October 2020 Book Review

October was a very busy month, largely due to launching the Perfect Story Formula for the first time. However, I did read the books pictured above and listened to Moriarty by Anthony Horowitz and Squirm by Carl Hiassen. It was so busy that I’m feeling good that I managed to read at all, to be honest. My book reviews are in the order that I read them.

Loonshoots by Safi Bahcall

This book came into my inbox on a Bill Gates recommendation. Reading more nonfiction is an ongoing project for me and one thing that helps a lot is have reliable recommendations. I pay attention to Bill Gates because I like his relentless curiosity and the fact that he’s so articulate about why he recommends a particular book. He also recommends fiction, so maybe we’re working on opposite projects!

Loonshots: How to Nurture the Crazy Ideas that Win WArs, Cure Diseases, and Transform Industries is about the structures an organization needs to have in place in order to make both innovation and execution possible. The main case comes from World War II military innovation and cases carry through, perhaps somewhat predictably, to Apple in the 21st century. What’s interesting about Bahcall is his structural approach to a creative problem.

In some ways, this reminds me of Atomic Habits by James Clear because of the focus on the systems required to accomplish a goal. It’s along the same lines of all the people who write about writing and basically say that if you want to become a great writer, you’re just going to have to sit down and write. You’re going to have to sit down and write a lot. The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield has a similar message.

It is in some ways liberating to realize that there is no magic “creative genius” that some people have and others lack. Yes, there is creativity, but the difference between a creative person or organization and a person or organization that creates may be in the way they structure their lives (or organizations). That means it’s attainable. You can do it. I can do it.

Which is also where I found myself wishing for more. I am a me, not an organization and I was left wondering how I can apply the principles of Loonshots to my own work, which is both creative and requires me to create. If there’s a follow-up, that’s the questions I’d love Bahcall to answer next.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

A couple years ago, an old friend turned up in The Netherlands and we got to eat dim sum in the Hague together after not having seen each other for 19 years. As we were parting ways, he told me I should read Siri Hustvedt’s What I Loved

What I Loved is a beautifully controlled novel that tells the story of two men, the women they fall in love with, and the children they love. It’s a small world that focuses on the lives and relationships between seven characters over the course of about 25 years. It starts in New York City in the 1970s. An art historian meets an artist and a friendship blossoms.

What makes this novel compelling is how finely the characters are detailed. After reading it, I feel like I might even know what they smell like, what a room would feel like if any combination of these characters were in it. The focus is intense and incredibly well done.

And then there are the sucker punches. Let’s just say that this book had me crying my eyes out over my lunch one day. It hit me so hard that I wasn’t sure I could or wanted to keep reading. I continued because the writing was that well done. It felt innocuous and sometimes dull when I started, but the fact that a story could evoke such a strong emotion kind of clued me in to how extremely well written it was. 

What I Loved is worth reading. Buy tissues.

Squirm by Carl Hiassen

We started Squirm on audiobook during our summer vacation and finally finished it on a drive out to Zeeland for our fall break. It’s the second Carl Hiassen book we’ve listened to and they are solid family entertainment.

Squirm is about Billy Dickens. He lives in Florida and loves snakes. He moves a lot and lives by his own private very strict code of honor. The story involves questionable practical jokes, cross-country chases, and responsible representations of Native Americans.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that Billy’s a young environmentalist in his own way. His love and wonder for nature feels wonderfully genuine and powerful. He’s also got a knack for finding trouble that’s fun to listen to. 

The Secret Lives of Baba Segi’s Wives by Lola Shoneyin

This was our October book club selection and to be very honest, it got a solid thumbs down from our group for a lack of depth. The Nigerian novel is about Baba Segi, who kicks off the action by bringing home a fourth wife to his family. The wives and their children live in very close quarters with a clear pecking order.

The fourth wife has a college education and quickly becomes the focus of a both overt and passive aggression. It isn’t pleasant for her or anyone else, really. The exception is Baba Segi, who seems to live a life dominated by blissful ignorance.

A different wife narrates each chapter, although it isn’t always clear which wife is narrating. They have quirks instead of character and it’s not always easy to tell them apart. One observation in book club was that Etaf Rum’s A Woman is no Man also had multiple narrators, but they were much easier to tell apart. It also helped that the chapter titles were character names.

I was disappointed that the characters didn’t have more depth. They felt like tropes as opposed to characters with depth. I had the same feeling when I read Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi. For both books, the stories had a lot of potential, but the characters fell flat. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernadine Evaristo, on the other hand, blew me away with nine distinct characters and fine storytelling.

The one reservation I have about panning the book is that perhaps there’s a cultural element to the writing that I don’t understand. The risk with reading literature from another culture is always that you fail to grasp the nuances. With that in mind, if anyone wants to pass me some deeper insight, I’d love to hear it!

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2 Comments

  1. I agree with all you said about “What I Loved”. I am always amazed if writers manage to capture art in their writing, real physical art such as paintings. When reading it, I could clearly picture what she described and by times I could even get an idea of the feeling the protagonists may have when seeing it.
    Yes, and then there were the moments when you also could feel with the characters and all you want to do is cry with them. Turning a page can feel like a punch in your face.

    • Thanks so much – it was such an intense read! She’s a gifted writer, for sure!

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