Monday, July 08, 2019

Review: North of Boston

North of Boston North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I was perusing one of the local used book stores and saw this book. Being from the Boston area, I'm attracted to all things Boston, so I picked it up. The flap sounded interesting so I bought it. I'm so glad I did! I immediately got into the story and the main character, Pirio Kasparov. She is intelligent, a smart-ass, and has a solid moral base. She gets sucked into the mystery in a classic sort of way (the author has one of the characters quote Sam Spade's line about your partner getting killed and how you are supposed to do something. That might have been a little too on the nose, but I loved it). Pirio is not cut from a standard issue thriller/mystery female lead mold. There are classic elements, but Elo creates a unique and memorable character in Pirio.

Many of the other characters are interesting and well-drawn, if sometimes stereotypical. The plot is well done; there were elements laid down early on that you knew where going to play a role later but it wasn't obvious how it would play out. It's not perfect, and there are some obvious "twists" but overall still original and enjoyable.

I would definitely read more Pirio novels if Elo writes them and I hope she does. I recommend this to other fans of thrillers/mysteries.

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Sunday, May 19, 2019

Review: Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics

Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics Triumph: The Untold Story of Jesse Owens and Hitler's Olympics by Jeremy Schaap
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Although I enjoyed the book, it's a bit cursory. I would have liked more detail, more depth. Owens and his story are important and I wanted more: more about the man, more about his relationships, in particular with other runners.

It wasn't always clear what Schaap's goal was: was this a biography of Owens? A story just focused on the Owens at the Olympics? A story about the politics and nationalism that threatened to swallow the Olympics? It feels at times a little of all these, and not enough of any one of them.

I didn't like the way the book handled the footnotes, especially on kindle, it was very hard to see what the sources were for conversations and stories Schaap is relating. It wasn't obvious when Schaap was quoting a direct source for the dialogue or 'recreating' it. (This is part of the problem when a journalist writes history.)

Still, the writing is crisp and the narrative style is clear (part of the benefit of having a journalist write history!). If you know nothing of Jesse Owens and or the 36 Olympics, it's a good place to start. (Though I am not sure how much of this qualifies the eponymous "untold story").

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Saturday, May 11, 2019

Review: How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life

How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life by Massimo Pigliucci
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pigliucci does a good job summarizing and reviewing key ideas of Stoic thought. He focuses on his own experience applying the ideas to his life as a way of providing advice on applying it to one's own life. He uses a nice frame of talking with Epictetus as the central way of communicating the Stoic ideas. Their 'conversation' provides a way for Epicetus' text to speak to contemporary concerns.

Do not expect detailed philosophical analysis of the Stoic ideas. That's not Pigliucci's goal here; though I would have liked more of that. There is an appendix which discusses more of the historical connections.

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Review: Chasing Darkness

Chasing Darkness Chasing Darkness by Robert Crais
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Another good Cole story: lots of twists and turns. Some of them you will see coming, others you may not. Well-paced, good dialogue. Less humor than earlier Cole novels; but still has his characteristic wit.

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Saturday, April 13, 2019

Review: Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions

Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Ariely is an entertaining writer and does a good job of explaining, in laymen's terms, the experiments and ideas of behavior economics. This is a trade book and doesn't, for good or for ill, get into the nit and gritty of the science beyond the experiments. I think it is a book worth reading to get a better understanding some of the patterns of thought or circumstances that influence our decisions and actions.

I would say on the negative side, however, that I think Ariely oversells the results of the experiments and tends to straw man traditional economic thinking. The experiments are nonetheless interesting with surprising results-but he tends to draw much broader conclusions from these than is warranted (at least in terms of the explanations in the text). And some of the criticism of the traditional economic explanations hit the mark, but too often his presentations of the traditional ideas are way too broad, simplistic, or caricatured.

Still, there is value in this book, and at worst, the discussion and results of the experiments are interesting.

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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The audio performance of this novel was beautiful and enchanting. The characters really come alive and you can experience the rhythm of the work. I can't recommend Ruby Dee's reading highly enough.

Janie's transformation into womanhood, her strength, her demand for life are an inspiration. Although it comes close at times, she is not beaten down by the average, mundane-ness of life, she doesn't give up in the face of tragedy. Though entirely devoted to Teacake, she is her own woman. But she has to become this. Teacake helps her to become her full self--mainly by just not keeping her down the way Logan and Joe did; but it is her own achievement.

This is classic work that should be more widely read and appreciated. Not just as a novel of a particular time and place, but as important piece of American literature: a beautiful coming of age story, a story about finding one's passions and following them, a story about having the strength and integrity to be an individual-regardless of the categories society tries to put on you.

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Tuesday, April 02, 2019

Review: The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy

The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy The American West: History, Myth, and Legacy by Patrick N. Allitt
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Allitt is great as always. The course covers a broad swath of American history all from the perspective of what the western frontier was, what it meant, and how it moved over time. Allitt discusses the important role of geography as well as the history of the West before it came in to US possession. His presentation of the interaction of whites and native Americans is well done: it neither ignores the disgraceful and shameful treatment by whites of native Americans nor romanticizes the native Americans as a monolithic, idyllic people. I'm sure there are details that are missing, inaccurate, or somewhat fudged over: this is not an in-depth rigorous history. But it does a great job of telling the story of the West.

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Sunday, February 03, 2019

Review: Lords of the Sith

Lords of the Sith Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The author does a great job of maintaining suspense even though we know, broadly, how the story must end. Vader and the Emperor battle against the Free Ryloth movement which is engaged in open rebellion against the Empire. Since this is years before the events of A New Hope, they and their Empire obviously survive. Yet, the author creates enough tension that you almost begin to believe that Cham and his allies might succeed.

One of the most fascinating aspect of this novel is Vader. There a lot of Vader’s inner monologue. He remembers moments from the past; the pain and anger that drive him. He chafes somewhat under the Palpatine’s commands. Just as when he was Anakin and commanded by the Jedi Council, Vader is impatient and independent and doesn’t take to being told what to do that well. Well, at least inwardly. Outwardly, Vader still obeys Palpatine without flaw. This look into the inner life of Vader is disturbing and insightful. The anger and pain that has consumed Anakin is everywhere. Vader fights to suppress his memories and his past but at the same time he is both incapable of doing so and still needs this to fuel the anger that is his connection to the power of the dark side. There are many allusions to past events in Anakin’s life and foreshadowing of events we know come to past later.

Vader is the most fascinating character of Star Wars—maybe even of contemporary culture. He is evil; a murdering, unstoppable machine. And yet…and yet, he is redeemed. Unlike Palpatine and many of the imperial flunkies, Vader is not driven by a hunger for power, rapaciousness, or sadism. He wants to impose order; he wants power to make sure things work (and we see this in Anakin very early). He murders without any qualms, but he doesn’t take pleasure in it nor does he do so wantonly. We see this throughout the canon with Vader, including here in a few important scenes. It sometimes comes across almost like mercy. Almost, but not quite. It is more about what serves the imposition of order and his connection to the Force. The conflicts that Vader has in his inner monologue in Lords of the Sith shows us this. The novel shows Vader continuing to commit himself to the Emperor and the dark side primarily because he can so no other way to achieve order and serve the force. And this partly sets the stage for his redemption in Return of the Jedi.

There are also several interesting elements of the Free Ryloth movement. Cham, who fans will know from the animated series, has an important role to play here. The beginning of Cham’s transformation from a principled freedom-fighter for Ryloth to a more full-fledge Rebel is one of the sub-themes of the novel.

The execution of these thematic elements in the book was inconsistent. Not every “note” was hit as well as it should have been. Nevertheless, the novel is a good read and fleshes out important aspects of the Star Wars universe.

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Thursday, January 24, 2019

Review: Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World

Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World Uncommon Grounds: The History of Coffee and How It Transformed Our World by Mark Pendergrast
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

People who know me, know that I love coffee. So this book was a natural. But, ultimately, I was disappointed. It is not bad, and there are a lot of interesting bits in the book. However, it gets bogged down at too many places. In particular, there is far too much focus on the intricacies of coffee businesses and international markets. Obviously, these are important aspects of coffee and its impact, but Pendergrast focuses a lot on the details that often just don't seem all that relevant.

More to the point, I was looking for much more of the ways that coffee transformed the world more broadly, per the subtitle. What the book is, is more of a history of the markets in coffee. That's fine, but not what the book is billed as. There is a lot of discussion, in general, of how these markets impacted the coffee growing countries. But even here, it veers too much to the "one damned thing after another" telling of history or makes broad generalizations about economics that, frankly, I am skeptical of. (why? they are rather general and conventional, and the author is not a trained economist). Now certainly the coffee market could be used to explore many themes (as suggested by the book description). But the book just doesn't pull this off well.

The author knows (and loves) coffee and there is some good stuff here. But the book doesn't live up to what it could be.

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Saturday, January 19, 2019

Review: The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics by Daniel James Brown
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

By the end of the book, I felt so deeply connected to Joe Rantz and his teammates that I cried as I listened to the epilogue. An incredible story, too unbelievable to be fiction--no publisher would buy it as a novel. The things that individually and as a team, the Washington Crew had to overcome to make it to the Olympics and then win them was just ridiculous. Time and time again, everything was stacked against them and it looked like their tale was over. Time and time again, they found each other and prevailed.

The story primarily follows Joe Rantz from his childhood up through the winning of Olympic Gold. I am not sure why his story was the focal point rather any of the other boys. Maybe because his circumstances were from the start the most tragic, that he had the most to overcome. (More practically, it was probably because the author was able to interview him the most before Rantz passed away in 2010).

The first third or so of the book is a little slow and less interesting. This is largely about the travails of Joe's childhood. Once he is at the University of Washington and on the team, the story gets much more compelling.

The author does a good job of keeping the story on task. There is a lot going on the 30s that could have sidetracked things. While the story has to deal with the Depression and the rise of Hitler--the author does so only so much as necessary for the story.

I would have liked even more of George Pocock, the man who designed and built the racing shells for University of Washington (and many other teams). Each chapter starts off with an epigraph quotation from Pocock and he comes across as the 'Yoda' of the crew.

Edward Hermann does a masterful job, as always, with the reading.

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Saturday, December 29, 2018

Review: The Rational Optimist

The Rational Optimist The Rational Optimist by Matt Ridley
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This has been on my to-read list for a long time (originally it came out in 2010). I enjoy Ridley’s work, and this fits in well. There are few surprises for those who have read Ridley or similar books. Essentially: forget the day-to-day news cycle, look at the big historical picture and the data, and human life in general has been getting better and better; and there’s every reason to think it will continue to do so. But what about….Ridley probably discusses it and has an answer. Technology, wealth, ingenuity have and will continue to help us find ways to deal with problems and (and the new problems that arise from those solutions).

What makes Rational Optimist somewhat unique is Ridley’s basic argument for why humans are able to succeed: where the technology, wealth, and ingenuity comes from. Combining, as he says Adam Smith and Charles Darwin, Ridley argues that what makes the human species unique and able to prosper so well is the sex of ideas. That is, the human propensity to exchange goods also leads to exchange of ideas. This, he argues, is the root of the existence of and expansion of cultural and collective knowledge. Ideas evolve (Darwin) through interaction (Smith). Through specialization, trade, and the evolution of ideas, humans are able to adapt and achieve ever higher standards of living.

It is a fascinating thesis, and Ridley explains it in detail, going through history and pre-history to find evidence for it. The audiobook is well-produced and keeps your attention. I tend to lose focus somewhat with numbers and statistics, so the print version would be good if that is important.

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Friday, December 28, 2018

Review: Without Fail

Without Fail Without Fail by Lee Child
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Overall, it’s about what you expect from Child and Reacher. It’s not the best one, but it is a good read. It is slow to start, Child spends a lot of time building up one of the characters and Reacher’s relationship to her, and that ultimately makes sense. Nevertheless, the story takes a bit to get some traction. And I’m also not that comfortable with the ending. It works within the story, but it’s a bit cold-blooded for me.

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Monday, December 17, 2018

Review: The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language

The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language The Language Hoax: Why the World Looks the Same in Any Language by John H. McWhorter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

McWhorter is always interesting, entertaining, and insightful. He reads the audible book, and I like that. He has the voice for it and, since he wrote it, knows how it should sound. The one downside for me on this, and it's minor, is that since I listen to his podcast, Lexicon Valley, this did feel like a really long podcast episode.

On to the substance. The focus of the book is a critique of a kind of strict or strong Whorfianism (Sapir–Whorf hypothesis). On the strongest version of this hypothesis, the idea is that language conditions or determines how and what we think -- even what we perceive. Here are some crude examples: Russian has several words for different shades of blue, therefore Russian speakers literally see more shades of blue. Or the Pirahã language which apparently has no numbers means the Pirahã don’t know how to count. McWhorter's argument in this book is to point out how this view is empirically and theoretically wrong.

McWhorter is careful to make sure his reader doesn't misinterpret his critique as a rejection of any influence of language on how and we think. Of course there are important influences. The critique is against the strong version -- which is the one that the media and others tend to glom on to. He also discusses why the strong version is the version that is popularized, while empirically minded linguistics don't take it seriously. Language is the tool we use for thinking and communicating, and so it's important to think about it as we inquire into how we conceptualize about the world. But it doesn't determine what and how we think.

My priors are with McWhorter, so his critique and analysis make perfect sense to me. But more than that, he is careful to discuss the opposing theories and theorists with charity and integrity. He discusses the linguist evidence and what the evidence supports. He builds his case and lays out it.

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Friday, November 23, 2018

Review: The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure

The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas Are Setting up a Generation for Failure by Greg Lukianoff
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is an important book that explains many of our contemporary social and academic ills. It argues that battles over freedom of expression, increasing anxiety and depression in youth, and political polarization are all connected to a set of ideas about childhood and educational practices. The book fits with many of my priors, so that likely colors how I think about it. Nevertheless, the arguments presented here are worth examining and exploring.

Lukianoff and Haidt identify three ideas, what they call Great Untuths, that are main culprits:

The Untruth of Fragility: the idea the kids are easily damaged or harmed. Parents and society must protect kids from any and all dangers and risks.

The Untruth of Emotional Reasoning: Always trust your feelings: if you feel it to be true, it must be true.

The Untruth of Us vs. Them: Life is a battle between good people and evil people. We are always pitted against another tribe that is out to destroy us.

The gist of their argument is that these untruths took root in the 80s and led parents, teachers, and even children themselves to think that kids need constant monitoring and protection from all kinds of dangers and risks. This ‘safetyism’ led to reductions in free play, making it harder for kids to develop interpersonal conflict skills, personal risk assessment, self-confidence, and self-reliance. Moreover, the actual effects of these well-intentioned motives to protect kids made them more anxious and more at risk since they didn’t learn how to deal with potentially dangerous and risky situations.

These untruths also encouraged various distorted ways of thinking about one’s self and others, leading to greater anxiety and depression, as well as a perception that disagreement about ideas and values posing a threat to one’s well-being and identity. If you think you are fragile and easily harmed, and think your feelings are an adequate guide to truth, then someone else expressing a different set of ideas can easily be interpreted as an existential threat from which you need protection.

When the kids raised under these untruths — the so-called iGen or Generation Z — went to college they bring these distorted ways of thinking and demands for protection with them. The argument continues that these trends combined with other trends in parenting, education, and various concerns about social justice is what has lead to the conflicts we see on campuses and elsewhere today. Haidt and Lukianoff marshall social science evidence to make their case, building their arguments on their respective experiences in psychology, education, and parenting. I find it convincing and conclusive, but you should read the book to evaluate their arguments yourself.

As a college educator, I see a lot of what Haidt and Lukianoff are talking about. I see it in the attitudes and behaviors of my students. I also see it in the reactions of university administration and how it tries to respond to the demands and needs of these students. And to be honest, I see it it in my son and my own parenting.

One of the aspects I like about the book is its positive outlook. Though they are diagnosing and describing disturbing trends, they don’t see impending doom or catastrophe.

They challenge us to see the counters to the untruths:

Kids are anti-fragile: they need to be exposed to and adapt to their environment so that they can deal with the inherent risks in that environment. “Prepare the child for the road, not the road for the child”

Emotional reasoning is fraught with bias and error: we need to be careful about the judgments we make and be aware of the cognitive biases we may have.

Tribalism is a dangerous way to approach life, often leading to greater conflict. Better to learn to use our inherent tribal instincts to reduce conflict by working to see our common identity.

By recognizing these truths, Haidt and Lukianoff provide a path out of the current state of things. They leave the reader with both hope and a set of intellectual tools.

The book itself is accessible and a quick read. There is a lot of interesting and useful information, especially for parents and educators. This is not an academic book. Indeed, I think academics might find it a bit thin in some regards. There are plenty of sources and citations, but it is not written to satisfy the demands of academic rigor and comprehensiveness. But that’s not what Haidt and Lukianoff are looking to do here. It is more of a self-help guide for parents and educators. To help us see the problem and provide some advice on how to change and adjust our practices. In that regard, they are successful.

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Friday, November 09, 2018

Review: Dune

Dune Dune by Frank Herbert
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dune is an incredible feat of imagination and writing. Frank Herbert intermingles history, religion, politics, ecology, and philosophy into an epic adventure of intrigue and revolution.

One can see the influence Dune has had on later science fiction. It’s hard not to imagine Tatooine as one reads about Arrakis. The intrigue among the great houses will be familiar to Game of Thrones readers. Equally so, Dune is itself influenced by earlier works, such as Asimov’s Foundation series.

The world created by Herbert is complex. A long history. A complicated set of mystical, religious beliefs intermixed with science and politics. Court intrigue that sets up the underlying conflict of the novel. Cultural norms and rules that are unknown. The reader is, to borrow the now hackney phrase, a stranger in a strange land. As such, one needs a little patience when starting Dune. You have to allow yourself to become familiar with this world.

There are many themes explored and played with by Herbert in Dune. To name but a few: The exploration of religion, its influence, and its institutions. The ongoing conflict of civilization v primitivism (city v country; empire v fremen). The evolution and persistence of religion and culture. Man v environment. The appeal and danger of fundamentalism and Messianism. The pitfalls of ‘Great Men’. The role of computers and technology in society.

It is fun to try to untangle and spot the real-world influences. What language is this word coming from? What religion influenced Herbert for this or that practice or mystical belief?

It is also interesting how conservative the whole galactic culture appears to be. It is a deeply aristocratic society. Women occupy traditional roles. There is little in the way of what one might call ‘alternative lifestyles.’ Like many traditional/conservative cultures, honor plays a huge part. I am sure there are many English PhDs that have made their bones chewing on all this!

If I have a criticism, it would be that the characters could be tools of the plot, rather than the driving force of the plot. The grand sweep of time moving everyone along to the conclusion. The motivations of the character could be at times opaque or hidden behind too many layers.

Dune deserves the praise it gets; it deserves its place in literary history (though maybe not quite as high as Brian Herbert, Frank Herbert’s son would place it). If you only know of Dune because of the David Lynch/Sting movie from the 80s, it is worth reading with fresh eyes.

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