Tag Archives: 3 stars

Book: 小宝宝最爱问的为什么(动物篇)

I read a wide variety of world literature.

I want to read this to my children.
60 pages, ★★★
Language: Chinese

Suitable for children about 3-4 years old, this book answers 30 “common questions about animals”, including:

  • Why are giraffes’ necks so long?
  • Why do dragonflies give birth in the water?
  • Why do cats have whiskers?

The science is concise and correct, and the language is very proper.

It’s linguistic etiquette, more than anything else, that your children will learn from this book. It teaches them how to ask intelligent questions properly, and how to formulate clear, intelligent-sounding answers. Read 30 of these examples out loud with your child, and they’ll have at least learned the logical structure of a polite question-and-answer dialogue.

There’s pinyin throughout, which helps for learning new vocabulary, too. I want to read this with my children. ★★★

Book: The Thorn Birds

The Thorn Birds

Large and uneventful, just like Australia itself.
743 pages,

The Thorn Birds is a novel about a family who migrates to Australia by boat, then procreates. Not much else happens in 743 pages.

The Thorn Birds teaches me that 100 years of history (from 1850 to 1950) can be summarised as follows: they arrived, they had sex, and they killed all the rabbits. Compared to the founding of Communist China or the United States, this book makes the founding of Australia look like a walk in the park.

Admittedly, it’s because I recently read Mao’s Last Dancer, Wild Swans and Life and Death are Wearing Me Out that this book feels dull in comparison. Those three books were filled with revolution, massacres, political struggles and people tinkering on the verge of life and death. Reading about China’s Cultural Revolution numbed me somewhat to the delicate nuances and character developments in The Thorn Birds—just like how eating whole, raw chillies makes everything else taste bland for some time afterwards.

Maybe this book will make other books more enjoyable… Or maybe I’ll enjoy the fine character descriptions much more next time I read it. Either way, it’s going back on the shelf for a long time. ★★★

Book: The Power of the Sea

The Power of the Sea
This book is as dark and precise as its cover.

Disaster-focussed book mostly about deep-water dynamics.
320 pages, ★★★

I disagree with the gleaming reviews that this book has received on Amazon for purely personal reasons. First, The Power of the Sea is too disaster-focussed for me. It talks too much about maritime disasters and hurricanes, and there are two whole chapters dedicated to the December 26, 2004 tsunami. Second, this book concentrates mostly on what goes on below the surface, which is neither visible nor friendly to human beings. I was almost dragged out by a strong tide once, so I prefer to stay above water, especially while reading.

That said, I learned a lot from this book. The opening chapters are the best, and they’re filled with historical details of Napoleon’s Battle of the Pyramids and his escape into the Red Sea, and the slow discovery of what causes tides (basically, the sun and the moon, and the wind). We learn that tides are “giant waves”; and the vivid description of the Queen Mary’s being broadsided on page 99 also stuck in my mind.

Page 29 was best of all, which describes tides as a combination of three oscillations: the elliptical orbit of the moon (1.90 cycles per day); the position of the moon in relation to the ground (1.93 cycles per day); and the effect of the sun (2.00 cycles per day). Calculated together, these predictable rhythms give us the precise tide tables that all coastal inhabitants will be familiar with. (Tide tables are the things we’re supposed to read before surfing in dangerous waters. I know that now.)

The Power of the Sea is a well-written, well-researched book, and it’s worthy of five stars even if I can’t give them. My low score is entirely a matter of personal taste: I prefer studying visible, less scary stuff such as atmospheres, weather, climate and how they interact with oceans, so The Dance of Air & Sea was the five-star book for me. ★★★

Book: Eurekas and Euphorias

Eurekas and Euphorias
“The Oxford Book of Scientific Anecdotes” is an apt subtitle. Place this book alongside the Oxford English Dictionary.

Too many anecdotes. Read just parts of it.
356 pages, ★★★

Eurekas and Euphorias is a collection of 181 anecdotes surrounding scientific discovery. Each anecdote is short (one or two pages) and contains large amounts of quoted text (in an annoyingly small font) from external sources.

The anecdotes are interesting, but there are too many of them. Rather like a dictionary or encyclopaedia, this book contains no narrative and no recurring characters, which makes it unbearable to read in one sitting. Honestly, I didn’t finish this book.

It’s categorised in my library as “popular science”, but I would reassign it somewhere between “humour” and “reference”. These anecdotes don’t serve well as a standalone book. The information is interesting but the compilation is simply too intense. Instead, I think these stories should be blended into regular science textbooks to make them more relevant and interesting to students.

I suggest only reading parts of this book. Choose those parts at random, or pick such cryptic topics from the contents page as “the crackle that made history” or “the physicist’s peregrinations”. You might find a story that’s memorable and that you enjoy.

Anecdote number 31 about barometers was most interesting for me. Start there, perhaps. ★★★

Book: Introducing Wine

Simple. Illustrated. Encourages (excessive) drinking.
Simple & illustrated.

Irresponsible. Encourages excessive drinking.
144 pages, ★★★

People drink wine for the same reason that I drink tea: they enjoy the feeling it gives them. Wine makes you giddy then sleepy; tea makes you relaxed but focussed. This book is a layman’s introduction to all aspects of wine (the history, production, geography, chemistry, and the culture that surrounds drinking wine). An upper-class book would pretend that the enjoyment of wine comes mostly from the taste, but Introducing Wine makes no pretensions—undertones of “isn’t it fun to get drunk?” are to be found throughout.

I knew nothing about wine and so learned a lot from this book. I learned that, like tea, there are hundreds of wines produced worldwide in both the “new” and “old” worlds. Types and tastes vary dramatically, and I was impressed by the author’s “taste wheel” diagrams on pages 13 and 18. They humble my Tea Types diagrams.

Is wine any healthier than grape juice? I still don’t know. The benefits of alcohol that the author talks about could actually be a direct result of feeling more relaxed, not of the alcohol itself. If that’s the case, then healthier forms of relaxation (e.g. exercise) could be better for your body than drinking wine. I think I’m right.

The author seems to encourage binge-drinking. I’m not blaming the author; I’m just criticising heavy-drinking culture. On page 10, he writes:

“you buy them, and you drink them, and then you buy some more. Just one taste is enough to get some people hooked for life”.

On page 59, he suggests pondering the restaurant wine menu over a glass of house wine, then ordering a second bottle after the one you ordered is finished. (Do the math: that’s binge-drinking). On page 64, he omits the word “maximum” from “recommended maximum intake” to imply that drinking 375 ml (that’s over half a bottle of wine) every day is a good idea, as if alcohol is as vital as your daily 90 mg of vitamin C. I strongly disagree.

I’m glad I don’t drink wine. I much prefer tea. Tea doesn’t need “a humidity-controlled cabinet or a purpose-built cellar installed under your house” for storage (page 67). It doesn’t give you a hangover (page 108) and it’s cheaper, healthier and more polite than wine, too. Unlike wine, tea helps you to work and relax. I much preferred The Story of Tea to this book.

Most amusingly, I learned the 3 things that constitute a “good-tasting wine”:

  1. the packaging (fancy packaging tricks your taste-buds; that’s the placebo effect in action);
  2. the price (the more expensive, the better it tastes; that’s the placebo effect again);
  3. the taste itself (but only to a certain extent; most people can’t tell the difference between “good” and “very good”, especially when they’re drunk).

Introducing Wine glosses over the dangers of alcohol consumption and miscommunicates the benefits. It’s flattering of a potentially hazardous product, and I think that’s irresponsible. But that’s not really the book’s fault, since the book’s target audience (wine drinkers) would disapprove of experts saying anything else. Considering I neither like nor drink wine, three stars is very generous. Wine-drinkers, however, might give this book five. ★★★

Book: Over-schooled but Under-educated

Unlike the misleadingly distressed title font, this book isn’t rebellious at all.

Strangely, this book is a moderately flattering history of schools.
310 pages, ★★★

Over-schooled but Under-educated isn’t so much a critique, or even a blueprint, as a history of schooling. It reads like a selection of meandering essays about when schools were built, by whom, and for what purpose—basically, by churches in the 19th century to handle the delinquent poor; and later by the new, self-made middle-class as an attempt to push their children out of skilled labour and into the aristocracy. Over-schooled but Under-educated thus neglects its “schools need reform” thesis for six chapters! In the introduction, the author even writes, “you can skim-read chapters 5 and 6 to read chapter 7 properly, which is the crux of my argument”.

This book’s points are largely obvious. Schools need reform; teachers should let students learn by themselves; standardised tests set precedents more than they measure a student’s existing ability; and the family environment (that’s Pierre Bourdieu’s “Social Capital”) accounts for a greater proportion of a child’s education than does the experience of that child’s teacher. As a teacher, I feel like I knew all this already.

I was expecting something revolutionary from this book. The distressed title font emanates undertones of strength, grunge and rebellion, but none of this was to be found. Instead, it’s written like a collection social sciences essays, and I was thus disappointed.

That said, Over-schooled but Under-educated was worth reading. The most constructive part was the chapter on Finland’s model of education, from which all Western countries, supposedly, can learn.

My own teacher training will take precedent over any other books that I read on education. At this stage, I can agree with the role of a teacher being a “guide on the side”, not a “sage on the stage”, but when my Diploma of Education starts in February, even this view will be up for debate. ★★★

Book: The Freemasons

The Freemasons

Accidental trade union turned culty turned unpopular.
340 pages, ★★★

Freemasonry emerged by accident. Rough-masons worked rough (harder) stone, while free-masons worked free (softer) stone. Often commissioned by monarchs, Freemasons worked harder and earned more money than non-freemasons, and since they worked for many years, exclusively for the monarch, they became a very closely-knit group.

Freemasonry later developed into the élite fraternity. Many great explorers and tycoons were Freemasons. Now, however, Freemasonry is in decline, and is even greeted with suspicion and ridicule by non-members.

This book discusses some famous members. We learn about John Wilkes, William Dodd and Louis d’Éon, none of whose stories would be at all interesting if they weren’t Freemasons. Their stories are not scandalous—and sometimes not even interesting—despite this book describing them as such. This book dispels the myths surrounding Freemasonry by proving that they’re actually incredibly boring cult.

Freemasonry was never as intimidating as its reputation would suggest. In fact, the descriptions in this book rank it level with Cambridge University in terms of exclusivity and eccentricity (two defining aspects of a cult).

I don’t recommend reading this book. It was less informative than Cults (see my review here), and more of a chore, too. All this book taught me is that Freemasonry is incredibly dull—a fact so surprising that I award this book very generously with three stars. ★★★

Book: Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air
A serious cover suits this serious book. (The edition with a colourful cover gives you the false impression that this book is somehow ‘fun’).

Pleasantly optimistic but overly simplistic.
384 pages, ★★★

If only all the world’s energy needs and its climate worries could be solved by one author with a laptop. That’s what this book attempts to do. Even an optimist would struggle to believe that. It takes the collective action of many people’s mindsets and lifestyles, along with concerted action by business and governments to manage climatic change and build a reliable supply of renewable energy. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air simply aims too high.

This book analyses, then over-analyses and extrapolates wildly. (I forgive the author, as it is very difficult to do anything in the field of climate policy without sounding alarmist—although Bjørn Lomborg was one of few authors to do that successfully.) The fundamental data is abundant and extremely useful for policy-makers. The analysis is a little simplistic, and the numerical extrapolations are not to be believed at all. Of course it would be marvellous for the UK to become energy-independent on solar, wind and biomass by 2050, but investors won’t be encouraged by these hasty, lofty calculations. Gut instinct is enough.

Apart from the opportunities posed by building a giant dam across the Severn Estuary (a project probably beyond Britain’s capability right now), the reality is that Britain isn’t particularly well-suited to energy production. The UK has no more coal, no more gas, and no extreme weather that would make solar power or wind turbines highly profitable (try the Sahara or northern Europe for that). Perhaps Britain should focus on other industries (like a high-voltage, intercontinental direct current electric grid) and import energy instead?

The dodgy references worry me. They’re all internet-based and are written bewilderingly as a series of short URLs (like bit.ly/4dgf82). I know from experience that there’s enough material on Google to support basically any thesis—or even a pair of contradicting theses.

Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air is a collection of good ideas—but take the quantified results with a pinch of salt. Three stars for optimism and for effort. This book isn’t the magic bullet it appears to be. ★★★

Book: The Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander

The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander
How to raise your kids (and how not to raise your kids).

Rambling framed as theory. Self-help style.
272 pages, ★★★

Bullying is a serious issue. We start by reading dozens of graphic examples of ‘bullycide’ (bullying-induced suicide) and fatal accidents that resulted from excessive physical torment. The next section is even more hard-hitting, when the author describes how schools sometimes support the bully—and even blame the victims. I was lucky to grow up in such a relatively peaceful place.

According to this book, the bullies, the bullied and the bystanders are not people, but roles that anyone can assume at any time. Many people switch between roles until they become comfortable with just one (according to this book).

We all know bullying when we see it. We all know where to intervene and where not to. But in large schools, all staff need to abide by the same moral compass, and that’s where written rules step in. Three sets of rules in this book are particularly useful:

First, the difference between teasing and bullying is detailed on page 32. Second, the difference between flirting and sexual bullying is detailed on page 36.

Finally, the author describes the ideal family. She coins the term, “Backbone family”, and describes a family that resembles that of Alex in Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “Outliers”. (Young Alex is open-minded and inquisitive, and his family generally supports him.) The author derides families that are rigid, incompetent, careless (“Brick Wall” and “Jellyfish”).

Credible theory aside, there’s a lot of repetition in this badly-organized book. It’s designed for skim-readers. On the negative side, there are even a few things missing, such as:

First, the author tells us how some families unwillingly encourage bullying behaviour in their children, but she doesn’t say whether other families can encourage “victim” or “bystander” behaviour. (I don’t know whether this is possible, but it’d be useful to know either way. It’s too controversial to write, perhaps.)

Second, we can’t protect our kids from junk food and violent video games all of the time. But when they come home having eaten sugary snacks during a Halo marathon at a friend’s house (or, with mobile gaming, during the school lunch break), what should the parents do? That information would also be useful.

This book is imperfect. Some stuff is missing, while other stuff is repeated. And while the theory makes sense, I don’t feel it’s the most agreeable set of rules and definitions out there. Teachers should follow the guidelines that schools give them—not anything from outside sources. Don’t read all of this book. Just read pages 32, 36, 123 and 135 and you’ll be as clued-up as I am. ★★★

Book: The Cat Selector: How to choose the right cat for you

The Cat Selector
Can you resist opening this cute book?

Felinity deconstructed. Comedy.
176 pages, ☆☆☆ (three comic stars)

Browse through categories of “playful cats”, “talented cats”, “high-maintenance cats” and more to find your ideal cat with The Cat Selector. There are cat types I never even knew existed, some of which more closely resemble rabbits and piglets than cats.

I laughed out loud in the library while reading this book. Cats are supposed to be lovely and cute, but The Cat Selector deconstructs felinity into star-ratings and quantifiable attributes. I thought that trusting your feelings was a good way to choose a cat (or partner, or friends, or anything else that breathes); but the experts at The Cat Selector seem to think numbers and statistics are the way to go. This book treats living things as something completely unemotional, like petrol or phone credit: the juxtaposition of giant, heart-warming pictures and insensitive text made me laugh.

It’s hard to give a star-rating to such a funny book. Just read it yourselves. Then buy a theoretically-perfect cat and name it “Billy Beane”. ☆☆


Book: A Woman’s Guide to Cycling

A Woman's Guide to Cycling
I found this 25-year-old hardback edition in a charity store. It looks like a parody now. In 2012, even the title sounds derogatory!

This comprehensive textbook complicates cycling to make cyclists look really clever.
380 pages, ★

I’ve found treasure troves of books in libraries and charity stores. This one, A Woman’s Guide to Cycling, turns a simple, physical hobby into an academic subject that, on the page, looks a lot like chemistry or physics. Mathematical formulae, diagrams, graphs and numbers abound.

One funny part allows you to calculate the length of each of your gears using a mathematical formula, then write them down and stick them onto your handlebars to help you change gear. This book also allows you to calculate the angle of the chain between the two cogs, and thus determine which of the gearing combinations are putting too much strain on the bike. (This is funny because it seems so unnecessary—like most cyclists, I just “go with the feel” and learn that way.)

Another fascinating section in A Woman’s Guide to Cycling include “how to avoid getting harassed while cycling”. I wasn’t even aware that being harassed while on a bike was a problem for women. Maybe it was in the 1980s, when this book was first published?

A Woman’s Guide to Cycling is not an introduction. It overcomplicates cycling and turns it into an academic subject that might even put people off. (Maybe that’s the publishers’ intention—to give ‘face’ to those who can cycle.) In my view, an introduction to cycling for women (as opposed to for children) should be no more than a pamphlet, which explains the health, wealth and time-saving benefits of riding a bike. In 2012, this book seems totally irrelevant. I give it three stars purely for comic value. ★★★