Tag Archives: 4 stars

Book: South of the Border, West of the Sun

South of the Border, West of the Sun
South of the Border, West of the Sun

Boy grows up, explores love and sex but never really ‘gets it’. Poor guy.
213 pages, ★★★★

Protagonist Hajime starts as a 12-year-old boy who’s never kissed or dated anyone. He explores dating, kissing, sex and marriage throughout this book. By the end, he’s in his mid-30s, and married with two daughters.

After finishing school, Hajime spends 12 years wandering around aimlessly in life. He eats alone, relaxes alone, and doesn’t think about marriage. He dates girls, but none of the relationships are long-lasting or meaningful. David Brooks defined this relatively new period of life, the “decade of wandering that frequently occurs between adolescence and adulthood”, as “odyssey” in his book, The Social Animal. Luckily, this period of my life was very short—just a few months—and I can testify that life’s much better once you’re out of it.

But poor Hajime never really gets out of it. Even when married with two daughters, he’s still driving out of town to see his lover, his ex-lover and her cousin… at 30 years of age, his romantic life is a shambles! Everyone’s romantic life is a shambles is at some point, but we’re all supposed to grow out of it. And again, life’s much better when you do.

The ending is a classic Murakami one. Two (then three) characters meet in a miracle of coincidences, seeing each other in separate vehicles at the traffic lights. This also happened at the end of After Dark.

We can learn two things from this novel. First, everyone starts life understanding almost nothing about sex, dating and romantic love. Second, unlike Hajime, we should learn these things and get better with time. Don’t do what Hajime did and waste over a decade, not learning. Poor guy. ★★★★

Book: Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche

Underground: The Tokyo Gas Attack and the Japanese Psyche
Lungs, subway lines and sarin.

Cult mentality at its worst. An appendix to Cults.
366 pages, ★★★

In March of 1995, agents of a Japanese religious cult attacked the Tokyo subway system with sarin, a gas twenty-six times as deadly as cyanide. Attempting to discover why, Murakami conducted hundreds of interviews with the people involved, from the survivors to the perpetrators to the relatives of those who died, and Underground is their story in their own voices. Concerned with the fundamental issues that led to the attack as well as these personal accounts, Underground is a document of what happened in Tokyo as well as a warning of what could happen anywhere. This is an enthralling and unique work of nonfiction that is timely and vital and as wonderfully executed as Murakami’s brilliant novels.

Underground is divided into two parts. The first, larger part focusses on the victims of the attack and their families. Author Murakami does this because he feels the media focussed too much on the perpetrators, and neglected coverage of the victims.

The second part consists of interviews with cult leaders. His conversations make the fictional cult/gang in 1Q84 very believable.

Translator’s footnotes describe the fate of the attackers throughout Underground. Some of the attackers were sentenced to hard labour, some received the death penalty, and a small number were still awaiting trial.

The line between ‘cults’ and ‘charismatic groups’ is a fine one. Arguably, ‘cults’ are just the products of ‘charismatic groups’ gone awry. They exist in every country and need to be kept in check. This book made me wonder: what if Scientology, with all its resources and influence, were to turn violent?

I recommend Underground for anyone interested in cults, and for all die-hard fans of Haruki Murakami. ★★★

Book: Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking

Quiet
Quiet

Alerts you to society’s irrational love of extroverts.
352 pages, ★★★★

Introverts are singled out from a young age. They’re considered shy, socially-inept, boring, lazy and stupid in schools—at least, that’s the first thesis of this book.

The second thesis is that introverts are actually more valuable than people think. Evidence suggests that their moral reasoning, sense of responsibility, ability to stick to a plan, empathetic skills and thoughtfulness are better than those of extroverts. Introverts also earn more scholarships and graduate degrees than do extroverts.

Extroverts, on the other hand, make rash decisions, engage in risky behaviour (both in bed and on the stock market), are more prone to “groupthink”, make unsatisfactory team leaders and have poor listening skills. They have empty charisma—that is, they might appear to have everything in control, but when questioned, we realise they know nothing.

The third thesis, at the end of this book, says that “introvert” and “extrovert” are actually over-simplistic labels, and the book suggests “high-sensitive” and “low-sensitive” as more appropriate alternatives. Studies by Jerome Kagan have shown that people with sensitive amygdala prefer lower levels of stimulus—quiet rooms, fewer people, and familiar settings—characteristics of ‘introversion’. People with less-sensitive amygdala prefer higher levels of stimulus—loud places, more people, and new experiences—characteristics of ‘extroversion’. Different people need different amounts of stimulus to be comfortable, and these levels are quite fixed from birth through to adulthood.

Genes play an ambiguous role. I have C/C at the rs752306 SNP, which is located in the DRD4 dopamine receptor gene on chromosome 11. Even though the C allele has a frequency of as high as 75% (meaning most people have it), people still got excited when a study by Lee et al. in 2011 hinted at connections between rs752306 SNP and ‘schizophrenia’ and ‘risky behaviour’—traits which this book interprets as ‘extraversion’. Lee’s follow-up study showed no connection whatsoever. Personally, I think we understand so little about how genes affect our health that we should ignore any supposed ‘genetic factors’ for personality traits.

This book separates society along a single axis and looks for striking differences. The Geography of Thought did that too, along East/West lines, as did Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus, along gender lines. Take all these books with a pinch of salt. Society is not a dichotomy of extremes, but a melting pot in which most people are pretty close to ‘average’. Remember that you are, too. ★★★★

 

Book: To Sir, With Love

To Sir With Love
Also a popular 1967 film

Great story, poor character development.
185 pages, ★★

Rick Braithwaite, a black military officer from Guyana (then British Guiana), receives a horrible shock after leaving the army. Even though he was highly respected as a soldier in British uniform, dozens of employers now reject him because he’s “too black”. Finally, one school accepts him despite his skin colour.

I strongly believe that racism is rooted in classism. Braithwaite summarises the views of the British on page vii:

“The few West Indians who did occupy the streets of England would, despite the prejudice they endured, have far more in common with white, working-class people than with this Cambridge-educated former [army] officer.”

Reading that, this speech/song sprung to mind.

Racism is also a scapegoat for classism. This is strongly supported on page 37:

“It is true that here and there one sees Negroes as doctors, lawyers or talented entertainers, but they are somehow considered ‘different’ and not to be confused with the mass.”

Most strikingly, when people of different races are of the same class (such as in some universities), racial oppression simply melts away. It doesn’t matter what race you are as long as you’re rich, well-connected and well-read. However, when people of the same race are of different social class, the symptoms of racism emergeostracism, bullying, derision, and so on. Classism, not racism, is evidently the root of these problems.

The U.S. now has programmes like Troops to Teachers, which fast-track army veterans like Braithwaite into teaching positions. Veterans provide the discipline, respect and structured lifestyles that are considered elixirs for America’s dilapidated high schools.

I have one complaint: this novel has too many superfluous characters. So many characters, so little interaction. See the character map below.

To Sir With Love Character Map
So many characters, so little interaction! Click to enlarge.

Important characters are also introduced at the last minute, as and when they’re needed. We never really get to know any of the characters other than protagonist Braithwaite, and some characters exist only for one paragraph. The characters aren’t the highlight of this novel, though. The most important aspect is the message that racism exists, and that it can be transformed.

To Sir With Love should be compulsory reading for schoolchildren. It’s easier to relate to than the other school-time favourite, To Kill A Mockingbird, yet the two books’ treatises on racism are of equal caliber. The accompanying discussion also provides a valuable lesson for kids. ★★

Book: Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out

Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out
So red. Who could resist?

Simple, plod-along depiction of rural life from 1949 to today.
552 pages, ★ on an e-reader; possibly five stars in hardback.

Mo Yan is famous for writing novels set in the Chinese countryside. In Life and Death Are Wearing Me Out, Mo Yan describes the growth of modern rural China (post-1949) through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating landlord called Ximen Nao (闹西门).

Protagonist Ximen Nao begins the novel as a successful businessman in Gaomi Township, Shandong Province. At the start of the novel, he is tortured and killed as a “capitalist counter-revolutionary” in the 1949 revolution. The story proceeds through the eyes of an ever-reincarnating protagonist; the book’s six parts represent each of his reincarnations. Between lives, Yama, lord of the underworld, determines Ximen Nao’s fate:

  • Before New China (1949): human
  • New China (1949) to the Great Leap Forward (1957): donkey
  • Great Leap Forward (1957) to the Cultural Revolution (1966): ox
  • Cultural Revolution (1966) to the death of Chairman Mao (1976): pig
  • Death of Chairman Mao (1976) to Opening Up and Reform (1992): dog
  • Opening Up and Reform (1992) to the year 2000: monkey, then a child

He lives in the same village throughout these lifetimes, witnessing—sometimes interacting with—his wife, children and friends from when he was a human.

Two aspects of this book were most interesting. First, there’s how China changed suddenly in 1949, not just politically (into a one-party state) and economically (with the onset of Communism), but also socially: people got killed, elevated, and demoted; and romantic couples re-arranged themselves with new society. Legalising divorce resulted in a flood of second-marriages, step-parents and intertwined family trees (I drew a character map for this book, but it looks too messy to be of use!)

Second, we watch China transform from a backward agrarian society led by Chairman Mao into the BMW-driving, hair- (and skin-) bleaching society that we see today. Protagonist Ximen Nao reincarnates himself every time China reincarnates itself (1949, 1957, 1966, 1976 and 1992). Even though Life And Death is fictional, it’s believable and historically accurate, and takes the perspective of an average Chinese rural dweller. (See also Zhang Yimou’s flim, To Live, which also does this very well). Historical texts such as China Since 1949, however, are too dry for many readers, and usually focus on top-level party politics, rather than on ordinary people’s lives.

There’s humour in this book, but it’s too long to read on an e-reader. It gets just four stars from me, but someone with a hardback copy might give it five.

Book: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
Black-on-white version also available

Impetus to run.
192 pages, ★★★★

Running is a form of meditation. Murakami says he “doesn’t doesn’t know what he thinks about when he’s running”. When he’s happy, he thinks a little about being happy, and when he’s unhappy, he thinks a little about being unhappy. He says the average human mind isn’t strong enough to sustain a vacuum of thoughts, so random thoughts will seep in occasionally no matter how hard we try to block them out (see my book review on meditation exercises). That sounds like meditation to me.

Murakami started running to recover from an addiction to cigarettes, and has since run multiple marathons, including the original marathon route in Greece (he did it alone, surrounded by traffic!) Running motivated him to write, to give up smoking, and to run even more. Runners compete only against their former selves.

This humorous, autobiographical collection of essays, letters and memories persuades me strongly to get up and run.

Enough said. I want to go running. ★★★★

Book: Red Sorghum

Red Sorghum
Red with Communism, Nationalism, rage, energy, Japanese soldiers and blood.

Flashbacks of a township’s brutal Japanese occupation.
359 pages, ★★★★

China descended into a civil war in the 1920s. While China was divided and weak, Japan invaded during the 1930s, and brutally occupied some of the eastern regions. Pillage, burning, rape, torture and murder were commonplace during this dark chapter of Chinese history. In Nanjing, some 300,000 people were massacred within just a few days (an act which the Japanese, to this day, still do not acknowledge). Japanese forces retreated from China after the two nuclear bombs that ended the Second World War, which allowed China to focus all its energy on national re-unification (which was easier now the Nationalist Party had been weakened). China’s response to the Japanese invasion thus helped to end the civil war, to unify China under the Communist Party, and gave China a revived impetus to rejuvenate itself as a People’s Republic in 1949, which still exists today.

Red Sorghum is told as a series of flashbacks from this dark period of Chinese history. Like real flashbacks, they’re not recalled in chronological order, but as disconnected fragments that sometimes overlap in time. Characters thus seem to die then re-appear, then die again from another perspective, as time jumps back and forth.

More than half of the characters die by the end, most of whom are murdered by Japanese soldiers. Many of them are tortured before they’re killed, and the book contains vivid descriptions of rape, of body parts being cut off, of people being skinned alive, and of people being mutilated by bayonets and bullets.

At one point, Japanese soldiers destroy the entire village. Only six survivors remain (in the story, at least), and they pick up Japanese weapons and continue to fight to the death.
The Chinese patriotism and historic realism in Red Sorghum helped this book to become a best-selling modern classic in China.

The Japan/China struggle is echoed in the courtroom. On page 117, Magistrate Cao decides who has custody of a chicken—Wu the 3rd, or a “woman” (we never learn her name). Magistrate Cao demands the chicken’s stomach be slit open to see who’d been feeding it which type of grain. Wu the 3rd obeys Magistrate Cao and slices open the innocent chicken to prove he owns it—a harrowing echo of the Japanese treatment of the Chinese. In my opinion, the Magistrate’s verdict—to award the chicken to the “woman”—was based on the temperaments of the two defendants (one brutal, like the Japanese; and one kind, like the Chinese), and ignored the evidence, spilled out on the courtroom floor, entirely.

Red Sorghum is Mo Yan’s darkest book. It’s realistic, though, and should be compulsory reading for anyone who wants to understand modern Chinese history. However realistic it might be, a book this bloodthirsty could only earn four stars from me. ★★★★

Book: The Casual Vacancy

Yesterday’s library run was highly successful. Four books from my reserve list were available surprisingly early! A fifth book, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, then leaped off the shelf with its Coca-Cola-esque font, colours and proportions, and nested itself atop my book pile. Would you resist?

The Casual Vacancy
Red sells.

Parish politics, the down-and-out, and all the struggles in-between.
512 pages,
★★★★

Set in Pagford, a sleepy town in south-west England, the novel begins with the shock death of Barry Fairbrother upsetting the village equilibrium. He died suddenly, leaving an empty seat on the parish council (called a “casual vacancy”). Middle-class characters then fight over the empty council seat, engage in online slander, and even argue with their families about it—sometimes violently so—in a petty, village power-struggle. Tension escalates as it trickles down the social ladder to those right at the bottom (Terri and their poor daughter, Krystal). Kay, a social worker, witnesses all sides of this struggle and shows us the most comprehensive perspective of this story’s tragic process.

A whopping 34 characters fill out this book. I had to keep notes on them all, and was soon drawing labelled arrows to keep track of all their ages and the relationships between them. A complex web soon emerged, which I’ve beautified and included below.

Connections between the 34 characters in The Casual Vacancy
Connections between the 34 characters in The Casual Vacancy

There is no protagonist. One could argue that Barry Fairbrother is the most influential character, but he dies on page three. Everyone else is of equal importance until the end.

To me, the most interesting character is 16-year-old Krystal. She lives on the local council estate (‘The Fields’) with her 3-year-old brother and their pitiful, heroin-addicted mother. Their story, and their family situation, reminds me of the 2009 film Fish Tank. Krystal’s torn between the desire to improve her home situation by caring for her mother and brother, and the desire to run away and start her life afresh. Her internal conflict ends in tears as she chooses an unfortunate, alternative end to her struggle. The novel ends with her funeral, and village equilibrium is sadly, once again, restored.

The Casual Vacancy trained my ability to keep track of 34 characters. I now feel ready to take on more complex works of fiction. Let this book prime you for the classics. ★★★★

Book: Capital

Capital by John Lanchester
I love the Little Planet-style cover. Pepys Street really is a world of its own.

Like playing with the Flyover feature in Apple Maps.
577 pages, ★★★★

Capital zooms down Pepys Street and documents the lives of its residents over almost two years. People rise and fall, die, move, fall in love, and have strangers wreak silent havoc on their Wifi. I feel like I’m watching all of their lives from above; floating into their homes like some silent, door-to-door spy.

Pepys Street 2
That’s Pepys Street, right there in the middle
Pepys Street
Reading Capital, I feel like I’m flying into people’s lives from this aerial perspective.

The title Capital has two meanings. First, the book is set in London, and reminders of London life are peppered throughout. Wimbledon, Marmite, Pot Noodles, Top Gear, Hello!, and Tesco deliveries of baked beans, bin liners and “No substitutions today, Madam”, taken together, are unmistakably British. Most British of all, was this segment on page 31:

“…laser-print-quality 80 g paper and the A4 envelopes and the A5 envelopes which had become so popular since they changed the way postal pricing worked…bottles of Ribena and orange squash, and the [Oyster card] terminal and the Lottery terminal…”

I love this excerpt because all of the above would be alien to Americans. These aren’t clichés of London (e.g. red buses and the Queen) that tourists drool over; these are anecdotes of daily London life that only those who’ve lived there could relate to.

Another meaning of “capital” is “wealth”, and Pepys Street is remarkably wealthy. The introduction tells us that they didn’t become wealthy through hard work or inheritance; but merely through good luck. House prices on this street rose so fast that millionaires were created within a generation, seemingly without anyone needing to lift a finger.

Aside from lacking a sense of purpose, Pepys Street suffers from one more existential threat. Postcards emblazoned with “We Want What You Have” started arriving at people’s letterboxes. A blog, then another, more provocative blog, followed. Mysterious DVDs, pictures and dead birds then started arriving in the mail. This strange portents are the only thing that unites this otherwise neighbourhood of strangers.

There are a dozen characters in this book. Disappointingly, they don’t interact as much as I wish they would (think about the film Crash, and how everyone’s story was knitted together by the end). Too much interaction, however, would be distinctly un-London—remember that this is a city where glancing across someone else’s newspaper on the train is considered highly uncouth. More character interaction would have made for a better story, though.

The most memorable character is Roger Yount. He needs a £1,000,000 end-of-year bonus to keep up the exuberant promises he’s made to his family. Nannies, second nannies, multiple luxury holidays, and boutique shopping sprees have to be cancelled when his massively underwhelming bonus. We see this character rise and fall, and then re-invent himself more than any other by the end of the book.

Capital was better than Our Hidden Lives because (a) the characters interacted more with each other (although still not much); and (b) it was better-written. I gave that book three stars, so I’ll give this one four. ★★★★

Book: The Disappearing Spoon

The Disappearing Spoon
The cover reminds us that a dozen rare elements are required to produce US banknotes.

Guided tours of the periodic table.
392 pages, ★★★★

War elements, star elements, biologically-important elements and political elements are among the 20 element categories in The Disappearing Spoon. Each chapter guides the reader into unexplored parts of the periodic table, where we find gadolinium, molybdenum, europium, francium, and hafnium.

The Disappearing Spoon introduces these elements with interesting stories. We learn about the true nature of Jupiter (as a failed star), Haber’s lesser-known dark side (manufacturing chemical weapons for the Nazis) and metal spoons that melt safely in the palm of your hand (at 29°C). Oddities abound.

The writing style is more intelligent—and more wit-laden—than that of Stephen Fry. Author Sam Kean’s writing style is similar in knowledge, breadth and wit to that of the legendary science writer Stephen J. Gould.

I preferred The Disappearing Spoon to Eurekas and Euphorias because the former was more interesting, and less piecemeal, than the latter. This book felt like a fascinating guided tour of chemistry, whereas the latter felt like a collection of bad jokes.

Here’s the real “disappearing spoon” in action. It’s made of gallium and melts at 29°C. You can use it to mould your own keys at home.

This, and other interesting tidbits, make this book worth reading. I’ll be recommending The Disappearing Spoon my secondary-school science students. ★★★★

Book: Three Cups of Deceit

Three Cups of Deceit
Only use a cover this bold if you’re absolutely sure you’re right.

Demonstration of how malleable the human memory can be.
75 pages, ★★★★ (must be read following Three Cups of Tea)

In Three Cups of Deceit, author Jon Krakauer accuses Greg Mortenson of two major ‘crimes’:

  1. Lying — changing the sequence of events and making stories up, sometimes in stark contrast to the truth;
  2. Spending charity money irresponsibly — up to $23 million was spent on flights to exotic places to promote his own book, and the company finance records were patchy at best, and fabricated at worst.

I believe that both authors are telling the truth as they remember it. The discrepancy arises from the fact that Jon Krakauer has successfully altered his memory, and now believes this alternative version of the truth.

Human memory remarkably elastic. It can exaggerate events and fool itself into believing things happened differently to the truth. Books such as The Invisible Gorilla and Think! explain the science behind this process.

Memory-alteration is a very useful skill. We can delete troubling episodes, exaggerate happy ones, and re-write history to fit our goals in the present. People do it all the time to great effect.

Memory-alteration is troubling, though, and conflict can arise when people stubbornly believe different versions of the truth, with sometimes devastating consequences. The co-author of the original book, Three Cups of Tea, for example, committed suicide this month. I wonder whether accusations of ‘lying’ and ‘irresponsibility’ were among the stresses on his mind before he did it.

Read this pair of books to understand the flexibility of human memory. ★★★★

Book: More Than You Can Say

More Than You Can Say
The poker, running, and targets on the cover represent this book accurately.

High-speed adventures of a war veteran struggling to adapt to civilian life
320 pages, ★★★★

This action-packed adventure novel describes one man’s journey after his return from a tour of duty in Iraq. He can’t settle into sleepy civilian life, so he ends up hustling, fighting, and gambling money he doesn’t have on ridiculous bets. In a post-war confused state of mind, he makes some shockingly rash decisions (e.g. befriending people he shouldn’t, and shooting people he shouldn’t). The entire story is ridiculous, well-written and has comic value, but also leaves a meaningful impression by the conclusion.

The story is set in a high-stakes, high-speed part of London. The protagonist loses money at a poker table and tries to win it back by first, bankrupting his wife’s business, and second, taking a double-or-quits bet that involved walking to Oxford overnight, drunk and jet-lagged.

The story then grips the reader. Episodes with guns, Hummers, poker, cash, bankruptcy, marriage, divorce, people trafficking, kidnapping, escape, terrorism and counter-terrorism all ensue. It’s action-packed.

The conclusion is that soldiers find it very difficult to adapt to civilian life after war. In chasing what he wanted (a high-speed, fight-to-survive hustle), he ended up destroying the sleepy, but beautiful world he worked so hard to build before going to Iraq. Even by the end of the book, he hadn’t managed to mend any bridges.

More Than You Can Say reminds me of the film Run, Lola, Run, in which the protagonist and her reckless boyfriend spend the entire movie sprinting in search of the €20,000 that they owe to some dangerous people. That film, and this book, are equally action-packed. It also reminds me of Johnny English and Crank for its elements of comedy. ★★★★

Book: Organic Chemistry I

Organic Chemistry I
All you need, in theory.

Systematic and super-concise. If only I could take all this in at once.
160 pages, ★★★★

Organic Chemistry I is the most concise guide to organic chemistry I’ve ever found.

The reality is, though, that you’ll have to spend a lot of time using the methods described in this book before they’ll finally sink in.

It would work well as a pre-exam study aid, or as a pre-university Chemistry refresher (as it is for me).

It only lacks the fifth star is because there’s too much to take in at once. While it’s possible to summarise all of Organic Chemistry into a 160-page book, it’s impossible to learn that much simply by reading it. Despite appearances, this book is no replacement for hours of classes, lab experiments, homework tasks and writing assignments. You’ll still need to go to school. ★★★★

Book: Three Cups of Tea

Three Cups of Tea
Author Greg Mortenson builds schools on challenging ground in the Afghanistan/Pakistan border region.

Sounds like a Bible story. Heroic.
349 pages, ★★★★

Greg Mortenson, a nurse by profession and avid mountaineer from the United States, built over 50 schools, mostly for girls, in the challenging Afghanistan/Pakistan border region (Af-Pak).

Every step of this project was difficult. Building materials are hard to find and even harder to transport (much of the timber was lugged up a mountain by hand). Local leaders were averse to educating girls (and Mortenson intended to prioritise girls in his schools); and regular attacks between ethnic groups kept everyone on edge. Despite getting lost, kidnapped, and his passport destroyed, he nonetheless succeeded spectacularly.

Three Cups of Tea feels like an adventure novel throughout. It opens with a lucky plane landing, where the pilot uses a shop-bought GPS navigation system to determine whether they’re heading the right way (and they’re not—they do an about turn and land the plane with seemingly no fuel). Later, on page 179, Mortenson shares his medical experience to save the life of both a new-born baby and its mother in what the locals described as a ‘miracle’. Greg’s remarkable story is written in the third person, which makes it feel like an Indiana Jones adventure story. Some of Mortenson’s achievements even feel Biblical in proportion. (Indeed, many have pipped him for a future Nobel Peace Prize.)

Humor is added occasionally. “The British must have had a sense of humour to draw a border across an indefensible wasteland [Af-Pak], Mortenson thought” (page 159). The part where the guard destroyed Mortenson’s passport (“immediately rendering the entire document useless”) is also written with humour.

Jon Krakauer wrote a book exposing “lies and exaggerations” from Three Cups of Tea called Three Cups of Deceit. This is interesting because Three Cups of Tea describes Jon Krakauer as one of the biggest financial supporters of Mortenson’s schools project. He organised fundraising events and sold $25 tickets. Why Krakauer then wrote a book criticising Mortenson’s approach remains a mystery to me. I’ll have to read it and find out. ★★★★

Book: Science is Golden

Science is Golden
Science is Golden, and so is this book.

Freakonomics for middle-school children.
252 pages, ★★★★

Science is Golden is as informal as its cover suggests. It’s a humorous tour of science from the highly relevant (plane travel) to the highly irrelevant (black holes). Each chapter is clearly illustrated and contains no more than five pages of text.

The author not only contemplates (and subtly mocks) absurd theories about a 2012 apocalypse, and busts dozens of myths with scientific evidence, but also loads his writing with interesting facts that go beyond the original topic of each chapter. We learn about the iridescent keratin structures in peacock feathers; the difference between a meteoroid, a meteor and a meteorite, and the origin of the 40,000 tons per year that the Earth gains in mass. Most memorably, we learn about the structure and function of a spotted hyena’s clitoris. You’ll be amused and surprised.

Everything in this book is presented with calmness, balance, and undertones of fun. It touches on sex (e.g. the spotted hyena chapter), but even those parts are written in a very responsible way. The language level, fonts and cover design of this book are clearly aimed at a young-teenage age group. And I’d have no hesitations in recommending it my own science students.

Where Freakonomics is for high-school students, and Stephen J. Gould is for university students, Science is Golden is for middle school students. Let Dr Karl Kruszelnicki convince them that science is cool★★★★

 

Book: Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire

The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire
Book two in the trilogy

Too much Hunger Games.
474 pages, ★★★★

Book two begins with Katniss Everdeen at Victor’s Village.

The first book described the 74th Hunger Games; this book describes the 75th. There’s a “Quarter Quell” this year, a major Hunger Games battle with 48 veteran tributes (rather than 24 newbies), held every 25 years. Katniss and Peeta are, once again, called up to fight.

75 years? Tyrannies in the modern era have never survived for more than 90 years. In fact, most of them get toppled after 70 or 80. Without reading any further, I think this could be the last Hunger Games in Panem. It’s not unthinkable that this trilogy could see the end of Panem altogether, in a rebellion possibly led by Katniss herself.

Katniss talks about marrying Peeta (chapter 3) and having his baby (page 309), but disguises her love for him as rebelliousness against her country, Panem. She convinces herself so much (too much) that she ends up joining a real rebellion with her other crush, Gale (yes, that’s a man). She kisses both of them in several times in this novel. Panem is outraged at their being together, so Katniss and Gale pretend to be cousins for their own safety.

Ligatures. The kerning in this book is imperfect, and ligatures are altogether absent. This affected my enjoyment of the book, but most readers probably won’t notice anything’s wrong. The words, ‘mockingjay’, ‘flower’, ‘fish’, ‘fling’ and ‘Right’ all look awkwardly-spaced—ugly, even. Book one was fine.

I didn’t enjoy this as much as the first book, but I’m still hankering for more—especially because the last line tells us that Katniss’ home district has been destroyed. I’ve ordered book three and will review it in a few weeks’ time. ★★★★