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Hopefully this is my last Hugo-related post before the end of nominations?

So I think there was a winner in the whole Puppies awfulness. The winner was everyone who published something in 2015, because I am reading (mostly library/available-online copies, but in some cases buying) all kinds of things I would never otherwise read in the year it was published, and in some cases never read at all.

Other potential best related work thingies!

Rave and Let Die (amazon link) - Adam Roberts. 3+/5. I really like Roberts' writing. I don't always agree with him; in fact, sometimes I disagree with him vehemently. Take, for example, his assertion in the Prologue (this part of which is available to read free from the link) "Putting yourself forward for an award is inevitably predicated upon the following premise: I think my work should win this award. And that means only one thing: I think my work is the best novel/short story/essay published this year."

Umm... no. That is a false chain of reasoning. It can mean that you think other people might think it's worth winning an award, which of course does not (and Roberts even says this right in the same essay!) necessarily relate to being the best anything. It can mean that you'd like other people to be able to FIND all the stuff you published that year, regardless of whether they, or you, think it's the best. (I am really happy when I find an author page where they have nicely listed the stuff they've published that year.)

Anyway! Later on in the Prologue (part of which is free) he talks about Harry Potter using an extended quotation from G.K. Chesterson who is talking about Sir Walter Scott. You can see why I think this guy is amazing :) He's not for everyone, I think! But I like him a lot. Definitely putting him down for Best Related Work.

Lois McMaster Bujold - amazon link - Edward James. Have not finished. Probably will not finish before the voting deadline. I'm not sure there's a whole lot here I don't already know, but unless I quickly find something three things better (I'm also nominating Letters from Tiptree) I'm gonna put this on my ballot, because quite frankly I'd rather have this than anything the puppies can come up with. (Why yes, I'm more bitter about Related Work 2014 than any other category.)
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(Uh, yeah, surprising no one, this is a bunch of words not solely about the Chernow bio, but a rather a lot of opinions on how Chernow's bio relates to the musical.)

4/5. I FINALLY finished the Chernow biography of Alexander Hamilton, not just so I could write this post on it, but I could easily have taken another month otherwise. It's a very good and readable book, but it's also a very chewy book — it's not dense, I didn't have to read things twice or wait until I was in a super cognitive mood, like I did for Hild, but it's definitely the kind of book where I could read a couple of pages and then either go on or put it down for a couple of days.

Anyway! It was awesome and I totally understand how Miranda put this book down and was like "…surely someone's written a musical about this guy, right? Right???? No? I'm not going to throw away my shot Then I'll do it."

Chernow is clearly a fan of Hamilton, but this doesn't extend to thinking Hamilton can do no wrong. Chernow doesn't make excuses or try to rugsweep when his subject does something incredibly stupid — indeed his frustration is almost palpable. But more of that later on.

It's really really interesting to read after being obsessed with the musical. You know how Alexander Hamilton, in the musical, is this sort of archetypal hero who starts from nothing, gets caught up in all these Events, attains the pinnacle of success, and then falls from it? The historical Alexander Hamilton is all these things turned up to eleven. I mean, Miranda didn't exaggerate. If anything he downplayed Hamilton. If he'd also added that the boat Hamilton took to America literally caught on fire (I laughed out loud at this) and that, far from being a little gawky and awkward as an adolescent as he is in the musical, he was in fact possessed of an extreme poise and confidence, we wouldn't even have believed it, right? He would have come across as a complete Mary Sue, right? …And yet.

Is anyone surprised that this got long? No. )

Anyway! Highly recommended, whether or not you like or have any interest in the musical. If you are a huge fan of the musical-as-history, I would go so far as to say that this is a must-read so that you don't go around telling people that Alexander Hamilton punched the Princeton bursar (he didn't) — although the good folks at have annotated the lyrics so that you can get a pretty good idea for what's history and what's not.
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5/5. tl;dr version: READ THIS BOOK. READ IT.

Long rambly version: I really, really did not want to read this book. It's about about the end of life. It's about death. It's about how we (individually, in partnership with our doctors, and societally) prepare, or should prepare (and often don't), for these things. Ugh. Who wants to read about that?

I trust Gawande, though, so I read it anyway. And it was brilliant and difficult and something I am really, really glad I read. Long rambly version continues. )

This should be required reading for anyone who lives in a modern society and has a loved one who is going to grow old and/or die, or is going to grow old and/or die herself. That is, all of us.

It is February, which once upon a time [ profile] julianyap designated as Put Quotes in Your Blog Month, and though no one remembers this but me, I still think it's great, so have a quote:

Being mortal is about the struggle to cope with the constraints of our biology, with the limits set by genes and cells and flesh and bone. Medical science has given us remarkable power to push against these limits, and the potential value of this power was a central reason I became a doctor. But again and again, I have seen the damage we in medicine do when we fail to acknowledge that such power is finite and always will be. We’ve been wrong about what our job is in medicine. We think our job is to ensure health and survival. But really it is larger than that. It is to enable well-being. And well-being is about the reasons one wishes to be alive. Those reasons matter not just at the end of life, or when debility comes, but all along the way. Whenever serious sickness or injury strikes and your body or mind breaks down, the vital questions are the same: What is your understanding of the situation and its potential outcomes? What are your fears and what are your hopes? What are the trade-offs you are willing to make and not willing to make? And what is the course of action that best serves this understanding?
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Pink and blue.3+/5. I never read genderified books like this. The only reason I even checked this out of the library is because E noticed it on the "new books" shelf, picked it up, and begged me to check it out. I think it is mostly because she liked the colored pencils on the cover. I asked her what she thought was about before writing this, and she looked at me as though I were an idiot and said, "Pink and blue!" I suspect she was hoping that it would provide me with craft activities for her.

Anyway, it actually taught me some things, I think, or at the very least forced me to confront my own prejudices. I'd always sort of assumed that girls were "more verbal" than boys (except for my kid, who talked early but is now the second least verbal kid in both her social groups), and this turns out to not be true for the things they've measured (e.g., vocabulary), except that girls are a little advanced in verbal ability for the first several years of life. And once I thought about it, I realized it is true in my anecdotal sample: although there was a big difference when E was 2 or so, even at age 4.5, I can see that the boys and girls in E's class are fairly close in verbal ability.

And she did a good job in explaining in layman's terms statistical concepts like variance, and overlapping probability distributions, and the idea that just because the two means of a population might differ, you have to look at by how much they differ and how that compares to the variance. So I was reluctantly impressed by her taking the time to do that.

I had the same problem with this book that I do with all pop-sciency books I read, which is that she will cite a study and then act very smug that she has made her case, even though there might be an alternate hypothesis that would explain the data, so what did you do to control for that, or did you do another study to study that… argh. Some of this may be that she's not trying to write that sort of book; she cites Pink Brain, Blue Brain (Eliot) as a book to read for a more academic approach, so perhaps I shouldn't ding her for that.

It also annoyed me that she quoted a study that showed that there was a "0.21" difference between infant boys' and girls' activity level. According to her this is small! I have no idea what units she is in, what the standard deviation is supposed to be… WHAT. Also this difference gets larger over time, which she blithely attributes to cultural programming… but I don't see any studies on this… so I have no idea where she's pulling that out of.

Another irritating part was that the actual "parenting" part was mostly her saying, "Hey, these are some things that I did as I parented my own kids, so you should do them too!" Occasionally she would have studies that kind of really didn't back up the specific things she had recommended.

The most annoying part was when she acted all smug, which she often did. This bit was my second least favorite part:

Stereotypes about gender have affected you, just as much as they affect your kids. Think for a second about yourself. Are you good at math? If you are a woman, I would bet money — if I knew you and could actually collect — that you say either (1) you are not very good at math or (2) you do not like math.

…You just lost your bet. Don't you go down laying gender stereotypes on me, please and thank you! I am willing to believe the average woman reading your book might not like math, but you just wrote a whole book about how the mean does not describe an entire population, what is your problem?

(My least favorite part was the story she told about a friend who refused to believe her nonverbal kid had autism because she clung to the stereotype that boys were less verbal than girls, thus showing that stereotypes can be harmful! JUST. NO. Look, coming to the conclusion that something is wrong with your kid is very difficult, and some people have a really hard time with it, and will cling to anything they can. If it weren't gender stereotyping it would have been something else. I just… had a violent reaction to her using this as support for her point. Granted, she did present it as a fairly minor point. BUT STILL.)

Oh, here's another good one!

A meta-analysis shows that boys remember boy-labeled pictures, words, and toys better than girls do, and girls remember girl-labeled pictures, words, and toys better than boys do... How does this play out in real life?... If your daughter is given an erector set, she will first notice the boys playing with it on the box. It might as well be labeled "Not for you" because that is how she will interpret it. She will automatically be less interested in it... She will never really figure the set out, never fully realize all she can build with it. It simply won't keep her attention long enough. Mechanical skills stay a boy thing, strengthening the stereotype even though you tried to fight it.

So this is another good example of how she takes an idea/study that I think is interesting and which I believe (that humans tend to filter by group association) as well as an action that I actually agree with and think is a good idea (toys shouldn't be labeled by gender association), and wraps it in language that is so smug and irritating that it makes me want to stop reading even though I actually agree with all the points she's making! I want to say, "Hey, my daughter has never in her entire life noticed any kid on a box of any gender... and she doesn't like dolls even though all the girls she knows play with them... so... just stop making assumptions about her!" (All right, fine, it is true that she has become an Anna and Elsa fan for no other reason than that all the girls she knows are singing Frozen songs incessantly. But still.)

In conclusion, this book made me so irritated, but I did learn stuff from it and it had some good points, so... yeah. I don't recommend it exactly, but it might be interesting to flip through it a little if you see it at the library or something and see if it annoys you :)
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Okay. I think Busy Month is over, yay. Of course, now I have to go back and do all the things I was supposed to be doing last month and was putting off, which by this time has stacked up to be, well, a lot of stuff. So, yes, I probably owe you a call or email or comment.

But instead of my actually doing any of that, here, have some nattering about books!

Eleanor and Park (Rowell)
3+/5. This was good. This was very good, and accurate as to what it was like to be an adolescent in love. (It is not at all the book's fault that it's sort of painful for me to think about (my) adolescent relationships, which this book very much reminded me of — not that my adolescent relationships were anything like this one, but the feel is right.) I was so afraid, as the book went on, that it wouldn't stick the landing — but it totally did.

Digger (Vernon)
4/5. This was awesome. It took me a while to get into it. I was in Chapter 3 (which, given that there are a total of 12 chapters, is fairly far into it) before I got utterly hooked. But yeah. [personal profile] nolly made me read these after I said I liked Gunnerkrigg Court, and although there's something about Gunnerkrigg Court that pings my unconditional love button, I do think Digger is better written and more tightly plotted.

(By the way, D read this long before I did, and kept pestering me to read it, which he never does.)

One of the really neat things about it is how most of the main powerful-knowledgeable-plot-important characters are casually female, in the same way that most main characters are casually male. The main character is a (female) wombat who grumbles about engineering a lot. Can I tell you how many main-character female engineers I have ever read about? *thinks* Zero, maybe? And the warrior hyenas. I kept thinking they were male and having to check my assumptions at the door. Very well done.

Interestingly, E has already internalized this: she found the book and kept calling Digger "he." *rolls eyes* So… good thing we have Digger to counteract that. (For some reason she finds the opening pages absolutely hilarious. "It is a digger." "We will eat it." "Yes." "Yes." sends her into paroxysms of delight. It may just be because she can read all those words, and she's not used to Mommy's books having things in it that she can actually read. But I think for some reason she also thinks eating it is some sort of joke.)

Zelda (Milford)
3+/5. Really interesting biography of Zelda Fitzgerald and, of necessity, F. Scott as well. I was always aware that they were in kind of a co-dependent dysfunctional relationship, but this book made it really clear. Also, it was rather hilarious to find out exactly how much of their lives made it into Scott's books. I mean, I knew it already about Tender is the Night, but I didn't know how much… and I confess I laughed when I found out Zelda dated a handsome Ivy-League football star of whom Scott was tremendously jealous. (Hi Gatsby and Tom!)
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5/5. This book is a collection of Strayed's Dear Sugar columns. These are not your run-of-the-mill advice columns. These columns make me cry -- Well, okay, you say skeptically, everything makes you cry, including blatant manipulation! -- it's true. But not only do they make me cry, they occasionally also leave me gasping for breath as not many things do, as though -- do any of you remember, at the end of Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the water that was stronger than wine, like liquid light? Strayed is an atheist; her columns remind me of that line.

(I should include a caveat here: not all her columns are created equal. Some are amazing; some are fascinating; some did nothing for me. But all of them... well, as [personal profile] lightreads said in her insightful review, all of them strive to have that ring of truth, even if they sometimes fall short of that.)

I do not, actually, recommend you buy this book on my recommendation. What I do recommend is for you to go read some Dear Sugar. Once you have done so and realize you need a hardcopy, then go buy the book. Full warning, though: when I was first linked to Dear Sugar, I spent a day reading them instead of working and had to make up the work on the weekend. So consider yourself warned.

Some books

Sep. 26th, 2012 09:08 pm
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...I still do read books sometimes. Really.

The Lion Hunter and The Empty Kingdom (Wein): 3+/5. So obviously these were great books, very readable, and Telemakos is awesome, and AWWWW Telemakos-Athena sibling-partners-in-crime FOREVER is my OTP. Also OH TELEMAKOS, as I figured would happen. ...And what happened at the end? I felt like there was a lot of buildup to... not much at all? Half of it was glaringly obvious from practically the beginning of TEK (what Abreha meant by marking Telemakos), and half of it made no sense and/or was kind of anticlimactic (the whole archipelago subplot, so, it was all for nothing in the end, is that what you're telling me?).

Bad Boy (Myers): 3+/5. The YA author Walter Dean Myers talks about his experience growing up. If you like Myers' other work, you will probably like this too, and if not, probably not. It reads a little disjointedly, with many important parts of his character arc elided or completely absent. However, I'm rounding up instead of down because it did give me a perspective I hadn't had before, and that's worth something to me.

Bathsheba (Smith): 3-/5. Third in a series of the Wives of King David, and the one that was available at my local library. Some of my low rating is personal. For example, I disliked that Abigail died at the beginning of the book, which is obviously personal preference given that my headcanon has taken over my head... but in general I felt that the author shied away from doing anything that would require, oh, engaging with the material and the character interactions. Not recommended, although I understand the author did a lot of research, and you could certainly do worse for what seemed from my quick read like a fairly true-to-the-source-text, if superficial, retelling of what is a cracking good story in the source text.

Daughter of Smoke and Bone (): 3+/5. A recommendation from my sister! The writing style and worldbuilding in this one was pretty awesome. It introduced and then sidestepped some of my major squicks, which, points! (However, there was the Love at First Sight thing, which is not a squick of mine, but is something that does turn me off a bit, and I thought the middle was a little slow because of it.) The ending cliffhanger was great. I can see the sequel either going with cliche or not, although given this book I'm hoping for not. We'll see. I'll pick up the sequel and let y'all know ;)

my week

Aug. 31st, 2012 05:55 pm
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I am starting to suspect I am actually pretty skilled in writing in a way that is -- um. Let's just say, a way by which I mean the application of technical jargon -- as well as language that could potentially be seen as obsfucating, primarily for the use of a substantial number of complex words in lieu of a lesser number of simplistic ones -- to the paradigm of writing in support of making the implicit (as well as explicit) argument that one possesses a fundamental understanding of various theoretical works which are written in a similar manner. This is for the reason that the audience for the writing in question wishes to access the methodologies of said works in situations in which the theories may or may not actually be relevant, if indeed (for in the absence of prescriptive sensibilities or quantitative studies in the works in question, it is not unambiguous) these methodologies at all add substantially to what we might think of as a simple human decision-making process. If you see what I mean.

On the other side... Rereading The Checklist Manifesto recently, I came across this quotation:

"Here are the details of one of the sharpest checklists I've seen, a checklist for engine failure during flight in a single-engine Cessna airplane... It is slimmed down to six key steps... But step one on the list is the most fascinating. It is simply: FLY THE AIRPLANE."
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3/5. Ummm... okay. I was told this was a book about a Gen X woman who had divorced parents, swore she would never get divorced, especially after they had kids, and then got divorced. Well, that was exactly what I got. I mean, it's not badly written, I suppose (though like many other kiss-and-tell Gen-X memoirs I have come across, it is sprinkled heavily with pop science studies to give it the illusion of being more than a kiss-and-tell memoir, and it doesn't work and alienates me more than if they hadn't been there in the first place), but it reads like she wrote it as a therapy session, and publishing it was an afterthought.

She has these awesome theories about marriage, like her theory that because of equal parenting (both partners know what it's like to work, both partners know what it's like to take care of the kids), "we don't have much appreciation for each other's differences and separateness during those early years in our children's life." I, uh. Have found it to be exactly the opposite? Maybe this has something to do with why your marriage imploded? Also marriage is like incest because you're seeking the validation you didn't get from your parents! Um. I see what she's saying about validation, a little, but... um.

Also she has awesome theories about how divorce is to blame for any ills Gen X experienced, such as the housing bubble, misogyny, and helicopter parenting. Because as we all know, especially those of us in Gen X, misogyny didn't exist before Our Totally Cool Generation, Or At Least the Generation that Would Be Totally Cool if Only Our Parents Hadn't Divorced. (Where by "Our," I do not of course mean "my," as I belong to that lucky 50% who had parents who stayed together. Which may have contributed to my sense of alienation from this book, I don't know. Though most of the people I know with divorced parents tend to be a little more... um... personally responsible than Thomas comes across with her theories.)

I'd recommend Necessary Sins far more over this, as Sins is actually about a bit more than a therapy session. I mean... I have something of a weakness for this kind of book, so I did kind of snarf it down, but I also have a weakness for processed cheez dip, you know, and I'm not going around recommending cheez dip to y'all. I found a goodreads review that called it "mind-bogglingly solipsistic," and I have to say that's a good description.
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3-/5. If grad school did nothing else for me, it showed me that just because someone shows a lot of evidence for his side doesn't actually mean that he's right. Even within my fairly small field of the hardest of hard sciences, there were controversies between different professors that it was impossible to know how to resolve unless you had carefully followed all the papers. The rest of us had to rely on knowing the general work of the characters in question; if L., for example, was involved, you could be sure he would be on the correct side because he was always scrupulous and rigorous with his physics, and if both G. and L. said something was so, while Y. said the opposite, you were pretty sure where you stood on the matter even if you had no idea what they were actually talking about.

And if you didn't know enough about the field to know that G. was always right, and that Y. was a bit of a crank? You might have taken Y.'s side, because he was awfully persuasive, and because he had done a lot of math to support his opinion, and the part where he made a poor assumption when he did the math was buried pretty deeply in there and fairly hard to tease out for someone with less than a graduate-school-level understanding. And, why, yes, after having followed the papers closely, and knowing exactly where the (multiple!) errors in Y's logic came in, I might still be just a touch bitter that an outside funding agency decided Y. was right and L. was wrong. Though I would like to stress that they did this not through stupidity or incompetence, but simply by not having a way to properly judge.

All this is to say that I don't generally trust science books. You read your string theory book, and then you go read Peter Woit's blog and he points out that the string theorist in question is engaging in a lot of wishful thinking...

But anyway. So, this book. I so wanted to like this book. I love science/social-science that takes on an established paradigm and breaks it down. Awesome stuff, right? And I was totally intrigued by its claim to take down traditional monogamy paradigms. (Full disclosure: there is no one who has been as thoroughly socialized into monogamy as I have! But I can see that it's not necessarily for everyone, either, and in addition, I can, actually, fairly easily imagine a world in which I'd been sexually-socialized differently, thus making me receptive to the book's message.)

The book purports to take down the "standard narrative" of monogamy, which is to explain monogamy as an uneasy compromise between female maximization of having a guy around to take care of kids, and male maximization of spreading his sperm around. Ryan and Jetha (henceforth RJ) say that this is totally bogus, that monogamy is not the human condition; that investigation of related species (bonobos), primitive foraging societies, and various physical considerations make it clear that humans were prehistorically, and are still wired to be, "fiercely egalitarian" and small-group-sharing both sexually and otherwise; and that it was the relatively recent rise of agriculture that brought monogamy with it. And this is why people have affairs so often.

So. This is a highly readable, interesting, and entertaining book. It also gave me a complete headache every time I picked it up, mostly from banging my head against the wall because the authors are needlessly inflammatory, sometimes they don't make sense, and worst of all, they have in general extremely poor logical thinking skills, to the extent that a great many of their arguments are seen to be completely stupid if you just think about it for a little bit. I am not exaggerating, every two-three pages or so I would howl in frustration because they would say something illogical or inconsistent, it was that bad.

And I still came away from it saying, "Well. Three quarters of what they said I can demolish as a logical argument. And yet they've found so much evidence that even a quarter of what they think they have seems pretty convincing." In particular, I thought that there was enough bonobo and foraging-society evidence that they were onto something.

It's probably already too late to cut for length, but here goes: in which I find a critical review of this book that demolishes pretty much all of RJ's remaining arguments, critique the critical review, tell you about my total distrust and disdain for both RJ and their reviewer, claim to prove that vaccines cause autism using the same techniques Ryan and Jetha do, do my own research using primary sources to myself falsify many of the claims RJ have made to my own satisfaction, claim that I would want my husband to have hot sex with my sister, am bored with penis size, and use a lot of italics. )

Anyway. In summary: I do not dare recommend this book, because of the possibility that you will read it and think that RJ have a very strong case (I myself certainly thought they had a fairly strong case before reading the rebuttal and doing some research on my own, and I'm more cynical than most), when in my opinion they don't at all. At best I would say that there are some interesting ideas in this book that some extremely limited data suggest could be true. (Again, take my opinion for what it's worth as a layperson in this field, though one who does have a fair amount of scientific experience.) However, it does have interesting ideas, and it got me interested in the whole subject, and it did point out to me the lack of rigor in the field as a whole, so it's getting rounded up to a 3-. And there's a chapter on arousal that is a little random but that seems, almost by accident, to say some things that struck me as accurate. Anyway, if you do read it, at least be sure to check out the rebuttal to see some of the problems with it.

...I think I might swear off pop-science books totally. They just make me cranky.
cahn: (Default)
4/5. I thought this was a very good book, and I had an extremely hard time with it. I read the first several chapters, set it down, and it languished around the house for eight weeks. The library, you see, will let one renew books for nine weeks as long as there's no one else who wants it, and on week nine I finally sat down and dug into it.

The thing is, T. H. White is exactly the sort of person you would expect from reading The Once and Future King. He's kind of every character in that book rolled up in one: you can see that he must have been ferociously intelligent, quirky, compassionate, and unhappy, because that's what the characters in TOFK are like. And that really comes through in this biography. And at the same time, I almost didn't want to know the details of how he was that way. I'm glad I read it, now, but there were definitely times going through when I wasn't sure if I would be glad I'd read it, even though I was sure all the way going through that it was a very good book. If that makes any sense.

Anyway, go read [personal profile] skygiants's review, which convinced me to read this, because she says it all a lot better than I do, and she talks about White's grand passionate love affair with his dog. (No, really, the one great love in his life was his dog Brownie. Go read it.)
cahn: (Default)
4/5. I must confess that I read this book for the wrong reasons. It's a memoir of a woman, a journalist, who had an affair with another (married) journalist, who eventually divorced his wife and married her. Some years later, he died of cancer. That's the book I thought I was reading.

The book I actually read had that basic plot, but it was about love and building a family (and breaking one, too), and most of all, life. And it had that quality of truth, of both telling the truth and discerning the truth, that makes me fall in love with a book.

Here is one example, something that just hit me as yes. Yes, this is the way things are:
The next day he slept late, and I left the house early, determined to find fresh sorrel leaves. I had recently bought a cookbook, my first, and in it I had come across a beautiful photograph of cream of sorrel soup, green and elegant in a gilt-edged cream-colored bowl. I had never even heard of sorrel. I can't explain it now -- I couldn't explain it then -- but I had this idea that if I could just make the perfect bowl of cream of sorrel soup, then I would be the kind of person who could fit into this new life, I would be competent and know the things it was important for adults to know.

This book is somewhat excruciating to read. I mean, refer to the first paragraph to see why. But it is extremely lovely.
cahn: (Default)
3+/5 - So a couple of years ago I attempted to read Eat, Pray, Love, and got through maybe a chapter, or less, of whining by some entitled privileged shallow brat who thought it would be a great idea to run away from all her responsibilities and seek happiness by sexing up random guys. Um, no.

This book is about an entitled privileged shallow woman who knows it and appreciates it, and wow what a difference that makes. Rubin may be entitled and shallow, but she's not a brat. She seeks happiness by, basically, finding it in her responsibilities and not whining and appreciating her life. Yay! Being an entitled privileged shallow person myself, I found her book quite useful in a practical sense (e.g., the parts on getting rid of clutter boosting her happiness... that is so me). And I quite liked her Splendid Truths, none of which are earth-shattering but all of which are useful to think about (at least to me -- e.g., the first one is, "To be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth," which isn't rocket science but isn't completely trivial either).

The only thing that really annoyed me about this book was the number of times she says "Studies show..." and then does not cite anything. gah. Are you quoting an actual study, are you quoting Malcolm Gladwell thinking he knows something, what? In general, the whole "Now I must go and do a superficial level of research and look how cool I am, I actually read books on it!!" vibe got on my nerves a bit (otherwise I might have liked it more), but mostly (especially when she talked about her own experiences with keeping resolutions) I felt she had things to say that it was worth it for me to hear.

So. Um. If you're not entitled and shallow like me, I don't think I quite dare recommend it, but if you are, you may like it and/or find it useful!
cahn: (Default)
I had finally come to see that Coco was an animal, with intrinsically far less potential than Sophia and Lulu. Although it is true that some dogs are on bomb squads or drug-sniffing teams, it is perfectly fine for most dogs not to have a profession or even any special skills.

Naturally, both girls felt the book shortchanged them. "You should definitely dedicate this book to Lulu," Sophia once said magnaminously. "She's obviously the heroine. I'm the boring one readers will cheer against. She's the one with verve and panache." And from Lulu: "Maybe you should call your book The Perfect Child and the Flesh-Eating Devil. Or Why Oldest Children Are Better. That's what it's about, right?"

Okay, so if you have kids or are Asian, and don't live under a rock -- probably even if only one of those applies -- you have heard of this book. So there was the WSJ excerpt declaring the superiority of "Chinese moms," the huge backlash, and the backpedaling by Chua pointing out that in fact her book wasn't like that, and somewhere in the middle of this my sister bought it, and so of course I read it too.

And Chua's right, it's nothing like the WSJ excerpt. It's... actually... really good, painfully aware of her shortcomings and inconsistencies as a mother, and howlingly funny, although judging from some of the reviews I've read, perhaps sometimes the humor can only be appreciated if you yourself have had a "Chinese mom." (She defines a "Chinese mom" as the highly controlling, highly demanding behavior that tends to characterize Asian-American parenting, and does not of course restrict it to Chinese moms alone; similarly, she talks about "Western parenting" as the opposite lenient choice-based model.)

The funniest part was when she tried to apply Chinese parenting to their dog. The first quotation above is pitch-perfect "Chinese-mom" resignation; my (Korean) mom has probably said almost exactly the same thing about both the Kid and me. The ending, where she is talking to her daughters and ends up in a rant against Western moms ending with calling the Founding Fathers Chinese, while her daughters point out she's being overwrought and rather silly, is priceless.

Also, my sister and I agreed that a) Amy Chua sounds exactly like our mom in personality and temperament, and probably our mom would have been exactly like that had she been born in the US and married to a Jewish guy and a law professor at Yale instead of a stay-at-home mom in NC, b) as it was Amy Chua was actually crazier than our mom -- at least we got vacations from practicing when we went on short vacations, and c) Sophia and Lulu reminded us a lot of us; we would totally have had similar comments as the above had our mom written a book about our childhoods.

One thing Chua mentions sometimes briefly but doesn't really dwell on, but which I think is key (and which assumption runs throughout her book -- she says to Lulu, at the climax, "We're giving up the violin," not "You can give up the violin"), is that success is really a joint family effort in the "Chinese-parenting" household in a way it's not in the "Western-parenting" household. My family is extremely close in a way that D finds a little unnerving, and any success we have is a team effort. I'm serious. I was editing the English in my dad's work reports when my English skills got better than his up until he retired, and I was expected to have a turnaround in hours unless I had something else more important going on. Similarly, when I need something from my parents I expect them to put it at the top of their priority list and deal with it Right Now. My mom even volunteered to look after E. for the first year of her life (we didn't take her up on it, but wow). Along the same lines, when my sister and I applied to college our essays were subjected to intense scrutiny and editing by the other three of us, not to mention my dad dragged his half-brother into reading them as well. No, no one wrote them for us, but yes, there was heavy revision going on. Because if I get into a good college that glory reflects on the whole family, and the whole family is invested in me. Et cetera.

I believe that this plays in with the concept of control. The problem is that there's a huge power disparity between parents and kids, so "I am invested in your success," which I think is a very positive thing, can too easily become "Let me control you so as to maximize your success, because I know better because I'm the parent" which is... I think, not as good, even if the parent does know best. Chua tries to have total control over her kids and it backfires spectacularly with Lulu. My mom had a somewhat similar thing with both of us.

What's the takeaway message? Chua and I are both conflicted on this. On one hand I feel it's important for kids to do things they don't necessarily want to do, like practice. Also, I will have high standards for E. and any other kids we might have -- I don't think they should get a report card grade of B until at least high school (and probably then too), absent a clear reason, and will view it as a family failure (see above on joint family effort :) ) should it happen. On the other hand, I also think it's important for kids to have autonomy and be able to make their own choices. I don't know where the line ought to be drawn. D's family all turned out amazingly well and rather better emotionally equipped than the Kid and I, so that may be a good place to start -- on the other hand, I have this musical skill that I feel has enriched my life dramatically, and D and his siblings don't have it, so there's that.

This book actually makes me want to go find my mom and dad and sister and give them big hugs, because it reminded me so much of my extremely- (sometimes the Kid and I say too!-) close relationship with them.
cahn: (Default)
Because [ profile] julianyap wanted to know! Unfortunately it's hard for me to categorize things based on when they were published rather than when I read them, so... here we are. Books actually published in 2000-2010 are indicated by asterisks.

Cut for length )Well. I'm sure I'm leaving stuff out, but this is a beginning, anyway. Are there books published in the last ten years that didn't make it on this list and a) you know I've read it and are interested in discussing why it's not on, or b) you think I should read, because if I had read it, it would be on this list, or c) why is this sentence so atrociously convoluted?
cahn: (Default)
Music: I heard Giuliano Carmignola playing the one of the Mozart violin concertos on the radio and was totally wowed -- it completely changed the way I thought about the Mozart violin concertos.

TV: Deep Space Nine. Oh, yeah, it's got the shiny happy Star Trek thing going, but it surprisingly... doesn't suck. Abigail Nussbaum talks about how it is actually kind of made of awesome, especially compared to other ST's and BSG.

Movie: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (Part I). I seriously loved this movie. A lot. (Even if I hadn't, well, it was the only movie I watched this year.)

Book (fiction): I read a lot of fiction books this year, both good and bad. Nothing that made my Favorite Books of All Time list, but some good ones I liked quite a bit. Ones that stick out: Demon's Covenant (Brennan) for solid YA; The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Diaz) for edgy meaningful SF; This House of Brede (Godden) for thoughtful comfort read (except for one bit which is extraordinarily not comforting) -- this is the book this year I'm most likely to actually buy to own.

Also, The Merlin Conspiracy (Diana Wynne Jones) wins a Special Prize for Being Exactly What I Needed to Read When Suffering from Labor and from Post-Partum Lack-of-Sleep Delirium. I should probably reread it to see if it holds up as being as good as I remember, given that I was, um, not in my normal frame of mind when I read it.

Book (series): Daniel Abraham's Long Price quartet. I haven't liked an adult epic fantasy so well since... well, for quite a while.

Book (nonfiction): Checklist Manifesto (Gawande). Catapulted onto my "everyone needs to read this RIGHT NOW!" list.

Reread: Folk of the Fringe (Card) and The Dispossessed (LeGuin). Both were in my memory as okay, but on reread blew me away with how good they were.
cahn: (Default)
My sister wins. (Actually, she generally wins at life, but that's another story.)

The Checklist Manifesto is one of those books that I have not much to say about, because it is awesome. It is further a book that I think everyone ought to read, especially everyone who has any interest in health care OR complex tasks. Gawande writes very well and he totally won my love by running an experiment and then talking about possible alternate hypotheses that could explain the experimental results. Take that, Gladwell! Oh, it's not rigorous double-blind blah blah, but still! I take what I can get. It is also interesting to translate his central concept into e.g. my job, and how the chief programmer has been dunning "Test jigs! Test jigs!" into all of our heads for several years now -- it really is true, as he says, that all complex jobs use checklists; it changed the way I think about complex jobs by providing a unifying structure for them (I'd never thought to compare Chief Programmer's test-driven-development mantra to erecting a large building, but... Gawande kind of did).

This book did reinforce my distinct impression that medicine is stuck somewhere in the last century, technology-wise. I also feel this way every time I talk to the Kid. This is an actual conversation D and I had with her about her clinical research:

Kid: I like doing the data analysis, I just hate doing data entry.
Me: You know, we could write you a script to make that a lot easier.
D: Yeah, what kind of format is the data in?
Kid: Umm... No, you don't understand...
D and I (nodding sagely): Oh, a propietary format. Well, maybe we could figure out how to export the data you're interested in to a text file and...
Kid: No, I really think you don't understand. The hospital provides us with a printout, and I have to copy the data from that.
D and I: ...????????

...Yeah. Medicine seems to have a lot of fancy machines and robots these days, but they seem not to have grasped the essential lesson of the last two decades being information access.
cahn: (Default)
I find Gladwell entertaining but frustrating and irritating, and his books seem to be getting worse. This one told me a lot of things I already knew and followed them up by drawing erroneous conclusions.

Okay, one thing I didn't actually know was that the way league hockey players are chosen in Canada, by having a cutoff date of Jan 1 and picking promising players when they are relatively young, privileges those who are born right after Jan 1 (since for small kids, a differential of months in growth and strength is pretty large). So that was interesting. However, Gladwell then goes on to say that if Canada only had two hockey leagues, one of which had a different cutoff date, say, July 1, it would have twice as many hockey stars! Uh... well, that's true, but so would it if it had two hockey leagues both of which had the same cutoff date, or if it had two hockey leagues where the players were chosen by, I don't know, hair color. The point is, having that artificial cutoff date makes it unfair for wanna-be hockey players born later in the year, and means the hockey league isn't utilizing the inborn Canadian hockey talent in the best way, but the number of hockey stars is a constraint artificially imposed by the size of the league.

The whole book's like that: sloppy. We learn to our vast surprise that you have to practice to be good at things, who knew? And that kids with parents who nurture their kids' skills turn out to be better at those skills in general than those who aren't that lucky! Bill Gates was not only smart, he was also lucky! (And yet another inconsistency: Gladwell asserts that everyone in Gates' computer club had the same opportunities Gates did, yet at the end of the book he bemons that Gates was the only one who had these opportunities. Uh, which one is it?)

And then there's the summer vacation thing. Gladwell has this argument that Asians are better at school than US students because they don't have summer vacation, and they don't have summer vacation for deep-seated cultural reasons: because working in a rice paddy means you work all year, unlike wheat farming where you have large down periods, which gave rise to the idea that students should also have large down periods. Uh, what? Maybe it's because Gladwell isn't a girl, but anyone who's read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books knows that winter wasn't exactly people sitting around twiddling their thumbs. And kids worked all year round. When they weren't in school they were working in other ways. (Laura, when not in school, got jobs sewing and so on.) His thesis just Makes No Sense At All.

And yet I will probably keep reading his books. They're the book equivalent of Cheez Balls. Not particularly good for you, probably not real cheese either... but addictive.
cahn: (Default)
Music: Iphigenie en Tauride (Gluck; Gardiner recording). For some reason this opera stole my heart, even though my French really isn't good enough to understand what they're saying, and I don't really like any other Gluck as much. I think a large part is the Gardiner recording being just so... orchestral; the orchestra is practically another character in the opera.

Movie: The Ring Cycle (Bayreuth). Up. Up was the best movie I'd seen in a movie theater since... since the Incredibles. The Ring Cycle was one of Those Things where I don't expect anyone else to like it necessarily, but... wow. Wow. Blew me away.

Book (fiction): Interpreter of Maladies (Jhumpa Lahiri). Yeah. Lahiri is just Really Good.

Book (nonfiction): I, Asimov / Prime Obsession (Derbyshire) - a tie! Asimov wins for extremely amusing and readable memoir, while Derbyshire wins for interesting math.

Reread: The Severed Wasp (L'Engle) - Really, I think this is L'Engle's best non-Murry book.

I am really surprised that there is no SF/F on this list (I don't count Severed Wasp, even though it arguably takes place in a near-future NY).
cahn: (Default)
Still finishing up books from 2009...

I was complaining to D several weeks ago that the last time I read a math book for fun was probably back in high school. D listened, thought a bit, and said, "You know, you should try Prime Obsession."

Yup, he was absolutely right. This book is made of complete awesome, and I was totally addicted to it, reading it when I should have been unpacking (or sometimes trying to do both at once) and finishing it in under a week (which is kind of unheard of for me and nonfiction books). It is about the Riemann hypothesis, and told in two strands: the mathematical and the personal. Derbyshire breaks down all the math as simply as possible -- if I hadn't seen it done, I would've thought it was impossible to explain the Riemann hypothesis ("All nontrivial zeros of the Riemann zeta function have real part 1/2.") requiring no more math than, really, elementary algebra (he explains everything else, including the concept of series, complex numbers, logs, analytic continuation...) -- though if that's all the math background you have, it will be significantly harder slogging than if you have a bit more (I would recommend knowing the general concepts of complex numbers, logs, infinite series, and having a nodding familiarity with at least the concepts of calculus). Along the way you'd be introduced to lots of fascinating math tidbits, like the divergence of the harmonic series (Derbyshire makes it sound a lot more interesting than I just did) and chaos.

My personal background is such that I know up to calculus/linear algebra really well (I skimmed most of the early mathematics chapters in this book), and have, or used to have, a nodding familiarity with complex analysis. I had been taught the Riemann hypothesis (in the words I use above) in my complex analysis class, but had no idea why it was so very interesting. There's a point where Derbyshire introduces what he calls the "Golden Key," at which point my mouth hung open and I said to D, "Holy crap! ...I clearly knew NOTHING about the Riemann hypothesis! ...Wow!" Even so, I found a couple of the chapters near the end fairly dense (and so did D, who I suspect knows quite a bit more complex analysis than I do). So, um, yeah, I really recommend it if you know some math, though the early math chapters will be pretty trivial for you. It does make me want to find a book at a slightly more advanced level, though.

But you can even read it without any mathematical knowledge or background whatsoever, and it's still an awesome book. Derbyshire has decoupled, to a certain extent, the math and people/context chapters (even and odd respectively), so you can fairly easily skip any of the math you don't want to look at and just read the interesting stories about the personalities involved. I find his style extremely entertaining; even the endnotes are fun (there's one where he explains multiplying negative numbers against themselves that ends with a funny and rather adorable punchline from his small son). And mathematicians are an amusing lot; some of the stories he cites are mathematical classics that I'd heard before (e.g., the mathematician G. Hardy used to mail postcards before travel saying he'd solved the Riemann hypothesis, because he knew God would never let him die with such glory!) and some were new, but all were amusing!

Really, really highly recommended, especially for math nerds (though presumably not if you already know tons about the Riemann hypothesis).


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