Books Read in 2008: Non-Fiction

Back on November 17 when I started this blog entry I had read about fifty books since the beginning of the year. I wrote up eight of them and then got distracted (probably by reading, I think I have read another ten at least since then) and haven't worked on it since. It's now December 23rd, and I would really like to post my book logs for this year. The problem is I obviously don't have time to write up each book properly, so this is going to end up being a giant list of books I have read. I hate to do that because then it takes all the value-add out of a book blog and seems a lot like bragging. Neener neener, look at all the books I read, I'm such a smarty pants. But I've come to depend on my book blog to see what I have read and how I liked it, so I'm going to go ahead anyway, and I'll try and categorize things cleverly and hopefully write a little bit about books which really had an impact, so this isn't a completely worthless process.

But first, here are the eight books I wrote up back in November.

I ended up grouping all the books I've read into six rough categories: books on parenting and childhood development, memoirs, non-fiction books on other topics, books I read for my bookclub, and other fiction. (Okay, that's five. Degree in math, what?) The only thing which really surprised me was the number of books I read which could be termed memoirs. I certainly don't consider myself a person who reads memoirs. As it turns out there is no particular pattern or commonality among the memoirs I read; each one was chosen for some specific reason.

Anyway, here are the Non-Fiction (Other) books I read, broken into "Books About How To Do Stuff" and "Other Non-Fiction". Perhaps that should be "Otherer Non-Fiction".

Books About How To Do Stuff

Houseworks by Cynthia Townley Evers is a book about how to organize your house, or at least that's how it's billed. The author is the lady, and this is to some extent a bookization of the website. It works very well as a book, since getting organized is inherently a somewhat linear procedure. But it's not just an organization book, it's really much more than that. It functions as a full household maintenance reference, along the lines of Home Comforts, by Cheryl Mendelson, although much less hardcore. I got some helpful tips from this book and I'm already pretty organized, so I recommend it to anyone who feels they need a little help in the housekeeping department.

Knife Skills Illustrated by Peter Hertzmann. Go ahead and guess what this book is about. It covers what to look for when you are buying knives, how to care for your knives and keep them sharp, and knife safety. The second half of the book demonstrates, through photographs, how to cut up various fruits, veggies, meats, and the other stuff you might want to dismember in the comfort of your own kitchen.
Insasmuch as something as inherently physical and three-dimensional can be taught in a book, this is a handy book. I still feel like I would learn more in a half-hour face-to-face with an expert.

The Naturalized Garden by Stephen Westcott-Gratton is about how to grow a garden which takes care of itself, by choosing indigenous and hardy plants suitable for the characteristics of your garden. This book discusses woodland (or shady) gardens, meadow (or sunny) gardens, and damp gardens. (I can't remember the picturesque name for damp gardens.) The author recommends hundreds of species and gives advice on planting and maintenance. I love this book and it has inspired me to (gradually) convert my back and front gardens to naturalized gardens. Thanks to Auntie J'Anne I already have a nice patch of hostas and ferns in the back, to which I added some astilbe and plenty of bulbs (I got one of those 75 bulbs for $30 deals, we'll see how they do). To my surprise I determined that the front of the backyard (if you will) is actually reasonably sunny so I will have to revisit the book sometime to get some meadow suggestions.

Getting Things Done by David Allen is a book which is very much discussed and followed on the Interweb. I decided to check it out after screwing up something which seemed disastrous at the time but which I have now forgotten. I hate that feeling of being out of control I get when I miss something important or let someone down.

The author is an organization expert who has distilled all his experience with executives into this amazing foolproof n-step plan to get things done. I had to know. It actually does seem to be a really good system, although somehow the infrastructure doesn't entirely fit into my life, probably because I don't spend a whole lot of time with pen and paper, or computer. You do need to spend a little time on the infrastrucure of the system, but that's better than spending the time looking for lost files or apologizing to people for dropping the ball on things. I did implement some aspects of this book, most notably keeping little notebooks all over the place and writing everything down, and also creating a file system for absolutely everything. It has helped. I will probably get it out again soon and see what other incremental changes I can make.

The Global Warming Survival Handbook by David De Rothschild is a really rather handy little book of ideas on how you can act to reduce global climate change. There are plenty of good ideas in here, including big changes that will really make a difference, like living in a smaller house, close to work, and biking to work. And the most important — changing a lightbulb is good but changing a representative is better: vote for the people who will make a difference. (That's why I voted Liberal. Didn't seem to make a difference... sigh.)

I read this book in tandem with a little piece of crap that calls itself something like The Green Book. It's a bunch of tips from celebrities on how you can prevent climate change. The other book was written with scientists, and if I might advise you, when given the choice between taking tips from celebrities or taking tips from scientists on matters of science, go with the scientists. Celebrities have lots of great tips on, I dunno, mascara, but they don't know crap about climate change. This book perpetuates the nice myth that we'll be able to save the world without too much inconvenience. They suggest such profound changes as using paper matches instead of wooden matches. Not taking a receipt at the ATM. I think my favourite celebrity advice was from Jennifer Aniston. Apparently she saves water by brushing her teeth in the shower. Now unless I'm out of touch and Jennifer Aniston is actually the earthly manifestation of the multi-armed Hindu goddess of destruction Kali and can actually brush her teeth and soap up her hoo-hah &at the same time, brushing your teeth in the shower is exactly the same thing as brushing your teeth in front of the sink with the tap running! Stupid, so so stupid.

The book is notable only for it's amazing analogies: if everyone in America switched to single-ply tissues, say, a wad of snotrag the size of a cruise ship would be saved every year!
They must have had a team of interns devoted to the creation of a giant database of various dimensions and their pithy equivalents.

When You Catch An Adjective, Kill It by Ben Yagoda. I love a good grammar book but this one didn't grab me. It's a long time since I read it so I can't remember why. Let's see what I wrote in my notebook... Okay, I said I didn't really learn anything about parts of speech (the topic of the book) because that stuff is inherently boring, but I enjoyed the discussions of historical and popular usage.

One thing that stayed with me is that "they" as the gender-neutral pronoun was in use before "he or she", so I will happily keep saying "they" when gender is not specified.

The Perfect Wrong Note by William Westney is a book about musical practice and performance. The author is a concert pianist and teacher, and he has come up with some new theories of musical training, practice and performance. Mainly he doesn't like the traditional way of dealing with mistakes: you make a mistake, you go back over the passage and beat it into the ground until you can play it a time or two without the mistake, and then you charge on. His contention is that the mistake is teaching you something about what you know (or rather, don't know) about the piece. You need to go back and figure out what the mistake is telling you so you can correct it properly and deepen your understanding of the piece.

He also has some interesting ideas about how to practice: that you should treat it more like a physical workout than a mental exercise, so start by relaxing your body and mind, stretching, finding a comfortable and relaxed position. Then play some notes, make some noises. Not music, just noises. It's all a little hippy-trippy but if I were an earnest student of music I would definitely try it. I totally agree that the making of music is as much an athletic pursuit as a cerebral one; I never gained as good a physical appreciation for my body and it's strengths and liabilities as I did when I was studying voice.

There's one rather intimidating point in the book: Westney encourages a profound knowledge of each piece you play — he would like you to be able to verbally describe what is happening at any point in the piece. For example, "In this bar, the piece retains the key signature of the tonic minor but modulates to its relative major of G flat"... It's representative of my limited musical knowledge that I had to use Google to find that technical-sounding phrase, and while I know more or less what it means I'm not entirely sure it makes sense in this context. And it is very safe to say I have never known or understood any piece I have learned or performed that intimately. It's amazing how clueless a choral singer can be and get away with it. And humbling to realize how little I know. What did I learn in those eight or so years of piano lessons? Apparently not much.

Feel the Fear... And Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers. I have this sneaking feeling — maybe everyone has it — that I am not living up to my potential. I am smart, and organized, I can talk to people, I can solve problems and understand complex situations, and yet I am of no more value to the world than any stay-at-home mother. I feel like I should be contributing more than I am. I feel like, well, I'm wasting my potential. This is a matter for an entire blog post, of course, and there's more to it than I can go into in this paragraph. Lucky you.

Anyway, at various points in my life I have been given opportunities to do interesting or ambitious things and I have passed them up, sometimes explicitly and sometimes just by dropping the ball. I realized this summer that I run away from these exciting possibilities because I am scared. Scared of screwing up, of letting someone down, of getting in over my head, of becoming overwhelmed. It seems like a pretty straightforward thing, but it took my thirty-two years to figure it out. So, as I do when I have any kind of problem, I headed to the library to check out a book about it, and this is the one I chose because Gail Vaz-Oxlade recommended it, and she seems pretty sensible.

I found the book mostly helpful. It had a few great insights which seem, in retrospect, to be really obvious but which I needed to have pointed out to me: no matter what happens, you can handle it; other people are scared too, they just go ahead anyway (that is, fear isn't a legitimate reason not to do something); even if something horrible does happen, you can get through it and find some good in it. Jeffers talks about moving away from being a victim, how to deal with that negative chatterbox (that's my personal hobgoblin), and how to live a balanced and meaningful life so that failure in one area doesn't destroy your whole sense of self.

A couple of things didn't work for me: Jeffers loves affirmations, but I find them contrived and dorky. I do make a point to avoid negative self-talk and strive for the opposite (or at least, realistic self-talk) but I can't stand in front of the mirror and chant canned new-agey phrases. That's not me. Also at the end of the book she gets into this woo-woo stuff about the Universe having a Plan for you and reaching your Higher Consciousness. I am don't believe in the supernatural and I know the universe is just a whirling mass of elements with no intention at all for me or anyone else. I ignored those chapters, without any detriment to the value of the rest of the book.

Other Non-Fiction

Madame Bovary's Ovaries: A Darwinian Look at Literature by David P. Barash and Nanelle Barash is an examination of literature through the lens of evolutionary theory. Or is it an examination of evolutionary theory through the lens of literature? I'm still not sure. I came into it with a little understanding of literature and slightly more understanding of evolution, and I left it with a much better understanding of both. To the extent that literature is really the encoding of human nature, this book greatly increased my understanding of how evolution as we know it informs the way we behave. Fantastic book, I recommend it to all inquisitive readers.

The Geography of Hope: A Guided Tour of the World We Need by Chris Turner. The author, upon having a baby, realized that the world is in very real danger of going to hell in a handbasket. Being a go-get-em journalist type, he decided to travel around the world (I don't know how you get away with that when you've just had a baby; he must have a very forgiving wife) and figure out who is doing what to prevent that, and how's it working out anyway. He concludes that in fact the technology already exists to save our collective asses, and that what is required is the political will to implement it on a significant scale. (See above re: changing representatives as well as lightbulbs.) This was a fun and heartening read: Turner sees hope and possibility in a green economy and culture. Turner continues to track developments in sustainable policy and technology in his Globe and Mail column.

Rethinking Thin: The New Science of Weight Loss — And the Myths and Realities of Dieting by Gina Kolata is an overview of the history of dieting and the current scientific thinking on obesity and dieting.

Kolata describes what happens to your body when you reduce caloric intake: you become panicky and obsessed with food. Once healthy intake resumes, you rapidly regain weight. Similarly, if you increase caloric intake and gain weight outside of your natural weight range, you rapidly lose it again once you stop overeating. That's why it's so easy for actors to lose weight if they have gained it for a role (assuming they were within their own healthy weight beforehand). Bottom line: it's very difficult for people to change their own weight. There are numerous biological checks and balances in your body to keep your weight consistent, whether you like it or not.

This book challenges popular wisdom with its crazy old nemesis, data. Apparently, for example, changes in cafeteria menus and physical education programs in an attempt to reduce obesity levels in students don't make any significant difference. Bummer. Kolata also dicusses the fact that the danger of being overweight (which is of course just a medical/social construct) are overstated. Being overweight — as opposed to obese, or "normal" weight — is possibly optimal for good health. It's certainly not the medical disaster it is often made out to be.

The frustrating thing about this book is that it doesn't explain why everyone is getting fatter, but of course that's because we don't exactly know. My opinion is that it's probably a perfect storm of factors: ready availability of food, reduced need to exercise, and possibly the effect of some novel chemical or combination of chemicals. Only time will tell.

This book is a must-read for anyone who is overweight or worried about their weight, and for anyone who feels they need to have an opinion on fatness.

The Lucifer Effect: Understanding How Good People Turn Evil by Philip Zimbardo Phil Zimbardo is the guy who did the Stanford Prison Experiment. You know, the one where they took a bunch of undergrad men, assigned half of them to be guards and half to be prisoners, and let them at it in a fake prison constructed in a basement. Obviously, the experiment went terribly and it was finally stopped only a few days in after an observer insisted it was cruel and immoral. The experiment ended but Zimbardo has never stopped thinking about what makes normal people do evil things.
He studied this experiement, as well as wars and genocides. After thinking about it for years he wrote this book, which I found profoundly interesting and useful.

Zimbardo describes the circumstances you need to create an environment where people behave evilly: group conformity, obedience to authority, deindividuation (so lack of individual responsibility), dehumanization and moral disengagement (so the others are pigs, rats, cockroaches; anything but human), Inaction and passive bystanders.

It's not just a description of evil and how it comes about, but a how-to of not being evil! Everyone needs one of those. I honestly can't say, if I were in some awful situation like a genocide, that I wouldn't be one of the bystanders. I'm pretty sure I wouldn't take a machete to my neighbours but I know I have a weak, fearful, conformist, deferential-to-authority streak that could see me looking the other way while my neighbours machete each other. "Well, if everyone else thinks it okay," I would say to myself. Or, "Well if I say something I could be next. I don't want to piss off the guy with the machete." Zimbardo addresses these excuses and more. If you want to learn how to not be evil it's all there at the Lucifer Effect website. They are good rules for living, not just for avoiding evilness: admit mistakes; be mindful, be responsible, assert your individuality, rebel against unjust authority, value your independence from groupthink... and so on. Worth a look at the website even if you don't have time to read the book.

The Dirt on Clean by Katherine Ashenburg is all about personal hygiene through history.

(This is where I stopped writing back in November, and here end the long write-ups. This book was neat but didn't blow me away. If you are interested in personal hygiene through history, check it out.)

Here are the other non-fiction books I read before November 17th:

  • Bonk by Mary Roach is a book about scientific research into sex, written for a general audience. Funny and interesting.
  • Only In Canada, You Say? by Katherine Barber is a book about uniquely Canadian words and phrases. Awesome book, notable for the number of times I said "What the hell does everyone else call it?" Double-double? Open concept? Reno? You people need words for these things.
  • The World Without Us by Alan Weisman is that book about what the earth would do if people suddenly disappeared. It's awesome and thrilling and very informative. And humbling.
  • Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar (Yes, I do get lots of book recommendations from The Daily Show.) A book about how to be happier. I think this must have covered a lot of the same material as the other happiness books I've read because nothing stands out in my memory. Still probably a worthwhile read if you would like to be happier.
  • The End of Food by Paul Roberts is about the incredible fragility of the global food industry. It could be laid low at any time by disease, climate change, peak oil. When you walk into the grocery store it seems as if there is such endless abundance, but it's really a house of cards. Scary but well worth reading.


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