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 winner.
  • "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.

Re-reads:

  • "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 lockdown.
  • "Code" by Charles Petzold

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