Short book reviews
Below are some short reviews that I have written about books that I have read. Since I only started in November 2009 there are many older books I would like to write about, but I guess I need to go back to them first.
Books that I have started reading and will review one day
- Les identités meurtrières by Amin Maalouf (1998)
- Guns, germs and steel: The fates of human societies by Jared Diamond (1997)
- The panda's thumb: More reflections in Natural History by Stephen Jay Gould (1980)
- International perspectives on social justice in mathematics education by Bharath Sriraman (2007)
- The ethnic cleansing of Palestine by Ilan Pappe (2006)
Pending reviews of books I have finished reading
- Reacciona by Varios (2011)
- Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. (1969)
- Un regalo para toda la vida by Carlos González (2006)
- For bread alone by Mohamed Shoukri (2007)
Le périple de Baldassare by Amin Maalouf (2000)
Keywords: Historical fiction
A very entertaining novel about the merchant Baldassare, who has in his hands a mysterious and remarkable book, loses it, and leaves behind the confort of his life to find it again; all of this against the backdrop of the end of the world as it was expected to happen in the "Year of the Beast" 1666. Review written on December 25th, 2011.
Not on the label by Felicity Lawrence (2005)
I read this book some time ago so I don't remember a whole lot, but I do remember the main theme: how our food is treated from the moment it is grown/collected/etc., bought by big companies, processed and taken by international food distributors until it reaches us. It also talks about the struggles of those that fall victim to this system, not meaning us those who eat the final product, but those who produce it and sell it and in general work around it under very bad conditions (even more, the slave force created by this system). The cases of several different products, illustratives of different systems and situations, are given. Review written on December 24th, 2011.
Teaching tips: a guidebook for the beginning college teacher by Wilbert J. McKeachie (1986)
Keywords: Mathematics education
I got this book a few years ago in a used books market in Montreal. I expected it to have some practical tips, but I found that it was quite the opposite: the book basically compiles research results on different teaching techniques, types of exams, etc. with the goal, I imagine, of establishing scientifically what are the best teaching practices. The best thing about the book in my opinion is the overview of techniques that one can use in teaching: small groups, guided discussions, etc. I am skeptical about some being objectively better than others, since I consider experimentation to be very difficult (to isolate the factors of study and so on) thus unreliable, but it is still good to know where things stand. Also, I would have appreciated some concrete advice on teaching mathematics or similar; discussions and similar things are mentioned often but this is because the author is a psychologist so I feel that some learning concepts apply more to disciplines that are more open to interpretations and points of view than mathematics. All in all, the book is good and one can get fresh ideas to try. A good complement would be some knowledge of cognitive theory to have a clearer picture of the learning processes involved in one's teaching; fortunately this book is written in a nontechnical way so one does not get lost in complicated psychological concepts. Review written on December 2nd, 2010.
Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938)
A wonderful account of Orwell's personal experience in the Republican front during the Spanish civil war and subsequent stay in Barcelona during the internal struggles between communists and anarchists. I didn't learn almost anything about the civil war in school so reading about the situation in one of the main cities was very informative. And finding out the divisions among the Republican side and the politics played there, also by foreign powers, was enlightening. His writing is very enjoyable so the book is a very good read in any case; I have no doubt about his honesty, but of course this is the account of his personal experiences so one can expect both a certain bias and limited exposure to the facts. Review written on October 17th, 2010.
Manufacturing consent by Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky (1988)
I was eager to read this book since I read somewhere that it is a fundamental reference on the relation between mass media and power. I read it for some months, and finished it one or two months ago, so some things are blurry now but I can still offer a summary. The authors present a propaganda model, which is a description and explanation of how mass media is biased in favour of concentrations of power (governments and big companies). Then, they proceed to analyze several episodes of USA external policy in the second half of the twentieth century in order to illustrate their point. For example, they compare the coverage of the elections in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua; some of the regimes were supported by USA and others were opposed (can't remember which is which now) and this reflects in the American media's veredicts on the situations in each case. Another example is the "Bulgarian connection", the idea that when Ali Agca tried to kill Pope John Paul II he was a communist agent. Finally, the Indochina wars (Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) are studied in the sense of how the media covered the American atrocities. The book is full of footnotes and cites plenty of references, so the interested reader can find a lot of information on any of the historical situations studied in the book. Review written on June 29th, 2010.
Ringworld by Larry Niven (1970)
Keywords: Science fiction
I bought this book a few months ago, in fact I made a mistake (I wanted to read "Discworld" instead!). It belongs to the so-called hard fiction genre ("characterized by an emphasis on scientific or technical detail, or on scientific accuracy, or on both" as per wikipedia). Indeed, from the plot (a group of explorers visiting a ring-shaped world recently discovered) one can already guess that physics and technology, are additional characters in the novel (although not so much as other space exploration stories I have read). I enjoyed the book somewhat, but my current tastes go in other directions.Review written on May 2nd, 2010.
As I lay dying by William Faulkner (1990)
I picked up this book at a hotel during the 2010 Easter holidays, out of curiosity since I know that the author is very important but I never read anything by him. It was written in 1930 and it tells the story of a Mississippi family's odyssey to bury their matriarch. It is composed of many small chapters, each written from the point of view of a character, in what is called "stream of consciousness technique" (we actually read their thoughts). Most of the characters/and narrators are members of the family.
It was a very entertaining book to read, due to the inmersing technique. However, it left me in an uneasy state. Why? Possibly because of the characters, each a unique combination of very human traits, some admirable, some despicable, and also the difficult situation in which they are, collectively and individually. I am unable to describe it in more detail, maybe in the future I will see it clearer, but I do recommend it a lot. Review written on April 11th, 2010.
The Martian chronicles by Ray Bradbury (1984)
Keywords: Science fiction
The book is a collection of stories that chronicle the arrival and colonization by mankind of Mars. I read this book a long time ago, and again last year, I think; both times I found it compelling and touching. I bought it recently in English and finished it a few days ago; this time I found it more empty of meaning that before. It is still a very good read, entertaining, but I think that now I was looking for a bigger meaning and I did not find it there; the stories talk about humans even when they are not directly about them, but I found it more difficult to relate to them. In any case, a book that I recommend for a leisure read. Review written on March 14th, 2010.
Five-minute mathematics by Ehrhard Behrends (2008)
Keywords: Casual mathematics
This is a collection of weekly column articles by the author, published in Die Welt, translated into English. It is an entertaining book, although I found some of the articles a bit empty of content. Not a wonderful book of this style, but I cannot remember any other (it has been a long time since I read one), and it is good enough for its purpose. Review written on March 14th, 2010.
A history of abstract algebra by Israel Kleiner (2007)
A book on the history of algebra that I read at the end of 2009 and beginning of 2010. It talks about how different branches of algebra were developed throughout history, with lots of references both to the original works of the pioneers (with details about their significance) and to other books by historians on the history of more concrete topics. Lots of information and an enjoyable reading, the downside being that non-mathematicians don't stand much of a chance with this book. An interesting thing is the inclusion of a chapter in which the author describes a course on abstract algebra inspired by history. There are far too many interesting quotes in the book to put them here. Review written on February 18th, 2010.
The particle play by John Polkinghorne (1979)
I read this book in November and December 2009. The author explains the history of particle physics, from the 30s (time of the discovery of some very basic particles like the electron) until the end on the 70s, when the book was written. Therefore, all the development of particle physics through the unification of forces until the appearance and proliferation of quarks. It is done in a very didactical way, easy to follow even if one is not familiar with the topic. It does get messy and complicated, but the topic is like that... one interesting point, which I have not investigated, is the predicions (made about thirty years ago) about what the more powerful accelerators could bring about.
The premise of the book, to which the title refers, is to picture the particles as actors on a stage, their interactions as the plot; fortunately it is just an entertaining device which does not distract the reader. I recommend the book to anyone who is curious about the topic and knows some basics in physics, like what is an electron, a proton and a neutron (if you don't know this, you may find the topic too difficult).
One interesting thing is the last part of the book: the author writes about particle physics and God (he became a priest at some point), apparently because he has seen many scientists take the opportunity to add their views to their work (against the existence of God, one understands). Review written on January 28th, 2010.
The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism by Naomi Klein (2007)
I read this book in October and November 2009. Since I started it, I could hardly stop until I finished. It tells the story of how free-market capitalism has advanced greatly due to taking advantage of great shocks that have momentarily halted the ability of people to react to the changes that they would not allow otherwise. The book describes the rise of the Milton ideology and its implementation in many places: Chile, Argentina and other countries in Latin America; Thatcher's UK; Poland's revolution; South Africa's end of apartheid; China and the South Asian region; Russia at the end of the Soviet Union; the USA's homeland enterprise business; Iraq; Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami; New Orleans after Katrina; Israel. Each case is described in lots of detail, and, as I like, with many references to sources containing detailed information. The book punches quite a shock to the reader. The conclusion is optimistic in any case: after some time, the shock wears off, as we can see in the people-oriented governments that rose in Latin America in the last decade. All in all, a book that I recommend strongly. Review written on November 8th, 2009.
The decline of the American empire: And the rise of China as a global power by John Chuckman (2007)
I started reading this book in 2008, lost it for some time, and came back to it in the end of 2009. The title says it all. I can point out two basic ideas of the book: first, that economics is at the core of social change. Second, that China now is not very different from America, Britain and others some decades ago or at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. About economy's role in history, I don't have arguments to offer, but I didn't like the emphasis that he put on it, and how changes in the economic system were the engine of democracy (I may not be getting it right here). But he illustrates the second point with many historical examples, which shed light on the superficial knowledge that we may have on how things really were decades or a few centuries ago; I found those comparisons very interesting. All in all, I enjoyed it and found it interesting, although I don't agree with part of the author's vision, and I would have liked him to cite some sources. Review written in November 2009.