The Art of Impossible
The Art of Impossible: A Peak Performance Primer by Steven Kotler, 4/5
The author believes that the average person can achieve groundbreaking results by finding and fulfilling their life passion, a process that he attempts to reduce into a series of replicable steps through analysis of the “flow” state, the characteristics of high achievers (in whose company he firmly places himself, with less-than-convincing self-deprecation), and grossly over-simplified neuroscience.
Ironically, this book both poses and fails its own test. Kotler attempts the impossible and succeeds in writing a book that is slightly unlikable, painfully over-systematized, and, crucially, ascribes prescriptive value to what I strongly suspect are merely descriptive (if well-researched and insightful) observations. This last failing is a pervasive one in the self-help genre and, if the author had promised less, it would be easier to focus instead on the book’s many positive aspects.
While I strongly doubt that one could make long-lasting and meaningful life changes merely from following the steps in this book, it does provide some helpful ideas to fine-tune and recognize good character qualities and habits that already exist and to understand a little of the brain chemistry behind concepts like motivation, creativity, and fear.
Why I read it: a recommendation from a gym friend.
Many Dimensions by Charles Williams, 4/5
This spellbinding book must not be judged by this later edition’s psychedelic cover art or by a mere summary of its bizarre plot, in which an infinitely divisible holy relic empowers its keepers to travel through time and space. The story is, in fact, much more sophisticated than you might expect–peopled with interesting characters and exploring (often humorously) the political, social, and ethical ramifications of such an object’s existence. I felt the plot was a little weak towards the end, or it would have been a 5/5 for me.
Why I read it: I am working my way through Charles Williams’ seven supernatural novels.
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.
The View from Saturday
The View from Saturday by E.L. Konigsburg, 4/5
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 Code and 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.
Schindler’s List by Thomas Keneally, 4/5
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.
Discovering Antique Maps
Discovering Antique Maps by A.G. Hodgkiss, 4/5
This is more of a booklet than a proper book, but it still contains a satisfying amount of basic information on the characteristics of maps from ancient times through the 19th century. There are a decent number of black and white illustrations, but I longed for more and for colored ones as well. I think this book serves its purpose of whetting the reader’s appetite without overwhelming with too much dry information. After reading it, I feel a greater appreciation for antique maps and also that I might be able to look at them with a greater eye for detail than before.
Why I read it: I think I came across this in a Canadian used bookstore.
Annapurna: First Conquest of an 8000-meter Peak by Maurice Herzog, translated from the French by Nea Morin and Janet Adam Smith, 4/5
I’m not particularly interested in the topic of mountaineering, but have read a wide enough variety of books to realize that a good author can make any subject fascinating. My gamble paid off in this case; Herzog is a competent writer and his passion shines clearly in this intense tale of the 1950 French Annapurna expedition’s journey to the heart of the Himalayas, preliminary exploration, eventual summit, and harrowing return to civilization. The more dry, technical sections are supplemented by helpful maps and photos, including a large map of climbing routes printed on the inside of the dust cover. This is clearly a high-quality book that was prepared with great attention to detail.
I would recommend this book, along with Kon-Tiki, The Voyage of the Beagle, and Unsolved Mysteries of the Arctic as great for armchair adventuring and representative of a golden era when unthinkably brave men put their lives on the line in the name of exploration and were heroes to the general public. One can only assume that such people still exist, but they certainly aren’t making the front page of the news like they used to. While I appreciate living a life of safety and comfort, there is something about the concept of risking it all to find ultimate fulfillment, so well-expressed in Herzog’s foreword, that strikes a chord deep inside me.
In overstepping our limitations, in touching the extreme boundaries of man’s world, we have come to know something of its true splendor. In my worst moments of anguish, I seemed to discover the deep significance of existence of which till then I had been unaware. I saw that it was better to be true than to be strong. The marks of the ordeal are apparent on my body. I was saved and I had won my freedom. This freedom, which I shall never lose, has given me the assurance and serenity of a man who has fulfilled himself. It has given me the rare joy of loving that which I used to despise. A new and splendid life has opened out before me.”
-Maurice Herzog, foreword to Annapurna
And that language from a man who lost all of his toes and most of his fingers from frostbite!
Further research revealed quite a bit of controversy about the accuracy of Herzog’s account, but I’m willing to chalk any inconsistencies up to fallible memory, oxygen deprivation and extreme trauma.
Why I read it: A thrift store find, I think. The cover is very heroic, so I thought it might be worth a try.
Ghost Stories of Canada
Ghost Stories of Canada by Val Clery, 4/5
This collection of short stories does not get off to a great start, opening with a stale tale that features a cliched haunted doll. Luckily, the rest of the book has a fun, Canadian flavour and shows off the author’s respectable story-telling skills and personal enthusiasm for the topic.
Why I read it: a thrift store find.
Spiritual Midwifery by Ina May Gaskin, 4/5
Almost half of this book consists of childbirth stories told by members of The Farm, a counterculture community that peaked in the 1970s. It is both entertaining and educational to read about other people’s experiences, but there are a couple factors that affect the helpfulness of these personal accounts, in my opinion. Firstly, it is clear that most of the narrators are deeply invested in the particular form of spirituality and beliefs associated with The Farm. The way in which the shared experience of such a close community can affect an individual’s way of thinking and communicating is something an outsider must account for. For example, the words “psychedelic,” “trip,” and “aura” clearly have a deep and nuanced meaning to these people, but it’s a little unsettling to encounter such vocabulary in a book that also gives serious medical advice. All in all, while there was a lot of interesting and helpful info in this book, I found Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth to be less dated, more accessible and more trustworthy in tone.
Why I read it: a friend recommended it to me.