Wednesday, March 30, 2016

It's mah birthdaaaaaay

Oh hey, guess what
Yeah, I have nothing else to add in this post. Just it's my birthday, that's swell. 

And I'm doing Hamilton bar trivia tonight and all of my fellow Hamilton fans live on the internet (or, just not in the NYC area) so please send me good thoughts and psychic help.


Monday, March 28, 2016

Some of the best ideas in history - nearly all of them, in fact - sounded crazy at first

When to Rob a Bank...and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intentioned Rants. Collection of blog posts that haha, you could have just read for free. Sucker!

It was fine. It was entertaining, as Freakonomics tends to be. They were upfront about the fact that you totally could have just read the blog posts for free on their site, so at least I didn't feel blindsided by that. They felt a little bad for it but justified by it by comparing it to bottled water.
So in the tradition of Poland Spring, Evian, and other hydro-geniuses, we've decided to bottle something that was freely available and charge you money for it.
They do point out they curated which posts they included to pick the best ones, arranged them in an order that made sense and did some editing. So not exactly what's on the blog. And honestly, while I listen to the podcast, I don't really read the blog so a good amount of the stuff here was new to me.

Some of the ideas are clever or at least interesting. There's a post titled "Planned Parenthood Gets Freaky"talks about a Philly Planned Parenthood strategy called "Pledge-a-Picket". This PP got a lot of protesters so the idea was people would pledge a certain amount per protester (minimum ten cents) that showed up. The PP would count and record the number and place a sign in full view of the protesters that let them know exactly how them showing up is benefitting the Planned Parenthood.

There's another post about using a different bus stop than normal, which in and of itself doesn't sound that interesting, but it does have the line
Having just gotten off the subway, the Point A passengers are already broken in spirit and can't muster the energy to improve their commute
which quite accurately describes public transportation commuting. I understand why those people don't want to walk another block over.

Because these are just blog posts, each chapter is short (which is how they can shove 131 of them in here) which can be a good thing if you just want to jump in and read a couple quickly. But I also found myself wishing they'd take some of these blog posts and expand them into longer chapters. I would really want them to dig into a topic when all of a sudden, the post is done and we're onto a different topic.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 5

Dubner, Stephen and Steven Levitt. When to Rob a Bank...and 131 More Warped Suggestions and Well-Intentioned Rants. William Morrow, 2015.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

People like to feel as if they're important

This was a Just The Right Book selection and while it was a pretty quick read, it wasn't great. But let's get to problems in a second and talk about what the book is about.
The story is about a woman, Mia Dennett, who decides to go home with this guy she met in the bar but UH OH, instead of sexy times, she gets kidnapped. The guy, Colin, is hired by some mysterious figures to kidnap her but for reasons decides instead to not turn her over and and instead the two go into hiding in this cabin in the middle of no where Minnesota.

Meanwhile, Mia's mother Eve is (naturally) devastated, while her father, a prominent judge, and her sister don't seem to care all that much. Which would be odd and a clue that something isn't quite right, but it's more the case of characters not being fleshed out instead of some spoiler for the story. But detective Gabe cares almost as much as Eve to know what happened to Mia and bring her home.

Spoiler, she comes home. Except it's not really a spoiler because the chapters jump back and forth between Before, with Colin keeping Mia in said cabin and Gabe searching for her and After, when Mia has been returned home. She doesn't remember anything though and keeps wanting to be referred to as Chloe, the name of her imaginary friend growing up.

A blurb on the back of this book says "Kubica's powerful debut...will encourage comparisons to Gone Girl." Can we all agree that saying a book should be compared to Gone Girl is meaningless? Because I've yet to actually read a book with that comparison that actually reminded me of GG. This one most definitely doesn't other than a fact that there is a girl and she is in fact kidnapped (or gone, if you will). Beyond that, no. WORDS HAVE MEANINGS, PEOPLE.

For the most part the story takes some (or, like, more than some...) suspension of disbelief but kept me engaged enough. Except for a few parts that made me step back.

There's a scene where the detective assigned to Mia's disappearance, who up to this point had been a very stand-up guy, certainly one of the good guys, says something that made me think "...Wait, what did you just say?" So Gabe is describing the neighborhood where Mia lived. Her family has a LOT of money, but Mia doesn't live in the super ritzy area. Here's how Gabe describes it:
The high-rise is located in Uptown, certainly not the best neighborhood in the city; not the worst either. Far from it. It's a mix of people who can't quite afford the classier areas like Lakeview or Lincoln Park, and an eclectic mix of men and women who just stepped off the boat. It's very diverse. Ethnic restaurants line the streets, and not just Chinese and Mexican; there's Moroccan and Vietnamese and Ethiopian joints. Regardless of its diversity, nearly of the population of Uptown is still white. It's relatively safe to walk around at night.
So, thanks Gabe for telling me how even though there are ethnic restaurants in town (not just Chinese and Mexican!), it's still mostly white and thus still safe to walk around at night. I know you didn't say directly that because it's white it's safe at night. But you did reassure the reader that it's still mostly white people and then immediately follow that up with how safe it is. So. I don't think Gabe thinks of that as racist. Because I don't think Kubica thought of it as racist. There's nothing that Gabe says later along these lines to suggest this is a characteristic of Gabe. He was just stating what the thought of as facts.

Later there was a similar moment where a character, another good guy, suddenly does something that makes me think I know a lot about Kubica's values. Though be warned for thar be spoilers here.

Eve, Mia's mother, is one of the good people. We're in her head for a good chunk of the book so we know how good she is, especially compared to her husband, who is just terrbile. Not a lot of characterization about him other than "cold" and "mean" and "jerk". So it turns out that Mia is pregnant. She doesn't believe it (and doesn't remember anything about what happened). Her father wants her to have an abortion, mostly so she doesn't shame the family. I mean, there could be something there about the fact that if Mia is pregnant than she was raped by her captor and maybe that's why she's blocking whatever happened, and he's trying to protect her. Except that's never how it's positioned, because that would make him a better rounded character. So instead we get him DEMANDING she get an abortion, while her mother does everything she can to protect Mia from this because abortion is wrong wrong wrong. Again, maybe this is just how the character thinks, but given the characters aren't that fleshed out, it seems more like a way to indicate which characters you should sympathize with and which you should hate.
Spoilers contained

There's a twist that might work if you don't think about it too hard.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 43

Kubica, Mary. The Good Girl. Mira, 2014.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Mini-review Time!

I want to write a post. But I don't feel like finishing my review of The Good Girl. Which is the last book I read in 2015 that I still need to review. So obviously I'm pretty behind on reviewing. So instead of writing one review, let's do a much of mini reviews!

The Good Girl by Mary Kubica: A thriller about a kidnapping that doesn't quite go as planned. I like the idea, where it jumps back and forth between the past and present. But the characters aren't very fleshed out so it's sort of boring. A blurb compares it to Gone Girl. The blurb is wrong.

When To Rob A Bank by Steven Levitt & Stephen Dubner: It's a collection of Freakonomics blog posts that you could have just read for free (and they are upfront with that) except I didn't. I did only pay a dollar for it, so I don't feel too bad. Not my favorite Freakonomics thing but entertaining enough.

Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist: Swedish horror story with some scary moments, some very squicky moments, and some surprisingly sweet and touching moments. And it manages to bring some new (to me, anyway) elements to the vampire novel.

Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry: I was reading this between Hamilton chapters so I don't feel like I gave it a fair shake through the first half, where I had trouble getting into and following the story. But once I actually gave it my full attention, I really really liked it. Like almost started it over from the beginning so I could fully enjoy it. Multiple interconnected stories, NYC setting (NYC in the 1800s anyway), unique characters, and a mystery to solve.

Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein: A few of my friends have been reproducing and they all seem to be having daughters, so I felt it was my job to read up on this for them. It's an interesting look at the "princess" culture and Orenstein's own conflicted feelings after she had her daughter, who went full princess.

The Bullet by Marie Louise Kelly: A woman goes to the doctor for wrist pain and discovers there's a bullet in her neck. This opens a whole bunch of doors that were never meant to be opened about her past. Except the main character annoyed me to no end so that review will likely just end up being a bunch of sarcastic comments.

Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan: I did not expect to like this one as much as I did but I tore through it. Fish out of water rom com with a bunch of stupid rich people. The main characters are a bit boring but there is a huge cast of fun and shallow and materialistic and snobby and manipulative and catty people AND a setting I'm not super familiar with so there's lots of details of slang and local food.

So there you go. Some good stuff, some not-so-great stuff, some fiction, some non, a lot of ladies, way too many white people. Maybe I'll work on some of these actual reviews soon. But for now I'm going to go back to my coconut cream pie and TV.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Marquis is determined to be in the way of danger

I bet you're tired of me talking about Hamilton. Haha too bad. But let's shift gears slightly and talk about Lafayette. Specifically the new Sarah Vowell Lafayette in the Somewhat United States.
When I was giving this book a rating on Goodreads I almost gave it 5 stars, but then I thought about it and realized as a book it's really more 4 star and that extra star is really because it finally convinced me I need to listen to Hamilton and OMG THIS IS THE BEST THING EVER. And apparently biographies about figures from the revolution are my thing now? And how fortuitous to Vowell that she puts out this book right as Hamilton is blowing up. Well done.

I've liked Sarah Vowell ever since Alice sent me a copy of The Wordy Shipmates and thus it's fitting that I got this copy of Lafayette from her as well*.

Vowell said she began researching Lafayette back in 2003, when the US was throwing a hissy fit and doing things like renaming french fries "freedom fries" and other things that make me eye-roll. As she says
If the French had forgotten America's help in World War II - and they had not; they just opposed a preemptive war in the Middle East based on faulty intelligence that most Americans would end up regretting anyway - it seemed obvious that Americans had forgotten France's help in our war for independence in general and the national obsession with Lafayette in particular.
And I am in that group, cos I did not realize how much America really did owe France for their help during the revolution, to the point that it could be argued that France won the navel battle at Yorktown that allowed the Continental Army to win the war on land.

As the title suggests, the book focuses on Lafayette's interactions with the US, the insane lengths he went to to fight in the revolution and the work he did to bring guns and ships to an army that needed all the help it could get. Vowell also discusses lots of other important figures from the war (Rochambeau, Knox, Greene, Von Steuben) that I either never learned about or learned about but forgot (both equally possible, though I'll assume most of the fault is on the former).

Then of course she also paints a picture of the historical figures I do know that paints them in a much more human light. Like when "His Excellency" George Washington went off on General Charles Lee ("I'm a General, wheeeeeee!") for his retreat at the Battle of Monmouth.
General Charles Scott of Virginia, who had served with both Washington and Lee in the French and Indian War, claimed to hear the whole thing, getting a kick out of His Excellency's meltdown: "Yes, sir, he swore on that day till the leaves shook on the trees. Charming! Delightful! Never have I enjoyed such swearing, before or since. Sir, on that memorable day, he swore like an angel from Heaven."
It's easy to forget that people in history are just that: people. Lafayette was so young and acted like a kid in his early 20s. Because hey, Marquis or not, he was a kid in his early 20s. And then I realized how much of history is decided who people who were young and stupid, and I waiver between being terrified that THESE are the people deciding the fate of the world, but then also feeling better about society in general. Because they didn't screw things up too badly. As Vowell says: "That, to me, is the quintessential experience of living in the United States: constantly worrying whether or not the country is about to fall apart."

As I said at the top of this post, I gave this book 5 stars, though some of that is for Hamilton. I'd say the book is worth about 4 and 1/2 stars. It's entertaining in the way that Vowell books are, focusing on the human element of these historical figures. Very fun book and writing this I kind of want to read it again.

Gif rating:
*Unrelated to Lafayette but related to Sarah Vowell, Tom is also a Vowell fan. He recently read Assassination Vacation which led to the vaguely disturbing text "Reading the assassination book came in handy this morning." (He went on to clarify that he was able to sound smart by telling people the plaque they were looking at about the shooting of a president did NOT result in a death. Because the person was trying to shoot Teddy Roosevelt and haha, like bullets can stop him.)

Title quote from page 119

Vowell, Sarah. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States. Riverhead Books, 2015. ARC

Monday, March 7, 2016

Maybe the best definition of "investing" is "gambling with the odds in your favor"

My dad has been telling me I should read The Big Short ever since it was first published. This past Thanksgiving I finally agreed, in large part because I wasn't in the mood for Let The Right One In which was sitting on my Kindle and he had a copy to lend me. I was around 1/2 way through when I sent him the following email:
I'm enjoying the book and I think I can confidently say I'm even understanding a full quarter of what's going on.
That said, I will have questions. I just need to figure out what those questions are. So please, be prepared for an onslaught.
I was not coming at this with a lot of prior knowledge. As I started to come up with said inquiry attack I realized how little I really knew, which was actually why I wanted to write out all of my questions rather than have him try to explain it. Because before quizzing him, I wanted to see what I could find online. And then I started with Googling "subprime mortgage" which you might notice is pretty much what the entire book is about. I mean, I had an idea of what it was, context clues at all, but realized if pushed, I can't really define it confidently. I moved on from there to Google "mortgage bond" and then just "bond" and yeah. Just to paint the picture of how little I knew going into this.

Lewis manages to make the story a character driven one, which certainly helps with readability. He focuses on a group of men who realized long before the cracks began to show that the way banks were handling these subprime mortgages and bonds and CDOs that things were going to crash and crash big. They're the characters we're rooting for but they're not exactly heroes. They didn't cause the crash, but they certainly did nothing to prevent it. And, given the way they were investing, it was in their best interest for the crash to happen. They may have been (or said they were) disgusted by it, that it was fraud, etc. But they didn't alert anyone. That's not to say that anything they could have done would have made a difference,  but just an attempt would have been nice. I'm sure people that lost their houses are happy that these guys saw the crash coming and made a LOT of money off of it.

It's never entirely clear if the things that happened were because people were purposefully trying to screw people to get rich, or if they were just stupid. It seems like both, though leaning slightly more towards the "stupid" side, with people legit not understanding that things could get that bad.
How did the bet perform, for instance, using the assumption of losses generated by the most pessimistic Wall Street analysis? Up to that point, Hubler's bet had been "stress tested" for scenarios in which subprime pools experienced losses of 6%, the highest losses from recent history. Now Hubler's traders were asked to imagine what would become of their bet if losses reached 10%..."If losses go to ten percent there will be, like, a million homeless people." (Losses in the pools Hubler's group had bet on would eventually reach 40%.)
Then again, they talk about lending giant Household Finance Corporation offering fifteen-year, fixed-rate loans "bizarrely disguised as a thirty-year loan." It essentially would say, in theory, if you were making the same dollar payments over thirty years that you're actually paying over fifteen years your "effective rate" would be something WAY LOWER than what they were actually offering. They use the example of an effective rate of 7% that's actually something like a 12.5% rate.

Or, using my handy dandy excel formula, let's say someone decides to buy a $250K house with 5% down, take a look at the difference is in monthly payments:
30-year, 7% loan: $1,580.09
15-year, 7% loan: $2,134.72
15-year, 12.5% loan: $2,927.24
So yeah, this makes a bit of a difference in what you're actually paying each month. And by the way, I read this paragraph describing it in laymen's terms at least 20 times AND had other people read it and I'm still not 100% sure I'm following everything it's saying. Imagine some asshole lender who is purposefully trying to hide what they mean.

Obviously, this is still a confusing book, but Lewis manages to make it readable. It makes you pretty angry at banks and lenders and hedge funds, so be prepared for that.

Gif rating:

Title quote from page 256

Lewis, Michael. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine. Norton, 2010

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Happiness lengthens time

Similar to Revenge this is a collection of connected short stories, though the connections are minor. If we're going to compare the two, the biggest difference is Revenge was hard to put down and this was easy to fall asleep to. Also I finished this book back in December and it is now February and the amount of this book I remember is low. Oops.

The stories are quiet stories. Sometimes they're odd, sometimes they're sad, sometimes they're kind of boring. I remember snatches of stories. There's a woman who owns an antique store and she watches the customers, regular and strange, that come in. There's a woman who seems incapable of reading social cues and is constantly annoying her neighbors who do all they can to avoid her. There's a woman that gives pedicures and also spies on a neighbor. A "vegetable man" with a sick son.

Part of the issue might be that, in general, collections of short stories are a hard sell for me. Typically if they're all by one author (Revenge or stuff by Stephen King) there's a better chance I'll enjoy. But sometimes it can be hard to get into the story and by the time I'm finally on board, the story is over and I have to begin the process over again.

There was nothing I can think of that made me dislike the book. The writing is pretty and well-done, but wasn't enough to pull me through some of the slower parts. Towards the end I got more into the stories but then again, I can't really recall them now and even skimming through the book isn't bringing up too many memories.

Apologies that this is a useless review. I can't say that it's either good or bad. Mostly it just wasn't memorable.

Gif rating:
Title quote from page 54

Pearlman, Edith. Honeydew. Little Brown & Company, 2015.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

February Reading Wrap Up

OK, first up, biggest success of the month is finishing Hamilton. Wait, no, biggest success is seeing Hamilton, but finishing the book is a close second. My shoulder is pretty happy I won't be lugging that book around with me anymore. Otherwise things are same ol', same ol' here. Work is going, house is still standing (heat has remained on though there's a new leak in the basement we need to deal with). I'll need to start going through the books to start culling things down, but we'll see when I actually get around to that. But anyway, let's take a look at the stats

Total books finished
Hamilton by Ron Chernow
Church of Marvels by Leslie Parry
Cinderella Ate My Daughter: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Girlie-Girl Culture by Peggy Orenstein

Total pages read


Female authors

White authors

US authors

Book formats
paperback - 33%
ebook - 67%

Where'd I get the book
gift - 33%
Kindle - 67%


Review Books

Readalongs/Book Club picks

Blogger recos


Books by decade
2000s - 33%
2010s - 67%

Books by genre*
Biography - 33%
Mystery - 33%
Pop culture - 33%

Resolution books

Alright, so goal for next month is just "do better". That's a low bar. Let's see if I can jump it.

*When I can't figure out the genre, I look at how Amazon has organized it. Of course, Amazon puts things in multiple categories and I only put them in one, so then I just pick whichever one I feel like. Picking genres is hard.