Archive for book reviews

2021 Nebula finalists

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on March 22, 2022 by xi'an

Here are the five novels selected for the 2021 Nebula Award

two of which I read and (mostly) appreciated. (An interesting side item is that Volume 6 of the fantastic Murderbot series was nominated for the novella series and that the author withdrew from the list for having already been recognised by the award.)

the best books of the NYT readers

Posted in Books, Kids, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 9, 2022 by xi'an

Two years after Le Monde reported on the list of the 101 favourite novels of [some of] its readers, which I found most fascinating as a sociological entry on said readers, rather than a meaningful ordering of literary monuments (!),  even though it led me to read Damasio’s La Horde du Contrevent, as well as Jean-Philippe Jaworski’s Gagner la Guerre [To the victors go the spoils], The New York Times did something similar to celebrate the Book Review’s 125th anniversary. If on a lesser scale, as it only produces

        1. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
        2. The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R. Tolkien
        3. 1984 by George Orwell
        4. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
        5. Beloved by Toni Morrison

as the top five books of the last 125th years, Lee’s, Tolkien’s, and Garcia Márquez’s appearing in both lists, if with a different ranking. (The nomination rules were not exactly the same, though, with only novels for Le Monde and only “recent” books and only one per author for the New York Times.) Here is a longer list of the 25 top contenders, from which NYT readers voted [an opportunity I missed!]:

some of which I had never heard of. And not including a single Faulkner’s… Except for One Hundred Years of Solitude, first published as Cien años de soledad, all novels there were originally written in English. Sadly, the number one book, To Kill a Mockingbird, is also one of the most censored by school boards in the USA! (And so are books by Toni Morrison.)

What is luck? [book review]

Posted in Books, Statistics, Travel, University life with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on December 10, 2021 by xi'an

I was sent—by Columbia University Press—this book for a potential review in CHANCE: What are the chances? (Why we believe in luck?) was written by Barbara Blatchley, professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Agnes Scott College in Decatur, Georgia. I have read rather quickly its 193 pages over the recent trips I made to Marseille and Warwick. The topic is truly about luck and the psychology of the feeling of being luck or unlucky. There is thus rather little to relate to as a statistician, as this is not a book about chance! (I always need to pay attention when using both words, since, in French chance primarily means luck, while malchance means bad luck. And the French term for chance and randomness is hasard…) The book is pleasant to read, even though the accumulation of reports about psychological studies may prove tiresome in the long run and, for a statistician, worrisome as to which percentage of such studies were properly validated by statistical arguments…

“…the famous quote by Louis Pasteur: “Dans les champs de l’observation, le hasard ne favorise que les esprits préparés”s (…) Pasteur never saw a challenge he couldn’t overcome with patience and preparation.” (p.19)

Even the part about randomness is a-statistical and mostly a-probabilist, rather focusing on our subjective and biased (un)ability to judge randomness. The author introduces us to the concepts of apophenia, which is “the unmotivated seeing of connections accompanied with a specific feeling of abnormal meaningfulness”, and of patternicity for the “tendency to find meaningful patterns in meaningless noise”. She also states that (Neyman-Pearson) Type I error is about seeing a pattern in random noise while Type II errors are for conclusion of meaningless when the data is meaningful (p.15). Which is reductive to say the least, but lead her to recall the four types of luck proposed by James Austin (which I first misread as Jane Austin).

“There is a long-standing and deeply intimate connection between luck, religion, and belief in the supernatural.” (p.28)

I enjoyed very much the sections on these connections between a belief in luck and religions, even though the anthropological references to ancient religions are not strongly connected to luck, but rather to the belief that gods and goddesses could modify one’s fate (and avoiding the most established religions). Still, I appreciate her stressing the fact that if one believes in luck (as opposed to sheer randomness), this expresses at the very least a form of irrational belief in higher powers that can bend randomness in one’s favour (or disfavour). Which is the seed for more elaborate if irrational beliefs. (For illustrations, Borgès’ stories come to mind.)

“B.F. Skinner believed that superstitious behaviour was a consequence of learning and reinforcement.” (p.85)

There are also parts where (a belief in) luck and (human) learning are connected, but, unfortunately, no mention is made of the (vaguely) Bayesian nature of the (plastic, p. 188) brain modus operandi. The large section on the brain found in the book is instead physiological, since concerned with finding regions where the belief in luck could be located. In relation with attention-deficit disorders. (Revealing the interesting existence (for me) of mirror neurons, dedicated to predicting what could happen! Described as “predictive coding”, p.153). The last chapter “How to get lucky” contains a rather lengthy account of “Clever Hans”, the 1990 German counting horse (!). Who, as well-known, reacted to subtle and possibly unconscious signals from his trainer rather than to an equine feeling for arithmetic…

One of the clearest conclusions of the book is (imho) that a belief in luck may improve the life of the believers, while a belief in being unlucky may deteriorate it. The Taoist tale finishing the book is a pure gem. But I am still in the dark as to whether or not my exceptional number of bike punctures in the past year qualifies as bad luck!

“Luck is the way you face the randomness of the world.” (p.191)

As an irrelevant aside, one anecdote at the beginning of the book brought back memories of the Wabash River flowing through Lafayette, IN, as it tells of the luck of two Purdue female rowers who attempted a transatlantic race and survived capsizing in the middle of the Atlantic. It also made me regret I had not realised at the time there was a rowing opportunity there!

the dark remains [book review]

Posted in Books, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2021 by xi'an

When I left Birmingham a month ago, I spotted The Dark Remains, a book by Ian Rankin and the late William McIlvanney featuring Laidlaw, a unique Glaswegian detective featuring in his other books. Which I of course bought on the spot. (Ironically, along with the latest Ishiguro!) The book had been started by McIlvanney but left unfinished, which is where Rankin took over, as a big fan of McIlvanney, the designated father of tartan noir. This is a prequel to the other three Laidlaw novels, taking place in the early years of Laidlaw, at a time he was still living with his family, and it starts as a brewing war between two Glasgow gangs, with a fantastic immersion in the Glasgow of the 1970’s. The conclusion of the story is somewhat disappointing but the atmosphere and the reflection on the attitudes of the era are making it a great book. I actually stopped searching for Rankin’s touch almost from the start.

As an aside, the meaning of the title is unclear to me: is the Dark that remains or are the remains dark..? Reading from the Scotsman, it seems this is a typical French miscomprehension!

2021 World Fantasy Awards

Posted in Books with tags , , , , , on November 16, 2021 by xi'an

Here are winners for some categories of the 2021 World Fantasy Awards:

Somewhat surprisingly, not only I have not read these books, although Riot Baby is sitting in my Kindle, courtesy of Tor Books, but this is also the case for most winners of the past years. The first author I could recognise is K.J. Parker, in 2013, and the first book I had read is Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore in 2006…

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