[Thanks to Linch and Nick for buying me books. If you like my blog, you too can buy me a book by clicking on the link in the upper left-hand corner of the blog.]
Raising Steam: After I discovered Terry Pratchett had Alzheimer’s, I stopped reading Discworld, because I didn’t want to read the last Discworld book. After it was pointed out to me several times that my options are reading the last Discworld book or dying with a Discworld book unread, I picked up Raising Steam.
Raising Steam is interesting because like a lot of Pratchett’s later work it’s quite serious– this is a book about the process of a fantasy world undergoing the Industrial Revolution– but there’s a bunch of little worldbuilding details left over from earlier books that were far more silly. So the dwarves’ political intrigue is about who gets to sit on the Stone of Scone, and it’s pointed out that one dwarf really just wants control of the treacle mines, and so on. I actually like this: actually existing worlds are sometimes quite silly.
Pratchett’s dwarves are a really obvious Islam metaphor, but actually remarkably sensitively handled (especially given his racist jokes in earlier books): he emphasizes that there’s nothing undwarvish about progress or about feminism, that what ‘dwarvish’ means must and has to change, and that the opinions of extremist clerics do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the dwarf on the ground.
The Animal Activist’s Handbook: I love this book! The Animal Activist’s Handbook provides tips for vegetarians and vegans looking to create more vegetarians and vegans, including specific scripts for dealing with common questions, like “where do you get your protein?”, “don’t plants suffer too?” and “didn’t God make animals for us to dominate?”
Example advice: Share vegan food with meat-eaters, but make sure it’s food they don’t find repulsive– leave the tofu-and-carrot burgers with nutritional yeast sauce at home. Don’t try to convince people of your favorite raw-food diet. Don’t freak out about vegan purity: the effect of an occasional egg in a hamburger bun or bit of whey in a candy bar is far outweighed by omnivores thinking vegetarianism is difficult, time-consuming, and isolating. Don’t talk about health: people don’t stick to fad diets. Dress like the people you’re trying to reach out to; if you’re talking at churches, get a haircut and wear nice slacks. If someone asks about vegetarianism at the dinner table, say “I’m glad you’re interested, but I don’t want to monopolize the conversation and I’ve found that it can put people off their food. Can I have your email to talk to you about it later?”– it creates positive feelings from those who were expecting a vegetarian lecture. Always look to find common ground: get people to agree that animal cruelty is bad. Encourage people to do whatever they can: in particular, try to get them to stop eating birds and fish, which result in most of the animal suffering an omnivore causes. Practice the Socratic method: ask questions and let people draw their own conclusions. Befriend omnivores instead of isolating yourself out of vegan purity. Never get angry. Never get snarky. Never insult anyone. If someone insults you, smile and say something like “hey, you started the conversation!” Never get derailed onto another topic, like abortion or the death penalty. Know where people can get more information about vegetarianism, or ideally carry pamphlets with you.
The core of the book is that the influence you have on others is just as important as the animals you don’t eat yourself. Through nonjudgmentally encouraging others to recognize the contradiction between their opposition of animal cruelty and their support of factory farming, you can get people to reduce or even eliminate their animal consumption. Therefore, it is really important that we as vegetarians be kind, don’t lecture people, and model vegetarianism being an easy and pleasant way to live.
I appreciated the first chapter’s emphasis on altruism as something you do to make you happy and to find meaning in your life, instead of a grim duty.
In spite of coming out in 2009, this book feels extremely effective altruist to me: it talks about cause selection, emphasizes the importance of evidence when selecting tactics, and uses numbers when talking about how much good you can do. Is that just the Singer influence?
Mating in Captivity: A book about how to have a hot sex life while monogamously committed, which I purchased on the grounds that monogamous people are doing satisfactory sex lives on hard mode and can therefore be expected to have advice for easy-mode people like myself. Mating in Captivity avoids the “Ten Tips For A Hot Sex Life Tonight”-style advice, instead talking about improving one’s sex life through improving one’s relationship. A lot of the book is about how increased intimacy can destroy passion. Through developing stability and the confidence that your partner will stay there, you become bored. That’s how you get the famous “our relationship is great! they’re the love of my life! …except that we never have sex” couples. The solution is for both partners to maintain boundaries and autonomy, and be open to the existence of ‘the third’ in relationships. (Which doesn’t necessarily mean nonmonogamy– it can simply mean flirting or acknowledging your partner’s crushe son other people.) A lot of Perel’s other ideas are frankly not very insightful: did you know that BDSM can be very erotic, but some people think it’s degrading or anti-feminist? Did you know that American society is simultaneously prudish and licentious in a way that screws people up about sexuality?
Not nearly as good as Come As You Are, which I still want to give out on street corners as a sort of sex-positive missionary.
How To Win Friends and Influence People: In lieu of evidence, this book has a bunch of stories in which some person goes through Insert Absurd Levels Of Hardship Here and then comes to Absurd Levels of Success through application of Principle Discussed In This Chapter, and then it turns out that man… was Albert Einstein. (Well, actually, mostly Abraham Lincoln.) I assume this is because it was written in the 1930s and they had weird self-help book writing styles back then.
I completely approve of the advice provided in this book, which is mostly about not complaining, giving honest compliments, and looking at things from other people’s point of view. And I like the reminder that being nice is not just ethical but also more effective. But fundamentally I object to a self-help book in which half the content is anecdotes about early twentieth century celebrities. I don’t care! Get to the good part! Someone needs to write a different version of this book catering to me.
Expecting Better: A much-needed dose of sanity in the hysterical, overprotective world of pregnancy advice. Emily Oster, an economist, sensibly deals with many unreasonable and non-evidence-based beliefs with regards to pregnancy. Is coffee consumption bad? (Not if you consume less than three or four cups a day.) Is sushi really going to hurt my baby? (No.) Do I have to worry if I’m gaining five or ten pounds more than the doctor says I should? (No, and it’s much better than gaining five or ten pounds less.) Do I really have to eat that much fish? (Unfortunately, this one is a yes.) Perhaps Oster’s most controversial advice is her advice that there is nothing wrong with consuming a glass of wine with dinner while pregnant. As long as you take care not to consume more than one unit of alcohol a day– the amount the liver can easily and quickly metabolize– she argues, not only is there no evidence it harms your fetus, there’s not even any plausible mechanism for it to do so.
My favorite fact from this book is that there was a remarkably effective medication for pre-pregnancy nausea which is no longer sold for fear of lawsuits, since some women who took it and got birth defects threatened to sue. A meta-analysis found that this nausea medication led to a non-statistically-significant decrease in birth defects, and it is a combination of a B vitamin and Unisom, a Class B drug (that is, a drug which has an above-average safety profile in pregnancy). Oster recommends rolling your own.
The best thing about Expecting Better, I think, is that it allows the reader to choose their own risk tolerance, based on their own assessment of the risks and benefits. Oster is clear that the decisions individual pregnant people make are just that– individual. A professional wine taster will have a different cost-benefit analysis on consuming alcohol than a person who has no interest in drinking; someone who would welcome a child with Down Syndrome has a different cost-benefit analysis than someone who is already struggling with two intellectually disabled children. There is no right or wrong answer; it depends on your goals, your comfort with risk, and your preferences. This sort of clear-headed compassion is desperately needed in the parenting advice field.
Gender Dysphoric Person Rating: 10/10, contains absolutely nothing about your innate womanly nature. Are there PEER-REVIEWED STUDIES of your innate womanly nature? No? Then Emily Oster doesn’t care.
Taking Charge of Your Fertility: I do not recommend this book unless you happen to be in the category “people who have a uterus, like gross things, and are also complete nerds.” Like, if you are the sort of person who really deeply in your heart of hearts wants to make a chart of the functioning of your cervical mucus and also cherishes fantasies about showing up gynecologists with your expert knowledge of your own reproductive system, then this book is for you. If your thought on that is more “cervical mucus is gross” or “I don’t like graphs”, then I must say I don’t really understand your psychology, but this is probably not the book for you.
Gender Dysphoric Person Rating: 8/10. There’s a little bit of woo-woo feminist stuff about how every woman should be in tune with her body, but it’s relatively brief and then we get back into Cervical Positioning And You and How To Self-Diagnose Your Infertility Problems.
Mayo Clinic Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy: First of all, that cover.
I told Topher that he had to get the heterosexuals to stop. He said that he had no control over what other heterosexuals decided to do, because they are “97% of the population” and “not a hivemind.” I am pretty sure this is just an excuse.
Anyway, it’s a pregnancy book, with pretty much the same pros and cons as any other pregnancy book. The descriptions of what is happening week by week are interesting. The descriptions of what can go wrong are horrifying. The advice has vaguely heard of the concept of “acceptable risk” but is extremely suspicious of it.
Gender Dysphoric Person Rating: 8/10. Actually does a remarkably good job of avoiding gendered stereotypes in discussions of self-care or getting back into sex. I docked a point for all the natural pain relief being incredibly frou-frou and girly, but that might not be the Mayo Clinic Guide’s fault, and another point for the fucking cover.
The Sinner’s Guide To Natural Family Planning: Susie Bright is my favorite person. A lesbian sex-positive feminist, she was browsing the Internet one day when she stumbled across the blog of a Catholic woman who believes birth control, homosexuality, and nonmarital sex are all sinful. Naturally, Susie Bright’s reaction is to say “wow! This woman is a great writer!” and send her an email saying that she should definitely publish a book and if she ever does Susie Bright will be her editor.
Anyway, I’m not Catholic and don’t use NFP, so I am not in Fisher’s target audience twice over. However, Fisher is a genuinely witty and likeable woman with a good heart; the book explains in vivid detail what it’s like to use NFP and what people get out of it. Without shying away from the negative effects of Catholic teaching on the body, she manages to make this atheist understand why some people would adhere to it. It’s a really good book. If you’re interested in theology of the body or want to humanize a group of people you might not know very much about, I recommend it.
What To Expect Before You’re Expecting: From this book, I learned that having sex with the intent to conceive is called “baby dancing.” This is the most ridiculous and cutesy euphemism I have ever heard.
I would suggest not reading the chapters on infertility before you try to conceive, as then you will start being anxious about whether your period cramps mean you have endometriosis, at least if you are me and have an anxiety disorder. The rest of the book is pretty good, but not necessarily groundbreaking. It turns out that in order to optimally conceive, one must treat their illnesses, refrain from taking mind-altering substances, eat a balanced diet, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and refrain from stressing. The observant reader may note that this is also the advice doctors give about how to be healthy the rest of the time too.
Gender Dysphoric Parent Rating: 3/10. Way too many cutesy jokes about what men are like and what women are like, and the section on how to keep baby-making sex exciting is just unbearable. also, WHY would you feel the need to describe sperm competition as the result of innate male competitiveness? WHY? WHYYYYYYYYYYYYYY
Too Like the Lightning: Dense, complex, fascinating worldbuilding. I was very confused until halfway through the book, and I think I’m going to reread it now that I fully understand the difference between Utopians and Humanists, whom I kind of thought were the same people for the first fifty pages. Too Like The Lightning very much trusts its reader: it fully believes that if it drops you in an alien world full of incomprehensible slang, you will be able to find your footing and follow the plot. A lot of books feel the need to hand-hold you through exactly what their far future society is like; Too Like The Lightning trusts that you are smart enough to figure it out on your own.
Too Like The Lightning also managed to pull off the “all the characters know something but the reader doesn’t” reveal and have it actually work instead of feeling like a cheap gag. (Partially because the narrator assumes his readers, being from the future, know the thing too. Did I mention it’s written in eighteenth-century pastiche? It’s written in eighteenth-century pastiche.)
There’s a system in this book that divides different people into categories. My understanding is that one of the single most important factors in the success of a science fiction or fantasy series is whether there are categories in it that people can put themselves in, so in case you are concerned: you can definitely argue about whether or not you are a Cousin or a Brillist.
One World Schoolhouse: The book by the founder of Khan Academy. About half the book is a somewhat dreary memoir about the founding of Khan Academy, which I suppose might be interesting for some people, but I personally don’t care a lot about how he decided to quit his job to make videos. The really interesting part of One World Schoolhouse is Khan’s explanation of what went wrong in education and how it should be fixed. He holds with the theory that modern education is a product of the Prussian system in the 19th century, designed to produce obedient and reasonably well-informed soldiers and factory workers, and that while that’s all very well in its place the modern world has rather more need of innovators than factory workers.
Khan’s vision of an ideal school was interesting. He wants classes of perhaps a hundred students, with four or five teachers. All classrooms would be age-mixed, to allow older students to mentor younger students and younger students to look up to older students. The homework would be watching filmed versions of classroom lectures and reading textbooks; there would be no lectures in class, since those are trivially easy to film. At school, students would spend about a fifth of their time using computer programs like a much more advanced version of Khan Academy’s math problems; when they got stuck, they could call over one of the circulating teachers. These programs would follow mastery learning principles: you don’t move on to the next lesson until you get 100% of the answers right. (Khan is a big fan of mastery learning. As he points out, if you get an 80% on an algebra test– sloppy arithmetic errors aside– it’s because you understand 80% of algebra. A person who understands 80% of algebra is not going to do a good job of understanding calculus. While this might make students move on slower, he argues complete grasp of algebra is better than a poor grasp of calculus.) Since the class is age-mixed, there is no reason for children to stay with their own age group; the very bright may speed through the studying, while the very slow get to stay working on some problems until they understand them. The rest of the time, students would engage in project-based learning, small-group discussions, and explorations of their own mathematical, scientific, literary, and artistic interests, guided by the teachers.