Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Thursday, October 23, 2014

"Opening Skinner's Box" by Lauren Slater

This book is a layman's guide to an eclectic selection of the 20th century's most innovative and infamous psychological experiments. Actually, I'm not sure I'm qualified to categorize this as an eclectic selection, as the ten main experiments discussed probably increased the number of psychological experiments I'm familiar with to a total of eleven. But the selection sure seemed eclectic--from rats in mazes to neurons of sea slugs to false memory to lobotomy and beyond.

It's a bit uneven, and sometimes obviously biased, but it is never dry or dull. The author is a bit odd (which is worse: that B. F. Skinner's daughter kept a half-eaten square of chocolate which her father had bitten before his death ten years earlier, or that Lauren Slater also took a bite out of it after the daughter left the room? Did she really do that??) but definitely adds personality and color to her (admittedly unacademic) review of the included experiments.

I was just wishing my memory were such that I would carry with me a kernel of knowledge from each chapter, but lamenting that that was not to be, when I realized I could plant all ten kernels now. So, here they are:
  • B. F. Skinner put rats in boxes and studied reward and punishment. He was able to train a variety of animals to do some amazing things, found that reward was much more motivating than punishment, and further found that inconsistent rewards are more motivating than consistent ones.
  • Stanley Milgram designed a sadistic experiment in which unwitting volunteers were led to believe they were administering increasingly stronger shocks to innocent strangers in the next room. Sixty-five percent of those involved were obedient to the authority in the white coat, continuing to increase the voltage even when they began to hear very real-sounding screams of pain. 
  • David Rosenhan decided to test the validity of psychiatric diagnosis. He and eight other perfectly sane recruits went to psychiatric hospitals across the country and claimed to be hearing a voice that said "thud." Each was admitted on this basis, resulting in stays of varying lengths (averaging 19 days), with the most frequent diagnosis being schizophrenia. 
  • John Darley and Bibb Latané studied the reaction of groups of people to a crisis and found public apathy. An individual's perception of personal responsibility is diluted by the presence of greater numbers of fellow witnesses. 
  • Leon Festinger studied irreconcilable ideas or cognitive dissonance--the way the mind adapts to a breach of faith. For example, what happens to the beliefs of cult members whose ship doesn't come in on the predicted date? "It is precisely when a belief is disconfirmed that religious groups begin to proselytize." 
  • Harry Harlow separated baby monkeys from their mothers and found that the babies preferred a sense of comforting touch over physical nourishment. He further found that more than touch and food was needed; the babies also required movement associated with that touch, and a regular period of play, or they grew up to be freakin' crazy. 
  • Bruce Alexander studied drug addiction in rats, and concluded that a poor environment engendered dependency more reliably than the drugs themselves. Rats raised in the Rat Park (a rat utopia) actually preferred to avoid drugs even after being forced into addiction.
  • Elizabeth Loftus has proven that false memories can easily be implanted by suggestion, using the Lost in the Mall technique. The author had a very obvious dislike for Loftus that was clear in this biased chapter. 
  • The chapter on Eric Kandel begins by discussing HM, the man whose hippocampus was sucked out of his brain in 1953 in order to cure him of his seizures; unfortunately this surgery also left him unable to form any new memories. Kandel wanted to study the way learning and memory is stored in the brain, and used sea slugs with their simplified brains, observing the changes that occurred as he (seriously?!) trained them.
  • Egaz Moniz is the Portuguese neurologist who pioneered the lobotomy. Call me ignorant, but I'd always thought lobotomy was an actual removal of the frontal lobes which regularly resulted in much greater loss of function than this chapter seems to suggest; my misunderstanding was probably the fault of Randle Patrick McMurphy.
My favorite takeaway comes from the Darley and Latané chapter. Slater clearly lists the things an individual must do to overcome public apathy. This is something I hope I can remember myself, as well as something I want my kids to learn--the five stages of helping behavior:

1. You, the potential helper, must notice an event is occurring.
2. You must interpret the event as one in which help is needed.
3. You must assume personal responsibility.
4. You must decide what action to take.
5. You must then take action.

This is meant to be applied to situations where you see a fellow human in dire circumstances . . . is it small-minded of me to note that this exact same sequence can apply to household chores? (Mommy and Daddy need help, child! Notice your dirty underwear on the floor and take action!)

Thursday, October 16, 2014

"The Dinner" by Herman Koch

This book fixed me with its one great dark-rimmed eye weeks ago. Every time I walked by, it stared, watching me pass. I was enjoying The Goldfinch immensely, but I knew what I would be reading next. Even though this book technically belongs to my husband.

When Sam chose The Dinner, he thought it would be funny (though likely also very dark). He still won't believe me (and probably will continue in his disbelief until he reads it for himself), but he's very wrong. Well, OK, he was right about it being dark.

This novel tells a story within the confines of one fancy meal shared by two couples at an expensive restaurant. Our narrator, Paul, slowly dishes out tasty morsels of the plot . . . but no, that's not really true. The lines he feeds us more frequently turn out to be bitter, or sour, or even rancid. Events from the recent past are revealed as each new course is served, and further developments unfold as the evening wears on. A crisis takes shape, and conflict arises when those involved disagree on how to handle the situation. It all made for a rather depressing but ultimately compelling read. (And I can hear Chandler now: "Could you be more vague?")

This was also one of those books that really made me think (and not just in the usual "what is going on here?" way). I couldn't help but try to work out what I might have done when faced with some of the choices presented. In some ways, the narrator was so very different from me that I knew I would never react as he did (and it's quite a relief to be sure of that). But the issues of blame and sympathy and a parent's protectiveness left me ambivalent and conflicted.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

"The Yiddish Policemen's Union" by Michael Chabon

Sometimes the books we read let us down, and sometimes, more rarely, we let down the books we read. I feel like I didn't do a very good job of reading this novel. I'm not going to kill myself over it - it happens sometimes. I kept having to break off to do speed-reads of books in French, and it got to the point where I would begin reading where I had left off two or three nights earlier and would have absolutely no clue what was going on.

As I said, this is mostly my fault, rather than the book's, I think, but it has to be said that this is a peculiarly demanding novel. I don't mean that in a bad way. I consider myself a Michael Chabon fan, having loved the previous two novels I read by him - Wonder Boys and The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay - and even in spite of my erratic reading habits during this one, I still enjoyed it, still regard it as an original and beautifully written detective story with a speculative twist (what if the state of Israel had collapsed in 1948 and the world's Jews had moved to Alaska?). But I have a feeling I didn't get as much pleasure and satisfaction out of it as I should have. Tellingly, when I got to the end, I turned the page, expecting another chapter, and felt an odd mixture of disappointment and relief at realizing the book's remaining pages contained only interviews and biographical material.

So, what made it so demanding? Partly the style, which is similar to Chabon's other works (dense, poetic, witty, a startling blend of slang and lyricism) but with more compressed sentences and a fairly thick sprinkling of Yiddish (and made-up Yiddish) words. Partly the plot, which is extremely complex and (unless I'm just misunderstanding it) pretty improbable.

I also have to admit that the title was a bit of a turn-off. Maybe it's just me, but I can't help thinking that 'Yiddish', 'Policemen' and 'Union' are three of the least sexy words in the English language. (I have no problem with 'The', though. In fact, I'm a big fan of 'The'. Old-fashioned it might be, but a good 'The' at the beginning of a book title always makes me think I'm in for a real story, rather than just a clever collection of observations.)

Anyway, I'm not going to describe the plot, because it's too complicated and absurd, but I would just like to say that the bookjacket comparisons to Chandler and Hammett are way off the mark. This is much more literary than a simple noir thriller. Maybe there's a hint of homage to it in places, but it's a long way short of a pastiche. The characters are real, the emotions are real. It just happens to have a detective and a mystery (involving a murder).

I'll probably read it again one day (one day when my life is less busy), just to see if the problem really was me rather than the book.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

"The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt

I received a copy of The Goldfinch from my lovely parents-in-law for my birthday last November, but both my husband and a sweet friend of mine borrowed it before I got around to reading it. That's really only part of my excuse for leaving it for so long before I picked it up myself, though. It was one of those books so hampered by great expectations (it was receiving rave reviews, and I'd read and loved Tartt's first novel, The Secret History) that I feared to pick it up lest it let me down. It didn't help when Sam's assessment was that it lost momentum halfway through--this brought my expectations down to a more realistic level, but didn't make me any more eager to read it.

Happily, when I recently overcame my fear enough to read it, I was not disappointed in the least. Far from losing momentum halfway through, somehow I was relentlessly propelled through the entire thing. Even during the times when (as Sam said) "nothing happened," I was suffused with an expectant tension. It certainly wasn't a thriller like Gone Girl, but there was a constant sense of needing to know what was going to happen next, even if I knew I was only waiting for one character to say something to another. And it's both satisfying and sad to have reached the end of the book--pleasantly fulfilling, yet I wish I was still in the midst of reading it.

The Goldfinch tells the story of Theo Decker, thirteen years old at the beginning of the book, and the major influences in his life (as Theo is the sort of person who finds himself influenced much more often than he exerts influence on others): his mother, her death, various friends, and art. I was going to say something about the way one great and terrible day changes the trajectory of his life, but then I realized that's not really true: his direction doesn't really change. It's more as if that day speeds him along his way. Theo is deeply flawed, and as I watched him grow into an adult, I found I couldn't muster much respect for him--I was, instead, disappointed in who he was becoming. The reader is privy to all his failings which are hidden from those closest to him and only guessed at by others.

Despite Theo's disreputable choices, I was unwilling to give up on him. Not only did he have some interesting thoughts on good and bad and whether one can come from the other, but my interest was principally due to the golden thread running through his story: the title of the book refers to a painting (one which really exists! but which has probably had a much less eventful history than it receives at the hands of Tartt) and the visceral connection Theo feels with it. It was gratifying to read about Theo's reaction to the painting, because I understand how it feels to love--and own--a work of art.

The Goldfinch seems to be a really polarizing book: it has sold more than a million copies and won this year's Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (among other awards), and has amazed and entranced many readers, but it seems to have as many harsh critics as it has champions--so many that I don't believe all of them can be explained away by literary jealousy. The Goldfinch has received scathing pans from some very important sources, as well as from many of its readers with smaller spheres of influence.

This makes me want to examine my reaction to the book more closely. Am I just another one of the sheeple, appreciating the book due to its success? If its critics are correct and it's crap, what does that say about my literary tastes? If it's really so poorly written and full of cliché, why didn't I notice? And is the idea of literature as entertainment really a problem? I'm sure I'm glibly misinterpreting the viewpoint, but a book shouldn't have to be boring to be serious or important or great. I don't think the definition of a great book can be boiled down to one word, but I do think the majority--if not the entirety--of great books could be described as thought-provoking and well-written. And I see no reason why a book can't be entertaining as well as thought-provoking and well-written--in fact, so much the better if it is. If that makes me hopelessly inelegant in the eyes of world-renowned book reviewers, well then, so be it. I can only imagine how much more fully I am enjoying my life than someone who eschews literary entertainment.