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[Originally published at the now defunct group blog explananda.com]

Posted on August 7, 2010
Tags: book_reviews

Arthur Conan Doyle. The Hound of the Baskervilles

A family haunted by a legendary curse, a wily villain, and Sherlock Holmes on the case. This novel, perhaps the most famous of the Sherlock Holmes mysteries, is a ripping good yarn. It also happens to be the first one I’ve read. I hope the others are as good.

Charles Petzold. Code: The Hidden Language of Computer Hardware and Software

This book is a superb introduction to the subject of how computers work. It starts in the most basic way talking about counting and binary and electricity, then moves from telegraph relays to the simplest circuits, builds all the way up through ever more complex computing machines, and ends with a brief explanation of high-level programming languages. Each step along on the way is set out by the author with impressive clarity and patience. Indeed, there is nothing in the first half of the book that would be over the head of an intelligent 12 year old. The second half of the book is a bit more challenging, but a motivated reader should be able to get through it without any background at all in the subject. Highly recommended for ages 12 and up.

Lenore Skenazy. Free-Range Kids: Giving Children the Freedom We Had Without Going Nuts Without Worry

Skenazy, a newspaper columnist, made headlines a few years ago when she let her nine year old ride the subway home alone and then wrote a column about it. In response to being branded “America’s Worst Mom” (which epithet she has borrowed for her book cover) she started a blog about worry free parenting and then wrote this book on the subject. Skenazy’s line is pretty simple: Too many parents these days drive themselves nuts with worry trying to avoid the most statistically improbable outcomes; that this has an unfortunate and unnecessary stunting effect on our children; and that the social norms that have coalesced around this worry make it really hard to stay sane yourself, e.g., you can be branded America’s Worst Mom if you let your nine year old take the subway home alone (along a route the child knows, with change for a phone call, and when both child and parent feel the child is ready for the adventure). (If my memory is not mistaken, my unusually precocious cousin was allowed to wander around Hong Kong when not much older than this when his family was passing through.)

I agree for the most part with Skenazy, and I’ve encouraged Yoon to read the book in the hope that we can agree to try to be as sane as possible when raising our son. The book did become a bit monotonous, though, since there’s only so much cheerleading for a mostly reasonable proposition that I can handle.

Robert Graves. Good-Bye To All That

Graves, the poet and novelist, was a British schoolboy in the period just before WWI and then fought in the trenches for much of that war. After the war, he studied for a time at Oxford. These three periods of his life brought him into contact, sometimes glancing, sometimes intimate, with just about every literary and cultural figure in Britain from Siegried Sassoon to Bertrand Russell to Thomas Hardy to T.E. Lawrence.

In his early thirties Graves left Britain for the island of Majorica and rarely returned. Good-Bye To All That was his bitter parting shot. I have always been fascinated by the disillusionment generated by WWI, and was especially interested by this aspect of the book. In this respect, it makes a nice companion to Vera Brittain’s Testament of Youth, which I wrote about briefly last year.