We are used to thinking that a little more empathy would make the world such a better place, but the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion is not afraid to swim against the current and shows that empathy can be biased, capricious, and, well, too emotional. Much better, he argues, to use rational thought to decide whom to help, and in some circumstances to cut off empathy entirely for the sake of a clear head (think about some medical decisions). Better control our emotional empathy in favor of cognitive empathy. This book will make you think,
Monthly Archives: March 2017
Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation takes us from who decides what time it is (it’s very complicated!) to how humans perceive time — and, it seems, are easily fooled! The author happily discusses the synchronization of transplanted kidneys, how our eyes seem to anticipate the random changes of direction of a computer dot, and what happens to grad students during an Arctic summer. Easy to read, enjoyable, but I would have liked a bit more structure.
The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile Under the Tsars offers a detailed, scholarly account of how the stars used the vast and remote land of Siberia to stash away anyone who did not agree with them (and many others who did not agree with their neighbors!) For me, Siberian exile meant the Soviet gulag, as described by Solzhenitsyn, but the hateful tradition is much older. So what did I learn in this book: that pre-Soviet exile was horrendously harsh and killed many prisoners before they even reached their destinations — on foot, half-starved, through the cold. That spouses and children of prisoners often went with them, and were exploited and mistreated and similar ways. That one could buy one’s way out of the worst treatments, as could be expected. The author compares the banishment in Siberia to deporting British convicts to Australia. I suppose the very different climates dictated the very different outcomes. In any case, 350 pages on the horror of labor camps seemed a bit much for me.
The Glass Universe: How the Ladies of the Harvard Observatory Took the Measure of the Stars is supposed to be an uplifting book about women scientists. And indeed, it presents compelling portraits of women who, in the late 19th century and early 20th century, analyzed and organized hundreds of thousands of photographic plates, captured by the male scientists, and discovered many stars while creating a logical classification of stars. How exciting (for someone who cares about astronomy; I think I’m sitting that one out).
Still, these women were paid peanuts and had the hardest time getting formal, funded jobs and university titles, and living off the generosity of the observatory patriarch, who seemed to be unusually open-minded but why did he not see that it was wrong to pay them 40% less than the men? It seems that the book should make a bigger deal of the basic inequity underlying the entire adventure..
What could be cuter than a baby polar bear? I wanted to love the Memoirs of a Polar Bear, which tells the story of Knut, the very popular denizen of the Berlin zoo — and indeed I thoroughly enjoyed the third part of the book, which is focused on him. The first two tell the stories of his mother and grandmother, both circus performers and (we are led to believe) talented writers. I just was not able to spend disbelief and let myself enter the inner world of those two, which spoiled the fun — although sprinkled throughout are funny and wise comments on the follies of humans viewed from the animal’s perspective.
Please Enjoy Your Happiness is a dreamy memoir of an unlikely encounter between the author, then a 19-year old sailor in the US Navy, and an older Japanese woman (she was only 30, but much more mature than him at the time) in Yokosuka, Japan in 1959. The two quickly discover a shared love of literature and the art and the woman encourages him to pursue a career as a writer. But slowly he discovers her complicated past, complete with yakuza entangling.
The book moves between the present, the encounter, and the period before it to convey a sense of uncertain time and truth for a moving historical, literary, and personal story.
The author of Once We Were Sisters is convinced that her sister’s husband murdered her. He most definitely beat her, repeatedly and savagely, but it seems that, had he wanted to kill her, he would have had access to other methods than driving their car into a tree, without having to himself suffer serious injuries. No matter, the story is about her relationship with her sister, forged against complicated parenting from their mother, a dreadful if indulgent education, and poor husband choices for both of them. It’s a wonderful portrait of sisterly love. Somehow it left me rather cold, including the awful abuse, perhaps because many of the bad decisions are based on hanging on to the very comfortable family wealth.