April 2020 Book Reviews

A monthly reading review is showing me month after month that there may be no end to my reading interests. I admire people who read single-mindedly, with a purpose and question. I also embrace the fact that I am not one of those people. Yet when I look back, there are broad trends and themes that keep coming back. It’s not uncommon for me to realize a topic or approach that piques my interest today is related to an idea that I obsessed about when I was in college. 

In the end, I read with a sort of faith in a purpose and path that isn’t clear to me yet. It’s like trying to form clouds. The vapors swirl and gather in unpredictable shapes and sizes all around you. Step back and you’ll see towers of fluffy clouds higher than buildings. Look at it closely, though, and the millions of droplets seem completely disorganized.

Let’s look at some droplets.

Range by David Epstein

“Our greatest strength is the exact opposite of narrow specialization. It is the ability to integrate broadly.”

This book made me so happy. I’ve been a generalist my whole life and it’s often felt like a liability, particularly when I work with specialists, which is often. Epstein explores advantages generalists have when it comes to things like innovation, decision-making, and problem-solving. He also writes about how you can act more like a generalist. 

These insights are important because society privileges specialization. Dr. Anthony Fauci’s reputation is based on decades of focus not just on infectious diseases, but particularly on AIDS, one disease. When that’s what we see in the news, when academia seems to only have space for ultra-specific work, and so much advice in business is about focus, focus, focus, it’s encouraging to find a perspective that suggests that having broad interests is productive.

I enjoyed this thoroughly and recommend it to anyone (everyone) who’s wondering whether they should specialize or not.

Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath

This book also turned up in my February reading review, when I scanned it for the Audacious Goals worksheet I was creating. Last month, I went back intending to reread sections but ended up reading the whole of the middle section. Ultimately, this book belongs amongst my storytelling resources. The Heath brothers understand exactly what it takes to get an audience’s attention and how to design a message your audience will not forget. If you incorporate their suggestions into your storytelling, you’ll be telling great stories!

The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield

“Rule of thumb: the more important a call or action is to our soul’s evolution, the more Resistance we will feel towards pursuing it.”

Add this book to your creative inspiration shelf along with The Creative Habit by Twyla Tharp, On Writing by Stephen King, and Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott. Here’s the message, you want to make art? Go make art. Make it every day. Does that one grand project keep calling you while you think of endless excuses to not do it? That’s resistance. It’s your compass. Follow your resistance to the project you must be doing and then get to work. No, don’t come up with excuses or schedules or intentions. Get to work. 

All of this, only much more eloquent. A great read. Get it.

The Secret Commonwealth by Phillip Pullman

The Secret Commonwealth is the second book following La Belle Sauvage in the Book of Dust trilogy, which is both a prequel and a sequel to the His Dark Materials trilogy. Confused? This is the story of what happens to Lyra Silvertongue after she returns from her adventures between worlds. I had a hard time keeping up with all the different routes and plot lines running through this story. There was a lot of reaching back to earlier books and in the end I found it confusing. I got to the end only to have the book end in the middle of the action, which was frustrating. His Dark Materials was a great series and I liked La Belle Sauvage. If anything, this confirmed that sometimes you’re better off waiting until the series is complete before you start reading.

Why Be Happy When You Could be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson

I am trying to read more women’s memoirs and this one sets the bar very high. Winterson wrote this memoir in part to clarify which parts of her biographical fiction novel Oranges are the Only Fruit were fact and which were fiction. What stands out in this book is Winterson’s love for life and her will to make something good happen. It’s the story of a woman who had everything against her, was rejected by her birth mother and her adopted mother and managed to come out of it all eager to love and driven to move forward. This book lacks self-pity. It is overflowing with reflection and beautiful phrases. It could have been depressing. I found it inspiring. 

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki

What an incredible read. On its surface, this is a book telling two. One is the story of Ruth, a woman who lives on a small island in BC, Canada who finds a plastic bag filled with journals and letters on the beach. The author of the journal is Nao, a Japanese girl who writes in English because she’s just moved back to Japan from California.

So, we have two narratives connected by Ruth’s intense desire to learn more about Nao. She wants to know if Nao is real and if she’s alive. As the stories progress, however, they start to intertwine. We might expect Ruth’s life to be altered by discovering a beach treasure that touches her deeply. What’s more mysterious is the possibility that Ruth is altering the life Nao describes in her journal.

This book started with a great narrative that pulled me in right away. Then it revealed depths of meaning that left me in awe by the end. It’s rare to find a book that works on so many levels. This one does it well.

City of Lies by Ramita Navai

I read this as part of my family’s trip to Iran at home. It’s a collection of profiles based on the true stories of people living in Tehran. Navai is a reporter and has written composite accounts of people from all parts of Tehran life, from the poor to the rich, from the devout to the semi-believers. She uses the main street in Tehran, the Vali Asr as a spine holding the stories together. The reader gets a peek behind the scenes.

The constraints that Navai worked with are clear. The stories are based on reality, with characters based on one character or composites and incidents included in the stories that were drawn from the news. These are all described and cited in extensive endnotes. This approach both honors and protects the sources of her stories.

As a reader, the constraints that make the book a valuable resource also become a barrier to suspending disbelief. I don’t think it was Navai’s intent for the reader to lose themselves in the stories, though. As an introduction to life in a city many of us will never visit, however, it was a great read.


Posted in Books.

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