Review – The Language Instinct

Cover of The language Instinct by Steven PinkerThe Language Instinct, Steven Pinker

When it comes to something I don’t know much about, I’m pretty easily swayed by other people’s arguments. Like, I finished this book feeling it was pretty intelligent and interesting, and then I read some criticisms and reviews and heck, I don’t know what to think. Still, I did find it interesting, and while the book looks deceptively slim for how long it took me to get through it, Pinker expresses his arguments clearly, with examples and sourcing, etc.

His basic argument is that we’re hardwired for language. That, as with our sight, hearing, etc, we have a ‘language sense’; if properly stimulated during the critical period, our brains quickly figure out how to parse language (at least, the language spoken around us when we are at that age, even if that language is sign language). We don’t need to hear every word or possible sentence structure (couldn’t possibly) to pick up on the rules of grammar and apply them, when speaking and when listening. This only refers to the critical period; a child will learn grammar instinctively on being exposed to a language, but an adult must learn it by rote, in the same way as you have to learn to process visual input during the critical period for that, or you’ll never have the same visual acuity as someone who did.

Thus far, I think I’m going along with him. I do have questions of a sort of chicken and the egg nature: which came first, the brain’s Universal Grammar module, or language that necessitated it? I’m inclined to think that the structures that we now use to understand language were used for something else earlier in our evolution, and became co-opted into our communications array (so to speak) over time. Our brains formed language, and then the language formed our brains…

All in all, I don’t know whether Pinker’s right, but I found his work convincing. Having read a couple of other books on language, including Guy Deutscher’s Through the Language Glass, and applying what I know from those too, I find it hard to disagree with Pinker even where I want to, for example about relativism.

Rating: 4/5

Thursday Thoughts: Bookish Shame

Thursday Thoughts prompt via Ok, Let’s Read, this week on “bookish shame”.

Do you read exclusively one of the following or a mix: Adult, New Adult, Young Adult, Middle Grade? What are your opinions on shaming adults who read YA? Do you agree or disagree that adults reading YA deters actual young adults from reading because they may “feel as if their genre is taken over?” Do you think NA as a whole gets a bad reputation? Do you think it’s deservedly so?

I don’t read anything exclusively. I don’t really see YA, NA, etc, as genres: that’s more like fantasy, SF, crime, etc. I just view them as helpful pointers as to whether a book is going to be suitable for a given audience. Nothing that stops you reading outside that audience, and there’s no reason to discourage anyone from reading, no matter what. I think there’s bad books in all genres, for all ages, and good books too. We just tend to hear more about the big ones, like Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey that a lot of people dislike.

Now, I do have problems with both of those books I mentioned, but not because of the genre or intended audience. I don’t like Twilight because it treats an unhealthy relationship as the epitome of romance; I don’t like Fifty Shades of Grey because whatever the author claims, it portrays an abusive relationship and makes excuses for it. It’s badly researched, at the very least. I’ve read both those books, too, though not the whole series, so it’s not as though I’m judging them based on nothing but the buzz.

I disagree that adults reading YA should discourage anyone else from doing so. Whether it does or not, I don’t know, but I don’t see why it would. I’ve read all sorts of books aimed at all ages since I learned to parse a sentence, and it never bothered me that anyone else was or wasn’t reading them. If nothing else, it proves the books are accessible and interesting, and not just narrowly targeted at teenagers’ problems or whatever like some books I’ve read that wanted to cram a moral down my throat.

There are some types of books I feel snobby about, but I try to keep in mind that every time I feel that way, I’ll end up loving a good example of the genre. Some markets are more flooded with mediocre books than others, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing of quality out there.

What are you reading Wednesday

What have you recently finished reading?
Eleanor & Park (Rainbow Rowell) and a book about panic attacks. Both have been on my currently reading list for a while, so I’m actually super pleased about that. I have a lot of complicated feelings about Rainbow Rowell’s work.

What are you currently reading?
The Language Instinct (Steven Pinker) is at the top of my pile, since I’m hoping to get on and finish that. There’s a few ARCs I’ve apparently started all at once, too: The Vanishing Witch (Karen Maitland), which is so far very typical of her work; Yesterday’s Kin (Nancy Kress), which is currently reminding me of her novel Steal Across the Sky quite a bit; and Tomorrow and Tomorrow (Thomas Sweterlitsch), which has me intrigued so far, but I’m not far into it yet at all.

What will you read next?
Like I’m not busy enough? Heh. Probably I’ll finish Darwin’s Ghost (Steve Jones), since that’s well past due back at the library, and then probably Genes, Peoples and Languages (Luigi Luca Cavella Sforza), since I’ve been reading Steven Pinker.

Fiction-wise, I’m thinking that I’m going to reread After the Golden Age (Carrie Vaughn) and then read the sequel, Dreams of the Golden Age, next. But there’s plenty of fiction I’m partway through, too, and some ARCs I should get to. Maybe A Suitable Replacement (Megan Derr), because I’ve been meaning to try something by Derr for a while.

Review – Eleanor & Park

Cover of Eleanor & Park by Rainbow RowellEleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell

I have conflicting feelings about Eleanor & Park. I know that various aspects of it really troubled some people, from the treatment of the characters of colour to the way it deals with Eleanor’s fraught home life. I don’t know enough about American culture and history to really comment on that, other than acknowledging that some people find it problematic, e.g. in the exoticisation of Park’s looks and the stereotyping with his mother. I think everything Rowell does here is an honest attempt, though; I think there’s a conscious effort to bring in more diverse characters, it’s just that it brings in a lot of new problems with it.

Still, despite that, I actually really liked the book. I tend to enjoy Rainbow Rowell’s style anyway, and in this book I enjoyed the way she portrayed a teenage relationship. It’s dramatic life and death stuff, and while I don’t think I ever behaved that way, people I know did. Just discovering hormones and making a big mess of themselves over it and each other. It’s complicated in this case by Eleanor’s relationship with her step-dad, and Park’s discomfort about whether he’s the kind of son his father would want. I think parental situations had a fair amount to do with the rather desperate coupling up I saw sometimes: if you’ve got someone to think about while whatever’s going on at home kicks off, then it’s a bit more bearable. Or you’re less alone. Etc.

I think someone else said that to write for teenagers, you have to remember what it’s like to be a teenager, and I think Rainbow Rowell evokes that pretty well here.

When it comes to dealing with the difficult themes around Eleanor’s family, again, I think it’s an honest attempt. She evokes the feeling of threat well when she’s in Eleanor’s POV; it comes through a lot less when she’s writing from Park’s point of view, though. In a way, that’s realistic: we never know exactly what’s going on behind someone else’s eyes. But in this case… Park was so shocked when Eleanor spilled everything, and I’m just thinking, hey, there were plenty of warning signs, in neon.

All in all, though, I found Eleanor & Park a really easy read, and I liked Rainbow Rowell’s attitude to it that she mentioned at the signing I went to — she couldn’t write some happy ever after for Eleanor and Park, because they’re still kids. It’s not the end of their story, it’s the beginning. I really like that she didn’t go for the easy end where everything’s alright: she gave us hope, sure, but no more than that.

Rating: 4/5

Top Ten Tuesday

This week’s Top Ten Tuesday is the kind of thing I’m usually bad at, but I’ll have a go. “Top ten characters I’d want with me on a desert island”, gogogo. Including comics characters in this list because I review comics here too!

  1. Aragorn, from The Lord of the Rings: Because he has all the camping skill and life experience. He’d totally be able to find us shelter and figure stuff out. If he can manage hobbits, he could take care of me. For one thing, I don’t eat as much.
  2. Tony Stark, from Iron Man: Because he’d think of a way off the desert island, using random scrap if necessary.
  3. Katniss Everdeen, from The Hunger Games: Again, she knows her survival stuff. And she can hunt, if the island is big enough.
  4. Will Stanton, from The Dark is Rising: Because then I’d never be lacking a conversation partner, at least.
  5. Cath Avery, from Fangirl: Because, well, fangirling. And we could bond over social anxiety.
  6. FitzChivalry Farseer, from Assassin’s Apprentice: He’d be able to make sure we didn’t poison ourselves, he could communicate with animals for us, and my mum would be totally jealous.
  7. Nighteyes, from Assassin’s Apprentice: Who knows when a wolf might come in handy — and besides, you wouldn’t want to separate Nighteyes and Fitz; they’re a package deal.
  8. Sabriel, from Sabriel: Again, she’s competent, capable of looking after herself, she might be able to whistle up a Paperwing to fly some of us out of there or go into Death to send a message for help or something, and in the first book at least she’s close-ish to my age — younger, but mature. So we’d have stuff in common, I think.
  9. Billy Kaplan, from Young Avengers: He can alter reality with his mind. ’nuff said.
  10. Gwaihir the Windlord, from The Lord of the Rings: I’m sure if we were nice to him he’d fly everyone off the island, or at least go for help. Maybe he should’ve been my #1.

Well, that’s… probably a fairly unusual list, though I bet other people have said Katniss!

Review – Stroke of Insight

Cover of My Stroke of Insight by Jill Bolte TaylorMy Stroke of Insight, Jill Bolte Taylor

Someone gave this as their example of what to expect from this book, and, well, it’s pretty instructive all on its own:

“I unconditionally love my cells with an open heart and grateful mind. Spontaneously throughout the day, I acknowledge their existence and enthusiastically cheer them on. I am a wonderful living being capable of beaming my energy into the world, only because of them. When my bowels move, I cheer my cells for clearing that waste out of my body. When my urine flows, I admire the volume my bladder cells are capable of storing. When I’m having hunger pangs and can’t get to food, I remind my cells that I have fuel (fat) stored on my hips. When I feel threatened, I thank my cells for their ability to fight, flee, or play dead.”

Plus a lot of being one with the universe, etc.

The book actually starts off with a good introduction to what having a stroke is like, albeit I felt that the science was aimed ridiculously low: I felt like even someone who didn’t know anything about the brain would get impatient with the tone. It was overly simplistic, maybe even a touch condescending. Still, that’s the best part of the book: whatever else you may say about her, Jill Bolte Taylor is a neuroanatomist and can explain very clearly what happens to the brain during a stroke. For that aspect alone, I’m glad I followed up on the rec from the Coursera neurobiology MOOC.

But once we get onto oneness with the universe, I’m getting antsy, and once we’re thanking our cells for our bowel movements, I’m out the room.

Oh, and this review is a good critique of it from the point of view of a clinician.

Rating: 2/5

Review – The Serpent’s Promise

Cover of The Serpent's Promise by Steve JonesThe Serpent’s Promise, Steve Jones

I’m quite enjoying Steve Jones’ other book done in this sort of style, taking the work of Charles Darwin and revising, updating and adding to it. Unfortunately, this one fell flat for me. Using some of the central stories of a religion as a gimmick while making it clear how much you look down on people who profess religious belief… ugh. Just, ugh..

Some parts of the science here were interesting, but overall it’s nothing I haven’t read elsewhere. Mostly it feels like Steve Jones riding his hobby horse, over and over. I’ve got several more of his books to read, but I’m starting to think he’s a one-trick pony.

Rating: 2/5

Review – Unthink

Cover of Unthink by Chris PaleyUnthink, Chris Paley

I received an ARC of this via Bookbridgr. I wasn’t sure what level it would be pitched at, but as a general rule, all things to do with psychology and the weird ways our brains work interest me. It turned out that this book was probably below the level I’m reading at when it comes to psychology, which is more Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Paul Bloom, etc: because I rate my personal enjoyment of a book, that’s definitely knocked down my rating. But that’s no real comment on the content, which is interesting; just a lot of it, I happened to know already.

However, if you’re looking for a book with a lot of interesting facts, explained in an accessible manner, then Unthink may well be for you. It’s presented in a very easy to read format, with little chunks rarely more than two or three pages long, each with a descriptive chapter title. Despite the simple presentation, there is also a wealth of notes in the back which go into more detail, point to sources, etc.

Rating: 3/5

Review – The Table of Less Valued Knights

Cover of The Table of Less Valued Knights by Marie PhillipsThe Table of Less Valued Knights, Marie Phillips

I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about this one when I requested it. On the one hand, I love Arthuriana and I have enjoyed several loose interpretations of it, even humorous/light-hearted ones. On the other hand, I’m not very good at humour myself, and can be a bit snooty about anything that messes too much with my views on Arthuriana.

It turns out, I really enjoyed it, and read it in pretty much one go. I love that while there is humour, it’s pretty gentle: it doesn’t single out any character as a laughing stock, and the characters aren’t there just to be laughed at. They’re still people, with goals of their own, and they’re likeable people at that. I somewhat feared Sir Humphrey would just be a laughable oaf, but he turns out to be a good guy even if he doesn’t subscribe to the kind of honour culture the Round Table stands for.

It is all very modern and anachronistic: there’s customs officials between the kingdoms, for example, for the sake of absurdity. There’s also pretty liberal views on LGBT people, including a knight who prefers to be called Gwendoline, and a gay relationship driving part of the plot.

All in all, it’s fun, and I’m really glad I read it. The tone is maybe reminiscent of Gerald Morris, albeit for adults, but otherwise it’s quite a fresh take on the idea of Camelot.

Rating: 4/5

Review – Rocket Girl: Times Squared

Cover of Rocket Girl, by Brandon Montclare & Amy ReederRocket Girl: Times Squared,Brandon Montclare, Amy Reeder

Received to review from Netgalley.

Rocket Girl is kinda fun, though I felt like at a certain point, Dayoung’s flying around and crashing into things gets a bit boring and you want more substance. I do like that we’ve got a fifteen year old girl as the protagonist, though, and that she’s capable and clever, determined and principled.

Overall, though, the supporting cast just didn’t do much for me, and while the way the story plays with time is kind of fun, I wanted more from it. I’m not sure where it can go from here, either, given the ending, and… unfortunately, I’m not that interested.

Rating: 2/5