Posts from the ‘Book reviews’ Category

Book Review: The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins

As I mentioned in the prologue to my first book review, I haven’t been in the habit of reading as much as I used to when I was a kid. One of my problems is being unwilling to sit down with a book and engage both mind and body in one physically inert activity. While I’m beginning to reverse my thinking and re-accept this posture of repose (given I move around enough at other times, of course), I have also found another alternative to enjoying a book without having to sit down with one.

Audiobooks are a wonderful when you need your body to be engaged with a task but your mind is wide open. Since DH and I make a couple of long car trips to visit family every year, audiobooks have been absolutely awesome to keep us interested and awake across long, boring stretches of road while allowing us to catch up on some titles we wanted to read or to explore some new authors. Since DH was gone for a week recently, I knew my mind would be unengaged at home while lacking another human to interact with; I also knew there were some mindless tasks (i.e. cleaning) that I needed to get done. So instead of sitting around on the couch watching Netflix or playing on the computer, I decided that an audiobook would be a great way to keep me moving while engaging my brain. So took the opportunity to “read” a book that’s been vaguely on my radar for a while–The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I was actually able to listen to the entire trilogy–The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay–back to back.

Obviously, there’s been a huge hype about these books since the movie came out this spring. I had only vaguely heard of them before then, but since their meteoric rise in popularity this year I did gather that it was a young adult series based in a future where kids are made to fight to the death by an oppressive regime. Otherwise, I hadn’t seen the movie and didn’t know much else about the premise going in. I’m going to assume most of you know at least the basic storyline and won’t try to summarize the whole series here.

My overall impression is that the series is indeed well-written, engaging, and entertaining. I did have to remember that it is young adult fiction, not adult fiction, though one could argue that the lines between the two are getting a bit fuzzy these days (Twilight, anyone?). However, while the writing level wasn’t watered down and the subject matter was pretty intense, the whole tenor of the book was maybe one notch down from, say, a full-blown, complex adult novel. While this is not a fantasy book, it did remind me of some of the fantasy books I occasionally read, at least in scope. And while I might complain about how dark of a book it is to market to teens, I do have to remember that I was reading stuff like Les Miserables (unabridged, mind you) and Lord of the Rings when I was in junior high. And I turned out fine, right?

So yes, it was overall engaging, entertaining, and thought-provoking. However, there were a few things that I didn’t personally favor. First of all, I’m not really a fan of love triangles. That’s just personal preference, not a comment on the book or anything. However, I wasn’t really impressed with how Katniss handled the situation over the course of the books. Now, I do realize that, despite her adult hardships, she’s still a teenage girl and understandably confused about life and love. I also realize that probably no woman handles a love triangle very well, either. Just saying. But it just didn’t really appeal to me.

Aside from her handling of the love triangle, there were parts of Katniss that just annoyed me in general. Again, she’s a teenage girl in an extremely difficult and compromising situation, so she has a lot to deal with as she matures, and it did seem like the whole series was an account of how she realized her shortcomings and eventually grew into a better person having dealt with them. But really I often got irritated by her self-centereness and immaturity.

However, it did occur to me one reason I might have been unknowlingly prejudiced against her. At one point I realized that the narrator of the book had a somewhat high voice. Now, she did a fantastic job performing the book, but the more soprano pitch of her voice didn’t quite seem to fit with the hardscrabble Katniss I imagined. Therefore, at times, like when she was pretending to be a love-sick maiden, her voice tended to exaggerate the ruse and made Katniss seem a little bubble-headed. This is an artifact of the audiobook that wouldn’t have occurred while reading it off the page, but I wonder if that really did influence my view of the heroine.

Also, the ending seemed just a little bit anticlimactic. There was a huge build-up to storming the President’s mansion, and then all of a sudden it was months later and the rebellion had been resolved without Katniss. Now, what happened was significant, I won’t downplay that, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. Likewise, her breakdown while being locked up seemed a bit over the top. Maybe I was hoping for a happier ending, but I guess it was really about as happy as it could have been, given the circumstances of what she and all the Districts went through.

I also found it interesting that the entire series was written in the first person present tense. Usually a character is reflecting back on what happened, but Katniss speaks about events as they are happening. Not to get too literary, but I wondered if that was a deliberate way of showing how, with death always imminent, Katniss must live in the present, or possibly to not take for granted that she actually lived past The Hunger Games to tell about it from the other side.

My rating: 3.5/5. Plenty entertaining and thought-provoking, though lacking a bit of that je ne sais quoi element from books actually written for an adults. If you are letting your kids read it, maybe it’s a great opportunity to discuss some difficult subjects with them. Now I will probably see the movies, but maybe later after I’ve thoroughly forgotten the books. 😉

Book Review: “Proofiness” by Charles Seife

I used to devour books when I was younger. I literally read all the time–in the car, under the covers, in restaurants (to my parents’ chagrin). However, as I’ve gotten older and found other pursuits (or they have found me), I find it increasingly difficult to stop and physically sit down and hold a book. As the consummate multitasker, having both my body and mind engaged with just one activity seems so inefficient! However, I’m slowly starting to re-appreciate taking the time to be still and engage my brain, especially now that I’m on the other side of my thesis. I’ve been reading a bit more lately and thought it might be fun to share some reviews of books I find particularly interesting.

The first book I wanted to share is called Proofiness: The Dark Arts of Mathematical Deception by Charles Seife. You might also find the same text under the alternative, slightly less maniacal paperback subtitle Proofiness: How you’re being fooled by the numbers. This was recommended to me by a friend and fellow fan of books about math, so I had DH check it out for me from the library.

The book is about how we generally trust numbers as being fundamentally pure and truthful; however, malevolent people with agendas can purposefully twist–or even just flat make up–numbers in order to manipulate our beliefs to their own ends. This is “proofiness.” This might be done in order to promote a social or political agenda, to scare people, or to make oneself rich. Only if we educate ourselves on how numbers might be misused can we learn to be smart and cautious before swallowing a phony statistic or number given to us.

There are a few basic forms of proofiness. One basic technique is using Potemkin numbers. Grigory Potemkin, a Russian politician in the late 1700s, allegedly built fake towns on the banks of the Dnieper River in Crimea to fool Empress Catharine II into thinking the area was thriving as she toured the area by boat when in fact it was desolate and depressed. Whether this story is true or not, a Potemkin now stands to represent some complete falsehood that is constructed to fool the observer; therefore, a Potemkin number is one that it totally made up to mislead someone. Another approach is presenting numbers in that of presenting not-so appealing numbers in such a way that they become much more palatable. This is called fruit polishing. A couple of examples of this are cherry-picking, where you only pick the one or two numbers that suit you and ignore the more inconvenient and less appealing results, or comparing apples to oranges, where two things not at all alike are compared.

Of the numerous situations in which various forms of proofiness have significant implications, Seife devotes quite a bit of time to the consequences of proofines in polling, elections, and vote counting. He details the fiascos in 2000 presidential election in Florida and the 2008 senate race in Minnesota and explains how proofiness was used to make these much more difficult situations than really needed. While his assessment of “one person, one vote” is somewhat depressing, I still don’t feel dissuaded from my civic duty. 🙂

Also, as a scientist I can definitely relate to the presentation of numbers. My job is to carefully measure something and present it to be as close to the actual truth as can be measured. Seife talks in detail about the numbers that we can trust, actual measurements that are as close true as uncertainty in measurement allows. As a metrologist whose job is to measure things to seventeen digits, I definitely appreciated this section of the book!  However, every scientist understands that when presenting data, whether or not you mean to, it’s almost impossible to present it in the most unbiased, open-handed way possible. Even your best intentions for how to plot something, how to scale axes, what to include and what not to include injects some inherent bias. While my measurements don’t always come out the way I want, I ultimately feel obligated to present the reality of my results. However, I do admit that “fruit polishing” does happen, whether intended or not. Some scientists or researchers may do this with full knowledge and purposefully, but I have to say that at least my personal experience says it is largely not so malevolent as made out in the worst cases in the book. Plus, having faced these issues myself, I am able to spot and identify these forms of proofiness a little more readily.

Both sides of the aisle are guilty of using proofiness for their own devices, and while he chastises both parties, I feel that I can kind of tell which side he feels is the most egregious culprit of the deed. Nevertheless, Seif presents this unappreciated topic in an interesting manner. Much of what he explains is stuff you probably have sensed from time to time but haven’t ever quite articulated before. Once you are informed and paying attention, you’ll be able to spot proofiness everywhere!

My rating: 3.5/5 stars. While it is technically about math, I can recommend this book as an interesting read for a general audience, particularly those who keep up with and are interested in current affairs. 🙂