Sunday, December 31, 2017

Sugar in the Blood - Andrea Stuart

Subtitle: A Family's Story of Slavery and Empire

In 2015 I found a reference to this novel and put it on my TBR list.  It is a historical account of slavery's establishment in the Western hemisphere, beginning in Barbados and the West Indies.  My son's grandfather was born in Barbados, immigrating with his family to the United States as a child.  I wanted to learn more about the history of the island and its people.  The book did not disappoint.

The author is a descendent of a white plantation owner and his slave wife, a mulatto who herself descended from slaves brought from Africa in the 1700's.  The society in Barbados in the late 1700's and into the early 1800's was a blended hierarchy of races, that broke into separate camps when those at the lowest rungs rose up to protest.  

The second part of the book describes how the overwhelming desire for sugar from the new world turned the slave trade into a massive business enterprise that destroyed the native population and their society in the name of greed.  

I found no mention of my son's ancestors who I've traced back to the early 1800's in Barbados on his paternal side.  Future research!

Published:  2013  Read: November 2017  Genre: History

Eichmann's Executioner - Astrid Dehe and Achim Engstler

This is a short novel that uses the relationship of three men to tell the story of the guard chosen to be the hangman for Eichmann, one of the convicted persecutor of Jews and responsible for organizing the mass transportation to concentration camps.

The facts of the story are shown in different perspectives; from the present day's viewpoint to the memories of participants and the imagined conversations of prisoner with guard.  What struck me was the denial by Eichmann of any wrongdoing, a complete blindness to his horrific acts.  The guard is taken in by his seeming normality and in later life is haunted by his complicity. 

The book was translated from German, the authors collaborating on bringing a story of the impact on the lives of survivors and observers.

Published: 2014  Genre: Fiction

The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fist Fight in Heaven - Sherman Alexie

Did that title grab you?  Me too.  This is a collection of short stories by a Native American author.  Life on the reservation is harsh and is conducted in parallel with the rest of the society while struggling to maintain tribal beliefs and culture.  A quirky telling of painful realities.

Published:  1994  Read: December 2017  Genre: Short Story

Me Before You - Jojo Moyes

This book is the story of a young man, William, injured in the prime of his life and confined to a wheelchair as a paraplegic.  Louisa, a young woman, fumbling through life from one failed attempt to grow up to another, hires on to be his caretaker.  She learns over time that she's there to convince him not to end his life.  Their relationship starts out contentious with William's bitterness shocking the sheltered, inexperienced Louis.  She comes to have affection for him as he is and to respect his wishes.

The reviews and movie describe this as a romance story.  If that was the intent, it misses the mark.  Louisa's fumbling and lack of any desires of her own, make her as pitiful as William.  There are no heroes in this novel.  Not recommended.

Published:  2012  Read: December 2017  Genre: Fiction

Shtum - Jem Lester

This is the story told by the father of a severely autistic son.  Jonah is about 9 or 10 years old and does not speak, dress or bathe himself and still wears diapers.  He lives in England where a case must be made to have him placed in a special live-in school for autistic children.  His father, Ben, is guilt ridden over his conflicting feelings over his son.  His mother, Emma, is leaving them to create a single family household that she claims will increase their chances of a placement.  Jonah and Ben go to live with Ben's father.  He is grandfather stoic and gruff with his son, but shares stories of his youth with Jonah as he struggles with his own illness.

These are all hurting people with no end in site for the pain.  The intimate, inside look at life with an autistic child is heartbreaking and horrifying.  The toll on Ben and Emma's marriage, the relationship between fathers and sons are laid out in stark, biting conversations between people trying to figure out how to live with their reality.

The author in real life is the father of an autistic child.  I initially was irritated and put off by the self-pity of the father who drinks himself into stupors.  I finished the book with a deeper empathy for people struggling to live life in impossible situations with no end in sight. 

Published:  2016  Read: December 2017  Genre: Fictionalized biography

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

In the Midst of Winter - Isabel Allende

A reclusive professor and his downstairs tenant rescue an illegal immigrant who collides with his car from the fury of her murdering employer.

I like trying to create a single sentence summary of a novel.  Allende is one of my all time favorite authors, although her last few books have not inspired the admiration of her earliest writings, see my reviews of The Japanese Lover and Maya's Notebook.

In this novel, she weaves the history of Chile and Guatemala violence with present day realities through the stories of three people; Richard, a lonely academic isolated by loss, Lucia, his colleague and tenant who masks her losses with persistent optimism, and Evelyn, a scarred survivor of the gangs in Guatemala.  Believe it or not, the book is funny in many ways as these broken people help one another out of a sticky situation. 

Allende gives an up close an personal look at life in these countries when chaos prevails and illuminates the strength of the human spirit.  A good read for fans of the author.

Published:  2017  Read: December 2017  Genre: Fiction

Friday, November 24, 2017

My Beloved World - Sonia Sotomayor

This was the perfect follow-up to Sisters-In-Law that I read earlier this year.  It's the story of the third woman and first Hispanic to be appointed to the Supreme Court.  Her life was one of early hardship guided by the drive of her mother to get a good education for her children.  She is modest about her exceptional intelligence and measured in sharing her beliefs.  I came away with a deep respect and admiration for her achievements.

Some quotes:

"Not every experiment is a success.  that's the nature of doing science" She quotes her science teacher then she goes on to add: "The nature of doing many things, I might add: success is its own reward, but failure is a great teacher too, and not to be feared."

"In my experience when a friend unloaded about a boyfriend or spouse, the listener soaked up the complaint and rememberd it long afer the speaker had forgiven the offense." 
"Dressing badly has been a refuge much of my life, a way of complelling others to engage with my mind, not my physical presence.  I'm competitive enough that I'll eventually withdraw from any consistently losing battle".

Published: 2013  Read: November 2017  Genre: Autobiography

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Hidden Harmonies - Robert and Ellen Kaplan

Sub-title:  The Live and Times of the Pythagorean Theorem

This is a different read.  Two mathematicians trace the history of the discovery and proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem - the one the scarecrow quotes in the Wizard of Oz when he gets his brain:
"The square of the hypotenuse of an isosceles [sic right angled] triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the other two sides"
That quote was about the extent of my knowledge of the theorem.  This book provided a delightful and quixotic look at its evolution and application throughout history.  I admit I skimmed the proofs and my eyes glazed in parts.  I felt I was listening to a discussion by two experts on a topic I barely understand and yet enjoy their enthusiasm for the subject.

They quote Georg Christoph Lichtenberg "What you have been obliged in discover by yourself leave a path in your mind which you can use again when the need arises."


On math as a craft:

"Should you conclude that so much doggedness, wedded to such inspiration, is beyond your wildest dreams, remember that what you've followed here is the tidied remainder of who knows how many lively conversations -- and conversation among practitioners as devoted to their craft as are cooks to theirs." 

Published:  2011  Read:  November 2017  Genre: Non-fiction, mathematics

A Fall of Marigolds - Susan Meissner

This book is a joy to read.  The story of two lives scarred by tragedy intersecting across decades.
A young mother working in a fabric store in modern day New York seeks a particular design she saw years ago.  A nurse on Ellis Island helps a widowed immigrant back to health.  These two characters lives come together over time to tell stories of great loss and how we react to it and eventually move on. 

Some quotes:

"Kindness is always motivated by something nobler than just a desire to be kind.  I had a wounded heart.  Like his.  That is what I had."
"I want to be able to remember and have it not hurt. I think it's possible to remember someone you loved and lost and feel blessed that you knew them, even for just a short time, without it hurting."

"The person who completes your life is not so much the person who shares all the years of your existence, but rather the person who made you life worth living, not matter how long or short a time you were given to spend with them." 

"...a strange but welcome ache for the loss of my island fell over me: the ache of losing something that is comfortable only because it is familiar, not dear." 

"Perhaps you are thinking, as I once did, that love is too precarious to want to lavish it again on another.  I want you to know that love is not a person.  It is not of this earth at all.   It wasn't until now that I realized I had mistakenly come to believe that love came from a place inside me and therefore I had to protect that place.  It comes from heaven.  It is given to us not to hold on to or hide from but to give away."

Published:  2014  Read: November 2017  Genre: Fiction

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Sisters in Law - Linda Hirshman

Subtitle: How Sandra Day O'Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World

Reading the story of the first two women supreme court justices reawakened the feminist history I lived and embraced for life in the 1970s.  These two very different women finally brought a female perspective to the court.  The stories of their treatment and experiences is fascinating.  I was surprised at O'Connor's pragmatic conservatism and cheered Ginsburg's consistent push for change.  I discovered a lot about the operation of the Supreme Court and how its members function in getting their job done and relating to their colleagues.  Great read.

Published:  2015 (hardback)  Read: October 2017  Genre: History, biography

The Wave - Susan Casey

An adventure reporter follows the men who seek out the largest waves in the world to surf them.  On the way she explains the science of large waves and the havoc they have reeked on ships and human beings over time.  Got me to watch the videos of the surfers and made me a little leery of ocean travel!

Published: 2010      Read: August 2017   Genre: Non-fiction, adventure

Beyond the High Blue Air - Lu Spinney

Subtitle: A Memoir

A mother writes of her 30ish son's snowboarding accident, his subsequent traumatic brain injury that leaves him unable to move and barely communicate through signals and his desire to end his life.
Through the ordeal, we meet her other children and her husband and their reactions to the loss of their brother and son.  A very moving and thought-provoking story.

Published: 2016   Read: October 2017  Genre: Memoir

Friday, August 11, 2017

Gutenberg's Fingerprint - Merilyn Simonds

Sub-title: Paper, pixels and the lasting impression of books

What a great read!  The author takes us through the publication process of a new book of her short stories with a letterpress printer, interwoven with the history of paper, print, ink and books.  I must have used over a dozen sticky notes to mark comments I wanted to re-visit.  Just going to record them here and go buy the book on Amazon!


 [On reading from paper vs screen] "Touching the thickness of paper and turning it leaves a kind of fingerprint in the mind, a marker of what has been read." p.36

What's a wayzgoose?  [The printer explains] "the proprietor of the print shop would throw a going-away goose dinner [for apprentice going out on his own]. After a while, any party for the printers at a print shop or a newspaper was called a wayzgoose." [One is held in April in Grimsby, Ontario].

"One of the most common ligatures, the ampersand (&), was originally made by joining "e" and "t" which spelled "et" Latin for "and."."

[A good Scrabble word] Then he inserts a small key into the quoin a word I've used often in Scrabble although I didn't know it meant "corner", from the French "coin".

[Discussion of using blood as an ink] "The Scottish Convenanters signed their call for a Presbyterian Scotland in their own blood, wearing red neckerchiefs as their insignia (the genesis of the term redneck, which originally meant a Scottish dissenter)."

[First paperback] "David Smyth patented his book sewing machine in 1879.  Perfect binding - gluing instead of stitching - was invented twenty years later, but it was rarely used until 1931, when Germany's Albatross Books introduced the first paperback."

On page 298 there is a whole list of futuristic ideas for enjoying books; from a service that tracks what you read and organizes those reads in different ways to one that maps all the locations you've read about in books.  Yes, yes!

There's even a candle that smells like a book on Amazon (p.327)!

In the end, there is a party to celebrate the publication of her book of short stories with all the people that were involved in its creation.

A wonderful read, highly recommended!

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Girl in the Red Coat - Kate Hamer

I thought I was going to like this book.  It's a story of a little girl in a red coat (reminiscent of Little Red Riding Hood) who is abducted and struggles in captivity to maintain her identify.  It's told in parallel with the story of her grieving mother who is attempting to go on living.  I liked the way the characters personalities evolved as time passed and cheered for the child as I felt sorrow for the Mom.  But the author got lazy and wrapped up the story in a few short pages at the end that read like she was in a rush to finish.

Published: 2016  Read: August 2017  Genre: Fiction

Monday, July 24, 2017

Into the Water - Paula Hawkins

I really enjoyed this author's previoius book, "The Girl on the Train".  This one disappoints.  A woman writing stories about the drownings of multiple women in a small town is herself found drowned.  A young girl who is the best friend of her daughter drowned only a short time before.  Are they suicides or murders?

The author tells the story in repeated first-person chapters from each characters point of view, the big picture not revealed until the end, like peeling an onion.  There was no satisfying resolution delivered.  Not recommended.

Published: 2017  Read: July 2017  Genre: Mystery

Hillbilly Elegy - J D Vance

Subtitle: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis

I enjoyed this book.  It's a memoir of sorts, the author only in his mid-30's, about a family from Kentucky growing up poor in a factory town in Ohio.  What I liked was how it gave insight into the life of this group of people.  I was not aware that thousands of families had migrated north from the mountains of Appalachia after WWII for jobs in manufacturing, bringing their culture with them.  The author illustrates the beliefs and family dynamics that have contributed to the poverty and hopelessness in the population and makes claims that his experience is endemic in the white working class of America.

"...hillbillies learn from an early age to deal with uncomfortable truths by avoiding them, or by pretending better truths exist.  This tendency might make for psychological resilience, but it also make it hard for Appalachians to look at themselves honestly."

"We were conditioned to feel that we couldn't really depend on people."

He describes how these families were ill-prepared to survive when the factories closed, how the educated and wealthy abandoned towns, leaving behind those struggling in despair. (His takeaway from the book The Truly Disadvantaged by Julius Wilson).

He joined the Marines and there he discovered he had a "learned helplessness" - a belief that the choices he made had no effect on the outcomes in his life.  He'd grown up in a town with small expectations and a chaotic home life.  The Marines, he says, taught him learned willfulness.

As an adult, he left behind the fear and lack of safety and stability and became empowered to be a protector and care for those he loved.  Being "part of a family, that for all its quirks, loved me unconditionally" he realized was a great strength.

In describing his community he notes that there is a mistrust of some of the most obvious paths to upward mobility and that the cultural expectations of working-class white Americans have fallen to where they are the most pessimistic segment of the population about the future of their children.

He learns when interviewing for jobs after finishing Yale law school that success depends greatly on networking and comfort with the culture he aspired to join.  This social capital is "a measure of how much we learn through our friends, colleagues, and mentors."

In reflecting on his home and community he identifies a constant readiness to fight or flee from living with alcoholic or drug-using parents with multiple partners and the resulting high level of instability.

I think his story sheds light on how people get beaten down through loss of income and a perception of lack of opportunity and how this mindset is passed on to the next generation.

Published: 2016  Read: July 2017  Genre: Auto-biography

Monday, July 3, 2017

In Calabria - Peter S Beagle

I need to start being more selective with what I pick up at the library.  This little book had some good reviews (but then, don't all book covers have glowing reviews?) and I recognized the author.  It's a fable, of sorts, about a unicorn that comes to the farm of an isolated, older man to have her colt.  The man befriends the unicorn at the same time he opens up to being a friend of a young woman who brings his mail.

The author wrote one of my favorite books, A Fine and Private Place back in the 1960's.  It's a story of unresolved love in the afterlife.  This book has none of the charm or magic power of his earlier one for me.  Not recommended.

Published:  2017  Read: July 2017  Genre: Fiction (fantasy)

Saturday, July 1, 2017

Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life - Yiyun Li

This is a sad, disjointed book.  The author is a lauded graduate of the Iowa Writers Workshop.  She is Chinese, born in Beijing and trained as an immunologist and immigrated to the U.S.  She left science t to write and has written several books, all in English, and does not write in Chinese.

This book contains reflections on her self and reminiscences of other authors while she was suffering from depression and had thoughts of suicide.  I was too distracted by the unfocused, rambling and her use of language.  Not recommended although she did have a couple phrases I noted.

"To read is to be with people who, unlike those around one, do not notice one's existence."
"What other and the world have done should not define one as much as what one had done to oneself." 

Published:  2017  Read:  June 2017  Genre: Memoir

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.

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 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