By Nic Lindh | Wednesday, 14 September 2011 | FacebookTwitter

Book roundup, part one

Some books you might enjoy reading.

Non-fiction

Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall: Absolutely wonderful book about the strange people who become ultra runners, the reclusive Tarahumara tribe of Mexico (considered the greatest runners in the world), and why everything you know about running is wrong. As the book title says, we were born to run, and running was the weapon that allowed us to outlast the neanderthals.

Born to Run also goes into some technical detail on why soft, comfortable shoes are the cause of the majority of running injuries. (Vibram FiveFingers for the win!) If you’re at all interested in your health, or you just want a feel-good book, put this one on your list today.

Highly recommended.

Violence: A Writer’s Guide, by Rory Miller: Does what it says on the tin: A book written by a man intimately familiar with violence, sharing ways to write about violence convincingly and how violent characters think.

Lots of good information and advice for writers in a slim volume.

Recommended.

Got Fight?, by Forrest Griffin: Forrest Griffin is a top MMA fighter, a very funny guy, and quite possibly insane. Got Fight? is partly an autobiography and partly a collection of tips for successful living and fighting. And it’s hysterical. Griffin goes way out of his way to establish himself as a man’s man (how does he know he’s a man’s man? Because he’s been told repeatedly he’s not a ladies’ man.) Be that as it may, the book does a great job of making fun of the kind of overblown machismo so prevalent in MMA circles.

It’s coarse, full-throttled and very funny. For a man who revels in presenting himself a lunk-head hick, Griffin has a lot of good takes on life, like: “My philosophy on getting knocked out is that it renders you unconscious and numb, so why worry about it.”

Highly recommended.

In the Plex, by Steven Levy: Veteran tech journalist Steven Levy enjoyed unprecedented access inside Google for this book, and it shows. Inside the Plex is meaty, solidly written, and does an excellent job of explaining how Google works from a non-technical perspective, covering the rise of Google from humble beginnings at Stanford to the launch of Google Plus.

Unfortunately, it looks like with his great access Levy got a touch of Stockholm Syndrome, especially when it comes to the sometimes-odd behavior of Page and Brin, who get a free pass as quirky geniuses. Aw-schucks, those Montessori kids, what are you gonna do? As to the adult supervisor Eric Schmidt, he is very loosely sketched—you get almost no sense of the man at all.

To Levy’s credit, he does cover some of Google’s ethical crises, like getting in bed with the Chinese government, but the entire book comes across a bit hagiographic.

Still, it’s a very interesting read and does help you understand better what makes Google tick. My main take-away is that the right lens to view Google through is to think of it as an artificial intelligence company. Pretty much all the company’s decisions make sense from that perspective.

Recommended.

Stalingrad, by Anthony Beevor: Beevor certainly doesn’t lack ambition. Stalingrad is an intense, detailed examination of the Eastern Front during World War II, from the beginning of the war to the end of the siege of Stalingrad. It is erudite, fascinating, and depressing.

The Eastern Front was a complete nightmare for soldiers and civilians both, with both the Nazi and Communist regimes exhibiting breathtaking brutality and disregard for humanity. Stalingrad is page after page of crimes against humanity and authoritarian callousness that boggles the mind.

Even if you have some prior knowledge of the Eastern Front and World War II in general, the book’s sheer depth and breadth really brings home the unthinkable scope of the conflict.

Beevor’s coverage of the Eastern Front continues in his next book, Berlin.

The Fall of Berlin 1945, by Anthony Beevor: The Eastern Front from the end of the siege of Stalingrad to the end of the war, focusing on the fall of Berlin and the suffering of the German people as the Red Army raped and looted its way into the country, their suffering compounded by the Nazi leadership’s decision to fight on to the end largely so as many Germans as possible would die—the German people had betrayed Hitler and the Reich and thus deserved to be annihilated.

It’s a chilling read.

If Stalingrad was depressing, Berlin is soul-crushing. It’s hard to sit in your comfy chair and believe humans committed atrocities on this kind of industrial scale.

But depressing as Stalingrad and Berlin are, they are important books: We mustn’t forget the lessons of World War II. Stalingrad and Berlin should be required reading in any high school or college history class.

And thank your lucky stars every day you weren’t a Russian peasant during World War II.

The War of Art, by Steven Pressfield: A writer writes about the things that keep you from writing. The lizard brain and fear are explored. A very brief, fast read with plenty of things to ponder not just for writing but for any creative endeavor.

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never do Again, by David Foster Wallace: A collection of essays on topics like a visit to the Kansas state fair and a week on a cruise ship. But the topics themselves don’t really matter—the wit and clarity Wallace brings is what keeps you hooked.

Supposedly Fun is one of the best collections of his writing—cherish it.

David Foster Wallace was the literary giant of our generation. Rest in Peace.

Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson: I’m a huge cynic, so it’s impressive how this book managed to break through my defenses. It’s the true story of a mountain climber who after a failed attempt at scaling K2 finds himself in a tribal village where the children have little chance of escaping grinding poverty due to lack of education. The climber devotes his life to building schools in the poorest parts of Pakistan, fighting Western apathy, poverty, and nutjob Mullahs in the process.

Three Cups of Tea rings very true, and illustrates potently how education is the best tool available to fight terrorism in the long run.

Uplifting and well worth your time.

Jon Krakauer wrote an investigative piece challenging some of Mortensons statements and actions, and while it’s also a good read and does sour you a bit on Mortenson as a person, the basic ideas in Three Cups of Tea are still valid and important.

Linchpin, by Seth Godin: Godin’s relentlessly upbeat style can be a bit hard to take, but Linchpin is an important book. Essentially, it’s about how—like anybody who’s been downsized after their job went to India or is now being performed by a computer—we were all lied to when told to get an education and work hard and things would work out. The book talks about how to become the kind of employee who is indispensable, i.e., a “linchpin,” the kind that can’t be outsourced.

Obviously, if there was a manual for becoming indispensable, we wouldn’t be in the trouble we’re in, so Linchpin discusses ways to think and act to become more valuable. It’s too handwavey, but poses a lot of important questions and provides some ideas for getting to a better place.

Well worth reading.

Fiction

The Last Werewolf, by Glen Duncan: This fast-paced novel reboots the werewolf myth and ups the violence and sex quotient by a lot. In between the sex and the savagery, Duncan provides a nice almost meditation on what it means to be human and how our urges control and define us.

Recommended.

DEAD MECH, by Jake Bible: Post-apocalyptic zombie survival horror. With mechs. Little else needs to be said, except that it’s a fast-moving page-turner.

For mindless fun, DEAD MECH is hard to beat. No, Faulkner it ain’t, but it’s exactly what you need for your next flight or vacation.

Embassytown, by China Miéville: I’m a big China Miéville fan, but was unable to finish this novel, since it just didn’t seem to be going anywhere.

The concept is—as Miéville fans expect and enjoy—utterly weird and confusing. In the far future, humanity has colonized large portions of space, travelling through something called the immer, which is essentially hyperspace. On one planet at the edges of known space lives a sentient species with two mouths who can not use symbols. They can only speak of concrete things, and thus have no concept of lies.

The Embassytown of the title is a small colony on this planet, existing in an air bubble, attempting to communicate with and make sense of these aliens who are off-the-charts weird.

So, great setup. But the novel itself seems like it’s four different novels, in none of which very much happens and there are few interesting characters. Could have been great if it had been tightened up.

Nevertheless, it’s shock-full of very interesting ideas and it can be fun to spend some time having no clue what’s going on, but by the time I stopped reading it just seemed there wouldn’t be a pay-off.

Read Miéville’s The City and the City instead.

(DISCLOSURE: All links go to the Amazon Kindle store and are affiliate links. If you buy one of the books through a link here I get a tiny kickback from Amazon.)

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