Category Archives: Reading

The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown

Daniel James Brown is upfront with what happens in his historical non-fiction: the boys of University of Washington win gold in the 1936 Olympic games in Nazi Germany. As strange as it may seem to give the ending away instead of drawing out the drama, trusting the reader not to look up the results, Brown gives away nothing about the book.  In fact, this book is less about the finish line and more about what led up to and came together in the final 150m of that race in 1936.

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The further you shorten and abstract this story, the greater injustice you do to its beauty. This book is the story of one of the rowers, Joe Rantz, but is shared by many others in the boat. Coming from humble means, Joe’s story is one littered with broken trust, abandonment, and physical labor. His mother dies when he was a young boy, tearing apart his family, leading to him being sent away. His father returns, remarries, and moves his new family away, leaving Joe on the porch to fend for himself in the countryside in Washington.

Rantz makes it to University of Washington where life’s distractions keeps Joe’s mind occupied as he learns to row. Money, school, family, work. All of these worries distracts him from growing with his boat. His group of freshmen rowers were some of the best that had come around. With a few roster changes, this was the boat that won the Olympic gold just a few years later.

This book is about what differentiates a good crew from a great crew. After spending last term learning to row, this was an interesting and emotional topic to read. A great crew has no individuals, but is one entity far greater than the sum of its parts. Brown does a beautiful job at capturing the heartache as well as the triumph of these stories while painting the relevant historical setting – Nazi Germany and its propaganda (“fake news” if you will…), Seattle, and  the landscape of the rowing field. He captures the transformation of a community that is placed on the map through victories of their home team, much like Coastal Carolina placed Conway, SC on the map with the NCAA baseball victory and Clemson put themselves on the map by recently toppling Alabama.

I would highly recommend this book to everyone and say it is a Must Read for anyone who has sat in a crew boat.

The Omen Machine by Terry Goodkind

 

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Here’s another one by Terry Goodkind. I’ve realized (or realised) I have a love-hate relationship with these books…

The Omen Machine takes place about twenty minutes after The Sword of Truth series finishes. Richard finds that the leaders of the Providences under the D’Haran Empire want to know more about what prophecy says to do, but he, Zedd, Nathan, and Nicci know too well that prophecy isn’t always as straight forward as it seems. Previously, Nicci was asked to use subtractive magic  to remove memories from Richard’s mind to fulfill prophecy — a request that would have cost Richard his life. Being a very dangerous and complex topic, Richard refuses to reveal prophecy even as locals with minor powers begin to reveal tellings that come true as fast as they appear. Richard must figure out how to beat these tellings and suppress an uprising against his rule.

Like some of his other books, The Omen Machine begins slow but eventually picks up. There are several more books to read after this and my desire to find out what happens to these characters outweighs the sometimes monotonous writing.

Evensong by Krista Walsh

This was a book that I was able to download for free through Amazon Kindle books and read for the fun of it this past summer in early August. I wrote my summary on the DC Metro after I finished the book on an old Nexus tablet that has charging issues. I never got it to turn back on and had no internet to back it up so that immediate review is lost forever, but I still feel strongly enough to write a form of review. It’s also been too long and I don’t remember specific characters names, so here we go.

Evensong is an interesting blend science fiction and fantasy. The book is about a timid writer who struggles in his personal life to ask a barista on a date. He is having a break through on his book when he suddenly finds himself trapped in the book (hence the science fiction), very shortly after he began thinking about killing off one of the characters for plot points. The last point he had just written was the return of a mythical dragon that is terrorizing the town (hence the fantasy).

The writer comes to terms that “there’s more at play in his book/world than he imagined or had control over”. A villain that was only a figment of his imagination has come to life and is terrorizing the land, eventually dragging the barista into the middle of things.

As with all fantasy books, the archetypes were strong: the once timid character turns brave to overcome task at hand, the evil second in command has a change of heart, the barista unquestioningly falls for our writer. Some of these are hard to swallow. The “travel into my story” isn’t done all that well, and was better done by books I read in primary school like Inkspell.

There are two more books in the series. Unfortunately for Walsh, I was not that interested to continue reading. Then again, in reflection, I remember it being such a light and easy read, that it may not have been targeted at a recent college graduate, but after some searching – this was not a book targeted at young adults. It’s just in the fiction/fantasy section.

Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner

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By Source, fair use https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/63/Freakonomics.jpg

I’d like to start with a quote from the book’s introduction:

“Morality, it could be argued, represents the way that people would like the world to work – whereas economics represents how it actually works.”

Although there’s no central theme to the book, other than asking questions and finding answers, Dubner writes about Levitt’s many eccentric research questions and unconventional approach to the world through economics. Levitt openly admits to not understanding economic theories, stock market predictions, mathematical derivations, etc, but, from a research perspective, he is focused on comprehending how motivations and incentives drive people while corruption and self-interest penetrates our lives and our environment using the tools economics provides. If this is worrisome to you, I guess you’ve never thought about the fact that your mechanic probably doesn’t know the thermodynamics of how potential energy in your fuel is transferred into kinetic energy in your car, but you’ve trusted him to assemble things correctly nonetheless; or you’ve never worried about politicians who get their say on a range of topics they commonly fail to understand (Thanks Jon for this).

Now to be fully honest, the ‘going against the authority figure is growing’. This book only feeds the current populace feelings of distrust in authority figures that reeks havoc in modern politics, but with a sound basis instead of on regurgitation of false news. Though an individual could walk away with extra ammunition against ‘the man’, but the real lesson to take away is that things aren’t as simple as they may appear and you need sound evidence to support an idea — Levitt has just happened to found a strong set of tools through economics (and statistics, but they don’t make that quite as clear).

The topics in this book are quite strange: (1) sifting out corruption in education and sports, (2) the power of information and how it’s used, (3) the capitalistic drug market, (4) an unconventional (and highly controversial) explanation for the drop in crime in the late 90s, and (5) what difference a parent actually makes. For the average person, these may seem like strange topics for an economist to study, but that’s Levitt’s greatest strength.

Overall the book was easy to read and enjoyable. It didn’t drip with sarcastic or arrogant remarks tearing down theories and ideas that would contradict their own. It didn’t read with the unapproachable character of an academic paper — a paper riddled with assumptions considered commonplace to the field and bogged down by tedious methodology details, but both are entirely necessary for critical evaluation of their findings. It read like someone asking you to just take a step back and reconsider the world around you with new eyes.

Just a few closing comments: (1) I thought I was one of the last people on Earth to not have read this book, which I learned is not the case, and (2) I’m glad I didn’t read this book in high school else I wouldn’t be here today — my life trajectory would be quite different right now.

As with every teenager who read this book and has hopes to change and understand the world, the inner child in me is screaming to go study economics. Although this seems like a dramatic response, it is consistent with my desire to use various types of computer skills (including the regression analysis frequently cited) to approach problems to better understand the world around me. Levitt (economist) and Dubner (writer) have taken their talents and shown how accepting the norm response, or believing the simple answer, often leads to an incomplete picture of what is actually happening. Although I am hesitant to simply accept their claims without finding Levitt’s papers and reading his methodology, I do agree with the idea that asking the right questions and using the right tools, even contrary to popular work, will lead you to fascinating answers. So for me, I still have hope to ascertain the ability to ask such unique questions to lead to such unique and grounded ideas.

Everything and More by David Foster Wallace

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By Source, fair use https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/6/68/Everything_and_More_cover.jpg

This book has been both exciting and frustrating to read. This book took me about two and a half months to get through, partially the fault of the book and partially the fault that I moved across the world while reading this book. As a preemptive note, I would not recommend this book to anyone who has not covered topics like college calculus, sequences and series, or do not have some familiarity with logic and proofs. I am no means an expert on any of those topics, but I felt having a base knowledge of these topics greatly enhanced and eased (ironic because of how difficult I found this book to digest) my experience.

Wallace does a fantastic job being the kid in the school yard explaining his borderline unhealthy obsession with everyone, but that kid is all grown up and has a off-hand, smart-ass attitude about certain things. As a means of format, aligning with the know-it-all attitude, this book is littered with footnotes that are IYI – In case You’re Interested – that add valuable insight into the topic as a whole, but contain abstractions and explanations that may not be accessible for some readers. Unfortunately, this means you spend a lot of time jumping from the footnote at the bottom of the page, to the last place on the page you struggle to find (which is okay since you’re still digesting the footnote or paragraph you just left or both).

Part of the appeal of the book is the equal parts math and history. DFW walks you through history and explains the challenges faced by society and mathematicians when dealing with the concepts such as 0 in the case of the Ancient Greeks and ∞ and its implications in the case of modern mathematicians. Topics like Zeno’s Paradox, set theory, calculus, and great detail about Georg Cantor are examined and explained in a very accessible way.

This book was indeed a challenge to read — the level of abstraction needed to comprehend the simplifications of immensely complex theories that DFW presents is very heavy and is cause for you to re-read many paragraphs (even acknowledged by DFW preemptively with notes like “Okay, deep breathe”, “Be prepared to read this more than once”, etc.), subsequently slashing my reading pace to a sails pace. It took a lunch break and an hour and a half to read the last 25 pages — there was a lot of pausing to think.

But at the end of the day, or the end of a page, you always felt like you learned something and always had a laugh with DFW’s off-hand and sarcastic tone sometime. Some of the footnotes were apologies for not addressing a topic sooner or openly addressing his editor’s notes, almost like he wrote the book and came back the next day to fill in all the extra things he forgot to say or expand on.

For anyone who appreciates mathematics in it’s pure form, enjoys expanding your horizons and stretching your brain, and enjoys (and follows) entertaining tangential thoughts and fragments of information and sarcastic tones, this book is worth reading.

Debt of Bones by Terry Goodkind

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By Source, Fair Use https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/0/0b/Debt_of_Bones.jpg

Debt of Bones by Terry Goodkind is a short, easy read that is very enjoyable for fans of the Sword of Truth Series.  This is a fun way to explore the history of the First Wizard during his rise to power as he seeks to repay the debt of an ancestor while ending the war against the Dhara. This installment is a quick glimpse into the backstory that Goodkind has in mind for his audience.

Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon

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Shadow of the Wind is a beautiful reminder that everyone has a story and that life is made up of these intertwined stories.

Daniel is a young boy who stumbles across a lone copy of a book called Shadow of the Wind by Julian Carax. After losing himself in the story, he sets out to learn more about this author by talking to friends and strangers around his father’s bookstore in Barcelona only to encounter a mysterious figure who wants to purchase the book for poor intentions.

As Daniel discovers more about this illusive Carax, Daniel’s life is turned upside down with every newfound connection. Individuals begin sharing their stories with Daniel and his friend only for it to bring them trouble. As Daniel comes closer to the truth, a familiar story shows how history repeats itself and we must learn from prior mistakes.

A very easy and pleasurable read, Zafon explores character archetypes that are easily understandable and who have stories and secrets that are well explained by their monologues and confessions. The story unfolds in such a way that leaves you constantly guessing about how the story all comes together. As this book was recommended to me, I also would recommend this book to a friend.

The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives by Leonard Mlodinow

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Mlodinow tells a story about the history and use of probability and randomness in The Drunkard’s Walk. This book is told from a series of stories and examples with explanations verbally explained without relying on the use of mathematical jargon at depth you wished your highschool math textbooks did. Some of the topics covered include the concept and history of basic probability, Bayesian probability and statistics, law of large numbers, causality, and randomness.

To break these down, he uses examples of gambling, our tendency to seek patterns, the failure and perseverance of renowned authors (who comically couldn’t get publishers interested in their anonymous re-submission of first chapters in their award winning books), how likely is it that your favorite sports team comes back in a series (like the Cavaliers against the Warriors), stock market predictions (and thus why you shouldn’t always go with the hedge fund manager with the best 5 year track record), understanding false positives, and the prosecutor’s fallacy (which helped O.J. Simpson be found not guilty).

This book does not read like a math textbook, constantly lecturing you, but more like a grandparent telling his family stories.

The Sword of Truth Series by Terry Goodkind

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Terry Goodkind entertains you with the story of Richard and Kahlan who overcame a seemingly endless series of obstacles while trying to eradicate forces of evil, some using the idea of reward in the afterlife as a justification for suffering in this life. This eleven book epic fantasy series follows Richard, the “Seeker” of truth with his sword and — unbeknownst to him – wizard with unique powers, as his life, friends, love, and the world are threatened by forces of darkness.

The main characters in these novels are quickly identifiable and relateable which is no surprise with how elegantly the setting and minor characters are introduced between books and carried over if relevant to the overarching plot. To help the story (and create dramatic irony), the point of view changes between chapters for characters and story lines that are separated. Without fail, the change is on a cliffhanger, adding questions to the already long list and encouraging the reader to continue to seek answers to the end of the book.

Goodkind uses dichotomies to further his message and plot, namely, free will vs prophecy. As people seek to interpret the ambiguous words of prophets thousands of years before them to influence the course of both the world and Richard’s life, they are constantly rebuked by Richard’s belief in free will and problem solving. This idea is not only central to the book, but blatantly stated as the final line of the series (“Your life is your own, rise up and live it!” in a way that reminds me of the end of a cartoon episode where they cheer as they fist pump and jump into the air to leave that as the triumphant final image of success).

The use of rape to deepen the understanding of antagonistic characters is both borderline excessive and eventually, counterproductive by making antagonists static and too cookie cutter. Lastly, for those who like stories where the problem can be solved using a predictable series of events, these books may bother you. There were many points in this series where the problem was solved by knowledge out of thin air leaving you frustrated that you read the last 758 pages to have something like that occur. Regardless of the incalculable solutions, Goodkind paints a wonderful universe that I enjoyed losing myself in while reading the 8,000 page series and look forward to explore the expansion of the universe in the Richard and Kahlan and The Legend of Magda Searus series.

The Sword of Truth Series:
Wizard’s First Rule
Stone of Tears
Blood of the Fold
Temple of the Winds
Soul of the Fire
Faith of the Fallen
The Pillars of Creation
Naked Empire
Chainfire
Phantom
Confessor

www.terrygoodkind.com