Thursday, September 15, 2016

Never got around to your summer reading? Watch this video to make up for it

If you're like me, Labor Day weekend usually means acknowledging some summer goal fails.  My ambitious stack of reading is a usual casualty (meanwhile I'm completely up to date on House of Cards and the Good Wife!).

So for all my fellow slackers, I'm offering a short list for autumn suggestions, starting with a 15-minute video (NOT a TED talk).

VIDEO: "The greatest medical invention of the 21st century"
You probably would never guess that it's Oral Rehydration Therapy, which has saved millions from dying of diarrheal disease.  In a commencement address at the University of California San Francisco, Professor Richard Cash tells his personal version of the story of how the scientific discovery translated into a very human-centered public health campaign with national success.  My favorite part?  When he talks about how their early failures ultimately led them to a better strategy.

LONG BOOK: Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond
This is a sociological masterpiece.  It has the beautiful prose and story-telling of Katherine Boo’s “Behind the Beautiful Forevers,” except it follows people living in trailer parks and inner-city neighborhoods of Milwaukee instead of a slum in Mumbai.  But be prepared: the author just paints a picture; he leaves it up to you to draw the conclusions. 

I’ve been reading Atul Gawande’s work for many years, and love his ability to make complex medical issues approachable.  All of his books are good, but this one really got under my skin.  His own stories about conversations with patients, friends, and even family members as they are dying keep the issues vividly personal, despite the fact that they are embedded in a larger philosophical backdrop about end-of-life care and what people really consider important as they approach death.
This book had me crying on an airplane though, so careful where you read it.

FICTION ON DEVELOPMENTWizard of the Crow by Ngugi Wa Thiong'O
To me, Wizard of the Crow is kind of the fictional telling of the ideas in Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts.  The underlying theses about human rights, governance, and responsibility aid have a lot of parallels, but Thiongo'O uses a mystical story that involves love and drama to make his points, rather than the scholarly economist approach.  The plot is so intriguing that you won’t notice the political commentary until the end, when you realize that the ridiculous part is how closely so many of the many ideas and actors map to reality.
NYT review

AMERICAN FICTION: Some Sing, Some Cry: a Novel by Ntozake Shange and Ifa Bayeza
There is a genre of books that seems to defy categorization, like “In light of what we know” and this one.  It’s essentially a multi-generational story of America, showing how life evolved over several decades.  One theme I found particularly interesting was how mobile people were; a family from South Carolina ended up in New York and then Europe—part of modernization was the fact that people had more power to move, and this had powerful consequences.  Another great story, well told, with beautiful language and deep characters.

Life is short! Don’t bother with…

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman
This made the list of recommendations from Stanford MBAs, but I would only recommend it if you are looking for something to put you to sleep.  I admit, the premise is fascinating and the guy’s a Nobel Prize winner.  But I’ve picked this up a dozen times and never get through more than 10 very dense pages before flipping over to something else.  I’m waiting for Malcolm Gladwell’s summary that will give me the main points and some fun stories to keep things interesting.

I’m not one to hate on success, but it’s hard to read books when authors are clearly obsessed with how awesome they are.  This one suffers from the same complex of Tim Ferriss in “4-hour work week”—Ben Horowitz comes across as ridiculously self-involved, narcissistic, and arrogant.  By the second chapter, I’m tired of him.  Sure, there are some really great insights and lessons on leadership in there, but whether they are worth suffering the author’s ego throughout, I’m not sure.  Stanford MBAs could stomach it and recommend it as a summer read, but maybe they have built up some immunity to hubris that I haven't yet.

I really wanted to like this—the reviews make it out to be a book I should like.  And yet, the stories don’t reach me.  Maybe I just don’t understand the concept of short stories, but I found that the short vignettes never climax—they start with interesting people in interesting places—but they are teasers.

Another one that sounds like it should be wonderful—what’s not to love about a book translated from Italian, written by an author whose identity no one knows?  That’s mysterious enough to get anyone interested! And yet, here the story just takes too long in the telling, like a song that won’t end.  The characters are interesting, learning about Italy from the eyes of a young woman is fun, but there’s just not enough action to keep my attention.

What’s next on my list

Public commitment is a powerful motivator :) Counting on you to keep me honest.

 Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much by Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shaffir

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