** The Art of Thinking Clearly by Rolf Dobelli


The Art of Thinking Clearly is a compendium of 99 cognitive errors we make, with a brief description and often amusing examples. Some of my favorites include swimmer’s body (confusing selection and result: swimmers may not look great because they swim, but rather because people who choose to swim have good bodies) social loafing (we tend to try harder when we work by ourselves, not as part of a group), forecast illusion (experts enjoy more publicity if they predict outrageous events, and no consequences if they are wrong), and the planning fallacy (through which we routinely over-estimate what we can accomplish in the future).

That said, it’s a bit of a dry read, and some of the examples struck me as rather sexist. Read in small doses.

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*** Loving Day by Mat Johnson


Loving Day is over-the-top comedy, but, starring an almost-white man and his newly found teenage daughter, it fearlessly tackles race relations with a vigor and courage that are both refreshing and sobering.

Puzzlingly, the copy editing seems to be lacking, and the details of the story are often bawdy, outlandish, or both, but the tone is unerring and the father-daugher relationship is wonderfully chaotic. This book is easy to read, but deep, in a good way.

 

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** Leningrad by Anna Reid


Want a little horror to end your summer? Try Leningrad: The Epic Siege of World War II, 1941-1944 and its 750,000 dead. At least you know it’s going to be brutal before you even start. The book tells the story in a remarkably lively manner (lively is a bad word here, can’t think of another), relying on private diaries and correspondence to illuminate the sufferings of the besieged inhabitants, starved by their own government’s incompetent as much as the Nazi’s implacable war strategy.

Perhaps because of the positions of the individuals who kept diaries and whose diaries survived, there are as many stories about saving artwork and architecture as there are about saving people, which seems a little uncaring, but  the author manages to tell many personal stories of struggle and, occasionally, amazing altruism in the midst of chaos.

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*** Hidden America by Jeanne Marie Laskas


Hidden America: From Coal Miners to Cowboys, an Extraordinary Exploration of the Unseen People W ho Make This Country Work may not be worth all three stars, but it stood well above the other books I read lately, so there.

The book explores the lives of workers that mostly live behind the scenes: coal miners (in the best, first chapter), truck drivers, farm workers, and, rather inexplicably, football cheerleaders (talk about a not behind-the-scenes job!) The author has spent time in each of these communities and displays great empathy for the workers, who often work in difficult conditions. What I loved about the book was two things: the details of the various workplaces, although I would have liked to read more in-depth accounts of typical workdays, and the warm camaraderie she found across job families, even for workers, such as truck drivers, who spent much of their time on their own.

I did not love the rather inane dialogs she inserts here and there, which seem not to add anything to the stories. But you can skip them, right?

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** Early Warning by Jane Smiley


Early Warning is the second part of a Midwestern family saga started in Some Luck, and serves as a good reminder that, if I don’t care for book #1, I probably should not try reading book #2. That said, if you like large families and are able to let yourself be transported through the decades without asking too many questions, you may well love the story, and love the author’s many pithy observations about family dynamics.

Because I did not let myself by transported, I found the integration of current events into the family stories plodding, the careful sprinkling of non-traditional characters tedious, and the deus-ex-machina ending overdone.

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* Excellent Sheep by William Deresiewicz

Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life is a book-long rant against the current higher education system in America, which makes very good points, and in particular that elite schools give outrageous preference to rich kids, both through alumni preference and the preference for certain feeder schools, mostly private, which by definition enroll the wealthy.

Other aspects are less rational. In particular, the author is obsessed by the fact that students choose economics as a major rather than liberal arts, and that universities cater to their preference. While we can deplore that young adults may feel pressured to study topics they don’t enjoy (but who says they would enjoy literature or other liberal arts pursuits?), I find it heartwarming that they are putting some thought into selecting a major and a career that are marketable. If we are to coach our children into becoming English majors (the author’s recommendation), it seems to me that many will be very frustrated when it comes time to find a job.

In fact, it seems that many of the opinions stem directly from the author’s experience as a late-bloomer English major, and some of the anecdotes are bizarre, for instance the author’s admission that, with his numerous degrees, he could not talk to his plumber. Really? How about starting by treating the plumber as a peer, as a human being. Perhaps that would help. All the educational reforms in the world won’t change the fact that humans can and should treat each other as equals.

Finally, his prescription for students, that they don’t talk much to their parents when in college and don’t ask them for help of any kind seems overdone, if not downright silly. How about the fact that most students’ tuition fees are paid by their generous parents. Isn’t that a big kind of “help”?

 

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* Palace of Treason by Jason Matthews


Palace of Treason is the sequel to Red Sparrow, which I skewered here a few weeks ago. You will not be surprised to hear that I did not love this tome either. And I’m afraid there will be another installment in the series since the heroine not only does not die in the book, despite multiple encounters with cold-blooded killers and an assortment of weapons, but returns to Russia, opening the way to more adventures, rather than safely defect to the West.

The story is nicely twisted and suspenseful, but the characters are once again heavily cliched. One of them is Vladimir Putin himself, so the reader can easily understand the necessity of portraying him as a megalomaniac, but everyone else seems hopelessly one-dimensional: either completely good or utterly evil, and carrying a heavy load from earlier experiences, from which they cannot separate themselves. It’s probably tolerable of you enjoy spy novels. I do not.

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