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Serendipitous Reader



recommendations from my meanderings through the world of books



Updated: 2014-10-02T23:37:28.457-05:00

 



March by Geraldine Brooks

2010-01-22T14:40:07.853-06:00

I really enjoyed another of Geraldine Brooks' books (People of the Book), and I liked the premise of March, so I had high expectations for this book and wasn't disappointed. This book is about Mr. March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, who enlisted in the Union army, where his idealism runs into the reality of war. The book was engaging and well-written.



The Cuckoo's Egg by Cliff Stoll

2009-06-11T13:57:40.577-05:00

This book was originally written in 1989, and since it’s about hackers and networks (pre-internet, as we know it today), it’s definitely dated – but a fun read. Stoll is an astrophysicist working as a system manager, and notices a 75c accounting discrepancy. He spends 2 years obsessively tracking what turns out to be a German hacker involved in industrial espionage.



Born on a Blue Day - By Daniel Tammett

2009-06-11T13:55:04.856-05:00

Tammett is a 27-year-old autistic savant with Ausperger’s syndrome (Think “Rain Man” - but he functions better in every-day life.) He can do amazing mathematical calculations in seconds, has an unbelievable memory (pi to the 22,514th digit), and can learn languages (like Icelandic) in a week. He also has synesthesia, which means he experiences numbers as shapes, colors, textures and motions. This is a very engaging book about a remarkable young guy.



The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham

2009-06-11T14:05:21.666-05:00

About a young American WWI veteran, who leaves his fiance and a comfortable life / opportunities, etc. and goes to Europe in search of meaning / personal fulfillment. Over the years, he comes in and out of contact with the other characters, whose conventional lives look caricatured. I’ve heard people rave about this book – but I just thought it was ok.



Emma by Jane Austin

2009-06-11T13:47:15.536-05:00

I love Pride and Prejudice, but was disappointed by Emma.... so much so that I didn’t even finish it. This book lacks the wit of Pride & Prejudice and I just got tired of reading about the manipulative, self-absorbed, flighty heroine.



How We Decide by Jonah Lehrer

2009-04-25T13:57:43.832-05:00

Combining neuroscience and entertaining writing, Lehrer describes how the best decisions are a combination of rational and emotional decision-making processes. Fascinating and very easy to read.



People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks

2009-04-25T14:16:10.336-05:00

An entertaining, very well-written fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th century illuminated manuscript, which is on permanent display at the National Museum in Sarajevo. A rare manuscript, interesting characters, mystery, intrigue, history, romance, multiple time lines… what’s not to like? (See also New Yorker article about Dervis Korkut, the museum’s chief librarian, who saved the book from the Nazis.)



Another Day in the Frontal Lobe by Katrina Firlik

2009-04-25T12:59:47.203-05:00

I was curious about an “inside look” at being a neurosurgeon, so I opened it and read the first paragraph:
The brain is soft. Some of my colleagues compare it to toothpaste, but that’s not quite right. It doesn’t spread like toothpaste. It doesn’t adhere to your fingers the way toothpaste does. Tofu - the soft variety, if you know tofu - may be a more accurate comparison.
This is an engaging and entertaining perspective from one of only ~200 female neurosurgeons (out of a total of ~4,500) in the US.



Work Hard Be Nice by Jay Matthews

2009-04-25T12:55:14.279-05:00

The KIPP charter schools around the country are doing an outstanding job of engaging and educating low-income kids with phenomenal results. This book is about the founders of KIPP and the creation of the program. This is what education should be. No doubt these schools are changing kids' lives. An easy, inspiring read that provides a glimmer of hope for the US public education system.



The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner

2009-04-18T11:12:16.760-05:00

This is the only novel by Stegner that I’d never read. It’s a somewhat autobiographical account of his brutal childhood. His abusive, itinerant father is constantly chasing his latest get-rich-quick scheme, dragging his family behind him and getting more bitter at each failure. His ever-loyal mother always has an excuse for his father’s behavior. And the two sons who hate their father, love their mother, and are just trying to get through their childhood. The writing is very good (though not Stegner’s best), and it’s a book worth reading – but it’s not one of my favorites of Stegner’s.



My Losing Season by Pat Conroy

2009-04-25T14:59:26.073-05:00

I don’t read many sports books, but this one was written by Pat Conroy, so I couldn’t resist. And I wasn’t disappointed. The book starts:
I was born to be a point guard, but not a very good one. There was a time in my life when I walked through the world known to myself and others as an athlete. It was part of my own definition of who I was and certainly the part I most respected. When I was a young man I was well built and agile and ready for the rough-and-tumble of games, and athletics provided the single outlet for a repressed and preternaturally shy boy to express himself in public. Games allowed me to introduce myself to people who had never heard me speak out loud, to earn their praise without uttering a single word. I lost myself in the beauty of sport and made my family proud while passing through the silent eye of the storm that was my childhood.

This book is primarily about Conroy’s senior year playing basketball at The Citadel military school, but also includes flashbacks to earlier in his childhood. He writes about how he felt and what he learned from that season, about the spirit with which he and his teammates played and bonded, and handled their often abusive coach, and about the joy they felt at playing the game. Another great book from Conroy.



Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson

2009-04-18T09:45:07.428-05:00

After a failed attempt at K2 in 1993, Greg Mortenson got sick and lost coming down the mountain and was nursed back to health in the town of Korphe, Pakistan. In return, he promised to build them a school – which he did - and has subsequently built over 50 schools for girls in rural Pakistan and Afghanistan. Fascinating book about a guy who’s making a real difference.



Good puns

2008-12-28T14:35:41.357-06:00

Some very clever puns:

1. A vulture boards an airplane, carrying two dead raccoons. The flight attendant looks at him and says, 'I'm sorry, sir, only one carrion allowed per passenger.

2. Two fish swim into a concrete wall. The one turns to the other and says, 'Dam!'

3. Two Eskimos sitting in a kayak were chilly, so they lit a fire in the craft. Unsurprisingly, it sank, proving once again that you can't have your kayak and heat it, too.

4. Two hydrogen atoms meet. One says, 'I've lost my electron.' The other says, 'Are you sure?' The first replies, 'Yes, I'm positive.'

5. Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain during a root canal? His goal: transcend dental medication.

6. A group of chess enthusiasts checked into a hotel and were standing in the lobby discussing their recent tournament victories. After about an hour, the manager came out of the office and asked them to disperse. But why they asked, as they moved off. 'Because,' he said, 'I can't stand chess-nuts boasting in an open foyer.'

7. A woman has twins and gives them up for adoption. One of them goes to a family in Egypt and is named Ahmal. The other goes to a family in Spain; they name him Juan. Years later, Juan sends a picture of himself to his birth mother. Upon receiving the picture, she tells her husband that she wishes she also had a picture of Ahmal. Her husband responds, 'They're twins! If you've seen Juan, you've seen Ahmal.'

8. A group of friars were behind on their belfry payments, so they opened a small florist shop to raise funds. Since everyone liked to buy flowers from the men of God, a rival florist across town thought the competition was unfair. He asked the good fathers to close down, but they would not. He went back and begged the friars to close. They ignored him. So, the rival florist hired Hugh MacTaggart, the roughest and most vicious thug in town to 'persuade' them to close. Hugh beat up the friars and trashed their store, saying he'd be back if they didn't close up shop. Terrified, they did so, thereby proving that only Hugh can prevent florist friars.

9. Mahatma Gandhi, as you know, walked barefoot most of the time, which produced an impressive set of calluses on his feet. He also ate very little, which made him rather frail and, with his odd diet, he suffered from bad breath. This made him a super calloused fragile mystic hexed by halitosis.

10. And, finally, there was the person who sent ten different puns to friends, with the hope that at least one of the puns would make them laugh. No pun in ten did.



Action Inquiry by Bill Torbert

2007-10-28T17:24:39.810-05:00

I haven't read much in the last several months, and I struggled through this book; the writing is dry but the content is good - and I'll re-read it when I get a chance. It's about creating an environment in which people and organizations learn and develop.



Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert

2007-10-28T17:05:01.147-05:00

Our imaginations are what distinguish people from other animals and enable us to create visions/predictions for our futures, and what we think would make us happy. Gilbert describes how our minds work - and how incredibly bad our accuracy is in these predictions. This is a fascinating, very easy read.



The Star Thrower by Loren Eiseley

2007-06-13T14:49:04.437-05:00

I picked up this book because I liked the title, and decided to buy it as soon as I saw the intro was written by W.H. Auden. Excellent decision… I was blown away by this book. Eiseley is a naturalist, anthropologist, scientist, environmentalist, historian, poet (and more), and his writing is fantastic! This is a collection of his favorite essays (and a few poems). He describes the natural world with wonder, beauty and spirituality. I read this book slowly, savoring every sentence.



Beyond the Deep by Bill Stone & Barbara am Ende

2007-06-13T14:50:52.948-05:00

This book is about a 1994 expedition to explore the Sistema Huautla, a cave system in Mexico, which – at ~35 miles long and almost 5,000 ft. deep - is the deepest cave in the Americas, and the 5th deepest in the world (as of 2002, when the book was published.) Think of mountaineering expeditions – but underground. There were 44 people on this expedition, who carried massive amounts of equipment into the caves, while doing some pretty hairy rappelling in and around waterfalls. They also spent significant amounts of time route-finding through flooded tunnels using a technology Stone had invented to allow them to recycle their own breath (rather than hauling huge numbers of scuba tanks with them.) The one “camp” sounded like it was hammocks hanging off bolts in the cave walls above an underground river. (Not a good place to be in a flash flood!). Stone and Ende lived underground for 44 days during this expedition. This is not something that’s on my list to do - but the book was interesting and engaging.



The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer

2009-04-25T14:52:35.519-05:00

One of the better airplane books I’ve read in a while. A young aide is injured during an assassination attempt on the President, and a close friend of the President’s is killed. Eight years later, the aide sees the supposedly dead friend of the President – and then (of course), he has to figure out what’s going on. It’s engaging and entertaining.



Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers

2007-04-21T23:02:36.273-05:00

After living in Holland for several years, publishing 4 books, and breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, Powers (the character) returns to the US to be a visiting writer at the midwestern college he’d attended. He gets involved in a project that culminates in an advanced Turing Test. Working with a cognitive neurologist who’s developing a computer neural network, Powers trains this system (named Helen) on the Great Books curriculum that he’d had to study as a grad student. This primary story line is classic Powers – it’s engaging and thought-provoking and very smart.

He simultaneously tells the story of his relationship with the girlfriend he left in Holland, and about a grad student he has a bizarre crush on. These parts of the book were less engaging - though I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects about the writing of his previous books.

As usual, Powers' writing is great. A few of my favorite lines/paragraphs:
What was I supposed to do for the rest of my life? The rest of the afternoon alone seemed unfillable. I went shopping. As always, retail left me with an ice-cream headache. (p32)

Though Taylor, I discovered how a book both mirrored and elicited the mind’s unreal ability to turn inward upon itself. (p141)

It occurred to me: awareness no more permitted its own description than life allowed you a seat at your own funeral. Awareness trapped itself inside itself. The function of consciousness must be in part to dummy up and shape a coherence from all competing, conflicting subsystems that processed experience. By nature, it lied. Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness for the prosecution. (p 218)

I picked up an old microscope at a flea market in Verona…. I showed him where to put his eye. I watched him, thinking, this is how we attach to existence. We look through awareness’s tube and see the swarm at the end of the scope, taking what we come upon there for the full field of sight itself. (p226)




Amazing statistics on reading

2007-04-28T21:12:05.121-05:00

Here are some amazing statistics:

* 58% of high school graduates never read another book for the rest of their lives.
* 42% of college graduates never read another book after college.
* 80% of U.S. families did not buy or read a book last year.
* 70% of U.S. adults have not been in a bookstore in the last five years.
* 57% of new books are not read to completion.
* Most readers don't get past page 18 in a book they have purchased.
* A successful fiction book sells 5,000 copies.
* A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies.
* A New York Times bestseller sells 250,000 copies.
* On average, a bookstore browser spends 8 seconds looking at a book's front cover and 15 seconds looking at the back cover.
* Each day in the U.S., people spend 4 hours watching TV, 3 hours listening to the radio and 14 minutes reading magazines.

Source: Parapublishing.com



The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford

2009-04-25T14:52:35.519-05:00

I’ve read and enjoyed most of Sandford’s ‘Prey” series, so I bought this to read on the beach in Mexico. This is one of his series with a main character named Kidd, who’s a programmer/hacker. Kidd finds a friend brutally murdered, and his laptop (containing a lot of potentially harmful information about a lot of people) is missing, so (of course) Kidd and his wise-cracking hacker friends have to go after the murderer, find the laptop and revenge their friend’s murder. It contains some fun MacGuyver-like creativity related to hacking and breaking and entering. Overall, it’s entertaining and light… Just right for the beach.



Earth Viewed From Books

2007-03-30T22:41:34.902-05:00

This is way cool! A developer at Google has created a map of the Earth viewed from books, which shows how often a location is mentioned in the books in Google Book Search.
We've all seen views of the Earth from space, where the numerous pinpoints of light on the ground combine to yield a speckled map of the world. I wanted to show the Earth viewed from books, where individual mentions of locations in books combine to yield another interpretation of the globe. The intensity of each pixel is proportional to the number of times the location at a given set of coordinates is mentioned across all of the books in Google Books Search.

How cool is that?!



Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov

2007-04-21T19:33:11.577-05:00

This book starts: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The story includes some twists; the characters are great; the writing is very good – though not the amazing writing of later works. You know exactly where the story’s going, but it’s a great read to get there.



Prior Bad Acts by Tami Hoag

2009-04-25T14:52:35.520-05:00

After giving up on PG Wodehouse (see reject pile for that story), I was looking for some “good” trash to read, and this paperback was right at the door when I walked into Barnes & Noble. It’s a decent airplane book – gory murder, liberal judge who’s in danger, wise-cracking cops, and even the (completely expected) twist toward the end. It’s a quick, entertaining and completely undemanding read.



The Inimitable Jeeves by PG Wodehouse

2009-06-11T13:46:53.426-05:00

Ok, I gave up. I rarely quit before finishing a book – but I was ranting to a friend about how bad this one is and he accurately pointed out the opportunity cost to finishing crappy books. How many pages can you read about clueless, rich Englishmen and a somewhat-less-clueless but equally irritating butler? Apparently, my limit was about 150 pages – about 140 pages too many. No more PG Wodehouse for me.