So many good books this month! I should not complain but it makes it hard to choose. Here are four I especially liked, all quite scary, somehow. Happy Halloween!
Room - the terrifying ordeal of a kidnapped college student and her son
Citrus County – a very dark teenage romance with a hope of redemption
Delusions of Gender – a tenacious deconstruction of popular themes of gender stereotypes
Nobody’s Angel – a very noir mystery starring a cab driver detective, and written by a cab driver
The hero of Citrus County is a lonely teenager with a mean uncle and terribly dark impulses that flower rather than go away when he falls in love with another lonely teen who is keeping her small family of father and younger sister together by sheer will. His misfit teacher will save him in the end, we think, but even that’s not guaranteed in this story that’s not afraid to explore the hate and ill thoughts that can rattle in the characters’ minds. Very good, if somewhat forbidding.
The Toss of a Lemon is the saga of an Indian Brahmin family in the first part of the 20th century and is complete with family dramas, political upheavals, technological changes, copious Cliff notes on Brahmin ceremonies and customs, and a rather heavy-handed dose of the slow erosion of the caste system. I quite liked the first part with its strong yet necessarily obedient young wife (and soon widow) and the well-observed comments about behaviors as in, “He eats again because he is an accommodating sort of boy and, at thirteen, especially accommodating towards extra meals”. I could not quite believe the gold-shedding daughter (why gold-shedding? It does not add anything to the story) but the devious husband, the loyal servant, the sad couple without children, the rather dull boy and his smart sister all ring true. As the book slowly moved through its 600 pages the heavy beat of the backwardness of the caste system and its necessary disappearance wore me out.
Every good reading streak must ends, and this one with The Shallows, a grumpy treatise on how the Internet is rotting our brains. Exhibit A, the author, age 51 (so old like me, and more importantly a relatively latecomer to the Internet since he could not have grown up with it) used to read War and Peace and now wastes considerable amounts of time flitting between web sites. Exhibit B: our brains function and organize themselves differently when working in high-interrupt environments. Boo hoo! Of course our brains are adaptable, and that’s a good thing. And of course constant interruptions destroy deep thinking. This is why deep thinkers concentrate on their work and don’t let themselves be interrupted by “You have mail” messages and web site hopping. It’s not the Internet that’s the problem: it’s the user’s self-control or lack thereof.
What is it about books that could possibly make them so very superior to “the Internet”? What’s wrong with quickly looking up information online rather than perusing dusty tomes extracted from lonely library stacks? It seems to me that books were invented as a communication mechanism, and books in their physical form will obviosuly vanish over time in favor of electronic versions (that may be embodied in shorter works) just like we no longer take quill and paper to update our families about our adventures, and that’s not a bad thing. Consider two vastly superior books reviewed here in the past: A Better Pencil, which showed that each new technological invention for writing, from clay tablets to the typewriter, caused a torrent of protest that it would destroy thinking entirely, and The Book in the Renaissance, which recounted how books were thought to destroy morality and intellectual authority.
I refused to read The Lovely Bones for months because what mother of a 14-year old mother wants to read a book about the rape and murder of a 14-year old. Then I read it, and I loved it. And why would I want today to read a book about a kidnapped college student, and held captive for years by a brutal man, together with the young son he fathered during her long captivity? This is Room‘s dark premise and the story, narrated in a matter-of-fact way by the son, who is five, is breathtaking, and liable to keep you up until 1am like me so you can finish it in one go. You have been warned.
I must admit that it took me a while to get into the story because I just could not accept that such a well-spoken boy would still be misconjugating preterite verbs at that age, but past that I was in the room with him and his clever mom who fashions games and learning activities from the very meager universe they are in. I don’t think I am over-exposing the plot by revealing that they do get out and the story after freedom may be even more interesting, as the boy whose entire life has been so tragically constrained struggles to adapt to too many choices and options. That’s a real five-year old. In the end, it does better with freedom than his mom, with the help of a delightful step-grandfather who just accepts him as he is. A great story!
The Infinite Book is not the ultimate nerdy book about multiplication about infinity, how some infinities are larger than others (really!), and how bounded surfaces can also be infinite (think spheres). Well it is all that, to the delight of math-lovers everywhere, but it’s more. It also tells the gripping stories of feuding mathematicians (no giggling — studying infinity can blow one’s mind!) It shows how mathematical infinity obviously exists and makes sense and is not that weird (apart from that idea of different types of infinity!) while physical infinity may not exist at all and philosophical infinity, well, who knows? It wanders over to the Big Bang and, inevitably, to quantum physics. It even shows how infinite life may well be completely and absolutely horrible.
A (nerdy) nit: why would anyone publishing a book that’s full of math choose to use a typeface in which the number 1 reads the same as the capital letter I?
But apart from that, great book – and not just for nerds.
Being Wrong talks about how we go to great length to avoid challenging our beliefs,how we may defend them in the most passionate way just when we begin to perceive that they are wrong, and how we may become much less judgmental after we discover that a long-held belief is, in fact, wrong. It describes how easy it is to trick people in believing just about anything, and how we actually trick ourselves into believing tasks are easier than they are (so we can get going). So the topics are deep, but the reading is easy — a very enjoyable book.
Delusions of Gender is a blistering attack on Louann Brizendine’s books and others that claim that girls are sweet and cooperative and boys, well, will be boys because it’s in their genes. And it’s not a righteous, emotional rant, no, it’s a methodical, if passionate, refutation of the studies and experiments used by the researchers. From tiny sample sizes to faulty designs to outright errors (and I would even say fraud, as in citing other researchers who were never contacted), the author makes a powerful case that manipulation is rife to achieve the desired results.
And that brings us to the truly terrifying heart of the book. It turns out that an almost fail-proof method to get humans to behave in gender-stereotypical ways is simply to prime them with the stereotype before the experiment. Which means that a cultural environment that shows girls dressed like princesses and boys leading the charge, that produces kids’ books in which mommies always defer to daddies, or that routinely assumes that mothers will want or adopt flexible work hours more than fathers will perpetuate itself. I remember being berated harshly for dressing my then three-month old daughter in blue (to match her then blue eyes: she looked great). perhaps I was ahead of the times? It must be why she has chosen a scientific career, huh? But seriously — read this book.
Higher Education makes many good points, chief amongst them that colleges are charging large amounts of tuition while maintaining bloated administrative staff, coddling professors who teach very little, and exploiting adjuncts and graduate students who teach a lot for little pay. The authors also suggest that many less-known colleges provide excellent educations, many of them at more reasonable prices compared to the so-called elite colleges. However, whatever sensible advice the book contains is overshadowed by gigantic blind spots. One is tactical. While demonstrating that professors are overpaid (well-paid, maybe, overpaid, maybe we should take a look at Wall Street?), the authors steadfastly refuse to include prep time, grading, and thesis advising in the total of working hours. Anyone who has ever taught anything knows that “platform time” is only the tip of the iceberg — so that $800 per hour rate can be valid! The other blind spot is even more surprising. Did you know that any vocational training, from medical schools to engineering programs, should not belong in universities? It seems that only liberal arts need apply. I beg to differ.
Another critically acclaimed book that left me cold: Parrot and Olivier in America is the story of the sheltered but open-minded aristocrat Olivier and his unlikely British valet Parrot thrust into the New York of the early 19th century, each narrating their lives and observations. I liked the clueless but mostly sweet Olivier (perhaps despite the author’s efforts!) and it’s hard not to be taken in by the story of Parrot’s early years as a printer apprentice. But on the other hand the Toqueville-like ramble to America is rather tedious, the constant references to class differences (and how class differences are erased, ha!, in America) wearisome, and the many French misspellings prevented me from ever getting fully immersed in the story.