When he wrote this novella in 1974, Heinrich Boll was furious with the yellow press; anger radiates from the very disclaimer (which states that the neWhen he wrote this novella in 1974, Heinrich Boll was furious with the yellow press; anger radiates from the very disclaimer (which states that the newspaper in this book is totally not the Bild-Zeitung, but hey, if the shoe fits….). Nevertheless, this is one of those books that manages to tell its story well and broadly enough that no knowledge of its source material is required to enjoy it.
Katharina Blum is a hard-working young woman who, after a rare evening of fun, takes a young man home with her. Turns out he is on the run from the law, and the next day Katharina is brought in for police questioning as a potential co-conspirator. To make matters worse, a popular newspaper with little concern for the truth picks up the story, and soon the details of her life are on display everywhere, while Katharina and everyone she knows is being harassed and their words twisted. We learn at the beginning of the story that Katharina has murdered the offending journalist, but there is suspense enough in the details that for me it still proved a page-turner.
This is a good book: an intriguing plot, interesting and believable characters, and strong writing. The translation is smooth and very readable. The book purports to be a third-party report of the events, based on research and interviews, and the detached POV works well, keeping readers guessing at what characters are thinking and tempering the potential for melodrama. My only gripe about the book is the end: without going into detail, I felt Katharina underreacted and Blorna overreacted to the way things turned out. Overall though, I enjoyed this novella very much and would recommend it....more
This was a reader/book mismatch, and I try to avoid criticizing books simply for not being my thing. But I do want to provide the information that wouThis was a reader/book mismatch, and I try to avoid criticizing books simply for not being my thing. But I do want to provide the information that would have been helpful to me in deciding whether to read it.
So, I’d heard that this is a brilliant new book about race in America, and only afterwards that it is poetry, which is most definitely not my thing (that whooshing sound you hear, that is the sound of a poem going right over my head. I love words, but I am literal-minded). But then I read an excerpt, here, and it is nothing like your typical poetry. These short pieces have been called “prose poems,” and while I suspect “prose poem” is simply a fancy way of referring to regular old good writing in small fragments, the fact remains that these self-contained pieces are excellently-written, hard-hitting, and easily understood.
And having read Rankine’s work, I think “prose poems” are probably the ideal format for writing about microaggressions. ("Microaggressions” are small, often thoughtless actions that are offensive or hurtful because of their cultural context. Examples: a salesperson suspiciously following black shoppers around a store; a white college student telling a black one that she was probably admitted because of affirmative action.) By their nature, these small and disconnected events would be very difficult to write an interesting and cohesive novel about (this is one of the things Adichie attempted in Americanah, unsuccessfully in my judgment, but no wonder). As distinct, disheartening fragments that don’t have to connect to one another through some larger narrative structure, though, it works.
What I didn’t know before reading this book was that less than 50 pages of it is comprised of these pieces. For the rest, there’s some rather more traditional poetry; some photography and images, whose meanings were often obscure to me; some essays, which seemed to omit crucial background information on the assumption that readers are already familiar with the situations Rankine was writing about (for instance, the long essay on bad calls made against Serena Williams); and some experimental pieces, identified as “scripts for situation videos,” which are perhaps best described as stream-of-consciousness pieces from the point of view of characters inspired by recent events. The best word for this whole collection is “experimental,” and if you are into experimental writing you should absolutely give it a try. I, unfortunately, am not, and so most often this book simply left me baffled....more
This easy-to-read book, written by a journalist, summarizes a great many recent psychological studies revealing various deficiencies in people’s perceThis easy-to-read book, written by a journalist, summarizes a great many recent psychological studies revealing various deficiencies in people’s perceptions, memory, and judgment. Unfortunately, its analysis is shallow, it offers few suggestions for avoiding mistakes, and its logic is all too often flawed.
1) Hallinan is familiar with many studies, which he describes in laymen’s terms and in a readable and concise manner. People need to know that we aren’t perfect: our memories are not recording devices; we don’t see everything that’s in front of us; we recall events in self-serving ways. Some interesting things I learned:
- People can’t truly multitask; instead our attention switches back and forth between different tasks. This harms our efficiency and is dangerous when driving.
- We don’t see as much as we think we do, and when interacting with people different from ourselves, often see types rather than individuals. In one small study, pedestrians were asked directions by strangers; their conversations were interrupted, during which time the stranger switched places with another person. Only half of the pedestrians noticed the change, and it went down to a third when the strangers dressed as construction workers.
- Our brains give up quickly when searching for something that’s usually not present. This is why radiologists and TSA screeners often miss what they’re looking for.
- The rates of medical error are horrifying. Always get a second opinion.
- Familiarity breeds oversight. Don’t just get a colleague to proofread an important paper; ask a family member who doesn’t work in the field.
2) It is comforting to know some of the mistakes we often make are normal, such as forgetting people’s names, or having no idea who someone is when you encounter them outside the usual context. It’s also normal to not remember exact details of things we see all the time; for instance, few participants were able to correctly place all the features on a penny.
3) Tips on avoiding mistakes (though the book contains so few that most of them are included in this review):
- If you have to memorize a stranger’s face (for instance, to identify in a lineup later), you will remember more by attempting to make judgments about the person’s character based on his/her physical features.
- We make fewer mistakes when happy, but it doesn’t take much. Watch funny YouTube videos before important tasks.
- Avoid taking advice from people whose interests are in conflict with yours. Disclosing the bias doesn’t keep them honest – in fact, it may do the opposite, because once you’ve been warned, they feel less obligation toward you.
1) This book will have you think people misremember everything, lie constantly, and are all terrible at their jobs (especially in medicine). Along with more advice on avoiding mistakes – which surely warranted more than 10 pages at the end – by the time I finished I wanted to know how we ever get things right.
2) Because the book deals with many studies quite briefly, sometimes it raises more questions than answers. For instance, it posits that we make snap judgments about people’s competence based on their facial features – but doesn’t explain what features strike us as competent so that we can try to correct for it. In another section, Hallinan recounts a study showing that teams with black uniforms are viewed as more aggressive by referees than teams in white uniforms, and are penalized more often. And that is literally all we learn about color coding. What are our impressions of other colors? Which colors are best to wear in which situations? Hallinan isn’t telling.
3) Worst of all for a science book, Hallinan’s premises don’t always support his conclusions. For instance:
- To prove that our memory of conversations is flawed, he gives the example of a politician recorded on Nixon’s tapes, who subsequently (but before the release of the tapes) testified in detail about their conversations. Unsurprisingly, there were significant differences between the testimony and the actual recording. But Hallinan attributes it all to honest memory failure, without taking into account the desire of a political figure (and one on a national stage, no less) to make himself and his allies look good. This is especially odd when a later chapter discusses self-serving exaggerations. Hallinan also focuses on insignificant discrepancies: the politician remembers Nixon asking him to sit, but the tape doesn’t include that; perhaps they’re both right, because Nixon simply gestured to a chair?
- Arguing that “the grass is always greener” and that people focus on the wrong things, Hallinan gives an anecdote of a couple who moved to California for the weather, but disliked the culture and their neighborhood, and then moved back home. He supports this with the statistic that 2.2 million people leave California every year. Without any information on the reason for those moves (I’d hazard a guess that most, like any moves, are primarily motivated by work or family, rather than disenchantment with California), that statistic tells us nothing but that the U.S. is a highly mobile society.
- When asked how many opposite-sex sexual partners they’ve had, men report many more than women, which means someone’s not telling the truth. Hallinan considers it “clear” that people simply misremember in the direction society approves, rather than lie, on the grounds that men and women are equally likely to acknowledge having had oral or anal sex, and therefore must be telling the truth to their best of their ability. Given that the median numbers reported in the U.S. are four partners for women and seven for men – numbers that should be easily memorable – honest mistakes seem unlikely to be the best explanation. A more plausible one is be that people feel more comfortable exaggerating (increasing or decreasing a number) than outright lying on a yes/no question, or that people feel less judged for the sex acts they’ve engaged in than for the number of people they’ve had sex with.
To wrap up, then: this book is a good introduction to recent studies on the fallacies of the human brain, but it isn’t without fallacies of its own, nor is it more than a surface-level compilation of studies by an interested journalist. I learned enough that it was worth my time, but I would be interested to read more on the topic from authors with a deeper knowledge of the material....more