holiday reading

It’s that time of year when I actually have some free time to read books.  I read all sorts of books, although I’ve written before about how my reading choices are mostly limited by the audiobook availability at my local library.  I’ve read a few good books in the past twelve months, most of which have nothing to do with OR, but I will share them with you in case you are looking for some books to read this coming year.  Not all of the books are new, but they are new to me.  They are in no particular order.

The Flaw of Averages by Sam Savage.  This is a nifty book about probability distributions and uncertainty that uses intuitive explanations rather than jargon.  The book’s premise is to explain why the entire distribution of uncertain outcomes is needed for decision making rather than just the expected value.  Savage moves beyond merely critisizing expected values in later chapters, where he steps through some key issues in the financial crisis.  This is a fun book to read that I highly recommend to students.

Love is a Mix Tape: Life and Loss, One Song at a Time by Rob Sheffield.  This is one of the two best memoirs I have ever read (the other is The Glass Castle).  This book is written by a music writer about the relationship with his wife.  Music is used to tell the story throughout the book, and while using mix tapes certainly is a gimmick, the writing is truly top notch.  It’s hard to describe the appeal for this book; you simply must read it.  I started to tell my husband about this book, and then I forced him to listen the first audiobook, when he immediately became hooked.  I laughed, I cried, and then I made my first “mix tape” in more than a decade.  This book would be interesting to 30- and 40-somethings who enjoy alternative music, Yankees who have moved to Appalachia, or anyone who has ever wanted to be in a synth-pop duo. I truly enjoyed the narration in the audiobook (it is read by the author) and would recommend the audiobook format.

The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  These are the best science fiction books that I have read in a long, long time.  I had given up on the genre when these books drew me back in.  The trilogy takes place in the not too distant future when the US no longer exists.  Panem, a nation that consists of a capital and twelve districts, selects two teenagers from each of the districts to compete to the death on national television.  Katniss Everdeen is the main figure in the books, and she is a great role model that I easily identified with.  The story arc is told in an engaging way across three well-written books.  This trilogy has been described as the next big thing since the Twilight series, but it is in fact much better.  With a great mix of excellent story telling, suspense, violence, and romance, they would appeal to men, women, girls, and boys.  I have never read a book on the day it was released, but I found myself eagerly awaiting the final book’s release.

Friday Night Lights by HG Bissinger.  I am a huge fan of the television series, but had never read the book until my husband gave it to me for Christmas last year.  It is in my unofficial list of top ten nonfiction books that I have read.  This book was written about 20 years ago about a high school football team in West Texas.  I knew it was good when I found myself reading long passages to my husband.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies by Seth Grahame-Smith and Jane Austen.  I know that everyone and their mother has already read this book, but I recently gave it a shot.  This may be blasphemous to some, but I found this version of the Austen classic to be an improvement upon the original.  And that’s saying a lot, since I am just not that into zombies.

Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.  This is an entertaining book about weird science inspired by the space programs–with an emphasis on weird–written by a science journalist.  Some of the tangents were a little bizarre even by my standards, but I really enjoyed reading about how life in space affects bone density, how frequently astronauts should bathe, and the gender politics in space.  This was a fun read about everything I wanted to know about the science of sending people into outer space that I wouldn’t find from conventional media.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy.  The Road takes place about a decade into a nuclear winter, when all food sources have been exhausted and the few people that are left are either thieves or cannibals or both.  The story follows a father and son trying to survive.  The father tries to teach his son about “carrying the fire” and maintaining a high level of morality, care-taking the next generation when there is apparently no future worth living.  This book is not for the faint of heart.  The sense of fragility and desperation is on every page.  It is painfully depressing, yet it is the science fiction book that I have always wanted to be written.  The NY Times review describes this book as “The road through hell, paved with desperation,” and I think that’s accurate. Yet the beauty of a father transmitting humanity to his son (the next generation) while the son transmits it back cannot be understated.  I couldn’t put this book down and read it in a few hours.

The Politician by Andrew Young.  John Edwards’s fall from grace really has been the political scandal of my adult life.  I was disgusted by how John Edwards publicly lied about the child he fathered for political gain.  The part of the scandal that most intrigued me was why someone with a wife and children would be complicit in Edwards’s lie and falsely claim to be the child’s father.  This is the book about how that happened.  I started reading this book to piece together the scandal, but then it turned into something else: an exploration of morality in the workplace.  Obviously, Young covered up the affair and while he wasn’t the one having an affair, he was complicit in it.  He falls down a slippery slope while doing his job where he eventually wrongs his family by taking part in the scandal himself.  Young of course tries to justify his actions and certainly paints himself in the best possible light.  However, at various points in the book, I tried to put myself in Young’s shoes and tried to determine when and where he went too far.  My husband is quite familiar with the scandal, and we had quite a few engaging conversations about the shades of gray in the actions taken by those surrounding John Edwards.  I enjoyed this book because it started out as a standard political memoir and then turned into much more.

The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.  This is another book that everyone has already read except apparently me.  I resisted reading this book because I find the idea of time travel romance to be corny.  I eventually succumbed to reading the Time Traveler’s Wife when I was struggling to find good audiobooks at the library and heard that this book takes place in Chicago (my home town).  I am glad that I gave it a shot.  The Time Traveler’s Wife is part science fiction and part chick lit, and both aspects of this book are rewarding.  This book is told from two perspectives and not in chronological order, but it’s not hard to follow the story.  The author gets the tone right: this book is intriguing in a time travel paradox sense, is touching, and is funny.  I particularly appreciate that the male time-traveler actually acts and sounds like a real man rather than a chick lit characterization of a man, but I don’t know any men who have read the book to confirm this.  The appeal of this book is hard to explain, but all of the aspects of this book really work together to create a satisfying whole package.

4 responses to “holiday reading

  • Charles

    I agree about the Hunger Games trilogy. I just finished the first book and can’t wait to start the second.

    I read the Dan Brown stuff (Divinci Code/Angels and Demons/The Lost Symbol) and enjoyed the mathematics and the puzzles in there. Around the time of INFORMS I read Digital Fortress, which is a good book talking about the NSA and Crypto and stuff. I wish I could find more books that were about math nerds though.

  • Stephen Hill

    Thanks for your reading suggestions. I downloaded samples of almost all of them for reading on the iPad (via Kindle app).

  • Larry (IEOR Tools)

    Thanks for the reviews. There are a couple of books in there that I have been wanting to read.

  • Barry Render

    Can I add one more to your list? I just finished MacroWikinomics (a follow up to Wikinomics in 2006) by Tapscott and Williams (Penguin , 2010). I think all profs should read Ch.8, Rethinking the University.

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