Monthly book roundup – 2017 March

Books finished in March:
(Warning: reviews are unpolished and quickly written.)

Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016) by J. D. Vance. Growing up a poor hillbilly in the US. Vance is able to hold the views of both individual responsibility and lack of opportunities in his head at the same time, which makes for a thoughtful and intelligent book. Vance made it despite difficult circumstances, but considers that to be the case mostly due to two caring grandparents, in particular the grandma, and several other strokes of luck along the way, which contributed to him making some good choices. Recommended.

Moonwalking with Einstein (2011) by Joshua Foer. A history of memorization and a how-to book (though for a better introduction to the techniques, I recommend Oddbjørn By’s book Memo, in Norwegian or English) through the journalist Joshua Foer’s adventures in “mental athleticism”. Draws the long historical lines of how culture used to depend only on internal memory – in people’s minds, whereas today so much relies on external memory, in the form of books, etc. People forgot that after books became commonplace, to the extent that the theory that Homer’s Iliad and Odysseus had the form that they did (repetitions, rhymes, etc.) because they had survived long as oral works was groundbreaking. Today it is people with memorization as a hobby who keeps that flame, calling themselves “mental athletes.” I knew the basic of the person-action-object method, which is used to memorize numbers, but I learned something new about memorizing text: meaning vs. words. In real life meaning is most important and suffices, but in memory competitions exact wording and punctuation, etc. are essential, so competitors assign each word to a route and have systems of fixed associations for common, hard-to-visualize words, and use similar-sounding words for not so common ones. The book also contains an exposé of celebrity savant Daniel Tammet, who seems to have been a quite good mental athlete with standard techniques, but who at some point switched careers (and name) to become a best-selling author and exotic savant who among other things (inconsistently) feels numbers’ color, shape, etc. Recommended.

The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) by Ursula K. Le Guin. Science fiction novel exploring the relationship between men and women and its impact on society through the plot of a man from Earth visiting a planet where people are androgynous. More exciting than it sounds. Recommended.

Too Like the Lightning: Terra Ignota, Book 1 (2016) and Seven Surrenders (2017) by Ada Palmer. Reading these was occasioned by the CrookedTimber book event on them. One of the participants there describe them as weird. I agree. The novels are set in the year 2454, but refer mainly to ideas and writers from the (18th century) Enlightenment, and are also written in an archaic style. The plot contains implausibilities such as a tiny group of strange and sophisticated leaders largely controlling the world and religious elements. Perhaps these are just part of getting various ideas across, which seems like the goal of the novels, but readers like me are somewhat put off. The books are getting rave reviews, e.g. in the aforementioned book event, but do noe appeal strongly to me. Probably recommended for some, but I do not know who.

Ratings and previous books are in the library.


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