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It is very far off-topic for this blog for me to be writing reviews of fictional books, but my duties as a blog owner and as a blog owner representative on The Twitter entangled me (enthusiastically) in a group read of the novels short-listed for the Man Booker prize, and I am participating in a book review collaboration at Michelle Hannell’s “Mummy Rates It” blog here. So I’m sharing it with you all, too, lest I be accused later of keeping secrets about my blog owner activities from my blog subscribers. We do things on the up and up around here.

I read (avidly) and reviewed (positively) The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. The other novels shortlisted for the prize are Bringing Up The Bodies (Hilary Mantel), Narcopolis (Jeet Thayil), Swimming Home (Deborah Levy), The Lighthouse (Alison Moore), and Umbrella (Will Self). Enjoy!

Update: And the prize was awarded to Mantel for Bringing Up the Bodies, which I found out today is a sequel to Wolf Hall.

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By Sonia Shah

Long Story Short: I believe every word in this book about the ethical perils and injustices of medical testing, but I’m not sure at all what to do about it.

Why I Chose This Book: I’m not really tuned in to the new releases, and a lot of what I find to read crosses my path indirectly. This time, however, I crossed this book’s path directly: I was wandering through the library seeing if something would catch my fancy, and this book was one of the ones placed on a library shelf, propped on a bracket facing outward. It was about a topic I could read with a critical eye. It was about a topic that seemed rife with controversy and might teach me something. It was written by a woman, and then had this unexpected “Foreword by John Le Carre,” which was intriguing enough (by seeming completely out of the blue) to seal the deal.* And we were in a hurry to go, so I just grabbed it and checked it out and didn’t pick it up again until a few days after I’d brought it home (a detail that becomes important somewhere around the 950th word of this book review).

*I really scratched my head about this one, but some Internet searching revealed that he’d written a novel more or less about the same thing–The Constant Gardener–so there you have it. Also, it’s mentioned on the very first page of the preface, which I had forgotten about until I was flipping through the book today to write this review.

The Book’s Strengths: I thought this book really covered its material well. It analyzes the process whereby drug manufacturers identify and test drugs on human subjects, how it chooses which populations to test them on, the history of the drug-testing industry, the government regulations that enable and hamper (different regulations) the process, the ways pharmaceutical companies “spin” results, the cavalier attitudes towards “informed consent,” and international efforts to establish and protect test subjects’ rights. It covered all this information in an efficient, readable way, and each of ten chapters covered a distinct topic within the broader themes. There were lots of interviews, lots of documented research, and plenty of end notes and a long bibliography. I learned a lot and probably had the exact emotional reaction I was supposed to have; set against what I’ve picked up over recent years about marketing drugs right to patients and the revelations about how things like, say, statins are not really benefiting many people and may be harming more (and other things about Viagara, and all the different allergy medicines, et cetera), and the context of corporate greed and abuses that also make the news, Shah makes plenty of sense to me.

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Edited by S. T. Joshi

Long Story Short: This book is a good primer for someone who has never encountered the kinds of writings about how women were unfit for public life, but it lacks context and it does not stretch far enough into the present day.

Why I Chose This Book: I was browsing the Prometheus catalog (a good source for books about skepticism) and the cover art caught my eye. I’ve encountered a lot of people online who really have no idea just how formally and officially prejudice against women has been constructed in academic and cultural spheres or for how long, and thought it would fit in well with the purpose of this blog.

The Book’s Strengths: This book is all primary sources. The editor has collected essays about the place and purpose of women from basically American and British sources, across a good stretch of decades, from men and women authors, and presents a pretty thorough picture of how ideas about women’s supposed limitations informed public opinions and policies. People like to think they know how badly women have been maligned, and these selections are most likely worse than the average reader suspects. It definitely sets the stage for what feminists have been so angry about and have been fighting about, and taken as a group it can shed light on how such arbitrary and ideological notions about Why Women X can seem so much like nature and logical consequences.

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By Bernd Heinrich

Long Story Short: I really meant to post more than once in February. I really did. But, you know, stuff. Made a totally awesome spreadsheet in Excel, though, with an amazing formula:

=IF(OR((AND((B15=0),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=0)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=1),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=1)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=2),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=2)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=3),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=3)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=4),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=4)*($F$15:$F$586))))),(AND((B15=5),(F15=MAX(($B$15:$B$586=5)*($F$15:$F$586)))))),$A$7,””)

It was also color-coded. Learned all about conditional formatting, too, I did. Good times.

Long Story Short about the Book: This is probably a wonderful book that was just not for me, at least not for me during this particular January, when I was expecting I’d have some cozy dark-early winter times and got instead 80-degree weather with trips to the jacuzzi. I didn’t finish it.

Why I Chose This Book: A biologist friend recommended this book to me, and had said he’d found it very inspiring. What with winter coming up, and me always looking for recommendations from real people, I thought it would be the perfect thing for the season.

The Book’s Strengths: This was a book with a strong voice, told with great detail about a fascinating subject. It was almost a memoir, I thought, and the author had great passion for the subject, as well as a careful and thorough approach to the various explorations of how tiny little animals (and bigger animals) survived during the harsh winters of northern climates. It was peppered with pencil drawings from the author’s own notes, and it was full of interesting observations about the world, and I liked many of the connections the author drew between seemingly disparate things. I mean, I know we use trees for fuel and animals eat other animals, but I never explicitly thought about trees as solar energy containers or rabbits harnessing the sun’s energy for the benefit of the foxes, that kind of thing. (The author said it better, but the book went back to the library weeks and weeks ago.) The author lymoved between loving the natural world and conducting actual experiments about the natural world (like measuring the temperature of bird corpses to see how long they’d hold heat with that shape and that size in frozen temperatures, or sticking his head into tree trunks to measure the amount of squirrel droppings in order to estimate the number of animals using a shelter), with highly readable and almost poetic prose.

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By Robert Wright

Long Story Short:
This book has a lot of interesting close-ish reading of the big three Abrahamic religious texts (Torah, Bible, Koran), interspersed with a lot of philosophy and splaining I wasn’t that crazy about.

Why I Chose This Book:
I was enthralled by the ideas in Wright’s book, Nonzero, when I read it and I was looking for a book that addressed a more traditional “skeptical” topic to write about between that one about online reputation and the next one about cuddly animals.

The Book’s Strengths: First of all, I like Wright’s writing style. He explains his points well, and he intersperses his texts with just enough humor that it’s a pleasant surprise every time. True, writing style is not a very important part of a book’s message, but it makes it easier to engage with the text, particularly during the slower parts of the book.

I thought the book did a pretty good job of covering the structural evolution of the three Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. It starts with exploring religion from pre-literate societies, and it’s very clear on where the limitations are on how much we can deduce about prehistoric religions, and how we know what we know now about the religions of hunter-gatherer communities. For example, we know what the members and/or descendants of these hunter-gatherer societies say, and we have some historical documents from literate people who encountered these groups during the age of exploration and onward, but we can’t say that this is the way prehistoric religions looked because every culture evolves, and Wright points out frequently what aspects he discusses comes from documented sources (and which ones) and what aspects are supposition or speculation.

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By Daniel J. Solove

Long Story Short:
This book discusses the boundaries–social and legal–between privacy and publicity, particularly at the point where the Internet has the potential to expose details to millions of people.

Why I Chose This Book:
I’d heard somewhere about the book The Offensive Internet but decided–based solely on the Amazon.com page–that it would be too scholarly for me to read and review for this Reading Club project. The Future of Gossip came up on that page as another suggestion, and it was easy to get at the library, so I went with that.

The Book’s Strengths: The book is pretty short (I’m not considering that a strength or weakness) mostly because it is so straightforward. The author identifies and explains many of the legal codes and mainstream media practices that cover the conflicts that arise between the individual and public reputation, and makes it easy to understand the perspectives behind why certain laws were established and why courts have made the decisions they did. It’s also peppered with anecdotes from the current Internet age as well as examples of defamation/privacy violation complaints/accusations that have occurred in previous decades. The writing style is very accessible, too, and it doesn’t overwhelm you with information or dense passages of texts.

The Book’s Weaknesses: It’s a bland book, with too many anecdotes and explanations and no real insight about the coming conflicts between our personal and public selves. It read like a report on what is happening <em>now</em>, except that “now” has a 2007 publication date and Facebook makes the book’s pages as just having introduced the News Feed. An interesting report, I guess, but with the exception of listing the various statutes and legal codes by name for the reader, I could have found as many anecdotes online to share, too, and the anecdotes weren’t that shocking or exciting or revelatory. It’s not that it’s a dated book–that is, it is a dated book but only in a trivial way, because the anecdotes and Exciting Internet Events that Solove includes are pretty universal examples of what can go wrong, even if nobody uses Friendster anymore. It’s that it doesn’t really make you think very hard about the implications of oversharing online. And it’s not like these past four years have made us so much more knowledgeable/cynical/crafty about the construction of our online personas; more people probably have given more thought to how the information they post online can haunt us, but the book leaves me with a sense of so now what? The recommendations he makes for how to alter specific laws and/or application of current laws to accommodate privacy without stifling free speech are tossed in at the end with no philosophical expounding upon, and the social recommendations that he makes–we’ll all just have to be more respectful but that’s going to be hard–I could have made, and I have no philosophy or law experience at all.

Perhaps I am the wrong audience for the book, and people versed in privacy law and Internet topics would take away from it a much richer experience, but–and I am going to risk making myself look foolish here–I don’t see how. If it’s just a quick reference for people to turn to when they are tackling bigger issues, that’s one thing, but in the Preface of the hardcover copy, he writes that “The purpose of the book is to explore in depth a set of fascinating yet very difficult questions and to propose some moderate compromises in the clash between privacy and free speech.” I found no in-depth discussion of anything. In the Conclusion he writes, “The questions are immensely complex, and there are no easy answers.” I agree with him; privacy versus freedom is complex, but I didn’t see any of this complexity or nuance in the book itself. It’s just an overview. It identifies conflicts without really fully exploring them.

What Should Have Happened:
I think the book should have ditched most of the anecdotes in favor of wanton pontificating and assertion-making. I’d much rather have heard more of his opinions than facts, although I understand that the author’s goal may have been to keep it basic and not go off on tangents. I also think that there should have been conversation about global attitudes and foreign laws about free speech, copyright, and privacy, instead of sticking with the U.S. court history, especially because one of the Big Dangers Solove kept warning the audience of was that what unsavory details once stayed within a small group of people can be broadcast worldwide and recorded permanently. If the Internet is making all of us interconnected, then we need to think about what happens when conflicting laws and customs about privacy and freedom get into the mix.

Short Story Shorter: I wish I’d read the other book. I might still. I’ll keep you posted.

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By Susan Faludi

I first wrote about this book on July 19, 2008 on Goodreads. A subsequent edition of the book has been released in since then, with a new subtitle: “Myth and Misogyny in an Insecure America.” I have not read that newer edition.

As always, I really enjoy reading a Susan Faludi book. It’s a marvel to behold the breadth and diversity of sources that she finds to support her assertions. It’s always a scholarly rather than an outraged approach to the topic at hand (although still biased–but I can handle biased), and however relentlessly the author pushes examples into your face she never tells you what to think about the situation. You come to your own conclusions.

1. I thought the first half was excellent, from the representations of male and female roles in the popular and serious press, immediately after the attacks on the World Trade Center in NYC. I thought the bit about the female firefighters was TEH BEST EVR until I read the chapter on Jessica Lynch, a female soldier who had been injured and then brought to an Iraqi hospital, and then taken out of it in an organized rescue event. If what Jessica Lynch as reported by Susan Faludi is saying is true, then I can’t even imagine how the spin and lies got as far as they did. If you read only one chapter from the book, read that one. It’s even better than the one that discusses the hunter and mountain man imagery that shrouded the presidential race of 2004.

2. I thought the second part of the book was even more interesting, although I am still not convinced that it exactly fits. It tackled the subject of the captivity narrative, a literary genre that originated in the United States way back when, starting with tales from women who had been abducted by native Americans and returned to tell the tale (or, in many cases, had to be dragged back kicking and screaming). Faludi presents this tradition as the foundation for the current portrayals of women needing rescuing and men being judged on their failure to and success for protecting and saving them. It really is interesting to see how culture affects politics, even across the course of centuries. Or how politics struggle to find legitimacy in cultural representations, even if reality does not reflect the stories a nation tells about its people.

(This is an aside, but the Salem Witch Trials were also presented against the background of the captivity narrative. The author refers to a book (?) by Carol Karlsen called “The Devil in the Shape of a Woman,” which examines the role gender played. Perhaps obvious now [20 years after Karlsen wrote] is that the bulk of the accused and the executed were successful, important, or independent women who lived outside strict social control. What I didn’t realize was that the bulk of the accusers were young girls who had been orphaned and traumatized during Indian raids, forced to witness dreadful things perpetrated against people they knew and loved.)

3. I’m not sure how the two parts hold together, at least not beneath the title “The Terror Dream.” The title comes from the 18th and 19th century examples of capture and rescue, specifically of a male from a novel–The Searcher? I can’t remember–waking up from the terror dream that has numbed him throughout his life so that he can act to save a girl. You can see how Faludi tried to insert this phrase into other parts of the books, but it is awkward at the beginning and only really makes sense when you see it in context almost at the end. I don’t disagree that the events following 9/11 are absolutely pertinent to the captivity/rescue tradition established in the second part of the book, but they don’t connect well as presented. I have a feeling she set out to write a book about Post-9/11 America (note the subtitle) and it morphed, but after her proposal had been accepted by the publisher and she had cashed the advance check.

So the two parts of the book are individually cohesive and very interesting, and they do relate significantly to each other, but my complaint is that they seem like they were forced to fit a title. That is my complaint about the book.

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