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February 2015 Book Reviews

Can you believe it’s March already? I’m having a hard time believing it myself here as temps in Boston have barely climbed above freezing lately… but nevertheless, “Spring” it is. I have noticed the days are getting longer and the birds are more cheerful on my morning walks to catch the bus, so even though the temps remain pretty frigid, I do feel like maybe spring is starting to lurk somewhere around the corner.

All of which feels like a pretty good segue into this month’s book reviews, since this past month I finally got around to reading Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, the environmental classic that warned of a spring without birds if pesticide use continued unabated. Enjoy!

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

Silent Spring by Rachel Carson

“If the Bill of Rights contains no guarantee that a citizen shall be secure against lethal poisons distributed either by private individuals or by public officials, it is surely only because our forefathers, despite their considerable wisdom and foresight, could conceive of no such problem.”
— Rachel Carson, Silent Spring

This month I finally got around to reading Silent Spring by Rachel Carson. I like reading books that started movements and Carson’s book ranks as likely the seminal text which launched the environmental movement (there are undoubtedly others, but I think hers is the most famous).

A scathing indictment of pesticide use (most famously DDT, but she really covers all the bases), Silent Spring stands as a warning against the indiscriminate contamination of the natural world through the widespread application of toxic chemicals.

My interest in Rachel Carson’s book was partly historical (things were at least somewhat on the mend, pesticide-wise, by the time I was growing up), partly environmental (I have strong feelings about environmental issues, although Silent Spring is at this point sufficiently well-disseminated it’s mostly of historical interest), and partly psychological (a part of me is very interested in how and why the right book at the right time can birth a movement and radically change the operating paradigm of a society).

If any of those things appeal to you, then feel free to give Silent Spring a try. Similarly, if you don’t have a lot of understanding of ecology, environmental issues, or why mass application of pesticides is a bad idea, Silent Spring remains as relevant in the basic facts today as it was in 1962. The science is still sound, even if the reality is no longer so dire.

But if none of those reasons appeal to you, I have to say it’s a book better read in excerpt. Parts of it remain stirring and compelling, just as I’m sure they were when the book was first published. But there’s a lot of ecology and wildlife biology and chemistry explained for the lay person and as a scientist I’m finding those bits difficult to wade through. I’m sure the book explains what was cutting-edge science back in 1962, but 50-odd years later and I found it to be stuff I learned in middle school.


Start with Why  by Simon Sinek

“Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. When I say WHY, I don’t mean to make money — that’s a result. By WHY I mean what is your purpose, cause or belief? WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”
— Simon Sinek, Start with Why

If you’ve never read Simon Sinek’s Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action then I have to tell you: you need to read this book. Once again, I’m rather late to the game with this one (it was published in 2011) although I did watch Simon Sinek’s now-famous TedX talk several years ago. When I saw it several years ago I was buried neck-deep in my undergraduate course work and I really wasn’t interested in Sinek’s message. Now, having finished two advanced degrees and joined the ranks of corporate America, I have to say I think it’s one of the most important books I’ve read in years.

If you want a detailed overview of the book’s material, I highly recommend the Ted talk, but basically Sinek’s thesis is that “people don’t buy WHAT you do, they buy WHY you do it”, and if they’re not buying WHY you do things then they’re only buying your stuff because it’s basically the same and just a little bit cheaper than everyone else’s.

I think it’s a fabulous argument and a fascinating bit of human psychology. If you’re a business owner or you aspire to be a business owner (or you’re like me and just enjoy hoarding ideas about what makes people tick) then I highly recommend Sinek’s Start with Why.

On a more personal note, I think a lot of the floundering and directionlessness I felt after I finished my college education had to do with losing my WHY. Prior to graduating from college my WHY had always been something along the lines of “because this is what I’m supposed to do” (the prestigious college, the science degree, the Master’s degree, the well-paying job, etc.) but if those things don’t align with your WHY then achieving them is an awful lot of work that results in very little post-college life satisfaction. So don’t be like me! Start with Why instead, and save yourself years of hard work that will inevitably leave you stranded and disappointed in some place that looks nothing like what you expected.


That’s all I’ve got for this month, folks. Now I’d love to know: what are you reading right now? Tell me in the comments below!

Tired of waiting for my monthly wrap-ups? I talk about what I’m reading each week in my email newsletter.


January 2015 Book Reviews

Welcome to February! After what had been an unusually warm and snow-free winter here in the Northeast, we’ve suddenly acquired the year’s worth of snow in just the past two weeks. Here in Boston we clocked a good two feet last week and another foot or so today.

In case you’re having a hard time visualizing that much now, the snow in our backyard-area (I hesitate to call it a yard, but in lieu of a better word…), is up to the windowsills and door knob of our back door. It’s literally a sea of snow!

And as much as people like to complain about the snow, I have to say I continue to find it miraculous. When it snows in incredible amounts and leaves heaping white mountains on street corners it makes me feel giddy. Maybe it’s because I didn’t grow up with snow, maybe it’s because I don’t own a car, maybe it’s just something in my blood — but what I know is that it makes me a very happy camper, despite having lived in Boston for going on 7 years now.

And so, without further ado (or proper segue), here are this month’s book reviews!

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

“If there is one door in the castle you have been told not to go through, you must… the writer’s job is to see what’s behind it, to see the bleak unspeakable stuff, and to turn the unspeakable into words.” — Anne Lamott

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott

As part of my vision for feeling like a “real” writer in 2015, I started the year off with a classic of the “books on writing” genre: Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life by Anne Lamott. It’s a wonderful book and clearly a classic for a reason — no doubt I should have picked it up years ago.

Bird by Bird is raw and honest and funny and contains some of the best description of the mess of self-doubt that lives inside our heads that I’ve ever read. Both inspiring and relentlessly helpful, I found Anne Lamott’s advice to be spot-on in so many ways. I think I highlighted more pages than not.

If you’re a writer or you want to be a writer I strongly recommend you read Bird by Bird posthaste!


The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

“Everyone tells a story about themselves inside their own head. Always. All the time. That story makes you what you are. We build ourselves out of that story.”
— Patrick Rothfuss

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

This month I finished reading The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss. Well “finished reading” might be an understatement — a more accurate description is probably “galloped madly from start to finish” or something. I couldn’t put this one down!

I don’t read a lot of fantasy any more, but I read a lot of fantasy and sci-fi growing up and I still like to curl up with a good tome now and again and lose myself within its pages.

If you, too, feel like curling up with a nice long book, I highly recommend this one. It’s an interesting and vividly imagined world and a rather brilliantly executed story-within-a-story. The only downside is that the third book in the trilogy hasn’t been published yet… alas!


The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

“[Boheme] had believed in something he called ‘the signature of all things’ — namely, that God had hidden clues for humanity’s betterment inside the design of every flower, leaf, fruit, and tree on earth. All the natural world was a divine code, Boehme claimed, containing proof of our Creator’s love… Beatrix Whittaker had always been scornful of this theory, and Alma had inherited her mother’s skepticism.”  — Elizabeth Gilbert

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth GilbertElizabeth Gilbert is a familiar name, and so it’s with some amount of humility that I admit that The Signature of All Things is the first book by her I’ve read — although I’ve seen and enjoyed her TED talk.

Having said that, I have mixed feelings about this book. The first half was breathtaking — a masterful dance between narrator and reader that left me feeling giddy. Gilbert managed to toe a delicate line between having things happen pretty much just as the reader anticipates at every turn, while still leaving us feeling delighted by events as they unfolded — a tricky balance indeed!

Unfortunately, I found the second half of the book disappointing — which isn’t to say that it was bad, but just that it didn’t keep up to the standard set by the first half. The characters weren’t as enjoyable, the narrator felt less charming, and on the whole the second half was just a bit dull after the book’s whirlwind beginning.

So my conclusion is that it’s not a bad book, and I did think it ended nicely. But the middle does rather drag on and so I’m not 100% sure it’s worth it. But it might be — because the beginning really was that amazing.


Expecting Adam by Martha Beck

“Living with Adam, loving Adam, has taught me a lot about the truth… As Adam’s mother I have been able to see quite clearly that he is no less beautiful for being called ugly, no less wise for appearing dull, no less precious for being seen as worthless. And neither am I. Neither are you. Neither is any of us.”  — Martha Beck

In January I also picked up another book by Martha Beck (bringing my total up to three). This time I selected her memoir, Expecting Adam: A True Story of Birth, Rebirth, and Everyday Magic, a story about the havoc wrought on her life when she learned that she was pregnant with a Down syndrome baby while a PhD student at Harvard.

There are a lot of pieces to this book, but at it’s core it’s a story about transformation and the way in which expecting (and choosing to keep) a disabled child called into question the intellectual elitism of higher education and caused Martha to begin to question the very foundations of her life. She writes:

“I was not looking for information to transform my child into a prize every parent would envy. I needed to transform myself into a parent who could accept that child, no matter what. There were not books for that in the parenting section of the Harvard Coop.”

It’s a book that had a lot of emotional resonance for me because the story of her growing disillusionment with Harvard neatly parallels my own disillusionment with the cult of higher education after five incredibly stressful years as a student at MIT.

With that said, I would have read the book in any case, because reading Martha Beck is a bit like getting to hang out with the awesome (if rather eccentric) Aunt I always wished for. Your mileage may vary.


What are you reading right now? Let me know in the comments below!


Tired of waiting for my monthly wrap-ups? I talk about what I’m reading each week in my email newsletter.

December 2014 Book Reviews

We’re a few days into January 2015 already — and I’m having a hard time believing it! Welcome to the new year when everyone fumbles dates for months and sometimes that pesky “2014” creeps in even as late as June or July. I hope you had a wonderful holiday season and are geared up and ready to tackle a brand new year.

Here are December’s book reviews. Once again it’s a smaller month than usual (although I’m part-way through several books) so the page count comes to 1232.

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.


The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle

As a scientist, I’m leery of speaking on topics religious, but I kind of think I’m on to something writing-related that’s potentially fascinating…

Months ago, I wrote this blog post on how meditation might inform one’s writing practice. And then I didn’t ever follow up on that — but I’ve been pondering it in the wings ever since and I really think there’s something to it. Something that has to do with how to connect with your very best writing, your own most powerful poetry. In light of this tantalizing realization I’ve been doing some reading on meditation and enlightenment.

The basic thesis of Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment is that the way to enlightenment is through harnessing the power of Being in the Now. It’s not a revolutionary thesis — that one should focus on the present, not worry about bad things until they actually happen, or allow painful remembrances to taint the enjoyment of present bounty. It all sounds like rather common sense.

And then Tolle takes things a step further. The state of complete presence in the Now (Being — his word for God), is sought to dissolve attachment to the unalterable past, to the unavoidable future, and to the egoic consciousness itself (that thinking “me” voice that lives inside your head).

I’m not going to tell to you read this book — do if it tantalizes you, don’t if it doesn’t. But I think Tolle’s state of Being, is perhaps not so different from what happens on the really great writing days(just on a different scale). Call it what you will — the Power of Art, perhaps?


In Paradise by Peter Matthiessen

This might be the most interesting book I’ve read this year.  In Paradise: A Novel by Peter Matthiessen is a short novel and a quiet one. It’s the story of Clements Olin an American academic (of Polish extraction) who attends a meditation retreat at Auschwitz, a gathering of souls from around the world “to bear witness” — to what the assembled group is there to bear witness to, Clements Olin is not so sure.

The gathering of this disparate group of witness-bearers is itself witnessed from the perspective of Olin, a man remarkable perhaps only in his unremarkableness. And yet as Olin comes to terms with the history of the place and the ways in which it penetrates his own personal history, he cannot remain unchanged.

One part history, two parts poetry, and one part mysticism — this is a bittersweet book that I might just return to again some day.


The Desire Map by Danielle Laporte

My pick for reading in preparation for the new year was The Desire Map: A Guide to Creating Goals with Soul by Danielle Laporte. Along the line’s of some of Martha Beck’s advice on setting goals, Danielle Laporte’s position is that instead of thinking about what we want to achieve, we should first concentrate on how we want to feel. By first getting really clear on what she calls the “core desired feelings” (the way you in particular most want to feel), this allows us to focus on creating intentions which will create these core desired feelings.

In theory this approach circumvents common problems with goal setting:

  • The mid-goal meltdown. By setting feeling-driven intentions and working toward our goals in a way that honors our core desired feelings we try to avoid the problem of quitting when the goal-seeking going gets tough.
  • The post-goal let down. By clarifying core desired feelings first we try to eliminate the problem of setting goals that don’t turn out to be everything you thought they would be.

As someone who’s done a lot of New Year’s resolutions in the past and actually achieved a grand total of — er — none of them, I’m hoping that by setting “goals with soul” in 2015 I might actually have a hope of making just a few of my dreams come true.

Let me know in the comments below — what are your dreams for 2015?

November 2014 Book Reviews

The holiday season has struck! I’ve spent the last week visiting family in California, and though 16 hours spent flying back and forth across the country would seem like a good thing for my page count — the truth is that I never end up reading as much as I expect to when I’m travelling. That combined with the fact that I’m currently working my way through the Gotham Writer’s Workshop Guide to Writing Fiction, which is taking much longer than powering through a quick and easy novel, means that I’ve not finished nearly as many books as I usually do in a month.

But, they say a picture is worth a thousand words, so I thought I’d make up for my lack of reading with a vista from near my hometown — enjoy!

Patrick's Point State Park

And now on to  this month’s books! My page count comes to just 886 this month.

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.

Dune Messiah by Frank Herbert

Dune Messiah by Frank HerbertAfter much waffling, I was convinced to go ahead and read the first three Dune books. This month’s completion of Dune Messiah means I’m officially two for three. Reading Dune Messiah was interesting, because the novel is set up by a foreword by Frank Herbert’s son which rather led me to believe I would find the book frustrating and less enjoyable than Dune. I didn’t find that to be true in the least.

Was Dune Messiah different from Dune? Yes, of course. The characters had aged, matured, and changed, just as characters ought to do. Was the book darker than the first Dune novel? Yes, but again the characters were older and more mature and were faced with problems on a much larger scale. Personally, I found the story as compelling, the world building as careful, and tale as enjoyable as the first Dune novel.

Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

Broken Open by Elizabeth Lesser

This month I really enjoyed reading Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser. The book teaches lessons about facing life gracefully (particularly life’s downturns) through the medium of story. Both Lesser’s own personal story and the stories of friends, family, and several of her workshop students are explored. It’s a lovely book and I’ve decided to allow Lesser to speak for herself:

“I have trained myself now — when something is not going my way, and I feel rising up within me a big, hard No! — to take a breath or two, and counter that No with different counsel. I tell myself to ‘die to it’…. What must die? Any resistance to the bigger truth. Any holding on by that part of me — my little ego part — that cannot see beyond its own nose…. Practicing dying means living as close to reality as we can in each moment. It is the ultimate bravery.”

That’s what I’ve read this month — how about you? Got a great read I should add to my list? Let me know in the comments below!


Tired of waiting for my monthly wrap-ups? I talk about what I’m reading each week in my email newsletter.

August 2014 Book Reviews

Can you believe it’s September already? Granted, I took a week off this month for a trip to Scotland, and it shows in both my monthly page count (1271) and the number of books I’ve finished. But, on the bright side, a month that passes quickly is usually a month well-spent:

Arthur’s Seat, Edinburgh
Loch Ness
Edinburgh Castle

So instead of fretting, I shall take refuge in what I did manage to accomplish this month, notably the completion of the following books:

Disclaimer: This post contains Amazon affiliate links. I make a (very) small referral commission from purchases made using my links. This does not affect your price.



I finished reading Field Notes from a Catastrophe: Man, Nature, and Climate Change by Elizabeth Kolbert on the plane to Scotland. Climate change is a subject near and dear to my heart, and this book does a great job of being both readable and informative. The book provides a great overview of some of the more concerning recent research, interviews with many prominent climate scientists, and a compelling argument for why action to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions is critically important. If you’re feeling sanguine about Earth’s future then I highly recommend you check your delusions at the door and read this book.





The second book I read this month was The Invention of Wings: A Novel by Sue Monk Kidd. I had previously read and enjoyed her earlier novel The Secret Life of Bees, but I think The Invention of Wings has the more compelling story. Set toward the beginnings of the American abolition movement in the early 1800’s, The Invention of Wings is based on the real story of two sisters, Sarah and Angelina Grimké, who were revolutionary early advocates of both abolition and women’s rights. Though based on real events, the narrative has been artfully fictionalized by Kidd, most notably in the inclusion of the perspective of a Grimké slave, Handful. Both a compelling story in its own right and a fascinating exploration of the lives of the Grimké sisters, this book would make an excellent addition to anyone’s reading list. 






I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” marks the last volume in the trifecta of Brené Brown’s books. I had previously read and loved her most recent book, Daring Greatly, and then was subsequently unimpressed by her second book The Gifts of Imperfection, mostly due to it’s similarity to Daring Greatly (see my earlier review). However, I was pleasantly surprised by I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t).

The first of her published works, this book focuses more intensely on the results of her early research on shame (primarily in women), and I found the more in-depth treatment to be both fresh and insightful. Unlike The Gifts of Imperfection, I thought this was a great book and one that makes an excellent companion to Daring Greatly. FYI: the focus of the book is nearly entirely on shame in women, though brief mention of shame for men is made toward the end.

I’d love to hear from you! Let me know what you’re reading in the comments below.

Tired of waiting for my monthly wrap-ups? I talk about what I’m reading each week in my email newsletter.