I had loved Charles Duhigg’s previous book, The Power of Habit, but this one, Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business seems to line up a number of (interesting) stories that never quite connect or add up to a bigger whole. Sure, some ideas are interesting, especially the ones about boot camp drill sergeants consistently complimenting recruits on unexpected aspects of their performance (to stress that practice makes perfect), or teachers really using big data only after they have to painstakingly track results by hand (so they really engage with the data). But the book is just not compelling.
Monthly Archives: June 2016
In stark contrast with the book I reviewed yesterday, almost nothing happens in Eleven Hours. Well, a baby’s born, which is something, but you know it’s going to happen from the first page since this is the story of a labor. There are two protagonists, the woman in labor and her nurse (o, how nice it must be to have one nurse and one nurse only throughout!) and their back stories emerge during the ordeal, although mostly as internal monologues since patient-nurse professionalism must remain. I thought it was brilliant, minus the weird soaring chorus at the very end.
Before the Wind is the saga of a family of boat builders and sometimes racers that starts with a stunning description of the set of characters — and then becomes sadly becalmed, and while the daughter seems able to move sailboats without wind, her power does not extend to the narrative. If you are a sailing enthusiast, it might work for you. Otherwise, despite the many adventures of the family, ranging from international wildlife smuggling to organic farming to high-level mathematics to extreme boat repairs, save your precious reading time for something else.
The Bad-Ass Librarians of Timbuktu: And Their Race to Save the World’s Most Precious Manuscripts tells two stories: first, how the hero of the book managed to gather together hundreds of thousands of ancient manuscripts that had been hidden around Mali after the Timbuktu empire crumbled, and how, just went years later, he (and many others) fought to secrete them out of Timbuktu ahead of Islamist extremists eager to destroy anything that did not correspond to their very peculiar interpretation of the Quran. The book manages to describe the flourishing of Timbuktu in the 1500s, the patient search to obtain the manuscripts from people who were quite doubtful that they would be safe outside their hands (and were right about that!), the quest for funding to restore the manuscripts, and the hair-raising evacuation of the library. While the critics seem to hail the evacuation, I found the earlier sections just as fascinating.
I can feel a new crime series starting: with The Strings of Murder, we not only encounter a blood-soaked Victorian mystery, but also two inspectors with, as we would say today, personal baggage, one a London snob who is slumming it in Edinburgh after having been kicked out of his job at Scotland Yard in the midst of a political intrigue and the other a local with a frightful family history. The mystery will be solved, after many more murders and twists, and I imagine the inspectors will make it to another book.
Every once in a while the historical details seem overdone, or the conversation is anachronistic (no teenagers in Victorian times!) but the overall effect is engrossing.
I suppose a book about “stuff” is allowed to be a little messy, but Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff could need a good organizer (and a solid purge) to make it readable. There are, for instance, no fewer than three long descriptions of junk-removal services, all quite interesting, but I would think that they could have been condensed and classified in more useful ways. And they are also some full-length interviews that could be summarized, as well as interesting but not exactly relevant stories about homeless housing. It all feels like a jumble sale: nice surprises here and there but a lot of nothing in between.
I just could not understand the point of Capture: Unraveling the Mystery of Mental Suffering. The author’s thesis is that mental illnesses, although varied, may well have a common cause, and that the cause is the “capture” of the title, that is, a disordered processing of stimuli by the brain, influenced by powerful past emotional events. (isn’t it convenient to have such a broad definition, which can be mapped on almost anything?)
In any case, the author then proceeds to describe many literary and historic events in this light, in the process turning almost any deviant behavior into mental illness, and claiming to illustrate the vague claim. He’s a good storyteller but, as I said, I just did not get it.
The Boys in the Bunkhouse: Servitude and Salvation in the Heartland tells the heart-breaking story of dozens of men with intellectual disability who were hired by a turkey-processing plant in a scheme that started out as a way to get them out of a rather dismal state asylum, but was allowed to continue for decades during which they were essentially treated as slaves. And in the end, the owners of the company were able to fiddle their finances to avoid paying all but the most token amount of retribution. What a disgrace! The author recounts the personal history of several of the men, their lives at the plant, and how they fared afterwards, along with the story of the trial, which was the least interesting part of the story for me. A great reminder that vigilance is required to protect those who cannot protect themselves.
Following the wonderful The Design of Everyday Things, Norman brings us Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things, which shows how objects can appeal to us on a visceral level, a behavioral level, or a reflective (emotional) level, and how we can be drawn to objects that make us feel good even though they may be useless.
There is a long, rather tedious, and seemingly unconnected chapter about robots, which you may want to skip. The rest of the examples are lively and inspiring.
It’s been just two days and already there is stiff competition for Sex In the Sea to remain my favorite science book of 2016. Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? is a sweeping review of the often awkward methods scientists have used through the years to assess the intelligence of animals (non-human animals, that is, since humans are animals too!), and how evolutionary biologists, using more modern approaches, are changing the perception of animals as essentially dumb. There is the too-small mirror that “proves” that elephants cannot recognize their reflections — but they can, if the mirror is 8 feet tall! There are crows who congratulate fledglings after a successful flight. Apes that play subtle political games that would put our politicians to shame. Chimps that perform flawlessly on many trials, then get tired of the exercise and clearly show the experimenters that they could continue with the task, but they are just too bored with it. Another chimp that can remember dozens of digits (humans can manage 5-7). Wolves that follow humans’ hand gestures, but only if raised by humans (otherwise they figure out the tasks independently!)
The stories are entertaining but also deeply endearing.