Monthly Archives: May 2013

#15: Digital Fortress by Dan Brown

Digital Fortress by Dan BrownMy book group chose this book and I will never forgive them.

I’ve never read anything by Dan Brown.  He doesn’t write my type of fiction, so while I was aware that he’s a huge success, I never bothered to pick any of his books up because I knew I wouldn’t be interested.

What I didn’t know is how much of a shit writer he is.

I’m sure he cries into a giant pile of money every single time someone tells him that.

Digital Fortress is about the government and secrecy.  Susan Fletcher works for a super top secret government agency called NSA that cracks codes to read emails and save the world.  How do I remember that her name is Susan Fletcher?  Susan Fletcher is referred to as Susan Fletcher on every page that Susan Fletcher appears on.  Apparently Brown is worried that people won’t remember that Susan Fletcher is one of the main character is his book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown.

Susan Fletcher is the best code breaker NSA has.  Susan Fletcher is also beautiful and perfect and everyone loves her and wants to do her.  Susan Fletcher has a brilliant mind.  Susan Fletcher is also very attractive.  Susan Fletcher is also smart.  People look at Susan Fletcher and think to themselves “How does an IQ of 170 fit into a body that attractive?  I am going to think more of these thoughts so that the reader of Dan Brown’s Digital Fortress will know what Susan Fletcher looks like in the book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown.”

Your first drinking game is to take a shot every time someone chuckles.

Your next drinking game is to empty a Red Solo Cup every time someone’s eyes are described as strong hazel, deep green, inky black, sable, gray, or any other color that barely exists in real life.  Yes, people do have these eyes, and apparently they all live in Dan Brown’s world.  Dan Brown wrote the book Digital Fortress.

If you do not drink and are into health, do push ups or squats or something instead of pounding booze.  Either way, we’re all going to crumple to the floor and throw up.

When Susan Fletcher is called in to work on a Saturday by Commander Strathmore, head of NSA, Susan Fletcher knows that something must be very wrong.  Susan Fletcher was supposed to be on a vacation with her finance David Becker.  David Becker is beautiful and smart.  David Becker plays squash and no one minds when David Becker puts his entire head into the water fountain to wash away the sweat.  David Becker is that amazing.

Turns out that the Commander has sent David Becker, Susan Fletcher’s finance, to Spain, even though David Becker does not work for NSA.  Susan Fletcher thinks thoughts to tell the reader how important NSA is.

Seriously, how is this guy a big name writer?  I just don't get it.

Seriously, how is this guy a big name writer? I just don’t get it.

Dan Brown, the author of Digital Fortress, does not have time for important things like “Show, don’t tell” when it comes to writing his books.  Dan Brown wants to get to the important things like telling the reader how intelligent and beautiful Susan Fletcher and David Becker are.  Susan Fletcher and David Becker are engaged.  Susan Fletcher and David Becker have been engaged for six months.  Susan Fletcher tells David Becker this when she says “You do remember we’re engaged, don’t you?” which is exactly what people in real life would say if they wanted to let you know that they were engaged.

Susan Fetcher stays underground in the NSA bunker trying to figure out what is wrong with their giant, enormous, massive, expensive, costly, top secret, classified translator project.  The computer is used to cull through email and crack codes and save the entire planet.  It has done so successfully.  But now it has found a code that it cannot crack and Susan Fletcher has to use her beautiful body and intelligent mind to solve the problem.

Meanwhile, in Spain, David Becker is on a crazy journey of his own.  He has to find a ring because it somehow has something to do with this code.  He is able to follow thin clues to track the ring from person to person.  Apparently David Becker, with no training (because if he had training, someone in the book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown, would have told us about it) becomes the world’s most brilliant detective.  Oh, and also David Becker is given stupid coincidences that tell him where to go next.  David Becker is smart and is able to use these giant arrows to find the next person to talk to.

Of course everything turns out to be suspicious and there’s lots of traitors and threats from every side.  One thing I did like about the book Digital Fortress, written by Dan Brown, is that there were parts where I honestly didn’t know who the bad guy was.  Luckily Dan Brown quickly tells information to make me pay attention to a specific character in his book Digital Fortress and I, the reader, can get back to the important part which is remembering that Susan Fletcher and David Becker are engaged and they are both very intelligent and very beautiful.

The crazy ending was kind of fun because everyone was in the same place sort of screaming and trying to solve the problem before the entire government was shut down, but other than that…  What the fuck, America?  This is one of our top selling authors?

In conclusion, I did not like the book Digital Fortress by Dan Brown.  Not only do I not care for this type of story, I could not get past the writing.  How does this happen?

I don’t care if this makes me sound like a book snob, but seriously, this is who we’ve chosen as one of our Must Read Authors?  For fuck’s sake.

My book group meets tomorrow and I’m bringing a giant list of discussion questions.  Apparently they all hated the book too, including the two people who suggested it for this month.  Way to make the rest of us pay for your mistakes.

#14: Buddha’s Brain: The Practical Neuroscience of Happiness, Love, and Wisdom by Rick Hanson with Richard Mendius, MD

BuddhasBrainMECH.inddWhen I’m not being judgmental, cold, cynical, sarcastic, fatalistic, angry, or hopeless, I try to be a better person.  Have a positive attitude, practice active kindness, find beauty and good in the world and all that crap.

My therapist recommended Buddha’s Brain to me after I tried to explain that I sort of understood that my brain was telling me things that weren’t necessarily true.  I understand on a logical level that my brain is trying to keep me alive and to fear change, even though in the long run these changes will be better than what I’m currently doing.

Buddha’s Brain is an incredible resource.  It starts with the neuroscience of what happens in our bodies when we react to situations.  Without being textbook boring, Hanson looks at current (2009) advances in neuroscience and what science is continually learning about the brain.  It’s fascinating and helped me understand how biological reactions immediately become emotional responses.

Hanson takes his time exploring the brain and giving solid examples of how this biological response becomes emotional response.  Even in the heaviest parts of science, he still includes emotional examples.  I often found myself thinking “Oh… OK, that’s happened to me.  This makes sense.”  Logically I understand how emotions can trick me into thinking something is dangerous, but having a neuroscience explanation made me slow down and really think about what my brain was doing to my entire body and how that was then affecting my emotions and behavior.

It’s really fascinating and I think people who are turned off by hippie-crunchy dirt worshiping drum circles of healing will respond to the facts and explanation of what is happening in your brain, why evolution has caused this to happen and how it then affects how your body feels.


A big part, if not the biggest part, of changing my attitude and behavior and not letting the cycle of panic and spinning thoughts take me over is practicing mindfulness.  And yes, here’s where the people who hate hippie-crunchy dirt worshiping drum circles of healing will cringe.  Please trust me when I say that you don’t have to participate in the drum circle.  It’s not required.

I balked when I was first learning how to be mindful.  It felt like a waste of time.  Why sit with my thoughts when I already know how I feel?  And I don’t WANT to pay attention to how I feel because I feel anxious, panicked, sad and hopeless.  Yeah, this sounds like a great idea.

However, I slowly came to understand how it works and how it helps.  It took me months before my emotional brain shut up for five seconds so my logical brain could process that no, this wasn’t going to kill me.  I fought it because I really thought it was a waste of time and energy.

But once I let myself just sit, I realized it was actually helpful.  Taking time to just sit in the moment and not do anything was OK and usually it was better than OK.  I realized that the things I was dwelling on were things I couldn’t do anything about in that moment, so why not pause that out of control voice and just sit and let my mind slow down and only pay attention to what’s happening right now.

When I finally understood this, holy shit you guys, it was like taking a huge breath of air after being underwater for a bit too long.  I realized my body was in this crazy tense state where my shoulders were pretty much level with my ears, my teeth were clenched, my stomach was tight, my hands were in fists and my brows were furrowed.  I didn’t even know I was doing this.  I wasn’t even particularly freaked out about anything.  I had trained my body to stay in this default setting so I’d be ready when my emotional brain started doing the dance of insanity.  Letting my muscles slowly loosen, I was astounded at how tired I felt.  I was spending all this energy ready to freak the fuck out, and in this moment of mindfulness I was giving myself permission to calm the fuck down.  There was no pressure though.  I just sat and breathed and didn’t really think about much other than sitting and breathing.

It was awesome.

Buddha’s Brain is all about these moments.  As Hanson explains the science of our brains he also gives practical examples and guided instructions on how to change what you’re doing and be mindful.  There are instructions for many different exercises and you can pick and choose what you want to work on.

I hesitate to use the word “instruction” because it sounds like you have to do it a specific way that someone else has come up with, but it’s not like that.  This is a framework that you adjust to what works for you.  There are parts that push you to go into a different direction, but mindfulness isn’t about having to do it This Way and where everyone does the exact same thing.

One thing I really liked about this book is that you can jump around.  If you’re not really interested in a part you can skim through it.  If it comes up later, Hanson refers you back to that part so if you’re confused, you can go back.  If there are practices or guidance for your behavior and thoughts that you’re not interested in, don’t do them.  There were a few that made me roll my eyes, but several times I realized that I knew I wasn’t there yet.  It’s so much easier to judge and dismiss something that acknowledge that it’s actually helpful but is going to take some work.

One of the things I like about mindfulness is that it’s not about being perfect or doing it all the time or following a certain set of rules or having to do it exactly like someone tells you to.  You get to figure out for yourself what is working.  After awhile you can branch out and try new things.  You learn to trust yourself and take those moments to just be.  What you’re doing in this moment is enough.  If you’re making dinner, why spend extra energy thinking of all the things that need to get done?  You’re not going to do them right now, so take a breath and pay attention to how it feels to simply stand at the counter and chop shit up.  Take just 60 seconds to think about how that food looks, the feeling of the bowl in your hand, the sounds of the knife against the cutting board, your breath filling  your lungs…  Yes, you do need to get a bunch of stuff done before going to bed, but right now you’re making dinner and that’s enough.  Let it be enough and let yourself just be in that moment.

It’s quite amazing.

It takes time and practice (which is another reason I fought against it.  I want immediate results!) and there are plenty of times where I’m not actively practicing happiness, love and wisdom.  Using this book will help you retrain your brain without having to play Hacky Sack, grow dreadlocks and buying a drum for the drum circle.  If that’s what you want to do, of course, then let your dreadlocks fly.  Please don’t use patchouli though.  No one needs to smell that.

Get this book.  Tag the pages that are interesting to you.  (Mine is filled with little sticky flags.)  Pick something that seems simple and start doing it.  When you feel like you need a little nudge to get back into a better mindset, pick an exercise and practice it.  If you feel like you are currently the mindfulness champion of the fucking world, flip through and see if there’s something you haven’t tried yet.

It’s an amazing book and I want to buy a copy for pretty much everyone I know. Even if you just flip through it, flip through it.  Maybe you’ll get some ideas about how to let yourself quiet those thoughts that never seem to go away.

Also, if you have to pick a spiritual leader to guide you, don’t you want to hang out with a fat and happy guy?

Happy Buddha

Seriously.  The dude knows how to have a good time.


Bonus Review! Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses by Ron Koertge, Illustrated by Andrea Dezso

lies knives girls in red dressesThis one is too short to count toward my CBR goal but I didn’t want to leave it off my review list because I really enjoyed it.

Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses is (are you ready?)  a collection of retold and re-imagined fairy tales.

I love this genre.  I don’t know if it’s possible to have a favorite of any type of book when you love books so much, but fairy tales and folklore are way up on the list, and when they turn into retold tales and urban fantasy, my knees get weak.

There are twenty two stories here, including Rapunzel, the Twelve Dancing Princesses, Hansel and Gretel, the Ugly Duckling, Rumpelstiltskin, Red Riding Hood, and the Princess with that damned pea.

The tales are told as short poems without much introduction.  We know who Cinderella is, so when we hear the aftermath from the stepsisters’ point of view, we don’t need to hear all that crap about the ball again.

To make these stories all the more sweet is the amazing mix between Once Upon and Time and Modern Time.

Cinderella’s stepsisters have surgery instead of their mother hacking off their toes.

Rapunzel’s mother talks about her three times a week therapy appointments.  The prince meets other princes in rehab while he waits for his eyes to heal.

The Little Match Girl is selling her CDs on the corner.  The cops find her dead, but what are you going to do?

A soldier makes a pact with the devil where he’ll wear the bearskin for seven years so his PTSD will stop.

The Beast is a bit bored now.  The weather is perfect, he’s a man again, but sometimes he really misses those fangs.

Hansel and Gretel?  Oh, they are pissed.  So very pissed.

Death makes his godson an amazing football player, poised to win the Heisman.  Things don’t go so well.

If you spit jewels when you speak and your sister spews toads, how on earth to you expect to keep a husband?

When you’re the only one speaking the truth about the Emperor’s New Clothes, how long can you hold out?

The miller’s daughter in Rumpelstiltskin?  Life is so boring after you’ve won a dangerous game.  Surely there’s got to be something much more dangerous out there in the woods.

Little Red Riding Hood is trying to tell the story to her mom, but god, stop interrupting me!  The whole thing was, like, gross?  But whatever.  I let him.  And then some dude shows up with scissors and it’s wicked gay, but whatever, I’m hungry and you need to get off my back, OK?

I love it.

The illustrations are amazing.  Koertge wrote some beautiful lines, but without Dezso’s art, this book wouldn’t have been as good.  The art is all black on white in  woodcut style.  The lines are sharp and deep.  Shadows and movement surround the cuts and you can almost see the red of the blood as it drips down someone’s chin.

Even better?  Dezso is an art professor at Amherst College, so I bet I could go see her work in person somewhere.

Hole.  Lee.  Shit.  She did embroidery of things her mother said to her as a child.  Transylvanian moms are AMAZING!

I need to stop looking at her page or I’m going to stay up for another hour and I should really go to bed.

In conclusion:

If you like folklore, fairy tales and slightly fucked up shit, get this book.  It’s much tamer than the monkey sex in Robert Coover’s Briar Rose but not purified like Disney.