Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Interpretation of Murder, by Jed Rubenfeld

Sigmund Freud's 1909 visit to New York and Boston serves as the backdrop to this page-turner of a mystery novel. Doctor Stratham Younger is asked to psychoanalyze a young woman, Nora Harcourt, who was brutally attacked but has lost her memory of the crime. It quickly becomes apparent this was not the first attack of this kind. As Younger investigates the crimes from his viewpoint as a doctor, Detective Littlemore begins to investigate the crimes as well, working under the supervision of Coroner Hugel. Bodies go missing, other bodies are found, and the plot twists and turns with first one likely suspect and then another. Throughout Younger applies Freudian theories in his attempts to learn the truth from Nora. I found the depictions of early 20th century New York City and its citizens fascinating, along with the discussions and dispute between the various factions of psychiatry, leading up to Carl Yung's break with Freud. Younger uses Shakespeare's Hamlet to develop his theories about the crime and its solution.

Jed Rubenfeld is a law professor at Yale. This is his first novel but not his first book. Among others he co-authored (along with his wife Amy Chua) The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America, reviewed here. He's written a follow up to The Interpretation of Murder, another work that explores Freud: The Death Instinct, which I look forward to reading soon.

Jed Rubenfeld. The Interpretation of Murder. New York: Henry Holt, 2006. 367 pages. ISBN 9780805080988. Advance Reader's Edition.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Think: Why You Should Question Everything, by Guy P. Harrison

Author Guy P. Harrison provides a thoughtful analysis of why it's important to be a skeptical thinker. His thesis is that our memories are not trustworthy, and people are too easily swayed by questionable arguments. He recommends asking questions to get at the truth behind all statements. Throughout the book he shares research done that demonstrates that our memories change over time, and in fact, may not even be memories at all. Sometimes something we watched on television or saw in a movie becomes part of our memory, as if it happened to us. Many studies have been done that show how we don't even see what's right in front of us, especially when we're focusing on something else. I found the chapter on brain health particularly interesting. He recommends diet and physical exercise as ways to keep the brain healthy and alert, as well as stimulating mental exercises such as studying languages and learning new skills.

Guy P. Harrison. Think: Why You Should Question Everything. New York: Prometheus Books, 2013. 300 pages. ISBN 9781616148072.

Today Will Be Different, by Maria Semple

I really loved Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple. It's about one day in the life of a woman whose life is spinning out of control. Her son is faking an illness to avoid school. Her husband has taken two weeks vacation but has left work every day as if he's going to work. She has missed her manuscript deadline by years, and can't seem to manage to get anything done. This book is laugh out loud funny. I enjoyed it as much as I did her earlier book, Where'd You Go, Bernadette? It's only been out for a few weeks; with 63 reviews on Amazon it's only earned 3.3 out of five stars; however, I think it deserves a much higher rating than that. I would recommend either book to readers who enjoy good and funny writing, along with memorable characters and slightly-outlandish plots.

Maria Semple. Today Will Be Different. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2016. 272 pages. ISBN 9780316403436. Advance Reading Copy.

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead, is a riveting novel about runaway slaves in the south just before the Civil War. Mr. Whitehead has worked in some elements of alternative history or fantasy, in that different regions of the country have reacted to slavery in different ways, and the underground railroad is not metaphorical, but literally an underground railroad. Mr. Whitehead's depictions of violence and betrayal are painful to read, but his writing is excellent and his characters are fascinating. An Oprah pick, The Underground Railroad has 910 reviews on Amazon, with the average rating being 4.1. Mr. Whitehead is also the author of The Intuitionist. I would recommend either book to readers who enjoy thoughtful fiction that addresses contemporary and historical issues of race.

Colson Whitehead. The Underground Railroad. New York: Doubleday, 2016. 320 pages. ISBN 9780385542364. Advance Reading Copy.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

The Triple Package, by Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld

As I mentioned in my last blog post, when I read Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (reviewed here), I was inspired to pick up Amy Chua's Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. Amy Chua had served as a mentor to Mr. Vance when he was struggling with whether or not to continue his studies at Yale Law School. When I was looking into Ms. Chua and considering whether to read Battle Hymn, I noticed that she had also co-authored a book with her husband Jed Rubenfeld. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America picks up on some of the themes in Battle Hymn, by addressing what it is about certain groups, primarily immigrant groups, that cause their children to excel in education and business.

According to Ms. Chua and Mr. Rubenfeld, the three traits that most of these groups have in common are a sense of superiority, a sense of insecurity, and impulse control. They address each of these traits in turn, using historical and contemporary examples to illustrate their claims. They highlight the groups that have out-performed and debunked claims that their success has anything to do with genetics or innate intelligence. Not only do they explore the traits that cause groups to succeed, but they also describe how most of these traits are lost in subsequent generations. They discuss how some trends, such as the self-esteem movement, have hurt children's ability to excel. They also convincingly point out that when some groups do poorly, it is often as a result of society's active attempts through bigotry and discrimination to prevent them from improving. This book is heavily researched and convincing. It would be a valuable read for anyone who's interested in how to improve everyone's chances to excel and succeed.

Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld. The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America. New York: Penguin Books, 2015. 336 pages. ISBN 9780143126355.

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, by Amy Chua

When Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother came out in 2011, I read a number of reviews and articles about it, most of them criticizing author Amy Chua for her extremely strict style of parenting. Many reviewers were offended by how hard she pushed her daughters to excel, always expecting the highest grades, insisting that they practice their musical instruments for 4-6 hours a day, and not allowing them to participate in typical childhood rites such as sleepovers because they were a waste of valuable time. They seemed to be most offended by her rejection of her children's homemade birthday cards as not good enough, and her insistence that they re-do them. I read so many articles about the book that I felt like I didn't need to read the book itself. That all changed when I recently read Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D.Vance, which I reviewed in this blog post. Author Vance wrote briefly about how Amy Chua had been a powerful influence on him during his years at Yale Law School, and that piqued my interest in Ms. Chua and her books.

What I found while reading Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother was that Ms. Chua is a very funny writer. Although she is absolutely committed to helping her children succeed, she is also very reflective about her own motivations and considers at every step whether what she's doing is right. She pushes her kids as far as she can, but finally has to give in when her younger daughter declares her need to make her own decisions about what instrument she wants to play and other extracurricular activities she wants to explore (e.g., tennis). I found the book charming and funny, and although she may go further than most parents are willing to go, every parent could probably learn something about pushing their children a little harder.

Amy Chua. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: Penguin Books, 2011. 239 pages. ISBN 9780143120582.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me is a powerful meditation on race in America. Author Ta-Nehisi Coates shares what it was like for him growing up in America where the color of his skin makes him more vulnerable to violence and death. Written as a letter to his teenage son, it exposes truths that many have denied and avoided. Throughout the book Mr. Coates shares personal stories that reveal how his thinking about being black in America has evolved during his life.

We learn about growing up in the violent Baltimore of the 1970s and 1980s. His mother was a teacher and his father was a librarian and publisher. We learn about how he met his wife, and his years at Howard University. But what stands out most are the wrenching personal stories such as how his friend Prince Jones, an outstanding student and born-again Christian, was shot and killed by police. Or the time he was traveling and a white woman pushed his four-year-old son out of the way in an airport because he was walking too slowly. When he rebuked the woman for pushing his son, bystanders acted like he was the one in the wrong. The anger and even rage that episodes like those invoke are completely understandable, as is the ceaseless feeling of vulnerability and hopelessness.

Mr. Coates' book is wide-ranging, discussing history, current events, personal stories, and much more. It's a short and well-written book, but it's painful to read, realizing how much we need to do to make things better for everyone, not just white people (or as Mr. Coates would say "people who think they are white"). Reading this book in the current political climate is even more painful, with so many bigots and racists being given so much attention on the news every day. He ends the book by encouraging his son to continue to struggle, but not to change white people who have to learn to change themselves. It's not a very hopeful ending, but perhaps more realistic. I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to understand more about the forces and feelings that shape our country.

Ta-Nehisi Coates. Between the World and Me. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015. 156 pages. ISBN 9780812993547. Advance Reader's Edition.