular society are controlled by their genetic conditioning from before entering the embryonic stage. Miscreants are watched by the government and are removed from society. All dystopian genre films and literature contain this key part, and that is what makes them a dystopia.

One could argue, then, that The Matrix is not a dystopian film. Neo is able to break free from the controlling machines and help rid the humans of the Matrix once and for all. In that respect, The Matrix fails as a dystopia4This is similar to Gattaca(1997). Even though most people are controlled by genetics, the protagonist defies his inferior genetic make-up to strive and reach his goals. This film does not qualify as a dystopia, despite being based on Huxley’s Brave New World.. However, if you looked at The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions(2003) as well as The Matrix, it can be seen that Neo – and other liberated humans – is still a pawn of the machines, even outside the simulation.

In A Clockwork Orange, this control comes from the conditioning Alex received after volunteering for the government-sponsored program while in prison. In effect, the government is able to control Alex. In the end, after removing the effects of the conditioning, the government in fact uses Alex for their own twisted purposes. Even in this, a film that just barely qualifies as a dystopia, exterior control exists. This control extends to a point where Alex has no choice but to commit suicide so he would not have to hear the music he was conditioned to hate (even though he loved music).

Lastly, the protagonist is concerned with changing his situation; this is why A Clockwork Orange is only vaguely a dystopia. Alex is simply concerned with getting out of jail as fast as he can. He could care less about his society – but what makes the film a dystopia is the message that it presents to the viewer. But in Brazil, even though Sam claims he is perfeclty happy in his job, he constantly fantasizes of a dream woman who he is sure he is destined to meet. When he does finally meet her in real life, he feels the desire to change everything, especially when he discovers his dream woman is a suspected terroirst.

In The Matrix, this desire for drastic change is most evident. The humans wish to destroy the Matrix and the machines, hoping to liberate all of humanity. The only difference between The Matrix and other dystopian films is that the dystopian film generally sees no change to the situation, leaving the viewer with a feeling of hopelessness. The Matrix, on the other hand, leaves the viewer instilled with hope that the machines will be destroyed. Again, this is another argument against the notion that The Matrix is even a dystopian film. It simply exhibits the general aspects of a science fiction film.

In short, dystopian films feature extremely well-structured, inescapable societies where the protagonist simply exists. He may try to change the world, or bring down the ruling power singlehandedly, but because of the ever-vigil eye of the ones holding power, he fails to accomplish anything but bring his life to term at a quicker pace. The protagonist is often watched, either from the beginning or at the moment of crimes against the state, and is controlled by an exterior force. It was just stated: the dystopian community is unavoidable once a society is locked within it.

In general, the dystopia is meant as a commentary on present society, rather than a story where the hero saves everyone. It is not meant to have a happy ending, only to stimulate the viewer/reader’s mind into asking questions about the current state of their own world. While The Matrix does cause us to pause and think on whether our world is real or not, it does not put social values into question. Films like A Clockwork Orange and Brazil both lay the groundwork for the curious mind to ponder their current situation, or what might happen should they continue along a certain path.

Bibliography

An Introduction to Film Studies. Edited by Mark Langer. (Canada: Pearson Custom Publishing, 2004).

Filmography

A Clockwork Orange. Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Malcom McDowell, PAtrick Magee, James Marcus. U.K., 1971.

Brazil. Dir. Terry Gilliam. Perf. Jonathan Pryce, Kim Greist, Robert DeNiro. U.K., 1985.

Matrix, The. Dir. Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski. Perf. Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss. U.S.A./Australia, 1999.

Categories
Guest Post Life

4 Simple Self-Care Tips to Improve Your Mental Health by Brad Krause

This post was submitted by Brad Krause. Brad is a full-time life coach who writes a lot about self care, which is something I’ve been big into in my own writing (if not in those exact words). You can find more of his writing at https://www.SelfCaring.info.

Image courtesy of Pexels

4 Simple Self-Care Tips to Improve Your Mental Health

With family obligations, deadlines at work, and meals to cook, sometimes we forget how important it is to take time for ourselves. But self-care isn’t selfish. In fact, taking care of yourself both mentally and physically can boost your health, prevent burnout, and make you more alert, focused, and present — all things that will allow you to perform better in every aspect of your life. Here are a few simple things you can do to improve your mental health.

Meditate

If you’re feeling rushed and overwhelmed, you may balk at the idea of meditation, but as Healthline explains, meditating can calm anxiety, increase optimism, and reduce stress. This is vital for your mental well-being, especially if you’re routinely tense. While everyone experiences occasional stress, chronic stress can be detrimental to your health. If you’re constantly stressed, you’re more likely to get sick, have digestion problems, or suffer from insomnia. 

Not sure where to start? Apps like Calm or Headspace offer a great way to dip your toes into meditation and reap the benefits to your mental health.

Make Time to Exercise

If meditation isn’t quite your speed, exercise is a great way to reduce stress. Regular exercise can give you an endorphin rush, boosting your sense of accomplishment and well-being. To really get motivated, fitness trackers can be just the ticket. 

As an example, the now-available Apple Watch Series 5 is a prime candidate. It monitors not only your workout progress, but also your heart function. There are integrated safety features as well, such as fall detection and the ability to summon help if you get into trouble. Or consider the Fitbit Versa Lite, which monitors not only your workout, but also your sleep patterns, and will provide you with information to help you make adjustments. 

Prioritize Sleep

When you’re rushing to get things done, sleep is often the first thing to get ignored. If you often find yourself saying that you can get by with just a few hours a night, reconsider — some studies show that sleep deficiency causes a whole host of problems. In fact, if you miss out on a good night’s sleep for just a few days, your brain begins to function as though you’ve been fully awake for 24 to 48 hours. 

Taking the time to sleep for seven or eight hours a night rapidly improves your brain health. It helps you learn faster, focus better, and make decisions more easily. Getting enough sleep also improves your immune system and allows your body to heal during the night, meaning you’re less likely to need sick days. So next time you start to prioritize work over sleep, take a step back — and if you can’t relax enough to fall asleep, try incorporating some soothing music or ambient noise into your evening.

Self-Soothe With Aromatherapy

While research into aromatherapy is still ongoing, Verywell Mind points out that using soothing scents can reduce the stress hormone cortisol and help people sleep. Lavender essential oil is a great way to calm your mind after a stressful day, but you can experiment to find the scents that work best for you — maybe you’d prefer a pop of citrus to energize you and clear your mind, or a more earthy smell like rosemary. Try using an essential oil diffuser or putting a few drops of oil on your pillowcase. 

If you choose to use pure essential oils in a household with pets, be sure to do your research first; certain essential oils can be toxic to cats and dogs. Scented candles are a great alternative if you’re concerned about the use of essential oils around your pets.

No matter how you choose to take care of yourself, it’s vital for you to continually prioritize self-care in your everyday life. Even if you’re busy, simply meditating for 10 minutes before bed can make a world of difference over time. Get sufficient sleep, add some exercise as well, and indulge in scents that revitalize you. Taking care of yourself means you’ll be happy, healthy, and better able to help the people you care about.

Categories
Books Podcasts

Review: Heads by David Osborn

This Fall I read the 1985 medical thriller Heads by David Osborn. You can hear the audio version of it via The Slow Reader; full text is below!

About the book 

Publish date: December 1, 1985 

Back of the book summary: 

More shocking than Coma, more terrifying than The Terminal ManHeads is a thriller that goes deeper into the horrifying future of medicine than any novel has dared to go before. In an ultimate step into terror, David Osborn explores the murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death, when what begins as highly-classified research by a team of responsible doctors ends as a deadly game in which any of the players can be condemned to a purgatory more ghastly than hell. 

Quick notes about the summary – The Terminal Man was a 1972 Michael Chrichton book (who himself referred to it as his “least favourite work”). Coma probably refers to the 1977 novel by Robin Cook.  Osborn is also the author of a book called Open Season – best summarized by this review from Leslie on Goodreads

3 former college buddies meet every year for an annual hunting trip at their secluded lodge. For the past seven years they have kidnapped a young couple, forced them to commit humiliating acts and then after a short head start they begin hunting them down. 

From what you’ll hear about later in the review, that sounds on par with Heads

I also found Heads listed as The Head Hunters on Kindle (published 2017) when searching for it online, so if you’re unable to find it try using that title. It has quite a different book cover that looks like it was put together as a cut-and-paste job compared to the 1985 cover. Had I realized these books were identical I might have paid for the eBook rather than buy a physical copy. 

Speaking of which, that’s how I found the book! I first found it at a yard sale on Manitoulin Island over the summer; however, I decided not to buy it at the time. I realized after the fact that I should have bought it, so I bought a used copy from Amazon. It came from somewhere in California, but it looks like it originated from Alberta, Canada. I’d be interested in following that trail.  

Getting back to the book, some basic stats: 

  • There are 294 pages in the main story 
  • There are 36 chapters (with a prologue) 
  • There’s a preview of the book Evidence of Love by John Bloom and Jim Atkinson, apparently a true crime novel, at the end of the novel, plus an order form for more Bantam books 

My Reading Timeline 

I started reading Heads September 10th, and finished reading it October 23rd. Depending on how you calculate it, that’s 44 days, good for approximately 6.7 pages per day. Or by chapter count, 1.2 chapters per day.   

Questions to Answer 

Of all the things I want to cover in this review, I want to make sure I answer these questions I have about the novel, partly based on the back of the book: 

  1. Are the “murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death” really explored in this novel? 
  2. Did I feel that any character was in any real danger at any point in the story? 
  3. Further to question 2, did the story and setting seem at least believable (in other words, could I suspend my level of disbelief)? 
  4. Somewhat related, is this “future of medicine” really something that was considered to be plausible in 1985? 

I’ll circle back to these questions at the end of the review to provide a sort of summary of my thoughts both while I was reading, and after I finished the book. Up until this point the podcast has been spoiler-free for Heads, but while I’m not going to cover off the entire book as I’ve done previously, consider anything past this point to have potential spoilers (if you were intending on reading the book). 

What’s the book really about? 

The back-of-the-book synopsis is probably one of the vaguest descriptions of a book that I’ve ever read, yet it (combined with the cool cover) still managed to spark my interest. Still, it’s not very descriptive as to what actually happens in the book so here’s a short summary. 

The Borg-Harrison Institute is conducting highly-classified research experiments for the government or the military (to be honest, I’m not entirely clear who is funding this research).  Borg-Harrison scientists are recruiting volunteer patients who are about to die – those with terminal diseases, life-threatening physical problems and the like – and offer them extended life as life-supported heads.  No body, just their head attached to a console.  In exchange, they sever all contact with their previous life and remain hidden away in a research laboratory.   

One researcher, Susan McCollough, joins Borg-Harrison and starts working on the project – although she is unaware that the project is dealing with live severed heads.  Eventually she stumbles upon the secret and must tread carefully, or else she could end up with a severed head herself.  

So that’s what’s going on at the surface level. I’ll get into some more of the plot details as I talk about the book, but I want to introduce the main characters at least. Here’s who we’re dealing with:  

  • John Flemming. Brilliant scientist and “youngest-ever medical director of the University Hospital Brain Research Laboratory in Washington” 
  • Susan McCollough.  Another scientist, and John’s assistant –  which is why she’s brought on to work with Borg-Harrison. 
  • Michael Burgess. The lead scientist and surgeon on the project. 
  • Katherine Blair. A psychologist working on the project, is closely involved with Michael. 
  • Al Luczynski. An anesthesiologist at Borg-Harrison. Apparently has a talent to perfectly imitate other people’s voices which pays off only in one scene to manufacture a tense moment. 
  • Toni Soong. Michael’s assistant in surgery. 

There are some smaller characters in the novel as well, but those are the main players. All of the lead doctors and scientists all seem to be considered experts in their field. They also know how to party, and that’s how we’re first introduced to them. Oh, and they’re also all extremely good looking. Somehow, Osborn still manages to give them a different look while still making them out to have perfect bodies. I guess in a way, it worked for me – I was able to get different mental pictures of the characters.   

That’s another thing, though; Osborn seemed to have a penchant for describing Katherine’s “titian” hair. I’d never heard of that before; apparently it’s a “brownish shade of red hair” often confused with auburn hair. I thought it was overused in the book at first, but the descriptor came up at another point in the novel to create a somewhat helpful context so I would again conclude that in terms of physical descriptions, Osborn was able to differentiate the characters very well. 

However, that’s where the “characters done well” bit stops. I felt that the personalities and motivations of the characters were all surface-level, with very little depth to any of them. The characters also portray some viewpoints very much rooted in the 1980’s. The men in the novel are seen to be powerful, and the women are forced to use “their gender” to advance their careers or ambitions. Katherine in particular is portrayed as cold and calculating, and the few times we get limited 3rd person narration from her perspective don’t do very much to cast a better light. She’s basically there to be a manipulative, power-hungry antagonist for Susan, the lead character of the novel.  

About Susan – it’s more than a little disappointing that a lot of her actions are governed by her overwhelming attraction to men in the novel. The book starts with her and John Flemming together, but when he dies early in the novel it devastates her. This is understandable, I mean I can’t imagine going through losing a loved one. But not too long after John’s death, she becomes overwhelmingly attracted to Michael and many of her decisions in the novel (until probably the last third of the book) are only in conflict because she is so attracted to Michael. Part of the attraction is rooted in his physical appearance, but they have very frequent, mind-blowing sex in the middle of the novel (some of which is described in somewhat amusing detail, but mostly just referred to in passing). The way it’s written, Susan seems to be very much controlled by her relationship with Michael and finds it hard to think straight.  

I guess you could say that I wasn’t impressed with the characters and how they were written. Luckily, the story moved along at a good pace and was interesting enough that I could look past the poor characterization. And I actually enjoyed at the way information was slowly revealed as I read along. It wasn’t a mystery novel so I didn’t feel cheated that plot details were withheld behind-the-scenes, so to speak. 

After John Flemming dies in a horrible car accident, we mostly follow Susan’s point of view with a few glimpses into the other characters actions. Most of the information that we need comes from Susan’s limited viewpoints; we really only check in with the other characters so that we know what’s going on at the surface. Osborn seems deliberately vague with what they’re talking about (even though we can kind of infer what’s really happening), but that’s okay.  

As Susan moves out of her deep depression due to John’s passing and starts to work for Borg-Harrison, we start to get more details revealed – both from Susan’s perspective, and from the other characters – and it mainly follows at the same pace as Susan’s revelations.  

For example, once Susan joins Borg-Harrison, we start to get some more details about squabbling between the scientists and the source of their funding. Not too long after that, while frustratingly coming to an impasse in her work, Susan accidentally discovers John is technically still alive in the form of a disembodied head connected to a console. He’s not the only one – there are five or six active “volunteers” in a restricted floor of the institute. Once Susan finds out what the project she’s working on is truly about, that’s when the information just starts flowing out.  

We get some more insight into just how close this project is to failure, and the inner machinations of the research institute as they try to figure out how to minimize any damage potentially caused by Susan’s discovery of the heads. The solution is to give her full access, and as Susan learns more and works more closely with John, more and more is revealed. We even get point of view chapters from the heads themselves, which in itself is interesting. At one point, they also go through the surgery involved in severing a head from the body and keeping it alive (although in that surgery, there’s an error and the head dies anyway).  

Eventually we learn more about the nature of the volunteers. They’re supposed to be those that are basically dead already – either a terminal disease that has almost run its course, or some other reason that their bodies will cause them to die. But it’s revealed that Katherine is fudging things – an unknown number of volunteers could be people who are healthy and not close to death at all. It’s implied that John Flemming’s signature was forged while he was being worked on in the hospital after his accident. 

This revelation about the source of the heads is actually very important, because it lays the foundation of the threat to Susan’s life – that she could very easily become a head on a console. In fact, that’s the main conflict at the end of the novel.  John dies, and in order to deal with knowing too much, Katherine and Michael conspire to put Susan’s head on a console. I actually wasn’t sure what direction the book would take, and thought that it was possible Osborn could actually do this to the protagonist.  

Spoilers! She makes it as far as the prep table for surgery. Part of the prep process includes shaving the head of the “volunteer” and drawing incision lines across the neck. This is what leads to a fairly cringe-inducing scene. Susan escapes, and eventually encounters Katherine in a locker room. She knocks her out cold, and anesthesiologist Al L. walks in to find her unconscious, on the floor. His first thought is not to help her out – far from it. 

No, his first thought is that he’ll never get another chance to have Katherine in such a vulnerable position again. His second thought is that he could do whatever he wanted to and take advantage of her. The only reason he doesn’t take off his own pants is that he realizes he has no time and would get caught. So he hides her hair and draws the incision lines across her neck. He figures that no one would be able to tell the difference between her and Susan without hair and naked from the neck down. 

I guess he was right, because it’s Katherine that ends up on the surgery table when the details of the program are revealed to the media – but too late to stop the surgery in progress. 

That’s probably the only spot in the novel that I thought could have been ripped right out.  

Highlights from the Book 

I dog-eared some pages while I was reading because there were some passages there that I wanted to highlight.  Here they are: 

“Al Luczynski, wearing an undersized bikini completely at odds with his round bearded face and big bearish body…” Was bikini an often-used term for Speedo’s in the 80’s? Weird image from this quote. 

In chapter 10, Katherine is going to the Borg-Harrison headquarters to meet the board chairman, and Osborn describes the house in great length. His wording for when she doesn’t find him is odd: “Katherine found him not there.” Wouldn’t it have been better to say “Katherine didn’t find him there”? 

Chapter 20 – not a particular line, but this chapter was unique in that it was from the viewpoint of John. It was neat to get inside his head (no pun intended) and then he also describes the surgery process. Chapter 23 was also from the heads’ viewpoint and what goes on “after hours”. 

Answering the Questions 

Getting back to the questions I asked earlier, let’s start with number one. 

Are the “murky boundaries between volunteer and victim, ambition and ruthlessness, life and death” really explored in this novel? 

I would say no. That quote implies to me that there are current processes in medical sciences (current in 1985, at least) that would be explored. It’s true that the line between volunteer and victim blur in the novel, but I don’t think they were really “explored” in the meaning I’m thinking about. As far as I can tell from the book, it’s clear that the research project started with good intentions and was all “proper”, at least as proper as severing heads and keeping them alive could be.  

But eventually as they started experiencing problems keeping heads alive or useful, and running out of viable candidates to volunteer, the board director basically tells Katherine “don’t tell me what you’re doing and I won’t ask” when it comes to being creative with procuring new subjects. Once we have that topic broached by the characters, it seems like the novel tailspins into creative new ways Katherine can find new volunteers.  

So no, this “murky boundary” is pretty much just a surface-level feature of the book. 

Did I feel that any character was in any real danger at any point in the story? 

Yes! I mentioned earlier that I thought Susan could potentially end up a severed head on a console at the end of the book. And I guess by direct correlation, Katherine was for sure in danger at the end. The book was at least realistic in terms of not protecting characters or pulling punches. 

Further to question 2, did the story and setting seem at least believable (in other words, could I suspend my level of disbelief)? 

I don’t truly know much about research projects or hospitals, but I had a hard time believing in the characters. They all seemed to be partying and sleeping with each other, and were all perfect specimens of the human race (except for an avuncular old man working at the institute, who made me think of Ducky from NCIS).   

But yes, I suspended my disbelief a little bit while reading the book. I don’t mean that as I was reading I believed that what they were doing was truly possible. I just mean that there wasn’t really anything in the book (the almost-rape scene aside) that made me stop reading and say, “well there’s no way that could happen.”  In the universe of the novel, it was believable. 

Somewhat related, is this “future of medicine” really something that was considered to be plausible in 1985? 

This one I need to research a little bit. Unfortunately it’s not something that comes too easily in a Google search. I think I’d have to dive deep and read some essays, but I’m not really interested in doing that (nor do I have the time). I picked a bad question to ask, in retrospect. I did find some breakthroughs in medical treatments in the early 80’s, though, and they included things like vaccines, MRI scanners, and apparently a surgical robot.  

Digging a little deeper, apparently artificial skin was discovered and developed in the late 70’s and early 80’s. But also in 1981 was the first successful combined heart-lung transplant. Since the novel features what I would call a head transplant (from a body to a machine), I looked up some more transplant firsts near the 1980’s. Here’s a short list: 

  • 1963 – First human liver transplant; first human lung transplant 
  • 1966 – First human pancreas transplant 
  • 1967 – First human heart transplant 

So I suppose if you were to look at what was happening in medical technology I’d argue that you could speculate the kind of procedure described in Heads would be at least plausible. I’m rather impressed by the research David Osborn seems to have done in this field.  

Wrapping Up 

Overall I scored this book 2 stars on Goodreads. My one-paragraph review: 

The characters act on a mostly surface level in this book, but the plot was interesting enough to keep me going. A lot of 80s view points very obvious in the characters too. 

Obviously, I’ve done a bit more thinking about the novel since then and went a little further in-depth. But I still stand by the 2-star review. It’s a very disposable novel, and I’ll probably forget about it in years to come and never re-read it. The characters are not at all memorable and some of the secondary characters are very cartoon-like and have exaggerated traits. If you want to read this book, find a very cheap copy (free, if you can) but don’t spend a lot of time hunting this down.  

Categories
Life Technology

Step-Focused Life

I came to a realization recently – ironically while walking my dog – that ever since I got my first FitBit a few years back, I’ve been leading a very step-focused life.  And if I’m being honest with myself, this is why my creative drive has taken a steep dive these last 4-5 years.  Let me explain.   

The FitBit – and by extension, most health-focused smart watches (such as my Gear S3 or Samsung’s latest offerings in the Galaxy Watch / Galaxy Watch Active) – have as their main feature a step count.  They’ve branched out to include heart rate monitoring and other fun stuff, but the main draw is that these are smart devices that track your steps in a better way than those simple pedometers.   

At the basic level, most of these devices try to encourage you to reach 10,000 steps (even though that’s an arbitrary number and there are probably better numbers to reach; but that’s not important right now) every day.  On top of that, in both the FitBit and Samsung software ecosystems at least, there are communities where you can add friends and join challenges (most of the time the challenges are to earn the most steps, but there are other kinds as well).  I would say that the goal is to get the wearers more active in general.   

This is overall great for me; I do feel motivated to move more and be more active.  I wouldn’t say that I was a complete couch potato prior to putting on a FitBit, but this is the point I’m getting at; I’ve found that my main driving force every day seems to be “put the watch on to make sure I capture all my steps – I need to get my steps!”  This extends to make it important enough to wear my watch at night.  Tracking sleep is useful, sure, but the truth is I’m more worried about catching those steps between the bed and the bathroom in the middle of the night.   

I used to read a lot more often during the week at work.  Now, I go for a walk more often than not (unless the weather is particularly bad).  Especially if I see a low step total by lunch time (anything less than 3000 is cause for an extra walk), I feel the need to take a short 20 minute walk around the block.  I’m not complaining entirely; I mean, it’s usually nice to get out of the office and enjoy the fresh air, even in the winter.   

But I think it’s also leaving me frustrated creatively.  Why don’t I take some time to read or create something instead of going out at lunch?  Sometimes I try to do both, but it doesn’t always work out.  More importantly what I’m trying to do is let go of my attachment to my smart watch.  Oh I’ll wear it every day, but I’m trying to be less worried about my step totals.  Perhaps one way around that might be to find a watch face that doesn’t put my steps right in my face.   

I’m also going to be lowering my daily step goal.  Right now it’s set at 10690 or something to that effect.  I’m not going to lower it to something ridiculously low like 2000, but I think I’ll be able to find a sweet spot that allows me to hit it consistently (although not necessarily every day, to keep it something I can work toward).   

I feel like this kind of change will help steer me away from being worried about making sure I have enough steps during the day.  That’s the first change here.  The next step to increasing my creativity is probably unrelated to this, so I won’t get into it (plus, I don’t know what that is right now). 

Categories
Life Sports

What I learned playing softball 3 nights a week this summer

Softball image by Kelsey Vere from Pixabay

Most summers, we play softball one night a week. A few years ago that got bumped up to twice a week – only because the league I joined played two nights a week. It was still just one league. Last year, we kept to 2 nights a week – but in two different leagues. This year, we jumped ahead and upped our game a little bit – three nights a week.

And not offsetting nights either; every week we played 3 nights back-to-back-to-back, with no break in between nights (barring any teams not able to play or rain-outs). Most weeks this meant 3 games, but there were some weeks where we had two double-headers back-to-back, so we would play 5 games in 3 nights. Craziness!

I predominantly played third base, though I shifted around the corners playing 1st, left and right fields, and occasionally rover (we’re not as good as MLB players – we need at least 1 extra outfield position to actually stand a chance) as needed. There were some nights I just didn’t have it defensively, but I felt that I improved immensely at third base simply from having the extra reps at the position. Well, on the catching side of things. I have issues throwing on target in a hurry.

On the offensive side, I think it’s best described as being a wash for the entire season. This is essentially what I expected – that I would have some good games and some bad games. Near the end of the season I was stringing together several really good at-bats; unfortunately I struggled a bit right at the end. Things turned around a little bit during the tournaments, and again in Fall Ball, but really I’m ready to end the season so I’m not too worried about it.

The end result is that I’m not getting super upset with myself when I don’t have a good game at the plate. I really hate messing up defensively, but just knowing I’m going to get a billion more chances to hit the ball helps mentally get over the sting of going 0-for-3 or something on a night. I find it much worse to be the cause of a run scoring against you than it is to not be able to get on base.

So what did I learn? It’s not worth beating myself up for missed plays or bat plate appearances. It’s a rec league – everybody else is in the same boat.

Categories
Food Goals

Weight Loss by Numbers

Weird title, I know – after all, weight is already just a number. So what do I mean by “weight loss by numbers”? In short, it’s reducing my efforts (eating, exercising, etc.) to data points. This is my latest “scheme” to get on track with losing weight.

The other day I found – by accident – a really useful spreadsheet designed to help you nail down your TDEE (Total Daily Energy Expenditure – the amount of calories you burn per day). It’s the kind of spreadsheet that requires a lot of data – to work well, at the very least, 4-6 weeks’ worth of data. It took me a little bit to figure out what I needed to do to get value out of it, but once I did, I found I really love it.

How it worked for me

For the past several weeks I’ve been working with a max 1555 calories per day, and that was based on some TDEE calculations and MyFitnessPal goals. The idea was to be in a 1000-calorie deficit from my TDEE. Well, this spreadsheet takes into account your weight and calorie intake to calculate your TDEE. This is, I feel, slightly more accurate than the calculators available online. What the sheet is doing is calculating the TDEE based on how calorie intake is affecting your weight the next day.

All that said – what it’s telling me today (at the time of writing, Wednesday) – my TDEE is approximately 2650, which means I need to eat about 1650 calories daily to lose 2 pounds per week. There are some missing days in my data, unfortunately, but this is a very good approximation of where I should be. Since I’ve committed (mentally, at least) to being diligent with logging, I believe I should get even more relevant data as time goes on. I’ll be able to adjust my daily calorie intake more correctly.

So – here’s hoping I can make the right adjustments and get going with my weight loss. I want to get back to where I was 4-5 years ago, and keep going from there. Biggest roadblock to overcome in the coming days: I need to keep logging. That’s really all there is to it.

Categories
Goals

Results From an 8 Week Health Challenge

8 weeks ago (give or take a few days) I joined a challenge on reddit’s LoseIt sub – it was an 8-week challenge with at least two goals in mind: to allow individuals to try to lose weight, and also to collectively walk a bunch of steps. I’m being admittedly reductive in the description but it was actually a lot of fun.

I set an 8-week goal of losing 12 pounds, which would take me from 269.8 lbs to 257.8. By week 5 I had lost 2.6 pounds on the scale; but that’s also around when I unfortunately sabotaged my efforts and stalled a bit. I didn’t lose any significant amount of weight, and it looks like I possibly gained 1 pound on top of my starting number. Not so hot. But I did put up some crazy numbers in terms of steps and activity minutes. Here’s what I did, week-to-week (daily average steps):

Week1234567
Steps 80349589536386608912100348255

So, based on the daily average, I did about 411,929 steps! I could probably get a more accurate number but that would involve going back over 98 days or so…not quite what I want to do right now. Anyway, I’m quite happy with the work I put in despite not getting results that I wanted.

I don’t think I’m going to change anything up right now, except to try to stick within my calorie budgets as much as possible. I would like to see my scale weight go back down to 269 by the end of this week, if possible. If nothing else I’d like to get my trend weight lines to get moving back down instead of up.

I will tell you this…beer is probably the number one enemy for weight loss. That’s what started my 2-3 week setback.

Categories
Podcasts

New podcast up!

Wow! It’s been a while. I dismantled my studio, cleaned it up, and put it back together again since the last episode. I was going to record two today (Slow Reader + Alternative Airwaves) but I opted for just The Slow Reader. I might do Alternative Airwaves later this week.

I like the way this turned out; I’m pretty much resigned to not worrying about the length of the podcast. It’s going to be a sub-10 minute show. There’s a niche for that and I’m filling it.

Categories
Podcasts

Slow Reader? More like Slow Podcaster

I just finished (yesterday) typing out my script/outline for the final podcast episode about The Saturday Night Ghost Club; I still need to go back over it and give it a little polish, but I’m happy with it in general. I wasn’t sure how I wanted to structure the episode, but all of a sudden I got an idea yesterday afternoon and just got going.

In a perfect world I would have had this done and published as of August 8th, but I didn’t want to publish something sub-par. I’m not sure when I’ll get this episode done, but I think it will be good when I finish it.