Short book reviews by Jacob Williams from 2014 and earlier. Send feedback to

Within a Budding Grove by Marcel Proust (2014-12-01)

Proust's writing style, full of complex and ornate sentences, is charming. What he writes _about_ is sometimes boring, but often enough rewarding, particularly in the narrator's analyses of his own and other characters' behaviors.

Descartes' Error by António R. Damásio (2014-11-27)

The accounts of how different types of brain damage affect decision making and emotion are really fascinating, and I enjoyed the discussions of the role of emotion in decision-making and of the close interrelationship of body and mind.

Sword & Citadel by Gene Wolfe (2014-11-25)

Many reviewers suggest that this series really starts to stand out on a second and critical reading. That seems at least plausible, but rereading is a bigger time investment than I'm currently motivated to make. On a straightforward reading, the major elements left vague or unexplained definitely detract some. There's also a lack of tension (due to a main character who is often both passive and unsympathetic), especially in Shadow & Claw, which isn't necessarily bad but does make the book less engaging. I still found it pretty enjoyable and loved the writing style.

A Random Walk Down Wall Street by Burton G. Malkiel (2014-11-11)

As someone with very little investing knowledge, this was pretty educational for me, at least in that it introduced a number of concepts and gave me an idea of what questions to start asking.

Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty (2014-11-02)

This was really interesting, particularly the third part, which discusses the current and past distribution of income and capital ownership and the role of inheritance. I'm of course not knowledgeable enough to rate the content, but now I want to know more.

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer (2013-12-31)

Occasionally I felt this wandered into musings that tried too hard to sound deep. Overall, though, good.

Slaughterhouse by Gail A. Eisnitz (2013-11-29)

This book is highly alarming, and what's more alarming is that I can't find any real refutation of its claims.

The Existence of God by Richard Swinburne (2013-03-19)

This is the best defense of theism I've read. I'm not converted, but Swinburne is certainly more compelling than, say, William Lane Craig.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand (2013-02-09)

Longwinded and over-the-top. The ideology summed up by the valley oath "I swear by my life and my love of it that I will never live for the sake of another man, nor ask another man to live for mine" is not convincingly defended, and the "logic" is often dizzying, rambling pseudo-philosophy, such as in much of Galt's big speech.

However, the story was still fairly engaging, thought-provoking, and emotionally effective in its appeal for capitalism and the appreciation of value in the material world.

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace (2012-12-25)

I feel like this is a book I'm going to want to come back to and peruse later. There are a lot of dull sections mixed in with the thought-provoking stuff, though.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald (2012-09-09)

Before starting this I was under the impression that it was a book I should have read as a kid, that had just slipped by for some reason... But I would have found it incredibly dull. Now I just found it a little dull. There were a fair number of highlight-worthy lines, though, and it is sort of poignant.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell (2012-08-19)

I found this really engrossing. Other than the story-nesting and reincarnation gimmicks and some very general themes about oppression, if there's anything tying these stories together, it went over my head. But that's OK; I liked the stories. And it's sort of enchanting to try to adopt a perspective from which you can see all these radically different lives as part of a unified whole.

Copper by Kazu Kibuishi (2012-08-06)

Beautifully drawn. I wouldn't call it funny; I think it's more about communicating a sense of wonder and imagination.

Lying by Sam Harris (2012-08-05)

Good as a reminder, and challenge, that we should be more careful before assuming a 'white lie' is really in someone's best interests.

The Children of the Sky by Vernor Vinge (2012-08-03)

Fully satisfying continuation of the series, though it doesn't add any major new ideas to the mix.

A Deepness in the Sky by Vernor Vinge (2012-08-03)

Better character development than the first novel. The story is a bit narrower in scope, so there's not quite the same sense of wonder the first one inspired in me, but it's very good nonetheless.

A Fire Upon the Deep by Vernor Vinge (2012-08-03)

I love this book (and series); it's what got me reading science fiction again after a long period of disinterest. I became attached to the characters; the setting and ideas are interesting; the story's universe sucked me right in.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov, Craig Raine (2012-07-11)

Nabokov is impressive stylistically; it's a beautifully written book. Of course it's also disturbing and I wasn't always confident there was any reason to be hearing some of the descriptions of Humbert's perversion. But overall it was worth the read.

Journey through Genius by William Dunham (2012-06-29)

Got me interested in some things I wasn't familiar with before. A good balance between between math and background info, and the proofs are easy to follow in most chapters.

How Historians Work by John C. Waugh, Drake Bush, Hallock Lee Judith (2012-06-18)

Even if some of the interviewees have eyebrow-raising connections, the interviews are fascinating and satisfied my curiosity about, well, 'how historians work'.