rebeccmeister: (Default)
Ta-Nehisi Coates has recently received increased attention because of an article he published in The Atlantic. I'd heard his name mentioned enough times by enough different people to decide I should pick up and read Between the World and Me. And yes, it is a thoughtful and helpful work, and one that white people especially should listen to.

Two themes resonated: the concept of life at its fullest as an ongoing struggle. And, how Coates outlines how people who need to think of themselves as white have physically built their society out of black bodies. This notion is an uncomfortable truth, but strongly reminded me of reading The Body in Pain, which more broadly posits the same idea. Never lose sight of the awareness of the role of physical human labor in generating and maintaining human societies.

I am interested in continuing to work on how to foster a tolerant, inclusive, and fair society. I would love to encourage high school students to read and discuss Between the World and Me.
rebeccmeister: (Default)
I finished reading Insect Diets: Science and Technology. A lot of the later chapters seem to generally reiterate subjects from the earlier chapters, or talk about issues specifically associated with mass-rearing, which is defined as rearing millions of insects, as for a large-scale sterile release program. Those are subjects that aren't as directly relevant to me, so reading those chapters was a bit of a slog. My next fun academic reading project will be to read the newly-published edition of Biochemical Adaptation. I should also work my way through the rest of Protein Turnover to see if there are any specific subjects I need to know more about and think over.

Not too long ago, I read this interview of Robert Caro, author of the book The Power Broker, which is about a guy named Robert Moses who had a huge influence on shaping the urban fabric of New York City and its surroundings. While the stuff about Robert Moses is fascinating in and of itself, I also appreciated all of the discussion about what it's like to go from journalistic writing to writing an in-depth investigative book.

I'm also envious of the writers getting to use the research and study rooms at the New York Public Library. Those spaces just sound so heavenly and productive. My rough equivalent is going down to the Biosciences Library on the second floor to sit at a kiosk among all of the undergraduates, who have special savory habits like wearing WAY too much cologne, talking on their cell phones, talking to each other, and bringing in take-out food to eat and slobber over in the "group study" spaces. And this is at a fairly studious university, overall.

Maybe there are other secret writing spaces on campus that aren't so terrible, but if there are, I haven't found them yet.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Some time ago, I became curious about connections between various health conditions - things like interstitial cystitis and other aspects of reproductive well-being. I have a good friend who is a nurse practitioner in sexual health, and she (and maybe a couple other people?) recommended The V Book: A Doctor's Guide to Complete Vulvovaginal Health, by Elizabeth Stewart and Paula Spencer. The long and short of it is, this is a tremendously insightful and in-depth book for women and if you have female reproductive parts you should own a copy even if you don't read it right away.

For example: good luck finding useful information about yeast infections online, if and when you want it. I don't have problems with them, but was curious about causes and prevention for the sake of optimal well-being. Stewart points out that there are a lot of other clinical conditions, particularly bacterial vaginosis, that often get self-misdiagnosed as chronic yeast infections, which is why it's a REALLY good idea to work with a clinician to diagnose and resolve whatever is going on in every individual's case, using the correct diagnostic methods.

Stewart describes, with the key biological details, how a healthy reproductive tract works, and all of the different ways things can go awry, as she's observed over decades of clinical work. Boy does this make me wonder about the state of women's health on a global scale. It was useful to learn about the various types of disturbances that can disrupt one's microbial ecosystems, as well as treatments that are harmful or useless (e.g. most diet changes do nothing). She also provides specifics about what can be done to cope with or correct disruptions due to things like changing estrogen levels across life stages. She discusses in detail how hormonal differences between men and women mean that very low doses of testosterone (relative to men) can have useful benefits for women.

The chapters on skin disorders were fascinating, and provided perspective on how many different things can go wrong with various types of skin cells (hint: more than you can imagine, oy). There can be different kinds of interactions between different layers and kinds of skin cells, and between skin cells and ducts. That section provided a solid argument for working with a dermatologist for general skin concerns, and was part of what motivated me to go get a rosacea diagnosis for my face. I wish my younger self had known more about skin health.

Anyway, The V Book was not exactly light reading, but it was thorough and well-written and I highly recommend it.

The second book, which I've already referred to recently, just came out in 2015: Come as You Are: The Surprising New Science that Will Transform Your Sex Life, by Emily Nagoski. To be honest, I wasn't expecting too much when I cracked this one open. I figured it would reiterate a lot of the subjects that Dan Savage writes about. Also, [livejournal.com profile] sytharin and I agree that we both wanted to re-write the entire book to edit out the Chatty McChatterson tone and blather. Fantastic approach for a college lecture, but annoying to read. (I'm reminded of my irritations with the editing of Quiet, the book about introverts.) If rewritten, the result would probably be about a quarter as long, but would make for a more timeless book, even as our understanding of the underlying neurobiology shifts.

Anyway, it does an exceptional job of covering sexual well-being in a way that is universally beneficial, regardless of the specific circumstances of any one person's life (single, celibate, asexual, transgender, married, complicated, etc). Women and men would find it to be useful reading, and it was more insightful than I'd expected. It's centered around emotional well-being and how different neural systems develop and interact to put us somewhere along a spectrum between "stressed and shut down" and "ecstatic" in any given situation. Importantly, it starts by pointing out how most of our cultural misconceptions about womens' sexuality stem from a historical, male-centered concept of sexuality, which gets almost everything wrong. Again, this goes back to my wondering about the global state of womens' well-being. Anyway, until RAC and I get around to editing it down, you should probably just read it. The New York Times bestseller list for nonfiction is often correct, in contrast to the list for fiction. [grin]
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I think this excerpt may be helpful to others for its shift in perspective. It's in the book Come As You Are, by Dr. Emily Nagoski, which I may write about further in a future post (after I've finished reading it):

-

In her book Self-Compassion: Stop Beating Yourself Up and Leave Insecurity Behind, researcher and educator Kristin Neff describes self-compassion's three key elements:

* Self-kindness is our ability to treat ourselves gently and with caring. On the Self Compassion Scale (SCS), a survey used to assess self-compassion, self-kindness is described with items like "When I'm going through a very hard time, I give myself the caring and tenderness I need." In contrast, its opposite, self-judgment, is assessed with "I'm intolerant and impatient towards those aspects of my personality I don't like."

* Common humanity is viewing our suffering as something that connects us with others, rather than separates us. It's assessed on the SCS with items like "When I feel inadequate in some way, I try to remind myself that feelings of inadequacy are shared by most people." Its opposite, isolation, is assessed with "When I fail at something that's important to me, I tend to feel alone in my failure."

* Mindfulness is being nonjudgmental about whatever is happening in the present moment...Mindfulness is important. On the SCS it's assessed with items like "When something painful happens I try to take a balanced view of the situation." Its opposite is over-identification, as in over-identifying with your own failures and suffering, holding fast to the pain and being unable to let it go. It's assessed with items like "When I'm feeling down I tend to obsess and fixate on everything that's wrong."

-

So my impression is that what's presented in this book is reasonably well scientifically substantiated. [temporarily setting aside the general and growing concerns about reproducibility in the cognitive and behavioral sciences] Self-Compassion sounds to me like it may fall somewhere in the realm of cognitive behavioral therapy, in a good way. I appreciate this excerpt from Come As You Are for succinctly discussing the point about "common humanity" in particular. I think when I was younger - middle school, high school - I was much, much worse at self-compassion. A lot of things have reshaped my perspective since then, thankfully, but I especially find it helpful to remind myself to step outside of my individual experience and put it into a broader context.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So, I finished reading Nonviolent Communication, as recommended by [livejournal.com profile] bluepapercup a while back.

I would recommend it. I suspect that different people will get different things from reading the book, but altogether I think the basic premises of the book hold true for me. The thing I'm focusing on for the moment is the concept of explicitly tuning in to other peoples' feelings and needs, as well as expressing my own feelings and needs. I think I've identified that this is a point where I often get impatient and struggle.

I am also thinking of the book as a component of my personal interest in pacifism. The Book of Forgiving fits in the same category.

I regret that I did not have a chance to have a more extensive conversation with my dad about a course he's currently taking, on "emotional intelligence." He says it is largely aimed at people working in business settings, but perhaps there are other things to be gleaned from it.

Up next, I'll read a book about sailing.
rebeccmeister: (Iheartcoffee)
This fall, in preparation for a lab meeting on professional writing, our lab has been reading Style: Lessons in Clarity and Grace, by Joseph M. Williams and Joseph Bizup (in the eleventh addition, at least). The thing I hope to take away from the book is a good checklist/reminder of major steps for revising my academic writing, because I would like to become more self-sufficient in that capacity. It's a valuable resource for revision strategies, covering issues ranging from sentence-level revisions to overall flow. I also liked how a section towards the end covered the issue of plagiarism because I think it lays things out clearly as a matter of establishing and maintaining trust that a person knows how to situate their knowledge and ideas among the work of others. On the other hand, I don't know how accessible the book would be to freshman undergraduates. That depends on their general college preparation, I suppose.

Upon finishing Style, I have started reading Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life, by Marshall. B Rosenberg. I was a little disoriented by the transition from prescriptive writing about writing to prescriptive writing about communication in general. Aside from my own internal confusion, I would say that there's a lot to think over in the book. I agree with the overall concept of compassion-driven interactions with others, but I also think it will be challenging to put the book's ideas into conscious practice. There are a lot of moving parts to keep track of, especially for those of us who often require extra time / mental processing to reflect on what we want to say and how to say it.

One part that hit a chord: the chapter on identifying and expressing feelings. The chapter opens by saying

"Psychoanalyist Rollo May suggests that 'the mature person becomes able to differentiate feelings into as many nuances, strong and passionate experiences, or delicate and sensitive ones as in the different passages of music in a symphony.' For many of us, however, our feelings are, as May would describe it, 'limited like notes in a bugle call.'"

I read that excerpt and then paused to reflect on it. How often do I take the time to actually suss out how I'm feeling? Like many people, I think I tend to shortcut through this stage, and just declare "anxious" or "tired" or "stressed" or "hangry." But I would agree that identifying how we are feeling is helpful for figuring out what we wish to ask of others. Something to work on, for me.

After I finish Nonviolent Communication, I'll read a book about sailing, at [livejournal.com profile] scrottie's request, as well as the ever-exciting text Insect Diets.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
[livejournal.com profile] annikusrex sent me this book sometime this past spring, but it wound up under a couple of other books until just recently. This is a book with multiple narrative threads woven together, part memoir, part biography, part poetry, really. The main piece concerns the author training and hunting with a goshawk, as she mourns the sudden death of her father.

I think what I appreciated most about the book is how Macdonald allows readers to see her up-close emotional experience. It's good and comforting for the sake of knowing what it's like when other human beings go through these things.

Up next is Thinking, Fast and Slow. I am hoping that it isn't too old-white-male-ish. I listened to a portion of an interview with the author, and from his comments came to figure I might as well just read his book.

Also, what do you think of the song that Macklemore and Ryan Lewis just released?

Ready All!

Nov. 10th, 2015 10:05 am
rebeccmeister: (1x)
[livejournal.com profile] bluepapercup gifted me a copy of this book about George Pocock, which recently got republished, and I finally finished reading it last night. If you read The Boys in the Boat, you may realize why it makes sense to take a more in-depth look at Pocock's life. Brown only has enough space to talk about several of the highlights that led to Pocock's relocation to Seattle and establishment of his boat-building enterprise there.

More than anything, I appreciated Pocock's evocative descriptions of good rowing, and emphasis on expert craftsmanship. This is a book that belongs on any rowing bookshelf.

I'm not entirely looking forward to the next books in the stack. There are two books on getting jobs, on loan from a friend, that I need to deal with and return to the friend (I've had them for about a year now). There are also two older academic books on insect migration, and a book on coxing written by a rower/coxswain I know. Altogether, things that I should give their due, but not things that are exactly pleasant to pick up and work through.

I'm also finally down to around 6 more issues of the New Yorker from 2012. So much of the material remains surprisingly topical.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
Somehow or another this book came up in some discussions with my mother during the period when I had broken up with [livejournal.com profile] scrottie and was trying to sort through a bunch of emotional stuff. I was interested in the book not so much in the context of that immediate relationship situation, but more in general because I've felt for a long time like I haven't entirely understood the concept of forgiveness.

This actually stems back to my Catholic upbringing. One of the important rituals (sacraments, actually) in the Catholic church is the ritual of Reconciliation. Depending on who you talk to, you will hear different stories of what Reconciliation is and how it goes. The earlier versions of it were what you know of as Confession, with the private chambers where the priest hears about your sins, tells you to do some penance, and you go on your way. Growing up when I did, Confession had taken on a different tone that involved face-to-face meetings with a religious figure, but at that time I often felt like I was supposed to be coming up with a list of bad things that I had done so I had some basis for asking for forgiveness. I think this is in part because I didn't really understand the sacrament, but in part because I only received half-explanations of how it was supposed to work. I had this understanding that it was an important ritual, but that was the extent of it.

Fast-forward to graduate school. Two or three years into grad school, I hit something of a crisis point in the time right after Zack disappeared. One of those phases of, "What am I DOING with my life?!" I came to feel like I couldn't trust some of the people I had thought of as some of my closer friends, in good part because I didn't like who I became when around them. For instance - they found me funny when I was drunk, where I experienced a profound sense of alienation from myself and other people.

After certain things happened, I instinctively needed to push away, hard. Pushing away from those friends was more about who I was than it was about them, but regardless, it was a big rift. Breaking up with friends is incredibly hard.

But after some time had passed and I reached a point where I felt like I had re-aligned my sense of self, I started to experience another thing: I had this incredibly strong urge to forgive those former friends, but I also had this awareness that I really didn't know how. Ever since that point, the whole concept of "forgiveness" has been high on the radar as something I want to understand and practice better. For instance, this piece talks about teaching children to do a better job of reconciling wrongs.

I also copied out a quotation from a friend: "Forgiveness is for the forgiver and not the forgiven. Personal power arises from the ability to transcend the need for acknowledgement of our personal work. Let the action be the reward."

And when I encounter incredible stories of forgiveness, like this Holocaust survivor forgiving an Auschwitz guard, I listen.

What is going on here?

It feels like Desmond and Mpho Tutu hit some pretty big nails squarely on the head in this department. The Book of Forgiving contains some utterly horrific stories of the awful things that human beings do to each other, but it also makes a crucial point about human connectedness. The point is this: when another person hurts you, you have two options. You can retaliate, which will extend into a cycle of revenge, or you can choose to enter a cycle of forgiveness. There's a strong human impulse to retaliate, which is why the Tutus take a step back to ask, why and how can we choose to do something different?

Their perspective on humanity resonates deeply with my perspective, which is that we all need to recall our shared humanity even when faced with acts of extreme depravity. Towards the very end of the book, they talk about the distinctions between restorative and retributive justice. I deeply believe in the capabilities of human beings to become better, even while recognizing that we still live in a flawed, hurtful world. Tutu does not shy away from talking about some of the very worst things that humans have done to each other, including genocide, over the course of the book, and this is part of what makes the book so powerful.

As such, I would highly recommend the book, and I would be interested to hear your perspective, too.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So I've been reading and pondering a book that was loaned to me not too long ago by my mother. Getting the Love You Want is an interesting relationship book, both for what it contains, and what it does not (so highly heteronormative). In a nutshell, its goal is the promotion of "the conscious marriage," defined as "a state of mind and a way of being based on acceptance, a willingness to grow and change, the courage to encounter one's own fear, and a conscious decision to act in loving ways."

There are a lot of elements to unpack. I'll touch on the omitted subjects first, mostly to remark that with the way the book is written, it doesn't necessarily come into any direct conflict with alternative relationship structures except in how it stresses the importance of "closing your exits" to create a critical degree of security in the relationship at hand (boiling down to making time for the relationship instead of avoiding it). Sexual in/compatibility isn't directly addressed, either.

Laying those elements aside, I'm still left pondering several aspects of the book's approach to marriage. It is based around some rather Freudian notions, in addition to a specific concept of individual development and relationship progression. Specifically - it posits that we have all experienced unmet childhood needs, which have deeply shaped our personas and affect who we are attracted to, date, and marry (generally, significant others who resemble our parents or caretakers in key ways). These things don't rise to the surface until an intermediate relationship stage is reached, when the interplay of those combined unmet needs leads to conflict and a power struggle. For the relationship to progress beyond the stage of the power struggle, it can be helpful to go through a series of exercises to identify those suppressed unmet needs, cope with the emotions that arise upon their identification, and develop concrete methods to ask for, give, and receive these things from one's partner.

I feel like the Freudian aspect is one that a person could take or leave, depending on one's perspective on developmental psychology. There's clearly a lot that happens in terms of emotional development when one is young, but it seems to me this basis leads to the creation of a "just so" story. On the flipside, we are all sample sizes of one, and I don't think there's any serious harm that would come from taking this perspective unless it was used deceptively. And deception just wouldn't really hang in this whole framework - at that point, it isn't much of a relationship anymore. And if it helps a person pinpoint his or her hangups, well, that's useful, regardless of the source of those hangups.

The "development" aspect of the book kind of made me rock back for a minute, because it made me realize a longstanding implicit assumption of mine - the notion that a human's lifetime is a developmental experience (emotionally and intellectually). This notion is highly ingrained, tied to a concept of lifelong "spiritual development" (which can occur whether one is religious or not). I operate under an assumption that a life-long developmental process is a fundamental aspect of the human experience. The thing to ponder is, what would be an alternative to this perspective? I don't think it's the notion of being "stuck" - that just brings you back to the context of development. Humans aren't simply random, either - memory comes into play, somehow. And regardless, I *do* think the book is correct that one's personal development is intimately tied to one's relationships with others, even though the book has defined the nature of those relationships a bit narrowly. Working through this line of thinking has been helpful in figuring out why I put emphasis on long-term relationships (best friend, family members) in thinking about my own identity and priorities.

Food for thought, at least.

I also suspect that, regardless of whether one accepts the underlying theories or not, the prescribed set of activities will nurture a relationship in concrete, pragmatic ways, by creating structured opportunities to talk about and practice good, kind, and loving behavior. Will I sit down and do them? I'm not sure yet. But I can't help thinking about them anyway.

There's also a section in the book on figuring out how to express and deal with anger in constructive ways. I hadn't thought about the subject so directly before, but it touches on the notion that it's important to be able to express and experience the full range of one's human emotions.

-

While work is busy, I have grabbed the closest fluffy read I could find, Gnarr, about the Icelandic comedian who unexpectedly launched a political career, starting a new political party, the Best Party. After that, I am going to read The Book on Forgiveness, and then I think Nonviolent Communication. I suspect these two will be thought-provoking as well.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I finally finished reading it.

I can appreciate the author's intention with the book, and the introduction to a whole series of interlinked concepts associated with number theory, logic, math, and artificial intelligence.

That said, I found it unnecessarily long. There might not have been much of a workaround, given the author's interests and goals for the text. I suspect that alternative texts exist that cover many of the same bases in what would be for me a more pleasant fashion. On the other hand, I could see how this approach could be a worthwhile diversion for someone with a job that allows one to read in bits and pieces (e.g. [livejournal.com profile] scrottie says he read it while working as a movie theater usher).

I am glad to be moving on to reading other things now.

Honestly, I've never cared that much for Escher or Bach, although I can appreciate that they made important cultural contributions. Probably the biggest red flag, but now at least I can say I've read the book.

One could get away with just reading the Wikipedia page.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
I. Tomorrow is the next Nebraska brevet, a 300k. I will drive a rental car from Lincoln out to Nebraska City, then assemble Froinlavin and ride west to Crete and back again, and will then drive back to Lincoln. This trajectory is reminiscent of some of the brevets in Texas, which came tantalizingly close to Bryan and College Station at the midpoints of the rides. My brevet gear is still relatively well-organized from last week. It's nice when the preparations are simple (aside from the rental car, bleah). The 400k will be even more simple, because it starts at the edge of Lincoln.

II. Yesterday, the departmental seminar speaker was a guy who studies the pupfish species found in Death Valley. I'd heard about the Devils Hole Pupfish before, but not from an expert, and not in the context of the other habitats in Death Valley where pupfish are found. Those teeny-tiny fish live in a tremendous range of habitats - some of them highly salty, some of them extremely warm, some of them fluctuating between extremes, some of them nutrient-rich, some of them nutrient-poor. The whole conservation story of the Devils Hole pupfish is crazy - reasonably well summarized on the Wikipedia page, although there are a handful of more recent developments. The most interesting thing I got from the talk was the notion that the thing people are seeking to save is This Specific Fish Only In This Specific Location, because any time the fish is brought out of Devils Hole, it's so difficult and expensive to maintain the exact environmental conditions of Devils Hole that the resulting fish either die out or quickly become phenotypically distinct from the fish remaining in Devils Hole. Plus, the population in the hole is small at best, tiny at worst (apparently around 34 fish are currently alive). Apparently the price humans pay to keep these fish alive works out to around $3000 per gram of fish per year. And at some point, people decided to start supplementing the food of the fish in Devils Hole. The hard part of that decision is that now they can't stop supplementing the fish, because what if they do and the fish go extinct. There are also multiple interests involved in keeping the fish alive, which makes it tremendously logistically complicated to make decisions in managing the location's care. Also, apparently the Endangered Species Act uses the word "species" twice, in the description of the definition of a "species." I suppose that's what happens when policymakers craft legislation about biological phenomena. I'll ignore the fact that biologists have been arguing among themselves over species definitions for well over a century.

In other news, now I want to visit Death Valley.

III. I caught most of Terry Gross's incredible interview of Toni Morrison on Fresh Air a couple of days back, and it has been stuck in my mind ever since. Unsurprisingly, Morrison provides a lot of food for thought, especially about her experiences with regret, revisiting old hurts, and how one's world changes as one gets older. It has been a long time since I've read any of her novels, and perhaps I will revisit some of them at some point, as I know I found them moving. Even though they are almost nothing alike, for some reason I tend to conflate Toni Morrison and Barbara Kingsolver. It would be interesting to get the two of them together for a conversation, I suppose, although each speaks with such a different, distinct voice. I think maybe the common thread is a focus on culture.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
[livejournal.com profile] annikusrex gave me Hild (Nicola Griffith) while I was up in Seattle over Thanksgiving. Highly imaginative, lovingly crafted historical fiction about an advisor to the king during the seventh century (this review on NPR provides a more extensive synopsis). I was overwhelmed by the names and locations, but that did not prevent me from following the main storyline. The book reminds me, to some extent, of Anne Lamott's exhortations to "write to discover."

I'd recommend it. It removed the bad taste that The Circle left in my mouth. I really appreciated the exploration of the religious beliefs during that time period.

Reading material currently sitting next to my bed:
-Two books on getting a job
-2001: A Space Odyssey
-The Randonneurs USA Members' Handbook
-Godel, Escher, Bach
-Gnarr: How I Became the Mayor of a Large City in Iceland and Changed the World ([livejournal.com profile] scrottie laughed a lot as he read it)
-Big pile of New Yorkers from 2012 (I think I've made it through 2/3rds of them already)

I have one last book to reluctantly return to the university library here. It's an academic book that would cost me ~$250 to buy for myself, on a highly specialized subject (Herbivory of Leaf-Cutting Ants).
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So, my mom read The Circle (Dave Eggers) recently for her book club, and then left her copy of the book lying around the house. When I was in town, she asked if I'd like it, after multiple people had glanced at it and generally agreed, "Yeah...disturbing." I shrugged and brought it back to Texas with me.

Now that I think about it, I recall feeling ambivalent after finishing A Hearbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, too. I appreciate a lot of what Eggers does for the literary world, but his writing grates.

The book managed to be sufficiently gripping that I stayed up past my bedtime reading it last night, but I would say, in a heartbeat, just go read 1984 instead and be done with it.

The biggest thought I take away from The Circle is, what's involved in trying to construct a successful novel where the protagonist isn't likeable?
rebeccmeister: (Acromyrmex)
I'm thinking about rewriting my teaching statement for these job applications. Alternatively, I might just write another document, a Teaching Manifesto, intended to reach a broader audience beyond hiring committees, because over the years of my own education and teaching I've reached a specific perspective on educational goals, and I'm starting to think the whole thing deserves to be its own essay.*

Part of the reason I bring this up is because I first heard about the subject of this post, the book Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott, in my undergraduate Writing Fellows training seminar, and the Writing Fellows experience continues to inform how I approach teaching. I'm not quite yet at a point where I'm ready to write the shitty first draft (Lamott lingo) of my Teaching Manifesto, but when I do I suspect you'll be the first to hear about it.

Bird by Bird is twenty years old by now, but it's a timeless book for writers because Lamott does a phenomenal job of reaching out and capturing the thoughts and emotions one experiences as a writer. While her intended audience is primarily writers of fiction, writers of all stripes will find in her work someone who is sympathetic to the struggles of professional writing and able to offer up both consolation and kicks in the pants as necessary.

While reading the book, though, I kept thinking back to a comment [livejournal.com profile] scrottie made while I was reading Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, by Studs Turkel. He had a hard time with the idea of reading Working because the concept of reading about work just sounded like a whole bunch of work! However, that wasn't my experience of Working - Turkel did such an amazing job of capturing the different workers' voices and their passions for what they were doing and purposes behind their work, that the book is a rich and fascinating compilation about the human experience.

Reading Bird by Bird was closer to work than leisure reading. I read most of the book while traveling, where I didn't have the mental space to settle in and write, so it also involved reading about work instead of just going out and getting work done. Today, after finishing it, I wound up bringing the book in to work so it can sit next to How to Write a Lot, which looms on a bookshelf right above my desk for maximal impact.

And on that note, perhaps I should get back to work.



*The other day on a different social media platform, I posted a rather simple commentary piece on how most students don't know what learning is, but in the same vein, there's some odd tension in the biological sciences over teaching methodologies, too. With teaching philosophies, it can actually be dangerous to be overly pedantic, and at the same time, many biologists teach poorly or use uninformed teaching methods. So - the Manifesto will start with my perspective on the purpose of an undergraduate education, and will then cover specific tools and approaches that should be used to facilitate student development, as informed by my experiences in grad school and as an undergraduate Writing Fellow.

Bookend

Sep. 18th, 2014 08:05 am
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
So now I'm reading Man's Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. What that means is that I just finished a book about the lead-up to World War II, and now I'm reading a book that was a direct result of that war. The idea to read the book came from Rowdy Kittens a while back (although I seem to recall a specific post with more detailed discussion), stemming from the thought that perhaps there are other ways to think about life beyond hedonism or the pursuit of happiness. Which is a trifle amusing, because the author of Rowdy Kittens often writes under the guise of "happiness," even though I don't think her goal is strictly happiness per se. Anyway, tangent.

It's hard to set down a book about the Holocaust. It's hard to read any story about genocide, especially one so painfully and eloquently recounted by those who survived. It's clear that Frankl's every word has been carefully and painfully chosen as he seeks to recount the experiences in Auschwitz in a way that will allow him and others to derive something out of so much suffering and loss. I picked up the 1992 edition from the library, and found it especially interesting to read Frankl's introductory commentary about how he hadn't expected the book to be so popular, but how its popularity speaks to a shared deep and driving need to understand our existence here on this planet hurtling through space. So despite the difficulty of the subject matter, clearly many of us feel compelled to seek it out and learn from it.

I'm not sure what I'm going to read after this book.

I've gained a greater appreciation for history as I've gotten older. I think I just didn't understand it especially well back in high school. I wish we'd had more occasions where teachers had handed us a collection of primary documents and asked us to reconstruct a history around them. At the same time, I know that many of my history teachers did a perfectly wonderful job of exposing us to as many different facets of history as they could, under all the constraints at hand.
rebeccmeister: (1x)
I feel somewhat silly for not having read this book earlier. My only excuses are that I was reading other things, and that I'm wary of anything that gets too much hype (ahem, previous book I read).

In many ways, The Boys in the Boat was a welcome contrast to Quiet. The comparison is somewhat unfair, because one book is a historical text, while the other is quasi-scientific and partially autobiographical, but I'm going to make the comparison anyway because these are the things I've been reading lately for fun. If only the editor of TBITB had handled Quiet. Maybe the editor could have transformed Quiet into a better text altogether.

TBITB is about a collection of intertwined lives - specifically about the University of Washington rowing team that competed in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. As with much of rowing, the conclusion of the story isn't nearly as remarkable as the whole process of working to get there. It's a story about the history and culture of Seattle as much as a story about the rowers, too, so it spoke to me on that level as well. It's also a story about George Pocock's legacy of craftsmanship, and I think the author felt compelled to honor that legacy by putting in a tremendous amount of thought and care while crafting the book. Thank you, Daniel James Brown, for writing with such respect and giving us all an example to strive for.

It's funny to realize that I learned to row while sitting in the great room of the boathouse named after Pocock that displayed the rowing shell featured in the book. I can't tell you how many hours I sat stretching underneath that boat, staring up at it ignorantly. I was vaguely aware of its significance to the sport, and of Pocock's boatbuilding legacy, as I learned to row in the Pocock Center nearly 20 years ago. I'm glad that there's a boatbuilder who has continued the tradition of crafting these beautiful cedar shells. But the book has helped the entire story come alive in a new way.

At the end of each day, after reading sections of the book, including vivid retellings of the key races leading up to the Olympics, one is left with an interesting sense of purpose (if not a racing heartbeat after reaching the conclusion of each race). The boys who rowed and competed in that eight did not come from moneyed families - they had to scrape to get by and pay tuition each year. The main protagonist wore the same sweater every.single.day. Their greatest assets were an ability to buckle down and work hard, and the development of trust that comes from working hard together under difficult circumstances through many trials and tribulations towards a shared goal. The goal isn't an externally motivated one, either - instead, it comes out more clearly in some of the quiet rows between races: nine people, working together in perfect synchrony to send a boat gliding through the water. The ultimate expression and experience of this sensation can only come during the extreme intensity of racing, to be sure, but is not the glue of a good boat.

I hope I can channel some of the book's energy into my day-to-day work, both the manuscript-writing and the trips out to Lake Bryan for rowing practices. I've never managed to put myself in situations with as high a cost or as high a glory as those rowers, but I can still take inspiration from them in how I approach everyday life.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
The other day, someone posted a link to a Brainpickings item entitled How to criticize with kindness: Philosopher Daniel Dennett on the four steps to arguing intelligently. Given my recent musings on the subject of how to respond to a book that I occasionally wanted to throw against the wall, I read through the Brainpick and found myself nodding when I read the summary/synthesis for "How to compose a successful critical commentary." Those four steps are close to what I try to do when reviewing manuscripts, and I find it so incredibly helpful to write that first paragraph in which I attempt to, as eloquently as possible, summarize the manuscript in my own words.

I have appreciated some of Dennett's previous works, including Darwin's Dangerous Idea, Consciousness Explained (or as I like to put it, Deconstructed), and Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon, so the thought of another Dennett work, this new book Intuition Pumps, is appealing. But then I read a review of Intuition Pumps that made me think, "Ehhhhh...maybe my interest in Dennett's approach is playing out." Kind of like what happened after reading too many of Jared Diamond's books (could've stopped at The Third Chimpanzee, although Guns, Germs, and Steel was reasonably novel), or hitting that point with Michael Pollan's stuff where I took [livejournal.com profile] annikusrex's word that the New York Times Magazine article that formed the basis for In Defense of Food was sufficient and I didn't need to read the actual book. The other philosopher referenced in the book review of Intuition Pumps linked above might have an interesting thing or two to consider, however. If I can overcome the philosophy hangover sufficiently so as to head in that direction. I'm going to read something else first, though.

Regardless - what to do or say about the mysterious New York Times Bestseller Book at this stage. I want to turn the book back in to the library this evening, so it's time to give it one last glance and make a decision about how to review it.

For better or worse, I'm not going to employ the Dennett approach here. If you look around, you can probably find other reviews of the book, especially because I'll actually tell you the title now, if you haven't managed to guess it. I'll bet some of the other reviews are great, even. We need to keep journalism alive. Anyway. The book is Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. Overall, I would say that my faith in the New York Times NON-fiction bestseller list is still far greater than my opinion of the fiction bestseller list (and yes, I'm mixing "faith" and "opinion" intentionally). Maybe that reflects the fact that a different demographic reads and purchases nonfiction as compared to fiction. I still stand by my desire to throw the book at the wall, but have some suggestions for those who might be considering giving it a read.

First, Cain did, indeed, declare some unusual editorial decisions up front in the author's note, including the decision to omit ellipses and brackets in certain quotations while supposedly making sure omissions didn't change the speaker or writer's meaning. As an aside, she then notes that "If you would like to quote these written sources from the original, the citations directing you to the full quotations appear in the Notes." Perhaps I should have made more careful note of this decision when I started reading, but it still seems like an underhanded way of crediting sources. I can understand the desire for smooth readability, but on the other hand it runs counter to so much of what I spend time and energy trying to teach undergraduates: CITE.YOUR.SOURCES. And be friggin' transparent about it! Yes, footnotes or endnotes will clutter up the text, but on the other hand, they might also make it more clear that you've tried to thoroughly justify your statements. They also make it easier to separate facts from opinions. Jeez.

My second major note about the book would be to consider browsing the table of contents and subject matter before deciding to just plunge in to read front-to-back. The book covers a broad range of topics, from a historical perspective on "introversion," to neurobiology, to cultural differences, to the "how to." I appreciate the ambition and scope, but different people may be motivated to pick up the book for different reasons, so this is a case where some people might benefit from either selectively reading excerpts or from reading the book out of order.

Here's a quick summary of the four parts of the book:
1. The extrovert ideal (historical treatment, contemporary consequences, alternatives to the contemporary ideal)
2. Your biology, your self? (nature, nurture, overcoming temperament, neurobiological underpinnings)
3. Do all cultures have an extrovert ideal? (cultural comparisons particularly between Asian vs. American cultures)
4. How to love, how to work (acting extroverted, communication barriers between introverts and extroverts, nurturing introverted kids)

Lastly (and cattily), sometimes I felt as though the author got catty about being an introvert in a culture that idealizes extroverts. Also, this is an East Coast book, which might be why it has been so successful. I'm not especially good at articulating what I mean when I declare something to be East Coast, so maybe I should just leave it at that. But I feel obliged to point out that not everyone puts the same things up on a pedestal, and not everyone can afford or is interested in expensive seminars and workshops. Those are the things that *I* get catty about. Meow.

Now on to read something completely different. Hopefully something that will act like mouthwash for my brain.
rebeccmeister: (bikegirl)
This NYT Bestseller book I keep mentioning has been doing a good job of repeatedly getting under my skin, but I am hoping that in the long run I can pull something of merit out of the whole experience of reading the book.* The same sort of thing often happens to professional critics, and also often happens when I am reviewing scientific manuscripts for publication. I have to start from the point of recognizing that another human being put some work into putting words on paper (or computer screen). When there are signs that the work is only half-assed, I then have to make a decision as to whether it is worth investing the time to outline why, and whether to outline methods for improvement. At least with voluntary reading I have the option of throwing this thing at the wall and just moving on with my life.

But I originally wanted to read NYTBB for a reason. I've developed generalized allergies towards books on personality psychology - I think they originated from reading Consciousness Explained and other works by Dennett (a man quite clever with words). Those were the origins of the Philosophy Hangover, too, which is ongoing as well. NYTBB is at least clumsily attempting to discuss the neurobiological mechanisms underlying symptoms that get labeled "introversion," so at least there are some crude and cutesy remarks about how brain anatomy could be linked to people with different kinds of social orientations. The same goes for evolutionary explanations for diversity in social orientation (e.g. groups of people with different types of cognitive strengths able to outcompete less-diverse groups of people).

These superficial treatments of subjects I have learned about in greater depth elsewhere just make me want to ask, why not do a better job of pointing people in the direction of the original work, and come up with some original ideas or synthesis instead of just watering the stuff down? Then again, are mainstream Americans ready for that sort of intellectual depth? Then again, how can I encourage the development of that kind of intellectual depth, when it's clear that the more-successful method (to judge by volumes of sales) is to instead give the American public what they want, the pre-digested version?

Maybe I should read some fiction next.


*The part I struggle with the most is that I can tell this is an East Coast book written by someone caught up in tangles of prestige, privilege, and privilege-blindness. Big Name School, Big Name Famous People, gratuitous, thoughtless expenditures. I find the name-dropping irritating. There's a difference between name-dropping and referencing (crediting).

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