Monthly Archives: October 2010

Delusions of Gender by Cordelia Fine

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.

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Higher Education by Andrew Hacker and Claudia Dreifus

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.

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Parrot and Olivier in American by Peter Carey

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.

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Mockingbird Years by Emily Fox Gordon

Mockingbird Years is the story of the author as a therapy patient, from rebellious childhood to disastrous young adulthood to  remarkably stable and successful adulthood — and the reader wants to just shake those inept therapists as they knit through her sessions (I like to knit but would not do it with a client!), allow her to say nothing at all for hours on end (silence is golden, huh?), and worse of all consign her to a psychiatric hospital when what she would really need would be a good push into reality. Actually her salvation comes from that hospital in the shape of the psychiatrist’s wife who seems to be the most effective healer of the bunch by simply showing her how a normal family might function. It’s a sobering story with a happy, if complicated ending.

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Filed under True story

Holy Water by James Othmer

It’s fine to write a goofy book. It’s fine to include a near-perfect replica of Kim Jong-Il complete with his movie obsession. It’s fine to locate the fictional outsourced call center in a made-up country headed by the lovely prince-dictator. It’s fine to imagine an evil corporation that churns out bottled water and deodorant through near-identical divisions. Fine again to marry the hero to a harpy obsessed with money. Fine to add a very generously endowed assistant with a double life online. Fine to top it off with a stereotypical Australian adventurer and stereotypically good locals who are fighting for independence and justice. But it’s got to be funny. And this book is not.

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American Music by Jane Mendelsohn

American Music is another indirect, dreamy novel with lots of back stories (see Eucalyptus) and I liked this one even less. In Eucalyptus it seemed that the author needed to display his encyclopedic knowledge of trees (or perhaps simply the outcome of his assistant’s research on trees) and that was annoying at times, but the story at hand was reasonably engrossing if not exactly new and original.  Here, none of the stories seem to have much punch. the main protagonist is an Iraq veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder and little to say. One of the back stories describes several generations of a family story with unexciting repeats of unrequited love and teenage pregnancies  while the other is an even less likely tale of a young woman in a harem.

I could not wait for the end, and not in a good way.

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Baby, We were Meant for Each Other by Scott Simon

Baby, We Were Meant for Each Other combines the very sweet story of the author and his wife  adopting and raising two daughters from China with vignettes of other families, all in support of adoption. The personal story is lovely, never mushy but with very moving fatherly devotion showing throughout. He richly deserves his title of spoiler-in-chief.

The non-personal stories are nowhere as satisfying. The author sets out to extinguish a number of inane concerns (sample:  “Can I love someone’s else’s child as much as my own?”) that would be better tackled by ignoring them or simply letting his story simply be. And although some of the stories are not all perfectly happy he seems to work very hard at proving that each and every adoption will be a success. Maybe not. But the same could be said of non-adopted kids.

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Filed under Non fiction