What I read in February 2019 (ENG)

(Polska wersja)

In February 2019, I read 6 books, 4 of which delighted me:

Włam się do mózgu. Radosław Kotarski (book not available in English so far)

Before writing “Break into the brain”, Radosław Kotarski had read numerous articles and scientific books on learning methods, which he then tested himself. The conclusions of this amazing experiment are contained in this addictive book. It presents 13 learning methods with such graceful names as “the boxing master’s method” or “the memory palace method”.

I found with some satisfaction that the learning style I had developed (in pain) incorporates some of these methods. If I could read this book as a child, or at least at the beginning of my university studies, my life would have been much easier.

The book is written in a very light style, but contains a 16-page bibliography (separately for each chapter). I highly recommend it, even though the first 4 introductory chapters are way too long in my opinion. It is the only book in the first quarter of 2019 that I read on paper. Not by choice – the e-book is simply not available (unfortunately). For this reason, I will not include any quote here.

My rating: 9/10

Zadra (Świat Etheru #1). Krzysztof Piskorski (book not available in English so far)

Zadra is a novel set in an alternative reality in which in the early 19th century people learned to use the mysterious energy of Ether. The effects of this discovery are profound: in 1819, devices such as Ether railways and Ether guns (with an efficiency comparable to today’s machine guns or even railguns) are in use. The First French Empire (and the Duchy of Warsaw) flourishes after the victory in the Battle of Leipzig (which originally was French ultimate defeat), and its ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte, sends his troops through the Ethern gates to conquer the parallel worlds. Among the soldiers is a Polish officer, Stanisław Tyc, while his fiancée’s brother, Maurice Dalmont, makes a disturbing discovery…

The book intertwines war, drama and investigation plots. The characters, although a bit one-dimensional, are very likeable. Though the Napoleonic era never fascinated me as did some other historical periods, I was completely drawn to its alternative vision.

As a sample of the “war” style, I will present my rough translation of a fragment in which Stanisław gets nightmarish memories of the Battle of Berezina:

Plik:Julian Falat Übergang der Französischen Armee über die Bresina.JPG
Crossing at Berezina“, painting by Julian Fałat

True human characters appear on this bridge in the face of death. The men in the cart shove the infantry into the river. They strike with a whip, hit with rifle butts. They are carrying gold from Moscow: great crosses, chalices, fittings torn from holy icons. They defend this treasure with insanity, not even knowing that only a few dozen paces away, the bridge is so riddled with bullets that the cart will not pass anyway. (…) Something in his soul tells Tyc that if he enters this hell, this bullet-beaten, panicked crowd, the remnants of humanity will quickly leave him. He will turn into an animal that will do anything to survive. That no longer cares about anyone else. That is why Tyc knows that even if he leaves the crossing alive, he will be a different person on the other side of the river.

And then the situation is further complicated by dark magic…

In 2009, the novel won the Jerzy Żuławski Literary Award for Gold Distinction.

My rating: 9/10

Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think. Hans Rosling

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Hans Rosling was a professor of public health at the Swedish Karolinska Institute and co-founder of the Gapminder Foundation, that promotes sustainable global development and achievement of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by increased use and understanding of statistics and other information about social, economic and environmental development at local, national and global levels. The previous sentence might not sound particularly thrilling, but “Factfulness” is a really interesting book!

Do you think that following the media is a good way to have an accurate picture of the world? Here’s my rough translation (I read the Polish version of the book) of what Rosling has to say about it:

Here are a few headlines that the editor-in-chief will not allow as they probably won’t get the reader’s attention: “THE NUMBER OF CASES OF MALARIA IS STILL DECREASING”. “YESTERDAY’S PREDICTIONS OF METEOROLOGISTS ABOUT THE BEAUTIFUL WEATHER IN LONDON PROVED TRUE.” Here are some topics that will easily overcome our attention filter: earthquakes, war, refugees, disease, fires, floods, shark attacks and terrorist attacks. These unusual events are much more readily published than daily reports and they dominate the media, while creating specific images in our minds. If we are not careful, we will begin to think that the unusual is ordinary, that this is what the world looks like. (…) We cannot allow fear to set our priorities because – thanks to effective international cooperation – what we fear most often causes the least damage. In 2015, for over a week, the world watched images from Nepal, where 9,000 people lost their lives. At the same time, diarrhea from drinking contaminated water has killed the same number of children around the world. When these children passed out in the arms of their tearful parents, there were no cameras nearby. Modern helicopters did not come to the rescue. Besides, helicopters are not an effective weapon against this child killer (one of the most effective in the world). All that is needed to prevent your child from drinking water with the addition of a neighbor’s urine is a few plastic tubes, a water pump, some soap and a simple sewage system. It’s a much cheaper solution than a helicopter.

Is this book full of boring statistics? Well, there are some here, but I wouldn’t call data like this boring:

In 1972, one year after Bangladesh regained independence, an average of seven children per woman were born and the average life expectancy was 52 years. Today, the average number of children per woman in Bangladesh is two, and a newborn can expect to live to 73 years. (…) In Egypt, in 1960, 30% of children died before reaching the age of five. The Nile Delta was a terrible place for children because they suffered from many dangerous diseases and malnutrition. However, a miracle happened. The Egyptians built an Aswan dam, brought electricity to homes, organized basic medical care, eliminated malaria, and improved the quality of drinking water. Today the Egyptian child mortality rate is 2.3%, lower than that of France or Britain in 1960.

To find out to what extent your knowledge about the world is based on stereotypes, watch the author’s TED speech.

In 2018, this book won Financial Times and McKinsey Business Book of the Year Nominee for Longlist, as well as Goodreads Choice Award Nominee for Nonfiction. In my opinion, fully deserved!

One of the projects of the aforementioned Gapminder Foundation is the Dollar Street, a website where we can see photos showing the living conditions of 264 families from 50 countries around the world: what their bedrooms, bathrooms, kitchens and pets look like. You can see with your own eyes how it is with $ 27 per adult per month (Butoyi family from Burundi), how – with $ 855 (Macintyre family from the US), and how – with $ 10,900 (Sdambulyak family from Ukraine).

After reading “Factfulness” you can view such pictures more consciously, paying attention to some subtle details.

My rating: 9/10

Historia Polski 2.0: Polak, Rusek i Niemiec, czyli jak psuliśmy plany naszym sąsiadom. Jan Wróbel (book not available in English so far)

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Jan Wróbel graduated in history from the University of Warsaw, worked as a teacher and journalist.

“History of Poland 2.0: Pole, Russian and German, or how we spoiled our neighbors’ plans” presents selected episodes from the history of Poland between 1604 (Time of Troubles) and 1989 (the fall of communism). It is supposed to do it in a humorous and easily digestible way. Even the layout of the book in many places refers to the interface of websites or social media.

The book provided me with a bit of entertainment, but I remember almost nothing of it, compared to the others mentioned in this post. Besides, I found only a small part of the author’s jokes really funny.

My rating: 6/10

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Timothy Snyder

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Timothy David Snyder is a historian (Ph.D. from Oxford University) and professor at Yale University.

In the essay “On Tyranny”, Snyder analyzes the causes of the triumph of fascism and Nazism in the 1930s and makes 20 recommendations for each of us to prevent us from repeating the tragic history of totalitarianism. The essay is both about history and the latest political trends in many countries.

I agree with most of the author’s theses, but I expected something more revealing, hence my lack of enthusiasm. I am afraid that those who really should read this book will never do it.

My rating: 7/10

Czterdzieści i cztery (Świat Etheru #2). Krzysztof Piskorski (book not available in English so far)

After reading “Zadra” (and a short break for the three above-mentioned books), I started its continuation. “Forty and Four” is a much darker novel than its predecessor. The main character, Eliza Żmijewska, is a much more complicated and interesting character than the good-natured Tyc and Dalmont. We meet her during the mission given by the Polish Council for Emigration: to execute the death sentence on the traitor.

In addition to patriotic motivation, she also has a personal one. Eliza can rely on her intelligence even more than on a gun and ancestral magical powers.

The action is fast-paced and full of unexpected twists.

There is a lot of hidden references, for example to the events of Broad Street, which I picked up only thanks to the knowledge of this video.

In 2017, the book won Janusz A. Zajdel Award for Novel, as well as Jerzy Żuławski Literary Award for Grand Prix.

I wish there were more novels (or games) set in this universe!

My rating: 9/10

Let me know if you liked any of these books!

***

My other posts about books:

2018 summary

What I read in January 2019

I also invite you to my fanpage! In addition to information about new posts, I plan to share various curiosities unearthed in the depths of Facebook.

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