Monthly Archives: November 2010

Books of the Month – November 2010

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.

I also liked
The Fever, a sobering look at malaria and how it’s unlikely to be vanquished anytime soon
Ape House, a not always realistic but highly entertaining story of bonobos

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** Confessions of a Public Speaker by Scott Berkun

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.

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*** Through the Language Glass by Guy Deutcher

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.

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** Origins by Annie Murphy Paul

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.

 

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*** Some we Love, Some we Hate, Some we Eat by Hal Herzog

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…

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** Wide Awake by Patricia Morrisroe

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!

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** At Home by Bill Bryson

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.

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