January Books In Review

Like many people, I begin each new year with an enthusiasm for changing habits and achieving goals.  I start off quite optimistic, and with a confidence that defies reason; especially given the many years of failed resolutions scattered to the wind behind me. But this year I nevertheless still took stock of a bunch of things in my life, and set myself some challenges for the months ahead.

And so now, like the Roman god for whom it was named, I shall look back at the month that was January 2017, and then ponder the month to come.

Books and Reading in 2017

This year one of my goals is to read more books than I buy. This comes on the heels of last year’s goal of simply reading more books, that eventually settled on an end goal of 40 books, which I just barely managed to achieve. I did however notice the worrying pattern of buying around 50% more books than I needed to, and this is what prompted me to adopt this year’s goal. I still want to read more, and am hoping to exceed the 40 mark from last year. But I think it more important to start curbing my indiscriminate book buying.

So how have I gone this month? Not that well.

I read four books this January, Tools of Titans, United States of Japan, The Obstacle is the Way, and An Abundance of Katherines. however, I also bought, The Fault in our Stars, The Reluctant Yogi, The Daily Stoic, and Livia Lone. My only solace is that I technically bought Tools of Titans last year (literally 11:59 on New Year’s Eve), so my official numbers are:

Books read: 4

Books bought: 7

I shall have to reign in the spending next month for sure, as March contains the release of the next book by my favourite author (Kim Stanley Robinson), as well as a follow up to 2015’s amazing read, Luna: New Moon (nothing like twilight I assure you).

So what did I read:

Tools of Titans

Do you ever read a book, or listen to an interview and try to take down a few little nuggets of truth for later digestion? Then this is the book for you.

Tools of Titans contains the distilled knowledge of almost 200 interviews that Tim Ferriss (author of the 4-Hour Work Week, 4-Hour Body, etcetera) has conducted with people he defines as ‘titans’. And what exactly does a person need to do in order to be considered a titan? Well, to put it simply, then need to be successful in whatever their endeavours are.

But one thing I like about this book is that it doesn’t seek to sell you the One True Path™ to living a good and successful life. Rather it is a compendium of wisdom, gathered from an array of sources, and provided in simple easy to read chunks. Too often people define success with one overly-simplified metric: money. Rich people are successful, and all us other shmos are just struggling to reach this ideal. Tim clearly doesn’t think this is so. In his quest to interview and learn from these titular Titans, he has picked sources from an array of fields. You will find lessons garnered from Hollywood actors, army soldiers, authors, chess prodigies, as well as the expected billionaires and motivational speakers.

The sheer size of the book may appear daunting to some people, but it is this diversification that allows it to tackle so many different readers. If you are just wanting tips on health and fitness, there are a bunch of people waiting to give you their advice. Perhaps wealth is your main concern, then skip ahead to the section titled thusly. Sure, you may be overwhelmed with the number of people on offer here (and yes there are contradictory suggestions abound), but browse and select at your own discretion, and as the book says: the good shit sticks (which out of context sounds like terrible advice…).

Indeed, this is one of those rare books that I would recommend you read on your Kindle (or whatever e-reader you prefer), because you will want to highlight and take notes a lot along the way. In fact, there were so many good quotes in here that I would have saved time by highlighting the things I didn’t think were important!

I couldn’t recommend this book more to anyone out there who is searching for answers. To what questions I metaphorically hear you ask? I don’t know. What questions do you have? Because this book is pretty much just a bunch of answers to life’s many questions, collected and organised in a way that is surprisingly helpful considering its helter-skelter nature.

The United States of Japan

The more I think back about this book, the more I enjoyed it. Sure, there are things about the ending I would have wanted to go differently, but overall the experience was enjoyable. What’s more the world that was created within it was fascinating. I am sometimes torn when I read an alternate history, because I am so fascinated by history, and how things could have gone differently, that I would be happy simply reading an alternative historical timeline. But likewise, if you have a whole novel that spends half its time trying to shoehorn in exposition and info-dumps about their fictional history, it can ruin the flow of the actual storyline. United States of Japan for me handles this balance pretty well. There are constant references to the alternative history that lead to America being fractured between Japan and the Nazi’s after World War Two, but the fact that it takes place in a conquered nation that is still battling against this state of affairs makes the references to the past relevant, and expected.

That being said, I was annoyed when near the end of the novel there was a bunch of interesting additions to the world building that we never got a good enough chance to explore, and I hope there is a sequel that can delve into this further.

For instance, [minor spoilers], there is an underground American resistance to the Japanese empire (obviously) who are still Christian, however we learn there was an additional religious figure added to the traditional Christian trinity after World War II. A real life freedom fighter called Lilith, who died for the cause at the hands of the Nazis, and who is now an integral part of the Christian faith. I want to know more about that! But sadly we don’t hear much about that in the main storyline.

Without going too far into it, the story follows a government official in charge of censoring video games, and a government agent tasked with tracking down the creator of an illegal game that seeks to subvert the Japanese rule of west coast America. Though it is set in the 1980’s, there is plenty of cyber-punk style tech at play, as well as some giant mecha action for those interested. But the central mission keeps the story moving at a brisk pace.

So overall the story is engaging, and the characters are interesting. It is great to have two main characters who are presented to us quite simply and in an unremarkable way, but who then go on to slowly change and unravel, until we get major revelations about them both that highlight just how wrong we were. These are not the simple characters we thought, and each have their own hidden complexities, but ones that still perfectly explain their actions to begin with, and how they were presented to us.

A definite recommend to anyone who likes alternative history, or science fiction, or books…

The Obstacle is the Way

I love philosophy.

But sometimes what I really think, is that I love the idea of philosophy. Because when I get into the nitty gritty details in dense philosophical texts, I struggle. There are so many fascinating facets of philosophical thought; what does it mean to exist, what is good, what is the nature of knowledge? All these are interesting things to ponder, but they also seem so detached from the daily struggles and problems faced by the average man.

This book however is about that most rare of philosophies; the practical philosophy.

In particular, stoicism.

There has been a bit of a resurgence of stoic though of late, particularly when it come to the Silicon Valley start-up mentality that is pervading much of the self-help/life-improvement literature out there. In fact, I initially got onto this book through its being mentioned on Tim Ferriss’ Tools of Titans (see above), himself a successful start-up investor.

The stoic school of thought is one that you can latch on to from a variety of different world views. A Christian can be a stoic, as can a Muslim, or a Buddhist; because this school of thought is about how to approach the problems we find in life, not about any underlying metaphysical nature of reality. The book itself goes to great pains to point out that this stoic outlook isn’t even something that you have to be aware of having. You can approach the world with this attitude simply because from a rational standpoint, it makes sense. Learning about stoicism is like stumbling onto truth, rather than having to define some truth to fit into the world.

Reading this book has really helped me with looking at my life more clearly, particularly at a moment when I have a bunch of uncertainty heading my way. This book teaches things like having a proper perspective of how these obstacles challenge us, and keeping a realistic understanding of what we can control in our lives. By accepting what you cannot change, and concentrating instead on what you can control, you ensure your energy is focused in the right direction. Simple advice, but something we so often lose sight of.

Sure, you could get angry and frustrated at every inconvenience that comes your way, but what does that expended energy accomplish? Nothing. Best instead to accept these uncontrollable factors in your life, and focus on what you can control; yourself, your actions, and your will.

Like the book says, the solution is simple, it just isn’t easy.

I highly recommend this book to any human, living their life.

An Abundance of Katherines

January for me was a month dominated by the Green brothers. I iron my shirt in the morning while watching Hank on Crash Course explain psychology to me, listen to the Dear Hank and John podcasts walking to and from work, and then enjoy catching up on the latest Vlog Brothers videos available on YouTube. But considering I had heard so much talk about John’s books (one in particular; you know the one I mean) over the past however many years, I figured it might be worth investing a bit of time actually reading some of his work.

I was sceptical at first that these books would really have much to offer me, as I don’t consider myself the target audience. But after discovering books like The Rosie Project last year and being pleasantly surprised waltzing out of my comfort zone, I was willing to take a chance with John Green’s novels. So, when I saw a double pack on sale I snapped them up.

It contained the nearly ubiquitous The Fault in Our Stars, but I was more interested in An Abundance of Katherines, mainly due to the cryptic sounding blurb:

When it comes to relationships, Colin Singleton’s type happens to be girls named Katherine. And when it comes to girls named Katherine, Colin is always getting dumped. Nineteen times, to be exact.

On a road trip miles from home, this anagram-happy, washed-up child prodigy has ten thousand dollars in his pocket, a bloodthirsty feral hog on his trail, and an overweight, Judge Judy-loving best friend riding shotgun–but no Katherines. Colin is on a mission to prove The Theorem of Underlying Katherine Predictability, which he hopes will predict the future of any relationship, avenge Dumpees everywhere, and finally win him the girl.

Love, friendship, and a dead Austro-Hungarian archduke add up to surprising and heart-changing conclusions in this ingeniously layered comic novel about reinventing oneself.

That, and a cursory flip through the pages (which realistically isn’t going to offer much insight usually, but this time actually turned up something interesting), showed me a couple of math formulas as a part of the storytelling, and I was sold.

gw449h259

And graphs too; who doesnt love graphs.

I quite enjoyed the story. Sure, it was different than my usual reads, and not something that will likely find its way onto my regular reading lists. However I am still looking forward to polishing off the rest of John’s books at some point in the future (even if I can’t help hearing John Greens voice narrating every page in my head!).


On to next month’s reads. I am going to do my best to purchase zero books this month (shocking!) so that I might actually start approaching my goal of more books read that bought in 2017. Because at present the less-than-encouraging progress graph looks like this:

january

But one book I know I will read is I Contain Multitudes by Ed Wong. I have been waiting a while to devour this book about the microbes that live within us since its release last year, but kept it at bay due to a need to give my brain a break from the non-fiction that had taken up so much of my reading time.

MM

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