Archive for December, 2013

2013 Book of the Year: Fifteen-thirty

2013 Book of the Year (also Best Biography and Best Sports Book):  In its 125 year history, my high school has produced many athletes who have continued their careers in college and some professionally (including two from my own class), but none have been more accomplished than 1923 alum and Tennis Hall of Famer, Helen Wills.  Her nineteen Grand Slam singles titles and two Olympic gold medals helped propel her to international stardom for almost two decades.  I recently read her 1937 autobiography, Fifteen-thirty: the story of a tennis player, in which she describes her career and life during this era.

Although she does not mention the school by name, her description of her experience would resonate with today’s students: “My school was nearby, so that it was easy to divide the day into three parts–classes in the morning, tennis in the afternoon, and study at night. I was painfully conscientious. Not only were my ‘lessons’ first, but I worried about them continually. … With me, learning lessons was a ponderous business. I learned slowly, and I could not distinguish the point where it would be possible to stop and yet ‘get by.’ I knew only one way and that was to do as well I could. I would have been terribly disappointed if I had not been on the honor roll each month.”

This chronological memoir is evenly split between tournament memories and her life as a celebrity off the court.  Her writing style is quite elegant, but also dry, and the clinical analysis of her matches may not appeal to non-tennis fans.  The personal remembrances are certainly not scandalous by modern standards, but instead present a unique perspective on a time when tennis players at the highest levels were still amateurs and traveled to events was by train and steamship.  She frequently details the writing and illustrating assignments for news organizations that she completed in order to help finance her playing career.  Throughout the book she sounds like a humble, straightforward person and I regret not taking the initiative to use our school and tennis connections to reach out and contact her in Carmel before she passed away in 1998.

Used copies of this title, discarded from libraries without dust jacket, sell online for around $50 while complete originals go for around $250.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.


2013 Books of the Year: Best Non-fiction book

Best Non-fiction book:  The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman.  How often as bored teenagers did we question our teachers, “Why do I need to learn this stuff?  I’m never going to use it as an adult.”  Turns out we were right, in a way.  Knowledge, in the form of facts, changes constantly: medical facts, scientific facts, economic theories, historical events.  Whether due to innovative technology, improved measuring tools, prior human errors or a myriad of other reasons, knowledge, in the aggregate, evolves over time and in systematic and predictable ways.  Arbesman examines these ideas and a whole series of complex concepts such as cognitive and confirmation bias, the long tail of discovery, factual inertia, phase transitions, and logistic curves, but does so in clear, understandable language and using many relatable stories and examples.  His central idea is that the world is filled with “mesofacts” – facts that change over a relatively short time, such as a human lifetime, and that how we identify and adjust to these changes is vitally important.  Recognizing that what we learned as teenagers may no longer be accurate, Arbesman pushes the idea of constant education, whether that comes from helping our children with their homework (generational knowledge) or becoming expert users of online search engines (informational triage).

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2013 Books of the Year: Non-fiction Runner-up

Non-fiction Runner-up:  The Power of Habit: why we do what we do in life and business by Charles Duhigg.  My college alumni association recommends a new book every other month as part of its Learning Forever program and this one caught my attention as I thought it might help me with my own habits and with my ability to instill good habits in the athletes that I coach.  In his first section focusing on individuals, Duhigg goes into great detail about the components of the habit loop (cues, routines and rewards) as well as the cravings that drive the loop and the importance in believing that change is possible in order to implement any change.  In the second section focusing on organizations, he delves into the topics of keystone habits that trigger a chain reaction in lifestyles or corporate cultures, willpower as a muscle and the environments that can strengthen or drain its force, exploiting crises to introduce changes, and the use of data collection to predict behavior.  In both sections, he describes examples from sports, retailing, government, manufacturing and other industries to make the theories more accessible and interesting.  The third section, looking at habits in society, is definitely the weakest in the book.  It examines how movements for social change develop from individual acts and the concept of responsibility and free will in an environment of addiction.  There are sixty pages of end notes for the academically-inclined, but the main body of text is relatively easy to read for all audiences.  If you’re looking for self-help or to institute change in your organization, then this title should have appeal.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2013 Books of the Year: Best Historical Mystery Runner-up

Best Historical Mystery Runner-up: The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann.  It is quite rare that I find a historical mystery set in Scandinavia (so rare I don’t have any in my catalog of reading from the last six years), but I just finished Karen Engelmann’s “The Stockholm Octavo.”  The book is really more historical fiction than mystery and details the events leading up to Swedish King Gustav III’s assassination in 1792.  The main character is Emil Larsson, a bureaucrat in the Customs Office who enjoys gambling at cards at night, but is being pressured by his superior to get married and settle down.  A fortune-teller lays down a set of eight cards (an octavo) which predicts “love and connection” for Emil if only he can identify which personages are represented in the cards.  But Emil’s octavo is not the only one in play and his eight people are also characters in the political plots surrounding the king.  Despite knowing the eventual ending, Engelmann keeps the tension level reasonably high and the atmosphere and character development are also pretty good.  Given how few titles have this geographic setting, it might be worth a try.

Honorable Mention, Historical Mystery.  Strangled in Paris by Claude Izner.  Similar to the Robertson entry, this latest book about Paris bookshop owner/private investigator Victor Legris is an improvement on an already good series.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

2013 Books of the year: best historical mystery

December: time for the Books of the Year posts.  I will finish 130 books by the end of the year with lots of new authors and some familiar writers showing great improvement, like the one below.

Best Historical Mystery (foreign setting): Circle of Shadows by Imogen Robertson.  While I’ve enjoyed the previous books in the Harriett Westerman and Gabriel Crowder series by Imogen Robertson, the fourth volume is definitely a step up and takes readers on a dizzying ride in 1780s Germany.  The widow Westerman and the reclusive anatomist Crowder leave their respective Sussex homes to rescue Westerman’s brother-in-law from a charge of murder at the ducal court of Maulberg.  Upon arriving, they discover the court is awash with spies, including their arch-nemesis the castrato Manzerotti, secret societies, an alchemist, some very talented craftsmen and a despotic duke, all of whom are living at least dual roles.  The list of suspects grows daily, as does the roster of victims.  Robertson creates a good sense of pace and tension, culminating in a satisfactory conclusion.  Overall, an excellent entry in a quality series.

Best Historical Mystery (U.S. setting): As was the case last year and in 2011, the choices here were too few and not that special.

For all my previous “books of the year” lists, see my dedicated page for these titles.

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