I’ve been taking the time to write down words this week that I either don’t know or can’t define. Yes, these are different. To not know a word is to need to look it up; context isn’t enough. For example, “novation” was in my readings this week. It means “the substitution of a new contract in place of an old one,” by the way. Words I can’t define are much more common, and much more frustrating. These are words I hear with some frequency, or words I know I’ve looked up before, or even words I sometimes use – only in the same context I’ve heard them, of course. And yet, somehow, I don’t know them. This week, this category included “exogenous” (external), “atavism” (recurrence, reversion), and “concomitant” (naturally associated).
I find it interesting to note that the decision to record novel vocabulary has been associated with an increased level of complexity in my daily speech, as evidenced by this sentence. It’s like the big words come out of a spigot – I can turn them up or down depending on context. For example, I used “magnanimous” in conversation with my professor (yes, that professor) and “ostensibly” while speaking to a good friend in Poli Sci. But I don’t talk like that at home, and I clearly don’t write like that here. (Do I?)
Sometimes I wonder if writing down all these words (and looking them up, and attempting to incorporate them into my vocabulary) is worth it? I’ve had conversations with a friend about the fact that she gets constantly called out by her housemates for using words that are too large; we sometimes wonder where the “egotistical line” is. But there were a few words in the 59 I wrote down this week that were worth it:
- Obsequies: (not the same as obsequious) Plural of obsequy: funeral rite; usually used in plural. [Side note: I have NO IDEA why this was on my list – it came out of a political science/sociology reading, but I didn’t write down the page number, so I have been unable to find the original sentence. Regardless, the fact that funeral rites were mentioned in my reading is humorous to me.]
- Exult: rejoice [intransitive]. Not to be confused with “exalt.” (to glorify something [transitive])
- Sedulous: assiduous, diligent. Assiduous: sedulous, diligent. I’m serious. (Okay, I was judicious in paring down the definitions for these to make a point…) These words were on the same page in one of my readings; I don’t think I ever knew they were different words until that page. The connotations, however, are different. Sedulous implies constant and unwavering commitment, persistence, while assiduous can be temporary, but no less intense.
- Convolve: entwine. Not only a math term, although I did read it in a physics reading, so it probably hasn’t escaped the sciences. Yet.
- Puerile: trivial, childish. I think that someone, somewhere in my past should be despised for having described me as puerile…
In case it wasn’t already clear, I like words. I like derivations. (The linguistic ones, and the computational ones to a lesser extent.) I listen to a podcast – A Way with Words – every so often that answers questions about the history of words and phrases, which is wonderful. I discuss etymology over breakfast, psychology over dinner, and nuclear physics over lunch. I’m a weird one.
[By the way, if you or someone you know is taking the SAT sometime soon, (baby brother, I’m looking at you!) or even the LSAT, they should probably read this post. Words in bold and words in italics are probably all on those crazy-long word lists kids are supposed to memorize in order to prove they’re “smart”.]
I’m trying really hard to get a full book each week this semester and so far, that’s been working out for me. That trend might be coming to an end soon, between my new Science subscription and the end of the snow dayz… we’ll see.
Regardless, this week’s book was an interesting application of psychology focused on medical professionals (doctors, nurses, surgeons, etc.) As someone who isn’t in the medical profession, I must admit I don’t typically think about the impacts of emotion and emotion regulation on my doctors. But Dr Ofri’s book deals directly with this issue, addressing questions such as: does the stress of the medical education process positively or negatively impact doctors’ abilities to connect to and treat patients? when a doctor makes an (inevitable) mistake, how does the process let them heal alongside the patient and/or the patient’s family?
I first bought this book on a whim of sorts over Thanksgiving, and Claire – who studies psychology – borrowed it over break. She loved it so much that it quickly rose to the top of my reading list. If I’m being honest, I think she liked it a lot more than I did, probably because of the psychology aspect. I didn’t dislike What Doctors Feel – it was well written, interesting, and certainly informative. But I also didn’t love it. I’d strongly recommend it as a book for people interested in psychology, or the medical profession. It definitely taught me many things, and gave me a new insight to the real world of doctors. It also explains why I don’t like my primary care physician very much… we operate on different wavelengths.
Anyway, this book gets a “meh.” I’ve got nothing against it, but nothing about it strikes me as phenomenal. Last week’s book, on the other hand, is still burning holes through my mind.
This is the first of the books of 2015 that are not by American authors. (Don’t know what I’m talking about? Read this post’s footnote.) NoViolet Bulawayo is a young author (33) from Zimbabwe, though she attended school here in the States and was also a fellow at Stanford. She has thus far written just the one novel, We Need New Names, which I loved (as did the entire literary world, if the awards/shortlists are any indication).
In short, it is beautiful. Her style runs the gamut from verbose to terse, but never accidentally. The imagery is phenomenal, the characters are crystalline, and you can almost taste the emotions. We Need New Names follows young Darling, who grows up in Zimbabwe with her mother and her friends. Everything comes to the reader through the eyes and mind of Darling, who is just ten when the story starts. As Darling grows up, buries her father and abandons her friends for the green grasses of America, the reader grows up as well, exposed to an increasingly complex understanding of the issues at hand. Some issues, which I’m sure Bulawayo herself has had to deal with, include well-meaning American mothers asking about the issues at “home” – meaning the continent, of course. Because, just as you and I can provide testimony on the racial tensions present tonight in Ferguson or New Jersey, Darling can explain the historical basis of conflict in the Congo or Sudan. (Which are approximately 2500 and 4000 km, respectively, from Zimbabwe)
There were moments where I wanted to stop reading because it was too hard. There were moments where I wanted to stop reading because it was too beautiful. There was at least moment when I wanted to get up and dance:
After the food comes the music…old songs I remember from when I was little. … When they dance, I always stand by the door and watch because it is something to see.
They dance strange. Limbs jerk and bodies contort. They lean forward like they are planting grain, sink to the floor, rise as whips and lash the air. They huddle like cattle in a kraal, then scatter like broken bones. They gather themselves, look up, and shield their faces from the sun and beckon the rain with their hands. When it doesn’t come they shake their heads in disappointment and then get down, sinking-sinking-sinking like ships drowning.
Perhaps because I spent last semester studying African dances this meant something more to me, but I could imagine the men and women literally dancing off the page and all I wanted was to get up and join them. But other parts made me nearly cry, because of the heart-wrenching reality of the lives people around the world lead, so brilliantly described in this passage:
There are two homes inside my head: home before Paradise, and home in Paradise; home one and home two. Home one was best. … There are three homes inside Mother’s and Aunt Fostalina’s heads: home before independence, … home after independence, … and then the home of things falling apart, which made Aunt Fostalina leave and come here. Home one, home two, and home three. There are four homes inside Mother of Bones’s head: home before the white people came to steal the country, and a king ruled; home when the white people came to steal the country and then there was war; home when black people got our stolen country back after independence; and then the home of now. Home one, home two, home three, home four.
Needless to say, I enjoyed We Need New Names. Filled with humor through darkness, home to a stumbling girl trying to find her way, and written as if each moment was truly experienced by Bulawayo herself, this debut novel worms its way into your heart and then sits there. A fabulous way to kick off the 2015 reading challenge to read other nations’ authors, I would strongly recommend it to any adult looking for their next book.
I’m pretty sure I’ve read this book before. For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie, it chronicles Julie Powell’s year long journey through Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. The book isn’t some sort of literary genius, but as light-hearted fare with a bit of self-deprecation, some swearing, and many a recipe go, Julie & Julia ranks pretty darn high. There isn’t, honestly, much to say about it. Written much like a blog, the writing is casual, unstructured. I enjoyed it, and five years from now, I’ll probably end up picking it up in a moment of boredom and reading it again. It isn’t short (309 pages), but it isn’t long either.
If anything, Julie Powell’s experience – the cookbook, the blog, the book, the movie – makes me want to pick up a cookbook (let’s be honest, it would probably be the Smitten Kitchen cookbook sitting forlornly downstairs) and cook my way from front to back. Or, because you should always go with desert first, from back to front.
But the book itself doesn’t make me want to shout from the rooftops or anything. If you like cooking, this would be fun. If you’re looking for light fare that is unlikely to disappoint, this would be great. If you want a book with Meryl Streep on the cover, go to the nearest bookstore (or, at this point, library…) If you don’t fall into that category, I might suggest something from this list instead.
It’s been a while since I even thought about actually typing up a book review, mostly because I’ve been too busy reading. I just finished Winter Break, during which I read 3,300 pages (13 books) and I’ve already nearly finished another. Nonetheless, family asked over break why I’m not more consistent with my books (by family, I mean brother…) and so we’ll see what we can do.
I considered writing a bunch of reviews of books I’ve already finished, and then just publishing them one by one, but that feels like cheating to me. The whole idea of TBTW was to write about the books as I read them, and I’d like to stick to that. But I also respect the need for reviews, so here are some mini-reviews for the books I read over break. I’m officially accepting requests; I’ll write one or two TBTW’s by the end of January based on requests from you, fabulous readers, of which book(s) you’d like to know more about.
The Winter Break List:
The 17 Equations that Changed the World, Ian Stewart: This was a book I finished over break and then promptly gave to my dad for Christmas. Interesting discussion that ranges from geometry to computer science and everywhere in between. Definitely recommend for anyone who likes math/science or who is vaguely interested in how it relates to our world. You don’t need a subject background, but it helps. (I liked the chem and physics chapters significantly more that the comp sci chapters, for example.)
The Martian, Andy Weir: Unless you’re an English teacher or less than 13 years old, yes! yes! yes! Accept the initial premise that there are humans on Mars, and this instantly becomes a wonderful book with incredibly accurate science about how he survives on the red planet. Not recommended for children because of intense language.
10:04, Ben Lerner: Meh. Interesting structure – the book starts in the middle of the protagonist’s life and ends in the middle of his life and nothing much of interest happens, much like my life, your life, and pretty much anyone’s life. Two stars.
A Child’s Christmas in Wales, Dylan Thomas: Given to me by my neighbor, this is an old children’s story. It’s sweet, enjoyable, but already out of season until next December, I suppose.
The Madame Curie Complex, Julie des Jardins: I got this book when the author came to speak at Tufts; she has an incredible knowledge of the history of women in science, and that certainly shows in this book. A series of mini-biographies of women who have been essentially written out of history, it starts with an explanation of how history has blown Madame Curie into epic, and unobtainable proportions, before revealing the negative impacts of that female-scientist mythology on later scientists, including the Harvard Observatory women and Jane Goodall.
Maidenhair, Mikhail Shishkin: Hailed as the next Dostoevsky, Shishkin certainly has a tight writing style. This book, his debut, follows four unnamed characters through multiple time periods in modern European history. Throughout the last third of the novel, the beginning comes back, and it makes you want to immediately go back to page one and look for the connections. Definitely a book that requires serious analysis, but also a book that I’d probably enjoy seriously analyzing.
Countdown to Zero Day, Kim Zetter: This is the non-fictional, and yet incredibly suspenseful, account of the US government’s Stuxnet attack on Iranian nuclear facilities. Tracking both the history and the aftereffects, Zetter effectively weaves explanation, intrigue, a bit of fear, and some discovery into a well-written jaunt through the first cyber-attack (that we know of).
Devil in the White City, Erik Larson: Not a new book, but new to me, this may have been my favorite of all the books I read over break. It is set during the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and tracks both the head architect and a serial killer living next door to the fair itself. I learned all sorts of new facts. (Did you know this was where the first ever Ferris wheel was built, which was designed by Mr. Ferris, and widely considered impossibly dangerous until nobody died?) It was also suspenseful, interesting, and accurate. Definitely a book to recommend.
The Strange Library, Haruki Murakami: This book confuses me. First, it was published in Japanese something like a decade ago, and then the translation was hailed as an “explanation” of Murakami’s interwoven worlds. This is patently false, although it probably sold a lot of books. This one is short (approx. 60 pages) and filled with illustrations, which makes it feel like a children’s book. The simplicity of plot and lack of many of Murakami’s common features (including a distinct lack of sex) also supports that assertion. It was good, though.
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami: This is the most recent of Murakami’s works, and you can tell – his language remains mature and in line with his other later works. Nonetheless, the plot seems simple and the language loose, as if a publisher was forcing the author himself or perhaps the translator to bring the book to market quickly, probably in time for the holiday season. A good book, but not his best.
The Rosie Project, Graeme Simsion: One of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time, and a great way to start off my 2015, but also surprisingly potent, a bit emotional, and probably a good book for anyone to read. A professor with Asperger’s sets out to find a wife, and discovers Rosie. This novel chronicles his ups and downs, his challenges, and his ability to conform to society. I’d definitely recommend this one.
The Power of Noticing, Max Bazerman: Boring! Unless you enjoy reading pretentious Harvard professors telling you the same thing over and over again for a couple hundred pages, this is probably not the book for you. Here, I’ll give you the gist: Question everything, especially your own assumptions, and always assume you don’t have all the information you need. Then question that. There, have a good day!
Fever, Mary Beth Keane: For anyone who read and liked The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, this is a good book. The story of Typhoid Mary, it is historical fiction (not journalistic history) told very well. Perhaps, between this book and Devil in the White City, I’m starting to fall for the historical fiction genre. Once again, I learned a lot about Mary that I didn’t know before, and I have a slightly different view not of her, but of the NYC police that failed to deal with her amicably. Recommend.
It’s been a very (very!) long time since I wrote anything here. If it is any indication of what I’ve been doing, I’ve seriously considered writing TBTW posts multiple times this semester about my textbooks. My textbooks! I could write reviews of McQuarrie’s Physical Chemistry textbook or the Williams version of Nuclear Physics. Or… I could not. I chose not, and the result was a lack of TBTW posts. And the incredible quantities of work that make me want to run away from my computer screen screaming means that not a single post has been written this semester. Not that I haven’t been having fun and doing things worth writing about. Maybe I’ll be better next semester.
But I’ve been working all semester to read a few pages of one book or another every night, and I’ve finally had the opportunity over Thanksgiving to finally finish one. Often, for me, the amount of time I take to read a book is inversely proportional to how interesting I find it. But this isn’t the case for this book. The End of Night is a truly fascinating book which put into words my constant frustration with the lack of stars. I love the stars, as I believe I’ve mentioned. I stare up at them in San Mateo whenever I get out of my car at home. I stare up at them in Somerville whenever I walk home after dark. Sometimes, I even lay out in the street (the almost-never driven on ones, I promise!) to stare up at the stars the clouds let me see. Every time, I am frustrated by the lack of stars I can actually see.
So is Paul Bogard. He was so frustrated by it that he decided to research the locations in the world where he could see – really, truly see – the stars. The places we can travel to where we can see the Milky Way Galaxy the way our ancestors did. The empty spaces where the starlight is enough to travel by, where moonlight is enough to read by, and where electric light is totally and entirely unnecessary. He collected his stories of travel into a non-fiction book filled with facts about light and light pollution, with suggestions of places to travel, with ideas of what we can do to keep the night sky shining and flickering for our children and their children and all the generations after that.
I’ve always found the winter sky more star-filled than the summer sky, perhaps because the world is dark earlier, so more stars have a chance to come out when we’re still awake. And with winter also comes the opportunities to cuddle up with a blanket, a cup of hot chocolate, and a book. I’d recommend Paul Bogard’s The End of Night for anyone on your gift list with an interest in science, but also for anyone who likes the stars.
Oh, and for those of us in the West, Bogard says the best spot to see the stars in the continental US is either Great Basin National Park or Natural Bridges National Monument.