The Power of Habit: Book Review

Well, I am sad to say I wasn’t that impressed.  It is definitely written by a journalist rather than by an academic.

Absolutely you should read or listen to one of the author’s many interviews on how he broke his afternoon cookie habit, but once you’ve done that, you really have the substance of the worthwhile portions of the book.

Why do I not like this book that I was predisposed to like?  Well, I don’t trust or believe it.  He uses a lot of examples that I’ve seen before but that illustrate completely different concepts and were set up to illustrate different concepts and don’t actually fit in the way that he’s saying if you look at the original research (plus he’s got the simplified journalist-reported version of the marshmallow experiment based on something that doesn’t really exist rather than the original studies).  Secondly, the narrative often seems more important than the truth.  He doesn’t have a good conceptualization of the idea that correlation is not causation and will force causation where it doesn’t actually belong because that is what makes the story look good.  I suspect he’s done that in some of his reporting of people’s stories as well– they seem too simple, too uni-directional, to be true.

And he is aware of these flaws– rather than footnotes or traditional endnotes, he has chapters of notes in the back of the book sorted by page number.  They’re difficult to connect with the narrative.  But anytime I found myself going, “Wait a minute… that’s not right,” I would flip to the back and there would be an admission that no, what he was glibly saying didn’t actually pass fact-checking.  The government official in question says that yes, although the infant mortality rate decreased, he cannot take credit for it.  (But phrased in a way that makes the official sound humble, which flows with the narrative Duhigg has created about him, rather than as someone who wants to make it clear that correlation is not causation.)  There’s a huge debate about whether or not 12-step programs like AA work, with general scholarly opinion finding that they don’t, which he notes in a note.  For a reporting story about a hospital, he notes again that he’s compiled different stories and has left out the ones that disagree rather than agree with his narrative (but phrased in a way that makes it sound like those who disagree are lying).  Almost every time I thought something was too pat to be true or I knew that the actual research wasn’t so simple, I’d flip to the back and there would be a note admitting that no, it isn’t so simple.

But he didn’t let that interrupt his storylines.

So yes, I think his story about how he broke his cookie habit is useful and compelling.  You can find it in the appendix.  But the rest of the book, not so much.  More disappointing than Malcolm Gladwell.  (Interestingly, I overheard one of DH’s audible books by Doris Kearnes Goodwin while reading The Power of Habit and figured out why academic historians have problems with popular historians… so much attribution without evidence.  It hurts!)  The book is not without value, but many of its stories and conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt.

I do, however, still strongly recommend Willpower by Baumeister and Tierney.  Probably the best types of these books are collaborations with academics and reporters.  (Or occasionally there will be a great book written by an academic who also happens to be a good popular writer.)

breaking news: Books are good

You should read Love Is the Drug by Alaya Dawn Johnson.  Just get it.

This book is so good and I stayed up way too late to finish it. Also, if you can get the hardback, do, because the design is quite beautiful.  [Note, however, that the kindle version is $2.99, so even if you don’t love it as much as #1 did, you’re not out that much.]

The book is about high schoolers dealing with race and romance at an expensive prep school in DC.  The protagonist, Emily (or “Bird” to her friends), goes to a party and wakes up in the hospital, unsure what happened.  But there’s a spy chasing her, convinced she knows something important about the pandemic virus that’s sweeping the country.  She doesn’t, but maybe the mysterious drug dealer she’s been flirting with does?  Who can she trust?  Not her parents, not her boyfriend, and probably not the government.

 

I’m not doing it justice but it’s got all kinds of goodies.  Try it out!

(#2 has not read it… it sounds too suspenseful and #2 is in the regency romance portion of her non-work reading ability right now.  The kind where she reads the last chapter after the first just to make sure it turns out ok.  Even though there’s no way it’s not going to turn out ok because it’s a @#@#ing regency romance.  But #2 can’t really handle surprises right now.)

Time to spend those gift cards ON BOOKS

While we’re out of town at a huge NYE bash (well, while #1 is out of town at a huge NYE bash… #2 is probably currently driving in the snow from one small rural town to another, thank goodness for audible), let us give you some suggestions for how to spend all that money you got for Christmas/Yule/Hanukkah/Year-end bonus/blackmailing that guy, or whatever kind of denominational or non-denominational holiday-type thing you might have.

These are books I have LOVED from the library.  So many to love!

The Midnight Queen by Sylvia Izzo Hunter.  Love it, love it, repeatedly recommended it.

I’ve been enjoying Will Thomas’s series starting with Some Danger Involved.  Fascinatingly diverse Victorian London murder mysteries.

Emerald House Rising by Peg Kerr.  Light high fantasy, sure to become a future soothing read (sadly out of print but ILL it if you can!).  Standalone, happy ending.

The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison.  Also fantasy: court intrigue, fish-out-of-water.

Clariel, the Lost Abhorsen by Garth Nix.  I like the Abhorsen series and this is a prequel.

What I Was Doing While You Were Breeding: A Memoir, by Kristin Newman.  I like memoirs.

No Castles Here by A.C.E. Bauer.  A poor kid from the barrio finds a magical book of tales…

The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby.  Essays about books and reading.  Two of my favorite things.

Moth and Spark by Anne Leonard.  Another fantasy to recommend repeatedly.

Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher contains the recommendation letters I wish I could have written as a pre-tenure faculty member.  Epistolary, funny, but not a happy ending.

Otherbound by Corinne Duyvis.  Are you sensing a YA theme here?

The Silvered by Tanya Huff.  I mean, it’s Tanya Huff!

Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography.  Heartwarming and amusing; worth getting in hard copy so you can flip around for an authentic choose-your-own-adventure experience.  (#2 fully enjoyed this one too, and was actually ok about spending full price for a hard copy in an airport bookstore when she discovered she’d forgotten her kindle.  It was worth it!)

Books I was NOT keen on:

Is Everyone Hanging out Without Me? by Mindy Kaling.  Really not as good as Bossypants; I didn’t finish it.

Shadow’s Son by Jon Sprunk:  was doing ok until Rape As A Plot Point.  Bzzzt!

 

This post isn’t all the books I’ve been reading, not by a long shot!  But it has just a few of the things that I think you might like to read.  Not exhaustive, though maybe exhausting.

Any more suggestions???

What are we reading?

Mistborn:  A famous economist recommended this one to me so I read it at a conference!  It is good.

Escape from Mr. Lemoncello’s Library:  I’m reminded reading this how much more safe American children’s spec fic is compared to British children’s spec fic.  There’s no danger in this book, very carefully and specifically every possible danger is neutralized long before it can be a concern.  Mr. Lemoncello is worried about lawsuits (or cares about first doing no harm) in a way that Mr. Wonka never could be.  A fun light read.  After I finished it, DC1 read it three times IN A ROW.  I only read it the once.

Drive:  It’s ok.  It seems a bit facile.  I’m not sure how useful it actually is or how much advice I’d want to take from it.

#1 finally read the first Libromancer book (where “read” means read the first two chapters really carefully and then started getting irritated at every female stereotype masquerading as a person, skimmed the rest skipping large chunks, rolled her eyes a lot, and read a few of the reviews online).  She agrees with the reviewer who says, “Hines seems to have a reputation as one of the liberal good guys in SFF. Which is odd, because every female character here is a dreadful adolescent male wank fantasy.”  She notes that the Princess books were gawdawful, all “rape as plot point rape as back story rape rape rapity rape,” along with dreadful adolescent male fantasy. (Again, reading reviews just now, I’m not the only person who noticed this– here’s a comic one reviewer links to!)  It’s sad when “As a human being, he really tries” is a fairly high bar.  Should be baseline human decency.  #2 has lower standards for female characters having to actually be characterized as people rather than paper dolls and is looking forward to the next book in the series.  We both agree that the series would have been much better had Seanan McGuire written it.  Of course, MANY things would be better if Seanan McGuire wrote them.  It’s weird because his Goblin series doesn’t have such cruddy female characters or plot points and is actually somewhat creative in terms of relationships and things.  But you know, no romance in there.  He’s not ending up as an adolescent male fantasy.  Or maybe 2-d characters just work better in the Goblin universe… that may be what’s going on– Hines does obvious farce well but sucks at real character development, relying on standard tropes.

A Matter of Taste by Richard Lockridge– this one without his wife.  It was a super creepy noir psychological thriller (not my usual fare).  First sentence is gripping though, “Although he was well into his fifty-second year, Mr. Oliver Hillard had not yet killed anyone.”  As always (n=3) with the Lockridges, the first chapter stands as an entrancing vignette, though a particularly creepy one in this case.

Waistcoats and Weaponry by Gail Carriger. The problem with Gail Carriger books is that after reading the one you’re on, you often need to have the next one right away. And the next one HASN’T BEEN PUBLISHED YET. This is especially true with the penultimate book in each of her two published series thus far. Patience, #2 (who has this on her amazon wishlist for Christmas), and wait for the last book in this series to come out so you don’t have to WAIT A YEAR to find out what comes next.

What do you recommend for holiday reading?  What don’t you recommend?

What are we reading? Throw-back edition.

Sometimes this century is just too much and we seek out popcorn from the past.  Not, you know, classics, exactly, but good stuff that is enjoyable to read and gives a nice snapshot of popular literature of the time.

Gentlemen Prefer Blondes— technically this one might be considered a classic, I mean, it was sort of made into a Marilyn Monroe movie (though not really– the book is soooo much racier, despite the lack of a strip-tease).  (Also the main character is a bit racist, but she’s a bit a lot of other things too, and it’s portrayed in a way that the actual author seems to be condemning the casual racism, but still, FYI.)  Don’t know why it isn’t available on kindle anymore, but your library is pretty likely to have a copy.

Dinny Gordon, Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, and Senior.  These are good.  On the surface they’re silly YA fiction from the 1960s, but there’s a subversiveness to them.  Junior year is especially enthralling.  (Hat Tip to Girl Historian for recommending them!)  Worth checking to see if your university library still has them.

We Shook the Family Tree.  A comic memoir, similar to those by Jean Kerr, though not quite the same.  I used to read these kinds of books by the pile back when I was a kid after I discovered the non-fiction comedy section at the library (after running out of children’s books and being too young for a lot of the SF/Fantasy/Mystery adult books).  I have no idea where I got this paperback… I wonder if it once belonged to my mother (unlikely because she doesn’t tend to keep paperbacks) or if I actually picked it up myself at a used bookstore (also unlikely because I don’t tend to buy things that aren’t SF/Fantasy unless it’s an author I already know).   Maybe it was nestled between Richard Armour and Jean Kerr and I impulse-bought it.  It’s a mystery.  In any case, it was a fun light romp (and kind of funny how the heroine complained about having a thigh gap– only they called it being bow-legged back then!)

While reading We shook the family tree, I decided I was curious about Hildegarde Dolson, and the Wikipedia article made her seem even more interesting.  I’m always a sucker for long-lasting, late-in-life romances.  Anyway, her husband was a mystery writer (a widower) who wrote mystery novels with his wife before she died.  Well, I had to try some of those.  Annoyingly, our uni library has ALL of them and all of the Dolson books, BUT it won’t check them out.  If I didn’t have work or a family I would so park myself in that reading room and just read.  They also have a complete collection of SF/Fantasy paperbacks that doesn’t circulate.  Forget the museum.  I want to be locked into that room overnight!  (I may have to ILL One Lady, Two Cats… you know, for research purposes– or just buy it off amazon). They did have a few random circulating copies of things though, so I ordered neither the first in the series nor the reputed best in the series … and I liked them.

The Lockridges have two main series, one about a couple named Mr. and Mrs. North who are pretty similar to Gracie Allen and a less sarcastic George Burns, if Gracie and George solved crimes, and the other about a police inspector named Heimrich.  The two books I got out, Murder is Served and Spin Your Web, Lady, were both pretty good.  Though definitely products of their time (1947 and 1948)– in Spin Your Web I cringed a bit at the pregnant lady getting drunk and even more at the treatment of a mentally disabled character, and some other stuff that would give too much away if I stated it here.  Both open with really entertaining slices of life– the former gives us a scene at a high class restaurant, the latter puts us in the mind of a somewhat sketchy university extension professor.  I think I’m going to grab more by these authors.  And One Lady, Two Cats is definitely on my amazon wishlist.  I also wish I had some Perry Masons, which are easy and fun popcorn novels though not quite as wholesome as the tv show.

#2 is reading lots of frontlist right now (especially from the library), but on the backlist I’ve recently quite enjoyed Fay Weldon’s Letters to Alice: On First Reading Jane Austen.

 

Come at us with some throwback-reading love, readers!

Current book podcasts

There are podcasts about books?  Why yes, there are!  Here’s what I usually listen to these days, all through iTunes:

Book Fight – two white male friends in Philly who are writers, editors, and teachers of writing and literature discuss one book or short story per week, sometimes with a theme, and sometimes wandering off into fascinating, funny digressions.

Oh, Comics! – just starting, you can get in on the ground floor!  The podcast for the new site about comic books, Panels.  One host is a man heavily into comic books, and the other is woman just recently getting into them.

Book Riot – like the site, and the podcast!  Everything books- and reading-related.  Hosts work well together.

also just picked up Reading Lives, a new podcast in the Book Riot Empire (Book Riot, Oh, Comics!, Dear Book Nerd, etc.).

Bookrageous – a roundtable discussion about what everyone’s reading and why books are great, featuring a rotating cast of fun regulars.

Sword & Laser – The sword and the laser stand for fantasy and science fiction: books, TV, movies, pop culture, and more books.  They even have a cute mascot, Lem, a cyborg dragon (Lord Bookwyrm Lem of Swaser).

Books on the Nightstand (sometimes).  One of the co-hosts, Ann Kingman, reminds me a lot of my stepmother in both her voice and her vocal tone/inflection/mannerisms, so that makes the podcast a bit weird for me to really enjoy.  (N.B.: My stepmother is great tho.)

I tried a few episodes of Dear Book Nerd, but I quit listening because I felt like I always had the ONE RIGHT ANSWER to the question, and the host didn’t.  That’s a weird personal preference, though!  You might like it.

That’s all the book podcasts I even pretend to keep up with.  I have other ones that are about geekdom in general, writing, spec-fic writing, video games, etc.

Grumpeteers, anything I should add?

Interviewing ourselves with the Historiann NYTimes meme

Here’s the meme.

What books are currently on your night stand?

#1: The Far West by Patricia C Wrede

#2:  Every Day Is for the Thief: Fiction by Teju Cole; To-Do List by Sasha Cagen

What was the last truly great book you read?

I’m gonna have to go with my fifth or so reread of Frederica here.

Who are the best historians writing today?

Martha J. Bailey, Dora Costa, Claudia Goldin, Michael Haines, Rick Hornbeck

What’s the best book ever written about American history?

ummmm… dunno

Sorry–I didn’t realize.  Maybe I should ask if you have a favorite biography?

Bossypants was pretty good.  Maybe not the favorite, but a recent fav.

What are the best military histories?

I greatly enjoyed Herodotus.

And what are the best books about African-American history?

Race and Schooling in the South, 1880-1950: An Economic History is pretty good.  Probably not the best ever written, but an important one.

During your many years of teaching, did you find that students responded differently over time to the history books you assigned?

I’ve only assigned them one year so far, but they loved it.

What kind of reader were you as a child?

Voracious!

If you had to name one book that made you who you are today, what would it be?

#2: Jane Eyre (really?  How?)

#1: Brave New World …(really? Meh!). It taught me to think like an anthropologist.  I didn’t take away the messages that I was supposed to.

If you could require the president to read one book, what would it be?

#2: Currently?
Dumbing Down America: The War on Our Nation’s Brightest Young Minds (And What We Can Do to Fight Back) by James Delisle.

#1: I think I would try to find something on how to do better propaganda.

You’re hosting a literary dinner party. Which three writers are invited?

Martin Gardener *assuming you can bring him while he was still alive*, Dorothy L. Sayers (ditto)

Alive: Mary Robinette Kowal and Gail Carriger and  Nora K Jemisin and Neil Gaiman. Ok, that’s more than 3. I have a big table.

Disappointing, overrated, just not good: What book did you feel as if you were supposed to like, and didn’t? Do you remember the last book you put down without finishing?

#2:  I should have liked Death of the Necromancer by Martha Wells but didn’t.  Unfortunately (as it is a favorite of #1), I found it a tedious sausage-fest.  Men angry with other men and getting in fights with men and then other men are involved and men want revenge on men for things men did to men a long time ago when men were men and some men were boys and there’s two henchmen who are the same character… bleh.  I liked Wells’ other books that I’ve read though!

#1 isn’t enjoying the book that #2 liked more than Bossypants.  She’s finding it boring and not particularly funny.  At least it was only $1.99!  How to be a Woman by Caitlin Moran.

What books are you embarrassed not to have read yet?

#2:  The Female Eunuch by Germaine Greer

#1:  Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Mullainathan and Shafir

What do you plan to read next?

new YA fantasy, probably — and probably from the library.

Grumpeteers, what do you plan to read next???

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