Thursday, April 28, 2011


by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner
narrated by Stephen Dubner
[New York, N.Y.] : Harper Audio, 2005.

Steven Levitt doesn't study what you'd expect for an economist. He takes economic principles like incentive and regression analysis and applies them to every day life with questions like, "How can you show that teachers are cheating on their classroom's standardized tests?" and "What contributed to the drop in crime in the 1990s?"

The answers to these and other questions are often surprising and always interesting. Because each chapter focuses on a different topic, nothing is explored in depth. This made it a perfect audiobook for my commute, because I didn't get lost in detailed explanations. Levitt and Dubner explain their analysis clearly and use a lot of anecdotes or analogies to get their points across, rather than a detailed statistical breakdown. This is also the book's greatest weakness, however; because no one subject is explored in great depth, I'm left with more questions than before, and am not satisfied but the general treatment received here on subjects like parenting and baby names. The audiobook is well read by Dubner himself, but I am going to take a look at the print version as well for a few details not included in the audio: a chart in the chapter on cheating, and the lists of baby names with all their variant spellings (sometimes the names were spelled out, but more often "another spelling of --" served). I became mildly annoyed by the chapter intros quoting from Dubner's previously published profile of Levitt and the repetition of the different between correlation and causation, but these were minor irritants in an overall enjoyable book.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Better Left in Memory?

I've started rereading a Series That Shall Remain Nameless so that I can (finally) get caught up with the newest book, a title I've been meaning to read for a couple of years now.

Turns out, I liked this series a lot better when I read it the first time.

I'm not sure what it is. Maybe it's the fact that I knew what to expect, and none of the events in the plot were all that surprising to me. Maybe it's the way in which everything unbelievably works out and no one gets hurt, except for the really really bad guy who we know is really really diabolical particular reason really, except that he's bad.

Or maybe it's just my expectations. You know those books that you read - as a kid, as a less mature reader, at a different time of life, or even just a few years ago - and have this memory of absolutely loving every minute of them? It's really hard for a book to live up to those memories.

Despite the fact that, in this case with this series, I'm ruing my decision to reread, I still think rereading should make up a small amount of my reading time. Essentially, I reread on the off-chance that a book that spoke to me once will continue to speak to me, and even become an all-time favorite.

There are comfort reads like The Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Narnia, and Pride and Prejudice, all books that I have read so many times that I can't rate them as anything other than comfort reads and all time favorites. They've become such a part of my mental makeup that reading them is as much a memory of where I've been when I've read them before as it is a rediscovery of plot details and characters that I love to spend time with. There are others like Crime and Punishment that so challenged me in one read that I know I will want to revisit it again in the future. Then there are my humorous and pick-me-up reads, The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde and Howl's Moving Castle to name a few. They're bound to put a smile on my face, a guaranteed already-know-I-love-it story when I'm in a bad reading mood.

So despite the odd book that turns out not to be as good as I remembered it, I'll still reread because I never know when I might be surprised by a new favorite story.

Sunday, April 24, 2011


by Scott Westerfeld
New York : Simon Pulse, 2009.

In an alternate 1914 several European nations, such as Germany, are primed for a fight. In this case, the dividing line is between the Clankers (those who build mechanikal marvels) and Darwinists (those who have used Darwin's findings of evolution and DNA to create new life forms). The story moves between the points of view of Alek, the fourteen-year-old son of the archduke of Serbia, and Deryn, a girl who masquerades as a boy to get a job on a flying "beastie."

I really enjoy teen fiction, and my recent discovery of steampunk led me to add this title to my reading list. I loved the blend of historical fact and inventive world-building. The detail with which Westerfeld creates his alternate history lends credibility to his story. I thought the book had more potential than it truly lives up to, however. I never really felt connected to the characters - despite the points of view changes, I never had a sense of why Alek or Deryn behave the way they do, or why they make the decisions they do. There is neither character growth or change, just their decisions and the consequences. Still, I am intrigued enough - and annoyed enough by a tricksy cliffhanger - to seek out the sequel.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

The Eyre Affair

by Jasper Fforde
New York : Viking, 2002.

SpecOps operative Thursday Next is a Literatec. This generally means determining if a manuscript is a forgery or hoax, though there is the occasional run-in with a Baconian bent on proving that Shakespeare did not pen those plays he is famous for. Then, Thursday is approached by some folks from Spec-Ops 5. They want her help chasing Acheron Hades, evil criminal mastermind who has stolen the manuscript to Martin Chuzzlewit, and not out of any love for literature.

If you can put up with the ridiculousness of setting (alternate 1985 where Spec-Ops include branches in Literature, Art Theft, Vampire and Werewolf Disposal, and Chrono-Guard) for about the first sixty pages, and don't mind a strange mix of humor, science fiction, time travel and capital-L Literature, you may find that you really like this book. No, really. Give it sixty pages. If you haven't become interested despite yourself and find yourself looking for the next brief in-joke that you get because yes, I did read that book!, then this is probably not the series for you. But if you find yourself flipping pages fast, reading quickly, and chuckling at the references to high-brow and not-so-high-brow books, jokes, and well, just about everything, you may find yourself a new series to get immersed in.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Trancendental Wild Oats

by Louisa May Alcott
Boston, Mass. : The Harvard Common Press, 1975.

When Louisa May Alcott was ten years old, her father and other transcendental visionaries experimented with living off the land in a community called Fruitlands. They would not use any animal products in diet, farming, or clothing. They would work at what jobs pleased them and spend their leisure time in activities such as reading or discussing philosophical questions.

In Transcendental Wild Oats, Louisa May Alcott fictionalizes her family's experience attempting just that. This very short story is subtitled "A Chapter from an Unwritten Romance." I do not know enough about Fruitlands to determine how realistic some of the situations are, but her descriptions sometimes made me laugh as Louisa shows how the principles may have been well and good, but in practice their experiment went awry. This volume also includes an excerpt from Louisa's childhood diary and two letters that Fruitlands founders Bronson Alcott and Charles Lane wrote.

Perhaps this was not a good book to read as my introduction to Bronson Alcott and Fruitlands. My particular copy has an introduction by William Henry Harrison, who apparently worked in the Fruitlands museum in the 1970s. Harrison's introduction is broad and gives a brief biography of Charles Lane and Bronson Alcott, the founders of Fruitlands, but I didn't truly feel like I had a grasp on what their intentions for Fruitlands was. This makes reading a satire of the attempt a little bit difficult to "get." But the story piqued my interest in reading a biography of Louisa May Alcott that gives me more information on this experiment. Here is my short list of Alcott-related books I now want to read:

Funny how reading one book can add to my TBR list...

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Underneath

by Kathi Appelt
New York : Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2008.

Several stories strand together in this poetic tale. An abandoned, pregnant cat takes refuge with a lonely hound. A drunk called Gar Face - the owner of the hound - goes hunting daily and becomes obsessed with a huge alligator. A snake trapped in a jar under an old pine tree bides her time waiting for... what?

I started listening to this on audio, and while I liked the reader, I soon realized that the tone of the story was too contemplative for me to listen well and pay attention. Yet the story is meant to be read aloud. The sound of the words and phrases and sentences (and sentence fragments) beg for listening. It's the sort of book that a child might have to be begged to read, but a good reader could have them sitting spell-bound as the various story lines are revealed and eventually come together in a taut climax.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Court Duel

by Sherwood Smith
San Diego : Harcourt Brace, c1998.

*Spoiler warning* for the first book in the duet, Crown Duel.

After returning to Tlanth without a word to her brother or the Marquis of Shevraeth, Countess Meliara has been busy rebuilding her home and educating herself on the history and politics of Remalna. When her brother arrives with unexpected guests, Meliara embarks on her toughest assignment yet: learning the ways and intricacies of the Court.

In some ways, I liked this better than the first book. I like Vidranic, the Marquis of Shevraeth, better than I like Mel (this was true in the first book, too), so I chafe sometimes that she is the narrator. While she makes mistakes and learns from them, I as the reader have figured some issues out ahead of her and become a little impatient with her to put the pieces together. The characters and Mel's narration still sound like a thesaurus on occasion, but this was less distracting to me this time, perhaps because I was expecting it. A solid fantasy story that I'd recommend primarily to middle schoolers.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Crown Duel

by Sherwood Smith
San Diego : Harcourt Brace & Co., c1997.

What would you do if your people had been taxed to the limit and the current king was planning on breaking a contract that would turn allies against you? Meliara and her brother go to war after the death of their father, the Count, but are surprised when no one will ally with them against the crooked king. They stand alone against the king's armies, knowing they're merely a thorn in his side and their people could be wiped out at any time.

Mel's brother calls her quick-witted, quick tempered, and quick to judge, a characterization that she bears out in her actions and tendencies to jump to conclusions throughout the story. I came to different conclusions from her fairly early on, but seeing her character have to grapple with changing opinions was still worthwhile. The narrative sometimes reads with the stilt of someone using a thesaurus one too many times, but I read quickly enough to ignore this for the most part. The story ends satisfactorily while still leaving possibilities open for the sequel. Despite its focus on battles and political intrigue, there is very little on-scene violence, and I would easily recommend this to younger fantasy readers as well as high school students closer in age to Mel herself.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Dave at Night

by Gail Carson Levine
narrated by Jason Harris
New York : Random House/Listening Library, p2007.

When Dave's father dies, his stepmother Ida ties to give Dave and his brother, Gideon, to relatives at the funeral. Gideon goes to Chicago with an uncle, but since no one is willing to take Dave, Ida brings him to the Hebrew Home for Boys. Dave's adventures at the HHB (and other creative, not-so-flattering terms that HHB would also stand for) include making friends with the other elevens, dealing with bullies, and night-time escapades to salon parties during the Harlem Renaissance.

This rich historical fiction was an absolute joy to listen to. Jason Harris brings a variety of characters to life, including our narrator, Dave, a young black girl, and an older man whose speech is peppered with Yiddish phrases. The historical aspect is detailed without feeling forced, and includes descriptions of music and art of the time period. I appreciated the afterword in which Gail Carson Levine explains what was true, based on the truth, or made up. Equally recommended to children and adults, and believe me, I will be!