Trying to categorise popular science books

Some time last year, a colleague asked about good examples of popular science books, in order to read and thereby to get inspiration on how to write books at that level, or at least for first-year students at a university. I’ve read (and briefly reviewed) ‘quite a few’ across multiple disciplines and proposed to him a few of them that I enjoyed reading. One aspect that bubbled up at the time, is that not all popsci books are of the same quality and, zooming in on this post’s topic: not all popsci books are of the same level, or, likely, do not have the same target audience.

I’d say they range from targeting advanced interested laypersons to entertaining laypersons. The former entails that you’d be better off having covered the topic at school and an undergrad course or two will help as well for making it an enjoyable read, and be fully awake, not tired, when reading it. For the latter category at the other end of the spectrum: having completed little more than primary school will do fine and no prior subject domain knowledge is required, at all, and it’s good material for the beach; brain candy.

Either way you’ll learn something from any popsci book, even if it’s too little for the time spent reading the book or too much to remember it all. But some of them are much more dense than others. Compare cramming the essence of a few scientific papers in a book’s page to drawing out one scientific paper into a whole chapter. Then there’s humor—or the lack thereof—and lighthearted anecdotes (or not) to spice up the content to a greater or lesser extent. The author writing about fungi recounting eating magic mushrooms, say, or an economist being just as much of a sucker for summer sales in the shops as just about anyone. And, of course, there’s readability (more about that shortly in another post).

Putting all that in the mix, my groupings are as follows, with a selection of positive exemplars that I also enjoyed reading.

There are more popsci books of which I thought they were interesting to read, but I didn’t want to turn it into a laundry list. Also, it seemed that books on politics and society and philosophy and such seem to be deserving their own discussion on categorisation, but that’s for another time. I also intentionally excluded computer science, information systems, and IT books, because I may be differently biassed to those books compared to the out-of-my-own-current-specialisation books listed above. For instance, Dataclysm by Cristian Rudder on Data Science mainly with OKCupid data (reviewed earlier) was of the ‘entertainment’ level to me, but probably isn’t so for the general audience.

Perhaps it is also of use to contrast them to ‘bad’ examples—well, not bad, but I think they did not succeed well in their aim. Two of them are Critical mass by Phillip Ball (physics, social networks), because it was too wordy and drawn out and dull, and This is your brain on music by Daniel Levitin (neuroscience, music), which was really interesting, but very, very, dense. Looking up their scores on goodreads, those readers converge to that view for your brain on music as well (still a good 3.87 our of 5, from nearly 60000 ratings and well over 1500 reviews), as well as for the critical mass one (3.88 from some 1300 ratings and about 100 reviews). Compare that to a 4.39 for the award-wining Entangled life, 4.35 of Why we sleep, and 4.18 for Mama’s last hug. To be fair, not all books listed above have a rating above 4.

Be this as it may, I still recommend all of those listed in the four categories, and hopefully the sort of rough categorisation I added will assist in choosing a book among the very many vying for your attention and time.

Pushing the envelope categorising popsci books

Regarding book categories more generally, romance novels have subgenres, as does science fiction, so why not the non-fiction popsci books? Currently, they’re mostly either just listed (e.g., here or the new releases) or grouped by discipline, but not according to, say, their level of difficulty, humor, whether it mixes science with politics, self-help, or philosophy, or some other quality dimension of the book along which they possibly could be assessed.

As example that the latter might work for assigning attributes to the books: Why we sleep is 100% science but a reader can distill some ideas to practice with as self-help for sleeping better, whereas When: the scientific secrets of perfect timing is, contrary to what the title suggests, largely just self-help. Delusions of gender and Inside rebellion can, or, rather, should have some policy implications, and Why we sleep possibly as well (even if only to make school not start so early in the morning), whereas the sort of content of Elephants on acid already did (ethics review boards for scientific experiments, notably). And if you were not convinced of the presence of animal cognition, then Mama’s last hug may induce some philosophical reflecting, and then have a knock-on effect on policies. Then there are some books that I can’t see having either a direct or indirect effect on policy, such as Gastrophysics and Entangled life.

Let’s play a little more with that idea. What about vignettes composed of something like the followings shown in the table below?

Then a small section of the back cover of Entangled life would look like this, with the note that the humor is probably inbetween the ‘yes’ and ‘some’ (I laughed harder with the book on drunkenness).

Mama’s last hug would then have something like:

And Why we sleep as follows (though I can’t recall for sure now whether it was ‘some’ or ‘no laughing matter’ and a friend has borrowed the book):

A real-life example of a categorisation box on a product; coffee suitable for moka pots, according to House of Coffees.

Of course, these are just mock-ups to demonstrate the idea visually and to try out whether it is even doable to classify the books. They are. There very well may be better icons than these scruffy ‘take a cc or public domain one and fiddle with it in MS Paint’ or a mixed mode approach, like on the packs of coffee (see image on the right).

Moreover: would you have created the same categorisation for the three examples? What (other) properties of popular science books could useful? Also, and perhaps before going down that route: would something like that possibly be useful according to you or someone you know who reads popular science books? You may leave your comments below, on my facebook page, or write an email, or we can meet in person some day.

p.s.: this is not a serious post on the ontology of popular science books — it is summer vacation time here and I used to write book reviews in the first week of the year and this is sort of related.

Review of ‘The web was done by amateurs’ by Marco Aiello

Via one of those friend-of-a-friend likes on social media that popped up in my stream, I stumbled upon the recently published book “The web was done by amateurs” (there’s also a related talk) by Marco Aiello, which piqued my interest both concerning the title and the author. I’ve met Aiello once in Trento, when a colleague and he had a departing party, with Aiello leaving for Groningen. He probably doesn’t remember me, nor do I remember much of him—other than his lamentations about Italian academia and going for greener pastures. Turns out he’s done very well for himself academically, and the foray into writing for the general public has been, in my opinion, a fairly successful attempt with this book.

The short book—it easily can be read in a weekend—starts in the first part with historical notes on who did what for the Internet (the infrastructure) and the multiple predecessor proposals and applications of hyperlinking across documents that Tim Berners-Lee (TBL) apparently was blissfully unaware of. It’s surely a more interesting and useful read than the first Google hit, the few factoids from W3C, or Wikipedia one can find online with a simple search—or: it pays off to read books still in this day and age :). The second part is for most readers, perhaps, also still history: the ‘birth’ of the Web and the browser wars in the mid 1990s.

Part III is, in my opinion, the most fun to read: it discusses various extensions to the original design of TBL’s Web that fixes, or at least aims to fix, a shortcoming of the Web’s basics, i.e., they’re presented as “patches” to patch up a too basic—or: rank-amateur—design of the original Web. They are, among others, persistence with cookies to mimic statefulness for Web-based transactions (for, e.g., buying things on the web), trying to get some executable instructions with Java (ActiveX, Flash), and web services (from CORBA, service-oriented computing, to REST and the cloud and such). Interestingly, they all originate in the 1990s in the time of the browser wars.

There are more names in the distant and recent history of the Web that I knew of, so even I picked up a few things here or there. IIRC, they’re all men, though. Surely there would be at least one woman worthy of mention? I probably ought to know, but didn’t, so I searched the Web and easily stumbled upon the Internet Hall of Fame. That list includes Susan Estrada among the pioneers, who founded CERFnet that “grew the network from 25 sites to hundreds of sites.”, and, after that, Anriette Esterhuysen and Nancy Hafkin for the network in Africa, Qiheng Hu for doing this for China, and Ida Holz for the same in Latin America (in ‘global connections’). Web innovators specifically include Anne-Marie Eklund Löwinder for DNS security extensions (DNSSEC, noted on p143 but not by its inventor’s name) and Elizabeth Feinler for the “first query-based network host name and address (WHOIS) server” and “she and her group developed the top-level domain-naming scheme of .com, .edu, .gov, .mil, .org, and .net, which are still in use today”.

One patch to the Web that I really missed in the overview of the early patches, is the “Web 2.0”. I know that, technologically, it is a trivial extension to TBL’s original proposal: the move from static web pages in 1:n communication from content provider to many passive readers, to m:n communication with comment sections (fancy forms), or: instead of the surfer being just a recipient of information by reading one webpage after another and thinking her own thing of it, to be able to respond and interact, i.e., the chatrooms, the article and blog comment features, and, in the 2000s, the likes of MySpace and Facebook. It got so many more people involved in it all.

Continuing with the book’s content, cloud computing and the fog (section 7.9) are from this millennium, as is, what Aiello dubbed, the “Mother of All Patches.”: the Semantic Web. Regarding the latter, early on in the book (pp. vii-viii) there is already an off-hand comment that does not bode well: “Chap. 8 on the Semantic Web is slightly more technical than the rest and can be safely skipped.” (emphasis added). The way Chapter 8 is written, perhaps. Before discussing his main claim there, a few minor quibbles: it’s the Web Ontology Language OWL, not “Ontology Web Language” (p105), and there’s OWL 2 as successor of the OWL of 2004. “RDF is a nifty combination of being a simple modeling language while also functioning as an expressive ontological language” (p104), no: RDF is for representing data, not really for modeling, and most certainly would not be considered an ontology language (one can serialize an ontology in RDF/XML, but that’s different). Class satisfiability example: no, that’s not what it does, or: the simplification does not faithfully capture it; an example with a MammalFish that cannot have any instances (as subclass of both Mammal and Fish that are disjoint), would have been (regardless the real world).

The main claim of Aiello regarding the Semantic Web, however, is that it’s been that time to throw in the towel, because there hasn’t been widespread uptake of Semantic Web technologies on the Web even though it was proposed already around the turn of the millenium. I lean towards that as well and have reduced the time spent on it from my ontology engineering course over the years, but don’t want to throw out the baby with the bathwater just yet, for two reasons. First, scientific results tend to take a long time to trickle down. Second, I am not convinced that the ‘semantic’ part of the Web is the same level of end-user stuff as playing with HTML is. I still have an HTML book from 1997. It has instructions to “design your first page in 10 minutes!”. I cannot recall if it was indeed <10 minutes, but it sure was fast back in 1998-1999 when I made my first pages, as a non-IT interested layperson. I’m not sure if the whole semantics thing can be done even on the proverbial rainy Sunday afternoon, but the dumbed down version with schema.org sort of works. This schema.org brings me to p110 of Aiello’s book, which states that Google can make do with just statistics for optimal search results because of its sheer volume (so bye-bye Semantic Web). But it is not just stats-based: even Google is trying with schema.org and its “knowledge graph”; admitted, it’s extremely lightweight, but it’s more than stats-only. Perhaps the schema.org and knowledge graph sort of thing are to the Semantic Web what TBL’s proposal for the Web was to, say, the fancier HyperCard.

I don’t know if people within the Semantic Web research community would think of its tooling as technologies for the general public. I suspect not. I consider the development and use of ontologies in ontology-driven information systems as part of the ‘back office’ technologies, notwithstanding my occasional attempts to explain to friends and family what sort of things I’m working on.

What I did find curious, is that one of Aiello’s arguments for the Semantic Web’s failure was that “Using ontologies and defining what the meaning of a page is can be much more easily exploited by malicious users” (p110). It can be exploited, for sure, but statistics can go bad, very bad, too, especially on associations of search terms, the creepy amount of data collection on the Web, and bias built into the Machine Learning algorithms. Search engine optimization is just the polite terms for messing with ‘honest’ stats and algorithms. With the Semantic Web, it would a conscious decision to mess around and that’s easily traceable, but with all the stats-based approaches, it sneakishly can creep in whilst trying to keep up the veneer of impartiality, which is harder to detect. If it were a choice between two technology evils, I prefer the honest bastard cf. being stabbed in the back. (That the users of the current Web are opting for the latter does not make it the lesser of two evils.)

As to two possible new patches (not in the book and one can debate whether they are), time will tell whether a few recent calls for “decentralizing” the Web will take hold, or more fine-grained privacy that also entails more fine-grained recording of events (e.g., TBL’s solid project). The app-fication discussion (Section 10.1) was an interesting one—I hardly use mobile apps and so am not really into it—and the lock-in it entails is indeed a cause for concern for the Web and all it offers. Another section in Chapter 10 is IoT, which sounds promising and potentially scary (what would the data-hungry ML algorithms of the Web infer from my fridge contents, and from that, about me??)—for the past 10 years or so. Lastly, the final chapter has the tempting-to-read title “Should a new Web be designed?”, but the answer is not a clear yes or no. Evolve, it will.

Would I have read the book if I weren’t on sabbatical now? Probably still, on an otherwise ‘lost time’ intercontinental trip to a conference. So, overall, besides the occasional gap and one could quibble a bit here and there, the book is a nice read on the whole for any lay-person interested in learning something about the ubiquitous Web, any expert who’s using only a little corner of it, and certainly for the younger generation to get a feel for how the current Web came about and how technologies get shaped in praxis.

Not sorry at all—Review of “Sorry, not Sorry” by Haji Dawjee

Some papers are in the review pipeline for longer than they ought to be and the travel-part of conference attendance is a good opportunity to read books. So, instead of writing more about research, here’s a blogpost with a book review instead, being Sorry, not sorry—Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa by South African journalist Haji Mohamed Dawjee. It’s one of those books I bought out of curiosity, as the main title intrigued me on two aspects. First, it contradicts—if you’re not sorry, then don’t apologise for not doing so. Second, the subtitle, as it can be useful to read what people who don’t get much media coverage have to say. It turned out to have been published only last month, so let me break with the usual pattern and write a review now rather than wait until the usual January installments

The book contains 20 essays of Dawjee’s experiences broadly and with many specific events, and reflections thereof, on growing up and working in South Africa. Depending on your background, you’ll find more or less recognisable points in it, or perhaps none at all and you’ll just eat the whole spiced dish served, but if you’re a woke South African white or think of yourself as a do-gooder white, you probably won’t like certain sections of it. As it is not my intention to write a very long review, I’ve picked a few essays to comment on, but there’s no clear single favourite among the essays. There are two essays that I think the book could have done without, but well, I suppose the author is asserting something with it that has something to do with the first essay and that I’m just missing the point. That first essay is entitled ‘We don’t really write what we like’ and relates back to Biko’s statement and essay collection I write what I like, not the Writing what we like essay collection of 2016. It describes the media landscape, the difficulties of people of colour to get published, and that their articles are always expected to have some relevance and insight—“having to be on the frontlines of critical thinking”—rather than some drivel that white guys can get away with, as “We too have nice experiences. We think about things and dream and have magic in us. We have fuzzy fables to share.”. Dawjee doesn’t consider such airy fairy stories by the white guys to be brave, but exhibiting opportunity an privilege, and she wants to have that opportunity and privilege, too. This book, however, is mainly of the not-drivel and making-a-point sort of writing rather than flowery language devoid of a message.

For instance, what it was like from the journalism side when Mandela died, and the magazine she was working for changing her story describing a successful black guy into one “more Tsotsi-like”, because “[t]he obvious reason for the editorial manipulation was that no-one wanted a story of a good black kid. Only white kids are intrinsically exceptional.” (discussed in the essay ‘The curious case of the old white architect’). Several essays describe unpleasant behind-the-scenes experiences in journalism, such as at YOU magazine, and provide a context to her article Maid in South Africa that had as blurb “White people can walk their dogs, but not their children”, which apparently had turned out to cause a shitstorm on social media. There was an opinion-piece response by one of Dawjee’s colleagues, “coming to my ‘rescue’” and who “needed to whitesplain my thoughts and sanitise them with her ‘wokeness’” (p190). It’s a prelude to finishing off with a high note (more about that further below), and illustrates one of the recurring topics—the major irritation with the do-gooders, woke whites, the ones who put themselves in the ‘good whites’ box and ‘liberal left’, but who nonetheless still contribute to systemic racism. This relates to Biko’s essay on the problems with white liberals and similar essays in his I write what I like, there described as category, and in Dawjee’s book illustrated with multiple examples.

 

In an essay quite different in style, ‘Why I’m down with Downtown Abbey’ (the TV series), Dawjee revels in the joys of seeing white servants doing the scurrying around, cooking, cleaning etc for the rich. On the one hand, knowing a little of South African society by now, understandable. On the other hand, it leaves me wondering just how much messed up the media is that people here still (this is not the first or second time I came across this topic) seem to think that up in Europe most or all families also have maids and gardeners. They don’t. As one Irish placard had put it, “clean up your own shite” is the standard, as is DIY gardening and cooking. Those chores, or joys, are done by the women, children, and men of the nuclear family, not hired helps.

Related to that latter point—who’s doing the chores—two essays have to do with feminism and Islam. The essay title ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ speaks for itself. And, yes, as Dawjee says, it cannot be repeated often enough that there were strong, successful, and intelligent women at the bedrock of Islam and women actually do have rights (unlike under Christianity); in case you want some references on women’s rights under Islam, have a look at the essay I wrote a while a go about it. ‘My mother, the true radical’ touches upon notions of feminism and who gets to decide who is feminist when and in what way.

 

I do not quite agree with Dawjee’s conclusion drawn from her Tinder experiences in ‘Tinder is a pocket full of rejection, in two parts’. On p129 she writes “Tinder in South Africa is nothing but fertile ground for race-based rejection.”. If it were a straightforward case of just race-based swiping, then, statistically, I should have had lots of matches with SA white guys, as I surely look white with my pale skin, blue eyes, and dark blonde hair (that I ended up in the 0.6% ‘other’ box in the SA census in 2011 is a separate story). But, nada. In my 1.5 years of Tinder experiment in Cape Town, I never ever got a match with a white guy from SA either, but plenty of matches with blacks, broad and narrow. I still hypothesise that the lack of matches with the white guys is because I list my employer, which scares away men who do not like women who’ve enjoyed some higher education, as it has scared away countless men in several other countries as well. Having educated oneself out of the marriage market, it is also called. There’s a realistic chance that a majority of those South African whites that swiped left on Dawjee are racist, but, sadly, their distorted views on humanity include insecurities on more than one front, and I’m willing to bet that Dawjee having an honours degree under her belt will have contributed to it. That said, two anecdotes doesn’t make data, and an OKCupid-type of analysis like Rudder’s Dataclysm (review) but then of Tinder data would be interesting so as to get to the bottom of that.

 

The two, imho, skippable essays are “Joining a cult is a terrible idea” (duh) and “Depression: A journal”. I’m not into too personal revelations, and would have preferred a general analysis on how society deals, or not, with mental illness, or, if something more concrete, to relate it to, say, the Life Esidimeni case from whichever angle.

 

Meandering around through the various serious subtopics and digressions, as a whole, the essays combine into chronicling the road taken by Dawjee to decolonise her mind, culminating in a fine series of statements in the last part of the last essay. She is not sorry for refusing to be a doormat, saying so, and the consequences that that will have for those who perpetuate and benefit from systemic racism, and she now lives from a position of strength rather than struggling and doubting as a receiver of it.

 

Overall, it was an interesting book and worthwhile to have read. The writing style is very accessible, so one can read the whole book in a day or so. In case you are still unsure whether you want to read it or not: there are free book extracts of ‘We don’t really write what we like’, ‘Begging to be white?’, and ‘And how the women of Islam did slay’ and, at the time of writing this blog post, one written review on News24 and Eusebius McKaiser’s Radio 702 interview with Dawjee (both also positive about the book).

Book reviews for 2017

The third, and probably for a while last, post in a row that has not much, or even nothing, to do with my current job and research interest: the seventh installment of short book reviews and opinions on a selection of fiction and non-fiction books I read last year.

Non-Fiction

Dataclysm by Christian Rudder (2014). This is a highly entertaining book about some interesting aspects of Data Science. The author, one of the founders of the dating site OkCupid, takes his pile of OkCupid data and data from some other sources, and plays with it. What do those millions of up- and down-votes and match answers reveal? What’s the difference between what people say in surveys and how they behave online on the dating site? A lot, it appears. The book makes the anonymised aggregates fun and look harmless rather than Big Brother-like to haunt an individual. A bunch of people copy-and-paste messages, but it doesn’t seem to matter for replies and interaction. Looks matter, a lot, but weirdness, too. You’re a women over, say, 25 and the man says you’re gorgeous? Probably lying: they dig the looks of 20-year old women most, no matter how old they are. The portion of people identifying as gay correlates with societal and legal acceptance of same-sex relationships and marriages. And so on. One has to bear in mind that the conclusions drawn from the data should be seen in the light of self-selection (are the OkCupid members average in the sense of collectively being like the whole population?), that pattern-finding is different from hypothesis testing, and accidental data is different from collecting data in a controlled setting. That said, it’s still interesting to read about what the data says and it offers a peek into the kitchen of online dating sites.

What the dog saw by Malcom Gladwell (2009). It’s not nearly as good as the others. In a way, the narrative is the opposite of Dataclysm (as Rudder also discusses): Gladwell’s books are more about the peculiar particular and trying to generalise from that, whereas Rudder takes the aggregates over very large amounts of instances that is the general trend backed up by data rather than anecdotes (which isn’t the plural of data). Both books were very USA-centric, which became annoying in What the dog saw but not with Dataclysm.

Gastrophysics—the new science of eating by Charles Spence (2017). I’ve met people who can’t even believe there’s such thing as food science—an established applied science and engineering discipline—so perhaps the reader’s first response to the term ‘science of eating’ may be even less credulous. But sure enough, there’s truth to that. As the blurb about the book ended up longer than intended, it got its own blogpost: gastrophysics and follies. In short: the first part is very highly recommended reading.

I didn’t manage to finish Slavoj Zizek’s “Trouble in paradise—from the end of history to the end of capitalism”. There were fine parts in it, but there was too much rambling on too many pages, piling dialectical upon dialectical topped-off with upside-downs that the plot got lost and the logic missing. I searched online for book reviews of it, wondering if it was just me being too tired to concentrate, but turned out I’m not the only one. 17 contradictions and the end of capitalism by David Harvey was better (reviewed a few years ago).

Fiction

Indaba, my children—African tribal history, legends, customs and religious beliefs by Credo Mutwa (1964). This book was recommended to me with the note that although the author made it all up, for there are no such stories among the amaZulu, it is great storytelling and a must-read nonetheless. It is indeed. The first part chronicles in a fantastic way the story of creation and the first humans as a poem that is best read aloud for the most dramatic effect of the unexpected turns of events. Parts two and three see successive interactions with intruders and societies rising and falling, the organisation of society, their laws, customs, rites, and quests for power, with a bit of interference and nudging here and there by the goddesses, immortals, and the tree of life. Part four consists of reflections, events, stories, and criticisms of the recent past. Woven into these stories are how the things came to be as they are, such as the creation of the moon, the naming of the marimba (a type of xylophone), how/from where the Swazi and amaXhosa originate, and so on. The tome of almost 700 pages takes a while to finish; yet at the same time, one feels that loss once having finished a great book.

The drowning by Camila Lackberg (2012, translated from Swedish). This is a ‘whodunnit’ crime novel with twists and turns and even if you think near the end of the book that you know who’s behind the threats and murders, you’ll still be surprised, and perhaps somehow a bit sad, too. That much for spoilers. The general storyline has the novel set in a village in Sweden where village life seems idyllic, but all sorts of things are not what they seem—the ‘marital bliss’ that’s not so blissful after all, and so on. Christian Thydell published his first novel and gets great reviews, but has been receiving anonymous threats, and soon a few other men in the village get them as well. Gradually, a few people die or are murdered. Erica Falck sets out to uncover the truth informally, while her detective husband tries to do so in the official police investigation. With the cross-fertilisation of information, eventually the mystery is resolved.

How to fall in love by Cecelia Ahern (2014). I recall the time when Ahern’s first novel came out in Ireland, where the first reactions that she’d published a book was a like “well, bleh, but she’s the daughter of…” [the then Taoiseach ‘prime minister’, Bertie Ahern], yet then reviews came in like “actually, it’s really sweet/nice/quite good/etc.” and it ended up as an international bestseller and a movie (P.S. I love you). So, when I was recently in Ireland, I decided to buy one of her books to see for myself, which turned out to be her latest novel How to fall in love. Sounds just as cheesy, true, but the nutshell version of the story is quite grim. The protagonist, Christine Rose, talks a stranger (Adam) out of his suicide attempt with a deal: that she can convince him in two weeks’ time that life is worth living; if she can’t, then he still can go off and kill himself. She had just walked out of a relationship; he had found his fiancé cheating with his best friend (among other reasons why he wanted to kill himself). Christine then comes up with a range of ‘mini-adventures’, mostly set in Dublin, trying to fix it yet having no real experience in suicide-prevention support. Some activities and meddling work out better than others. The storytelling is heart-warming, funny, and light-hearted, yet at time serious and depressing as well (suicide is quite a large problem in Ireland, and higher than the world average). Several unexpected turns in the story and development of the characters and their motivations keep it interesting. It is a fairly quick read for its easy writing style, yet also one of those books that one would like to read again for the first time.

Woman on the edge of time by Marge Piercy (1976). I bought the book because it said “The Classic Feminist Science Fiction Novel” on the front cover. Frankly, that’s rubbish. If Americans think that’s feminism and sci-fi, then no wonder gender parity hasn’t been achieved and science is facing tough times there. Anyway, the story. The protagonist had dreams of education and independence and is sane but was put in the insane box and she goes along with it, with some weakness and whining about oppression here and there. What exactly is feminist about that?! The supposedly sci-fi part is the protagonist doing some mental trips to a future of “sexual, racial, and environmental harmony”. She can do that because here mind is “receptive”. Seriously? Really, there’s no smell of ‘sci’ there, just a lot of ‘fi’. If there were a single classic in the genre of ‘futurist fiction for feminists’, I’d say it’s most definitely kinderen van moeder aarde children of mother earth’ by Thea Beckman that I read back in the mid ‘80s. I still can remember the storyline now, more than 30 years later, without having read it since. The setting is in Greenland that, after some terrible nuclear war that has moved continents, was pushed south into a moderate climate whereas Europe ended up at a latitude where it’s a scorching hot climate. Thule (Greenland) is governed by women—because it was the men who screwed up with their wars—and now a dirty steamboat with exploitative patriarchal Europeans is arriving. The book describes how that society functions where women run the show (e.g., there are no prisons). The protagonists are two teenagers—one son of a female member of the governing body, the other his girlfriend from the commoners—who think that it isn’t fair that only women from the ruling hierarchy rule. In the end, they manage to neutralise the invaders and a few men get some say in governance.

The Power by Naomi Alderman (2016). As the saying goes, don’t judge a book by its cover. But the book’s front cover looked really cool and the back cover story sounded like an interesting scenario, so I ended up impulse-buying it anyway. It turned out to be a page-turner. The main part of the novel describes the unfolding events of an eclectic set of main characters across the world when, from one day to the next, women turn out to have ‘the power’. That is, there’s an organ that only women have that has suddenly become active with which, while it does not make girls and women physically stronger than men, they can hurt or kill men with or rape them through administering an electrical surge at a certain place. This obviously affects the status quo of the patriarchal societies across the world, and the girls and women respond differently on the new powers gained based on both their personal background and how bad it was for them in their subculture and country. The men respond differently to it as well. Without revealing too much, it could be categorised in the ‘futurist fiction for feminists’, sort of, as it’s also about ‘what if for millennia sexism was reversed?’ and ‘what if it were to be reversed now and it’s payback time?’. The answers that the author came up with make for useful reading, and perhaps also contemplation, for both women and men. Whether you think at the end it’s a dystopian novel, fanciful daydreaming, futurist fiction for feminists, a thriller, a useful mirror to the current society we live in, or stick another label to it—an opinion you’ll have of it :).

If these books don’t interest you, then perhaps one of the previous ones I posted about in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017 just might (I’m an omnivorous reader).

Gastrophysics and follies

Yes, turns out there is a science of eating, which is called gastrophysics, and a popular science introduction to the emerging field was published in an accessible book this year by Charles Spence (Professor [!] Charles Spence, as the front cover says), called, unsurprisingly, Gastrophysics—the new science of eating. The ‘follies’ I added to the blog post title refers to the non-science parts of the book, which is a polite term that makes it a nice alliteration in the pronunciation of the post’s title. The first part of this post is about the interesting content of the book; the second part about certain downsides.

The good and interesting chapters

Given that some people don’t even believe there’s a science to food (there is, a lot!), it is perhaps even a step beyond to contemplate there can be such thing as a science for the act of eating and drinking itself. Turns out—quite convincingly in the first couple of chapters of the book—that there’s more to eating than meets the eye. Or taste bud. Or touch. Or nose. Or ear. Yes, the ear is involved too: e.g., there’s a crispy or crunchy sound when eating, say, crisps or corn flakes, and it is perceived as an indicator of the freshness of the crisps/cornflakes. When it doesn’t crunch as well, the ratings are lower, for there’s the impression of staleness or limpness to it. The nose plays two parts: smelling the aroma before eating (olfactory) and when swallowing as volatile compounds are released in your throat that reach your nose from the back when breathing out (i.e., retronasal).

The first five chapters of the books are the best, covering taste, smell, sight, sound, and touch. They present easily readable interesting information that is based on published scientific experiments. Like that drinking with a straw ruins the smell-component of the liquid (and so does drinking from a bottle) cf drinking from a glass that sets the aromas free to combine the smell with the taste for a better overall evaluation of the drink. Or take the odd (?) thing that frozen strawberry dessert tastes sweeter from a white bowl than a black one, as is eating it from a round plate cf. from an angular plate. Turns out there’s some neuroscience to shapes (and labels) that may explain the latter. If you think touch and cutlery don’t matter: it’s been investigated, and it does. The heavy cutlery makes the food taste better. It’s surface matters, too. The mouth feel isn’t the same when eating with a plain spoon vs. from a spoon that was first dipped in lemon juice and then in sugar or ground coffee (let it dry first).

There is indeed, as the intro says, some fun fact on each of these pages. It is easy to see that these insights also can be interesting to play with for one’s dinner as well as being useful to the food industry, and to food science, be it to figure out the chemistry behind it or how to change the product, the production process, or even just the packaging. Some companies did so already. Like when you open a bag of (relatively cheap-ish) ground coffee: the smell is great, but that’s only because some extra aroma was added in the sealed air when it was packaged. Re-open the container (assuming you’ve transferred it into one), and the same coffee smell does not greet you anymore. The beat of the background music apparently also affects the speed of masticating. Of course, the basics of this sort of stuff were already known decades ago. For instance, the smell of fresh bread in the supermarket is most likely aroma in the airco, not the actual baking all the time when the shop is open (shown to increase buying bread, if not more), and the beat of the music in the supermarket affects your walking speed.

On those downsides of the book

After these chapters, it gradually goes downhill with the book’s contents (not necessarily the topics). There are still a few interesting science-y things to be learned from the research into airline food. For instance, that the overall ‘experience’ is different because of lower humidity (among other things) so your nose dries out and thus detects less aroma. They throw more sauce and more aromatic components into the food being served up in the air. However, the rest descends into a bunch of anecdotes and blabla about fancy restaurants, with the sources not being solid scientific outlets anymore, but mostly shoddy newspaper articles. Yes, I’m one of those who checks the footnotes (annoyingly as endnotes, but one can’t blame the author for that sort of publisher’s mistake). Worse, it gives the impression of being research-based, because it was so in the preceding chapters. Don’t be fooled by the notes in, especially, chapters 9-12. To give an example, there’s a cool-sounding section on “do robot cooks make good chefs?” in the ‘digital dining’ chapter. One expects an answer; but no, forget that. There’s some hyperbole with the author’s unfounded opinion and, to top it off, a derogatory remark about his wife probably getting excited about a 50K GBP kitchen gadget. Another example out of very many of this type: some opinion by some journalist who ate some day, in casu at über-fancy way-too-expensive-for-the-general-reader Pairet’s Ultraviolet (note 25 on p207). Daily Telegraph, New York Times, Independent, BBC, Condiment junkie, Daily Mail Online, more Daily Mail, BBC, FT Weekend Magazine, Wired, Newsweek etc. etc. Come on! Seriously?! It is supposed to be a popsci book, so then please don’t waste my time with useless anecdotes and gut-feeling opinions without (easily digestible) scientific explanations. Or they should have split the book in two: I) popsci and II) skippable waffle that any science editor ought not to have permitted to pass the popsci book writing and publication process. Professor Spence is encouraged to reflect a little on having gone down on a slippery slope a bit too much.

In closing

Although I couldn’t bear to finish reading the ‘experiential meal’ chapter, I did read the rest, and the final chapter. As any good meal that has to have a good start and finish, the final chapter is fine, including the closing [almost] with the Italian Futurists of the 1930s (or: weird dishes aren’t so novel after all). As to the suggestions for creating your own futurist dinner party, I can’t withhold here the final part of the list:

In conclusion: the book is worth reading, especially the first part. Cooking up a few experiments of my own sounds like a nice pastime.

Conjuring up or enhancing a new subdiscipline, say, gastromatics, computational gastronomy, or digital gastronomy could be fun. The first term is a bit too close to gastromatic (the first search hits are about personnel management software in catering), though, and the second one has been appropriated by the data mining and Big Data crowd already. Digital gastronomy has been coined as well and seems more inclusive on the technology side than the other two. If it all sounds far-fetched, here’s a small sampling: there are already computer cooking contests (at the case-based reasoning conferences) for coming up with the best recipe given certain constraints, a computational analysis of culinary evolution, data mining in food science and food pairing in Arab cuisine, robot cocktail makers are for sale (e.g., makr shakr and barbotics) and there’s also been research on robot baristas (e.g., the FusionBot and lots more), and more, much more, results over at least the past 10 years.

Book reviews for 2016

I can’t resist adding another instalment of brief reviews of some of the books I’ve read over the past books2016year, following the previous five editions and the gender analysis of them (with POC/non-POC added on request at the end). This time, there are three (well, four) non-fiction books and four fiction novels discussed in the remainder of the post. The links to the books used to be mostly to Kalahari.com online (an SA-owned bookstore), but they have been usurped by the awfully-sounding TakeALot, so the links to the books are diversified a bit more now.

Non-fiction

Writing what we like—a new generation speaks, edited by Yolisa Qunta (2016). This is a collection of short essays about how society is perceived by young adults in South Africa. I think this stock-taking of events and opinions thereof is a must-read for anyone wanting to know what goes on and willing to look a bit beyond the #FeesMustFall sound bites on Twitter and Facebook. For instance, “A story of privilege” by Shaka Sisulu describing his experiences coming to study at UCT, and Sophokuhle Mathe in “White supremacy vs transformation” on UCT’s new admissions policy, the need for transformation, and going to hold the university to account; Yolisa Qunta’s “Spider’s web” on the ghost of apartheid with the every-day racist incidents and the anger that comes with it; “Cape Town’s pretend partnership” by Ilham Rawoot on his observations of exclusion of most Capetonians regarding preparations of the World Design Capital in 2014. There are a few ‘lighter’ essays as well, like the fun side of taking the taxi (minibus) in “life lessons learnt from taking the taxi” by Qunta (indeed, travelling by taxi can be fun).

Elephants on Acid by Alex Boese (2007). This is a fun book about the weird and outright should-not-have-been-done research—and why we have ethics committees now. There are of course the ‘usual suspects’ (gorillas in our midst, Milgram’s experiment), the weird ones (testing LSD on elephants; didn’t turn out alright), funny ones (will your dog get help if you are in trouble [no]; how much pubic hair you lose during intercourse [not enough for the CSI people]; social facilitation with cockroach games; trying to weigh the mass of a soul), but also those of the do-not-repeat variety. The latter include trying to figure out whether a person under the guillotine will realise it has been ‘separated’ from his body, Little Albert, and the “depatterning” of ‘beneficial brainwashing’ (it wasn’t beneficial at all). The book is written in an entertaining way, either alike a ‘what on earth was their hypothesis to devise such an experiment?’, or, knowing the hypothesis, with some morbid fascination to see whether it was falsified. Most of the research referenced is, for obvious reasons, older. But well, that doesn’t mean there wouldn’t be any outrageous experiments being conducted nowadays when we look back in, say, 20 years time.

What if? by Randall Munroe (2014, Dutch translation, dwarsligger). Great; read it. Weird and outright absurd questions asked by xkcd readers are answered sort of seriously from a STEM perspective.

Say again? The other side of South African English by Jean Branford and Malcolm Venter (2016). This short review ended up a lot longer, so it got its own blog post two weeks ago.

Fiction

Red ink by Angela Makholwa (2007). This is a juicy crime novel, as the Black Widow Society by the same author is (that I reviewed last year), and definitely a recommendable read. The protagonist, Lucy Khambule, is a PR consultant setting up her company in Johannesburg, but used to be a gutsy journalist who had sent a convicted serial killer a letter asking for an interview. Five years hence, he invites her for that interview and asks her to write a book about him. As writing a book was her dream, she takes up the offer. Things get messy, partly as a result of that: more murders, intrigues, and some love and friendship (the latter with other people, not the serial killer) that put the people close to Lucy in harm’s way. As with the Black Widow Society, it ends well for some but not for others.

Things fall apart by Chinua Achebe (1958 [2008 edition]). This is a well-known book in Africa at least, and there are many analyses are available online, so I’m not going to repeat all that. The story documents both the mores in a rural village and how things—more precisely: the society—fall apart due to several reasons, both on how the society was organised and the influence of the colonialists and their religion. The storytelling has a slow start, but picks up in pace after a short while, and it is worthwhile to bite through that slow start. You can’t feel but a powerless onlooker to how the events unfold and sorry how things turn out.

Kassandra by Christa Wolf (1983, Dutch translation [1990] from the German original; also available in English). Greeks, Trojans, Achilles, Trojan Horse, and all that. Kassandra the seer and daughter of king Priamos and queen Hadebe, is an independent woman, who rambles on analysing her life’s main moments before her execution. It has an awkward prose that one needs to get used to, but there are some interesting nuggets. On only approaching things in duals, or alternative options, like endlessly win or loose wars or the third option of to live. It was a present from the last century that I ought to have read earlier; but better late than never.

De midlife club by Karin Belt (2014, in Dutch, dwarsligger). The story describes four women in their early 40s living in a province in the Netherlands (the author is from a city nearby where I grew up), for whom life didn’t quite turn out as they fantasised about in their early twenties, due to one life choice after another. Superficially, things seem ok, but something is simmering underneath, which comes to the surface when they go to a holiday house in France for a short retreat. (I’m not going to include spoilers). It was nice to read a Dutch novel with recognisable scenes and that contemplates choices. The suspense and twists were fun such that I really had to finish reading it as soon as possible.

As I still have some 150 pages to go to finish the 700-page tome of Indaba, my children by Credo Mutwa, a review will have to wait until next year. But I can already highly recommend it.

Robot peppers, monkey gland sauce, and go well—Say again? reviewed

The previous post about TDDonto2 had as toy example a pool braai, which does exist in South Africa at least, but perhaps also elsewhere under a different name: the braai is the ‘South African English’ (SAE) for the barbecue. There are more such words and phrases peculiar to SAE, and after the paper deadline last week, I did finish reading the book Say again? The other side of South African English by Jean Branford and Malcolm Venter (published earlier this year) that has many more examples of SAE and a bit of sociolinguistics and some etymology of that. Anyone visiting South Africa will encounter at least several of the words and sentence constructions that are SAE, but probably would raise eyebrows elsewhere. Let me start with some examples.

Besides the braai, one certainly will encounter the robot, which is a traffic light (automating the human police officer). A minor extension to that term can be found in the supermarket (see figure on the right): robot peppers, being a bag of three peppers in the colours of red, yellow, and green—no vegetable AI, sorry. robotpeppers

How familiar the other ones discussed in the book are, depends on how much you interact with South Africans, where you stay(ed), and how much you read and knew about the country before visiting it, I suppose. For instance, when I visited Pretoria in 2008, I had not come across the bunny, but did so upon my first visit in Durban in 2010 (it’s a hollowed-out half a loaf of bread, filled with a curry) and bush college upon starting to work at a university (UKZN) here in 2011. The latter is a derogatory term that was used for universities for non-white students in the Apartheid era, with the non-white being its own loaded term from the same regime. (It’s better not to use it—all terms for classifying people one way or another are a bit of a mine field, whose nuances I’m still trying to figure out; the book didn’t help with that).

Then there’s the category of words one may know from ‘general English’, but are by the authors claimed to have a different meaning here. One is the sell-outs, which is “to apply particularly to black people who were thought to have betrayed their people” (p143), though I have the impression it can be applied generally. Another is townhouse, which supposedly has narrowed its meaning cf. British English (p155), but from having lived on the isles some years ago, it was used in the very same way as it is here; the book’s authors just stick to its older meaning and assume the British and Irish do so too (they don’t, though). One that indeed does fall in the category ‘meaning restriction’ is transformation (an explanation of the narrower sense will take up too much space). While I’ve learned a bunch of the ‘unusual’ usual words in the meantime I’ve worked here, there were others that I still did wonder about. For instance, the lay-bye, which the book explained to be the situation when the shop sets aside a product the customer wants, and the customer pays the price in instalments until it is fully paid before taking the product home. The monkey gland sauce one can buy in the supermarket is another, which is a sauce based on ketchup and onion with some chutney in it—no monkeys and no glands—but, I’ll readily admit, I still have not tried it due to its awful name.

There are many more terms described and discussed in the book, and it has a useful index at the end, especially given that it gives the impression to be a very popsci-like book. The content is very nicely typesetted, with news item snippets and aside-boxes and such. Overall, though, while it’s ok to read in the gym on the bicycle for a foreigner who sometimes wonders about certain terms and constructions, it is rather uni-dimensional from a British White South African perspective and the authors are clearly Cape Town-based, with the majority of examples from SA media from Cape Town’s news outlets. They take a heavily Afrikaans-influence-only bias, with, iirc, only four examples of the influence of, e.g., isiZulu on SAE (e.g., the ‘go well’ literal translation of isiZulu’s hamba kahle), which is a missed opportunity. A quick online search reveals quite a list of words from indigenous languages that have been adopted (and more here and here and here and here) such as muti (medicine; from the isiZulu umuthi) and maas (thick sour milk; from the isiZulu amasi) and dagga (marijuana; from the Khoe daxa-b), not to mention the many loan words, such as indaba (conference; isiZulu) and ubuntu (the concept, not the operating system—which the authors seem to be a bit short of, given the near blind spot on import of words with a local origin). If that does not make you hesitant to read it, then let me illustrate some more inaccuracies beyond the aforementioned townhouse squabble, which results in having to take the book’s contents probably with a grain of salt and heavily contextualise it, and/or at least fact-check it yourself. They fall in at least three categories: vocabulary, grammar, and etymology.

To quote: “This came about because the Dutch term tijger means either tiger or leopard” (p219): no, we do have a word for leopard: luipaard. That word is included even in a pocket-size Prisma English-Dutch dictionary or any online EN-NL dictionary, so a simple look-up to fact-check would have sufficed (and it existed already in Dutch before a bunch of them started colonising South Africa in 1652; originating from old French in ~1200). Not having done so smells of either sloppiness or arrogance. And I’m not so sure about the widespread use of pavement special (stray or mongrel dogs or cats), as my backyard neighbours use just stray for ‘my’ stray cat (whom they want to sterilise because he meows in the morning). It is a fun term, though.

Then there’s stunted etymology of words. The coconut is not a term that emerged in the “new South Africa” (pp145-146), but is transferred from the Americas where it was already in use for at least since the 1970s to denote the same concept (in short: a brown skinned person who is White on the inside) but then applied to some people from Central and South America [Latino/Hispanic; take your pick].

Extending the criticism also to the grammar explanations, the “with” aside box on pp203-204 is wrong as well, though perhaps not as blatantly obvious as the leopard and coconut ones. The authors stipulate that phrases like “Is So-and-So coming with?” (p203) is Afrikaans influence of kom saam “where saam sounds like ‘with’” (p203) (uh, no, it doesn’t), and as more guessing they drag a bit of German influence in US English into it. This use, and the related examples like the “…I have to take all my food with” (p204) is the same construction and similar word order for the Dutch adverb mee ‘with’ (and German mit), such as in the infinitives meekomen ‘to come with’ (komen = to come), meenemen ‘to take with’, meebrengen ‘to bring with’, and meegaan ‘to go with’. In a sentence, the mee may be separated from the rest of the verb and put somewhere, including at the end of the sentence, like in ik neem mijn eten mee ‘I take my food with’ (word-by-word translated) en komt d’n dieje mee? ‘comes so-and-so with?’ (word-by-word translated, with a bit of ABB in the Dutch). German has similar infinitives—mitkommen, mitnehmen, mitbringen, and mitgehen, respectively—sure, but the grammar construction the book’s authors highlight is so much more likely to come from Dutch as first step of tracing it back, given that Afrikaans is a ‘simplified’ version of Dutch, not of German. (My guess would be that the Dutch mee- can be traced back, in turn, to the German mit, as Dutch is a sort of ‘simplified’ German, but that’s a separate story.)

In closing, I could go on with examples and corrections, and maybe I should, but I think I made the point clear. The book didn’t read as badly as it may seem from this review, but writing the review required me to fact-check a few things, rather than taking most of it at face value, which made it turn out more and more mediocre than the couple of irritations I had whilst reading it.

My gender-balanced book reviews overall, yet with much fluctuation

In one of my random browsing moments, I stumbled upon a blog post of a writer who had her son complaining about the stories she was reading to him, as having so many books with women as protagonists. As it appeared, “only 27% of his books have a female protagonist, compared to 65% with a male protagonist.”. She linked back to another post about a similar issue but then for some TV documentary series called missed in history, where viewers complained that there were ‘too many women’ and more like a herstory than a missed in history. Their tally of the series’ episodes was that they featured 45% men, 21% women, and 34% were ungendered. All this made me wonder how I fared in my yearly book review blog posts. Here’s the summary table and the M/F/both or neither:

 

Year posted Book Nr M Nr F Both / neither Pct F
2012 Long walk to freedom, terrific majesty, racist’s guide, end of poverty, persons in community, African renaissance, angina monologues, master’s ruse, black diamond, can he be the one 4 3 3 33%
2013 Delusions of gender, tipping point, affluenza, hunger games, alchemist, eclipse, mieses karma 2 3 2 43%
2014 Book of the dead, zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, girl with the dragon tattoo, outliers, abu ghraib effect, nice girls don’t get the corner office 2 1 3 17%
2015 Stoner, not a fairy tale, no time like the present, the time machine, 1001 nights, karma suture, god’s spy, david and goliath, dictator’s learning curve, MK 4 2 4 20%
2016 Devil to pay, black widow society, the circle, accidental apprentice, moxyland, muh, big short, 17 contradictions 2 4 2 50%
Total 14 13 14 32%

 

Actually, I did pretty well in the overall balance. It also shows that were I to have done a bean count for a single year only, the conclusion could have been very different. That said, I classified them from memory, and not by NLP of the text of the books, so the actual amount allotted to the main characters might differ. Related to this is the screenplay dialogue-based data-driven analysis of Hollywood movies, for which NLP was used. Their results show that even when there’s a female lead character, Hollywood manages to get men to speak more; e.g., The Little Mermaid (71%) and The Hunger Games (55% male). Even the chick flick Clueless is 50-50. (The website has several nice interactive graphs based on the lots of data, so you can check yourself.) For the Hunger Games, though, the books do have Katniss think, do, and say more than in the movies.

A further caveat of the data is that these books are not the only ones I’ve read over the past five years, just the ones written about. Anyhow, I’m pleased to discover there is some balance in what I pick out to write about, compared to unconscious bias.

As a last note on the fiction novels listed above, there was a lot of talk online the past week about Lionel Shriver’s keynote on defense on fiction writing-what-you-like and having had enough of the concept of ‘cultural appropriation’. Quite few authors in the list above would be thrown on the pile of authors who ‘dared’ to imagine characters different from the box they probably would by put in. Yet, most of them still did a good job to make it a worthwhile read, such as Hugh Fitzgerald Ryan on Alice the Kyteler in ‘The devil to pay’, David Safier with Kim Lange in ‘Mieses Karma’, Stieg Larsson with ‘Girl with the dragon tattoo’, and Richard Patterson in ‘Eclipse’ about Nigeria. Rather: a terrible character or setting that’s misrepresenting a minority or oppressed, marginalised, or The Other group in a novel is an indication of bad writing and the writer should educate him/herself better. For instance, JM Coetzee could come back to South Africa and learn a thing or two about the majority population here, and I hope for Zakes Mda he’ll meet some women who he can think favourably about and then reuse those experiences in a story. Anyway, even if the conceptually problematic anti-‘cultural appropriation’ police wins it from the fiction writers, then I suppose I can count myself lucky living in South Africa that, with its diversity, will have diverse novels to choose from (assuming they won’t go further overboard into dictating that I would be allowed to read only those novels that are designated to be appropriate for my (from the outside) assigned box).

UPDATE (20-9-2016): following the question on POC protagonist, here’s the table, where those books with a person (or group) of colour is a protagonist are italicised. Some notes on my counting: Angina monologues has three protagonists with 2 POCs so I still counted it, Hunger games’ Katniss is a POC in the books, Eclipse is arguable, abu ghraib effect is borderline and Moxyland is an ensemble cast so I still counted that as well. Non-POC includes cows as well (Muh), hence that term was chosen rather than ‘white’ that POC is usually contrasted with. As can be seen, it varies quite a bit by year as well.

Year posted Book POC

(italics in the list)

Non-POC or N/A Pct POC
2012 Long walk to freedom, terrific majesty, racist’s guide, end of poverty, persons in community, African renaissance, angina monologues, master’s ruse, black diamond, can he be the one 8 2 80%
2013 Delusions of gender, tipping point, affluenza, hunger games, alchemist, eclipse, mieses karma 2 5 29%
2014 Book of the dead, zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance, girl with the dragon tattoo, outliers, abu ghraib effect, nice girls don’t get the corner office 2 4 33%
2015 Stoner, not a fairy tale, no time like the present, the time machine, 1001 nights, karma suture, god’s spy, david and goliath, dictator’s learning curve, MK 4 6 40%
2016 Devil to pay, black widow society, the circle, accidental apprentice, moxyland, muh, big short, 17 contradictions 3 5 38%
Total 19 22 46%

 

A new selection of book reviews (from 2015)

By now a regular fixture for the new year (5th time in the 10th year of this blog), I’ll briefly comment on some of the fiction novels I have read the past year, then two non-fiction ones. They are in the picture on the right (minus The accidental apprentice). Unlike last year’s list, they’re all worthy of a read.

Fiction

boeken15

The devil to pay by Hugh FitzGerald Ryan (2011). Although I’m not much of a history novel fan, the book is a fascinating read. It is a romanticised story based on the many historical accounts of Alice the Kyteler and her maidservant Petronilla de Midia, the latter who was the first person to be tortured and burned at the stake for heresy in Ireland (on 3 Nov 1324, in Kilkenny, to be precise). Unlike the usual histories where men play the centre stage, the protagonist, Alice the Kyteler, is a successful and rich businesswomen who had had four husbands (serially), and one thread through the story is a description of daily life in those middle ages for all people involved—rich, poor, merchant, craftsmen, monk, the English vs. Irish, and so on. It’s written in a way of a snapshot of life of the ordinary people that come and go, insignificant in the grander scheme of things. At some point, however, Alice and Petronilla are accused of sorcery by some made-up charges from people who want a bigger slice of the pie and are also motivated by envy, which brings to the foreground the second thread in the story: the power play between the Church that actively tried to increase its influence in those days, the secular politics with non-church and/or atheist people in power, and the laws and functioning legal system at the time. This clash is what turned the every-day-life setting into one that ended up having been recorded in writing and remembered and analysed by historians. All did not end well for the main people involved, but there’s a small sweet revenge twist at the end.

Black widow society by Angela Makholwa (2013). Fast-paced, with lots of twists and turns, this highly recommendable South African crime fiction describes the gradual falling apart of a secret society of women who had their abusive husbands murdered. The adjective ‘exciting’ is probably not appropriate for such a morbid topic, but it’s written in a way that easily sucks you into the schemes and quagmires of the four main characters (The Triumvirate and their hired assassin), and wanting to know how they get out of the dicey situations. Spoiler alert: some do, some don’t. See also the short extract, and there’s an ebook version for those who’d prefer that over buying a hardcopy in South Africa (if you’re nearby, you can borrow my hardcopy, of course).

De cirkel (The circle) by Dave Eggers (2013, though I read the Dutch translation of 2015). The book is portrayed as a ‘near future’ science fiction taking the business model and kind of activities and mantras of the likes of Facebook and Google “one step further”. A young and ambitious, but naïve, 20-something (Mae) happily jumps on the bandwagon of the company, called ‘the circle’, that tracks and processes more and more of all the subscribers’ respective digital footprints and adds more and more invasive technologies and apps. Gullible and external validation-seeking Mae gets wrapped up in it deeper and deeper. One mysterious colleague (Kalden) isn’t happy with the direction things are going, nor are Mae’s relatives. Pros and cons of such “transparency” are woven into the storyline, being mainly the ‘nothing to hide’ statement encapsulated in the company’s slogans “secrets are lies” and “privacy is theft” vs. one’s privacy, and some side-line topics on sheeple-followers and democracy. The ‘near future’ portrayed in the book is mostly already here, although the algorithms don’t work as well (yet) as they do in the book. One of the creepy real-life incarnations is the propaganda games, although I don’t know how well those algorithms work with respect to its intentions. Facebook’s so-called “targeted ads” is a similar attempt in that direction; so far, they’re not that much on topic and contradictory (e.g., I get FB ads for both ‘emigrating from South Africa with the family, for the kids’ and for ‘elite singles’), but it has been well-documented that it happens (e.g., here and here, and, more generally on data mining, here). The book probably would have made a bigger impact if it were to have been written 5-10 years ago in the time when most people would not have been so accustomed to it as they are now, like the frog and the boiling water fable, and if the characters would have had more depth and the arguments more comprehensive. Notwithstanding, it is a good read for a summer holiday or killing time on the plane, and the end of the story is not what you’ll expect.

The accidental apprentice by Vikas Swarup (2012). It’s a nice read, but my memory of the details is a bit sketchy by now and I lent out the book; I recall liking it more for reading a novel about India by an Indian author rather than the actual storyline, even though I had bought it for the latter reason only. The story is about a young female sales clerk in India who has to pass several ‘life tests’ somehow orchestrated by a very rich businessman; if she passes, she can become CEO of his company. The life tests are about one’s character in challenging situations and inventiveness to resolve it. Without revealing too much of how it ends, I think it would make a pleasant Bollywood or Hollywood movie.

Moxyland by Lauren Beukes (2008). Science fiction set in Cape Town. It has a familiar SF setting of a dystopian future of more technology and somehow ruled/enslaved by it, haves and have-nots divide, and a sinister authoritarian regime to suppress the masses. A few individuals try to act against it but get sucked into the system even more. It is not that great as a story, yet it is nice to read a SF novel that’s situated in the city I live in.

Muh by David Safir (2012). One of the cows in a herd on a farm in Germany finds out they’re all destined for the slaughterhouse, and the cow escapes with a few other cows and a bull to travel to the cows’ paradise on earth: India. The main part of the book is about that journey, interspersed with very obvious referrals to various religious ideas and prejudices. I bought it because I very much enjoyed the author’s other book, Mieses karma (reviewed here). Muh was readable enough—which is more than the few half-read books lying around in a state of abandon—but not nearly as good and fun as Mieses karma. On a different note, this book is probably only available in German.

 

Non-fiction

Big Short by Michael Lewis (2010). The book chronicles the crazy things that happened in the financial sector that led to the inevitable crash in 2008. It reads like a suspense thriller, but it is apparently a true account of what happened inside the system, making it jaw-dropping. There are irresponsible people in the system, and there are other irresponsible people in the system. Some of them—the “misfits, renegades and visionaries”—saw it coming, and betted that it would crash, making more money the bigger the misfortunes of others. Others didn’t see it coming, due to their feckless behaviour, laziness, greed, short-sightedness, ignorance and all that so that they bought into bond/shares/mortgage packages that could only go downhill and thus lost a lot of money. For those who are not economists and conversant in financial jargon, it is not always an easy read the more complex the crazy schemes get—that was also a problem for some of the people in the system, btw—but even if you read over some of the explanations of part of a scheme, the message will be clear: it’s so rotten. A movie based on the book just came out.

17 Contradictions and the end of capitalism by David Harvey (2014). There are good book reviews of this book online (e.g., here and here), which see it as a good schematic introduction to Marxist political economy. I have little to add to that. In Harvey’s on words, his two aims of the two books were “to define what anti-capitalism might entail… [and] to give rational reasons for becoming anti-capitalist in the light of the contemporary state of things.”. Overall, the dissecting and clearly describing the contradictions can be fertile ground indeed for helping to end capitalism, as contradictions are the weak spots of a system and cannot remain indefinitely. Its chapter 8 ‘Technology, work, and human disposability’ could be interesting reading material for a social issues and profession practice course on technology and society, to subsequent have some discussion session or essay writing on it. Locally, in the light of the student protests we recently had (discussed earlier): if you don’t have enough time to read the whole book, then check out at least chapters 13 ‘Social reproduction’ and 14 ‘Freedom and domination’, and, more generally with respect to society, chapter 17 ‘The revolt of human nature: universal alienation’, the conclusions & epilogue, and a few of the foundational contradictions, notably the one on private property & common wealth and capital & labour.

 

Previous editions: books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general books in 2012, book suggestions from 2013, and the mixed bag from 2014.

Even more short reviews of books I’ve read in 2014

I’m not sure whether I’ll make it a permanent fixture for years to come, but, for now, here’s another set of book suggestions, following those on books on (South) Africa from 2011, some more and also general read in 2012, and even more fiction & non-fiction book suggestions from 2013. If nothing else, it’s actually a nice way to myself to recall the books’ contents and decide which ones are worthwhile mentioning here, for better or worse. To summarise the books I’ve read in 2014 in a little animated gif:

(saved last year from daskapital.nl)

(saved last year from daskapital.nl)

Let me start with fiction books this time, which includes two books/authors suggested by blog readers. (note: most book and author hyperlinks are to online bookstores and wikipedia or similar, unless I could find their home page)

Fiction

Stoner by John Williams (1965). This was a recommendation by a old friend (more precisely on the ‘old’: she’s about as young as I am, but we go way back to kindergarten), and the book was great. If you haven’t heard about it yet: it tells the life of a professor coming from a humble background and dying in relative anonymity, in a way of the ups and downs of the life of an average ‘Joe Soap’, without any heroic achievements (assuming that you don’t count becoming a professor one). That may sound dull, perhaps, but it isn’t, not least in the way it is narrated, which gives a certain beauty to the mundane. I’ll admit I have read it in its Dutch translation, even in dwarsligger format (which appeared to be a useful invention), as I couldn’t find the book in the shops here, but better in translated form than not having read it at all. There’s more information over at wikipedia, the NYT’s review, the Guardian’s review, and many other places.

Not a fairy tale by Shaida Kazie Ali (2010). The book is fairly short, but many things happen nevertheless in this fast-paced story of two sisters who grow up in Cape Town in a Muslim-Indian family. The sisters have very different characters—one demure, the other willful and more adventurous—and both life stories are told in short chapters that cover the main events in their lives, including several same events from each one’s vantage point. As the title says, it’s not a fairy tale, and certainly the events are not all happy ones. Notwithstanding its occasional grim undertones, to me, it is told in a way to give a fascinating ‘peek into the kitchen’ of how people live in this society across the decennia. Sure, it is a work of fiction, but there are enough recognizable aspects that give the impression that it could have been pieced together from actual events from different lives. The story is interspersed with recipes—burfi, dhania chutney, coke float, falooda milkshake, masala tea, and more—which gives the book a reminiscence of como agua para chocolate. I haven’t tried them all, but if nothing else, now at least I know what a packet labelled ‘falooda’ is when I’m in the supermarket.

No time like the present, by Nadine Gordimer (2012). Not necessarily this particular book, but ‘well, anything by Gordimer’ was recommended. There were so few of Gordimer’s books in the shops here, that I had to go abroad to encounter a selection, including this recent one. I should have read some online reviews of it first, rather than spoiling myself with such an impulse buy, though. This book is so bad that I didn’t even finish it, nor do I want to finish reading it. While the storyline did sound interesting enough—about a ‘mixed race couple’ from the struggle times transitioning into the present-day South Africa, and how they come to terms with trying to live normal lives—the English was so bad it’s unbelievable this has made it through any editorial checks by the publisher. It’s replete with grammatically incoherent and incomplete sentences that makes it just unreadable. (There are other reviews online that are less negative)

The time machine, by HG Wells (1895). It is the first work of fiction that considers time travel, the possible time anomalies when time travelling, and to ponder what a future society may be like from the viewpoint of the traveller. It’s one of those sweet little books that are short but has a lot of story in it. Anyone who likes this genre ought to read this book.

One thousand and one nights, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2011). Yes, what you may expect from the title. The beginning and end are about how Scheherazade (Shahrazad) ended up telling stories to King Shahrayar all night, and the largest part of the book is devoted to story within a story within another story etc., weaving a complex web of tales from across the Arab empire so that the king would spare her for another day, wishing to know how the story ends. The stories are lovely and captivating, and also I kept on reading, indeed wanting to know how the stories end.

Karma Suture, by Rosamund Kendall (2008). Because I liked the Angina Monologues by the same author (earlier review), I’ve even read that book for a second time already, and Karma Suture is also about medics in South Africa’s hospitals, I thought this one would be likable, too. The protagonist is a young medical doctor in a Cape Town hospital who lost the will to do that work and needs to find her vibe. The story was a bit depressing, but maybe that’s what 20-something South African women go through.

God’s spy by Juan Gómez-Jurado (2007) (espía de dios; spanish original). A ‘holiday book’ that’s fun, if that can be an appropriate adjective for a story about a serial killer murdering cardinals before the conclave after Pope John Paul’s death. It has recognizable Italian scenes, the human interaction component is worked out reasonably well, it has good twists and turns and suspense-building required for a crime novel, and an plot you won’t expect. (also on goodreads—it was a bestseller in Spain)

Non-fiction

This year’s non-fiction selection is as short as the other years, but I have less to say about them cf. last year.

David and Goliath—Underdogs, misfits, and the art of battling giants, by Malcolm Gladwell (2013). What to say: yay! another book by Gladwell, and, like the others I read by Gladwell (Outliers, The tipping point), also this one is good. Gladwell takes a closer look at how seemingly underdogs are victorious against formidable opponents. Also in this case, there’s more to it than meets the eye (or some stupid USA Hollywood movie storyline of ‘winning against the odds’), such as playing by different rules/strategy than the seemingly formidable opponent does. The book is divided into three parts, on the advantages of disadvantages, the theory of desirable difficulty, and the limits of power, and, as with the other books, explores various narratives and facts. One of those remarkable observations is that, for universities in the USA at least, a good student is better off at a good university than at a top university. This for pure psychological reasons—it feels better to be the top of an average/good class than the average mutt in a top class—and that the top of a class gets more attention for nice side activities, so that the good student at a good (vs top) university gets more useful learning opportunities than s/he would have gotten at a top university. Taking another example from education: a ‘big’ class at school (well, just some 30) is better than a small (15) one, for it give more “allies in the adventures of learning”.

The dictator’s learning curve by William J. Dobson (2013), or: some suggestions for today’s anti-government activists. It’s mediocre, one of those books where the cover makes it sound more interesting than it is. The claimed thesis is that dictators have become more sophisticated in oppression by giving it a democratic veneer. This may be true at least in part, and in the sense there is a continuum from autocracy (tyranny, as Dobson labels it in the subtitle) to democracy. To highlight that notion has some value. However, it’s written from a very USA-centric viewpoint, so essentially it’s just highbrow propaganda for dubious USA foreign policy with its covert interventions not to be nice to countries such as Russia, China, and Venezuela—and to ‘justifiably’ undercut whatever plans they have through supporting opposition activists. Interwoven in the dictator’s learning curve storyline is his personal account of experiencing that there is more information sharing—and how—about strategy and tactics among activists across countries on how to foment dissent for another colour/flower-revolution. I was expecting some depth about autocracy-democracy spiced up with pop-politics and events, but it did not live up to that expectation. A more academic, and less ideologically tainted, treatise on the continuum autocracy-democracy would have been a more useful way of spending my time. You may find the longer PS Mag review useful before/instead of buying the book.

Umkhonto weSizewe (pocket history) by Janet Cherry (2011). There are more voluminous books about the armed organisation of the struggle against Apartheid, but this booklet was a useful introduction to it. It describes the various ‘stages’ of MK, from deciding to take up arms to the end to lay them down, and the successes and challenges that were faced and sacrifices made as an organisation and by its members.

I’m still not finished reading Orientalism by Edward Said—some day, I will, and will write about it. If you want to know about it now already, then go to your favourite search engine and have a look at the many reviews and (academic and non-academic) analyses. Reading A dream deferred (another suggestion) is still in the planning.