Reading List 2010 (5/122)

Still behind, but my sister encourages me to persist!  (Perhaps I ought to refer to her as my persister?)

  • The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, ed. John Joseph Adams
  • Med Ship, Murray Leinster
  • The Cardturner, Louis Sachar
  • The Outlander, Gil Adamson
  • The Mismeasure of Woman, Carol Tavris

Maybe if I read fewer excellent books, I wouldn’t procrastinate on writing about them? But this batch was five winners – one of them unexpected.

I knew I’d like Med Ship. They’re super-formulaic, of course. A space doctor goes to a planet and finds a bizarre health problem. Complications ensue, followed by a clever solution. It’s a darn good formula, though, and Leinster executes it well. I also knew I’d like The Cardturner; I enjoy Sachar a lot and, as a game designer, I always enjoy stories that show the way games construct meaning in people’s lives. And anyone who knows me should know that I love Holmes!

The Outlander, on the other hand, isn’t a book I expected to like. I’m quite skeptical about certain tropes of so-called literary fiction, and this book set off a bunch of alarms. “Lush imagery?” Present-tense narration? Omission of character names? I figured this was going to be a piece of tripe, working its cultural signifiers to the max to prevent anyone from realizing the book sucked. But, dear reader, I would like to say that I was wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. Delightfully, thoroughly, entirely wrong. In this book – unlike a lot of litfic – things actually happen, and those things matter to the characters, and the stylistic choices worked together with the other things happening in the book instead of trying to cover them up. The book is set in 1903, across the vast spareness of the American West, which is beautifully evoked by the combination of vivid language with emotional restraint. And the story is a can’t-put-downer: will Mary Boulton, having killed her husband, escape the vengeance of her brothers-in-law? Seriously, folks, read this one.

The last book, Tavris’s The Mismeasure of Woman, was not just a good read, but incredibly intellectually important for me. She provides an intellectual framework for navigating between the Scylla of gender essentialism and the Charybdis of gender equivalence. She argues that men and women are essentially alike, with (largely) the same capacities and motives – but that women and men also grow up in different cultural worlds. Pretending men and women are the same usually hurts women, but that pretending women and men are fundamentally different is even more problematic, because it is a) false and b) reduces one gender to sub-human status. (And for more evidence on the latter front: I can’t wait to read Delusions of Gender.) With Tavris as our guide, we can acknowledge that our society shapes the lives of men and women differently without conceding ground to the evolutionary psychology charlatans. I find myself really inspired by the argument she makes, and it’s gotten me thinking differently about how we understand gender differences in all kinds of areas. I gave a talk about six weeks ago about gender and risk-taking, which was inspired by Tavris’s work. At some point I’ll post about it here, so you can see the kinds of arguments Tavris’s framework lets me make.

(Or you could just go read the book yourself. In fact, if you ever find yourself trying to acknowledge the reality of gender differences without getting backed into an essentializing corner, you should!!)

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