Best Books of 2016

After a year full of reading and a total of 55 books finished, I am so excited to finally be able to talk about my favorite books of the year. To switch things up a bit, I made a video to properly talk about why I loved all of these books so much.

Books Mentioned:

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho

Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Use These 3 Tips and Become a Library Power User

I absolutely adore libraries, and in the past few years I’ve been a member of four awesome libraries. But it wasn’t until recently that I started to realize all of the amazing services they offered. From digital tools like free streaming and music downloads to actual power tools and musical instruments, libraries around the country are getting creative with what they have available for patrons. Now that I have the 411 on all of this cool stuff, I’m using my library more than ever. Not every library will have the same services, but it is worth taking a look, you may be surprised. Here are my tips on how to get the most from your local library:

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  1. Holds, holds, holds. One of the keenest pleasures of going to the library for a book is browsing, unbothered through the stacks and stacks of books. But if you are anything like me, that takes time that you don’t always have. Rather than forgoing your trip, put your book on hold and it will be right at the front of the library when you need it, waiting just for you.

If your library has multiple branches, holds can also help you utilize more of the books they have available (as well as DVD’s and even CD’s in many places). If you search for a book in the library catalogue you can choose books from other branches and have them delivered to your library to pick up. How convenient is that?

Sometimes you hear about a popular title, and have to wait forever on a holds list to get your hands on it. But, if you know in advance that an author you love is coming out with a new book, or have heard buzz about a hot new release, you can usually put it on hold ahead of the release date in the catalogue and beat the rush. To the top of the list you go!

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  1. Check the website. This is the place where you can find what digital resources your library has to offer. Chances are, if you want to check out e-books, they will be available through services like Overdrive and 3M Cloud Library. In fact, 95% of American libraries now have e-books. Free services like Hoopla also allow you to stream movies, TV shows, and audiobooks. With the rise in popularity of audiobooks, more and more services are popping up to allow you to listen to books for free, wherever you like. Spending a few minutes browsing your library’s website will show you the many new ways you can experience you favorite stories.

Digital services don’t stop there though. Online magazine subscriptions, free, legal music downloads, and even Android apps are all possibilities. Right now I’m crushing on Freegal, a free music service from my library. It lets me download six songs a week, and has a great selection of new music and old favorites. For years my iPod has been filled with music that wasn’t always above reproof. And the sketchiness of my methods made me hesitant to update with the latest songs. But now my music library is full and happy again :).

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  1. Don’t limit yourself to one library. You may be thinking that this all sounds great, but there’s no way your library has any of these cool services. While I would encourage you to give your hard-working librarians a chance, you’re right that not every town has the same resources. However, I have found that libraries are increasingly teaming up to bring you the best stuff. Several libraries I have joined are part of an e-book collective with other area libraries, allowing more cities to use the system. Plus, you can often join a neighboring town’s library by being a part of the same county.

Beyond all of these great options, there is always the interlibrary loan system. It lets you check out hard to find materials from other libraries in a network that can reach across entire states. If you are lost as to where to find a book, try looking it up in WorldCat, and maybe it’s closer than you think.

 

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There is no one right way to use the library. If you still read only print books, or if you have gone totally digital, there are plenty of options for you to make the most of what your library offers. And while I hope you feel like you have learned a library hack or two, the best way to get the most out of your local library is to talk to our librarian. They are more than happy to help, and will be a wealth of knowledge.

Now it’s time to go forth and show libraries some love!

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Decisive Review: Can Decision-Making Be Improved?

I love reading non-fiction. At least half of everything I read is non-fiction. Sometimes, I’ll 6259977find a book I like on a particular subject and end up doing a deep dive with several more books. A recent example was decision science. After being completely fascinated by Malcolm Gladwell’s book Blink, I discovered that there is an entire academic field dedicated to studying decision-making. This lead me to pick up Decisive by Chip and Dan Heath.

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Like many other business and life help books, Decisive does not bury the lead. The framework the Heath brothers have developed is explained in the first chapter. However, the explanations and examples covered in the rest of the book were informative and helped me to understand how the framework could be applied.

Two of the principles from the book, I found myself applying in real life as I faced a decision about where to live. I had to look for housing online, so I was particularly concerned about making a good decision. One big idea was that you should avoid making yes/no decisions about a single idea. The best plan is to make a decision about the solution to a problem, with several options for what that solution might look like. So, in the case of finding a place to live, I focused on all of the possible types of housing I could look for, not approving one choice.

The book also had a lot of good information about how to find information. It went into a lot of detail in what kinds of questions to ask and examined why people often don’t get the answers they need. The authors offered evidence for why very specific questions are the most helpful. For example, ask, “how many times in the last two months could you not find a nearby place to park?” vs. “do you have problems with parking?”. I felt that this was extremely practical advice to takeaway from this book.

The writing in the book did a good job of breaking up passages on theory with interesting case studies and anecdotes. The Heath brothers infused a punchy sense of humor throughout the book as well that livened up the writing style. Clearly, the authors took pains to make sure that they informed the reader without being boring.

Recommending ‘helpful’ books can be tricky. It isn’t always obvious who will be open to advice. That’s why I can only say that I enjoyed this book as a reading experience, and I feel that I walked away having learned something I could apply to my own life. That’s my recommendation for you.

3450744What about you? Do you like non-fiction? Have you read any books about decision science? After Decisive and Blink, the next in my queue is Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. What’s next on your to-read pile?

What I Read in January

Winter break and the surge of productivity that comes with the start of a new year have left me feeling exhilarated. Specifically, I am super pumped about reading in 2016. My classes are scheduled to involve quite a bit of reading, but I powered through the first two novels assigned. Adding to my reading high are five (!) other books I finished this month. Usually, I am lucky to read two books a month. This may be a new personal best.

Before I dive back into the sea of school and job search, I wanted to take a minute to share my thoughts on these books. In the future I may write more about them, but I want to make sure I am getting real time thoughts out there about the books I am reading.

So, here are my January book reviews.

Hour of Mischief by Aimee Hyndman

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Starring an extremely feisty thief who goes on an end-of-the-world stopping adventure with the God of Mischief, this was a steampunk fantasy novel that I felt bridged the gap between young adult and “proper” adult really well. It was good, escapist fun. I liked that even amidst the fighting and shenanigans, there were some moments that did make me think. It’s the first in a series, so I look forward to the next release.

Funny story about the author: she and I actually went to high school together. Meaning I brag about her success to pretty much everyone. Totally unbiased though, I liked this book and if you are into fantasy you probably will too.

Alexander the Great by Peter Chrisp

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Yes, this was a picture book. But, I learned a lot that I didn’t know about Alexander the Great from it. Like that he named a city after his beloved horse Bucephalus. What I liked about the way this book was written was that it allowed the reader to make up their own mind about what kind of person Alexander the Great was. It gave the bad with the good and provided a variety of accounts and historical perspectives. Not bad for a picture book.

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

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Another fantasy novel. This time with witches and fairies and magical kingdoms. I saw the movie a long time ago, and remembered really liking it. After reading the book, I honestly preferred the movie. The plot, especially the end, was more exciting, and the supporting characters were better developed. But, the book did give a bit more back-story to help me understand the world. And the writing style was lovely. Neil Gaiman is a legend for a reason, and his writing was what shone in this book.

Leave Your Mark by Aliza Licht

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Recommended to me by my friend Ashleigh over at ashleighreads.com, this was a memoir/ career advice mash up from the senior vice president of PR at DKNY, Aliza Licht. The casual, chatty tone helped make the reading experience less like a lecture and more like a pep talk. Plus, Licht included lots of actionable advice for every stage of a career, from finding your passion, to navigating office politics. I definitely felt that this was the right book to be reading with graduation fast approaching.

Hyperbole and a Half by Allie Brosh

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If Leave Your Mark gave me actual advice for the future, Hyperbole and a Half was there to sympathize with me where I am now. This book was hilarious. I was laughing out loud at pretty much every chapter. But deep down, this book speaks so many truths. It doesn’t shy away from hard life-stuff. Instead it deals with it using superb humor.

For school I read Erec by Hartmann von Aue translated by J.W. Thomas and Sundiata by D. T. Niane. Both were written around 1200. Plot heavy and rich, I enjoyed the stories. Sundiata is the story of a young king who unites the kingdom of Mali. The political intrigue and many folktales were really interesting. Erec, on the other hand, deals with a medieval German knight who wins, loses, and regains his honor. The scope of Erec was less broad, but the character studies of him and his wife Enite were more in depth. This semester I will have the chance to read several more medieval romances and stories from the African continent. As they are both new topics for me, I am excited to see what is next.

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Reading makes me happy, so I am pleased as punch with January. All of these books were pretty good too. February is the shortest month, but I hope to keep my streak going. And please let me know what you have been reading lately. I would love recommendations.

January Reads

Groundswell Review

When picking up a book about online trends and technologies, I always look at the date it was published. The rate at which things move on the web makes even five years enough time for a book to become dated. So I had doubts when I saw Groundswell: Winning in a World Transformed by Social Technologies by Charlene Yi and Josh Bernoff was published in 2008. Eight years is an eternity on the inter-web. But, the book had been recommended to me by a professor, so I took the chance.

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The groundswell the book is constantly referring to is the mass of people online who are using social technologies like blogs, reviews, and forums to talk about companies and gather their own information. They represent the growing power of customers and individuals. Since the book was written, this trend has grown. People are banding together online in ever increasing numbers to threaten institutional power. The groundswell has grown much in the same way that it was predicted in the book. That is the real power of the book, that despite the number of years since it was published, its information is still relevant and compelling.

I actually liked that it was not quite up to date. The references to MySpace and Digg helped to remind me that the technology we use is constantly changing, so don’t get too attached to any one platform. It made me focus in on the theories being presented. And it reminded me to take all current predictions with the prescribed grain of salt. No matter what anyone says, the future is never certain.

Presented in an entirely readable way, anyone can understand and put into practice the theories espoused in the Groundswell. Case studies and academic knowledge were summed up and explained in groundbreaking ideas like: “don’t be stupid.” A lot of their advice might seem somewhat common sense, but the case studies and presentation of each point were what made them so understandable.

The overall tone of the book was very positive. I think that is part of what makes it a great book, especially for beginners. The encouragement to branch out and affirmative examples can help push someone to try something new. And no one will read this and feel shamed for not knowing something. However, I read it as a tad over optimistic. I think it glosses over some of the backlash and criticism companies do and will receive. But that doesn’t make these technologies not worth trying. I assume that was the point Yi and Bernoff were driving home.

Unlined by solid theories, I would easily categorize this book as a business book before aligning it with the niche of just social media. Even if you don’t have a Facebook account, you will still be familiar with the technology in this book. Things like product reviews and support forums online seem as integral a part of the web now as Google. But they do represent a change in the business landscape from twenty years ago.

In the end, this isn’t a book about the Internet or technology. It is about a new way of thinking. I found it helpful and interesting for sure. Definitely recommended reading for others interested in the Web 2.0 revolution and social media. Or if you find yourself being thrust in the middle of it and feeling lost, this is a good starting place. It manages to present a lot information without being too boring or technical. Clear, easy writing helps the nuggets of wisdom in Groundswell shine.

As I continue my business education in school and out, I hope to find other books as useful and readable.

 

Carmilla Review

In October I always make a point to read something a bit spookier than normal. I especially like anything Gothic in tone. The dark an stormy atmosphere puts me in the right mood for Halloween. This year I chose Carmillia by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu as my scary book for October.

When I was in high school, I read Dracula by Bram Stoker for English class. The ~400 pages took me longer than a month to read, but I did enjoy it. Since then I have been meaning to find a time to read another vampire classic. Published as a serial in 1871, Carmilla is 26 years older than Dracula, and often credited as one of Stoker’s major influences. Plus, it is set in Upper Styria, Austria, so I had kind of visited the location during my time abroad.

Since it was a novella, Carmilla was a very quick read. My version was only about 80 pages. The writing style was distinctly old-fashioned, but the imagery and tone helped to set the scene. Word economy in this rather short story dictated that there be very little down time. The action picked up almost right away, and trotted right along after that. Character development, therefore, had to play second fiddle to plot. I honestly ended up wishing that it was longer. I wanted to know more about Carmilla and her backstory. And more suspense would have upped the creepy factor a lot. I wanted more, more, more. In a lot of ways, it read like the outline for a great story about a vampire, rather than the story itself. I appreciated that it was a quick, easy read for me to fit into my schedule, but in the end, the brevity of Carmilla was weakness. But all of the elements of what is now considered the classic vampire story were there.

For anyone looking for a short, seasonal read, Carmilla does fit the bill. There are also numerous adaptations in films, sequels, and even a YouTube series. This story’s place in literary history makes it worth the small investment of time.

Think Like a Freak Review

I thought it was high time I mixed it up and wrote another book review.

If you have read Freakonomics or Superfreakonomics, then you are acquainted with the writing duo of Steven Levitt and Stephan Dubner. They broke the mold of economic thinking to create a hugely successful “freak” empire. They have a documentary on Netflix, a wildly popular podcast listed to by about three million people a month, according to Dubner, and three bestselling books. It seems like they might be on to something.

That is the basic premise behind Think Like a Freak, their newest book. It uses examples to tell you, yes YOU, how to fashion your mind into a mold-busting machine. Kind of like a self-help book for aspiring economists.

I was familiar with Freakonomics, the books and the brand, before I picked this book up. Although it had been awhile since I had read them. And, to be completely honest, I’m not sure if I finished the other two. But I definitely had what marketers call “positive brand association” with the idea of a new “freak” book, so I decided to check it out.

The first thing that is very clear about this book is that it is not going to be a third Freakonomics. There was always a level of “here are the facts, draw conclusions” in those books. They remained detached to a certain extent. Here, the entire book was prescriptive. It flat out told you what to do. But, it still uses examples that feel very familiar. They have the old-Freakonomics flair.

When I finished the book I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about it. It had passed the time in an adequately enjoyable manner. But I thought it lacked some oomph. It just wasn’t as thought provoking as I had hoped. Most of the advice seemed pretty straight forward, especially if you were familiar with their earlier work.

I think that is the downfall of this book. On its own, it would probably have been pretty good, but when compared to its best-selling older brothers, it suffers by comparison. I read some of the other Goodreads reviews, and the overall feeling was, the more familiar you are with their work, the less you enjoyed this book. Much of the content is also in their podcast series, so listeners especially felt it was a bit unnecessary.

However, if you aren’t as familiar with Freakonomics, this might be a great place to dive in. Think Like a Freak is still an interesting and well-crafted book. And if you are the kind of person who prefers topics that relate directly to your life, it fits the bill. For me, this was a satisfying book; it just didn’t blow me away.