26 December 2006

None of Your Business. Valerie Block.

The title of this fairly amusing novel about white collar crime appears to have nothing whatsoever to do with anything.

Neither does the cover picture of a woman reading, with a hat on, in a bubble bath.

But somehow, between them, they caused me to pull the book off a shelf and buy it, so I guess they served their purpose.

21 December 2006

Bell Xiaojie Tagged Me

Four activities I've been paid for:
  • Arraying kale leaves upon beds of ice
  • Telephoning American state and Canadian provincial governments until they yielded up data on recycling rates and possible new recycling or waste management legislation
  • Playing Garbage's "Cup of Coffee" over and over to groups of late-adolescent engineers until they'd filled in all the blanks I'd made in the lyrics
  • Organizing flights, cars, hotel rooms, conference rooms, coffee, cookies, and AV equipment for roving groups of physicists and astronomers trying to gauge the current state of their field
Four splendid foods:
  • Full cream Greek yogurt
  • Roast duck
  • Dried mango
  • Chicken noodle soup with lots of ginger, Shaoxing wine, sesame oil, and soy sauce
Four grand drinks:
  • Single malt Scotch
  • Super-strong French roast with milk
  • Yunnan golden needle black tea
  • Hoppy hoppy ale
Movies I saw over and over in the theater when they first came out (almost four!):
  • Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon
  • Amelie
  • Spirited Away
Four favorite TV shows:
  • Your Show of Shows
  • The Office (original UK one)
  • Hong Kong TVB weather with Merry Everest in the 1990s
  • Yes, Minister
Four places I've been:
  • Haines, Alaska
  • Kashgar, Xinjiang
  • San Francisco, California
  • Chicago, Illinois
Four websites I use lots:
I tag:

16 December 2006

Wild Designs. Katie Fforde.

Like the protagonists of other Katie Fforde novels, the one in this one (I've forgotten her name already--Althea? something like that) thinks navy blue a good color for going to France in. And she has a green thumb, of course, and she's a great proponent of half-assed housekeeping. She hires her daughter to clean, or else she "blitzes" the house in the twenty minutes between her sister's phone call and her arrival at the door.

I can't think why navy blue would be good for traveling (though perhaps it is for some reason particularly suitable for France?), and I don't much see the joy of gardening, particularly decorative gardening, which is what this particular blue-clad woman does, but this blitzing is not such a bad idea. It has been growing and growing on me, in fact. I used to think if I was going to clean, I had to be thorough and so, thorough cleaning being a thoroughly intimidating proposition, I tended not to clean at all.

So now among my various self-improvement projects is one to do with cleaning methods. If there's something I don't like on the carpet, I remind myself--a scatter of pine needles, say, or a dried leaf--I need not choose between leaving it there and vacuuming the whole place from corner to corner, but can get out the vacuum cleaner and run it around for two minutes and put it away again. If my desk is dusty, I can clean it off, and leave the lamps and the radiators and the top of the stereo alone. And, I discovered yesterday, as I ran about from Metropolitan Market (closed for lack of electricity) to Safeway (brussels sprouts!) to the kitchen (potluck preparations) to the bathroom (opaque black tights all dirty, nothing but transparent nylons, so leg bristles wouldn't do) if you scrub the tub out quick with old bathwater, it almost looks clean, even if really there's a fine film of scum everywhere.

Yep, I'm getting better and better all the time.

Snow Globe

I am seldom enough near a TV that when I am it's not the shows themselves that really strike me but all the weird stuff that comes between them. Ads, mostly, but sometimes other strange stuff too, like the thing I saw on the Disney channel recently when I was at Rose's house at the same time as her nephews. I guess it was a sort of indirect ad for the channel itself, a profile a couple of minutes long of a girl, 12 or thereabouts, who collects snow globes. I would surmise that the channel regularly runs these profiles of kids, to show kids it knows who they are and what they need and parents how supportive it is of kids' creative endeavors.

For snow globe accumulation is evidently an activity of which we should approve, developing a kid's wholesome individuality and a sense of relationship and collective endeavor. "People have brought me them from all over the world," the girl was saying, or something like that, earnest and toothy. (Toothsome, too, maybe. One envisions a red cape, and a basket packed tight with snow globes, their pools of snow shifting slightly with changes in the girl's gait as she traipses through the forest, where the real snow drifts down, soft and regular.)

"My best friend was in San Francisco, and she brought me one from there. I just thought it was really amazing, that she would do something like that for me."

Well, if that impresses you as a tremendous sacrifice, my child, you have another think coming. Snow globes are a dime a dozen. I got one just today, as an adornment to one of the bags of chocolate that grow on office desks in the weeks before Christmas. It was in the shape of a snowman, with the transparent fluid-filled globe for the head.

"Hey, look!" I said to L2, shaking my little snowman. "Did you get one of these? It's just like me! Most of the time its mind's completely empty, but then every now and then it fills up with a swirl of little bits of stuff with no discernible meaning. But it's not long before it's empty again."

"Well," she said doubtfully, "it is kind of cute."

"I guess so," I said, doubtful in turn. It had the most unappealing face painted on. "It does have a pretty scarf."

"It's just the same color as your sweater," L2 pointed out. "See, it does look like you. I think you're smarter than that, though."

But she didn't sound too sure.

10 December 2006

The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Steven Pinker.

I felt, upon finishing this book, that it had promised one thing and delivered another but now, looking back at the beginning, I cannot pin the promise down. The book contends that most academic disciplines' treatment of human behavior, individual and collective, presumes a malleability at odds with our knowledge of primate biology. It points out the opportunity costs inherent in persevering in such a belief in human plasticity, and offers some reasons why abandoning the idea may not be as dangerous as some people find it.

Fair enough. That's what Pinker said he was going to do, and he did it. That he did not also do other things is not a broken promise, just a failure adequately to ponder the ideas of the social constructionists he seems to want to win over.

When, in the introduction to the first section of the book, Pinker described the Blank Slate (he's given to grandiloquent classificatory schemes, with the terms oft-repeated) as a religious doctrine, complete with ritual language, a moral code, and the castigation of heretics, I sort of thought he was on to something. To say something is a religion, I thought, was to say, among other things, that it provides a conceptual framework that allows people to devote their time and mental energy to the refinement of other areas of knowledge. To set out to demonstrate why the Blank Slate need not be our religion would require, I assumed, the provision of a replacement.

Pinker suggests no replacement. To him, evidently, "religion" is a term of pure opprobrium. It is Science, I suppose, that he places his faith in, and that allows him to refer to "unfortunate trends" such as "the stated contempt among many scholars for the concepts of truth, logic, and evidence" without making the slightest effort to investigate the basis of such distrust, or to happily declare that the idea of biological difference between male and female mental makeup need not pose any conflict with feminism because there are two main varieties of feminism, equity feminism and gender feminism, and the latter has a "disdain for analytical rigor and classical liberal principles."

I do not wish to cast in my lot with those whose theoretical speculations have come entirely unmoored not just from the material world, but even from any recognition of the existence of material reality. But Pinker's unexamined trust in common sense is not very helpful either. He himself says that the social world in which modern humans live makes of them many demands their brains have not had time to evolve to meet, so that, for instance, theoretical physicists can only get their work done by ruthlessly suppressing all spontaneous efforts at intuitive understanding of what they are doing, for their intuitions will only lead them astray. "I think I can safely say that no one understands quantum mechanics. . . . Do not keep asking yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, 'But how can it be like that?' . . . Nobody knows how it can be like that," he quotes Richard Feynman saying. Human beings have an innate number sense, Pinker says, but it serves to distinguish one of something from two of it, or three. To have any understanding of a number the size of my checking account balance, I have to have learned from someone a mental technology jury-rigged out of this idea of one being different from two, an analogy of numerical relationships with grammar, and a capacity to remember snatches of speech.

If that is the case--and I don't know why it shouldn't be; last month I discovered my checkbook was hundreds of dollars off and I had not perceived the difference at all, but only worked it out laboriously through the application of arithmetical tools--what good is it invoking common sense as a rebuke to social constructionism? Having demonstrated common sense to be an unreliable guide, might it not be more useful to ask oneself, for instance, not, "Isn't it perfectly obvious that the average man is less than identical in behavior to the average woman, and that at least some of the difference is due to adaptatation to different reproductive roles"--for isn't it also obvious that the sun and moon go round and round above us?--but instead, "Given that some of the difference between the average woman and the average man is due to environmental chance and societal path dependence, which rhetorical strategies serve to reinforce the difference and which to undermine it?" Whereupon one would, if one were Steven Pinker, probably still come to the conclusion that the gender feminists (if there is such a thing as a gender feminist--I am quite unfamiliar with feminism myself, but Pinker does seem generally reliable, so I'll take it on trust) were on the wrong path, but might be able to provide some better argument for them thinking something other than what they do think than that it is preposterous and they are not very sensible.

08 December 2006

Death in Cyprus. M. M. Kaye

It might be because the front cover's torn off that I seem to have read Death in Cyprus less often than the other M. M. Kaye mysteries I own. Not only did I not, this time, remember who the heroine ought to be afraid of, my whole mind seems to have changed since I last flitted through these pages, so that my eye kept being caught by things like the description at the head of Chapter 2 of someone as "magnolia-skinned," something I would formerly have skipped over as a meaningless affectation.

I had no idea, before my parents bought a house next to a magnolia tree, what a magnolia was, and what I didn't know of course no one else could either, but must be throwing in for a hint of exotic effect. It would not have occurred to me to wonder about the color or texture of magnolia petals. Had I stopped to think about it at all, the thought would have gone something like this: "A magnolia is some sort of flower, and flowers are generally held to be delicate, so she's trying to say this woman's delicate, and magnolias grow in hot places, so delicate with a hint of corruption and decay." An interpretation all based on categories of things, bearing no curiosity about the particular qualities of the specific thing alluded to.

Not, I hasten to say, that "magnolia-skinned" doesn't now strike me as a fairly dispensible sort of an adjective, but mightn't I have considered finding out what it meant before dismissing it?

If I could see how this book was put together to work in all the necessary bits of information without them calling attention to themselves, descriptions and bits of dialogue all just the right length, murders all placed just so, so that the reader flies along with no effort whatever, I would be overjoyed. I can't, though. So far as the essentials of a mystery go, mine can be only a vague sort of admiration.

But I do have a slightly better-informed opinion about some of the component parts of this splendidly integrated whole. Take, for instance, "Amanda hit him. She had not meant to do it or known that she would do so." It is, for a person like Amanda--young, sheltered, and amiable--a shocking thing to discover that in the space of a few seconds she has carried out, with no forethought whatsoever, an act she thought herself incapable of. The monosyllabic analysis perfectly conveys not just the substance of the thought, as it develops after the fact, but its emotional impact.

M. M. Kaye knew what she was doing. I wish I knew too. As it is, I can merely consent to being manipulated by mechanisms that remain, at least for now, mysterious to me.

01 December 2006

Adaline Falling Star. Mary Pope Osborne.

Kids' books tend to bear lessons. I read the first half of this one while trying not to pay attention to a TV American Girl story about a British refugee fourth-grader's adjustment to life in an American school and family during World War II, and the second half while trying not to pay attention to Harry Potter on tape. But still through all the clamor the lesson made itself heard: blacks and half-breeds are good, kind, resourceful, while even the most loving and well-intentioned of white people is a bigot. A sort of subsidiary lesson was that white people's religion makes people vengeful and cruel, while Indian spirituality allows one to hear and follow one's inner voice, which will never lead one astray.

It still wasn't a bad story, though. Nice pigheaded, enterprising heroine--I kept listening to hear what she would say next, and how she would say it.

Touchy Subjects. Emma Donoghue.

Emma Donoghue can make an interesting and convincing story, apparently, out of anyone from medieval Irish witches to Louisiana fishermen. In her last collection she dealt with female historical figures; in this book she sticks to the contemporary world, in a lifelike way that almost had me saying to someone, on the subject of writers in residence, "Well, so-and-so told me that . . . " But, stopping to think who exactly it was who'd told me, I discovered it was a fictional mediocre novelist in an Emma Donoghue story, and I changed tack.

For some reason the story I remember most, several weeks after finishing the book, has to do with a spiritually empty Tacoma beer-mug collector who, born again through the agency of a bus stop Jesus poster, severs his last ties with the social world by prevailing upon the woman who has lived with him for years to marry him and have miscarriage after miscarriage until, at last, she casts him off. One of the purposes of fiction is to render intelligible ideas that a reader has trouble getting a handle on, whether through a failure of abstract reasoning or lack of some innate personal predisposition. Different readers require different stories. For me, religion does not yield to cogitation or introspection. This story, however, gave me one possible way to understand it: the God-shaped hole as an intermediate step in the progressive hollowing out of a person's interior existence. Of course, this gives me a pretty unbalanced view of the phenomenon of religiosity, but maybe someday I'll happen across a good Christian story that will make me feel the error of my ways.