Roots by Alex Haley

Roots is (supposedly) a combination of memoir, genealogy, and historical fiction focusing on the enslaved African ancestor of black American author Alex Haley. While acknowledging the significance of this unprecedented, popular, and culturally important work, I must say I think it fails as a work of fiction.

I expected the book to be more like other historical epics I’ve read. Such works contain seeds of truth and the fruits of long hours of research, but are ultimately stories crafted to entertain, so they have a classic, recognizable rising-falling structure, or many such structures strung together or nested one inside the other.

While reading Roots, I kept trying to sniff out plot points, only slowly realizing that Roots is just a straightforward book chronicling people’s lives. People’s lives don’t have plots, unless you graft them on after the fact, and that’s not what Haley chose to do. You could say he “fictionalized” the story of Kunta Kinte and his descendants, but the detail that he added was documentary rather than dramatic in style. From a structural standpoint, Haley’s massive work is little more than an 888-page list of who begat whom.

Sadly, if the accusations against Haley are true, the work also fails as non-fiction; the story may very well be less factual than he claimed.

See below for a summary, what stood out, and my thoughts on the authenticity of the novel.

Continue reading Roots by Alex Haley

I’ll Tell You Mine by Pip Harry

Clearly I need to read more Australian books. The vocabulary in I’ll Tell You Mine felt quite alien. I’d say everything (apart from “daggy”) is pretty clear from context, or from conversations I’ve had with Australians and New Zealanders I’ve met in Singapore.

Still, I had no idea until I looked it up why a truck would be called a “ute”. (It’s a strange word, one that would sound like Vinny in My Cousin Vinny saying “youth”.) The first time I saw “ute” on the page, it looked like a typo that was meant to be a longer word, or an acronym that was meant to be put in all caps, or at least a brand name that was meant to start with a capital letter. But no, “ute” is a word that’s short for “utility”. Apparently it refers to something that might be a pick-up truck or something like a cross between a normal car and a pick-up truck. Such vehicles are said to have “trays”. Learn something new every day.

Other stuff that sounds weird to an American, even one with expat friends:

  • chemist (pharmacy)
  • lollies (any sweets or candies)
  • bogged (rather than “bogged down”)
  • pies (for savory meat pastries)
  • jumper (sweater)
  • to dob (to snitch or tell on someone)
  • schmick (new/stylish)
  • tatty (opposite of schmick)
  • living out of home (living away from home)
  • holidays (vacations)
  • cuppa (cup of presumably tea)
  • a chinwag (a chat)
  • a barbie (a barbecue grill, or the event)
  • brekkie (breakfast)
  • bikkie (biscuit, which might or might not be a cookie)
  • loos (bathrooms/restrooms)
  • mates (friends)
  • plaits (braids)
  • dodgy (sketchy)
  • pinboard (bulletin board, cork board)
  • tuckshop (snack bar/convenience store)
  • texta (permanent marker, like a Sharpie but not)
  • turps (turpentine, for cleaning off Sharpie writing)
  • shops (stores)
  • bathers, swimmers (bathing suit, swimsuit)
  • daggy (okay, I can’t really explain this one; ask Wikipedia)

I love the word “dodgy”, but I dislike all the Ozzie diminutives. I’ve pretty much stopped saying “vacations” since no one around me says it, and as I’ve mentioned, it’s getting harder for me to call a place where you buy something a “store”.

I’ve left out (or “missed out”) words relating to school stuff (Year Elevens), place names (Wagga Wagga), and sports (netball).

These days I don’t even notice most British spellings (organisation, centimetre, flavour), though “gaol” is still pretty strange.

I wish I’d kept a list of interesting words and expressions as I was reading the book. The list would be twice as long!

When and Why I Read I’ll Tell You Mine

This Australian author is in my YA writing group.

Genre: fiction (Young Adult)
Date started / date finished:  28-May-17 to 29-May-17
Length: 254 pages
ISBN: 9780702239380
Originally published in: 2012
Amazon link: I’ll Tell You Mine

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Who doesn’t love a good Cinderella story like Jane Eyre?

I despise spineless, aimless characters like Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caufield; Jane Eyre is exactly the opposite. She’s stubborn, she’s principled, and in the end she gets what she wants because she’s worked hard and made the right decisions. Unlike many heroines, she’s not particularly beautiful or smart; what she has is honesty and a strong sense of justice.

The setting and many descriptive details make the book moody and atmospherically (though not thematically) dark; it’s a gothic novel complete with mysterious rooms, storms, eerie sounds and the like.

Jane Eyre is discussed throughout The Weekend Novelist Re-writes the Novel, which points out that the book has an uncommonly large number of antagonists, which means it has an uncommonly large number of subplots. The book’s complexity contributes greatly to its lasting appeal.

When and Why I Read Jane Eyre

This book was chosen by Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book club for May 2017. I read it in 2011 but I don’t mind reading it again.

Genre: fiction (English literature)
Date started / date finished:  06-May-17 to 15-May-17
Length: 467 pages
ISBN: Project Gutenberg 1260
Originally published in: 1897
Gutenberg link: Jane Eyre

How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

How to Lie with Maps gives readers a glimpse into an arcane field whose ubiquitous products we tend to take for granted: cartography. I’ve read a lot of books, but never one with this particular focus.

You can tell the author loves maps; he wants readers to appreciate the good ones, scorn the poor ones, and be wary of those created with specific agendas in mind. His goal is to raise awareness.

Mission accomplished.

More about this fascinating subject and the author’s take on it below.

Continue reading How to Lie with Maps by Mark Monmonier

How to Lie with Statistics by Darrell Huff

How to Lie with Statistics is both dated and timeless. First published in 1954 but reprinted in 1993, it contains salary and other economic dollar amounts that make no sense in today’s context, but nonetheless explains why we should be skeptical of numbers and charts in the media. (That’s right, fake news is nothing new.)

Even if you have had statistical training, and you already know, for example, that “average” could mean “mean”, “median”, or “mode”, this accessible will raise your awareness of the slipperiness of “facts”.

The style of the illustrations and some of the historical and cultural phenomena and prominent personages mentioned in the text as well as the economic data give the book a pleasantly old-timey feel, like 125 Ways to Make Money with Your Typewriter, though not to the same extent.

When and Why I Read
How to Lie with Statistics

After reading three books about visual displays of data, I thought I’d read a related book about data.

Genre: non-fiction (applied mathematics)
Date started / date finished:  28-Apr-17 to 30-Apr-17
Length: 142 pages
ISBN: 0393310728 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1954
Amazon link: How to Lie with Statistics

Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

Musicophilia is a collection of neurological anecdotes all dealing with music.

It never ceases to amaze me how much we can learn a lot about brains from by studying those with damaged or otherwise unusual ones, and I’m very grateful that Oliver Sacks not only dedicated so much of his own ample brainpower to that very task, but also chose to transform his professional experience into reasonably accessible stories for non-experts. Not being anything like as musical as Dr. Sacks, however, I found it a bit difficult to relate to him as a narrator of tales specifically about music.

Sometimes he used the word “music” to refer to “serious Western classical music” in a way that seemed to indicate that pop songs obviously didn’t count. I think I would have felt the book was several degrees more approachable if he had started out with some acknowledgement of the wide variety of music in the world, and then explicitly characterized some of  it as being more cognitively challenging or worthwhile to produce and consume, and therefore more relevant to many of his case studies and much of his discussion of them, rather than leaving such things implied but largely unsaid.

All in all, not one of the better Oliver Sacks books, but still, like all eight of the other Oliver Sacks books I’ve read so far, undoubtedly worth reading.

When and Why I Read Musicophilia

Whatever Oliver Sacks writes about, he approaches it in an educated, thoughtful way. With footnotes. I especially enjoy reading what he has to say about brains.

Genre: non-fiction (neurology, music)
Date started / date finished:  12-Apr-17 to 24-Apr-17
Length: 391 pages
ISBN: 9781447222705 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: Musicophilia

The Back of the Napkin by Dan Roam

The Back of the Napkin was disappointing, perhaps because I’m not in the target audience. As far as I can tell, the target audience is people who work in a consulting firm or a big corporate environment, don’t like drawing, and don’t know what a Venn diagram is.

In the service of better business meetings, the book brings together basic visual displays, superficial insights from cognitive science, and the five w’s of journalism, wrapping it all in a nicely designed but gimmicky napkin-shaped book printed in black and red.

The author sets out some good principles and good examples, but at the end of the day, I just felt like he was showing off the successes of his own career; none of it seemed particularly likely to help me, and somehow it didn’t make for compelling reading.

When and Why I Read The Back of the Napkin

Bought it in Atlanta in 2014. It’s been waiting its turn long enough.

Genre: non-fiction (business)
Date started / date finished:  26-Mar-17 to 20-Apr-17
Length: 276 pages
ISBN: 9781591843061 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2008
Amazon link: The Back of the Napkin

Airframe by Michael Crichton

When I read Airframe, what struck me most, apart from the author’s finely honed ability to build and sustain tension, was how outdated 90s communication technology seemed. Beepers, CD players, video recorders that use tape, faxes, landline telephones, television screens that aren’t flat… and what the heck is a telex, anyway?

More thoughts on this un-put-down-able techno-thriller below.

Continue reading Airframe by Michael Crichton