Atomic Habits, by James Clear – Book of the Month Jan ’19

Ah January — a time for setting goals and making resolutions to change. So many of us do it, yet by the end of the month so many of us have gone astray, reverting to our old ways. This month’s book is one to help us define and stick to our resolutions by forming new goals habits.

Yes, focusing on habits is much more likely to end in success than trying to focus on goals. As James Clear puts it, Goals are good for setting a direction, but systems are best for making progress. Every team intends to win the championship, but it’s the ones who put systems (habits) in place to make sure the work’s done right every day who are more likely to succeed.

Atomic Habits will change your understanding and approach to habits. It’s not only a good, solid description of how to to get those habits built (or torn down, in the case of exiting bad habits), but also the reasons why habits work or don’t, stick or don’t. It’s all about making small, sustainable changes in your daily life, intentionally creating an environment to encourage those changes, and making yourself accountable. While those may sound like easy things to do, actual change takes planning, and persistence — building the daily system, the end result of which is the change you desire.

Besides, February 1st — or whenever you read this — is just as good a day to start your journey to a new you as January 1st was. Get yourself going today; watch yourself turn tiny changes into remarkable results, with Atomic Habits.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal – Book of the Month Dec ’18

This time ’round, my Book Of The Month is actually two books: Mary Robinette Kowal‘s The Calculating Stars and The Fated Sky.

Dr. York, the protagonist here, is a smart, hard-working survivor of an immense environmental disaster. Along with a team of brilliant and talented — and often petty, sexist, and condescending — scientists, pilots, and managers, she does her part to save humanity from its eventual demise.

These novels – historical fiction about humanity’s first manned mission to Mars – are super-well written and delightful to read prequels for the short story “The Lady Astronaut of Mars.”

They also give us a good look behind the curtains of classism, racism, and sexism. They are, as Rick Klau put it, “a master-class in privilege: what it looks like when you have it, how it affects those who don’t, and how it can make progress harder.”

The perhaps unexpected exploration is that of anxiety, and how it can be debilitating for even the most “successful” and “got it all together” people. In my opinion, the most important paragraph of the two-book set is one that many readers may never get to — the very end of the final afterword.

Pause here for a moment, and re-read that.

The Calculating Stars — get your copy today, and enjoy the journey; I trust you’ll want share it with your friends and immediately follow it up with The Fated Sky.

Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall – Book of the Month Nov ’18

November’s #book recommendation, a true-life adventure, a detective story to uncover it, and more: “a story of remarkable athletic prowess: On the treacherous mountains of Crete, a motley band of World War II Resistance fighters—an artist, a shepherd, and a poet—abducted a German commander from the heart of the Axis occupation. To understand how, McDougall retraces their steps across the island that birthed Herakles and Odysseus, and discovers ancient techniques for endurance, sustenance, and natural movement that have been preserved in unique communities around the world.”

Having enjoyed McDougall’s Born To Run I was looking forward to his latest book, and it did not disappoint. He weaves together historical events — the mysterious kidnapping of a Nazi General and the subsequent hunting and evading — with a current-day search for clues to the whole story, and combines these with his own quest to understand just how it was done. How were these mostly-untrained, very unequipped men able to get themselves and their prisoner across the rocky, dangerous mountains of Crete? Journey with him as he uncovers history along with truths about the physical capabilities of the human body.

book cover: Natural Born Heroes
Christopher McDougall’s Natural Born Heroes.

Most Wanted, by Rae Carson

cover of the bookYay! Another new Star Wars book – this one in support of Solo: A Star Wars Story. That movie gave us some backstory to Han Solo; this novel gives us more and sheds light on the history between him and Qi’ra as well as (the first?) mention of an ancient Jedi manuscript, The Annals of Light and Being. Ignore the YA designation; Most Wanted is a fun story and adds even more depth to our favorite characters.

[more short book reviews]

Darktown, by Thomas Mullen

Atlanta Georgia, 1948 – quite a different city than we know today. Darktown is a historical novel telling the story of the first negro police officers here; men with what has always been a difficult job, made even tougher given the racial bias of the time.

Many pages were, like those of Colson Whitehead’s Underground Railroad, difficult and almost painful to read, but it’s important to face and learn from our history – a long and tough journey along the road toward democracy, freedom and equality for all.

I know, there are plenty of people who say “it’s over, it’s in the past – get over it.” They might have said the same thing about slavery in ’48, the year in which this book was set. But cultural history has multi-generational impact. We don’t think twice about a coworker who’s great-grandparents moved to the US from Italy and never looked back, working to speak with a bit of an accent and sharing his family recipes. Or those of us who do our best to never wear orange because of our great-grandfather‘s struggles. I have a friend who is vocal about his refusal to buy German- or Japanese-manufactured vehicles because his grandfather fought in WWII. Families and people-groups have history, and they’re all part of the fabric of our nation.

The characters, in particular some of the white offers, seem a bit over-the-top but that’s when reading from my current-day suburban mindset. When I put myself into the story, I find myself thinking that plenty of Dunlows likely existed; it’s Rakestraw and his internal struggle that portray the hope that the novel needs.

recommended: Darktown: A Novel by Thomas Mullen (Be prepared though; it’s set in a period in which racial epithets were thrown with impunity; you’ll see ‘the N word’ and other slurs used quite a bit, though never glorified or used lightly. It’s historical, be ready for it.)

[more short book reviews]

Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates

quoting another reviewer:Between the World and Me

Between the World and Me is written as a letter/essay from Coates to his fifteen-year-old son, trying to come to terms with what it means to grow up as an African American male in 2015. …no sugar-coating, no careful racial diplomacy, no worry about mediating opinions to cater to what white people might be able to hear. it’s a heartfelt, raw, painful and honest letter from a father to a son, laying plain Coates’ worry, anger, frustration, and fear for his son’s future in light of Coates’ own past and the world his son will grow up in.

I don’t know that, if everyone in the U.S. read this book, anything would change with regard to “race relations,” or “civil rights.” I do believe that at least some percentage of people would begin to think about- and perhaps try to understand though likely fail more often than they think – the way others feel about the way they are treated.

In that hope, I will recommend reading Between The World And Me, especially when you find it difficult to do so.

[aside: The first rule of Privilege Club: you don’t know you’re a member of Privilege Club. The second rule of Privilege Club: when told you’re a member of Privilege Club, you don’t believe it.]

Zombie Baseball Beatdown, by Paolo Bacigalupi

More zombie cows, this time in the United States. Zombie Baseball Beatdown book coverIt sounds like one of those books you think will be silly, gross and the perfect book for middle-school boys. And yes, that is true, but there’s more to Zombie Baseball Beatdown.

“There could be millions! Total zombie apocalypse!” Joe said then he looked thoughtful. “That would be pretty cool, actually. I mean, if they didn’t all want to chew our brains out.”
Trust Joe to find the bright side of the zombie apocalypse.

Rabi is an Indian-American, and is bullied by others on his baseball team. When things go wrong at the town meat packing plant, he and his friends Miguel and Joe get quite an adventure. Along the way Rabi (and the readers) get lessons in how power works in a capitalist society, what it’s like to live in fear of deportation, and some of the seedier sides of the factory farm industry.

That’s not to say this isn’t a fun book; it is, and of course a little violent and gross. Isn’t that why we read zombie books?

Apocalypse Cow, by Michael Logan

It started with the cows.Apocalypse Cow book cover Flesh-eating, sex-crazed zombie cows. In England. That right there should be enough of a review to get you reading. And to give you enough warning — should you feel that you need it — that there will be gore and violence of a somewhat cartoon variety.

I picked this up based solely on the title and cover, and I was not disappointed. The characters are somehow simultaneously caricatures and yet believable, the action is good, the comedy is ever-present, and the cows… well, the cows are hungry.

Apocalypse Cow is a downright fun book to read.

Just keep an eye on the animals.

Alice, by Christina Henry

In the hospital, there is a woman. Her hair, once blond, hangs in tangles down her back. She doesn’t remember why she’s in such a terrible place – just a tea party long ago, and long ears and blood…

Suffice to say, this is not Walt Disney’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and not a book for children nor anyone who is bothered by violence including rape and torture.

Alice, by Christina HenryThis a much different tale than anything wonderland-related you’ve read or seen before. Alice, from Christina Henry, tells us of a deeply disturbed girl, having been found “covered in blood, babbling about tea and a rabbit” and subsequently thrown in an institution. She doesn’t remember much, and her only friend is the inmate in the next room who speaks to her through a mouse-hole in the wall.

What follows isn’t quite a horror story, it’s not frightening as such; but much of what we learn has happened to Alice and continues to happen in the Old City is truly horrible.

So, the question becomes… Is this the true story of Alice — Is the “wonderland” with which we’re so familiar just a product of her mind trying to protect herself from the truth?