Dreamland by Sarah Dessen

Dreamland paints a gripping, believable picture of someone whose choices trap her (and the reader) in a world of hurt. This protagonist doesn’t save herself; she can’t.

When and Why I Read Dreamland

At some point I read or someone told me that Sarah Dessen was an especially articulate writer of contemporary teen fiction, so I started reading her books. Also, I liked the collage covers of the earlier editions. Dreamland is darker than the others.

Genre: fiction (YA)
Date started / date finished:  15-Dec-16 to 16-Dec-16
Length: 250 pages
ISBN: 9780142401750 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2000
Amazon link: Dreamland

First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

Just another one of the thousands of management advice books, all clamoring to tell you the seven steps to success or some such? Maybe, but First, Break All the Rules speaks to me.

It’s a paean to individuals and their differences—or rather, their talents, a talent being defined as “a recurring pattern of thought, feeling, or behavior that can be productively applied.” The book happens to be talking about individuals as employees, but the psychological insight applies equally outside of work.

The key insight—people are different—sounds obvious, but these authors have data (not cherry-picked anecdotes) to back up their conclusions. Furthermore, their advice is actionable. Moreover, Gallup’s strengths-based management agenda, born in the 90s, is still alive and kicking in 2016.

Read it or regret it!

See below for photos from the book, which, interestingly, before it belonged to me, belonged to an Arabic speaker… and, which judging by the flight ticket stub, was taken to Jeddah, Saudia Arabia! Take that, BookCrossing. Betcha this book has been on the Hajj.

Continue reading First, Break All the Rules by Marcus Buckingham and Curt Coffman

The Taken by Alice Clark-Platts

Because it’s 448 pages, maybe you think The Taken is a long book. Didn’t feel that way! It was unputdownable. This, from someone who doesn’t usually read murder mysteries.

This is Alice’s second book about DI Erica Martin. The first was Bitter Fruits.

Set in Durham, the books both feel very British in terms of punctuation, spelling, phrasing, and brand and place names… plus there’s lots of tea and biscuits. Makes me want to go drink a cuppa.

When and Why I Read It

I’m a member of the writing group the author founded, the Singapore Writers’ Group.

Genre: fiction (mystery / thriller)
Date started / date finished:  07-Dec-16 to 09-Dec-16
Length: 448 pages
ISBN: 9780718181109 (paperback)
Originally published in: 2016
Amazon link: The Taken

An Introduction to Fiction by X.J. Kennedy and Dana Gioia

An Introduction to Fiction reminded me why I felt put off by a lot of the literature I studied in high school English classes: modern literary criticism is oppressive in its political correctness, and the stories themselves are almost uniformly depressing.

On page 274 of this textbook, Ursula K. Le Guin, in her story “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas”, provides a possible explanation for literary gloom: “[W]e have a bad habit, encouraged by pedants and sophisticates, of considering happiness as something rather stupid. Only pain is intellectual, only evil interesting.”

Tolstoy is one of those sophisticates. You will surely recall this famous line (from Anna Karenina): “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

We believe this, do we not? Genre fiction stories in which the characters catch the killer, go on adventures and return triumphant, defeat cosmic evil with the help of magic swords and stalwart companions, and/or fall in reciprocated love with their true soul mates are derided as shallow and commercial, no matter how inventive, entertaining, or uplifting we find them. We are apparently supposed to prefer deep explorations of the multitudes of ways people’s lives can and do go wrong. Blech.

In short, the textbook was mostly a downer. Nevertheless, some of the analysis of the components of fiction was interesting, and I did like a few of the stories. See below for more on what I liked and what I learned, as well as when and why I read the book.

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What You Need to Know about British and American English by George Davidson

I’ve come a long way since the days when I consistently spelled the word ‘British’ with two t’s, which is phonetically intuitive but correct nowhere on the planet. Nevertheless, there were still some new factoids in What You Need to Know about British and American English.

When and Why I Read It

I write English lessons for students in Singapore; it’s important to know the British English standard here.

Genre: nonfiction (language / English)
Date started / date finished:  07-Nov-16 to XX-Nov-16
Length: 216 pages
ISBN: 9814107832 (paperback)
Originally published in: ????
Amazon link: ???

The book was published by some Singapore company called Learners Publishing, which was apparently acquired by Scholastic.

Emma by Jane Austen

I read The Annotated Emma when Emma was chosen as the Hungry Hundred Book Club book for November.

There are advantages and disadvantages to reading annotated editions of classics. The advantage is that you get a lot of added historical context (details about clothing, buildings, transportation, manners, etc.) and literary criticism (similarities and differences between related works). The disadvantage is that you aren’t left to see the story and characters reveal themselves to you, or to draw your own conclusions about the author’s themes.

On balance, for Emma, I’d say it’s worth reading an annotated edition if you already know the plot. Knowing the plot made the book a bit—only a bit!—tedious to read, since I spent the entire novel waiting for Emma to discover a bunch of things I already knew… she is, like Cher in the movie Clueless (1995), well meaning but oblivious. Thus, there’s a tinge of “unreliable narrator” syndrome, but in fact the narrator is much wiser than the protagonist, so I’d say the novel doesn’t cause disastrous levels of reader impatience. This is Jane Austen we’re talking about! Her stories are entertaining practically by definition. What more can I say?

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it.

Genre: fiction (literature)
Date started / date finished:  31-Oct-16 to 27-Nov-16
Length: 863 pages
ISBN: 9780307390776 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1815
Amazon link: The Annotated Emma

Strengthsfinder 2.0 by Tom Rath

The purpose of the book Strengthsfinder 2.0 is to help launch a new version of the Clifton StrengthsFinder online test that tells you which five of the 34 themes of talent are strongest for you. The book contains a short introduction and then dives into descriptions of the themes plus tips for people who have them or people who work with people who have them.

The tips are new, but the descriptions and examples are the same as in Now, Discover Your Strengths, which talks a lot more about the rationale for the test and is longer, more comprehensive, and in fact more interesting.

The takeaway is that people are different, and should get better at what they’re good at, rather than feel bad about (and waste time and effort trying to “fix”) their weaknesses. That idea is more valuable, if less specific, than finding out or understanding what your specific strengths are.

Or maybe I just think so because I have the “analytical” theme; those who have the “individualization” theme will be interested in their individual results! (Since I bought both books used, and the included codes had already been used, I haven’t actually taken the test…)

When and Why I Read It

I enjoyed Now, Discover Your Strengths. This is another book about the same businessy personality test. Got it cheap in Colorado.

Genre: nonfiction (management / psychology)
Date started / date finished:  01-Nov-16 to 07-Nov-16
Length: 174 pages
ISBN: 9781595620156 (hardcover)
Originally published in: 2007
Amazon link: Strengthsfinder 2.0

Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

To create Thing Explainer, Randall drew and labeled pictures to—well—explain various scientific and cultural ideas, but he chose to write all the text in the book using only a thousand commonly-used English words, just like he did when he published the comic “Up-Goer Five”.

Using the tool he made, you can write like that, too. Um, that is, you can try. (Good luck.)

The book straddles the border between humor and science. On the one hand, transforming simplified English labels back into conventional ones makes us chuckle; sometimes the “simple” labels are quite obscure, thus deciphering them can be both tricky and rewarding, like the word game Taboo. On the other hand, the simplified English goes a long way towards actually explaining things; science books sometimes raise as many questions as they answer because the explanations in them use terms that are as unfamiliar to readers as whatever the terms are intended to explain.

I think the book is best understood as Randall’s clever way of explaining stuff he knows about to clever people who might or might not know as much as he does on the subjects he chose to address. Seen in this light, the book helps us appreciate the power of words as flexible, useful tools in the hands of a talented wordsmith, and gives us the sense that, in principle, there is nothing under the sun anywhere in the universe (including the sun) that can’t be explained in an approachable way.

See below for when and why I read the book, and a list of the explained things.

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Jokes and the Linguistic Mind by Debra Aarons

Question: What do you call a cross between a collection of hilarious jokes and a collection of dull academic papers written by a dyed-in-the-wool Chomskyan linguist?

Answer: A big disappointment.

Jokes sit at the intersection of language, cognitive psychology and  illusions, all topics that fascinate me. Sadly, however, I was rather bored by Jokes and the Linguistic Mind. I think the reason was not that the author explained the jokes but that she did it in what I felt was an unnecessarily long-winded, robotic, repetitive, jargony kind of way. Anyone who explains jokes takes the well-known risk of killing the frog to understand it better, but I think once you’ve killed the frog, you should jolly well stop beating it like a dead horse.

Silver lining? I love the MC Escher stairscape on the cover. Moreover, many of the jokes used as examples of various linguistic phenomena were funny. See below for more on the aspects of the book I enjoyed.

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The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner

The Little Book of Plagiarism is a little book full of big ideas clearly explained. It’s hard to summarize, since the text is already so concise and in fact contains its own summary at the end.

There’s a lot of confused thinking on the subject of intellectual property. It angers me when people actively refuse to show respect for the intellectual property of others; it saddens me when people merely fail to do so. Posner’s very readable book sheds light on a number of key issues.

See below for my list of some of those issues.

Continue reading The Little Book of Plagiarism by Richard A. Posner