Summary of reading: July – September 2020

“Hear the Wind Sing” by Haruki Murakami – Murakami’s first novel; this short
work is startling to read in close proximity to “Norwegian Wood”, because
the two are so alike. It’s as if this novel was an unpolished template for
“Norwegian Wood”, with very many similarities and undeveloped lines. Can’t say
I liked “Hear the Wind Sing” too much, but it’s short enough to be worth it
for a wider appreciation of where Murakami’s unique style developed from.
“Mathematics for the Nonmathematician” by Morris Kline – a broad survey of
elementary mathematics. My goal in reading this book was to get some ideas of
how to explain these things intuitively to kids; I’ve read similar books in
the past, and this one is definitely the best in providing motivation and real
life examples while remaining not overly rambly. The book was written in the
1960s and shows its age (24 human chromosome pairs, vaccuum tubes,
micro-second computer speeds) with some additional annoyances like using
imperial units (g = 32 ft per second squared, anyone?).
Overall I enjoyed it and will be borrowing some ideas from it.
“Means of Ascent” by Robert Caro – Volume 2 of LBJ’s biography, this one about
the years 1941-1948, focusing on the dramatic victory in the race for the
senate. Similarly to the first volume – masterful writing! Caro’s biography
writing style is very powerful – simple, yet insightful. The 1948 senate race
that gave LBJ the nickname “landslide Lyndon” (for his victory of a ~1 mln
vote race by 87 votes) is an astounding showcase of the dirt, ugliness and
corruption of politics.
“Pinball” by Haruki Murakami – another of Murakami’s early works. A fairly
short book written in his unmistakable style of young people living their
lives, going from nothing to nothing, seemingly subsisting on beer and
cigarettes. While it’s amusing to read, I can’t say I found the book to be
very good.
“The Return” by Hisham Matar – a memoir of the author’s return to his native
Lybia after the Qaddafi’s regime fell to find out what happened to his father
who was a political dissident abducted by the regime and held in prison for
many years. Pretty good book, though I expected more from a Pulitzer prize
“In a Different Key: The Story of Autism” by John Donvan and Caren Zucker –
a detailed history of autism (since its initial diagnosis in mid 20th
century), with several touching personal stories of families impacted by the
condition. Good book overall; one thing that would make it better is to follow
up with more modern research into the possible treatments of autism (after the
advent of behavioral therapy in the 1980s). The book details many efforts by
autism associations of funding research but doesn’t spend much time saying
what the impact of all that reasearch was.
“The Road” by Cormac McCarthy – in a post-apocalyptic US, a father and son
trying to survive by scavenging food, clothes and firewood on their way to
the (Atlantic) coast. The word most common in reviews of this book is
“haunting” and I agree. Troubling read, for sure. Well written but sometimes
tedious and unrealistic (endless rain when there’s barely any sun for years?).
“Feynman’s Lost Lecture” by David and Judith Goodstein – in the 1960s Richard
Feynman delivered a lecture at Caltech where he reproduced Newton’s famous
proof that Kepler’s laws 2 & 3, along with Newton’s own laws can be used to
mathematically prove Kepler’s 1st law – that planets move in an elliptical
orbit around the sun (Kepler deduced it from observations and hasn’t proved
it). Newton’s proof in Principia Mathematica is rather obscure so Feynman
set to produce one of his own, based on simple geometrical arguments (with
some vectors mixed in). In this book, the authors provide additional
background on top of Feynman’s own haphazard proof (that had to fit into a
lecture) to make it more understandable for lay-people. Fun little book
with nice mathematical reasoning and diagrams. Interesting insight into how
great scientists think.
“My Family and Other Animals” by Gerald Durrell – quasi-autobiographic tale
of the author’s teenage years spent on the Greek island of Corfu with his
family in the 1930s. The author is a known naturalist and his youth was
spent collecting and studying animals, so this is an important part of the
book. The other part is largely making fun the Durrell family’s odd customs
and behaviors, told in a funny and light-hearted way. Very nice read.
“A Wild Sheep Chase” by Haruki Murakami – when I was looking into Murakami’s
books in the past, I ran into many reviews saying that some of his books
are just a bit too much “out there”. I think I’ve finally encountered such
a book with this one; the plot is extremely strange. Not a bad book – very
Murakami-ish, but don’t expect any sort of coherency.
“The Old Way: A story of the first people” by Elizebath Marshall Thomas – the
author has spent a few years with her family living among the !Kung Bushmen of
the Kalahari desert in the 1950s. This book is a story of their life, which
remained relatively unchanged for the last 10-20,000 years. The book is
wonderful and fascinating in many ways, describing the !Kung way of life (“the
old way”) and their environment in detail. I heard the audiobook version which
is narrated by the author herself; she speaks fluent Juǀʼhoan, with all its
clicks and unique pronounciation, which gives the book a very realistic
flavor. My one piece of criticism is that the author is clearly subjective in
describing the Bushmen vs. other, more “modern” people of the region,
especially in later years. She idealizes the !Kung way of life to some extent,
which makes the narrative a bit less believable; all in all, it’s not a big
issue with the book – just mentioning it for completeness.
“One Two Three… Infinity” by George Gamow – very nice popular book about
physics, math and science by a prominent physicists. Although the book is
from 1960, most of the material is relevant and interesting.
“Bush Boys” by Mayne Reid – found my favorite Mayne Reid book from back
when I was a kid! Tells the story of the Von Bloom family, who lost their
fortune and were forced to live in the South African savannah for a few years
hunting elephants for ivory. The plot is very “flat”, structured to present
as many different kinds of African animals as possible; a truly delightful
read for young people, IMHO. The Von Bloom family’s exploits would probably
be considered distasteful these days, but this book was written in 1856, so
it makes sense to judge it in that context. Re-reading this book as an adult,
it’s still lots of fun!
“Reality is not what it seems” by Carlo Rovelli – the author tries to
explain his field of study – quantum gravity – to laymen. The writing is good,
but, perhaps unsurprisingly, understanding quantum gravity by reading this
book seems really hard to me. At best, it’s a nice background about the
problems in modern physics that quantum gravity attempts to address.


“Where wizards stay up late” by Katie Hafner and Mathew Lyon
“Cosmos” by Carl Sagan – via occasional read-aloud with my daughter. Took us
well over a year, with a significant acceleration recently due to the COVID
“Code” by Charles Petzold

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