Catching Up: Books Read, February-March 2012
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Richard Thaler & Cass Sunstein. Another in my applying-psychology-to-policy reading list. Nudge is quite popular--it's an influence on the Obama administration, and the British government has a Nudge Unit. The prototypical nudge is a utility bill that tells you whether your consumption is higher or lower than your neighbors'--with a smiley face for lower and a frowny face for higher. Without the faces, people regress toward the mean; with the faces they all keep trying to lower consumption. I approve very strongly of this type of intervention, as it changes behavior for the better without laws and mandates. I don't think (and I don't think anyone really does) that it can entirely replace such things, but it's a very useful option to have in the toolbox.
There's an open philosophical question, of course, about whether nudges are "manipulative." I'm with B. F. Skinner: if your environment is going to influence your behavior no matter what, you may as well design it to do so deliberately. If you do not choose a design, you still have made a design choice.
Miss Manners' Guide to Domestic Tranquility: the Authoritative Manual for Every Civilized Household, However Harried, By Judith Martin. Purchased as a gift for S upon the occasion of her taking up seneschal duties for the household. We are both in agreement that good, thoughtful etiquette is the foundation of a happy family. We are also both in agreement that Judith Martin is a genius--although we don't always agree with her judgments--and a secret steampunk geek. This is one of her broader ranging books--if you are looking for a single one to have in a household, it's a pretty good choice.
When I asked my social psychology students, not a one of them had ever read Miss Manners. I was deeply alarmed.
It has just occurred to me that I'm not familiar with major etiquette writers for any country other than my own. Any recommendations?
All That Lives Must Die, By Eric Nylund. On the first book in this series, I said, "The only way this book could have been more aimed at me is if Cthulhu showed up and started testing academic theories of magic." That doesn't happen in this book, but there is a magical academy, with tests that can be deadly, and there are Lovecraftian horrors. As in the previous book, there are also romantic-yet-double-crossing demons, games of spot-the-god, magical families with ancient rivalries, and games of vocabulary insult. In other words, this totally continues to hit all my narrative kinks at once. If you like this sort of thing, you will like this very much.
The Broken Sword, by Poul Anderson. I'm not entirely sure how I feel about this book. On the one hand... The language is amazing. Anderson is playing with the same toys here that he does in Uncleftish Beholding, and he makes it work, and the whole thing comes out as a Norse epic that happens not to have been written by the Norse. The mix of Norse myth and fae that are a combination of the Alfs and the Sidhe works really well. On the other hand... This is the most brutal book I've read in a while, and the language does not help with that. If, for example, women are being sexually assaulted, I don't want it to be a line in an epic poem, I want it to be a real thing that has consequences. The language has exactly the attitude towards death, assault, and pain that one gathers from Norse male warrior culture--and I find that intensely frustrating.
It did, however, inspire me to declaim my masters thesis in sonnet form. So there's that.
To recover from The Broken Sword, I reread Luminosity, which I love for treating all the characters as real people, with real joy and pain. It was a good antidote.
Children of the Sky, by Vernor Vinge. I think much the same of this as others seem to. It's not as strong as the other two Zones of Thought books, but it's still a Zones of Thought book, and it's still good. It has Tines--if you want to read more about hive-minded caninoids, this book has that. It has little hints about the nature of the Blight and the Countermeasure, and good bits with former transhumans struggling to deal with 20th Centuryish technology.
In Fire Upon the Deep, I enjoyed the way Tinish gender seemed to work--that gender identity was vaguely, but not entirely, correlated with the gender of the majority of a person's bodies. In this book, Tines identify as male unless there's a plot reason for it to be otherwise, and that annoyed me.
Discount Armageddon, by Seanan McGuire. Verity Price is a ballroom dancer and hereditary cryptozoologist. She goes to New York to explore both these careers, away from her loving family, and decide which she wants to spend the bulk of her time pursuing. She takes with her a telepathic not-quite-human cousin, and a bunch of sapient mice who worship her family. The mice are absolutely adorable, and manage to avoid being annoyingly twee. There are no vampires or werewolves, but there are harpies and boogeymen and a genuinely sexy love interest and/or antagonist. And the scene where... no, I don't want to spoil it. But it's hysterical. I giggled on the train, a lot. This book is awesome and funny and you should read it.
Crucible of Gold, by Naomi Novik. At this point, everyone knows whether they love the Temeraire books and want more, or whether they find the whole thing repetitive and travelogue-ish. I still love them, and I was delighted to see a new facet of the world explored, and several old plot points followed up on.
I do not understand anyone who writes alternate Americas, and whose first question is not "What happened with the plagues?" It's the most important thing that ever happened in this hemisphere, and hand-waving it is a sin against the whole field of alternate history. (Opinions, I has them.) Novik's answer is awesome, because the plagues affect humans, but not dragons. And therefore the conquests don't happen. (Europe is behind pretty much every other part of the world in terms of human-dragon relations, and this is one of the places that it shows.) And therefore American culture is recovering, slowly, with alterations and adaptations based on the ratio of humans to dragons suddenly being drastically reduced. Fascinating worldbuilding.
Other Media Consumed:
Shadow Unit (Season 4, episodes 2-4). Continuing to narrow in on the nature of the anomaly, and continuing to be fascinating.
Criminal Minds (Season 6, episodes 1-2). In which the writers handle the network-mandated leaving of a female character about as perfectly and pointedly as one could have hoped for.
Total Books: 8
Recent Publication: 4/8
Recommendations: The Anderson, and the Vinge series, were both recommended by papersky.
New Music: none