• "American Rust" by Philipp Meyer - set out in a formerly prosperous area of Pennsylvania that went through an economic collapse due to the demise of the local steel industry. The story is very engaging, and somewhat morally confusing - it's hard to decide on whose side to be. Overall, a pretty good read, though the ending could be better.
  • "The Paradox of Choice: Why more is less" by Barry Schwartz - one of the most useless books I read recently. Though it was obvious from very early on that this book is going to be disappointing, I bravely plowed through, finally giving up at around 65%. Seriously, I don't need a whole book to tell me how we have many choices in modern life, and how it can be detrimental. Not sure what I was looking for when I set out to read it, really; mental note - be more careful in the future. I suppose for some people this book can be an eye opener (divert them from their foul ways), but not being one to succumb to a plenitude of options myself, I just don't see the point.
  • "The Emperor of all Maladies: A Biography of Cancer" - a very well written book (Pulitzer prizes don't get handed out for nothing), but a very troubling one at the same time. The long chapters about leukemia in children will make any parent squirm, and the general feeling of hopelessness drags throughout this long book. Yes, the final couple of chapters are hopeful, but the vast majority of the book leaves a stronger impression. I wouldn't call the book perfect - some parts (like the legal battles surrounding smoking) could be made much shorter, and I wish some other parts (like the biology of the cancer cell and recent research in general) could be longer. Overall, however, it's a great read.
  • "The Autobiography of Bertrand Russell, Vol I" by Bertrand Russell - Russell was one of the most brilliant minds of the early 20th century, with large contributions to mathematics, philosophy and politics (for some reason, there are fewer such polymaths lately - perhaps because the areas of knowledge became too specialized). This book is the first volume of 3 in his autobiography, from childhood to age ~40 (he lived to 97, so there's plenty more to tell). It's a surprisingly readable and enjoyable book in most parts. I found the letters to be a bit tiresome, especially given that many are addressed to Russell and weren't written by him.
  • "John von Neumann and the Origins of Modern Computing" by William Aspray - a biography of John von Neumann's various contributions to early computing. The man this book describes was extremely impressive - a truly inspiring breadth and depth of knowledge. The book itself is somewhat dry though, somewhat academic with many hundreds of detailed notes and references, and very matter-of-factual presentation. Reads a bit like a long encyclopedia entry.
  • "The Goldfinch" by Donna Tartt - An exceptionally well-written and captivating book. It's obvious that the author made a huge investment in research - there are tons of small but interesting details sprinkled all over. I'm not sure I like the ending, but overall the book is excellent.
  • "Mastery" by George Leonard - in the preface, the author mentions that he wrote this book after being asked by readers for more information following a magazine article he wrote earlier on the same topic. This shows :) Though the book is fairly short (less than 200 pages in a small format), its essence could really be summarized in just a few pages. This is the first part of the book. The rest feels like filler. That said, the essence is well worth the read. The main thesis is that on the path to mastery (e.g. any learning or development journey) what matters is the path itself, not the end goal. This lesson pops up in various guises in self-help materials, but Leonard really has a nice way to describe it and teach it, so I'd say the book is recommended. If you also happen to be an auto-didactic introvert who enjoyed Csikszentmihalyi's "Flow", then this book is a must-have complement.
  • "Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking" by Susan Cain (audiobook) - the author sets on a quest to define the differences between introverts and extroverts, and most importantly to help introverts self-validate about their place in life and society. I think this book could be quite important to introvert persons who aren't feeling good about their social skills and are in a defining period of their lives (say high-school to early years of career). For older individuals, the most interesting insights will be about how to properly raise children who are introverts. It's not a bad book in general, but it has some suboptimal properties. For example, trying to cleanly divide the world into two personality types is a stretch, and the gross generalizations that result from this are unavoidable. It also feels rather unscientific in places. And too much bashing of extroverts, IMHO.
  • "The Son" by Philipp Meyer - a very well-written saga about a Texan family, spread over half of the 19th century and most of the 20th. Tells the story from the POV of three different family members - the original patriarch, his son, and his grand-granddaughter. The writing is excellent, though I dislike explicit tricks that make it hard to put a book down (intersperse several plot lines and always end each segment with something that leaves you in suspense). What I found most interesting is the description of life among the Comanches; it's either all imagined or the author did some serious research (I certainly hope for the latter). The ending of the book is kind-of unexpected and anti-climatic, but then again, it also makes sense, in a way.
  • "Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" by P. Brown, H. Roediger and M. McDaniel (audiobook) - the authors present several techniques for more effective learning. The first half (or so) of the book is very interesting and enjoyable - the efficacy of testing as opposed to repeated reading, the advantages of forcing recall and spaced repetition - it all makes a lot of sense and represents the same central theme from different angles. The second part of the book is less useful, IMHO, and feels like filler.
  • "A Student's Guide to Vectors and Tensors" by Daniel Fleisch - a short book that attempts to provide an introduction to the mathematics and uses of vectors and tensors. I mainly picked it up for the latter. While the book is well written in general and does a fairly good job explaining the material, IMHO the division of effort between vectors and tensors is wrong. Vectors are a much more basic and familiar concept, and much easier to relate to the physical world. Hence, spending significantly more time on vectors and providing more examples isn't the best choice here. If this is someone's first exposure to vectors, he's unlikely to get tensors on a first reading of this book. And for someone already familiar with vectors and looking for more information on tensors, the first part of the book is almost useless. I was also disappointed by the lack of rigor - important concepts are presented without any proof or motivation. The exercises do a good job of complementing the material - the online solution manual is awesome, though I felt the exercises are a bit on the easy side.

Re-reads:

  • "A Certain Ambiguity: A mathematical novel" by G. Suri and H. Bal
  • "The varieties of scientific experience" by Carl Sagan

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