Scars and Stripes

Scars and Stripes: An Unapologetically American Story of Fighting the Taliban, UFC Warriors, and Myself by Tim Kennedy and Nick Palmisciano, 4/5

At some point (I don’t even remember when), I got it in my head that Tim Kennedy was kind of an obnoxious d-bag, so I had zero interest in reading what I was sure would be an obnoxious and terribly-written autobiography. I wouldn’t have even known it existed if my husband hadn’t listened to the audio book and then proceeded to tell me stories from it until I ordered it from the library just to get him to shut up.

I couldn’t put it down. In about one chapter, I went from “eh, it’s ok for what it is” to staying up late into the night trying to find a slightly boring spot to stop reading. It’s not great literature, but man, is it great stories!

Why I read it: a recommendation from my husband.

Solve for Happy

Solve for Happy: Engineer Your Path to Joy by Mo Gawdat, 4/5

If I wasn’t absolutely, abjectly ready to hear someone else say what my husband has been telling me for years, then I probably would have hated this book for its many cliches, general cheesiness, and cringy clip art. Though a highly intelligent and successful businessman, Gawdat is rather a layman in terms of psychology and philosophy, so one might expect that his contribution to the well-worn topic of “happiness” would be in a uniquely analytical approach to existing research, rather than any foundational insights. I was very surprised to find that this was not the case. In fact, the much-advertised “happiness equation” and concept of “solving for happy” seemed under-developed and forgettable to me. What will stick with me for a long time and, in fact, motivated me to copy all those “cheesy cliches” into a Word document for later reference, was three concepts: 1. the natural, default human state is happiness, 2. unhappiness is generally rooted in thoughts about the past or the future, and 3. mental suffering is useless.

These ideas fly in the face of what have been, up until now, my beliefs that 1. happiness is an otherwise unattainable by-product of pursuing a passion in life, 2. controlling every aspect of my life will compensate for my uncontrollable thoughts (and their accompanying emotions), and 3. suffering is necessary to stimulate personal growth. Frankly, these beliefs have not worked out that well for me over the last three decades and recently having a child has intensified my desire to enjoy every moment and make peace with my own existence, instead of obsessing over what the “point” of it all is.

Though it did not come from any of the many decorated philosophers or psychologists whose work I have read, and it can feel over-simplified and unreasonably optimistic at times, Gawdat’s perspective brought me immediate relief and seems to be in line with the life experience I have accumulated. I don’t expect everything to be sunshine and roses from now on, but (or maybe, and) I’m excited to apply this new perspective to each moment as best I can.

Why I read it: my dad sent me a link to an interview with Mo Gawdat, but I don’t have the attention span to watch slow, unstructured conversations, so I opted to read his book instead.

Doom

Doom by William Gerhardie, 3/5

Few escape the author’s satirical pen in this madcap, semi-autobiographical novel, even himself. From struggling artists to business magnates, grasping socialites to simple countryfolk, Gerhardie peoples his version of reality with mostly unlikeable but all too recognizable characters, living in a doomed world that is not as different from ours as one might hope. Is it an eerie prescience, or just a testament to mankind’s unchanging nature, that a novel written almost 100 years ago would depict the machinations of mass media moguls, the limitless privilege of the wealthy elite, and a world polarized by war over Russian territorial claims?

Why I read it: another entry on the list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.”

Looking for the General

Looking for the General by Warren Miller, 3/5

Set in a semi-dystopian version of the 1960s, this bizarre book is written from the perspective of a physicist who becomes radicalized by an alien cult (literally, a group of people who believe aliens possessing unimaginable knowledge and power, having left earth, continue to monitor mankind via possession of abducted individuals and will return to elevate the deserving). It is a testimony to Miller’s observational powers and skill as a writer that he could create a serious, insightful, and fascinating novel based on such an unhinged premise.

Why I read it: Many years ago, I encountered a list of “10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately,” and am slowly working my through it, having finally got around to using my library’s interlibrary loan service to order the more rare or out-of-print entries.

The Sagas of Icelanders

The Sagas of Icelanders: A Selection, Preface by Jane Smiley, Introduction by Robert Kellogg, 5/5

I’m not usually one to complain about scholarly features such as an extensive introduction, maps, diagrams, summaries, analysis, etc., but by page 73, I was ready to just get to the fun stories already! By any standard definition of “fun,” I would have quite a while longer to wait; the first saga’s opening paragraphs read about as smoothly as a cross between the Old Testament and War and Peace. Once I gave up trying to remember who was who’s father’s best friend’s son and where they came from and where they were going, I was able to enjoy the dramatic events for their human interest without getting too bogged down by genealogical, geographical and historical details.

That is not to say that I learned nothing about Norse culture along the way. The stories in this book corrected many misconceptions I had about Viking life; yes, they glorified masculinity to a level that many today would find intolerable, but they were far from being merely uncivilized, lawless barbarians. In fact, they had well-defined legislative and judicial infrastructure (though the enforcement of laws and rulings sometimes required one to show up with a large group of armed friends) and more respect for women’s rights than might be expected. While there are fantastical elements to some of the stories (especially the shorter tales at the end of the book), the overall tone was much more prosaic and historical than I expected.

Why I read it: I have read traditional stories from many cultures and this thrift store find piqued my curiosity. I started it while in the ER the weekend my son was born, then re-started it once I caught my breath over a year later!

Think and Grow Rich

Think and Grow Rich by Napoleon Hill, 2/5

Just from the title and short author bio on the cover flap, I expected this book to be pure baloney, but I never expected to encounter such a bizarre combination of sound psychological principles, medieval science, “New Thought” spirituality, and grandiose (though entirely unsubstantiated) personal anecdotes.

First, the bad: Napoleon Hill was undoubtedly a committed conman and lifelong liar. Even if you don’t believe all of the unsavory claims in Matt Novak’s extensive exposé of Hill’s life (warning: it’s an almost 20,000-word monster of an article that will suck you in from beginning to end), you would have to be very credulous indeed not to spot numerous red flags that indicate the questionable character, yet unquestionable audacity, of Napoleon Hill. His main claim to credibility hinges on close personal association with an impudent list of famous, well-respected figures such as Andrew Carnegie, Thomas Edison, and multiple U.S. presidents. Unfortunately, all detailed records of these relationships were allegedly destroyed in a fire (eye roll) and Hill was wise enough to save his stories until the people in question were dead and thus unable to contradict his incredible claims. Even the tale he tells in Think and Grow Rich of his own son, born without ears but allegedly made to hear by the single-minded positivity that is a central tenet of the book, is at complete odds with a later article in which he credits chiropractics alone as the miraculous cure.

Despite the author’s personal shortcomings, this book is strangely motivating and encourages many proven strategies for success, such as goal-setting, visualization, positive thinking, forming good habits, and collaboration. If you can get past the mysticism and pseudoscience, there are some good things to be gleaned. For example, while I don’t agree with the extent to which Hill credits misfortune to negative thinking, I did feel challenged to reconsider the effect that negative thoughts might have on my life. For some reason, I can easily see the benefit of positive thinking, but view negativity as somehow neutral, which is clearly not the case.

Why I read it: Brazilian jiu-jitsu legend Rafael Lovato Jr. mentioned it in an interview.

Scottish Castles

Scottish Castles: An Introduction to the Castles of Scotland by W. Douglas Simpson, 3/5

Little more than a glorified pamphlet, this small book still manages to address the major eras of Scottish castle-building between the 12th and 17th centuries, briefly addressing the historical contexts that affected changes in architectural styles. Starting with the simple motte and bailey structures of the 1100s, the reader encounters the stone towers and walled courtyards of the 1200s and the evolution of tower-houses between the 1300s and 1600s from simple rectangles to L-shapes and Z-shapes. There are a good number of black-and-white photos and floor plans, but pairing them with the relevant text requires a lot of flipping back and forth. Also, as might be expected in such a small book, many references go sadly un-illustrated and there is no glossary. Needless to say, I am still on the hunt for the ideal book about castles!

Why I read it: a used-book-store find that caught my eye.

The Culture Code

The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups by Daniel Coyle, 5/5

Impeccably organized around three main skills (1. Build Safety, 2. Share Vulnerability, and 3. Establish Purpose), this book examines some of the world’s highest-functioning groups in such varied fields as business, tech, the military, sport, comedy and medicine. Coyle achieves a beautiful balance of well-referenced information, firsthand observations, anecdotes, and suggestions for real-life applications. I was fascinated to see how similar a healthy culture is to a healthy family and recognized many of the ideas and values from my own experiences growing up in a large and loving family.

Why I read it: While writing my review of Peak and refreshing my memory on Coyle’s contribution to the same topic via The Talent Code, I was happy to discover he’d written this book more recently.

2021 Stats

In 2021, I read twenty-three books, fifteen of which were nonfiction, seven fiction and one comic.

I read 2 books written between 1900-1949
10 books written between 1950-1999
11 books written between 2000-2021

Books that I rated 1 star: 1 (4%)
2 stars: 2 (9%)
3 stars: 4 (17%)
4 stars: 8 (35%)
5 stars: 8 (35%)

Experimenting with Babies

Experimenting with Babies: 50 Amazing Science Projects You Can Perform on Your Kid by Shaun Gallagher, 5/5

This book is very good for what it is–a light-hearted and accessible collection of activities, based on scientific experiments, that highlight the nuances of a baby’s development. The presentation is not at all rigorous and might even uncharitably be considered “dumbed-down,” but does go well beyond the few common reflexes (e.g. rooting, Moro, stepping, etc.) with which parents might already be familiar. Personally, I do not feel motivated to actually perform any of the experiments with my own baby, but it was still fascinating to learn more about his fascinating progression from potato to person.

Why I read it: A friend lent it to me.