Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

2012 books

Friday, November 30th, 2012

At the NY Times’ motherlode blog, KJ Dell’Antonia has a post in which she admits that she has read none of the NY Times 100 Notable Books of 2012.  I had to laugh, because for a while I had a regular annual post on this blog, where I wrote about which of the Notable Books of the year I had read.

Somewhat to my shock, I have read 10 of the books from the list this year, the most in any year where I’ve been tracking it:

  • Bring Up the Bodies, by Hillary Mantel — this is the second in her series about Thomas Cromwell and Henry VIII.  It’s a quicker read than Wolf Hall, and I liked it a lot.
  • NW, by Zadie Smith — had to push to get through this one, given the combination of the stylistic experimentation and the British slang that I didn’t know.  Can’t say I felt it was worth the effort.
  • This is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz.  I loved Oscar Wao, but these short stories didn’t work for me.
  • What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander.  A very mixed bag of short stories.  A few of them are totally haunting and others were just eh.
  • The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers.  Overwritten, but still compelling.  I’m glad I read it, but mostly because I enjoyed talking about it with my dad.  His take is that it could have done with one less round of revision.
  • Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel.  Not nearly as good as Fun Home.  I’m just not that interested in therapy.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo.  Stunning and heartbreaking.  Shattering.
  • Coming Apart, by Charles Murray.  I made a point to take this out of the library because I didn’t want Murray to get my money, but was surprised to find how much of this I agreed with.  In particular, I think his geographical analysis explains why people who make $250,000 a year don’t think they’re rich — everyone around them makes just as much or more.
  • How Children Succeed, by Paul Tough.  A quick read.  I’ve heard a lot of the pieces before, but it was interesting how he put them together.  The contrast between how different schools think about “character” was striking, and made me think about my own parenting values.  I’d love to read Murray’s response to the story of the middle school kid who is ranked as a chess master, but got terrible scores on standardized tests– how do you fit that into an pure IQ framework?
  • The Passage of Power, by Robert Caro.  This took me most of the spring and summer to get through, but was worth it.  A very different take on RFK than I’m used to hearing.  I still need someone to explain to me why at this time, the Dems wanted to cut taxes and the Republicans didn’t, and when this changed.

I also started Telegraph Avenue, by Michael Chabon, but couldn’t get into it.  I seem to either love his books or find them unreadable.

All of these, except for the Caro, I got from the library.  I got the Caro on my kindle, because there was no way I was ever going to read it if it involved carrying a 700 page book around.  I did manage to destroy my kindle while on vacation (it fell out of its case and something broke), but Amazon gave me a nice discount on a replacement.




in which I despair over American politics

Monday, March 28th, 2011

Today I sent an email to my colleagues in which I said that the more optimistic newspaper reports suggest that we’re heading for a government shutdown, while the more pessimistic ones suggest that the Democrats will just cave completely.

The Republicans in Congress are proposing deep cuts in core services, and the Democrats seem to be meeting them half way.   The deficit commission itself included in its core principles that we should not balance the budget on the back of the most vulnerable, and that we shouldn’t cut so quickly that we put the recovery at risk.  They suggested that we should start stabilizing spending in 2012,  and yet we’re slashing services in this year’s budget, with the year half way gone.  I’m increasingly convinced that  for a significant part of the Republican party in Congress, cutting social safety nets is a goal in itself, not a means to the end of cutting deficits. And if given the choice between cutting taxes and cutting deficits, they’ll choose cutting taxes every time. Meanwhile, the Democrats take the rhetoric about deficit cutting and shared sacrifice seriously, and go after their own base to show that they’re serious.

And it’s killing me, because it was completely predictable that this would happen in December, when they made the grand bargain to extend unemployment benefits for another year, and the Bush give aways to the rich for two more years, but didn’t pass a continuing resolution, and didn’t extend the debt ceiling.

I just finished reading Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson’s Winner Take All Politics, and I am deeply depressed and scared.  I’m not entirely convinced by their economic analysis (which I’ll write more about another day), but I am totally persuaded by their tale of how big business and the financial sector have consistently blocked increased taxation  of the hyper rich and regulation.  (Not that this is a new story to me, but they do a good job of putting it in historical context.)  But the book came out last year, so they leave it pretty much as a story about how divided government and the increased use of the filibuster protects against any progressive changes through “drift”.   But what we’re seeing now is not drift, but an all out attack on the role of government.

And meanwhile, I get lots of messages on Facebook and twitter about the attack  on abortion rights and the threats to NPR, but most of my lovely middle-class progressive friends don’t seem to have noticed that there’s an all out war on the poor.  I know, that’s not quite fair, some of you have.  And I haven’t been banging the drums about it myself, because it doesn’t feel like it will make any difference.  But unless we can build a movement that Chuck Schumer is as afraid of as John Boehner is of the tea partiers, we’re going to get compromised down the river every single time.

Books of the year

Sunday, November 28th, 2010

For several years, I’ve reported on the NY Times list of 100 notable books of the year, and which ones I’ve read.   The first year I did it, I had read (or at least started) eight of the 100, but I’ve never gotten above five since, and this year I’m down to 3:

I don’t think I’m reading less these days, but I’m probably reading less non-fiction (other than for work) and less “literary fiction.”   I’ve been reading more mysteries, more sci-fi, and more young adult novels.

The Housing Bubble (All Your Worth Revisited)

Wednesday, October 13th, 2010

I was looking for an old link on the site, and I ran across my book review of Elizabeth Warren (yes, that Elizabeth Warren) and Amelia Tyagi’s personal finance book, All Your Worth.  We had a really heated discussion here, with several readers arguing that it just wasn’t possible to follow her guidelines for housing spending and live anywhere acceptable in big cities.  It’s kind of strange reading this again from other side of the housing bubble.

At the time, I wrote “The problem — at least in this area — is that in those 3 years, the same house will go up to $400,000 and you still won’t have your 20% downpayment. Warren and Tyagi’s answer is to say that you shouldn’t be chasing markets like this.”

With hindsight, yes.  clearly, yes.

I’m not sure if any of the folks who commented at the time other than Dave S are still reading here.  If so, I’d love to hear your reactions with the benefit of hindsight.  TCAndreaMoxie?  New voices are also welcome…

kids book suggestions

Monday, September 20th, 2010

So, my mom is asking for suggestions for books for hanukah presents for the grandchildren — my sons, who will be 7 and 9 (with the 9 year old a very strong reader and the 7 year old just really starting to read on his own), and my nephews, ages 2 and 4.

I futzed around online and came up with the following recommendations, but I thought I’d see what my readers had to add:

For the 2 year old:

The Quiet Book, Deborah Underwood
Can’t Sleep without Sheep by Susanna Leonard Hill

(I don’t know anything about these other than what I found online, but they look pretty good.)

4 year old: City Dog, Country Frog, Mo Willems
Knuffle Bunny Free, Mo Willems

(I love Mo Willems)

7 year old:  The Dinosaur Museum: An Unforgettable, Interactive Virtual Tour Through Dinosaur History, National Geographic Society
Encyclopedia Prehistorica Dinosaurs: The Definitive Pop-Up, Robert Sabuda
Knuffle Bunny Free, Mo Willems
Rocks and Minerals (Eye Wonder)., DK books

(He’s at an awkward stage, not really into reading himself, but getting old for picture books, although I’ll make an exception for Mo Willems.  We’ve been reading the Narnia books and Paddington out loud.  He says he wants to be an archeologist, and loves rocks.)

9 year old: City of Ice, Laurence Yep  (not yet released)
Bone: The Complete Cartoon Epic in One Volume, Jeff Smith
Warriors: Power of Three Box Set: Volumes 1 to 6 Erin Hunter OR
Warriors Box Set: Volumes 1 to 6 Erin Hunte

(He loved City of Fire, and City of Ice is due out soon.  I have no idea which of the Warriors books he’s read, but he doesn’t mind re-reading, so I think the box sets are a safe pick.  And he liked the volume of Bone that I got out from the library for him.  I’d put the new book by Richard Riordan set in the world of the Percy Jackson books on the list, except that I assume he’ll want to buy it as soon as it comes out.)

So, what should we add to the list?

168 hours

Monday, September 13th, 2010

I recently read 168 Hours: You Have More Time Than You Think by Laura Vanderkam and was thinking about blogging about it.    Then I saw that she’s running a challenge this week to actually do a time use diary for a week and to share the results.  So I decided to bite the bullet and do it.

Vanderkam says that there’s no point in waiting for a “typical week” because there are no typical weeks.  But here are some of the reasons that this week is not typical:

  • Big event tomorrow night for work.  I almost never have to attend evening events for work.
  • No day this week when it makes sense to work from home, which I try to do once a week.
  • I’m taking Friday off, and we’re heading up to NYC for Yom Kippur.

But, here goes anyway.

So, today’s report:

  • 6:45 hours of sleep (since midnight)
  • 15 minutes of yoga
  • 1:30 hour of personal email and messages, online shopping, social games
  • 1 hour shower/dress/breakfast/pack lunch/try to convince boys not to kill each other while I eat breakfast, or at least to go downstairs if they have to
  • 2 hours of commuting (sigh; but that probably includes at least 30 minutes of walking on a nice day, and listening to a good chunk of NPR and some of this week’s This American Life Podcast)
  • 1 hour of meetings
  • 3:30 hours of responding to work emails and calls, reviewing documents, negotiating times for later meetings, etc.
  • 2 hours of preparing for a couple of a webinars I’m doing — which I always underestimate how long it will take to prep
  • 1 hour of working on a report that is hanging over my head — it really needs more focused attention, and I don’t know when I’m going to find it.
  • 30 minutes of talking to coworkers
  • 15 minutes of eating lunch
  • 15 minutes of walking around the block for some fresh air
  • 1 hour of setting up my new iPod and clearing my settings from my old one so D could buy it from me
  • 20 minutes of walking/running after the boys while they rode their bikes
  • 20 minutes of eating dinner (leftovers, so pretty much zero cook time)
  • 20 minutes of reading to N (The Silver Chair; D is officially not listening, but somewhat managed to drift in while I was reading…)
  • 15 minutes of blogging.

Note that I left work probably 30 minutes earlier than usual, trying to follow Vanderkam’s notion of preserving evening hours for family time even if you have to get back to work after the kids are in bed.  And I did spend 15 minutes or so responding to messages tonight. But I’m too braindead at this point to work on the report, which is what I was hoping to do.  That said, I was pretty fried at 5.15 too, so I wouldn’t have been terribly productive even if I had stayed in the office.

I have to confess that when I picked up 168 Hours, I thought it was by the same person who had written this Washington Post magazine article about time use and how working mothers have more leisure than they admit. A lot boils down to your definition of leisure — I think I officially had almost 4 hours of leisure today.  But it’s broken down into tiny bits, and it doesn’t necessarily feel like leisure.

books and ebooks

Monday, August 9th, 2010

Geeky Mom is considering an e-reader, which inspired me to update my Kindle review now that I’ve been using it for 7 months.

  • I’m still doing a lot of work reading on it, and I’ve mostly stopped converting pdfs to Kindle format.  My eyesight is good enough to read the tiny print, although with effort, and it’s worth it not to have the footnote showing up in the middle of a sentence and the tables totally scrambled.
  • I love it for the metro and for traveling light.   The ability to be stuck on the tarmac and buy the next book on your to-do list is definitely worth it.  (As far as I see, this is the only downside of the wifi only version of the Kindle.  I wonder when someone will figure out a way to let you download books onto the kindle using a cell phone.)
  • Most of the books I read are still print, because most of the books I read come from the library.
  • Kindle editions of new hardcovers are a lot cheaper than list price, but typically only a few bucks more than Amazon sells them for.  I think I want to to take Tana French’s new book, Faithful Place, with me on vacation, but am leaning towards buying it in print so I can pass it on to my mother.
  • As I read more fiction on the Kindle, I’m surprised at how annoying I find it not to be able to easily flip back to the previous chapter to remind myself of who a character is.  Ebooks are more like scrolls than books — and there’s a reason no one reads scrolls anymore.

SBR: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Sunday, April 11th, 2010

The first thing to say about The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is that it really is as good as the reviews say it is.  I put it on my library list when I first heard about it, but when I got it last week, I wasn’t sure I was really up for diving into a story about science and race.  But I was concerned if I didn’t start it right away, I wouldn’t finish it within the 3 weeks the library allows, and that I wouldn’t be able to renew it.  So I started reading it Friday evening… and finished less than 24 hours later.  I literally can’t think of the last nonfiction book that I read that way — it’s that good.

Henrietta Lacks developed cervical cancer in 1951, when she was just 30.  She lived in Baltimore, and so went for treatment at Johns Hopkins, which had a ward for black patients.  The doctors there removed her tumor and treated her with the best practice of the day — sewing radium packs into her cervix.  But the cancer recurred and spread rapidly to pretty much every organ in her body, and Lacks died.  But meanwhile, scientists at Hopkins had attempted to grow the cells from her tumor in culture — and discovered that unlike almost every other cells they had tried, these cells reproduced indefinitely.  The cell line was dubbed HeLa, and was freely shared with labs around the world, and has been critical to the biological sciences ever since.

Skloot carefully lays out multiple entwined stories around Henrietta Lacks and HeLa — what is known of her short life, how her children were affected by her early death, and again how they were affected years later when they learned about HeLa, and how Skloot came to win their trust, but also about the doctors who treated Lacks, the scientists who reproduced and shared her cells, the ways they were used, the development of modern medical ethical standards around informed consent, the history of abuse of black patients in the name of science, the discovery that most of the cell lines used in research had been contaminated by HeLa cells, and present day controversies over patenting genes and whether donors have any financial claim on products made from their tissues.  These multiple stories could easily have become too much, or totally confusing, but they don’t.

This story is fascinating in large part because the answers to the ethical questions are far from obvious.  There are some people in the book who were clearly wronged by scientists.  Henrietta’s oldest daughter had epilepsy, and was institutionalized, dying shortly after her mother.  Skloot goes with Henrietta’s younger daughter to that institution, and finds that she was almost certainly mistreated and experimented upon in ways that were harmful to her.   Scientists also injected HeLa cells into patients without informing them in order to see what would happen.  But Henrietta was not harmed by the cloning of her cells, and anyone who has benefited from a drug that has been tested in the past 50 years has benefited from the HeLa line.   The Lacks family has been very poor — and struggled to get health care at some times — and some people have gotten rich off of HeLa, but neither Hopkins nor the scientist who first reproduced the cells appears to be among them.  (Skloot has set up a foundation to benefit Henrietta Lacks’ descendents and you can also give directly to the family through their website.)  Medical ethics rules have gotten a lot stricter since 1951, but even today, it seems likely that something like this could well happen again — except that with more concern for patient privacy, it’s even less likely that the donor would ever know.

When N was born, I had the umbilical cord blood collected and donated to a public bank.  This means that it’s not reserved for our use, but in theory will be available to us if we ever need it and there’s any left.  (It’s not at clear to me that umbilical cord blood is actually useful, but it clearly has potential, so there didn’t seem to be any downside.)  It occurs to me that I have no idea what the conditions of my donation were — whether it’s only available for direct use by a patient, or if a researcher could apply for a portion of it.   I’d be happy to have it used in any way that would be helpful.

Book Review: The Gate at the Stairs

Sunday, February 21st, 2010

I promised Jody that I would post a review of Lorrie Moore’s A Gate at the Stairs, but I keep putting it off.

It has some truly astonishing, wonderful passages, elegant and haunting.  I think my favorite is the description of Tassie, the main character, eating dinner by herself at a fancy restaurant the night before it will close.  But overall, I didn’t like it.  Moore is too in love with her own wordplay (and when you listen to it as an audiobook, as I did, you can’t skim past these sections the way you’d do on paper), and she puts things into her characters’ mouths that I just don’t believe that they would say.  (Tassie is supposed to have never taken a taxi at the start of the book, let alone have flown on a plane, and yet she is credited with all sorts of metaphors connecting things to phenomena she’d never have seen.)

And the plot twists start out implausible, and eventually get so bizarre  — not only does Tassie dress up as an owl to chase away mice from her father’s salad green fields, she keeps the owl costume on  while she plays music and rides her scooter around town — that I started to wonder if I was supposed to conclude that she was mentally ill and an unreliable narrator, that none of the book should be believed.  At least that would explain why her Jewish mother would make hamentaschen for Hanukah.

In getting ready to write this entry, I pulled up the rave reviews of the book from both the New York Times and the Washington Post that had led me to buy it in the first place.  Both reviewers clearly saw the same flaws that I see:  Kakatuni talks about the plot twists as “clumsy” and “fumbles,” while Charles calls the wordplay “too clever by half” and the descriptions “polished to distracting brilliance.”  But both of them ultimately loved the book,  and feel that it offers profound insights into the human condition.  I didn’t.

Book Review: Shop Class as Soulcraft

Wednesday, February 10th, 2010

I finally made it to the top of the library waiting list for Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, by Matthew Crawford, and this snowed-in week gave me the chance to sit down and read it.  I have to say that I was underwhelmed by it.  I thought that the passages where he describes his work on motorcycles were lovely — Laura was right  when she said “I dare you not to get carried away by his intoxication with his work.”  But the rest of the book read like it was written by the philosophy PhD  that Crawford is — and that’s not a compliment.  I got lost in the jargon, and found myself skimming long passages.

As best as I can tell, Crawford makes four different arguments.  Three of them I basically agree with, although I don’t think they are particularly original.

  • Skilled trades jobs can be as lucrative (or more so) than white collar jobs, and are less vulnerable to being outsourced to other countries.
  • Skilled trades jobs can be as intellectually demanding as white collar jobs, and should not be considered as only an option for people who can’t cut it on the academic track.  (Crawford cites Mike Rose’s The Mind at Work on this, which has been sitting on my to read pile for at least a year)
  • There is a value to doing work where you can see the results of what you do, where the people who benefit from your work know you, and are known to you, where you learn from people who have done the same work, not just from books.  This reminded me of Wendell Berry’s statement (which I’ve talked about here before) that “The right scale in work gives power to affection.”  (I’m not agreeing that this is the only work with value, but there is a power to it.  It’s why I used to volunteer to make meals at Food and Friends before going off to work at HHS — I needed to something where the results were tangible.)

And finally, Crawford argues that there is an autonomy and independence that comes from work where it is objectively clear whether you know what you’re doing or not — the light turns out when you flip the switch, or it doesn’t, the motorcycle starts or it doesn’t.  He contrasts this with an office culture that rewards conformity, where judgments are made about workers’ beings, because their product can’t be objectively measured.  I’m just not sure I buy this argument.  I think he’s comparing the most easily caricatured aspects of office work with idealized versions of his job — because even most motorcycle mechanics don’t own their own shops, and can’t spend 20 hours in search of the truth when the client isn’t going to be billed for more than five.  And at the same time, he seems to blame the flaws of offices on the drive for profits, although not-for-profits can be just as dysfunctional work environments in their own ways.

It’s almost impossible to write a review of this book and not think of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.    I haven’t read Zen in 20 years, and don’t remember that much about it, but I remember my outrage near the end when you learn that after riding thousands of miles with his son, he’s only just noticed that while he has a view of the open road, his son only has a view of his back.  Crawford has some similar blind spots, particularly around gender.  Early on he writes “It so happens that most of the characters who appear in this book are men, but I am sure that women, no less than men, will recognize the appeal of tangible work that is straightforwardly useful.”  Well, yes, but there’s also an issue that the forms of tangible, straightforwardly useful work that are traditionally done by women are paid far less than the forms of tangible, straightforwardly useful work that are traditionally done by men.

I also suspect that there are very few women in the trades who would agree with Crawford’s claim that the objective quality of your work is all that matters in achieving acceptance.  (He makes a nod towards acknowledging this reality in a footnote where he tells a story about a time where he was hazed by his coworkers and notes that “the new guy, the nonwhite guy, and the woman are especially likely to incur extra hardships.”  But he doesn’t seem to notice that there’s something categorically different about being the “new guy” — which you will be on one job, but not the next, and being nonwhite or female, which are permanent characteristics.

So, in spite of finding parts of Crawford’s story very appealing, I found the book a disappointment.  Go read Life Work, by Donald Hall, instead.