Brief notes on books I read a while back but never got around to writing up.

A Taste of China: The Definitive Guide to Regional Cooking (Pavilion Classic Cookery), by Ken Hom. An evocative, hunger-inducing travelogue/memoir/cookbook/food history by a Chinese-American author. A bit of a period piece now, but much of it is historical anyway, and it's well worth reading if you have an interest in the topic.

The Gift of Fear, by Gavin de Becker. The classic nonfiction book on the value of intuition: specifically, that fear - especially women's fear of men - is often based on having subconsciously picked up subtle signals of very real danger. I've re-read this book a couple times before, and it continues to be valuable: honest, easy to read, thoughtful, and very usable. One thing I'd forgotten was that de Becker himself was a survivor of childhood abuse and trauma, and is writing not only from his experience as a security expert but from his experience as a scared little kid.

This would make an excellent paired reading with Malcolm Gladwell's Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking, which is also about how intuition works, but approached from completely different angles. Both books discuss false intuition based on prejudice or pre-conceived ideas versus true intuition based on the situation at hand, and how to tell the difference. Gladwell's book is more sociological, and de Becker's is more of a how-to.

Let's Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship. It's an old story: I had a friend and we shared everything, and then she died and we shared that, too.

Probably the best memoir I've read all year. I read it when it first came out, and then re-read it several months later. Though Knapp's death frames the memoir, it's not primarily about that, but about the intimate, twin-like friendship between two women. Writers Gail Caldwell and Caroline Knapp bonded over their careers, their alcoholism and sobriety, and most of all, their beloved dogs. The structure is complex but seamless. Caldwell traces her own life story and how it paralleled and diverged from Knapp's, weaves it back into the story of their friendship, and then continues her story without Knapp, but always with her memory. It's extremely well-written, intense, and engaging, and reminded me quite a bit of another favorite memoir of mine... Caroline Knapp's Drinking: A Love Story.

It also reminded me of Ann Patchett's Truth & Beauty: A Friendship, another intense and well-written memoir about female friendship, in this case with troubled author and cancer survivor Lucy Grealy. Though Let's Take the Long Way Home, despite Knapp's early death, is a lot less tragic, since Caroline Knapp sounds like she had a lot more happiness and satisfaction in her life than poor Lucy Grealy ever did. It's also got way more dogs. In fact, it has enough dog content that I would especially recommend it to anyone who loves dogs. it contains dog death by old age, but is much more about what it's like to live with and love and train dogs.

You can click on the author tags to get reviews of the books I mentioned in comparison.
I was initially put off of Malcolm Gladwell’s most recent work of pop sociology by a review that said that he explained the better math scores of Asian countries as compared to European ones by saying that working in rice paddies makes you good at math. Now that I’ve read it, I still don’t buy his rice paddy theory, but the theory itself isn’t quite as dumb and direct as the claim above. I’ll explain what it actually is as a snapshot of the value and drawbacks of the book: some plausible explanations, some poorly supported theories, some mind-blowing anecdotes and analysis, some goofy overreaching.

Gladwell’s theory is that working a rice paddy is more labor-intensive and responsive to individual experimentation than working a wheat field (interesting if true; he provides good evidence in favor of rice, but little against wheat), and that virtually the only factor separating kids and countries which do well at math with kids and countries which don’t is the amount of time and effort put into studying and doing math. The latter claim is very well-supported, especially by the hilariously telling 100% correlation of scores on an international math test with the percentage of questions completed on a long and dull survey handed out at the same time: the kids who are willing to plow through the survey are the kids who do well on the math test, and the kids who get bored and give up on the survey score poorly on the test.

Gladwell then attempts to link the work ethic necessary in rice farming to the work ethic passed down culturally long past the point when many people in the country are farming anything, so that rice farming is a sort of first cause for seeing things like a longer school year as valuable. I still think this is a stretch. But the chapter itself has all sorts of fascinating material— and the fact that my attention was held by math is a testament to Gladwell’s writing.

His thesis is that no one really pulls themselves up by their bootstraps, and that exceptional success depends on advantageous sociological factors and chance as much as it does on merit, and sometimes more. This is probably not a startling idea to anyone here, but some of his individual examples are genuinely eye-opening. I especially liked the first few chapters, on the disquieting intersection of early birthdays and talent tracking, and the crucial ten thousand hours of practice. There’s also a good section on how a number of factors (including the years of their birth and the unintended repurcussions of a particular brand of anti-Semitism!) gave some Jewish lawyers the chance to become legal superstars.

Recommended if you enjoy pop sociology and are willing to read some cultural and other generalizations that may make you tear your hair out.

My favorite works by Gladwell are his magazine articles, which tend to be more in-depth and less prone to sweeping conclusions than his books, and Blink, about the benefits and perils of snap judgments, which has some great material on subconscious prejudices and what can be done to overcome them. And is very entertaining.

Outliers: The Story of Success

Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking



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