World Wide Mind: The Coming Integration of Humanity, Machines, and the Internet discusses how, one day, we may be fitted with devices that allow us to feel “as one” with others, to read their minds and their emotions as they are experiencing them. It’s all very futuristic, and remarkably un-creepy since the author has cochlear implants he makes it very clear that messing with the brain can be a great thing. Said author’s fumblings with dating and attending clothing optional New Age workshops (in California, of course) are less relevant and just over the line of dorkiness.
Monthly Archives: May 2012
Just last month, I reviewed another documentary on everyday life in India, Behind the Beautiful Forevers, which I found breathtaking and novel-like. I did not enjoy this one nearly as much. Beautiful Thing: Inside the Secret World of Bombay’s Dance Bars (beautiful, again?) tells the story of exotic dancers in Mumbai and their sad lives of abuse, starting when they were children and often condoned by their parents, and continued by their clients, their bosses, and their pimps. It’s just very sad, but it’s also quite boring, as the central characters don’t seem to be able or willing to get interested in more than superficial items, nor to plan a way out of their sad lives — which they could do, in theory at least, since they make a very good living during their few years of youth…
White Bread: A Social History of the Store-Bought Loaf tells the story of packaged bread, from its time-saving origins to its glorification as pure and modern and the overtaking of Wonderbread by healthier whole-wheat alternatives. Along the way the author discusses politics, advertizing, and foodies’ return to artisan bread — still,mostly, baked by others. A good book for bread-lovers!
Caleb’s Crossing is a historical novel based on very little historical evidence of the first Native American to graduate from Harvard in 1665. With the paucity of the record, the author could choose to either stick to it and fluff up the story with historical background stories, or to build upon the record into something less faithful and less constrained. She chose the former, which makes for a meager story, and the choice of telling the story in the anachronistically feminist voice of a preacher’s daughter does not help matters.
By Blood starts with a wonderful premise: a mysteriously disgraced professor rents a small office to write a masterpiece but instead discovers that he can hear perfectly the consultations of the psychotherapist next door and gets taken into the story of a particular patient, to the point that he feels compelled to investigate how she was adopted, and eventually becomes complicit in her search for her birth mother. The compulsive eavesdropping is rendered flawlessly. Unfortunately, the historical context of the adoption (during World War II) is told ploddingly and the details are a little too outlandish to believe.
The Richer Sex: How the New Majority of Female Breadwinners Is Transforming Sex, Love and Family sets out to explore the interesting trend of women earning more than their husbands, as is now the case in 40% of households. It is not, apparently, the first time that women outearn men (since, lamentably, women slaves were more valuable than men), but this time it’s driven by better academic achievement by women, strongly encouraged by parents of both genders. Unfortunately, after a few chapters of factual statistics, the rest of the book is organized around anecdotes, interesting and relevant anecdotes, but I would have liked to see a more rigorous analysis of the trend and its consequences. And the predictions at the end can be absurd: on what basis can the author opine that working wives with homemaker-husbands won’t take their partners for granted, unlike the reverse?
Joyce Carol Oates is a master storyteller, and although Mudwoman does not quite deliver a believable ending, I found it hard to put down. How will the past, or rather her memories of her past, heavily doused with self-imposed shame, wreck the success of the college president who seems to be perfectly qualified to succeed? Her obsessive, endlessly striving nature is brilliantly conveyed but I could never quite understand how she would let herself be so isolated, so lonely, hence so prone to her active imagination and equally active dreams, nightmares really. And is the story trying to go further, to tell us that success just destroys women?
Religion for Atheists: A Non-believer’s Guide to the Uses of Religion is a delightful respite from the spiteful attacks of books like The God Delusion and focuses on the special talents of organized religion to create community, educate the young, and create lasting institutions. The chapter on education would be a good addition to any teacher-training program, with its emphasis on theater, repetition, and the inclusion of ethics and emotion into all teaching. The author chooses his examples from Christianity (with especially kind and insightful views of the most successful aspects of the Catholic Church), Buddhism, and Judaism — and somewhat mysteriously not from Islam, although many chapters could easily include references to it.
It’s a little awkward to profess dislike of a book whose author was tragically killed shortly after publication, but House of Stone: A Memoir of Home, Family, and a Lost Middle East never quite came together for me. Shadid tries to intertwine three stories: that of the house of his great-grandfather he is restoring over the course of a year-long sabbatical, that of his family who emigrated from Lebanon to the Midwest two generations ago, and that of Lebanon and the difficult and ongoing conflicts that have taken place there. Of the three, the one that worked the best for me was the story of the family with its many branches, its unique personalities, and its piecemeal move from a prosperous, established position in a deteriorating state to tough survival through hard work in a foreign land. I would have liked to see some pictures, though, annotated pictures of his heroic grandmother, his many grand-uncles and uncles, the grocery stores in Oklahoma City. The story of the restoration of the house, in contrast, seems to consist of long-running arguments with incompetent or lazy workers, peppered with tedious insults rather than the romantic rebirth of which one may dream — or may expect from the always enticing cover blurb.A disappointment.
In The Secret Life of Pronouns: What Our Words Say About Us, the author explains that much can be gleaned from examining the little words we use. Not the obvious nouns and verbs, but the infrastructure: the pronouns of the title but also prepositions, conjunctions, negations, and so on. Since computers are obliging word-counters and we are now prolific digital text producers, it’s easy to count those function words and it turns out that women use more pronouns and more verbs while men use more nouns and numbers — and transgender individuals move from one side to the other as their hormonal levels change. A little creepy, no?
All that’s interesting, for a while, but what can it be used for? It seems mostly for police work; hang on tightly to your Facebook account, and watch what you write on your blog. Perhaps I should add a good dose of nouns and numbers?