Contented Reader

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Dataclysm

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Dataclysm

by Christian Rudderdataclysm

Crown Publishing, 2014

When I checked this book out at the library, I was expecting a completely different book.  I like the one I got a lot better.

I thought I was borrowing a book about the dangers of ‘big data.’  Watch out!  Web sites are collecting your personal data and selling information to companies and governments!  There’s nothing you can do, and the consequences are dire, dire, dire!  I already know that, and, like most Americans, have decided to accept the dire consequences as a reasonable trade for being able to have instant access to my second-cousins’ political conspiracy theories.  If I hadn’t given in to Big Data years ago, I probably would have no idea whatsoever that President Obama has already constructed the concentration camps in which Christians and Republicans will be incarcerated after he refuses to give up the presidency in 2017 (or so my distant relative once claimed on Facebook).  Information like that is well worth giving Amazon full access to all of my hopes and dreams.  That’s the book I thought I was borrowing.  I wasn’t that excited about it – in fact, it was with a certain reluctance that I took it off the shelf – but I wanted to give it a chance, because it was recommended by someone whose opinions I respect.

This was a completely different book than that.

Christian Rudder works for OKCupid, which means that he has access to massive amounts of data about people’s lives.  In the course of looking for a date, people post their pictures and tell something pretty close to the truth about themselves.  Rudder also has access to the other data – what people actually do on OKCupid, and how it does or doesn’t correlate with what they say is true about themselves.

This book is an exploration of the some of the data that the internet has gathered, and what we can learn from it.  Rudder doesn’t judge the existence of the data.  He’s doing something different: he’s using it to describe who we are.  Would it surprise you to learn that, although most men say that they’re interested in dating someone around their own age, most men of all ages are really trying to get with a 20-year-old?

No, that didn’t surprise me, either.  It also didn’t surprise me that Belle and Sebastian is the Whitest Band on Earth, or that a lot of people who claim not to be racists don’t really like black people very much.  I was fascinated by the way Rudder uses Google data to make what seems like a very reasonable guess about the percentage of the population that is gay (that’s a number that’s really hard to pin down, I know), and the ways American attitudes about race adjusted when President Obama took office.

His writing style was really several notches above most of the pop-nonfiction books I read, too.  I admit that I must be an elitist, because I wasn’t expecting a math/computer guy to be such a good writer.

I would read this again.

Written by Contented Reader

June 24, 2015 at 4:38 pm

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

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Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations

By Jules Evans

New World Library, 2013

In my college humanities courses, I studied a little bit about philosophy.  I learned the names of important philosophers, and to summarize their teachings, and in some cases, I learned how those philosophers influenced the literature and politics of their time, or were influenced by them.  As far as I remember, I didn’t learn that philosophy could be a tool for improving myself and my life in college.  That, I learned on my own.

About five years ago, a post on Boing Boing, of all places, led me on a journey of discovery of ancient Greek philosophy.  Epictetus and Epicurus became my guides to a new way of living and thinking, and I kept their writings on my desk at work for several years, reading and re-reading them, and applying their advice to my life.

From Epictetus, I learned classical stoicism, starting with the utterly simple and utterly transformative idea that in life, there are things that we can control and things that we can’t control, and that the best approach to life is to take firm action regarding the things we can control, and accept the things we can’t control without resisting them or complaining about them.  That was the advice I used to transform my life at work, as I tried to stop complaining about the aspects of my job I couldn’t change and empower myself to make changes to keep my pile of ungraded papers and my roomful of unruly students within self-defined limits of what I was willing to put up with.

From Epicurus, I learned that happiness is the goal of every human being, and that happiness can be very obtainable when we allow ourselves to enjoy simple, easy-to-get pleasures and let go of the desire for expensive, harmful pleasures.  I learned to ask myself questions like, “Is the amount of pleasure I’m going to get from this likely to be greater than the amount of discomfort and trouble it’s going to cause?” and “What would feel good right now?”  I stopped buying stuff, and started enjoying library books, sunshine, parks, and rice.

Between them, Epictetus and Epicurus made a lot of aspects of my life better.  But I felt like I was the only person who had discovered their secret.  Their names sound like something you vaguely remember studying in college, like homework, not like self-help or pleasure reading.  It didn’t take me long to realize that no one wanted to know what I’d discovered, so, in good Epicurean spirit, I just quietly used it and enjoyed it and let go of my need to fix other people.

This book – Philosophy for Life and Other Dangerous Situations – reminded me of how much my life was transformed by those two philosophers, and told me something I didn’t know: that there are other people who have also had their lives transformed.  Each chapter discusses an important philosophical approach, explains how it can be used to make a person’s life better, and introduces a person or group of people influenced by that philosopher.  All over the world, it turns out, people like me have been finding help and meaning and self-improvement in the works of the ancients, and have been forming tiny communities of like-minded people to share what they’ve learned.

Evans also spends a significant amount of time connecting ancient philosophy – especially my old mentors Epicurus and the Stoics – with the modern practice of cognitive behavioral therapy.  He claims that CBT has borrowed many of the ideas and practices of the Stoics and Epicureans, but in a stripped-down form, and that many people might benefit from using the old writers as a supplement to their therapy.

This book would be a great starting point for someone who wants to learn more about how ancient philosophy can make a person’s life better.  For me, it was a great refresher course, with an introduction to some voices I hadn’t heard before, and ideas for where to read further.

Written by Contented Reader

June 22, 2015 at 5:40 pm

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We Are Pirates

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We Are Pirates

Daniel Handler

Bloomsbury, 2015We Are Pirates

I had a really rough professional development day today.  These training days can be really rough on a teacher.  I had high hopes for this one, because the subject was one we really did need training on, and the training could have been successful if it had been as simple as putting us in a room with the materials and letting us work with them together.  But the paid consultants doing the training weren’t familiar with the requirements of our district, and ended up spending most of the day training us in things we aren’t going to be allowed to use.  It was deeply frustrating.

On my lunch break, sitting in the nearby cemetery, looking at a murky pond and a cherry tree in flower, I did find myself cheering up as I read We Are Pirates.  It’s about Gwen, a fourteen-year-old who is angry at the world, and how she is punished with volunteer time at the nursing home, and how she, and her best friend Amber, and the old man, Errol, decide to steal a boat and run away to be pirates in the San Francisco Bay.

As I was eating my tuna and crackers and trying to get a break from my frustrating teacher training day, the idea of throwing everything away to be a pirate sounded pretty appealing, and I was pulled through the book, which I found had both a page-turning quality and literary merit.  I love Lemony Snicket.  Daniel Handler… every book I’ve read of his has come so close to being something I’d treasure as a favorite, but somehow just barely missed the mark for me.  I thought this time, he had finally hit it.

When I came home, with a headache and a bad case of the educational cynicism, I was looking forward to reading the ending, and finding out what happened to Gwen and Amber and Errol.  But several of the surprising twists were a little too surprising for me.  The book took some shockingly dark turns – I don’t know why I was shocked, as I know that Handler writes some dark, nasty stuff, but I was.  A few of the surprises seemed unfair, not consistent with the characters and the world he had given me.

I read all the way to the end, and this isn’t a book I could have put down, even after it became clear that it wasn’t going at all where I thought it was.  But it’s going to join the other Daniel Handler books in the collection of his works that were so damn close but just didn’t quite work for me.

Years ago, when Handler was touring for the last Series of Unfortunate Events book, I went to hear him speak.  I also stayed up until pretty nearly two in the morning to get him to sign my copy, which I have no regrets about even though my bedtime is usually a firm 9:30 PM.  He talked about a book that he was working on.  In the book he described, a man who is a modern pirate, from Somalia or some such place, develops a longing to be the kind of pirate one reads about in adventure stories.  I don’t know if that book would have worked any better for me.  I know that sometimes, a writer finds that a project just doesn’t work out, and he has to go back to the drawing board.  And probably that book would also have been a near miss for me.  But I regret that I didn’t get to read it.

I wouldn’t write about this book if I hadn’t liked it.  I try to only write about books I like and want to share – why tell anyone about a book I didn’t like?  I debated whether to write about this one, or not.  Ultimately, even though it pissed me off a little, I can’t deny that I couldn’t stop reading it and that I won’t soon forget it.

I have a second day of training tomorrow, and I expect it’ll be just as bad as the first.  I’ll need a different book, to take to the cemetery with me.  Wish me luck.

Written by Contented Reader

May 4, 2015 at 7:41 pm

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Castle Hangnail

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Castle HangnailCastle Hangnail

Ursula Vernon

Dial, 2015

I have been looking forward to this book.  A lot.  When I got the email from the public library that my hold was available, I got really excited.  I like Ursula Vernon – I like her writing and her art, I like her stories for adults and her stories for children.  I’ll read pretty much anything she writes.  Even stories from her Dungeons and Dragons games.  Especially stories from her Dungeons and Dragons games.

Castle Hangnail totally lived up to all of my hopes and expectations for it.  It was fantastic.  “This is her best book yet!” I raved to my wife, when I was about halfway through.  “Well, wait, Digger was really good.  And The Seventh Bride was amazing.  Was that the one with the hedgehog? Anyway, this is definitely one of her very good books.”

Castle Hangnail’s loyal minions have been doing their best to keep the little magic castle from falling apart, but it’s hard work.  They’re out of money, and, with the Board of Magic sending increasingly cranky letters, they’re out of time.  A magic castle needs a Master – it can have an Evil Sorceress, a Mad Scientist, or a Vampire Lord, but it can’t just stand vacant.  It’s a huge relief when a Wicked Witch appears at the door to take over as the castle’s Master.  Such a huge relief that the loyal minions are willing to overlook the fact that Molly is twelve years old and really not as wicked as you might expect a Wicked Witch to be.

Molly needs to be Wicked Witch enough to win the loyalty of her new minions, deal with Castle Hangnail’s plumbing emergency, and thwart a nefarious housing developer, or she won’t be able to hold onto her new position.

This book is adorable.  It’s amazingly fun to read, and I want to take all the characters home and keep them.  I’m going to buy a copy so I can read it over and over again.  You should buy one for any middle-school student in your life – technically, that’s the target audience – and an extra for yourself.

Written by Contented Reader

May 3, 2015 at 7:52 am

Posted in Reviews

Farthing

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Farthing

by Jo Walton

Tor

2006Farthing

I first read Farthing not long after it came out.  I’m pretty sure it was the first thing of Jo Walton’s I read, unless that was The King’s Peace.  That was before I knew how amazing she is, before her name meant anything significant to me, before I voted for Among Others to win the Hugo Award… before I even knew that voting on the Hugo Awards was something fans could do.  I don’t even remember why I picked it up, exactly, but it was probably one of those moments when I was browsing at the library and a cover caught my eye.

When I first read it, I was most interested in its treatment of gay characters – the ways that the society- and government- mandated hiding of homosexuality and bisexuality affected the characters’ decisions, the unfairness of it all and how they dealt with unfair situations, and how the unfairness of it made the world worse.  I was recently out, myself, after a lifetime of fundamentalist Christianity, and these were subjects that were much on my mind when I read Farthing for the first time.

Now it’s almost ten years later.  I had a hankering to reread this after I finished Walton’s latest book, The Just City, which I loved intensely and which made me want to go back to her older books.  I like it even better.  I’ve read some Nancy Mitford and some Peter Dickinson since I read this book last, and this time, I appreciated how well she created her setting, the sparkling and sordid world of the wealthy and powerful post-war British aristocracy.  This novel would work as a period piece and a mystery even if it weren’t set in an alternate universe in which Great Britain signed a truce with Hitler.  In that alternate universe, this would still be a good read.

The way I remember it, I liked Farthing best of the series, and while I read the others, they didn’t stick in my head – I remember almost nothing about them.  I wonder if this really is the best book, or if I’ll enjoy them more on a re-read?  I’ve added Ha’Penny to my to-read list.  I feel hopeful.

Written by Contented Reader

May 1, 2015 at 9:42 am

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The Adventures of Mark Twain

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You see before you one of the very special few.  That’s right… I saw The Adventures of Mark Twain in the theater.

Mom took my baby sister and I to the movies, and this is what was playing.  Mom didn’t know much about it, I think, but I looked at what else was showing in March of 1985, and this was definitely a better choice than Ghoulies, anyway.  I remember it vividly, because the three of us were the only people in the theater.  I’d never had that experience before.  I didn’t know you could see a movie by yourself.  In fact, as I reflect, I think that’s still the only time I have seen a movie in a theater that no one else at all showed up for.

According to IMDB, it made a grand total of $849,915, so I guess there were a lot of empty theaters that March.

I can understand why it failed.  It’s hard to imagine who the intended audience is.  Its main characters are children, and we thought it was a children’s movie, but it is dark and scary and disturbing.

Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher stow away on a balloon piloted by Mark Twain, a sad, aging writer.  They just want to have an adventure, and maybe become famous.  Instead, they discover that something is terribly wrong on this adventure.  Twain, bitter, world-weary, and despondent after the death of his wife, is sailing his balloon directly at Halley’s Comet.

As they work to understand what Twain has planned, what their chances are of surviving it, and what to do about it, the three children explore Mark Twain’s written work.  It’s a tour that focuses on Twain’s later work – the dark, bitterer, angrier stuff.  After a brief stop at ‘The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County’ and a nod to Injun Joe, it leaps right into ‘The Mysterious Stranger.’

This is the bit that stuck with me as a kid.  Seriously, watch this.

And yet the movie was unpopular, if you can imagine that.  In a different universe, this is the movie that college students are getting stoned and watching over and over on DVD.

I re-watched the movie last night.  I wanted to see if it was as strange as I remembered from my childhood.  And, no, it’s actually stranger.  And clearly written by people who knew and loved Twain – all of Twain, not just the homespun sweetness of ‘Tom Sawyer.’

I love Twain, as it happens.  Now I wonder if my love of Twain’s work might have been born in this movie, a long time before I ever read his work.

Written by Contented Reader

January 2, 2015 at 6:40 am

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An Unnecessary Woman

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AnUnnecessaryWoman

An Unnecessary Woman

Rabih Alameddine

I added this to my list of things to read back when the longest for the National Book Award was announced, months ago.  This is a thing I do.  I read the lists of books nominated for awards, and make a note of the things that are of interest to me, and then, eventually, I get around to actually reading them.  No rush.  I’m not a professional book critic, after all, just a reader, and there’s no particular reason that I have to get that brand new book read while other people are still talking about it.

This time, I was in no hurry at all to get to it.  It waited for me, there on the things to read list, but whenever I looked at it, I chose something else instead.  It just looked so serious, with its solemn silhouette and its glowing reviews.  So literary.  I love a serious book, but they also take a level of focus and attention and participation that I don’t always want to give.  Sometimes, after a long day of trying to convince tweens that it’s worth their time to learn to read, I’d rather read something light and funny, because I just don’t have that much more to give.

But now it’s Christmas vacation, so with two weeks away from work, I checked this out from the public library, and… I was wrong to put it off so long.  Because it’s charming.  Just charming.  Delightful, even.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s serious, this story of Aaliya, who lives in the wreckage of war-devastated Beirut, estranged from everyone and connected to the world only by the thin threads of her collection of French and English books, her never-read translations, and the voices of the downstairs neighbors.  But it has so many funny bits that it wasn’t the forbidding task that the cover and the reviews made me expect.

I suspect I’m not the only book lover who will relate strongly to Aaliya, who is almost perfectly isolated from everything but literature and usually prefers it that way.  I connected so strongly to her that I tended to forget that this was a story about a person from a very different culture, in a very different place.  After all, once you are locked safely into your home, at your comfy chair with a good book, what does it matter whether the view out the window is of Ohio or Lebanon?

I think I’ll come back to this, in a year or so, for a re-read.  There are layers here, and I never get layers on the first read.

Written by Contented Reader

December 31, 2014 at 4:50 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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