Category Archives: Advance Reader's Copy

The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer

I am a devoted Michael Shermer fan. I’ve read most of his other books — and enjoyed them a lot. Imagine my excitement when The Believing Brain came up as a possible advanced review book. I applied only for this one book, and I’m so glad I did. The Believing Brain is a wonderful introduction to how our minds make themselves up, then look for support for their conclusions.

Shermer breaks the book down into four parts. I feel it’s appropriate to explore the book based on the parts he’s decided to present.

Part 1: Journeys of Belief

Providing us with real-life case studies first, Shermer gives us a blue-collar gentleman whose experience one late night in the 1960s made him look for the otherworldly being he thinks visited him and gave him a message of love. This gentleman then took up philosophy and science, hoping to prove there is such a being.

The next gentleman Shermer discusses is a scientist who believes in God. He tells Shermer that he used to not have belief, and then, one day, he made the leap and became a believer. He sees evidence of a creator in the fact that he has a choice whether to believe. He thinks doubt is a chance to grow in one’s faith.

Then Shermer tells his story. Once a born-again Christian (by his own choice — his family was mostly secular), Shermer grew to see in college that his beliefs didn’t jibe with what he was learning.

I thought this part was somewhat interesting. I already knew Shermer’s story, but it was refreshing to read the stories of the other two gentlemen to see how they ended up on the other side of the belief table.

Part 2: The Biology of Belief

This was a really fascinating part of the book for me. Shermer discusses how the human brain is wired to find patterns — if we make a mistake on whether there is a pattern to a random occurrence, we don’t really suffer a consequence, but if we think things are unrelated when they actually are, then there’s a problem. We also tend to think there’s a cause behind things, which has aided our species to survive. I like the fact that Shermer provides us with these tendencies, because they’re helpful to keep in mind both when reading the book and when exploring one’s own beliefs.

Part 3: Belief in Things Unseen

This is the part that felt most familiar to me in the entire book. Shermer goes through several types of beliefs (e.g., belief in UFOs) and discusses the research on them. He explores the experiences of those who think they have had contact with or some other experience involving these “things unseen”, and then talks about the science behind those beliefs. I’ve read books, both by Shermer and others, that talk about similar things, but it’s always nice to be up on the latest science in the field.

Part 4: Belief in Things Seen

I loved this section of the book. Here, Shermer talks about facets of our everyday lives, like politics, and why we dig our heels in when confronted with a contrary tenet. He also talks about the history of astronomy to illustrate how even science can be affected by our set beliefs. I thought this was great. To show that science is, ultimately, something done by humans and is prone to human mistakes and tendencies is fantastic. How else are we to try to eliminate bias if we don’t acknowledge its existence?

Overall, I really liked the book. My only quibble with it (and for shame on me, after having read it) is that Shermer reveals he’s a libertarian. My cliché sirens went off! I really don’t think it’s something he necessarily had to share. The Believing Brain is a thoughtful and thought-provoking look at how people decide on what they’re going to think, and then seek the evidence. I think we all need to be aware of that tendency, and also be wary of it.

Rating: 4.5/5

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Filed under 4.5/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Favorable, Nonfiction

What Was I Thinking? by William B. Helmreich

I’m not quite sure what I was expecting when I started reading What Was I Thinking?  I’m guessing I was thinking I would read a book about mistakes, and then have solutions directly following those mistakes.  That’s not exactly what Helmreich has created; his book is more of a sociological study of misbehavior, with long lists of why people do things they later regret, with only the tail end providing some solutions.  For something that labels itself as a self-help book on the back, I don’t think it quite makes it; as a study on the mistakes we all make, however, it’s an interesting read.

Helmreich structures the book by dedicating each chapter to reasons people make mistakes, e.g., arrogance or insecurity.  Within each of those chapters, he gives us about nine different ways that particular reason can manifest.  For example, in the chapter on arrogance, the reasons for the arrogance he provides us are:

  1. Believing you’re untouchable
  2. Overconfidence
  3. Obliviousness to others
  4. Narcissism
  5. A need to dominate
  6. A crusader mentality
  7. Rage
  8. Rigidity
  9. Society

He then gives examples and explains how these aspects can create an environment that lends itself to doing dumb things.   These chapters and their separate sections are interesting to read; Helmreich has a good writing style, and his examples and stories are interesting.

What I’m not sure about is how this book all hangs together.  One reason in one chapter seems an awful lot like another reason in another chapter a lot of the time, and, really, I don’t think we need to know much more than that there are some basic personality flaws or situations that can cause someone to do something dumb.

I also had issues with the way the book is structured.  I think it would have been much more effective if, at the end of a chapter, Helmreich provided some concrete solutions as to how to avoid or prevent committing that type of mistake.  Instead, his suggestions are segregated in the last chapter, which doesn’t lend itself to easy reference.  If I think my problem is arrogance, which is the second chapter, I have to go to the end of the book in order to look for guidance to help me overcome my personality flaw.

I do, however, think that What Was I Thinking? makes an excellent study of human nature.  We all make mistakes, and we make them for a variety of reasons.  I enjoyed reading this book because it made an attempt to make sense of our dumb actions, which was something I thought, outside of cases of psychological pathology, was impossible.  Helmreich has taken his sociological training and produced a book that is engrossing, just not for the reasons he was hoping for.

On the whole, What Was I Thinking? is a good sociological study, but a so-so self-help book.  I’d recommend it for curiosity, but not for actual advice.

Rating: 3/5.

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My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe

My Korean Deli

My Korean Deli is the sometimes-humorous story of the author, Ben Ryder Howe, and his part in his family’s decision to purchase and operate a deli in Brooklyn.  Howe, an editor at the Paris Review at the time, lives, with his wife, in his in-laws’ basement.  The deli is meant to be a gift to his mother-in-law as well as a way to earn money to move out of the Paks’ home and to earn some independence again.  Instead, the deli draws them closer together by forcing them to both live and work together, making it difficult for Ben and Gab, his wife, to say goodbye.

Before I get into what I liked about My Korean Deli, let me say that I was confused by way the word “deli” is used here.  The Paks’ store is more like a convenience store at which you can also get a sandwich.  I suppose this is an example of how words can vary in meaning — a deli here in Michigan indicates that you’re going someplace that deals only in sliced meat, cheese, chilled non-alcoholic beverages, and salads.  They aren’t a place I would think to go to if I wanted beer, cigarettes, or canned cat food.

Yet sell these things the Paks did.  Kay, Howe’s mother-in-law, is a strong woman who has always worked, whether in was in Korea while her husband George was away in the Navy, or in New York sewing sweatshops to help supplement their income.  Gab and Ben help Kay find the deli in order to provide her with a workplace she could control and is more similar to the bakery she ran in Seoul.

Unexpected events greet them at every turn.  The former owner hadn’t paid some taxes, so they become responsible for those.  They also try to make changes to the products they carry, with much complaint from the regular customers.  Renovations on a grand scale are made impossible by the reality that the store needs to be open and making money more than the hole in the roof needs fixing.

Meanwhile, Howe is still working at the Paris Review, struggling to reconcile working in the deli with his commitment to one of the best-known literary magazines.  His boss, George Plimpton, is both a bit of a sounding board and a larger-than-life, frightening source of worry for Howe.  He discusses the decline of both Plimpton and the Review during this time, when his deli is getting off the ground, which makes for an interesting comparison.

Howe writes about all of this with a gentle good humor.  There’s a sense of frustration, fun, and futility all mixed together in his prose, and it’s quite fun to read.  The only thing I could do with a little less of is his continual explanation of his WASP roots in Boston and how they differ from how Kay and Gab operate.  The reader can gather the cultural differences without having to have them pointed out.

My Korean Deli makes for a nice, light memoir about a man thrust into all sorts of unfamiliar situations — store owner, member of a Korean family, a delinquent employee from his day job — and shows him slowly growing into the idea of change.

Rating: 4/5.

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Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home by Ilona Bray, Alayna Schroeder, and Marcia Stewart

This book came along at an opportune time.  I’m getting married in September, and we will be looking to buy a house in the next couple of years.  In fact, whenever he saw me reading Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home, my fiancé asked me, “So, now you know all about buying a house?”  I think it’s reasonable to say that, while I might not know everything there is to buying a house, I’m much more aware of all the procedures and paperwork that go along with making that ultimate of purchases.

Bray, Schroeder, and Stewart start off the book with a chapter titled “What’s So Great About Buying a House?”, which was one of only a few chapters I had issues with.  I appreciate that a house is a good investment, and that you’re really paying yourself in equity when you pay off your mortgage.  Having just moved into an apartment, it didn’t exactly feel great to have apartments talked about in less-than-glowing terms, either.  The ideal thing is to buy a house; that’s why I’m reading the book.  I don’t need to be sold on the idea.

Most of the rest of the book is really quite good.  The second chapter encourages the potential buyer to think about what they really need and make priorities.  It also mentions some more unorthodox forms of houses, such as condominiums, modular and manufactured homes, townhouses, duplexes, and co-ops.   New homes are also discussed.  To be honest, this chapter was very helpful, since I would never have considered a condo as a house; they always just seem like a rental property in my mind.

I also like the fact the authors encourage the house-hunter to know exactly what his finances are and to do his homework on the housing market in the area.  Having your numbers straight has to make it a lot easier when it comes down to looking for a home, but I suspect it’s not something everyone does.  It’s good to have the reminder.

The other section of this book that I have some issues with is the part about nontraditional loan sources, such as borrowing from a parent or a friend.  I think it’s a horrible idea, even if there are tax breaks for the giver and the receiver.  Personal relationships and business agreements rarely end well, and I don’t think it’s a great idea to ask even one’s parents for a loan for a house.  If you can’t afford it without the help of family and friends, you need to save up some more money.

The rest of the book goes through the steps one takes before looking for a house, during the house-hunting process, and while drawing up contracts and closing on a house.  I thought all this information was very useful.  I knew that an inspection is a great idea; I didn’t know that a general inspector can’t tell you about any pest-related problems (and that it might be illegal for him to do so in some states).  It also overwhelmed me with its completeness; I’m a little glad that we aren’t in the market quite yet.

Included with the book is a CD-ROM with examples of different forms, which is also helpful.  It cut down on the number of forms reproduced in the book itself.  In fact, the entire layout of the book is really nice; I didn’t have to cut back and forth between the main text and asides.  They are all included in the flow of the book.  I love it, since that’s my least-favorite part of books that have small sections that force me to then figure out when I should cut over to read.

Nolo’s Essential Guide to Buying Your First Home is a useful resource for those looking to buy their first home.  It made me feel like I’m much more prepared for the process in front of us in a couple of years.

Rating: 4/5.

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Cocaine’s Son by Dave Itzkoff

I’m a fan of a good memoir.  David Sedaris is one of my favorite authors, mostly because he can write about his family in a way that is both sardonic and tender.  Dave Itzkoff’s aim is not for a memoir written in the style of David Sedaris, but he is aiming squarely for a book that examines family relationships — specifically, the one between father and son.  Unfortunately, the result of that aim, Cocaine’s Son, is a book that bogs the reader down into a depressing relationship for which there never is a satisfying conclusion.

I will say that Itzkoff has a very readable style.  Unlike some other memoirs I’ve read, with authors who have more of an interesting story and less of an ability to put the story on the page, Itzkoff has a great voice.  He’s descriptive — my mind’s eye was able to be more active with this book than it is with most nonfiction.  He also uses different techniques for some chapters, like making one non-linear and another in the form of a play script.  In these ways, Cocaine’s Son was a joy to read.

What wasn’t so wonderful was the content.  At first, it’s interesting to hear about Itzkoff’s father, and his issues with him, and, yes, I realize that the book is supposed to be an exploration of their relationship.  It’s unfortunate that Itzkoff’s portrayal of his father makes it impossible to either identify or sympathize with either man.  Gerald Itzkoff is a man who treats others as if they don’t count.  His behavior makes him unpalatable to me in the highest degree — he’s not a “character”, he’s not “eccentric”.  He’s a kook who has no concept of how his actions impact others.

As to Itzkoff’s portrayal of himself … his issues with his father seem to cloud his entire life.  This is, at first, sad — after all, who wants to see someone live their life solely in response to one other person?  Then, about halfway through, the whole thing gets melodramatic.  Itzkoff sees his father everywhere, and the man is ruining everything!  Then, he’s feeling guilty for being angry at his father.  He’s a bad son.  Then, we’re back to what a jerk his father is.  And then … well, he gets married, and suddenly can see where his father was coming from all along.

Excuse me?  What?  If your father was so bad, how did he become less bad with time?  Did you, perhaps, merely mature to a point where most of us get — where you can accept others for who they are?  Most of us haven’t had parents who did coke, surely, but most of Itzkoff’s father’s behavior wasn’t because of his drug use, since it continued well after he became sober.  My only conclusion is that Itzkoff’s father is like most father’s, only more egocentric.  Most of us manage to come to terms with a self-absorbed parent without writing a self-indulgent memoir.

I looked forward to reading Cocaine’s Son, thinking I was going to get a thoughtful exploration of a childhood spent with an addict parent.  What I got was a well-written yet sadly lacking family story.

Rating: 2/5.

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The Convent by Panos Karnezis

Panos Karnezis’s The Convent is a different sort of literary pseudo-mystery.  Usually, if there’s a baby in a convent, the focus is on figuring out who the mother is among the nuns.  Karnezis manages to create a story that pulls the focus off that end, making the eventual reveal more honest and enjoyable than a more direct hunt for the mother would be.

The first thing I have to say is that The Convent is beautifully written.  His description has a wonderful quality of being detailed without pushing through the reader’s ability to imagine the location on their own, which I love.  The characters’ behaviors are strongly depicted, their actions at once predictable and surprising.

Karnezis only has us follow a couple of characters throughout the book, which makes the eventual end of the story more interesting.  The Mother Superior, Sister María Inés, is the main character.  She is a complex women, with a sad past that colors her reaction to the sudden appearance of a baby on the doorstep of the convent.  The baby, enclosed in a ventilated suitcase, is seen by her as a sign from God.  Karnezis uses her to explore the lengths to which a person can go due to their beliefs, no matter how misguided.  He does this well, but I also felt that some of her behavior is stretched to the almost-unbelievable, especially her behavior after being attacked by a dog in the yard of the convent.

We occasionally get to see into the mind of Sister Ana, Sister María Inés’ main antagonist.  Her mental state is about as unsettled as the Mother Superior’s, but she seems to have no reason to be so suspicious and mistrustful of almost everyone.  A little more about her background would be wonderful.

The last character we get to know is Bishop Estrada, the man who oversees the convent.  Living far away, he visits occasionally and is a mostly-benevolent presence in the nuns’ lives.  He plays an instrumental role on what happens to the baby.  He is a voice of reason and moderation for the nuns, but is not without his own personal motives.

These characters shape our understanding of the world of the book.  This leads to a surprising climax and interesting denouement, which I rather enjoyed.  The early revelation of the Mother Superior’s secret makes one feel that the story is about her, especially since we follow her so closely.  And, in a way, it is about her and her reaction to the arrival of the child.  But it is the story that is hidden in the end that is truly interesting to me, mostly because it’s about people who struggle to maintain their faith when faced with temptation and how they deal with the consequences.

It’s this story that is infinitely more interesting to me than the increasingly unhinged behavior of Sister María Inés and Sister Ana.  The friction between them, and their actions, feel too extreme to me to make The Convent more than a good story written excellently.

Rating: 3.5/5.

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The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama

What if a retired man, encouraged by his wife, started a business to match people up?  What if he’s matching them up for arranged marriages?  This is the premise of The Marriage Bureau for Rich People, a cute and likable story by Farahad Zama about life and love in India.  Presenting a straightforward story, the book gives us small bits of life advice while remaining an ultimately light tale, providing for easy reading.

Books taking place in India, and discussing the people who live there, are nothing new.  One of my favorites is The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy.  In fact, there seems to have been an explosion of the genre recently, with many new Indian writers bringing their works to the world.  I, for one, am ecstatic about this.  I’ve been fascinated by India since I was little, and I can always read a little more fiction that takes place there.  I don’t care if it’s serious, like Roy’s novel, or lighthearted, like Zama’s book.

The basic premise, that an older man, Mr. Ali, helps others find marriage matches, struck me as quirky and charming.  He sets up shop on the front veranda of his and his wife’s porch, advertises for clients, and starts taking in their information to add to lists, which he sends out to clients who would find them of interest.  His business becomes so popular that he takes on an assistant, Aruna, a sweet, intelligent young woman who has been forced out of her master’s program in order to provide money for her family.

Aruna proves to be a very capable employee, as well as pleasant enough to Mr. and Mrs. Ali that they consider her like a daughter.  Their own son causes them no end of troubles, with his social activism, and Aruna appears to offer them a bit of stability and comfort their lives would otherwise lack.

It is a bit predictable that Aruna is good with managing the office and at assisting people in finding their marriage matches.  I can easily accept it since Aruna is such a sympathetic character — she needs to be good at her job because her family needs the money.  Plus, her job leads her to a match of her own, so it’s a good plot device.

I have to admit, I expected that Aruna (and possibly her sister) would end up married by the end of the book.  I think that’s pretty much a given with a book like this — someone important to the story will get married.  It’s practically a rule.  Zama did, however, surprise me a bit.  I was guessing about one man for Aruna, and it turned out to be someone completely different.  I liked that he was able to distract me to a certain extent, although I did manage to get the right man before the official reveal.

There was another way The Marriage Bureau for Rich People surprised me.  The Alis are Muslim, Aruna is Hindu, and the customers of the matchmaking service are both, with some Christians tossed into the mix as well.  There is no friction between the groups; in fact, the people seem to readily acknowledge the similarities of their core beliefs, and choose to take the opinion that God is God and religion is a creation of man.  This is amazing, and I wonder how accurate that assertion is for actual Muslims and Hindus living in close proximity to one another.  For this book, it made storytelling easier, so I suspended my disbelief.  That doesn’t mean, however, that I don’t wonder about the actual relationships people build with their neighbors with beliefs different from their own.

My last surprise was actually closely tied with the premise of the book:  I didn’t realize that so many marriages in India are arranged. I knew it was a practice commonly employed in the past.  Why I thought love-marriage was predominant now, I have no idea; the caste system, plus the difficulties of meeting people of the opposite sex who would be considered suitable to not only the individual but also the family, makes it a challenge to find someone.  No wonder family members, like uncles, or services like Mr. Ali’s, are necessary to help marriage matches along.

I enjoyed learning a little more about an aspect of Indian culture that I haven’t read a lot about.  I also thought the romance part of the story endearing.  I hope that Zama writes more books, because I already know I’d like to read them.

Rating: 4/5.

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