Books of March 2018

How to Solve It - George Polya

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If you solve problems then read Polya's How to Solve It.

How to Solve It describes George Polya's system for solving problems. Because Polya is a mathematician, the book primarily focuses on math problems, but what I think is very cool about the book is his model also applies to other types of problems, and I've found his four basic principles of problem solving (understanding the problem, devising a plan, executing the plan, and reviewing the plan) to be useful for almost every single problem I've encountered, from how to set up an nginx reverse proxy to how to get better at laning in league. 

I've also recently been trying to use Polya's method in the class I teach. I especially like how the method focuses on finding the right set of questions to ask for every problem, because I used to ask very specific questions about the problem to try to guide the students to the right answer, but I realized after reading How to Solve It that it's better to ask very general questions first to help the students understand how they can learn to solve similar problems with this general approach. (As a side note, this is also a good reason why people should study math. Problems in math have very well defined inputs & desired outputs, and as a result provide really good practice for being able to reason about problems and develop a model for solving them.)

The book is fantastic, but most of it focuses on definitions of useful terms & methods which may not be super helpful (unless you study math, in that case you should read it all). I think an easier way to learn & adopt Polya's model is to just reference this pdf from Berkeley and try to apply it to every problem you solve.

The Thief Lord - Cornelia Funke

If you're interested in a nice story set in Venice about youth and innocence then read The Thief Lord.

The Thief Lord is about two brothers, Prosper and Bo, who run away from their aunt after their mom passes away, and lives in Venice with a group of homeless children supported by a young thief (the eponymous thief lord). 

I have really similar thoughts on The Thief Lord as I do about Dragon Rider, with two additional notes:

  • I like how the characters are more complicated than they are in Dragon Rider, and have to make more difficult decisions. The Count and Scipio in particular are very interesting characters, and it's much harder to divide the characters in the book into distinctive buckets of good and bad. I pretty much felt exactly the same about every character in Dragon Rider in 8th grade as I do now, but I found I have a pretty different opinion of Scipio on this reread. 
  • I only realized this after I got older but it's actually super fucked up how they tricked Esther into adopting Barbarossa. Esther is not the nicest person, but she really doesn't deserve adopting a kid who's actually an adult turned young. 

神鵰俠侶 - 金庸


If you're interested in a dope love story set in the late Song dynasty with a super cool lone wolf protagonist then read 神鵰俠侶.

Set in the late Song dynasty a few years after the events of 射鵰英雄傳神鵰俠侶 is the second part of the 射鵰三部曲 and revolves around 楊過 and his lover and master 小龍女 in a time when romantic relationships between master and disciple were taboo. The book primarily focuses on their relationship, but like all of 金庸's works, 神鵰俠侶 touches on themes of nationalism and patriotism and refers heavily to Chinese culture/society/philosophy, and the Mongol invasion of the Song dynasty is an important subplot of the book.

神鵰俠侶 is one of my favorite 金庸 books because I love the characters- 楊過 is my favorite character in all of the 金庸 books I've read. He's super independent and very 我行我素, but is consistent in his philosophy and approach to life. He's stubborn and individualistic even before he becomes OP, and he really is the same character from start to finish, just more mature and levelheaded. He's also a really fun protagonist not only because he's very smart and one of the strongest characters in 金庸's universe, but also because he doesn't have one master and learns from a bunch of random people and a giant condor (lol), and later in the book develops his own individual style. 楊過 is also very much not an asshole, which is not a common pair with stubborn + independent, and has a strong moral compass which I find even cooler because he makes those decisions on his own and chooses to live the way he wants to. A good example of someone similar but is an asshole is 黃藥師 (and they happen to be friends, which is great, because 黃藥師 is a lonely dude and they're so far apart in prestige and age). I also like all of 楊過's relationships in the book, especially his friendships with 陸無雙 and 程英 and later on 郭襄. They are all really cute and because of 楊過's personality he is extremely devoted and loyal to his friends. 

Most of the book is really frustrating though because so many sad things happen to 楊過 and 小龍女 from misunderstandings or just really unfortunate accidents, but things work out in the end and it's super satisfying and I'm really happy that *spoilers* they reunite.

Little Fires Everywhere - Celeste Ng

If you're interested in a book about racism and family set in 1990s suburban Ohio then read Little Fires Everywhere

Set in Shaker Heights, a planned suburban wealthy neighborhood in Ohio, Little Fires Everywhere is about two very different families that come together and clash through their children. The simmering racial tensions in Shaker Heights and the tense family dynamic of the Richardsons are complicated by a court case that shakes the town, when poor waitress Bebe and the rich white McCulloughs enter a custody battle over Bebe's daughter, May Ling Chow (renamed Mirabelle by the McCulloughs). 

I had a really hard time with this book because I feel like it does so many things really well, yet I just didn't really like it that much. Little Fires Everywhere has all the elements of a good book: vivid depictions of characters and a big cast with many different views that Ng navigates and switches between nicely, some pretty interesting dynamics of race and family and wealth, and smooth, well crafted prose, but there's just something about the book that I just didn't warm to and it never really touched me. I never felt invested and didn't really care that much about what was going on.

I initially thought it was because of the themes or the ideas, but I definitely find racial and economic conflicts in suburban America pretty interesting (especially with Asian families). The book does presents a very complex situation, but where I think it falls short is it feels more constructed and crafted and never really comes alive. A good parallel are books like The Sympathizer or The Hate U Give, books that feel real and urgent, even rushed to exist. That is not true for Little Fires Everywhere. The characters never feel real and their desires and fears don't really emerge except in pretty straightforward character archetypes (moody male teenager, literally nicknamed Moody, jock that ends up being sort of 2D, a bitchy older sister, a rebellious younger sister, a very stuffy mom, etc.) and they feel more like they are serving roles in a situation that Ng wanted to create. Despite their variety, the characters feel one dimensional, and a lot of the Asian characters don't get the same depth of emotional life (however limited), and at the end you never really get to know Bebe that well, despite being central to the plot of the book. Everything is set up beautifully, but I just never felt the heat in the book. 

The book is good, and I think it's still worth reading, but I found it a little disappointing. 

Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if Your Life Depended on It - Chris Voss

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If you're interested in learning about how to negotiate better from a clear negotiations expert then read Never Split the Difference. 

Never Split the Difference is FBI negotiator Chris Voss's advice and tips on how to approach negotiations. I thought the book was well written and easy to understand, and he doesn't repeat himself a lot, which is a blessing in these types of books. The examples he picks for his chapters are actually helpful for understanding his points, and keeps the book pretty interesting (he's had a very cool career). I also like the structure and the organization, with each chapter focusing on one useful thing to learn about negotiations. I do wish that he did a summary at the end of the book, but he offers a brief one in chapter 1 and closes each chapter with key lessons, which I found pretty helpful.

The primary gripe I have with this book is I don't really like Voss and his style. He comes across as very arrogant throughout the book, and seems to have a weird inferiority complex (he keeps on talking about how his methodology is way better than any of the ones the experts have come up with), and it definitely turns me off the book a little.

But for my nonfiction I mostly value the type/usefulness of the knowledge I'm learning, and this was a helpful book for sure, so I'm still pretty happy I read it and I would comfortably recommend it.

Also, who recommended me this book? I actually cannot remember at all.