december 2013 and january 2014 books.

I never posted a rundown of books from last month. I only read two books in December, and I could feel it, too. I missed reading. I looked at books on my shelf and at the store longingly, wanting to stuff them into my brain. So this month, I stuffed some books into my brain and felt better.

A Year of Biblical Womanhood: How a Liberated Woman Found Herself Sitting on Her Roof, Covering Her Head, and Calling Her Husband "Master"
Rachel Held Evans
Rachel is a blogger who writes very openly and honestly about faith. She is an Evangelical Christian, but frequently features the writing of people of other faiths or who have a specific viewpoint about a religious matter (for example, the afterlife or predestination). I really like her approach that we are all on a journey for truth, rather than speaking from a position of knowing all the answers.

She writes a lot about gender and the role of women in the church. This book was a year-long project in which she strived to achieve biblical womanhood - following the rules set forth for women in the Bible. As it turns out, there is not a general consensus of biblical womanhood due to varying interpretations of scripture. In general, she researched and tried to follow whatever someone somewhere said something was a bibical rule. She also investigated other ways of approaching the same text, which frequently meant that she found someone who said it meant the exact opposite. She made friends with a Jewish woman in Israel who was often surprised at the ways the Old Testament is interpreted by people here. She also pointed out how the few women whose stories are told and who are lauded in the Bible are generally not following the rules.

The writing was frequently funny and relateable. I especially liked when she was frustrated by not meeting up to certain standards of femininity - not being able to cook for instance. She did learn to cook, but there was a ruined meal and a good pout session in the middle of the kitchen floor. She did make a go at sewing but found that it did not come easily to her at all. I definitely relate to crying in the kitchen floor feeling like a double failure when I can't do something considered feminine. It's not just that I can't sew, it's that I'm not a real woman somehow. There is a feeling that not only are we supposed to be naturally good at all those things, but we are supposed to be inclined to them.

Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women's Prison
Piper Kerman
Last month in book club, a woman said I never liked anything. She admitted that the books were not great pieces of literature, but she rated them based on how she enjoyed the experience of reading them. I find that approach does not work for me. It's not that I expect great literature, and there is great literature that I do not enjoy. It's just that when I am reading something that is, at best, completely forgettable, I am all too aware that I could have been reading something worthwhile. I read for enlargement and expansion. Someday, I will die, and it makes me mad that I spent time reading crap when there was another book that I did not get to. At another point in my life, I may not have the mental energy to process hard books, and I want to take advantage of it now.

She is right, though, that this outlook is only making me miserable, and I ought to lighten up. Anyway, this month, I came in and told her, "Hey, I liked this one!"

The author had a misspent youth, and then ten years later, finally went to prison for it. Being an educated, middle-class white woman, she was a little out of place. The book is an account of her experience in the prison system. It is a humiliating and dehumanizing experience. There is little support for people once they leave, and little preparation while they are there for any sort of normal life outside. People are wrenched from their lives and their families for non-violent crimes, do not have adequate legal resources, and are then put in prison for terms disproportionate for their crimes.

Kerman, who was arrested for being a drug mule, comes to feel real remorse for her crime when she sees the impact that drugs have on the lives of her cellmates. She has harsh criticism for the War on Drugs, and says that we should be helping people get off drugs without ripping them away from their lives. Also, it turns out you can often get drugs in prison.

There is a TV show based on the book, which I have heard nothing but great things about. I have not watched it yet, but will, though I hear it is very different from the book. I do think more exposure for the problems of the prison system is a good thing, because most people are completely removed from it. Before visiting Eastern State Penitentiary, it never even occured to me to wonder why we put people in prison. To punish them? If so, does the punishment discourage others from crime or make the incarcerated less likely to commit crimes in the future? Or do we do it to get them away from us? If so, is that necessary when their crimes hurt only themselves?

See, this is the type of thing we should read in book club.

Still Alice
Lisa Genova
This book was rough. It is about a woman developing early onset Alzheimers. You go with her and her family from her diagnosis at age fifty through a couple of years until she is basically not there anymore. Formerly, she was a professor at Harvard, living the life of the mind. In the end, she is completely dependent on caretakers, though she seems to be well-loved.

This book tied me in knots. As I was reading it, any sort of memory lapse would freak me out, as if I was losing my mind. The hardest for me was seeing the reactions of her family. Her husband couldn't really deal with it and used his work as an escape. It was easy to be angry at him, but it would be gut-wrenching to watch your spouse deteriorate into someone else.

Great Expectations
Charles Dickens
I was surprised to find that the South Park episode that tells this story is pretty faithful to the book, at least up until the robots. It sort of veers off course at that point.

This book is the story of Pip, an orphan who is being raised by his shrewish sister and her gentle husband. A mysterious benefactor pays for him to move to London to learn how to be a gentleman. The story mostly concerns his development from a meek poor kid into a haughty gentleman and finally a good man (uh, spoilers, but c'mon, this is from the man who gave us Ebenezer Scrooge).

That sounds pretty simple, but the plot is fairly intricate and complicated. There are escaped convicts, a beautiful young woman with a heart of ice, an aged parent, and lots of mysteries. Everything comes together nicely in the end. The characters are really wonderful, too. I feel obvious saying hey, Dickens was pretty good, but, well, hey, Dickens was pretty good. And funny! I mean, sure there is child abuse and terribly poverty, but I did get quite a few chuckles out of it.

I had an easier time of this one than Tale of Two Cities. This is one of only two books that he wrote in the first person, so maybe the point of view cut down on the really long descriptive passages with key plot points hidden in them that I struggled with in Two Cities. However, as I was writing up this review, I looked up a plot summary and realized that I seriously misread the ending. It appears that I still cannot get away with skimming Dickens. I really shouldn't anyway, because his writing is frequently beautiful, and I'll miss all the good stuff if I'm just going for the plot.

The Reason I Jump: The Inner Voice of a Thirteen Year Old Boy with Autism
Naoki Higashida
This was our book club selection for January. I was really excited to see it come up, because I had seen a glowing endorsement of it on The Daily Show.

It is an odd little book. It is laid out as a series of questions about what it is like to be autistic and why this particular kid behaves the way he does. And the kid answers, using a special keyboard that he and his mother developed. It is very thoughtful and lucid, not at all the impression one has of someone with autism.

He mentions never feeling in control of his body, and not always being aware of where his arms and legs are. Speech, being a body function, is limited. He can speak, but he doesn't always say the things he wants. It's not just not getting his body to do what he wants, it seems as if his body just goes and does things without him telling it to.

He also has problems with memory, in that, his memories are not organized, like at all. So while you and I can think back to yesterday and go down the list of things we did, a person with autism cannot. That's really hard for me to even imagine. His memories are connected to each other, so that something that is happening now will remind him of something that happened previously, as with us. Apparently these memories can be forcefully strong, such that the emotions associated with the memory will cause the person to relive it, along with the physical response to the emotion (laughter or tears or whatever).

The common idea is that autism is a defect of empathy, but this kid indicates otherwise. He can tell when he has let other people down, and he can tell that they are frustrated with him. He aches that he has caused them pain. I learned that doctors used to blame autism on "refrigerator mothers," meaning mothers who were cold to their children. Eventually they realized that having a child that you can't interact with and who may be resistant to touch, would probably go a long way to making a mother standoffish. And I wonder if they may decide that's the case with autism itself. The person is not standoffish, but unable to communicate. They don't prefer to be alone, but they have had to get used to it because no one wants to be around them.

It's really hard to know what to think. There was considerable skepticism at book club that the kid wrote it on his own. I thought that was unfair. The whole premise of the book is that people with autism do understand what is going on around them, but that they are trapped by physical limitations. This world was not made for them. He mentions feeling at ease and calm in nature.

For me, the big impression that I got was of frustration. It seems to be a very stressful condition. Never being able to do what you want to do and constantly doing things you did not want to do, while the people you love are hurt by your actions. He mentioned the emotional outbursts he sometimes has over very minor grievances. If I had to live like he does, trapped in an uncooperative body, anytime I had some sort of minor setback, I'd lose it, too.

In the end, it doesn't really matter whether the kid wrote it or whether he is typical of autistic people. Over and over, he asks the reader to just be patient and treat him kindly. That's the basic advice of how to be with anyone, so that's all we need to do.

Harvest of Empire: A History of Latinos in America
Juan Gonzalez
My enjoyment of this book was mixed. It is, as the title states, a history of Latinos. The first part was history up until 1800, starting with pre-Columbian peoples and then the colonization period. Interesting to me was the comparison of the Spanish colonies to the others, particularly the British, and how that has affected the descendents of the natives and the colonizers. The Spanish were coming into areas with much denser native populations, and they were also more in a holy warrior mode, having been recently working on kicking the Muslims out for the past 800 years. There was a lot more intermingling between the natives and the Spaniards, some in marriage and some in just love-making. Throw in the slaves, and you get a rich spectrum of new races.

And then there was just a lot of exploiting, of the land and of the people. First it was the colonial powers, and then it was the gringos, both businesses and governments. The people would elect someone who would pass some laws that the foreign-owned businesses would not like, and so we'd send in the marines. Basically, in the end, the reason the Latinos come here is because we did a great job of making their countries crappy places to live in order to make our country super awesome. The book takes care to not lump all Latinos together, explaining what was going on in the various countries of origin. That all sort of ran together for me, since it was mostly exploitation and propped-up dictators.

Memento Mori
Muriel Spark
Ah, this one was fun. It's about a social group of people in their seventies and eighties, who are all getting an anonymous phone caller who only says "Remember that you will die." Everyone identifies the caller as sounding different - older or younger, lisping or crude or educated, male or female. The police have been unable to trace the call. People react to the caller differently. Some call the police, while others pause and say, "Thank you, that is good advice."

It is pretty good advice, although that advice is what keeps me from enjoying crappy books in book club.

In the meantime, there is lots of intrigue about affairs, secret marriages, blackmail, and an old ladies ward at the hospital. It could have been a book about any set of rich people with nothing better to do than annoy each other, with the exception that there were a lot of complaints about old bodies. And there were a lot of deaths. Someone died nearly every chapter, which created more intrique, because then there would be fighting over the will.

I picked this up because I read a article somewhere about Muriel Spark. I will be sure to pick up her books when I see them. The writing is simple and funny, and the social commentary pointed. She creates characters that I recognize from real life.

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel
Rebecca Goldstein
When I was in college, as part of a physics class, we had to do papers and presentations on physics topics. Once, I picked for my topic Richard Feynman. My teacher, looked a bit skeptical and said that it wasn't just a biography, I had to understand and explain the concepts of his contributions to physics. I said, Bah! no problem. And then like a week later, I came back and said I was doing my report on Marie Curie instead. I like to think that my teacher was saying that Feynman's work was really hard, rather than that I was an idiot. Although, physics does make me feel like an idiot.

All that is to say that this book, which I expected to mostly be a biography of Kurt Gödel, actually explained his contributions to mathematics. It was a much harder read than I expected, because Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems are advanced math and have philosophical implications. I read slow, and I took notes, but I think I got it, because I am much better at math than physics.

Back in the start of the 20th century, formal systems were all the rage. A formal system is one that is completely reasoned out. Arithmetic is not a formal system, because we rely on our intuition of the counting numbers. A formal system is totally abstract - there are no numbers, only variables. The mathematicians wanted to redefine arithmetic such that it did not rely on silly things like reality. They'd already proved that other branches of math, like geometry, could be formalized, on the condition that arithmetic could. The ultimate goal seemed to be to prove that we could reduce all of reality to abstract concepts. Whatever man could not measure was therefore meaningless. It was like the Math Tower of Babel.

Gödel proved that any formal system which describes something as complicated as arithmetic would be incomplete - meaning there would be things in it that we would know to be true by intuition, but which we could not prove within the system. The philosophical implication is that we are not able to prove using our own designed language what we know to be true just by looking at it. It shows the limits of a language (specifically mathematics, but more generally, any language), which is in the end a limit of our reason. Some say that the theorems show the limits of AI - computers run on formal systems; they can only follow the rules that are given to them.

And that all came from a mathematical proof! Whole new areas of math were started based on things in his proof, which does crazy things like turn theorems into numbers and then do arithmetic on them. The book goes through a simplified version of the proof, because the real version is just too intense.

Gödel was brilliant, but in a way not made for this world. He as always a hypochondriac, but he grew increasingly paranoid as he aged. In the end, he died of starvation because he was worried someone was trying to poison him.

A long time ago, I wrote an overwrought blog entry about Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. It is a little embarrassing to read now, and I hate to even link to it, but it looks like I basically got the idea right, and my metaphor holds up. My thoughts about what made Gödel crazy are off, and from this book, I now know that Gödel never believed in formal systemsfaith (or as I put it a decade ago, the shoeboxes), so his proofs did not give him a crisis of faith. I don't think intense math or the repercussions of his results made Gödel crazy. He was probably unstable from the beginning and was increasingly isolated in his old age, partly because was off-putting and strange in person and partly because he was so unbelieveably smart that no one could follow him. Seriously, after Einstein died, there was nobody to talk to. I don't know that I'd even want to be that smart.

No comments: