20.10.09

Playing with Paper Dolls by Guest Blogger Samantha Simons

I'm so pleased to host Samantha Simons, friend and sister extraordinaire, to share this piece with you. When I first read Playing with Paper Dolls, I knew I wanted to post it here. I hope you enjoy this humor-softened view of how we, as women, often view ourselves as much as I did.
Interesting, but as I was flipping through
Body + Soul while eating my cold, meager plate of pre-cooked, plain chicken, broccoli and carrots, I saw an article on tossing out your perceived limitations and not continually conforming to the "you" that you think "looks best" and is "safe." Hmmm.

As soon as I saw the picture chosen for the article it hit me, how often so many of us try to be like paper dolls. We have our little two-dimensional version of ourselves, hanging out in our skivvies, just waiting to be contorted into one of the many "outfits" that lay in a pile. For example, today my fibrous replica first donned the messy morning hair complete with cup of seasonal peppermint java that, almost as quickly as you can blink, swapped out for mom on the go in a cute cami and jeans (only took 3 tries to find jeans that buttoned! or, uh, the tabs reached around to her back), rushing the little darlings off with 8am dentist appointments, then dropping off the elder at school. Oh, but I only had mere moments to swing by my little folder of fun accessories to snag a notebook, planner and big fat "I'm a navy spouse/FRG board member" label and dart off to a planning meeting. With the meeting complete I drove a block home to don the apron (and pearls of course because doesn't every perfect domestic do that?!) for a few hours of mopping, dishes, laundry...only to see the clock ticking by. Quickly the apron was traded for reading glasses as the artistic paper girl (a little soggy and starting to rip from sweat and the stress of the day) plunked down in the computer chair to work hard for a client. Too much work drives a paper girl to wrinkles; out goes the mom-gear and into workout clothes, lest we forget the earlier paper jeans incident. Are they even cute in paper? Luckily the real thing had a padded seat, fit for a one hour session on the mag trainer. By 2:30 pm she's losing her crispness and slugs to the school, with the junior paper boy on her shoulders, to escort the big paper boy home. No one really needs the rest of this picture, eh? If you guess that pretty miss paper girl has a few torn edges by this point...you're right. Luckily, once she's tucked away in her folder of fun for the night, she's somehow magically renewed into a fresh doll to start the next day.

Sometimes I honest to God feel this way. Like I'm constantly trying to wear the right hat(s) (or in paper girl's case, outfits), at the risk of neglecting that favorite outfit tucked into the back, pulled out if there's the right occasion (read:time). Don't read my ramblings wrong...I'm not complaining AT ALL! My life is more blessed than I ever could have imagined. I'm madly in love with the same man I met over 10 years ago, my two paper boys are not perfect, but that's part of their charm and they have helped shape me as much as I think I'm shaping them, Andy's career that is, in essence, our LIFE, has provided us more than most will have the opportunity to experience. But it serves as a little reminder that no matter how many outfits your doll might wear every day, be it one or a dozen, deep down under those folded tabs (whoa, has my ass been bare the whole time?!), she's the SAME MISS PAPER GIRL! She can wear whatever outfit she wants tucked in that folder of fun. So, my dears...don't let your favorite expression of you get pushed to the bottom of the pile...bring it out and show it off!

More on this later...the article also tells you how you can seek out the characteristics of the "ideal you" - like trying on the perfect outfit...and not get locked into "types" and "labels."

(If this sounds dumb...blame it on the J. Lohr Riesling, it's smoothness tends to coerce me! ;)

28.7.09

Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell: Book Review


Malcolm Gladwell, set with his second book Blink to become my Chris Langan, has inexplicably turned himself into my Robert Oppenheimer instead. The preceding statement will, in all likelihood, mean nothing to you unless you’ve read Gladwell’s third book Outliers. Allow me to rephrase. I began  Outliers  with an appropriately, professionally even, open mind. I was prepared to like Gladwell’s latest foray into feature length non-fiction, but the man had to work for it. Having just turned the final page in  Outliers epilogue, I must make two admissions upfront. First, Gladwell did work for it. Second, if my mind were modestly open when I began this book, Gladwell managed to barrel through it full force. How he did so has left me stumped and more than a little wanting to have lunch with the man.


The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.


Malcolm Gladwell, keeper of an enviable, and most likely painful at times, social conscience, spins his typical science-light, anecdote-heavy yarn in  Outliers . With The Tipping Point and  Blink , NYT Bestsellers both, under his belt, Gladwell has a formula (nifty intro story, offer one main objective, deeper chapter one, second objective, full-on assault…), and he sticks to his winning blueprint with  Outliers . Why not? He doesn’t just write NYT Bestsellers, which any Danielle Steele can do; Gladwell writes #1 Bestsellers. Hell, I’d stick to the formula, too.


Gladwell’s courage in  Outliers , a less daunting topic overall than the denser “functional frugality” he attempted in  Blink , is found in the baring of his own social conscience.  Outliers  does nothing short of raise a call to arms. Consider the sentence extracted above. “The world could be so much richer than the world we have settled for.” Buried near the end of the book, this sentence even more than what makes a financial, legal, computing, or mathematics success, is the core premise of Gladwell’s story. I confess a bit of shock and a great deal of admiration. This is not the day of heros; these are not the times of revolutionaries. 


 Outliers  purports to dissect the reasons successful men (and are they really all men, Malcolm?) become the successes they are. Early in his narrative, Gladwell eschews the mythos of the self-made man and insists there are reasons beyond ability and sheer force of will that can explain, that he will use to explain the meteoric success of men such as Bill Gates, Robert Oppenheimer, and even the entire Canadian Hockey League. Each chapter attacks at least one of these stories (where more than one, because they are intimately related), and Gladwell approaches each with glee. His enthusiasm is infectious. His desire to understand the components of success drags the reader along - dragged this reader along - on an exhilerating ride that is at the same time more measured than the breathlessness of Blink.


Gladwell works with and continually returns to two foci throughout the book. Using expert analysis and, often, scientific research, he bolsters his belief that specific combinations of circumstances afforded opportunities to the success stories examined. That is, Bill Gates would not have grown up to found Microsoft had he not been a student at a particular high school in a particular year, a school that just happened to purchase a particular type of computer when no other high schools (and very few colleges) had them, had he not then spent countless hours on that computer and, later, another at a nearby university, and so on. It wasn’t, according to Gladwell, Gates’ genius alone that created the Bill Gates we know today. His genius coupled with opportunity, choice, and outright luck did. All right. I’ve got a doctorate in social psychology. I can buy that. In fact, I’m in the business of selling that. 


Gladwell’s less obvious focus grinds along slowly between the lines. Understand what creates these seemingly extraordinary individuals, and we can replicate those opportunities, those circumstances with greater frequency and on a scale so as to maximize the likelihood of creating more of them. The individuals, that is, creating more success stories such as Gates and the lot with which Gladwell populates  Outliers 


One of the greatest strengths of  Outliers  lies in the detailed treatment of what Gladwell terms cultural legacy, that something greater than immediate environmental influence which can make the difference between success or failure for similar individuals. In this section, Gladwell discusses the southern (American) “Culture of Honor,” a phenomenon describing the often violent and always personal ways in which southern American men tend to react to perceived personal insult and injury. Gladwell discusses one of my favorite social psychological experiments, a study conducted at the University of Michigan by Cohen and Nesbitt. A small thing perhaps, but it pleased me to no end to see this study used, as there would have been many from which Gladwell could have chosen, and to see it explained so thoroughly and so well. In this chapter, Gladwell clearly displays his growth as a writer for the lay audience in blending narrative with research.


I’ll be honest. There are a half-dozen pages or so in my copy of  Outliers  I tagged for nitpicking in this review. In framing the tone of what I wished to say, I found most ceased to matter. They are small things in the main1, and they don’t in any way detract from what I consider a very good book and a courageous one at that. Prefacing remarks aside,  Outliers  is not perfect. In his acknowledgments section, Gladwell thanks two women for “fact-finding and research,” and though I don’t know where to point the finger, a rather glaring error is made in discussing the Cohen and Nesbitt study. Testosterone and cortisol are referred to as “the hormones that drive arousal and aggression,” and while there is a reciprocal nature between testosterone and aggression (testosterone is secreted both prior to and just after aggressive behavior), cortisol is a hormone released in response to arousal. That is, arousal causes the release of cortisol; cortisol’s release does not trigger arousal. 


Gladwell, later in the book, references a study by Erling Boe in which Boe found that he could correlate the countries from which students taking a standardized math exam originated and their scores on that exam. Further, the scores were, apparently, correlated perfectly. That is, Boe could predict with perfect accuracy where a student would fall on the exam simply based on that student’s country of origin. The mediating variable in the study was a lengthy questionnaire completed by students prior to taking the exam (120-ish questions). Some students completed the entire questionnaire; some left a few items unanswered; some left more unanswered than others. The number left unanswered directly corresponded to students’ countries of origin. This finding did not surprise Gladwell. He related the correlations between country of origin and exam score back to cultural legacy, in part because the countries from which students answered the most items on the questionnaire and scored the most highly on the exam were all Asian countries, and Gladwell had already demonstrated in his culture section the work ethos of those regions. However, Gladwell disappointed me when he failed to draw two equally valid conclusions from his own book. 1) Asian students are better at math than Western students. 2) Asian individuals have a high-power distance (to authority) compared to countries of origin of other students tested with that exam. What? All right. Yes, Boe (or Gladwell) could predict the Asian students would do better based on their country of origin because students from those countries do do better at math exams and also because students from those countries will complete the questionnaires more thoroughly than students from low-power distance countries in an effort to defer to authority (those asking them to complete the questionnaire). 


This is an extreme example, perhaps the most extreme in  Outliers , but it is a problem that crops up from time to time.  Gladwell makes excellent use of anecdotes and research to support those anecdotes. He has a lovely theme he pursues doggedly throughout the book, and he maintains his focus better than in any work in the past. If there is any substantive lack in  Outliers , it is Gladwell’s dropping a thread too soon or forgetting to pick it back up later. His case would be stronger for it, and a case this compelling on its merits deserves all possible opportunities to shine.


So.


This is the point where I typically make a recommendation, yes? Do I recommend  Outliers ? Absolutely. Without reservation. The world needs to read this book. There were moments of complete candor and personal revelation in this book that brought tears to my eyes, and there were moments when I felt the need to check my closet because I was certain Malcolm Gladwell had stolen my personal soapbox.  Outliers  speaks of important things, and it manages to do so without being pedantic or preachy, which I think makes it rather important all on its own. 




1Although I agree with some of the conclusions, I overwhelmingly disagree with the treatment of education in Chapter 9, “Marita’s Bargain.” Theodor Billroth said, “Statistics are like women; mirrors of purest virtue and truth, or like whores to use as one pleases.” Little in this review could be gained by my re-writing this chapter or even critiquing it to the degree to which I would be satisfied. I believe the sociological study on which the chapter is based is primarily the issue, and Gladwell seems to do his part in maintaining restraint when he formulates his conclusions. However, as so very many people have read or will read this book, I am troubled by this chapter. My key exception to Gladwell’s own conclusions in Chapter 9? Malcolm, I agree that Katie and Alex have vastly different summer days, but Katie’s aren’t unstructured or carefree. Hers are spent at daycare, while Alex has much more of his mother’s time. There is the crucial difference Lareau didn’t mention. Time.

22.6.09

An Alchemy of Mind by Diane Ackerman: Book Review


An Alchemy of Mind: The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain by Diane Ackerman was intended as the first of my summer non-fiction book candies. And it was. As in her previous narrative works, An Alchemy of Mind is rich with Ackerman’s distinctive prose, brimming with metaphor and beautiful language. Her unique blend of personal expos√©, research, and topic exploration work synchronously to provide a reading experience that is, if nothing else, never short of exhilarating.

The book is divided into seven broad sections (Evolution, The Physical Brain, Memory, The Self and Other Fictions, Emotions, Language, and The World We Share). Each of these hosts a series of chapters in which Ackerman seeks to define, illustrate, or otherwise come to terms with the human brain. In some, she excels; in others, I feel there was room for improvement.

(Admittedly, I may have gotten off on the wrong foot with this book initially, for the title confuses me. An Alchemy of Mind suggests to me a discourse on consciousness, an ambitious – and brave, if we’re to be honest – topic for any science writer to embark upon. However, the subtitle The Marvel and Mystery of the Brain suggests something else entirely, for no one I know equates the two, mind and brain, and indeed, Ackerman is rapid to distinguish them in her narrative but dwells more on the brain’s functions than the concept of mind.)

Beginning with Evolution, Ackerman leaves the gate strong. Her awe of and reverence for nature in general and our evolutionary heritage specifically are portrayed in exquisite detail. Perhaps the greatest strength throughout An Alchemy of Mind is the continued reliance on evolutionary principles to round out whatever discussion is at hand, providing a very nice consistency to the 300+ pages. Throughout the remainder of the book, Ackerman is by turns gently illuminating (e.g., she provides a nice elementary view of how neurons work and how neural connections are formed in the brain) and highly speculative. She intersperses her own personal musings, which are lovely, with the results of several researchers’ work, and she also includes theoretical interpretations of both brain functions and mind. This last point is interesting to me as a reader and a scientist, for popular books on scientific topics often steer clear of theory, preferring to lead the reader to conclusions rather than letting him think for himself. Kudos to Ackerman for that.

There are a number of areas in the book with which I took exception, and one of these is, I must confess, my own personal bias. On occasion, An Alchemy of Mind takes on a decidedly Freudian tone, and while I do recognize the contemporary existence of psychoanalytic scholars, much of what Ackerman weaves into her narrative in these stretches is outmoded. With regard to her discussion of evolutionary psychology, I felt she did a fine job of encapsulating classic thinking in this area, but I was dismayed that her later discussion of women’s tendency toward better encoding of emotional memory than men was not then tied back to the evolutionary care-giving role.

In the same vein, many chapters discussed hemispheric differences in the brain that have been stuied and documented by various researchers, and yet there was no attempt to synthesize what were, to me, some rather obvious associations between these seemingly unrelated studies (despite Ackerman’s penchant for pointing out how humans need to relate seemingly unrelated things). I also found her late discussion of consciousness and self-awareness, specifically with regard to non-primate species, to be a bit far fetched. She seems to want to redefine consciousness, which is all well and good if you state explicitly you are doing so and thus removing yourself from the established paradigm. Quite simply, barring a theory of mind (to be able to think about thinking), one cannot be said to be a conscious being.

Finally, and this is really a minor annoyance as opposed to a literary criticism, Ackerman has a fondness for phrases such as philosophers, scientists, and psychologists, and the overwhelming majority of psychologists I know would take umbrage at that exclusion from their primary field.

With all of the above being said and even with a slightly lacking reference list in this book, I would, do in fact, recommend An Alchemy of Mind to anyone who wishes to understand the basic functioning of the human brain and who hasn’t taken an introductory psychology or human anatomy course. Even if you have had one of those courses, I would recommend this book for its brilliant writing alone so long as one understands that the science is not deep and there will be points with which you are likely to disagree. It can never be said that Ackerman fails to ignite a certain passion with her writing, and page after page of An Alchemy of Mind comes very close to being spot on. Where she misses, she misses widely, but she can be forgiven.

20.6.09

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood: Book Review

The Penelopiad tells the story of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, with Atwood’s trademark brand of feminism and lovely craftsmanship on each page. The novel (technically a novella, but who’s going to quibble?) is part of the ambitious Canongate Myth Series published by Canongate Books in which a plethora of well known tales are retold by contemporary authors. As a portion of the myth of Odysseus as well as a work of Atwood’s, The Penelopiad does not disappoint.

Written primarily in the first person from Penelope’s perspective, this book is by turns a brutally honest portrait of a woman-child given into an arranged marriage and a play performed by her maids. The chapters are short, and every third or fourth is a lament or satirical commentary offered from the maids’ perspective as if the twelve were collectively one. (For non-fiction readers, think a break-narrative chapter.) The majority of the novel spins on Penelope’s wheel as she offers what is essentially a contemporary media interview to the reader, one of those come-live-a-week-with-me-and-your-film-crew-can-video-everything-but-the-showers-and-dressing sorts of affairs. She speaks with candor, Penelope does, and so, it is perhaps not surprising that The Penelopiad was released to initial mixed reviews.

The book opens in Hades, as Penelope describes her current existence, complete with thoughts on life as it is today and the ways in which the living seek to commune with the dead. Consistent with Atwood’s previous writing, humour blends neatly with the darker aspects of the setting, and we are drawn into the world Penelope wishes us to see. Throughout the narrative – and there is little dialogue – Penelope guides us through her life: her condescension towards and jealousy of her cousin Helen of Troy, her nervousness on the day of her wedding as Odysseus wins her for his bride (including lurid details of how he cheated), the early days of her marriage and becoming mistress of Ithaca, and the long years of his absence during and after Helen’s ‘capture’ by Paris.

That seems to be what I was known for: being smart. That, and my weaving, and my devotion to my husband, and my discretion.


Penelope delivers self-deprecation with the same aplomb as she delivers flagons of wine to the thirsty suitors, only a portion of the yarn Atwood weaves with similar dexterity to our heroine as she accomplishes her tapestry. With that same adroitness, Atwood unravels a good bit of the finer fabrication surrounding Penelope’s long suffering devotion in Odysseus’ absence, just as his wife nightly unwove her weaving with the help of her maids. Offering the reader a coarser, more plausible version of events is the meat of The The Penelopiad, even as the finished tale is less romantic in its polish.

Often bitter, sometimes self-pitying, Penelope is real. At the beginning of this review, I remarked on Atwood’s trademark feminism. Yes, that style appears in The Penelopiad, and it rankled some readers as evidenced by early reviews. However, we should consider the facts. At most, Penelope was fifteen when given into marriage to Odysseus, a man at least twice her age and not considered the best of matches for a princess. She was clever, and being so in almost any age other than the present (and we can argue that one, too) could mean terrible heartache for a woman. Atwood is careful to present Penelope’s early life with Odysseus as one that included more than pleasant sexual and romantic interactions as well as a certain likeness of mind between the two of them. She was not necessarily unhappy in her marriage other than allowing her cousin Helen to bespoil what happiness seeded itself naturally before it took full root and blossomed.

What do I mean when I say Penelope is real? I mean that Atwood presents a balanced picture of a woman who does not like all aspects of her life, rues a fair portion of them, is bartered like chattel, lives by her wits to protect her husband’s kingdom, and suffers great guilt at the turn of her son and the killing of her conspirators when all is said and done. She is not the overblown heroine of typical mythology, and that perhaps is what damns The Penelopiad in some eyes. Not mine.

I highly recommend The Penelopiad to Homer aficionados, Atwood readers, and Penelope enthusiasts alike. This novel is well written, fun, and a worthy tribute to an often secondary character in Greek mythology. I, for one, shall be reading more of Canongate’s myth series as soon as time allows.

19.6.09

"The Doctor" Wins SS Competition


Author Gary Davison generously hosted a flash-fiction contest last month, and editors at Paperbooks and Legend Press generously agreed to judge the entries. I'm both pleased and honoured to have my story "The Doctor" selected as the winner and further delighted to be receiving signed copies of Gary Davison and Jon Haylett’s novels (as well as an undisclosed third) as the prize. With so much non-fiction TBR, these will be welcome counterpoints!

"The Doctor" can be read on Gary's site here.

16.5.09

An Ungodly Child by Rachel Green: Book Review

A couple of caveats are in order before I begin. First, I love urban fantasy. Though I've not been reading much fiction other than online in a while, this is one of my preferred genres when I do get round to it. Second, Rachel Green and I have been online friends and writing partners for two years now. I wouldn't necessarily write a more favourable review because of that, but I do feel it's worth the mention.

Those out of the way, onward to the review...


An Ungodly Child, the debut novel of Rachel Green and also the official print debut of principal characters Harold and Jasfoup, is an urban fantasy novel set in the fictional town of Laverstone in England. If you do not like plot with your swords, demons with your angels, or tea with your angst, or if you are not quite clever enough to appreciate wit √† la Pratchett or Gaiman, this is probably not the book for you. If, however, you've ever wondered what it would be like to live an ordinary day as the son of an angel crossed with a human - er, we should throw in a dash of fey to be perfectly correct - then An Ungodly Child is just the digestive you're seeking.

Harold Waterman believes himself a fairly ordinary bloke aside from being well read and having a superior business sense. His modest antiquities shop sees to his basic needs, and those are minimal given his practical turn for cardigans and the fact he lives with his mother. Over three decades, his life has been, overall, rather uneventful save for the not ever having met his father, but his kindly Uncle Frederick has stood in for the MIA Lucifer and Harold's ignorance of his own parentage renders the lack less keen than it might otherwise be. Ada, his mother, looks for all the world like any other dowager who only worries that her son will never marry and produce babies for whom she can knit booties. 

Ada may get her wish. It certainly appears so, as Harold falls immediately in love with a beautiful customer in his shop one day. Alas, the affair is doomed when he learns she is actually Jedith, the Angel of Pestilence, and she has inflicted upon him a mortal disease. Given three months to live, Harold languishes, and Ada offers him his only hope, a gift left to him by his absent father. Inside the box, Harold finds magical artefacts, such as a pair of semi-sentient daggers, and the beginning of clues to his past. Using an ancient text to cast a magic circle and summon a demon, Harold encounters Jasfoup, soul collector of the fifth level of Hell, and the two form a most unlikely bond.

Jasfoup, no stranger to the Waterman family, knows of Harold's lineage. What he does not yet know is that Harold has been slated by three angels to be the antichrist and bring about the apocalypse. Together, Harold and Jasfoup embark on a crusade to save Harold's life, collecting additional supernatural creatures as they go to further populate Laverstone. This they attempt while never missing an opportunity for a cup of tea and eventually solving the mystery of who wants Harold dead and why. 

An Ungodly Child is a thrill-packed ride. The plot is fast paced and well constructed, and the dialogue is as clever as I have read anywhere. Rachel Green has built an entirely believable world with meticulous research and rapier wit driving every page. I haven't had this much reading fun in seven thousand years. 

Leaving a bit of biscuit for your tea, I won't tell you whether or not Harold is reunited with his father, whether or not he learns that his mother is part fairy, or if he ever gets a real girlfriend. For that, you must order the novel yourself. Here for US readers, and here for UK readers.

Galileo's Daughter by Dava Sobel: Book Review

Galileo's Daughter: A Historical Memoir of Science, Faith, and Love by Dava Sobel

Galileo's Daughter is a book to which I can hardly do justice in a review. In brief, this book is part biography, part historiography of science, and part political intrigue. Despite its very different narrative structure from Longitude, it is also pure Sobel. 

Though the life, from birth through 95 years post-death, of Galileo Galilee is traced - often in delightful detail - one never has the sense of reading a strict accounting of that life. From Galileo's earliest years chaffing at his father's reins, it is clear that this is an individual destined to find his own place in the universe, and even with the foreknowledge of what that place will be, the drama of the story is gripping. 

Unlike the typical biography where we may only know a person's beginnings and what makes him biography-worthy, much of Galileo's life is known to the average reader prior to page one. The sectarian political climate permeating the whole of Galileo's career is common knowledge. Perhaps somewhat less so is the gentle humility, the honest desire to be a good Catholic permeating the whole of this same career. The inherent conflicts raised between the man's Church and his science are easy to discern.

Galileo's Daughter is a beautiful read for two reasons overriding all others. To begin, Sobel has done a masterful job in selecting from existing manuscripts - primarily published - of Galileo's as well as personal correspondence between Galileo and others in crafting this story. Letters written to Galileo by his daughter Virginia (Suor Maria Celeste as she is known once entering the convent) and letters written to and by Galileo as he corresponds with a variety of other individuals pepper the narrative with an intensely personal flavor. In one letter, Virginia writes to her father, "I enclose herewith a little composition, which, aside from expressing to you the extent of our need, will also give you the excuse to have a hearty laugh at the expense of my foolish writing..." Here is a daughter writing to her father, not a faceless young woman four hundred years gone writing to a legend. As the book opens with a letter from Virginia, Galileo is at once transformed for the reader into a man like any other.

In part due to Sobel's skillful selection of original source material for this book, Galileo's Daughter excels for a second reason. The historigraphy of science, of Galileo's incalculable impact on science, is deftly rendered. The interplay between religion, social convention, academia, and science itself are accessible to the reader precisely because they are so personal for this man. Galileo's frustrations given near-constant skirmishes with the Roman Catholic Church over his support of the Coperinican heliocentric view of the universe, which he did not consider to be at odds with Scripture, are evident in his correspondence. Virginia's fear for her father's position with the church and in the community are just as evident in her letters to him. The progress of a world out of darkness and into the light of the Northern Italian Renaissance is removed from static textbook teaching and made personal for the reader by virtue of the agonizing toll it took on a man whose name we toss about with such cavalier use today.

One isn't supposed to give away the ending in a review, but everyone knows Galileo died under house arrest, having been forced to recant his position on heliocentrism by the Church or face excommunication. I've never been quite able to square that with my conscience, but Sobel helps a bit. There is a twist to the tale, one worthy of both the twin loves of Galileo's life and the author's skill in weaving the threads of this story into a tapestry that brought tears to this reader's eyes at the end.

Go. Read. As always, Sobel is worth it.

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Tavris and Aronson: Book Review



Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson
Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) is a book about self-justification, the sort of rationalizing in which everyday folk engage to feel better about the poor decisions they make on an everyday basis, but it is also a book that helps illuminate the self-justification of the not-so-everyday folk and the much larger poor decisions often made by people in positions of power. Tavris and Aronson1, two social psychologists, do not simply write about self-justifying phenomena; they explain to the reader the whys of them.
This is perhaps the best book on a psychological topic written for the lay audience that I have read. In eight chapters (not including Tavris and Aronson’s introduction and afterword), the authors explain their underlying tenet – cognitive dissonance – and then take the reader through a series of real life applications of the need to self-justify and the places in our lives we do it most frequently. Particularly relevant to the general reader are the chapters on therapy (Chapter 42), the law (Chapter 53), and marriage (Chapter 6), although all chapters have much to offer everyone.
As a social psychologist, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) was a pleasure to read on numerous levels. The volume of research the authors incorporated into the book to bolster their ideas is impressive, but more impressive is the way in which they used the science. Always clear and engaging, never heavy handed, each individual study reported is accessible, and the applicability of the findings to the topic at hand is readily seen. Tavris and Aronson are so skilled at this, I will be taking cues from their presentation of research findings in my own lecturing from this point forward, as they spend scant paragraphs delivering material I typical labor an hour or more to convey (and do so with no loss of information or import).
The grand achievement of Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) is the synthesis of many disparate solo theories of self-justification into a unified whole under the umbrella of cognitive dissonance. The biases we all have, the behaviors in which we engage to make ourselves feel better about the choices we make, have been studied at length by social psychologists, but cognitive dissonance stands alone. Or has stood alone. As scholar-teachers, we lecture on them separately, often as series of self-justifying behaviors. The utility of this book is its cohesive accounting of all of these behaviors as single slices from the same pie and the resurrection of dissonance theory from the ashes of classic theory into something current and far more than simply credible.
As co-authors, Tavris and Aronson write remarkably well together. Often lapsing into the first person, they require parenthetical expressions to indicate which of them is addressing the reader at the time (e.g., “One of us (Elliot)…”). So seamless is their collaboration that there are no distractions from differing styles or voices. As well, the prose moves along at a brisk clip without jargon (unless it is explicitly defined in the moment), and the reader is often treated to wry wit or a clever turn of phrase in unexpected moments. 
On the whole, Mistakes Were Made (but not by me) was a complete success to start the new year’s reading list. I highly recommend this book to anyone remotely interested in why we do… well, just about anything we do.

1Aronson recently received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the American Psychological Society for his contributions to the field of psychology
2Which my Research Methods class will be reading this upcoming semester.
3Which my Psychology and Law class will be reading this upcoming semester.

Blink by Malcolm Gladwell: Book Review

(I am, of course, late to the table here, but as my interests lie in the realm of social cognition and Outliers is on my New Year's reading list...)

Blink is Malcolm Gladwell’s second foray into full length non-fiction. His first The Tipping Point became a NY Times bestseller, and Blink followed in short order after its release. Blink promises the reader a deeper understanding of the process of rapid cognition, or how people come to make decisions “in the blink of an eye,” relying on unconscious mental processes of which they are not even aware. To bolster the science of Blink and make it more accessible to the lay reader, Gladwell incorporates a wide range of anecdotes, from scientific research to everyday business and cultural case studies.

One doesn’t have to be Einstein to read and enjoy Blink. Gladwell’s writing is lean, and the prose is entertaining. He kept this reader turning the page long after the discussion of cognitive science had lost its allure. The pace of the book is fast, action-packed, and this is both a strength and a weakness of Gladwell’s. Here, we see the author’s day work as a writer for The New Yorker surfacing, as Gladwell romps from one topic – with sometimes two or three anecdotes to support it – to the next. It’s a breathless ride, leaving the reader little opportunity to catch his breath, a problem not typically encountered with magazine articles.

This is an engaging story in that scratch-the-silver-from-the-lottery-ticket fashion. Blink’s allure is largely superficial. There are a number of inconsistencies in Gladwell’s account of what he refers to in the introduction as “the adaptive unconscious,” a term he defines from cognitive psychology and then abandons for the remainder of the book. What begins with a series of strong anecdotes in the introduction and first chapter falls apart by the second half of the book. Gladwell purports to illustrate the concept of “functional frugality” (the unconscious cuing the conscious to what’s what) with continued research and case studies, but the anecdotes in the latter portion of the book, on inspection, seem to argue against this concept. 

In one memorable instance, the shooting death of Amadou Diallo by four New City police officers in 1999 is discussed as a case of rapid cognition gone wrong. For entertainment value, I give Gladwell two thumbs up here. Yet, I wonder if the savvy reader would be left at the end of this account – as I was – with the sense of So what? Where’s the rest of the story? Had Gladwell taken Diallo’s case one step further, had the research been one level deeper, the reader would have understood that this is not, in fact, a case of rapid cognition gone wrong. The New York City police officers, operating under classic principles of rapid cognition made errors that were entirely explainable. (It’s called the Fundamental Attribution Error for a reason and is so well known I was appalled to see the story end where it did.)

Perhaps the most egregious of errors in Blink is Gladwell’s casual handling of his central tenet. The “adaptive unconscious” is a relatively new term in cognitive psychology, but its purpose, “functional frugality,” has been discussed for going on two decades under the more common term “the cognitive miser.” Both assume an evolved mechanism, which Gladwell briefly mentions in the introduction and to which, again, he does not return. This is problematic on its own. However, it becomes more so in light of research he presents to illustrate how different the unconscious is from the conscious mind, how we do not always know precisely that which we think we know. Using a speed-dating example, Gladwell demonstrates that what people claim they want in a potential partner is not what they end up liking in the people they choose through a speed-dating service. This is demonstrated through the use of ratings of different adjectives on a checklist. Comparing the adjectives for “what I said I wanted” to “what I like about the person I picked,” Gladwell seems to point and say, “Ah ha! See, the unconscious says something very different than what the conscious says.” Only it doesn’t. From an evolutionary perspective, from the adaptive perspective Gladwell abandoned, there was no disagreement. Blink lacks cohesion and an author who fully understands his science.

For someone interested in understanding how we think about things (sometimes) without really thinking about them, Blink is a pleasurable read. It is not the simplest of books to push through, as the pace is a bit fast and the research dense at times. The research anecdotes are varied, however, and the case studies are interesting and cover a range of topics. The Cook County Hospital and Millennium Challenge case studies were particularly enjoyable. For readers who are interested in truly understanding rapid cognition, I would not recommend Blink. Gladwell would have done much better to write a book based on standard attribution theory and cognitive miserly-ness than attempt the account of an adaptive unconscious to which he was clearly uncommitted.

15.5.09

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I've just begun the adventures of sixth-grade protagonist Kiran as written by Rakesh Satyal in Blue Boy. Satyal is an editor at Harper Collins, and Blue Boy is his debut novel. Thus far, I am entranced.

Review soon. I'm sure it will advise everyone to go and read. Post haste.

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