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review 2017-07-14 08:49
Treatise and character study
Anna Karenina - Larissa Volokhonsky,Richard Pevear,Leo Tolstoy

The foremost impression I'm left with, since I have the last part very present, is this literary symmetry: Anna takes about sixty pages to come in, by train, and leaves the book sixty pages from the end, also by train (yes, I know, some dark humor).

Next, also with the end very present, this sense that in the end, Levin and Ana essential difference is that when doubt harasses them, Levin goes back to what feels natural to him and trudges on, and Anna gives into despair.

For all that it's name comes from the woman, larger than life in the outside, and deeply uncertain on the inside, it was Levin the vehicle for most of the author treatise on... well, everything: agrarian reform, women's education, religion, politics, war, ideologies... At first I was interested. Passing the middle point, I just wanted the author to get on with it. I've gone over this many times: I have little patience for authors trying to educate or reform me through fiction.

While the Levin/Kitty side of the novel carries the most heart-warming bits, it's also choke-full of opinions, so whenever we got to it, instead of feeling like I was resting from Anna's turbulence, I started to feel dread at the amount of pages Tolstoy was about to bore me with his "insight". I totally get why the movies gloss so much over this side of the equation.

And it is some type of equation, or coin. I wonder if the author was trying to make Anna into a personification of reason, given the stab he takes at it in relation with faith in the end, with Levin as this second, him being unable to properly express himself, but finding peace with his own being at the end; Anna all poise, yet false, forever uncertain inside, speech coming out pleasant while thoughts looped and spun in place without answer. Also, passion vs. love. And romantic feeling against filial.

As for characters (beyond the two protagonist, because, you know, so mired into the theme), they were all so damned well fleshed out:

Vronsky with his honorable selfishness: I know it sounds like a contradiction, but the guy truly does not realize the damage he does, and in his own way, he follows a code of conduct strictly. It's horrifying.

Karenin... *sigh* Anna calls him a robot. At first, it looks like she's just over-reacting to her new feelings, ascribing the worst to her obstacle. It turns out she is over-reacting, but she's also somewhat right. The guy is a wonder of self-discipline, in his life and even where his feelings and though process is concerned. The way he twist and rearranges facts and ideas to suit himself is a thing to read. While writing this, I also wonder if his influence wasn't arresting much of Anna's internal disorder, if she didn't loose what little was keeping her peace when she left him, or if it was the other way around: a wild mare kept in tight reign, that suddenly tasted freedom and galloped non-stop into the abyss, with Vronsky spurring her.

Kitty with her innocence; Vronsky breaks her heart, but after some false steps, she comes on the other side just as sweet, and wiser.

Dolly and her big heart. Stiva forever on the rope by the miracle of his social nature. Sanctimonious Lidia. Betsy, so liberal but in the end unwilling to forsake societies constraints. Sergey and his empty rhetoric. Nikolay and his nihilism. Varenka.

I guess there was much more in all those many pages than proselytism. You can disregard this whole paragraph, I'm claiming that Levin ruined me, but really? Last night I went to sleep, and kept wondering: how much of these explorations impulse change? Much of what is disused in dialogues here feels like sides talking to hear themselves, not to seek understanding, and I was left thinking about social change, and whether writing heralds it, or just meanders over what society has already started to accept or war upon. I noticed many of the topics expounded on came and passed, discarded by history, yet things that are barely touched upon, like womens rights and education became an issue not long after that endures. What I'm trying to say, and I'm treading on deeply personal and weird territory here, is that I started to doubt how much social commentary in literature looks forward, and how much it's just a soap box for the author.

So, *wheoo!*, that's a looong commentary on a loooong book, and I'm still unsure what I'll rate it. No, I do know. It's really good, and as a character study is great, but I don't think it perfect because, for me, if you are going to fill a novel with ideology, it has to age well, and it has to engage even on those bits. So 4 stars.

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review 2017-07-02 21:10
Unfair by Adam Benforado
Unfair: The New Science of Criminal Injustice - Adam Benforado

This is a thought-provoking critique of the American criminal justice system based on psychological research. It is more of an overview than a deep dive: in 286 pages of text (excluding the bibliography), the author discusses everything from snap judgments in investigations, to false confessions and erroneous eyewitness identifications, to the reasons some lawyers behave unethically, to misleading expert testimony, to judicial bias, to the workability of prisons. These are all important issues and the author, a law professor, has many interesting proposals to improve on the problems. Unfortunately, he undermines his message by failing to source his facts, leaving readers with no authority for his arguments; any lawyer should know better.

 

There is a lot of interesting material here: the studies showing how common interrogation techniques, such as offering leniency for a confession, induce students to falsely confess to cheating; the correlation between more stereotypically African features and longer sentences; the tendency of the public to view third parties as biased against their side (Republicans and Democrats both believe the Supreme Court leans to the other side, by approximately equal margins); the way the point-of-view of a camera can affect viewers’ opinion of events (when interrogations are taped, viewers are more likely to see them as coercive when the camera is above the suspect, and as non-coercive when it’s above the officer).

 

The author discusses a number of psychological shortcuts that can lead to ugly results in the justice system: for instance, “narrow bracketing,” in which if your experience is that, say, two-thirds of the claims of a particular type are valid, and you just granted two, you are more inclined to deny the next one to keep the numbers balanced. And there’s a good discussion of how people identify dishonesty: you really can’t tell through body language – at best you can tell someone is nervous, but in a high-pressure situation like a courtroom, this likely has more to do with the person’s comfort in that setting and ability to project confidence than their honesty.

 

The book also discusses the reasons for criminal behavior, which often have less to do with deliberate moral choice than one might imagine. There’s a fascinating story of a man who suddenly becomes obsessed with sex, collecting porn, molesting a young girl, and propositioning everyone – until a tumor is discovered on his brain and removed; then he’s fine until the tumor returns, at which point he starts up all over again. Brain damage may be a less isolated cause of criminality than one might imagine; apparently, while less than 9% of the general population has suffered a traumatic brain injury, around 60% of incarcerated people have. Less dramatically, physical environment also influences one’s actions: wearing a mask makes people more aggressive, while holding a gun biases people to perceive images as more threatening.

 

Rather than simply detailing problems, Benforado does have plenty of suggestions for change. Some of these are relatively small and seem like excellent ideas. For instance, officers should be trained in cognitive interviewing (asking few open-ended and non-suggestive questions) of witnesses of crime to avoid tainting their memories, while witnesses about to view a lineup should be told that the suspect may or may not be included (to prevent their simply choosing the one who looks most like the perpetrator). In fact, having lineups administered by a computer may be even better, to prevent officers’ unconsciously influencing a witness’s memory through their approval or body language.

 

Some of the suggestions are much more global, and I give Benforado credit for thinking big and outside the box. One intriguing idea is virtual trials: record the trial in advance and give jurors just the information, presented through avatars. This would eliminate biases based on physical appearance and performance, and allow a trial to be shown to multiple juries at little additional cost.

 

Meanwhile, the author shows discomfort with many aspects of the adversarial system, though his alternative proposal isn’t quite clear. He correctly points out that the procedural safeguards we build into the system in an attempt to prevent error often become ends in themselves, frustrating their original purpose. Take Miranda warnings for instance: if an officer fails to give them, a perpetrator’s confession can be excluded and therefore a criminal may go free, while on the other hand, judges rarely entertain the idea that a confession might be coerced once an officer has recited those lines – even if we’re talking about a highly suggestible suspect who was questioned for many hours, falsely told that the police had evidence against him, and promised leniency in exchange for a confession. And there’s simply not time, based on the many procedural safeguards built into our system of trials, for more than a tiny percentage of cases to be fully heard; the vast majority plead guilty, in a system the author sees as highly suspect. But what could we do instead? – it’s difficult to decipher Benforado’s ideas on this point, aside from idealistic notions of truth-seeking and vague references to Germany’s having a different system.

 

But the book does have its drawbacks. Rather than endnotes to which one can refer for specific facts and studies, the author simply includes a bibliography for each chapter, with no indication as to which of the dozens of works cited include which information. This shows off the author’s reading while offering no help to his readers. This is particularly unfortunate on the topics for which he provides only vague information: for instance, he tells us that solitary confinement alters the brain in observable ways, but not what part of the brain is affected, what this part does, and what changes are seen once prisoners are freed. Ultimately, the book leaves readers with the choice between taking the author’s word for his claims or doing their own research, starting more or less from scratch. This is an incredibly poor decision for someone who wants to profoundly change entrenched parts of officialdom.

 

Less damaging but also unfortunate is the fact that, while Benforado presents information in a clear and readable style, his storytelling is less than stellar. He begins each chapter with a few pages of introductory fluff, which is a great opportunity to tell compelling human-interest stories related to the topic at hand – but more often than not he squanders it. For instance, the chapter dealing with physiognomy begins with rambling about how people are fascinated by mugshots. Okay.

 

Finally, while the book’s portrayal of the justice system as almost medieval – snap decisions are based incomplete information and the gut feelings of those making them, without scientific basis and generally without oversight – is fairly accurate, in some ways the book does present an overly gloomy picture. I suspect some readers might be unduly horrified, not realizing that most criminal cases aren’t based on eyewitness identification by strangers or police pushing for a confession from whatever black or Hispanic man happened to be near the crime scene. Most people plead guilty because they are, and the evidence against them is good. This in no way excuses the miscarriages of justice that go on every day, but I hope readers don’t come away with the idea that courts and police produce utterly random results.

 

Overall, I’m glad I read this book: much of the information it contains is fascinating, and it’s presented in a clear and concise way. These are issues people should be thinking about. However, the lack of sourcing is a serious limitation; I can only hope it will be corrected in future editions.

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review 2017-04-30 18:24
Run! It's too late after you embark
Moby-Dick - Andrew Delbanco, Tom Quirk,Herman Melville

It's not often lately that I find a read that threatens to leave me clueless as to what I'm reading. I'm not talking content here (I'll get to that later), but sheer language. Between the heavy intertextuallity, the word usage and sentences structure, I found myself having no idea what the last paragraph or three meant, and have to backtrack, more than I liked. I though I was over that shit. Conceit corrected.

 

Next, the characters feel like ghosts. Even the narrator sometimes loses substance, becoming something airlike and almost omniscient. They are Ahab's crew. If you want to get all metaphysical, traits of humanity that are driven by one over-consuming. It goes just as well as you could expect.


Last, the story. The thing itself could be spun in a third of the length without loosing anything from the plot. But, and here is where the ambitious bastard trips you, most of the meaning, theme and depth is stored in the fat. All those hazed-eyes inducing chapters? They actually have a point. Damned all those lit analysis classes, much of an overarching understanding of the novel hinges on the Jonah's sermon and the whiteness chapters.

So, is it worth it? Hell if I know. I powered through the thing, even liked it to some extent, and I'm still unconvinced. There is a certain brilliance in what it attempts. To me, the whole idea (and what it feels like to read it) can be encompassed in one passage in ch16: Ishmael goes to Peleg to ask to go whaling for a "desire to see the world" and Peleg tells him to look across the bow of the docked ship. There is nothing but water, says Ishamel, and Peleg answers that's the world he'll see a whaling. You can read a summary of the book as you can see the sea from the shore.The wisdom of going whaling is seriously challenged after all.

 

But it's not the same.

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review 2017-01-22 21:03
On the Run by Alice Goffman
On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City - Alice Goffman

A very engaging ethnography - as a college student, the author moved to the inner city and spent her time hanging out with a group of young black men often on the run from the law. The book is a good look into how heavy policing affects all aspects of individual and community life. And the author is a good storyteller so it makes for engaging reading. Since she writes about one social network it's hard to tell how representative this is, and I think the criticism that the author herself got in too deep is probably valid. She also contradicts herself a few times. Still, it is worth reading.

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review 2016-11-13 23:21
All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister
All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation - Rebecca Traister

You never know when it comes to books about pop culture and feminism, but this is a really good one! It’s a combination of historical information, interviews with modern women, sociological statistics and analysis, and stories from the author’s life; Traister, an experienced journalist, weaves it all together in a seamless and readable way.

More women are single in the U.S. than ever before – whether that means marrying late, never marrying, or not staying married forever. Single women are nothing new though, and the book chronicles the stories of many of the most influential women in American history, who happen to have been single for much or all of their lives. But mostly the book explores how single women live their lives today, dealing with work and money, urban and rural life, female friendship, sex and dating, single parenthood, and how having been a single adult affects later marriages. The author also writes about societal pressures – how the meaning of singlehood has changed, and the conservative backlash.

I suspect most young and many not-so-young American women would enjoy the read and recognize something of themselves here. The book celebrates singlehood for the opportunity it provides to become independent, create one’s own life and career, and build intense friendships. At the same time, it’s hardly anti-marriage; Traister herself married in her 30s, and credits her single years with making her marriage better. If nothing else, had social pressures forced her to marry young, she wouldn’t have been available when Mr. Right came along!

And it’s probably the most inclusive book about modern womanhood that I’ve read. Rather than being relegated to one separate chapter, women of color appear throughout and inform every section of it. While the book is tilted toward educated, urban women – though as it discusses, single women have always flocked to cities, so the focus is perhaps not disproportionate – poor women and single mothers appear as well. There are no glib attempts to generalize all single women: on sexual choices, for instance, whether you have tons of sex, some sex, varying amounts of sex depending on where you are in your life, or have never had sex, you’ll see your decisions reflected here. Traister interviewed people from all walks of life, resulting in sensitive portrayals and spot-on analysis.

There is the criticism that the book’s contents aren’t new and surprising, and that’s fair. But it would be strange to be very surprised by a profile of one’s own demographic. It definitely kept my attention, and there’s enough solid research here that I did learn some things. While single American women may not find a great deal of new information, this should at least be an affirming read.

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