November was not a great month and I will, for once, restrict my recommendations to just three books — but I liked all three very much, especially Through the Language Glass, with its erudite and funny exploration of how different languages describe reality.
Monthly Archives: November 2010
Confessions of a Public Speaker is a mix of stories and advice for would-be public speakers and it reads rather awkwardly, although it’s often funny. So you get a rant against ballroom chandeliers (not clear why!) as well as a very practical tip to get people to sit upfront (give them prizes). For the professional, it’s worth digging through the book to find the good ideas, and there are many, down to how to write a better evaluation form. For others, I’m not so sure.
Through the Language Glass explores whether and how language shapes culture. It’s so easy to say that speakers of architected language must also be very organized, or that speaking a language that lacks a word for “blue” must, well, limit its speakers in important intellectual ways.
And it turns out that languages don’t much shape culture. For instance, it turns out that while speakers of unsophisticated languages like English make do with just one word for cousins, failing to distinguish between my mother’s nephews and my father’s nephews, they do know the difference!
Along the way, the author gives funny examples, such as the languages (of Northern Australia, for instance) that always give directions based on cardinal points, so you never, ever turn left, but you turn North, South, East, or West. Wouldn’t work too well for me, and indeed it seems that children needed a good eight years to master the trick, before they all started to speak English and turn left regardless of the direction. I also loved the hilarious stories of gender markers, as how an airplane shares the gender of vegetables (vegetable to wood to canoes to airplanes). Isn’t cool to have a special gender for vegetables?
But the book mostly highlights how researchers are terribly and silently influenced by their own language and culture — as demonstrated by the hapless French writer who derided a Caribbean language because it had no declensions (pretty weird since French itself does not!)
If you like languages, you will love this book.
The author of Origins is pregnant and builds the story of the importance of pre-birth months around her rather trite adventures — and much of the book reads like the irksome diktats I was given when it was my turn, except that it seems that mothers these days are hounded even more than in the dark ages. No tuna sandwich! No cold cuts! No weight gain above 25 pounds!And more insidiously, no mother working past the eighth month.
Why can’t we leave mothers alone? I wish we could go back to Ancient Greece when standard advice was to look at beautiful things.
Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat exposes our ridiculously complicated relationships with animal, comparing $4000 vet bills for ailing pet dogs to delicious dog-based dishes, showing us animal-loving gardeners who fight deer and geese to fighting them (my personal vendetta is against snails), highlighting the Nazi laws for humane treatment of animal, and my personal favorite: the strict rules that protect lab mice versus the brutal methods used int he same labs to kill “vermin”, often the very same mice who somehow escaped their cages…
Makes you think…
The author of Wide Awake is insomniac. While she can fall asleep easily, she wakes up in the middle of the night and can’t get back to sleep. She takes us on her quest to understand insomnia and, she hopes, cures hers. She tries drugs, she sleeps in a sleep lab, she contemplates buying a bed that would buy 2.5 of my car, she hopes that jet lag would cure insomnia (she must be really desperate!), and she finds that she meets the 3P model of predisposition characteristics (she’s an anxious person), precipitating event , and perpetuating attitude. She tries therapy ( with another really bad therapist), sees a sleep doctor who is also a plastic surgeon (should raise a flag, don’t you think?), fails to sleep in a ice hotel, and (very tediously) takes us on her quest for the perfect house where she will sleep soundly.
Since I regularly fall asleep right away and never, never wake up in the middle of the night, this was an exotic and instructive voyage to the land of insomniacs. Insomniacs may find good tips there — and no, expensive beds are not required, or helpful!
At Home claims itself to provide a history of private life and is organized as a tour of his own house, a Church of England rectory built in 1850. Along the way, he tells the history of houses, from prehistoric dwellings on the Orkney islands of Scotland to Middle Ages houses filled of smoke until proper chimneys were invented, to the amazing discovery of private rooms, and the necessary rise of proper architects whose houses would not fall on its occupants.
But he roams much further! To other house-related topics, Mrs Beeton’s tome of household management and its warnings against eating tomatoes, the never-ending toil of servants in the 19th century, and excentric millionaires who redecorate overnight, literally, startling their husbands. And to other topics further afield, amongst which the poor health of sedentary peoples compared to nomads, the dangers of driving at night with no lights (as imposed by WWII blackout regulations), crop rotations, the discovery of the benefits of vitamin C, why the Erie canal made New York’s fortune, , excentric scientists who name their daughters Escherichia (after E. Coli), why bats are dying on whit-nose fungi, phylloxera, kidney stone surgery in the 17th century (yes, very gory), and the cotton gin.
The writing is always smooth and it’s not easy to untangle how we got from the house to, say, vitamin C, but the whole enterprise, however smooth, left me with a feeling that ll that was a bit shallow and unorganized, however easy to read. Maybe it would be better to read this big book in small chapter increments, room by room.
The Facebook Effect tells the story of the company and its founder and leader, Mark Zuckerberg, who dropped out of Harvard to start a company with now 500 million users and a stratospheric valuation. But, we are told, it’s really about changing the world, not making money. Interesting, in this context, that a 19-year old student would carefully assign a 5% ownership to one of his consigliere when Facebook was still called Thefacebook and served as a Harvard-only directory…
The book does a good job of highlighting Facebook’s technical innovations and how Zuckerberg’s vision led more than once to conflicts with the users since his view is that everyone wants to share all their data with everyone else, without much of a concept of private data or even different circles of acquaintances — not to mention advertisers! It may work well for the average college student but perhaps not so well for others who may not want to treat grandma, their friends, and their work colleagues to exactly the same collection of photos. The track record of the company when it comes to privacy is not unblemished, and perhaps it’s not that surprising to learn that it all started with, shall we say unauthorized used of directory data at Harvard that almost resulted in disciplinary action.
The art of writing a company biography must be difficult (see Planet Google, for instance). This book does a decent job of relating the various steps in the funding and structuring of the company, but that part of the story is tedious, perhaps by necessity. It also tries mightily to present the weaker side of Facebook and its founder but it can be overly fawning. Sure, Zuckerberg had a great idea but he is not infallible.
Poseidon’s Steed is all about seahorses: their lives, the art they have inspired, the misadventures of the Lydian gold treasure (yes, there was a seahorse brooch in there — echoes of Loot), their use in Chinese medicine use and their place in Pokemon figures. A very wide field.
The author, a marine biologist and scuba diver, is at her best when describing the strange lives of these fishes (yes, fishes — and I thought they were crustaceans!) and she includes delightful drawings of seahorses from old books. I found the non-biological stories much less interesting and often meandering far from the critters that inspired them.
Chalcot Crescent is a bizarre rant by the author’s stillborn sister (a little more than strange, if you ask me) about her colorful life and its grim ending in a collapsed UK. Why can’t futuristic novels be a little more upbeat (see the equally depressing Super Sad True Love Story)?
Beside the grating grimness, the story is simply boring. So she seduced her own sister’s boyfriend. Who cares? She had many husbands, several unfaithful , and heaps of lovers. Who cares? She bought her house for 9000 pounds and the value of it went up then way down. Who cares? And why is it that all dark futures have to be in communist-like totalitarian settings? Isn’t it the job of fiction writers to be inventive? Can’t they think of something else than the good old USSR? And a word to the wise: if you must depict a dreadful future, make it the distant future. Reading in 2010 about imagined 2010 disasters makes it hard to believe anything else in the book!