The Opposite of Fate: A Book of Musings by Amy Tan, 2003.

A collection of pieces, most previously published, most autobiographical in one way or another. I like Tan’s writing a lot, and she can also be very funny (notably in the essay about singing for the Rock Bottom Remainders, which I had already read in the wonderful eponymous book, and her terrific commencement address at Simmons College). Especially insightful: “The Language of Discretion,” refuting the idea that language can be read as forming character (specifically the idea that “Chinese has no words for ‘yes’ and ‘no'” and therefore Chinese people are “discreet and modest.” She captures the unease I felt, but couldn’t put into words, when reading this story about French humor. The last essay is about her struggles with misdiagnosed Lyme disease–very sad. I hope she is doing better.

I Only Say This Because I Love You: How the Way We Talk Can Make Or Break Family Relationships Throughout Our Lives by Deborah Tannen, 2001.

Can a family member say something to you that would seem perfectly innocuous to a stranger, yet sends you right up the wall, so furious you can’t see straight? Or do your innocent remarks make people in your family crazy, so you feel you can’t even open your mouth? READ THIS BOOK. Tannen’s You Just Don’t Understand was a brilliant, non-judgemental description of the ways most American men and women communicate differently (John Gray of “Mars and Venus” must owe most of his large fortune to her, since his concepts are just watered-down and generalized versions of hers), so I figured this would be good, but it’s actually even better.

Tannen discusses communication between parents and children, spouses, siblings, and inlaws, describing the various obstacles that can cause people to talk in circles and increase each other’s frustration. The most useful concept to me was the continuum between connection and control. In YJDU she contrasted the frequent male conversation goal of figuring out who’s one-up with the frequent female one of connecting (and similarly, the styles of report-talk vs rapport-talk). Here she shows that both desires are frequently at work. One person makes a remark to establish connection (for example, giving advice) and the other person hears it as an attempt to establish control (telling me what to do), to be put one-down. Tannen recommends “reframing” (which seems in essence to mean looking at it from the other end of the continuum). A side effect of this book’s transcription of actual conversations is amazement that any real communication happens at all!

As Berry and I Were Saying by Dornford Yates, 1952.

I can’t help reading it all the way through because I am a completist, but, man, this is a terrible book. This is the dregs of Yates’ writing I mentioned earlier. All his faults are on parade with nary a redeeming quality. The inside look at the British courts of the 20s could possibly be considered one, but it’s buttered with self-flattery, and Yates’ vision seems so clouded with sentiment and bigotry that I can’t even trust it’s an accurate representation of what he witnessed. Two particularly annoying aspects: A). Berry, Daphne, and Jill lapping up Boy’s (extravagantly dull) stories as though they’ve never heard them before (these people have supposedly lived in each other’s pockets since childhood). B) Frequent references to incidents too shocking to relate. Geez, tell or don’t tell, but don’t try to have it both ways.

Whale Talk by Chris Crutcher, 2001.

A youth librarian from Clarks Summit recommended this to me, saying she wanted to adopt all the boys and take them home. I did like it very much, but it verges on what’s become excellent-YA-novel formula: a narrator wise beyond his years and wonderful in every way except for a temper (he’s smart, handsome, and a natural athlete too! plus he has the absolute perfect girlfriend!); nastier than nasty villains; a motley team that comes together and helps each one feel better about himself. Reads very much like Jerry Spinelli, Joan Bauer, or Bruce Brooks. T.J. (The Tao—his given name) Jones is mixed-race in a racist town, and a battered wife & abused child are a subplot; I can’t say these issues aren’t handled well, but there’s just something that rings a little false. Maybe it’s that TJ, despite his desire to beat up the thugs, ultimately is remarkably saintly (let alone his adoptive dad, who dies a Christ-like death at the end). Maybe it’s the (black) counselor’s name being “Georgia Brown” and actually referred to as “Sweet Georgia Brown.” (The copy I read is advanced uncorrected proofs, so maybe an editor convinced Crutcher to change it). Maybe it’s the father figure who ends up coaching TJ’s rag-tag swim team—he lives illegally in the gym so he can send his son to college, works double shifts at fast food joints, yet is perfectly happy to get by on 4 hours sleep a night so he can coach in the early AM and drive them to all the swim meets (hours in each direction). But these are relatively minor gripes—it was a compelling read and I rooted for all the boys.

The Octopus and the Orangutan: More True Tales of Animal Intrigue, Intelligence, and Ingenuity by Eugene Linden, 2002.

Got off to a great start but let me down at the end. Linden introduces himself as someone who understands and appreciates hard science, recognizes that animal intelligence is an area where not a lot of unambiguous data exists, and yet argues for the importance of even anecdotes to spark our understanding. By the end, when he’s rehashing quantum mechanics as possible grounds for telepathy, he lost a lot of my respect. (Especially with this sentence: “Indeed, after [9/11], American intelligence agencies reactivated a program of drawing on ‘remote viewing’ and other paranormal abilities in their search for Osama Bin Laden…” OK, now I’m convinced!) The anecdotes also declined in interest as the book continued, as though he ran out of material. My favorite one is right at the beginning. Koundo, a gorillla at the Lincoln Park zoo, found a $50 bill that his keeper, Eric Meyers, had dropped. Eric, as keepers often do, bribed Koundo with some peaches to hand over the lost property. Koundo ripped off a corner of the bill, clearly hoping to eke out a bigger reward. Eric, trying to convince the gorilla he’d get more by returning it intact, brought out a huge array of treats and laid them out. On seeing this, Koundo deliberated and then ate the $50.

I remember hearing how intelligent giant octopuses are, but there was much more about orangutans (the engineers of the great apes, who excel at breaking out of their enclosures). Apparently, they are ingenious tool-makers in the wild but their skills are often overlooked because they don’t make separate objects; instead they weave together branches, etc. Also interesting to be reminded how chimpanzees are very aggressive towards each other and actually have what could be called wars between neighboring tribes.

Linden’s book of course doesn’t cover the very recent research showing that dogs’ brains are hard-wired to understand human signals. I think it’s clear that dogs are also gifted at communicating non-verbally in ways humans can understand. Just a few weeks ago, in Key West, I was enjoying a custard ice-cream cone (coffee and caramel twist, yum!) A large dog (very handsome, looked like a Shepherd/Husky but a short light brown coat) approached and asked me to give it some, as clearly as any human could possibly do so even with language: polite stance, beseeching eyes fixed on mine, cocked head, smiling but salivating.