Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder

Little House in the Big Woods
by Laura Ingalls Wilder
This is the first story of Larua as a 4-year old in a log cabin in the woods of Wisconsin. I’ve never read any of these books before, and honestly I can’t even say whether I ever watched the TV show. So I didn’t know quite what to expect. Whatever I expected, this wasn’t it. This book is written with a slice-of-life narrative with no plot and very little dialog – it was kind of a passive story…or perhaps a string of memories/anecdotes that are connected in approximate chronological order.¬†

Not that I’m saying I disliked it. It was really cute and a really quick read. I’m definitely going to continue with the rest of them. I’m also not entirely sure why this is considered a Christmas book. Yes, Christmas was included in the time-line, but it was about an entire year living in the little log cabin in the woods. I think the cutest part of the book was when Laura and her mother went out to milk the cow at night and mistook a bear for the cow. ūüôā Laura’s corn-cob doll was also pretty adorable.¬†

I think it’s interesting how many people care about whether this story was truly factual. I mean, of course it’s not fully factual – apparently Laura was younger when she lived on the Prairie than when she lived in the woods in Wisconsin, but she switched the timeline around. I’m sure some of the memories she mentions are also not fully factual, but that’s how family anecdotes are – they change with time and audience. This isn’t an autobiography, this is a string of anecdotes for children.¬†

I am Malala, by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb

I Am Malala: The Girl who stood up for education and was shot by the Taliban
by Malala Yousafzai and Christina Lamb
narrated by Archie Panjabi
I am Malala is Malala Yousafzai’s memoir about her time in Pakistan promoting education for girls. She begins by discussing her family – from her grandparents, to her parents, and then to herself. She discusses the major political and geological forces that impacted her childhood and led up to her eventually being shot by the Taliban. She finished the book talking about how she felt when she awoke in England not knowing what had happened or where her family was. It is truly an amazing story.¬†

Since I read this book for Non-Fiction November 2015, I will write my review in a different format than usual, by answering a list of questions: 

1. What did you think of the tone and style in which I Am Malala was written?

While listening to the book, two things occurred to me. The first is that the tone was a bit naive and honest in the way only a child can be. The types of things she observed, for instance, like how much or less attractive someone was than herself. Their skin color, etc. I realize these things are thought about by adults, but the innocent way she brought them up was darling. I also felt that the way she talked about her competition for being first in class was cute. In an adult that would seem like a lack of humility if talked about with such frequency. But in her, it was sweet. 

It also occurred to me that the writing was much too fleshed out to be entirely written by a young teenager. There was some obvious journalistic questioning going on before writing the book Рand that is to the benefit of the story, and clearly the work of Christina Lamb. 

2. What did you think of the political commentary in the book?

I found the political commentary interesting, especially since I’m only somewhat educated on the subject. The commentary obviously didn’t have the powerful understanding shown in a book like The Kite Runner, by¬†Khaled Hosseini¬†but it showed that Malala was quite intelligent and observant. It was interesting hearing those events from the eyes of a child.¬†

As long as I’m comparing the book to fiction, it reminds me somewhat of In the Country of Men, by Hisam Matar in the sense that it is about “adult” events narrated from the eyes of a child. Of course, there are three major differences: location, fiction/non-fiction, and the age of the author. But still, I think it’s an interesting comparison.¬†

3. Did anything particularly surprise you about Malala’s daily life or culture?

I was surprised to hear how socially active Malala was before she was shot. I assumed the story was about a girl who became active only after she was shot – in other words, that the bullet was random, and that it gave her an opportunity to speak out. But, no, she was from a “privileged” environment (at least at the end) and was shot because she was speaking out.¬†

4. Do you think you would act similarly to Malala in her situation? If you were her parents, would you let her continue to be an activist despite possible danger?

I wouldn’t be as brave as Malala, nor do I think I am as intelligent as Malala. If I were her parents, I would support her doing whatever she felt was best. That’s what my parents always did with me. It’s a great way to let a child grow into her own.

5. What did you think of the book overall?

I do not usually read memoirs – not sure why, I just tend to gravitate towards the heavier non-fiction. But this book was pretty fascinating for me. Malala was so intelligent and perceptive. I loved her voice. (I don’t mean the narrator’s voice, though she did a lovely job.) This book makes me want to read more memoirs.¬†

I would normally give this book 4 stars for writing and interest level, but since it’s such an important topic, it gains an extra star.¬†

Nonfiction in Audiobooks

The discussion post for the third week of Nonfiction November is to discuss “nontraditional nonfiction.” I admit, I’m a really slow reader and by the time I’m relaxing at home with a book, I’d rather be reading fiction. Therefore, my “traditional” nonfiction reading is pretty much at a snail’s pace. But I get a lot of nonfiction read through audiobook. In fact, I alternate fiction with non-fiction when I’m listening, so I get a lot of nonfiction “read” this way. I can’t¬†recommend¬†a specific book,¬†because there are just too many, and I’m ¬†not all that picky – as long as the reader is reasonably good, I’m happy.¬†

Instead, let me tell you about why I started listening to audiobooks. When I was younger, I never listened in class. My teachers in middle school used to accuse me of “staring off into space instead of listening,” which I really didn’t think I was doing. By the time I got to high school, I knew I didn’t listen – my chemistry teacher used to always praise me about how I’d¬†discovered¬†a new way to solve his problems. Well, the reason I¬†didn’t do it his way is because I never listened to a word he said. I had no idea how he told us to solve the problems. I didn’t tell him that. Then in college, I had a rather shocking experience. I was¬†sitting¬†with a group of students¬†discussing a class. One of them mentioned something the professor said. I was floored. People actually hear what the professor says?¬†

After that, I tried. The rest of my undergraduate career I tried really hard to pay attention. It didn’t work. During the first couple of years of grad school, I tried chanting in my head “you must listen, you must listen, you must listen.” Somehow I managed to continue that chant in my head while thinking of other things. I even tried yoga. No luck. I just couldn’t listen to what people said. I decided I was¬†audibly¬†challenged. As in, low auditory comprehension, not poor hearing.

That’s when I tried out audiobooks. I figured I could practice listening to auditory stimulation while I was exercising and stuff. I specifically picked books that I wouldn’t otherwise have read – because I didn’t want to miss something that I actually wanted to read. For instance, I listened to the entire Twilight series. ūüôā¬†

It worked! Now I am able to listen to books that I want to read, and I do it all the time. I like audio for non-fiction, because it doesn’t make my eyes blur over when I’m tired, like written non-fiction can. (Though maybe if I stopped reading books that “read like textbooks” I’d not have this problem – but I like those books!)

Less importantly, I’m better able to listen in classes now. So, thank God for audiobooks!


The Gilgamesh Epic and Old Testament Parallels, by Alexander Heidel

This classic book published in 1946 begins with a short introduction to The Epic of Gilgamesh, gives Heidel’s translation of the Epic, and finally provides a comparison of the Epic of Gilgamesh, and other Mesopotamian tablets with similar stories. Heidel’s translation is organized into tablet format, with fragments and unsure translations represented with an ellipsis and brackets.
Heidel begins his comparison with a chapter about death and the afterlife.¬†In Mesopotamian literature, gods can die, evil was innate because humans were formed from the blood of a “bad” god, and there was an afterlife in which a person carried the objects buried with him into the afterlife. In Hebrew tradition, the one God can not die – he lives forever. However, there is a concept of original sin, similar to the Mesopotamian belief of innate evil. There seems to be some contradiction about whether Hebrews believed that there was an afterlife or not – most likely because of different beliefs of different sects.
The¬†Mesopotamians¬†partook in ancestor worship, which suggested that the¬†ancestors could somehow¬†intercede¬†on behalf of¬†their descendants. On the other hand, in Hebrew culture, there doesn’t seem to be any contact between the spirits of the dead and the living people.
The second, and final, chapter of Heidel’s book compares the¬†Utnapishtim’s¬†flood story that took place in the Epic of Gilgamesh with¬†Noah’s flood story that took place in the Old Testament. There are obvious similarities. Utnapishtim and Noah both built ships to save them from a massive flood that the gods (or God)¬†unleashed¬†on the earth. They collected a male and female of every animal so that they could repopulate the earth. And at the end they released birds to let them know if the flood had subsided. Both the gods and the one God¬†promised¬†never to kill off humanity with such a calamity¬†again.
But there were some interesting differences. First of all, Utnapishtim was not directly told of the flood. Nobody was meant to be told. But a god that favored Utnapishtim whispered to him through the wall of his home while Utnapishtim was sleeping. He told Utnapishtim to lie to the people around him – saying that one of the gods hated him, and that in order to save the entire community, he must leave in a ship. If the community helped Utnapishtim build the ship, they would be rewarded with a season of plenty, which would start with a “wheat-rain.” The community built the ship. Utnapishtim loaded on his family and his entire household of servants. At the end of the story, not all of humanity had died – just most of them. Some had survived the flood.
In the Old Testament, Noah was told directly by God to build a ship. He was asked to warn the community – telling them they must repent. The community did not repent. Noah built the ship and took only his family with him. All of humanity died.
Finally, Heidel discussed arguments of whether the Old Testament story had been derived directly from the Gilgamesh Epic, or if they had the same origins from a different source. He also wrote an interesting, though incredibly theoretical discussion about whether the flood really did happen, and what could have caused such a flood.
In the end, this book was very interesting, though I was hoping for a little more from it. However, I’m not quite certain what I expected, or why I expected it. After all, it delivered what was promised in the title. I think part of my higher expectations came from the fact that pretty much every list of references for studying the Gilgamesh Epic included this book.
Besides the rather silly overly-detailed theoretical discussions about the origins of the flood, one other thing I found annoying about this book was his over-use of the word “obviously.” These points were certainly not obvious to me, so why did he keep using that word? Perhaps his target audience was nothing like me.
3.5 stars for excellent research and being a classic reference book for Gilgamesh Epic.

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller, by Gary M. Burge

Genre: Ancient History / Bible Studies

Reason for reading: This year, I’m studying Jesus and the New Testament. This book was loaned to me by Elizabeth, a friend from work. It was given to her by a friend because the author was her professor.

Synopsis: In this short book, Burge guides the reader to interpret Jesus as a storyteller – a teacher who uses allegory and hyperbole to make important points within his own social context. The book is filled with beautiful pictures and several examples of Jesus’ use of hyperbole to teach an important point. Burge provides historical and cultural insight into what Jesus may have been talking about when telling his parables.¬†

My thoughts: I was surprised at how fun this book was. Although it’s quite short, and half of it was pictures, it made me look at Jesus from a interesting new perspective. Of course, I already knew that Jesus used parables and hyperbole to make points, but it was really interesting to read Burge’s cultural analysis of those parables.¬†

The story I found most enlightening was Burge’s interpretation of the fig tree incident. For those of you who don’t recall, the story is related in¬†Mark 11:12-14, 11:20-25; and in¬†Matthew 21:18-22. In my unromantic version, Jesus is hungry, and he sees a fig tree by the road. It’s not fig season, so the tree isn’t bearing any fruit. Jesus curses the poor tree and it withers. I’ve always disliked that story. Despite my cousin Steve’s¬†insistence¬†that fig trees don’t have feelings, and I shouldn’t take the story so literally, I always felt sorry for the tree. Why’d Jesus curse a tree just because it wasn’t bearing fruit in the off-season? (And, yes, Mark clearly states that it wasn’t the season for figs.)¬†

Burge pointed out that the fig tree represented the Jewish state and religion. Throughout the New Testament Jesus repeatedly pointed out the¬†hypocrisy¬†of the Pharisees, who made a public¬†spectacle¬†of themselves fasting, praying, and giving alms; but who did not keep the spirit of religion in their hearts. They prayed for the approval of the people, not for the approval of God. Thus, they were not “bearing fruit.”¬†

Of course, I realize that this insight about the fig tree and the Pharisees is not uniquely Burge’s – in fact I found some interesting articles on the subject after reading Burge’s book (here’s a good one). What’s important is that Jesus, the Middle Eastern Storyteller introduced me to some interesting interpretations that I could look into in more detail later. In that way, this book was a valuable resource for me.


The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum

2012 Book 149:¬†The Poisoner’s Handbook¬†

written by Deborah Blum, narrated by Coleen Marlo

Reason for Reading: October Halloween theme

My Review

This fascinating book outlines the development of forensic science in the 1920’s. It begins by describing the poor state of forensics the late nineteen-teens, and pointing out WHY it was so necessary to develop a proper procedure for determining cause of death. I’ve always taken such things for granted and never even thought about the effort it would take to develop the science–not only scientifically, but also as a social movement. Although the Prohibition theme resonates throughout the book, each chapter focuses on a different poison–including the background/development of the poison, the effects it has on the victim, and the measures taken by forensic scientists to discover cause of death. This book was fascinating on so many different levels. It’s interesting as a Prohibition-era history, but it would also be interesting to lovers of popular science. Highly recommended for a little light reading.


The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee


2012 Book 12: The Emperor of All Maladies, by Siddhartha Mukherjee (1/25/2012).

The Emperor of All Maladies is a sweeping ‚Äúbiography‚ÄĚ of cancer covering archeological/ancient history to present-day. It is very well-informed, well written, and thorough. Definitely worth a read for anyone who is interested in the history of cancer or medicine. Well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize it won in 2011. I think it was written with the popular reader in mind (he DOES tell us what DNA is at the beginning of the book), but the book quickly delves into terminology and topics that I suspect would be very heavy to someone who doesn‚Äôt already know a little about biology/medicine. This is especially true in the second half of the book. Mukherjee also is SO thorough that the book becomes extremely long, which is difficult for those of us with a short attention span. Also, I got great amusement out of his formulaically inserted personal patient pieces. It was good that he had them (they broke up the difficult scientific passages) but I could tell that they were written by a scientist and not a journalist (i.e. they were comprised of literal rather than emotive descriptions). Being a scientist myself, this made me chuckle (alas! an emotion). However, I think the personal patient pieces were interesting and elicited enough emotion to engage the readers. They worked for me, anyway. 4/5 stars.