Early winter book reviews, vol. 2

Breaking the Age Code by Becca Levy

Many of my recent nonfiction selections, including Being Mortal and The Blue Zones, focus on the oft-fraught topics of aging and dying. I loved Becca Levy’s Breaking the Age Code; in simple, accessible prose, she posits that how we age can be in large part determined by our attitude towards aging. In America in particular, as well as many other Western cultures (but certainly not all!), aging is seen as somehow shameful and useless; we do not revere our elders here but instead shove them into terrible facilities and care homes, destined to die of inactivity, depression, boredom and loneliness. Our hackneyed clichés about aging, as well as our near-total erasure of older people from films, books, fashion and TV, are overdue for a revamp, too. We also need to rethink our standard retirement age of 65; that arbitrary number was in large part determined by a life expectancy of about 67; very few people were expected to survive another third of their lives after retiring, and that’s posing a major challenge. There are far better ways to embrace aging, of course, and as the U.S. faces the millions of people living well beyond standard life expectancy, it is essential that we address these issues. Breaking the Age Code argues that our actions and beliefs have a lot more influence over our aging than we might think, a theory I wholeheartedly support.

Two Nights in Lisbon by Chris Pavone

Two Nights in Lisbon, as with all of Chris Pavone’s books, fits squarely in my ‘junk thriller’ category – also known as airplane books. This particular example is compelling if long-winded, although I did enjoy the the plot points that tied into recent events. Pavone’s books are pure Snickers bars – quickly consumed, no nutritional value and forgotten shortly thereafter. Nonetheless, I am a firm believer in the idea that ‘there is no worthless reading,’ so if you’re looking for a smart, well-crafted thriller, his books definitely fit the bill.

Worn: A People’s History of Clothing by Sofi Thanhauser

Textiles are ubiquitous, from birth to death and every single day in between; it seems almost silly to give any thought to their existence nowadays. And while textiles used to have such value – if you only owned one or two pairs of trousers, you’d take good care of them and patch them again and again, until they were finally repurposed into a warm quilt – we now each throw away an average of eighty pounds (!) of textiles every year, and every single second, a trailer-truck filled with textiles is buried or incinerated. The world is simply awash in cheap cloth, and that carries significant implications for our ability to deal with climate change and its attendant issues. Worn: A People’s History of Clothing, by Sofi Thanhauser, is an exhaustively researched book about a material good that was once so valuable that every single scrap was carefully saved for reuse; now, those textiles are inexpensive and meaningless. Of course, any history of textiles will notably be raw, tragic and depressing, especially in addressing modern-day slavery production; this book is terribly downbeat, but it’s also fascinating. Facing down our individual contributions to climate change, namely fast fashion and our unwillingness to care for, mend and repair our things instead of simply throwing them out, is an important step forward.

The House in the Cerulean Sea by TJ Klune

I wrote previously that once a book “appears” three times in my world, I immediately request it from the library. The House in the Cerulean Sea was one such book, showing up on every single must-read list for a time, and I read numerous reviews where people claimed “it changed their lives.” I should have listened to my initial misgivings and ignored this derivative mess of a book which reads as though a publisher made a checklist of what the book needed to include, then commissioned it from a mediocre author. “Total ripoff Harry Potter-style magic? Check. Misunderstood kids? Check. Queer characters? Check.” All of that mishmash was jammed into a Vitamix to produce this book, which might actually be somewhat acceptable if the author hadn’t made some deeply troubling comments in reference to the book’s origin story. This smug, off-putting book and its author are seriously problematic for numerous reasons and I recommend avoiding this clichéd and awkward waste of paper at all costs. (P.S. If you read this book and loved it, I would genuinely love to hear your thoughts on it.)

Adrift: America in 100 Charts by Scott Galloway

There isn’t much that Americans agree on at the moment, except that our once-great country is most definitely headed in the wrong direction. It’s also all too easy to find various media that support any conceivable point of view, without any valid data or research to back up a particular viewpoint. Adrift clearly and concisely makes its salient argument – that we are quickly headed over a cliff – by distilling granular data and figures into easy-to-understand charts and graphs; this book proves that it’s far easier to grasp deeply complex topics when presented with a stark image, rather than thousands of words of text. Galloway is himself a polarizing figure and his aggressive approach can often be coarse and unrefined; Adrift, however, is a difficult read because of its sharp-edged honesty and therefore difficult to argue with. Adrift is a remarkable and compelling book – you’ll learn a great deal, but you definitely won’t like what you learn. Highly recommended.

The Arc by Tory Henwood Hoen

The Arc is best described as contemporary romance with a sharp, sarcastic edge – chick-lit for the world-weary. The story follows two wealthy, high-achieving Manhattanites who opt to “fully optimize” their dating experience by paying The ARC, a secretive matchmaking operation, to find their guaranteed partner for life. The author smartly set the book pre-pandemic, so that all the trappings of today’s all-connected life (dating websites, The Wing) are recognizable, but there was no need to tackle lockdown and the ensuing worldwide health crisis. This book didn’t earn particularly high reviews, but I loved it; it was a quick read with a wry sense of humor and I found myself entirely captivated by Ursula and Rafael’s orchestrated (or is it?) modern romance.

Grit by Angela Duckworth

On the one hand, Grit tells us that talent is mostly overrated, that fixed mindsets result in stagnation and/or complacency and that ‘grit’ is something that can essentially be acquired by anyone, at any time. On the other hand, this book does little to address socioeconomic factors possibly limiting to grit, and, as other reviewers have rightfully pointed out, it only addresses grit in the American sense, which is obviously unique. Does the concept of grit work in China? Iran? Ukraine? I wholeheartedly respect the idea that focusing on a particular goal and sticking with it is more likely to result in success, except that ‘success’ might be defined differently by every single person – plus, success doesn’t guarantee happiness. (Plenty of doctors and lawyers will freely share that they only continued with their career because they’d already invested so much time and effort in their education that it seemed foolhardy to quit.) While I also respect the author’s section on parenting, specifically as it refers to extracurricular activities, the book fails to address the very obvious fact that many American kids do not have the resources available to compete in club sports, play a musical instrument and learn another language outside of school. Passion and perseverance are to be lauded, certainly, but Duckworth’s scholarly work is far more focused on intellectual policy and other challenging topics. I suspect that Duckworth’s editors told her she needed to appeal more to the masses; as such, this book definitely reads as dumbed-down self-help/pop psychology. This isn’t necessarily bad, except that as with most broad-brush self-help, readers seem to often just seek a simple quick fix, rather than the long-term work actually required. Worth reading, but keep your expectations reasonable.

The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova

We’ve likely all been conned at least once in our lives, whether or not we’re willing to admit it. Maria Konnikova explores the psychology of the con man, and why otherwise smart people fall for schemes that to others seem painfully obvious (see also: fortune tellers). The Confidence Game isn’t Konnikova’s best work; her books on poker and on Sherlock Holmes are far better, but she does present some painfully relatable anecdotes. Unfortunately, the book drags quite a bit; after a few, the stories all sound remarkably similar, and the reader can easily see where the tale ends. As our collective interest in both science and traditional organized religion wanes, beliefs in ‘alternative theories’ such as astrology, tarot and divination are on the rise, which means that many more people are putting themselves at risk of being swindled. (See also: cryptocurrency.) Ultimately, Konnikova leaves us with the disconcerting thought that our innate desire to believe in a well-crafted narrative may mean that we, too, are vulnerable, even when we’re on our guard.

The Psychology of Money by Morgan Housel

The Psychology of Money is a short, easily digestible book that clearly originates from a blog post – and likely didn’t need to be made into a full book. That said, there is a lot in here worth taking to heart, particularly the overarching theme that math (and therefore finance) is typically taught as a cold, hard science, when in fact money, and its outsized influence on our lives, is very much a hot emotional topic, threaded through with childhood, culture, socioeconomic status and many other factors. Therefore, people’s experiences with money are different and most personal financial decisions aren’t made with the clearheaded, rational emotionless thinking they require. The book’s most important points, and ones we personally hold dear in our committed FIRE lifestyle, are to acknowledge that money’s greatest use is to buy freedom, not things, and to always, always build a margin of error into any financial decision you make. Also, to roughly paraphrase Einstein, compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe – whether it’s working for you or against you. A good quick read, worth your time.

As always, we’d love to hear your thoughts on any of these books, or other notable books you’ve read of late. Wishing you a safe, comfortable winter full of lots of compelling reading!

Early winter book reviews, vol. 1

Friends! Hello! My final pot of tomato puree is bubbling away on the stove, anxiously awaiting the canning jars and then a dark cupboard. I’m so pleased to be finished with preservation for this season; we did manage to salvage a decent harvest – nearly eight hundred pounds of organic vegetables – despite our challenges with viruses and insects. Naturally, winter in our agricultural world allows much more time for reading and sewing, and plenty of time has been gladly given over to both recently! With that, may I present a brief round-up of recent (and not-so recent) reads that have lately crossed my path.

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich

Barbara Ehrenreich was one of the nation’s foremost writers on sociology before her recent death; she’s best known for Nickel and Dimed, a highly controversial and deeply problematic first-person account of trying to survive on low-wage work. Bright-Sided was mostly overlooked, but I think it’s far more relevant since it focuses on our obsession with positive thinking, and how that actually undermines and harms us.

An NPR review sums this up rather neatly:

“Militarily, yes, we are the mightiest nation on earth. But on many other fronts, the American score is dismal, and was dismal even before the economic downturn that began in 2007. Our children routinely turn out to be more ignorant of basic subjects like math and geography than their counterparts in other industrialized nations. They are also more likely to die in infancy or grow up in poverty. Almost everyone acknowledges that our health care system is “broken” and our physical infrastructure crumbling. We have lost so much of our edge in science and technology that American companies have even begun to outsource their research and development efforts. Worse, some of the measures by which we do lead the world should inspire embarrassment rather than pride: We have the highest percentage of our population incarcerated, and the greatest level of inequality in wealth and income. We are plagued by gun violence and racked by personal debt. And Americans account for two-thirds of the global market for antidepressants, which happen also to be the most commonly prescribed drugs in the United States.”

Clearly, all that positivity isn’t doing us much good. Ehrenreich’s book sharply skewers all this positive thinking rubbish, and makes a solid case that it isn’t helping us thrive. And since the book was written prior to 2016 and all that followed after, one only wonders what Ehrenreich might have thought of the morass we find ourselves currently trapped in; thankfully, we’re starting to collectively address the concept of “toxic positivity.” A strong book from a stellar observer of our deeply flawed society.

She Said by Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey

She Said is far and away one of the absolute best investigative journalism books I’ve ever read; it follows New York Times journalists Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey as they break the Harvey Weinstein story. Ronan Farrow’s Catch and Kill, which covers much of the same sordid mess, was released prior to this and I thought that book was also excellent, but I do wish I’d read She Said first because it’s simply better. There isn’t much more to write about this work that hasn’t been written, but among other accomplishments, She Said shows why good journalism is more important than ever in this fractured age of disinformation and misinformation. Freedom of the press matters in a stable democracy, and books like She Said succinctly show why. A must-read.

The Power Paradox by Dacher Kelter

“The power paradox is this: We gain power and the capacity for influence through social practices that advance the interests of others, such as empathy, collaboration, open mindedness, fairness, and generosity. And yet, once we gain power, success, or wealth, those very practices vanish, leaving us vulnerable to impulsive, self-serving actions and empathy deficits that set in motion our fall.” This is another social psychology book that reads differently now than when it was first published in early 2016; it is rather an understatement to say that the world is a very changed place. Ultimately, though, the book makes the salient point that we humans gain power through what is best about human nature and then lose it through what is worst. One only has to look at recent headlines – Trump, Musk, Bankman-Fried – to know just how accurate this research is. The Power Paradox is not a particularly stellar book in and of itself, but it will force the reader to examine the way that power structure within any human interaction, from the barista to a partner to a colleague – shifts and evolves. This a definitely a book that changes one’s perspective.

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