Review: Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe

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Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe
Calculating the Cosmos: How Mathematics Unveils the Universe by Ian Stewart
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I don’t recommend this book for everyone, but it was a perfect fit for me. The last time I read a physics/astronomy book that taught me profound new things was Michio Kaku’s Hyperspace. While I can definitely recommend Kaku’s work for anyone, this book was more technical. I would say it speaks to a graduate level audience in either math, physics, or astronomy. While these aren’t my areas professionally, I am passionately interested in them, so this book spoke my language. Every chapter took a subject with which I was familiar and laid out a laundry list of all the things I didn’t know about it, and all the underlying assumptions that aren’t set in concrete. I was floored to read about the subtleties and intricate structures within Saturn’s rings, for example, a treasure trove of lessons from Mother Earth about how gravity works, and far from settled science. I was equally exhilarated to hear doubts about what Stewart calls “bolt-ons” to the Big Bang theory: Inflation, Dark Matter, and Dark Energy. Not because I don’t want to “believe in them,” whatever that means in a scientific context, but because they are so counter intuitive they cry out for either a better explanation or some measured degree of doubt.

The greatest lesson of the book is that science is always provisional. Every theory we have (even the seemingly settled, orthodox ones) are only as good as the observations they match. And every theory we have really only matches 98% of observations. Science is a continual process of improvement and the occasional overhaul. It’s a great pleasure to read an author with both expertise and humility, who can illuminate while at the same time casting doubt.

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Review: Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

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

This book more than lives up to its promise. I watched JD Vance’s TED Talk and heard his NPR interview and resolved to pick this book up. It doesn’t disappoint, however it may be a bit different than you think, based on the aforementioned summaries. I was expecting a well-researched nonfiction sociology exploration supplemented by his personal stories. It’s inverted. The book is very much a personal family memoir, supplemented by a sprinkling of stats and regional history. At first this turned me off. He spends the first chapter introducing us to the members of his lineage and I thought, “no book needs fifty ordinary characters.” But he focuses on a few, and he makes each choice relevant. He talks about his great uncles in terms of their obstreperous reputations. He talks about his grandparents in terms of a stable home to fall back on when his parents fail him. He talks about his sister, aunt, and cousin in terms of their healthy marriages and what they did differently to break the mold of corrosive relationships endemic to the culture.

The formula, if you will, consists of a personal anecdote or journey, followed by statistics and historical context, followed by a compassionate, contemplative analysis. Vance displays a deep sense of appreciation and love and emotional intelligence. He is very forgiving but not at the expense of incisiveness. Wisely, he keeps away from politics, though he flirts with a few ideas toward the end having to do with income credits, schools, and welfare. It’s obvious he’s a conservative thinker, but his sense of worldliness and openmindedness is exactly the brand of conservatism we need more of for a well-balanced national conversation.

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Review: Supreme Court Decisions

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Supreme Court Decisions
Supreme Court Decisions by Richard Beeman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s hard to imagine why I would give a civics book a five star review. It’s not a “book” at all, just a series of excerpts of some of the most famous of Supreme Court cases. I’ve never been interested in politics until recently (I think 2015-16 probably activated a lot of people). Yet I’ve always been drawn to Supreme Court cases. Though some may disagree, I’ve always appreciated that justices are lifetime appointments. Removing the fundraising-campaign-reelection infrastructure, I believe frees up these individuals to focus on their jobs without fear of consequences. That gives them the ability to make bold rulings that withstand the test of time more than congressional acts or presidential rulings, which in hindsight seem many times like shortsighted pandering.

I love that SC decisions blend logic, morality, law, technology, and philosophy. It’s an extremely cerebral book, in that you will be forced to think about an issue in a new way, regardless of your personal belief. The first tough lesson to learn is thinking of the SC as the living embodiment of the constitution, as written, not a group of nine superthinkers dispensing morality for the masses. This particular tension came to light, for example, when John Roberts upheld the ACA as a constitutionally sanctioned tax, while condemning the act itself. The book is filled with examples of this. It is tempting to read the paragraph summary of each case and make a personal judgment before diving in to the decision’s text. This is very difficult to do. Each decision (along with the many dissents included) is carefully crafted from a unique perspective, and if you want more than a laundry list of seminal decisions, then you must tune yourself to appreciating that perspective for the moment.

Having said all that, it’s refreshing to finally have some content understanding (rather than headline understanding) of such famous cases as Marbury v. Madison, Plessy v. Ferguson, and Citizens United. I may be late to the table with my civic education, but I know there are millions out there who yearn for the who-what-why explanations of why their country is the way it is. To that yearning, I will always prefer to go to the source itself to avoid the coloration of another’s telling.

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Review: Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta

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Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta
Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What a delight to read! I picked up this book at one of the dozens of book stores and gift shops in the delta selling it. Part travelogue, part memoir, it’s an hysterical exploration of the kooky culture and characters living in the poorest part of the poorest state in the union, the Mississippi Delta, a rich-soiled, cotton-planted floodplain extending from Vicksburg to Memphis. I just finished a weeklong tour of the region myself, so it was especially delightful to read about all the places I’d personally been, and in a few cases, about some of the people I’d actually met myself.

I hope the outlandish descriptions and soulful meanderings convince you to add this region to your list of places to see on your personal travels. If you live in the South, it’s only a few hours’ drive away. (Be sure to stay at the Shack Up Inn in Clarksdale if you’re doing the Blues Trail!)

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Review: Armageddon in Retrospect

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Armageddon in Retrospect
Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this collection. There is something spooky about war stories taking place off the battlefield. I think there is nothing which probes deeper into human nature than the interactions and motivations of people during “a state of war.” The title story wasn’t my favorite: a tongue-in-cheek letter from a scientist leading a lab project claiming to have successfully isolated and trapped the devil and so freeing humanity from temptation and violence forevermore. It gave me a good chuckle though.

My favorite stories were “Great Day” and “The Commandant’s Desk.” The former is about a 2037 Army of the World recruit who takes part in a time travelling experiment back to a 1918 World War I battlefield. The latter is about a carpenter who’s been pressed into service by three different occupying commandants during the Czechoslovakian war (German, Russian, and American) who has to keep changing the logo on the same desk.

There is a humorous, fatalist streak in all his stories, not unlike Slaughterhouse-Five, one of my favorite books. He conveys the tragedy of senseless war born of his own experience as a POW in Dresden. It’s easy to see that that experience defined his life and his writing forever.

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My Year in Books 2016

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Done!

At the beginning of 2016 I set out to read a book a week. I failed. I read 50 of the 52 books I’d set out to read, but as you may imagine I’m hardly disappointed. Although I read only 4 books more than last year, I read longer books, a total of 12606 pages over last year’s 8903. Although this reflects an average length of only 250 pages, I’m happy with my decision to remain focused on short books, maximizing the variety of my experience. I did a slightly worse job at gender balancing, reading 34 male-authored books vs 16 female-authored as opposed to a 70/30 split last year. Overall I’m pleased with my results and a little wearied. 34 pages a day translates to about an hour of consistent time set aside for the hobby (reading before bed most nights, with the occasional 2-3 hour “curl-up” session). That means I spent 1/24th of my life last year reading books in addition to eating, working, sleeping, etc. That’s pretty substantial, and represents what feels like my realistic upper limit.

Awards

Best Book of the Year: Reading Lolita In Tehran, by Azar Nafisi — I give this the highest praise. The author writes with poise, intelligence, class, and insightfulness about life during a time of revolution. (Runner Ups: The Snow Leopard, The Secret Life of Bees, Longitude)

Worst Book: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy — Really, this boring, monotonous, depressing thing won a Pulitzer? (Runner Up: Incubus, Bushwhackers)

Most Overrated: All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr — I enjoyed reading it, but it’s about on par with About Grace, a decent, enjoyable book. There is something wrong with the fact that people exploded with unbounded praise over it that I still haven’t figured out. I still contend that The Shell Collector is his best work. (Runner Ups: The Secret History, The Plot Against America, Alice in Wonderland)

Best Indie Book: The Pugilist, by Sylvia McKenzie — Really, this is an impressive new voice in the literary landscape, and you should check her out.

Best War Book: The Coming Fury, by Bruce Catton — Blew my socks off. I learned so much about the Civil War and the months leading up to it.

Funniest: Thing Explainer, by Randall Munroe — Do not underestimate the power of this book. It may be a gag gift, but it’s both hysterical and educational. I love an author who plays with form, and this is about as unique as you can get: a labelled picture book, not a novel, not a text book, not a comic strip, not a graphic novel, totally its own thing!

Pinker Award: The Better Angels of Our Nature, by Steven Pinker — I’d rate it “best book” but I read the bulk of it in 2015. It deserves its own category. In future years I’ll give the Pinker Award to the nonfiction book that most deeply affects my worldview. For more about this incredible tome, I wrote an entire series of blog posts unpacking each chapter.

Honorable Mention

I can’t help plugging my own book. Impossible is the task to rank or categorize it against the backdrop of existing work, classic or contemporary (I’m a wee bit biased). Yet it is worth mentioning that years of sweat and toil culminated in my own carefully curated drop in the literary ocean on April 28th, 2016 with the publication of The Gingerbread Collection. Thanks to all who contributed, read, and/or reviewed it, and I hope many more of you do so in the future! I am already working on my next big project. May my best work still lie ahead of me.

Click on the icons below to read my individual reviews on Goodreads. (Copied from my 2016 Reading Challenge.)

Review: Daughters of Copper Woman

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Daughters of Copper Woman
Daughters of Copper Woman by Anne Cameron
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is a difficult book to review. Like Night or Between the World and Me, it’s impossible for me to pass judgment on the firsthand account of an oppressed culture’s history. I can say that I admire the ever peaceful, ever hopeful worldview this tribe embraces. The first few chapters start with their creation myths and I thought, well this will be refreshing. But the book transforms into a selection of stories plucked from an oral history passed down by tribe “memorizers.” The stories are so visceral, told as if they happened yesterday, they lend an instant credence. The story flows to the present, as the author grapples with the question of why this generation’s memorizer has granted permission, for the first time ever, for these stories (that were once a secret protected by a women’s society) to be written down. Her answer is the most wholesome fulfillment of the book. Twofold:

I. Diseases and violence, brought by “the strangers,” has wiped out so many of us that huge swaths of our cultural history has been lost with us. What’s left must be preserved in a modern way.

II. There has been an awakening of late (1981) in women’s awareness of their own innate value and powers that has been systematically suppressed by Western culture and its colonial advance. We have lessons from the Copper Woman that can benefit women everywhere thirsting for a guide to discovering their power. (In modern parlance: Feminism can benefit by studying the ancient wisdom of matriarchal societies.)

Again, this book is not for me. I appreciate its weight, and I heartily recommend it to women everywhere.

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Review: The Snow Leopard

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The Snow Leopard
The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve been rating a lot of books four stars lately. I wouldn’t call it a rut. There are lots of good books out there and I’m glad I’ve read them. Some, because I feel I should have and I’m glad for the belt notch (The Secret History, The Secret Garden), others because they were remarkable finds and charming reads but they may have fallen just short of greatness (The Planets, The Singing Bones).

The Snow Leopard is a remarkable book, rightfully shelved as a great American travelogue. It fulfills every expectation from its genre. The author perfectly balances his account of a personal, spiritual journey with his physical, geographic, scenic journey. Even the title lends itself to a motif, the goal of seeing an elusive, beautiful creature out in the snowy wastes, and the author does not fail to use this symbol to impart the lessons he learned. I may never set foot in Nepal or Tibet, but I understand how such a sparse, introspective religion as Buddhism could have thrived there. Westerners really only associate Nepal and the Himalaya with Mount Everest, and that very male, western, phallic mission of conquering her summit. Mathiessen’s journey had nothing to do with mountain climbing and everything to do with studying wildlife, visiting temples, and meeting the local lamas. That mission breathes a fresh vitality into the Abode of Snow as a place of discovery, healing, introspection, and wonder.

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Review: The Planets

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The Planets
The Planets by Dava Sobel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I strongly recommend this to anyone who has not ever been touched by a sense of wonder in science. I read Longitude a few weeks ago, and stumbled over this one at the bookstore when I was looking for Galileo’s Daughter. I am getting the feeling that I can read anything this author has to write. She has a fluid way of guiding the reader through scientific concepts while educating and entertaining, conveying the childlike sense of wonder that drives her profession. As for those who already have caught the science bug, this is a charming, easy read, but won’t go into much detail or teach you all that much you don’t already know. She reviews the basic astronomical catechism about Saturn’s rings, Mercury’s orbit, the moon’s origin, Neptune & Pluto’s discovery, etc. If you are already hip to that kind of thing, read Music of the Spheres for a mind-blowing, life changing tour through the solar system. The Planets is basically Music of the Spheres lite.

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Review: The Secret Garden

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The Secret Garden
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is such a joy to read. I wish I’d read it at a young age. It never even occurred to me it was a book until I saw it on the shelf. I’d just never heard of it before. So I guess I should say, every fan of this wonderful movie should check out the primary source! It reads like a Beatrix Potter story. Slightly Victorian in tradition (1911), easy to read, introducing young people to difficult concepts like sickness, life and death. Best of all, telling the story in metaphor and in literal plot that it is healthy and magical to spend time outdoors.

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