Monthly Archives: February 2014

Review: Data, a Love Story, Amy Webb

Dating, for most people, is a sport. For Amy Webb, dating is, or rather was, torture–until she collected sufficient data to game the system. (Yes, you read that correctly.) Webb tells her story in Data, a Love Story: How I Gamed Online Dating to Meet My Match.

Data, a Love Story, Amy Webb

Data, a Love Story, Amy Webb

Webb’s dating woes will be familiar to many readers. Fresh out of a long term relationship, Webb, circa 2005, was ready to “settle down.” The messy end of Webb’s relationship, coupled with her extreme Type A personality and her mother’s diagnosis with a terminal illness created a sense of desperation: She was 30,  starting her own business, and living in a city (Philly) without social support. Under duress from her mom and sister, Webb logged into Match, eHarmony, and JDate. And then her real misfortunes began.

Webb describes a series of disastrous dates, ultimately culminating in one so spectacularly disappointing that it inspired her breakthrough: Drawing on her experience as a journalist and digital consultant, Webb created a profile of the man she was seeking, and collected (lots of) data to improve her chances of finding him. It will not surprise readers to find out that Webb succeeded.

What is significant about Data, a Love Story is not the end result, but the lessons Webb (and the reader) learns along the way. In other words, it’s about the journey, not the destination. Yes, Webb meets her match, and she accomplishes it on her terms, but there is a sense of growth as the story proceeds. Webb is competitive and driven, and much of the first half, or even three quarters, of the book reads as if she has a lot to prove. By the end of the book, the reader has the definite impression that Webb has become more secure in herself. Or perhaps, mission accomplished, she mellowed out.

Webb’s tactics will seem intense to most readers. Driven to succeed, Webb creates a scoring system for her ideal mate; she will go on a date with no man who scores under 700. But Webb doesn’t stop there. Realizing that her profile is weak–she copied and pasted her resume into it–Webb sets about determining what might make her a stronger candidate. In particular, she needs to become one of the “popular” girls, one of those profiles that receive lots of clicks and are featured on the landing page. In order to “compete” with other female users, Webb must understand what makes them so desirable. She needs to study their profiles and the ways in which they interact with men. It’s here that things get dodgy: Webb creates 10 (10!!!) male profiles with which to interact with female users, ultimately creating a data set that tells her ideal profile length, how long she should wait before responding to a message, and how much skin to expose in her pictures.

I confess that I was troubled by Webb’s actions, as she cavalierly experimented with human subjects. Webb is quick to point out that she established from the outset certain rules to protect the women with whom she was interacting, such as a three message maximum exchange, never agreeing to meet, and so on. Webb’s goal was not to toy with people’s emotions, but to collect the data she needed to improve her search for “Mr. Right.” It appears that Webb’s safeguards worked; she doesn’t report any hurt feelings on the part of the women she studied. Still, there is something not quite wholesome about her actions here. Consider Webb’s description of women who write profiles that are too long: They are either too openly ambitious, or they have emotional problems. She provides an example of each (I assume that she wrote these herself, based on her research), but she describes the latter as “horrible.” That’s awfully judgmental for someone who approaches dating with spreadsheets and whiteboards.

If Webb’s methods are fascinating, and her description of them icky, the last two chapters of the book are vindication: Utilizing her research, Webb constructs her “super profile,” and following the rules she established at the outset, she finds her man. Webb, by this point of her story, has grown into herself, and is more genuinely likable than she was earlier in the book. (Admittedly, she was coming out of a failed relationship.) Readers put off by Webb’s “research methods” will find themselves cheering her on as she finally meets her dream man.

Data, a Love Story is one woman’s story of online dating. Webb is a talented writer and storyteller, and her descriptions of her first dates are quite funny. Some readers may find themselves put off by Webb’s sometimes self-important posturing (I am a successful business woman. I need to date a doctor or a lawyer. I cannot date anyone who is an “aspiring” anything.), but they should remember that this is her story. Webb gives herself permission to describe her perfect mate, a process that requires 75 bullet points: Good for her. Webb’s methods may not always have been the most savory, but, ultimately, no one was hurt, she found her man, and readers got a good story out of it. Recommended for readers who enjoy romantic comedies (this could definitely be a movie…) and those tenacious enough (like me) to consider the applications of data analysis to topics as odd as online dating.

For a more scientific, but still very readable, take on information and data, see Uncharted: Big Data as a Lens on Human Culture.


Annihilation Link Roundup

If you have any interest at all in weird fiction, you’re probably aware of Jeff VanderMeer’s new novel, Annihilation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 4). Annihilation is one of the best novels I’ve read in recent years. (My review here.) I admit I’ve been geeking out over it. Rather than terrifying the author, though, I’ll channel my enthusiasm into creating a link package (admittedly incomplete) with the intention of promoting Annihilation to fellow readers of speculative fiction. Please feel free to leave additional links in the comments; I’ll add them to the body of the post as time permits.

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer

Annihilation, Jeff Vandermeer


“In other words, the power went out in my apartment and I was so consumed with reading Annihilation that I sat with a small flashlight gripped between my teeth so I could continue reading.” Chris Urie at Geekadelphia.

“One thing I am confident of is that Annihilation will be the most groundbreaking book published this year.” The Little Red Reviewer.

“And immersion really is the appropriate word in this case. VanderMeer has crafted a deeply compelling, immersive, and satisfying narrative.” Michael Matheson at

“Using evocative descriptions of the biologist’s outer and inner worlds, masterful psychological insight, and intellectual observations both profound and disturbing—calling Lovecraft to mind and Borges—Vandermeer unfolds a tale as satisfying as it is richly imagined.” Publishers Weekly.

“I hated it from the start. Didn’t come up for air again for three hours, and finished the entire thing in less than a day, knowing it finally for the strange, clever, off-putting, maddening, claustrophobic, occasionally beautiful, occasionally disturbing and altogether fantastic book that it is. Annihilation is a book meant for gulping — for going in head-first and not coming up for air until you hit the back cover.” Jason Sheehan at NPR.

Best Books of February pick, Amazon.

Interviews with/essays from VanderMeer

“For me the books are a fascinating look at what I used to call ‘omenology,’ a sort of reading of the landscape for presences that are not apparent, for meanings that are not deliberate.” Rick Kleffel interviews VanderMeer at The Agony Column.

“It’s really peculiar — Annihilation is, on an autobiographical level, a love song to a place I know so well, and thus nothing in it really scared me, except the initial vision of what was in the tunnel. But I will tell you that while writing Authority, I continually felt as if things were peering out at me from the text, and more than once I had to step away and stop writing.” Barnes & Noble Review.

“VanderMeer dreamed he was descending into a subterranean tower, following along behind a monster that was writing eerie sermons on the wall in bioluminescent fungus. He used the monster’s words in his novel.” Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy at Wired.

“On the other hand, this was a pretty weird dream — and one of those dreams that’s extremely detailed to the point of not realizing that you’re in a dream at all. I can’t lie — I was scared while dreaming this dream, frightened out of my mind. (If I hadn’t gotten a story out of it, I suppose I’d be calling it a “nightmare” or, more accurately, a “nightfreakout.”)” Jeff VanderMeer at Powells Books.

“The exact location of Area X is left vague, but it’s based in part on my hiking in North Florida’s Panhandle region, much of which contains a rich ecosystem of swamp, marsh, pine forest, lakes, and coastal habitats. It’s a place you can get lost in, which is rare these days, and it’s unbelievably beautiful as well.” Photoessay by VanderMeer at Omnivoracious.

Weird Fiction Review

Readers will find a number of articles about Annihilation at Weird Fiction Review, of which VanderMeer is an editor.

Essay: “Annihilation,” Part One, Eric Basso.

Essay: “Annihilation,” Part Two, Eric Basso.

Annihilation Gallery, art associated with the book, Jeff VanderMeer.

Annihilation: Visionary, Surreal, and Satisfying Cover Art, Jeff VanderMeer.

Annihilation: “Weird” Nature, Jeff VanderMeer.


VanderMeer’s Annihilation book tour.

Movie deal for Southern Reach trilogy.

Join a Southern Reach Expedition to Area X

Southern Reach: Training and Recruitment.

If you’re still on the fence…

Read the first chapter at io9.

Read an excerpt at Weird Fiction Review.

Look! A review of Authority (Southern Reach #2)

At Raging Biblioholism.

Review: American Nations, Colin Woodard

American Nations, journalist Colin Woodward’s history of the rival “cultures” that comprise North America, might best be understood by aspiring writers as a cautionary tale about scope. It is one thing to write a convincing op-ed piece that makes the same arguments as Woodward’s book, but it is another thing entirely to try to document the histories of eleven cultures over six centuries in a three hundred page book. Woodward tries. He fails.

American Nations, Colin Woodard

American Nations, Colin Woodard

Woodward’s failure is not, as many students of history might sneer, that journalists shouldn’t write history. Woodward simply takes on too much, as is evident from the subtitle: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America. That’s not what American Nations is really about, though. Woodward pays short shrift to Canada (although he does mention it, favorably, near the end of the book) and essentially ignores Mexico, with the exception of its northern states, which form the southern reaches of the culture dubbed “El Norte.” (Yes, Mexico is part of North America, even its south.) This book is not really about America the geographical entity, as in “the Americas,” but the USA.

Woodward is mainly concerned with the white cultures of the United States, which he terms Yankeedom, New Netherlands, Appalachia (or the Borderlands), the Midlands, the Tidewater, Deep South, the Far West, and the Left Coast. His history of these regions, at least through the Civil War and Reconstruction, seems sound, even if it is sparsely documented. There is something to be said for the arguments Woodward makes in the first half of the book. The Civil War, for instance, was obviously a regional conflict, but Woodward’s argument that it was also a cultural conflict between Yankeedom and the Deep South over control of the federal government sheds some light onto the hostilities and the subsequent political history of the country.

The second half of the book is less convincing. The tone is rushed. I imagine Woodward realized at this point the scope of his project and was eager to complete it. There are inconsistencies in Woodward’s arguments. If, for instance, New Netherlands (i.e., New York City) valued economic expediency even more than it did multiculturalism, why did its people consistently align themselves with Yankee policies over those of the Deep South? Yankees favored the progressive “perfection” of society, while the Southern oligarchs sought deregulation in order to enrich themselves and their brethren. One answer might be the presence of so many immigrants in NYC, but Woodward earlier dismisses immigrants as a cultural force: they were everywhere rapidly assimilated into the majority cultures in which they found themselves. (The descendants of certain immigrants might object to this statement!)

African-Americans, the minority that most shaped American history, are portrayed as victims of slavery and segregation. The cultural influence of blacks is limited, apparently, to barbecue and rock and roll. Not bad, but certainly African-Americans provided more to America than labor, foodways and music? Woodward mostly ignores the political influence of blacks, noting that they sided with Yankeedom in the wake of the Civil War. Blacks sided with the “Northern Alliance” (Yankeedom, the Midlands, New Netherlands and the Left Coast) when they regained voting rights beginning in the 1950s and ‘60s, but what about more recently? Presumably African-Americans mindlessly follow the lead of whatever culture is opposing the Deep South. Woodward, stressing the racist sentiments of the Deep South, Tidewater and the Borderlands, wholly ignores the extreme racism present throughout even the “tolerant” cultures of the North. (See James Loewen’s Sundown Towns for a horrifying description of Northern racism from the mid-nineteenth century through 2000.) It goes without saying that the indigenous peoples of the United States are wholly ignored, and Canada’s First People nearly so.

I don’t list all of these faults to pick on Woodward or to harp on how his thesis fails. I think there is something there. The first half of the book, in which Woodward discusses the histories of the cultures through the Civil War is especially strong, if one takes into account that Woodward is really limiting his attention to the white cultures that made up the United States. The second half of the book is rushed and overall less convincing. Woodward lists politicians and the cultures from which they originated, making slim connections between their platforms and their supposed cultural values. Cultures are, in the second half of the book, reduced to stereotypes. I’d certainly like to read a Southerner’s take on Woodward’s portrayal of the Deep South; I suspect it would be enlightening.

An interesting effort that falls short of its lofty goals.

(Note: I wrote this review on August 7, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)

Review: Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo

I wasn’t going to review Leigh Bardugo’s Shadow and Bone, which has been hailed by many reviewers as one of the high points of the summer reading season (for young adults). [Note: I wrote this in 2012.] Indeed, I have yet to see a negative review in any publication, and users will note the novel’s current aggregate rating (4+ stars as of 25 June 2012). When Shadow and Bone was mentioned in the Barnes & Noble Review as one of the three recommended summer “thrillers” for teens, I finally decided that I must weigh in.

Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo

Shadow and Bone, Leigh Bardugo

I admit up front that I am not part of Bardugo’s intended audience. I am not a teenager, nor am I a girl. (Bardugo and readers may or may take issue with the notion that Shadow and Bone is written more for female than male readers, but it nonetheless skews that way.) That said, I read young adult fiction, particularly in the genres of fantasy and science-fiction, because that’s where much of the most creative fiction being published these days originates. Consider The Hunger Games, the novel in particular and the trilogy in general. Collins’ series was much more inventive and fun than comparable works written for “adults.” (Basically, I believe that, if a book is “good,” the intended “audience” is irrelevant. It is worth reading.)

Perhaps it is this gender difference, though, that explains my negative reaction to Shadow and Bone. I’ve already noted that all of the reader reviews I’ve skimmed were by females. I suspect that, like me, male readers will be put off. Shadow and Bone is in part a love story. That’s not in itself so troubling for male readers, as long as it isn’t the focus of the book. (The love story in Shadow and Bone is a bit more prominent than some male readers might prefer, but it is not off-putting.) The love story here is a triangle between Alina, the protagonist, her childhood friend/now soldier Mal, and a powerful wizard known as the Darkling. It’s clear from the beginning that Alina loves Mal but doesn’t feel able to express it to him. Through a variety of twists and turns, Alina and Mal are physically and emotionally separated from one another and Alina eventually falls for the Darkling, who is described in what I can only call very girlish terms. It is VERY evident that the Darkling, dark, gothic, handsome and mysterious, is an example of adolescent female wish fulfillment. Male readers will find this dull; nor does Alina’s involvement with the Darkling add much to the story.

Alina’s puzzling relationship with the Darkling (he’s called THE DARKLING) aside, there are other aspects of Shadow and Bone regarding which I am more concerned. Along with Alina’s affair with the Darkling is his sudden (THIS IS A SPOILER) and not very surprising turn to evil. The Darkling shows his true colors (evil, represented by black, in which he constantly cloaks himself, incidentally) halfway through the book. Although Bardugo goes to great lengths to convince the reader that the Darkling is actually good, and Alina falls for his tricks, the revelation that he is really evil is not surprising. That said, it is AWKWARD. It comes from nowhere, falling from the sky into the middle of the story. It simply does not make sense the way it happens and the way it is introduced into the plot. The Darkling’s change is unconvincing not because the reader really believes that he is good (AGAIN, HE’S CALLED THE DARKLING), but because it is delivered awkwardly. The story makes a 90 degree turn without first preparing the reader.

The middle portion of Shadow and Bone describes Alina’s training by the Grisha (the wizards who serve the nation of Ravka). This is an occasionally interesting series of chapters relating Alina’s introduction to Grisha training and the ways of palace life. It’s reminiscent of portions of the Harry Potter books: Magic! Visiting the village! Festivals! Again, Bardugo’s extreme tendency toward the effeminate (not to be confused with femininity) mars this section. Much emphasis is placed on characters’ appearances, not only their wardrobes but also, and especially, their physical features. Finally grasping her magical powers, Alina is rewarded by no longer looking pale, weak and haggard: Her true, physical beauty shines. Bardugo certainly has a right to her opinions and toward the dispersion of them, but I’m uncomfortable with spreading these views among an age group already awash in such messages. I’m not asking for the tired line of GRRL POWER here, but the casualness with which Bardugo relates the sumptuousness of palace life and the beauty of her characters is simplistic. If physical beauty is an important feature in the book, please examine it in a way that is less shallow.

I found most disappointing Bardugo’s failure to fully develop the unique setting she chose for Shadow and Bone. Ravka appears to be a bit of a mishmash of medieval Muscovy and late imperial Russia. Bardugo has rightfully been lauded for deciding upon a less conventional fantasy setting. I’m a fan of Russian history and often wonder why fantasy is limited to medieval Western European settings, so I, too, was intrigued by Shadow and Bone’s premise. Sadly, Bardugo underutilizes her setting. The details that make fantasy settings great are lacking; compared to Deathless by Catherynne Valente (a fantasy set in Stalinist Russia), the setting of Shadow and Bone is wanting. Yes, the Grisha ride in sleighs and people wear furs, but detail remains at that level. Readers should not expect to find a setting informed by a depth of Russian history and folklore.

I criticize Shadow and Bone not because it was a failure, but because it failed to live up to its potential. Bardugo’s prose is serviceable and her storytelling capabilities are fine, if a bit bumpy. The novel is shallow, though, and fails to fully develop some of its thematic issues. The setting was a clever choice but was poorly developed. Readers should not avoid Shadow and Bone, but should approach it with managed expectations. Suspend judgment until the second book in the trilogy is released. Perhaps by then Bardugo will have corrected some the errors she made in Shadow and Bone.

(Note: I wrote this review on June 25, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)

Review: Did Jesus Exist?, Bart D. Ehrman

Neither a preacher, nor a scholar, nor a Christian, I; merely a party with an interest in history and religion. That caveat now stated, I must say, too, that I agree with the conclusion Bart Ehrman reaches in his latest book, Did Jesus Exist?: Yes. He just wasn’t who you think.

Ehrman wrote Did Jesus Exist? to counter the arguments of a “movement” (although it is not really as organized as the term implies) he terms “mythicists”: Amateur historians and a handful of genuine scholars who assert that Jesus did not exist, either as the Son of God as portrayed in the Gospels, or as the historical Jesus studies by scholars. This belief is growing rapidly in the West, Ehrman notes, and he is adamant that they are wrong.

Did Jesus Exist?, Bart D. Ehrman

Did Jesus Exist?, Bart D. Ehrman

Did Jesus Exist? is a fascinating study in historiography. Ehrman divides the book into three sections. In the first unit, Ehrman examines the sources we have for Jesus’ existence and explains their validity. Following that, Ehrman describes and counters mythicist claims. Finally, Ehrman states his “vision” of what the historical Jesus was probably like. It is impressive to observe the scope of Ehrman’s knowledge, the methodology he employs and the force with which he makes his case.

I won’t go into details regarding Ehrman’s methodology here; suffice it to say that the logic he uses is subtle and of a technical nature (that is, it is specific to the practice of history as an academic discipline), which ultimately, I think, means that his points may be lost on the majority of readers. If you have an open mind, you will enjoy this book. If prior to reading this book you are convinced that Jesus did or didn’t exist, Ehrman’s arguments won’t sway you one way or the other. They will simply infuriate you.

From my perspective, Ehrman made several points that go far in asserting the reality of the historical Jesus. I appreciated in particular his assertion that the Gospels (both canonical and non-) can be counted as distinct historical sources. That is, they should not be treated with any special consideration by historians of either persuasion: They are part of the Christian Bible, yes, but they are still sources nonetheless. And each Gospel is in some way informed by unique traditions, regardless of the ways in which some might be dependent upon others. Indeed, the differences between the Synoptic Gospels go a long way in assisting the historian in his study of Jesus. Mythicists and their sympathizers will not accept these claims.

Two other points, theological, further support Ehrman’s claims. (In my opinion; he makes many others, of course.) These are: 1. Ancient Jews anticipated an earthly (that is, real) messiah to deliver them from their enemies in the (real) world; and 2. Adherents of that messiah would not have portrayed him as having been crucified. These are unassailable points. Judaism has been, and remains, a religion focused on this world. The messiah figure anticipated by the apocalyptic elements within Judaism was one of flesh-and-blood; believers expected him to be a military hero or a priestly deliverer, or both, who would cast off the Roman yoke and unify the Jews under the Law. This is not an allegory or something that might happen in an “Other World.” It was (and for some Jews, in some ways, remains) something to await in this world.

I agree with Ehrman, too, that believers would not have depicted their messiah as having been crucified had it not been based on a historical event. Mythicists claim that this trope was borrowed from neighboring pagan religions in which a god-man dies for the betterment of mankind and then is raised from the dead. (I am not claiming that Jesus rose.) Ehrman effectively disproves this assertion. His most important point is theological. It is commanded in Deuteronomy that, if someone is executed and their body hanged from a tree (as was the practice among the Israelites, long before the days of Jesus), the body should be taken down before nightfall, lest the dead “come under the curse of the Lord.” Additionally, as discussed by John Dominic Crossan in his works on the historical Jesus, there are the honor and shame traditions of ancient Mediterranean society: The public display of the executed, and especially the inability of his family to remove him (or her), tarnished the honor of the family. Imagine the horror and confusion Jesus’ followers must have felt knowing that their supposed messiah had been nailed to a cross: It defies all of their expectations, their beliefs, their sense of decency. “How could this happen? Was Jesus’ ministry all for naught? That can’t be. Maybe we misunderstood the nature of the messiah…”

I accept Ehrman’s assertion that a historical Jesus existed. That is not to say that mythicists will not find fodder here. There are problems. Ehrman’s previous book argued (again, effectively) that many of the books of the New Testament had been forged (i.e, not all of the Pauline letters were written by Paul, etc.). He maintains here that that is irrelevant to the reality of the historical Jesus. That is a fine point to make, and I’m not sure I’m entirely convinced by it. I’m not sure Ehrman entirely is, either; he almost skirts the issue by referring to these books as “forgeries” only twice.

Likewise, Ehrman is adamant that the Gospels can be used as historical sources. (I agree.) But perhaps he is too generous. He dismisses the miracles as irrelevant; historians do not trade in miracles. (I agree; mythicists might claim this renders them illegitimate sources.) For instance, Ehrman describes Jesus’ trial by Pilate as a (very abbreviated) historical reality. That is, it may have happened, in a very perfunctory way, lasting only moments, and certainly not as depicted by the Gospels. Crossan, in Who Killed Jesus? effectively demonstrates that any trial at all is historically unlikely; Jesus was, probably, rounded up and executed without ceremony. If that whole episode can be invented—well, then there are greater implications.

Finally, Ehrman notes that the Jews who were Jesus’ earliest followers were unlikely to incorporate into their understanding of him beliefs from neighboring pagan societies. I agree. But Ehrman later notes that there were traditions stating that Jesus may have had a twin brother and that his harkens back to pagan myth (twin gods). The Gospels, canonized and non-, were written in Greek; their authors must have been familiar with Hellenistic culture. Here, then, is evidence of paganism seeping into Christian belief. If at this early stage paganism had begun to influence embryonic Christianity, might it not have had an earlier effect?

All of this is to say that this book is bursting with information. Thinking readers will enjoy it; readers who are militant in their positions, either mythicist or believer, may wish to avoid it. Some readers may be put off by Ehrman’s incessant appeals to authority: In every chapter, and on nearly every page, Ehrman states that almost every reputable scholar of whom he is aware agrees on this point or that. Likewise, Ehrman has a habit of raising an argument and then putting it off: “For now it is enough to say…” He also consistently refers readers to other books, particularly his own, but this is understandable given the scope of his argument. It is not a perfect book; none are. But it is a great one.

(Note: I wrote this review on April 15, 2012, and originally posted it on LibraryThing and Goodreads. Its cross-posting here is part of an effort to consolidate all of my reviews in one place.)