What I read in… well, since last time I did one of these posts.

I tried to do a monthly “what I read” post, but the sad fact is I don’t always average one book a month. I seem to go through phases; sometimes I’m in a book phase, sometimes I’m in a PSP phase, sometimes I’m in a re-watch-every-movie-I-own phase.

In any case, here’s some stuff I’ve read recently, which you might also like to read, if you’re a cat what likes to read things:

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick

With the passing of Kim Jong-il, I figured I’d bone up on everyone’s favorite cartoonishly terrifying despotism, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. This book follows a small handful of North Koreans who managed to escape into China. Their stories begin with detailed accounts of their lives within the oppresive North Korean regime, ranging from disenchanted youths who yearned for enlightenment and freedom, to true party believers who held to their communist ideals long, long after they they had proven unsustainable. Each story ends with a successful emigration into South Korea, usually by paying someone to smuggle them through China to Mongolia. (Both China and Mongolia honor the practice of deporting North Korean refugees. The difference is, Mongolia deports them to Seoul, not Pyongyang.)

What surprised me most about these people was the fact that they were not all totally indoctrinated. Some were, but just as many were as disgusted and horrified by their country as I am. Before reading this book I assumed the Kim personality cult was so strong that it had literally brainwashed a population of some 24 million people. As it turns out, some significant fraction of that population remains under control not through brainwashing, but simply through fear. We get a lot of details in here about the glaring cracks within that personality cult, and how the contradictions we see so clearly on the outside are just as apparent to some of those on the inside. In one case, a man manages to pick up pirated television signals from South Korea in order to reaffirm what he always knew about his country. In another, a woman flees out of desperation only to discover that Chinese dogs have been eating better than she has. In a third, a middle-aged woman is smuggled out mostly against her will, and refuses to face the truth until friends of her daughter (herself a refugee) drill it into her.

This book will not change your mind about North Korea, but it was still worthwhile to get such a potent reminder that such a scary place actually exists in our world. As high as our gas prices and unemployment rates get, nobody in the US is scraping tree bark and boiling grass in order to feed their children. And as oppressively terrible as our Socialist Muslim Anarchist president may be, you and your family do not disappear in the middle of the night if you speak out against him.

Snake Oil Science: The Truth About Complementary and Alternative Medicine by R. Barker Bausell

Homeopathy and acupuncture are stupid, and I go balls-out in my attempts to convince people of that when they think otherwise. Alternative medicine is a kind of hot button topic for me because the possibility exists that the person I’m speaking with is trusting it over and above real medicine to treat their real health problems. Which would be disastrous.

This book is full of excellent ammunition to use in those conversations. The central argument of the book is that alternative treatments can’t out-perform placebos in properly-blinded medical trials. To that end, it goes into great detail about what, precisely, the placebo effect is, presents the best available evidence for what we know triggers it, explains how to control for it when designing medical trials, and then puts that all together to systematically demolish just about every type of alternative medicine that has ever been studied.

My only misgiving about this book is that it is a somewhat wearying read. It is, perhaps by necessity, somewhat dry and clinical, and a lot of the medical terminology went over my head. Not that big a deal in the Age of Wikipedia, but the text still placed demands on my attention above and beyond your typical bathroom reading. While it’s great for giving someone who is interested in the subject matter a lot of talking points, it’s probably not suitable to hand off to someone in the hopes of trashing their belief in faith healing.

Snake Oil Science was recommended to me in a particularly memorable forum thread about alternative medicine, wherein the firm (but polite!) hammering by several of us science-y types managed to change one believer’s outlook on naturopathy. That’s one fewer person in the world who will be bilked by snake oil salesmen. Kind of makes me all warm and fuzzy inside.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

Yes, sometimes I read fiction! And, apparently, sometimes I read fiction about autistic(?) boys riding trains in the U.K. Because that’s what this book is about.

Actually, this book isn’t about much of anything. A kid finds a dead dog, bends all his earthly efforts towards discovering how and why it died, ends up running away from home. What caught my eye about it, as I was thumbing through a copy my friend had laying in her bathroom, was its stark, awkward and literal first-person prose. This book challenges the reader to process the world with the alien mindset of a mentally handicapped young boy. It scarcely matters that the precise affliction is never identified; what’s important is that the story is constructed around a worldview that wouldn’t make sense to normal people. Lots of books attempt this — The Curious Incident actually succeeds. I mean, just look at that title. After a few pages inside this boy’s head, you realize that it wouldn’t have occurred to him to call the book anything else.

I would recommend this book purely for the novelty of it. Our narrator is fiercely logical even in his irrationalities. He lacks the internal filter which would otherwise determine which details are important and which are not, and so he simply includes every detail. He struggles with concepts such as emotion and empathy, so the other characters in the book are only important inasmuch as they present or resolve conflicts in the narrative. You will probably never read another book quite like this one.

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

After over a decade of being a very proud and vocal atheist, this was the sum of my knowledge about Richard Dawkins: 1) he is an evolutionary biologist and 2) he is apparently a huge douchebag. I never went out of my way to familiarize myself with his work because, well, I didn’t need his help becoming an atheist in the first place, so there wasn’t anything there for me to learn. (And because he’s apparently a huge douchebag.)

However, I have the displeasure of living in the USA at the moment, and what with the religious right trying to take over pretty much every aspect of my life it is becoming harder and harder for me to maintain a “live and let live” attitude when it comes to god beliefs. It’s kind of hard to ignore God when his followers are trying to chisel his word into legislation! And that got me to thinking about this Dawkins fellow, and whether he’s really as big a douchebag as everyone says.

As it happens, he’s not. This book actually surprised me at how calm, even-handed and polite it is. Which is not to say it’s at all coddling or respectful — it’s not. Dawkins very fervently feels that religious beliefs are harmful and supports his case with lots of very compelling evidence. But he does not engage in blatant mockery, the way I have been led to believe he did both by believers who didn’t like what he had to say, and atheists who want to distance themselves from his polarizing message.

I didn’t learn anything, of course; most of what Dawkins writes about is stuff I’d already reasoned out on my own (or by engaging in conversation with other atheists who had). But it was still an enlightening read, because I realize now I hadn’t been thinking very critically about who this person was and what he was trying to say. Unlike Snake Oil Science, I think I would recommend The God Delusion to believers who are looking for a different perspective on things and who are able to have their faith firmly challenged.

5 comments to What I read in… well, since last time I did one of these posts.

  • Neko

    That was interesting, I hope you will continue to put short reviews of your readings up here. Maybe I will find time somewhere to read one of the books myself…
    Btw, as a non-American, I´d be interested to know what “his followers are trying to chisel his word into legislation” is about.

  • Merus

    I would strongly recommend Dawkins’ The Greatest Show On Earth; in it, he essentially sums up the evidence for evolution, and while he can’t resist exasperated asides about creationists, I cannot really fault a man continually hounded by creationists for no good reason for being exasperated by them.

  • Greg

    Ahhh man, it’s good to see another post from you. I took your daily posts for granted for quite a while I’ll admit! Fine list you have there. Might be a common one, but have you read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell?

  • Issun

    While I disagree with Dawkins on a lot of things, from what I’ve seen of him in interviews he is a very nice man and when he writes about his field it is an absolute pleasure to read.

    Christopher Hitchens, however, was kind of a dick.

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