stack of books

August 2020 Book Reviews

I’ve just spent an extra half hour sitting at lunch to finish a book. Do you do the same thing? Reading on stolen time is one of my favorite things. Being able to wake up in the morning and read before getting out of bed is one of my particular treats.

Anyway, looking back over my August reading, it looks like a complete mish-mash. We had a little vacation and we listened to audiobooks together in the car. A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park was a surprise hit. It tells the story of two children growing up in Sudan, a boy and a girl, separated by gender and 20 years. I’m struck by how much the story impacted my daughter in particular. She mentioned it just yesterday. Our kids are 9 & 11 and this book worked for the whole family.

How to be Black by Baratunde Thurston

I bought this book right after seeing Thurston’s TEDTalk, How to Deconstruct Racism, One Headline at a Time. The book is as intelligent, funny, and sharp as the TEDTalk. In rewatching the TEDTalk, I was struck by how he structures the talk, balancing humor and dead serious, almost frighteningly cold statements of fact. In terms of his writing skills, he had me in the talk at “shout to the multigenerational dehumanizing economic institution of American chattel slavery.” He does not joke around, even when he’s joking around.

In How to be Black, Thurston works with an expert panel, posing them questions, sharing their responses, and adding his own commentary. The questions are far-reaching and poignant. They touch on urgent issues that require our attention now and do it with wit, wisdom, and insight. Thurston is less of a funny guy than a sharply intelligent man who knows how to use his humor to make hard messages more palatable. He effectively uses humor to create a space where he can invite his reader to consider very serious issues.

This book isn’t on any of the reading lists I’ve come across in the past few months but I’d recommend it. It’s particularly good at giving you insights into the experience of being black in America today.

The Ego is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday

2020 is the perfect year to be reading into stoicism. I started in January with The Obstacle is the Way, also by Ryan Holiday. His work is extremely accessible and just what I need as I struggle with all the challenges 2020 has brought. Where Obstacle focused on how we cope with perceived problems, The Ego is the Enemy is all about how we cope with ourselves.

In three sections, Aspire, Success, and Failure, Holiday addresses all the ways we can work to overcome our egos in order to move forward instead of being in our own way. He blends the teachings of the stoic philosophers with examples from famous lives. If I have to sum up his message here, it’s that we have to focus on the process and continual learning instead of getting stuck thinking about where we are. When you’re aspiring to achieve, work on working and learning. When you’re successful, work on refining and continuing to learn. When you’ve failed (and yes, we all will), work on figuring out what you can learn from it instead of wallowing.

Holiday is a marketer and that shows in his writing, which can leave you wondering if you missed a trick along the way. Let’s say he’s more Tony Robbins than Dalai Lama. I’m torn between starting to find his writing pithy and the fact that it’s full of valuable insights. Here’s one that I try to keep front of mind, 

An amateur is defensive. The professional finds learning (and even, occasionally, being shown up) to be enjoyable; they like being challenged and humbled, and engage in education as an ongoing and endless process.

I wouldn’t recommend The Ego is the Enemy as philosophy, but I would recommend it if you want encouragement to keep yourself moving forward and staying humble in all circumstances.

Timeline by Michael Crichton

My high school Humanities teacher recently recommended this book to me. When I was in his class, we read both The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco and The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone. Both books are both burned into my memory and still on my bookshelf. Which is to say, he’s a man whose book recommendations I take seriously.

The other side of the story is that I’ve been fascinated by Michael Crichton for a few years now, since learning that he was a doctor who practiced medicine for a couple of years and then realized he’d rather write books and went on to write Jurassic Park. If only all career transitions went that smoothly! Yet, I hadn’t found am occasion to read one of his books yet. But, a trusted recommendation coupled with ebook availability at the library made this a summer read.

Timeline did not disappoint. Do you want 20th-century technology, medieval history, and moral dilemmas in a fast-paced exciting read? Here you go. The premise is that a group of archeologists travel back in time to medieval France thanks to some wild technology and adventure ensues. I had a blast reading this and could not stop thinking about what a great movie it would make.

If you’re looking for a great quick read, this is the book for you. I raced through this one in 3 days and had a blast. It’s a solid choice for any vacation.

El Deafo by Cece Bell

In my quest to expand our home library for the kids, I came upon this graphic novel memoir about author Cece Bell growing up with a big old hearing aid at school. El Deafo gives some unexpected insights into what it’s like to grow up with a serious hearing impairment. I particularly liked one spread where she explained what she needed from her conversation partner in order to understand them well. Seeing mouths helps. Exaggerated speech doesn’t. 

The characters are rabbits instead of humans, which reminded me of Maus by Art Spiegelman. Using animals instead of human-looking main characters makes it easier to talk about hard subjects. Here, the rabbits also put an emphasis on the ears and the fact that hers don’t work quite the way ours do.

In the end, this is both a book about a young girl learning to cope with the physical and social realities of having a hearing problem and how children’s’ imaginations can be their solace and salvation. I’d certainly recommend it.

Flow by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

You know those books that come up over and over and over again in your reading? Flow was that book for me. It’s been on my reading list for about 5 years and when I finally picked it up, it wasn’t at all what I expected. Isn’t that just life?

Most authors refer to Flow to describe that state of being where you’re completely immersed in a task, to the point that you forget time passing. That covers about 5% of the book. The rest of the book goes into the condition of flow and how you can achieve it in different parts of your life.

Flow, according to Csikszentmihaly is about happiness and how to create the conditions necessary for more happiness in your life. The more we experience flow, the happier we are, so the book focuses on the conditions people in Csikszentmihalyi’s research needed to achieve flow. Those ideal conditions are achieved with an ever-changing combination of challenge and skill. 

There are so many things I took away from this book. People reported experiencing flow-like conditions more often at work than at home, but preferred to be at home because even though they were experiencing the conditions of flow, the fact that they were working for someone else’s gain meant they were willing to give up the experience. Hobbyists, people who pursued skill and creativity in their spare time, no matter what they did, experienced high levels of flow.

If there’s a lesson in this book, it’s find something you love to do for the sake of doing it and spend your time trying to do it at higher and higher levels. That’s his secret to happiness. This isn’t an easy or fast read, but it’s worthwhile. Take the time for it and you’ll be pleased you did.

There were more books in August. We listened to Point Blank by Anthony Horowitz, which my 11-year-old son loved and Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbitt. Tuck was so sweet and magical and lovely. I enjoyed it a lot and wonder why I’ve never read it before as well. In Leipzig, Germany, we stopped in at a very dusty used bookstore (they’re my favorite kid) and my son picked up his first adult mystery book, Burn by James Patterson, or maybe it’s a suspense book. Either way, I made sure to read it to have an idea what he’s consuming.

You’ll notice that my book links go to The Story Graph. My friend has convinced me to change over to Story Graph from GoodReads to give it a try and frankly be less tied to Amazon. It was easy to import my Goodreads information and the book recommendations are surprising. Check it out and let me know what you think!


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