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 à 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

Currently Reading


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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