Book Review: the curious incident of the dog in the night-time

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This is such an amazing book by Mark Haddon! It’s been kind of a slow reading month for me but I still really enjoyed this and definitely recommend it. I actually bought this book several years ago and it just sat on my bookshelf, untouched until last month, when I browsed my bookshelf looking for something to read, while guiltily staring at a stack of books I had just purchased on Book Depository (free shipping worldwide!).

I read a few chapters every few days before going to bed, and it was hard to figure out which chapter I was really reading because the chapters are numbered using prime numbers, which was not explained until chapter 19 or cardinal chapter 8. I thought it was strange to start with chapter 2 and even thought maybe the chapters are out of order or something!

The story is told from Christopher’s perspective. He is autistic and lives on rules, patterns, routines and cannot easily adapt to changes in the environment or surroundings. The way he describes the situations and interactions that happen around him are so matter-of-fact that they sometimes feel comedic and amusing to the reader, even though to Christopher, he has no emotional reaction at all to them. The way his brain works is truly fascinating and he often thinks about difficult mathematical problems to calm himself down when he feels distressed or uncomfortable.

I love the diagrams throughout the book showing how he sees signs, symbols, words, patterns, puzzles etc. It really gives you a deeper understanding of what it is like for an autistic person to live and function in our world.

The most exciting part of the story is when Christopher leaves his home in Swindon, where he lives with his father, and tries to go to London on his own to find his mother. He repeatedly asks the same questions as he does not understand common expressions or sarcasm and makes you feel frustrated at times. I can totally understand why his parents or other passersby react the way they do to him. It isn’t easy communicating with an autistic person. This book really helps readers to gain a better understanding of their world and how their brains work.

I completely failed to understand the whole math problem he solved in the Appendix; but I just loved how he said that Siobhan had told him to put it in the Appendix because it wasn’t very interesting and not many people would want to read that! Well, she was right!

My favourite problem has to be The Monty Hall Problem, though. I read that part several times and his illustration really helps!

The Monty Hall Problem illustration
The Monty Hall Problem illustration

(The book is similar to The Rosie Project series, where the protagonist Don suffers from Asperger’s but doesn’t seem to be aware of it. I have also bought The Rosie Result on Kindle so will probably start reading that soon too.)

See my Goodreads review

Book Review: Educated

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There was so much hype surrounding this book, I decided to read it too. It was even highly recommended by Bill Gates and Barrack Obama!

educatedHere is my condensed book review on Goodreads of Educated by Tara Westover:

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It was slow start for me but I couldn’t put it down when I got to Part 3. Her childhood was horrific and unsettling to read. I had to take breaks in between to digest. Tara suffered so much physical and emotional abuse as a child. However, as she describes those events, she attributed her strength, courage, perseverance and character to them. The way she just laughed off having her head pushed down the toilet made me cringe. When everyone around her tried to get her to see how abusive and broken her family was, she would time and time again return to them and ask them for help. There were times when her family surprised everyone by encouraging her, paying for dance lessons, driving her to auditions and rehearsals, then suddenly completely turn their back on her and cutting her out of the family. Time and time again, she returned home to attempt at reconciling with her family.

Her father was described as a survivalist with extremist views of the Government, even believing the Illuminati had infiltrated them, and later as having symptoms of bipolar disorder. His belief that his faith in God was enough to save him (even when he was badly burned with charred skin, he refused to go to a hospital) made me wonder if we should really refuse help from others when offered and say “God will save me!” Doesn’t God work through other people as well? I don’t think God ever said not to accept help from others. (But then, I read that he was willing to take Peter, Shawn’s newborn son to the hospital when he was born. What changed?) Are we really to cut off communication with non-believers who don’t agree with our beliefs? Aren’t we supposed to grow in community and not isolate ourselves from others, even if they are Gentiles? Are Mormons reading a different Bible – did they miss the whole part about Jesus in the New Testament? Perhaps it was a mental illness after all, which exacerbated his narrow beliefs. As I was reading, I found myself continually thanking God for blessing me with a loving and caring family, allowing me to grow up with an education and balanced world-view, and taking me to see the doctor whenever I was sick.

It frustrated me when her family told her to forgive Shawn and take her father’s blessing in order to be accepted back into the family. God does tell us to forgive others as He forgives us; to show grace and mercy. But He doesn’t withhold His love or blessings. A part of me wanted Tara to show forgiveness and take his blessing and be welcomed back into the family (they are her family after all), and another part of me wanted her to get justice – report them, sue them, something. What actually happened was estrangement from half of her family. Her attempt at reconnecting with her mother was met with rejection because her mother refused to see her without her father. I can’t imagine how much further damage the release of this book had caused to their relationship. Tara is only in contact with three of her siblings, the ones who had also left their home in Buck’s Peak and gotten an education themselves. (From a so-called ‘uneducated’ upbringing, never stepping foot in a school, it is miraculous that, not one, but three of them were able to get a PhD.)

I was surprised to read that the family lawyer (they have a family lawyer but refused to see doctors… ok) advised readers to read the story with a grain of salt and that the Westovers would not take any legal action against Tara because they love her and don’t want to hurt her. Perhaps there is some hope for reconciliation in the future? I would like to hear the other family members’ side of the story, maybe from Tyler or Richard.

The feeling I got while reading her memoir was that everything seemed so matter-of-fact and lacked emotion. Perhaps this was because she is an academic and used to writing academic papers? Nonetheless, it was a very well-written and detailed memoir. I like the way she organised and structured the chapters as well, describing specific events as a whole and the effects they had on her life, rather than a chronological year-by-year account.

It did make me think about whether or not I should pursue further studies and apply for a PhD. I have more resources than Tara ever had and she could do it! We are even the same age! Unlike her father, mine would have been extremely proud and ecstatic if I got a PhD. My mum would definitely be more than happy. Well, we shall see… it’s not like I have any ideas about topics to research at the moment.

Have you read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments.

Here is a video of an interview Tara did on PBS NewsHour if you want to know more about her.

Disclaimer: I apologize if you haven’t read this book and don’t know or understand what I’m talking about, but I wrote it for those who have also read it and hopefully share similar thoughts or feelings.

Book Review: Eats, Shoots & Leaves

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Here is my book review of ‘Eats, Shoots & Leaves’ by Lynne Truss:

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Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

Sticklers unite! I never thought I’d enjoy a book about punctuation as much as I did. I could have easily read it in one sitting but I took a break after the introduction because it felt like it would never end! I mean, it was over thirty pages long! The chapters that followed were much more interesting and entertaining, and deeply informative. I never imagined that I would get excited reading a book about punctuation!

Truss writes with humour, conviction, authority, and shamelessly shames those who don’t know the difference between a comma and an apostrophe (yes, they exist!), and misplace apostrophes in contractions, plurals (unnecessarily adding them, i.e. banana’s – banana’s what?) and possessives. She explains, in great detail, when and how to use various punctuation marks with numerous literary examples. She even provides a historical background for each of them! I was surprised to learn that George Bernard Shaw once campaigned to reform the spelling of the English language (most notably ‘bomb’ into ‘bom’, because, well, it just saves time!) and even to abolish the use of inverted commas and italics font for titles.

I’d thought I knew the difference between a colon and a semicolon, but after reading the twenty-nine-page chapter titled ‘Airs and Graces’, I learned that there was more to their story than I had originally thought. I did try teaching the colon and semicolon to my students once and immediately thought better of it, then swiftly removed the items from the syllabus. It’s one thing to say you understand the difference, it’s quite another to teach it. Well, I never tried again. One of the reasons Truss says people use for not mastering the colon and semicolon is that “The difference between them is too negligible to be grasped by the brain of man”, which literally made me laugh out loud and choke on my own saliva! And I definitely will be rereading that chapter again, more than once if I have to!

Punctuation has always fascinated me; I even campaigned to include punctuation worksheets and exercises for students during my time as an English panel-chairperson (though a somewhat short-lived role). It deeply frustrated and irritated me when students (and even my fellow colleagues, who were native speakers, mind you!) consistently misused you’re/ your, it’s/ its, they’re/ their and the like. I highly recommend this book to them!

Well, I tremendously enjoyed reading all about punctuation – the history, function and usage – and how important they are to language and communication. I will surely be paying close attention to punctuation from now on (not that I hadn’t already before). I did, at times, find Truss rather obnoxious and snobbish, arrogantly sitting on her high-horse while silently mocking or yelling at greengrocers, editors and a poor old pen-pal named Kerry-Anne. It can come off as either incredibly pretentious or utterly hilarious.

Have you read this book? What did you think about it? Let me know in the comments.

Get the book here!

Book Review: Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us

 

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Click to see Goodreads review

I just finished reading ‘Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us’ by Daniel H. Pink, and though the truth isn’t all that surprising, we have not made many changes in the classroom or the workplace to motivate people. How do you create an environment that promotes intrinsic motivation? What motivates you?

We may not realize this but the dangling carrots of the ‘if-then’ contingency is causing us more harm than good. Numerous studies have shown that when rewards are given in an ‘if-then’ contingency, human performance worsens, they take longer to complete a task and even crushes creativity.

Humans seem to perform even better when the rewards or the dangling carrots are removed. They are intrinsically motivated. The best example is the Wikipedia phenomenon, where everything is written completely voluntarily for nothing in return, no incentive, no reward, yet it is now the most widely contributed and widely used encyclopedia worldwide since Encarta – a paid service, with limited articles which quickly become outdated. Their contributors may be more qualified and professional and knowledgeable, as they are paid to write the articles. Wikipedia, on the other hand, allows anyone to contribute articles easily to their site and is continually updated by the public. Their information and sources may not be as accurate as Encarta, but this doesn’t stop anyone from using it for quick references.

Open source is such a successful business model now that it is baffling to economists how they continue to sustain themselves when people work for free, offer the product free for the public when it actually costs contributors their own money to do the work! Why? It’s all about intrinsic motivation. We find enjoyment, fulfillment and purpose in the work, that we do not need external rewards to motivate us.

Though the truth is not all that surprising, it is frustrating that we do not implement what we know to be true in the workplace or the classrooms. It is so easy for us to fall back to the carrot and stick, reward and punishment model even though we know it doesn’t work.

Just Do Something!

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I’ve been thinking a lot about what I should do with my life; this isn’t anything new really. I found myself thinking I was meant for more than this and started reading books on finding my purpose and how to live out God’s plan for my life. I was constantly reminded of the verse from Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” I had no idea what I should do, when and how. I was even struggling to decide which volunteer role I should take at church. I was continually praying to God to reveal his plans to me. I never heard from him but I did come across this book called ‘Just Do Something: A Liberating Approach to Finding God’s Will’ by Kevin DeYoung. It popped up as a recommendation after I read ‘Why Church Matters’ by Joshua Harris. DeYoung would say that it’s total baloney to say that it is God’s will for me to read this book. That was even what I had thought when I bought it! Well, he completely changed my way of thinking about God’s will from that first page.

To expect God to speak to us and reveal his plans for us is foolish. Yes, God has, on numerous occasions throughout the Bible, spoken to people about his will for them. But this is not the norm. They were very rare occasions and none of them had asked God to tell them.

We over-spiritualize everything in our lives and often forget to live our lives due to our fear of doing the wrong thing or making the wrong decisions or disappointing God. We delay making even the most simple and straightforward decisions (non-moral decisions) because we are waiting for God to tell us what to do, when in fact, God has no obligation to reveal his plans or his will for us. His only desire for us to be live for God, obey the scriptures, be holy, love Jesus and think of others before ourselves. If we do all these things, we can do whatever else we like, with whomever we like and wherever we like because we will already be walking in the will of God. God or Scripture will never tell us which job to take or which house to buy or which person to marry.

The fact that I was willing to volunteer at church is already walking in God’s will because anything that serves his purposes is good. So why did I need to complicate the matter and think so much about the decision? There is no right or wrong choice in this decision! Whatever I decide to do, the outcome is the same. This is a non-moral decision. I will not harm anyone or cause trouble in doing so. This book made me realize how silly my thinking was!

So I made several bold, non-moral decisions to serve at church. Now, I need to do the same for my career, education and relationships. God gave us free will to make our own decisions and become self-sufficient human beings, not so we would become cowards and wait for everything to be handed to us or to be told what to do. We are not God’s puppets.

What we need to pray for is not for God to tell us what to do, but pray for wisdom to make our own decisions and not be afraid to take risks or fail. If we must fear something, fear God, not the future.

 

‘The Art of Travel’ by Alain de Botton

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I don’t know what I expected when I bought this book. At the time, I was browsing a bookstore for books for my father; I wasn’t really thinking of buying anything for myself. But then the title of this book just got my attention. The Art of Travel – is there an art to travelling? I was intrigued. I had wanted to embark on new journeys around the world for months and eventually, I decided to take a break from work to do it. I packed up my desk after nine years of teaching and told my colleagues I would not be back in the new academic year. I want to experience and explore more. I want to appreciate what the world has to offer and not be stuck in the same place, for what would be the tenth year of my teaching career. I still have so much more I want to do and learn and places I want to go and see; and life doesn’t wait for you – you have to make it happen. So I made it happen. And this book is now going to teach me how to truly travel, understand the cultures around the world, notice the little things and observe what is going on around me, really take in the sights, and just be generally happier on my journeys.

At first, I did not really understand the concept and structure of this book. The format and layout is not like what I was used to reading. There are five main chapters – Departure, Motives, Landscape, Art, and Return. In each chapter, he breaks it down into sub themes with the relevant places that he visited that inspired his writings, and a guide that guided him to experience the different aspects of his travels in a more meaningful way. Within each theme, he divides it into numbered sections and chunks. I did not know where it was going and there was no story to it. But I kept trying. The key message I got from it was how we feel and think when we travel is just as important, if not more so, than what we see and do when we get to our destination. There really is an art to travelling and de Botton has put into words something we have all thought during our travels, but never made the effort to record or write them down. I never thought about travelling in such a way. Every time after a trip, I come back feeling a little empty and the memories of the places I had visited slowly fade away. I never documented or wrote about what I had experienced because I didn’t really understand what that experience was – what was the purpose of it? After every trip, I come back with hundreds, sometimes thousands of photos from my digital camera, most of which I would never look at again. I select some I think are ‘post-worthy’ and upload them on various social media sites and the rest remain on my SD card or computer. Is this my purpose for travelling? What have I even learned from this trip? I realized I needed to change my whole mindset and stop thinking about what’s next or what photo would impress my friends or what souvenirs I should get, and really appreciate the moment, the present scene, the feeling in my skin, the thoughts running through my mind. Let your mind take you on a journey as well.

I also developed a deeper understanding of God when he discussed the misfortunes of Job in the chapter about sublime landscapes. The universe is so vast and mysterious, we will never understand why things happen the way they do. With Job as a guide, we are led to discovering the sublime and the beautiful. God explains to Job that the world is unfair, but when we encounter sublime places, “see how small you are next to the mountains.” We must realize that we are merely “playthings of the forces that laid out the oceans and chiselled mountains… Our life is not the measure of all things: consider sublime places a reminder of human insignificance and frailty.” And if we spend time in such places, “they may help us to accept more graciously the great unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.” We are a part of the earth; that is what God created us from. In the end, we must accept our fate that we become one with the earth’s foundation. As we look at such sublime landscapes, we become fascinated and begin to wonder about a greater majestic power, a force so great and divine that we can only conclude is the work of an almighty God. We are merely dust in His creation.

When we travel, we are always worried about what we will do when we get there, yet when we get ‘there’, we are not really ‘there’. We are worrying about our next destination or next stop and never truly present in the moment. This book teaches us to forget everything we know about how to travel from the guidebooks we read. To truly be present in the moment, we need to develop a different mindset. Are we really seeing what is there in front of us when we arrive at tourist spots with our cameras and selfie sticks? Do we really understand what the building, tower, castle, monument, mountains, lakes, etc. represent and why they are special to the city? Why did we choose this destination and not that one? How many photos do we need to take to be satisfied that we have documented evidence that we were in fact present at this place? These were the questions that popped into my mind as I was reading this book. No photo can capture what we see before our eyes. So just enjoy the moment and appreciate the sublime and beautiful world.

De Botton describes each scene so vividly using the teachings and philosophies of various artists and writers that leaves you amazed and ashamed at the same time. I started to reflect on my recent trip to Osaka, during which I finished reading the final 50 pages on the flight back to Hong Kong. I regret not finishing it earlier so that I could practise some of what de Botton suggests – drawing or sketching, writing or word painting as a way to remember the sights. It doesn’t matter if you are not an artist, we can all become one and everyone has the ability to pay attention to beauty. No artist is able to fully capture the magnificent landscape, not even the renowned Van Gogh. You can only select certain details and that choice varies from artist to artist. They do not simply reproduce. The key is on seeing and not capturing. As we write about a place, we can also in some way ‘possess beauty’ through understanding it. Though, I have never tried word painting, de Botton did and realizes his own limitations and expresses that, “Attractive places typically render us unaware of our inadequacies with language.” I found this quite ironic for a writer of his calibre.

Reading this book was a journey in itself. I never thought about noticing how letters look on the signs at airports, or the minor details of a carpet, a train compartment or a hotel room until I read this. One of the most memorable parts of the book was the last chapter on Return, in which he suggests being a traveller in your own room – a novel idea inspired by Xavier de Maistre’s first book, ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’. We are always searching for new destinations to travel to but we seem unable to appreciate our own home. In fact, having lived in Hong Kong for so many years, I still don’t think I know this city very well. There are so many places I haven’t explored or thought to visit. Travel does not have to involve long distance flights or train rides to foreign cities or countries. You can travel around your own home or simply to the building across the road and discover something you didn’t know before.

The most important takeaway from this book is best summarised by this quote, “The pleasure we derive from journeys is perhaps dependent more on the mindset with which we travel than on the destination we travel to.”