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.”

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Bobby Kennedy by Chris Matthews

Bobby Kennedy: A Raging Spirit was a solid book by Chris Matthews on the United States Senator and Attorney General under his brother John F. Kennedy and who was assassinated in 1968, eighty days after announcing his run for the presidency, and five years after JFK killed in Dallas.

Matthews hosts Hardball on MSNBC and chronicles well Kennedy's life, skill at getting things done and concern for those less fortunate. It's noted how after the assassination, Kennedy's body was carried from New York to Arlington National Cemetery in Washington via train, with an estimated one million people, few well-off as Matthews put it, lining the tracks to pay their respects.

Kennedy's early political work was on behalf of his brother, starting with him serving as JFK's campaign manager in a Senate race, and continuing up to the November 1963 shooting of the President in Dallas. In their work together, Bobby was often the driving force behind things, and while Attorney General in the White House, Bobby's morals and being on the right side of history was evident, with the two of them starting what would later get signed as the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

After the death of his brother, Kennedy won election to the Senate in 1964, and felt compelled to run for President in 1968 due to both his opposition to the Vietnam War and view of civil rights and the under-represented. Kennedy's speech in Indianapolis the night of Martin Luther King's death is pointed to as an example of his humanity and moral compass and a fundamental idea that he put forth in his all too short presidential campaign was the important ideal that America is great, and should also be good.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke

Thinking in Bets by Annie Duke was a good book from the retired poker player, author, corporate speaker and consultant. The subtitle is Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts and Duke notes that it’s about separating decision quality from outcome quality, if the outcome bad, it doesn’t mean it was a bad decision if made based on expected probabilities and the probabilities favored making it.

Covered in the book is how there's different facets to probabilistic decision-making, it's ok to be unsure of an outcome, to say something will happen 30% of the time and have it occur, or to say you're 30% confident something will occur and it does, doesn’t mean someone is wrong. Additionally, probabilistic decision-making looks at expected pay values (return times likelihood of success) in deciding on a course of action or choice, and very much tries to avoid thinking in absolutes.

Duke writes about beliefs that they're formed by (A) hearing something, (B) believing it, and then (C) maybe later deciding if it was true. The opposite of this approach is truth seeking, something that's difficult to do, often involves looking at dissenting viewpoints, and can be done with the help of others, in essence a support group around not buying into fallback ideas of simple good or bad luck, with insufficient weight put on the importance of decision making. In relation to discussions with others, Duke brings up the idea of saying things following an "and" rather than "but" statement and in relation to the self when making decisions, people should think about the future-tense version of themselves rather than simply the present-tense.

It was interesting reading provided by Duke and she highlights how there’s two things that determine how our lives turn out: the quality of our decisions and luck, and the key is recognizing the difference between the two.

All-American Murder by James Patterson,‎ Alex Abramovich,‎ and Mike Harvkey

All-American Murder by James Patterson,‎ Alex Abramovich,‎ and Mike Harvkey was a work of non-fiction on Aaron Hernandez, the former New England Patriot convicted for murder and who took his own life while in prison.

Patterson is one of the few mega best-selling authors writing today and this as with many of his other books was co-written with others, and tells the story of someone who came from a splintered home life growing up, took in with a bad crowd and made a series of horrific decisions into his adulthood while a wealthy and famous NFL player, with it coming out after his death that Hernandez suffered from brain injury.

The book doesn't feel to be terrifically written and come across as a fairly straightforward recounting of events and more than anything else, is just a shame of a tale.

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi

Practice Perfect by Doug Lemov, Erica Woolway, and Katie Yezzi was a bit of a weighty read at times, but a good book with really solid material in it. The three authors are all educators and subtitle of their book is 42 Rules for Getting Better at Getting Better, with some of the key things that stuck with me noted below...

Concepts around practice
- Practice makes permanent, basically the building of muscle memory, and if practice not done properly, the incorrect way to do something can become ingrained.
- Practice shouldn’t be about scrimmaging or simple repetition of a general activity, it should be made up of drills focused on skill mastery.

Planning of practice
- Practice needs to be planned well to be well executed and there should be a specific objective to practice, not just a purpose.
- There should be systems to help enable effective practices, like signals to bring people to order and names for drills.
- Oftentimes there’s too many things practiced, the most important steps should be simplified and practiced; when successfully executed, complexity can be added.
- Once there's great proficiency at the simple tasks, it enables creativity to come through as energy doesn't have to be expended on the simple.

During practice
- Feedback is an integral and standard part of practice, not simply a critique when something done wrong.
- Specific feedback is key, and should come right at the moment something done.
- Someone should practice applying feedback immediately after getting it.
- Should praise the work that people have put into something so they know results are connected to work.
- Modeling is incredibly important, along with description of what’s going on, people don’t know until they know.
- Should model skinny parts, don’t try to cover too much, just as with practice.
- Remember that people won’t usually say they don’t get something.
- Video can be extremely helpful, both someone watching video of their own practice, and in viewing videos of practice conducted by people in that field.

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon

The Great Halifax Explosion by John U. Bacon was an interesting historical read on the December 16, 1917 calamity in Halifax, Nova Scotia that killed 2,000, wounded another 9,000, and left 25,000 homeless as the result of the most powerful man-made explosion until Hiroshima decades later.

Bacon tells the story of The Mont-Blanc freighter in New York getting packed full of explosives to be used in WWI, then heading to Halifax before the planned trip across the Atlantic and colliding in the harbor with another ship, the Imo.

It was interesting reading of the choices people made, going towards disaster or fleeing it, with the crew of The Mont-Blanc abandoning in the harbor their burning ship, knowing it would explode, but not warning people, juxtaposed with the story of train dispatcher Vincent Coleman seeing the burning ammunition ship and telling co-workers to flee, while staying to send a telegram warning away an incoming train.

Noted in the book was that the explosion 83 million times more powerful than a gun being fired, with subsequent ground waves causing shaking 110 miles away, followed by even more destructive air waves, or shock waves, gas bubbles racing outwards destroying things in it's path. The explosion killed roughly 1,600 people instantly, and in it's aftermath, people and communities rushed to assist, with one outcome of the disaster the strengthening of ties between the United States and Canada, with specific mention made in the book of Boston's contributions and how there's every year a Christmas tree delivered from Nova Scotia to Massachusetts in thanks, a tradition from shortly after the explosion that restarted in 1976 and has occurred annually since.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Books from 2017

The 35 books that I finished in 2017 covered a wide variety of areas and while it's of course an imperfect science to group them, below are the categories that the books felt to belong within, along with the count:

Fiction - 4
Memoir - 4
Sports - 3
History (recent as well as past and both biography and otherwise) - 11
Self-Improvement (a very broad definition and including both memoir and otherwise)  - 13

In terms of favorites, below are the ones that were the most memorable for me, whether due to the writing, the topic, or both... with the hyperlinks for each to my writeup on the book:

Memoirs:
Lab Girl by Hope Jahren
Paul and Me by A.E. Hotchner
Shoe Dog by Phil Knight

History:
The Stranger in the Woods by Michael Finkel
Killers of the Flower Moon by David Grann

Self-Improvement:
10% Happier by Dan Harris
Anything You Want by Derek Sivers
The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck by Mark Manson
Tools of Titans by Tim Ferriss
Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg
The Power Paradox by Dacher Keltner 

In going a step further in picking favorites, the ones that stood out the most to me were the three noted in the memoir category above. Each featured solid writing, with Shoe Dog written along with Knight by one of my favorite authors, J.R. Moehinger, and Lab Girl as well as Paul and Me telling stories that both inspired and brought a smile to my face. Additionally, these last two had the cache of being by people I hadn't heard of and felt to be in the hidden gem category, especially Lab Girl by a geobiologist about her life and work.