Tuesday, November 29, 2005

I'm not much of a cook, except for a short list of special dishes I've had enough practice with to do right. Most of my time reading cooking books has been goggling at the more obscure recipes in The Joy of Cooking (walnut ketchup?!) That's my favorite cookbook, though, because it doesn't assume you already know things. You can find an explanation of how to do or how to make whatever in that book, it seems. But it isn't so much a reading-straight-through book.

What Einstein Told His Cook: Kitchen Science Explained by Robert L. Wolke (with recipes by his wife Marlene Parrish) can work either as a reading-straight-through or a look-up-one-thing book. It's definitely a cookbook second, through, and an everyday science book first. You can learn about how the sense of taste works, the different types of "raw" sugar, the FDA labels for different types of cocoa powder, the difference between the cooking definition of salt and the chemical use of that work, or what the difference is between fats and fatty acids. And that's just in the first three chapters. If you want to know how your water filter works, what MSG really is and why some people avoid foods containing it, what grits are (and even the U.S. Southerners who eat them don't necessarily know how they're made), the five processes used to cure hams, and some rather gross stuff (in my humble opinion) about raw shellfish, this book has it all in one neat package. Perhaps I'll remember to add an additional comment to this entry once I've actually tried the recipe for Mocha Soy Pudding.

(And checking Amazon.com while posting this entry, I find that there's a second volume now. I feel confident that I can recommend that one too, despite not having known it existed until a few minutes ago.)

Monday, November 21, 2005

So for a 12-day trip to my grandfather's computerless home, I brought 12 books to keep me occupied. I only finished 9 and 1/2, as it turned out, but there are two of those that particularly interested me.

The first was Valerie Paradiz's Clever Maids: The Secret History of the Grimm Fairy Tales. If people even think about how Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm collected the stories in the Grimm's Fairy Tale books, they imagine them visiting rural areas and listening to elderly people recount the same tales they told their children and grandchildren. The reality is very different -- the Grimms' best sources were their sister's middle-class friends and other people recommended by their own friends, all nice German city-dwellers who could afford to have the women of the house stay home keeping house and doing needlework. Paradiz goes through the brothers' collecting methods, and also examines how the stories reflected the hopes, dreams, and emotions of the women who told them -- how tales of princesses whose only hope was the perfect suitor really meant something to early 19th-century European women. This is an interesting change from most analyses of fairy tales, which either look at them in comparison to modern life, or as a reflection of unchanging components of the human psyche.

So the book is literary, cultural, women's, and traditional history, all in a biography of some brothers and their work. This is just the kind of behind-the-scenes look at something familiar that interests me most, and I hope others as well.

The other behind-the-scenes look that I particularly enjoyed was Doris Weatherford's A History of the American Suffrage Movement. It has a foreword by Geraldine Ferraro, whose Vice-Presidential candidacy in 1984 impressed even my Reagan-voting mother. Ferraro's story of having her credit card application rejected in 1978 when she was a member of Congress earning 60,000 dollars a year stuck with me -- reinforced by my mother's similar takes of women's credit rejections in the 1970s. And that was nearly 60 years after women's right to vote had been added to the U.S. Constitution. The conditions in the 1840s, when the campaign for women's rights movement had its beginnings, were far more discriminatory, and it took more than 70 years and a wide variety of tactics to get that amendment allowing women to vote into the Constitution. Weatherford's book chronicles those 7 decades when the battle was not only to allow women to vote (a goal some of the activists themselves considered too far-out at first) but for property laws that didn't make a woman's earnings automatically the property of her husband, or the right to speak up in their churches.

The reader meets both well-known figures like Susan B. Anthony and little-known ones like Esther Morris, the U.S.'s first female government official. (She became a Justice of the Peace in South Pass City, Wyoming, in 1870, only a few months after the territory of Wyoming became the first in the U.S. to grant women the same voting rights as men. Indeed, the settlers of the West seemed to have fewer preconceptions about women's abilities and weaknesses than did people in the established East.) The book covers the social milieu, the religious background, the politics, the competing causes such as abolitionism and temperance, and even the personal conflicts that influenced the campaigns for women's rights and particularly the right to vote in the U.S over a stretch of U.S. history that was very important for many other events as well. Women's suffrage is a subjec that got about a paragraph in the American history texts used in the schools I attended -- Weatherford's book could be a wonderful source to make up for the omission of the history of half the American people.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Big Moo: Stop Trying to Be Perfect and Start Being Remarkable vs. Grapevine: The New Art of Word-of-Mouth Marketing

I got both books through BzzAgent, which has a connection to both books; BzzAgent founder Dave Balter is co-author, with John Butman, of Grapevine, which chronicles the site's development, how the site works, how word-of-mouth marketing works in general, and how others can use word-of-mouth to promote their product, even when the some of the word is negative. Balter is also one of the 33 business authors who contributed a chapter to The Big Moo, edited by Seth Godin. (The title is a reference to Godin's previous book Purple Cow.)

I don't run a business of my own, unless you count renting a booth at a craft fair once or twice a year. I work for a small business, but I don't have anything to do with the marketing there. So I don't normally read business books. The Big Moo wouldn't have changed my opinion, but Grapevine was far more to my taste. Why? Well, Grapevine actually talks about specific things; it explains how word-of-mouth campaigns work at BzzAgent (and occasionally how they don't work out so well); how word-of-mouth differs from "buzz" marketing or "viral" marketing or "shill" marketing; who the target people for the word-of-mouth are; and it uses real-life examples as well as following a hypothetical company's product launch from beginning to end). This genuinely interested me, and not just because I'm one of the company's "agents."

The Big Moo, on the other hand, didn't hold my attention. This may be because it has 33 different authors, and despite my copy's front cover calling it "a collaboration of 33 of the world's smartest business thinkers," it's really 33 separate and independent essays. Some go off in different directions, some cover the same ground and get downright repetitive. It's not a sit-down-and-read-a-lot books; maybe the busiest business leader who doesn't have a lot of time to read prefers it that way. But I don't.

The other reason I wasn't thrilled with The Big Moo is that it wasn't about anything specific. It its attempts to apply to all types of businesses, it didn't apply to anything in my life at all. Again, this could be different for someone more interested in running a business organization. The Amazon.com reviews are generally more positive about the book than I am.

Grapevine, however, doesn't require a business position. We're all involved with marketing, as the recipients if not the originators, and so this book is likely to appeal to a wider audience. At least, it appealed a lot more to me.

Sunday, October 16, 2005

A lot of sexual abuse survivors (quite possibly the majority of them) face disbelief when they tell their families what happened to them -- particularly if the abuser is a family member. But Martha Nibley Beck had an even larger amount of disbelief to face than most. Her abuser was her father, a Mormon theological writer so widely known in the Mormon communities of Utah that strangers would come up to Ms. Beck in public and say how much her father's work had meant to them. Coming out as an abuse survivor under those circumstances had to be like announcing that the U.S. President had molested you. And though lack of support from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints is far from the only thing that led Beck to leave it, it seems to have been the trigger that led her to take note of all her other dissatisfactions with the church in which she was raised.

It amazes me that she managed to hold on to any faith in God at all, but actually it seems from her story in Leaving The Saints: How I Lost The Mormons and Found My Faith that her belief in the goodness of God is what sustained her while leaving not only the church, but her denying parents and siblings and the communities she and her husband had grown up in. I myself am an agnostic and so religious faith has never been any source of sustenance for me in emotional turmoil, but Beck never preaches or says anything I found off-putting; I can only be grateful for her sake and for others' that at least for them, such a source of strength is available.

Beck's story will certainly not please members of the LDS church (as some of the e-mail posted on her Leaving the Saints website proves), because it talks about aspects of that church's practice that will probably seem at least odd to outsiders and sometimes laughable, sometimes downright appalling. But I applaud her bravery in speaking out to the world, even if those who would benefit most from hearing her story are the least likely to pick up the book. I hope others in situations similar to hers will gain hope and strength from her words, and that those who are not abuse survivors will gain some insight into the value of questioning dogma and hierarchy when those institutions shelter evildoers. There is no single religion and no single location that allows such abuse to go on; it can be in all kinds of places, faiths, or social classes.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The first chapter of Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner's Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explains the Hidden Side of Everything repeats that subtitle -- "The Hidden Side of Everything." Maybe not everything is covered in this 230-page book, but certainly a large number of seemingly unrelated subjects are, and not ones you'd expect an economist to discuss. But that's why the book is so interesting. Just that first chapter talks about the effect of Roe v. Wade on crime rates in the early 1990s, the influence of realtors on individual house prices, and the effect of candidates' money on election results. And the connections often aren't what you'd expect, a situation that continues throughout the book. (Of course, situations that fit the conventional wisdom are unlikely to be included in such a book -- who'd bother to read about them?)

And it's not just economics -- ethics often comes up, because statistics can be used (if anyone bothers) to unmask teachers cheating on standardized tests, or sports players' records, or even a company's rate of payment at a self-service bagel stand. Even analysis of how descriptions in a real estate ad correlate to the price the house sells for reveals a sort of deception -- that some terms sound complimentary to the seller but mean something quite different to the prospective buyer. So even if economics and statistics sound like the most boring subjects on the planet, you are still likely to enjoy this book because it covers the results, not the part of the analysis process that makes non-statisticians fall asleep.

Monday, July 25, 2005

I live in Tampa, Florida, and I'd like to think I've spent enough time in places like Lettuce Lake Park to have some idea what Florida looked like before human interference. (Which is fooling myself, given the boardwalks and roads that even let me into the park.) And I read the papers enough to have some idea about the constant battles between development and environmental preservation south of me in the Everglades, but local concerns understandably get more press here.

W. Hodding Carter's Stolen Water: Saving the Everglades from its Friends, Foes, and Florida provides an overview much larger than any continued-on-page-8 article, explaining the history of human alteration of the Everglades and connected water systems (which total up to most of the southern half of the Florida peninsula) and attempts to reverse the alterations. The difficulty here is people -- Miami and other urban areas on the southern part of Florida's East Coast; sugar cane farmers; mining; and even vacation-home owners whose properties are in the way of planned expansions to the Everglades National Park protected area. And, of course, disagreements between scientists and planners about what steps would actually work to fix the pollution, the lack of water going into the aquifers that humans draw on, and the lack of water reaching the wild areas. It ain't simple. But Carter makes it at least comprehensible. He also shows what there is in the Everglades and natural Florida that's worth appreciating and saving. The one solution that would make everything as pristine as humanly possible would involve turning huge farms and thousands of people's homes into protected parks, and they just aren't going to want to go, but this book does a good job of persuading the reader that as much toward that goal should be done as can possibly be done.

Friday, July 01, 2005

To modern Americans, it's difficult to imagine bearing a child and then literally putting it out somewhere for someone else to find and raise. Indeed, we find it realistic but reprehensible for kittens and puppies to be abandoned to their fate in that way -- for human babies, it's unthinkable. This is what makes John Boswell's The Kindness of Strangers: The Abandonment of Children in Western Europe from Late Antiquity to the Renaissance so mind-boggling. Despite encountering references from Oedipus Rex to the life of the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau to children being left on hillsides or the doorsteps of orphanages, it never sinks in how truly unexceptional it once was to abandon a child with no idea what would happen to them. These days, it's difficult enough for people to give children up for adoption knowing that their child is going directly to a family who specifically want a child and have jumped through all the hoops necessary to adopt one.

But a Roman could leave a child in the marketplace and have a reasonable expectation that someone would take them into their home -- perhaps as what we'd consider a foster child or perhaps as a slave, but the evidence Boswell produces makes it clear that very few of these abandoned children died. A more common worry was apparently the risk of unwittingly committing incest with an abandoned relative.

The medieval world with its more spread-out, rural population continued the practice in slightly different ways, leaving children to be brought up by monasteries in such numbers that rules had to be made about whether these "donated" children were required to be monks or nuns throughout their lives.

This isn't a quick read -- many pages have as much or more space taken up by footnotes as by the regular text. But it makes Boswell's case all the more convincing that there are so many references. Quite surprisingly, though, I didn't think the book felt difficult or overly academic -- just a fascinating look into what seemed to me to be among the most alien aspects of the past.

Monday, April 25, 2005

I read a lot about women, and sex, and women's health, and sexual health, and all kinds of related topics. But even after Our Bodies, Ourselves and Woman: An Intimate Geography, I learned new things about my body from Elizabeth Stewart and Paula Spencer's The V Book: A Doctor's Guide to Complete Vulvovaginal Health. (Plus "vulvovaginal" is just so much fun to say.) Some things about anatomy (could you point out a woman's "vestibule" on a diagram?), and lots more about things that can cause itching, redness, sores, discharges, pain, and any other genital problem a woman might have. Lots of fascinating historical tidbits about how things used to be dealt with. Quotations from real women about all related matters. And the voice of the gynecology specialist ("V doctor" as she might put it) is easily comprehensible. Definitely something to read before going to the gynecologist, so you don't have to try and remember what you wanted to know more while your feet are in the stirrups.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

I recieved a copy of Robert W. Fuller's Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank from the Dignitarian Dialogues through their offer of a free copy on BookCrossing. This fascinating book argues that sexism, racism, ageism, and most other types of discrimination are subcategories of the main type of discrimination, "rankism," where people of higher rank, be that social, occupational, or financial, treat people they perceive as being lower-rank as nobodies, people undeserving of dignity. "The problem isn't that rank counts. When it signifies excellence, rank should count and it does. The trouble is that rank counts twice. No sooner is rank assigned than holders of higher rank can use their newfound power to aggrandize themselves at the expense of those of lower ranks." Whether this is the famous person who expects to get perks or the supervisor at work who orders everyone around, or even the lawyers or doctors who look down on the person at the party who teaches school, a lot of rankism exists and isn't usually thought of as discrimination. Fuller's book, though it gets a little repetitive toward the end, is a fascinating look at rank even in democratic societies such as the U.S., where the founders' intent was to avoid the aristocracies of older countries. One can hope that awareness of such discrimination will help people to avoid continuing to do it, but alas, the people who are willing to read such a book are probably not the worst offenders.

Monday, February 28, 2005

Gary Matsumoto's Vaccine A: The Covert Government Experiment That's Killing Our Soldiers and Why GI's Are Only The First Victims is scary. But scary in a way that outrages a person, because of the events in the stories it tells. Matsumoto asrgues for a connection between an experimental anthrax vaccine used on U.S. military (plus those of a few of our 1991 Gulf War allies) and many cases among the military of autoimmune diseases such as lupus, multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, Guillain-Barre Syndrome, and Lou Gehrig's Disease (ALS). Those soldiers who chose to join the military were not given a choice about taking "Vaccine A" (as it was recorded in people medical records in the few cases where it was recorded at all), and they didn't have a choice about the medical consequences of this experimental vaccine. This group of autoimmune diseases affecting military personnel was labeled "Gulf War Syndrome" in the 1990s, even though it affected some who'd never left the U.S. But for years the U.S. government tried to blame it on Iraqi chemical or biological weapons -- denying that the U.S. itself, in an attempt to protect soldiers from biological warfare, had given a vaccine not licensed for use on people; denying that this vaccine they gave contained an ingredient called squalene that was intended to boost the vaccine's effectiveness; denying that squalene could affect the immune system negatively, making it turn on itself and causing these autoimmune diseases.

Evidence mounted throughout the 1990s, but some U.S. military were still being given the shots. Those who had heard about the risks from other sources sometimes chose to leave the military rather than recieve this mandatory vaccine with substances that might hurt or kill them. Government spokespeople have contradicted themselves and each other in trying to deny the unethical use of these experimental vaccine without the recipients' consent and the effect the vaccines have had on some. Their unwillingness to back down from the lie, be it for the sake of scientific theories unsupported by real-life facts, or refusal to suffer the consequences of using members of the American military as guinea pigs without asking them, is holding back the progress of medicine and undermining the U.S. government's reputation as much as any other issue. The book goes into great detail that non-medical people can understand, and additional information is available at vaccine-a.com.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Another two from the accumulated stack:

David Livingstone Smith's Why We Lie: the Evolutionary Roots of Deception and the Unconscious Mind is fascinating in that "I don't know if I believe it but it's interesting" way. I've read a lot of evolutionary psychology books, but Smith's explanation of why it would be useful for survival to be able to deceive both other people and one's own conscious mind is something none of the others dealt with. The stuff about conscious deception is not too hard to swallow, but the idea that the unconscious mind is churning out behavior that deceives the conscious mind about its own reasons for the behavior can sometimes be difficult to accept. In some situations it makes sense; it's easier to apply to the people you see on daytime talk shows whose behavior defies the viewer's logic than it is to apply to oneself. Definitely food for thought, though.

And a different sort of science of humanity is chronicled in Serita Stevens' Forensic Nurse: The New Role of the Nurse in Law Enforcement. Lots of people still think of nurses as ladies who deal with bedpans and bandages only, even though these days that role is more given to the nurse's assistant and the nurse is a medical figure nearly up to the level of the doctor in hospitals, nursing homes, and any other setting where the doctors are spread too thin to always be there. Stevens shows nurses whose training lets them provide a massively helpful liaison service between the medical and crime/law communities, examining victims of violence not just to heal their hurts but to find evidence to convict their injurers. Tracing the stories of rape victims, child abuse victims, domestic violence victims, the mentally ill, Alzheimer's and other dementia patients, and people too badly injured to tell what has happened to them requires medical, psychological, and criminal investigation training, and not enough people have all those different areas covered. Hence crimes can go uninvestigated, or things which look bad can mistakenly be attributed to crimes commited by others when they were not (such as the homeless man who appeared to have been assaulted, but who turned out to have been attempting suicide) -- unless someone has the training to put all the pieces together. Forensic nurses also save the time of those thinly-spread doctors by testifying in court and serving as legal consultants for lawyers and judges unfamiliar with medical situations. (Perhaps more of these forensic nurses could help in the malpractice cases so common throughout America and thus end up decreasing health care costs by decreasing doctors' insurance rates, a cost passed on to patients.) The popularity of TV shows like "CSI" makes it seem like this book would be of interest to a large audience, since it depicts the same kind of mysteries. I hope so, because the importance of nurses, even those with standard training, can't be overstated.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

The books I wanted to blog have really piled up over the holidays. Here's the top of the pile of six: Don't Cramp My Style: Stories About That Time Of The Month, edited by Lisa Rowe Faustino. My local library has this marked as a young adult (i.e., teenager) book, and the stories do largely center on teenage/college-age characters (though the one about the guy whose girlfriend sends him out to buy her tampons could apply to a large range of ages). Anyway, I'm a just-turned-32-year-old who has 20 years of menstruation behind her, but reading this book on my lunch break made me forget I had to go back to work. In a society where most men and many women think of any reference to menstruation as automatically "too much information," these stories of what starting one's period meant in various times and places, and different situations in the modern Western world, fascinated me because they felt familiar even as they dealt with completely different lives from mine. I wish this kind of thing had been available in middle school for my friends who couldn't even manage to say the word "period" aloud when asking if I'd had my first one already. I hope middle schoolers like my little (half-) sister have the guts to take this one up to the library counter. And now for something completely different (and yet kind of the same): Lisa Gee's Friends: Why Men And Women Are From The Same Planet. The belief is so common that, as the movie When Harry Met Sally put it, " What I'm saying is -- and this is not a come-on in any way, shape, or form -- is that men and women can't be friends, because the sex part always gets in the way." (Gee notes that during the writing of the book, that line was repeated to her more often than I care to remember.") My own personal experience is that men and women can be friends just fine without sex, actual or desired, interfering (even when there is unrequited romantic interest, it doesn't have to mess up friendship). So I'm pleased to see that the people she interviewed, brother-sister pairs and unrelated cross-sex friends both, no matter what their age, have very deep friendships that don't seem to involve sex at all. "A soul-mate doesn't have to be a sex-mate," she points out in the introduction, but that the lack of dramatic incidents in such friendships means that it doesn't stick in the mind the way the great love stories of our culture do. Many of the people in the friend pairs are married to others or otherwise involved with someone who is not their cross-sex friend, and this is another point that seems ignored by modern Western people -- that the person you love in a romantic and sexual way does not have to be (probably should not be) the only deep connection in your life, and that friends, whether they are of the gender you are attracted to or not, provide deep, emotionally intimate connections that are different but just as important. Gee's interviewees are mostly British but her conclusions make sense to an American like me, and her book is badly needed to counteract the limited and stereotypical views of human relations in best-selling books that draw men and women as so different that they might as well have evolved on different planets.