Friday, November 04, 2005

Standard deviation

Who uses it: Statisticians and mathematicians
What it means: A given range around the recognized mean -- the "mean of the mean," basically the extent of the "normal" range within a set
How you can use it: To pretend you know what you're talking about when looking at a pile of numbers.

Statistics is the one math-related course I wish I had taken, somewhere in my academic journey. Every so often, my work brings me into contact with pollsters or demographers, and it's a language I don't really understand.

I read like a forest fire this week, even for me -- because in addition to these four titles, I read two manuscripts of books that won't be out until next year (and I don't feel right about mentioning either, since it's possible that the final versions will look a bit different from the versions I read), and I'm halfway through another novel. It's not as if I don't have plenty of work to do, either. Returning to Standard Time must be good for me.

What I Read This Week

Lily Tuck, Siam, or The Woman Who Shot a Man. Claire comes to Thailand in 1967 as a new bride. Her husband, James, has some vague job with a military unit that is setting up the Thailand-based bombing of North Vietnam. Claire's first major social event is a dinner with the silk merchant Jim Thompson (a historical figure), who disappears soon afterward. She becomes obsessed with his disappearance, but unable to connect with anyone around her, and the book ends with the title event -- Claire shooting a man, for no real reason. I think Tuck was trying to say something about innocence abroad and Americans' inability to connect across cultural lines, but it fell flat for me. I never had any idea of what Claire wanted, and I didn't care. Reread The Quiet American instead.

Stuart Woods, Iron Orchid. The author was nice enough to send me a copy of this book; otherwise I probably wouldn't have read it, because I'm not crazy about this series, which features a tough ex-MP and former small-town police chief named Holly Barker, and Holly's genius Doberman, Daisy. But Woods' books are always entertaining, and Holly actually takes a back seat this time to the story's villain, Teddy Fay, a fugitive in New York City who's running his own vigilante campaign against suspected terrorists. Fay is a highly amusing character -- who actually shares several attributes with his creator -- and ought to have a series of his own.

Colin Bateman, Divorcing Jack. Now, this book is noir. Belfast columnist and drunk Dan Starkey kisses a young woman who is not his wife, and winds up thrown out of his house and into a deadly cover-up of an old terrorist bombing. I think this was Bateman's first novel -- the U.S. publication date is 1996 -- and he's still finding his voice here, but Starkey is such a great character that I'll definitely track down the rest of the series.

Carol O'Connell, Winter House. I don't know why I didn't read this book last year, because I usually jump on O'Connell's books as soon as they come out. I love this series, about the flawed genius/sociopath Kathy Mallory and her circle of friends, Detective Sergeant Riker and Dr. Charles Butler. This time around, Mallory and Riker are called to the scene of a homicide -- an apparent self-defense killing -- and discover that the woman who defended herself is the central figure in one of New York's most notorious unsolved crimes. The elaborate gothic plot may take one twist too many -- I got a little confused about the ultimate explanation -- but this book was as good as a vacation.

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