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.

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

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.

Continue reading Thing Explainer by Randall Munroe

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.

Continue reading Jokes and the Linguistic Mind by Debra Aarons

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

Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne

Do Animals Think? is accessible. The writing is highly educated but at the same time warm and gentle. The sense I get is that of someone who is so brimming with enthusiasm for the natural world that the enthusiasm bubbles out of him in all the conversations he has about nature and science—conversations he is eager to start because he is eager to share with anybody and everybody what it is that he knows and loves about the world. Reading this book made me feel like I was sitting in the author’s living room having a friendly chat. And a cup of tea.

The enthusiasm does not detract from the science; Wynne is ever careful to be clear and precise. Where there is room for misinterpretation, he stops and explains the intended implications of his words. And he never does it in an impatient or condescending way that makes me feel like I’m an irritatingly uninformed freshman, or, worse, a recalcitrant intellectual opponent.

Wynne shares with other authors whose work I have read the goal of re-enchanting nature. Even if—perhaps especially if!—animal behavior is not mysterious in any supernatural sense, we can still feel wonder and amazement when we observe or read about it. The two books I’m thinking of are George Levine’s book Darwin Loves You, for which I was the production editor assigned by the publisher, and The Magic of Reality by Richard Dawkins. I’m sure there are some overlaps with the work of Daniel Dennet, too. Wynne’s mention of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea moves it up in my stack of books to read sooner rather than later.

I don’t agree with everything Wynne says, but I have the utmost respect for what he says and how he says it, and I would be willing to read any book he writes, on any topic, if it’s written like this one.

For more on Do Animals Think?, including what I disagreed with and some things I learned, see below.

Continue reading Do Animals Think? by Clive D. L. Wynne

V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

Although the graphic novel V for Vendetta has been in the house for, I dunno, years, I hadn’t read it yet because I opened it up and didn’t like the art. I still don’t. There’s not much I do like about it, but it’s interesting.

Why I didn’t like V for Vendetta

  • I thought the literariness was overbearing rather than deep. Evey gets frustrated with V’s roundabout answers that are all in quotations; I did, too.
  • There were way too many rapes and rape threats. There are several powerful women in the story, but it still comes off as male-dominated.
  • I found both the text and the images difficult to decode in places. (Who and what am I seeing, exactly? Is that a U, a W, or an L and an I?)
  • I do not buy the underlying ideology of anarchy-as-voluntary-self-governance. I can see how toppling a dictatorship could be a good thing. What I don’t get is how order is supposed to re-establish itself… I mean, okay, the will of the individual citizens, but… really, how, exactly?

More thoughts on the story below, including SPOILERS.

Continue reading V for Vendetta by Alan Moore

The House of the Spirits by Isabel Allende

Reading The House of the Spirits taught me that “nacre” is a natural material related to pearl. And that I don’t actually like magical realism.

The author is a Chilean-American (born in Peru), the novel was written in Spanish, and—though the narrative never says—its setting is Chile. There are a couple of unnamed real (or real-ish) people in the narrative whom I don’t know anything about without looking them up. (“The Poet” is Pablo Neruda and “The Candidate/President” is Salvador Allende.) Wikipedia informs me that the purpose of the book was “to exorcise the ghosts of the Pinochet dictatorship,” which overthrew President Allende, a Socialist who had been elected democratically. The last name is not a coincidence; he was a cousin of author Isabel Allende’s.

The narration strangely flips between first and third person. I found the narration frustrating because the events are told in a kind of distant, rushed way. Rather than feeling involved in the story as if I was living it alongside the characters wondering what would happen next, I felt as if the events didn’t matter because they’d already happened and the narrator knows it all in more detail than I’m ever going to hear. Not every frame story causes this kind of bored impatience. This one does in part because from time to time the narration drops in facts about later events, which made the story feel even more abrupt and made it even harder to relate to the characters.

Thus, as long as the story is, it feels like a summary of a story and not a story. It feels like a movie of a book, the kind of movie that pogo-sticks through a much longer tale, picking out only the highlights. But at least in such a movie, one that switches from scene to scene with a lot missing in between, the scenes themselves are immersive.

I don’t get it. If the point of the book is to teach those who do not know how bad the dictatorship was, why tell a long, quasi-magical family story that doesn’t actually convey much history? The book seems merely to be using the coup as a dramatic climax for the story… to the extent that the book has a singular climax rather than a series of them.

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it. I bought it by mail from someone on Carousell in Singapore.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  9-Sep-16 to 23-Sep-16
Length: 491 pages
ISBN: 0552955886 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1985
Amazon link: The House of the Spirits