Where the Crawdads Sing

I read this book after the How To Do Nothing book, and it actually fit in quite nicely. This is a beautiful story of a young woman who raises herself, without parents, siblings, or friends, on the Carolina coast. All she does is pay attention and appreciate everything that is around her. With the help of a few key people, she overcomes flagrant discrimination and hate aimed at her by educating herself, and ends up leading an incredibly fulfilling life. All that, plus an intriguing murder mystery, unfolds to make it a fantastic tale. Love it, love it, love it!

Talking to Strangers

In recent months, I have become a fan of podcasts. I have a long commute so I enjoy getting to listen to them on the way to or from work. They’re usually about 20 minutes in length so I can listen to one or two on my drive. This latest “book” from Malcom Gladwell has a hard copy version, but the audiobook is not your typical audiobook, where the author simply reads aloud from text he or she has written. This audiobook is more like a podcast, in which he incorporates transcripts of court cases, interviews with subjects in the book, media broadcasts, and more. It’s a full, book-length podcast. I enjoyed the format and I hope more audiobooks get done this way. For some reason, I am not a fan of the typical audiobook. I would much rather read a book than listen to it being read. But this form – I like it.

 

Talking to Strangers is probably the most difficult Malcom Gladwell book I have read. And I think if you asked 10 people who read it what they took out of it, you might get 10 very different answers. His premise is that we’re not very good at talking to strangers. We as a culture either assume the best in people and listen to them that way, or we assume the worst in people and listen to them with that lens, and either way, there are often mistakes in the lens that we utilize. Gladwell looks at very challenging case studies, such as Black Lives Matter, USA Gymnastics, sexual crimes committed at fraternity parties in colleges, and torture tactics used by the U.S. intelligence agencies, and examines how often the information we think that we are perceiving correctly is wildly incorrect. He tries to discern how that miscommunication happens. For the most part, Malcom Gladwell assumes the best in all people. He makes some surprising accusations, and defends many people along the way. He’s very objective, and it’s an eye-opening book. At a time in our history when talking to people who are different than we are, whether that difference is in how they look, what they believe, or any other difference, is more difficult than ever, I believe this is an important book and I’m glad I experienced it.

Salt: A World History

I saw this book in the airport bookstore, and bought it for my Kindle. I love reading on my Kindle, as I can always go back to the book, I carry it with me at all times, and I can take my notes from the book and my highlights from the book and upload them to Evernote, which is my filing system for just about everything. When I took history courses in college, once I got beyond the western civ courses that were requirements back in the early ‘80s, history teaching started to look a lot different. The professors never presented just the historical facts and stories. They always presented their facts with a slant on how students should view it. It could be a Marxist teacher, showing that every single historical decision and event was guided primarily by a desire for economic improvement. It could be from a humanitarian viewpoint, showing that humans throughout history have tried to be better towards each other and to make the world a better and more humane place for all. There were many other ways, but it took me a while to see that that kind of perspective allows for greater insight into how history occurred.

 

Mr. Kurlansky writes the book Salt, showing that this precious mineral (which you can buy in a nice blue box for just a couple of bucks) was the key to much of our human history. I was taught that the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers were where our earliest humans settled because of the water. He writes it was really the salt that was there. He looks at the Civil War from a salt perspective. He looks at so many different things, and it’s all fascinating. He talks about how salt played such a role in the Roman history, in the explorers history, the United States history, and more. It is totally fascinating.

 

As a cook, I think that salt is underrated. People warn us to be careful with salt, but as my friend and true chef, Antonio, told me, if you just add salt and pepper to most things, and you add enough of it, food can be just about perfect. So yes, I love salt, and I really liked this book. It gave me a lot more insight into one of the things that I use every day in my house. I have not yet read his Cod book yet, and I may, though cod is not as big a part of my life as salt is. Good read, if you like this kind of stuff!

The Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals

If you have looked at my book list before, you have seen a lot of books on the art of cooking and grilling and smoking. I am certainly an omnivore. My wife is a pescatarian, but the rest of the family are omnivores. The Omnivore’s Dilemma is written by a carnivore who seeks to learn more about the nature of food in our country. 

 

The author’s chapter on the role of corn in our food economy and our economy in general is brilliant. I learned so much about the dominance of the corn industry in our economy. One of the questions my older son ponders about the $5 Costco rotisserie chicken is, “You’d think a chicken’s life would be worth more than that.” When I read this chapter, I began to understand. Between government subsidies and the massive amount of corn that is produced and utilized in this country, I start to get it. Pollan also goes into the details of large-scale farming, which I know something about, and which are never enjoyable to read. He has a spectacular chapter on sustainable pasture-based farming that, if you have the means, is clearly the way to go. I will be paying more for the farm products that I buy, making some adjustments in what I eat, and I found this book incredibly motivational in doing both of those things.

The Lacuna

I don’t get a chance to read much non-fiction, but when I do, there’s not much better than a Barbara Kingsolver novel. My wife read this one for her book club and I jumped on it once I heard it was Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a fantastic book set in the first half of the 20th century mostly in Mexico, but a little bit in the United States as well. As usual, she creates fantastic characters and vivid visuals. It’s a bit of a historical novel, involving eventually people like Trotsky and a few other famous men of the World War II era. She combines art and politics and adventure, and I was thoroughly entertained the entire read. I haven’t read of a book of hers yet that I did not love. And I recommend this one highly.

How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy

I can’t remember how I came across this book, but I’m glad I did. This is a very intellectual book that combines economics with art, literature, poetry and more. I think I understood the majority of it, but it will take a second read for me to get it all. The author’s main point is that our economy survives by large companies gaining our attention through clicks on social media through alerts we see while scanning the internet. These companies know our preferences and push us to make purchasing, lifestyle, or other time-sucking decisions based on their efforts to gain our attention, making money on our purchasing decisions, or just on what we click. There are so many ideas in this book. First and foremost, she pushes us to just pay attention to reality around us. Pay attention to nature. To plants. To the animals and the people that are around us. She uses Thoreau and Epicurus to talk about the importance of rebelling when necessary and having enough control to limit our desires. She urges to have push for simplicity and more control in our lives to combat the omnipresent desire for our attention. It was a very thought-provoking book, and as someone who does not post on social media but gets my news from various feeds, it gives me pause as well. Like I said, I’ll be reading this one again.

How to be an Antiracist

As the George Floyd protests rated in 2020, I made a commitment to read and learn more about how to address racism in our country. In terms of their impact on me, the two most influential books I read were this one and Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson. The premise of Mr. Kendi’s book is simple: Not being a racist is not enough. If you are going to be part of the change, you must be an antiracist. “What’s the problem with being ‘not racist’? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: ‘I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.’ But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.'” The book then goes into how to be an antiracist. A few key takeaways, but they are just the tip of the iceberg. This is a book worth reading more than once.

  • Supreme Court Justice Harry Blackman wrote, “In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently.”
  • “To be an antiracist is to recognize that there is no such thing as racial behavior.”
  • “To be an antiracist is to think nothing is behaviorally wrong or right – superior or inferior – with any of the racial groups.”
  • “White supremacists love what America used to be, even though America used to be – and still is – teeming with millions of struggling White people. White supremacists blame non-White people for the struggles of White people when any objective analysis of their plight primarily implicates the rich White Trumps they support.” For some, the Trump reference will be offensive. But if offended by that, one is probably also offended by Jesus Christ’s “eye of the needle” passage in Matthew 19:24.
  • “One of racism’s harms is the way it falls on the unexceptional Black person who is asked to be extraordinary just to survive – and, even worse, the Black screwup who faces the abyss after one error, while the White screwup is handed second chances and empathy.”

I’ll stop there. But there’s more. I have work to do, and I know I’m not alone.

Franklin Barbecue: A Meat-Smoking Manifesto

Some of you who know me know that I love to cook, and I love to barbecue on my Big Green Egg. Whenever I go to any place in the south, and lots of places in Los Angeles as well, I try to find great barbecue. There’s great barbecue in Arkansas where I grew up, but Texas is kind of the mothership for lots of great barbecue. I need to make a culinary journey to North Carolina to enjoy the barbecue and the golf, but that is yet to come. This is the story of how Franklin Barbecue, perhaps the most famous barbecue in Texas, came to be. Franklin is a place where people start lining up around seven in the morning, they start serving around ten in the morning, and they are sold out by 1:00 or 2:00 pm. They cook several things, but they are famous for their brisket. A brisket is cooked in many different ways, but this is all about smoking it until it’s perfect. He tells the story of how he would cook a brisket in his backyard on the most rudimentary and cheap of devices, and invite friends over to try it and critique it. He did this for years, saving up money to buy each brisket, as it’s a good $40 piece of meat and that doesn’t come easy. He shares how he started his restaurant and what they look like today. He also shares his recipes in the book as well.

I decided to make 2019 the Summer of Brisket in my home, but I would not say I was overly successful. I only tried to make two the whole summer. They were good, but they were not fantastic. I have a friend in my neighborhood, my friend Chris, who does brisket perfectly, but he has been out of the area for a while. I need his mentorship and Mr. Franklin’s mentorship, and I still hope to be able to pull this off. It’s a good read, if you like barbecue. My vegetarian wife was not particularly attracted to this book, but as always, she puts up with me and my pursuits. Life is good.

Feeding the Dragon: Inside the Trillion Dollar Dilemma Facing Hollywood, the NBA, & American Business

It’s always nice to gain insight on people you already know from a book that they write and publish. Chris and Jen Fenton live right here in Manhattan Beach, and it was great to read Chris’s description of American businesses trying to work in and with China over the past decade. Filled with personal anecdotes, this book describes how each of us find our way in the world through our successes and our failures. That alone is a great lesson for anyone starting their career, or at a point where they need to change their career. But it’s also fantastic insight into how China is dealing with capitalism, particularly when it comes to entertainment. Chris Fenton does an outstanding job of sharing his story, of showing the challenges he has faced throughout his life, and him talking about he believes we can make a difference in China and in any kind of global cooperation.

Some of the insights that I particularly appreciated: “There isn’t a Chinese citizen who has lived their whole life in China, born around or after June 4, 1989, who has seen the famous photo of the Chinese man staring down a PLA tank in the heart of Beijing.” If that is true, their form of censorship is completely working. That’s depressing. And on the power of commerce and commercial diplomacy could change the world, “One could argue that Big Macs and David Hasselhof have more to do with the end of the Cold War than an arsenal of nuclear weapons.” Chris Fenton has an easy-going writing style, a wealth of personal experience, and a lot of insightful, soul-bearing, and even fun stories along the way.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell

This book combines some classic underdog stories in the setting of a traditional Catholic school education. I was reminded several times of some of the stories from my own Catholic school education, and I loved all of the reminiscences. It’s a great tale of parenting, discrimination, and coming of age, and the author ties it all together beautifully. It was one of those books I just could not put down and I loved it all.

Educated: A Memoir

This is a book that has been on the best-seller list for a while, and I saw it in a friend’s house that I was visiting for a few days, picked it up, and read it. It’s a super quick read, mostly because you just can’t put it down. It is the true story of a daughter raised in a right-wing Idaho family. She is home schooled and has little to do with the outside world, and her only reality is the world in her home. It’s a story of what her world looked like, and how she attempted to find her way out of the home. It turns and twists in the way only real life can, and it is fascinating every step of the way. Like millions of others around the world, I loved the book and highly recommend it.