August 2015 Reading Recommendations

Hi all,

It’s book reco time again.

I want to start out with an essay titled The Loser’s Game (pdf), which makes for great reading. This piece is about a new way of looking at investing, but is brimming with numerous insights, one of which I’ve tried to put into action to a greater or lesser extent since I learned it years ago.  Basically, instead of trying to be brilliant, you’re often better off just trying not to be stupid.

I got this lesson as it applied to golf back when I first started playing.  I came to golf late in life, and early on I developed a business relationship with a banker who was a great golfer despite being hugely obese.  The guy played in college, and even many years (and a hundred pounds) later shot pretty much even par.  At that point in my golf journey, I was nothing if not aggressive.  I was forever trying to pull off shots that Tiger Woods probably wouldn’t be willing to try.  Every now and then, due to sheer luck, one of those shots would work out, but the vast majority of times I ended up in a much worse position than when I started.

My idiotically aggressive play did not go unnoticed by my banker friend, who said to me, “Mike, the secret to good golf is staying out of trouble.”

Once I finally internalized his advice, my scoring improved dramatically.  Instead of trying to make low-percentage shots, I simply started trying to stay out of trouble. I started thinking about what he said in terms of activities other than golf and pretty much came to the conclusion that his advice applied to life in general.  Just don’t do stupid things, and you’ll be way ahead of the next person.  It’s difficult to be brilliant and do all the right things at the right times; it’s a lot easier to just avoid doing stupid things.

Download The Loser’s Game.  You’ll enjoy it.  I promise.

Along those same lines, here is Gunfire at Sea (pdf) another brilliant essay.  This one is one of a series of talks given at California Institute of Technology back in the 50s by Elting E. Morison and published in Men, Machines, and Modern Times   The entire book of essays is wonderful, but I love Gunfire at Sea because it shows how difficult it is to get obvious improvements accepted by others and how people are resistant to change.  When I first started treating patients with low-carb diets, I was astounded at the results.  My patients lost weight reasonably effortlessly; there lab improvements were nothing short of miraculous; and all kinds of little complaints they had – inflammation, GERD, etc. – resolved.  I told every doctor I knew about my patients’ results, yet no one really believed me.  It was frustrating, to say the least.  Gunfire at Sea is the story of a naval engineer who learned of a way to vastly increase the accuracy of cannon fire from a rolling ship and his efforts to change the way the U.S. Navy trained gunners.  No one believed him, even when they saw results.  It’s a lesson in why people refuse to accept change.  Maybe had I adopted the tactics of William S. Sims, the low-carb diet would have come to the fore much earlier.  Great fun to read as the writer is terrific.

I also want to recommend a handful of books by one of my great heroes, Arthur Koestler.  Koestler was born in Budapest in 1905 to a Hungarian father and Viennese mother.  He grew up speaking both Hungarian and German. His father was an autodidact who taught himself English, so young Arthur picked up the rudiments of that language along the way.  As his life progressed, he became fluent in French, Hebrew and Russian as well.

Most people know Koestler from his most famous and chilling book Darkness at Noon, which is a phenomenal read.  But I loved his two volume autobiography.  Start with the first volume, Arrow in the Blue  and finish with the second volume, The Invisible Writing.

Why is Koestler so fascinating?  Because he did everything.  His life is 20th century European history.  He went to college in Vienna and studied engineering with the goal being to get a job and help support his family. He decided at the 11th hour that that wasn’t the life for him, so he bailed out just before graduating and headed to Israel.  He was totally disillusioned once he got there and started writing about his experiences.  He made the decision to become a journalist.  Went back, got a job at a German newspaper, and covered Hitler’s early rise to power.  He became a communist along the way and that, along with his Jewishness, made him persona non grata in the Third Reich.  He went to France and reported on the situation there for another German paper.  Along the way, he went to Spain to cover the Spanish civil war, was captured, thrown in jail, and sentenced to death by Franco.  While Koestler was awaiting execution, the British and the French were desperately trying to get him freed using his great fame as a journalist as leverage.  After months of imprisonment, Koestler was finely released and returned to France.  He then went to the Soviet Union as a guest of the communist leadership in the hope that he would write glowing reports about the Soviet system in the Western press.  While there, Koestler saw how things were functioning under communism, realized he had been sold a bill of goods, and fled the USSR.  He flip flopped and became a devout anti communist and began writing Darkness at Noon.  And this was all before he was 35.  During the writing of Darkness at Noon, WWII descended upon Europe.  Koestler headed back to Paris only to be arrested and thrown in a French concentration camp. After almost a year, he was able to secure his release and tried to join the French army to fight the Nazis.  He couldn’t join up with the regular troops, so he joined the French Foreign Legion.  In trying to get to his unit, he got closer and closer to getting nabbed again by anti semitic forces of one kind or another till he finally said Screw it, and made his way to England, where he was immediately imprisoned again.

I read Koestler by starting with Darkness at Noon, but before I was very far into the book, I got so interested in the author that I bought Scum of the Earth, his book about his time in the French concentration camp and his ultimate escape to England.  Scum of the Earth starts off with Koestler writing Darkness at Noon (in German) while shacked up in a remote French village with Daphne Hardy, the English sculptress. When the war came, they headed back to Paris, where all his misadventures began.  Koestler started writing Scum of the Earth while in a British prison, and it was his first book ever written in English, which is stunning. (All his many books after this one were written in English as well.)  Incidentally, the English translation of Darkness at Noon was done by Daphne Hardy.

Once I read Scum of the Earth, I was hooked. I discovered this two-volume autobiography, mentioned above, grabbed both those volumes and read them.  Then finally went back and read Darkness at Noon.

Koestler is a phenomenal writer.  His writing is so easy to read, yet when you read Koestler about his writing habits, he talks about how difficult it is for him to write and what a struggle he has.  Makes me think of the comment by the German novelist Thomas Mann that “a writer is somebody for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people”.  It seems like Koestler’s prose just flows along so smoothly — it’s difficult for me to imagine his struggling with it.  And when you consider how much he wrote, it is really astonishing.

Read Koestler.  You’ll be the better for it.  You’ll get insights into one of the great minds of the 20th century and learn a ton of history.

If Koestler doesn’t sound like your bag, and you want something lighter, read The Rosie Project  It was recommended to me by biochemist Wendy Pogozelski after my book reco email last month.  It is laugh out loud funny and extremely enlightening.  The protagonist is an academic who is himself on the autistic spectrum.  He decides it’s time for him to marry, so he sets about it in typical highly technical and focused fashion.  I have a close relative who is on the autistic spectrum, and this book helped me understand his thought processes.  And the bizarre and endearing things he does.  Since autism is apparently rapidly increasing in incidence, it’s a good thing to learn how autists think.  The Rosie Project is a good way to do this.  It’s a non-stop read.  I just discovered the second book in the series is out, but I haven’t read it yet, so have no recommendation there.

A couple of weeks ago, I read an article in the New York Times Book Review about the mystery novelist Ross Macdonald.  He was greatly admired by the great Southern writer Eudora Welty, and they became fast friends, maybe even lovers.  What surprised me was that Ross Macdonald (real name Kenneth Millar) lived and wrote in Santa Barbara, where I live part of the time.  And set many of his books there, though he calls it Santa Theresa.  (Strangely enough, as big a mystery novel hound as I am, I had never read Ross Macdonald.) I grabbed one of his books The Zebra-Striped Hearse and was hooked.  Kind of the same style as Raymond Chandler (another extremely interesting author), but less noir, at least in my view.  Lew Archer, Macdonald’s private eye, is a little softer around the edges than Philip Marlowe, Chandler’s character, and not as hard core noir.  I found myself enjoying the exploits of Lew Archer a lot more.  I’m delighted that there are many more books in the series, so Archer can feed my mystery novel habit for awhile.

Finally, to bring this to a close, I have one more recommendation this month.  The book The Great Influenza by John Barry is a spectacular read.  Not only do you learn a lot of virology in easy to assimilate doses, you learn a ton of US history starting in the early 20th century.  I didn’t know, for example, that in the early 1900s US medical schools sucked.  Even Harvard and the other big name universities had awful medical schools.  Anyone in the US who wanted to get a decent medical education had to go to Europe (especially to Germany) to do so.  Most medical schools in the US were diploma mills that used the tuition paid by the students to pay the professors, many of whom weren’t trained themselves.  I also didn’t realize the extent of the influenza pandemic circa WWI. And I was totally unaware of how the laws were during WWI, when it was a major offense earning incarceration to even speak out against the war effort or the idea of America going to war.  Woodrow Wilson, after campaigning on the ‘he kept us out of war’ platform, ended up imposing draconian laws against anyone speaking out against him after he did get us into war.  In today’s world where everyone criticizes every president for everything, it’s difficult to believe it was like it was during WWI.

One of the most fearsome things about reading this book is that thanks to a phenomenon called antigenic drift another such influenza pandemic could hit again.  And we would be just as devastated.  The version of the flu this book is about was incredibly virulent, and unlike most such diseases that devastate the elderly while sparing the young, this flu did just the opposite.  Young, healthy people dropped like flies while the elderly were more likely to survive.  There were reports of people showing up at work at 8 AM in seemingly perfect health and being corpses by quitting time.  Horrific strain of the flu, and it could happen again.  This is a great, great book, and extremely well written.

That’s it for this month. I’ve linked the books above via my Amazon affiliate account, so if you click through there and purchase, it won’t cost you anymore, and I’ll get a few shekels.  But I don’t really care where you get these books, I just encourage you to read them.  You’ll be glad you did.

I’m heading to Belfast, Northern Ireland later this week for some sous vide work, then to Oslo, Norway for a couple of weeks for some more with a three day trip to Kraków, Poland thrown in in the middle of it. I’m finally going to get to visit Auschwitz, which is right outside Kraków. I’ve read so much about that loathsome place, that I’m really eager to see it up close and personal.  With all these plane trips, I’ll have plenty of time to read, so I’ll be back in September with another book recommendation email. Oh, and BTW, if you want to read the best first person account of being in Auschwitz, read Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.  Gut wrenching. It’s difficult to understand how humans could treat other humans as they did.

As always, if you have any book recommendations, feel free to send them my way at the email address above.

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Cheers—

MRE

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