Monday, January 30, 2017

In Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria

In Defense of a Liberal EducationIn Defense of a Liberal Education by Fareed Zakaria
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I love Zakaria's books. This was no exception. I'd like everyone- especially everyone not on Goodreads- to read this book. I only gave it 4 stars and not 5 stars because I didn't think all the chapters were really on point, and there wasn't a lot of information that was new to me. Nonetheless, the entire book was interesting and because I agree wholeheartedly with all of Zakaria's points, I found myself thinking over and over again yes! this! yes!

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Sunday, January 29, 2017

The Ascent of Money by Niall Ferguson

The Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the WorldThe Ascent of Money: A Financial History of the World by Niall Ferguson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Fergeson tried to present a history of currency and monetary policy but he got mired in the history of it, and it seemed to lose focus. Some sort of point or thesis would have given this shape. He ended up tackling a lot of topics and I learned a few things here and there but not as much as if he'd given some direction to his sometimes conservative and sometimes liberal points.

Also, because he was focusing on the "history" aspect of his book it was organized at first in a chronological order by category of "innovation" but then the chronology fell apart with Chapter 6. This was just a little disorientating in an already thesisless tome.

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Thursday, January 26, 2017

Rabbit, Run by John Updike

Rabbit, Run (Rabbit Angstrom #1)Rabbit, Run by John Updike
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow, this is the most amazing writing about the worst male character, Rabbit. Talk about anti-hero! Rabbit is a misogynist, but that's not even his biggest problem. And Updike comes down pretty hard on his creation.

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Monday, January 23, 2017

The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins

The God DelusionThe God Delusion by Richard Dawkins
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Dawkins comes down hard on religion in this. There were a few good points and some novel ideas in this hence the three stars.

My main problem with it is that he's very heavy-handed in not differentiating between religion and fanatical religions and even defending his failure to differentiate. In this, Karen Armstrong's In Defense of God was way more sophisticated, which makes sense because Armstrong is an expert in religion. (Dawkins dismisses expertise in religion as nonsense basically.) Even if, as he claims, fanatical Christians are more numerous than liberal Christians in the US, this doesn't excuse his conflation of the two groups to make his arguments more palatable. Yes, evolution means the Bible isn't literally true regarding the age of the Earth or the timeline in Genesis, but that doesn't disprove God or the value of any and all religions.

Dawkins discusses some physics, but these arguments also left me a little cold possibly because he's not a physicist but an evolutionary biologist. Physics is so deeply weird that nothing has persuaded me more of the possibility of things I might otherwise assume are impossible.

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Sunday, January 22, 2017

Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Anansi Boys (American Gods, #2)Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I only started reading this because I didn't realize that it was part of an American Gods series. It's one of the books I inherited from my dad, and by the time I realized it was related to American Gods, I was super into the story. It was a delightful read! All the fun parts of American Gods, all of the humor of it, without the bleakness of it.

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Saturday, January 21, 2017

The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell JarThe Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The writing is beautiful. You can feel the claustrophobia of her depression. You can experience her frustration with the effort of life and her frustration with chauvinism. The biographical notes indicate it's loosely based on her real experiences during college.

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Thursday, January 19, 2017

The Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin

The DispossessedThe Dispossessed by Ursula K. Le Guin
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I don't know. It's well-written. It's an eloquent and complete answer to Ayn Rand about the possibilities of cooperation- not perfect even if set-up perfectly, but better than greed and selfishness. At the same time, the characters are real and moving people. This isn't an empty allegory.

Unfortunately, there wasn't a lot I actually enjoyed in this book. I more or less just powered through it.

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Wednesday, January 18, 2017

The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

The Association of Small BombsThe Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This novel is about terrorism in India, both the victims and the terrorists themselves and their relationships. The novel is brilliantly written and the author is apparently a hardcore literary genius. The author's descriptions of grief are moving and real.

My only issue is that there's a little shark-jumping at the end that I suppose is actually a metaphor? I hope it is, but it still put a damper on the overall experience for me.

I strongly recommend this book to people who love literary fiction or who have an interest in terrorism.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2017

When Genius Failed by Roger Lowenstein

When Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital ManagementWhen Genius Failed: The Rise and Fall of Long-Term Capital Management by Roger Lowenstein
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is an important book about the meltdown of Long Term Capital Management in 1998 written in 2001. It talks about all the elements at play in the meltdown that would repeat itself in the 2007 meltdown. Speaks to the need for government regulation and the irrationality of markets during meltdowns.

That said, it was a lot repetitive and boring material for a layman that doesn't work in financial markets.

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Monday, January 16, 2017

Persuasion by Jane Austen

PersuasionPersuasion by Jane Austen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Anne and Captain Wentworth provide a different love story than the other Austen novels because they fell in love out of sight of the reader 8 years before the story begins. They also broke up 8 years ago. So the story hinges on the question of whether they will- both being single- get back together. It's perfectly written- with no plot holes or boring parts. The only shortcoming for me is that they just don't spend that much time interacting in the reader's view. I can't fall in love with them or with Captain Wentworth for myself the way I fell in love with the characters in Pride and Prejudice.

Nonetheless, this novel is still Top 3 Jane Austen for me. Here's my ranking: (1) Pride and Prejudice, (2) Sense and Sensibility, (3) Persuasion, (4) Emma, (5) Mansfield Park, (6) Lady Susan (much shorter). I don't especially like Northanger Abbey, so I'm not putting it on this list, but it's okay.

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Sunday, January 15, 2017

Peace Is Every Step by Thich Nhat Hanh

Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday LifePeace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life by Thich Nhat Hanh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The first time I read this book I didn't appreciate the concept of meditation or the science behind it. This is a short and simple book about meditation that reads almost as a guided meditation might. I recommend to anyone that wants to actually try meditation and not just read about it.

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Friday, January 13, 2017

The Vegetarian by Han Kang

The VegetarianThe Vegetarian by Han Kang
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review because there's a lot going on in this novel. It's beautiful but also hideous. It's about control over your body, but also about a lack of control over your mind and body. It's about Korean culture: both the patriarchy and food culture. I also looked up the "May Massacre" which is briefly mentioned in reference to the brother-in-law. I believe the "May Massacre" actually refers to the Gwangju Uprising and not the event by the same name in the Korean War, but correct me if I'm wrong. But I don't think you necessarily need to understand Korean culture to get a lot from the characters and the feelings they experience. This is a short book and I read it in one sitting because it propelled me forward, but I think I could study it a long time and still get more from it.

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Thursday, January 12, 2017

Atonement by Ian McEwan

AtonementAtonement by Ian McEwan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed reading this book, especially the beginning. The characters were deliciously flawed (like real people you love). The plot was both compelling and I liked the differences in perspective from the different character about the same events. The love story was unique and well-executed. I flew through the early pages of the novel. However, I didn't appreciate the gimmicky aspects of the book which only became apparent towards the end.

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Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks

HallucinationsHallucinations by Oliver Sacks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Sacks details all the reasons why someone might have visual, olfactory, or disassociative hallucinations. Most of the conditions he covers are not related to psychosis, meaning the person is often aware that the hallucinations are not real (at first or eventually- though some of these conditions do cause confusion as to what is real and what is not). The book structure and focus, seems to be because Sacks is determined to protect patients against a misdiagnosis of psychosis. There is no sense of what the psychosis and non-psychosis percents are though.

I probably didn't need so many real-life examples of all the hallucinations themselves, particularly the repetitive kind- I guess a lot of conditions cause people to hallucinate Lilliputians? Okay, understood.

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Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Relativity of Wrong by Isaac Asimov

The Relativity of WrongThe Relativity of Wrong by Isaac Asimov
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a collection of science essays by Asimov, so of course, it's pretty cool. He tries to make the concepts understandable to laymen but honestly I struggled with some of the essays. The book is about half chemistry and half physics, and I found most of the physics more interesting. There are numerous chapters on planets and stars and those were super interesting. Some of the essays about chemistry and nuclear reactivity were a challenge, but each essay built into the next so that at the end the reader had some of the tools to understand our place in the universe.

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Monday, January 9, 2017

The Limits of Power by Andrew J. Bacevich

The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism (American Empire Project)The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism by Andrew J. Bacevich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an old-school conservative view on America's foreign policy and its direct connection to our economic self-interest. Bacevich attributes blame for our failed and costly national security strategies on Republican presidents, Democratic presidents, Congress, Special Interests, military leadership, but most of all to the American people for being unwilling to sacrifice excessive consumption.

Bacevich provides an easy-to-understand summary of American economic and foreign policy since WWII to back up his thesis. He also discusses the role of a number of important executive and military leaders as well as civilian organizations. He doesn't pull any punches.

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Saturday, January 7, 2017

Grit by Angela Duckworth

Grit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of SuccessGrit: Passion, Perseverance, and the Science of Success by Angela Duckworth
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Understanding this author's points requires some subtlety of thought that, reading some of the reviews, some people seem to miss. Duckworth defines grit numerous ways but it's basically an ability to do difficult things and to try again after failing. Grit is a very important factor in both success and happiness. Grit can be learned and practiced.

What this book does not say is that everyone has equal access to grit. She specifically says that in studies of mice that were shocked without any control over their own suffering could not function as well in other tasks as mice that had some control over their suffering. The mice became victims of learned helplessness. The problem here is that unlike the sections about grittiness, there were no real life examples of human beings suffering these conditions (though arguably there was an example of one person overcoming this condition with a lot of help from other people). There is some discussion of income inequality, particularly with regards to a lack of extra-curricular programs that teach grit in poor schools, but there wasn't any kind of exploration of institutionalized racism, sexism, and poverty- oftentimes working in conjunction to "shock" human beings repeatedly through years and decades of their life without any control over these shocks.

Obviously, this isn't Duckworth's area of expertise, and she only cites the mice studies to add fullness to her exploration of grit. The reason for concern though is that her grit philosophy is very closely adjacent to the pull-yourself-up-by bootstrap mentality that excuses the persistence of income inequality, racism, and sexism because these are "not the most important reasons" for the failure of particular people or societies to thrive.

Other people doubt Duckworth's arguments because they perceive talent to be of crucial importance in success in various physical and creative fields. I find this line of thinking to be less interesting or important because it's difficult to know how much hard work (and "grit") others have invested in particular endeavors. With the exception of certain child prodigies, age isn't a good proxy for hours of focused growth practice. (And there are plenty of child prodigies that don't accomplish anything beyond what average adults later accomplish.) Except in physical endeavors where a particular body type is necessary, I do tend to believe that the highest levels of "talent" can be learned. But for that talent to be learned your main focus in life probably needs to be that one thing, and you need other people support your single-minded focus, oftentimes by literally monetarily supporting you. (Or loaning you money, or paying you at such a high rate that you can take a long leave from paying work.)

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Thursday, January 5, 2017

The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV

The Art of HappinessThe Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Howard C. Cutler is the actual author of the book. Basically, Cutler has an outline of topics and questions he asked the Dalai Lama and then there are the Dalai Lama's answers to the questions. The Dalai Lama answers are excellent (obviously) but I don't love the organization of the book. I've read better and clearer books on both Buddhism and on mindfulness. I do love the Dalai Lama though.

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Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg

Smarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and BusinessSmarter Faster Better: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I like this one better than Duhigg's The Power of Habit, though there's still too much illustrative storytelling which waters down the research.

There is some interesting science regarding the locus of motivation in the brain, though the author misses the chance to philosophize on the importance of this. Additionally, feeling like you have control in a situation increases motivation. (Ch 1) Start hard things by starting with someone that makes you feel like you have control, and explain to yourself why you're doing something. (Ch 1, Appendix)

Being on a sensitive team that gives everyone a chance to weigh in, increases the performance of the team more than having exceptional people on the team. (Ch 2) Individuals on teams that won't hold mistakes against them are more likely to take positive risks and admit mistakes that can then be corrected. (Ch 1, Ch 5)

Make a long-term goal. Under it make stretch goals, under stretch: SMART goals- Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, Timeline.

The book also contains a really interesting discussion on holding mental models in the brain and how to allow for new information or challenges to those models. (Ch 3) You should learn to make probabilistic predictions and base decisions on statistics. (Ch 6) View creativity as problem-solving. Don't become overly committed to your creative solutions. (Ch 7) Take notes by hand, write less, and listen more. (Ch 8)

The illustrative stories in this one are more compelling than in The Power of Habit, especially the two contrasting examples of plane emergencies. Super intense.

I'm dubious about the discussion of following instincts as that doesn't have scientific support in the book, nor am I aware of any other scientific evidence that supports instinct and I've read quite a few of these behavioral economics books.

The end of the book kind of peters out with an educational example I didn't totally see how to apply to real life. Overall, a good read to begin the year.

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Monday, January 2, 2017

Favorite Books I Read In 2016

These are not books that came out in 2016, but books I read in 2016. I read about 180 books in 2016, so I had some difficulty narrowing it down, so I broke it down into categories to make it more useful if people want to use them as recommendations. Here are some of my favorite reads for 2016.

The Book of Speculation: A NovelBest Fiction:

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Tenth of December by George Saunders
The Brief and Frightening Reign of Phil by George Saunders
Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (Read it for the first time this year)
Anathem by Neal Stephenson
The Metamorphosis by Franz Kafka
Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey (technically I read this in 2015)
The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende
The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein (a reread I love)
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff

Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindBest Nonfiction:

Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari (anthropology)
The Case for God by Karen Armstrong (history/ anthropology/ religion)
The Third Chimpanzee by Jared Diamond (anthropology)

Undeniable by Bill Nye (biology/ evolution)
The Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukherjee (biology/cancer)
The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker (biology/ nutrition)
Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver (biology/ nutrition)
The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient WisdomThe Gene by Siddhartha Mukherjee (biology)

The Future of Freedom by Fareed Zakaria (foreign policy)
Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (psychology/behavioral economics)

The Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl (psychology)
Attached by Amir Levine (psychology)
Waking Up by Sam Harris (psychology/ mindfulness)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
 (memoir/ social justice)
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance (memoir/ sociology)
Persepolis: The Story of a Childhood by Marjane Satrapi (memoir/feminism)
My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem (memoir/feminism)

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene (physics)
The Universe in a Nutshell by Stephen Hawking (physics)

Ready Player OneFun Fiction:

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (SciFi/ Fantasy/ Dystopian)
Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card (SciFi)
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (Chick Lit)
The Magician's Nephew by C.S. Lewis (Fantasy- a reread but one I love)

100 Things Virginia Fans Should Know and Do Before They Die
Fun Nonfiction: 

Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
100 Things Virginia Fans Should Know by Brian J. Leung

Sunday, January 1, 2017

How About Those 2016 Reading Resolutions?

So this is odd, my reading resolutions went extremely poorly. Except for Personal History by Katharine Graham, I haven't read any of the books I planned to read in 2016. Maybe 2016 just refused to be "expected" in any way. On the other hand, I read more books - and listened to audiobooks- than I have in many many years. I read 189 total books this year. So I'm not making any specific reading resolutions this year, but my number goal for 2017 is 200 books. Wish me luck!
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