The Complete Stories of Flannery O’Connor review

The Complete StoriesThe Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I only stumbled upon Flannery O’Connor through the TV show “Lost” – at one point, Locke is seen reading “Everything That Rises Must Converge”. That title sounded kinda neat, so I eventually decided to check it out – first I read the collection of short stories “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”, and then her complete short stories when they became available on the Kindle.

Anyway, I find her writing almost entrancing. Apparently some people read her stories in high school, so I’m sure I’m not appreciating them on as many levels as I could be, but on their face they are still very, very good. Her characters really come to life. I think my favorite stories are “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” and “The Displaced Person”, but I enjoyed all of them.

(as a warning, the n-word is used a lot, presumably an accurate depiction of the South in the 1950s…)

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What Happened review

What HappenedWhat Happened by Hillary Rodham Clinton
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Oof.

I wasn’t planning on reading this book because I thought it would be too painful, and also I wasn’t particularly interested in seeing a typical politician’s spin on things.

But the reviews for the book were surprisingly good – Hillary has clearly decided not to run for office again, and the book is remarkably frank. She confirms what people have suspected for a while – she’s a very guarded person, especially after all the drummed-up Clinton “scandals” of the 90s. And that makes people think she’s hiding something.

The book has a good balance of her admitting the things she did wrong during the campaign, but also the external forces that helped doom it. (Russia/Wikileaks, the Comey letter, etc.)

Good book, but a pretty depressing read all in all. She somehow manages to be hopeful about the future, which is impressive for someone who went through all of that!

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Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences review

Brain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex DifferencesBrain Storm: The Flaws in the Science of Sex Differences by Rebecca M. Jordan-Young
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a very good takedown of “brain organization theory”, which is the idea that sex hormones in the fetus lead to changes in the brain between men and women, which is why men are better at *pick your stereotype here*.

The author does a very good job at looking at a bunch of studies which purport to show these differences and shows that a lot of them are pretty weak and even contradict each other. One funny example is that traits that were assumed to be signs of masculinization in the 1960s then became signs of feminization in the 1980s! This happened in scientific studies but apparently nobody noticed, because these were “common sense” measures that the author had to do some digging to elucidate.

Anyway, the upshot of the book is that we really need more rigorous and contextualized studies to make the kind of claims that you see bandied about. There probably are some differences, but they’re small and can be easily overcome by environment or deliberate practice. (for example, the often used example that men on average are better at spatial relations – women can eliminate this gap with just a few days of practice!)

I’m not sure if it was because life has been a bit stressful or what, but it took me a long time to get through the book – it’s pretty technical and dense. But overall it was a good read!

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Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries review

Death by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic QuandariesDeath by Black Hole: And Other Cosmic Quandaries by Neil deGrasse Tyson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was kind of interesting, and the “lots of short chapters” format works well. But I’ve come to the realization that I’m not a huge fan of Tyson’s writing. To me, it comes off as kind of condescending and pretentious – not in a big way, but enough to be irritating. Am I the only one that feels this way?

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Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies review

Unsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World's Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret SocietiesUnsolved!: The History and Mystery of the World’s Greatest Ciphers from Ancient Egypt to Online Secret Societies by Craig Bauer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

David got this book somewhat randomly at Barnes and Noble and, honestly, I didn’t have very high hopes. But the author actually worked at the National Cryptologic Museum, so he definitely knows his stuff!

If anything the book is a bit too detailed, but if you’re into reading about, say, the whole history of the Voynich manuscript it’s very good. Another minor irritation is that, well, most of the ciphers he talks about are unsolved! That can get kind of unsatisfying.

But he does a good job of listing what we do know, using various statistical techniques. Another nicety is that he actually goes through the exercise of decoding some simple ciphers, which is much more instructive than the usual “well, just look at the letter frequencies, and voila!”

One of the crazier things he talks about is that there are a lot of ancient writings that don’t make any sense – we know what language they’re using, but the words don’t make any sense. Apparently people who study such things used to think “well, this doesn’t make any sense, so obviously it’s gibberish – maybe illiterate sellers of goods would write stuff that looked like words to fool illiterate buyers?” Which is such a weird first option, as opposed to “maybe these things are in codes that we don’t understand”. Hey scholars – just because you don’t know what it is doesn’t mean it’s gibberish, ya bums!

Anyway, it’s a good book.

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Who Thought This Was a Good Idea? review

Who Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White HouseWho Thought This Was a Good Idea?: And Other Questions You Should Have Answers to When You Work in the White House by Alyssa Mastromonaco
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Interesting book – a mix of “what it’s like to work in the White House” (the author was Obama’s deputy chief of staff!) and “how I got to the White House”, mixed in with some personal anecdotes.

Reading books like this can trigger a tiny existential crisis in me – the author had a huge impact on the Obama presidency and knows a lot of the more powerful people in DC. (her wedding was officiated by Justice Kagan, for goodness sake!) Did I miss my chance to have such a big impact on the world? (I’m not thinking of any opportunity in particular, here)

But I like to think that I’m making a difference in the job I’m in, even though it might be indirect and barely visible. This is one reason I really enjoy seeing what scientists and engineers are able to accomplish with our software at events like NIWeek.

To be fair, it sounds like it was hard for the author after leaving the White House for similar reasons. It’s hard to go to an “ordinary job” after the role that she played in Obama’s campaign and presidency!

This book also makes me sad because of the contrast between President Obama, who sounds like a really stand-up guy (not that this is new information!), and President Trump.

Anyway, the book was good and a pretty quick read. Recommended!

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The Underground Railroad review

The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

The central conceit of the book is “What if the Underground Railroad was actually a real railroad?”. I feel like this didn’t really add much to the story, which follows some slaves on a plantation as they attempt to escape. However, the story itself is very compelling and really takes an unflinching look at slavery.

“Slavery was bad” is one of those things that (presumably) everyone agrees with, but it’s hard to remember just how bad it was, and this book did a good job of reminding me.

(I say that the whole railroad thing didn’t add much for me, except it did make me more interested in buying the book, so maybe it all works out 🙂 )

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