Reading List 2010 (5/28)

Caught up!

  • A Reliable Wife, Robert Goolrick
  • Out of Our Heads, Alva Noe
  • Selling Anxiety, Caryl Rivers
  • Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
  • Voluntary Madness, Norah Vincent

I don’t ordinarily include books I read for school in my reading list, but I haven’t been able to stop talking about Alva Noe, and it’s my second time reading Selling Anxiety, so I’m calling it fair.

Noe makes one of the best arguments I’ve ever read for distributed and embodied cognition, and exposes a lot of our assumptions about what consciousness is.  While consciousness isn’t quite my research area, the way people think with tools very much is.  I’m enormously relieved that I don’t have to make a big chunk of the argument for “tools make people think differently” anymore – I can just point people at this book, or one of his more academic takes on it if they’re in the field.

Rivers, on the other hand, alternates between inspiring and disappointing me.  I read this book several years ago, and I thought I’d come back to it as part of my dissertation research.  Since one of the things I’m looking at is feedback systems in gender discrimination, this analysis of media bias seemed incredibly relevant.  I’d forgotten, though, that she largely relies on anecdotal evidence and logical argumentation – even when it’s possible to present some numbers to back up her points.  I liked the book, but it wasn’t nearly as useful to me as I wanted it to be.

With Voluntary Madness, that made a whole bunch of non-fiction this week.  Vincent does the modern-day Nellie Bly thing, writing journalistically about her personal experiences.  In this book, she had herself committed to three different mental institutions and then wrote about what the experience was like.  It was hard to read at times, both because of the subject matter and because Vincent isn’t always likable, but the observations were sharp and the insights often profound.  It’s a surprisingly quick read and definitely worthwhile.

Finally, fiction!  (Because everyone loves fiction!)  A Reliable Wife couldn’t make up its mind about what kind of book it was.  I picked it up expecting to like it, based on the reviews and the back cover.  A mysterious woman making an arranged marriage to a man with plans of his own?  Fun!  But then the first chapter exhibited just about every irritating NO LOOK I AM TEH LITERARIEZ trope out there.  A few chapters later, we’re back to dramatic plot developments, and a few chapters after that, literary navel-gazing again.  I guess maybe the author was trying to combine lit-fic and a historical thriller, but alternation between the two was really not the best strategy.

Olive Kitteridge, on the other hand, was a book I didn’t expect to like but ended up loving.  A portrait of a middle-aged woman in a small town, seen through a series of linked short stories, can easily go in a not-even-Oprah direction.  This one, though, was compelling enough to keep me reading.  Olive herself steals the show every time she appears – sometimes as the narrator, sometimes as a major plot influence on another character, and sometimes just in a cameo.  She’s hateful sometimes and inspiring sometimes, and often just struggling with life’s daily humiliations and fears.  Most of all, she’s worth getting to know!

… now, what to read next?

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