Book Reviews

It must be the lazy days of summer, but I am way too tired to even think of an entertaining story about our lives as ex-pats today. My only thought today is about moths: why is it when they are outside, I refer to them as butterflies and giggle as my toddler innocently runs after them, but when they are inside they are terrifying creatures that inspire fear and disgust in ways I only usually encounter in nightmares? Why are you hiding in my lamp?

Anyway, I’m also too lazy to be doing any much of reading, but here’s my latest book list. Including are my absolute favourite books by my absolute favourite children’s author, so pay attention.

The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, by Nassim Nicholas Taleb

Book description: A black swan is a highly improbable event with three principal characteristics: It is unpredictable; it carries a massive impact; and, after the fact, we concoct an explanation that makes it appear less random, and more predictable, than it was. 

The astonishing success of Google was a black swan; so was 9/11. For Nassim Nicholas Taleb, black swans underlie almost everything about our world, from the rise of religions to events in our own personal lives.

Why do we not acknowledge the phenomenon of black swans until after they occur? Part of the answer, according to Taleb, is that humans are hardwired to learn specifics when they should be focused on generalities.

We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know. We are, therefore, unable to truly estimate opportunities, too vulnerable to the impulse to simplify, narrate, and categorize, and not open enough to rewarding those who can imagine the “impossible.”

For years, Taleb has studied how we fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we actually do. We restrict our thinking to the irrelevant and inconsequential, while large events continue to surprise us and shape our world. Now, in this revelatory book, Taleb explains everything we know about what we don’t know. He offers surprisingly simple tricks for dealing with black swans and benefiting from them.

Elegant, startling, and universal in its applications ‘The Black Swan’ will change the way you look at the world. Taleb is a vastly entertaining writer, with wit, irreverence, and unusual stories to tell. He has a polymathic command of subjects ranging from cognitive science to business to probability theory.

My review: It took me awhile to get into this, and awhile to be able to completely come around to Taleb’s thinking. He states that because black swans come out of nowhere, we can’t plan for them, nor can we really understand what caused them in the first place (please understand that this is a gross simplification by my summer-muddled mind). My major hiccup is that everything is caused by SOMETHING – it really irked me to think that we weren’t allowed to think about what brought about major world issues, because obviously they were brought around by something. Taleb eventually addressed this, saying pretty much that, yes, things that happen are caused by other things, but we’re not really likely to know exactly what and it seems unlikely that we’ll be able to figure out the next thing that happens so why worry about it. There was a lot of the : why worry about it, I felt, in this book. That’s what I got out of it. It’s totally hopeless to predict a black swan, so don’t bother. Just don’t be surprised when it does happen.

The only real practical advice that comes from this book has to do with investing (Taleb’s background). Basically, it goes against the principle that many investors and major banks use – investing in medium risk portfolios. This opens you up to all the trauma that happens when the market crashed (o, hi, 2008) and none of the positive effects that could happen from a Black Swan. Instead, you should keep most of your money as secure as possible – like, basically, locked up in your sock drawer. The rest, put in many very high-risk propositions, on the off-chance that one of them might be a wildly successful black swan. Who’s going to be the next Google? Nobody knows … that’s the point.

Trickster’s Choice and Trickster’s Queen, by Tamora Pierce

Book description: Alianne is the teenage daughter of the famed Alanna, the Lioness of Tortall. Aly is bold and brave like her mother, but she has no wish to become a knight. Instead she longs to follow in her father’s footsteps as a spy, an ambition her parents vehemently oppose.

After a furious argument Aly runs away, with disastrous consequences. Captured and sold as a slave in the Copper Isles, she discovers that this whole nightmare has not come about by chance – the Trickster God, Kyprioth, has plans for her…

Aly: no longer just a master spy, but a master of spies. Can she balance her passion for justice and her compassion for others, and at what cost?

Sarai: beautiful, dramatic, and rash – will she fulfill the role chosen for her by destiny?

Dove: she has always stood in Sarai’s shadow. Can she prove to the world that she herself is a force to be reckoned with?

Nawat: half crow, half man. He wants Aly for his life mate, but will the revolution make that impossible as they step into new roles to change the future?

My review: Okay, these are just my favourite children’s books. That actually includes most of Tamora Pierce’s books. She was the author who made me love reading, and I know a lot of readers have that one book or author that made them go: oh! I get how great this is. I was eight, and reading well above my grade level, but hadn’t yet found books that excited me. I was always referred to books that were incredibly dull or babyish (or got shooed out of the adult section) so I was ready to turn my back on the whole thing, which would have been very disappointing. Then an amazing librarian came along and realized how bored I was with what was being given to me, and brought me a thicker book than I was used to: Alanna: The First Adventure. I think maybe it was a little bit mature for an eight year old, although nowadays probably not, kids read WAY cooler books at a younger age than we were ever allowed to back in my day and I’m a little jealous and also am realizing how much I’m dating myself. Anyway, I jumped into that first series by Pierce, and have never looked back when it came to being a reader. The moral of this story is librarians are awesome and powerful and life-changing, so don’t underestimate them. (Hi, librarian friends!) Also, later on in life I got the chance to work with that awesome librarian and she’s totally kind of a little bit my hero. Yes, my heroes are librarians.

Anyway, this book duet came out much later, based on the same world as that initial book I fell in love with – following the adventures of Alanna’s daughter, Aly. They are more mature than the other books, I think, I’d place them solidly in the YA category. They are all about international espionage and war strategizing with a healthy dose of fantasy in there as well. I love the Aly character, she is so badass and smart and reading these books makes me feel a little badass and smart, so it’s doing its thing as a book and I love that. If you have kids, I totally recommend ANYTHING by Pierce, she is really talented. I love to share all of what she does.

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