As a reference, my grading scale is (without any one or two star books this time):
Three Stars: Recommended, may cover too niche a topic to get a stronger recommendation for a broad audience, is only high-level coverage of its theme, or just moderately interesting fiction.
Four Stars: Recommended, well-written, and covers material I think most people would find useful or interesting.
Five Stars: Strongly recommended to everyone.
Additionally, I pick one book every six months as the “best book I’ve read” during that time period.
Three Stars (Recommended)
Things You Should Already Know About Dating, You F**king Idiot by Ben Schwartz and Laura Moses
I picked up this comic book off the shelf at some bookstore for two reasons. First, if I’m still going to buy any physical books, they might as well be comic books. Second, it recommendation from Justin Timberlake on the cover which reads: “This book is so funny. Read it and you’ll 100% find love–if you’re into that kinda thing…happiness or whatever.” These authors must have great agents to get a JT quote. If the title didn’t tip you off, this isn’t high-class literature, but it’s not bad for a $5 comic book satirizing millennials.
If Ignorance is Bliss, Why Aren’t There More Happy People? Smart Quotes for Dumb Times by John Lloyd and John Mitchinson:
Like Oxymoronica reviewed in 2017, If Ignorance is Bliss is a book of quotes. They’re mostly comedic and organized alphabetically by theme, starting with “Acting” and ending with “Zen”. A few select favorites below:
“Every society honors its live conformists and its dead troublemakers.” – Mignon McLaughlin, a writer for Vogue and Glamour whose two Neurotic’s Notebooks became bestsellers in the 1960s
“They say hard work never hurt anybody, but I figure why take the chance.” – Ronald Reagan
“An idea isn’t responsible for the people who believe in it.” – Don Marquis
The Curriculum – Everything You Need to Know to Be a Master of Business Arts by Gil “Stanley Bing” Schwartz
“Stanley Bing” just recently announced his resignation as the Head of Communications for CBS. The Curriculum is his most recent work of satire, formatted as a faux “curriculum” mocking business schools by offering the truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of advice people really talk about at work. Your personal rating for this book will probably correlate with how you feel about drinking during weekday lunches and Dr. Strangelove.
Go Figure – Things You Didn’t Know You Didn’t Know by Tom Standage
Another pocket-sized airport book, Economist editor Tom Standage has compiled about 100 one-or-two page articles on random trivia, such as how modern tropical volcanoes are still creating new islands today and humanity’s opportunity cost from all the time spent watching Gangnam Style. Recommended if you want to learn ideas for Trivial Pursuit in the form of infographics.
Girl Logic – The Genius and the Absurdity by Iliza Schlesinger
Comedian Iliza Schlesinger has had a tremendous run the past couple years, starting with being the first woman to win the TV show Last Comic Standing, followed up with four stand-up comedy specials on Netflix and now her first book. This review is probably as much about her standup as it is about this book, but they’re pretty closely related. The content of Girl Logic is pretty similar to the topics covered in her shows Elder Millenial and Confirmed Kills, with more serious personal anecdotes and a bit less, but some, comedy.
If you’re unfamiliar with Iliza, I’d recommend any and all of her Netflix comedy specials and the below half an hour talk on her book:
Immortal Life – A Soon to be True Story by Gil “Stanley Bing” Schwartz
I’ve previously written about how great an influence Stanley Bing has been on my worldview. He recently wrote his third novel, Immortal Life, which tells the tale of a trillionaire tech executive using his wealth to discover a path to mental immortality. The novel has all has all the hallmarks of a Bing book, primarily his sophomoric (meant as a compliment) way of humanizing the rich and famous.
I did not enjoy it as much as his first two novels, which I think is because Immortal Life has more of a science-fiction bent than “You Look Nice Today” and “Lloyd: What Happened”, making it a little less relatable. I read “Lloyd: What Happened” in high school and it remains one of my favorite works of fiction, deserving of its own five-star review.
Who Reads Poetry – 50 Views from Poetry Magazine edited by Fred Sasaki and Don Share
To answer the title’s implied question, I don’t really read poetry (other than The Road Not Taken which I probably misinterpret). Who Reads Poetry is published by the University of Chicago Press and is therefore heavily influenced by the Chicago/midwestern community. It includes essays from authors of various walks of life and professions (writers, military, economists, et al.), including some celebrities (Christopher Hitchens, Roger Ebert, Roxane Gay).
Probably the most memorable segment for me was when Jeffrey Brown of PBS Newshour asked two cadets in military school about why poetry is taught to soldiers.
Cadet One: “Poetry is directly related to our function as a military officer because, at the bottom level, we’re all here training to take lives. And that’s a concept that you really can’t approach without art, without some sort of deeper understanding of the human condition, which is exactly what poetry is.”
Cadet Two: “That’s a clumsy way to say that. We’re not here to take lives and destroy things. Perhaps those are the tools of the army and the military, but really we’re here to learn how to be leaders. And…poetry has a direct influence on how I think about leadership and how people view leadership.”
Fire and Fury – Inside the Trump Whitehouse by Michael Wolff
Fire and Fury got a ton of press when it was released (google it to confirm for yourself). It’s not exactly All the President’s Men (a personal all-time favorite of mine) and Wolff isn’t exactly Bob Woodward. However, it is a fun read in the sense that I don’t usually read a lot of tabloid-esque salacious kind of material.
Not to say this isn’t good reporting. It clearly has one primary source, who seems to clearly be Steve Bannon given how much attention he gets in the book (and the story ends when Bannon’s tenure did).
There are a few insights into the Trump administration I didn’t know much about going in. First, the bulk of the book is about the dynamics of three warring camps vying for Trump’s attention: The traditional Republican establishment, the far-right populist extremists led by Steve Bannon, and Trump’s family members. Second, the very significant role the Mercer family plays as Republican power-players. For these perspectives alone, this book was worth reading, and probably more so if you like following the news as entertainment.
Brotopia – Breaking up the Boys’ Club of Silicon Valley by Emily Chang
Silicon Valley has not been immune to the #metoo wave upending industries over the past couple years. If anything, Emily Chang unveils ways in which the tech community is as bad as the entertainment industry, partially attributable to technologists’ increased wealth accumulation.
My favorite part of this story is the book’s early chapters that are very well researched histories of how computer programmers and academics self-selected people (white dorky men) to be the stereotype of what a computer programmer should be because of very flimsy science and general laziness. Chang’s first couple chapters explain how the implicit misogyny of mid-century academia created an inescapable cycle for women who couldn’t be taken seriously in computer science. This opening material of Brotopia was its most informative.
The the middle chunk of Brotopia covers either a lot of stories well-known in the tech media (like Uber’s sexual discrimination and harassment issues). Aside from the varying information levels between chapters, Chang has compiled a thorough, informative summary of the too-frequent sexism in the tech industry.
Four Stars (Highly recommended for those interested in topic, or generally recommended for anyone)
Astrophysics for People in a Hurry by Neil DeGrasse Tyson
I picked this up at an airport and the title lives up to its name. You can pretty much knock this short read in one cross-country flight. Beginning with the “Big Bang”, it expands out to the known limits of the universe, and concludes with an overview of humanity’s tools for understanding everything in between. It’s the perfect plane read: short, to-the-point with just the right amount non-academic commentary, and will leave you feeling just a little smarter than before you left.
At the Existentialist Cafe – Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails by Sarah Blakewell
“Existential” is one of those words that people abuse without knowing what it means, and only refer to when talking about when reflecting upon the insignificance of their own lives. So when Bakewell’s book got good press for being a welcoming introduction to philosophy without Wittgensteinian jargon, I had to pick it up if I wanted to pursue being an amateur philosopher myself.
At the Existentialist Cafe weaves together a story broader than I expected by putting the advancement of philosophical ideas in the 20th century against the backdrop of greater cultural history, primarily the impact World War Two had on European culture and thinking. In this way, this book is as much a biography of humanity in the 1900s as it is a textbook on existentialism. The biography part is emphasized by focusing chapters on specific individuals who led the existentialist movement, primarily lovers Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. A touch of the author’s personal journey (because phenomenology is a personal philosophy) toward a life dedicated to studying philosophy supports a casual, welcoming tone. I recommend as a solid first book on philosophy.
Jim Brown – Last Man Standing by Dave Zirin
“We always lament in the superficial media culture that there are no heroes, but that presupposes that a hero is perfect. And what the Greeks have told us for millennia is that a hero isn’t perfect. Heroism is the negotiation between a person’s strengths and weaknesses… and sometimes it’s not a negotiation. It’s a war.” – Ken Burns quote to open the book
Jim Brown is the greatest football player of all time (I stand by this even with Tom Brady’s sixth Super Bowl ring and Jerry Rice’s records). And it is a name that, while fading from memory for new generations, still resounds in sports lore.
As NFL Films states in the above highlight video, in nine-record setting seasons, Jim Brown led the league in rushing yards eight times. Brown was a three-time league MVP. He is the only runner ever to average over 100 yards per game and over 5 yards per carry for a career.
“Jim thought on Sundays, and these are his words, that he was a god. That nobody could hurt him, that nobody could touch him, that nobody was better. And he proved it every Sunday…. That so called ‘macho’, which I hate that word, but he embodies it.” – Burt Reynolds
“I played nine seasons and never missed a game and I never laid out on the football field. I might not have the greatest ability of everybody, but the one thing that stands is that when it was time to play, I was there.“ – Jim Brown
I got to meet author David Zirin at the Volumes Bookcafe in Chicago’s Wicker Park district, where he spoke about his time interviewing Brown at his home. Zirin noted that even in his 80s, Brown is an imposing figure, still moving his gigantic frame with the help of a cane which resembles a tree trunk more than a stick.
What I really love about this biography is that it’s the perfect length, not an Odysseyian-sized epic like many biographies. It’s just long enough to devote efficient chapters to the many phases of Brown’s life: His fatherless youth, his career as the greatest football player ever and the last man to lead Cleveland to a major sports championship before Lebron James, his subsequent Hollywood film career, and his subsequent life promoting black rights alongside Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X and suppressing gang violence by encouraging black youth to compete economically, not violently.
As the opening Ken Burns quote foreshadows, there is another side to all the great things Brown accomplished. Zirin devotes a chapter to Brown’s history of under-reported domestic violence against the women in his life. Sociologists today could easily say that someone like Brown is the epitome of the modern term “toxic masculinity”.
Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum on judging Brown, in a today’s time where Malcolm X and Ali are gone, there remains gravitas to Jim Brown still standing.
Powerful – Building a Culture of Freedom and Responsibility by Patty McCord
How did the DVD-by-mail startup bankrupt Blockbuster and become (as of publishing this post) a $100 billion entertainment behemoth? It’s largely attributed to the innovative culture the company developed, led by Patty McCord.
This book pairs really well with Ray Dalio’s Principles because they both pull no punches. They attribute the success of their organizations to honesty, the removing of pretense, and saying what others won’t. Powerful’s chapter titles reflect this (“Human Beings Hate Being Lied To” and “The Art of Good Good-Byes: Make Needed Changes Fast and Be a Great Place to be From”). I personally believe that if more companies should follow something closer to the Netflix model explained in Powerful, the business world would be a better place.
To get a feel for Netflix’s perspective, you can revisit the original “Culture Deck” presentation Patty created at Netflix which helped inspire this book.
The Phoenix Project – A Novel about IT, DevOps, and Helping Your Business Win by Gene Kim, Kevin Behr, and George Spafford
So many companies have moved from the “IT” department from being a cost-center to business-critical. And yet the horror stories of software products taking too long to ship and always breaking is still the norm.
In 2013, developer operations (“DevOps”) pioneers Kim, Behr, and Spafford codified what they had learned about integrating business deadlines, agile software development, and software-infrastructure-as-code into a novel. The Phoenix Project’s story and structure are based on Eli Goldratt’s The Goal (which I previously reviewed), which translated his own Theory of Constraints mixed with Toyota’s legendary manufacturing philosophies into a story that generalized to many businesses.
As I followed our protagonist Bill and his IT team at “Parts Unlimited” drowning in deadlines and marketing team demands, it reminded me of all numerous project and process failures I’ve seen in my own career. Optimistically, the happy ending and how Bill arrives there provides a generally useful template more companies should try to learn from when trying to figure out how to move faster with increased effectiveness.
Measure What Matters: How Google, Bono, and the Gates Foundation Rock the World with OKRs by John Doerr
Doerr, a legendary venture capitalist involved in Google and Twitter, has written the guide to Objectives and Key Results (OKRs), the performance management process used by many of the top technology companies (and increasingly outside computers). Measure What Matters interweaves chapters written by entrepreneurs who have used the system to success with Doerr’s practical and specific advice for how to align all employees in an organization to achieve collective goals via individual contribution.
This absolutely earns a spot in the canon of handbooks aspiring business-people must read. Without avoiding replicating the entire book here, I’d just recommend that every company without a performance management system send a copy to every employee.
Skin in the Game: Hidden Asymmetries in Daily Life by Nassim Nicholas Taleb
“Skin in the game is about honor as an existential commitment, and risk taking (a certain class of risks) as a separation between a man and machine.”
That’s the description of the book’s core concept (from page 35 of the hardcover). Primarily, Skin in the Game thoroughly explains the philosophical and tangible importance of personal risk-taking to humanity. From bankers and wantrepreneurs losing others people money and going back to their taxpayer funded beach houses or the nefariousness of wage-slavery, Taleb uncovers “asymmetries” throughout society. In other words, areas of life where people are taking more than they’re giving, and how to not be one of them.
Taleb extends this study of social asymmetry to other areas, including a fascinating chapter on minority rule (relevant for liberals who were astounded by Donald Trump’s presidential win, which Taleb essentially predicted and explains). Antifragile is still my favorite of Taleb’s books since I find its ideas even more insightful, but this is still a must-read. Taleb’s insights are still well-understood in culture, and they should be.
Five Stars (Highly Recommend to Everyone)
Bad Blood – Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyou
This book comes at an important time in American culture when journalism and media is under attack. Journalist John Carreyou has given the field its best defense by uncovering the most blatant and diabolical American corporate fraud since either Bernie Madoff or Enron. The various financial institutions may have done more damage in the 2000s, but you’d be hard pressed to find a much clearer link between knowingly putting people’s health at risk for the sake of greed and fame as what happened here.
Carreyou tells the inside story of Theranos, a much-lauded biotech startup started by the psychopathic founder Elizabeth Holmes. The psychiatric accusation may seem strong until you read what she did in verbally abusing employees, hiring private investigators to watch employees at their homes, and ultimately risking people’s lives by faking and lying about blood test results from her company’s products.
It’s the kind of story I imagine splits a journalist’s psyche: it’s the kind of criminal story that makes a journalist’s career, but wouldn’t be possible without others having suffered from the crimes. Carreyou has done a tremendous humanitarian service by telling this story.
The Best Books Read in the First Half of 2018
For the first time on this blog, I am giving this nod to two books that were both so supremely written and whose stories are so intertwined that it made sense to give them both the honor.
The Gene – An Intimate History by Siddhartha Mukherjee
Siddhartha Mukherjee, a Pulitzer Prize winner, cancer physician, and professor at Columbia University, has written the canonical history of the gene. The concept of the “gene”, along with related ideas of “heredity” and “evolution”, is one of those ideas that most people are vaguely familiar with but don’t know much beyond what they can recall from high school.
Mukherjee has written the most readable and still comprehensive history of evolutionary science, focusing on the gene as its core.
Forget the science, which is taught with clarity I’ve only encountered in Feynman’s stories. The Gene is as intellectually inspiring as it is emotionally energizing. The author went into medical research and genomics to uncover the root of his family’s dark secret: everyone in his family and their local Indian village knew his family was cursed with schizophrenia, which consumed the life of his two uncles and a cousin.
The book opens with this powerful prologue:
“My father is the youngest of five brothers, and Moni is his first-born nephew–the eldest brother’s son. Since 2004, when he was forty, Moni has been confined to an institution for the mentally ill…with a diagnosis of schizophrenia. He is kept densely medicated–awash in a sea of a sorted antipsychotics and sedatives–and has an attendant watch, bathe, and feed him through the day….
Moni is not the only member of my father’s family with mental illness. Of my father’s four brothers, two–not Moni’s father, but two of Moni’s uncles–suffered from various unravelings of the mind. Madness, it turns out, has been among the Mukherjees for at least two generations, and at least part of my father’s reluctance to accept Moni’s diagnosis lies in my father’s grim recognition that some kernel of the illness may be buried, like toxic waste, in himself….
In 2009, Swedish researchers published an enormous international study, involving thousands of families and tens of thousands of men and women. By analyzing families that possessed intergenerational histories of mental illness, the study found striking evidence that bipolar disease and schizophrenia shared a strong genetic link. Some of the families described in the study possessed a crisscrossing history of mental illness achingly similar to my own: one sibling affected with schizophrenia, another with bipolar disease, an a nephew or niece who was also schizophrenic….
The study provided a strange interior solace–answering some of the questions that had so haunted my father and grandmother. But it also provoked a volley of new questions: If Moni’s illness was genetic, then why had his father and sister been spared? What “triggers” had unveiled these predispositions? How much of [Moni’s] illness arose from “nature” (i.e., genes that predisposed to mental illness) versus “nurture” (environmental triggers such as upheaval, discord, and trauma)? Might my father carry the susceptibility? Was I a carrier as well? What if I could know the precise nature of this genetic flaw? Would I test myself, or my two daughters? Would I inform them of the results? What if only one of them turned out to carry that mark?
This book is the story of the birth, growth, and future of one of the most powerful and dangerous ideas in the history of science: the ‘gene,’ the fundamental unit of heredity, and the basic unit of all biological information.”
Modern Prometheus – Editing the Human Genome with CRISPR-Cas9 by Jim Kozubek
For those who have heard the term “gene editing” but don’t really know much biochemistry, CRISPR-Cas9 is the technology behind one of the most important scientific revolutions of our time. Author Kozubek not only explains this innovative tool with readable scientific precision, he elevates its significance. His unique background of journalist-turned-scientist gives him the perfect skillset to tell this story.
CRISPR is an important inflection point in human evolution, enabling us to change who we are at our most fundamental genetic level. Modern Prometheus impresses this importance upon the reader by spending as much time on the political and capitalistic implications of the technology as the underlying science.
Kozubek acknowledges, with great respect, the tough choices that have been and will continue to be made by the brilliant scientists who have increasingly dangerous power over everyone not seen since the creation of the atom bomb:
“Heroism, at least as I use it in my own text, does not emphasize scientific valor as a series of achievements by right-minded people. Rather, to be a hero means to be immersed in a life-world, or lebenswelt, as the philosophers call it, to navigate complicated social, cultural and biological strata where there are no fundamentally right actions. Whereas we once had the archetype of the ‘Greek hero,’ who confronted binary decisions of whether to adhere or break with authority, the ‘Western Hero’ evolved into a pragmatic model. He knows his own moral character is not higher than his peers, but that does not stop him from enforcing justice or an ethic through a policy of pragmatism.
“In effect, to be a hero means to pursue one course of action at the expense of another course. Every ‘scientific hero’ knows he was just following one of many hypotheses and lines of thought. And, just like the valiant hero who steps into traffic to save a child, he denies it was a special act, because he is not entirely confident that he would have done it again. A genuine hero knows full well he could have easily acted otherwise.”