Friday, March 20, 2015

Reading challenge books 6-10

Challenge: Read a book you can finish in a day.

Wonder by R. J. Palacio - A children's book about a boy born with a genetic condition that affects his appearance. When he switches from homeschool to a private school in 5th grade, there's a lot of adjustment necessary for him and the other students. A very positive book. (There is some mild profanity.)

Challenge: Read a book you own but have never read.

The Mabinogion, translated by Lady Charlotte Guest - A collection of very old Welsh stories. I wanted to read it because when I was young, one of my favorite series was the Prydain chronicles by Lloyd Alexander, which used names and ideas from Welsh folklore. The stories can get a little tedious in places, but it was interesting in a historical context.

Challenge: Read a book with a color in the title.

Blackout by Connie Willis - A time-travel novel with historians from 2060 getting trapped in 1940s London during the Blitz. The detail is amazing and makes the 1940s world seem very real. This is the first of two books and ends with nothing resolved. (Moderate profanity warning.)

Challenge: Read a book with more than 500 pages.

All Clear by Connie Willis - The conclusion to Blackout. Much more satisfying as the loose ends are tied up and things become more hopeful. The thing I like about this book is the underlying message that everyone can become a hero by doing their best, helping others and determinedly facing whatever challenges life presents them with. (Moderate profanity warning.)

Challenge: Read a book based entirely on its cover.

The Outsmarting of Criminals by Steven Rigolosi - The cover resembled the old PBS "Mystery" drawings by Edward Gorey and led me to pick the book up at the library. It's about a woman who retires and moves to a small town, hoping to take up a career as an amateur detective, and promptly finds a body in the basement of her new house. The premise is fun and the writing style is enjoyable and humorous, but in the last fourth of the book the plot became quite unbelievable and left me vaguely irritated with most of the characters. Lesson: Maybe don't read a book based entirely on its cover.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Reading challenge books 4 & 5

Challenge: Read a book originally written in another language.

Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino (translated from Italian)

A surreal set of short chapters about Marco Polo describing different cities (or the same city) to the emperor Kubla Khan. The writing ranges from beautiful to creepy, with a few off-color references.

Challenge: Read a classic romance.

Mansfield Park by Jane Austen

It was really fun to read an Austen book I'd never read before. Even better, I had never heard anything about the plot at all, so it was all completely fresh. I had heard the name of the main character, Fanny Price. The book is about how she goes to live with her rich uncle and aunt, where she's treated as an inferior, and what happens when an unprincipled young man decides to woo her.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

Reading challenge book 3

Challenge: Read a book you started but never finished.

Profiles in Courage by John F. Kennedy

I started this one a few years ago but only read about 50 pages, so I was glad to have an extra push to read the whole thing. It's a collection of short biographies of United States senators who showed exceptional courage in standing up for what they felt was best for the nation. Most of them were ridiculed and threatened, and many were forced out of politics. So the book is both a history lesson and a reminder of the importance of moral integrity even in the face of pressure.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Reading challenge book 2

Challenge: Read a book that scares you.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson

Not only is the writing creepily effective, but the ideas themselves are scary, though important. Do we all have evil inside us? Is it a separate part of us? Can we control it? When we indulge it and it starts getting strong, how do we stop it? How responsible are we for what our Mr. Hyde side does?

Thursday, January 15, 2015

2015 Reading Challenge

In a moment of optimism, I joined a couple of reading challenges for 2015. One has 52 categories of books, the other has 12, and both let you choose your own books to fit those categories. I'm still finishing Shakespeare (Julius Caesar currently) but these challenges seemed like a good way to read some other books that I might not otherwise pick up. And here's the first one:

Challenge book #1 - A book with a number in the title

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan
The book the Hitchcock movie was (loosely) based on, written in 1915, and very influential in its genre. Richard Hannay learns of a plot that could lead to war. He goes on the run to escape the plotters, as well as the police who think he's a murderer, while figuring out what to do with his information. It's a short, fun, fast-paced thriller full of convenient coincidences that drive the story along. Quite enjoyable.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Continuing Education

2014 has been a good year for my education in at least three and a half ways. I want to write about them here, not to brag, but to cheer for myself moving from "kind of, sort of learning some stuff" to a more structured approach that seems to be making a difference.

1. My Spanish is getting better. Early in the year I took some community-ed Spanish classes where I had to get over my fear of trying out the language aloud in front of other students and a teacher who was a native speaker. Those have ended, but I've been using Duolingo to work on vocabulary and practice translation, and I'm starting to use some new strategies from Fluent Forever that should help even more.

2. A few months ago I got our old family accordion repaired, got some instruction books, and started practicing. My family has been very patient (accordions are loud) and I'm having a lot of fun! The weirdest thing is that while it's always been hard-to-impossible for me to memorize piano music, accordion music is much easier to memorize. Which is good, because imagine having to turn pages during an accordion performance.

3. Early this year I was introduced to Coursera, a platform for MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) where you can sign up and take classes from universities all over the world for free. They're not for credit, of course, and usually not as rigorous as a regular undergraduate class, but they're a fun way to explore different subjects and get some brain exercise. Most of them run for 6 to 12 weeks, and my biggest problem has been trying not to sign up for too many at once. Here's what I've finished this year:

The Science of the Solar System (Caltech) - Serious science class with an amazing (and famous) instructor, Mike Brown (also known as Plutokiller). My second favorite so far.

Songwriting (Berklee College of Music) - This one was fun and took me way out of my comfort zone (I had to post my singing online for strangers to listen to).

Vital Signs: Understanding What the Body Is Telling Us (University of Pennsylvania) - All the things the doctor checks when you go in for a physical, explained.

Fantasy and Science Fiction: The Human Mind, Our Modern World (University of Michigan) - I liked reading sci-fi classics like Frankenstein and Dracula, but I didn't like writing essays and trying to come up with something meaningful to say. That's one thing I don't miss about college.

Programming for Everybody (University of Michigan) - Easy introduction to the Python programming language.

Pre-Calculus (University of California, Irvine) - A great review of algebra and trigonometry and all that fun math I haven't used in years.

Fundamentals of Music Theory (University of Edinburgh) - Not the best-thought-out class (it got really difficult really fast) but it was fun to listen to the instructors.

Developing Your Musicianship (Berklee College of Music) - Some basic music theory, demonstrated by a super fun teacher who's clearly enjoying every minute, leading up to learning how to write and play a 12-bar blues.

Copyright for Educators & Librarians (Duke University and others) - Very specific topic that was actually quite interesting.

Learning How to Learn (University of California, San Diego) - Fairly good class with some good ideas about more effective studying and learning.

An Introduction to Interactive Programming in Python (Rice University) - My very favorite class so far. Each week we had a game to program, getting more and more complicated and ending with an Asteroids game - here's mine. (Of course they gave us step-by-step help and provided the sounds and graphics, but still, it was really fun to write the code and get it to work correctly.)

Introduction to Guitar (Berklee College of Music) - I gave this 6-week guitar course a good effort and can now say I have tried guitar. Back to accordion for me.

Social Psychology (Wesleyan University) - Quite a good overview of this subject, with lots of video interviews of well-known psychologists and clips from famous and infamous experiments.

Think Again: How to Reason and Argue (Duke University) - Logic, fallacies, evaluating deductive and inductive arguments.

How Things Work (University of Virginia) - Basic mechanics (physics) using everyday examples. I just finished this one today.

I'm kind of amazed at how long that list has gotten, just from spending some time on classes most evenings instead of watching TV.

3.5. The half is for the Shakespeare reading. Apparently my goal of reading all the plays in one year was a little ambitious, but I'm more than half finished and still going (The Merry Wives of Windsor, currently) so I know I'll get there eventually. And then on to Dickens, I think.