Book Reviews, 2005

I set a goal to myself to read 20 books in 2005. I ended up reading 25!

Phil Jackson – The Last Season

I bought the hardcover of this when it first came out. So it cost 30$. Ouch. I think Mr. Jackson is a great coach and he is a great teacher of young boys who are paid absurd amounts of money to be men and professionals. What I wonder is if Mr. Jackson really believed his team could win. He pushed his team to always try hard because that’s what coaches do, but did he really believe in all these selfish ring-seekers? It seems he at least gave it a shot and tried to impress upon them new ideas by giving them books and quotes to muse over, but this may have been the inability to keep his own personality from seeping out into his disinterested juniors.

I understand that Mr. Jackson is married to the Lakers owner’s daughter. But still, when Mr. Jackson took the job as Lakers coach again in the 2005-2006 season, my respect for him dropped a lot. After all, he said in this book that he’d never coach Kobe again because he acts so childish and selfishly.

Shawn Dorman – Inside a US Embassy

Not really a book but more of a brochure. It explains what the various positions of foreign service officers in an embassy perform and are responsible for, with interviews with current officers. This is not a must-have book, but considering the meager offering of books detailing the career one could expect to have as a foreign service officer, the material is very useful in figuring out what opportunities there are and the optempo on which foreign service officers operate.

F. Scott Fitzgerald – Tender is the Night

When I hear elitists drone on about there never having been a great American novelist, I roll my eyes. Fitzgerald is one of my favorite authors. He is easy for me to read, and his attention to the nuances of his characters’ behaviors intrigues me. Mr. Fitzgerald understands how the human mind works and is able to express little ticks or habits or petty human decisions in an understandable way, and going even further by figuring out how to incorporate them into realistic characters. What more, he captures the folly and dissociation from reality and nature that epitomized and eventually befell the roaring twenties.

For in Tender is the Night, Fitzgerald is in his best form. Peoples’ unrealistic expectations of perfect strangers being convoluted and corrupted by those peoples’ hidden secrets and ugly traits. Playboy lifestyles being undermined by the past and by the creep of the fearful future.

Thomas P.M. Barnett – The Pentagon’s New Map

Mr. Barnett changed the way I thought about the world. Barnett became well-known in the Pentagon for galvanizing his ideas into the perfect Power Point presentation, preferred media in management circles. Within a few slides, Barnett imprinted his idea into many minds, the idea that we DO have a physical representation of where our enemy is: our enemy lives in the disconnected state, or gap, that state which exists outside the core, made up of mainly first-world industrialized nations. Disconnected states are those run by people who care not for their people, countries whose populations are so poor that anyone can come in and exploit them.

Barnett believes that countries must be integrated into the core as quickly as possible, through a three-tined attack: politically, socially, and economically. You cannot reform a country fully by improving only two out of those three — all three must work in tandem together. This is a theory shared by many other smart people and is mirrored in Robert Rubin’s book. It’s now my sort of litmus test to see whether a country’s publicly-traded companies are worth investing in and whether an economy will be headed on the right path.

This book provided a framework for all the jumbled ideas I had about improving the world. It made my life make sense, explained why I got fascinated with the Internet, then the stock market, then the military. I am not a floundering freak after all. And there are others out there like me, who are going to change the world for the better.

Mr. Barnett is the sort of person I need to work for, or with. He describes himself as someone who comes up with possible future scenarios, but concentrates on constructive ones which we could actually affect for the better. I like that.

John Steinbeck – Tortilla Flat

Having lived in Monterey for a year and a half, Steinbeck’s books have become like the experience of returning home. Steinbeck’s characters, dithering around Monterey and Cannery Row and Salinas, can’t seem to put together any string of successes because they squander their prizes and earnings in idleness. The boys mean well, but they keep screwing things up because they want women and drink.

What strikes me is Steinbeck’s ability to create a bustling town within text. The old asian grocer flip-flopping down to the water. The whores who sought the attention of those soldiers who lived at the Presidio long before me. The schemers and scoundrels and good ol’ boys who once frequented the area but who have been displaced now by Clint Eastwood and extremely rich retired people who’ve given birth to spoiled young girls and surfer boys.

Dean Karnazes – Ultra-Marathon Man

It motivates me to read about a man who ran 226 miles straight as a gesture towards a young girl in the hospital. A man who started running cross-country in high school because he hated the showy, speed-obsessed, technical track and field mentality and preferred the just-go-out-there-and-run-for-ages lifestyle of the cross-country runners.

Mr. Karnazes was a successful businessman who was unhappy and tired with his life. He began running again after a long hiatus. The first day he just ran and ran and ran, needing his wife to pick him up — many miles away. He was wounded from the burst of freedom and adrenaline, but it spurred him to take up running as his love.

He would run a 100-miler out west, which tested him severely but which he would finish within 24 hours many times afterwards.

It’s a story about someone who realized that he didn’t have everything and sought something completely nonsensical and in the process making him a happy man with a close-knit loving family.

Sam Lipsythe – Home Land

Home Land is one of those books that makes it onto all the “best of” lists at the end of the year but you can’t understand why. It’s one of those books that doesn’t really have a point, is written like a high schooler trying to be clever, and leaves you doubting whether you actually like reading books at all.

It took me a third of the book to start wondering if this book was told from the author’s experience or if it was fiction. Upon reading some background, I discovered that it was fiction. That just strikes me as a huge letdown, an insincerity on the part of Mr. Lipsythe. Fuck you, man! It’s not even real? Then why the fuck am I fucking reading this shit? And WHY DOES EVERYONE RECOMMEND IT SO HIGHLY?!

Just imagine if someone actually had the balls to write in to his high school’s alumni paper, updating the gossip on all the embarrassing adult gaffes of those insecure, cruel high school peers. Imagine if someone actually was honest about himself to the point of too much information! The reality of life catches up with high schoolers turned young adults turned burnt-out life failures. Sorry, but if I want to experience the post-mortem on high school alumnis’ lives, I’d watch Grosse Point Blank and get a good dose of light-heartedness and, yes, sincerity, with it.

Stephen Levitt – Freakonomics

Probably the most talked about book of the year. Mr. Levitt reminds us that in order to figure out long-unsolved problems, perhaps we have to radically change, destroy, and start over our assumptions about them.

The key theory in this economist’s book is that all the reasons touted as the cause of a massive drop in crime in the United States, just when “experts” proclaimed an anarchic, violent dystopia would come, were almost completely ineffective in actuality. The politicians pumped their useless reform schemes and law enforcement justified budget increases in order to curb the violence.

Mr. Levitt claims that the drop in murder was caused by the Roe v. Wade court decision along with the legalization of abortion, which among the pool of most potential future criminals, decimated its ranks.

He goes on to suggest ways to detect cheating on state education exams, using statistical analysis, along with a recount of another economist’s first-hand study of the economics of the street drug trade.

What I learned from this guy is that the most interesting questions about economics exist in taboo subjects that no one wants to talk about but which affect a significant portion of our population.

I believe that some of our future great leaders will be the ones who break down those taboos and deal with the problems that are protected by
the taboos.

Malcolm Gladwell – Blink

To be honest I didn’t want to read Blink. I read Gladwell’s first book and thought it was outstanding. However, Blink just sounded like a flimsy premise for a book. What, a whole book on how snap judgments are usually right? That seems like an over-generalization, and something that’d be fluffed out with hundreds of pages of filler.

But it’s actually a pretty decent book. I find it hard to locate books that appeal to a non-academic audience that discuss human behavior and the subconscience.

I learned from this book to trust my intuition more, something I’d been learning on my own beforehand but have had trouble internalizing. My teammate jokes that I am an excellent thin-slicer, a phrase Gladwell uses to describe snap judgments about people or things to get a sense of whether it’s good, evil, worthwhile, or whatever.

James Surowiecki – The Wisdom of Crowds

For a while I’ve been turned off by people who hate the “mainstream”, people who think that what’s popular is always shitty and that attention equals ruination.

Mr. Surowiecki’s book helps to explain why I feel that way. He argues that the more diverse a body, the more likely they are to guess the right answer to a problem, no matter how technical or how little information there is to solve it.

For instance, he claims that in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, the audience is almost never wrong when polled to give an answer to a difficult question. Not any one person knows every answer, but in a group of people (he qualifies this by saying they must be from a wide, diverse pool, and not people of similar backgrounds, even if they are the most prominent experts in that field) enough people will know the answer to get it right. Also the role of discussion among people can taint their answers since some people can be more persuasive than others, despite being wrong.

This is an idea put into words that we intuitively knew already. The more homogenous a group of people, the less variety and ingenuity there is, even amongst experts, who sometimes can be far more wrong than others because they’re stubborn and are constantly told how right they are about everything.

Paulo Cuelho – The Alchemist

The Alchemist is, to me, a simple, beautiful parable that profoundly affected my life. It is simply told. It is short. It is easy to understand. It’s elegant in its simplicity. A boy learns to follow his dream, taking risks by leaving everything in pursuit of that dream. Life is an adventure and the boy learns as he finds new lands that there is much to learn and that he can thrive in new environments. It’s Matthew Modine’s Vision Quest.

This book helped me realize I now love the desert. I love its mystique, its hardiness, the way the winds and the sands and the people who inhabit it spread ephemeral tales. It’s magical. Fucking hot, but magical. Stories matter in the desert. There’s little else there, and when something IS there, it is soon gone, living on only in peoples’ memories.

I will read this book the rest of my life when I need inspiration to keep pushing towards the realization of a dream I am unsure of its intention. It might end up taking me to where I least expected: back where I started.

James McManus – Positively Fifth Street

Half this book is about the Binion murder case, which bored me insanely. Yeah, so this crazy descendant of a world-famous gambler and casino owner gets whacked perversely by his girlfriend and her lover, for his money. Whoah! Nothing new! Particularly not in Las Vegas. There was nothing interesting about the case. They were all despicable people, scumbags.

The reason all that shit is in the book is because the author is trying to link the book back to his original reason for doing it — a Harper’s Magazine article. And because he got to meet the murdered son’s sister, who knew his girlfriend was the culprit. Sentiment.

But the book came into its own, despite MacManus’s meddling and muddling. Mr. MacManus plopped down the money granted to him to do the article on getting a seat for the World Series of Poker, $10k a pop. Turns out that he would get to the final table, becoming good friends with many of the top names in poker. The most intriguing parts of the book are narratives about key hands, and about his chip count through the tournament.

I could’ve done without the rest. There are better books out there.

Cecil Foster – Where Race Does Not Matter: The New Spirit of Modernity

Given to me by my French-Canadian girlfriend, this is written by a black Canadian. This book was not what I expected. I was hoping it would discuss more of Canada’s current environment with regards to racial equality and the struggle to develop a truly equal environment. I was hoping it would talk about measures Canada took to achieve a more mixed demographic background.

Instead it talks a lot about Canada’s monarchical past. It is not so much a vision for the future and how to get there, as the title might imply, but a historical recount that hardly describes Canada as its own entity. Might as well be talking about the United States and its racial problems.

In fact the book troubles me a lot because it initially dwells far too much on reparations. It wants to hold people of the present accountable for the past. Can we move on already? Can we think of a more constructive future, please? A new spirit of modernity?

Sinclair Lewis – Elmer Gantry

Given to me by a friend from DLI who shared an interest in one of America’s great magazine men, H.L. Mencken, this book is a treat and a primer for religion in the U.S., even to this day. Elmer Gantry is a womanizing drunkard who discovers the perks of being a pastor. He’s unable to control himself though and cannot avoid trouble. But somehow his blustery personality wins people over again and again.

What blew me away most about this book was the method in which it was written. Lewis apparently spent many months researching different religious sects within America. He did the legwork, the due diligence, traveling to Kansas City and inviting different religious leaders to come discuss with him their faiths. Through this manner, Elmer Gantry is not only an extremely funny, cynical look at American religion but also I think a key historical and anthropological work. It is the method that I would like to mimic when I write my own book — Lewis’ understanding of the different churches Gantry works himself into flesh out a realistic world that strikes a lot of similarities to modern-day America. It’s like reading de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America”, except with a great sense of humor and interesting content.

This is magnificently-written novel.

Lance Armstrong – It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life

Lance Armstrong talks about his career, from his early days picking up cycling just a few blocks away from my house in Dallas, at the Richardson Bike Mart (across from the Minyard/Kroger), to his finding out he had cancer, and then his emergence as the best Tour de France competitor in history. I like reading about Armstrong’s personal account of having cancer — it sounds dreadful but the way in which he handled his cancer was how I would like to. Research the hell out of it, approach it like a complex problem, maintain a positive attitude. It helped that he had so much family support.

It also resonated to me when he said that having cancer caused him to lose a lot of his fat and upper-body muscle that detracted from his riding performance. Once he got back in shape, he built up his lower body and had less mass up top, a smaller build, but with a renewed sense of confidence and the same angry, arrogant brutality he had as a young rider.

The book, like Phil Jackson’s, is hurt by the passage of time: Armstrong’s devoted wife in the book is no longer with him — Armstrong is now dating Sheryl Crow, which colors everything Armstrong said in the book about his first wife. But of course people change, and that’s not always a bad thing.

Michael Scheuer – Imperial Hubris

Michael Scheuer originally wrote this book anonymously, since he was the former head of the bin Laden unit at the CIA. Scheuer’s book is a scathing attack on the U.S.’s treatment of the Global War on Terrorism as a response to 9/11 and to the international emergence of Al-Qaeda.

Scheuer contends that we’ve botched the mission, quitting Afghanistan early to pursue Iraq and ignoring the direct words from Al-Qaeda itself. Scheuer spends a good amount of time describing bin Laden’s relationship with the Muslims he hopes to awaken through jihad and what the long-term strategy of Al-Qaeda is.

This book is a fresh voice amongst a lot of table-pounding hawkish rhetoric. There seem to be only a few people who have the knowledge of what’s really going on, and the open-mindedness and insight to see the big picture, and Scheuer is one of them. He quit his post and I understand through my own time in the military why — there is no appreciation or utility for knowledge of our enemy right now.

Lewis Black – Nothing’s Sacred

I read this in a couple days. My teammate’s family sent it to him and I picked it up for a quick read. Lewis Black used to work with my mother at the Kenyon Theater long ago. He’s pretty funny if only because he’s neurotic. I wouldn’t say he’s that great a comedian. And the book’s not really that good. It just sort of sucks reading about actors and comedians before they make it big, because really they’re just normal people who look for a break and need some money and can only really hang out with others in the same boat. It’s not glamorous and if people knew what they’d have to go through to make it, they’d hopefully not go that route. Especially when they realize that fame and TV don’t improve your life, only make it worse.

Neal Boortz and John Linder – The FairTax Book

Boortz is a radio commentator, Linder is a congressman. They got together to write a brief book promoting the FairTax. I can only dream of a country where the FairTax has been implemented.

Imagine getting rid of the IRS almost entirely, as taxes will be collected on consumption, not income. It’s not a VAT (Value-Added Tax) — it’s more like a sales tax. You are not punished on your income, which should all be yours — you pay an add-on when you buy something. We should be taxed for what we consume, not for what we earn. Why are we penalized when we try to invest or save? Shouldn’t we be able to invest what we’ve earned? Surely though we will allow for paying tax on what we CONSUME — that’s far fairer for rich and poor people alike.

The book describes the economics of suppliers’ costs of production working their way down to consumption pretty well. It does not answer some of my questions, like what’s to stop people from buying goods from other countries to evade the tax.

But I think this is a breakthrough in thinking about our tax system and will enormously alleviate the ballooning growth of tax laws year over year.

Neil Strauss – The Game: Penetrating the Secret Society of Pickup Artists

I love books that delve into little-known cults. This one involves online newsgroups, a community of men sharing tactics on how to consistently hit on and pick up women. Neil Strauss is a writer who had little self-confidence when talking to women. But after meeting some of the best pick-up artists, all with their own faux-bravado pseudonyms, and learning their silly techniques (peacocking), he makes up his own strategies and posts them online, becoming the most successful pick-up artist in the entire community.

In the end he becomes disgusted with how greedy the pick-up artists become, offering expensive seminars and real-world training classes. Most of the men never really develop as people, despite learning nuances of social interaction. They treat it more like a linear computer program than as pushing peoples’ buttons and getting them interested in a spontaneous manner.

Strauss himself backs away from the community and falls in love with the guitarist from Hole, and finds the happiness he was looking for in their relationship.

Douglas Coupland – Shampoo Planet

My girlfriend Julie sent me this book while I was in Iraq. It was a wonderfully welcome book to get from my baby while I was stranded out in the middle of nowhere.

Douglas Coupland is an expert at combining the randomness and desire for convenience of American 30-somethings with the consumerism and vapidity of American culture. His books however are rather depressing to me because of the sadness of his characters as they amble through life. There’s no excitement. It’s like hard, cold rain on a Sunday. Dreary.

Still, the relationship between the protagonist and his girlfriend is sincere and sweet, and the relationship with the French woman he meets while on vacation is doomed and you know it the whole time. His relationship with his mother would hit home with most young men.

Anthony Shadid – Night Draws Near

This seems to be the only book of its kind about Iraq. Shadid, formerly a contributor to the Washington Post, and a Pulitzer Prize winner, embedded himself not only with the troops as the U.S. invaded Iraq, but also with the Iraqis before and after the invasion. He keeps up with friends whose lives get worse as the U.S. presence continues, follows a small tribe whose trouble-making sons decide to ambush a U.S. convoy (dying in the process), turning them into martyrs. He follows an American foot patrol, whose soldiers think the citizens love their presence. Shadid talks to the citizens in passing and they’re far more ambivalent than the soldiers believed.

Few have the know-how or interest in reporting on how the Iraqis as a whole feel about the invasion within the context of Muslim, Iraqi, and Arab history. It’s not enough to just interview a random person — Shadid has friends who have lived in Iraq their whole lives and who know him enough to be honest with him (and he can gauge the change of their feelings on the matter).

Not only do you get a far richer sense of what Iraq is like and what its people are going through, but you also see how beneficial it is to develop friends and genuine contacts no matter where you go in order to cut through the official line. You learn that Iraqis are exhausted by decades of war yet still have a taste of what the good life (Iraq in the late 70’s) is like. They are proud people who are ashamed of how their country has fallen, and they can be very traditional, such as some tribes’ insistence on honor killings. One of Shadid’s trips is to a village where a father is told by the other inhabitants that he must kill his own son to exact justice and renew the town’s fidelity. The father does indeed kill his own son.

Joseph Heller – Catch-22

I found this book boring except for its role in our culture and its many repeated references. Heller often takes jokes way too far, to the point where it’s tedious and face-punchingly annoying. Insight into the absurdity of military bureaucracy and the obsessiveness of officers with parades and uniformity is keen, but all this makes up the core of the book, and not amusing anecdotes scattered through the book.

Gavin Menzies – 1421: The Year China Discovered America

My roommate had this book and I asked him if I could read it.

Obviously there’s a lot of controversy about the conclusions in the book but I think Menzies lays down a far better case that Chinese came to the Americas before the Europeans did. It certainly makes sense — I had trouble buying into the stories we were taught in grade school. Menzies claims that he’s found eastern Asian evidence in the Americas, and that only the Chinese could reliably navigate using longitude at the time — only latitude could be measured anywhere close to what would be needed to make to-scale maps.

I think it’s destructively beautiful that the Chinese emperor poured so much money into sending ships into the unknown in order to map the world for its own sake and not just for spices and wealth like the Europeans did. Wherever the Chinese went, they traded cultural knowledge with those whom they met, instead of slaughtering them. They were true explorers, intelligent and resourceful mariners who, if the theory is sound, never got the just credit they deserved.

John M. Barry – The Great Influenza: The Epic Story of the Deadliest Plague in History

Avian flu is a hot item right now. Even Dubya’s supposedly read this book. This book chronicles the revolution in American medical practice at the turn of the century from barbarous alchemy to logical, methodical experimentation. It also details the spread of influenza, which interestingly began to spread in camps of American soldiers waiting to deploy to Europe for WW1. Influenza went epidemic and spread to major cities, killing hundreds of thousands. Public officials did nothing until it was too late, greatly helping the flu spread.

What’s sad is that you know this can happen again. Public officials are useless when it comes to first-response and to damage control, mainly because they do not understand the consequences of their actions (or inactions). The author, John M. Barry, believes it’s certain that a flu epidemic WILL happen again.

Neal Stephenson – Snow Crash (re-read)

This is a seminal book to me, perhaps my favorite book ever. In it is the Metaverse, a virtual reality that is quite adaptable to connection bandwidth and is realistic enough that you believe it’s a certainty to come to our Internet. In it is a globe that encompasses all knowledge (Wikipedia?), stringers and gargoyles who collect all types of information to enter into the government’s database so that they can earn money if anyone uses that intelligence.

Raven, Hiro Protagonist, Y.T., all great characters who would translate well into a film.

That a religious nut would try to take over all media and try to create a virus that infiltrates our linguistic brain centers is fascinating, and Stephenson uses the myth of the Tower of Babel and the Sumerian gods to flesh out the Snow Crash virus.

The book reads quickly yet is full of the cyberpunk attitude. It’s also full of brilliant ideas that make my imagination orgasm.