Archive | August 2012

The Gift of Fear

I never really struggle to find books to read. There are loads of them and I’ve read hardly any. For me, it’s more about not buying all the books I see that I think I’d like to read. Sometimes I try to resist. Honestly. Then a book will come into my awareness and I’ll think I should read that, but I manage to exercise some self-control and don’t buy it. But it will keep popping up in articles that I’m reading or people around me will talk about it, and if that book keeps making its presence known, I’ll think I am meant to read it. The Gift of Fear by Gavin de Becker is one of those books.

de Becker works with a wide range of people and organizations to predict when someone will become violent. He discusses all sorts of situations including dates that turn into stalking, the fired employee who won’t let go, assassination threats against public figures, helpful strangers who are really predators, and people obsessed with a single issue. In many cases these situations won’t become violent, but sometimes they will and this book explores how to determine the ones that will.

Violence is predictable. And many of us know when it’s going to happen. We tell ourselves not to listen to our intuition. We don’t want to say no, or to risk offending someone, or to be melodramatic, so we ignore the signs that our subconscious has picked up. Much of the advice in this book is based around listening to yourself and taking notice of what we’re feeling.

Some of the advice is about how to respond so as to shut down potentially violent situations. For example, how to say no. Women particularly, although not exclusively, are socialized to believe that saying no makes them a bad person, or even that saying no will invite an aggressive response. In fact, not saying no communicates that you can’t say no and are an easy target. Another example is not responding. We’re tempted to think that if we just explain clearly, once and for all, the reasons why the person can’t have their job back, or that their accusations are unfounded, then they will respond like a rational person and back off. If you’ve done that once already and it didn’t work, then it’s not going to. Because that person is not rational and all you do is show them they can get a response. Also, we probably need to let go of having the last word.

There is a list of warning signs that tell you when someone is not safe. These are:

  • Forced Teaming. This is when a person tries to pretend that he has something in common with a person and that they are in the same predicament when that isn’t really true.
  • Charm and Niceness. This is being polite and friendly to a person in order to manipulate him or her.
  • Too many details. If a person is lying they will add excessive details to make themselves sound more credible.
  • Typecasting. An insult to get a person who would otherwise ignore one to talk to one. For example: “Oh, I bet you’re too stuck-up to talk to a guy like me.”
  • Loan Sharking. Giving unsolicited help and expecting favors in return.
  • The Unsolicited Promise. A promise to do (or not do) something when no such promise is asked for; this usually means that such a promise will be broken. For example: an unsolicited, “I promise I’ll leave you alone after this,” usually means you will not be left alone. Similarly, an unsolicited “I promise I won’t hurt you” usually means the person intends to hurt you.
  • Discounting the Word “No”. Refusing to accept rejection.

I’m really, really glad I read this book. I can look back on a lot of times when I thought someone or something was iffy and I acted on that, and then felt guilty for being rude, not giving someone a chance, or unwilling to accept help. In most of those cases at least one of the indicators of violence was present. Knowing that I know what to look out for and that I can trust my instincts is empowering. Unlike many things you read, this book is meant to help you be less afraid because your intuition can’t help you if you’re afraid of everything. It’s amazing and everyone should read it.

Seven Viking Romances

I’ve had this book on my shelf for a long time, wanting to read it but thinking it might be hard work. Seven Viking Romances, translated by Hermann Pálsson and Paul Edwards, is a collection of Viking adventure stories.


These tales are less serious than the Icelandic Sagas and have many more fantastical elements. There are seven stories, drawn from several centuries, with a common theme of raiding, pillaging and  theft.

This book was an easier read than I thought it would be, in large part because the stories are meant to be entertaining and funny. They are essentially episodes of sailing around the world looking for notable warriors to kill and treasure to steal. For dramatic effect, once or twice the protagonists of the stories fail to kill the notable warrior. When that happens they either join forces with him or run away and come back later.

I was wrong to think that this would be heavy-going. It’s actually delightful and there were parts that made me laugh out loud. These stories don’t explore the ideas of right and wrong or offer a deep psychological insight into the motivations of the characters, or try to educate the listener/reader about the world. They are just entertaining tales from another time and place.

Periodic Tales

Take the periodic table and make a book full of interesting facts and factoids about each of the elements. What a brilliant idea. How could that not be a great idea? I was so full of hope about Periodic Tales by Hugh Aldersley-Williams. The concept seemed to be all things I love; random useless nuggets of information, vaguely science-y but mostly history and culture, and a general attitude of ‘stuff is brilliant‘. I so wanted to like this book.

I didn’t even get past the first chapter. It is dull and leaden. At the point where I realised I wasn’t enjoying myself, and I was far enough past the introductory parts that I should be, I started trying to work out whether I was bored by what I was being told or by the way in which it was conveyed. The passage I was reading was about gold and its cultural value, its rarity, and its usefulness. This was followed by how platinum is only considered more valuable than gold because of marketing. This stuff should be fascinating.

As I’m writing this now, I find I really want to give the book another chance because these are things I want to read about, things I think are inherently interesting. And somehow, the author managed to tell these stories in a way that sucked all the life out of them. It’s definitely about the writing. Maybe there were too many nuggets so that none of them could be explored in sufficient depth or maybe it’s because the storytelling got lost in favour of a list of facts.

If anyone knows of another book that tells really good stories about the elements, please let me know.

Half the Sky

Sometimes there are books that really make an impression, that will stay with you for the rest of your life. Half the Sky by Nicholas D. Kristof and Sheryl Wudunn is a book like that.

It covers the experience of many women in the developing world, including sex trafficking, honour killings, lack of access to education, inadequate healthcare, maternal mortality, genital mutilation, the use of rape to control, and domestic violence. It relies on anecdote and stories to make its points, and in some places those stories are harrowing.

Nothing in this book should really come as a surprise. It’s not like these things haven’t been happening for a very long time. It is useful to be reminded once in while, but tragic that we need reminding.

There’s a lot missing from Half the Sky. There’s no real acknowledgement that these things happen in the developed world too, and the discussion of the impact of poverty is reduced to suggestions about where best to put your charity. Many of the experiences of women in this book are entrenched systemically and no amount of charity and micro-finance are going to change a global system that relies on most people being poor so that a few can be rich. And there’s very little discussion of how this inequality supports the developed world; perhaps because that might get in the way of persuading us that we can do something.

And that’s why this book is having so much impact; (not just on me, the internetz is mad for it) because it makes the reader feel like they can do something to help, something to change things. I’ve joined Kiva as a result of reading this book. I have mixed feelings about charity (it’s paternalistic, corrupt, can entrench harmful cultural attitudes) as I think it acts as a sticking plaster on wound but fails to remove the thing that cut you, but the stories in this book show how it can be positive. Change only happens in tiny steps that build up into something much bigger and this book shows what a difference the tiny steps make. What it doesn’t address is just how hard it is to build up enough tiny steps to achieve real change and that can be demoralising if you haven’t made your peace with that to start with. The thing that you do may only be a drop in the ocean, but if there were no drops there’d be no oceans.

Still, being difficult to the point of near impossibility is no reason not to do something. So, go read the book, be reminded how much there is to change and see if you’re motivated to act.

Scream for Me

I picked up Scream for Me by Karen Rose from the book drop at work. I was in the mood for something lightweight and thrilling.

Following the death of his brother, Detective Vartanian finds a collection of photographs that indicate that, when much younger, his brother participated in the gang-rape of several young women. When he goes to Dutton to investigate the murder of a woman, he realises that this death is somehow connected to those events.

Alex Fallon’s sister has gone missing and she comes to Dutton to care for her small niece and to look for her sister. The police think she’s an addict and aren’t interested in looking for her. Fallon had a twin who was murdered when they were teenagers and the MO for the current crimes is very similar. It becomes clear that the murderer is trying to reveal the rapists from Fallon and Vartanian’s childhoods, and that several important people are implicated.

This has been a strangely hard review to write. Partly because it’s a while since I read the book and it hasn’t stuck very well in my mind, and partly because I didn’t have very strong feelings about it. I enjoyed it while I was reading it, even though I thought the plot was a bit predictable. There were elements in it that should have had a high emotional impact but somehow fell flat. I guess I never believed that any of the main characters were in danger of dying. The ones that died were the minor characters that hadn’t had enough page-time to get the reader invested in them. It’s ok for a palate cleanser, but didn’t engage me enough that I’d seek out more.

A Moveable Feast and The Paris Wife

June Book Club was a double bill: A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway and The Paris Wife by Paula McLain.

A Moveable Feast is a collection of vignettes recalling the years in the 1920s Hemingway spent living in Paris. Each of the people he knew there, Gertrude Stein, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ford Maddox Ford, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and several others, has their story told. The depictions aren’t always flattering but there is a sense that all the fluff has been cut away and that Hemingway gets to the core of who people really are. While technically this is non-fiction it was written many years after the events, and knowing that Hemingway’s fiction is closely based on his life, there is the sense that story and style matter more than fact. The truth that Hemingway is in search of is a truth of the heart and mind, not the truth of reportage. The content isn’t something I’d normally enjoy; it’s a bit gossipy and has a slight feel of Heat magazine to it, but I love the writing style.

I love the deceptively simple bare bones starkness of it. I love the way every single word matters. I love the intensity and the sense of striving for emotional truth. I first read this when I was nineteen and it’s always interesting to read again the things that had a big impact when you were young, just to see whether it’s as good as you remember, or whether the greatness was fuelled by teen angst. It was better second time round. I will definitely be re-reading the rest of his work at some point soon.

The Paris Wife is the story of Hadley, Hemingway’s wife during the Paris years. Hadley is a shadowy figure in A Moveable Feast and barely gets mentioned. She isn’t even named until halfway through. It was a brave choice to write this book, given that Hemingway is one of those writers that tends to inspire irrational fandom. It starts when they meet in Chicago, tells the story of their courtship and marriage, and then the story of their time in Paris up until Hemingway falls in love with someone else and their marriage ends.

I didn’t find McLain’s portrayal of Hadley sympathetic. From the notes to the book, it seems McLain did a lot of research and tried to keep her story as factual as possible – although when I was reading the story I wasn’t convinced she’d done any research at all. For the first half of the book I was intensely annoyed; the tone was all wrong, the language was too modern and the dialogue didn’t ring true. Fortunately, it’s a very easy read so it didn’t take long to get through it. And by the halfway point I was totally engaged. The second half of the book was much better and much of what’s wrong with it would have been fixed by cutting the first 150 pages.

The Paris Wife makes an interesting counterpoint to A Moveable Feast and it’s worth reading to round out your perspective. It’s particularly illuminating about the events that became The Sun Also Rises.  Any Hemingway is worth reading.

God is not Great

I don’t think I would have read God is not Great by Christopher Hitchens if it hadn’t been in the 99p kindle sale at Christmas. Maybe that was someone’s idea of irony.

The premise is that not only is there no god, or any other creative consciousness, but also that organized religion is mad, bad and dangerous to know. Using personal anecdotes, documented history and analysis of texts, Hitchens takes us through more than a dozen reasons why religion is bad for your health and probably makes you a less moral person.

I thoroughly enjoyed it, but I can’t say I had my point of view changed. I came to the book already primed to agree with Hitchens’ points. Partly because his arguments are based on a Marxist critique of religion and partly because I’ve read the Bible and came to many of the same conclusions myself. The one thing I did learn is that the Buddhists aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. Not as peaceable as you might think.

If you believe there is a God, especially one of the Abrahamic persuasion, you are unlikely to have your faith shaken. Hitchens goes in for grandstanding much more than persuasion, and I would think his tone would inspire defensiveness and rebuttal. I’m sure it would get my back up. Unfortunately, the same is true if you’re undecided. This is not a book that will commend a god-free enlightenment to you (for that, I’d recommend Towards the Light by A.C. Grayling). If you are an atheist (and I am, for all my flirting with animism/paganism), then this is a rallying cry for the cause and really good fun. Recommended or not recommended depending on your starting position.