Category Archives: Mixed

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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Filed under 3/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction

A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness

I think the first warning about A Discovery of Witches should have been that I heard about it in “Parade”.  Now, there’s nothing wrong with “Parade”; I like to read it on Sundays as much as the next person does.  But it’s not really known for being a reliable source for literary insight.  I read their little blurb about this book, though, and I thought it sounded pretty good.  Then my mother said she was getting it for my cousin for her birthday, and I thought it would be nice for us to have both read the same book around the same time.  Unfortunately, I’m now in the awkward situation of knowing that my cousin’s going to get a book that is not spectacular, to say the least.

A Discovery of Witches starts off with our protagonist, Diana Bishop, establishing that she is a witch, but that she refuses to use her powers.  She’s a researcher, interested in the history of science — in particular, alchemical manuscripts (so, really, she’s interested in the history of pre-science).  She’s an American professor who’s younger than thirty, yet has earned a sabbatical year so she can study at Oxford.

While looking at old alchemical texts, she notices that one is enchanted.  She manages to open it, pretty much ignores what’s inside, and returns it.  After that, all hell breaks loose, and “creatures” (Harkness’ term for daemons, vampires, and witches) come out of the woodwork to threaten Diana in all manners of ways.

But this is all okay, because she quickly runs into Matthew Clairmont, a vampire on a mission to protect her.  Then Harkness spends four hundred pages ruining the premise she set up in the first thirty by making Diana completely dependent on Matthew for her physical safety and personal well-being.  He does everything from guard her from other creatures to making sure she does yoga.  This is extremely irritating.  Don’t create a character that you call strong and brave and then have her be completely clueless as to how she’s supposed to behave without a man to reference.

I will say that Harkness’ writing flows well.  I found it a pleasant read, language-wise, and would love to read something that isn’t so pseudo-feminist and, frankly, insulting to independent, strong women.  I’d love for her to either write something that doesn’t involve a strong romantic theme or, conversely, something that is open about the fact that it’s a romance and embraces the genre.  At least then the work would be honest.  One of the worst things an author can do is lie to the reader within the book’s own text.  I feel disrespected and betrayed, and feel almost that I should give my copy back to my mother so she can return it and recoup her money.

As it stands, however, A Discovery of Witches falls flat for me.  It doesn’t even end satisfactorily; planning on two more books to come, Harkness made this one end in a cliffhanger.  Sadly, this is just another turn-off for me, and I won’t be seeking out Diana and Matthew for another go-around.  Unless my mother buys me the sequel.  Then I’ll be duty-bound to read it, and most likely much more grumpy for the return trip.

Rating: 2/5.

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A Pocketful of History by Jim Noles

A Pocketful of History is a collection of essays about the state quarters put out during the fifty state quarter program.  Some are straight history, some are about a particular coin design’s travel from idea to eventual winner, and some … some kind-of go off on tangents.  When the coins give Noles something of historical importance, he does a good job of telling us the story.  Unfortunately, not all do, and Noles has to scramble to deliver on his promise.

A lot of the time, Noles is lucky.  A state chose something of historical interest to base the design of their coin on, and he has a good topic to write about.  This happens most frequently in the beginning of the book, which is organized by order in which the states joined the union, and thus has the oldest states closest to the start.

One of the best examples of this is the very first chapter, which tells the story of Delaware’s coin design.  It features Caesar Rodney in his gallop from Delaware to provide a critical vote for independence in the Continental Congress in Philadelphia.  It’s a story I didn’t know, and Noles tells it well.  I enjoyed learning that little bit of Delaware history that turned out to contribute to a fairly large part of American history.

Another type of story Noles tells is the trip the winning design took to become the design a state chose for their coin.  California’s chapter is a good example.  Noles spends a lot of time on Schwarzenegger’s decision-making process before getting to the story of John Muir, who is featured on the coin.  These chapters I found much less interesting than the ones that focus most of their attention on the story of the coin.  I found myself bored when he discussed the process of design, the way the decision was made, the people who made the decision, the number of the coins, and whatever controversy there was about the design that was chosen.  I didn’t expect to get that type of story.  I’m interested in the story the coin is intended to tell, not that of the politics that brought them into being.

The worst of the chapters go off on paths that are tenuously connected to the design of the coin.  Perhaps the most egregious example of this type of chapter is that of my home state, Michigan.  Noles starts off the chapter by titling it, rather insultingly, “Great Lakes, Great Drama … and a So-So Quarter”.

I’ll admit that the design of the quarter is more simple — it’s the shape of our state (not the borders, since those extend out into the Great Lakes) as well as those of the Great Lakes.  Instead of telling the story, then, of the formation of the lakes, or the history of the shipping industry, Noles chooses to tell us of the great storm of 1913 and the devastation wreaked on the ships sailing at the time.

How, exactly, is this related to the image depicted on the coin?  It doesn’t show a boat in distress.  It doesn’t even show waves, and has little to do with Michigan itself.  I was extremely disappointed in Noles’ treatment of my state.

Fortunately, the good chapters outnumber the bad ones, which made A Pocketful of History much easier to get through.  Noles would have done better to keep out of the politics, and find the more honest stories for the coins that didn’t readily provide a  historical image for him to write about.

Rating: 3/5.

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Bellwether by Connie Willis

Bellwether

I looked forward to reading Bellwether.  I read Doomsday Book several years ago and really enjoyed it.  As I soon found out, however, Bellwether, while it is an enjoyable story, can’t be compared to Doomsday Book.  Their stories are too different and Connie Willis’ goals for the two books are far away from one another.  Still, Bellwether was a good way to spend a couple days; it’s a smart book with a clever plot and interesting characters.

Bellwether has a rather fun premise — a sociologist studying fads forms an unlikely partnership with a man studying chaos theory, and end up doing their study with a flock of sheep.  Sandra, our sociologist, is studying the fad of hair bobbing in the 1920s.  She works at HiTek, a science company — it literally has taken scientists from all fields, put them in one building, and now treats them like office workers.  There’s more pointless rules and hoops to jump through than any sane person should put up with.

Since they’re treated like office workers, they’re expected to fill in forms with the best of them.  When Bennett, our hapless chaos theorist, loses his funding forms (by turning them in to the person he was supposed to), he also loses out on his macaque money.  Sandra, who has developed an interest in Bennett due to his complete immunity to any and all fads, offers a unique solution — share funding by studying the movements of sheep — they’re less complex and easy to track for Bennett and are creatures who like to follow others for Sandra.

Mixed into this is the Niebnitz grant, an astronomical sum awarded to scientists considered to be doing work above and beyond their colleagues.  HiTek is determined to have a winner among their scientists, even if it means studying the past Niebnitz winners and manufacturing projects that match the pattern.

The most enjoyable part of this book is the interplay between Sandra and her employer, her coworkers, and the outside world.  She studies fads for a living, but she’s not exempt from having to experience them in real life.  The management always has new procedures (with a new acronym).  Flip, the irresponsible mail girl, constantly surprises Sandra with something new she’s wearing, saying, or doing.  Trends in food come and go, much to Sandra’s chagrin; she just wants chocolate cheesecake and iced tea.

There are, however, some problems with the book.  It feels a little slap-dash.  Maybe part of that is its length — it’s only 247 pages.  There is also a feeling of disconnection, to a certain extent.  Sandra’s job is fads, something that is inherently human, but it seems as if they are something she detests in personal life.  She appears to feel as if she’s above others, which is a little uncomfortable to read.  It’s not so great when the hero of the book thinks that most people are dumb.

Bellwether also contains what appears to be an obligatory romance between Bennett and Sandra.  It is particularly irritating to me because their behavior so clearly indicates their feelings, but those feelings aren’t acknowledged in the book until pretty close to the end.

Other than those couple of things, Bellwether is a perfectly pleasant read.  It was a fine way to spend my reading time for a couple of days, but I don’t think the story will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 3/5.

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Screw: A Guard’s View of Bridgewater State Hospital by Tom Ryan

Tom Ryan’s Screw is a report on the time he spent as a guard at Bridgewater State Hospital, an institution that was supposed to be a place where those with mental illness to be housed and receive treatment.  Rather than receive the care that the courts or their doctors recommended, however, Ryan asserts that the patients were abused.  Screw is an interesting exploration of the institutional culture of a mental hospital in the 1970s.

Let me start off by saying that the book is fairly simply written.  Chapters are short.  They typically encase one encounter or event.  The book is an easy read; perhaps too easy.  It feels almost flimsy in its written structure.  This shouldn’t be too surprising; the book was published by a company called South End Press.  Its stated opinion on copyright, as found on the copyright page of the book, is:  “Copyrights are required for book production in the United States.  However, in our case, it is a disliked necessity.”  I’m sure this was some sort of comment on the state of publishing rights forty years ago, but what comes across today is a lack of attention to detail; they didn’t care enough to make sure the book was formatted correctly and free of errors.  Perhaps this isn’t a big deal for fiction books, but if you’re accusing people of having initiated and maintained long-term abuse of patients, you might want to make sure the book has no flaws for the accused to point at and say, “Well, you spelled this wrong, and some of the details don’t make sense.  Are you sure you’re right on the rest of what you’re accusing people of?”

Once you get a grasp on and forgive the structure, Ryan gives us small accounts in each chapter.  He explains what brought him there — he volunteered first through school, and then decided to go “under cover” as a guard.  He then gives us the grisly details.  There are not one, but two, men who gouge out their own eyes in response to treatment by guards.  Many patients are beaten up.  The overall doctor of Bridgewater, even though he never sees the patients, fights to keep them in the hospital.  Most of the guards are not decent humans, as is shown over and over again.

I’m perfectly willing and able to understand that an institution can have such an atmosphere that those who are amoral can take over and call the shots.  I find it difficult to believe that the entire group of people have no consciences and allow these things to happen, but I do have to remember that people had a hard time thinking that the Nazis were killing an entire group of people.  So, yes, possible that a lot of people were doing some horrible things.  My problem, though, is with Ryan himself.  Before he even puts himself in the position of being a guard, he talks to a professor of his about going into Bridgewater posing as a patient.  His professor is not in favor of this, and offers instead that Ryan can work on a survey he’s doing on the inmates, and that he would be an author on the paper that came as a result.  Ryan turns this down, which is fine.  He was arrogant in his reasoning, however — the study is flawed and he basically thought his professor was an idiot for wanting to do it.  This behavior leads me to believe that Ryan wasn’t a quiet observer, but actively baited others in Bridgewater to manipulate them into more aggressive actions.

Screw opened my eyes to how badly we can treat each other when there’s a power differential.  I just wish the observer had been able to be impartial.

Rating: 2/5.

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Descartes’ Baby: How the Science of Child Development Explains What Makes Us Human by Paul Bloom

Descartes’ Baby starts off with an anecdote about, fittingly enough, Rene Descartes.  He reportedly had an automoton daughter that behaved as a real girl would, which disturbed those around him so much that one man tossed it into the sea.  It was an interesting story, and has something to do with behavior — but didn’t really have anything to do with what child development tells us about all human behavior.  The opening to the book is an indication of what the reader has ahead of him; while the book discusses human behavior and how children are the same as or different than adults, a lot of the material seems to be evidence in support of the genetic basis for behaviors that already are thought to have a genetic basis, rather than presenting new discoveries that only studying children could provide.

To be fair to Bloom, a lot of the information he gives the reader is really interesting.  I loved his explanation of studies done on normal people and people with autism to discover the differences in the behaviors and expectations of the two populations.  I also enjoyed his discussion on magical thinking.  Children of fundamentalist Christians and of atheists both have a propensity for thinking that there is some sort of God or supernatural power that shapes the universe.  This stuff is cool, because it points toward definite genetic or brain structure reasons for people’s behavior.

What was disappointing to me was how much time Bloom spent on adult behavior.  I expected a book about how children behave, then a little bit about how that ties in with how grown-up people do things.  Instead, Bloom spends a lot of time discussing how and why adults do things, how they classify words and behaviors, and how they feel.  For example, Bloom spends a good amount of time talking about how adults classify morality.  He then gives an instance where children appear to also use that definition when deciding whether actions or people are good or bad.  That’s super.  What that tells us, though, is not that the study of children exposed some hitherto unknown facet of human thinking and behavior.  It tells us that developmental psychology can provide us with support for theories we already have about how people act.

If Descartes’ Baby had been presented in this way — that it is about how developmental psychology adds to our knowledge base on what it means to be human — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.  Much like Nathaniel’s Nutmeg, which doesn’t really talk all that much about Nathaniel, I felt like I was always waiting for the second shoe to drop — I’d finally see how child development explains all!  Alas, that never happened.  This book was ruined for me by its marketing.  It oversold itself in its subtitle, and it didn’t recover from the disappointment that caused.

Rating: 2.5/5.

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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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Filed under 2/5, Advance Reader's Copy, Book review, Mixed, Nonfiction