Quick write-up of some books

Monday, November 4, 2013 :: Tagged under: art culture pablolife books. ⏰ 6 minutes.


Hey! Thanks for reading! Just a reminder that I wrote this some years ago, and may have much more complicated feelings about this topic than I did when I wrote it. Happy to elaborate, feel free to reach out to me! 😄


I've driven a lot these last few months: first from San Francisco to Austin, from Austin to Washington DC, a few trips from DC to Philadelphia, and recently DC to Wooster, Ohio (not having a boss is great for this).

Making these long drives is much easier with a good audiobook. I've listened to three in their entirety, here are some quick thoughts on them, in the order that I read them:

_Bossypants_, by Tina Fey

cover of Bossypants, by Tina Fey

You've probably heard this is a funny book, and it absolutely is. It's not written to be a comedy book proper (imagine those old Dave Barry books); she can't help but be funny and charming while telling stories from her life.

While her stories are interesting and entertaining, the bigger surprise to me was how refreshing the whole experience was. It's nice to read someone who's pretty unabashed about their feminism, though I'm pretty sure she never uses the word, which is a sensible choice since something stupid happens in many people's brains where it shuts down if you use that specific word. It's also a great (sanitized and painted-by-retrospect, I'll grant) insight into how comedy and entertainment happens. There was some kind of pride among many Computer Science students at Brown every time we "pulled all-nighters" and "totally didn't sleep last night," but these guys don't know what it can be to put a show together. Most people don't.

It can be frustrating, in the way most writing can be, that you can't talk back or delve deeper on issues where you feel disagreement. An earlier Pablo might have been frustrated with the author as I understood their position, but current Pablo understands that the Commercial Book For The Larger Public (and profit!) isn't where an intelligent person will expand every subsystem of a statement or claim, so instead I just get frustrated at publishing.

Where do I want to delve deeper? Namely, there are hints she's got the Megyn Kelly thing going on. What do I mean by this? Progressives loved sharing Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly taking Eric Erickson and Lou Dobbs to town when they made claims that working mothers are bad mothers. But except on that very issue which happens to affect her in very obvious ways, she's never shown much vigilance. She called military-grade pepper spray "a food product, essentially," when it was used on people she didn't give a damn about. So while I appreciate Kelly using her position to take down Erickson and Dobbs, I'm not impressed by her track record when it comes to looking out for others, since it's damn easy to look after yours.

So when I was getting all those good feelings about yes! comedy and the entertainment industry is a radically different place for women, and yes! society has insane double standards for male bodies and female bodies, male beauty and female beauty; I couldn't help but notice the absence of passion and fervor for sides of very similar debates and conversations that need to happen, and I wondered how much of that was just a single book covering only so much ground, or whether Fey herself is able to see and acknowledge the privileges she has.

I'm absolutely not saying Fey is a Terrible Person completely lacking in empathy -- just that, "reading" it (listening to it on a cross-country drive), there were both in-depth passages and brief asides on how women simply being women factored into her stories and how they played out (which I loved!), but hardly anything on, say, race, or age, and how that might factor into it as well.

And I don't need the book to be all things to all people! If she'd just said "there's a ton I don't know, and don't feel qualified to talk about, but please consider it and/or be aware of these forces and/or investigate it in your own time" (or I got the sense of such a sentiment) I'd feel a little more assured. But when you discuss your dad's racism as "that's not racism, that's experience! Those kids were coming to steal your bikes!," it makes you wish we knew more where you were coming from.

It's funny, I mentioned above that if you talk about "women's issues," it's one thing, but if you mention "feminism," lots of people immediately get defensive. A similar thing happens if you mention issues with race or how it's talked about: most people think "OMG I'M NOT A RACIST" and clam up and start getting angry at you. Please understand: I'm not calling Tina Fey a racist or an ageist or what-have-you. I just felt that as fantastic and refreshing as it was to hear someone advocate for the woman's side so many life situations, I also noticed the absence of other subjects that would have strengthened it, in my opinion, if they'd been present.

But that is the minorest of minor complaints. Overall it's a very fun and rewarding read, please pick it up yourself and tell me I'm too sensitive :)

_The Psychopath Test_, by Jon Ronson

cover of The Psychopath Test, by Tina Fey

I might be predisposed to this book because of my own mental health issues, seeing my sister change when her brain did, taking a bit of Neuroscience in college, and having been in a great relationship with a brilliant and accomplished neuroscientist for 2 years. So I'm a bit of a softie when you talk about Brain Things.

Surprisingly, I loved this book. If it were a dry treatment of what we know about psychopathy, I still would have enjoyed it, but it wasn't that: it's composed of a huge number of interesting stories and anecdotes, giving you an idea of exactly how little we know about societies, consciousness, what "normal" is, and capitalism.

The danger of most pop science books is that they're dreadfully boring (see Number), simplify things to a ridiculous degree such that the end result manages to be patronizing and toothless, or trying to make Grand But Simple Narratives that happen to be wrong (pretty much all Malcolm Gladwell, see the Igon Value problem or Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That's Unfortunate)).

Ronson gets around this by not really writing a pop science book in the first place. This exposes him to the weaknesses of "intrepid journalist" books, and as a familiar in that territory, he knows how to navigate its obstacles. He inserts himself in the story, I think, so that we can distrust him and mentally adjust and audit his accounting too.

Stealing a metaphor from an NPR host (can't remember which), sometimes documentaries or nonfictions about a single subject are compared to a microscope, but it may be more apt to think of good ones more like a prism: you take a single subject and you tease out and reveal the multitudes of themes it contains. The Psycopath Test does that, since I feel our lack of conversation and understanding of mental health permeates pretty much everywhere.

(if you end up reading and liking this, consider also Mutants: On Genetic Variety and the Human Body, by Armand Marie Leroi. It's a similar story-based treatment of the history of genetic mutations, which I also enjoyed immensely).

_Redshirts_, by John Scalzi

cover of Redshirts, by John Scalzi

I started following John Scalzi's blog after he wrote my favorite thing I've read on _Atlas Shrugged_. I had no idea he was a sci-fi writer, and it's not a genre I regularly read, but his blog is entertaining enough, and he always seemed to take an unequivocal stand on a number of social issues that I frequently agree with. Examples include not attending conferences or conventions without thorough harassment policies, an essay against the idea of "fake geek girls" (and "fake geeks" in general), an empathetic essay on being poor, and recognizing privilege and trying to write constructively about it to people who normally reject it.

Now, being a privileged person fighting for people who don't possess the same privileges is itself a very fraught topic, and I certainly don't want to seem like I'm fishing for (or trying to shower Scalzi with) all those cookies. But when reading articles, I'm comforted when someone takes the right stance on an issue and seems to know their own limits.

I say all this because part of the reason I ended up "reading" Redshirts on my drive was because the context has been a lot of fun to watch, especially after he won the Best Novel Hugo, which has pissed off some nerds. I also knew going in that Wil Wheaton narrated the audiobook, and like I mentioned in my depression post, he's written something I enjoyed on depression, and since Redshirts has so much to do with Star Trek, I thought it'd be fun to hear it read by an actor who was on a Star Trek.

With all that throat-clearing, how was the book? I'm going to have to agree with Paul Constant of The Stranger: it's not a book I would gush tremendously over, and if you're expecting High Literature that must contain Amazing Use Of Ornate Language to be impressive, you're going to be very disappointed. But I found it very enjoyable -- it's a simple and pop-packaged narrative that ends up looking surprisingly closely at simple and pop-packaged narratives and their implications. It ends a little too neatly for my tastes, but maybe that's fine when the biggest risk of a story employing devices like this is that they almost never manage to end neatly.

I'll say this: it made my drive to Ohio whizz by. The ride back (without it) seemed infinitely longer that the way there, so I was very appreciative to have it. I have a segment of friends who would never enjoy this, and that's their deal I guess. But if you read this or anything I've linked about it and think you might like it, I suggest you give it a try.

Thanks for the read! Disagreed? Violent agreement!? Feel free to drop me a line at , or leave a comment below! I'd love to hear from you 😄