Books in Review, November 2016

It’s November. You know what that means? Overly enthusiastic statistics on my reading habits are just ONE MONTH AWAY! This year featuring the inaugural year-on-year reading report! (And my sample sizes are large enough that my statistics will be reasonable!)

I’m also pleased to report a monthly milestone: in November, I passed my 2015 page total. (Yes, this despite being the embodiment of October’s Beaker Panic gif this month.) I can largely blame this on my general exam eating up a lot of my pleasure reading time last year and reassigning it to academic reading, and credit this with finishing several sizable volumes in 2016 that I actually started in 2015.

(Updated in 2020 to reflect my refined genre classifications.)

To Hold the Bridge and Other Stories, Garth Nix

You may recall that last month I gushed over Goldenhand, the latest installment in the long-dormant Old Kingdom series. I had also ordered this short story collection at the same time, which included a tie-in novella and a bunch of other stories. I know it’s a shameless marketing ploy to get me to buy an entire short story collection, but guys, tie-in novellas are my new favorite thing so I have no shame whatsoever. This collection has been out for a while, but the tie-in story is actually strongly related to the events of Goldenhand, so it worked out rather nicely for me that I’d completely missed its existence before now. The series as a whole is a must-read for all ages over about 10.

Nix’s writing is just so delightful – it definitely falls into the (unfairly denigrated) YA camp, but it holds up so thoroughly as an adult that if his characters weren’t overwhelmingly young (at their introductions at least, Sabriel is definitely an adult by the time Goldenhand rolls around) you’d never know. I first read his work after college, despite it being recommended to me starting at age 12 or so, and it’s at least as good as most of the “books for grown-ups” that I read.

Oh yeah, and the rest of the stories were great too… (especially the pseudo-Amish vampire war!)

Traditional genre: fantasy. Setting: fantasy. Story genre: various. Format: short stories. Rating: 3/3

Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

I wrote this big long ode to this book, and then my browser crashed and ate it. Argh! I will attempt to recreate as much as possible.

Data is not evil. Data is just data. But algorithms, just poorly designed or outright malicious, can be. And this is no idle pondering – bad algorithms, which the author calls weapons of math destruction, are everywhere. They control what colleges students hear about, whether you get a loan and on what terms, whether your arrest leads to a warning or the maximum allowable sentence, everything. To a degree, you are your data, and your data is out there – your credit score, your search history, your allergies, the crap you clicked on on amazon and did or didn’t buy. Data brokers aggregate your behavior on various websites and can link the pieces your identity to a disturbingly accurate degree. Your facebook click profile can be used to direct the advertising and pricing you see on other websites, or your credit score can modify your job prospects because of your supposed dependability. And of course, when their linking procedures err – as they inevitably do – untangling the mess is expensive and time-consuming at best. And literally life-threatening at worst. You should fear what’s happening to your data identity. And thanks to this book, you don’t have to have a math degree to understand why.

This is currently the frontrunner for nonfiction of the year, and if you don’t trust my recommendations, why are you still here?

Subject: math, sociology. Format: nonfiction. Rating 3/3

Habibi, Craig Thompson

Last year for Book Exchange (see the end of this post for more explanation) I requested graphic novels, hoping to increase my familiarity with this increasingly popular format. The last one to trickle to the top of my reading stack was this gorgeous doorstopper. What really sells a graphic novel is not its story, but its art – it is a *graphic* novel for a reason. I cannot think of another contender that comes even close to how beautiful the art of this book is. The style mimicks the golden age of Islamic art (~8th-13th cent.) to tell a kind-of-modern era-unclear story about two young people’s lives and struggles to survive and find happiness. Come for the art, stay for the feels.

Traditional genre: for those who insist graphic novel is a genre, that. For the rest of us, literary fiction. Setting: magical realism. Story genre: quest, relationship, commentary. Format: graphic novel. Rating: 3/3

Persuasion, Jane Austen

This was my second Jane Austen Adventure (the first being EVERYONE’s first Jane Austen Adventure, Pride and Prejudice) and I have never read or seen a romcom like it. Anne is serious and intellectually inclined, despite those not being favored traits in her family, but never views herself as superior or “different from other girls” (meaning better than other girls) – only very straightforwardly different, and trying but struggling to relate to them. Anne’s love interest, Captain Wentworth, has all the development of a cardboard cutout of [romcom actor of your choice] with a sign around his neck literally bullet-point listing his positive traits. He’s in like, maybe a fifth of the entire book and we just kind of have to take it on faith that Anne’s got good taste (and oh I do, girl’s got her head on straight). The sister named Mary is, as in all Jane Austen books, useless (with half-credit to Marianne Dashwood, who is not quite as useless as the Marys by the end). I would not necessarily recommend this for first-time Austen readers unless they were already fans of and familiar with the literature of this era (and if they are, they’ve read Jane Austen by now) because the plot is pretty slow-moving and introspective, on top of getting used to the distinctive style of the period, but once ready it’s not to be missed.

Traditional genre: literary fiction, or classics, but if it came out today, would be classed as romance. Setting: realism. Story genre: relationship, commentary. Format: novel. Rating: 3/3

The Custom of the Army, Diana Gabaldon

John Grey continues to be my favorite on account of just being so done with everybody. If you’re not already privy to my serious fandom of Outlander, please become so, as I have little else to say that doesn’t blow the ongoing story wide open.

Traditional genre: literary fiction. Setting: historical fiction (unlike the main series, no fantasy elements). Story genre: adventure, character study. Format: novella. Rating: 3/3

Book Exchange

I mentioned Book Exchange under Habibi: it’s an annual tradition among my friends from high school where we each pick out one book for each other participant that we think they specifically would enjoy. This tradition is one of the best gifting experiences I have ever had the pleasure to participate in. We also always go around and make each other guess who gave us what, and it never goes well, but then we explain why we gave what we did, and it’s always so perfectly personalized and deep and it really makes a marvelous reading experience for that book.

In order to make the task of selecting a little less daunting and make sure we end up with what we’re actually looking for, we also started taking requests – last year, I asked for graphic novels (and got Habibi, among others). This year, I asked for short stories or essay collections. Expect reviews in the coming months for story collections The Art of the Story and Guys and Dolls and essay collections Periodic Tales and Scientific Feuds. I already know what I’m asking for next year – alternate histories!

Currently reading: The Girl with All the Gifts, Scientific Feuds, Frankenstein, The Checklist Manifesto