Review: Weapons of Math Destruction, Cathy O’Neil

weapons If you haven’t been living under a rock, you will have experienced big data, whether you applied to lease an apartment or if you are a Facebook user. Generally, we see big data as a helpful way of predicting what movies we’ll like on Netflix and streamlining processes like applying for a mortgage. There are apps now to track your budget, your steps, your caloric intake, and we generally welcome it. More data is always helpful, right? Unfortunately, Cathy O’Neil’s Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy sheds light on some of the darker implications of our reliance on big data.

Cathy O’Neil has a PhD in mathematics from Harvard University and worked as a quant for a hedge fund, before becoming disillusioned with the world of finance and taking up with the Occupy Wall Street movement. She also runs a math blog (mathbabe.org) where she explores all of the newest developments in big data. So, what exactly is big data?

Define Big Data: extremely large data sets that may be analyzed computationally to reveal patterns, trends, and associations, especially relating to human behavior and interactions

Normally, when we see things becoming automated, we would generally assume things become less biased and more fair and predictable. O’Neil shows us all of the reasons why this presumption is flawed. She calls these automated/big data driven algorithms “weapons of math destructions” when they meet three criteria: opacity, scale, and damage. O’Neil makes a compelling argument and walks us through how WMD are with us every step of our lives – getting a job, applying for college, and even car insurance. WMDs do not impact us all the same – some people are impacted more than others, namely the poor and minorities.

O’Neil writes about math and complex systems in a way that anyone can understand, even if you slept through every math class in high school. However, nothing is perfect, and I wish that the “and threatens democracy” portion of the book was a little more fleshed out. O’Neil mentions her work with Occupy Wall Street in passing, but I think this should have been a full chapter of her book.

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I’d recommend this book to people who are interested in social policy, nonfiction books written in plain language, and people who listen to Planet Money. But be warned, after reading this book, you’ll begin to see big data traps everywhere (does the Congressional repeal of internet privacy rules sound familiar?)

Additional resources:

Book Review & Discussion Guide: Without You There Is No Us, Suki Kim

If you didn’t know better, you’d think that Without You, There Is No Us is the title of a romantic drama in the same vein as Me Before You. However, the reality is a little more without-yousinister. In fact, “without you, there is no us” is a lyric in a patriotic song about Kim Jong-Il. Suki Kim is a journalist who goes undercover as an Evangelical Christian undercover as a teacher at Pyong-Yang University of Science & Technology (“PUST”). She teaches English to the children of (we assume) North Korea’s elite for half a year and writes a book about it. The book is fascinating because there simply aren’t that many memoirs about North Korea.

Most of the things that frustrated me about the book are more indicative of the North Korean political climate rather than Kim’s writing or experience. There just simply aren’t that many facts, statistics, or events in the book. Not a lot happens to Kim, because North Korea is controlling all of her experiences within Pyong-Yang: from group field trips to go hiking in the mountains to grocery shopping at approved markets for foreigners. However, I think Kim could have filled in some of the gaps with the political history of Korea or the history of the Korean War. I understand that to protect some of the people she met in North Korea, she had to change names and facts, but with so little facts already in the book, this rescrambling of information made the book less substantive than its alleged tell-all on the elite of North Korea.

A small thing that drove me (and my book club) crazy was Kim’s insertion of her “Brooklyn lover” into her memoir. While I understand that she felt isolated and cut off from her friends and family while in North Korea, I didn’t buy this connection to an ex-boyfriend. I was much more interested in Kim’s family’s reaction to and estrangement from her time in North Korea. Kim’s stories about her family’s time in Korea during the Korean War was so interesting and powerful, that I felt a much stronger investment in those relationships than in this arbitrary one that flutters in and out of her mind throughout the book. Our book club thought perhaps this was just a symptom of her solitude in North Korea — nostalgia for old flames. While it may have been true, I think she (or her editor) should have pushed through this a little more to get to the truth behind her experience.

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On Writing Negative Book Reviews

I’ve been thinking a lot about negative book reviews recently. I often feel a twinge of guilt when I have mostly negative things to say about a book. Granted, I’m no Michiko Kakutani and my opinions aren’t important enough to impact an author’s career. However should I, as someone who has never even tried to write a book, be able to criticize others’ attempts?

There was an Op-Ed in the New York Times called “Banning the Negative Book Review” which argues that with so much negativity out there, do we really need to go out of the way to contribute to the “petty sniping” in the name of literary criticism?

Curtis Sittenfeld, author of Eligible (which I reviewed here), recently spoke on how she deals with negative reviews in an interview with the New York Times: “Criticism’s Sting: The Author Curtis Sittenfeld on Book Reviews.” In it, she has a helpful matrix that she uses to categorize reviews.

I think of reviews being mapped on a graph with four quadrants, and I’ll read the ones that are smart and positive, smart and negative, or dumb and positive (hey, all our egos need a little sustenance!). But there’s no point in reading a dumb, negative review.

Curtis Graph

In Case You Need a Graph

So this leads to the question, what makes a smart negative review? Luckily, there are many articles out there on writing negative reviews. I especially liked J. Robert Lennon’s article, which lists the following thought-provoking suggestions.

  • Provide Context: “If you have space, try to characterize the shape of the writer’s career and show how the new book fits in it.”
  • Have Humility: “In your review, let your reader know what it is other people like about this writer. If you disagree, say so, in a non-condescending manner.”
  • Provide a Path Forward: “Acknowledge what kind of excellence the writer might someday achieve, even if she didn’t this time out.”

I also came across art critic Peter Schjeldahl’s approach on works that he says aren’t “immediately congenial.” I thought that was a nice way to phrase this — something that may become congenial to you, with a little work.

I’ve got certain rules of thumb for work that isn’t immediately congenial. One is, what would I like about this if I liked it? That is, I sort of project in my mind somebody who thinks, “Wow, this is great, this is what I like.” And sometimes that idea in my head persuades me, and I come around. I come around a little bit. Sometimes I agree to disagree, but it enables me to write, I think, intelligently, and if that fails, then I sort of back up and say, “What would somebody who likes this be like?” Then it becomes sort of sociological. Then I’m writing about a taste. Sometimes I might think it’s a reprehensible taste in some way and write negatively.

Schjeldahl acknowledges a book could be good but still not to your tastes. You don’t have to like every book that’s technically perfect or widely acclaimed. Part of the joy of reviewing a book is picking apart what works and why or imagining what kind of person would read or write this book. I think criticism is an art form in itself. I, for one, take a lot of pleasure in reading all sorts of reviews and spend  a lot of time thinking about what makes a review work. I don’t think books can really be rated on a scale of one to five, books generally aren’t all good or all bad. To me, reviews are a way to figure out what works and what can be better, both as a way to digest the work and to hold literary works to a higher standard. I’m still an absolute novice in constructing a good review, but it’s been a real pleasure to practice.

What are your thoughts on negative reviews? Does it make a difference whether the author is living or dead? Does it matter if you’re writing for a book blog or for the New Yorker? Is criticism a dying art? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Book Review: Rain, Cynthia Barnett

rain.jpg

When I was a child, my father always told me that I would begin enjoying nonfiction books when I grew up. I never imagined I would begin to prefer nonfiction over fiction, but today, I am writing a review about a book on the natural and cultural history of rain, so I guess I am officially grown up. Cynthia Barnett’s Rain mainly caught my eye because Elizabeth Kolbert wrote a nice sentence about the book that was printed on the front cover: “A lovely, lyrical, deeply informative book.” I have a lot of respect for Kolbert, so while I won’t call her a liar, after I finished the book, I noticed she didn’t actually tell me the book was worth reading.

Rain: a Natural and Cultural History is an ambitious book that tries to cover a little bit of everything, such as explaining the rain cycle, the invention of waterproof raincoats, and whether rainy cities like Seattle spark creative genius. The book is half thought provoking and half fun trivia. It kept my interest, and I learned a slew of new facts that I used to impress my sister, the resident water-expert, such as the fact that Mobile, Alabama is the rainiest metro area in the country. However, the book was all over the place, jumping around in time, location, and themes. The book is broken into five seemingly arbitrary sections (for example Elemental Rain, Mercurial Rain, and American Rain.) Barnett tries to thread it all together by bringing up the same scientists every few pages throughout the book, but instead of creating a cohesive thesis, it makes the book seem disorganized and all over the place. While Barnett’s passion for her subject is palpable, I wish she would have spent more time editing and organizing the book. Some of the writing is confusing and unclear. Halfway through the book, Barnett starts writing in the first person to tell us about her travels chasing rain in Meghalaya, which both threw me off and annoyed me – where were you earlier?

I also have a bone to pick with nonfiction literature in general these days. Maybe it’s the law school rubbing off on me, but where are your footnotes and sources? I am a big fact checker and was disappointed at the glibness with which Barnett treats sources and studies. In the Introduction, for example, she tells us that rain had a huge impact on the Bush-Gore Florida debacle of 2000. According to Barnett, if it hadn’t rained, Gore would have won the election, but I didn’t see a study cited for this in the endnotes, and she didn’t expand further on this bold statement. I expected further elaboration on either rain’s impact on the election or on people’s decision making behaviors later in the book, but alas, much like Barnett’s search for rain in Meghalaya, the explanations never came.

Cynthia Barnett seems like someone I would love to have on my trivia team or to grab a cup of coffee with one day, but I think I’ll have to respectfully decline reading her next book. While I did learn a few new things and discovered an interest in understanding how urban planning can disrupt the rain cycle, I think there must be better book out there on these subjects. I don’t regret reading this book, but I don’t think I’d really suggest it to anyone else.

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I’d only recommend this book to people who spend hours perusing Wikipedia for fun or who are looking to brush up on their rain trivia for a geography bee.

Additional Reading:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • If you’re interested in urban planning and rain, I’d recommend starting with Elizabeth Kolbert’s piece on The Siege of Miami.
  • In case you’re curious about rain’s impact on the 2000 election, the National Constitution Center writes about it.
  • In case you want to read this book and argue with me about whether it is actually the best science writing ever, you can find Rain on Amazon. Or if you ask me nicely, I may mail you my copy.

Book Review: The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts, Maja Säfström

maja.jpeg

If you’ve been following along for a while, you know how much I love animal facts, illustrations, and reading nonfiction. The Illustrated Compendium of Amazing Animal Facts caught my eye the moment I saw it online. Maja Säfström is a Stockholm based architect and illustrator, and her style consists of fun, simple black and white drawings. Her new book is 120 pages of black and white illustrations accompanied by some facts, about 2-3 facts per animal. If you read as many animal facts as I do, you probably won’t learn anything new from this book, but to be honest, this isn’t the kind of book that you pick up to learn new things. I did learn a few new things though, like did you know that cockroaches don’t like to eat cucumbers and bees don’t sleep?

I think this book could actually make a pretty fun coloring book, so I will probably plan on doodling in it or maybe giving it to a friend’s daughter. Säfström also sells greeting cards, postcards, tea towels, etc, with her illustrations. I’m not a huge fan of decorative books or coffee table books, so I would recommend buying other things over buying her book since they also have a practical aspect. But if you’re a fan of looking at pretty things, this may be right up your alley.

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I’d recommend this book to people who like trivia, people who follow illustrators on Instagram, and people whose living rooms look like an Ikea catalogue.

Additional Resources:

  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.
  • Check out Maja Säfström’s website here.
  • Buy the book here.

 

Book Review: Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin

better than before

Wake up earlier, go to the gym, floss regularly – these are some of the habits that I often wish I had, but I told myself I didn’t have the time or energy to do these things. Reading Gretchen Rubin’s Better than Before was just the kick in the butt I needed to help me dive into building the habits I’d like to have. Gretchen (I feel like we’re on a first name basis now) is the perky, optimistic, and relentless life coach I wish I had in real life, but her book is a pretty good substitute. Her genuine enthusiasm for decluttering and goal setting leaps off the page.

This book doesn’t necessarily teach you anything new: it’s mostly common sense stuff your parents have been telling you your whole life. However, it doesn’t hurt to hear this stuff again reframed in ways that can help you feel less overwhelmed about starting a new habit. As Gretchen points out, what often motivates us is an individual story instead of the big picture science or data points. Sure, we technically know how to stop procrastinating, but it can be more illuminating to hear how one person stopped procrastinating. Don’t let the tagline of the book fool you, though, Gretchen isn’t the type of person who struggles with building habits. She seems to have an iron grip on her self control and she doesn’t fail at any of the habits she adopts. I related more to the stories about her sister and husband’s habit building attempts.

One thing I really liked about this book is that Gretchen doesn’t tell us what habits we should have. She leaves that up to us to decide, and she writes the book from a very judgment free zone. She emphasizes throughout the book that just because it should be good for you doesn’t mean it necessarily works for your life. However, I kind of wish she had a list in the back of the most common habits people want to adopt and to kick. After finishing this book, I felt this overwhelming urge to start something new, and I wanted her to tell me where to start! If you’re curious about this book but don’t want to commit yet, her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, covers a lot of the same material (and incorporates material from her previous two books) and includes other anecdotes and tips. I’d recommend starting there to see if Gretchen’s style is right for you. Her website also has a ton of other resources to help you get started – I love to dig around and see all the different charts and downloads she has made available! So, did Gretchen Rubin leave me Better than Before? Only time will tell, but I am about to head to the gym for the third day in a row now!

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I’d recommend this book to people who are always wishing they were the type of person who journals regularly, people who enjoy self improvement projects, and people who are looking for a quick and constructive book to read on a plane.

Additional Reading:

  • Take the Four Tendencies Quiz, which Gretchen developed to help us figure out what our habit-keeping tendency is, a handy framework that she developed to frame our motivations.
  • I would like to thank Blogging for Books for my copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I’d like to point out that I bought her first book myself, so I would probably have read this book eventually anyway.
  • Buy the Book

Flower Workshop

This book is meant to inspire.

Ariella Chezar has certainly accomplished that and more with her book, The Flower Workshop. This book is full of beautiful photos full of color and texture, a reflection of Chezar’s belief that floral arrangements ought to be ‘painterly’ in composition. She is well known within the floral community (which I am learning is a thing) for her free-form and wonderfully natural work. Her book is a visual feast.

flowers

I loved looking through the photos, which comprise mostly of finished bouquets but also include a few step-by-step demonstrations and many sort of inspirational boards where she has lain out flowers, twigs and greenery, fruits, vases, and any other object that suits the theme of the chapter. The labeling of the flowers was helpful to me and will surely help all build their flower vocabulary. Chapters address topics such as focusing on color tones, highlighting specific and favorite flowers, using branches, fruits, or berries, and more. The text is fairly slim and is meant mostly to accompany the photos.

flower3

What I liked: Again, the photos are really beautiful and inspirational in themselves (the photos above come from her website; I want the pictures in the book to be a surprise for those who choose read it!). Chezar includes many photos of bouquets along with the ‘recipe’ to go along with that were a lot of fun to look through. She includes some useful and basic tips on how to make bouquets, what tools she uses, and a chart in the back of which flowers are in which season (probably what I will use the most often).

My absolute favorite thing about the book are her double-page photos of flowers arranged by specific colors (‘smoky mauve’, ‘blue mood’, ‘luminous yellow’).

What I am not so sure about: There’s nothing I dislike about the book! The only thing I was unclear about is who exactly is the target audience? Buying and growing flowers take a good amount of time and money. For me, it will be a long time until I have the resources needed to collect the ingredients for making any single one of her arrangements, but it sure is nice to have this book to look at in the mean time.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for a copy of this book in exchange for a fair review!

 

I am Malala: Pashto Landays

When sisters sit together, they always praise their brothers.
When brothers sit together, they sell their sisters to others.
– attributed to Malalai, Malala’s warrior namesake

A lot has already written about Malala Yousafzai, the youngest person to have ever won the Nobel Peace Prize. Malala is one of the most prominent advocates for empowerment i am malalathrough education. I didn’t know a lot about Malala besides her basic platform and her Malala Fund, so I read her book, I am Malala, over the holidays. Malala was cowritten with Christina Lamb. The book is a combination of a political history of Pakistan and the story of Malala’s family. Malala’s parents are both such strong figures in the story, and it quickly became apparent how Malala’s upbringing shaped her views on the world. One thing that really stuck with me after reading this book, however, were the landays that were sprinkled through the book. A landay is a folk couplet, often passed down through oral traditions and sung aloud. Malala’s mother is illiterate (as are about 44% of the Pakistani population*). In the book, she would sing these landays while doing chores or drinking tea with her friends.

A landay has twenty-two syllables, nine in the first line and thirteen in the second. The poem ends with the sound of “ma” or “na” but doesn’t have to rhyme. The most common themes of landays are war, separation, homeland, grief, or love. In today’s war-torn Afghanistan and Pakistan, landays have become more politicized, critical, and have started some modern hip-hop trends.

How much simpler can love be?
Let’s get engaged now. Text me.
Eliza Griswold writes an amazing essay for The Poetry Foundation about landays and her attempt to translate and record some of them. She tracks the evolution of landays, from its origins at the river while women did laundry to a form of empowerment for women throughout Pakistan and Afghanistan. Griswold writes:
Many landays use sex and war to tease men about their cowardice in bed and in battle. This is one of the ways in which Pashtun women undermine the social code through these folk poems: simultaneously seducing men and mocking their weakness at the very skills with which they’re supposed to display the greatest strength.
The more I read about landays, the more fitting they seem to me, to be sprinkled throughout Malala’s memoir. For many women who do not have access to education, their main source of contact with the outside world is through the radio programs they’re permitted to listen to, including poetry programs. Because singing in public is not allowed in Afghanistan and Pakistan, a lot of these poems are sung in private among family and friends. I tried looking for some videos on YouTube, but (maybe unsurprisingly) I wasn’t able to find any that looked genuine to me – although I don’t speak the language so I may be a poor judge of authenticity. For now, I will have to settle for reading the translations online.

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I would recommend this book to anyone who is unfamiliar with Malala’s story, people with an interest in the conflicts in the Middle East, people who would to be informed global citizens.

Additional Resources:

 

The Watercolor Course You’ve Always Wanted

watercolor

I’ve dabbled a little in watercolors for a few years and really enjoy them, but I’ve never had guided lessons or a book to follow until recently (Jessica bought me some great books for my birthday last year). I’ve always thought I could make faster progress if I had some instruction or guidance, so I was naturally interested in this book.

The Watercolor Course You’ve Always Wanted is by Leslie Frontz, an experienced artist and teacher who says the book is to be like a workshop in book format that

… guides everyone – absolute beginners as well as seasoned artists – beyond the basics.

The title of the book along with that introduction gave me pretty high expectations and as a result, I was a little unimpressed with the content. The book is divided into several chapters that the author suggests you read in sequential order, but if you aren’t a total beginner, I’m not sure it’s necessary. The seven chapters cover topics such as materials, shapes, values, colors, ‘the fundamentals of line’, textures, and mood.

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Books I Read in December

Hi Friends, it’s been quiet here the past few weeks, because I was travelling in China for the holidays! I’ll be sharing some photos soon, but all of the time on planes, trains, and boats made for some quality reading time! I read 13 books in December, bringing the final 2015 number of books read to: 74. I’ll be posting soon with some reflections on 2015, but for now, in no particular order, the books I read in December were:

the-age-of-innocenceEdith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence – I read this as part of my quest to read all of the Pulitzer winners. This was my second attempt at reading Edith Wharton, and I found it much more enjoyable than Ethan Frome. Did you know this book was adapted into a film directed by Martin Scorsese, who said that this was the most violent film he’s ever made? Of course, he’s referring to an emotional-violence instead of physical brutality. I’m currently sick with a cold, so I will be watching this movie under a layer of blankets this weekend. Have you seen it?

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straightjamesJames Franco’s Straight James / Gay James – While I’ve already reviewed this book, I just want to add that it’s stuck with me a little more than I expected it to. I have never taken James Franco very seriously as a writer, but I think there is something very brave about putting your poetry out there, especially for people who wouldn’t necessarily consider themselves a poet. While I’d still rather see him in a movie than on paper, I will have to think twice before rolling my eyes at his next publication.

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missoula

Jon Krakauer’s Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town – this book was a well-written and provocative look into such a grim and violent subject – acquaintance rape, date rape, whatever you want to call it. Jon Krakauer follows the personal stories of a few rape cases that occurred within a few weeks of each other in Missoula, Montana. I think the most terrifying thing is that Missoula is not an anomaly, and these stories are happening much more frequently than we’d like to think. This should be required reading on every college campus.

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fox 8.jpgGeorge Saunders’ Fox 8 – This novella is exclusively available as an eBook (it’s only 99 cents! Go buy it!) and I borrowed it from the New York Public Library. In true Saunders’ form, this story is hilarious, violent, and depressing all at once. The story is told by a Fox who learns how to Yuman – “So came bak nite upon nite, seeted upon that window, trying to lern. And in time, so many werds came threw my ears and into my brane, that, if I thought upon them, cud understand Yuman pretty gud, if I heer it!”

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gap of timeJeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time – I don’t think my admittedly rushed-before-going-to-China review did this book justice, so I might revisit and rework my post later this year. This is Winterson’s “cover” of William Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, of which Winterson says, “All of us have talismanic texts that we have carried around and that carry us around. I have worked with The Winter’s Tale in many disguises for many years.”  For some reason, this book reminded me of Station Eleven, maybe because of the post-crisis emphasis on Shakespeare?

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alice adamsBooth Tarkington’s Alice Adams – This was the 1922 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize, notably Tarkington’s second Pulitzer (and in a span of four years!) I found it much more enjoyable than his previous winner, The Magnificent Ambersons. I’m not sure if I would have awarded this book any sort of award, but then again, maybe there were slimmer pickings in the 1920s, what do you think? This was made into a movie starring Katharine Hepburn in the 1930s, so we know the book was popular for quite a while! I’ll have to add this to the list of movie adaptations to watch (and write about!)

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one of oursWilla Cather’s One of Ours – This was the 1923 Recipient of the Pulitzer Prize. I was really on a Pulitzer roll this month! It is a sprawling epic story that follows Claude Wheeler from a child in Nebraska to a soldier in France during World War II. Claude is a shy dreamer with big ideas about what he wants from life and love. I found him sweetly relatable. I’ve read online that this was one of Willa Cather’s weaker works, but as I’ve never read anything else of hers, I can’t make that call (yet). I’ll be writing more about this later, and would definitely consider reading more by Willa.

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rashomon

Ryunosuke Akutagawa’s Rashomon – I picked this book up at the Strand’s Central Park location on  a whim, because I’ve seen Akira Kurasawa’s 1950 film Rashomon. This book is a collection of 6 short stories, between 8 – 15 pages long each. I really loved the writing style (but can never tell how much is attributable to the translator versus the writer) and the stories were all incredibly human, magical, and touching. Fun fact: the film was actually based on a combination of two of the short stories in this collection: In a Grove and Rashomon.

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the winter's taleWilliam Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale

My favorite passage:

Is whispering nothing?
Is leaning cheek to cheek? is meeting noses?
Kissing with inside lip? stopping the career
Of laughing with a sigh?–a note infallible
Of breaking honesty–horsing foot on foot?
Skulking in corners? wishing clocks more swift?
Hours, minutes? noon, midnight? and all eyes
Blind with the pin and web but theirs, theirs only,
That would unseen be wicked? is this nothing?

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the reason i jumpNaoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump – This book is incredible – it was written by a thirteen year old Japanese autistic boy who often has trouble with verbal communication. I first heard about the book when I saw Jon Stewart interview Naoki on The Daily Show a few years ago. When I was in high school, I volunteered as an art teacher to autistic students, but I must admit that I still had no idea about their capacity for emotional depth and understanding. Reading this book really challenged a lot of my biases and made me feel ashamed (in the best possible positive way.)

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we should all be feministsChimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All be Feminists – This book is based on a Ted talk that Chimamanda gave (online here), which you will most likely recognize from Beyonce’s Flawless. While I didn’t need convincing from Chimamanda to be a feminist, it is always refreshing to hear the arguments from such an articulate and compassionate person. While I wouldn’t necessarily recommend buying the book, you should definitely watch the video if you haven’t yet.

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teen spiritFrancesca Lia Block’s Teen Spirit – I do not think I’ll ever be too old to read Francesca Lia Block. This book is perfect to read around Halloween! Spoiler Alert – this is the story of a girl who is trying to communicate with her dead grandmother and a boy who is possibly possessed by his angry dead twin. Although the ending is a little cliched, I don’t think anyone reads Block for the plot, but more for her rich language and imagery, the smell of the flowers leap off the page.

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the chronology of water.jpgLidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water – I read this book because Cheryl Strayed said it was her favorite book. This memoir is not for the faint-hearted. Lidia Yuknavitch has lived so many lives and tackles everything head-on, from losing a child to being molested by her father, struggling to write to S&M parties and her fascination with being whipped. Her writing style is self-described as “weird” and it’s no wonder that Chuck Palahniuk introduced her to his writing group. This book pushed me out of my comfort zone and was an emotional and gripping read from start to finish.

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I can’t believe that concludes 2015! Of these books, I would most highly recommend Fox 8 and Missoula. What did you read in December? What’s on your list for 2016? How many books did you read in 2015, and does that number even matter or mean anything to you? I’m a believer in quality over quantity, but it’s definitely satisfying to tackle a long to-read list.