Books Read | February 2017

My partner sat me down the other day, and showed me how Overdrive works – free books, anytime, on my device, and all I needed was a library card! I’ve been crushing books since then… (for me, at least, who still hasn’t finished “The Invention of Nature” I began last year).

Here, then, are the books that came through the speakers and ear buds during my 90 minutes of commuting each day in February. It’s my goal to do this for each month, complete with commentary from me, a rating, and a TLDR (Too Long, Didn’t Read) summary.

The ratings are conservative, I think, but I don’t want to short sell myself. Not all books are AMAZING!!! Some are only ok… And the scale is out of 4, because that’s a better scale than out of 5. Deal with it!

Here they are, in no particular order…

The Smartest Kids in the World | by Amanda Ripley

TLDR: A comparative study, through the lens of the author and foreign exchange student accounts, comparing the educational systems of United States, South Korea, Poland, and Finland.

What Amazon Says

How do other countries create “smarter” kids? What is it like to be a child in the world’s new education superpowers? The Smartest Kids in the World “gets well beneath the glossy surfaces of these foreign cultures and manages to make our own culture look newly strange….The question is whether the startling perspective provided by this masterly book can also generate the will to make changes” (The New York Times Book Review).

In a handful of nations, virtually all children are learning to make complex arguments and solve problems they’ve never seen before. They are learning to think, in other words, and to thrive in the modern economy. Inspired to find answers for our own children, author and Time magazine journalist Amanda Ripley follows three Americans embed­ded in these countries for one year. Kim, fifteen, raises $10,000 so she can move from Oklahoma to Finland; Eric, eighteen, trades his high-achieving Minnesota suburb for a booming city in South Korea; and Tom, seventeen, leaves a historic Pennsylvania village for Poland.

Through these young informants, Ripley meets battle-scarred reformers, sleep-deprived zombie students, and a teacher who earns $4 million a year. Their stories, along with groundbreaking research into learning in other cultures, reveal a pattern of startling transformation: none of these countries had many “smart” kids a few decades ago. Things had changed. Teaching had become more rigorous; parents had focused on things that mattered; and children had bought into the promise of education.

What I Say

Ripley does a great job of juxtaposing the educational systems of United States with others, especially others that are also high performing but get there by a different road. I always cringe when educational outcomes are compared with Finland (probably a plight of being Swedish) since there are so many fewer, population wise, to manage there. It is simply not possible to adopt one system from another overnight. But that doesn’t mean we (in the US) shouldn’t give it a go!

It was fascinating to hear how kids in South Korea approach school, where most engage in after-school tutoring in the private industry, and spend most of the school hours sleeping, catching up from the night before. Probably too much time is spent there preparing for the all-important test, but society is ingrained in the process, and change will come slowly.

Poland, on the other hand, seemed to have changed overnight. Less dependent on technology (Finland, South Korea, too) kids there learn math skills in the head (mental math) instead of whipping out a calculator. That does something to your formal thinking skills, I believe, and is something that the PISA tests seem to assess. The PISA tests are where the United States does only ok, and other countries, like the Scandinavians or South Korea, excel. What gives?

If you’re in education, or otherwise, this book is worth your time, especially since it provides contrasting examples of other models that work well. While South Korea is aflame in private educational institutions for tutoring kids late at night, Finland has none. Instead, they spend an enormous energy on getting things right in the early years, and many / most of their teachers have a Master’s degree or equivalent in the subject they teach, or in pedagogy, which is different from the United States, for sure. I could go on, but won’t. Read the book!

My Rating ☕️☕️☕️ / 4

David & Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants | by Malcolm Gladwell

TLDR: Sometimes things are not what they seem, and often a seemingly impossible task becomes possible with new perspectives – all through vignettes of real stories.

What Amazon Says

Three thousand years ago on a battlefield in ancient Palestine, a shepherd boy felled a mighty warrior with nothing more than a pebble and a sling-and ever since, the names of David and Goliath have stood for battles between underdogs and giants. David’s victory was improbable and miraculous. He shouldn’t have won.

Or should he?

In DAVID AND GOLIATH, Malcolm Gladwell challenges how we think about obstacles and disadvantages, offering a new interpretation of what it means to be discriminated against, suffer from a disability, lose a parent, attend a mediocre school, or endure any number of other apparent setbacks.

In the tradition of Gladwell’s previous bestsellers – The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What the Dog Saw-DAVID AND GOLIATH draws upon history, psychology and powerful story-telling to reshape the way we think of the world around us.

What I Say

Gladwell is a delight to read, or hear. In this case, he reads the book himself, and all the nuances are well established, and every detail described just so.

I’ve read a few of his others (Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers and What the Dog Saw), and they are all good. I get the feeling he’s just an interested guy that has the ability to go find out more, and then he brings it to us, the masses. And I thank him for that.

Sure, not every story in D&G is as fascinating as some of the others, but each highlights well enough stories of strife, challenges overcome, or interesting problems solved in creative ways, or through sheer determination and guts. The little guy can stand up to the giant, even if that giant is childhood leukemia. It’s worth your time, and will open your eyes to wonderful human stories that are well communicated through Gladwell’s expertise in the written, and spoken, language. His description of the original story of David & Goliath alone is worth your time.

And, if you like this one, read the others. And then see the TED talk in which Gladwell talks about spaghetti sauce. Fascinating. Just fascinating.

My Rating 👁👁👁 / 4

Bossy Pants | by Tina Fey

TLDR: Amazingly insightful, and super funny, Tina Fey rose to success after years of struggle, strife, and hard work.

What Amazon Says

Before Liz Lemon, before “Weekend Update,” before “Sarah Palin,” Tina Fey was just a young girl with a dream: a recurring stress dream that she was being chased through a local airport by her middle-school gym teacher. She also had a dream that one day she would be a comedian on TV.

She has seen both these dreams come true.

At last, Tina Fey’s story can be told. From her youthful days as a vicious nerd to her tour of duty on Saturday Night Live; from her passionately halfhearted pursuit of physical beauty to her life as a mother eating things off the floor; from her one-sided college romance to her nearly fatal honeymoon — from the beginning of this paragraph to this final sentence.

Tina Fey reveals all, and proves what we’ve all suspected: you’re no one until someone calls you bossy.

What I Say

Tina Fey is funny. There were sections where I burst out laughing in the car!

She does a great job annotating her career as a comedy insider, and how she got to where she is now. The struggle is real – she handles career, motherhood, management, and all nighters with bravado, and then some. Her tales of family dinners in Youngstown were especially hilarious.

A fun read, and worthwhile. Even if you somehow don’t know who she is, or what’s she’s done already.

My Rating 😂😂😂 / 4

American Sniper | by Chris Kyle, et. al.

TLDR: Firsthand accounts of the career of one of the most lethal snipers in US history, filled with the struggle between duty to God, country, and family.

What Amazon Says

The #1 New York Times bestselling memoir of U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, and the source for Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster movie which was nominated for six academy awards, including best picture.

From 1999 to 2009, U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle recorded the most career sniper kills in United States military history. His fellow American warriors, whom he protected with deadly precision from rooftops and stealth positions during the Iraq War, called him “The Legend”; meanwhile, the enemy feared him so much they named him al-Shaitan (“the devil”) and placed a bounty on his head. Kyle, who was tragically killed in 2013, writes honestly about the pain of war—including the deaths of two close SEAL teammates—and in moving first-person passages throughout, his wife, Taya, speaks openly about the strains of war on their family, as well as on Chris. Gripping and unforgettable, Kyle’s masterful account of his extraordinary battlefield experiences ranks as one of the great war memoirs of all time.

What I Say

Meh. The writing isn’t very good, and the descriptions of battles and events are repetitive throughout the book. By the 15th time he used the word “badass” to describe something, I was ready to turn it off, but stuck with it. Seeing the movie first may have spoiled it for me a bit, but I’ve read plenty of non-fiction war stuff to compare with – try Andy McNab’s Bravo Two Zero as a much more vivid, and engaging, piece about modern warfare.

Sure, Kyle shoots a lot of people, and many people strongly admire him for that, but in the end he came off as unstable, savaged by the war effort, and not able to tell the difference between friend or foe, near or far. His attitude towards the “savages” was off-putting, calloused, and cold emotionally.

While I empathize with him on the cold emotional front (I am often the same), his treatment of others, and putting duty to country first, in front of his embattled family home life, was hard for me to stomach. Overall, an easy read with often way too short vignettes of no more than a few paragraphs, mixed with some powerful action sequences. I suggest you see the movie instead. The book didn’t add any value.

My Rating ☠️ / 4

1984 | by George Orwell | 📖 In Progress…

TLDR: Read it now…

What Amazon Says

In 1984, London is a grim city where Big Brother is always watching you and the Thought Police can practically read your mind. Winston is a man in grave danger for the simple reason that his memory still functions. Drawn into a forbidden love affair, Winston finds the courage to join a secret revolutionary organization called The Brotherhood, dedicated to the destruction of the Party. Together with his beloved Julia, he hazards his life in a deadly match against the powers that be.

What I Say

War is peace.
Freedom is slavery.
Ignorance is strength.

So far, one of the better fiction books I’ve listened to! Or is it fiction after all?

The first chapter had me gripping the steering wheel so hard on the way home! It is absolutely amazing how much this book has gotten me to think in the last few days, and I struggle with understanding my own role, today, as either a party member or part of the proletariat. More to come, as I finish the book. I suspect Winston will be vaporized in the end…

My Rating 🔥🔥🔥🔥 / 4

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