Monthly Archives: February 2012

** Kayak Morning by Roger Rosenblatt

I had loved Making Toast, a perfect-pitch memoir of a grandfather caring for his orphaned grandchildren, and I was disappointed by Kayak Morning: Reflections on Love, Grief, and Small Boats, the premise of which is wonderful (his learning to kayak to find solitude and perhaps peace), but which I found too elegiac and stream-of-consciousness for my taste. Here and there I found pieces I loved, mostly about his memories of his daughter growing up, so loving and tender.

 

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** A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor

Great museums can be overwhelming and I recall fondly a visual treasure hunt I once hastily put together at the British Museum for my daughters that had us tramping through its many galleries in search of just ten objects, trying to move from ancient Egypt to modern in less than one hour (mission accomplished).  A History of the World in 100 Objects is much more ambitious, as the director of the museum has chosen many more objects (I was glad to see most of my ten in the lot!) with exquisite care to represent a cross-section of geographies and historical periods and moreover has organized them in an ambitious historical context. Suffice it to say that you will need more than an hour to get through the 650+ pages! But you can also take it in small increments, or skip the boring bits.

The author has a good knack for describing the objects as if you were there, actually better since, unlike us, he has been able to touch and hold them, and he has a nice sense of dry humor to enliven the proceedings, including stories of how the objects were discovered and what effect that had on the discoverers. He has one archeologist tearing off his clothes for joy, that must have been a sight! Still, there’s more than a whiff of a staid PBS program (and indeed, this is a companion to a BBC program!) in the book, and the more difficult issues are brushed by, especially the tricky problem of why the British Museum should be home to so many artifacts that were found outside Britain.

That aside, it’s a considerable achievement to bring all the artifacts together and interestingly it makes me want to go back to the museum, to see more than just ten objects this time!

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* Lonely at the Top by Thomas Joiner

Poor men. They run almost all countries, dominate the world of business, and provide the vast majority of media pundits. So it’s a little hard to feel sorry for them and I was a skeptical when I opened Lonely at the Top: The High Cost of Men’s Success.  My concerns increased as I read the acknowledgements, in which the author lavishly recognizes his own department at Florida State, way too self-serving for my taste, and when he proceeded to describes men’s loneliness mainly through personal anecdotes. Surely if there is a real problem, and it sounds like there might be, there must be better ways to describe it. And why would the hard fact of a much higher suicide rate amongst men prove that they are more lonely? It doesn’t even prove that they are more depressed, only more likely to use a gun to self-medicate. And I will pass on the asinine notion that we wear wedding rings on the fourth finger because it’s the testosterone-sensitive finger, for shame!

But fortunately the second half of the book, which focuses on solutions to men’s loneliness, is a completely different story. It shows great caring for his patients and others like them and it gives many practical, simple suggestions that any reader can use. (Including sleeping regular hours: just think, we can both beat loneliness and solve global warming that way!)

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** Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Biographies can be fawning or boring (and in some sad cases, both!) but Steve Jobs is a page-turner. It overdoes the fawning only occasionally, and since it also includes a sobering amount of critical stories, including Jobs’s famous dressing downs of employees, it’s not a problem. As for the boring bits, they don’t constitute more than a few pages (out of over 600), when the Apple board intrigues to oust Jobs and then to bring him back — or perhaps I’m just allergic to board stories. For the rest, it’s a surprisingly frank and personal view of the man behind the company, with nice glimpses of his parents (were they ever patient and supportive of him!), his elementary school teachers, and of course his exploits as the product marketer extraordinaire that he was (and the book very clearly and satisfyingly distinguishes the engineering feats, mostly by others, from the visionary product conception breakthroughs that were his alone). One of the advantages of a balanced stories is that one can see the stumbles alongside the victories, and in this case, beyond the dressing downs mentioned earlier, the relative neglect of his children, which tugs at the heart a bit since they lost him so young.

Happy birthday, Steve!

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* The Watchman’s Rattle by Rebecca Costa

Beyond the evocative title, I did not find much to like in The Watchman’s Rattle: Thinking Our Way Out of Extinction and I’m still a little puzzled that the venerable E.O. Wilson lent his name and credibility to the foreword. To me, the book read as a long rant, replete with way too many italicized sentences for emphasis, in case we are a little thick, and a rant about what? That we are about to expire as a civilization because, get this, we humans are evolving more slowly than the rate of societal change. I will let you ponder the silliness of the concern. If we humans are creating the changes in our society, then shouldn’t we also be able to untangle the mess we are supposedly creating? I do agree with the author that the political process makes it difficult to effect change. I do agree that the citizenry could think issues through a little more than it does. And I do agree that the preponderance of lawyers in the legislative body of the United States makes it difficult to manage technical and scientific issues. But surely she could find a better example of mayhem-to-come than a lone experiment of introducing chimps to tokens (leading to prostitution and, horror, hoarding — remove money and all our problems go away?) And her prescription for optimism: eat blueberries, to be able to think better (to be fair, she also advocates flax seeds and papayas — and sleeping enough).

Excuse me while I rustle up some flax seeds.

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** The Virtues of Our Vices by Emrys Westacott

Is it possible to read two or three books about gossip in a week? Apparently, yes. And it’s also possible, within the course of a week, to peer both into the world of academic mathematicians and philosopher. The Virtues of Our Vices: A Modest Defense of Gossip, Rudeness, and Other Bad Habits is a book about gossip (and other vices, as announced in the very honest title) written by a philosopher.

What did I learn from it? First and not surprisingly, that I would never make a good philosopher (no giggling at your screen, please!) I just don’t have the patience, and perhaps not the intellectual wherewithal, to think deeply about what, exactly, gossip is and what it is not, and to split hairs on whether certain kinds are, in fact, acceptable. See, I can’t even describe the activity without being bored with it. That being said, reading about the outcomes of such activity is not unpleasant. A little slow, maybe (the patience problem, again), a little picky at times (what could possibly be the difference between someone’s wishes and hopes, as it relates to gossip being spread about the self?) The author is much more flexible than the ethical guru or the humorist I read last week so I will forgive light asides that start thusly, “this. of course, is the sort of thinking advocated by Kant”. There needs to be a footnote here, I think.

I also learned that one should not make faces at people. I thought it was one of the great pleasures of life (in appropriate settings, naturally), but this author gives a wide condemnation of it, a condemnation I deplore).

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** Quiet by Susan Cain

I am rarely accused of being too quiet, which may be one of the reasons why I did not relish Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, but I am interested in my introverted friends, and I feel that this book does them a disservice by positing a few facts that I think are untrue, and in particular that introverts are much more shy and sensitive than extroverts. My feeling is hurt ;).

I also disliked the sometimes whiny and defensive tone used to defend the many contributions of introverts. (maybe we in Silicon Valley are different: we can see ever day that great technologies are created by introverts and they certainly hold up half of the sky, to mix metaphors.) And the book occasionally destroys its own arguments, as when it cites a drop in empathy in college students of 40% in 10 years — surely we could not have “disappeared” 40% of introverts in that period of time — since introverts are supposed to be the sensitive, empathic type, remember.

That being said, the author gives some great advice to ease the plight of introverts in an extroverted world, from turning down the noise level (hey, maybe I am an introvert after all!) to listening to the quieter folks in our midst (this reminded me of the excellent Leading Geeks). “Those who know do no speak. Those who speak do not know” [Lao Zi]

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