Early summer book club

Lots of newspapers and magazines like to publish “summer reading lists,” implying that the only thing you have to do this summer is relax on a lounge chair by the pool, languidly sipping cold drinks and tearing through page after page of the latest bestseller. For us, at least, this aspirational vision bears absolutely zero resemblance to our real lives – we actually read less in summer, mainly because maintaining the farm is more than a full-time occupation. (Also we don’t have a pool. ) Even with all of our tasks and projects, however, I have managed to read more this year than I did in 2020 – I know plenty of avid readers who struggled with focus and the inability to finish books last year. Based on the round-up below, it certainly looks as though non-fiction, specifically focused on human psychology and behavior, is my genre of choice these days; with that in mind, we offer a few book recommendations. As always, we’d love to hear yours, too!

Beginners, Tom Vanderbilt

Let’s just cut right to the chase: I adored this book. Whilst shuffling his young daughter from lesson to class to recital, Vanderbilt wonders why, as adults, we so often stop learning new things. To combat this malaise, he tackles a variety of new skills – singing, surfing, chess, drawing – in an attempt be a beginner. Likely we all know that it is really hard to try something new, and it is really hard to be terrible at something – but it’s essential to our human development. The book combines Vanderbilt’s personal anecdotes with lots of science-based research, and successfully argues that one of the very best things we can do for both our brains and bodies as we age is to keep learning. Beginners has such a cheerful, optimistic tone that one wants to immediately register for Spanish lessons or violin classes – or buy a small farm, natch. An ideal antidote to the past year’s overwhelming sense of anxiety, tragedy and doom.

Billion Dollar Loser, Reeves Wiedemann

If you enjoyed Bad Blood, this one is perfect for you! Adam Neumann launched the coworking company WeWork with a staggering cocktail of bravado and chutzpah; his highly-publicized fall from grace has been catnip for business publications for years. Even knowing the ending, I loved this book – it’s detailed, well-researched and utterly fascinating. How did a mostly unskilled but deceptively charismatic man convince numerous people to give him billions of dollars? Still a mystery, even after finishing the book, but a worthwhile mystery. The NYT Book Review writes, “Billion Dollar Loser would be absorbing enough were it just about one man’s grandiosity, but Wiedeman has a larger argument to make about what Neumann represents. Neumann finagled funding not only from SoftBank, the Japanese conglomerate led by the billionaire-entrepreneur Masayoshi Son, who liked to say that “feeling is more important than numbers,” but also from the venerable venture capital firm Benchmark. Neumann had passed himself off as a tech visionary, even though he rarely used a computer and WeWork’s IT department was once run by a high school student from Queens.” Recent history proves that Americans never tire of a con man, and Adam Neumann milked that for all he could – to the tune of nearly half a billion dollars. (In case you’re curious, Neumann isn’t in prison and is still “worth” millions.)

Brotopia, Emily Chang

As someone who is deeply suspicious of Silicon Valley, tech in general and certainly all of the “smart” tentacles infiltrating every aspect of our lives, I will gladly read any book critical of this megalomaniacal industry (see also Uncanny Valley and The Circle). It’s not much of a secret that the tech industry isn’t particularly friendly to women (or any other minority, for that matter) so Brotopia isn’t exactly breaking new ground. The book is a quick, smart read, as one might expect from a Bloomberg host, and while I did enjoy it, I’m hard-pressed to claim that it presented any new information. Most of the anecdotes and stories in the book have been common knowledge for some time (GamerGate, James Damore’s Google memo); the incidents have been written about and rehashed for years. Ultimately, I was left with an unsatisfied feeling: Ms. Chang presents a litany of transgressions, but the book ends abruptly, with no possible suggestions for what can be done to change the deeply entrenched misogyny of the world’s most powerful industry. I would have loved for this to end on a hopeful note, but was disappointed. I wish the best of luck to any female choosing to go into tech or coding.

The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters, Priya Parker

This book was released in 2018, long before we encountered words like “quarantine” and “lockdown” and “social distancing,” but the message at the heart of the book has taken on new significance in the age of Zoom fatigue and meeting burnout. That message is basically that “…we spend most of our lives gathering – think conferences, weddings, parties, funerals, councils and so much more – but most of that time results in underwhelming, uninspiring moments that fail to capture us, change us, or connect us to each other in meaningful ways.” And the standard workplace is often the worst offender: most of us really, really hate meetings, and why? Because meetings are inherently hateful. They’re typically too long, unfocused, disorganized and accomplish little, yet employers persist in making meetings a significant part of the average workday, even when survey after survey tells us that “pointless time-wasting meetings” are overall the biggest complaint about our jobs. I really liked the smart, straightforward way that Parker proposes improving our gatherings, both social and business, and I think this book will be even more relevant as we try to navigate our post-pandemic world. (Also see Seth Godin’s related anecdote about “avocado time.”)

Molly’s Game, Molly Bloom

A perfect example of the rare case where the film adaptation is a vast improvement over the book, Molly’s Game, about a young woman running a high-stakes underground poker game for celebrities and billionaires, is simply an enthralling basis for a story. It’s also one of the most poorly-written books I’ve encountered in a good long time, and desperately needed a talented editor (or a ghostwriter!) – for structure, for grammar, for continuity, for syntax, for punctuation. For everything, really. Thankfully, the brilliant Aaron Sorkin (A Few Good Men, The Social Network, Moneyball, The Trial of the Chicago Seven, to name but a few) got his hands on this spectacularly mediocre book and turned it into an excellent film starring the talented Jessica Chastain. I am reading a lot about poker these days (see The Biggest Bluff below), and Molly’s Game can be neatly summed up as follows: fascinating story. Abysmal book. Terrific film.

Fed Up, Gemma Hartley

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for months, and I wanted so much to love it – the topic of women’s emotional labor is one I find supremely interesting, and the subject is ripe for further research and exploration. Unfortunately, Fed Up did not live up to the hype. The book originated as a Harper’s Bazaar article, and it turns out that it’s a bit of a stretch to transform a viral article into a coherent full-length book. Fed Up would have benefited greatly from in-depth research and more interviews with other women; as it is, the book reads like a long-winded journal entry where the author repeatedly categorizes her husband’s numerous failings while also assuring the reader that he’s a great man and much more progressive than most men. It’s also fairly obvious that the book was churned out quickly, presumably to capitalize on the article’s brief popularity, so much of it reads as as amateur and sloppy. Emotional labor is a timely, relevant topic worthy of examination, but Fed Up is poorly executed.

The Biggest Bluff, Maria Konnikova

I am deeply interested in the delicate, dynamic relationship between luck, chance and skill, and in the compelling concept of no-limit hold ’em poker as a metaphor for life. I am even more interested when this topic is presented by the wickedly smart Maria Konnikova, a writer and psychologist. I loved how Konnikova traced her journey from poker novice to regular appearances at final tables, and I loved the gentle, honest tutelage she received under pro Erik Seidel. (His teachings were clearly also effective: in the course of researching this book, Konnikova started playing poker professionally and actually earned a sponsorship for the pro tour. Talk about immersive journalism.) I found The Biggest Bluff to be sharply written and full of useful insight on how we can work on acknowledging the real impact that both chance and skill have on our day-to-day lives. Ultimately, it serves us to know what’s actually within our control and what isn’t. A worthy read.

Know My Name, Chanel Miller

Know My Name should be required reading for every college freshman in the U.S. I stand in awe of the courage it took to write this beautiful, heart-wrenching, devastating memoir.

Hungry, Eve Turow-Paul

I read this book cover to cover, and I’m not even sure what it’s actually about. I think it’s about how our social media and influencer-obsessed culture is constantly searching to fulfill a vague yearning that we can’t identify, likely because we no longer make or create or build anything, but the overall effect is something of a mess. Hungry is obviously deeply researched – there are nearly sixty pages of footnotes! – but good research doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting read. “Hungry takes readers to a futuristic grocery store in Beijing, to a vegan speed dating event in New York City, into the home of a mukbang broadcast jockey outside Seoul, and to a farm in California to explore everything from transparency technologies to diet communities and our innate connections to nature.” Fine, but why? What’s the end goal? This book reminds me of overwrought restaurant dishes where chefs add blueberries and aged cheddar and cacao nibs and rosemary and smoked trout and pumpkin seeds and grapefruit and a splash of tarragon vinegar and a sprinkle of Himalayan sea salt not because it benefits the food, but because they’re unsure of what the final dish should be, so they simply grab everything within their reach and pile it on. As someone who aims to produce more than I consume, I wanted to love Hungry – but it ultimately left me unsatisfied.

Have you read anything remarkable lately? We’d love to hear about it! And if you’d like more book reviews, you can look here, here, here, here or here.

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