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

Saturday, December 31, 2022

“Why You Should Read Children’s Books, Even Though You Are So Old and Wise” by Katherine Rundell

This tiny little hand-sized book showed up in my Christmas stocking, because what better, more magical place for it? It is a collection of essays extolling the virtues and praising the merits of children’s fiction. Its purported intent is to convince adult readers to give the genre a chance. In reality, anyone reading this book was most likely an avid reader as a child, and it serves as a nostalgic reminder of the books we loved way back when. To me, it's more of a summons back to what we knew and loved rather than a suggestion to try something as yet untried. 

Though there is a bit of name-dropping involved (or, I guess what I actually mean is title-dropping?), there wasn't as much as I expected. In other words, if you're coming to this book with the expectation that you will find myriad recommendations regarding which children's books you should read, you will be disappointed. But if you want to be bolstered in your desire to revisit the novels of your youth (or be encouraged to discover new ones), you'll find all the bolstering and encouragement here.

I finished reading this book before I intended to. I was on what I assumed was the penultimate essay, a half dozen or so pages from the end, and I had just told myself that I would finish that essay and read the final one later, when poof, Acknowledgements. Not that this was unsurvivable. Just thought I would warn you ahead of time: the essays end on page 63. But no worries: the subsequent excerpt from Rundell's novel The Explorer is a treat.

Thursday, December 29, 2022

“Little Nothing” by Marisa Silver

I spent a looo o o o ong time not reading this book. I can't even remember when I first picked it up, but it's entirely likely that it was in mid-September. The story did not immediately grab me, and I spent less and less time reading it until there was a period of weeks when I didn't touch it at all. And I'm really not sure why. It wasn't difficult, or poorly written, or boring. 

It was weird. In the style of a folk tale or legend, it tells the story of Pavla, born a dwarf (hence her nickname, Little Nothing) who has a beautiful face and golden hair. Pavla's parents are elderly, and they worry about how she will live after they die. Somehow they decide the best course of action is to get Pavla stretched to a normal height so that she can find a husband. The charlatan named Smetanka is actually able to do this stretching, thanks to an ingenious table-cum-torture device created by a resourceful young man named Danilo. The only problem is that Pavla ends up looking like a wolf girl, which kind of foils her parents' plans. Eventually Danilo and Pavla end up in a traveling carnival sideshow . . . and then Pavla kills and eats Smetanka and turns into a wolf. (That's almost 100 pages in, and probably counts as a huge spoiler, especially considering that it's not mentioned in the blurb, so I extend to you my deepest apologies. But I can't imagine how I can write about this book in such a way that I will remember it without mentioning the wolf thing.) 

The rest of the story brings in murders and wolf cubs and prisons for the criminally insane (or just for criminals) and escapes and clockwork and digging tunnels for water pipes and, quietly in the background, war. The ending is quite ambiguous. 

Monday, December 26, 2022

“What the Fact? Finding the Truth in All the Noise” by Dr Seema Yasmin

I didn’t know this was a young adult book until it was too late. I've been on the hunt for books that will help me hone my critical thinking skills and this was recommended as one, but I found the juvenile tone off-putting. I tried to see past its efforts to catch the attention of someone less than half my age and just glean what I needed from it, but I found myself wondering if it might even insult an intelligent high-schooler. It's definitely full of useful information that I wish more people knew and understood, but I would have preferred to find it in the style of, say, Malcolm Gladwell, who gets his point across in an engaging and entertaining way without a bunch of different fonts and with a slightly more challenging vocabulary. 

I feel like I should at least gloss over some of the main points of the book. 
  • Fake news isn't new--it's been around for years; when looking at journalism as a whole, it's also a lot less common and more nuanced than some people claim. (I'm looking at you, Smugly.)
  • Fake news, as well as bad news, spreads much farther and faster than good news. This is generally because fake or bad news plays to peoples' emotions (typically those of outrage or fear), and people are more likely to share information that outrages or scares them--it's just human nature.
  • People tend to believe what they're told first, and they are more likely to cling to these first-held beliefs, even if they're incorrect. 
  • There's a whole spectrum of "fake news," and almost all of it has at least a kernel of truth.
So . . . what can the average person do about fake news?
  • Try not to be part of the problem--don't further the spread of fake news. For example: don't re-post information on Facebook if you don't verify it first. 
  • Take a good look at the news you are consuming, and its sources. You may want to expand your range of sources, even if only temporarily, in order to confirm the reliability or veracity of your usual sources.
  • When appropriate, push back against people in your circle who are spreading fake news. Yasmin gives Ten Steps for Effective Disagreements, and this may be the most helpful part of the book:
  1. Pick your battles. It may make more sense to have a discussion with a family member than with the lady behind you in the line at the grocery store. 
  2. Prepare for more than one chat. In most cases (see bullet point above, about people clinging to first-held beliefs) it's going to be difficult to impossible to change someone's mind; you're certainly not going to manage it over the course of one single conversation.
  3. Ask questions, then listen. If you think you're going to just give someone a lecture and change their mind, you're doomed to failure. You need to hear them out, and actually *hear* them rather than just using the time while they're speaking to plan your counterattack.
  4. Use the principle of charity. Don't assume the worst interpretation of someone's argument--instead of getting mired in thinking they are being illogical or selfish, try to see that they probably think their argument is as logical and strong as you think yours is.
  5. Ask for evidence. That statement may sound a bit like we're now going on the attack, but it may be phrased better if you say it this way: "What information and evidence did you use to form your point of view?" (I still think it would be hard to do this in a way that doesn't make the other person defensive.)
  6. Look for common ground. You may never agree on the big picture, but there are almost always aspects that can be agreed on.
  7. Don't shame people. You'll never change anyone's mind with shame; you'll only cause them to dig in deeper.
  8. Don't pour facts onto polarized conversations. Instead, you should focus on helping people to shift their perspective by . . . 
  9. Harnessing the power of stories. This is actually something that fake news often includes--a story that tugs at your emotions--but the truth can spread more easily by playing on emotions as well.
  10. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. You don't have to use all ten of these strategies all the time. Different people or times or topics call for different methods (or different combinations of methods). 
I am still on the hunt for books about critical thinking skills. If you know of a good one, tell me!

Friday, December 23, 2022

“Confidence Man” by Maggie Haberman

I am grumpy today, and that should not be the case. I am off work at the beginning of a four-day holiday weekend, Christmas is two days away, and I have finished a long book which means I get to choose a new one to read. Yet my brow is furrowed and I am short-tempered and irritable. And I can't help but lay at least part of the blame on the book I've just finished reading. (Although I'm more than certain that part of the blame also lies with the fact that the water pipes in our house are currently frozen and all I can do is hope that they have not or will not burst.) But maybe I can make myself feel better by avoiding using the T-word in this post (although it's in the photo, but that can't be helped).

I have now read two books about this former president. That is enough. No more. I can't stand any more rehashing. At least the first half of this book was new, giving a bit more history and background about how this man ever came to the presidency, but the second half was almost like re-reading The Divider with slightly different wording. I am no closer to understanding how the political events of 2016 - 2020 could have happened, but I have reached the conclusion that I have to put it behind me.

That's not to say that I found this book in any way boring or unreadable. I did not have to force my way through it. Somehow, even having heard most of the second half before, I could probably describe it as riveting. And whereas it seemed to me that The Divider was consistently negative, Haberman was pretty unstinting in both praise and criticism. Although, specifically, I did wonder if it was petty to report that the man made sure to receive one more scoop of ice cream than his guests were served? (Or was it just petty that the man made sure to receive one more scoop of ice cream than his guests were served?)

One last thought before I'm done with this topic for good: if "smugly" didn't already have a different meaning, it would be a great portmanteau to describe the face pictured on the cover of this book.