Thursday, August 30, 2018

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham

The Soul of America by Jon Meacham was a solid book subtitled The Battle for Our Better Angels.

With the idea for the book out of the current divisiveness in the country, with the flames of it fanned out of the White House, Meacham chronicles various periods of American history and tells the story of how we've been before in periods of strife and ugliness, and made it through. Some of the battles fought for good that are noted in the book are against people after the Civil War who wanted to make it as if the South had won, the influence of the Ku Klux Klan at the turn of the 20th Century, isolationists prior to WWII, McCarthyism after, and segregation after that.

The leaders who helped America through these tough periods are highlighted, from Lincoln, to Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, the Kennedys, and Lyndon Johnson, with below some of the quotes that stood out from the book...

"Surely in the light of history, it is more intelligent to to hope rather than to fear, to try rather than to not try." - Eleanor Roosevelt

"The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice." - Martin Luther King Jr.

"You have to appeal to people’s best instincts, not their worst ones," and, especially fitting today, "the people have often made mistakes, but given time and the facts, they will make the corrections." - Harry Truman

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman was the debut novel from Backman, and an enjoyable one to read that felt like a series of small stories well told about a cantankerous Swede, the need to be useful to others, and being loved by them.

Published in 2014, with a Swedish movie adaptation in 2015, and forthcoming Tom Hanks movie slated for 2019, the book is a just a nice story of life.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Educated by Tara Westover

Educated by Tara Westover was a compelling autobiography about growing up in the mountains of Idaho, in a family ruled by a patriarch who preached of the evils of government and espoused a life lived off the grid, and then going off to college BYU, with subsequent study at Cambridge and Harvard.

Westover was the youngest of seven children, and like her closest in age brothers and sisters never attended school growing up or went the doctor. Throughout her youth, the dangers that Westover's father exposed his family to were remarkable, including his rash decisions and how he owned a junkyard and would scavenge it for scrap metal that could be sold, bringing his children into the exceedingly dangerous business, made even more so by the methods he forced his children to use in scrapping the materials.

Westover's mother was a midwife and herbalist, treating all injuries with plants, including those of her father who almost died when she away at school, with her mother's herbs getting the credit and her business expanding, strengthening her father’s grip on those around him as people began working for them.

Westover also had a violent and domineering older brother and her father's unwillingness to do anything to protect those around him was a sort of tipping point between she and her parents, leading as she wrote in the book blurb, to a choice between loyalty to self and loyalty to family. Westover's story and success is remarkable and very much appears to be in spite of her circumstances and showed that however she got to it, it’s her life, not that of others and what others want you to be or try to make you into. As is noted by Westover in the book, "who writes history? I do."

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman follows up on his excellent novel Beartown and continues the tale of a small Swedish town, it's youth hockey team, and the people who play on it and whose lives are influenced by it, with the main high school-aged characters Maya, Ana, Benji, Amat, Bobo, and Vidar.

Just as in Beartown, Backman provides memorable and lyrical writing, including the following...

The section with Vidar's tough older brother Teemu going into elementary school-aged Alicia’s hardscrabble house and saying that her hockey gear would be paid for by the Pack for as long as she wanted to play, and she wouldn’t be hurt anymore.

How a character was said to "die the same way they lived, instantly" and the reaction to grief, with "Kira hands him the brush without a word. He washes, she dries."

About the support of Amat by others from his neighborhood, The Hollow, "he had no team. So they gave him an army."

About the Pack's support of Ana, "a section of the audience stands up, as if on command. They don’t shout out, but they’re wearing black jackets, and they all put one hand very briefly on their hearts when she looks at them. 'Who are they?', the ref asks in surprise. 'Those are my brothers and sisters. They stand tall if I stand tall.'"

Ana saying to Benji, "Don’t let the bastards see you cry."

The book's final sentence of "it’s a simple game if you strip away all the crap surrounding it and just keep the things that made us love it in the first place. Everybody gets a stick. Two nets. Two teams. Us against you."

Thursday, July 05, 2018

The Man Who Caught the Storm by Brantley Hargrove

The Man Who Caught the Storm: The Life of Legendary Tornado Chaser Tim Samaras by Brantley Hargrove was a solid book about someone devoted to a pursuit, with that pursuit eventually killing him as Samaras, his adult son Paul Samaras, and fellow chaser Carl Young died in a May 2013 tornado near El Reno, Ok.

Hargrove wrote early on of how the elder Samaras a self-taught electronics whiz kid who then became fascinated by extreme weather and especially tornadoes. Samaras was married with three young kids at home when he started out as a volunteer storm spotter after enrolling in a 40 hour meteorology course.

He got started on his eventual path when someone who had sensors for measuring seismic pressure on the ground in a tornado wanted his help getting the sensors in front of a twister. Samaras then began building his own probes to measure conditions like temperature, pressure, and humidity as a tornado would pass over as the idea was to understand the conditions to predict better when one would form so more advance warning could be given to the public.

As Samaras built his probes and chased tornadoes for the purpose of placing them in front of their path, he became a main character featured on Storm Chasers, which ran for three seasons on The Discovery Channel. It was dangerous work that Samaras did, but interesting reading about someone completely into something that served a greater purpose, and Hargrove wrote a thorough account of Samaras and his life.

Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Beartown by Fredrik Backman is a novel set in a downtrodden town in rural Sweden that's described as "a hockey town" and Backman tells in the book an engrossing story of the things that occur in it.

The main characters are the high school-age Maya, Ana, Benji, Amat, and Kevin, along with adults Peter and Kira and the writing from Backman really lyrical with dramatic kickers delivered, including...

"Sport can only give us a few isolated moments of transcendence, but what the hell else is life made of?"

"You can’t live in this town, Maya, you can only survive it."

"This town doesn't always know the difference between right and wrong, but we know the difference between good and evil."

The story from Backman is a great one about hockey, the hold it can have on people, and the either horrible or heroic actions of the adults and youth in Beartown.

Saturday, June 30, 2018

Calypso by David Sedaris

Calypso by David Sedaris was a highly entertaining book with stories, which as he says are “true enough,” about his life, that of his sisters, aging father, longtime partner Hugh, and time spent at their beach house in the Carolinas.

The book is a fast read and thoughtful and humorous one that brings to mind the ideas of time with family, looking for things with meaning, and importance of trying to be happy.

Sunday, June 17, 2018

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson

The Feather Thief by Kirk Wallace Johnson was an interesting book with the subtitle Beauty, Obsession, and the Natural History Heist of the Century. Johnson tells the story of Edwin Rist, who, as a twenty-year-old studying at London’s Royal Academy of Music, burglarized an outpost of the British Museum of Natural History in the city of Tring, stealing hundreds of bird skins, with some collected by the famed adventurer and contemporary of Charles Darwin, Alfred Russell Wallace.

Johnson tells well the story of how Rist stole the bird skins for their feathers, with them used in elaborate fly-fishing ties, done not for use on the river, but for the art of making the same flies as from the Victorian fly-tying era. The actual crime is completed and Rist arrested around halfway through the book, with the rest of it about the ramifications of the crime for Rist, and how others in the fly-tying community appeared to be at least somewhat, if not very complicit in the crime based on what happened with the feathers after the theft.

Johnson as the author has an interesting backstory as he wrote of suffering from mental scars out of working in Iraq helping coordinate the reconstruction of Fallujah for USAID and then founded the List Project to Resettle Iraqi Refugees, trying to get them out of the region and to safety in the US. When he then learned of the Rist heist and began digging into it, he seemed to have been taken down a similar rabbit-hold of obsession as those he wrote about in the book. In Johnson's case, though, he was attempting to figure out what happened to all of the stolen bird skins and valuable feathers, which are from protected species such as Birds of Paradise and not supposed to be sold, but available on eBay and traded within the fly-tying community.

It was interesting reading of Johnson researching, using the Internet Wayback Machine to peruse long since deleted website entries offering feathers for sale and trying, often in vain, to get people to really care about the crime and it's consequences. The book was very much a deep-dive into something held dear by a small community, and in this was quite compelling.

Thursday, May 31, 2018

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink

When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing by Daniel Pink was an interesting book about how timing plays a key role in how events turn out, with just a few of the examples provided in the book being that bad decisions are often made in the afternoons when someone tired and the quality of medical care someone receives driven in part by when in a doctor’s shift care is provided.

It's covered that in this trough period, there's a basic decline in vigilance that occurs and being aware of this potential dip can then lead to combating it. Some ways to do that are through checklists or restorative breaks, either quick or extended, with them most effective if someone completely detached from the tasks at hand. Pink as well mentions the benefit of naps, ideally around 15-20 minutes long, and with coffee just prior as it takes about 25 minutes for coffee to kick in.

Also noted is how people driven by biological clocks, with many at their best early in the day, a group known as larks, but some better later, a group referred to as owls. This assignation can also shift over time, as people tend to become owls when they hit puberty, something that negatively impacts them as many high schools start too early in the day, and then they become less owly in their mid-20s.

Towards the later part of the book, Pink covers two other interesting concepts with first beginnings, middles, and endings... the ideas of starting right, starting again, and remembering poignancy at the end of something, and then the idea of syncing to others, doing things in a group such as singing in a chorus, exercising together, or doing improv-related activities.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark by Michelle McNamara was a solid book, with McNamara  chronicling her search for the Golden State Killer, a name she came up with for someone also known as the East Area Rapist and Original Night Stalker.

The crimes began in the mid-1970s in Sacramento, with 50 assaults from 1976-1979, and later included assaults and murders committed along the 680 corridor around San Ramon and Danville and in Southern California into the mid-1980s.

McNamara died prior to completing the book, with it finished due to efforts by her late husband Patton Oswalt as well as people she collaborated with in efforts to track down the killer. It's written towards the end of the book how advances in DNA technology could find him, and ultimately that's what occurred with investigators coming up with a listing of potential familial DNA matches and then tracing the branches of the family tree and arresting Joseph James DeAngelo Jr. in April 2018. McNamara wrote a compelling tale of searching for justice and at a minimum, her efforts helped bring attention to the cold case that eventually was solved.

Monday, April 30, 2018

North Toward Home by Willie Morris

North Toward Home by Willie Morris was a memoir from the southern writer who died in 1999 at the age of 64 and the book split into three parts, with the first about his youth in Yazoo City, Mississippi, second his time in school at the University of Texas, and third on living in New York City for work.

The section about his life growing up in small-town Mississippi stood out as particularly interesting and very much had what the journalist Wright Thompson described as a great description of place provided by Morris. The Yazoo City Experience was compelling to read about and featured things such high school football, American legion baseball, playing the trumpet at military funerals, and listening to baseball broadcasts before others in town and then pretending to guess the events.

Morris in the later sections of the book wrote about politics in Texas, including it's unseemly underbelly, and then the casual indifference to suffering that he saw while living in New York City. He then returned to the South, and was living in Jackson, Mississippi, some half an hour north of Yazoo City, at the time of his death.

Saturday, April 28, 2018

City of Thieves by David Benioff

City of Thieves by David Benioff was an entertaining novel from someone best known for being the co-creator of Game of Thrones and the book set in 1942 Leningrad, a city under siege by the Germans, with a population struggling desperately to survive.

It was a solid read and an interesting construct Benioff used was to begin things in present-day America, with someone being told by his grandfather the personal story of what happened many decades ago while a young man in Russia.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi was an excellent and profound book by the late neurosurgeon who died from cancer in March 2015 and is survived by his wife and their young daughter.

Kalanithi grew up in a family that heavily valued education and after they moved from the Northeast to Kingman, Arizona, his mother got a college prep reading list for her children and Kalanithi at ten read the book 1984, then others such as The Count of Monte Cristo, Robinson Crusoe, The Last of the Mohicans, and Don Quixote, developing a love of literature. He attended Stanford, completing degrees in Human Biology and English Literature, and went through Medical School at Yale.

Kalanithi decided to practice neurosurgery and the book shows his interest in the counseling of a patient or loved one of a patient through horrific decisions and times, almost a pastoral role in relation to medicine. While he was about to embark on the next phase of his career, Kalanithi was diagnosed with terminal cancer and in the book he notes how he returned to performing surgery, with him writing “even if I’m dying, until I actually die, I am still living.”

Kalanithi and his wife Lucy decided after the diagnosis to have a child and his cancer began to resist the medications he was on some five month's after his daughter Cady born, with Kalanithi then dying three months later. The book is great reading... profound, sad, uplifting, and a well-crafted account by someone who knew that his time was short, didn't know exactly how short it would be and fought to extend his life. Kalanithi in relation to the times right after his diagnosis, quotes writer Samuel Beckett with “I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”