Sunday, August 4, 2013

Book Reviews: Weekly Round Up

With two hours on the train daily for my work commute I enjoy a great deal of leisurely reading. Had a bit of drama midweek when I realized I left my Nook (the eBook reader sold by Barnes and Noble) on the train. Crossed my fingers and prayed that someone turned it in to lost and found, but no such luck. Friday rolled around and I can’t be without my books for long, so I forgave my carelessness and ordered myself a Kindle Paperwhite eReader (I was very happy with my Nook but B&N is discontinuing them, acknowledging that Amazon has won the market share war for eReaders). Here’s a summary of what I’ve been reading since last weekend:

A Continual Feast by Evelyn Birge Vitz

I have owned this cookbook for many years, and rely on it heavily – not so much for the recipes per se (although they are perfectly adequate) but for the liturgical calendar details included in the text. Ms. Vitz has grouped recipes together along the following lines: recipes for days of rejoicing and celebration, ordinary daily recipes, recipes for offering Christian hospitality to others, fasting recipes (typically light and simple meals without meat), recipes and menus for the major Christian feasts of the year, and traditional recipes that honor the great saints of our faith season by season. Along with the recipes, Ms. Vitz provides a detailed accounting of the history and traditions of these feasts and saints. It’s a fascinating way to beef up on our liturgical calendar knowledge and I really enjoy moving through the seasons and serving recipes that have been associated with these feasts and saints for hundreds if not thousands of years. Anyone who loves God and loves cooking with enjoy this book that marries the two perfectly. I’ve given a copy to many of my friends and it never disappoints.

The Red Queen Dies by Frankie Y Bailey

This book is due to hit booksellers in September. I received an advanced copy to review by the publisher. I was looking forward to diving into the novel as I always enjoy a detective story. The pacing started off a bit slow and there was something about Bailey’s prose that annoyed me just a wee bit but overall the book was perfectly adequate. As the story progressed, the suspense grew stronger and I found it to be more engaging. Some novels strike an emotional cord so deeply among readers that the soul and memory are marked forever by having read the book. This is not one of those novels. The reality is that less than a week after I finished the book I was unable to remember anything substantial of the plot, placing The Red Queen Dies squarely into the category of mindlessly entertaining. And there’s nothing wrong with that – sometimes you just want to get your hands on an entertaining distraction and books like this fit the bill.

Numbersense by Kaiser Fung

I was really drawn to this non-fiction selection by Fung because I work in the IT industry and my specialty is analytics. Numbersense promises to be the book that reconciles Big Data and business decisions, guiding readers into harnessing data to answer important questions. While I found the book to be well written and technically accurate, it left me with a bit of confusion. Fung spends a good portion of the book illustrating how data scientists in the pocket of marketers can manipulate the story told by the underlying raw data through careful selection and application of specific statistical procedures and quantifications that don’t lie per se but simply give impressions that other procedures and quantifications might contradict. Lesson learned: Don’t just trust the data scientists; always, always have a look at the raw data and review the statistical methods used so that you can get the whole picture instead of just what the data scientists presenting the data want you to see. Ok, good. But Fung goes on to detail in later chapters examples in which raw data, on the whole, turns out to be entirely misleading because there is too much “noise” in the quantifications to get a realistic understanding of the relationships between the variables. In these examples, he shows readers clearly that actionable information can only be extracted from the raw data by carefully selecting and applying the best statistical procedures and quantifications for the given questions we are trying to ask of our data. Lesson learned: sometimes looking at the raw data is not helpful at all and you need to rely on skilled data scientists to select the right procedures and quantifications to make sense of the data. And now we are left with two lessons that are in potential conflict. Which of course begs the question, how are members of the intended audience – business folks without a deep statistical background- supposed to know whether the raw data is:

     A. going to be useful in helping us determine whether our data scientists are clever little devils gaming us

    or 

    B. too scary and noisy to tell us anything unfiltered and we need to trust our data scientists to intelligently apply the “right” procedures and quantifications to make sense of it all for us

If Fung, who is by all impressions, a brilliant thinker and writer, can address this question in a revision of the original text, I’d be much more comfortable reclassifying Numbersense as a handy go-to guide on making sense of Big Data instead of a light and interesting read on some fascinating ways people in marketing, sports, and academia have manipulated data to their advantage.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford

A couple of months ago I received an advanced review copy of Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford and I loved it so much that I wanted to get my hands on his first novel (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet) as soon as possible. I purchased Hotel last week and once I picked it up to read, I started crying somewhere along chapter two and couldn’t stop until I reached the end. As good as Willow Frost was, Hotel is even better. The novel puts us in Seattle at the height of World War II, in the home of Henry Lee, a second generation Chinese boy who just happens to be sweet on a third generation Japanese girl (otherwise considered the mortal enemy by his father). Against the backdrop of war and the movement to unconscionably transfer Japanese Americans to internment camps, Henry and Keiko forge a friendship that changes them both forever. I’m a sucker for love and hope and happy endings and Mr. Ford delivers perfectly on all three in this novel. He also manages to speak to the father-son dynamic present in all societies, the conflicts that arise from war (who is the enemy?) and the racial tensions in the early 20th century in America. Pretty impressive coverage for one novel. Reading this book left me satisfied and happy and I really hope he options this for a screenplay if he hasn’t already.

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