Some great books and some truly awful books this month. Here are four I recommend:
The Art of Choosing — in the crowded field of decision-making books, one that takes a very human look at how others influence our decisions
Slow Love — the true story of a career woman who gets laid off and is brave enough to tell us about how hard it was for her to rebound
The Girl who kicked the Hornet’s Nest — you knew I was going to nominate that last installment of Stieg Larsson’s, right?
Switch — a useful and fun look at what it takes to change a habit – or a company
My Times in Black and White is the autobiography of Gerald Boy, who was the first African-American managing editor at the New York Times. I found the first part of the book, before he got that job, quite interesting. Having grown up in poverty, he found his way to college and then to a series of increasingly prestigious journalism jobs — while breaking hearts and marriages, and treating one marriage as a conduit to power and the establishment, which did not end well.
I found the NY Times stories tedious. The internal politics of any work environment always are, I suppose, at least to outsiders, and nothing in the narrative manages to elevate the inner conflicts of the paper to something that would have universal interest. He also manages to come across as bizarrely entitled, as if the mere fact of having been in a given job for a certain number of years guarantees a promotion to the next level (and when that fails he blames racism). When he is dismissed from the NY Times as a fallout of the Blair plagiarizing affair he is a little too careful to prove that he had nothing to do with the plagiarism. And I believe him, but he was in charge, and being in charge means having to take the fall for your team.
The author of This Is Not The Story You Think It Is indiscreetly tells us about a summer during which her husband acted out his frustrations with her and with their family by disappearing again and again, while she apparently kept her cool, acted as if nothing ever happened, and focused on creating the perfect home to which he would surely return.
I suppose this could be an inspiring book to wives everywhere that wayward husbands can be reconquered through peace and serenity. I thought it made no sense. Why bend over backwards for someone who cannot observe the most basic elements of civility — such as telling her and their children where he is so they don’t worry about him? Why repress all anger and refuse to confront the obvious chasm between them? (And what kind of reconciliation can exist in the absence of a air-clearing discussion?) And if financial problems are a big component of the crisis perhaps the attitude of “I write, hence I cannot stoop to remunerative other jobs, even if I’m not published” is not the most constructive one to adopt.
A puzzle, and an annoying one at that.
Us: Americans Talk About Love presents a series of essays about love by dozens of contributors — and I found it profoundly depressing. Starting logically at the beginning and encountering a slew of childhood abuses, drug addictions, and injudiciously hasty relationships (I guess they have not read For Better!) I thought I would be smart to move along towards the back of the book, since the stories were arranged in chronological order of love stories. But alas, more Al-Anon, lost pregnancies, sisters marrying the same man, and unlikely claims of dates with hundreds of women.
For Better summarizes many different studies about marriage, organized around the general optimistic theme that divorce is much less likely than it was in the recent past and that a bit of attention to one’s own marriage can make a big difference. Or can it? It’s rather unsettling to hear that properly trained strangers can accurately peg the likelihood of a marriage working out or not via a short observation of the partners at the beginning of the relationship. Maybe we should all submit to that little test before we say “I do”.
Some of the scientific findings are amusing, such as the idea that potential partners who smell better to us have complementary immune systems — useful for the potential babies we might make, huh? Others are annoying, such as the repeated recitation that women discourage husbands from “helping” to retain control of the household. I, for one, am very happy to share (give up!) control over the dishwasher, trashcans, or dirty laundry. Most are unremakable: pick someone compatible (duh!), share the housework, hang out with friends who don’t divorce, wait out the stressful parenting years (getting there) and try to remember only the happy moments. Nothing new, really.
For instance, while monogamy is not the norm among animals, it’s certainly possible for some animals and for humans to remain sexually and socially faithful to one partner. Further, regular sex should be part of a good marriage even if it occurs less frequently over time. As for conflict, learning how to fight fairly allows partners to air differences without damaging their relationship. Describing the unhappy end of her own marriage, she looks at those relationships at high risk for divorce, such as the pursuer-distancer marriage (with the pursuer usually the woman) and the operatic marriage (characterized by dramatic highs and lows). Although the scientific research adds depth, much of the relationship advice is familiar and commonsensical, but married couples will still benefit from this refresher course
Lonely is a memoir by a formally very lonely woman (who is now paired up and apparently much less lonely), interspersed with reflections of what it means to be lonely, research about loneliness (I did not know that lonely people tend to look older than us gregarious souls as well as to be less trusting) and regrets that loneliness simply has not gotten the respect it could (should?) have gotten from psychiatrists and therapists.
Some of the strategies she uses to combat loneliness seem rather inappropriate (walking around town, shopping, reading — reading!) and other behaviors seem positively hermit-like (being afraid to pick up the phone, resisting any chatting or sharing while on a cycling trip so I hope that her new partner will be able to show her a better way to engage with the world, at least if she wants to avoid loneliness.
The Art of Choosing is yet another contribution to the busy field of how we make decisions (along with Predictably Irrational, the Freakonomics series, Sway, and others). This one is nicely infused with the author’s personal experience, whether it’s her near-blindness or her interest for Asian-Americans. she is, famously, the author of the study that showed that too many choices confused the consumer and resulted in lower sales, and there is a picture of the (local) Draeger’s experiment that defined the claim. Her emphasis is on how we like to make decisions that make us comfortable, whether to please our parents (for young Asian-American children), to be within the norm of our group of friends, or rather just on the edge of originality, or adhere to the culturally acceptable grieving mechanisms. A very enjoyable book.