Friday, September 30, 2005

Been a Slacker

I've meant to write more; I like to keep this up a few times a week. But it's been a pretty stressful week at work, and I've also felt kind of slow and dumb, and not up to analyzing things.

This is particularly sad, since I had some interesting thoughts I wanted to put down earlier this week about a talk I went to. Ed Burger, a math professor at Williams, just published a book called Coincidences, Chaos, and All That Math Jazz, and I went to see him speak about it at the Harvard Bookstore. It was really interesting, and I asked a question, which made me very proud. (My question, for the interested, was this: in his book he discusses how cryptography depends on the fact that it's very, very hard to factor number. So if a HUGE number has only two HUGE prime factors, it can be used in cryptography. My question is, if you can't factor huge numbers, how do you know if a number is prime?)

Anyway, I had just finished his book, which is in large part about how our intuition is often wrong about things, and how math points us to the right answers. And I had just started a book called The Scientist in the Crib (I have to stop reading nonfiction, it's not nearly escapist enough), which is about how babies explore the world around them and come by all the knowledge that seems given the rest of us.

And I had in my head this big long discussion of the idea of being surprised by the nature of reality, and how these two books fit togther. Only now I'm feeling mentally logey, and it turns out the Scientist is really more about how amazing it is that babies are born able to understand seeing and hearing, etc. which doesn't seem THAT amazing to me since animals are born like that, too (I like the parts of the book about social skills and language much better). So we're going to abandon that lofty plan.

Yeah, I really need to read some fiction.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Personal Library Renaissance, Redux

I had made a resolution to read some fiction, finally, after glutting on nonfiction. I enjoy nonfiction, but it's not as engrossing, and it doesn't give me the same rush that fiction does.

So after I finish The Scientist in the Crib, which I'm hoping has lots of cute little kid anecdotes, I think I'm not only going to move on to fiction, but to reinstate the Personal Library Renaissance that I've been talking about forever. No more library books for me! No deadline, though--I just won't go through the usual cycle of returning some and getting new ones on the same trip. I'm learning not to ask too much of myself.

I do still have the library book n.p. by Banana Yoshimoto. I don't think it's a great translation, since a lot of the more casual language looks very stilted. The dialog, especially, looks like it's been translated word-for-word and without much style. But the plot sounds intriguing--a young woman tries to solve the mystery of her boyfriend's suicide. It turns out everyone who has tried to translate a certain story by a certain author has committed suicide, as indeed the author himself did. I worry it'll be a letdown, but I'll take what I can get.

Then I think When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro, which Becky was kind enough to lend/give to me. I've been so excited about that book that I've held off on it, because once I read it, I won't be able to look forward to it anymore. Or maybe I'm worried that it won't live up to my hopes. Whichever.

And The Final Solution by Michael Chabon. And then Ceci's going to lend me Pledged (non-fiction, but trashy nonfiction!) and We Need to Talk about Kevin. I think I'll reread Midwives.

I think that's it. That's enough to promise myself; who knows what will need to be read between now and then?

Monday, September 19, 2005

Cocky Fellows

I imagine my post title might get some interesting google hits. Bring 'em on!

I read Freakonomics. I have to say I was disappointed. It was slight, smug, and cocky, and this from both of the authors.

The economist clearly thought he was imparting something very, very special. But anyone who's ever read Slate's occasional column "The Dismal Science" knows that this is what economics is about--applying the theories of incentives to explain data. And, sadly but often, applying monetary figures to non-monetary transactions. The economist, in analyzing the effects of parenting on children, chose school test scores to measure success. The conclusion he reached is that who your parents are has an effect, but not what they do (so your parents' socioeconomic status and level of education will affect you, but not whether they read to you, talk to you or spank you). Now, at the beginning of this whole argument, he admits that he picked test scores as an indicator just because they're quantifiable and available in large numbers. But by the end of the chapter, he had drawn sweeping conclusions that I suspect would have been shattered if you were able to measure an effect like how happy and well adjusted the children turned out.

Really, it's just that he acted like he was giving me this magical gift of his insight, when really all I felt like he was doing was the tedious work of crunching some interesting numbers for me.

The writer, in the meantime, was using excerpts from an article he wrote about this guy for the NY Times Magazine for epigraphs for each chapter. Not only do I consider that kind of lazy, but the point of each excerpt was not about economics, but about how cool and punk rock this guy is.

My favorite bit of bad writing is in a place where the writer (the guy's name is Stephen J. Dubner) tries to build suspense in a sentence. Check this out. "...are we to assume that mankind is innately and universally corrupt? And if so, how corrupt? The answer may lie in . . . bagels."

Now, check out the use of ellipses there. That's in the original book. He wants to build tension before startling us with his revelation that bagels may hold the key to mankind's corruption. What a cheap way to do it.

The next book I picked up is How to be Alone by Jonathan Franzen. I borrowed this from Lynne a while ago and just picked it up. After reading the preface, I almost put it down. The preface was about how he had been defensive about what a jerk everyone thought he was till he went back and looked at his essays of a few years ago and realized what a jerk he was. The way he addressed this subject made him look like a real jerk. But I've been sucked into his essay about the crappy Chicago postal system, and while I still have no desire to read about his theories on the demise of the American novel, the postal system stuff is really interesting.

In sum, cocky, but we'll give him a shot.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

I Can't Believe I Didn't Tell You This One Yet

Okay, it's time for everyone to understand what a BAD library companion Melissa is.

She reads, we share books--so I thought I'd bring her to the BPL. I have a list of about four books I need to pick up. It'll be fun, right?

Now, when I go shopping with friends who have self-control problems, I consider myself very good at hurling myself between them and temptation. Not that I'd forcibly prevent anyone from making a good purchase, but when Kerry would approach the bath products, I knew it was time to divert her. And you can only let Sara spend so much time in the handbags section before things get a little hairy. Isn't it your duty, as a friend, to make sure the person doesn't hurt themselves when temptation is near?

Melissa, you let me down. She kept pointing things out. She stopped me in the bridal section. She stood on silently as I debated picking up that random Young Adult book that caught my eye, and then said "why not?" when I asked her directly if I should take it.

Why not? I'll tell you why not--do you know how heavy twelve books can be? When you don't have a bag to carry them in? THAT'S why not. What happened to support? What happened to picking up the slack when someone's weakness comes into play.

Melissa, I adore you, but next time we go to the library together, you're getting a cue card with the word "NO" written on it. It looks like I'm going to need self-control for both of us.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005


I'm not quite done reading Cures: A Gay Man's Odyssey, but I think I'm ready to pick it apart.

First, I like the word "odyssey," but probably couldn't have spelled it if the book cover wasn't right here. I don't know for sure that I would call this story an odyssey, though I suppose it was subjectively. It's not really a story of someone having adventures, though I have no doubt there were many adventures to be had in the New York gay scene in the '60s. In fact, it's implied that he had some of them. But they're not central to this book.

Central to the book, as you can tell by the title, is therapy. Psychoanalysis to a lesser extent, but psychological explanations in general--Erikson's developmental stages Freud's ideas of repression and displacement, etc. The author, Martin Duberman, debunks a lot of the conclusions psychology came to over the years about homosexuality, but he totally buys psychology. It's his primary lens for everything. I find that interesting in a refreshing way, in that he was able to reject the conclusions of a field whose methodology he considers valid. It's almost like he thinks psychologists aren't using their toolbox properly. I also found it a little tiresome, because he spends a lot of time quoting his diary, in which he delves a lot.

I don't think I would recommend this book as a casual read, though I think I would strongly recommend it to someone who had a specific interest in the topic. It's just not compelling enough to stand on its own--he repeats the same patterns in his life, and fills much of his time with his work as an historian and civil rights and anti-war activist. All of those things are not merely related, but reflected in the prose. Still, it's almost unfathomable to me how the world thought--and often still thinks--about people, and he relates many of these circumstances very well.

Also I disagree with him about promiscuity (meaning, I think but am not certain, also infidelity) being fine and dandy just because it's natural. We restrict a lot of natural urges for the good of society, and I think it's important not to say that just because we once thought homosexuality was sick, but we were wrong, does not mean that it's wrong to demand any restriction on sexual behavior by society.

But I'm not arguing well, possibly because my wrist hurts. This is all for now.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Can't Figure out How to Stop It

I'd like to hear from any Virginia Woolf fans. I was supposed to read To the Lighthouse for a class once, but after the first ten pages and the first class discussion in which I began to see what I was up against, I didn't even really make an effort. (I certainly hope Professor Case never finds this site.) The one thing I remember is that you would start out a passage knowing who was thinking, and about what, and by the end of the paragraph two pages later, you would have no idea who or what was under discussion.

I loved A Room of One's Own, though, because I thought it was well argued, with the right amount of incidental and anecdotal information, along with the more sweeping points. I also thought she was very clear, when she wanted to be, in that essay.

Orlando, my first even completed Virginia Woolf novel, was...well, I couldn't figure out how to make the book stop except by finishing it. The wonderful things about it were the very, very funny moments, and some of the very well-parodied characters (the first and last man ever to toast cheese in the Italian marble fireplace large enough for a tall man to stand in). The hard parts--well, the magical realism wasn't that hard. I might even put that in the "assets" column. The bizarre interludes where Modesty, Chastity, and Purity come and dance around the young man Orlando, who then wakes up a woman...well, that was pretty weird. But the unlikeable parts were the soliloquizing that I just couldn't figure out. I found myself, in long passages, forgetting what the point of the description was. I definitely lost track of a number of points the author must have been trying to make.

Clearly, the whole thing was a parable. What was I supposed to learn? There was something important about writing, about finding the role of writing in the writer's life, and the writer in society. Okay, I think I mostly got that. There were quite a few lessons about being a woman, though not as many as I expected at first. By turning from a man to a woman, Orlando really ends up being a woman who had a boyhood, and also someone who has both and neither sex. It's a very modern viewpoint, actually--I feel that, often enough in my life, it doesn't matter that I'm a woman. Based on other things I've read, I hadn't expected Woolf to come across this way. Cool.

But there was a whole thing about "The Spirit of the Age," and then another thing about Orlando's philandering, and I don't know what-all else. Let's just say, I feel like I missed a lot of the book, enjoyed a great deal of what was there, and will see the movie. I think that's all I have to bring to this; I wish there was more.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Totally Off Topic

Okay, this has nothing to do with books, except to the extent that poor Ray Bradbury's name was attached. But I feel I need to warn the world. I need to put the the word "abysmal" and the name of the movie The Sound of Thunder in the same post so that someone might find them and realize what a an awful, horrible, bad movie this was.

How long has it been since you've seen actors fake walking in front of a projection of a city street. Remember the skiing scene with Ingred Bergman and Gregory Peck in Spellbound? Like that. And the background moves by at a perfectly steady pace that's just a hair faster than they're actually walking? And they sort of sway back and forth because it's the only way to move your body out of the way of your own feet? Yeah, that.

Terrible CGI, no fewer than three contradictory theories of how time travel works, a mysteriously unpopulated city, and a whole slew of things I can't tell you about without giving something away. Oh, spare yourself! Doom, doom!