What Money Can’t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets is full of thoughtful dilemmas of whether the market is always the right answer: should we pay people to stand in line for us? Pay children who get good grades? Purchase carbon offsets when we take that atmosphere-sullying plane ride? Sell Nobel prizes or citizenship rights to the highest bidder? The book is well-written and the examples interesting, but somehow it seems rather obvious (to me) that not everything can be bought — and even more that not everything should be for sale — so that made for a not so interesting read.
Monthly Archives: June 2012
Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines—and How It Will Change Our Lives makes, perhaps not surprisingly, for tough reading as the author seems bound and determined to share all his research with us — resulting in lots of technical discussions that I did not peruse as thoroughly as I could have. Too bad, since the gist of the research is literally fantastic, allowing animals (for now) to control robots purely through mind control and opening remarkable opportunities for the disabled. The author also displays great affection for the animals in the lab, a protean intellectual curiosity, and a good sense of humor, but not quite enough to carry the technical load, at least for me.
In The Beginner’s Goodbye, a lonely man loses his wife to a wholly unexpected accident and finds himself adrift.He works for the family firm, a vanity publisher, where his strong sister also works and tries to help him, but he is very good at keeping her at arms’ length, even when he is forced to move in with her. O, and his dead wife reappears from time to time, which seems to help him regain his composure, if anything. A tender and funny view of loss, regrets, and carrying on.
One would want to look kindly at a book whose author has endured a serious and pretty much untreatable disease and the author of Memoir of a Debulked Woman: Enduring Ovarian Cancer has written an unflinching account of her body’s miseries, together with keen observations of how the medical system as a whole does not serve patients well. But if you have ever wished that a sick friend would hurry up the minute descriptions of her troubles, you may find your patience quickly exhausted. And each experience triggers multiple reminiscences from the large assortment of literature that the scholar-author has read, which makes for many learned dissertations that are not as enjoyable if one is not familiar with the pieces being cited.
Carry the One takes us, ploddingly, from a drunken and drugged crash that kills a young girl to post-crash lives of the car occupants, brother and sisters and friends, none of which seems to accomplish much or reflect much, including on the consequences of the crash — except for the brother who seems not to understand that the parents of the dead girl may not want to see him again, ever. They take their ennui around the world in photogenic places, hop to the nearest disaster (Katrina) for no discernible charitable reason, are dissatisfied with their mates, and one becomes a full-blown alcoholic. Despite all the action, I could not get into the story or identify with any of the characters.
There hasn’t been a baby in my house for many years, but reading Making Babies: Stumbling into Motherhood brought back many memories. The author organizes the book into a series of essays, the first one weirdly focused on aliens (as brought to mind by pregnancy, she says logically but it’s a little weird!) and the last one a most enjoyable jumble of snippets she tells about writing whenever she had a few minutes saved from childcare duties. Whether it’s the awkward ob-gyn visits, the vicarious pleasure of the baby’s first step on grass, the inadmissible desire to just leave the house and the baby and everything else behind, the very funny progression in stroller-buying from the first, rushed and unskilled purchase, to the purely utilitarian one, she writes of things we regular mothers have forgotten, or would not know how to write about, or would not write about so eloquently. Very nicely done.
The author of Faith No More: Why People Reject Religion is a sociologist who is presenting the outcome of dozens of interviews with people who once believed but no longer do, and it’s an interesting tapestry of individual experiences, but I felt that the stories could use some deeper analysis to tie them together and make sense of them in a more global manner. In particular, the United States, which is the focus of the study, is still very religious compared to other developed countries. Is the rise in the number of non believers a sign of convergence or a blip? Is the loss of community reported by non believers a natural result of their leaving the faith of their families of origins or is it something more essential, as so well described in Religion for Atheists? The author doesn’t make much of an attempt to go beyond the interviews, unfortunately.
The great P.D. James is also well-read, at least when it comes to her genre. In Talking About Detective Fiction, she explores the origins and masters of detective novels, from well-known (to me) authors to lesser known, and dissects styles, violence levels, plausibility, and the strict morality of the genre. Would probably be even better for someone who has actually read many mysteries, as plot summaries are not sufficient to fully engage with the critiques.
What happens when a once-vegan decides that meat is just fine, after all? What happens is 200 pages of debating whether it is ethical and kind to shoot a deer, in The Mindful Carnivore: A Vegetarian’s Hunt for Sustenance. Fortunately, along the way there are many more interesting musings about organic gardening and competing with woodchucks (it seems to be much easier to shoot hungry woodchucks than cute deer) and wonderful reminiscing about a country childhood filled with unrepentant hunting. Still, one wold want to see a little more action.
Another book about books? Yes, but in a completely different (and much less successful, I may add) genre. The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read is a small encyclopedia of books that once were, and the lost books of the Bible are not the first entry, so the scope is large and the book is best tackled in short takes. Even at that pace, it’s sometimes difficult to get excited about minor works, or even to agree with the author’s classification. When a book is lost post-publication (or, sadly, while in the care of a publisher — hurrah for backups!), it clearly qualifies as lost – but when an author decides to destroy a manuscript, that should be his or her privilege, no?