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.
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).
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 :).