Summary of reading: January – March 2021

“The Boy Tar” by Mayne Reid – still sampling Reid’s books, this time trying
a maritime adventure. I stumbled upon the wrong book though, as this one is
maritime only in a very narrow sense. The protagonist spends 85% of the book
trying to escape from the hold of a merchant ship where he was inadvertently
trapped, carving his way through cargo boxes and subsisting on crackers, rats
and water. While it’s an original book, it’s also somewhat tiresome. Pretty
good writing, but certainly an odd one.
“One of Ours” by Willa Cather – the story of Claude Wheeler, his coming of
age on a Nebraska farm and participation in the trenches of WWI. It’s
a good story with rich characters, but I expected more from a novel that won
the Pulitzer prize.
“Flying to the Moon” by Michael Collins – an autobiographic account of the
author’s path to become an Apollo 11 astrunaut and all the preparations
needed for the mission. Aimed mostly at young readers, this is a great book
with very to-the-point writing and lots of interesting technical details.
“Mr. Tompkins in paperback” by George Gamow – a playful survey of “modern”
physics (as of the 1940s) by a prominent physicist. Unfortunately, I can’t say
I liked this book too much. The idea is good but the execution less so.
“The Electric War” by Mike Winchell – one of the worst books I read in recent
memory. It somehow manages to do everything wrong. Marketed
for “young readers” but emphasizes gory details of electric chair executions,
electrocution of animals, etc. Spends 200+ pages discussing the “war” between
AC and DC electrical systems, but fails to properly explain even once what the
actual difference between the two is, and what are the
advantages/disadvantages of each. Instead, it prefers to focus on the personal
dramas involved. It’s not clear to me what message the author is trying to
convey to young readers (or any readers, for that matter) in this book.
“Breath from Salt” by Bijal P. Trivedi – the story of Cystic Fibrosis, from
the early days of the disease’s first scientific characterization in the early
20th century, through the gradual improvements in care that led to increased
life expectancy and finally to the discovery of effective treatments for 90%
of CF patients just in the last few years. It’s a fascinating account of
scientific discovery, of the advances made medicinal science – slowly but
surely over decades. Extremely informative and engrossing, the book also
combines many human elements – describing the plight of CF patients and their
families. It also sheds some light on how non-profit organizations for
specific diseases work, and how they collect the vast sums of money required
to push forward scientifi reasearch. Generally, this should be an eye-opening
book for people wondering why advanced drugs are so expensive. Overall, it’s
an excellent book and I highly recommend it – easily one of the best books
I read in the past year.
“The Midnight Library” by Matt Haig – a fairly banal feel-good fiction about a
woman on the verge of death by suicide who gets the opportunity to experience
alternative lives she could have had where key decisions in her life went a
different way.
“The Passage of Power” by Robert Caro – Volume 4 of LBJ’s biography. As
thorough as usual, this book not only describes the years of LBJ’s vice
presidency along with the first few months of him stepping into the
president’s shoes following JFK’s assassination, but also a lot about the
surrounding personalities like John F. and Robert Kennedy and the various
members of JFK’s cabinet. It also provides an interesting glimpse into just
how much power a VP has (only as much as the president is willing to grant him
or her).
“Mountains Beyond Mountains” by Tracy Kidder – a biography mixed with a
travelog, in which the author tags along with Dr. Paul Farmer – an infectious
disease specialist who spends a lot of time in Haiti and Peru helping poor
people get access to good medical treatment, particularly for TB. Very good
writing about an interesting person who can trigger imposter syndrome for
99.99% of humanity.
“The Wright Brothers” by David McCullough – a detailed behind-the-scenes story
of the Wright brothers and their experiments in aviation that changed the
world in the early 20th century. The book is well-written and enjoyable,
though I would love to read more of the technical details about what it was
that made the Wrights’ flyer better than others at the time. The author makes
several oblique descriptions of French aviators in the same time period, but
it’s not clear what the difference between their airplanes and the Wrights’
ware. A lot of text is spent describing the exhibition flights they made
(especially in France) and all the different guests and events involved, but
little is said about what specifically was tested in each flight, or how
consecutive versions of the airplanes were different from each other.
“JavaScript for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming” by Nick Morgan –
good book for teaching kids the basics of programming. Thoughtful leveling,
starting fairly easy and working up to interesting stuff (like coding a
snake game as the final project). It would be great to have a more modern
edition of the book; this one is from 2014, and JS changed quite a bit since
then. An additional minor comment is that there could be more exercises – for
beginners this is especially important.

Re-reads:

“Hillbilly Elegy” by J.D. Vance
“The God Delusion” by Richard Dawkins
“Oliver Twist” by Charles Dickens
“A study in scarlet” by Arthur Conan Doyle – the very first Sherlock Holmes
story. Great nostalgia.

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