Tagged: Nonfiction

Peak

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.

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.

We only got one nice apple from our big, old tree this year, but at least it was a beautiful one!

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.

Princess Kaiulani

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

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.

Schindler’s List

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.

What to Expect When You’re Expecting

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.

Expectant Motherhood

Expectant Motherhood by Nicholson J. Eastman, M.D., 3/5

In the last eight months, since I first found out that I was expecting a baby of my own, I have learned a lot about pregnancy and childbirth from a variety of sources. This vintage book from 1957 is the oldest of all, but I was delighted to discover that a surprisingly large amount of the information and advice it gives still survives, little changed, in our modern age. To me, this is encouraging proof that the process of growing and delivering a baby to the world is natural and something most women are innately empowered to accomplish.

Of course, much has changed in the field of medicine in the 60-plus years since the third edition of this book was published, leading to some fascinating insights into the past. For example, I had never thought to wonder how pregnancy tests worked before the modern “pee stick” was invented in the 1970s. I learned that the easiest and cheapest method was simply to wait until an expected menstrual cycle was at least ten days late, at which point chances were good that you were pregnant. The downside of this approach is obviously that you do not receive positive proof of pregnancy, just an ever-increasing likelihood of it.  For those requiring more certainty, a much more expensive option was to wait two weeks past the missed menstrual cycle, inject a mouse or rabbit with the woman’s urine and, forty-eight to seventy-two hours later, dissect the unfortunate creature to check its ovaries for changes! The “frog test” also involved the injection of urine, but pregnancy was confirmed by the development of frog eggs in only eight to eighteen hours and the frog would happily survive. Needless to say, peeing on a stick seems much less gross and inconvenient after learning about these alternate methods of the past!

Why I read it: a gift from my sister.

Hawaii: A History

Hawaii: A History; From Polynesian Kingdom to American Statehood, by Ralph S. Kuykendall and A. Grove Day, 1/5

Reading history books doesn’t usually outrage me; after all, there is nothing you can do to change the past. However, I soon became incensed by these authors’ relentless attempts to whitewash Hawaiian history and marginalize indigenous culture. Fourteen  centuries of native history predating the arrival of the first European explorer in 1778 are relegated to one short chapter (fewer than 10 pages). After that, this book is a drooling panegyric to the wonderful white people who “civilized” Hawaii and eventually earned Hawaiians the ultimate prize of U.S. statehood.

It is insulting, embarrassing, and truly obnoxious, the way this book idolizes the cultural invasion perpetrated by Europeans and Americans as they exploited Hawaii for its resources during a relentless and mercenary takeover of the economy and government of what was once an independent island kingdom. At every turn, the authors use blatantly biased language to present foreign influences in the best possible light–even the infamous Captain Cook is portrayed as a Pretty Good Guy, quite at odds with the testimony of events.

I was particularly startled to learn that the multi-billion dollar Dole Food Company got its start during Sanford B. Dole’s 30-year involvement in Hawaiian politics (including serving as president and later territorial governor). You don’t have to be a crazy conspiracy theorist to think that this is all a bit sketchy, but the authors studiously avoid questioning Dole’s to-them-unimpeachable motives and ethics. In fact, if I hadn’t looked into the topic further, based on Dole’s last name and its connection with tropical fruit, I never would have known.

While it is tempting to let the outrage flow unchecked and there are certainly plenty of blatantly exploitative and unethical events for which to blame the “haoles,” I have to admit that the situation was messier and more ethically complex than it might seem at first. After all, it did not take long for the first outsiders to establish their own families, quickly resulting in multiple generations of Hawaiian-born, non-indigenous people (including Sanford B. Dole himself) who all had social rights and responsibilities to exercise. I can’t pretend to know what policies would have resulted in the most fair and beneficial outcomes in 19th- and 20th-century Hawaii, but I do know that the authors’ bias and agenda-driven interpretation of events is insulting, intellectually dishonest, and completely inappropriate for a book of history.

Why I read it: A thrift store find that reminded me how little I know about my own Hawaiian heritage.

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.