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
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 organizedhome.com 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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.