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Archive for December, 2016

Another year has gone by with another list of books to review. This tradition started two years ago with the post called My Bookshelf — Year 2014 Reflections. Here are the books that I’ve read in 2016 and my thoughts on them shortly after I’ve read them.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell
Another thought-provoking book by Malcolm Gladwell. He shows that in many cases conventional wisdom isn’t actually wise and that what normally thought of as advantages may actually, in some cases, be disadvantages, and vice versa. The David and Goliath story got me thinking about my own life in 2016. How can I find the advantages in what many, including me, might see as disadvantages in my life? Still thinking about that.

The other stories had me enthralled. The last story about the Vietnam War had me shaking my head in disbelief, but also wondering if there are parallels in our government’s war on terror.

Cat in a Topaz Tango by Carole Nelson Douglas
Another enjoyable Midnight Louis read. The target of the killer and his motives came as a surprise to me. I’m glad Max is getting wisps of memories back. And, I enjoyed the tidbits of info at the end. I liked that Midnight Louis had a part in solving the crime and catching the criminal and in helping to keep Matt safe from deadly harm. To me, Midnight Louis seemed more people-like in this book than in the previous ones for some reason I can’t explain. I also liked his new love interest Topaz.

Cat in an Ultramarine Scheme by Carole Nelson Douglas
I’m continuing with the Midnight Louis series so that I can catch up before the next (and I believe last) book comes out this summer. This book was difficult to follow, with several pieces in the story seemingly linked in some way, but nothing explicitly explained yet. I’m hoping things will get clearer in subsequent books. The murder in this book was solved quite abruptly, which I didn’t much care for. There was a surprise in the next “chapter” in the IRA storyline and a surprise ending to the book that will create complications for Temple in upcoming books.

Cat in a Vegas Gold Vendetta by Carole Nelson Douglas
I think this book will be one of my favorites in the series. Max is back but his memory is still hazy. Temple had her first case as a PI. Matt, Max, and Temple working together to piece together the new information about Kitty the Cutter and the Synth. This book was another in the series that I couldn’t put down. In the end, the two cases were tied together in an interesting way. I’m looking forward to reading the next in the series.

Rediscover Jesus by Matthew Kelly
I bought this book as part of the Best Lent Ever series by Dynamic Catholic. Although not required reading, it helped to expand on the daily video reflections with mini-readings (from the book) that I got in my email each day of Lent. This book is quite rich in information. Not all of the reflections struck a cord with me, but many did. I’d recommend it to anyone who wants a more in-depth study of Catholicism from a personal perspective — How can I become the person God wants me to be? I’ll probably go back and re-read some of the chapters and reflect some more. I’m not the type of person who can reflect on a topic for just a few minutes or even an hour and leave it at that. And, the topics are something we should all think about all year, not just during Lent.

Cat in a White Tie and Tails by Carole Nelson Douglas
I’m not sure what to say about this book. The white tie and tails figure into many of the different plot lines. Some of the previous murders have been solved, but not with enough proof to go to the police, so they’re still unsolved as far as Lieutenant Molina is concerned. Not to mention, the alleged killer has been murdered. There are still many open murder cases and questions. For the most part, I was lukewarm toward this book. But, it’s worth reading to the end. I was surprised by the ending. I look forward to seeing how the plot continues in the next book, Cat in an Alien X-Ray.

[Postscript: now that I’ve read a bit into the next book and thought about it, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised at how this book ended. After all, Matt is an ex-priest but remained Catholic, so his attitude toward Kathleen is consistent, especially after finding out Kathleen’s past.]

Cat in an Alien X-Ray by Carole Nelson Douglas
I’m not sure what I can say about this book either. It took me a while to read it. Not because it was difficult. It’s just that I seem to have always found something else to read rather than pick up this book. Maybe that statement right there says it all. I didn’t dislike it, but it’s not one of my favorites in the series.

Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us, From Missiles to the Moon, by Nathalia Holt

When Macie hired new women she had often told them, “In this job you need to look like a girl, act like a lady, think like a man, and work like a dog.” — from page 256

This was a library book. I heard about it on NPR. This is a fascinating look at the women (human) computers at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) from the beginning back in the 1940s up to the present day. Although, with the advent of reliable electronic computers, the women went on to become computer programmers, engineers, Mission Design managers, and in some cases led their own teams on explorations of the universe (Sylvia Miller became a manager in the Mars exploration program). All encouraged in their studies by the women’s supervisors Macie Roberts and later Helen Ling. Barbara Paulson, who was also there from the beginning, is also talked about quite a bit, among several others.

This should be required reading for all parents of daughters and should be taught about in schools. Growing up, the only women in history I was taught about (that I can remember) were Sojourner Truth and Rosa Parks. While I was never discouraged from going into certain fields (well, except into teaching), I never learned about women in the sciences (other than Marie Curie… then again, I learned about Marie Curie from my father, not from school). I haven’t set foot in a classroom in decades, so maybe things are different now. If not, I think that history classes should do more to teach about the contributions women have made to all aspects of society.

I would recommend this book to anyone interested in learning about the early days of JPL and the human computers. I would have to caution that although not required to enjoy the book, it would help if a person had a bit of understanding about elementary scientific concepts and the space program. I think I would’ve gotten more out of it if I had. Regardless, now that I’ve read this book, someday I’d like to read more about the early days of NASA and the space program.

Cat in a Yellow Spotlight by Carole Nelson Douglas
Another good book in the Midnight Louis series. For some reason, I liked this book better than some of the previous ones. I thought maybe since the series is winding down, more of the past unsolved murders would be solved, but that was not the case. The plot was interesting, as were the characters and the sleuthing animals. Nose E makes another appearance. An interesting connection between a member of the band at the center of the plot and a regular character in the series. I liked how the book ended, relieved that a character that I’d grown attached to was not a bad person.

The Complete Peanuts, 1999 to 2000 by Charles Schulz
The final book in the series that contains the Peanuts comic strips. This book also has a bonus: the complete “Lil Folks” panels that were a precursor to the Peanuts strips. I have to say that I like the Peanuts comic strips better than “Lil Folks”, but some were amusing. I’m glad the publisher decided to include the collection here. As always, I enjoyed this installment of The Complete Peanuts very much.

The Lucky One by Nicholas Sparks
When picking out books to take on vacation, there are two authors that I seek out the most: Debbie Macomber and Nicholas Sparks. I took The Lucky One on my trip to upstate New York in June. I started the book on a Saturday and finished it on Tuesday afternoon. Besides being a quick read (even though it was nearly 400 pages), it was an interesting read. I liked that the story was told from many different perspectives. I also liked how the information was revealed to the reader and to the characters themselves. I liked the contrast between Logan and Keith as well. I’m not quite sure how I feel about the ending. I think Beth is a better woman than I because I’m not sure I would have the attitude she has at the end considering all that happened. But, then again, maybe with time providing the perspective I would. All-in-all this was another enjoyable read from Nicholas Sparks.

Cat in the Dark by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
This is the 4th book in the Joe Grey mystery series. This book took Dan and me awhile to get through. The Joe Grey mystery series is the latest book series we’ve chosen to read to each other…well, I’ve been doing all the reading ever since Dan’s voice has become permanently hoarse. Anyway… for some reason I didn’t like this book as much as the previous ones. It was an enjoyable read overall. A good cozy mystery to curl up with. But I think it would’ve been better if we would’ve read a little bit each day rather than stretching it out over months. I found the plot and characters quite forgettable. I’m hoping the next book in the series is more engaging.

Cat in a Zebra Zoot Suit by Shirley Rousseau Murphy
Another enjoyable book in this mystery series. And although this series is wrapping up with the next book that’s supposed to come out in August, this book left its readers with more cliffhangers and mystery. Hopefully, everything will be wrapped up in the end. I only gave this four stars because there were a lot of typos that distracted from the flow of the prose. Also, at one point when Matt and Temple were visiting her relatives, the author chose to describe sauerkraut in such a way that it made it seem as though Matt didn’t know what sauerkraut was. It is totally unbelievable to me that a man who grew up in a Polish household wouldn’t know what it was. Trust me. I’m half Polish and I grew up with the Polish side of my family. Polacks know what sauerkraut is.

The Time Keeper by Mitch Albom
I enjoyed reading this book as I have the other Mitch Albom books that I’ve read over the years. I could sympathize with the main characters and got into the story waiting for the time when all the characters’ stories would come together. It had a very poignant lesson. We’re only given so many days on this earth for a reason and we are put on this earth for a reason. We must learn what is truly important and live our limited number of days accordingly. I have a tendency to live in the future, thinking about (sometimes being anxious about) what needs doing tomorrow, next week, next year, etc. Rarely do I stop and just be in the moment and appreciate the here and now. I need to focus more on the here and now before it’s too late. Another part of my life that I thought about when reading this book: recently I ended a volunteer position with our homeowner’s association. After about a year in the job, I realized that life is too short to bother with what the homeowner’s association sees as important. Its priorities are not mine. I wanted to spend my time on things that are important to me so when my term ended, I decided to not seek election (I was previously chosen to fill a vacancy). I give this book 4 out of 5 stars because at times this book was hard to follow, not surprisingly because the story is played out on a nonlinear timeline.

Death in the Castle by Pearl S. Buck
The tragic story of a man haunted by his past, especially secrets in his past. This book was a re-read for me. It has been on my bookshelf for as long as I can remember. I decided to re-read it to see if I still liked the story. I do, so it’ll stay on my bookshelf.

The More of Less by Joshua Becker (audiobook)
Sometimes when I’m working I like to have something on in the background to distract me from my tendency to daydream and lose focus. I chose this book from our local library (through hoopladigital.com) because I follow Joshua Becker’s blog. I’m not necessarily looking to become a minimalist, but I’ve been trying to declutter for years. One stumbling block to my attempts to declutter has been paper clutter. I was hoping that by listening to this book, (a) I would get encouragement to stay on my decluttering path and (b) that Becker would offer some fresh insights into how to declutter paper. None of the websites I’ve looked at offer anything remotely helpful to me. They just regurgitate the same things like keep tax returns for 7 years, keep your birth certificate forever, etc. I know all that. It’s the non-essential papers I want to know how to declutter. What I liked about Becker’s approach is that he doesn’t see minimalism as the end; it’s the means to living a more fulfilling life. He starts out asking the question: what do you want to do with your free time once you have decluttered. He believes that our stuff not only takes up space but also takes up our time. By asking this question of ourselves, I think it’s a good way to keep on track with our decluttering. As for his take on paper decluttering (the non-essential papers) he suggests we ask ourselves three questions: Why do I keep the paper? What do I need to keep? How am I going to keep paper clutter under control? Reflecting on our clutter, why we keep it, and what our goals in life are, I think is a good way to stay focused when decluttering more difficult items in our homes. I haven’t yet put this method into practice, so I don’t know if this will truly work, but I like the idea of reflecting on why we do what we do and always keeping our eye on the end goals we have set for ourselves. Just a warning for those of you who are not religious or not Christian, Joshua Becker talks from a Christian perspective and the last chapter is all about using your newly freed time to help others in the community rather than focusing your time on selfish goals.

Old Fashioned by Rene Gutteridge (audiobook)
A well-written Christian romance novel. I saw the movie version about a year before I listened to this audiobook. I loved the movie. If I had to rate the movie I would give it 10 stars out of 5 (no, that’s not a typo; that’s just how much I love this movie). The book is nearly identical to the movie. There are a few scenes in the book that aren’t in the movie and some things are portrayed differently, but that’s understandable considering movies are a visual medium and books are a written medium. The scenes left out are minor, in my opinion, and the reasons for putting them in the book, possibly to add humor, but also to flesh out a couple of characters, are portrayed in other ways in the movie. Thankfully they are left out of the movie because I didn’t like them in the book (the scenes with Cozy and tee tee…ugh!). But, despite these odd, awkward scenes, I still give this book 5 out of 5 stars. I still think the book is worth reading, especially if you haven’t seen the movie. (In fact, the only reason I listened to this audiobook from the library is because they no longer had the movie available.) That being said, I think that the movie is a much better way of experiencing this particular story.

Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions by Brian Christian and Tom Griffiths
I heard about this book on NPR (I think) and it seemed interesting, so I checked it out of the library. The premise of using computer science algorithms to make our everyday decision-making better is an interesting one, but this book was not as interesting as the concept. I lost interest in the book fairly early on.

There were a few parts of the book that I liked better than the others. The chapters about sorting, caching, and scheduling appealed to me mainly because I’m on a multi-year quest to declutter my stuff and my life. Recently I got a new laptop, so in the process of transferring things over I had to confront the messiness of my email folders, namely my inbox. Currently, there are over 500 emails in my old email inbox. One of the things on my to-do list is to sort/declutter this mess. But, according to the authors of the book, it may be better to not sort it. The time spent sorting may in the long run not help in speeding up future searching since the search feature in the email program is pretty robust. In the meantime, a bunch of time has been wasted on a task with little benefit. I’m not sure if I agree with this. Certainly, sorting emails with receipts needed for tax purposes is worth the extra sorting. Looking in one folder for all needed receipts is much less time-consuming than trying to search through a mountain of emails especially if one forgets precisely what one has bought over the year (i.e. a search term may not be easily thought of to track down all necessary emails)

The authors’ take on procrastination was interesting: “procrastinators are acting (optimally!) to reduce as quickly as possible the number of outstanding tasks on their minds. It’s not that they have a bad strategy for getting things done; they have a great strategy for the wrong metric.” (p. 112) Early in my marriage often I would get frustrated because my priorities for things that needed getting done around the house were different than my husband’s. Turns out, according to this, we each were measuring the success of getting things done with different metrics.

I found the discussion of the marshmallow test fascinating. In the early 1970s, preschoolers, individually, were put in a room with a single marshmallow on a plate. The adult told the child that he or she would get another marshmallow if they did not eat the first marshmallow before the adult came back. The researchers followed up with the kids later in life and found that those who did not eat the marshmallow were more successful in their lives than those who did, thereby concluding that those who have a natural tendency to delay gratification will be more successful. But this experiment recently was tweaked by researchers at the University of Rochester. Before the marshmallow experiment was even mentioned, preschoolers were told to work on an art project but they were given crummy supplies. They were told that they would get better supplies when the adult came back in a few minutes. Half of the time the adult came back with better supplies; half the time the adult came back with nothing. Then these same kids were subjected to the marshmallow test. The kids in the second group were more likely to eat the first marshmallow. Therefore, the original marshmallow test may not actually test a kid’s natural willpower to delay gratification. What it could actually be testing is whether the kid believes that adults are dependable or not and would do what they told them they would do. So, success later in life may not totally be related to the child’s ability to delay gratification, it could be related to whether or not in early life children have reliable, trustworthy parents and caregivers.

Then there is this quote on page 182 that had me thinking about a TV show I saw recently, of all things:

Recent work in computer science has shown that there are cases where randomized algorithms can produce good approximate answers to difficult questions faster than all known deterministic algorithms. And while they do not always guarantee the optimal solutions, randomized algorithms can get surprisingly close to them in a fraction of the time, just by strategically flipping a few coins while their deterministic cousins sweat it out.

This quote reminded me of Dirk Gently (in the first season of Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency TV show on BBC America) explaining his methods (I’m paraphrasing here): I go along then I get horribly lost. Then I find someone who looks like they know where they’re going and follow them. I don’t end up where I wanted to go, but I always end up where I need to be.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
This book has been sitting on my bookshelf for years, perhaps decades. It’s one of my “ought to” books, meaning if I want to be considered learned, I have to read this book, or so my thinking was when I bought the book (probably at a library book sale). Most recently I wanted to read it because I wanted to know the actual story and not just the first line of the story. It took me quite a few months to read this book. I had a difficult time understanding what it was about from the beginning. The language used isn’t exactly plain-spoken English. Because of this I decided to follow along with online CliffsNotes to help me out. I also checked out an audiobook from the library in hopes that the narration would help me make heads or tales out of what I had read up to that point (through most of Book 2). The audiobook version helped quite a bit, especially in distinguishing one character from the other. I stopped referring to the CliffsNotes after the first book. Once I got to Book 2, reading was much easier. The third book is also fairly easy to read and the action is much faster. Despite this, I found the book quite boring overall. Except for the fact that the Manettes, their friends, and relations seemed like good people and I wanted all to be well in the end (a happily ever after), I didn’t care about the characters (although I did feel sorry for Sydney Cotton). I found Lucie to be overly dramatic and, hence, annoying. Dickens’ endless descriptions of the bloodiness of the Revolution was exasperating. Ultimately it’s a story of good vs. evil. It also speaks to justice—what is justice for wrongs done? The aristocracy was evil (callous) as evidenced by the Monseigneur. But the way the peasants meted out justice for wrongs done to them was evil (callous) too. The aristocracy didn’t treat the peasants as human beings and the peasants didn’t treat the aristocracy, or anyone associated with it, as human either during the Revolution. Seems like Dickens is saying that that was inevitable due to the way the aristocracy treated the peasants before the Revolution. In the end, I’m glad I read the book so now I know what it’s about. But this book is getting passed on to the library book sale. Hopefully whoever buys it will find the story much more engaging than I did.

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