The Volunteer: One Man, an Underground Army, and the Secret Mission to Destroy Auschwitz is the stunning biography of a Polish resistance fighter who let himself be imprisoned at Auschwitz to organize the resistance from within. It turns out that there is a task even more difficult than resistance in a concentration camp, and that is convincing the world that what is happening inside the camp is really happening, and could be stopped without too much difficulty. An amazing story that elevates itself from a recitation of facts.
Monthly Archives: October 2019
The author of Underland: A Deep Time Journey explores caves, quarries, the Paris catacombs, abandoned mines, storage caverns for nuclear waste, sinkholes, and more, some with legit guides and others not so much. He’s interested in prehistoric art, the health of the ice cap, war crimes, and plant mutualism. The book strongly reminded me of Being a Beast for its maverick feel and ability to describe the feelings of being in very odd places.
The author of Deep Medicine: How Artificial Intelligence Can Make Healthcare Human Again, a cardiologist, is endlessly optimistic about how AI can not only help reach diagnoses that elude us today, but also help physicians spend more time, and more meaningful time, with patients. After reading the book, I’m skeptical about the latter claim (not that it’s not true; it’s not very much discussed in the book), but convinced about the former. Whether it’s patient-specific nutrition, mining electronic records, reading ECGs, or interpreting routine imaging, machines are just better at it than humans, and certainly better than tired or distracted humans who may fail to engage their deep troubleshooting skills. Let’s hope that medical schools can produce physicians who will deploy the empathy patients (including the author, when he is a patient) crave for, in addition to the wonderful diagnosing technology that is being developed.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud, and the Last Trial of Harper Lee stars a pastor who killed several of his wives and family members for the life insurance money from policies he had thoughtfully purchased shortly before their deaths–and Harper Lee, of To Kill a Mockingbird fame, who studied the trial of his murderer, a relative of one of the many victims. The book tries to blend the stories of the murders, a biography of Harper Lee, and the transcripts of the trial (since Harper Lee ultimately decided that she could not write a proper book from it)– and fails. There’s simply no good connection to be made. Too bad. That murderous pastor sounds quite intriguing.
The Substitution Order is an enjoyable romp around the law and lawyers, centered around a hapless once-successful lawyer who did a little too much cocaine and finds himself working in a sub-par sandwich shop and threatened by big money. His vengeance is worthy of the early Grisham novels.
First You Write a Sentence: The Elements of Reading, Writing . . . and Life is an opinionated book about writing, more of a reflection of writing than a self-help book, for the most part, and often not welcoming to the casual writer. What should we make of, “A long sentence should feel like it is pushing at its edges while still keeping its shape.”? There are some very helpful tactical tips near the end, as in pressing enter after each sentence to immediately see that there is an appropriate mix of long and short sentences, but the overall book was a slog, for me casual writer.
I just could not warm up to Grinnell: America’s Environmental Pioneer and His Restless Drive to Save the West, a meticulously researched biography of George Grinnell, stockbroker turned environmental activist, founder of the Audubon Society and proponent of the Endangered Species Act. Why? For one, the pace of the book is glacial, recounting, day by day, Grinnell’s travels in the West, along with all kinds of less relevant stories such as the amount of money he sent to his mother in law. Also, having read The Fair Chase, I already knew parts of the story. But the main obstacle was Grinnell himself, a rich New Yorker who, granted, did not spend his money on parties and cars, but still acted as if Yellowstone, once protected as a national park, should be his own playground and not shared with the hoi polloi. And while the writer defends his pretty racist views of Native Americans (always called “Indians” in the text!) as enlightened for the time, that’s a pretty low standard.
Fun fact: in Grinnell’s days, freshmen at Yale studied algebra and geometry. Not too taxing, right? They did study Latin and Greek, however, presumably not to be lumped in with the aforementioned hoi polloi.
Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World has a simple premise: many inventions come from outsiders to the field, or at least people who have outside interests. The author provides many examples of athletes and Nobel prizes who started somewhere else. It’s a compelling story, but of course it’s only a story, and one would want some more validation, of which the author provides only a few, if tantalizing, studies. Perhaps not surprisingly, it seems that deep learning, which forces the learner to struggle a bit instead of getting helpful hints from the start, results in initially worse performance but over time proves to create more resilient and capable learners. May all teachers and parents hear that!
Helen Prejean became a Catholic nun just a couple of years before the Vatican II Council, and in River of Fire: My Spiritual Journey, she gives an intriguing description of what the changes meant for nuns who, before, had absolutely no voice in their own destinies, and indeed could not even keep their own names. But the more interesting part of her memoir might be her candid discussion of how, living just blocks away from a poor African American neighborhood in New Orleans, she had never walked or driven there, and was quite surprised when she decided to move there to find rampant police brutality along with dire poverty, setting her on a different course. She has a great sense of humor, whether describing the hot and cumbersome habit she wore in her early years or the difficulties of maintaining friendships with men.
The heroine of Conviction has built herself a quiet life under an assumed identity after a horrible teenage assault when that new life explodes, and she finds herself on a quest to solve a multiple murder. It will take her overseas and against her arch-enemy, all in a droll and understated whirlwind. I have only one nit: there is certainly no bouillabaisse served in the small island off the coast of Bordeaux where the murders took place (and the geography in Lyon assumes the train station is the old train station, I think!) But the plot is wonderful otherwise.