Monthly Archives: March 2017

*** Against Empathy by Paul Bloom

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,

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Filed under Non fiction

** Why Time Flies by Alan Burdick

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.

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Filed under Non fiction

* The House of the Dead by Daniel Beer

 

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.

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Filed under Non fiction

* The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel

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..

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Filed under Non fiction

** Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada

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.

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Filed under New fiction

*** Please Enjoy Your Happiness by Paul Brinkley-Rogers

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.

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Filed under True story

** Once We Were Sisters by Sheila Kohles

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.

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** Between Breaths by Elizabeth Vargas

Elizabeth Vargas was a very anxious child, forced to move repeatedly because of her father’s military career, bullied at school, and unnaturally worried about her dad. Since panic attacks are not helpful to TV journalists, she started to self-medicate with alcohol, eventually becoming a full-blown alcoholic. In Between Breaths: A Memoir of Panic and Addiction she recounts her struggles and that of her husband, reminding us that high-functioning alcoholics can hide their problems for a very long time, and that treatment is long, expensive, and rarely successful the first time around.

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Filed under True story

** The Word of the Dead by Thomas Laqueur

 

The Work of the Dead: A Cultural History of Mortal Remains is a scholarly tome on how humanity has treated its dead, focusing mostly on England between the Middle Ages and the 20th century, although it also touches on France and the United States, and occasionally back to Roman antiquity. The author shows how burial customs changed over time and evolved from the churchyard to privately-run cemeteries, always providing abundant, and sometimes over-abundant examples from various archives. He delves into official funerals for important personalities, funeral monuments, the stealing of corpses for dissections, and how armies tried to identify and bury their dead. All that in only 600 pages…

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Filed under Non fiction

*** The Mistletoe Murders by P.D. James

The Mistletoe Murder is the title story of a set of short mystery stories, all featuring a murderer who gets away with a crime, at least for a while. The stories show an abundance of small details and end up with the apparently least likely actor as the culprit, as in Agatha Christie novels. After reading them, I started wondering if the short story could be the ideal medium for mysteries.

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Filed under Mystery