When Breath Becomes Air

“I had attained the heights of the neurosurgical trainee, set to become not only a neurosurgeon but a surgeon-scientist. Every trainee aspires to this goal; almost none make it” (When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi)

The forward claims that Kalanithi will show incredible honesty, the post-script says he provides insights into death, and reviews laud it for its intimacy, but when reading the book, the only thing the reader can think is: unfair! Unfair that this near-perfect man had to die! He would have advanced neurosurgery, been a beautiful husband and father, and, if I had ever needed brain surgery in the San Francisco area, he would have been the man to do it. You clench your fists, you cry a little bit, and you become one with the millions of people who have read this book and would agree that this man should have had more time on the earth.

Yet, the disconnect between the actual reading experience and the commentary about the experience is jarring. On the one hand, the book itself reaches out to you as a dying man’s plea to be remembered for his best qualities, and on the other hand, everyone else insists that the book is truthful, insightful, and intimate. If the author had included one flaw without defending it or turning it into a learning experience, it might have been truthful. If he had confessed to anything shameful or raw, it might have been intimate. Instead, the book reads as a compendium of perfection, the author underscoring his triumphs and name-dropping prestigious institutions at the expense of focusing deeply into an experience.

I’m glad that he wrote it, glad to have read it, but I can’t see why everyone else insists on pretending it’s something it’s not.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 256
Ending: Posthumous post-script
Incidental Learning: Neurosurgery, neuroscience, Stanford, cancer

Big Magic

“Perfectionism is just fear in fancy shoes and a mink coat” (Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert)

big magic coverI was a bit snooty about this book at first. Too many exclamation points, I thought, too casual, too new age-y, too many parenthetical asides. I confess to also having a slight prejudice against huge best sellers like ‘eat, pray, love’.  Yet, I dog-eared, underlined, and bookmarked more passages in this book than any other I’ve read since college. It reminded me of panning for gold or shelling peas; you have to dig through a lot of filler to get to her points, but they’re well worth the effort once you find them.

Of her many randomly assorted ideas on creativity, I keep thinking about her comments on perfectionism; namely, that it has no place in an artist’s toolkit. She claims that something done is, without exception, better than something left unfinished, even if it’s imperfect. A born perfectionist, I tend to fiddle and nit-pick my sentences to death, sometimes leaving posts (and other creative projects) to languish for weeks or months until I can get one word or phrase correct. Gilbert proudly proclaims that Big Magic is an imperfect, leaning tower of a work, and she’s right. I can list many of its faults, but it is undoubtedly better than some idealized, perfect work languishing unfinished in her drawer. And in spite of, or perhaps because of, its faults, I loved it.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now – Borrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 304
Ending: hopeful; encouraging
Incidental Learning: interviews with various creative people
Further Reading: reminds me of other writing books, like Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott

The Art and Craft of Tea

“Although this book is dedicated to capital “T” tea and takes a hard-line stance on what should and should not be considered tea, the one exception I make is Ethiopian tea, which is technically a tisane and not a tea (it does not use leaves from the Camellia sinesis plant).” (The Art and Craft of Tea by Joseph Wesley Uhl)

41k0ozehcbl-_sx258_bo1204203200_There are few acts more comforting than reading a book of gathered and sorted facts about one’s favorite subject. With each new tea book I read, I’m reminded of childhood’s obsession with accumulating the names of things: dinosaurs, star wars characters, rocks. Knowing these names is inherently meaningless in and of itself, but being able to recite them in your mind, recounting something stable at any time, relaxes. Similarly, at this point I don’t really need to read another book that tells me about the various categories of tea or the growing regions of China, but seeing them down on the page, accompanied by gorgeous pictures and a modern page layout, reminds me of all the other times I’ve found comfort and beauty in the subject.

This particular tea book’s virtues lie in the recipes found at the end. The author not only describes how various countries brew their traditional cup of tea (Persian Rose Tea sounds particularly intriguing), but also delves into modern mixes involving fruit, fresh herbs, and alcohol. I also appreciated the shortened, albeit obligatory, outlining of tea’s history, and the authors repeated insistence that one cannot call a tisane tea.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 160 coffee-table book sized pages. Probably not meant to be read cover to cover, but I recommend it anyway.
Ending: An index. Quite proper to the subject.
Incidental Learning: While you may expect to learn a lot about tea, you’ll also pick up some interesting details about the craft cocktail scene in Detroit.
Further Reading: More Tea books! I particularly love The Book of Tea by Okakura Kakuzo, although that book is less about the facts of tea than its art. I’d also recommend

The Happiest Baby on the Block

“I believe that once our ancestors began living in villages and cities, they forgot that, since the Stone Age, babies were almost constantly jiggled and wiggled as their moms walked up and down the mountains… modern parents began to mistakenly think that babies were so fragile they could only tolerate quiet sounds and gentle motions.” (The Happiest Baby on the Block by Harvey Karp)

The Happiest Baby on the Block CoverOf the parenting books I’ve recently breezed through, this one seems the most practical. If the technique does do as promised, calm any crying infant, then it was well worth the few hours put into reading it. However, the author could have made his points much more succinctly. He intersperses practical advice with pseudo-science justifications for why to use his method. Apparently, one should use the cuddle cure not because it works, but  because it mimics the way ‘cave men’ used to care for their young. Personally, I’ll believe a theory if it works in practice, not because of some hyped up historical pedigree.

In spite of its potential applications, the book does lack a certain panache as a reading experience. The author uses so many exclamation marks, casual sentences, and long-winded emoting that I had to check three times to make sure I wasn’t actually reading a series of social media posts written by a teenaged girl. Perhaps he uses the style for relatability, but I’d like to hope that most moms are reading with an adult level of emotional intelligence. Yet, for its failings as a reading experience, this book has the potential to be a life-changing force in a person’s life if read at the exact right time.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 267 pages
Ending: A New Parents’ survival guide appendix
Incidental Learning: breast feeding, pacifier training
Further Reading: If you don’t have a few hours to throw away on this book, I’d recommend just reading some articles or watching a video on the cuddle cure.

Brain Rules for Baby

“You may think that grown-ups create children. The reality is that children create grown-ups. They become their own person, and so do you. Children give so much more than they take.” (Brain Rules for Baby by John Medina)

Brain Rules for Baby CoverMost nonfiction books published in the U.S. could do with shedding a good 150-200 pages. Think of it like a literary diet. By removing the extra verbal baggage, we could have healthier, more efficient informational books. Instead, we’ve ended up laden with nice, thick looking 300-400 page books so overwritten that their main point is lost in all of the extras. Brain Rules for Baby is no exception to this modern trend. John Medina splashes metaphors, anecdotes, and general fatherly good humor around every sentence in an attempt to make the research more palatable. Personally, I’d rather save a few hours of reading time by taking the research and resulting practical tips on their own, without any of this wordy hand holding.

In spite of his gregariousness, Medina does end up imparting a few important-sounding lessons to parents. Many of the main points seem a bit common sense (explain rules and punishments, model behavior, etc), but a few other points involving emotional intelligence are more rare. He conveys wisdom on how parents can work on themselves, and their relationships, as well as addressing the needs of their children.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow Now –  Borrow Sometime Avoid
Length: 294 pages
Ending: summary of the practical tips in the book
Incidental Learning: Relationships, emotional intelligence
Further Reading: I’ve only read two informational books whose page length precisely matches the subject matter: information doesn’t want to be free and the life-changing magic of tidying up.

The Writing Life

“I do not so much write a book as sit up with it, as with a dying friend. During visiting hours, I enter its room with dread and sympathy for its many disorders. I hold its hand and hope it will get better.” (The Writing Life by Annie Dillard)

The Writing Life CoverThere are two ways to explain something complicated. One is the direct approach. You come at the subject like a bulldozer, front and center, ramming into the pile of knowledge over and over until it is orderly and clear. The other approach is more mysterious, less direct. You sneak up on the subject, hoping not to scare off its complexity, and you wait for it to reveal itself. To get at the entirety, you might find yourself resorting to poetry, analogy, metaphor in order to hint at your subject without diminishing it.

Unlike most who write about writing, Annie Dillard approaches her subject in the second way – indirectly. She loosely connects stories, random thoughts, bits of poetry, and examples from famous writers’ lives to lead the reader down a mental path that points towards truth. In short, this book is a place where a writer might come, when blinded by the fear of one’s craft, in order be caught up by the unfamiliar. Then, instead of thinking of your own struggle with your work, you’ll think of the inchworm, inching its way into nothingness. The doomed pilot, feeling the rhythm in the air. The rower, rowing all night against the tide. It is very possible that disjointed stories like these will awaken the side of your brain needed more than tired, unexplained strictures about quote attribution and proper hyphenation.

Recommended Action: Buy Borrow NowBorrow SometimesAvoid 
Length: 111
Ending: Indirect
Incidental Learning: Pilots, inchworms, how to find honey, facts about famous authors, etc
Further Reading: If the indirect approach is your preferred method of learning – stay way from Stephen King’s much lauded On WritingProbably the only thing that would satisfy you after this book is more Dillard.

On Writing

“Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.” (On Writing by Stephen King)

on writing coverIn his memoir on writing, King frequently uses the phrase ‘you must kill your darlings’. Meaning, axe your favorite parts when they detract from the main point. Hypocritically, he ends the whole book with a giant un-cut darling: his car accident in ’99. Though he claims the story illustrates the healing power of writing, he’s just talking about the generalized healing power of work. Setting aside the ending hypocrisy, and the meaningless beginning biography, King packs some powerful big-picture thinking about his craft into the middle chapters that make the whole hodgepodge well worth a read.

I’ll summarize:

To write, you must read and you must write. A lot.  Bad writing stems from a fear of being misunderstood. Passive sentences stink. Active sentences rock. You must learn the fundamentals of grammar before you break the rules. Adverbs are weeds that need to be cut. Quote attribution should never be more complicated than ‘he said’ or ‘she said’. The shape of a paragraph has more meaning than the details of a sentence. Write how you speak – if you use simple language in real life, use it on the page – if you speak like an academic during the day, then write like one at night. Write your drafts quickly, all at once. Take a break before editing. Listen to the beat.

Recommended Action: BuyBorrow NowBorrow SometimeAvoid
Length: 288
Ending: Hypocritical
Incidental Learning: You came to learn about writing, you end up learning a lot about Stephen King
Further Reading: Another great writing manual/memoir is ‘Bird by Bird‘ by Anne Lamott