What Are You Reading? For March 3, 2019 (Feat. Harari’s Sapiens, Newport’s Digital Minimalism and Tomlinson’s Elephant in the Room)

This month, I started a monthly newsletter of book recommendations call “What Are You Reading?”. I’ll be archiving the newsletter here on good old Milo.

If you want to sign up for the newsletter head on over here. 

_______________________________________________________________________________________________

Welcome to the inaugural edition of “What Are You Reading?”, a monthly newsletter of book and article recommendations by me, Sean Sullivan. I am a father, husband, lawyer, runner and avid reader. My reading is a buckshot affair encompassing fiction, memoir, ancient and modern history, biography, theology, current affairs, self help, philosophy, genre literature in almost all its forms, diet books, and more. I’ll document it all here, but focus on the good stuff.

Ok, onto the books I read this month!

Recommended Books

Sapiens: A Brief History of Human Kind, Yuval Noah Harari This book comes with so much hype, and such rave reviews, I was sure I was going to be disappointed. I wasn’t. Harari’s sweeping history of homo-sapiens is rivetting from start to finish. The central thesis is simple. What separates us from other species is our ability to organize large groups, and our ability to organize large groups is because of our ability to tell stories. Said differently, narrative is what makes us the ultimate apex predator. I was not always convinced Harari was right, but I was always deeply impressed with the clarity of his argument and writing. This type of big idea book often comes and goes, but I think this one is here to stay for some time.

Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World, Cal Newport I’m a big fan of Cal Newport’s work (I’ve read Deep Work, twice). This feels like his best book yet. Part evisceration of social media and what it does to our brains, part guidebook on how to live a less distracted life, this book is essential for someone like me who has trouble standing in an elevator for five minutes without checking his phone. Newport puts together an excellent mix of practical advice, reporting, and science. Halfway through, I deleted all social media from my phone. I feel better already.

The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, Tommy Tomlinsin. Tomlisin is a lifelong reporter. It shows in this memoir of eating (and over-eating), love (and loss), and what it means to try to wrestle back a healthy life with a body that is fighting you, in a world that is trying to get you to hit the drive-through just one more time. Tomlinsin brings the crisp, direct, prose of someone who has written thousands of words on deadline. He couples that with the brutal, heartrending honesty of someone who has looked deep into himself and decided to make some changes. I devoured this in a couple days, seeing myself in many of Tomlinsin’s struggles and deeply impressed with his honesty.

 

Recommended Articles

Why Marlon James Decided to Write a African Game of Thrones, Jia Tolentino (The New Yorker) Marlon James is one of the more interesting writers today, moving from high literary novel to literary crime novel to, most recently, literary fantasy novel in the much anticipated Black Leopard, Red Wolf. This profile by tell you how a great writer develops and hones his craft. It is well worth your time.

A Post-Modern Murder Mystery by David Grann (The New Yorker) Many read this article when it came out years ago, but I did not. If you missed it too, this story of murder, post-modern thought, and police work in Poland will suck you in.

Other

I also read Becoming Ageless: The Four Secrets to Looking and Feeling Younger Than Ever, by Strauss Zelnick.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t note that this newsletter was inspired by the great monthly newsletter put out by Ryan Holiday, which you can sign up for here.

Nelson’s The Red Parts

The Red Parts: A Memoir of a Trial
Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson wrote a book called Jane: A Murder about the brutal murder of her aunt allegedly by a serial killer who was targeting women in Michigan in the late seventies. As she was finalizing the book, and getting ready to go on a book tour to promote it her family received a call from the police. They had new information on Jane’s murder and they now believed the man long thought to have killed Jane hadn’t and instead another man, who’s DNA had been found on her body, was being arrested.

This is a book about the trail of this new suspect. Its about it means for a family to relive the grief of loss, and what it means to be a writer both documenting, and living through, the murder trial of a loved one.

This being Nelson, its about more than that, too. Its about modern policing, and the use and misuse of DNA evidence. Its about how you move on when someone you love is killed. Its about what it means to go home, or if you even can.

I read Jane: A Murder and The Red Parts back to back in the span of a weekend. If you’ve any interest in strong writing or crime, I suggest you do too.

Recommended

Lewis’s The Fifth Risk


The Fifth Risk
Michael Lewis

I’ll read anything Michael Lewis publishes, even the minor works, like this one that examines what happens in the institutions of government when the new leaders not only disdain the institutions, but are also entirely incompetent. A brisk narrative telling celebrating the important of bureaucrats, and the power they hold, and how attacking them, without a clear plan for what to do instead is foolish and dangerous.

A lot of Trump era D.C. books are fearmongering and unhelpful, this one is neither. There’s real insight here in how government works, and how it could be better. Worth reading for that alone.

 

Recommended.

Michael Lewis

Brown’s The Boys in the Boat


The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics
Daniel James Brown

Dad literature in extremis. Which usually isn’t something that turns me off, but this time, it was all just a bit too much bootstrapping, a bit too much greatest generation propaganda, a bit too much they beat the nazi’s twice kind of thing.

It isn’t that the lives of these young men, almost uniformly from hardscrabble depression era childhoods aren’t inspiring. They are, but that isn’t enough to make a good book.

Joe Rantz, the central character here had a childhood that’s hard to imagine today in most of America today. Living in work camps, and unheated shacks, he started working at an extremely early age, and was abandoned by his father and step mother when he was still in high school. Even with all that, he managed to attend the University fo Washington, and win a gold medal in Berlin. That’s inspiring. But in the hand of Brown, it all comes off as a little too Horacio Alger. The prose is too purple, and descriptions, too overwrought. When dealing with material as compelling as the lives of these young men, its better to be subtle, reserved, but Brown doesn’t write that way and that’s a pity. There’s great story here, but not a great book.

I’m sure this has been optioned for a movie. I hope whoever directs it does a better job.

Not recommended.

Winslow’s The Force


The Force
Don Winslow

Don Winslow if not the best crime writer alive, definitely top five. His pacing is always full speed ahead, but without sacrificing character develop, or whip smart dialogue. His two books on the rise of Mexican drug cartels, The Power of the Dog and the Cartel are deeply researched and utterly compelling.

Here, he turns his attention to the NYPD and an imaginary unit of super cops that shares a lot of similarities with the notorious Street Crimes Unit. They’re touted around the city as a team of super cops out to get the baddest of the bad guys, but in reality they’re deeply corrupt and their leader is spiraling out of control.

An ode to New York City and a sympathetic portrait of the NYPD, with its blemishes and all, this book is catnip for a New Yorker like me. Dialogue is on point, story moves at a blazing speed, landmarks all check out. If you like crime novels, or New York City novels, or novels with a plot that flies, this is worth the read.

 

Recommended.

Don Winslow

Delany’s Atheist in the Attic


The Atheist in the Attic
Samuel Delany

I am a huge fan of the work of Samuel Delany and I’m convinced that a hundred years from now, he’ll be one of the most studied writers of our time. This is a minor work made of two pieces, a short novella that imagines the conversations between two great rationalists at the dawn of the enlightenment, the polymath scientific genius, Gottfried Leibniz and the excommunicated Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza. The book imagines the conversations that occurred between these two luminaries from very different worlds and is, in the intellectual tradition of some of Delany’s other non-science fiction works.

Its not his best work, perhaps because it seems unpolished, more a thought experiment than a fully formed work, but the for the fan like myself it illuminates an aspect of Delany too often overlooked – the historian of philosophy and western thought.

This little book is rounded out by an interview Delany did about his recent work, including the monumental Through the Valley of the Nest of the Spiders. As always, Delany is a careful, elucidating interview subject and for the fan, this book is worth picking up just for this.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Delany

Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead


Don’t Call Us Dead: Poems
Danez Smith

A slim, early volume by one of my favorite working poets. You can see the visceral power and honesty here, (some of the poems here are repeated in the more comprehensive Don’t Call Us Dead) but perhaps it isn’t as fully developed as I think it is in his later works.

There’s many wonders to poetry, some of which are just opening up to me in middle age, but one is, frankly, the brevity. It allows you to quickly dive deep into a writer, and with someone like Smith, who’s published relatively little, almost immediately read his collected works and see his development as a writer.

I was blown away by “Don’t Call Us Dead” and you can see the roots of that brilliance in Black Movie. I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Recommended for the enthusiast.

Danez Smith