Wednesday, September 11, 2019
Jared Diamond, GUNS, GERMS, AND STEEL: THE FATES OF HUMAN SOCIETIES
Holy crow, what a book! And I had never heard of it until my son brought it home from school. How did I miss this Pulitzer winner? I think it was because the book won the same year I was immersed in studying for my PhD exams. There's my excuse. But I would say it doesn't matter that it was written 20 years ago. It holds up.
This book has a very ambitious scope and yet is still accessible, with anecdotes and examples and even bits of humor to keep the theory and the long history (he begins 13,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age ended) from turning dry. Diamond begins with a question posed to him by his friend Yali: "Why is it that you white people developed so much cargo and brought it to New Guinea but we black people had little cargo of our own?" More broadly, the question is why did some countries conquer others, develop more technology, expand their empires, acquire wealth, and so on, when others did not?
This book explores a range of what he calls "proximate causes," but the most significant "ultimate causes" are the geography and the ecology of different areas. One reason is that some environments allowed for a shift from hunter/gatherer to food production. Among other things, this enables people to stay put, which facilitates interactions such as collaboration and the formation of tribes as well as immunity to certain diseases (most of which come from animals, apparently); and food production, which allows for stock-piling, permits some people the option of not acquiring food, so they can devote their time to other pursuits--for example, trades, art, language, politics, religion--and the technology such as the guns and steel in the book's title. A key insight: because Europe is on a east/west axis (it's longest axis runs from Portugal to China, say) the climate is common across a long stretch, which facilitated the transfer of plants and languages and early technology. By contrast, North America and South America have an axis that runs north/south. The corn grown in, say, Nebraska might do well if transplanted down to a similar climate in South America, but how is corn to cross the arid desert and skinny little Panama in between?
Another distinction I liked was the one Diamond makes between two different types of information transfer, for disseminating ideas, skills, or technologies. One means is called blueprinting. I hand you a camera, and you use it as a model to make your own camera. The other is idea diffusion, in which you have seen me use the camera, so you know it's "out there" and ready to be created, and you go home and make one for yourself.
All in all, a dense but great read. Some of the chapters toward the end got a bit repetitive for me--but that's perhaps natural with a book that is covering all the continents and different cultures, all of which in various ways are following the lines of his general argument.
One of the most interesting suggestions is in the Afterword, when he explains that his discoveries about the different forms of organization of human groups have implications for business and our world today. (Bill Gates has applied some of these principles to his workplace, for example.)
An intriguing read, I would definitely recommend this to anyone who wants to understand the evolution of modern humankind.
Posted by Karen at 11:44 AM No comments:
Tuesday, September 10, 2019
Keith O'Brien, FLY GIRLS: HOW FIVE DARING WOMEN DEFIED ALL ODDS AND MADE AVIATION HISTORY
This true history reads almost like a novel, and O'Brien has a fine eye for the details that bring these individual women alive on the page. Maybe that's why this book broke my heart a bit. (A spoiler here: we all know that Amelia Earhart dies. All but one of the other four women die in ways that are either similarly violent or quieter tragedies.) The four other women he follows are Florence Klingensmith, Ruth Elder, Ruth Nichols, and Louise Thaden. Although they hail from different parts of the US and disparate economic situations, each woman faces the challenge of trying to be taken seriously as a pilot in an age when men were making statements like "If women spent more time making homes pleasant and less time trying to get men's jobs there would be less domestic trouble ... The world would be happier" and "Our experience has disclosed the fact that most women have insufficient mechanical ability and little desire to observe and learn." Arg.
Unsentimentally engaging and well researched, this book is for readers of Hidden Figures and anyone who wants to learn more about the 1930s and recovered women's histories. One of my favorite lines is the one O'Brien puts on the frontispiece, from Louise Thaden: "If you will tell me why, or how, people fall in love, I will tell you why, or how, I happened to take up aviation."
Posted by Karen at 2:27 PM No comments:
Thursday, August 15, 2019
Madeline Miller, THE SONG OF ACHILLES
A few favorite lines that I read aloud just for the pleasure of hearing them in my ear. (And I know this doesn't do them justice; part of why they strike me is how they appear in relation to their context. But still, I want to share!)
I was listening to the drumbeat of my own impatient heart. "Hurry, I remember saying."
The gray sand, the gray sky, and my mouth, parched and bare.
I sank into the trailing thoughts of dreams.
Cleopatra, Patroclus. Her name built from the same pieces as mine, only reversed.
No spoilers but my heart broke a bit at the end. Would definitely recommend!
Posted by Karen at 10:45 AM No comments:
Thursday, August 8, 2019
Fiona Davis, THE MASTERPIECE
Posted by Karen at 9:43 PM No comments:
Tuesday, August 6, 2019
Anthony Horowitz, MAGPIE MURDERS, A NOVEL
"Haven't the public had enough of murder?" I asked.
"You're joking," [Redmond, a TV producer replied]. "Inspector Morse, Taggart, Lewis, Foyle's War, Endeavour, ... Broadchurch ... --British TV would disappear into a dot on the screen without murder. They're even bumping people off in the soap operas."
Posted by Karen at 9:56 AM No comments:
Friday, June 14, 2019
Andrew Gross, BUTTON MAN
Posted by Karen at 11:39 AM No comments:
Thursday, May 30, 2019
Claire Fuller, BITTER ORANGE
First off: this is NOT a tear-through-it page-turner. For one, the writing is too darn good. I found myself rereading phrases and passages because they were so evocative or so perfectly tuned to capture a character's internal state. For another, the "action" is minimal. The narrator, an elderly Frances, is immobile in bed, and she describes both her painful present and a slice of remembered past--what seemed to have the makings of an idyllic summer in the 1960s. Invited to make a study of architectural curiosities on a tumbledown English manor estate, Frances takes up residence at Lytton, which is also home to a (ostensibly married) couple who seem to be in love but clearly have a past imbued with pain. (I found myself thinking of *Sophie's Choice*.) For the first time in her nearly-40-year-old life, Frances is not merely an observer. Together, Peter, Cara and Frances share picnics and dinners and explore the manor house. But from early on, the reader senses that the three of them are going to destroy what they have. The tragedy is not writ large or explosively. But it is deeply, painfully heartbreaking, and I wasn't surprised to see other reviewers mentioning DuMaurier's *Rebecca*.
Posted by Karen at 12:24 PM No comments:
Monday, April 29, 2019
Madeline Miller, CIRCE
In THE ODYSSEY, Circe appears as a secondary character, present in 2-1/2 books out of 12. There, she is a sorceress who lives on an island alone and turns Odysseus's sailors into pigs as punishment when they behave badly, gobbling her food and eying her lasciviously. After convincing her to release the pigs from their spell, Odysseus remains with Circe for a while on his ten-year journey home; while she was memorable (to me, at least) she is merely one of many characters he meets along the way.
In Miller's book, Odysseus is relegated to a secondary character. This is similar in project to WIDE SARGASSO SEA, a postcolonial novel that flipped JANE EYRE sideways, putting the alleged madwoman in the attic Bertha Mason's character at the center instead of the periphery; also Peter Carey's novel JACK MAGGS, which did something similar for Magwitch from GREAT EXPECTATIONS. In telling a secondary character's story, these novels render them as more sympathetic than in the original; often there is a not-so-subtle nudge to us to consider where our sympathies should lie and how perspective and narration shape what we think we know. (Neither of those books is overly didactic, I don't meant that. But they do nudge and provoke thought, in a productive way.) Similarly, CIRCE flips a primary narrative sideways--and Miller crafts a narrative that is evocative and innovative and a wonderful read. This novel is at once a coming-of-age story and a love story ... and I haven't met anyone yet who hasn't enjoyed it. Highly recommend.
Posted by Karen at 11:53 AM No comments:
Sunday, March 24, 2019
Joshilyn Jackson, A GROWN-UP KIND OF PRETTY
I loved this novel. It's beautifully written, atmospheric, and full of heart without being predictable or sentimental. It is also unusual because it's focalized through three different characters--two in first-person and one in third-person, a feat that I think is hard to pull off convincingly. Here, it works. Set in the South in present-day, it concerns three women--Ginny age 45, Liza age 30, and Mosey age 15. When a willow tree is dug up to build a pool for physical therapy to help the Liza recover from what looks like a stroke, a box is discovered that, when opened, reveals a tragedy that's been kept hidden for fifteen years. The novel doesn't slot neatly into one or two genres: it's a mystery, a love story, a coming-of-age story ... and it's the story of three women at once, all fumbling and loving and longing. Yet there's a wry humor to certain passages that keeps it from becoming over-wrought. The author has several other books (and one forthcoming in July, NEVER HAVE I EVER) and I'm not sure how the heck it took me this long to find her. Reminds me a bit of early Kingsolver and Laurie Colwin. Would recommend.
Posted by Karen at 10:02 PM No comments:
Thursday, February 28, 2019
Michael P Nichols, THE LOST ART OF LISTENING: HOW LEARNING TO LISTEN CAN IMPROVE RELATIONSHIPS
"It isn't that we're bad listeners; it's our hidden emotional agendas that crowd out understanding and concern. When we clear away automatic emotional reactions--criticism, fear, hurt--we get to compassion, curiosity, and tenderness."
"One reason people doubt that we understand how they feel is that we fail to let them know we heard them. Silence is ambiguous. ... The point isn't to convey that you understand but to convey that you're trying to."
The author provides plenty of anecdotes from his practice and his own family life for illustration, and often provides bits of humor, which acknowledges that we're all trying and flawed. I've already implemented one change. When my daughter called to tell me about a situation she's dealing with at college, I know not to jump in and offer a quick fix; but this time, instead of trying to sense what she wanted from me, I asked outright and openly: "Are you sharing this to let me know what's going on (which I appreciate) or would you like a suggestion?"
Some of the book retraces principles we find in the more "pop" psychology books, about inquiring first rather than jumping to making judgments, but even that is pretty well theorized without getting laden with PhD jargon.
My one gripe with this book, and it has to do with the assumptions underpinning its project, is that Nichols begins: "Nothing hurts more than the sense that the people we care about aren't really listening. We never outgrow the need to have our feelings known." That is absolutely true, so far as it goes. But I think he doesn't quite acknowledge that we also need to have other people's stories told to us. We grow with those, and they are a gift that I (at least) crave. Otherwise, why would we read books, for example? This question is sort of outside the realm of the book; I just felt he might have acknowledged that need. I do think that in this hurried world, listening is undervalued and underachieved; there are a lot of people who don't get enough listening, who don't have enough of that sense that they matter. So this book addresses a prevalent and painful issue.
Posted by Karen at 6:30 AM No comments:
Thursday, January 10, 2019
Tana French, THE WITCH ELM
I will always read anything by Tana French. The emotional tension she creates among her characters, and between the protagonist and the reader, is astonishing. I don't know anyone else who does it as well, for me. But the ending of this fell a bit flat for me--the sudden revelations by the cousins felt a bit unearned; and, frankly, the protagonists final desperate acts felt somewhat implausible. Still, a great read. But it's not going to dislodge French's FAITHFUL PLACE from my favorite top 5 mysteries ever. :)
Posted by Karen at 2:11 PM No comments:
Zora Neale Hurston, THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD
Such a powerful book. I think the first time I read it I was 15 ... and I'm not sure I understood the nuances and layers and even the language. But this time, my heart just ached ... and that hurricane scene just kills me.
Posted by Karen at 2:05 PM No comments:
Stef Penney, UNDER A POLE STAR
I'd give this 3.5 stars, rounding up for some really beautiful, spare language, which is Penney's strong suit. This novel feels to be an exploration of two landscapes: one geographic (of the arctic in the late 1800s) and one sexual. The arctic plot arc held my interest--partly because I know next to nothing about it. The problem with the exploration of the sexual landscape is there's only so much you can do with a narrative arc about sex. It falls flat, after a while. The tension vanishes; and having the sex scenes become more graphic just doesn't make up for it. The arctic exploration plot, though--and the conniving and competitiveness of the various explorers--was very good. I finished the book, and my heart ached at the end for Flora's loss. However I have to admit, I never quite felt I got inside her feelings, in the same way that I was inside the characters of Penney's first, THE TENDERNESS OF WOLVES--which is still one of my fave novels of the past decade, and a book I recommend to anyone who loves good historical fiction.
Posted by Karen at 2:03 PM No comments:
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