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Life updates, or something like that

A month ago I was bored out of my mind waiting for school to start. When friends said I should take advantage of the lull between work and school to explore my new home I would answer with a laugh, roll my eyes, and say, “I know, it’s great, but I just want to start school already!”

Well, grad school is finally on a roll and is taking its toll on me. Not in a “why-did-I-ever-think-I-could-do-this-??” kind of a way, more like a “wow-there’s-a-lot-of-stuff-they-want-to-cram-in-ten-short-weeks-!!” kind of way. Seriously dude, quarter systems are no joke.

So you can say it. I know you want to. No really, go ahead, you earned it. You told me so.

But before you feel the need to stage an intervention, I’m happy to report that I’ve been keeping up with my fun reading. As one of my favorite heroines says, “My courage always rises with every attempt to intimidate me.” So despite the studying, assignment deadlines, and looming midterms (I have two next week—wish me luck!), I try to carve out at least 15-20 minutes a day to read something I don’t have to write a policy memo on.

My Econ professor sure gets it:

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With nine weeks left in this year’s challenge, I have nine more books to cross off on my list. Not bad I think, not bad at all.

What have you guys been reading?

Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Which is more dangerous, a gun or a swimming pool? What do schoolteachers and sumo wrestlers have in common? Why do drug dealers still live with their moms? How much do parents really matter? How did the legalization of abortion affect the rate of violent crime?

These may not sound like typical questions for an economist to ask. But Steven D. Levitt is not a typical economist. He is a much-heralded scholar who studies the riddles of everyday life—from cheating and crime to sports and child-rearing—and whose conclusions turn conventional wisdom on its head.

Freakonomics is a groundbreaking collaboration between Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, an award-winning author and journalist. They usually begin with a mountain of data and a simple question. Some of these questions concern life-and-death issues; others have an admittedly freakish quality. Thus the new field of study contained in this book: freakonomics.

Freakonomics establishes this unconventional premise: If morality represents how we would like the world to work, then economics represents how it actually does work. It is true that readers of this book will be armed with enough riddles and stories to last a thousand cocktail parties. But Freakonomics can provide more than that. It will literally redefine the way we view the modern world.

Rating🌴  Island collection

Long story short: One of my courses this quarter is “Economics for Policy Analysis and Management”. Since the last time I took an economics class was back in high school, I decided to prep by watching an Introduction to Microeconomics course from MIT. Though often referred to as a “dismal science”, I found it pretty exciting, and it quickly became apparent that for the most part economics is an intuitive subject; I already knew more about it than I thought I did simply by having paid attention to the world around me.

While shopping for some school textbooks at the campus bookstore I came across a used copy of Freakonomics. I had heard of it before, I had even borrowed it from a friend, but never managed to get it off the back burner. Now that my curiosity was piqued, I quickly picked it up.

Freakonomics is a great read not because it breaks down complex economic theories—though it does do that—but because its goal is simply to get you to ask more questions about the world. The various scenarios all have at least one thing in common: they were responses to curious questions.

Continue reading “Review: Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner”

Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): The nation of Panem, formed from a post-apocalyptic North America, is a country that consists of a wealthy Capitol region surrounded by 12 poorer districts. Early in its history, a rebellion led by a 13th district against the Capitol resulted in its destruction and the creation of an annual televised event known as the Hunger Games. In punishment, and as a reminder of the power and grace of the Capitol, each district must yield one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 through a lottery system to participate in the games. The ‘tributes’ are chosen during the annual Reaping and are forced to fight to the death, leaving only one survivor to claim victory.

When 16-year-old Katniss’s young sister, Prim, is selected as District 12’s female representative, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She and her male counterpart Peeta, are pitted against bigger, stronger representatives, some of whom have trained for this their whole lives. , she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short (no spoilers): On the whole I thought this was a very enjoyable read. The premise was equal parts intriguing and horrifying, making me very curious to know more about it. After reading this I’m eager to find out what happens in the next book.

So, let’s get into it!

What I liked:

  • A complex female character takes center stage. I always find it refreshing to see a female protagonist be the hero of a book/TV show/movie that would usually fall under the “roles for boys” category. While representation is getting better, there still aren’t very many leading action roles for women, so it’s still an important achievement to celebrate. In particular it’s Katniss’ complexity I like; not only is she a match for her adversaries in the Hunger Games, but she is more than just a “strong female” archetype. She is also resilient, empathetic, lonely, and disillusioned. And that makes for a much interesting protagonist.
  • Themes in the book are (sadly) relatable. Voyeurism, materialism, desensitization, wealth inequality, tyrannical oppression…I’d go on, but it’s too depressing.
  • Good pacing, good action. The amount of time spent on each stage seemed fitting. The book is divided into two parts: the first comprises Katniss’ introduction, the Reaping, and getting ready for the Hunger Games; the second follows the actual Hunger Games and is almost three times as long as the first part.

What I didn’t like:

  • The limited perspective. A minor vexation, but it would have been nice to know how other characters were dealing with their respective circumstances, specifically Peeta, Gale, Prim, and Haymitch. It would have added to their development throughout the book as well as allowed us to get a more complete understanding of Katniss through their eyes.

Keep reading for a spoiler book and movie review!

Continue reading “Review: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins”

Review: The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet by Becky Chambers

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Somewhere within our crowded sky, a crew of wormhole builders hops from planet to planet, on their way to the job of a lifetime. To the galaxy at large, humanity is a minor species, and one patched-up construction vessel is a mere speck on the starchart. This is an everyday sort of ship, just trying to get from here to there.

But all voyages leave their mark, and even the most ordinary of people have stories worth telling. A young Martian woman, hoping the vastness of space will put some distance between herself and the life she’s left behind. An alien pilot, navigating life without her own kind. A pacifist captain, awaiting the return of a loved one at war.

Set against a backdrop of curious cultures and distant worlds, this episodic tale weaves together the adventures of nine eclectic characters, each on a journey of their own.

Rating🌴 Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers): This was such a fun book to read, and to think it may never have been published were it not for Kickstarter! Okay, well it may have been published eventually, but I’m glad it was sooner rather than later.

Chambers created a wonderful new galaxy and filled it with some of the most interesting and honest characters I’ve ever encountered. I appreciated the realness of the writing (the dialogue and actions stayed away from classic cliches), and I particularly loved that the character development was the primary focus of the novel more so than the story. That did slow down the pacing of the narrative, but I welcomed the tradeoff. There are also some pretty cool issues that are discussed including species/race relations, laws regarding artificial intelligence and genetic tweaking, and the consequences of cloning.

If you enjoyed watching Firefly, you’ll likely enjoy this book.The next book will focus on some of the secondary characters introduced in this novel. I am SO looking forward to it! Have you read The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet? Is it on your TRL? Let me know in the comments!

Currently reading…

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Have you read it? Thoughts?

Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): It’s America in 1962. Slavery is legal once again. The few Jews who still survive hide under assumed names. In San Francisco, the I Ching is as common as the Yellow Pages. All because some twenty years earlier the United States lost a war—and is now occupied by Nazi Germany and Japan.

This harrowing, Hugo Award-winning novel is the work that established Philip K. Dick as an innovator in science fiction while breaking the barrier between science fiction and the serious novel of ideas. In it Dick offers a haunting vision of history as a nightmare from which it may just be possible to wake.

Rating✈  Travel companion

Long story short (no spoilers): Last week my brother persuaded me to watch the Amazon original series The Man in the High Castle. I didn’t know until about five episodes in that the show is based on a book by Philip K. Dick (who has had other film adaptations of his books, most notably Blade RunnerMinority Report, and Total Recall), and then obviously I had to read it.

The book and the show differ a bit when it comes to characters and plot, but the main premise is that the story takes place in an alternate reality in which the U.S. lost World War 2 and has been taken over by the Germans and the Japanese, who are in a sort of arms/technology race with each other. In this different reality there is a book (film reels in the show) written by “the man in the high castle” which offers a glimpse into a world in which the U.S. won the war (i.e., our current reality).

The web series adaptation didn’t mirror the book 100% (I didn’t expect it to), yet both were fascinating in their own ways. I liked the novel for its insights into characters’ psyches, and the way it laid the social and cultural foundations for this different reality; I liked the show for its exciting plot, character development, and satisfying ending.

Continue reading “Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick”

An eighth month update

When I began my 2016 reading challenge, I wanted to know what kinds of books I was naturally drawn to. Did I mostly read authors based in the USA? Did I prefer reading fiction to non-fiction, paperback to hardcover?

Throughout the year I’ve been keeping track of who and what I’m reading to try and answer these questions. At the moment I’m allowing myself to read any book I want (as long as it follows the reading challenge rules) so that I become aware of my biases. My goal for next year is that I challenge myself to read harder by focusing on one or more criteria that I find lacking.

Here’s a quick summary of my reading stats so far:

  • I’ve read 23 out of 40 books
  • 12 were written by male authors and 11 by female authors
  • 3 authors have been people of color
  • 12 authors are from the USA; 7 are from the UK; 1 each is from France, Nigeria, Iran, and Germany
  • 35% of the books are 0-300 pages; 65% of the books are 301-500+ pages
  • I’ve read 14 paperback books, 5 hardcover books, and 4 Kindle books
  • 17 books were fiction, 6 books were non-fiction

Based on these results I want to focus on increasing my POC readership, and I’m considering doing an “around the world” reading challenge next year where I find and read books written by authors from different countries.

Do any of you try to read outside of your comfort zone?

Review: Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Inspired by the midcentury memoirs of Frances Conway, Enchanted Islands is the dazzling story of an independent American woman whose path takes her far from her native Minnesota when she and her husband, an undercover intelligence officer, are sent to the Galápagos Islands at the brink of World War II.

Amid active volcanoes, forbidding wildlife and flora, and unfriendly neighbors, Ainslie and Frances carve out a life for themselves. But the secrets they harbor from their enemies and from each other may be their undoing.

Rating🌴  Island collection

Long story short (no spoilers)Enchanted Islands has become one of my favorite books this reading challenge. There were a couple of issues I had with the pacing, but overall the story is compelling (what makes it cooler is that it’s based on true people and true events), and the character development and their interactions are well written.

I don’t remember where I originally read the synopsis (probably on the Book of the Month website), but the story turned out to be really different from what I was expecting, in a good way. I’m always hoping a book surprises me by eschewing typical tropes and plots, and Enchanted Islands definitely did that. The narrative is unique; it’s not at all a spy novel or thriller, but it doesn’t lack action or suspense, just that most of it is introspective. It also has a slightly melancholic and brooding tone, which I found refreshing.

I also like when books (and TV shows, movies, and video games) have a simple story and complex characters. This allows the audience to focus on the important things, like human interaction, self-reflection, and growth. The people in Enchanted Islands were so interesting, and after reading A Game of Thrones it was really nice having a book with just a few characters to keep track of. And they were such wonderfully flawed, wonderfully human characters. I can’t remember the last time I felt such empathy for figures in a novel (especially when they’re being difficult).

The biggest critique I have for this book is its pacing. The story is divided into four parts and is told as a flashback by a much older Fanny. In some places the author, Allison Amend, spends too much time talking about a relatively short period in Fanny’s life and then glosses over decades in a few pages. After knowing her so intimately during her formative years I felt left behind as Fanny aged within what appeared to be a matter of minutes. At the end of the book it seemed like we still had unfinished business…

Despite the choppy timing, Amend did a good job of balancing Fanny’s dialogue in the past with her narrative in the present. I especially liked the moments when the story was punctuated by Older Fanny’s self-reflection. Reading those made me feel like her confidante, and I grew more invested in her character.

So, have you read Enchanted Islands? Is it on your TRL? Keep reading for a spoiler review!

Continue reading “Review: Enchanted Islands by Allison Amend”

Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne

Brief synopsis (Goodreads): Based on an original new story by J.K. Rowling, Jack Thorne and John Tiffany, a new play by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is the eighth story in the Harry Potter series and the first official Harry Potter story to be presented on stage.

It was always difficult being Harry Potter and it isn’t much easier now that he is an overworked employee of the Ministry of Magic, a husband and father of three school-age children.

While Harry grapples with a past that refuses to stay where it belongs, his youngest son Albus must struggle with the weight of a family legacy he never wanted. As past and present fuse ominously, both father and son learn the uncomfortable truth: sometimes, darkness comes from unexpected places.

Rating🏡  Left behind

Long story short (no spoilers): Although the Harry Potter series will forever hold a special place in my heart, this story was utter garbage.

  1. The tone and syntax don’t sound like Harry Potter. The narrative reads nothing like books 1-7. I realize that JK Rowling didn’t write the script herself, and therein lies part of the problem. The story reads like really, really, shitty fan fiction. Sentences are short and too simple, and only a handful of dialogues are more than 50 words. In several places quotes are lifted directly from books 1-7 and they still don’t sound right.
  2. The characters are badly written caricatures of themselves. Imagine you’re reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and Harry, Ron, and Hermione decide to dress up as their parents for Halloween. That’s what they sound like in Cursed Child: not 40-year-olds, but 12-year-olds playing 40-year-olds.

    RON (hesitating in the face of her unwavering gaze): Fine. I, um, I think you’ve got really nice hair.
    HERMIONE: Thank you, husband.
    And that’s just the tippity-tip of the iceberg. The story is largely character-driven (as opposed to being magic-driven like in books 1-7), yet there is almost zero character development. We’re supposed to care about several new characters but we never get to know who they are, how they think, or what motivates them. Unlike books 1-7 Cursed Child isn’t in first person, and we aren’t privy to what takes place in the protagonist’s head (something that can be done in plays in the form of interior monologues). Without that as an anchor it’s easy to feel disconnected from his actions, and many times I wondered, Why is he doing that??

  3. The plot is kind of boring. It’s too much “been there, done that” for my liking. You see the same items, the same spells, the same people, the same problem…it’s not enough. There were one or two twists that I enjoyed, however I was too distracted by the fact that they came close to breaking universe rules (and opened up a whole can of worms).
  4. The book bends (and in one case breaks) universe rules. No, not like our Universe, the Harry Potter fictional universe. Every fictional universe has its own rules, and it’s the author’s responsibility to maintain consistency and explain any deviations from those rules. The reason they’re important is because they give the story structure and credence. In Cursed Child there are several instances when information is presented that challenges the Harry Potter canon, and the explanation for those anomalies comes down to creating more rules for the sake of moving the plot along.
  5. What was done well. Despite it being mostly terrible, there were small glimpses of that OG Harry Potter magic. Some of the dry humor is there; and one, maybe two, characters stay true to their book 1-7 selves.

The stage play has gotten good reviews, which makes me wonder if they’re even using the same script. It’s a two-part play that clocks in at a little over five hours; it took me about two to finish reading Cursed Child, so there’s clearly a lot missing in the transcript version. My guess is that the good acting is covering up the terrible, terrible story.

Anyways, have you read it? What did you think? Comment below! Keep reading if you’re interested in a spoiler review!

Continue reading “Review: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child by Jack Thorne”

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