So many books...

From academic to trashy, book is life.
Reblogged from Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud:

Hate the chair, but love the nook. A boy can dream...

Reblogged from Ned Hayes Writing:
Markus Zusak quote
Markus Zusak quote

Masters of the Planet: The Search for Our Human Origins - Ian Tattersall I read this book in preparation for teaching a course on the relationship between human cultures and the non-human environment. We begin the semester with a section on human evolution where I establish the evidence for a naturalistic explanation of culture. I have had problems finding a book for this portion of the class, mainly because the books written for a general audience (as opposed to anthro or bio majors) are dominated by bad science writing filled with just-so stories, libertarian fantasies, and Evolutionary Psychology's most egregious sins. I am happy to report that this book does a fantastic job of not only walking the reader through the current understanding of human evolution, including major debates, gaps in the evidence, and clear explanations of the scientific process. The book presents a fascinating synthesis and repudiates some of the more common myths floating around the popular consciousness about human evolution, beginning with the argument that the Ardipithecus walked upright and dwelt in trees, that bipedality did not evolve afterwards but was an exaptation. The author does trip in the last two chapters as his desire to avoid inappropriate reductionistic explanations of human behavior leads him first to deny the importance of behavioral traits in the selective process and to overestimate the power of culture, and then to make nonsensical proclamations about society and culture in the Coda. This critique does not detract frothe usefulness of the book to introduce newcomers to the fun and captivating field of human evolution.

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5)

A Dance With Dragons (A Song of Ice and Fire, #5) - George R.R. Martin I first read this book when it came out, but I admit I skimmed it as quickly as possible to find out what happened. I set it aside for a year and picked it back up this past fall to give it a real read. Since the original three books were among the best fantasy I've ever read, I have been dragging through the past 13 years to get book 4 and 5. To be honest, listening to Martin talk about his writing process and the rest of the story, I have little to no faith that he will actually finish it.


I find that I'm still invested in the stories of the Stark children, and over the past two books, have really missed Robb and Lady Stark (despite her brief appearance as a zombie in Book 4). And when I stand back from book 4 and book 5 (which occur simultaneously in the timeline) the plot and the story are still compelling.

That said, there are some serious problems with Martin's writing. Whereas the first three books, though chunky and dense, were tightly constructed and fast-paced, I found Books 4 & 5 to be bogged down and sluggish. With the exception of the Reek chapters, which had a pall of fear and horror over them, the pacing was way off. The problem is structural, not with Martin's imagination, his world, the overall story, or his wordcraft.

First, Martin continues not only to introduce new characters, but to give these new characters full chapters and whole story lines that seem to be tangential to the main characters and the central plot lines. I think this is one of the things people were complaining about with Book 4 with the Dorne princess chapters, etc. I'm not against new characters per se, but the problem is that Martin had already established a forceful narrative with many different points of view in the first three books, so these new lines feel either extraneous or sidetrips from the central story; they could have been told as asides or omniscient narration or character musings with the main characters. It's just too much. From what I have read, Martin himself has a hard time keeping track of everyone.

Secondly, and for me more detrimentally, Martin's world building has been turned up to 11. He's got backstories and histories coming out of his ears. He needed to make the tough choices to CUT and EDIT it out. You need to have enough of those details so that us geeks get our imaginations on, but not so much that the story declines in quality and aesthetics. Much of this could've been included in appendices or in a companion wiki rather than grinding the forward momentum of the plot to a halt. When you read a chapter by a character who has been around since book one, but who has never had a POV chapter of his own (e.g., Selmy) and you spend 15 pages rehearsing his personal history and failings and regrets and rehash the history of the kings and the marriages and the battles ... It's bloody exasperating. Too many notes.

I have two more problems that are about content, rather than structure.

Third, these books have always been unflinching in their treatment of patriarchy and misogyny, and I have applauded them for that in the past. But it seemed to me that a corner had been turned in the 5th book, where we moved from frank portrayal of gender violence to porn, where every chapter had a woman with her breasts cut off, gang raped, humiliated, objectified, bought and sold, her "sex" hair described, or beaten bloody. Is there not a single man in all of the Westeros or Essos who sees something besides a wet warm hole for his prick when he looks at a woman? The effect is worsened by the debasement of Cersei at the end of B5. I am no fan of Cersei, but she *is* a strong, powerful, cunning, and Machiavellian woman how usurps masculine tropes of power and uses them as her own. And she is stripped of all of that for sexual sin by a church? And her family allows this to happen? Even Daenerys is traded and married off like a whore to the Harpy to buy peace. Yes, Martin has given us a complex and contradictory portrayal of woman, but the weight of the matter shifted in Book 5 and slammed heavily to the side of hatred of women and regaling in their humiliation in an act of literary prurience.

Fourth, while there had been moments of character homophobia through out the five books, starting with descriptions of the Knight of Flowers in book 1, it wasn't until B5 that again it just seemed like either a note to keeping clanging at over and over again, or a collective need within the world to assert the worst kind of masculinity. Again, not implausible as such, but is there NO ONE in the entire world with a different view of homosexuality? Every single character who may have been queer in some way (either by gender or sexual desires) was humiliated and, usually, murdered. They would appear briefly—like the half maester on Victarian's ship—and then suffer an ignominious death. We also get horror at masculine women (Brienne in B4) and titilating images of Cersei and Daenerys having sex with their maids. Of course the patriarchy that abuses women is the same one that punishes and murders effeminate men, so it makes sense to some degree. What doesn't make sense is the lack of real queer characters, even if oppressed in Westeros/Essos, who have lives and feelings and agency. The HBO series has tried to fix this with their character shift of Renly into the Knight of Flowers' lover (probably because at least one of the producers is gay). But in the books we end up with gay panic, violence, rape, torture, murder of deviants (i.e., gay men). It was exasperating.

On both points, patriarchy and homophobia, as I was ready Book 5, it became increasingly difficult to distinguish between what was Martin and what was the world he had built. Its prevalence and violence made it feel like a theme rather than a setting or characterization.

For all that, there were some really great plot & character advancement in booth Books 4 & 5: Jaimie gets humanized and explained and becomes somewhat sympathetic; Brienne brings a welcome twist to the paladin mythology as her sense of honor leads her on; Arya's quest to become a faceless one and her training is gripping, and challenges both notions of identity and the costs of vengeance; Bran's transformation into the Elder Tree was a fantastic turn in these very magic-light tomes, and raised many questions about lore, power, and magic that I hope we will come to understand (and hints that Bran was talking to Theon through the Godswood in Winterfell was very cool); Theon, whom we despise after his craven treachery, becomes pitiable, and his story continually pokes at questions of family and identity, belonging, honor, and the punishment for crimes committed and the nature of justice; Cersei's plotting in B4 was both disgusting and fun. Too little about Sam and his story gets dropped at the beginning of B4. Tyron's story was mixed for me. He was among my favorite characters after B3; but in B5 his story just becomes a series of bizarre coincidences and bad luck; I actually found it getting tedious by the time he was captive again on the ship. Jon, my favorite character, shone in B5, and his untimely demise yet another Stark murdered by treachery, victim of cosmic injustice (although most people on the internet are convinced he isn't actually dead) was another blow to my own enjoyment of the book, as I have been from the beginning a Stark man. Oh and the bureaucratic, lovesick Daenerys is a travesty and a betrayal of her character, in my opinion. Ugh.

I will continue to read the books—if they ever get written—because my emotional investment in the characters are so high. But I cannot help but see massive problems in these last two books and feel disappointment at where my favorite characters' lives have led them.
Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent - Eduardo Galeano Galeano is a Uruguayan journalist/writer who has written a magesterial three-volume expansion on this book since it was published in 1970. It is really a jarring read, especially if you're not familiar with how badly Latin America has been exploited by first Spain and Portugal, then the British Empire, and then the United States. Galeano is particularly critical of the imperial forces beyond the shores of Latin American that have bled it dry for 500 years, but he's also sharply critical of the "national bourgeoisie" of the independent nations of Latin America who allowed the ongoing exploitation at the expense of their poor, rural, and indigenous peoples. He also lays bare the workings of power and money that underlie the endemic poverty and violence of the continent. The book is simultaneously polemic, history, social science, and poetry (on that last point, I do wish I could read Spanish, because my feeling from reading this is that it must be stunning in Spanish). This really whet my appetite to learn more about Latin American history.
The Americas: A Hemispheric History - Felipe Fernández-Armesto Really a great introduction to the hemispheric approach to American history, perfect for teaching and for those who don't have much background in the history of the hemisphere. I wanted to rate it higher, but there were several oddities that made me feel like he wasn't as well versed in the literature as he needed to be, which then made me doubt stuff that I don't have an expertise in. (E.g., he underplays the significance of the post-contact demographic catastrophe; has a simplistic definition of Empire; claims that the U.S. abandoned empire building after WWI; etc.). Still recommend it, but was less enthusiastic by the end.

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease

Fat Chance: Beating the Odds Against Sugar, Processed Food, Obesity, and Disease - Robert H. Lustig This was a great book about the hormonal chains and effects of eating, and explains it in ways that are both thorough and accessible. Some of the information I had read before in my obsessive reading about fat/weight loss, but here it was put together in a systematic way to make sense of what your body is doing with what you put into it. Because I'm a social scientist, I got a bit bogged down in the last section about social policy, because his understanding of large social policies and politics is simplistic; yet I agree with his overall critique of the food industry and governmental policies on nutrition.

For me the real eye openers were: the chapter about stress and cortisol and its connection to obesity and metabolic disorders; the explanation of the liver's role in digesting both sugar & fat; the role that sedentism plays in increasing metabolic disorder and the relative miracle that daily exercise can have in reversing it; and the complexity of fructose vs. glucose.

He also busts several nutritional/weight loss myths: a calorie is not a calorie; you cannot lose weight by exercising; and all diets that eliminate sugar are successful (most successful are complete opposites, Atkins diet and Veganism, because they both eliminate sugar completely and focus the liver on one form of digestion).

One problem for me in the book is that he talks a lot about how losing weight is actually impossible, and that we should focus on health rather than weight loss. I actually agree with him, mostly, and am pleased that the negative effects of obesity on health and well-being and longevity can be eliminated by eating healthy foods—basically you should switch to whole foods, eating sugar only in the form of fruit and real whole grains (no processed grain at all, because it's just sugar)—and exercising. But I also think that he underestimates the value of something else he emphasizes, which is to change your food environment. That is one of the things that the research shows that people who are successful at weight loss do consistently. The trick is to change your food environment in a world of food abundance. I'm not quite ready to let go of my own fantasy of losing weight, although I probably should.

I was also a bit more dubious about the anti-oxidant chapters, but if I ate how he suggests, I would get plenty of them anyway, so if it turned out that we need them and in high quantities, I'd be getting them regardless.

So yeah, if you're interested in health, nutrition, obesity, or weight loss, read this book.

The fact that the food industry hates it should be endorsement enough.
The Reluctant Fundamentalist - Mohsin Hamid Interesting idea, clunky conceit, ultimately felt both facile and heavy handed.

That said, some of the symbolism is amazing, if not necessarily sophisticated. The notion of fundamentalism as capitalism instead of Islam, represented by a company Underwood Samson (i.e., U.S., i.e., Uncle Sam). A young American woman as the impenetrable (literally) virgin (figuratively), unless the protagonist can make himself into someone he is not (assimilation). New York as what America could be (diverse, polyglot, plural). Etc. Although it isn't overly complex and I do think it's heavy handed, it was absolutely fantastic for teaching purposes, undergraduates in a course seeing the U.S. from other people's perspectives.

Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology

Twenty Lessons in Environmental Sociology - Kenneth A. Gould, Tammy L. Lewis The book offers a great overview of the main issues in Environmental Sociology. Because it is written with uninitiated undergraduates in mind, it suffers from a lack of depth and complexity. Great for those with little knowledge of the field (and possibly great as a text book) but not great for scholars or more advanced readers.
The Rabbi's Cat - Joann Sfar, Alexis Siegel, Anjali Singh A fantastically irreverent, provocative, charming, compassionate examination of the contradictions of religious thought, culture, and social structures, from within Judaism. In a very Jewish tone, it strikes the perfect balance of amusing chiding and deep love. It lays bare multiple hypocrisies while maintaining a kind of embrace and acceptance of those contradictions. Yes, it's a graphic novel. But there's something here that both amused and challenged me. Love it.
A Kosher Christmas: 'Tis the Season to be Jewish - Joshua Eli Plaut I really enjoyed this book. A great examination of the impact of exogenous forces on cultural integrity and the cultural work both to belong to a larger society and to maintain one's cultural difference. A fun, smart, accessible work of cultural history and religious studies.
A General Theory of Love - Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, Richard Lannon I recommend this book, but had some problems with it. As a social scientist, I just kept finding myself saying 'yeah, but' a lot, as social phenomena and context are ignored or treated as "outside" the individual. This is a common problem I have when I read psych books. Although the authors nod to the importance of social context, their focus is on childhood development and on the brain. From time to time they'll cite a bit of social psych, but not nearly enough. It's as if the cultural valences and structures of meaning surrounding love, relationships, sex, intimacy, etc., play only the role of creative expression (e.g., poetry) and are not constitutive of both the content, expression, and phenomenology of the self.

I also found myself cranky by Ch. 8, which more or less came across to me as an advertisement for therapy. To be fair, the authors acknolwedged the multiple pathways to health, but when you read a chapter that basically says that most "broken" people won't be able to achieve healthy intimacy without 3 to 5 years of therapy...Yeah, I felt tricked and cheated. Almost didn't read the last chapter.
Twilight - Stephenie Meyer Because I assigned this book in a course on the cultural and social constructions of "love," and because we're following the sociology of emotion's model of seeing culture as shaping and giving meaning and valence to emotions, I had a hard time reading this book other than through the lens of what does this say about "love" and "relationships." My family background of Mormonism also made me hyper-aware of the fetishization of virginity and the essentially Mormon idea of the eternal family being possible only with vampires. So assuming (with Helen Fisher) that there are three basic forms of love—besotted love (romantic infatuation), lust, and long-term attachment—and knowing the history of European notions of love and romance (especially the troubadours), it was hard to see anything other than a story that is so anxious about sexual consummation that it ends up conflating sex and love, contrary to its surface-level obsession with keeping them separate. It should be no surprise to anyone that Fifty Shades of Gray started its life as Twilight fan fiction, as the undercurrent of masochism is barely latent here.

Familiar themes of the romance arch—possession, obsession, and powerlessness—combine with familiar themes of horror—fear, violence, and threat—to create a fantastic notion of true love.

I think at the end—aside from having to lie in the dark for an hour or so to recover from brain poisoning caused by a week of bad prose—what I really wondered is why? What is the draw? This is a story in which real relationships with real humans are rebuffed and rejected in favor of eternal families with the undead; where love is defined as being possessed/desired by an uncontrollably violent male; and where the pleasure derives from the female power to tame that male (La Belle et la Bête?); but where the male might break free and kill you at any moment; where the young female is on the surface smart and self-possessed, but who for 400 pages obsesses over what every look and gesture by an aloof vampire might mean.

I have a sex-positive ethic, and am an outspoken advocate for alternative sexualities and experience, such as S&M. But something reads off, to me, in Meyer's narrative:

The S&M is only foreplay for marriage (in the 4th book) and has no meaning other than to elevate the eroticization of virginity itself and to highlight the romantic trope of love as redemptive.

edited for clarity and grammar.
Under the Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith - Jon Krakauer There's nothing in this book that is untrue, per se. However, Krakauer has a particular story he wants to tell, and so drastically oversimplifies complex historical and cultural phenomena, and draws causal conclusions that are, at best, facile. There's a certain aspect of breathless exposé here that obscures the complexity of a minority, counter-cultural religion and its history. If you want a good history of Mormonism and/or introduction to Mormon culture and society, there are better (albeit probably less entertaining) choices.
Mindset: The New Psychology of Success - Carol S. Dweck I'm mostly giving this five stars for the information the book contains. As a book, it's only mediocre; but the discovery of the power and impact of the "growth mindset" vs. the "fixed mindset" is something that nearly everyone I know can benefit from.
The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are - Brené Brown This book has a lot to offer, and I generally liked it a lot. I think, however, in the translation of her academic work to a general audience (a laudable and necessary move, in my opinion, for all research) she over-simplified complex dynamics. And there were parts where I felt like things were a bit more touchy-feely than helpful. But those are minor critiques and I recommend the work to friends who might benefit from her insights.

Currently reading

Carnal Isræl: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture (The New Historicism: Studies in Cultural Poetics)
Daniel Boyarin
The Essential Talmud
Adin Steinsaltz, Chaya Galai
From the Mouth of the Whale: A Novel
Sjón, Robert Cribb
The Tools: 5 Tools to Help You Find Courage, Creativity, and Willpower--and Inspire You to Live Life in Forward Motion
'Phil Stutz', 'Barry Michels'
Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity
Andrew Solomon