A nuanced and well-written story, told from the perspectives of four individual middle schoolers and their teacher, who discover the transformative power of love and friendship as they compete in an academic bowl. Even though it is written for younger readers, the author doesn’t talk down or preach. This, combined with the varying first person perspectives and nonlinear timeline make for a challenging and meaningful reading experience at any age.
Why I read it: a recommendation from one of my students.
Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool, 4/5
This book gave me a feeling of déjà vu since it is the third I’ve read on the same general topic, preceded by Coyle’s The Talent Codeand Gladwell’s Outliers. On paper, Peak should have been my favorite of the three. Ericsson, a respected professor of psychology, is able to provide the academic backbone that was missing from Coyle’s otherwise very enjoyable take on the subject. And, as one of the researchers responsible for the original study that Gladwell later contorted into the “10,000-hour rule,” Ericsson is both qualified and motivated to debunk that incorrect (yet annoyingly memorable) interpretation of his work.
That said, I felt that Peak was rather a latecomer to the party and the authors’ efforts to transcend the genre of pop psychology relaxed in the book’s later chapters. Their painstaking attempt to distinguish between “deep practice” and mere “purposeful practice” felt contrived, and the concept of “mental representations,” so vital to Ericsson’s psychology-based perspective on the topic, was discussed in a consistently wishy-washy way. I couldn’t resist an eye roll upon encountering the section about London taxi drivers and their overdeveloped hippocampi, a study that has already been beaten to death (à la the Stanford Prison Experiment). Overall, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I remember enjoying Coyle’s more biology-based perspective and discussion of the topic in terms of deep practice, ignition and master coaching in The Talent Code.
While it might not have lived up to my six-year-old memory of a similar book, Peak still has a lot to offer. I was very interested in the application of the science of expertise to the field of medicine, specifically surgery. No one wants their medical practitioner to be just “average,” but the old joke that goes “What do you call the medical student who graduated last in his class? … Doctor” is unsettlingly accurate. Ericsson poses a real “moneyball” moment for the medical industry by showing how studying the highest performing outliers and applying science-based teaching techniques can raise the success rates of “average” surgeons.
Why I read it: my brother piqued my interest by telling me interesting stories from it.
Grow a Little Fruit Tree: Simple Pruning Techniques for Small-Space, Easy-Harvest Fruit Trees by Ann Ralph, 5/5
I wouldn’t even think about buying a fruit tree without first re-reading this exceptional book, which makes a very convincing case for using aggressive (but surprisingly simple) pruning techniques to keep fruit trees in the 5- to 6-foot height range. These trees may seem ridiculously tiny at first glance, but anyone who has faced the prospect of caring for larger trees while perched atop a ladder, in addition to coping with an overabundant harvest of sub-par fruit, will appreciate the practicality of Ann Ralph’s philosophy.
Since pruning is such a hands-on activity, I had some doubts about how much help a mere book could offer. For this reason, I had already taken a series of virtual Master Pruning classes through PlantAmnesty. Unfortunately, I found that organization’s overall pruning philosophy to be a bit fanatical and somewhat discouraging. They have a very PETA vibe: picture taking a hair styling course to cut your roommate’s hair and being told that your main focus should be on not disturbing the hair’s glorious natural potential and if you still really want to cut it, maybe you should consider just getting a different roommate. To be fair, their fruit tree class was more practical than the others, but I was left a little depressed and stressed out by the whole experience. In contrast, Ann Ralph’s approach to pruning encourages joyful, fearless experimentation and this little book gave me back the enthusiasm that I originally had for the art of pruning.
Not only is Grow a Little Fruit Tree informative and encouraging, its design and illustrations are exceptionally beautiful. I think it’s a shame that designer and hand-letterer, Lana Lê, and artist Allison Langton are not credited on the cover! It took a little research, but I was happy to find that their online portfolios (see links) contain samples from the book that are well worth checking out.
Training for the Uphill Athlete: A Manual for Mountain Runners and Ski Mountaineers by Steve House, Scott Johnston and Kílian Jornet, 5/5
This bible for uphill endurance athletes accomplishes what most other sports and fitness books promise and fail to do: give readers a solid understanding of the physiological effects that specific training has on their bodies and the ability to use that knowledge flexibly in the pursuit of their own athletic goals. The fact that a book could never fully substitute for a good coach does not seem to discourage the authors from trying, and their approach to the topic is extremely well-conceived. They avoid the common shortcomings of only providing information that is too general (here are some good exercises!) or too specific (here is a complete training plan for a 125lb female athlete with 3 years of experience, coming off an ankle injury!). Additionally, the photographs in this book are abundant and exceptional. If there were such a thing as an armchair athlete, this book would be very satisfying for them.
Every sport deserves to have a training guide like this one but, selfishly, I’m kind of bummed out that it exists for such a niche and not for any of the martial arts or even “normal” running. Mountain running seems so…extra…and I’d never even heard of ski mountaineering (skimo) before. Still, as the authors point out, “Increasing aerobic capacity has major benefits to all athletes regardless of the duration of the event they are training for” (54). Perhaps the most broadly-applicable chapter is the one titled “The Physiology of Endurance,” which debunks the VO2 max as the holy grail of fitness and explains how and why plentiful training at low- to moderate-level intensity, interspersed strategically with short, high intensity workouts, can raise one’s aerobic threshold to within 10% of one’s lactate (anaerobic) threshold. Think about it. Who wouldn’t want the ability to perform at a higher level for longer? I’m not an endurance nerd, but the more of the science I read, the more I coveted the “big aerobic motor” this book describes.
Princess Kaiulani: The Last Hope of Hawaii’s Monarchy by Kristin Zambucka, 3/5
This book’s best feature is its generous selection of stunning, historical photos, which are given pride of place, accompanied by numerous excerpts from Princess Kaiulani’s personal correspondence. The author’s written contributions are very sparse and basic, resulting in an overall effect that is more scrapbook-like than literary.
I have now read two accounts of Hawaii’s transition to statehood and they could not be more different from each other. This tale of the forcible removal of the native Hawaiian monarchy by a bevy of white business owners and politicians was certainly more believable than the whitewashed, weaselly portrayal of the islands’ “liberation” depicted in Hawaii: A History.
Why I read it: The Princess has languished in a box of music books for as long as I can remember, but during a recent reorganization, I decided it was about time she was read and put on the shelf with the others.
Red Platoon: A True Story of American Valor by Clinton Romesha, 5/5
This harrowing story gave me a renewed sense of respect and empathy for all U.S. service members who have seen combat. I have several family members in the military, including a couple who have been deployed to the Middle East, but I’ve never asked for any war stories and they’ve never told me any. It’s not that I’m uninterested, it just feels rude (or worse, tacky) to pry. After all, I wouldn’t ask a police officer how many people they’ve shot or a newly single person why they got divorced. Because of this, it felt like a rare privilege to read such a raw account of danger, bravery and sacrifice. I’m thankful the author was willing to relive such a personally traumatic experience and honor the dead’s memory with a permanent, written record.
Why I read it: my brother, Ian, recommended it to me.
Many books have been written about the inhumanity of Nazi Germany during WWII, but fewer portray the bureaucracy. Behind the scenes, the business of war gave Oskar Schindler an opportunity to leverage the “ordinary” vices of extraordinarily evil men in order to save Jewish lives. Almost all of the seven deadly sins make an appearance as Schindler schmoozes, name-drops, threatens, cajoles, bribes, wines and dines his way through the war. A man who, at the beginning of the story, could barely be described as “decent” transforms into a fanatic who risks everything to sabotage the German war effort and protect his Jewish workers. It is a fascinating tale, both from a historical and a psychological perspective, though the author’s writing style is a bit dry and idiosyncratic.
Why I read it: I’ve never been motivated to watch the film (way too depressing for movie night) so I was excited to come across the book instead.
Magical Swimming and Flying Adventures by Elsa Fujinaka, 5/5
This little book has as many fairies and mermaids as you could possibly wish for, but my favorite character is the merfairyunicorn with two problems (don’t worry, the delightful duo on the cover are very good at solving problems). I was especially impressed by the detailed artwork, which is impressively consistent for all 16 pages and complements the story perfectly. I hope the author writes more books in the future!
What to Expect When You’re Expecting by Heidi Murkoff and Sharon Mazel, 5/5
This ubiquitous book is well-deserving of its reputation as the bible of pregnancy. It contains a ton of helpful information but what makes it truly outstanding, in my opinion, is the comforting and positive tone with which the info is conveyed. Reading it feels more like having a conversation with your mom than referencing a textbook or encyclopedia. Pregnancy can be a scary experience and it’s such a relief to read that whatever bizarre symptom you are dealing with is perfectly normal. I do wish that the book ended on a happier note instead of a chapter on complications and pregnancy loss, though.
I also really like the What to Expect website’s week-to-week feature and forums.
Why I read it: I am pregnant and remember seeing this book on my parents’ shelf as a kid. I was lucky that a friend passed along this copy to me.
Roar: How to Match Your Food and Fitness to Your Female Physiology for Optimum Performance, Great Health, and a Strong, Lean Body for Life by Stacy T. Sims, PhD, 3/5
It is so refreshing to read a book written specifically for female athletes that pragmatically and constructively addresses the comparative strengths and weaknesses of our sex. I am often the only woman on our martial arts fight team and it is tempting to think of myself simply as a smaller, weaker man, cursed with monthly inconsistency in performance. Sims makes it clear that things are not that simple and offers helpful ideas for navigating the ups and downs of the menstrual cycle, menopause, and pregnancy, in addition to the basics of general strength and conditioning, nutrition, hydration and recovery for women. I found the section on different types of birth control and their effects on athletic performance to be particularly interesting. I was also fascinated to find out that I should be eating protein as a recovery snack instead of carbs.
While I definitely plan to refer to this book in future, I do wish it contained specific footnotes for many of its claims instead of general endnotes. Sims’ recommendations for PMS supplements were particularly unsupported by any obvious science or reasoning, which did not inspire confidence. I also wish the advice was more easily scalable; while Sims gives many examples of specific guidelines for specific clients, there is obviously considerable guesswork that would be involved in applying her principles to one’s own situation. This is a definite obstacle to the practical application of her ideas, especially for a perfectionist like myself. Of course, no book can be a substitute for one-on-one coaching, so perhaps I am asking too much. But while I’m at it, I would love to ask for a book like this to be written specifically for female MMA athletes!