Archive for December, 2016

2016 Book of the Year. But what if we’re wrong? by Chuck Klosterman

Book of the Year.  But what if we’re wrong? by Chuck Klosterman.  The central premise of Klosterman’s book about the past, present and future is to ask if the “ideas so ingrained in the collective consciousness that it seems foolhardy to even wonder if they’re potentially untrue” turn out to be totally wrong.  He begins with the topic of gravity.  Aristotle’s definition of gravity stood for centuries before being overturned by Copernicus and Newton, whose ideas lasted until Einstein, whose ideas are still being expanded upon.   Klosterman continues in a series of essays examining topics such as which one artist will be used in textbooks many centuries from now to represent this century’s books or rock and roll music or television the same way we use John Philip Sousa to define marching music (assuming we still have textbooks or even schools).  He also questions whether organized sports and democracy will continue to exist and examines things like Phantom Time and artificial intelligence.

Usually, Klosterman’s time horizon is centuries, but readers can easily ask the same questions of current trends: are political gridlock and climate change permanent or is there some transformative event that could happen to change everything again?  And what changes will happen just in our lifetimes?  When my grandparents were born, the tsars had ruled Russia for over 300 years, the IOC had never hosted an Olympic Games, and the concept of a black or female or Catholic or transgender U.S. President was not to be believed.

This book makes an interesting companion piece to 2013’s Best Non-fiction winner: The Half-life of Facts: why everything we know has an expiration date by Samuel Arbesman.

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


2016 Runner-up, Non-fiction. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Runner-up, Non-fiction.  Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.  The author is a Nobel Prize winner for his research on judgement and decision making and its applications in economics, psychology and public policy.  If 400 pages on this topic seems too dry and academic for you, then you’ll be surprised by how readable is this book, which expands upon his two major articles and examines current, related research on several topics such as biases, intuition, memory and rational thinking.  Further, each chapter is a quite manageable ten to fifteen pages, so you can take tiny bites at a time.

Kahneman uses three distinct pairs in the course of the book.  First, there are the internal characters of System 1 and System 2.  The former is our brain’s gatekeeper; constantly monitoring our environment for threats, thinking fast and sometimes jumping to conclusions.  When complex problems arise, System 1 engages System 2, which thinks slower, identifies relationships and conducts deep searches of memory.  System 2 attempts to control the impulsive nature of System 1, but it is also lazy and frequently defers to System 1 if the latter can offer an available, coherent answer to a question, even if that answer is later proved to be wrong.  Next, Kahneman compares Econs, the rational beings living in the models of conventional economic theory, to their irrational brethren, the Humans, who are the heroes of behavioral economics.  Econs act consistently and predictably, but Humans are susceptible to priming and framing illusions and a number other factors and may need help to keep them from making illogical decisions.  Finally, he examines our experiencing self, who exists only in the moment of our actually experiencing events, and our remembering self, who exists from the moment the event ends on in to perpetuity, and dominates the former.  This dominate relationship, supported by duration neglect and the peak-end rule, can lead us to choose to experience longer periods of pain and shorter periods of pleasure as long as our memories of the events are better.

What Kahneman does best is make all this theory relatable with applications to events in everyday life, such as making investments, attending concerts or buying a bottle of wine or a can of soup.

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

2016 Best Parenting Book. Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein

Best Parenting Book.  Girls and Sex: navigating the complicated new landscape by Peggy Orenstein.  At least once a year I try to read a book about dating, relationships or human behavior to continue my self-development in an area where I get little practical experience.  This year, because so many of my friends now have kids in high school and college, I chose Orenstein’s volume, which focuses on girls between the ages of fifteen and twenty and examines a diverse set of topics: self-objectification, oral sex, virginity, the hookup culture, gender and sexual identity, campus assaults, and sex education.  Orenstein cites numerous studies on these topics, both historical and recent, and conducted seventy interviews with young women across the country to get their frank and, ironically, sobering perspectives.  Although her liberal, progressive bias is prevalent throughout, most of the book would be considered reporting rather than editorializing.  On some points, I found there was too much research presented and not enough in the way of solutions.  As a 50+, male non-parent, I am not sure if I would be comfortable having detailed discussions about these topics with my friends, but I am comfortable recommending that they read this book.  The landscape has certainly changed and they need to know how to make it better for their daughters and sons.

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

2016 Best Historical Mystery. The Hanged Man by Gary Inbinder

Best Historical Mystery. The Hanged Man by Gary Inbinder.  The second in this series set in fin-de-seicle Paris is another example of an author mixing together all the elements for an excellent historical mystery: an intelligent protagonist, interesting secondary characters, a worthy villain and an atmospheric setting.  Detective Achille Lefebvre gets the most difficult cases assigned to his police brigade including the recent body found hanging from a park bridge.  Using new techniques like fingerprinting and photography, he works with his colleagues, a former partner he no longer trusts, the Deuxieme Bureau for military intelligence and certain characters from the Parisian underworld to confront a devious adversary manipulating the anarchists, Marxists and other revolutionaries residing in the city at the time.  Running concurrently with the case are his troubles at home with his wife, live-in mother-in-law, and defiant toddler daughter and whether success will bring additional complications as he moves into the higher spheres of police power.  Reading the debut title in the series, The Devil in Montmartre, is not necessary to enjoy this one, but is recommended.

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


2016 Runner-up, Best Historical Mystery. A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas

Runner-up, Best Historical Mystery.  A Study in Scarlet Women by Sherry Thomas.  This Sherlock Holmes-inspired mystery is a perfect example of a frustrating book for a reviewer because almost any plot summary will be filled with spoilers for the reader.  However, one can say that Thomas presents several innovative twists while keeping all the major elements of Conan Doyle’s world: Holmes, Watson, Scotland Yard, and Baker Street.  There is more emphasis on Victorian morals than normal and missing are the Irregulars, but the mystery is sufficiently twisted and the use of deductive logic highly visible.  I am not certain that there is enough substance to keep a series going, but it’s a good debut story worthy of consideration by Holmes’ fans looking for something a bit different.

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

2016 Best Biography. The Tao of Bill Murray by Gavin Edwards

Best Biography. The Tao of Bill Murray: real-life stories of joy, enlightenment and party crashing by Gavin Edwards.  During a year in which his Cubs win the World Series and he personally receives the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, it’s unlikely that having his biography named a best book of the year by a blog whose readership can be counted on one hand will warrant Bill Murray’s attention.  Then again, he might show up on my doorstep tomorrow.  It is this unpredictable nature, his generosity and his love of life that define Murray’s personality.  Edwards captures Murray’s philosophy of life in ten principles and provides examples of each with stories from both the sets of his movies and from his random encounters with fans around the world.  Will I transform myself into the free spirit that is Murray?  Unlikely.  And this book won’t “wake you up” as Bill hopes to do with everyone he meets, but it will keep you up and turning pages because you won’t want to wait to read the next adventure from his life.

OK, the first two thirds of this book are great.  Unfortunately, in the last third Edwards reviews each of Murray’s fifty-nine films to date with commentary on his performance.  The reviews are adequate, but the occasional behind-the-scenes anecdotes are few and far between.

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

2016 Best Medical Book.The Checklist Manifesto by Atul Gawande

Best Medical Book.  The Checklist Manifesto: how to get things right by Atul Gawande.  Once again, my expectations about a book were totally wrong.  And once again, the reality was much better.  I figured Dr. Gawande’s slim title would help me with organizing activities around the house and in my life.  Pretty simple, not too serious.  Instead, he voices deep concerns about the reliability of our hospital care and proposes using techniques from the similarly complex fields of aviation and construction to eliminate preventable errors through the use of checklists.  A general surgeon himself, he forcefully presents the argument that well-structured checklists can raise baseline care, and improve communication, especially in surgical and ICU situations where many specialists have to work together as a smooth system.  He identifies which situations would benefit most from checklists and, although the overwhelming focus of the book is on hospitals, presents concrete examples from Boeing, structural engineering firms and financial fund companies to show how checklists are applied in other industries.  His main example centers on the efforts of the World Health Organization’s Safe Surgery program to develop standardized checklists that could be introduced in hospitals around the world.  He describes the development and data-gathering process, developing and refining the lists, and the issues introducing them in to different national and organizational cultures.  Sometimes, there are passages with too much medical jargon, but overall the writing style is very readable.  Most importantly, upon conclusion, readers will be more aware of problems that can occur during surgery and will have new questions to ask their care givers before proceeding.

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

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