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 The waves of exposition have been replaced by swells of action, but the story still suffers from the struggles of a first-person narrative: we are smothered by an internal monologue.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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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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This book may not be what you expect. Odell challenges fundamental aspects of our society, and she deliberately does not use the patterns she seeks to disrupt. This book is not a tight, efficient proof of thesis. It is a meandering conversation, almost a stream of consciousness. Odell does not force her ideas upon the reader. She thinks out loud; following where history and experience lead.

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Roughly speaking, this is a history of the field of taxonomy. This is not a scientific text, but it is a text about science, and science is done by people, and people are flawed biased stubborn creatures (also clever, so very clever). It is a delight to see how this problem of classification changed and coalesced over time, and all the drama and controversy that went with it. Scientists are as dysfunctional as everyone else, perhaps more so in some regards. Yoon shows us how messy progress is.

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This review contains spoilers. For a biography. Of a man who died in 1931. You have been warned.

I don’t have a proper name for this sort of story, perhaps a sub- or sibling genre of gonzo journalism. I’m going to content myself by calling it kin to “Sita Sings the Blues”. Miller interleaves a biography of David Starr Jordan with the events of her own life while writing said biography. Miller’s half of the story recounts a low point in her life. In that time she leans into her research on Jordan, who spent a lifetime classifying fish, trying to reconstruct the tree of life (for a broader view on this part of the story, see Naming Nature by Carol Kaesuk Yoon). His dedication to this cause despite catastrophic setbacks was a source of inspiration to her. So in her darkest days, she clung to the idea of this steadfast scientist; trying to understand how he did it. And then she learns that he was implicated in a murder, supported compulsory sterilization, and was more than a little racist. This is a strong beat narratively, but comes off a bit contrived. It only takes a few minutes of research to learn about the more controversial parts of Jordan’s life. To be working on a biography of a person in such a granular way so as to know the details of their early life without knowing the first thing about their adult self seems… implausible. Also, using a surprise reveal in a biography of someone who died in 1931 is questionable.

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