Thursday Thoughts: Book Tastes

Posted 10 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

This week’s topic from Ok, Let’s Read for Thursday Thoughts is “book tastes”. I’ve already kind of covered this here, but it never hurts to talk it over again. My rating systems post (or rather, the comments I received) convinced me to start putting quick ratings on my reviews, proving it’s always interesting to discuss stuff with other bloggers. Here’s the prompt paragraph:

Currently, do you feel like you have a set genre or type of book that is your go-to and people know as “your genre?” Is there a genre that you’ve always loved or been drawn to in particular? Have you noticed your taste in books changing over time? Is there a genre or type of book that you used to love, but no longer read/enjoy? If so, what genre and why do you think that is?

The answer to the first question is no. I think at one point people would’ve definitely pegged me for an SF/F person, but I read too much of everything else I come across for that now. Still, I’d say that’s the genre I’ve always loved and been drawn to, and that’s the section I make a bee-line for in the library or bookshop. My first bee-line, anyway, heh.

Over the last few years, I’ve developed more of an interest in non-fiction. I think that really kicked off around the time I read an article about the fact that curiosity is the antidote to anxiety. I can’t find it again now, which is annoying because I’m sure it linked a study and stuff, but it made me curious(!) about whether reading non-fiction engaged my brain and got me interested in helpful ways. Spoiler: it does. I was even able to read a book about deadly epidemic diseases, Spillover, by treating it with curiosity.

I also got more into romance books, via Mary Stewart’s non-Arthurian work. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it at first, but turns out, I prefer it to her Arthurian work, and I got really invested in getting all her books and reading them. I’ve finished them now, which is sad, but it encouraged me to branch out into other stuff like Georgette Heyer (brilliance!).

I don’t think there’s any particular genre I’ve abandoned. Not even a subgenre; I still read steampunk or military SF or whatever if it has interesting elements, even if there’s maybe too much of it in the market.

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Review – The Planets

Posted 10 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of Planets by Dava SobelThe Planets, Dava Sobel

I think I expected this to be more scientific than it turned out to be, which may be a common problem judging from other reviews. It’s actually more of a historical glance at the way humanity has envisioned the galaxy, and the way our knowledge has grown over the millennia. It’s a lot literary, with bits of science and mythology thrown in. Some parts of it were lovely for that, though I wasn’t sure about the emphasis on linking the Old Testament Genesis story with the scientific facts of creation. It seems likely to alienate a lot of readers, even if it sounds pretty.

Of course, we mustn’t forget that this is also quite behind the times now: published in 2007ish, shortly after the demotion of Pluto, it has nothing to say about more recent discoveries about the moons of the outer planets, or Curiosity, or anything like that. It’s quite accessible, but not up to date, which is a pity.

Sometimes the literary interludes really got on my nerves, with Sobel putting words into people’s mouths and anthropomorphizing inanimate objects. I like literary tricks like that as much as the next person, but it just seems ridiculous when they’re giving words and complex thought to a meteorite…

Rating: 3/5

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What are you reading Wednesday

Posted 9 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 0 Comments

What have you recently finished reading?
The Planets, by Dava Sobel, which was… more literary than I expected. I mean, it’s more of a history of the way we’ve seen the planets than a gathering of scientific knowledge about them, though there’s some of that too.

What are you currently reading?
I’m trying to narrow my focus to one or two books at a time, which actually leaves me with two non-fiction books this week: The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker, which I think I’ve talked about here before, and Black and Brown Planets (ed. Isiah Lavender III). This is a perspective I don’t think I’ve really come across elsewhere: SF fandom through the eyes of POC, critiqued using the same rigour of any academic essays in any subject. I’m more used to fandom stuff, tumblr rants and DW posts, which are often deeply thoughtful and informative, but not in this format. I’m really enjoying it — and it’s increasing my interest in reading Samuel R. Delany’s stuff and rewatching Deep Space 9.

(I’m also getting a list of books I want to pick up that’re referenced in it; this is bad for me, in one way, but hey, I get to practice having restraint!)

What will you read next?
I’m going to focus on finishing Darwin’s Ghost (Steve Jones) and Elantris (Brandon Sanderson), I think. Maybe Knight’s Fee (Rosemary Sutcliff) and/or Hounded (Kevin Hearne), since the library is cruelly refusing to let me renew them anymore, and it’s high time I returned them anyway.

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Top Ten Tuesday

Posted 8 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 20 Comments

I was bad at participating in this one last week — I did my own post, but I don’t think I commented on any others. I meant to, but stuff kept happening. I feel like a bad book blogger! And on that note, this week’s Top Ten Tuesday is “top ten blogging confessions”.

  1. I’m starting to have trouble getting round to reading longer books/series because I feel like I should be reviewing more often. This was totally encouraged by GR’s reading challenge and stuff like that. I’m trying to be more sensible about it, but it’s strange; I used to rip right through even really long books, but now that I worry about not being able to do so, somehow I have a problem.
  2. Sometimes I equivocate far too much writing a review because people whose opinions I respect liked the book, and I just didn’t. Or an editor/publisher I normally think is great, or want to support, put out the book. Or I know the author a bit on twitter and I’m afraid they’ll find it. (N.B. In that case, I usually go with rating it with my gut feeling, but the review will probably talk about why it wasn’t my thing instead of me saying anything bad about the book itself.)
  3. I find it hard to be social with other book bloggers. I have a pretty broad range of interests, so that makes some meme posts and so on really weird — I might know some of the books they’re reading, but often they won’t know any of mine, or they don’t even venture into whatever genre I’m currently most into. Then I feel awkward and not sure if I’m really having fun interacting, or just doing it to get page views. (Given the number of books I’m finding through blogs, though, I’m pretty sure it’s the former.)
  4. My mother reads my blog. You see “alc3261” commenting? Yeah. Hi, Mum.
  5. I am way, way behind on reading/blogging about ARCs. I really need to have a ban on asking for any more, but as soon as I make that resolution, something awesome shows up.
  6. I don’t like anyone else trying to dictate the content of my blog. So if someone’s publicist sets up an interview with them or something on my blog, I get pretty twitchy when they start saying that I have to link to certain things, say certain things, not say others. Sometimes I’ll work around that (it’s natural to remind me to link to a pre-order page or something!); other times, it might end up making me not want to work with the company again.
  7. I keep starting new books before I’ve finished the old ones. And buying new books, too. Ahem. I’ve been trying to work on this, but honestly having the full list of books I technically have in progress might be putting me off. Time to weed it out?
  8. I have no idea what people will find interesting, most of the time. Like, memes, well, people are doing those, so maybe they’ll provide some relevant content. But when I write about the stuff that really matters to me (mental health, access to reading after sight loss, or my interview with Carrie Patel, just for example), I get fretful about whether it gets hits/comments, etc.
  9. I rarely have more than one post scheduled. I could get really organised and sort out some of my meme posts weeks in advance, but I’ve always been more one to play it by ear. Although I’m doing better at remembering to do this stuff than I ever did at remembering my homework.
  10. I go through phases. I tend to have a fairly cyclical approach to my hobbies. The main five, I guess, are reading, writing, gaming, running, and crochet. I’ve been on more of a reading phase for quite a while now, but writing and gaming are in the ascendent right now. This may mean fewer posts… It probably won’t, though, because reading is always my dominant hobby.

Don’t forget to link me to your TTT posts, people — or anything you’ve written in the last week that you think is interesting and would like some eyes/comments on!

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Review – Behind the Shock Machine

Posted 7 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina PerryBehind the Shock Machine, Gina Perry

I’ve been interested in the Stanley Milgram experiments for a long time — the “obedience to authority” ones, more than anything else, though as Gina Perry pointed out, he did other startling and original research. For example, that idea that you’re only six degrees of separation from someone else? That was his experiment. The one about good will, testing whether people would post letters just left out, and how many would respond based on the addresses on the envelope? Also Milgram.

Anyway, my interest was piqued again more recently by Dar Williams’ song, Buzzer (lyrics), which imagine being a participant in the experiment. It doesn’t matter about the details, how closely they fit what really happened. What matters is this line: “I get it now, I’m the face/I’m the cause of war/we don’t have to blame white-coated men anymore.”

Part of Gina Perry’s focus in this book is unpacking how people felt after they were the subject in the experiments. She met some of them for research, listened to the transcripts and the follow-up interviews, spent hours with the material. And some of them really were traumatised by what happened under the experimental conditions: some of them weren’t ‘dehoaxed’ until months after their participation in the study. They didn’t know that they hadn’t really come anywhere near killing a man. Some of the ethical problems with this study are astounding, and Perry unpacks them nicely.

One of the things I think people find harder with this book is her outlook on Milgram. She started out being an enormous fan of his work: it was only when she dug deeper into it that she began to feel ambivalent, even a little horrified. I wonder if people would feel the same unequivocal admiration for Milgram if they could listen to those transcripts, all of them, and experience the way he went on with the experiments despite the distress of his subjects.

It certainly sounds from this book like Milgram’s results were nowhere near as clear-cut as he presented them. For example, everyone knows that the outcome is that “most” people would obey an authority figure to the point of killing someone — but the fact is that 65% did. That’s still the majority, but that includes people who weren’t sure if the shocks were real or not as well as people who were sure they were real, and it also includes people who protested all the way. It does show the effect of pressure by an authority figure, but the picture is a little less clear than we tend to think.

And then there’s the cherry picking of his results. For example, condition 24 showed only 10% obedience: that was people paired with people they really knew. Authority can’t overcome personal relationships. Milgram never published about condition 24. Despite being a fan of his work, Perry didn’t know anything about it until she found the records, bundled in with those of condition 23.

Given that, it’s astonishing to me that anyone defending Milgram can then claim that Perry is cherry picking her data. At the very least, she provides details of all of the conditions. She ends up with strong personal feelings about the whole situation, but she quotes both from Milgram’s private notes and his published work, showing his doubts, showing that he worried about the welfare of the subjects more than comes through in his published work. After reading one of the first major critiques of his work, he drew a little doodle and wrote beside it, “I feel bad.”

It’s true that Perry has an ideological position on Milgram, but it’s fair to say that from her account, that arises from the depth of her research. I don’t think anyone going into the impact of the experiments could avoid it; she doesn’t claim to be writing a book about the scientific principles, but about the people involved. I think she does a fairly good job of presenting various sides of all of them.

Overall, I found this really fascinating, though I do always keep in mind that non-fiction is no less ideologically charged than any kind of writing. Of course Perry has opinions, and her exploration of these and how they developed during her research are a key part of the book. It’s not the last or only word on Milgram.

Rating: 5/5

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Review – The Moral Landscape

Posted 6 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 4 Comments

Cover of The Moral Landscape by Sam HarrisThe Moral Landscape, Sam Harris

I’ve had a good go at reading this without any knee-jerk reactions, but generally I find Harris’ views instinctively abhorrent — despite his championing of reason and science, I don’t think he avoids knee-jerk reactions more than anyone else. Particularly when it comes to religion.

The basis thesis that there are optimal states of well-being for humans, I accept. That science will be able to improve our understanding of that, I don’t doubt. That Sam Harris could be the person that executes this moral calculus? That, I can’t countenance. It’s partly an instinctive dislike — I haven’t enjoyed any of his lectures and talks that I’ve watched either — and partly his intolerance of anything he doesn’t understand.

I mean, he claims to be talking about universal states of well-being, and states that there may be multiple ‘peaks’ on the ‘moral landscape’ where the greatest possible well-being can be achieved. In almost the same breath, he dismisses any thought system he can’t understand, particularly if it involves religion.

Perhaps the fact that I’m a Unitarian Universalist makes this so difficult to swallow. I believe that there are many different paths to follow, whether you’re looking for an afterlife, Enlightenment, reincarnation… There are different ways to be good, and it’s hard to measure that. For example, we would accept a person who works with abused children in Britain, who kept their good as their first priority, as a good person. We would also accept a person who teaches children who are living in poverty in another country as good. Which is better? Which more worthy?

I’m not sure I’m being very coherent about this. I’m sure there’s someone waiting to jump on me telling me that Harris is completely coherent, entirely reasonable, etc; most likely some of them will have some sexist comments to make, without being aware of their own hypocrisy. For me, though, I didn’t find Harris’ argument that coherent. He seemed to argue himself round and round a tiny point without ever looking up to see the wider world and put his work in context — every statement seemed to be a reiteration of his core thesis, rather than something which expanded it.

Rating: 1/5

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Review – The Invisible Orientation

Posted 5 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 3 Comments

Cover of The Invisible Orientation by Julie Sondra DeckerThe Invisible Orientation, Julie Sondra Decker

Received to review.

Reviewing this book publicly feels kind of awkward, because I know the fact that I’ve read it is likely to make people ask questions right away. The temptation with something like this is pretty inevitably going to be asking me why I’m interested, to what extent it might align with my own experiences, etc.

To dispose of that in a single paragraph: I have no interest in sex for physical gratification. I do have a partner, and whatever we may do is between the two of us and no one else’s business. Certainly I’ve had some of the experiences mentioned in this book: wondering what is “wrong” with me that I’m not interested, being told that my disinterest can be “fixed” (sometimes quite forcefully), being told that it’s down to my medication/mental illness, etc.

So, to the extent that any single person can identify with a book about a broad issue, this book is “about me”. If you’re now feeling curious about all this, I would ask you first not to ask me questions but to read this book and the book I’m currently reviewing. Then, maybe, we can talk.

Speaking more generally, this is a pretty awesome book for acknowledging the sheer breadth of human experience. It acknowledges all sorts of levels of interest in sex and romance, all sorts of orientations on the spectrum of attraction. I know one of my friends who identifies as demisexual also found this a useful resource. It can be a means of finding information, whether you’re asexual or not; it can also be a means of finding validation, of finding a measured and sensible voice telling you that there’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not strange, there are people out there like you.

The problem is that people who are opposed to the idea right away probably won’t read this, or if they do won’t be convinced by it; that’s definitely not the book’s fault, just that issue that people much prefer things that confirm their pre-existing bias. It’s worth trying, though — you never know what’s going to get through and change someone’s mind, even your own mind.

Rating: 5/5

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Stacking the Shelves

Posted 5 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 28 Comments

A friend of mine recently said to me that having these book haul posts might make us all more inclined to buy books than we’d normally be. I’m not sure I disagree… but it’s fun anyway, so nyah. So here’s my usual Stacking the Shelves post. This week is brought to you by a spree in The Works — for non-Brits, that’s a store that sells a somewhat random selection of books for way under the recommended retail price. Sometimes they have nothing you want, sometimes a whole bunch. Right now they’re doing a “six books for £10” thing, so I bought a bunch of books this week and I have some ordered from them too…

The rest is courtesy of doing a job for my mother and being paid with a Kobo voucher, and my partner nursing me through the disappointment of being unable to give blood again with a little something on top of that.

Fiction (bought)

Cover of Hyperion by Dan Simmons Cover of Saturn's Children by Charles Stross Cover of Neptune's Brood by Charles Stross Cover of Katharine, the Virgin Queen, by Jean Plaidy Cover of The Shadow of the Pomegranate by Jean Plaidy Cover of Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

Hyperion is in the SF Masterworks series, so it’ll go towards a goal I have of reading more of those. Jean Plaidy is partially interest in historical fiction, partly research for a dream thesis of mine about medieval queens and the way they’re portrayed in fiction. And Wendig’s book I got because I got the sequel for review…

Cover of Blightborn by Chuck Wendig

Non-fiction (bought)

Cover of Planets by Dava Sobel Cover of The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker Cover of Behind the Shock Machine by Gina Perry Cover of The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge

I’ve actually already read that last one, and wasn’t impressed. Steven Pinker, I’m reading one of his books on language and I’m enjoying it, and the book about the Milgram experiments… it’s a subject that’s always fascinated me — both the results of the experiments and the emotional brutality of them.

Non-fiction (for review)

Cover of Black and Brown Planets Cover of Death, Disability and the Superhero

Both of these are on ‘read now’ on Netgalley, if they sound interesting to you. I’m really looking forward to reading these; I think queer theory’s been comfortably extended in superhero fiction, but I hadn’t seen anything from the lens of disability studies, and with Vox Day waxing racist about N.K. Jemisin, and various other things like that going on, science fiction fandom deserves a look through a lens of race discussions.

I also got a bunch of audiobooks — some Iain M. Banks, some Ngaio Marsh, and one Trudi Canavan — also from The Works, in an amazing deal: three audiobooks for £10. It’s mostly crime and stuff, but it’s worth checking out if that might be interesting to you.

Recap of a couple of hopefully interesting posts on the blog this week from me:
Mental Health Awareness Month: GAD and me
Interview with Carrie Patel (plus giveaway)

What’s anyone else been up to? What’s anyone been buying?

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Review – The Righteous Mind

Posted 4 July, 2014 by Nikki in Reviews / 2 Comments

Cover of The Righteous by Jonathan HaidtThe Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

Haidt’s The Righteous Mind is a really fascinating book. I don’t know where you’d categorise it — I’ve read people saying moral psychology, political philosophy, sociology, anthropology… As far as I can gather, Haidt gathers up research and thought from different fields in setting out this book. And what does he seek to explore? Well, not so much “why good people are divided by politics and religion”, as the subtitle would have it, but the more fundamental question: why do people make different moral decisions with the same information?

He pulls in a lot of research as he goes through this. The fact that disgust makes people more conservative; if you can portray something as dirty (Jewish people, gay people, whatever kind of sex you disapprove of, people of colour, people with disabilities) then you’re halfway to calling it immoral already. Particularly for people who tend to be more conservative anyway. In fact, more easily disgusted people are usually more politically and socially conservative. (I’m an aberration; now I think about it, I wonder if that’s because I have obsessive-compulsive tendencies causing my fear of germs and disgust responses, rather than actually thinking that way naturally.)

A lot of this, I’ve come across before, but not synthesised into a full theory like this. (Paul Bloom uses a lot of the same ideas, for example. Particularly in his Coursera course on Moralities of Everyday Life). Mostly, it worked for me. Some of Haidt’s analogies and examples are a little clunky. The elephant (emotion)/rider (rationality) metaphor gets increasingly ridiculous the more he uses it, despite the aptness of the metaphor in some ways. Likewise the ‘taste receptor’ analogy for moral issues. I don’t know how much he tested this out on people outside his field, but I think he does need to look for feedback on his imagery.

I tried to watch myself for knee-jerk reactions while reading this. Reading other reviews made me smile wryly, as other people reacted immediately to what they perceived as the thrust of Haidt’s argument without reasoning it through. The fact that Haidt divides morality up into six regions which are more or less relevant to every culture really annoys people right off, particularly when he then shows that research has liberals focusing on three of these areas while conservatives focus on all six. As a matter of fact, Haidt seems to hold fairly liberal views himself. He’s not criticising the goals of the liberal movement so much as a short sightedness that’s preventing liberal politicians making the gains they could.

It’s basically a validation of the positive sides of conservative and libertarian ethics. It’s mostly an American Democrat writing about American Republicans, and trying to uncover the way they think and the reasonable basis for their beliefs and moral decisions.

What I don’t think he’s doing is saying that liberalism is bad, that conservatism is automatically the answer, or that the core values of liberalism are wrong. He’s looking at the positive aspects of both sides, seeing them as a yin and yang system, rather than diametrically opposed systems on their own.

I’m gonna confess that my politics probably fall fairly close to Haidt’s, so I’m not the best person to pick holes in his argument. To me, some of it felt clumsy due to the imagery he employed, but most of it made sense. I’m now reading Sam Harris, who advocates reason and scientifically proven morality, which doesn’t fit into Haidt’s system well at all. I’m looking forward to seeing how that goes.

I will just note that from this, Haidt is capable of considering other people’s views. He makes a good response to Dawkins’ atheism, for example, and does a good job of laying out Dawkins’ position. Harris, on the other hand… This may be me projecting, but he has a kind of arrogance in the way he writes (and in the way he speaks — I’ve watched both of them lecture) that turns me off. I’m having a very hard time not knee-jerking in response.

Rating: 4/5

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Thursday Thoughts

Posted 3 July, 2014 by Nikki in General / 4 Comments

Today’s Thursday Thoughts (hosted by Ok, Let’s Read) are on “reading conditions”. Taking a tiny snippet of that post to start me off: Do you love rain when you’re reading? Are you able to listen to music while reading? If so, how?! I can’t for the life of me do that. Are you the kind of person who falls asleep while reading? What time of day do you read?

I like the sound of rain in general, but it does add a special cosiness to reading. It can cover up traffic noise, dogs barking, etc, and just surround you in a cocoon of noise that doesn’t demand your attention. For a morning in bed with a book, there’s nothing better. I like it in a car, too, when I’m a passenger, though then it makes me sleepy and makes it harder to focus on reading!

I only listen to music while reading when there’s something I need to block out. Like that dog barking. Generally I pick something unobtrusive by virtue of being very familiar but not too beloved: Sarah McLachlan works because I can let that just be soothing sound, but Dar Williams doesn’t because I want to sing along. Soundtrack music isn’t always helpful — the Captain America or Lord of the Rings soundtracks are too distinctive, somehow. The Mass Effect 2 soundtrack worked well, though.

I can’t fall asleep while reading. I sometimes get to the point where I can barely keep my eyes open, and I have fallen asleep with a book or my ereader on my chest, but there’s always a moment where I realise I’m too sleepy, and close the book before I close my eyes.

Otherwise, I read anytime, anywhere. I read while standing up at the eye clinic I volunteer at; I read in bed before I sleep; I read with my feet curled under me on my sofa; I read standing up by my shelves because a book hooked me in fast; I read while I’m chatting on my computer. Kobo actually has badges/awards for reading multiple times at various times of the day, and I have them all, even the late night/early morning ones.

When I was a kid, I always wanted to read, even when we were seeing family I hadn’t seen in ages. Guess I always had a very easily drained social battery. Anyway, there’d inevitably come a time when I’d go and seek out my quiet spot — and I was a creature of habit, it didn’t vary. At my nan’s house, it’d be the front room. That was often a little bit cold so there’d be huddling, and eventually I’d usually ask for the gas fire to be put on. Then I’d toast myself thoroughly. The good part of that — quite aside from eating up all the books I had with me — was that my nan’s dog would come on through looking for me after a while and often stay, putting his head on my feet to encourage me to stay put. (Mum says they could tell he was looking for me, because he’d push on the door to the passage between the rooms until someone let him through. He didn’t go to the front room if I wasn’t there.)

At Grandma and Grandad’s house, my place of refuge was the stairs. It was kinda close enough to hear people talking in a general buzz, but not so it was distracting. I got a lot read there. When I was being disturbed too often, I sometimes hid myself in their shower room. It was tiny, but so was I.

Actually, I quite liked stairs at home, too. There used to be a kind of magic in stacking up a bunch of Enid Blyton books and reading my way up and down the stairs. Read a chapter? Down a step. (Or up.)

I don’t really have any habits like that anymore. I just read whenever I can snatch a minute, which doesn’t always work well on the bus (I get travel sick easily). I used to read in school under the desk in maths, because that’s where I could get away with it (sorry, Mr Carter). I’d read while walking between classes if I could.

In short, reading conditions: preferably continuous and uninterrupted. Comfort optional.

(N.B. Due to the number of posts already today, I’m not going to do a Throwback Thursday post this week.)

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