What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20 by Tina Seelig

What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20: A Crash Course on Making Your Place in the World tells you to follow your passion from Stanford or wherever into a career where you will work hard, work smart, think different, connect, innovate, and disrupt while proactively overcoming internal and external obstacles to your creativity and cheerfully treating each failure as a step towards success.

It’s every graduation-day, carpe-diem, Silicon Valley start-up cliche ever, and more cherry-picked inspiring anecdotes than two decades of Sunday sermons.

Change the world or go home! Heaven help you if you’re an introvert, or cautious and meticulous rather than bold and decisive, or if you have the slightest fondness for rules, hierarchies, or specific, well-defined goals. You’ll have to buy someone else’s crash course on making (or just finding) your place in the world. Like maybe Susan Cain’s.

Speaking of rules… Tina Seelig’s title breaks one. It should say “What I Wish I Had Known When I Was 20″. I thought maybe the error was the result of a decision made by the publisher for the sake of brevity; many people probably wouldn’t notice the error, but might be turned off by the clunkiness of a past perfect verb. However, the author (a Stanford University professor) uses the same phrasing at least twice in the acknowledgments, so I have to assume the wording is hers.

I can accept that the author’s specialty isn’t the nit-picky details of writing but some big-picture entrepreneurial stuff. Still, the publisher should have had a sensible copyeditor involved somewhere along the way. I’d like to think any copyeditor would have noticed. A good copyeditor would also have fixed the handful of typos I noticed. It’s a really short book. There shouldn’t be any.

Ah, well. Clearly I’m missing the point.

When and Why I Read What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20

… how to use past perfect verbs.

Genre: non-fiction (self-improvement, entrepreneurship)
Date started / date finished:  29-Jun-17 to 30-Jun-17
Length: 190 pages
ISBN: 9780032047410
Originally published in: 2009
Amazon link: What I Wish I Knew When I Was 20

Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Reading Magic promotes the idea of teaching literacy from the top down rather than from the bottom up. The author believes parents and teachers should start with stories, then sentences, then words, then letters; that children who can sound out words in a book but who don’t understand them aren’t reading, but that children who tell a story using the pictures on the pages to make their own meaning are.

Although I don’t think Mem Fox is all wrong, I think she’s misguided.

I definitely believe parents should read to their children, and that amazing, wonderful, terrific things can and do happen when reading is part of the family routine. “Read to your kids” is a message that deserves to be shouted from the mountaintops, and to be listened to and enacted.

However, while it may be the case that literate, supportive families can immerse children in books to such an extent that some bookwardly inclined children learn to read effortlessly and joyfully—accidentally, even!—at age 3 or 4, that is not a helpful one-size-fits-all solution to the general problem of literacy instruction, and in particular, encouraging children to interact happily with texts until they get the hang of reading is not a practical strategy that teachers can implement in their classrooms. Teachers really are better off with “letter A makes a as in ‘apple’, letter T makes t as in ‘table’, and when you put A and T together, you get ‘at’.”

The tone of the book is self-congratulatory and anecdotal; there’s no science or statistics here, so I don’t feel there’s much reason I should believe what Mem Fox has to say, even if it sounded intuitively correct, which it doesn’t; in fact it contradicts my experience as a reading teacher.

For more on what I liked and disliked about the book and why, see below.

Continue reading Reading Magic by Mem Fox

Genome by Matt Ridley

Previously, I read Matt Ridley’s book The Rational Optimist. This book, Genome, is no less sanguine about science, humans, and the future. Fascinating stuff, even if the completion of the mapping of the human genome is old news now. The scientific mysteries of 1999 are by no means all solved.

See below for what stood out and a list of related books as well as when and why I read this one.

Continue reading Genome by Matt Ridley

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.

Update: I have now been to Australia and seen a ute. Behold!

That is NOT a pickup truck. Also, it is NOT a car.

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