Category: Books

November Books

Traffic: Why We Drive the Way We Do (and What It Says About Us) – Tom Vanderbilt.  Traffic is full of interesting stats about how and why Americans drive the way they do.  Vanderbilt tries to figure out why Americans behave the way they do inside their cars: tailgating, road rage, aggressive driving etc.  It is fairly dense and reads more like an academic paper with a little humor thrown in for good measure than books like Freakonomics or Outliers, but is worth checking out.  Among other things, the book looks at why people say “I got stuck in traffic” or “I got hit by a car” rather than “I got stuck in people” or “I got hit by a driver.”

I really enjoyed his thoughts on merging from two lanes to one lane.  An easy example is a construction zone on the highway.  Usually about a mile ahead of the lane closure, drivers will see a sign that says “left lane closed 1 mile, merge right.”  Do you merge right away or do you wait until the end and try to move over then?  Many people move over right away, but Vanderbilt cites a study that shows that it is actually better to merge late because it fully utilizes the available road space up until the last minute.  The study found that there were fewer accidents and quicker communes if people merged late.  As a late merger myself (who has been yelled at by both friends and family for it), it was great to have my ideas confirmed by an actual study.  Check out Traffic if you are interested in reading about America’s traffic problem.

Kitchen Confidential Updated Ed: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly (P.S.)Anthony Bourdain – I’m a huge fan of Anthony Bourdain’s show on the Travel Channel, No Reservations, so I had to pick up Kitchen Confidential.  Bourdain grew up wanting to cook and Kitchen Confidential details his rise from a cocky, inexperienced line cook to a successful head chef at a NYC French restaurant.  Kitchen Confidential is billed as a look behind the scenes of restaurants in New York City during the 80s.  Bourdain battles drugs, the mafia, spiteful and dumb owners and many other problems in his quest to be a good chef.  From seeing his show, I hadn’t realized how deep into drugs he was in his past.

While I enjoyed many of his war stories about crazy owners, chefs and his escapades as a young, drugged out cook, I was really interested in his chapters about cooking, traveling and the restaurant business.  Bourdain spends a chapter explaining how to spruce up home cooked meals so that they taste (and look) more like they were created in restaurants.  There are a few chapters on what makes or breaks restaurants and how to spot a failing restaurant from a well run place.  I was most interested in the chapter about his first trip to Japan.

Bourdain talks about being completely immersed in a foreign culture where he couldn’t communicate.  After the first few days of wandering around, he finally works up the courage to walk into a noodle shop and point to what the guy sitting next to him was eating to order “whatever he was having.”  Bourdain’s story about being worried what others would think, but then deferring to the rest of the people made me think of a time I was in France for the Confederations Cup in 2003.  We were in a restaurant where nobody spoke any English and simply pointed to another table to say “we’ll have that.”  It ended up being a great meal.  Bourdain’s book is a quick read and shows how he launched himself into TV stardom.  It’s well worth the read.

The Help – Kathryn Stockett.  The Help pulls the lid off of a social circle in Jackson, Mississippi during the heart of the civil rights movement, but tells the story from the perspective of the maids who work in white family homes.  The book is very well written and a fun read, even though it deals with some heavy subjects.  Stockett makes you feel like you are listening to the thoughts of each character, using unique metaphors throughout the book.

Some of the chapters are a little slow to get through because Stockett uses the dialect that some maids would have used in the 60s.  It’s a little hard to get used to, but by the 2nd or 3rd chapter, you are up to speed.  It’s completely worth it.  Without spoiling the book, it was interesting to read about some of the double standards that white women had in the 60s.  White women were perfectly happy to allow their maid to touch their child when the maid was cleaning, feeding or clothing their child, but they would not let the maid sit in the same room to eat or use the guest bathroom.  It seems like a convenient suspension of segregation that, looking back, does not make any sense (not that segregation made any sense at all.)  The Help is a really good book and potentially one of my favorites for the year.

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October Book Reviews

I only had time to read two books in October, but they were both interesting and well worth my time.  One was fiction and one was non-fiction.   Check out my reviews from past months here.

SuperFreakonomics: Global Cooling, Patriotic Prostitutes, and Why Suicide Bombers Should Buy Life InsuranceSteven Levitt and Steven Dubner.  SuperFreakonomics is a great follow up to the Stevens’ first effort, Freakonomics.  If you enjoyed Freakonomics, you will love SuperFreakonomics.  They tackle all sorts of problems with data, which you hardly ever see in most other walks of life.  Ever since I read Freakonomics, I’ve been fascinated with the way they look at problems and issues and I’ve been reading the Freakonomics blog in the New York Times daily.  In SuperFreakonomics, Levitt and Dubner tackle emergency room safety, the efficacy of child car seats, prostitution and most controversially, global warming.  They also present some amazing history about this history of vaccines, car seats and health care in their trademarked, data driven, but still humorous style.

I won’t ruin any more of the book for you, but there has been a huge outcry from the global warming establishment about SuperFreakonomics’ take on global warming.  Dubner and Levitt say that global warming has become a “new relgion complete with dogma and good and evil.”  They have been proven right because they were immediately criticized by the global warming establishment when the book was released.  I liked the way they tried to bring reason and science back to the global warming debate and move it away from political, religious debates that it has become, but was suprised that they advocated so hard for geo-engineering.

Levitt and Dubner (and I) love to point out that most of our problems come from unintended consequences of well meaning policy decision.  Many times, these unintended consequences could have been predicted ahead of time, but weren’t looked at for a variety of reasons.  They advocate geo-engineering the planet, but don’t take any time to talk about the potential unintended consequences.  There may not be many (but I doubt it), but I was expecting them to address the issue at least a little bit.  That said, SuperFreakonomics is entertaining, informative and well worth reading.

Absurdistan – Gary Shteyngart.  Not many books can make me laugh out loud.  I was on a flight to NYC, reading Absurdistan and trying not to laugh out loud and failed fairly miserably.  Absurdistan is the fictional story about a young, Jewish, fat, son of an oligarch, Russian immigrant to New York City and his trials and tribulations going between Russia, the US and Absurdistan, a fictional country located near Iran.  I read it on the advice of of someone who likes many of the same books I’ve read and wasn’t disappointed.

Shtyngart’s writing is really fun.  He mixes in hip hop references with geopolitical feelings musings that would only occur to a Russian who moved to the US.  One of my favorite parts is about how people in the 3rd world applaud whenever a pilot safely lands a plan “as if it were some kind of miracle”, whereas in the West, people complain about being late and rush to get off.  The section on a Holocaust Museum in Absurdistan is brilliant writing and worth reading on its own.  The books is a scathing critique of just about everything from Russian politics, American foreign policy, fat people and corporations.  While a little slow in places, each chapter has at least a gem worth finding.  I recommend reading this book if you like history, politics, different cultures and good writing.  As a bonus, after reading Absurdistan, Oscar Wao and The White Tiger, I now know how to say a certain part of the male anatomy in Russia, The Dominican Republic and India.

August Book Reviews

I read three very different, but interesting books in August.  All were non-fiction, but had to do with completely different areas.

Soccer Against the EnemySimon Kuper.  Kuper is an English journalist who covered soccer at the start of his career, moved to finance and economics but got bored and moved back to soccer.  This book is similar to Franklin Foer‘sHow Soccer Explains the World: An Unlikely Theory of Globalization, one of my favorite books from last year.  Kuper travels around the world attending soccer matches right after the fall of the Berlin Wall.  Each chapter could stand alone as a short story, but they flow together well enough to create a narrative about soccer around the world.  My favorite chapter in the book was the one about Dynamo Kiev, the biggest and most successful club in Ukraine.  Dynamo has turned into a huge business, not just a soccer club.  Any foreign company that wants to do a joint venture in Ukraine tried to partner with Dynamo for tax reasons and because everyone in Ukraine knew Dynamo and would be more likely to support the project.  It’s interesting to see how sports teams become bigger parts of an economy and become “Més que un club” or more than a club, which is FC Barcelona‘s motto.  If you like soccer, check out this book.

The 4-Hour WorkweekTim Ferriss.  I had skimmed this book a year ago, but had not gotten a chance to read it carefully.  Whatever you think of Ferriss, the book contains so some worthwhile time management skills, business strategies and ideas that make you reexamine your lifestyle.  Ferriss tells the story about how he went from an office job where he worked many hours per week to creating a product that lets him travel the world and only requires him to work as little as four hours per week.  I agree with his ideas that “mini-retirements” should be spread out throughout life, rather than working your entire life to retire when you are in your 60s and I enjoyed hearing how he has used the new global supply chain to launch a product with minimal up front costs, but he lost me with his story about how he won a gold medal at the Chinese National Kickboxing Tournament and has a world record in Tango.  While Ferriss comes across as a bit of a loner who believes that the ends justify the means in pretty much all facets of life, it would be a mistake to completely dismiss the book because of the arrogance of the author.  I’m confident that if you read the book, you’ll find at least a few of his ideas worthwhile.

A Pint of PlainA Pint of Plain: Tradition, Change and the Fate of the Irish PubBill Barich.  I started this book because I had just gotten back from a week in Ireland, visiting, among other things, a few Irish pubs.  The book is about Barich’s attempt to find a traditional Irish pub to be his “local.”  The book starts off well, but is pretty slow and delves too much into each pub’s individual history for my taste.  His chapters on how Ireland has changed in the last 5-10 years as a result of globalization are interesting, but the most interesting take away from the book was his stat that bars in the UK that change formats to and Irish pub see 3x greater turnover than from before the format change.  There is something powerful about the Irish pub that makes it successful all over the world.  I wouldn’t bother reading this book.  Instead, check out your local Irish pub or go take a trip to the real thing in Ireland.

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July Book Reviews

One of my favorite parts about traveling is having extra time to read interesting books.  When I travel, I usually try to pick at least one book that is relevant to where I am going to be.  I read some great books in July and all but one of them were fiction.

The White Tiger(review), by Aravind Adiga, Time magazine’s Asia correspondent, is a look at both parts of India: The Light emerging technological power that serves as the backbone for many multinational companies and the rural, poverty stricken Darkness.  Its main character starts out living in rural poverty, the son of a rickshaw puller.  He moves up the social and economic ladder through street smarts, entrepreneurship, good luck and old fashioned hard work, but the story is much more interesting than a traditional rags to riches story.  Adiga puts the readers into the shoes of a poor man without options in such a way that by the end of the book, many readers completely understand why he makes choices that anyone not living in his situation would consider immoral.

Adiga writes in an unusual, but powerful style.  The entire book is written as a letter to the Chinese Premier Wen Jaibo, but I quickly forgot this fact until Adiga reminded me at the beginning of each chapter or with a witty remark in the middle of a story.  The White Tiger is well written and presents a side of India that I hadn’t really thought about.  I have no idea if many of the stories that Adiga write about are actually based in fact, but either way, The White Tiger is an excellent book.  Its sort of like a less sad version of The Kite Runner, but based in India instead of Afghanistan.  I highly recommend it.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (review), by Junot Diaz, is another work of fiction that deals with the Dominican-American experience living in New Jersey and traces the origins of the Dominican movement to the United States.  It follows the lives of a Dominican family from the days of the grandparents living under the Trujillato, The Trujillo Dictatorship, all the way to the grandson, Oscar who is a college student in New Jersey.  Like the White Tiger, Oscar Wao is written in a very interesting style.  It intermixes historical facts with lengthy, but entertaining footnotes and intersperses lots of Dominican slang (in Spanish of course).  You do not need to understand Spanish to read the book, but it definently helps give you a better understanding of what the characters are thinking.

Diaz puts the reader in the shoes of each character, letting the reader have a brief look into Dominican life at different points throughout history.  He writes with anger at the Trujillo regime, but with love for his native Dominican Republic.  The book is interesting and well written and a fun read, but may not be for everyone.  Diaz’s use of Spanish and copious amounts of science fiction/fantasy references might be a bit too much for some, but if you can get past it (or read the book with your browser open to google) you will enjoy it.

Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegut.  Slaughterhouse Five had been on the top of my “to read” list for awhile now, but I had not gotten around to reading it.  I ended up reading it on the train from Brussels to Amsterdam and then again in a park in Amsterdam, fairly close to the Germany and a battleground during the Second World War.  The book is interesting, especially in the writing style, but I want to focus on Europe and WWII.  It was amazing to read the book while on a train through the route that the Germans took to invade the Netherlands and then France.  The farms and small towns would have been overrun by Germans in the 1940s, but now they are thriving parts of the Dutch and Belgian countryside.  It was a struggle not to picture the German tanks in the fields, crushing all resistance in the early parts of the war and then the American and British armies beating them back in the later part of the war.  Its amazing that Europe gets along so well now such a short time after such a devastating war.  If you didn’t have to read Slaughterhouse Five in high school or college, check it out now.  Its a fairly quick, but interesting, read.

Founding Brothers – Joseph Ellis. Founding Brothers focuses on the personal interactions between the revolutionary generation of American history.  Ellis takes a non-traditional approach and makes the book more readable than most history books.  My favorite short story was about the duel between Aaron Burr and Alexander Hamilton and the events leading up to it.  Imagine if modern day politicians had to defend their honor against slanderous attacks with a duel.  Maybe bloggers, the media and politicians themselves would have more accountability?  I’m certainly not advocating for the return of the duel, but it would be pretty funny to see Dick Cheney (and his poor marksmanship) propose a duel against one of his political opponents.