Friday, January 31, 2014

The Signal and the Noise, by Nate Silver

I loved this book for the same reason that I loved The Predictioneer's Game and Data, A Love Story. All of them lie at the intersection of math/statistics/data/modeling and psychology/sociology. While I still think Nate Silver is brilliant, after reading this book I have a better understanding of just how terrible at modeling and predicting so many other people are (& I'm talking about people who are paid for making predictions) & why it's so easy for him to look that much more brilliant by comparison.

What it's really about is the use & abuse of statistics & data--what sorts of things can be predicted (short and/or long term) and which kind of can't, the most common mistakes people make when they try to use data to make predictions, and how living in the age of "big data" actually puts us more at risk for bad predictions.

The great tragedy of this book is that the people who are most likely to read it are probably the people who already have a pretty decent understanding of data/statistics, and the people who have a less-good understanding of those things are probably the people who would most benefit from reading it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Assassin's Quest (Farseer #3), by Robin Hobb

First, just about all my comments from Book #1 still hold.

Realistically, I kind of want to give it 4.5 stars. The characters & writing hold up, the story was unpredictable enough to keep me intrigued & guessing about how she'd wrap it all up, and the ending satisfying, if a bit heart wrenching. My only quibbles are that books #2 & #3 both felt just a tiny bit slow in places--at times it felt like there were long stretches where I didn't see where things were going. Not to say that nothing happened--plenty was happening; it just didn't always feel like it was moving the story forward. Also it's a complicated story, & in retrospect there are some things where I felt either like the foreshadowing could have been paced better.

BUT, overall, a really excellent, interesting, well-written high fantasy series.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

2014: Year of the Classics

The Mission: One classic novel per month in 2014. Which means, like, actually making choices. There are a lot of classic reads I have to admit I just don't have any interest in (War & Peace, Moby-Dick, Infinite Jest, Crime & Punishment, etc)*; also anything with more than three parlor scenes is automatically eliminated via the Austen / Brontë Clause.

Get me out of this parlor forthwith, Darcy, or
I shall straight-up cut a bitch. Looking at you, Elinor.

(While we're at it, let's just all agree that Mr. Darcy is a creepy, creepy man who remains, to quote CaptainAwkward, "the supposedly totally dreamy main character of what became the boilerplate for every romantic comedy ever." Pretty much sums up Pride & Prejudice, eh?)

The Fitzwilliam Darcy School of Victorian Pickup Artistry: "If seducing
her via telepathy / brooding looks fails, just vomit your feelings at her."TM

So I spent the last few days combing through my Goodreads "To Read" list & trying to pick out some classics that sounded interesting & like they wouldn't make me want to shoot myself in the face after. (Under The Volcano, anyone?) I totally reserve the right to change my mind later, but here are the twelve I chose, and a few pinch hitters in case I finish them before the year is over or abandon something.

Update: Okay fine, it's fourteen now, since two of my original selections are less than 100 pages & it kind of doesn't seem like they should count as part of the one-per-month deal. Still. Books I plan to read this year:

JANUARY: A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. "In a nightmarish, ruined world, slowly awakening to the light after sleeping in darkness, the infantile rediscoveries of science are secretly nourished by cloistered monks dedicated to the study and preservation of the relics and writings of the blessed Saint Isaac Leibowitz. From there, the story spans centuries of ignorance, violence, and barbarism, viewing through a sharp, satirical eye the relentless progression of a human race damned by its inherent humanness to recelebrate its grand foibles and repeat its grievous mistakes." Wicked.

FEBRUARY: Uncle Tom's Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. "Eliza Harris, a slave whose child is to be sold, escapes her beloved home on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky and heads North, eluding the hired slave catchers. As the Harrises flee to freedom, another slave, Uncle Tom, is sent "down the river" for sale. Befriending a white child, Evangeline St. Clare, Tom is purchased by her father and taken to their home in New Orleans." This is my Black History Month selection.

MARCH: Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. "Anna Karenina seems to have everything - beauty, wealth, popularity and an adored son. But she feels that her life is empty until the moment she encounters the impetuous officer Count Vronsky." I am terrified of Tolstoy so this will be my attempt at getting un-terrified.

APRIL: A Room With a View, by E.M. Forster. "A chance encounter… a murder in the Piazza Signoria … an impulsive kiss…and Lucy Honeychurch’s world is forever changed. Torn between settling for a life of acceptable convention or the calling of her true passion, Lucy epitomizes the struggle for individuality and the power and passion of love." Since we are going to Italy in April/May, some Italian literature seems in order.

MAY: Catch-22, by Joseph Heller. Set in the closing months of World War II in an American bomber squadron on a small island off Italy, a bombardier named Yossarian is frantic and furious because thousands of people he hasn't even met keep trying to kill him. (He has decided to live forever, even if he has to die in the attempt.) I've heard this book repeatedly compared to "The Daily Show" in terms of tone & political poignancy, which is probably mainly what sold me on it. A classic that's actually funny? Sold. Not Italian, but set there, so good enough.

JUNE: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, by Junot Díaz. "Things have never been easy for Oscar, a sweet but disastrously overweight, lovesick Dominican ghetto nerd. From his home in New Jersey, where he lives with his old-world mother and rebellious sister, Oscar dreams of becoming the Dominican J. R. R. Tolkien and, most of all, of finding love. But he may never get what he wants, thanks to the Fuku: the curse that has haunted Oscar's family for generations, dooming them to prison, torture, tragic accidents, and, above all, ill-starred love. Oscar, still waiting for his first kiss, is just its most recent victim." Comes highly recommended from several nerdy book friends.

JULY: To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. "Set in the small Southern town of Maycomb, Alabama, during the Depression, To Kill a Mockingbird follows three years in the life of 8-year-old Scout Finch, her brother, Jem, and their father, Atticus--three years punctuated by the arrest and eventual trial of a young black man accused of raping a white woman. Though her story explores big themes, Harper Lee chooses to tell it through the eyes of a child. The result is a tough and tender novel of race, class, justice, and the pain of growing up." Awwww, this one's going to break me, isn't it?

AUGUST: Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. "Set amid the stifling atmosphere of 19th-century bourgeois France, Madame Bovary is at once an unsparing depiction of a woman’s gradual corruption and a savagely ironic study of human shallowness and stupidity. Neither Emma, nor her lovers, nor Homais, the man of science, escapes the author’s searing castigation, and it is the book’s final profound irony that only Charles, Emma’s oxlike, eternally deceived husband, emerges with a measure of human grace through his stubborn and selfless love." Sounds suspiciously like a parlor book, but how can you pass on something hailed as "possibly the most beautifully written book ever composed"? I wanted to read this one for Banned Books Week, but it overlaps with Hispanic Heritage Month in September, so August it is.

SEPTEMBER: One Hundred Years of Solitude, by Gabriel Garcí­a Márquez. "The story of the rise and fall of the mythical town of Macondo through the history of the Buendía family. Rich and brilliant, it is a chronicle of life, death, and the tragicomedy of humankind. In the beautiful, ridiculous, and tawdry story of the Buendía family, one sees all of humanity, just as in the history, myths, growth, and decay of Macondo, one sees all of Latin America." This is my Hispanic Heritage Month selection.

OCTOBER: The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. "When a brute of a man tramples an innocent girl, apparently out of spite, two bystanders catch the fellow and force him to pay reparations to the girl's family. The brute's name is Edward Hyde. A respected lawyer, Utterson, hears this story and begins to unravel the seemingly manic behavior of his best friend, Dr. Henry Jekyll, and his connection with Hyde. Several months earlier, Utterson had drawn up an inexplicable will for the doctor, naming Hyde as his heir in the event that he disappears. Fearing his friend has been blackmailed into this arrangement, Utterson probes deeper into both Jekyll and his unlikely protégé. He is increasingly unnerved at each new revelation." Jekyll & Hyde is my Spoooooktacular Halloween selection.

NOVEMBER: Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne. "Noted geologist Professor Liedenbrock discovers a cryptic message hidden in the pages of an ancient volume purporting to show the way into the center of the earth. Liedenbrock determines to make this fantastic journey, insisting his 16-year-old nephew, Henry, accompany him." Something on the lighter side for Sci-Fi Month.

**NOVEMBER BONUS READ**: The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka. "The story of a young traveling salesman who, transformed overnight into a giant, beetle-like insect, becomes an object of disgrace to his family, an outsider in his own home, a quintessentially alienated man. Rather than being surprised at the transformation, the members of his family despise it as an impending burden upon themselves." November is also German Literature Month, & since this book is like 60 pages & I have been meaning to read it since college, I really don't have any excuses.

DECEMBER: The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. "A pilot stranded in the desert awakes one morning to see, standing before him, the most extraordinary little fellow. "Please," asks the stranger, "draw me a sheep." And the pilot realizes that when life's events are too difficult to understand, there is no choice but to succumb to their mysteries." Seriously, how have I not read this yet?

**DECEMBER BONUS READ**: A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens. Because seriously, it's like 80 pages and how have I never read it??

The Pinch Hitters:

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving. "In the summer of 1953, two 11-year-old boys – best friends – are playing in a Little League baseball game in Gravesend, New Hampshire. One of the boys hits a foul ball that kills the other boy's mother. The boy who hits the ball doesn't believe in accidents; Owen Meany believes he is God's instrument. What happens to Owen after that 1953 foul ball is extraordinary and terrifying."

East of Eden, by John Steinbeck. "This sprawling and often brutal novel, set in the rich farmlands of California's Salinas Valley, follows the intertwined destinies of two families - the Trasks and the Hamiltons - whose generations helplessly reenact the fall of Adam and Eve and the poisonous rivalry of Cain and Abel." I have a hit-or-miss history with Steinbeck, but got a lot of recommendations for this one.

One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey. "Tells the unforgettable story of a mental ward and its inhabitants, especially tyrannical Big Nurse Ratched and Randle Patrick McMurphy, the brawling, fun-loving new inmate who resolves to oppose her. We see the story through the eyes of Chief Bromden, the seemingly mute half-Indian patient who witnesses and understands McMurphy's heroic attempt to do battle with the powers that keep them all imprisoned."

Middlemarch, by George Eliot. "Dorothea Brooke is an ardent idealist who represses her vivacity and intelligence for the cold, theological pedant Casaubon. One man understands her true nature: the artist Will Ladislaw. But how can love triumph against her sense of duty and Casaubon’s mean spirit? Meanwhile, in the little world of Middlemarch, the broader world is mirrored: the world of politics, social change, and reforms, as well as betrayal, greed, blackmail, ambition, and disappointment." Better not be too many parlor scenes.

The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. An Andalusian shepherd boy named Santiago travels from his homeland in Spain to the Egyptian desert in search of a treasure buried in the Pyramids. Along the way he meets a Gypsy woman, a man who calls himself king, and an alchemist, all of whom point Santiago in the direction of his quest. No one knows what the treasure is, or if Santiago will be able to surmount the obstacles along the way. But what starts out as a journey to find worldly goods turns into a discovery of the treasure found within.

Any other classics I should add to my list of pinch-hitters???

*If anyone can give me a really convincing reason to take on any of the books I've already ruled out, I will totally give them a shot. But it's got to be reeeaallly convincing.