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What I read in 2016

What I read in 2016
  1. The Moon is Down, John Steinbeck - Pretty good Steinbeckian offering about fictional Norwegian town occupied during WWII by Nazis. This is the first non-American setting for a Steinbeck book I’ve read. It has some of the same colloquial feel showing that people are people no matter the time or place. It’s a short book and worth the brief time investment.
  2. Endzone: The Rise fall and Return of Michigan Football, John U. Bacon - As a serious lover of all things Michigan, this was a no brainer. But, for anyone interested in big time college athletics and university politics, this is a great read. I highly recommend it.
  3. The Richest Man Who Ever Lived, Greg Steinmetz - This is a helpful reminder of just how crappy the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries really were. Jacob Fugger is an interesting historical figure who apparently was the richest man ever at a historical inflection point, which makes for an interesting read. There is finance, political intrigue, torture, religious extremism, what’s not to love? You definitely have to have a taste for this time period in Europe though.
  4. The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?, Dale Russakoff - This is the story of the ed reform movement in Newark centering on the mayorship of Cory Booker, governorship of Chris Christie, superintendency of Camie Anderson, and philanthropy of Mark Zuckerberg. It’s a pretty damning tale of hubris and just how complex issues of race, poverty, and education really are. I met Camie in 2007 at a Teach for America Celebration at the end of my corps experience in New York. At the time I was double fisting martinis at a fancy open bar, so hopefully she doesn’t remember meeting me. At this point in my life, 10 years into a career in education I’m feeling more disheartened than ever about the prospects of closing this country’s achievement gap. The rhetoric of TFA in the 90s and early 2000s, when I joined the corps - the notion that all it takes is a great teacher in the classroom and effort can trump technical pedagogical skill and experience - feels a little stale to me and in need of an update. If one takes this assertion of the ed reform movement at face value than if your students are not achieving it’s because you aren’t trying hard enough. I don’t know how this idea can serve as the basis for a sustainable movement. To me, it feels like the quickest way to burn out and through idealists like myself. The Prize is full of examples that shows just what a tough nut high-poverty, urban education is to crack. I definitely recommend this book.
  5. Executive Presence, Sylvia Ann Hewlett - This book looks at how success often hinges on how you act (gravitas), how you speak (communication), and how you look (appearance). I think a younger me would have gained a lot more from this book as earlier in my life I was even less self-aware than I am now. That said, it’s worth the read.
  6. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, Jared Diamond - This book is kind of the sequel to Guns, Germs, and Steel and looks at the opposite question - not why certain societies dominate, but why certain societies collapse (spoiler alert - just like the first book, it’s the environment). While Diamond says he is a cautious optimist, this book left me feeling actually pretty hopeless considering the environmental challenges we’ll have to overcome if we don’t want society to collapse. I did enjoy the discussions of, believe it or not, Montana - which faces a host of it’s own environmental issues that I was pretty clueless about. Obviously the sections on the Vikings and Tokugawa Japan were high points as well.
  7. The Emerald Mile: The Epic Story of the Fastest Ride in History through the Heart of the Grand Canyon, Kevin Fedarko - This book is ¾ history of the Grand Canyon and ¼ the adventure story of three river guides who set the speed record for boating down the Grand Canyon. They did so in a small wooden row boat during one of the biggest floods of the century. The descriptions of the mountains, canyons, and river makes me happy that I moved out west because of just how majestic it is out here. River guides are also just another breed of ski bum, so I kind of appreciated the exploration of river guide culture, but at the same time I kept thinking that I would like this more if it were about skiing. The book definitely dragged at points and calling this an adventure story, in my opinion, would be generous. If you like boats and rivers you’ll probably like this book. If I could do it all over though, I might skip it myself.
  8. Building a Better Teacher: How Teaching Works (and How to Teach It to Everyone), Elizabeth Green - I really did not like this book, which is strange for a couple of reasons. First, I’ve met Elizabeth Green. I think she is very observant, clear, and engaging. I am a fan of her writing on Chalkbeat and in general I look forward to reading her articles as I think they are both informed and enlightening. Second, I am only 1 or 2 degrees of separation from many of the education reformers discussed in detail throughout this book. So, between my positive opinion of the journalist Elizabeth Green, my familiarity with the subjects of the book (both professionally and personally), you would think I’d love this book. I’m sad to say that I really did not enjoy this book at all. First, the discussion of the development of ‘progressive’ teaching practices in the late 80s and 90s was not interesting because of how far education has come from that point. I just kept thinking, well that didn’t work or we’ve moved on from that idea. The section on Japan was one of the most interesting parts of the book - lesson study is clearly a high leverage practice with few analogues here in the states. At the same time the narrator, who otherwise had flawless non-accented pronunciation throughout the reading, used what I am assuming was a fake Japanese / East Asian accent when reading some of the quotes from Japanese characters. This came off as a really strange production choice that I found mildly offensive. The remaining portions of the book covering topics near and dear to us Education Reformers such as Teach for America, nationally renowned charter organizations like Uncommon Schools, KIPP, and Achievement First, Teach Like a Champion pedagogical theory, the development and implementation of Common Core Standards, and the advent and use of value based measures as they relate to the work of teaching, just left me unsatisfied. I felt like if I knew nothing about education, maybe this part of the book would have felt more compelling. However, these sections to me felt really superficial. I thought there was a lack of depth and nuance that is the hallmark of excellent journalism and historical writing. Finally, the epilogue was the worst. It was Green recounting her experience teaching two classes at the School of the Future in New York City. After that she walked away really understanding what it’s like to be a teacher. Riiiiight.
  9. The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, Jeff Hobbs - I loved this book about a man from Newark who overcomes tremendous obstacles to go to Yale but ultimately (spoiler alert) falls victim to the violence of the Newark drug trade. Author Jeff Hobbs was Robert Peace’s roommate for four years at Yale and tells the story of Rob’s life, family, challenges, dreams, and death. I felt voyeuristic while reading in the sense that as a white male, I’m getting a glimpse of the life of an African American male from Newark, but through the words and eyes of his white college roommate. There are parts of this story that feel like Goodfellas and The Wire. Rob is such a compelling guy that I root for until the very end. Its also got a bit of a nice nostalgic thing going on because Rob and I went to college at roughly the same time. You would have to be the worst kind of person not to love this book.
  10. All the Light We Cannot See: A novel, Anthony Doerr - This is a fantastic piece of historical fiction set during World War II that follows the intertwining stories of a blind French girl living in occupied France and a German boy recruited into a brutal Hitler Youth academy. The author makes expert use of time and perspective changes that adds interest to the narrative, but without any of the confusion that can accompany these techniques. This is sort of an atypical read for me, but I guess I am a sucker for all things World War II. I’m glad I made the time for it.
  11. America’s War for the Greater Middle East, Andrew Bacevich - This incredibly thoughtful military history asks the question, before 1980 there were almost no American combat deaths in the middle east, after 1980 there were almost no American combat deaths anywhere else, why is that? Bacevich charts American military policy since the Iranian revolution, which he characterizes as short sighted, ineffectual, and expensive. I can remember watching the Gulf War, which Bacevich calls the second Gulf War, live on TV through green night vision filtered cameras. Since then the media coverage of the Middle East, left me struggling to connect all the dots. Bacevich has helped me see the forest from the trees by tying all of these seemingly disparate prime-time news events into a compelling single narrative. In a country that often needs to be reminded of the recent historical record, this book chronicles our missteps, miscalculations, and hubris for all to see. For anyone interested in exploring how America’s current involvement in the Middle East came to be, this is a must read.
  12. The German War: A Nation Under Arms: 1939-1945; Citizens and Soldiers, Nicholas Stargardt - In this excellent social history of the Third Reich, Stargardt puts forth the question, why did Germany fight as long as it did and until total defeat? As early as 1941 a German victory seemed like a long shot after the Wehrmacht's advance into Russia stalled. Certainly by 1944 with the opening of the Western Front after the Normandy invasion and with Red Army forces outnumbering German at least 5 to 1 on the Eastern Front, a Nazi defeat seemed to be just a matter of time. And yet, the Germans fought on until the entire country was destroyed and occupied in May of 1945. Contrast this reality with events in the Pacific War where the Japanese surrendered before a single Allied soldier set foot on mainland Japan. To answer this question, Stargardt explores the letters, diaries and interviews of the everyday German living in the Third Reich. He presents the reader with a glimpse into the thoughts and feelings Germans had in response to the major events and key turning points of World War II. He also takes time to explore the perpetrator victim dichotomy and argues that there was a spectrum of complicity and victimhood in Germany’s genocidal war. Understanding the common perceptions of some the the 20th century’s grimmest moments is crucial in light of the growing popularity of ultra-right wing nationalist politics in Europe, Persistent Anti Semitism, and the current reality of American presidential politics. I highly recommend this book to even the most casual appreciator of history.
  13. Exorcising Hitler: The Occupation and Denazification of Germany, Frederick Taylor - Having read a number of histories of World War II, I decided to turn my reading attention to the immediate aftermath of World War II in Europe. Specifically, Exorcising Hitler deals with questions like How did Germany perceive its own defeat? What was life like for civilians and former soldiers in each of the occupied zones (spoiler it was the worst in USSR and French Zones)? How did the Allies approach the governing and administration of post-war Germany? These questions are particularly relevant today as we as Americans conclude another decade of attempted state-building. Most interesting to me is the historic precedence for the re-classification of prisoners of war to avoid the strictures of the Geneva Convention on prisoners of war. I had assumed, wrongly, that classifying captured Afghans and Iraqis as “Enemy Combatants” was a never before seen eschewment of our American ideals perpetrated by the Bush II administration. However, in World War II the US government re-classified German Prisoners of War following the surrender of Germany. The argument was that since the German state ceased to exist, German soldiers in American custody were not entitled to Geneva Convention protections, which were reserved for soldiers fighting on behalf of nation states. This argument was in part a result of the huge numbers of prisoners America was dealing with after the fall of the Third Reich, but nevertheless resulted in a few notable instances of cruel treatment of German soldiers. This is especially intriguing to me because in my own family history, both of my Grandfathers talked about dealing with German prisoners. All that is to say that German prisoner of war fatality rates never came close to the fatality rates of Allied, and in particular Russian, soldiers at the hands of the Germans. And of course, all of this pales in comparison to the war crimes and crimes against humanity perpetrated by German occupiers of Western and Eastern Europe. I recommend the book to those of you itching to dive deeper into the history of World War II.
  14. Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam, Nick Turse - In Kill Anything That Moves, author Nick Turse argues that atrocities like the well-known May Lai Massacre, were far more commonplace than most American’s are aware. Furthermore he asserts that these travesties were not the isolated actions of ‘a few bad apples,’ but rather the result of policies, strategies, and racism at the highest levels of the US Military in Vietnam. The combination of the young, heavily armed, tired, and scared soldier, coupled with a tremendous pressure from superior officers to increase the ‘body count’ of enemy dead, made the murder, rape, and destruction of civilian property commonplace throughout America’s war in Vietnam, writes Turse. Turse defends his claims through a careful synthesis of the military’s enemy dead versus enemy weapons recovered data, interviews with soldiers and Vietnamese citizens, and national archived cases of war crimes trials, court martials, and other such investigations. This is my first pass at a history of Vietnam and even if 1% of its assertions are true, then America has a lot to answer for.
  15. The Dead Hand: The Untold Story of the Cold War Arms Race and its Dangerous Legacy, David Hoffman - David Hoffman’s book about the end of the Cold War reinforces my belief that there is no better time in history to be alive than this moment. Gone are the Soviet state sponsored biological and chemical weapons programs (hopefully). Gone are the times when a Korean civilian airliner can be mistaken for a US Spy plane and shot down by a Mig fighter. Gone are the days when nuclear reactors were dumped in the Arctic ocean. Anyone who is nostalgic for a past golden age does not read enough history and they should start with The Dead Hand.
  16. How to Win Friends & Influence People, Dale Carnegie - I read this book because it was on the Turing School of Design reading list and I have to admit, I really enjoyed it. Granted, it is fairly dated; its original publication date is 1936. As a taste of how the publication date manifests itself, one of Carnegie’s anecdote involves a businessman having to deal with a secretary who makes spelling mistakes as she records his dictated letters. We also get the words ‘invalids’ and ‘cripples’ occasionally tossed in, just to remind us ‘hey this is not 2016.’ But the dated nature of the prose adds to its charm and in no way diminishes the lessons in human relations that Carnegie seeks to impart. I would recommend this book if reading a book filled with warm anecdotes written in the prose of the late 1930s sounds appealing.
  17. Rework, Jason Fried and David Heinemeier Hansson - Since I’m now a software developer, it seems only natural to make my way through the canon. My first stop is Rework which is written by the founders of software company 37Signals and the creator of Ruby on Rails. It covers the agile approach to business without using the word agile. The authors favor delivering half a product to a half-assed product, working sustainably to pulling all nighters, and getting started now rather than planning long term. I recommend this book especially to my friends in education since I think all of the lessons apply. Overall, I’m feeling inspired to go out and start something new.
  18. Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer - Having one’s mind changed about a particular topic by a book can be both terrifying and gratifying. Eating Animals changed my mind. At the start of the book, I assumed my children would eat meat, but now I’m committed to raising kids who eat in a way that fuels their bodies, preserves the environment, and honors the rights of animals. I am prouder than ever that I have been a vegetarian for 15 years and entirely plant-based (except honey) for the last two years. I highly recommend this book to everyone, especially pet owners and friends who are wondering what they can do slow climate change. The issues that surround the way our country produces meat and fish cannot be ignored by responsible, moral, individuals.
  19. The End of Faith, Sam Harris - This plea for reason in a world divided by faith is perhaps even more timely now than when it was first published a decade ago. Harris argues that faith, or the inability to have one’s mind changed by evidence, is the biggest threat facing our civilization. No matter your faith or political leanings, this book will challenge your thinking as only Sam Harris’s ruthless rationalism can. I highly recommend this book.
  20. White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America, Nancy Isenberg - Isenberg makes the point that in America there have always been poor white people and that class has always been a part of American politics and society. The interesting part of the book was the exploration of political appeals to the white working class over time, starting with Andrew Jackson and culminating in an examination of Sarah Palin. The book came out before the election of Trump, but it’s easy to see parallels between how Trump activated the white working class and how that has been done in generations past. Maybe it’s because I’ve read a fair bit of history, particularly American history with an emphasis on race and class, but very little of what was in this book struck me as new and insightful. The discussion of indentured servitude made me remember the good ol’ days of reading A People’s History in 9th grade. I’d recommend this book if you are looking to understand the rise of Trump in the context of the historical class structure in our country. I’d also recommend this book if you haven’t read a lot of American history. Finally, this book is a must read if you need to be disavowed of the opinion that throughout its history America has largely been a classless society and that success has been equally available to all. That is simply factually incorrect.
  21. The undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds, Michael Lewis. I got one more book into 2016! This is my fourth Michael Lewis book (Blind Side, Big Short, Flash Boys) and it tells the story of how two Israeli friends, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, collaborated on a series of studies that showed how terrible people are at making decisions. We have all sorts of biases and blind spots cooked into our cognitive system and these two Israelis were very good at finding them through experimentation. My big takeaway is that I should stop being surprised when I hear about a decision that overlooks evidence, statistics, reason, and or probability because our monkey brains just don’t work that way. I recommend this book.