And to Think That I Saw it on Mulberry Street by Dr Seuss (2003)

, 13 Feb 2016

I love Dr Seuss' books. I think they are not only good for children, but also for adults. They all teach important lessons, values, ethical behaviour, they are lay and universal, and they always ground me. Dr Seuss' books are about what life should be. Life is crazy (his crazy texts, unusual stories, and outrageous colours are just that), but it not just about what you see, it is about how you relate to people, how you see and relate to the world, and how you feel. 

"And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street" is a book about the beauty of the ordinary and of savouring the small things in life. It is also a book about the importance of imagination and how imagination works. The story also captures how fables and legends were born centuries ago, how small things were put together to be turned into a unreal fantasy.

This story has aged well with regards to some points but not others, but it is more relevant than ever for modern kids. Originally written in 1937, it is obvious in 2016 that most small children in developed countries don't walk alone to/back school, not even with pals, they are driven to/from school by their  parents or accompanied by caretakers in school buses. Of course, there are countries where children walk Kms to go to school, so perhaps for those the story is as fresh as it was when it was written. On the other hand, the role of imagination in the education of children isn't as prominent  as it was 30-50 years ago -- nowadays there is an ubiquity of visual imagined worlds presented to kids  already masticated in TV programs and movies, too many kids aren't told or read stories before bed,  and too many are parked in front of TVs, tablets and smartphones numbing their imagination when they should be using it the most. 

This book can be a great conversation starter with your children, but it needs of your active involvement because the book is not straightforward. No matter whether your children love it or not, great lessons can be taught and many games can be played using  this story. Mostly, the book allows parents to explain how imagination and lying are similar and different at the same time, and why adults and children see the world differently. Here are some suggestions on how to use the book to squeeze its lessons and have fun at the same time:
> Play a game with you children and ask them to do the same the character, that is, to tell you something that caught their attention during the day and create a story about it that they will then tell you.
> Play the play game "lie or fantasy?" You tell something to your kid and ask him/er to tell you if that is a lie or a fantasy and why? Depending on the level of success in the reply, explain to them why telling a invented story and a lie of a story are two different things. 
> Ask you children if imagination is good and why.
> Ask your children, do you imagine things at times? Which sort of stories do you imagine?
> Ask your children, why do you think Marco imagines things the way he does? Does the story makes any sense to you?
> Ask you children anything else you come up with using the book.

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, Revised Edition by Robert B. Cialdini (2006)

, 11 Feb 2016

I was finishing this book when one of my brothers played one of the tricks mentioned in the book without he knowing that it would not work on me. He had bought an antique book written by a distant relative of ours, and he thought it expensive, because it is expensive in the part of the world where he lives and because his partner wouldn't be happy about him expending so much money on this sort of thing. When I asked him about the price he told me something relatively high but after talking for another five minutes or so he told me that the price he had mentioned before wasn't real, it was quite cheaper. He added that he had done so the second figure would appear lower than it is in this way. The contrast principle. It made me giggle.

Cialdini's "Influence" is a classic of Applied Psychology, Social Psychology, Behavioural Economics, and of Marketing and Business. It is, above all, a serious book of Psychology by a reputed psychologist. Originally published in the 1980s, this review is about the revised edition.  

This is a book about compliance and manipulation  in general. The book offers detailed answers to two main questions 1/ what are the factors that cause one person to say yes to another person? And 2/ which techniques most effectively use these factors to generate compliance?  Besides, there are many interesting, every-day sort of questions, that are posed and answered in the book. Just to mention a few:
  • Why should the voting of a Jury member be secret while the Jury is discussing a case?
  • Why does a commitment made in public or by writing have such a powerful effect on the person who makes it?
  • Why do we need to shout help and ask for specifics when we really need help? 
  • Why people commit more suicides after listening about suicides or disasters in the media?
  • Which factors cause a person to like another person? 
  • Why do some people associate themselves so closely to their sport team that if their team is consistently losing they feel as losers as well?
  • Which tricks do car sellers play to trick us to buy something right here right now? 
  • Why a TV commercial with a renowned actor playing a doctor selling pills has the same power as if he was a real doctor?
After studying all the tactics used by sales people, and the myriad techniques they use to manipulate, Cialdini came with six basic weapons of influence, each one governed by a psychological anchor or shortcut in human behaviour: 1/Consistency, 2/ reciprocation, 3/ social proof, 4/ authority, 5/ liking, and 6/ scarcity. Each of them is analysed in an individual chapter, where we are shown the psychological shortcut that produces automatic auto-pilot reactions that are used by manipulators, why these anchors sit comfortably in the human psyche from an Evolutionary Psychology and Sociology point of view, and in which precise ways they work, work better and can be enhanced or downplayed.  Examples from many lab tests, natural psychology tests, scientific bibliography and Cialdini's own personal life are used to explain these mechanisms with simplicity.

Cialdini wants normal people, no matter we are a seller or not, to understand how our psyche works, because the trickster can be tricked and our psyche works using mechanisms that can be exploited and manipulated easily against us by anybody, for good and for evil. This is not a book on how to use or manipulate people and isn't directed to marketers or sellers specifically. A good part of Cialdini's work was done by infiltrating training programs from sales people and Cialdini mostly address the majority of people who don't use compliance techniques. However, he doesn't hold a grudge, nor want us to, against "compliance practioners" as he calls them (sales operators, fund-raisers, charities street workers, recruiters, advertisers, real-estate and travel agents, among others) are just people using the knowledge of our psyche without lying or masquerading anything. When they do, Cialdini advices war:
 "I would urge forceful counterassault. There is an important qualification, however. Compliance professionals who play fairly by the rules of shortcut response are not to be considered the enemy; on the contrary, they are our allies in an efficient and adaptive process of exchange. The proper targets for counteraggression are only those individuals who falsify, counterfeit, or misrepresent the evidence that naturally cues our shortcut responses (...) The real treachery, and the thing we cannot tolerate, is any attempt to make their profit in a way that threatens the reliability of our shortcuts."
Sadly enough, the same sort of people and behaviours that Cialdini wanted us to counterassault are using the book as a 'Bible', so much so that "Influence" is, to this day, the number one business and marketing book out there. 

"Influence" is an useful book,  not only to be learn and be aware of the tricks that compliance professionals play on us, but also of the ways people use them in our private lives to get something from us even if it is just approval, lack of a reprimand, or just sex. Most importantly the section "How to say no" in each chapter tell us, exactly, what to do or how to recognise the manipulators, the psychological anchors discussed in the chapter, and how to respond and react so our decision is o-u-r decision.

The book reads well, in simple English and is very entertaining and easy to understand.You will certainly get a few aha! moments as you can put into perspective what happened while booking a time with your hairdresser, your beauty salon, dealing with a charity worker that stops you in the street with a compliment, while a shop attendant shows you different stuff, dealing with a travel agent, dealing with your Real Estate agent, or while certain TV ads that do not make sense rationally but do make sense, totally, to your subconscious.

My favourite chapters in the books are those on Consistency and Direct Deference, purely because I was way more aware of reciprocation, liking, authority and scarcity; however, many of the specifics on how and why they work are still fascinating. I also love Cialdini's comparison between tribal practices and hell-week practices in University fraternities and the military, and the Readers's Report section at the end of each chapter, which includes letters from readers describing how some of the things mentioned in the book were applied to them.

There are too many people including quotes in their books, but the ones Cialdini uses at the beginning of each chapter are spot on, as they summarise each chapter to perfection.
>>>  Cialdini is a bit reiterative at times, goes for pages unnecessarily, and although I loved most of the examples that Cialdini  mentions, there are too many and he could have cut a few without the book losing interest or quality.  
>>> Probably because the book was written in the 1980s, some stuff is really well-known nowadays and doesn't need of long explanations, or won't surprise anybody. I would say that people with a basic degree of education would not be saying what what what?! when reading about the bystander factor, the halo effect and the good cop-bad cop dynamics, or that our titles are something that can be used to trick people and that people who don't have them will attach to those to get a bit of the spark.  
>>> The book has not aged well with regards to a few points:
1/ Some contextual facts that were common in the 80s are are no longer in use, or even legal in some parts of the world, like door-to-door sales. We live in the world of the Internet, online stores, publicity everywhere we look at, constant spam and marketing on networking sites, and the use of our private meta-data by corporations to sell us things or know what we want to buy. I would have loved seeing an analysis on how the shortcuts presented in this book have morphed to adjust to the needs of the online world and market, if some of these shortcuts are now more prominent than others, and if new shortcuts have been added to the six mentioned here. 
2/ The bibliography used and referenced is still mostly from  the 70s and 80s, with a few additions from the 90s. It would have been great adding a modern bibliography in a "further reading" sort of chapter when the book was revised.  
3/ The use of some vocabulary is no longer OK. Referring to primitive cultures is no longer acceptable or accepted without discussion and calling animals infrahumans it is  an anthropocentric adjective that doesn't connect with the reality of the environment and the planet we live in. I would call a shark or alligator a suprahuman!
4/ Some social practices have changed dramatically in the last decades, even though Cialdini thought that they would not as they have a function in the human psyche. Well, it seems no longer. For example the hell-week practices in Universities, which were in decline in my University before I entered mine and banned when I was in. They might be alive in the American Fraternity Societies, but there is something called Open University that works quite well, is everywhere and expanding, and people don't need to be part of a group or enter any building that often. The world is quite different nowadays more than people in the 80s would have imagined.  


The book has a word index at the end, but it is not linked in the Kindle edition of the book. The author advises using the search tool to find them. Well, Kindle's search tool is not the most accurate sensitive sort of search tool. Kindle books should be sold cheaper if indexes or features that were in the hard-copies are not available in the electronic edition.

This is a great reading overall, informative, entertaining and useful for our daily life, to notice things to stop us from buying something we don't want to buy right now or  just not to act in a way that feels is not you but we are being pushed into and is not in our best interest. Entertaining and eye-opening this might be a bible for manipulators, but also a bible to counter-attack  those who want to bend our will for their own benefit. We should learn about how influence works because automated stereotyped behaviour works better now than in the 80s, as the pace of modern life is faster and more stressful, and we have less time and energy to pause and think for a second to ask ourselves what we really want. This being the case, we can be manipulated more easily today than 30 years ago.  

Julio's Day by Gilbert Hernandez (2013)

, 7 Feb 2016

Julio's Day is actually a book about Julio's (family) Life. A charming BW time travel from the coming out of nothingness of Julio Reyes in 1900 to his passing into nothingness in the year 2000. Although set in America's South, most of the characters are Mexican or from Mexican origin and culture. This is a charming trip for the reader, with so many things happening in the life of Julio's family. There is love and hatred, dark secrets, innocence, innocence lost, gay repressed sex and explicit sex, treason, murder, madness, hilarious bizarre moments, joy and sadness. The only chronological anchors are the references to the wars that spanned the 20th century, changes in clothing and some social references that are easily associated with specific decades. There is also a visual anchoring in the depiction of the town's progressive industrialisation.

I know that the author and the book have been defined as within the Magic Realism genre. To me, there is little or nothing of Magic Realism in this book. I think MR is used too often to describe works that have some oddity about them and people cannot categorise. In this book there are episodes of mental alienation, trippy, but that is it. To me, this book connects more with Latin-American family-saga telenovelas than with anything else.  Hernández does a great job at infusing this family saga with enough charm, realism, and lack of 'Manichaeism' to get the story away of extreme non-believable characters. The story feels organic, alive, as it was real.  The characters feel also real. In fact, I have known people who were like those in this book. On the other hand the characters are just schetched because there are many and the period covered isis very  long.

One of the main elements of Mexican culture (and Hispanic/Spanish) culture is how death is understood, perceived and faced. This is especially valid for Mexicans in the period Hernández describes. However, it connects with stories and attitudes that were common in rural areas during my childhood even though I am not Mexican. There is a familiarity with death, a presence of death and of the dead in life, because death is part of life, not in a creepy morbid horror way, you show r-e-s-p-e-c-t- to death because it is another passage rite. That awareness of death also keeps people more grounded in life and there is less fear, less avoidance. This is perfectly captured in this book. I love the presence of the hill with the tombstone crosses, and how some of the death of the characters is depicted. 

This is a male dominated story with strong female characters performing traditional roles. This is how it was in rural areas in many parts of the world decades ago, and I think Hernández captures this with veracity. In this case, Renata summarises well the role that some women played, and the sort of life that those women had in that historical context. Just one example. Renata is strong and caring, but she often says "women need of no reasons", which sounds a bit like women are irrational. In that context, though, women used to say this sort of thing because they had proof of their reasons, or inner knowing, or they just knew, but didn't want to speak about it. Araceli's character is perhaps the most interesting in the whole book. I would have  loved that Hernández developed a bit more her character; she appears as a nun-ish good samaritan, but there much more juice about her that was not explored.

I found the male characters interesting and varied enough to make the story entertaining. Julio's character seems, in comparison, a secondary one  not the main one. He is always there, a sweet gentle man, mostly in the background. This has a narrative purpose, of course. There are very few scenes in which we seem him happy, and they always revolve around a person. We see him feeling, alive, in just one scene close to the end of the book. I cried at the end, out of sadness for the character, and because I know men like him in real life: people who live life without the courage of being true to who they are, lead a pleasant empty life that does not satisfy them inside, aim to the unattainable probably because it is a fantasy that  doesn't require of them doing something to create their life experience.  Living is not just existing. In that regard, Julio's Dayim shows just that. Julio has an existence of 100 years but he really lived for one day. A microperiod of real life between two big empty holes of nothingness separated by 100 years.  I liked the quote by Samuel Becket that Evenson's chose for his brief introduction: "one day we were born, one day we shall die, the same day, the same second, is that not enough for you?". Life is like a fleeting moment is another way of putting it.   

I have a mix of feelings about Hernández's visual style. I love his shadow silhouetted landscapes, and his long distance scenes, theyare superb: beautifully composed, lyric, and with enough pathos to be another character in the story. I love some of the facial expressions in children, and some shocking scenes with the WW1-veteran neighbour. Although I enjoyed the vignettes, I found some of the pages and vignettes too crowded and the depiction of some characters too "chunky".  

This is not a book for children.

How to be Happy by Eleanor Davis (2014)

, 2 Feb 2016

HTBH is an anthology of comic strips and stories published by Davis in different publications, drawn both in colour and black and white.  

How to be Happy sounds like the title of a motivational or self-help book but. as the author herself reveals in the foreword, this book is not a book on how to be happy. The cover certainly helps to convey the same idea.  Despite the stories being quite different in style an tone, the book has a few main themes. Most of the stories are very introspective, and revolve about people looking inside to get their suppressed emotions out, people struggling to feel, numbed people, depressed people, over-emotional people. One of the stories in the book provides us with what I think would have been a great title for the book: "No tears, no sorry. No sorry no joy". Also "Let the sorry out. Let the joy in". Those titles are way closer to what the stories in this anthology are  about. I think giving the book a title closer to what the vignettes are about would have been more honest, even if less marketable-savy.

Davis is an amazing versatile visual artist. The collection of strips in the book showcases her talent. Her images go from the very simple linear and sketchy, to the very painterly and detailed paintings, from the classic naturalistic drawings to the vectorial compositions, from the ezine-like comic strips to the surreal, from the slice of life to science fiction. Some of her stories transport us to Sendak-ish magic worlds that one would like to explore in long books. She is good with black and white, and even better when she uses colours and  sepias. Her colours are glorious.    

From a narrative point of view, Davis is able to create stories that focus on the inner world of her characters: their feelings, emotions and thoughts, their approach to life, the way they 'see' and 'feel' the world. Her narrative is concise, precise and poignant, introspective, but also expressive and full of humour. Some of the texts in the book are brilliant despite their brevity. I especially like the "Darling, I've realised I don't love you", "I used to be so unhappy" and the statue of the best self, but there are a few brilliant mini-texts in this book, some of them really philosophical and to ponder way after you finish the book.

I hated the story of the skinning of a fox, revolting to me, and the comic strips of the trip from Georgia to Los Angeles  and Mr Strong are  OK. 

This book was included in several lists of best graphic books of the 2015 I've come across. I think the inclusion is well deserved as this book showcases Davis' brilliance as both visual artist and story teller. Among other distinctions, the book has received: NPR's and Publishers Weekly's Best Books of 2014; Shortlist, Slate's 2014 Cartoonist Studio Prize for Best Print Comic of the Year and 2015 Ignatz Award Winner: Outstanding Anthology or Collection.

I found the price for the Kindle/Comixology edition a bit too much, because this digital edition does not require of the use of paper, ink or manufacture. Besides, these stories were previously published pieces not new for the book. Finally, I have to pay for the downloading of the bulky file to my Internet provider. I love that artists make a living out of their talent, but digital books like this should be sold at a fairer price.