Cover of Breath by James Nestor

History is a funny thing. We like to think that civilization advances, that progress only goes in one direction, but reality is more complex than that. New things are learned, discoveries are made, truths uncovered, but just because someone somewhere learns something doesn’t mean everyone everywhere hears about it or remembers it. In Breath, Nestor has done some invaluable detective work; looking closely at something we all do every minute of our lives but that few of us have thought much about. He has done some hard journalism in a world of mysticism. The result is some fascinating history, a few great anecdotes, a generous helping of compelling evidence, and new questions to go with every answer.

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Cover of The Last Graduate by Naomi Novik

While better than the first, “The Last Graduate” is still a little shaky. The waves of exposition have been replaced by swells of action, but the story still suffers from the struggles of a first-person narrative: we are smothered by an internal monologue. This leaves other characters feeling a little thin. When your main character is prickly and stand-offish, it’s hard to spend much quality time with anyone else.

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How to Raise an Adult by Julia Lythcott-Haims

It is hard to see yourself. More specifically, it is hard to see your biases in the context of the great sweep of history. It takes a concerted effort to realize your faults and failings when they are part of your identity. Books on raising children have been around a very long time and this is another one. Everyone has an opinion on what is best for a child, what they need. Lythcott-Haims has somewhat inverted this by writing about what kind of adults we are producing and working backwards to identify what we are doing wrong. This is very satisfying both logically and practically.

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Nose Dive by Harold McGee

This is a book about chemistry. Actually, one could say that it’s about chemicals and only one specific group of chemicals at that. It is essentially a catalog of chemicals that you can smell. This is exactly as exciting as it sounds. The book is, on the whole, dry and repetitive, like a reference book. And yet, between the surprisingly comprehensive and thorough lists and tables, there is a wealth of fascinating information from chemistry to biology to botany to geology to history and anthropology. By looking at the world through its smells, it is necessary to take a broad view. McGee has undertaken a monumental task with patience and thoroughness and the result is a curious but unmistakably valuable book. Where else can you find answers to all those questions you never knew you had?

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This is obviously a labor of love. A primer on quantum mechanics built on analogies to Heavy Metal. This is a flavor of popular science that I wholly support. It’s fuzzy on the details, and some of the metaphors are stretched far enough to fully outrage the sticklers, but it squarely translates the incomprehensible into the realm of everyday experience. This is, in my experience, the essence of human learning and understanding. Alas that Mr Moriarty’s insight does not extend to his writing. The book is, on the whole, forgettable and confusing.

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Parable of the Talents

I think it is fair to say that I don’t enjoy these books, but please don’t jump to conclusions; I’m a human, I’m allowed to have complex feelings about things. Writing this in early 2022, I cannot help but make the comparison to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (among other headlines). The news is bad. It is unpleasant to consume, but one must consume it or live in willful ignorance. It is comfortable to bury one’s head in the sand, but the world is dangerous, people are dangerous. Ignorance may be comfort but it is no defense.

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This is a take on the YA wizard-school genre, and it is brutal. In this world, as young wizardly people (my terminology) enter adolescence, their powers awaken, and they become attractive to horrible monsters that want to eat them, yadda-yadda. The wizard-folk who survived to become robust adults decided the best solution to this problem is to lock all the children in a magical school suspended in a magical void while they go through this transition. The school has, naturally, become infested with horrible monsters who devour a significant proportion of the students before they graduate. This is the setup, and it already begs many questions, only some of which are answered. My favorite being, “Why, exactly?”

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This is perhaps the seminal work on product design, usability, interfaces, and all sorts of things that I like to notice and (occasionally) denigrate mercilessly. I cannot use some brands of microwave oven without cursing their makers’ makers, so I was excited to finally read this book. Norman provides a framework and vocabulary for understanding design which is important and impressive considering how very much is encompassed by the notion of “Design”. The examples give a clear picture of the problem and the difficulties faced by designer and user. Unfortunately, Norman does not get much farther than that.

Beyond the framework and vocabulary, the book didn’t tell me much that I didn’t already know. There wasn’t much meat to the book, the writing was meandering and unstructured, and Norman always seemed to stop short of asking the really interesting questions. This was surprising because issues of design can generally be distilled down to questions about human behavior which is endlessly fascinating. Whenever an interesting question appeared, I found Norman’s analyses lacking in imagination. This left a small amount of useful content that, uncharitably, could have fit in one chapter which leaves a lot of book without much to say.

Overall, I found the book to be disappointing: significant perhaps but disappointing.

This is the book that could replace most every textbook used in grade school math. It brings the reader from geometry to differential calculus in an astonishingly smooth progression. Let me say that again because you weren’t paying attention: Lockhart leads you, in plain language, from the most basic concepts of line and shape, all the way to differential ever-loving calculus in a single svelte volume. And this progression is more than a series of lectures, this is a book on Mathematics: each concept leads logically to the next, each answer leads to the next question. And you, the reader, are doing the asking and answering. It feels inevitable and effortless. This is Truth without pretense. Lockhart does not waste time (his or yours) on arbitrary definitions or vocabulary. He knows that understanding a thing is more important than knowing the name of a thing.

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