book reviews

Book Review: I am Malala

About a year ago I dated a feminist who had a thing where, with the exception of music, she’d prefer to consume media that was produced by women.

This inspired me, as part of my 2016 New Year Resolutions, to read a book written by a woman.

When I tell people this, they laugh – as if I’m implying that it’s so hard to read a book written by a woman. Actually – this book is the only book I’ve read this year.

It took several attempts to find a book that I could get into. Before I started I Am Malala, I also tried:

  • A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula Le Guin
    This is a fantasy novel. I got about one quarter through this book. It was well written, but I gave up when it started giving the ins and outs of how magic works. I felt it was too much work for make believe, but maybe I should have stuck with it.
  • The Luminaries by Eleanor Catton.
    I don’t think I made it through the first chapter of this Man Booker prize winning novel. Every person I mentioned this to who had attempted the book had the same experience.
  • Hard Choices by Hillary Clinton
    I got a couple of chapters through this non-fiction account. It’s quite a dry and logistical account of things – ‘and then I appointed so and so’. It’s not an autobiography, it starts from when she was appointed Secretary of State, and it assumes that you already know a lot about the context of her life and career.

Eventually I picked up I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb, which I was able to finish.

Malala Yousafzai is woman from the Swat region of Pakistan, who in 2012, when she was 15, was shot by members of the Taliban for her involvement in activism advocating education for girls. She survived the shooting and made international headlines.

iammalala

I was impressed with the content of this book. It’s comprehensive. She talks about the history of military coups in Pakistan, the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, the change of politics since 9/11, and rise of the Taliban in Pakistan.

I learned a lot reading this book. For example:

  • That the Taliban had a very active presence in Pakistan (not just Afghanistan).
  • The history of military coups in Pakistan.
  • The changing nature of politics in the region. For example the conservative, anti-woman politics were something that only arose due to the growing influence of the Taliban.

What’s apparent from the book, and she gives a great deal of attention to – is the role her father played in her becoming the person she is now, and her being targeted by the Taliban. Her father, Ziauddan Yousafzai was an (incredibly brave) outspoken activist for girls’ education and ran a school in the region.

I was impressed with the content of the book, but the writing itself, was a bit overwritten and boring.

A good book for me, makes itself easy to be read. I found with this book, it was quite an effort to read it. Maybe I have a bad reading atttitude, but then I said the same thing when I was reading The Ethical Slut, and found it wasn’t a the case when I read a book that I particularly enjoyed (Everything I ever needed to know about economics, I learned from online dating).

The single thing I would say would make the book better, would be to make it a lot shorter. Shorten all the sentences, and eliminate the cruft. I think the book could about 50-75% of it’s current length.

I suspect that there’s a bit of optics being played here. I imagine the publishers or other advisers felt that a shorter book wouldn’t be taken as seriously, and wouldn’t play into the ‘child genius’ portrayal of Malala. I don’t think Malala isn’t a child genius – she’s clearly very smart – but I don’t think she needs to write an long book to prove it

Throughout the book Malala consistently asserts her Muslim faith and the book ends with a profession to her faith.

Islam is of course is a central theme in the book. The Taliban are using Islam to justify their world view (where girls shouldn’t be educated, and women should often not be heard from), while Malala holds the view that this world view is not the correct interpretation of Islam.

She doesn’t address atheism, which is disappointing, but perhaps something for a future book. As I’ve said before, I think we should be more critical of religious belief, and so while I like Malala’s politics, I would like to see her address the question of ‘What about athiesm? Is Islamic belief irrational and counter to the science you advocate?’.

Overall – a book packed with good content. I look forward to further books by Malala Yousafzai.

 

 

 

 

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book reviews

Book review: He’s just not that into you.

I’m the only single, unmarried child of me and my five siblings. My mother gave me this book with the advice ‘It’ll tell you what not to do’.

The first three chapters irritated me as I disagreed with several depictions they made about dating dynamics. I read on though, while I still thought it was a low-brow read, I could start see some sense of purpose to the book – not as a general dating advice book, but to be used as a nudge to friends to get out of some specifically bad relationship.

This fits in to a general opinion I have about dating advice books – I often can’t take them seriously. People’s perceptions and strategies for dating are dependent on their experiences of dating – who they’ve dated and what kind of relationships they’ve been in. Because everyone has had different experiences and different values when it comes to dating, there’s no one-size-fits-all set of dating advice guidelines. However, it is possible that a given set of dating advice guidelines will apply to a specific subsection of society.

The book outlines several signs that a guy is ‘just not that into’ a girl:

  • He’s cheating on you.
  • He only wants to see you when he’s drunk.
  • He doesn’t want to marry you.
  • He’s breaking up with you.
  • He’s disappeared on you.
  • He’s married.
  • He’s a bully.

It was at these chapters that I got an inkling as to how this book might be useful. A woman might be in a relationship that is obviously toxic, but due to a variety of cognitive biases everybody is subject to, not recognise it and be playing mental gymnastics to find reasons to stay in the relationship. As a friend one could tell her how obviously toxic the relationship is, but giving advice to friends may not be effective and may damage the friendship. By externalising the advice to an ‘expert’ the advice might be taken more seriously. The book even includes a section on ‘how do I give this book to a friend’.

I agree with the general premise that there can be a dating dynamic of someone being ‘not that into’ the other person. The book has been effective in giving the dynamic a label.

It was the very first chapters that I disagreed with.

One of the chapters is ‘He’s not that into you if he’s not calling you’. An example it gives is ‘I met a guy at a bar, and he gave me his number’. The advice? ‘He’s not that into you, if were into you he would have got your number be calling you’.

I disagree with this. There are several reasons why a guy might opt to give a girl his number, rather than asking for hers – the primary being that a girl may not feel comfortable giving her number out. A guy offering to give his number provides both the advantage of expressing respect for her privacy, as well require a clear signal of interest on her part to move the relationship forward. The fact that he has given her his number is a clear indication that he has some level of interest in her.

In the same chapter another example they gave was a girl who fancied her gardener. She had brought beers out to him and they’d chatted. She said that she suspected that he might be interested in her, but he hasn’t asked her out because he’s afraid to. Again the advice is ‘Nope! He’s just not that into you’.

This paints all men, (or all men worth dating at least) as having perfect social perception to gauge the appropriateness of making such a move, as well as the confidence to do it in a manner that they think will be attractive. Given that the gardener’s livelihood and professional reputation is at stake in this situation, it’s quite easy to see how a guy, even if he fancies the girl, might decide that the risk of offending her by asking her out for a drink and the subsequent potential damage to his reputation, outweighs potential benefits. From his point of view it might be better to hope that she continues chatting to him until he’s more confident that asking her out isn’t going to cause offence.

Both of these examples paint unrealistic and outdated gender stereotypes. While I’m not of the opinion that all differences in gender behaviour are solely the product of socialisation, (for example I think men genuinely do have a higher sex drive, though I think there is also socialised behaviour to act in a hyper sexual way as well) the model expressed paints men as very one dimensional (it doesn’t acknowledge that guys might genuinely be shy) and doesn’t acknowledge the increasing empowerment of woman to ask for what they want.

Does the book’s use as a hint or nudge for a friend to leave a relationship make this a good book? I don’t think so. But – I would accept that perhaps this book has indeed helped some people. I think though – we should be concerned about propagating unhelpful or unhealthy depictions of dating dynamics, and I think it’s more important is to criticise the book for its simplistic and naïve depiction of gender roles.

book reviews

Book Review: Everything I ever needed to know about economics, I learned from online dating.

Everything I ever needed to know about economics, I learned from online dating. Paul Oyer. Havard Business Review Press 2014.

I was told about this book when I posted this question on an economics forum. The city library didn’t have it stocked, so I filled in a request form and two weeks later they emailed me saying that they now had it.

The book is as good as its clever pop title suggests it might be.

It’s a light, easy and entertaining read. Paul Oyer takes a shameless economic approach to discussing the dynamics of online dating. While on one hand he uses economics and game theory to explain why people act a certain way in online dating, at the same time he uses the dynamics of online dating that we might be familiar with, to outline economic concepts. The reader thus becomes more informed about the dynamics of online dating and dating in general, as well as economics in general.

The book is fairly short, I read it in a week reading about an hour a day. You could finish it in a weekend no worries if you had the time.

I won’t summarise all of the points Oyer makes, the book is short and easy enough to read yourself. However, I’ll share a couple of thoughts I had in reading it.

The basic premise Oyer makes from chapter one is that people are always looking for their highest value possible mate, even if they’ve successfully romantically matched someone. Someone settles, and discontinues their search for a higher value mate, when they evaluate that the cost of continuing search exceeds to possible additional value they’ll find. Oyer likens this search to the search between employers seeking employees, where either party might settle for a matching that isn’t their perfect job or perfect employee, because it’s too costly to continue searching. He then outlines various techniques used to assist in the search.

One interesting point Oyer made, was that for some people, their cost of search is negative – that is they’re actually getting a benefit out of searching for their perfect mate – they’re having fun, going out to dinner etc. This explains why some people don’t settle, even if they’re attracting plenty of good mates – they’re having too much fun dating to discontinue their search for the perfect mate. This resonates with my experience. In the past I’ve been happily single or dating casually and meeting people, but not willing to settle into a more serious relationship. Recently though, the appeal of meeting new people seems less attractive than the appeal of talking to someone regularly. Oyer doesn’t explicitly mention what causes one’s cost of search to increase, but I’d suggest that it’s matter of the novelty of dating wearing off, one’s values changing with maturity, and one’s biological clock ticking.

I started reading the book about two weeks after I deleted my Tinder profile, having gotten frustrated with it, and one chapter poignantly explained why my experience might have changed. Oyer gives the example of a book club. A single man seeking romance might realise that a book club has a high proportion of women, and so joining the book club would be an effective use of time for meeting a potential mate. However, as more men make this realisation and join the club, the proportion of men increase, and our initial man might consider that the book club is no longer the most effective use of his time. At the same time, the women in the book club while maybe enjoying the company of the additional man at the start, may become disillusioned with the new men joining for the intent of romance, and leave.

What this highlights is that online dating pools, like Tinder aren’t static, and can’t be modelled statically (ie. You can’t formulate a set of strategies for approaching dating in a certain pool, because by the time you have, the rules have changed). Where two years ago when I first joined it may have been a lot more novel, you might find that some people have found their match on the app and dropped out, and others are less enamoured with the concept, and others are more jaded. The idea of dynamically evolving dating pools was a new one for me, and is helpful in understanding why one’s experience with dating may change over time.

Overall, it should be clear that I think this is an excellent book, and is well worth purchasing to add to your bookshelf. It’s a very easy read and makes for some great discussion points, even if you disagree with what might be considered an unromantic approach to thinking about dating.

The book sets a good standard for discussing dating and relationships I hope that more books continue in this vein.

book reviews

Book Review: The Ethical Slut

I’d heard of this book in sex positive circles, and what convinced me to read it was a male friend of mine had bought it and announced he was reading it.

The book is touted as an introduction and guideline for approaching non-monogamous relationships – polyamory, open relationships, sex communities, swinging couples, casual sex, etc– or being ‘sluts’ as the authors enthusiastically write.

My overall impression of this book is negative. It’s simply not a well written book.

It’s over written – it uses too many words to express its ideas. When reading I found myself not being able to focus on it and starting to skim read. I started thinking ‘Is this just me? Do I have a bad attention span?’ But when I started reading Everything I needed to know about economics, I learned from online dating (my review herethis proves to be not the case. Everything I needed to know is a book in the same broad genre (dating and relationships), and I found it exciting, engaging and a pleasure to read – I found myself looking forward to reading it. Everything I needed to know is a much shorter book, and seems to pack in more ideas into a more concise read.

The tone of The Ethical Slut is more celebratory than an objective assessment of non-monogamous relationships. It seems to take a starting point of already having been successful in non-monogamous relationships. For example the book never seems to deal (or if it did, the idea didn’t stick with me) with that most people find the idea of non-monogamous relationships socially unacceptable, or at least don’t express opinions to the contrary. If I were writing a book on non-monogamous relationships – that’s where I’d start – outlining the history of monogamy, theories about why and how it came about,  the popularity of non-monogamy in other cultures, in other times, and its prevalence in current western culture.

All this leads me to think that this book is more targeted to people who are already on board with the idea of non-monogamy. This isn’t to say that a book shouldn’t be targeted as such, just like a standard dating advice book might be targeted at single professional men, or single professional women, but it helps frame your argument narrative if you provide an objective basis to build from, rather than taking it as assumed. If your book is at a more advanced level, and not to be taken as an introduction to the subject, then the assumptions and starting points should be explicitly stated in the introduction.

I couldn’t get past the authors’ use of the word ‘slut’. The authors use the word as reclaimed word to describe, essentially, what I’d call sex positive people – people who enjoy sex and see it as a positive expression of life activity.

In their words:

‘To us, a slut is a person of any gender who celebrates sexuality according to the radical proposition that sex is nice and pleasure is good for you. Sluts may choose to have solo sex, or get cozy with the Fifth Fleet.’

I found the term distracting, and meaningless. Whatever your thoughts are about reclaimed words, I feel like they don’t belong in literature that is intended to be subject to debate and theorising. For example if I was reading a book about negotiating life as a black American man, I might accept the author’s proposition that black men may call themselves ‘niggers’ (or ‘niggas’) as a means to reclaim a term that had been previously used a tool of oppression. However I wouldn’t think it would suit for the author to use the word ‘nigger’ every time they were referring to black men and women!

The book did have its nuggets good wisdom. The best chapter in the book would be the chapter about dealing with jealousy. Jealousy, like other emotions like anger, and sadness, is one of those emotions that in our culture is seen as negative, and reflection of bad character. The narrative around this is changing, and people are increasingly encouraged to accept these emotions, and manage them. My review on the movie Inside Out addresses this.

The authors deal with this topic head on – they acknowledge that jealousy is likely to be a prominent experience in non-monogamous relationships, and encourage the readers to own their emotions and provide several suggesting for managing it. One poignant point they made was where one of the authors’ partners would express his insecurity (‘Just tell me I don’t have anything to worry about’) when she was about to go out with a lover, and that this was a good thing. It was a good thing that he trusted her enough to express his feeling of insecurity. Insecurity is another of those emotions that the typical narrative says is unattractive. I felt it was a great relief to read this paragraph and it was not something I’d considered before.

Another entertaining aspect of the book were some of the anecdotes provided. I felt these gave much better context for understanding the more difficult dynamics, and they were interesting to read.

The book was glaringly lacking in some subjects. For example the experience of rejection, or the experience where one partner feels left out. Again, the book seems to assume that the readers are already successful at dating finding romantic or sexual mates. Given that there are entire industries dedicated to opining on the topic, it would suggest that this is an unreasonable assumption to make.

Overall, I felt like I didn’t learn much from this book, and I didn’t particularly enjoy reading it. I’m not critical of the subject material, but it wasn’t presented in a particularly readable manner. Perhaps if I was in a non-monogamous relationship I’d be more incentivised to read it, but I would suggest that someone else could do a better job of writing the same book.