Alcoholics have always been with us, but the author of Drunks: An American History reminds us that early America saw alcoholism as a moral failure, while we tend to classify it as a disease, one that’s similar to diabetes or hypertension both in its origin and its resistance to treatment. Along the way, we meet Native Americans early abstainers, physicians with doubtful and lucrative cures, prohibitionists, and of course AA. I found the history fascinating.
Monthly Archives: November 2017
A homicidal migrant. A spoiled adult daughter who can’t quite figure out that she is not owed anything by her parents. A rich couple who seems very bored and very angry with each other. An underpaid maid who will gladly be bribed, no questions asked. Would you like to meet any of those hollow characters? Then pick up Beautiful Animals.
Written by an academic, The Influential Mind: What the Brain Reveals About Our Power to Change Others explores sometimes counter-intuitive studies that show that our peculiar, not-so-rational minds can be influenced by the right stories or by the emotions of others (rather than rational statistics), while we knowingly ignore information that does not conform to our preconceived ideas, We also prefer being in control (even when letting someone else make decisions for us would be preferable), and we want to get information early but if it’s likely to be bad, we withdraw instead.
I would have wished to see a bit more connective tissue between the various chapters, and connecting the results to practical actions, but it’s an enjoyable read.
The Ninth Hour tells the life of a woman born in Brooklyn in the early 20th Century after her father committed suicide and her mother came to work at a convent, on charity and under the protection of a formidable nun.
I found that the story sometimes veered towards awkwardly anachronistic feminism, and sometimes the other way, extolling the never-failing sanctity of the nuns, but the ending is certainly unexpected (a murder!) and it’s useful to remember how nuns served as social workers and nurses at a time when other help just was not available.
Following Do No Harm, Admissions: Life as a Brain Surgeon revisits some of the same materials, but, written from the perspective of recent retirement, explores more sweeping themes, some reprising the familiar rants against poor hospital administration and others new, such as his view on training new surgeons. The author continues to display deep emotion for this work and his patient, which is very heartwarming — and at the same time he is not afraid to share episodes of his wicked temper.
The narrative meanders occasionally, too much to my taste but it’s much better than any gripping hospital drama.
I still love the Grafton series, and I still love Kinsey Millhone stories, and about half of Y is for Yesterday is written from her perspective. The other half is the story of a group of spoiled, idle, and cruel teenagers who will eventually commit murder, the consequences of which she is asked to investigate. And it’s a big ask fo readers to have to wade through extensive dialog between said spoiled, idle, and cruel teenagers — and the sophistication is not much increased when they age by 10 years, either.
So a wonderfully complex intrigue (plus the resolution of the intrigue described in X), the usual blunt style of Ms. Millhone, but too many pages of silly teenage drama.
This Is Your Brain on Parasites: How Tiny Creatures Manipulate Our Behavior and Shape Society is not for the faint of heart, as the author muses about hens preferring to eat parasite-infected crickets (because they are slower), the dengue fever virus that enhances its mosquito carrier’s ability to detect the scent of humans, or rat parasites that cause male rats to somehow be more successful with the ladies… After reading of those adventures, you may want to wash your hands more often and avoid anything that looks unsafe, including fellow humans — and indeed animals and humans have developed all kinds of techniques to fight against parasites. The scariest and darkest part of the book is that perhaps these very techniques suggest that it’s the parasites who control us, rather than the other way round. Fascinating.
Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology is presented as a memoir but is organized as a series of essays, roughly chronological to be sure but more essays than biography. The author is a woman who started in the technology field in the early 80s, so a pioneer. My favorite parts of the book are the ones where she talks about how her work, whether it’s the byzantine hierarchy between assembly coders and application coders, the frenzy around Y2k, or the quest to find and fix a bug that eluded other programmers for years (really! and she makes it as fun as a treasure hunt, which it is).
The essays when she reflects about the consequences of technological advances are less successful, in my mind. Sure, gentrification happened in her neighborhood (she has a wonderful story of a little city park morphing from skid row to white tablecloths, and back, during the 2000 bubble, which illustrates the hubris of the time perfectly) but that does not mean that technology is bad — or good, for that matter.
Still, I would recommend this book to anyone working in the tech world today, for a historical perspective and also a strong description of what it’s like as a woman to work in a man-dominated world.
I was disappointed by Sweet Spot: An Ice Cream Binge Across America. I expected a historical summary of ice cream in America, perhaps a primer on manufacturing, and plenty of stories about regional specialties — and I did get some bits and pieces here and there, but in a chaotic format. The book starts well, with the confession that the author keeps emergency pints in her freezer in case she needs comfort after an earthquake (she’s a Californian), or more likely a stressful field trip with her kindergartener. But then starts the complaint that repeats throughout the book, that most ice cream shops buy their base. Horror! (Why? Isn’t the ice cream delicious anyway?) Some chapters are tiresome, such as the long descriptions of turf wars between New York ice cream trucks. And the author chooses to use the overdone motif of adding a recipe at the end of each chapter, only to tire of it midway through and stop abruptly.
There are delectable nuggets, most notably that ice cream, properly stored, has no expiration date (a rather useless feature, since ice cream lovers won’t wait too long to finish the tub!) and also a tempting description of Milwaukee’s custard creams. Not enough to my taste. Now where’s that Chunky Monkey?
Eli Finkel is married, mostly happily it seems, he is a psychology professor, and he also appears to be a big nerd. His book, The All-or-Nothing Marriage: How the Best Marriages Work, rests on the interesting premise that modern mores may load too much on marriage, namely that expecting our spouses to be companions, lovers, best friends, co-parents, and also boosters of our self-growth may simply be unrealistic. I’m tempted to agree.
That said the book starts by quoting Eat, Pray, Love (yikes), uses charts that any academic should be ashamed of (with more non-zero scales than Tufte himself can shake a stick at), relates experiments that are so specific that I doubt they show anything significant about anyone’s marriage, dips all too frequently into self-help silliness (although he makes some interesting reframing suggestions to avoid reflexive blaming), and relies heavily on the Maslow pyramid of nonsense (double yikes!)
But that one idea, yes, is quite useful!