What are you reading these days, friends? Compelling non-fiction? Page-turning thrillers? Autobiography? Historical fiction? Escapist trash? Here are a few books I’ve read recently, if you’d like to see:
The Ride of a Lifetime, Robert Iger
I read this autobiography on a whim and absolutely loved everything about it. Robert Iger was CEO of Disney from 2005 through 2020, and remains executive chairman as of this writing. It’s easy to dismiss The Ride of a Lifetime as just another one of thousands of business leadership books, but it is ultimately so much more than that. Mr. Iger comes across as thoughtful, smart, humble and exceptionally hard-working, and the book’s insights are relevant even if you’re not running one of the world’s largest entertainment companies. The Ride of a Lifetime is excellent for many reasons, but “The Ten Principles of True Leadership” should be required reading for every leader, no matter the size of the organization. Absolutely one of my favorites of 2021.
Bravey, Alexi Pappas
“It’s like when you are in a race. Racing is very painful but we are not what we feel in any single moment and just because I’m in the hurt box now doesn’t mean I won’t feel better in a few more laps. Racing is about understanding that pain is a sensation but not necessarily a threat; the best thing you can to do is keep putting one foot in front of the other.”
More than a year and a half into the pandemic, it’s becoming ever more obvious that collectively, we are suffering from severe mental health issues. Thanks to athletes like Simone Biles and books like Bravey, more and more people are finally acknowledging their struggles and opening the doors to tough conversations. Alexi Pappas is a champion runner and filmmaker who lost her mother to suicide at a young age and faced down a severe bout of depression after competing in the Olympics. This funny, heart-wrenching, gorgeous memoir will ring deeply familiar to anyone who has ever felt the black dog lurking just around the corner.
Win At All Costs, Matt Hart
This book’s subtitle – ‘Inside Nike Running and Its Culture of Deception’ – tells you everything you need to know. By now, it should come as no surprise that Nike is composed entirely of mean, vindictive, competitive jerks who will do anything to win. (The corporation has now had to rename three buildings on campus, which is perhaps an indication that they like to hitch their wagon to the wrong stars.)
For all the promise of exposing the dark underbelly of competitive running, however, this book is surprisingly bloodless. It’s ostensibly presented as objective sports journalism, yet the book’s primary characters, Kara and Adam Goucher, are quite clearly friends of the author and therefore everything they claim is taken at face value – and their stories contain some fairly vast credibility gaps. This book may have helped bring down Alberto Salazar, but he had done most of the damage himself prior to publication. Overall, an empty book that shows up a bit too late to provide any new information. If you want to read an excellent work about doping in professional sports, pick up Wheelmen instead.
The Midnight Library, Matt Haig
The concept of the book is brilliant – for each of us, there exists a ‘Midnight Library,’ where we can experience all of the lives we might have had we made any one of ten million different decisions along the way. Protagonist Nora Seed arrives in the Midnight Library after a suicide attempt, because she feels that there is no point to carrying on with her life as it is. With the guidance of an off-kilter librarian, she visits a variety of different lives that might have been hers, whilst trying to determine what makes a life worth living.
The theory is fascinating but the execution of this compelling premise is decidedly weak. Nora is a dreary, bland and entirely uninteresting character, accurately described in one review as “the world’s largest wet blanket.” She doesn’t seem to really want anything, and her lack of passion renders the book –which could have been bright and colorful and interesting in the right hands – flabby and boring. This book received a great deal of praise, and after finishing it, I’m left wondering whether that praise was less for the book itself and more for an interesting idea about our unlived lives, an idea that we’ve likely all considered.
This Is Your Mind on Plants, Michael Pollan
I really enjoy Michael Pollan’s work and have read all his books, some more than once; I believe The Omnivore’s Dilemma to be one of the most important and relevant books ever written on food culture, politics and policy. His latest is a short work in three parts, detailing his experiences with three plant-based substances that have changed the world thanks to their ability to alter human consciousness: opium, caffeine and mescaline. While most of Pollan’s books root heavily into science-oriented journalism, This Is Your Mind on Plants definitely skews closer to memoir. Each portion contains more of a personal account of his experience with the drug in question, with only brief references to science and culture; more accurately, the book should be titled This Is MY Mind on Plants. (Those of us who remember the formative years of the War on Drugs and the Just Say No campaign will certainly understand the veiled reference in the title.)
The section on opium was originally written in the mid-1990s, with a recent update; most pointed here is the acknowledgement that while the feds were busting home gardeners for totally benign poppies, the Sacklers were carefully building their devastating empire of pain from the ground up. The caffeine portion might be of interest to anyone who looks forward to coffee every morning, which is to say about 90% of us; the analysis of how coffee (and tea, to a lesser extent) allowed for the rise of Western capitalism and contributes to our staggering sleep deficiency is interesting but not revelatory. I mostly disliked the mescaline segment of the book, mainly because while I absolutely agree that psychedelics offer incredible potential for the treatment of many mental health issues, I do not at all support the recent trend towards “psychedelic tourism,” where wealthy Westerners seek out cultures with psychedelic traditions in order to go on their own “spiritual trips.” These drugs are incredibly powerful and likely could offer immense benefits, but they’re not a joke, and they’re not to be taken lightly or appropriated as ‘wellness’ as part of some all-inclusive beach vacation. This Is Your Mind on Plants is written in Pollan’s typical accessible, engaging style, and the book is a decent-enough read, but overall it feels rehashed and thin. This isn’t one of his best nor is it one of my favorites.
The Other Black Girl, Zakiya Dalila Harris
I am painfully aware that I am not the intended audience for this book, so it should come as no surprise that it didn’t hold together for me at all. Not only was the writing weak and the main character weaker, but – ironic for a story set in the publishing industry! – the book desperately needed both an editor and a proofreader. Skip it.
Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford
“This book advances a nestled set of arguments on behalf of work that is meaningful because it is genuinely useful. It also explores what we might call the ethics of maintenance and repair, and in doing so I hope it will speak to those who may be unlikely to go into the trades professionally but strive for some measure of self-reliance – the kind that requires focused engagement with our material things.”
That quote perfectly encapsulates our life here on Quiet Farm. We want to engage in work that is useful and we want to produce more than we consume. We also want to not own very many things, and we want to understand the things we do own, and we want to fix them when they break (which seems frequent these days). I adored the basic premise of this book – ultimately, that we’re collectively unhappy because most of us nowadays don’t do any sort of actual productive work, particularly with our hands. Most of us no longer build or construct or repair things, certainly not for our full-time employment.
While the argument is sound, and the book in particular presents a compelling case against the “college-to-cubicle pipeline,” the author possesses a PhD in Philosophy and wields it as an intellectual weapon. My favorite parts were passages where he discusses his work repairing vintage motorcycles; while reading this book, I was entrenched in an ongoing battle with my beloved 1960s Singer 600, and could very much appreciate both the challenge and the reward of learning an elegant (and infuriating) machine intimately. Ultimately, however, the book contains too much philosophical musing and too few real-world examples. This is a shame because more than anything, we do need more skilled tradespeople and fewer software engineers – but anyone who picks up this book already knows this.
Circling the Sun, Paula McLain
I love, love, love Paula McLain’s historical fiction; she makes interesting women (whom you’ve likely never heard of) absolutely come alive on the page. Circling the Sun follows Beryl Markham, a pioneering aviator, thoroughbred horse trainer and author who was the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic from Britain to North America. English-born and Kenyan-raised, Markham is also well-known for her entanglement with Denys Finch-Hatton and Karen Blixen. She was smart, independent and spirited and she belonged nowhere but the vast expanse of Africa; Circling the Sun is a brilliant portrayal of a woman who lived life entirely on her own terms even when her choices weren’t at all socially acceptable. Highly recommended, as are the rest of McLain’s books; next up, I’ll be reading Markham’s own memoir, West with the Night, and revisiting Blixen’s Out of Africa.
Pretty Things, Janelle Brown
Standard fiction hasn’t thrilled me much recently, but Pretty Things is a dark, entertaining romp through the intertwined lives of con artists and their marks. Incisive commentary on the social media monster and how we give away so much of our truth for free, yet still desperately try to present lives that aren’t exactly our own while simultaneously whining about our lack of privacy. No one in this book is particularly likable, but my favorite character by far was the narrator’s mother. Overall, Pretty Things can be summed up as readable escapist junk, and there is always a time and a place for that in any literary diet.
Have you read anything remarkable or otherwise recently? As always, we’d love to hear your comments and recommendations.