Irma Voth: A Novel by Miriam Toews, 5/5
This is the third Toews novel I have read and I continue to be baffled by her genius. I simply don’t understand how it’s possible to write something so beautiful, unexpected, unconventional, funny and touching, on any subject, much less the story of how an independent film crew provides the catalyst for an excommunicated Mennonite girl in Mexico to find her own path to freedom and meaning.
Why I read it: Trying to see if Miriam Toews can write anything I don’t like. So far, the answer is an emphatic “no.”
Learned Optimism: How to Change Your Mind and Your Life by Martin E. P. Seligman, Ph.D., 5/5
Life-changing, thought-provoking, fascinating, insightful, convicting–it’s hard to write a review of this book that doesn’t sound super clichéd. Starting with a chillingly relatable description of “learned helplessness,” Seligman then explores the characteristics of pessimistic vs optimistic interpretations of events, makes a compelling (but not naive or condescending) case for optimism and provides a simple approach for changing pessimistic thinking patterns.
Usually, I would try to summarize an impactful point or two for future recollection, but it’s difficult, in this case, because there was so much helpful info that I feel like it would be more useful to simply re-read the book if my memory fades. Also, I don’t want my own summary of the concepts to taint their potential novelty for other readers.
Now, for the answer to the million-dollar question: yes, I am a moderate pessimist (but also, triumphantly, more of a realist than optimists are).
Why I read it: I was intrigued by Stephen Kotler’s mention of it in his book The Art of Impossible.
What If? 2
What If? 2: Additional Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Munroe, 5/5
He’s done it again! This sequel to What If? is laugh-out-loud funny and I enjoyed how the author used longer-running jokes throughout, as well as short-answer segments to add some [admittedly unneeded] variety.
Why I read it: I’m a fan of the author and his webcomic, xkcd.
Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery
Botanical Art from the Golden Age of Scientific Discovery by Anna Laurent, 5/5
I borrowed this book from the library just to flip through the pictures, but it turned out to be an unexpectedly delightful read. The text perfectly balances with the images, providing just enough additional information to capture the reader’s interest and encourage a more in-depth examination of the many botanical wall-charts it features.
Why I read it: a brief intention to create my own botanical art lead me to order all related books from the library (there weren’t many).
All Hallows’ Eve
All Hallows’ Eve by Charles Williams, 5/5
I had very little idea what to expect from this slim book and that, perhaps, is partly why I found it to be so absolutely astonishing (though pure novelty cannot account for that fully). I don’t want to give away too much, but think Gothic thriller meets supernatural romance in the interest of exploring highly-developed and unconventional theological beliefs. I was not at all surprised to later learn that Williams was a regular member of the Inklings, enjoying the friendship and literary criticism of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien.
This book demands to be re-read, but I would avoid this edition (Oxford Reprints) at all costs. The binding has that ubiquitously cheap, self-published feel and the text contains a baffling number of typos. Most egregious of all is the use of hyphens in place of em dashes. I know how pedantic that complaint sounds, but Williams used em dashes often and in very long sentences. The relentless and incorrect use of hyphens disrupted visual flow in addition to hindering comprehension.
Why I read it: another entry on the list of 10 Forgotten Fantastical Novels You Should Read Immediately.
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!
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.
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.
Grow a Little Fruit Tree
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
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.
Why I read it: a recommendation from my sister.