Thursday, December 5, 2019

Book 210: The Selfish Gene

"Eggs are a relatively valuable resource, and therefore a female does not need to be so sexually attractive as a male does in order to ensure that her eggs are fertilized. A male is perfectly capable of siring all the children born to a large population of females. Even if a male has a short life because his gaudy tail attracts predators, or gets tangled in the bushes, he may have fathered a very large number of children before he dies. An unattractive or drab male may live even as long as a female, but he has few children, and his genes are not passed on. What shall it profit a male if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his immortal genes?" 

Dates read: February 19-24, 2018

Rating: 8/10

I read books on a schedule. Apparently this isn't a popular way to do things, and most people read based on mood. And I'll admit that sometimes I wish I did cut myself more of a break when it comes to adding in impulse reading. But I know there are books that are interesting and good and will be worth my while that I'll probably never really be "in the mood" to read, and so my schedule goes on.

Richard Dawkins' debut book, The Selfish Gene, fit in that "want to read, but never really right now" category for me. And it turned out I was glad that I picked it up! It examines a fundamental question about human nature: are people naturally generous, or are we naturally selfish? And to what extent is altruism (or the lack thereof) transmitted through our genes? To answer these questions, Dawkins examines how complex organisms, up to and including humans, evolved, to what extent behavior patterns are genetically transmitted, how deeply we might be motivated to help others depending on closely we're related to/share genes with them, and even gets into game theory.

The fundamental premise of the book is that genes "want" (to the extent that inanimate bodily particles want anything) to be passed on. Which one might think would automatically mean that genes that encode for behavior patterns that are selfish/centered on one's own survival at the expense of others would win out, but it's not as easy as that. One's genes also have an investment in being helpful (to a certain extent) to those who have a high likelihood of sharing them: parents, children, siblings, and to a lesser extent aunts/uncles, grandparents/grandkids, etc. And then there's the reality that we'll all need help, of some form or another, at some point, so there's a benefit to providing it to others in the hopes that it'll be returned when needed. So while it's not true altruism, there is some level of unselfishness that's been built in to most of our genetic codes as well.

I read one of Dawkins' later works a few years ago (The God Delusion), and did not like it at all. I found his authorial voice pedantic and grating. But The Selfish Gene is a science classic, so I made myself read it even though I thought I might not like it...and I didn't notice the same kind of condescending attitude. In fact, I thought it struck a good middle ground between dumbing down the concepts to the point where it's so basic there's no room for nuance, and be so technical it ends up talking over the heads of a non-science audience. Instead, it boiled concepts down to a level I felt comfortable with (I may have a J.D., but I never took science beyond basic high school biology and chemistry because it just never much appealed to me) and honestly provided the first explanation of game theory (or at least The Prisoner's Dilemma) that actually took in my brain.

It's still a little bit pedantic, but as someone with a tendency to be a pedant myself I didn't really mind it. Some scientists convey a sense of wonder about the world that a lot of readers really enjoy, though, and if you're looking for something along those lines, this will probably not be for you. If your spiritual beliefs are such that you're going to want some room left for divine intervention as a factor in evolution, this again is unlikely to be a book you'll enjoy. Although he doesn't really touch on religion in this book, Dawkins is a militant atheist and this is strictly scientific. Otherwise, though, there's a lot to get out of this and I'd recommend it to readers interested in genetics and/or altruism!

One year ago, I was reading: Interpreter of Maladies (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Games

Three years ago, I was reading: Seating Arrangements

Four years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, December 3, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Books Which Make Great Gifts

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week we're talking about holiday reads. I am not generally concerned with books set at particular times of year, nor do I remember many holiday scenes beyond the ones in Harry Potter, so my take on this week is going to be a little different. I'm talking about ten books that make great holiday gifts! These tend to be my most-recommended books because they're widely appealing.

In Cold Blood: The true-crime classic is a masterwork of storytelling, truly representing the best of what narrative non-fiction can be.

The Handmaid's Tale: Margaret Atwood is an incredible writer, and this book has had growing visibility in the current political climate and with the Hulu series. Surprisingly many people haven't read it, though, and it's very much worth reading.

Station Eleven: I actually just recommended this to my book club! It's a post-apocalyptic story for people who don't like post-apocalyptic stories, telling a tale of a world both before and 20 years after a pandemic flu, that both builds great characters and asks interesting questions about what we as people need to survive.

The Secret History: This has something for everyone! A twisty, engaging plot, vivid and interesting characters, fantastic prose. And Donna Tartt was only 28 when it was published which is mind-boggling.

Remains of the Day: Truly one of the most well-crafted novels I have ever read, this story of an English butler who is convinced that he's rendered service to a great man reflecting on his life is just astonishingly good (and will break your heart).

Less: The rare light-hearted novel to win a Pulitzer, this book about an aging minor writer who takes a trip around the world to deal with the fact that his sort-of boyfriend is marrying someone else is so charming and warm that it tricks you into not noticing how flawlessly it's put together.

Stardust: For someone at all open to fantasy, this tale about a young man who swears to catch a fallen star for his love interest, only to find out that the star is not at all interested in being taken anywhere, is much more accessible (and honestly, enjoyable) than Neil Gaiman's more well-known American Gods.

The Namesake: The son of Indian immigrants to the US is named Gogol, after the Russian writer, and his name is just one the sources of tension as he grows up and struggles to figure himself out. The character work is top-notch, and Lahiri's writing is just so strong.

A Tree Grows In Brooklyn: It's a coming-of-age story, but that doesn't mean it can't be appreciated by adults too! Francie Nolan's childhood in Brooklyn, growing up as the bookish daughter of a charming but unreliable alcoholic father and relentlessly pragmatic mother, is heart-warming at any age.

The Age of Innocence: I think the classics freak a lot of people out, but they're often much better and less intimidating than people think. Case in point: this is set among rich people in New York City's Gilded Age, but at its heart, it's a dramatic (but repressed) love triangle. Edith Wharton was writing about her own social set, and it shows in her sharp wit and insight.

Saturday, November 30, 2019

A Month In The Life: November 2019

We're in the homestretch, y'all! Just one more month between us and 2020, which is WILD. And while I've had some awesome experiences this year, I always find myself looking forward to the new one about this time. But first, there are holidays to enjoy!

In Books...
  • Patron Saints of Nothing: A Filipino-American teenager, Jason, goes to the Philippines to investigate his cousin's mysterious death amidst Duterte's drug war in this book that tries, but can't quite rise above Issue Book tropes. There's merit here, and a clear desire to raise awareness, but thin characterization and clunky exposition keep it from ever taking off.
  • The Death and Life of the Great Lakes: Given my strong emotional attachment to the Great Lakes as a native Michigander, this was always going to appeal to me. But the examination of the disasters that have transpired through human meddling is written with a clear-eyed urgency and ease to read that makes it especially compelling.
  • Slam: This almost seems like an experiment to see if the man-child attitude of a Nick Hornby character works better on an actual teenage boy. Honestly, it kind of does? Sam is a teenage skateboarder, himself the child of teenage parents, when he gets his girlfriend Alicia pregnant and she elects to keep the baby. I've always enjoyed Hornby's warm humor, but this book just doesn't really go anywhere. 
  • The Great Mortality: The Black Death was a historical event I didn't have much of a grasp on and wanted to learn more about, but this book proved to be a bit of a mixed bag. It was clearly well-researched, but John Kelly's writing style was so casual that it didn't really work for me. It shoots for being entertaining and lands too often on cheesy, which is a pity because I did feel like I learned from it and would have liked it more if it had been more restrained. 
  • The Talented Mr. Ripley: This movie is one of those that I always enjoy watching, so I was curious about the source material. It's different...the murder takes place much earlier, more time is devoted to Ripley's efforts to evade discovery, but it's still very good. Highsmith builds interesting characters and relationships even while keeping the tension humming. 
  • Offshore: This very short novel tells the story of a group of people living on houseboats on the River Thames, with a particular focus on a young wife and mother, Nenna, who is unhappily separated from her husband. The prose is lovely and she does excellent work creating characters without having a lot of pages in which to do so, but the plot didn't quite work for me and the ending left me cold.
  • After The Party: This book tells the story of Phyllis, who returns to England with her older husband and three children before World War 2 and gets involved with a movement both her sisters already belong to...the British Union of Fascists. Phyllis had some inconsistencies as a character, which was a problem because she was the narrator, but the prose quality is solid and the story is interesting, and a very different take on a WW2 tale.

In Life...
  • Winter begins: It was a pretty quiet November, but with this being Thanksgiving weekend, it's officially the holiday season. I baked a delicious Zingerman's coffee cake for dessert for the big meal, and we got our first significant snowfall of the season!

One Thing:

I was not an especially frequent visitor to sports blog Deadspin, though I look forward every year to Drew Magary's Hater's Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog. But even if you never loaded the website once, the way that it and other media outlets have been purchased and essentially pillaged by private equity is chilling. In a world where getting a reliable paycheck for writing and journalism is growing more and more difficult, the bravery of the whole staff for resigning in protest of the challenges made to their editorial independence is inspiring. Deadspin Forever.

Gratuitous Pug Picture:

Thursday, November 28, 2019

Book 209: My Name Is Venus Black

"In time, he'd discover that I'm not unlike the planet I'm named for. At a great distance, Venus is beautiful, the brightest of stars in the sky. But what NASA discovered when they orbited her is that she's actually an inhospitable planet, a boiling cauldron of poisonous gases. Come too close and you'd fry."

Dates read: February 15-19, 2018

Rating: 3/10

When my sister was only a month or two old, I tried to throw her away. True story! I announced to my mom that she was useless because she wouldn't stop crying, and tried to bargain that if we couldn't throw her away, couldn't we at least return her to the hospital? We fought like crazy growing up, but once I went to college we started to get along better and she's one of my best friends now. There's nothing quite like the bond between siblings.

Of course, this isn't everyone's experience (although it is the experience of quite a few people I know with brothers and sisters). Some people become estranged. Some are just never close with their siblings. And others have been close their whole lives. Venus Black, eponymous heroine of Heather Lloyd's My Name Is Venus Black, falls into the last category. Though her brother Leo is six years her junior and is autistic (since the book is set in the 80s, he's described as having "special needs", but he's clearly on the spectrum), and is only technically her half-brother, Venus adores him and nurtures him. But her ability to take care of him is forever changed when, at 13, she commits a serious crime. We're not sure what it is at first, the book opens in medias res while Venus is confronting her mother at the police station, being interviewed after it happens. It becomes clear pretty quickly that "it" is that she's shot and killed her stepfather. Why, though, takes a long time to come out.

Only shortly after Venus commits the murder, Leo is kidnapped by his small-time-crook of an uncle out of the backyard of a friend of his mother's. Venus is devastated when she hears that he's gone, even trying to flee from pre-trial detention to look for him. But her escape attempt is foiled, and she's sent to juvenile lock-up until she's an adult. When she gets out, she wants to just take on a new identity and keep her head down and try to figure out a way to get her brother back. She gets a job as a waitress under an assumed name, rents a room, and is trying to save up to go to California. But she can't really escape her past...a promising flirtation becomes risky when she finds out he's a cop and might be able to discover who she really is, and eventually her mother tracks her down too. When they get a lead on Leo, though, everything changes.

By the time this review goes live, this book will have been out for well over a year, so I don't feel bad about the fact that I'm about to "spoil" the "why-dunnit". If you'd like to remain in the dark, stop reading. I'm mostly going to spill it because the book builds up to it like it's some kind of revelation and honestly it is not at all: Venus killed her stepdad because he was peeping at her though a hole in the wall. She tells her mother, and her mother does nothing about it. It makes the rage she feels at her mother feel justified and there's absolutely no reason it needs to be hidden in the back third of the book. It's a terrible plotting decision to bury it, but that's only one in a series of bad decisions Lloyd makes in her debut novel. The characters she draws are paper-thin (with the exception of Leo, who I'll get to next) and feel not-at-all real. Venus and Leo's mother is a terrible person, but Lloyd makes her a struggling alcoholic in a way that feels like it's supposed to give her sympathy (it fails, she's still a shitty parent). There's some weird religious overtones that come out of nowhere in the end of the book and it feels shoehorned and unearned. And the ethnicity of a supporting character is constantly referenced in a way that makes it feel almost fetishistic.

The sole bright spot, really, is the portion of the story around Leo. Lloyd's ability to convey both Leo's intelligence and his limitations, the way he does love the people in his life but has a hard time expressing it in a way that they understand, is deft and well-realized. Unfortunately, that's literally the only thing that worked for me in this book. The plot is uneven, the prose competent but uninspired, the characters mostly don't work. It's not even a matter of needing a better editor...there's a story here that could be interesting, but nearly everything would need to be completely revamped to give it the telling it would need to really connect. This is a poor quality book and I don't recommend it to anyone.

One year ago, I was reading: Messy (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The Hate U Give

Three years ago, I was reading: Freakonomics

Four years ago, I was reading: All The King's Men

Tuesday, November 26, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Authors I'd Be Grateful To See New Work From

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! With Thanksgiving just a few days away, this week is a thankful-themed freebie! So here are ten authors I'd be very thankful to read new work from.

Allie Brosh: Like what seems like the entire internet, I loved her Hyberbole and a Half blog, which got made into a hysterically funny book. There was a sequel planned, but it got cancelled. Brosh seems to have stopped writing, and what I've been able to find makes it seem like her life has changed quite a bit and maybe she's in a better place without sharing her work with the internet. But I miss her and would love to see new work if it was the right choice for her!

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie: Americanah, which I loved, came out in 2013. She's published some essays in the meantime, but I want more fiction!

Elif Batuman: The Idiot was a very promising debut novel, and Batuman's voice is one I'd love to read more of, so I hope a follow-up is coming soon!

Michael Chabon: I'm still catching up on his back catalog, but his last novel was 2016's Moonglow, which I very much liked, so I'm curious to see what he publishes next!

Alexander Chee: I loved The Queen of the Night and while I have his other novel, Edinburgh, waiting on my shelves to be read (and he did just publish a nonfiction book last year), I would love to read another work of fiction from him!

Libby Cudmore: I so enjoyed reading The Big Rewind, I'm ready for her next one!

Jeffrey Eugenides: He releases work at the speed of a snail but it's so good when he does and I'm just waiting for more!

Gillian Flynn: Gone Girl was incredible, but she hasn't published a novel since that one in 2012! It's been almost ten years, so I am looking forward to reading the next one as soon as it appears!


Kazuo Ishiguro: His Nobel Prize was well-deserved on the strength of Remains of the Day alone it was such a masterpiece. I'll be honest that his most recent, The Buried Giant, was more miss than hit from me, but he always has interesting ideas and I am eagerly awaiting new work!

Thursday, November 21, 2019

Book 208: Wonder Boys

"I’d spent my whole life waiting to awake on an ordinary morning in the town that was destined to be my home, in the arms of the woman I was destined to love, knowing the people and doing the work that would make up the changing but essentially invariable landscape of my particular destiny. Instead here I was, forty-one years old, having left behind dozens of houses, spent a lot of money on vanished possessions and momentary entertainments, fallen desperately in and abruptly out of love with at least seventeen women, lost my mother in infancy and my father to suicide, and everything was about to change once more, with unforeseeable result."

Dates read: February 9-15, 2018

Rating: 6/10

When I was a kid, I was on the "gifted" track...or at least the closest thing my small district had to one. I tested in the 99th percentile for virtually everything except (much to my parents' chagrin) ability to do basic math in my head. I was in the 99th percentile on the ACT. I read at a 12th grade level in 4th grade. It has a way of kind of getting in your head, when you're constantly told how smart you are. It makes you feel like you're destined for greatness, when the reality is that you'll probably end up working a more-or-less normal job and leading a more-or-less normal life. Which ends up feeling underwhelming even if you're actually very happy, because what about that greatness that was supposed to happen?

Michael Chabon himself was a young phenom, publishing his debut novel when he was only 25. He found himself stuck when he tried to pen his follow-up, though, and from this experience he found the inspiration for what became his second book, Wonder Boys. The novel tells the story of Grady Tripp, a one-time literary wunderkind who's published two books to both critical acclaim and popular success but has gotten completely mired in his third. Tripp works as a professor at a small liberal arts school in his native Pennsylvania, and his life is a bit of a mess when we meet him. His agent, who has also been his best friend since college, is coming into town to talk about his book, which he is nowhere near finishing even though he's written over 2,000 pages. An odd but talented student, James, is exhibiting strange behavior. His wife, the third Mrs. Tripp, has just apparently left him. And his mistress, who is the dean of the college and who is married to the head of Tripp's department, is pregnant.

It makes for a wild weekend, as Grady tries to keep his agent from actually reading his manuscript in the hopes that he can figure out what to actually do with it, keep track of James, who turns out to be a bit of a pathological liar and compulsive thief, attend a seder dinner with his in-laws (with James in tow) to see if he can patch things up with his wife, and figure out what to do about his mistress's pregnancy. There's also a running plotline about the car Tripp is driving, which he won in a poker game and might actually be stolen, and Tripp's crush on the young student that rents out the basement in his house and is never seen without her red cowboy boots. In the end, somehow, improbably, it all turns out about as well as it could have.

I don't even necessarily think that's a spoiler there, because there is a movie version out there of this book and it's fairly faithful to the text, though it does cut out some plot threads while giving others greater weight. The movie bombed, though I actually quite liked it myself, and I honestly think it might work better in some ways than the book...mostly for its willingness to purge extraneous details. Chabon's a wonderful writer with a great sense of how to tell a story and clear, insightful prose, but there was really just too much going on here. Too many characters, too many "side quests" (so to speak), too much feels cluttered and starts to strain the bounds of credulity. How much weird stuff, after all, can happen to one guy over the course of one weekend?

While I've loved the two books of Chabon's that I've read before (Kavalier and Clay was my favorite of last year!), this one just didn't resonate with me. I think part of it was let-down, because what I've read from him before has been so good that I had very high expectations going in, and part of it is that I'm just not in a place where stories about overgrown man-children are especially charming to me. The thought of the amount of emotional labor a person like Tripp pushes onto the women in his life because he can't be assed to get himself together is enraging, so I actually kind of hated him. Comedy-of-errors-style plots like this one aren't my cup of tea either. I think my lack of connection with this book is as much about me and my preferences as it is about the book itself, though, so while I can't recommend it, I'm not going to affirmatively suggest avoiding it either. If reading this has made you think that this sounds like a delightful narrative, you'll probably like it. If not though, skip.

One year ago, I was reading: Dark Places (review to come)

Two years ago, I was reading: The House of Mirth

Three years ago, I was reading: The Emigrants

Four years ago, I was reading: Oriental Mythology

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Top Ten Tuesday: Changes In My Reading Life

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly linkup of book bloggers hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl! This week, we're talking about how our lives as readers have changed over the years. I'm not the same reader I was five or ten years ago. I'm definitely not the same reader I was in high school! Here are ten things about me as a reader that I've noticed a change in.

I read more: Just on a baseline level, I'm much more inclined to read for pleasure than I was when I was a younger adult. I do still watch movies and tv, of course, but I've turned into one of those people who always has a book with me. This is why I now read about 80 books a year.

Fewer series: Teenage me loved a good series, and it's not that I don't have any time for them anymore or anything, but I'm less compelled by the idea of starting a brand-new series than I used to be. I read much more stand-alones.

More non-fiction: I used to read a ton of historical fiction to learn about what life was like in the past. These days I'm more likely to pick up a biography of someone who lived during that time period instead.

More open to genre generally: I'll be honest, mysteries and sci-fi and romance aren't usually my preferred kinds of narratives. But of course there are gems in any genre, and I'm much less likely than I used to be to pass over a book I think I might like just because it's not the sort of book I usually read.

More likely to buy in paper rather than electronically: Don't get me wrong, I love my Kindle. I have HUNDREDS of books on it, and I think it's amazing that I can have thousands upon thousands of pages on a device smaller than the average magazine. But I really do gravitate lately towards having an actual book in my hands. This has created storage issues.

More interested in critical thinking about my reading: When I was in high school, it felt like analyzing a book could only serve to "ruin" it. But the older I get, the more I want to really examine what exactly it is that works about a book and why, to better understand both technique and what I enjoy as a reader.

More diversity in authorship: I grew up reading a lot of books by white people, particularly men. They do, after all, make up much of the literary canon. I make more of an effort lately to seek out work by women, people of color, immigrants, and people whose life experiences are generally different than my own.

Less likely to read something I'm not excited about just because everyone else is: I'm not immune to the best-seller lists, but I used to be more willing to read something that was popular even if it didn't seem like something I would like, because I wanted to be able to talk about the latest hot book. I'm much more aware these days of what I like and give myself permission to say no on something I have no reason to think would be a good use of my time.

More likely to make recommendations: Recommending books is hard! So much depends on what kinds of things each person responds so, and hearing that someone didn't enjoy something you told them they should read is so disappointing! But people ask and I've come to enjoy making educated guesses about what might appeal to them.

More involved in the bookish community: I have this blog! I have a twitter account where I follow authors and readers, I go to an in-person book club, I post pictures of my books on my instagram, I volunteer with the local Friends of the Library. The internet has a LOT of downsides, but for what it does for keeping me connected to the bookish world, I appreciate it!