Tag Archives: nonfiction

Review: The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale

The Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the TaleThe Winter of Our Disconnect: How Three Totally Wired Teenagers (and a Mother Who Slept with Her Iphone)Pulled the Plug on Their Technology and Lived to Tell the Tale by Susan Maushart
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First, an observation; if you want a particularly surreal reading experience, read a book about forgoing screens on an ereader or tablet device, as I did. As the author describes giving up the iPhone, iPad, other i-prefixed devices, you can reflect on how for you do to likewise would mean not being able to continue reading. It’s a weird feeling.

Anyway, author Susan Maushart decides her family is too wired, too jacked in, too tuned in, etc. and decides to Thoreau (hah!) all away for six months of digital exile. It’s an interesting idea that gains a fair bit of traction when you read about various family members falling asleep with their devices; even as a ferocious gamer and person who spends most of his day tied to a screen at work, the Maushart house’s level of digital dependency felt extreme.

And yet. And yet.

It’s not going to come as a surprise that Maushart’s decision to cite Mark Bauerlein’s “The Dumbest Generation” immediately dropped my estimation of this book (for those who haven’t been reading my reviews that far back, Bauerlein was one of my most scathingly negative reviews I’ve ever posted). Maushart walks a finer line on the topic, but eventually she succumbs to the same age-ism of Bauerlein and points out that “no, things really were better in my day” even after pointing out that every generation since Socrates was “ruined” by whatever new technology came along (for Socrates, it was the written word and literacy that were ruining the youth of Athens). Many of the things that Maushart seems certain of about the relative merits of her youth to her kids’ youth seem to be little more than the trap that we all fall into as we get older.

Returning to the point about the fact that I read this book on a tablet; my larger problem with Maushart’s disconnection experiment is that never once is the subject of the content itself addressed. This isn’t a “well, just watch the documentary” argument, it’s good for you (most studies have shown that watching documentaries has a negligible positive cognitive effect), but instead realizing that not all screen time is created equally. The reality is that we are never again going to live in a society that is not infused with technology and as much as I love Walden Pond, a Thoreau-like existence is not feasible on a large social scale. Rather than trying to go without, we should be learning techniques to manage the role of tech in our lives.

Also, the fact that, despite all the amazing personal gains and achievements made during “the experiment,” very few pages are spent talking about the aftermath once the screens came back led me to believe that the effects were short-lived. Was the son still practicing his instrument religiously after the experiment was over? The book doesn’t say.

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Review: Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era

Pride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft EraPride Before the Fall: The Trials of Bill Gates and the End of the Microsoft Era by John Heilemann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An interesting account of the Microsoft trial, which everyone my age will remember as being “a thing” in the news for a while. But then, like many “a things,” it just sort of went away, didn’t it? The story vanished off the front page and then, years later, occasionally nerds like myself would wonder, “wait, didn’t Microsoft lose that case? Weren’t they supposed to be broken up? Why didn’t that ever happen?”

The book itself is good; Heilemann’s writing style is enjoyable enough to liven up courtroom proceedings, which are often not the most fascinating affairs (John Grisham’s entire bibliography and all Law & Order versions notwithstanding). Ultimately, though, this book is harmed by its publication date. There’s no real aftermath, no depiction of what happened next. Of course, at the time it was written, that’s because we didn’t yet know what would happen, but at the time of this review, it’s been 15 years. Would an afterword from the author have been too much to hope for?

In the end, if you’re looking to immerse yourself for a bit in the recent history of computers in the 90s, there’s enough information here to sate your hunger. But you’ll probably want more than this book offers, given how far we’ve come since then, and sadly, it seems like an update is not forthcoming. But the bones of the story are still good; if nothing else, it’s fun to see the “who’s who” mention from some of the big names in software at the time, including the occasional cameo from Steve Jobs, who hadn’t yet completed his reformation of Apple. Interesting stuff.

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Review: Steve Jobs

Steve JobsSteve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“This is going to be a warts-and-all biography. I’m going to tell it like it is! No sugarcoating! But the thing is, the person in this biography has no flaws! Let me tell you how the person I wrote about is absolutely perfect, who has only the sorts of flaws that seem to make this person even better.” Yeah. How many times have I read that introduction? How many authors have promised to give all the whole story and then delivered a glossy highlights reel rather than the real thing?

I’m pleased to say that Walter Isaacson did no such thing. He promised us an intimate portrait of a brilliant, driven man who could be cold, could be ruthless, could be manipulative. Isaacson delivered on that promise.

I’m not going to go into the details of Jobs’ life; that’s what this book is for, after all. Instead, I want to tell you about the book itself. And the thing I want to tell you most is that the book is very, very good and you should read it.

I also want to tell you that I read this book on my Microsoft Surface tablet and that I’m about as dedicated a Microsoft fan as they come (ZUNE FOREVER!!!!) I’m not an Apple man. I might be in the future (ALMOST picked up an iPhone this time around, but the high price point eventually drove me off), but when I read this book, it was deep in the throes of my Windows devotion. So that’s the kind of person who is giving this book five stars. The kind of person who Steve Jobs would denigrate, were he among the living. The kind of person who doesn’t buy his products, hasn’t ever watched a product reveal, a person who doesn’t find the term “reality distortion field” as something that’s charming.

And yet. And yet.

I still love this book. I loved reading about Jobs’ life. I love tech, and love him or hate him, Jobs shaped the tech world as we know it today. Most of all, however, I loved Isaacson’s writing style. I loved his approach, the exact perfect balance between fly-on-the-wall, recounting Steve’s own voice while sometimes inserting his own editorial voice to counter some of the claims made by the reality distortion field. It’s the best kind of biography, because it’s not a monument, not a tribute, not an ode or a paean, it’s simply the story of one’s life. That’s a rare treat in and of itself, but it’s made all the more special because of the care Isaacson shows his subject. You can feel the exhaustive level of research that went into every page.

After reading this book, I’m absolutely certain I would never have wanted to work with Jobs (not that I have the technical skill to do so anyway, I won’t flatter myself). I’m not particularly certain I’d ever even like being around him, reality field or no. But I spent the past weekend with him and I am better for it. I’m better for having read his story as the world is better for having his influence through his work and his legacy. I can think of no higher recommendation than that.

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Review: Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution

Getting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan SolutionGetting to Green: Saving Nature: A Bipartisan Solution by Frederic C. Rich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

If I had the power to make everyone read one book, I think I might spend that power on this book. On the surface, it might seem an odd choice. Fred Rich’s writing style won’t move anyone to tears with descriptions of awesome beauty or powerful prose. I’d even go as far as to say it’s a bit of a textbook. And yet. And yet. Because despite the back-handed nature of this introduction, I’m about to launch into one hell of a compliment.

The ideas in this book are amazing. Rich’s argument about the “Great Estrangement,” as he called it, had me nodding along and muttering “yeah, that’s a really good point” throughout the book. It made me realize that I’m as guilty as anyone of having a short-term view of politics and political history. I may not be strident about it, but I’d fallen into the partisan rift. Rich reminded me that conservation USED to be a core tenet of conservatism, and likely still lingers just below the surface. It was a Republican that gave us the EPA, after all (even if that Republican was Nixon). Teddy Roosevelt is a legend for his dedication to conservation; the roots are there. The bones are there. It’s only recently that this “drill, baby, drill” inanity has taken root.

Rich pulls no punches. He takes the left to task for alienating the right, for making it easy for Green to be dismissed. He argues that Greens have allowed their base to be broad, but shallow; that is, many people say the environment is important, but it’s not on on the top of many voters’ list of priorities. Most of all, however, he argues that Green lost its focus. He points to other movements that have been successful and credits at least some of that success to their laser-focus on their core issue: the Civil Rights Movement and the NRA are (perhaps oddly) his two best examples and as someone who continually despairs at the sense that the NRA and the gun lobby are unstoppable, it’s hard not to agree with that point.

Rich’s core argument is that we need to get back to the Center, what he calls “Center Green.” It’s a position I’ve gravitated towards my entire life, the idea that you should persuade rather than threaten, that it’s more important to be a good ambassador than a ferocious militant. I remain convinced that PETA has done more harm than good, even if their hearts are in the right place, simply because their various stunts have created a reaction in people that is “those PETA people are assholes and I don’t like them, therefore I do not support their position.” People really do shoot the messenger; it’s human nature.

Rich argues that we need to change that and that Green needs to deploy all the tools in its kit to make it happen. We need more focus on the positive work that Green has done (remember acid rain? The impending destruction of the ozone layer?) and less apocalyptic doomsaying. We need to be willing to employ language that many progressives are uncomfortable with, but would be undeniably effective in convincing conservatives to join the cause, such as making environmentalism a moral issue. The trend right now is that the facts should speak for themselves, but the reality is that the facts aren’t enough. People are emotional and can be appealed to emotionally, and it’s not as though there isn’t plenty to be emotional about when it comes to talking about the beauty of the environment and its importance in the lives of people.

Most of all, as I read the book, I kept thinking back to a particular family member of mine. He and I don’t talk politics, ever, but I know he’s as much to the right as I am to the left. But he was the one who taught me how to hike, he taught me how to navigate by map and compass, he put together scavenger hunts for me out in the wood, and he, more than anyone else, shared such an enthusiastic love for the outdoors that I couldn’t help but follow in his example. And yet the modern Green movement has made no room under its tent for a person like him. It has done nothing to make him feel welcome. Here’s the man who is basically my environmental mentor and yet the modern Green movement does not want him, because his politics are different.

Rich argues that needs to change. Green needs to be a center issue, not a progressive one, because that’s the only way anything will every get done. It’s the only way we’re ever going to succeed; all the greatest achievements in environmentalism’s history were done by reaching across the aisle and finding common cause. And although it might seem impossible to imagine in an era of Trumpism, I think that we can rediscover the ability to work together. And this book was instrumental in helping me arrive at that conclusion. I’m ready to work towards Center Green. And I think that, if you read this book, you will most likely feel the same.

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Review: The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time

The Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every TimeThe Confidence Game: Why We Fall for It . . . Every Time by Maria Konnikova
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Must read. “The Confidence Game” is one of those books that you’ll find yourself referring back to, over and over, reflecting on the lessons contained within and how you can apply them to your own life. But far from being a self-help book or a guide on how not to get scammed, it’s also intensely fascinating and full of history and psychology. It’s very likely that you’ll experience a bout of intense cynicism after reading it, however; I couldn’t help but reflect on the times when I might have fallen for a scam myself (usually the “I need a few bucks to get home” variety). And of course, I wonder about all the possible scams that I might have encountered without even realizing it, which is more than a little troubling.

Regardless, “the Confidence Game” is as alluring and engaging as any good con artist might be. It’s the kind of book that stays with you, that keeps you thinking long after you’ve finished it, and that’s as much a testament to Konnikova’s good writing style as it is the importance of the subject itself. And if it helps you avoid a scam in the future; well, that’s just a bonus. Even if the research suggests that overestimating our abilities makes us more likely to fall for a scam, so it’s possible you might actually be more likely to be scammed after reading this book. Such is the dark web that the con artist weaves. Regardless, you should still read the book.

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Review: Lab Girl

Lab GirlLab Girl by Hope Jahren
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Absolutely amazing; the perfect blend of heartfelt, passionate, thoughtful, and scientifically interesting. Although I love trees (having moved to the PNW specifically to be in forests again), I’ve never really thought particularly hard about them, about what they’re doing. Trees are scenery; beautiful scenery, no doubt, but certainly not the most important part of the story, right? Stories are about characters, not backgrounds.

Hope Jahren’s book convinced me how wrong I was to think of trees and plants as mere background. They are active characters engaged in their own lives and their own struggles, and though it doesn’t play out in a timeline that makes sense to most humans, the stories of trees are just as interesting as our own.

Jahren’s book alternates between brief (but fascinating) passages about the lives and science of various plants; how they grow, how they struggle, what they’re doing, and each section is relevant to a bit of the narrative of her own life. Resiliency, love, achievement; each part of Jahren’s own human existence is related and connected to the lives of trees and plants.

This is a hopeful, thoughtful book that invites you into a world you’ve seen every day but likely haven’t stopped to consider. I found myself reading entire passages aloud to my fiancee, eagerly sharing with her the latest fascinating thing I’d just read, even though she’d already agreed to read the book herself when I was finished with my copy. But the feeling of discovery of a new world was so exciting, so marvelous, that I couldn’t help but share whatever I found. In that way, I found myself relating to the author more than I ever thought possible.

If you’re a nature lover, this book deserves to be on your shelf. But even if you’re not, even if you’ve never thought of a tree beyond that time you pressed leaves as a kid in school, let Jahren show you her world. Share her triumphs and obsessions and enjoy her very personal, very deeply moving story of what it’s like to be a woman devoted to science. But most of all, let her show you how interesting it is to think about trees. She and her trees might just surprise you.

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Review:The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms

The Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of FirearmsThe Way of the Gun: A Bloody Journey into the World of Firearms by Iain Overton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Poignant, thoughtful, and surprisingly balanced, which isn’t something you see very often with a topic as divisive as guns. Author Iain Overton travels around the world to understand the gun from the many, many different people whose lives it has affected: victims, killers, traders, creators, hunters, enthusiasts, and doctors. He doesn’t hold anything back; if the best way to understand hunting is to be a hunter, he goes out and does that. His expression of remorse and regret after killing an animal on a hunting trip in Africa was particularly emotional and heartfelt.

This is a book I would absolutely recommend to people who want to dive into the discussion about firearms and their place in the world. Overton doesn’t hold back on any aspect; he acknowledges that guns are power incarnate and that shooting them can feel very, very fun. He acknowledges that they can be collected and can be valuable and historical. But he also faces what they do to people, what they do to bodies and lives. And the result of his experiences are a decidedly less sanguine feeling about them as a whole, even as he understands them.

Unfortunately, Overton’s experiences tell us that guns aren’t going away. Not soon, maybe not ever (or if they do, it’s only because something more powerful replaced them). Nevertheless, understanding them can help come to terms with their role in shaping our world and for that reason alone, this is a book I think you should read.

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Review: The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe

The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the UniverseThe Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe by Thomas Levenson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A surprisingly trim and concise history on the period of time between Le Verrier’s discovery of Neptune and Einstein’s theory of general relativity. In that interim period, a planet named Vulcan was born, lived in the minds of many, and then faded into obscurity before finally being decisively put down by Einstein many years later.

Considering the heavy topics this book covers (Newton’s theories, the discovery of Neptune, Einstein’s work, etc.), you’ll get the feeling that author Thomas Levenson is moving through the subject at warp speed. Compared to “Chasing Venus,” a book by Andrea Wulf about the early efforts to measure the transit of Venus across the sun, the effort to identify a planet between Mercury and the sun seem almost benign in comparison to that other exhaustively detailed effort. And before we’ve even had more than a few moments to consider that observational evidence wasn’t coming in, we’re jumping ahead in history to Einstein and the coup de grace.

Despite all that, it’s a great pop sci book. The existence of hypothetical planets is a fascinating topic on its own (how many people have ever even heard of such a thing as a hypothetical planet, let alone one that orbited the sun closer than Mercury?) and it’s especially relevant given astronomer Mike Brown’s announcement that there is a true ninth planet out beyond Pluto. At the moment, the Ninth Planet exists only on paper and in equations, and this book is an object lesson on all that this means; for while Neptune was discovered via the power of math and logic, so too was Vulcan inferred. Which will the Ninth Planet be? I can’t wait to find out and that’s what makes this book a great read. It’s one thing to go back and look at an interesting bit of scientific history; it’s ever so much more thrilling when you realize that we’re living through our own period of intense astronomical discovery.

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Review: 438 Days: An Extraordinary True Story of Survival at Sea

I think this is a much better book than my rating gives it credit for. There’s always something intensely subjective about a review, something that often has nothing to do with the quality of the text itself, that goes into the final “what do I rate this” decision. It could be the reader’s mood that particular day, it could be the juxtaposition of what else the reader is working on at the time, or it could be the phase of the moon or Saturn being in retrograde, or whatever.

I know that I personally tend to read in cycles, where I’ll focus on a particular topic or subject at a time, read through a few books, then move on to the next one. I haven’t really been in a survival story mood lately, which begs the question: is that my fault or the books? I leave it to you to decide.

Regardless, there’s a lot to like here. Franklin has an excellent writing style and keeps a firm grip on the direction of the narrative (ironically the opposite of how survivor Alvarenga’s boat drifts aimlessly across the ocean). There’s nothing worse in a nonfiction adventure story than an author who insists on inserting him or herself into the text, which can work if it’s done well . . . but it’s usually not done well. Franklin has a style like a good investigative journalist, interested in getting the facts and the truth as much as possible, but without editorializing on the subject.

My biggest problem with the story comes from the fact that one’s world becomes very, very small when one is adrift at sea. This is a huge revelation, I know, so bear with me. There are plenty of details to keep things go; tropical storms, whale sharks, water spouts, and the perpetual struggle to survive, but at some point when you’re adrift, the cycle settles in: food, water, fatigue, despair, sunburn. At some point, we’ve gotten through the fact that you have to eat some pretty disgusting things to survive and it’s hard to keep your hopes up.

Overall, if you’re hungry (heh) for a good survival at sea story, I think this book will deliver on exactly what you’re looking for. Or if you want to meditate on “how much worse can it get” for a person struggling to survive, this book is for you. If you’re not a survival story kind of reader, though, I think you can drift on.

Review: Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century

Exit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American CenturyExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century by Daniel Oppenheimer
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I picked up this book largely due to the chapter on Christopher Hitchens, who has long been a writer I’ve admired (his support for the Iraq War notwithstanding). I was very interested in seeing a neutral perspective on Hitchens, since I already have read at length what Hitchens himself said about that decision.

Before we get to the Hitch, however, we move through history as we explore the political careers of several other Leftists who ultimately, well, left. On the first few chapters, I am more ambivalent; these stories are likely going to be of more interest to those who are familiar with the men in question. I myself had only the vaguest recollection of who Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham was (before going to look it up on Google).

Although it was likely not the author’s original intention, what struck me as most interesting about the chapters on very early Leftists like Chambers and Burnham was the stark reminder of the history of the Left. It’s so very easy in political history to assume that the arrangement that exists today is equivalent to what came before; the Left is liberal, the Right is conservative, end of story.

But we forget that the political Left went through a long history with competing ideologies and that the social liberalism that brought me to the Left once struggled for intellectual oxygen against communism. These days, the idea that “Lefties are all commies” is basically a dead horse trope, a political joke that’s amusing irrelevant. So irrelevant, in fact, that it’s easy to forget that it used to be true. But I digress.

The most interesting chapters were on Norman Podhoretz, Ronald Reagan, and the Hitch. Podhoretz isn’t someone I was familiar with, but his story is so fascinating in its self-destruction that you can enjoy it entirely on its own merits. The ill-advised publication of the book that led to his public humiliation and ostracization doesn’t need you to be political to relate to what is basically a very human story. Especially when you consider how many people tried to warn him about what he was doing.

I list Reagan and Hitchens as the other highlights of the book as these were the individuals who were most relevant to me personally, since Reagan continues to cast a long shadow over the political landscape even today and I’ve read most of Hitchens’ books. It’s also interesting to contrast Reagan with the other figures of this book, as he’s the only one who isn’t described as an academic or intellectual. His story is a different one and at the end of it, I wonder what would have happened had he never been shifted to the right (although such a shift seems inevitable, given his personality).

Finally, we come to Hitchens. It’s unfortunate that Hitchens is one of the shorter chapters, because this was what I most wanted to read about. While author Daniel Oppenheimer generally takes a fairly neutral tone throughout the book, never allowing his own politics to color his prose, he describes Hitchens in particular as having fallen as a result of his rightward drift. Not because Left = Good and Right = Bad, but because the decision to double down on the Iraq War ultimately seemed to demolish Hitchens’ own vitality when the war effort began to unravel. Oppenheimer describes Hitchens’ best work as having come before the Hitch left the Left, which I would agree with.

It should go without saying that this book is for those with more than a passing interest in political history and thought. But for readers of that persuasion, it’s a fine read. It’s particularly refreshing in its balance and even tone, neither sanctifying nor demonizing of Left or Right. That’s something that’s increasingly rare in modern political thought (unfortunately, and yes, I hold myself as having failed this standard). If you’re interested in the topic, even a little, this book gets a solid recommendation.

Finally, I’d like to note that although it’s only described in the foreward and postscript, Oppenheimer’s thoughts on the nature of political allegiance and ideology were especially important to me. More and more, I’ve fretted about how people on “my side” can hold what I feel to be profoundly stupid ideas; most anti-vaxxers are on the Left rather than the Right, for instance. How can people who hold compatible ideas to my own be so misguided about other things, I would ask myself?

Oppenheimer reminded me that Left is a broad category and that many competing ideologies fall under its umbrella. He describes the Left and the Right as suits that don’t entirely fit right; maybe they bunch in the shoulders or have sleeves that are a little too short. But we pick the one that fits the best and ignore the little ways it doesn’t fit. Oppenheimer offers his book up as a challenge “to wrestle with the ways in which his or her own political suit might strain at the shoulders a bit more than is comfortable to admit.” And while it’s incredibly unlikely that I’ll be leaving the Left any time soon (if ever), this book helped sharpen my perspective.

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