Tuesday, June 27, 2017

No Barriers - Erik Weihenmayer

Sub-title: A Blind Man's Journey to Kayak the Grand Canyon

I picked this up because my father is blind and I've admired his ability to keep doing whatever he wants to do.  Erik, the author, has never let it get in his way and he founded an organization to help others find the same spirit in themselves.

The book tells how he climbed Mt Everest and kayaked the Grand Canyon. I was fascinated by the amount of details to be covered in preparing for these adventures.  I was particularly intrigued by a device called a "Brain Port" that re-programmed sensors in his tongue to stimulate his optic nerve so that he could "see" objects.

The story interweaves events in his personal life with his adventures in a disjointed fashion making it drag in parts.  Overall, it's a book worth reading for the inspirational message of overcoming odds.

Published: 2017  Read: June 2017  Genre: Adventure, autobiography

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Far From The Tree - Andrew Solomon

Sub-title: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

This book occupied most of my June reading, coming in at 702 pages plus 200 pages of notes and bibliography.  I checked it out of the library after listening to a review on the New York Times Book Review podcast.

The author explores the relationship between parents and their exceptional children in terms of how they identify themselves.  He uses the term "horizontal identity" to describe individuals belonging to a group separate from the traditional family relationship.  He illustrates these horizontal identities by interviewing the parents and children in multiple different groups: deaf, dwarf, down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, disability, prodigies, rape, crime, transgender as well as his own identities as a son and father.  It's a tremendous challenge for parents and their children dealing with these issues.  In all these horizontal identities there is the need to relate to others in the same group and often a struggle between that identity and the traditional family.

What struck me most was how parents embraced and accepted the identity of their children.  There are the usual steps of "grief" experienced; shock, denial, anger, depression, acceptance and with that acceptance comes an embrace of the special uniqueness of their child.  In many instances, parents become activists and advocate for the needs of their children.

Don't all parents do this?  Don't we all sacrifice for our children?  And is that sacrifice ingrained or chosen?  The remarkable way that families dealing with the challenge of each of these groups cope, embrace and yes, even celebrate the differences, is inspiring and encourages reflection.  Their children grow up to see their illness or difference as a definition of who they are and embrace that identity.

It is a long and challenging read because the writing style is rambling.  At least a quarter of the book could be left out and  the readability improved by adding structure and conclusions to each chapter. Food for thought, but an overly rich serving.

Published:  2012  Read: June 2017  Genre: Sociology

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Gulp - Mary Roach

Sub-title: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal

I'd previously read Mary's book, "Stiff" about cadavers.  This book covers the digestive system, from nose/mouth all through to the other end.  She has a light-hearted style, interspersing asides with the medical facts and history of this vitally important body function.  I enjoyed learning about the evolution of medical treatment and diseases affecting the digestive trac.  Quirky read.

Published: 2013  Read: May 2017  Genre: Non-fiction, medical

Thursday, May 25, 2017

The Lost City of Z - David Grann

The last of the Victorian explorers, Percy Harrison Fawcett, disappeared into the Amazon jungle with his son and the son's friend, seeking evidence of a lost ancient civilization he had labeled "Z".  The author illuminates the power of an obsession to draw a man to feats of enormous perseverance.

The book is based on the life of Fawcett and the author had access to previously unavailable private papers and diaries.  The author found himself obsessed with the research and writing of the book.

This is a spell-binding read, highly recommended.

Published:  2005 (paperback ed. 2010) Read May 2017  Genre Historical fiction, biography

The Illusion of Separtness - Simon Van Booy

Lovely prose, some wonderful images but overall this book is almost like reading poetry, somewhat disjointed though the story is as well.

The lives of a young couple before WWII intertwines with that of a lonely film director, a blind museum curator and a janitor at an old folks home.  I was not quite sure who was who in the end.

Quotes:
He had been reborn into the nightmare of truth.
Martin likes to think that even the smallest gesture is grand.
Desire is met with the memory of satisfaction.
Lives are staged from within.
The scent of flowers lingers for days as though waiting for an answer.

Published: 2014 (paperback) 2012 (hardcover) Read: May 2017  Genre: fiction
 
 
 
 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Last Days of Night - Graham Moore

What a good read!  This is the story of the lawsuit by Einstein against Westinghouse for encroaching on his patent for the light bulb.  Westinghouse hires Tesla to "build a better light bulb" and enlists a young recently graduated lawyer to defend him.  Told utilizing actual transcripts, letters and news reports of the case, it's a fascinating imagination of these famous scientist and businessmen battling to take control of the future.  Highly recommended.


Published: 2016  Read: May 2017  Genre: Historical Fiction

The Foundling - Paul Joseph Fronczak

Subtitle: The True Story of a Kidnapping, a Family Secret, and My Search for the Real Me

This is the true story of a child that was kidnapped from his mother in the maternity ward and later identified as an almost two year old abandoned outside a building in another state.  Paul discovers the story of his youth when he's only 10 years old and begins to wonder if he is really the biological child of the people who raised him.  A DNA test proves he is not and the search for his real parents and the story behind him being a foundling is an engrossing mystery.  

I loved it for the explanation of the analysis of his DNA and its use in building a family tree from nothing.  If you're interested in understanding the use of DNA in adoption cases, this is the book to read.



Published: 2017  Read: May 2017  Genre: Biography

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Dust Bowl Girls - Lydia Reeder

Sub-title: The inspiring story of the team that barnstormed its way to basketball glory

The author of this book is the great-niece of Sam Babbs, the coach of the women's basketball team from Oklahoma Presbyterian College.  During the 1930's depression, he offered college scholarships to high school graduates who would play basketball.  He led the team to national and international victories and changed the lives of these poor farm girls.

The writing is disjointed and there is a lot of "then this happened" recounting of events.  What I really enjoyed was learning about the attitudes in the 1930's toward women in sports.  President Hoover's wife was behind a nationwide effort to block women from playing sports as unladylike and would damage their health.  These women proved them wrong.

An entertaining reading.

Published: 2017  Read: April 2017  Genre: Biography

Monday, May 8, 2017

Hellhound on his Trail - Hampton Sides

Sub-title: The stalking of Martin Luther King Jr and the international hunt for his assassin

I'm hitting a string of good reads lately.  This book is the story of the assassin of Martin Luther King. James Earl Ray plotted and pursued King and set off a massive manhunt afterwords.  The book had me experiencing King's murder as an adult, as I had only bits and pieces of memory from childhood. The turmoil of the time as activists marched and protested for civil rights brought into sharp relief the challenge of making change in society.

The lack of sophisticated crime investigation technology made me realize how far we've come and how tried and true methods were still effective.  There's a hint that the FBI at that time had many more technical and communication resources then I'd thought were available in the 60's.

Hampton Sides is a favorite author and this book did not disappoint.

Published: 2010  Read: April 2017  Genre: Biography

Sunday, April 9, 2017

The New Odyssey - Patrick Kingsley

Sub-title: The story of the twenty-first century refugee crisis

This book is an eye-opener.  The author parallels the journey of one refugee with the facts and evolution of the massive migration of refugees from the Middle East and Africa.  The numbers of people impacted by the wars and repressive regimes is staggering - hundreds of thousands of attempted to leave their countries for a safer existence in European continent.

The book changed my understanding of the Syrian conflict and others in the region and humanized the people just trying to live and raise their families some place safe and secure.  These are not all individuals who are poor and uneducated, instead they are people like you and me who are caught up in societies being destroyed by tyrants and fanatics, paralleling the reign of Hitler in the 1930's.

The response of European nations that are overwhelmed with the numbers of people seeking asylum creates division and cooperation as they try to address the crisis.

A must read.

Published:  2017   Read: April 2017   Genre: Non-fiction

Nutshell - Ian McEwan

I liked this one for its quirky twist on the point of view - I won't give it away, let's just say I've never read anything from this kind of character.  It's a story about a murder plot and the speaker is trying to prevent it, mostly out of self-interest.  A quick read that's worth your time.

Published:  2016  Read: March 2017  Genre: fiction, mystery

The Nest - Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney

This was a first novel by a young author.  It tells the story of spoiled siblings who have waited all their lives for the inheritance of their parents, the "nest" of the title.  At first, they are unappealing characters, self-absorbed and petty.  And yet, as they realize the inheritance is unlikely due to the actions of their surviving mother and their feckless older brother, they grow to meet the reality of caring for their own future.  Funny and ironic, a good read.


Published:  2016  Read: February 2016  Genre: Fiction

The Orchardist - Amanda Coplin

I've had this book for awhile.  I'd picked it up because it was listed as a NYT bestseller and had started it once and then put it aside.  The second time was better.

It's the story of two young girls who escape a bad situation and are taken in by a farmer who keeps an orchard in the Northwest.  There's a back story on how he ended up there when his parents migrated West.  The book is a study on relationships that exist with few words.  We read the thoughts of the characters, but they are rarely shared with others and when there is dialogue, it's sparse and carefully chosen.  A tender gem of a book.

Some quotes I marked:

"And that was the point of children...to bind us to the earth and to the present, to distract us from death. A distraction dressed as a blessing: but dressed so well, and so truly, that it became a blessing.  Or maybe it was the other way around: a blessing first, before a distraction.  Caroline Middey scrutinized the point; did not know if the distinction was important (All distinctions are important.)  But she did not think any more about it because at her back, suddenly , the child work from her nap, and she rose at once to go to her."
 "When one is young, he thought, one thinks that one will never know oneself.  But the knowledge comes later, if not all, then some.  An important amount." 

Published: 2012  Read: March 2016  Genre: Fiction


Humans Need Not Apply - Jerry Kaplan

Sub-title: A Guide to Wealth and Work in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

READ THIS BOOK.  This is the most thought provoking read I've encountered in a very long time.
The author explains the basics of artificial intelligence applications and how they will be utilized and lead to profound impacts on our lives. It won award as one of the top 10 science books of 2015.

It's easy to read, like the author and you are having a conversation and puts a positive view on the future of the technology.

Published:  2015  Read: February 2017  Genre: Science

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Hag-Seed by Margaret Atwood

Sub-title: The Tempest Re-Told

This book is part of a series of novels by modern day authors re-telling the stories of Shakespeare.  I haven't been a fan of Atwood's books for awhile, after a long time ago enjoying The Handmaid's Tale.  I could not get through this and quit after about fifty pages. Life is short!


Published: 2016  Read: partially March 2017  Genre: Fiction

The Master Algorithm - Pedro Domingos


I recently began reading on the topic of artificial intelligence (AI) because I’d read where Bill Gates (Microsoft) identified it as one of the three most important career areas of the future.

I was struck by the potential application of AI to the research of genetic genealogy, not for the scientists, but for the genealogist.  The math and science of AI is way, way over my head yet the book's review sparked my curiosity to dive in.

Quotes and notes:
This definition set me on the right track to reading the book.
"...machine learning is about prediction: predicting what we want, the result of our action, how to achieve our goals, how the world will change."  

And this quote gave me a frame of reference.
"The psychologist Don Norman coined the term conceptual model to refer to the rough knowledge of a technology we need to have in order to use it effectively.  This book provide you with a conceptual model of machine learning."

The author addresses 5 Schools of Thought in machine learning (ML) each with a different emphasis and scientific basis:
1) Symbolists - view learning as the inverse of deduction; philosophy, psychology and logic
2) Connectionists - reverse engineer the brain; neuroscience and physics
3) Evolutionaries - simulate evolution on the computer; genetics and evolutionary biology
4) Bayesians - learning as a form of probabilistic inference; statistics
5) Analogizers - learn by extrapolating from similarity judgments; psychology and mathematical optimization.

"Machine learning is the scientific method on steroids - it can test hypotheses in a fraction of a second."  

Reading this made me wonder if ML could incorporate the rules of evidence and decide if a fact or relationship is proven in the genealogical meaning of proof.

"Today, the main limitation of computers compared to brains is energy consumption: your brain uses only about as much power a a small light bulb, while Watson's (IBM's ML) supply could light up a whole office building."
It was comforting to realize our brains are still a much more powerful computer!

The author's explanation of S curves - gradually then suddenly, output increases as a function of input- made me wonder if there is an S curve for DNA inheritance?

"Psychologists have found that personality boils down to five dimensions - extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience -which they can infer from your tweets and blog posts."
That quote made me think twice about what I blog about!

In all, this was a fascinating read and a peak into the future of computing.

Published:  2015  Read: March 2017  Genre: Science

Sunday, February 12, 2017

The Presidents Club - Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy

Sub-title: Inside the world's most exclusive fraternity

A great read to start off the New Year!  One of my book clubs chose this and there was some grumbling because of the length.  I almost put it aside and then plunged in over many evenings.

The book begins with the relationship between Truman and Hoover, then moves onto Eisenhower and follows through all the Presidents up to Barack Obama as of 2012.  One tip--make a list of the presidents in order as a crib sheet because the authors skip around events in the different president's terms and it got a bit confusing.

I found every bit of it fascinating.  As one book club member noted, these are all imperfect, flawed men who care deeply about our country, its people and its future.  They also are concerned with their individual legacy and most importantly, the continuity of the presidency.  I was surprised at the amount of support and cooperation they shared in and out of office.  I developed a greater respect for, of all people, Richard Nixon, who spent his entire life until his dying days contributing to the presidency.

I hope they do a sequel a couple of more presidents in the future.


Published:  2012  Read: January 2017  Genre: History


Memory Man - David Baldacci

I read this to review it for one of my book clubs.  I don't like mysteries and I really don't like pulp fiction.  It's formulaic writing; plug in lots of violence, a disturbed hero and a few fawning females to pursue the bad guys in an implausible crime.

The plot is about an ex-football player who was hit so hard in a play he now has perfect memory of everything, especially the murder of his wife and child.  He had been a police detective so when a high school massacre happens, he gets involved only to find out it is linked to his family's murders.

Only convinced me to continue to skip this genre.

Published:  2015   Read: February 2017  Genre: Pulp fiction

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

The Reading Promise - Alice Ozma

Sub-title: My Father and the Books We Shared

A young girl and her father make a promise to read together every day...and continue their "reading streak" for over 3,000 days until she went away to college.  It sounds like a great story but I couldn't be completely enthusiastic as their relationship as described bordered on creepy.  Her mother and father separate about the same time as the streak begins yet her mother continues to spend Christmas Eve on their couch every year.  She has an older sister, about seven years older, who is mentioned occasionally but it is clear that Alice is the focus of her father's attention.  The relationship aside, the streak is a noble goal and while it broadened her knowledge it didn't greatly enhance her writing skills.

Published: 2011  Read: January 2017  Genre: Memoir

The Stranger in My Genes - Bill Griffeth

I've been obsessed with genealogy since retirement and this book is a perfect appetizer for that hunger.  The author is a CNBC financial news analyst who discovers via a DNA test that the father he was raised with is not his biological father. His story is a poignant revelation of the feelings, thoughts, relationships and changes experienced when these types of secrets are revealed.  He has to decide whether to confront his elderly mother; he has to re-think the family tree branch that he can no longer claim.  A great read for something that more and more people will be confronting as DNA testing continues to grow.

Published:  2016  Read: January 2017  Genre: Memoir

In the Country of the Blind - Edward Hoagland

This was a strange read that I picked up on the library "new release" shelf.  It's the story of a Wall Street financier who is going blind and trying to figure out how to live the rest of his life.  He goes off to a cabin he owns in Vermont to ponder his future and meets the small town folk and an adjacent "hippie commune" that embraces him.  The story is semi-autobiographical as they author is going blind.  He's written many essays on living in the wild and solitude, though I've not read any.  He refers to the eye disease serpiginous choroiditis, that scars the retina and leads to blindness.

I can't recommend the book but fans of the author may find it interesting.

Published:  2016   Read: January 2017  Genre: fiction