Thursday, January 31, 2013

January Books

I am going to provide monthly updates of what I've been reading this year. I think that the smaller lists may be more manageable. You can track the complete list for the year here. I've also included the synopsis from Google Books. Too much?

A Time of Gifts: On Foot to Constantinople: From the Hook of Holland to the Middle Danube‎
Patrick Leigh Fermor -
Summary:In 1933 Patrick Leigh Fermor was eighteen. Expelled from school for a flirtation with a local girl, he headed to London to set up as a writer, only to find that dream harder to realize than expected. Then he had the idea of leaving his troubles behind; he would “change scenery; abandon London and England and set out across Europe like a tramp . . . travel on foot, sleep in hayricks in summer, shelter in barns when it was raining or snowing and only consort with peasants and tramps.” Shortly after, Leigh Fermor shouldered his rucksack and set forth on the extraordinary trek that was to take him up the Rhine, down the Danube, and on to Constantinople.
It was the journey of a lifetime, after which neither Leigh Fermor nor, tragically, Europe would ever be the same, and out of it came a work of literature that is as ambitious and absorbing as it is without peer. The young Leigh Fermor had a prodigious talent for friendship, keen powers of observation, and the courage of an insatiable curiosity—raw material from which he later fashioned a book that is a story of youthful adventure, an evocation of a now-vanished world, and a remarkable unfolding of the history and culture of Central Europe. Taking in not just haylofts but mountain heights, country houses as well as cottages, with stops along the way in the great cities of Hamburg, Munich, Vienna, and Prague, A Time of Gifts is a radiant evocation of people and places and one of the glories of modern English prose.

Note: First half of a charming account of an Englishman’s audacious attempt to walk from the Netherlands to Constantinople in 1933. He plunges right in with nothing more than a rucksack and a few contacts along the way, and things go improbably well, at least to Hungary, where part one ends.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals: Adrift in the Equatorial Pacific‎
J. Maarten Troost - 2004
Summary: At the age of twenty-six, Maarten Troost—who had been pushing the snooze button on the alarm clock of life by racking up useless graduate degrees and muddling through a series of temp jobs—decided to pack up his flip-flops and move to Tarawa, a remote South Pacific island in the Republic of Kiribati. He was restless and lacked direction, and the idea of dropping everything and moving to the ends of the earth was irresistibly romantic. He should have known better.

The Sex Lives of Cannibals tells the hilarious story of what happens when Troost discovers that Tarawa is not the island paradise he dreamed of. Falling into one amusing misadventure after another, Troost struggles through relentless, stifling heat, a variety of deadly bacteria, polluted seas, toxic fish—all in a country where the only music to be heard for miles around is “La Macarena.” He and his stalwart girlfriend Sylvia spend the next two years battling incompetent government officials, alarmingly large critters, erratic electricity, and a paucity of food options (including the Great Beer Crisis); and contending with a bizarre cast of local characters, including “Half-Dead Fred” and the self-proclaimed Poet Laureate of Tarawa (a British drunkard who’s never written a poem in his life).

With The Sex Lives of Cannibals, Maarten Troost has delivered one of the most original, rip-roaringly funny travelogues in years—one that will leave you thankful for staples of American civilization such as coffee, regular showers, and tabloid news, and that will provide the ultimate vicarious adventure.

Note: Often funny account of life in the improbable South Pacific nation of Kiribati. Many stories will be familiar to anyone who has worked overseas.

Everything Is Miscellaneous: The Power of the New Digital Disorder‎
David Weinberger
Summary: Business visionary and bestselling author David Weinberger charts how as business, politics, science, and media move online, the rules of the physical world—in which everything has a place—are upended. In the digital world, everything has its places, with transformative effects:

Note: No need to index stuff when it's all searchable. That's empowering, but it runs contrary to our nature, as well, which can be disconcerting.

Travel Team‎
Mike Lupica - 2005
Summary: After he is cut from his travel basketball team, the very same team that his father once led to national prominence, twelve-year-old Danny Walker forms his own team of cast-offs that might have a shot at victory.

Note: Story of child star and NBA flameout returning to coach his similarly overachieving son. I give this the edge over Feinstein's for its game description and superior depiction of relationships. Cutesy at times (and a trifle overlong) but enjoyable throughout, nonetheless

Last Shot: A Final Four Mystery‎
John Feinstein - 2008
Summary: Steven Thomas is one of two lucky winners of the U.S. Basketball Writer’s Association’s contest for aspiring journalists. His prize? A trip to New Orleans and a coveted press pass for the Final Four. It’s a basketball junkie’s dream come true. But the games going on behind the scenes between the coaches, the players, the media, the money-men, and the fans turn out to be even more fiercely competitive than those on the court. Steven and his fellow winner, Susan Carol Anderson, are nosing around the Superdome and overhear what sounds like a threat to throw the championship game. Now they have just 48 hours to figure out who is blackmailing one of MSU’s star players . . . and why. ...

Note: Nice, if somewhat implausible story about meddling kids foiling a game fixing scandal at the final four. Interaction with real people, including players, coaches and writers, made it even more enjoyable.

When the Game Was Ours‎
Larry Bird, Earvin Johnson, Jackie MacMullan -
Summary: From the moment these two players took the court on opposing sides, they engaged in a fierce physical and psychological battle. Their uncommonly competitive relationship came to symbolize the most compelling rivalry in the NBA. These were the basketball epics of the 1980s -- Celtics vs Lakers, East vs West, physical vs finesse, Old School vs Showtime, even white vs black. Each pushed the other to greatness -- together Bird and Johnson collected 8 NBA Championships, and 6 MVP awards and helped save the floundering NBA at its most critical time. When it started they were bitter rivals, but along the way they became lifelong friends. With intimate, fly-on- the- wall detail, WHEN THE GAME WAS OURS transports readers to this electric era of basketball and reveals for the first time the inner workings of two players dead set on besting one another. From the heady days of trading championships to the darker days of injury and illness, we come to understand Larry’s obsessive devotion to winning and how his demons drove him on the court. We hear him talk with candor about playing through chronic pain and its truly exacting toll. In Magic we see a young, invincible star struggle with the sting of defeat, not just as a player but as a team leader. We are there the moment he learns he’s contracted HIV and hear in his own words how that devastating news impacted his relationships in basketball and beyond. But always, in both cases, we see them prevail. A compelling, up-close-and-personal portrait of basketball’s most inimitable duo, WHEN THE GAME WAS OURS is a reevaluation of three decades in counterpoint. It is also a rollicking ride through professional basketball’s best times.

Note: Didn't learn much, except how a broken finger almost destroyed Bird’s jumper before he joined the NBA, but enjoyed reliving the 80s.

The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives‎
Leonard Mlodinow -
Summary: In this irreverent and illuminating book, acclaimed writer and scientist Leonard Mlodinow shows us how randomness, change, and probability reveal a tremendous amount about our daily lives, and how we misunderstand the significance of everything from a casual conversation to a major financial setback. As a result, successes and failures in life are often attributed to clear and obvious cases, when in actuality they are more profoundly influenced by chance.

The rise and fall of your favorite movie star of the most reviled CEO--in fact, of all our destinies--reflects as much as planning and innate abilities. Even the legendary Roger Maris, who beat Babe Ruth's single-season home run record, was in all likelihood not great but just lucky. And it might be shocking to realize that you are twice as likely to be killed in a car accident on your way to buying a lottery ticket than you are to win the lottery.

How could it have happened that a wine was given five out of five stars, the highest rating, in one journal and in another it was called the worst wine of the decade? Mlodinow vividly demonstrates how wine ratings, school grades, political polls, and many other things in daily life are less reliable than we believe. By showing us the true nature of change and revealing the psychological illusions that cause us to misjudge the world around us, Mlodinow gives fresh insight into what is really meaningful and how we can make decisions based on a deeper truth. From the classroom to the courtroom, from financial markets to supermarkets, from the doctor's office to the Oval Office, Mlodinow's insights will intrigue, awe, and inspire.

Offering readers not only a tour of randomness, chance, and probability but also a new way of looking at the world, this original, unexpected journey reminds us that much in our lives is about as predictable as the steps of a stumbling man fresh from a night at the bar.

Note: Nothing new hear if you've read Kahneman or Taleb, and not nearly as fun to read as either.

Everything That Rises Must Converge‎
Flannery O'Connor - 1965
Summary: Flannery O'Connor was working on Everything That Rises Must Converge at the time of her death. This collection is an exquisite legacy from a genius of the American short story, in which she scrutinizes territory familiar to her readers: race, faith and morality.

Note: Collection of bleak stories about unhappy people treating others badly, particularly those of African American descent. Every story ends the same way, which is predictable after reading a few.

Wild Things‎
Clay Carmichael - 2012 -
Summary: Stubborn, self-reliant eleven-year-old Zoe, recently orphaned, is forced to move to the country to live with her strange and bad-tempered uncle. Zoe could care less that he's a famous doctor and sculptor. All she knows is that he is impossible to understand. The only interesting thing on the farm is a feral cat who won't let Zoe near. Together, Zoe and her uncle learn about trust and the strength of family ties. In this moving coming-of-age novel, Zoe comes to understand what it means to love and be loved, uncovers a long-kept secret, and finds family where she least expects it.

Note: Nice story by a local author about finding comfort in a loving and trusting environment. Best of the 3 reading group books thus far.

The Gated City
Ryan Avent
Summary: Something has gone wrong with the American economy. Over the past 30 years, great technological leaps failed to translate into faster growth, more jobs, or rising incomes. The link between innovation and broad prosperity seems to have broken down.

At the heart of the problem is a great migration. Families are fleeing the country's richest cities in droves, leaving places like San Francisco and Boston for the great expanse of the Sunbelt, where homes are cheap, but wages are low.

In The Gated City, Ryan Avent, The Economist's economics correspondent, diagnoses a critical misfiring in the American economic machine. America's most innovative cities have become playgrounds for the rich, repelling a cost-conscious middle class and helping to concentrate American wealth in the hands of a few. Until these cities can provide a high quality of life to average households, American economic stagnation will continue.

Note: People want to move to cities because they're awesome and not let others in once they get there. That is not good economics and stifles innovation.

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