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. 

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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

Nelson’s Jane: A Murder


Jane: A Murder
Maggie Nelson

Maggie Nelson is one of my favorite writers. Her book the Argonauts knocked me on my ass. Its still one of my go-to gift books. I’ve read almost everything she has written and honestly, you can’t go wrong. But if you want to start somewhere really excellent, I suggest the pairing of this book, Jane: A Murder and its pseudo-sequel, The Red Parts.

Nelson’s aunt, Jane, was a free spirit in a conservative town, who went on to college and then law school, only to be brutally murdered while on her way home to visit her family.

Nelson never knew Jane, she was born after Jane’s death, but the life that Jane could have had haunts Nelson’s family. As a means of making sense of it, Nelson goes on a search to understand who Jane was, what her death did to her family, and who killed her.

This book is deeply researched, whip smart, and so compelling I could hardly put it down. It’s the story of a woman who was brutally murdered. Who she was, and what she left behind, but its also a story about sexism and misogyny; ambition and trauma. I was blown away.

Recommended.

Maggie Nelson

 

Cline’s The Girls


The Girls
Emma Cline

A novel about a cult leader, very much like Manson, and a woman, very much like Susan Atkins, who befriend / seduce a very young teenage girl and bring her into the dark side of the post-summer of love hippie land. Our hero, the very young teenage girl (Evie) is lost, and pissed at her single mom. She falls for the free spirited confidence of Suzanne (clearly modeled on Atkins) and is willing to do anything to gain her attention, whether that’s robbing a store, moving to a commune with manipulative drifter con artist leader, Russell, or sleeping with much older men who might be able to help Russell.

At first it appears that Suzanne is going to lead Evie right into murder, but she doesn’t. She saves her. And the why, and what it means to be left behind, to be complicit but not guilty is what Evie struggles with the rest of her life.

This is a gorgeous, haunting novel about love and solidarity between women, and the cruelty too often heaped upon them by manipulative men. I couldn’t put it down. If you love a compelling story, well told and can stomach some violence and many creepy sex scenes, this is an arrestingly good novel. I’ll read whatever Emma Cline writes next.

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

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

Hayes’s American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins


American Sonnets to My Once and Future Assassins
Terrance Hayes

Another gut punch of a book of poetry by a black man. Viscerally moving sonnets about race, love and America.  Most pointedly what its like to reflect backwards, and think ahead, in Trump’s America.

For many years, I didn’t read much poetry, but lately, I’m drawn to it. There’s only so many tweets you can read, so many Washington tell alls you can consume, before it all feels the same and you need someone brilliant, like Terrance Hayes, to capture the moment in a perfect turn of phrase, the reflect back the world to you in a sonnet that leaves you staring at the page long after you’re done reading.

Perhaps now, more than ever, we need poetry and poets to give voice to what its like to live today.

Essential reading.

Recommended.

Terrence Hayes