## ODonnellWeb – Books - 2020

Books - 2020

I used to use a database backed program to track the books I read. In 2019 I decided to go all flat file with this website. I've been reviewing some books as blog posts, but I don't necessarily want to review every book I write in detail. So I'll just add them to this page, with either a short review or a link to the longer review if I wrote one.

Smart Baseball - Smart Baseball: The Story Behind the Old Stats That Are Ruining the Game, the New Ones That Are Running It, and the Right Way to Think About Baseball by Keith Law

Really interesting if you are a baseball fan. I'm a baseball fan. I already understood why RBI, batting average, wins and saves were dubious measures of anything useful. The explanation of why the new stats are better was really interesting to me.

The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey by Rinker Buck

So two guys decide to build a reproduction covered wagon, buy a mule team, and try to cross the Oregon Trail, just like the Pioneers did. Best anybody can tell, it's been about 100 years since somebody attempted this. It's part very entertaining travelogue, and part history lesson. It turns out I didn't know much about the Oregon Trail. So, descriptions of miles long backups at river crossings, and the need to physically lift the wagons up or down particularity steep sections was fascinating to me. And yes, you might die of dysentery.

The Body by Bill Bryson

Reviewed on the blog

Small Fry, A Memoir by Lisa Brennan-Jobs

Around the time Steve Jobs died I read his biography by Walter Isaacson. My primary takeaway from that book was that Steve Jobs was a shitty parent and major asshole. This book, by the daughter he tried to avoid even acknowledging publicly, didn't do anything to change my opinion. While he was living in a multi-million dollar mansion that he couldn't even be bothered to buy furniture for, Lisa and her mom were living paycheck to paycheck in shitty run down rentals. When Lisa lived with him as a teen, the heat didn't work downstairs where her bedroom was and he wouldn't fix it. He refused to pay her college tuition her senior year at Harvard over some perceived slight, forcing her to get a neighbor from Silicon Valley to help her out so she could finish college. I feel pretty good about my status as somebody who has purchased only 1 Apple product in my entire life - the laptop my daughter took to college. I never even bought an iPod.

Uncanny Valley by Anna Wiener

Reviewed on the blog

Fated Sky - A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowel

The 2nd book in the Lady Astronaut series, an alternative history in which a meteor wipes out the east coast in the 50s, bringing on dramatic climate change and forcing humanity to dramatically speed up the space program as they will need a new planet to live on. This time the trip is to Mars, and like last time, the story is more about the interpersonal issues inherent in an early 60s space program with better technology, but the same misogyny and racism, than it is a hard sci-fi book. Except this time, they are all stuck living together on the way to Mars.

Sync by K.P. Kyle

Boston area Veterinarian K.P. Kyle has a talent for mind-bending science fiction. In her debut novel a divorced, bored, middle aged women does the good Samaritan thing and picks up a hitchhiker, feeds him, and gives him a couch to crash on. No good deed goes unpunished so her life goes to hell that night when somebody breaks into her apartment, apparently after the hitchhiker. It turns out the hitchhiker is wanted for escaping from a secret government project where he learned to jump to the infinite number of parallel universes that exist as the result of every decision we make in life.

Then it gets weird.

I read this book in 3 days - which you can absolutely take as a sign that if you are a sci-fi person you'll probably enjoy this book too.

Talking to Strangers by Malcom Gladwell

Gladwell's thesis here is that we all suck at talking to strangers, and he "proves" it by reviewing some very high profile criminal cases that in his mind were just failures to communicate. Specifically, he believes we have evolved to defaulting to a belief that people are not lying to us. Otherwise, society couldn't really function if we all were paranoid 24 X 7. Fair enough, I'll buy that. His 2nd point is that we all think we can read body language and faces to know if somebody is lying to us, when in fact mountains of empirical evidence prove that we all actually suck at reading people too. Again, I agree with this.

However, he then spends many pages trying to convince us that Amanda Knox spent 4 years in an Italian prison because she didn't act innocent enough. No consideration of corruption in the Italian police, no consideration of sexism or bigotry against an American, just a failure to communicate. He also tries to turn the Brock Turner rape case into an example of how people, especially teens, are bad at understanding each other's intentions, and they are really bad at it when blackout drunk. That may be a true point, but I'm not sure what it has to do with a rape case. He also spends a lot of pages defending people in the Jerry Sandusky case.

Overall, it felt like Gladwell had a germ of an idea of a long form magazine article and tried to turn it into a book.

A Song for a New Day by Sarah Pinkser

Reviewed on the blog

Solo by Kwame Alexander

Reviewed on the blog

The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

The reason it's so hard to change a bad habit, or start a good one, is that we focus on the habit. That is the wrong approach. Every habit starts with a cue, and delivers a reward. Change won't stick if you don't deal with the cue and reward.

Willpower isn't just a skill. It's a muscle and like any muscle, it wears out. Turning desire or willpower into a habit improves outcomes, because habits are on auto-pilot, they don't take the energy forcing change through willpower does.

"Cravings are what drive habits. And figuring out how to spark a craving makes creating a new habit easier."

Businesses have understood this for years, and use for good (Starbucks in training employees) and bad (Target's success and deducing that women are pregnant before they've told anybody).

Swing by Kwame Alexander

I read two Kwame Alexander books in a week. Swing precedes Solo. It lives in the same general higher schooler coming of age territory as Solo, but this time the story centers on a pair of more middle class kids instead of the kid of a millionaire rock star. The story arc takes some dramatically different turns too as Kwame manages to mix in issues such as institutional racism and Black Lives Matter. Instead of rock and roll, jazz is the music woven throughout the story, and much like a good jazz tune, the story has layers of complexity for the reader that is paying attention.

The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball’s Afterlife by Brad Balukjian

A mention of this book found its way to my Twitter feed and after reading the premise I ordered it immediately. An adult baseball fan starts wondering what happened to the heroes of his youth. Not the stars so much, but the career utility players or guys that bounced between AAA and The Show for 10 years. So he orders a random sealed back of 1986 Topps cards (the first year he collected) and makes a book out of the epic road trip to hunt down the 14 players in the wax pack (He got one checklist card). The pack is a mix of stars (Carlton Fisk and Dwight Gooden) with guys you've never heard of. He doesn't actually meet Gooden or Fisk (Gooden stood him up an Fisk wouldn't talk to him), but the Fisk chapters may be the most entertaining in the book.

What results is part classic road trip story, part interview series, and part journey of self-reflection. Most of the guys are pretty open with him. He went bowling with Randy Ready, and watched Kung Fu movies with Garry Templeton. He played catch with Don Carmen, had dinner with Lee Mazzilli, and hung out with Rick Sutcliffe. Overall, a lightweight and fun read for any baseball fan from the 80s that knows at at least some of the names I listed above.

The Rescue Nurse by J Phillip Horne

Reviewed on the blog

Zed: A Novel by Joanna Kavenna

A dystopian novel about an all-powerful corporation that controls the world's currency and whose algorithms predict crimes before they happen sounds like a book that is right in my sweet spot. I gave up after 100 pages. I just couldn't get into it.

Armed Struggle: The History of the IRA by Richard English

While watching the Dropkick Murphys Saint Patrick's Day concert on YouTube I started thinking about how I didn't really know much about "The Troubles" in Ireland. So a little research led to this book, considered the definitive modern history of the IRA, and a minute later it was on my Kindle. The book is probably more detailed than I needed, but I do feel like I at least understand it now, or as much as anybody that didn't live through it can. A few of things I took away from the book are:

  • It's complicated. I knew nothing of the split between the IRA and the Provisionals, and that most of what I associate with the IRA in Northern Ireland was the work of the Provisionals.
  • These guys were really dedicated to the dream of a free Ireland. How else do you starve yourself to death in prison, as almost a dozen Republicans did?
  • I was shocked to learn that the IRA probably never exceeded about 500 active members. They did a hell of a lot of damage for such a small group.
  • Gerry Adams was (is?) a terrorist. It's very clear that he was directing murders in the 70s, even if he never pulled the trigger himself. That's not to take away from the fact that he ultimately did lead the effort for a political solution that resulted in relative peace since about 2000.

Perfectly Ordinary: Buddhist Teachings for Everyday Life by Alex Kakuyo

I stumbled into Alex's blog sometime ago, and have always found his writings on applying Buddhist principles to everyday life instructive and comforting. So when I saw he had written a book I bought it mostly as a thank you for the "free" content on his blog. The book delivers exactly what it promises on the cover. How does the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Path of Buddhism apply to dealing with traffic jams, soul less corporate life in a cubicle, or dealing with your family? You can read the book to find out without feeling like he is trying to convert you to anything, because he isn't.

The Warehouse: A Novel by Rob Hart

In the near future climate change has ravished the earth, making life outside really difficult much of the time. Meanwhile a giant tech company called Cloud cough Amazon cough has driven the majority of other retail businesses out of business, and re-imagined the company town concept across 10 mega-warehouses where employees all live, eat, socialize, and work without ever leaving the complex. The story is told from the POV of three characters, the libertarian whack job CEO who is dying of cancer, a former business owner who was run out of business by Cloud and now is stuck working for them, and a corporate spy that has infiltrated the warehouse. It's a fun story that hits a little too close to home most of the time. Be worried if Bezos starts building dorms at his warehouses.

The Girl at the End of the World by Richard Levesque

One day you are spending your 15th birthday at Dodger Stadium, 48 hours later you are one of the last people alive in LA, and maybe the world. Apparently reading about a biological pandemic that is far worse than COVID-19 is something that makes me feel better during our current pandemic. I finished this book in 2 nights, it's a quick, easy, and entertaining read. The characters are believable, the story is well crafted and well-paced, and for a story based on the near extinction of humanity, it manages to be hopeful.

Calypso by David Sedaris (audiobook)

The first audio book I've ever completed! I listened on my daily 3-5 mile pandemic lock-in walks around the neighborhood. It's a collection of short stories and spoken word performances, mostly around the themes of life in middle age, family, the intersection of those two, and life at a family beach house on the Outer Banks. It's LOL funny and often a little profane.

The Wanderers: A Novel by Chuck Wendig

Reviewed on the blog.

American Dirt (audiobook)

Reviewed on the blog.

K: A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches by Tyler Kepner

I greatly enjoyed this book. 10 chapter, each one dedicated to one pitch, in which the author reviews the history of the pitch, who invented it (if we know), how and why it has fallen in and out of favor over the years, and loads of first hand experience from the pitchers that threw the pitch. I learned a ton about the craft of pitching, which I think will bring a new level of insight to watching baseball games when MLB eventually returns.

Taking Risks: A Jewish Youth in the Soviet Partisans and His Unlikely Life in California by Joseph Pell

Joseph Pell was 18 when the Nazis showed up at his house in Poland. He happened to be outside at that moment and he hid in the hay loft of the barn. After his family was taken away to be murdered he crawled (literally) through the fields for a few miles to the relative safety of the forest. In the forest he met up with the Polish Resistance and he spent the rest of the war hampering the Nazi war effort however he could, mostly by blowing up trains. After the war he made his way to the US and became one of the most successful real estate developers in San Francisco. His son writes a popular email newsletter that I read every day, which is how I discovered this book. It's a fascinating story and the inside view of how the Polish Resistance operated was an aspect of WWII history that I had not encountered previously.

Dead Trees Give No Shelter by Wil Wheaton

I've had Wil's short story (it's about a 30 minute read) on my Kindle forever, and 2 AM one night when I couldn't sleep seemed like the right time to finally read Wil's creepy monster story.

All Systems Red by Martha Wells

Tor Books released book 5 in the Murderbot series last month and the celebrate, they gave away the first four in the series. I downloaded them all. Murderbot is a security android that is some sort of mix of organic and inorganic parts. He hates his job, hates humans in general, and really doesn't want to be working for them. He'd much rather watch the countless hours of bad entertainment that he has downloaded to keep him busy when he isn't actively protecting his clients. He has a bit of a Marvin the Paranoid Android vibe to him, but more sarcastic and snarky and less pathetic. It's a nice, quick read, which is exactly what I needed after a couple of end of the world dystopian novels that I read back to back.

Notes From An Apocalypse by Mark O'Connell (audiobook)

Writer Mark O'Connell is obsessing over a coming apocalypse. So he spends a year exploring various outposts of the apocalypse on earth, and turns it into a dark and funny book that is both hopeful and depressing at the same time. The time he spends with preppers in South Dakota in a prepper community built from decommissioned ammo bunkers is downright funny. His insight that the preppers are not prepping for a disaster but a utopia is enlightening. These guys can't function in modern society, they dream of a world where the ability to field dress a deer or build a toilet of out junkyard parts makes them the top dog they believe they are.

His time in NZ trying to figure out why billionaires are buying up land there to ride out the fall of civilization becomes an essay using libertarian tech billionaires as stand ins for everything that is wrong with entitled white culture. He also goes camping in the remote Scottish Highlands with a non-profit, where he spends 24 hours in a 30 X 30 square patch of land to reconsider his relationship to physical space and the earth. I found that part of the book as tedious as he probably did spending 24 hours basically sitting in one spot in the Scottish Highlands. He takes a dark and hilarious tour of the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone via a Ukrainian tour group. He never actually tells the reader what happened there, because it doesn't matter. Chernobyl is just a stand in for earth of the future. It doesn't really matter how it got that way to the people living there now.

The book ends on an up note though. Mark notes that throughout history the people that survive disasters are the ones that band together and work with their neighbors to get everybody though the crisis. They don’t hide in underground bunkers in South Dakota. He also realizes that instead of worrying about whether or not bringing two kids in to this world was irresponsible we are all better off reveling in the joy of our children. In the long run, we are all dead one way or another.

The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us about Ourselves by Keith Law

This is a behavioral economics book disguised as a baseball book. Or maybe it's the other way around. Baseball writer Keith Law takes the reader a through lessons on various logical fallacies such as the sunk cost fallacy to demonstrate how even the best and the brightest running baseball teams fall prey to them.

Examples include outcome bias, when a positive result overshadows the bad decision that got you there, or a bad result negates the series of good decisions that were made that resulted in a bad outcome. Sometimes you get lucky, and sometimes you don’t. You have to look past the result sometimes to the process that got you there. As an examples he uses the 2001 World Series, which was badly managed by the Diamondbacks Manager Bob Brenly, but he won so nobody cared at the time.

When talking about the sunk cost fallacy, he looks at the Angels continuing to play Albert Pujols, even though he was putting up replacement player numbers for much of his time with them. That also leads to a discussion of how non-economic factors play into these decisions.

It’s a fun an entertaining way to sneak some important economics factors that we should all consider in our decision making into a baseball book.

The Resisters by Gish Jen

A novel about a near-future dystopia brought on by AI, income equality, and climate change in which baseball is a metaphor for the resistance is about as perfect an "ideal" book for me that you will get. I wanted to love this book, but in the end we'll have to settle for just being friends. In the not so distant future imagined by the author, AI and automation have rendered much of society as surplus. That's not a metaphor, they are literally not needed except as consumers for the massive over production brought on by AI. So they live in swamps and floating cities that have resulted from climate change, subsisting on a govt. provided income and free food that is spiked to keep them uninterested in procreating. Their "job" is to consume, so growing their own food, knitting sweaters, etc. are acts of resistance. Baseball comes into play as our protagonist is a teenage girl with a golden arm, the State (AutoAmerica) wants her for the newly reinstated Olympics against Chin-Russia.

"Chin-Russia" and "Auto-America" are examples of a problem in the book. The author renamed a bunch of stuff that didn't need to be renamed. We are not that far into the future in this book. Language wouldn't change that much. It wasn't clear, or maybe I missed why the underground baseball league was such an issue for the government. I think distracting the Surplus with baseball so they stay busy and don't revolt is a more likely thing to happen in this world. All the minorities and people worshiping the wrong gods are also Surplus (funny how that works), and the book calls white people "angel-faired," and the folks worshiping the wrong god are "odd-godded."

The language thing really hampered by enjoyment of the book. One thing I think the author did really well though is demonstrate how society would end up like this. It wasn't one big traumatic event that changed everything. Freedom was killed by 1000 paper cuts. That's a message that seems super relevant today.

So good story, I don't regret having read it, but it didn't quite live up to my expectations.

Above the Ether by Eric Barnes

A near future climate change apocalypse is the driving factor in this novel. It follows 5 or 6 different characters as they deal with changes wrought by climate change and all end up in the same place. I read it about a month ago and I'm having a hard time remembering any details, which probably tells you something. I finished it, and I certainly didn't hate it, but it clearly didn't make much of an impact on me either.

Yogi: A Life Behind the Mask by Jon Pessah

A very enjoyable biography of Yogi. As a baseball fan I'm obviously familiar with Yogi, but I wasn't aware of just how dominating a player he was in his prime. Prior to reading this book I wouldn't have put him in my top 5 all-time catchers list, and he clearly should be in that list. And remember, Yogi didn't say most of the things that he said. Also, Yogi was one of the first people to engage the enemy on D-Day. He was a bad ass before he was a famous baseball player.

The Mosquito Coast by Paul Theroux

I only made it about 25% though the book, bailing before they even made it to Honduras. The father is just too much of an asshole for me. I was rooting for him to meet a painful demise by page 20, and that is no way to enjoy a book.

Jimmy Buffett: A Good Life All the Way by Ryan White (audiobook)

I did this as an audio book and enjoyed it. I've read Jimmy's "A Pirate Looks at 50" which is an autobiography. The biography delves more into how a barroom balladeer that couldn't get a sniff in Nashville became worth $600 million. If you think about it, Buffett has 20+ albums and maybe 2 or 3 hit songs. He did it with touring, connecting with his fans, and being smart enough to see the potential in himself as a brand.

Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland by Patrick Radden Keefe

It's non-fiction, but reads like a fabulous novel. This is probably the best one book to read if you want to gain an understanding of "The Troubles" in Northern Ireland. The book kind of revolves around the disappearance of Jean McConville, a widowed mother of 10 who may or may not have been an informer for the British. (Personally I'm leaning against it.) But it goes way beyond her murder to dig in to the "why" of what was happening with The Troubles.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis

A classic Lewis book in which he takes the very complicated subject of how wall street trading firms can take advantage of the millisecond difference in transaction times between different exchanges to cheat investors out of billions annually, fractions of a penny at a time, and makes it understandable. It's basically the plot from Office Space, executed on a global scale. It should probably make me angry, but I'm just tired of being angry all the time.

The Riven Wyrde Saga (Omnibus edition): The Complete Epic Fantasy Trilogy by Graham Austin-King

The trilogy was a 99 cent download for the Kindle and I can't remember the last time I read a new fantasy series, so why not? I honestly figured I'd read the first book and never go back but instead I read all three in about 2 weeks. The story revolves around three cultures, standard medieval Europe, Vikings, and fairies. Earth is the Fairy promised land, but magic has kept them out off the planet for centuries. The magic has faded, they are back, and they are pissed. Meanwhile the Vikings are invading the medieval culture. It's a fast paced story that jumps between the three cultures without getting confusing, and really never gets boring. I would have been happy if I had paid full paperback price for these three books.

Every Tool's a Hammer: Life Is What You Make It by Adam Savage (audiobook)

It's part auto-biography, part treatise on the joys of making, and part "how-to" be a maker. I listened as a walked over a couple of weeks. It's entertaining and a bit inspirational as he really hammer home the point that failure is the standard mode of making. You'll fail way more than you succeed, and it doesn't matter what you making.

The Relentless Moon: A Lady Astronaut Novel by Mary Robinette Kowal

The third book in the series. I loved the first two books, I liked this one. It never sucked me in the way its predecessors did. It focuses on a different character than the first two books. Maybe I just wasn't as into the character.

Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey

This autobiographical book was written about one season that Abbey spent as a Park Ranger at then Arches National Monument in the late 60s. It's an uneven book. Some of his writing about the desert is downright poetic, and his chapter long rant about the NPS' mismanagement of our natural resources is brilliant and 100% relevant 50 years later in 2020. Some of his thoughts on minorities and Native Americans are cringe worthy, although at least in the case of the Native Americans I think he holds then in real high esteem, he's just a middle aged white dude in the late 60s. It would be really fun to travel to Arches National Park and try to reconcile what he sees and writes about with what it looks like today. Maybe I'll do that some day.

The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova (audiobook)

Maria is a writer and PHD in psychology that studied decision making under pressure and con men for her dissertation. So what happens if she decides to become a poker professional without really even knowing how many cards are in a deck? You'll have to read the book to find out, but it's chock full of interesting insights on decision making that are applicable at the poker table, kitchen table, and conference table. It's damn entertaining too.

An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz

It's exactly what you think it is, the history of the US written from the point-of-view of the indigenous people we terminated in one of history's largest genocides. Like I really needed another reason to not be proud to be American in 2020.

Artificial Condition by Martha Wells

The 2nd Murderbot book, and just as entertaining as the first. In this installment our favorite Murderbot teams up with the AI of a ship to protect his first freelance clients.

Medallion Status: True Stories from Secret Rooms by John Hodgman

John's riffs on life as an almost celebrity, and the joys of making Diamond status on Delta. (He never names the airline but I think it's Delta.) It's funny through out, sand at times touching, especially when he reflects on the amount of time he's been away from home to make Diamond status.

Qualityland by Marc-Uwe Kling

An attempt at a satire on our lives as they become more and more controlled by algorithms. It sticks the landing more often that it misses, but overall the story is uneven and reads more like a series of bits than a cohesive story.

The End of Everything by Katie Mack

Learn about the universe by going in-depth into 5 possible ways that it might all end, the Big Crunch, Heat Death, the Big Rip, Vacuum Decay (the one that could happen at any moment!), and the Bounce. I especially appreciated her explanation of how we know this stuff, and also the play-by-play of the Big Bang. My take away is that is such a miracle that we are here in the first place that we are all playing with house money anyway so we should just enjoy the ride.

Nobody Eats parsley by David Oakley

See review on the blog.

You Can't Be Neutral On A Moving Train by Howard Zinn

A focused autobiography by Zinn in which he uses his involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Vietnam War protests, and labor movement as a springboard to encourage the next generation to do the same. The key point for me is that none of know which one of literally millions of individual actions will be the one to tip the scales of justice. So anything you do is good, it doesn't matter how small or insignificant you may think it is. Just do something.

365 Days by Ronald J. Glasser

A book of fictionalized (but based on things he saw or was told in Vietnam) stories from an Army doctor. The stories do a particularly good job as helping the reader realize just how futile that war was, how badly it was managed, and ultimately how devastating it was.

Demand-Side Sales 101: Stop Selling and Help Your Customers by Bob Moesta

Nothing new or earth shattering in this book, but it's good to see the basics written in new words once in a while. - People don’t buy products; they hire them to make progress in their lives. - Everyone’s struggling with something, and that’s where the opportunity lies to help people make progress. - When something’s not working the struggling moment occurs. It forces people to stop and ask themselves a question. It’s those questions that spur demand. When you study how people buy, you realize if there’s no struggle, there’s no demand—without demand people don’t buy.

Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches by John Hodgman

John Hodgman being John Hodgman, waxing funny on his life growing up in Westerm MA, his life now in coastal Maine, and life as a semi-famous middle aged white dude.

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood

Part 2 of the Handmaid's Tale - a fitting sequel to the story.

The Constant Rabbit by Jasper Fforde

Part political satire, part alternative history, and part fantasy. It answers a question nobody has ever asked. What is some animals, and particularly rabbits, developed speech and human like social culture in 1965? It's a satire of British right wing anti-immigration politics, but it applies equally well to American, especially over the last 4 years. This is easily one of my favorite books of the year.

The Absolutely True Story of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie

I bought this for banned books week as it's the most challenged book in schools this decade. It is fantastic. It's a coming of age story of a native American teenager caught between reservation culture and the high achieving public school he starts attending in his junior year. It's banned because it talks about normal teenager stuff like alcohol, drugs, and sex. You know, if we just don't talk about it teens won't drink or have sex.