Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria

The Post-American WorldThe Post-American World by Fareed Zakaria
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book is basically about the end of American hegemony. According to the author, this was partly caused by America ruining worldwide trust with the second Iraq war, buy mostly caused by China and India's quiet economic development, and Russia's increased aggression while we were busy with the Middle East. Most of the book is a description of the politics and economics can of America, China, and India. Then there are some warnings and hopeful statements about how this might all lead to greater security. But this was back in 2008. I'm having a hard time imagining how our precarious position in the world is going to work out okay with Trump at the helm.

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Friday, December 30, 2016

The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein

The Moon is a Harsh MistressThe Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first read this as a kid, but my rating is the same as then. There are many interesting things to consider in this novel: a conscious computer, consciousness versus having a conscience, the principles of freedom and rebellion, the dangers of a crowded dystopian Earth, and some fun guesses at utopian futures: racial integration, varying family structures, tax-free government etc. All of this, plus the tricky revolution plots, make for a very fun book. But large chunks of the book drag, especially in the second half.

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Wednesday, December 28, 2016

The Tao of Bill Murray by Gavin Edwards

The Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party CrashingThe Tao of Bill Murray: Real-Life Stories of Joy, Enlightenment, and Party Crashing by Gavin Edwards
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Half the book is a fun autobiography and the second half is an overview of all of Murray's movie. The autobiography part is itself part autobiography and part collection of stories of weird Bill Murray antics.

The book is as good as the reader is a hardcore fan. Because I am a big fan but haven't seen all the movies, I think the book is 4 stars. Someone who isn't that big a fan might think fewer stars, someone who is more hardcore might say 5 stars.

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket

The Bad Beginning (A Series of Unfortunate Events, #1)The Bad Beginning by Lemony Snicket
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I'd heard good things, and it's really short. I read it as "research" for what to read to James, but not really, I just wanted to read it. Haha. It's definitely a children's book for children, and not so much for adults. It teaches kids vocabulary which is nice, but it's pretty dark so I'm not sure the appropriate age for it. Probably it's for middle school students.

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Friday, December 23, 2016

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

The House of the SpiritsThe House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The novel starts out with a One Hundred Years of Solitude-vibe, with the history of a Chilean family through four generations. You're lulled into a weird tropical stupor where one of the main character's many rapes seem tolerable. (My Goodreads "sexual assault" shelf overflowth.) Little by little, the novel takes a darker political tone, until you're sitting in a pit of Pinochet-inspired torture. Magical realism to horror book basically.

Isabel Allende's father was a cousin of Salvador Allende, who was democratically elected president of Chile from 1970-1973. Because Salvador Allende was a Marxist/socialist the US supported Augusto Pinochet coup d'état in September 1973. Pinochet then proved to be a totalitarian dictator who violented oppressed his opposition. So that's why this novel goes the way it goes. If you want to read more about Isabel Allende's life versus House of Spirits: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2007/apr/28/isabelallende.fiction

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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson

CryptonomiconCryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Meh. Maybe I would have liked it better if it weren't so unrewardingly long. In a strange way, it reminds me of Gravity's Rainbow, if GR were readable and even a tiny but enjoyable- which it is not.

I enjoyed the fun little math sketches in the book and the characters were good. The plot veered between boring and stressful with only small sections in the beginning and middle that I really enjoyed. I'm sad I didn't like it more. I see a lot of enthusiasm for the book in the other reviews and I want to share in that. I loved Anathem, and I'm not giving up on Stephenson. I might need to try for a shorter Stephenson novel next time though.

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The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria

The Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and AbroadThe Future of Freedom: Illiberal Democracy at Home and Abroad by Fareed Zakaria
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is excellent, and I strongly recommend it to everyone. Its thesis is that there's a significant difference between freedom (constitutional liberalism) and democracy and that if wielded poorly, democracy can be the foil of freedom. There is so much more to this book, though. Almost every page gave me something important to ponder. It could function as a starter guide to democracy.

Frequently when I read, I feel like the same thing could have been said in a much shorter more tightly edited text, but this time, I felt quite the opposite. This book is very tight and won't waste any of your time. In fact, I wanted to read more about some of the issues he raised at the end of the book. I'm eager to going to read another Zakaria book next, The Post-American World.

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Sunday, December 18, 2016

I Contain Multitudes by Ed Yong

I Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of LifeI Contain Multitudes: The Microbes Within Us and a Grander View of Life by Ed Yong
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book is about all the fascinating things bacteria do and are responsible for. It's very well-researched. I wanted to give it more stars but I didn't find it enjoyable to read despite already being very interested in the topic. I think part of the reason I didn't enjoy it was its organization.

Another part of why I didn't like reading it was its focus on animals and insects. I know this research is necessary to lay the groundwork for all we do and don't know about how bacteria affects humans, but I preferred the small and largely split up sections about humans and human environments, but then I'd have to read through a long section about insects that eat their prey alive from the inside ... And end up basically having a crisis of spirituality. Kidding, but only a little.

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Saturday, December 17, 2016

Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, #2)Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The first time I read this book I hadn't encountered all the many mentions of it in our culture yet. Or if I had, I hadn't noticed yet. I've encountered many uses of the quote of the Queen telling Alice that in the Mirror Land you must keep running just to stay in the same place. I think once I encountered it as a physics analogy, and another time as a more pedestrian analogy.

This is also the origin of the famous poem Jabberwocky. That's probably a good enough reason to read the book.

The first time I read this book, I read it like any other children's book. On a second reading, it appears to be one puzzle-analogy after another with minimal uniting plot, ie. Alice is a pawn in a real-life chess game trying to become a queen.

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Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Nine Minutes by Beth Flynn

Nine Minutes (Nine Minutes, #1)Nine Minutes by Beth Flynn
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I decided to read this because it was free to download on Amazon and some reviewers on Goodreads were going crazy for it. If you want to read something very different, go for it. It reads like a memoir. It has romance, but it's not successful in that genre. It is good at horror, and I kept mentally screaming GET OUT!!! GET OUT!!! I think it's mostly about Stockholm's Syndrome while denying to be about Stockholm's Syndrome.

The ending is just weird enough that I'm a little tempted to read the sequel. Again, the book is definitely different.

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Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett

Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, WitchGood Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Terry Pratchett and  
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Can a book be bad and pointless, and still kind of cute? If so, this is that book. It's a cross between The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy and The Screwtape Letters with a lot of British humor and snarkiness. It's not very three-dimensional though. The only somewhat developed characters were the demon Crowley, the angel Aziraphale, and the Adam and his friends. I enjoyed them. The other characters were extremely flat and pointless. The ending went on and on. I don't recommend the book but if they ever make a holiday movie of this, I'll definitely go. Haha.

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Monday, December 12, 2016

Peter Pan by J.M. Barrie

Peter PanPeter Pan by J.M. Barrie
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I think that as children's books go, this one is exceptionally charming. (Another one I'd consider "exceptionally charming" is Matilda.) I've read a lot of children's books this year because I read some with James and I read some to decide whether or not to read them with James, and many of them are just annoying if you're an adult. Not this one. I love the writing. It's a beautiful love letter to good mothers.

One thing that dates the book in an unfortunate way is that addition to the kids, the lost boys, pirates, and mermaids, the book also has Native Americans called "redskins."

"Peter Pan" was originally the third book in a series called "Peter and Wendy." The first book is "Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens" and the second is "the Little White Bird" and I haven't read them though they're both available as free ebooks.

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Sunday, December 11, 2016

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I thought this book was super fun to read. That's why I gave it a full 5 stars. Yes, it was a little formulaic and the love interest wasn't well-executed. I'm not a big 80s film, music, or video fan, but the author was pretty clear about what the references meant and made it fun to follow the progress of the hero. Actually, I'd like to watch some of the movies mentioned because the movies interested me the most. If I had to prepare someone for what reading this book is like I'd say: a significantly less sad Hunger Games.

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Friday, December 9, 2016

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (Miss Peregrine’s Peculiar Children, #1)Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was okay. Mostly boring. Barely even an adventure story as one challenge was met, and not very surprising. I forced myself to finish it so I could say I did. But it was pretty clear it wasn't going to get any better pretty early on.

I never really got invested in any of the characters except maybe the grandfather, who had an interesting life story, and an interesting way of relating with his grandson.

[Small spoiler alert.] The only thing I liked about it was the concept of time loops but it wasn't used to any fun effect. In fact, at the end of the book, they just changed the rules of the time loops for discernible no reason.

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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in CrisisHillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Super interesting read. I have so many thoughts about this memoir, but it's like an avalanche of thought, and I can't get my bearings.

As a native of rural Kentucky and Ohio, Vance is an excellent tour guide into the world of Appalachia, without being condescending. More people should have read this before the 2016 election, as it is clear now that the dynamics he discusses are at play all around the country in many different types of communities.

Even though I grew up speaking Spanish in New Jersey, I can relate to a lot of the class-based issues he discusses. Especially when I went to law school. I didn't have as big a culture gap as Vance did by the time I entered law school, but it was still a substantial culture gap. Many of my fellow classmates came from families with lawyers and had a lot of individualized help from family and family friends. I'm sure many professors or administrators would have helped, but I didn't even know I should get help in making career preparations and choices. Honestly, I didn't even know what questions to ask. A lot of what I learned about the business and practice of law and networks came in the "too little too late" variety. I also had to sit through conversations where fellow law students discussed the "poor" like they might hypothesize about the plight of pandas in China. Hi! I'm sitting right here, you guys! But one thing I did pick up on quickly was that, in a world where most people don't pay for their own tuition, it's déclassé to discuss money.

This book doesn't directly address something I've noticed has become a problem. More and more, some liberals declare that because a person is "white" and male that he is automatically privileged and can't understand any hardship or injustice. This is ridiculous to me. Privilege and disadvantage come in many different colors, shapes, sizes, and flavors. The book illustrates how wrong this conception of privilege is, without engaging in a (likely unsympathetic) comparison of disadvantaged groups.

The book is a little tricky and a little challenging on how to deal with these complex issues. The author is conservative and possibly planning a run for office one day? But as a liberal, I respect his measured consideration of the issues. I felt challenged to see things in a somewhat different light than I had before, and this is exactly what I seek to do when I invest time in reading a book. I'm pretty sure this book will be a good use of time for others as well.

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Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Jennifer Government by Max Barry

Jennifer GovernmentJennifer Government by Max Barry
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A slightly silly but a fun dystopian action book. Also, this book is a fun liberal revenge on allegorical books by Ayn Rand. It is certainly more enjoyable than Ayn Rand.

On the other hand, now that there are daily news stories about the President-elect mixing his business interests with his government duties, are we plummeting more quickly toward the Jennifer Government world?

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Ah-Choo! by Jennifer Ackerman

Ah-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common ColdAh-Choo!: The Uncommon Life of Your Common Cold by Jennifer Ackerman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The structure of this book is to discuss particular topics or studies by using the interviews with different researchers and recording what they say. However, the researchers don't agree on a number of things. Also, there is a lot that's just general uncertain or nuanced in viral research. (Although this book was written 6 years ago, there's not a lot of new science on this yet.) The effect of this book structure is that it feels disorganized and not very informative.

But the appendix is actually pretty well organized and succinct. You could read the book backwards- read the appendix first for the most important and more certain evidence. Then you could either stop or go back and read the book to see where this evidence came from- the history and research that provided the information in the appendix. The author failed to discuss how antibacterial lotions can be very harmful, but possibly that's newer research.

My take-away is: wash your hands thoroughly with soap, mostly to avoid things that are worse than colds because are actually pretty good for you in the scheme of things; if you get a cold, hydrate and eat chicken soup because it actually helps with the symptoms of a cold; over-the-counter stuff will only mask symptoms sometimes but do nothing to help shorten or avoid the cold; many medications are too dangerous for children, as is the risk of overdose to children from using more than one medication. If you're an adult go ahead and enjoy a hot toddy. Yum.

However, I have kids, and I feel like this failed to address my main issues: (1) How to know if the kids have a cold, a flu, or even something else? (2) How to keep a minor cold or flu from turning into some kind of infection in my kids that ends up requiring antibiotics (sinus or ear infection)? (3) How much to let them cough or try to suppress an excessive or nighttime cough with things such as honey?

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016

The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

The Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and FlavorThe Dorito Effect: The Surprising New Truth About Food and Flavor by Mark Schatzker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Surprisingly good thesis about the cause of the obesity epidemic. The premise is that human (and animals) recognize and crave the nutrients they need by recognizing the appropriate flavors. So for example, strawberries have countless things we need. Therefore, they taste delicious to us. Many plants also have toxins that we tolerate well in low doses, but once we start to consume too much of the toxins our bodies tell us we're full or we stop desiring to eat that particular plant.

However, in the modern era, healthy foods have been bred for mass production and these foods have become less and less tasty. This is an accurate sign that they are also less nutritious now. We mask the lack of flavor with artificial flavors. Sometimes we add vitamins or minerals to things but it's not in the efficient balance nature provides such as in low-calorie nutrient-dense fruits, vegetables, and meats.

So on the one hand, we wrecked the healthy foods- making them less healthy and less tasty. On the other hand, we made delicious unhealthy foods like the book's namesake Doritos. Our instincts tell us tasty = healthy. But now our instinct are wrong. Since our nutritional needs are not properly or completely being met we eat more and more delicious things to fill this nutritional void. But it doesn't work because the tasty things (junk food) don't contain nutrition- in fact, they make us feel worse. Also, they don't contain any of the chemicals or toxins that other foods do that signal our bodies to stop eating.

Most of this is backed up with animal and plant studies, though the author frequently states the need for more research into the science of the link between flavor and nutrition. I especially found this argument interesting because it's a partial rejection of the pure calories theory of weight gain and obesity.



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Monday, December 5, 2016

Tenth of December by George Saunders

Tenth of DecemberTenth of December by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This short story collection is so amazing, there are no words for how great it is. Three of the stories made me cry, and not out of sadness, but because of how beautiful they were. Saunders is funny, inspiring, and turns pure goodness into stories. What a gift to read a book like this.

My favorites were: "Victory Lap," "Puppy," "Escape from Spiderhead," "My Chivalric Disaster," and "Tenth of December." Also really like "Exhortation." "Sticks" is cool in a weird artsy way.

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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Payoff by Dan Ariely

Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations (Ted Books)Payoff: The Hidden Logic That Shapes Our Motivations by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very short book about what motivates us at work, in our families, in our search for a meaning in life. Most of the results are based on actual research in behavioral economics.

In short: control over our lives, creativity, the hard work we put into things, personalizing our work, being personally appreciated at work, love and sacrifice for those we're committed to, and having a sense of legacy in our work or family life.

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The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace

The Broom of the SystemThe Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Not the most valuable use of my life. Basically a fiction book about linguistics defining us? I don't even know. It started out really well, carefully developing an interesting character, Leonore and her childhood and adult relationships. Then it just went catastrophically downhill with more and more fantastical elements.

The ending was, as a bit character in the book would have characterized, "the sucks."

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Thursday, December 1, 2016

Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest TrailWild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I feel like this is the part where I have to defend why I liked this so much. But no. It was a very enjoyable book. It was bad ass. It was feminist. I might even read it again one day. I liked the journey itself, I liked her writing, I liked the people she met, I liked all of it.

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Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Love's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare

Love's Labour's LostLove's Labour's Lost by William Shakespeare
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This play has some of my new favorite quotes, including this scene:

BIRON: ... What is the end of study? let me know.
FERDINAND: Why, that to know, which else we should not know.
BIRON: Things hid and barr'd, you mean, from common sense?
FERDINAND: Ay, that is study's godlike recompense.

But it's mostly silliness. The King is courting a princess. His lords are courting her maids. There are some other characters that are even worse. There's some clever and funny stuff but overall, not one of my favorite plays. By the end, I felt just like Biron who says in the final scene, "That's too long for a play."

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Monday, November 28, 2016

The Discourses by Niccolò Machiavelli

The DiscoursesThe Discourses by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Mostly discusses the benefits and management of a democratic state. A significantly more moral read than The Prince. Makes the argument that despite the sentiment popular in the 1500s, rule by the masses, while imperfect, is preferable to autocratic rule. It his belief that democracies that fail become anarchies, but current experience seems to point to oligarchy at best or tyrannies at worst.

Machiavelli spends a fair amount of time discussing how religion can help or hinder the democratic state. Interesting stuff worth considering.

His high-mindedness falls apart at the end though. He says it's acceptable to do anything to save the free state. So even a democratic Machiavelli remains Machiavellian.



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The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli

The PrinceThe Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When people say blanket feel-good things (especially with regards to politics) like "people are fundamentally good" I think, have you lived in this world? Have you at least read some books?

This is a difficult book to rate because Machiavelli does a good job of explaining how autocratic power was attained and kept in the 1500s. 5 stars for that. I took 3 stars off for the immoral horror of the advice given. I didn't take all the stars as a nod to the fact that it is a valuable book to read in terms of understanding the historical context of political manipulation.

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The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho

The AlchemistThe Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Meh. At least it was really short. It would be a cute children's book. For adult readers it is not sufficiently sophisticated in either writing style or philosophy.

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Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking

The Universe in a NutshellThe Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I liked this even better than A Brief History of Time even though it contained a lot of the same information because the organization was a lot better for getting to the most interesting and important information first. For this reason, it was a lot more engaging than A Brief History of Time. Another thing I really like about this book is that it's short. While I've read some more in-depth books about physics (mostly by Brian Greene but others as well) most people don't know the basics covered in this book and really should know it. This book would definitely be my recommendation for someone's first physics book .

I have the illustrated hardcover book, and it's really a pleasure to read through.

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Saturday, November 26, 2016

The Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare

The Two Gentlemen of VeronaThe Two Gentlemen of Verona by William Shakespeare
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very fun read except for the cheesy ending. It's the original love triangle with the two gentlemen, Proteus and Valentine. But I cannot forgive Proteus.

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The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

The Year of Magical ThinkingThe Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A beautiful memoir of how Didion experienced the death of her husband. I read Blue Nights first and now I wonder if I need to revisit Blue Nights, because apparently Quintana had not yet passed away when this book came out.

I looked up the timeline. In 1964 Joan and John got married, and in 1966 they adopted Quintana. Quintana got married in July 26, 2003. Shortly thereafter, Quintana fell into a coma from sepsis a virus or bacteria, and during that time, John Dunn, Joan's husband and Quintana's father passed away on December 30, 2003. Quintana recovered within 3 months. She had a hematoma while traveling shortly after that. She made a difficult recovery in 2004, but then passed away of pancreatitis on August 26, 2005. Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking about her husband's death was already coming out on September 1, 2005. Blue Nights about her daughter's death didn't come out until 2011. These books might be best read back to back, though The Year of Magical Thinking is the better book.

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Thursday, November 24, 2016

Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks

Use of Weapons (Culture, #4)Use of Weapons by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The order of the chapters is a total disaster especially if you're a little OCD. The idea is that there are two timelines. The future one is in order, and the past one is progressing backwards. I got so frustrated with the whole order that about halfway through, I decided to read it "chronologically" but it still wasn't really in order. And there were some parts that still didn't make a ton of sense. But I liked reading about the characters and there's an interesting (disturbing) ending.

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Wednesday, November 23, 2016

The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders

The Brief and Frightening Reign of PhilThe Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I'm shocked that Saunders wrote this in 2005, because it seems like a summary of 2016. Presumably, it's so accurate because it's based on history that we repeat over and over again with very little novelty. But it's still incredibly scarily accurate. This is a very short book; it is in between being a very long short story or a very short novella, so there's no reason not to take a few hours to read it. Read it!

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Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert

Eat, Pray, LoveEat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

When I first read this book, I kind of hated it. (Not sure why I read it again, but...) My biggest issue was that she seemed to have left her husband for no reason, and didn't appear to try to work it out without him at all, and so it was really hard to relate to her. Back then, I also didn't have divorced friends. Now I understand the fact that she declined to trash her husband in the book doesn't mean she didn't have great reasons for leaving him.

Also, back when I read this book the first time, nothing very terrible had ever happened to me. After the death of my dad, I was depressed for a long time (maybe I still am?) so now I can relate to her sadness in the book. I've also tried meditation (it's very hard) and understand how much weirder it is than it seems. Gilbert got a lot flack for trying to "find herself" in India (but not for trying to "find herself" in Italy), but that's not really what it's about. She's trying to achieve a different state through meditation- which a lot of people have tried to do. It just so happens that she goes to India to study meditation full time.

I liked the book much better this time, but I do think it could have been tightened up with better editing. Less rambling would have made the book better.

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Monday, November 21, 2016

Gratitude by Oliver Sacks

GratitudeGratitude by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is Oliver Sack's goodbye essay and is extremely short - it was originally run in the New York Times, and can be read in under an hour.

The subject of the essay is accepting death, which I'm not sure Sacks actually did. He tries to determine what is essential in the end.

He also discusses the exciting upcoming breakthroughs in science which he is sad he will miss.

I am rubidium-- 37.

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Sunday, November 20, 2016

Saturday, November 19, 2016

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This book just won the National Book Award this week, so I was expecting good things. It was well-written, and beautiful in some parts, but I didn't enjoy it though for the conjunction of these reasons:

1) As you might expect of a fairly realistic account of slavery, it was very painful to read.
2) It was boring. At no point did the story become more interesting to me.
3) For me, inserting an actual train into the story didn't work. The novel is historical fiction and was mostly realistic throughout, so what why a real train? It didn't appear to save any narrative room, nor was the train itself in any way fantastical, magical, or otherwise interesting to me. The current day importance of a book like this seems somewhat harmed by the addition of this train. It makes an otherwise realistic account of slavery seem false rather than fiction, especially to people who might not have read widely on the topic. I find that worrisome.

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Friday, November 18, 2016

Personal History by Katharine Graham

Personal HistoryPersonal History by Katharine Graham
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked the feminist story here. It's rare that you hear about all the self-doubt and hardship that afflicts even the most successful women. Particularly surprising because she started out wealthy. She comes off as a very thoughtful person that considers each person and decision very carefully, and I think that's very admirable.

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Wednesday, November 16, 2016

On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks

On the Move: A LifeOn the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I especially enjoyed the parts where he focused on his scientific life, but it was interesting to see how his personal and professional life intermingled. He faced a lot of difficulties both personally and professionally and it seems like he didn't overcome these difficulties so much as he was just able to keep going which is inspirational to those of us who aren't skilled at "overcoming."

At times though the narrative dissolved into a list of interesting people he met or things that happened to him one afternoon, and I found that both boring and disappointing for the overall structure of the book. It's worth reading, particularly if you're a fan of neuroscience or Sacks personally (both of which I am).

PS. Sacks can easily convince a reader to never ever try PCP. Holy cow!

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Monday, November 14, 2016

Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our DecisionsPredictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ariely explains how all humans are irrational in certain circumstances. He discusses how we attribute value to something, and how marketing exploits us to attribute more value to something. How we regularly make choices that reduce our ability to be content with our choices.

He explains how money itself - or it's absence- causes us to view decisions in an entirely irrational light.

Other things influence our decisions in a way we would ourselves not predict: social norms, arousal, placebos, and even the cost of placebos.

I think this is an extremely important book in helping people to understand how very difficult it is for all of us to be objective, though we all believe ourselves to be.

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Sunday, November 13, 2016

Blue Nights by Joan Didion

Blue NightsBlue Nights by Joan Didion
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read The Year of Magical Thinking yet, so maybe my view of this book is a bit incomplete. There are beautiful, sad, and disturbing parts but overall the disjointed nature of the book ruined my enjoyment of it. She also repeated certain phrases over and over again. I appreciate the poetic value of that. However, she overused the method so much that, particularly in it such a short book, it felt like a word count stretch, rather than something that added value to the narrative.

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Saturday, November 12, 2016

Hegemony or Survival by Noam Chomsky

Hegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global DominanceHegemony or Survival: America's Quest for Global Dominance by Noam Chomsky
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a long refutation of the concept that it is helpful to security or morally right to maintain American hegemony. It is also, to a lesser extent, a refutation of that democratic peace theory (the theory that democratic countries go to war with each other less) somehow contributes to increased world peace.

The book is a scathing indictment of American foreign policy which is equal parts nightmarishly frightening (talks about American "terrorist actions") and somehow also totally boring. I think it's important to read, but good luck with that.

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Thursday, November 10, 2016

The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks

The Player of Games (Culture, #2)The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked this one better than Consider Phlebas, and I'm going to read the third Culture book, but oh boy the evening stroll through Azad Empire contains a lot of descriptions I'd like to unread! And the plot shares a lot with another science fiction book I read but if I told you which one it would be a spoiler. My favorite parts were parts describing aspects of the Culture.

Also, this quote particularly resonated after the election, "He woke the next morning, and it was still the same universe; it had not been a nightmare and time had not gone backward. It had all still happened."

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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More FunThe Happiness Project: Or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I liked it a lot when I read it in 2009. Then in 2010, my husband and I decided to have a baby, and while I was pregnant my father died, I lost my job, and then my grandmother that partially raised me also died. I became very depressed for a long time. I know Rubin explicitly says that this book doesn't deal with "depression" and "depression" is a loaded word in the modern era, but the reality is that most people go through terrible things all the time.

While I'm sure Rubin has faced many challenges just like everyone else, she describes a happy marriage, a very good financial situation, professional freedom, healthy children, personal good health, and living parents. She could have written a book about happiness without personal information, I've read a number with very limited personal information, but that's not what she did. She also relies on a lot of scientific, historical, and philosophical information. But her particular angle on the book of trying the tips out herself left me a little cold on a reread. What happens when in your year of chasing happiness you're completely railroaded by life? Suddenly the question she skipped in the beginning, "What is happiness" (she says you know when you see it/feel it) takes on the central role. In a way, she's the opposite of Victor Frankl who having survived some of the worst things a human could survive, has full authority to lecture on the meaning of life from a personal perspective. It's not Rubin's fault of course, and she's brilliant and hardworking, but the book does suffer from some lack of spiritual depth.

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Sunday, November 6, 2016

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld

Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice (The Austen Project, #4)Eligible: A Modern Retelling of Pride and Prejudice by Curtis Sittenfeld
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's mostly Pride and Prejudice all over again. But the ending was so awesome and hilarious. And the "modern" aspect of the book was great in terms of being non-judgmental and kind in modern liberal society. I can't wait for the movie, which I'm assuming will come to pass.

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Mom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou

Mom & Me & MomMom & Me & Mom by Maya Angelou
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have not read a biography or autobiography of Maya Angelou and so I was very interested this memoir. It focuses mostly but not exclusively on her mother and other close family relationships: her brother, father, grandmother, and son. It's interesting and a bit wild, as her mother sounds like a threatening character, and unrelatedly, some dangerous things happened to Angelou herself.

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Thursday, November 3, 2016

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindSapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A new favorite! Harari covers the history and potential future of the human species, including the research of many other prominent authors. He organizes everything very well. The entire book is interesting, and none of it drags. I particularly appreciated his unique analysis. If an alien species wanted to read one book to understand the human species this would be it, although that might be unfortunate for us if they did.

Everyone should read this!

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Wednesday, November 2, 2016

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy BartonMy Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very short, beautiful, and somewhat sad book. It's about a protagonist Lucy, her family, and a few people that make an impression on her. It's about love-and-hurt. It's about poverty. War. Psychological trauma in the lower case.

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Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn

Gone GirlGone Girl by Gillian Flynn
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It was very well-written, and I'm just amazed there wasn't some huge obvious plot hole considering how complicated the story was. Also, the ending is super weird. Points for a super weird ending! But I just can't enjoy these stressful suspenseful books. I like literature or fun reading like fantasy, science fiction, or a good chick flick. I have enough stress without freaking out over these fictional characters.

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