The Best of 2020: Top 5 Nonfiction

A totally nonscientific, off the cuff, Top 5 nonfiction books I read (not necessarily published in) in 2020

A Time to Build by Yuval Levin

Yuval Levin has become one of my favorite authors.  His books are both brilliant, illuminating and important. A Time to Build is no different. Here is what I wrote for Goodreads:

If you want to better understand where we are as a country and what we can do to change for the better, read this book. It is insightful, challenging, and yet ultimately hopeful.

tl/dr –> We need to commit to rebuilding institutions that are formative nor performative; that form us rather than giving us a platform to raise our profile and become a celebrity.

This is not a partisan message or book. Readers of all perspectives can and should read and think about the issues Levin raises.

I hope to post a longer, more thoughtful review here in the coming days. [fingers crossed]

Breaking Bread with the Dead by Alan Jacobs

Alan Jacobs is another author who has grown in my estimation as I have read more of his work.  One of my goals in 2020 was to read most of his books and I did (a couple of his early books are a bit pricey for me). His latest, Breaking Bread with the Dead, is another must-read I recommend constantly.

You can read my review over at the University Bookman

Jacobs argues neither for throwing out the past as hopelessly wrong nor for ignoring the serious issues with which readers must wrestle. The reader with personal density doesn’t have to abandon engaging ideas from the past because they may encounter racism, anti-semitism, misogyny, and other beliefs with which they strongly disagree. Instead, Jacobs’s strategy acknowledges that even the brilliant and insightful writers of the past were human beings with foibles and sins; with wrong beliefs that sit, often uncomfortably, beside their insights and talents.

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Mythopedia: An Encyclopedia of Mythical Beasts and Their Magical Tales

I am not sure how I stumbled on Mythopedia: An Encyclopedia of Mythical Beasts and Their Magical Tales at NetGalley but I am glad I did.  I was able to get a digital review copy of the hardback book that will be published on Tuesday.

What is Mythopedia?

From the West African fable of Anansi the Spider, to Michabo, the magical hare who rebuilt the world and Tanuki, the sweet but troublesome raccoon-dog of Japanese folklore, Mythopedia is an encyclopedia of mythical creatures that covers legends, tales and myths from around the world.

Lovingly created by the illustration duo behind popular flipbook Myth Match, Good Wives and Warriors, this book contains pages upon pages of cultural folklore from around the world.

Organized by geography (The Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia & Oceania), it offers a basic overview of mythological creatures from all over the globe. Plus, colorful and imaginative illustrations.

Some of the creatures will be familiar (most likely those from The Americas and Europe but some from Asia and Africa as well) while others are strange and exotic (Grootslang: and elephant-snake hybrid; Aun Pana: a creepy monster fish from the Amazon jungle; or Encantado: a bizarre shapeshifting dolphin).

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Audiobook Review: Countdown 1945 by Chris Wallace

After I heard Chris Wallace on special Dispatch Live event with Jonah Goldberg, I put Countdown 1945: The Extraordinary Story of the Atomic Bomb and the 116 Days That Changed the World by Chris Wallace, with Mitch Weiss on my TBR pile.

Not that I am particularly interested in WWI (military history is Jeff’s bailiwick) or the dropping of the atomic bomb, but because I was interested in seeing how Wallace made the subject interesting given we all know what happened and the issues involved have been debated too death.  I was curious to see what an old school, straight shooter journalist made of the history.

It turned out the easiest way to get a copy from the library was to listen to the audiobook narrated by Wallace himself. So when it became available, I grabbed it and started listening.

Not surprisingly, Wallace is a great narrator and the style and focus of the book work well in audio format.  Unlike some more dense and technical history, I found this enjoyable to listen to and easy to pay attention

As to content, I found it to be a compelling and informative look at the events leading up the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in August of 1945. It gives you the perspective not only of President Truman and other larger than life figures but also of a host of minor characters from scientists and military leaders to those who worked at Oak Ridge and Japanese citizens who experienced the destruction of Hiroshima.

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Doesn’t Hurt to Ask by Trey Gowdy

I work in the field of communications and politics has been an interest of mine since high school.  So when I was offered a chance to review Doesn’t Hurt to Ask: Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade by Trey Gowdy I quickly grabbed if for my Kindle from NetGalley.

It was a frustrating read.  I enjoyed it in many ways but in others ways it was hard to get a handle on. As it does so often, it comes down to expectations and how much you enjoy a blending of genres and topics.  There is a lot of good advice about how to argue and communicate, and Gowdy has a light, humorous and engaging style, but the blending of memoir and self-help with a heavy helping of legal and political context undercut the clarity for me.

The publisher’s description was what I had in mind when I started reading:

You do not need to be in a courtroom to advocate for others. You do not need to be in Congress to champion a cause. From the boardroom to the kitchen table, opportunities to make your case abound, and Doesn’t Hurt to Ask shows you how to seize them. By blending gripping case studies from nearly two decades in a courtroom and four terms in national politics with personal stories and practical advice, Trey Gowdy walks you through the tools and the mindset needed to effectively communicate your message.

From this description, and the title and subtitle, it sounds like a book on communication and persuasion. And that is what I was most interested in learning about: “Using the Power of Questions to Communicate, Connect, and Persuade.”

But it might more accurately be titled: “How to argue like a prosecutor.” Most of Gowdy’s approach to communication comes from that perspective; and the book is full of stories of cases he handled and of his experience as a Congressman acting as a prosecutor of sorts.

The connection between persuasion and these cases, however, isn’t always crystal clear or at least wasn’t to me. In other words, translating persuasion from the courtroom and the committee room to the kitchen table isn’t always obvious and intuitive. Perhaps, this is my anti-lawyer bias coming through… Continue reading

Shaming the Devil by Alan Jacobs

Close readers of this blog or who follow me on Goodreads, will recall that I’m working my way through Alan Jacobs books, catching up on those I haven’t read, and I further impressed with his skill as an essayist and thinker. He is able to hold the reader’s interest even as he explores weighty issue of literature, culture and faith.

After A Visit to Vanity Fair, which I finally was able to pull of my shelf and read, I read Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling which I had grabbed for my Kindle.

Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling Book Cover
Shaming the Devil: Essays in Truthtelling Essays Wm. B. Eerdmans Kindle 247 pages Amazon

Shaming the Devil offers a series of reflections that explore how hard it is to tell the truth about the world of culture – and how central that task is to the Christian life.

Employing the literary essay as a means for cultural criticism and using other writers and thinkers as friends and foils in his quest, Alan Jacobs revisits the question asked by Pilate and so many others throughout history: “What is truth?”

 

In the first part of the book, Jacobs contemplates the work of people whom he takes to be exemplary truth seekers: Rebecca West, W. H. Auden, Albert Camus, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Linda Gregerson, and Leon Kass.

He then engages writers who challenge the search for truth: Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Iris Murdoch, Wole Soyinka, Philip Pullman, and Anne Carson.

The third section of the book consists of a single lengthy essay that pursues the provocative question of whether today’s computer technology helps or hinders us in our pursuit of truth.

His skills highlighted for me the vast gulf between casual blogging (me) and a talented essayist (Jacobs). It also makes me wish I could sit in on one of his classes. I have a feeling it would be both challenging and deeply rewarding.

I find reading the essays in large doses over the course of a weekend really allows the reader to see how the ideas and issues relate and interact. Despite being dated they shine with wisdom, wit and clarity.

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A Visit to Vanity Fair by Alan Jacobs

It is hard to top the publisher’s description of A Visit to Vanity Fair:

These perceptive moral essays crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. A cultural hawk eye delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations on the way we live now. “A Visit to Vanity Fair” blends personal reflection with cultural criticism to address such topics as reading with children, sitting with a dying friend, and watching TV documentaries.

I mean it really does “crackle with wit, intelligence, and a wide range of knowledge. and Jacobs is a “cultural hawk eye” who “delivers relevant, down-to-earth meditations” and “blends personal reflection with cultural criticism.

The sad thing is that I have had this book on my shelf for quite some time.  I have long been enamored with Jacobs and his writing.  I have read a number of his books and have followed his writing online for many, many years.  But like so many of the authors and topics I collect and mean to dive into, I get distracted and end up just dipping into a book here or there.  For the last year or so I have thought about trying to read as much of Jacobs catalog as I could but have mostly failed.  So I recently girded my loins, so to speak, and grabbed this book of the shelf and forced myself to concentrate and spend time reading until I finished.

And it was worth it. It truly is a wonderful collection of thought provoking and well crafted essays. Published nearly 20 years ago, it nevertheless feels as engaging and relevant as ever. Whether dealing with Bob Dylan or Harry Potter, Jacobs gets at issues that remain not frothy debates of the minute. Instead, philosophy, literature, faith and writing are explored with verve and wit.

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Do Nothing by Celeste Headlee

I have an on-again, off-again fascination with productivity and attention management. Which is what prompted me to request Do Nothing: How to Break Away from Overworking, Overdoing, and Underliving by Celeste Headlee from NetGalley.

Do Nothing Book Cover
Do Nothing Self-Help Harmony Kindle 288 pages NetGalley

Despite our constant search for new ways to “hack” our bodies and minds for peak performance, human beings are working more instead of less, living harder not smarter, and becoming more lonely and anxious. We strive for the absolute best in every aspect of our lives, ignoring what we do well naturally and reaching for a bar that keeps rising higher and higher. Why do we measure our time in terms of efficiency instead of meaning? Why can’t we just take a break?

In Do Nothing, award-winning journalist Celeste Headlee illuminates a new path ahead, seeking to institute a global shift in our thinking so we can stop sabotaging our well-being, put work aside, and start living instead of doing. As it turns out, we’re searching for external solutions to an internal problem. We won’t find what we’re searching for in punishing diets or productivity apps. Celeste’s strategies will allow you to regain control over your life and break your addiction to false efficiency. You’ll learn how to increase your time perception to determine how your hours are being spent, invest in quality idle time, and focus on end goals instead of mean goals. It’s time to reverse the trend that’s making us all sadder, sicker, and less productive, and return to a way of life that allows us to thrive.

It took me quite some time to really get into the book, but eventually I found my rhythm and enjoyed it.

One problem was its seeming simplistic view of economics (at least to me). The tone and approach seemed very anti-free market and at times even seemed to have a whiff of a conspiratorial philosophy that big business is and has been controlling our lives (corporations and marketers seem to be controlling consumers rather than seeking to meet their needs; although there is a tangent on why we became addicted to disposable goods too). Lastly, I had the feeling that as a journalist she was trying to pack as much information as she could into the argument and give it a respectable amount of depth and intellectual history.

In the end, this story is about how the industrialist desire to have fewer workers doing more hours of work merged with the religious belief that work is good and idleness is bad, along with a capitalist faith in constant growth.  When time is money, the need to get more time out of workers became urgent if profit targets were to be made.

Suffice it to say, that Headlee offers a lot of provocative and even interesting arguments about how Western society has viewed work and how the industrial, technology and knowledge revolutions have impacted that view in unhealthy ways.  But that is an argument that would take a great deal of unpacking just to get your hand arounds let alone make a persuasive argument about.

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Give Me Liberty by Richard Brookhiser

One of the myriad reasons for the near-death of this blog is that I simply don’t have the time, focus or energy to put into serious reviews of serious books. I read a decent amount of non-fiction but review very little of it. I feel caught in a catch-22, if I could write serious reviews of non-fiction I could get paid to do it and yet I rarely get around to posting quick reviews of the same books because I want to do the book justice.

Well, if this whole #StayHomeAndRead thing is going to work I am going to have to post some short blog reviews of non-fiction books. So let’s start with one of my favorite authors, Richard Brookhiser, and his latest book Give Me Liberty.

There are two things happening in this book: one is a simple history of America through the lens of our pursuits of liberty, the second is an argument about American nationalism.

The first thread creates the structure of the book

This book focuses instead on thirteen documents, from 1619 to 1987, that represent shots from the album of our long marriage to liberty. They say what liberty is. They show who asked for it, when, and why. Since no marriage is ever simple, they track its ups and downs. These thirteen liberty documents define America as the country that it is, different from all others

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