What I’m Reading, March 2017

Here we are again, the end of another month, the beginning of another book review post. I’ve read 50 out of 100 books for this year, including one reread for book club. I may have a book problem.

Since Camp NaNoWriMo starts here in five minutes and I may actually be awake for a midnight start, I’m just gonna stop blabbing and let the reviews stand for themselves. Let’s go.

The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason by Sam Harris: I listened to this book. As much as the atheist part of me wanted to like this book, I couldn’t take it seriously. Harris seems to be much more against Islam than the other Abrahamic religions, to the point where this stance got in the way of his arguments’ strength. The book got a little weird toward the end, the last couple of chapters consisting of some useful tenants of various Eastern religions, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the book at all. If you’re interested in the topic or the author, I recommend his Letter to a Christian Nation, which was written in response to this book: it’s shorter and written better. (3 out of 5 nonsensical beliefs)

Hidden Harmonies: The Lives and Times of the Pythagorean Theorem by Robert Kaplan & Ellen Kaplan: I wanted to like this book. I really did. Don’t get me wrong, there were parts of the book I did like, especially the parts that go on to develop aspects of the Pythagorean Theorem that I didn’t already know about. My main complaint is that the book was kind of all over the place; one chapter would be accessible to non-mathematical readers, while the next one might be hard to follow even for someone with a lot of math knowledge. This mathematical whiplash made the book hard to follow the overall theme underlying the book despite having seen a lot of the material before. I’d love to see the first half or the second half developed into its own book, but the two halves together made for the mathematical content escalating really quickly. (3 out of 5 proofs)

The Sky Is Everywhere by Jandy Nelson: I loved Nelson’s other book (I’ll Give You the Sun), and while I enjoyed this one as well, it didn’t hit me in the feelings quite as hard. This book leads us through Lennie’s life after the sudden death of her older sister, including a (dun dun dunnnn) love triangle. Despite the love triangle, the characters are delightfully quirky, the teens actually act like teens, and there are so many elements of the story that fit together well. Well worth the read. (4 out of 5 poems)

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a Fuck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life by Mark Manson: I listened to this book. It didn’t win me over at first due to sounding like a tough guy version of a self-help book, but I’m glad I kept listening. Beneath the “uh, no shit” advice, there are also nuggets of advice in the book that made me rethink a lot of things I’ve been thinking about lately, like my pursuit of more and how we tend to care about the wrong things. Despite the title, the book isn’t about how not to care, but how to care about the things worth caring about. While some of the content isn’t universally applicable, there’s something in here for anyone who cares to look a little deeper. (4 out of 5 fucks not given)

A Darker Shade of Magic by V. E. Schwab: Yes, I’m finally reading this series. And yes, I intentionally delayed starting the books until the last one came out just so I wouldn’t have to wait a year for the last book. That said, I really liked this book. The characters and worldbuilding (parallel magical Londons!) are complex and immersive, while the prose itself is beautiful. There are a few slow parts, especially before the main characters Kell and Lila meet, but still, I can’t wait to get my hands on the next book. (4 out of 5 black stones)

White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg: I listened to this book. I grew up in the backwoods of the southeastern US, which made this book a particularly enlightening read. While this book surveys the history instead of going indepth about any particular aspect of the history, it still does a great job at summarizing the history of white trash stereotypes in America. That said, I would have loved to hear more about white trash perspectives from the people actually living this life, as opposed to the elites who appealed to poor whites for one reason or another. All in all, worth picking up to read (or listen, even if it is fifteen hours long). (5 out of 5 country hicks)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis by J.D. Vance: I listened to this book, coincidentally right after finishing White Trash above. I could see a lot of my own family in his tales; even though my family never went through some of the most extreme horrors that his did. While this book is touted as part memoir, part social and historical analysis, it’s definitely much more of a memoir than an analysis. But it’s an interesting one, with things that I hadn’t realized in my own life before (I remember figuring out financial aid forms and some of the quirks of the higher classes and not even considering some of the more prestigious colleges, just like Vance did). I have to say, this book would be a lot less interesting without Mamaw in it. (4 out of 5 hillbillies)

Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach: This is the first Mary Roach book I’ve read, and it wasn’t that bad. This book takes you through the weird curiosities of the digestive system, from your mouth to your rectum. On the way, Mary Roach tells stories about topics such as smell affecting our taste, sampling pet food, smuggling items in the butt, and dying of constipation. While the first half of the book dragged a little bit, the second half, featuring the lower section of the digestive system, more than made up for it. I wish this whole book were about butts. (See also: things I never thought I’d write in a book review.) Roach also manages to tell all these tales with a sense of humor that indulges all of our inner twelve-year-olds. Worth a read if you’re interested in pop science or physiology. (4 out of 5 uncoated kibbles)

Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are? by Frans de Waal: I listened to this book. While a lot of this book consisted of telling stories about animals and their intelligence, there’s some analysis as well that more knowledgeable (or just curious) people would enjoy. I probably would have gotten more out of this book if I had read instead of listened to it, but that didn’t stop me from enjoying the analysis of these experiments: for instance, that we frequently judge animal intelligence on human intelligence. If you have little knowledge of animal intelligence, you might like this book. (4 out of 5 animal tests)

A Gathering of Shadows by V.E. Schwab: This book is the sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, and it’s just as good. Four months after the events of ADSOM, Kell and Lila haven’t seen each other and excitement is afoot for the Element Games. Think Triwizard Tournament, but with more competitors and actual battling. Everything I said about the first book still stands. Now time to get my hands on the third book. (4 out of 5 elements)

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood: I read this book for my library’s book club. This is a rare reread for me, but since I read it for a women’s studies class in college ten years ago, there’s still plenty of material that I forgot about and got to re-experience just like a first read. Offred’s story as a handmaid (a young woman capable of reproduction) in what used to be the Boston area shines some light on what an extreme religious world could look like. Some of the things that could lead to such a world are already happening–permission for abortions, laws trying to outlaw abortion beyond a certain point, waiting periods, conservative Christians trying to push their morality on everyone else. I still love this book, even if the timeline is a little confusing at times. That just adds to the tale, though. (5 out of 5 handmaids)

All the Devils are Here: The Hidden History of the Financial Crisis by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera: I listened to this book, which traces the story of the 2007 real estate crisis. The authors go back thirty years to explore events big and small and the consequences of those things. There’s a large cast of characters in this book: CEOs with idealistic dreams who eventually succumb to the profits in subprime lending, government staff who ignore the lending market, executives jealous of the success of competitors and wanting in on the fun. Overall, this is a good survey of what caused the financial crisis. Pick it up if you’re even a little bit interested in the topic. (4 out of 5 subprime loans)

Watership Down by Richard Adams: I know a few folks who label this book as one of their all-time favorites, but I couldn’t get into it. Sure, the rabbits and their adventures were cute, the prose itself was good, and I grew to like Hazel and Bigwig in particular. Overall, though, I couldn’t find myself really wanting to know what happened next. This book would have been a lot easier to read in hard copy, where I could flip back and forth to remember what a Thlayli was, as I kept thinking this was the name of a new character. Still, I’m glad I read this book, as it had been on my to-read list for years. (3 out of 5 rabbits)

Armada by Ernest Cline: I wanted to love this book as much as I loved Ready Player One, but in the end I just couldn’t. The voice of protagonist Zack Lightman, a high school senior and world-class gamer who has to save the world from aliens, is spot on. The plot itself is interesting, just very rushed. This book would have benefited from better pacing (way better pacing), a more cohesive plot, more background, and way more character development. If you’re new to Ernest Cline, read RPO first, then set those expectations aside for this book. (3 out of 5 alien invasions)

Do Over: Rescue Monday, Reinvent Your Work, and Never Get Stuck by Jon Acuff: I listened to this book. Or rather, I’m still listening to this book because I have about twenty minutes left in it, but I doubt my opinion will change with those last few minutes. As you might have guessed from the title, this is a self-help book designed to help you make the most out of your career. Sure, a lot of the advice is obvious (Show up to work? Who would have guessed?), but his advice breaks down to four things to build: people you know, skills, grit, and hustle. There are also exercises throughout the book to make the most of each of these. I admit I didn’t do these exercises due to listening to the book. If you know absolutely nothing about building a career, then sure, read this and do something about it. (3 out of 5 career jumps)

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