I’ve now been back from vacation for two weeks, and have finally decided that I am not going to find the time to write lengthy posts on each book I checked off my summer reading list. So I’m resorting to my trusty “Observations from the Road” formula, to give you short takes on the four books I read over those two weeks.
Hallelujah Anyway: Rediscovering Mercy — Shortly before leaving on vacation, I picked up this book by the popular author Anne Lamott after seeing several short quotes attributed to her work. Candice’s reaction was, “You’re reading Anne Lamott?” and I understand that sentiment. Yes, she is crafty and crotchety, and she has a “perfectly calibrated NPR appeal” which can grate on some. But yes, I am. She’s funny and a bit snarky, both traits I enjoy (when I agree) and she’s a very good writer. She’s also brief (a quality I’m enjoying more as I plow through 500+ page works).
This is a book about mercy. She wanders a bit in getting there, but in the end there is a good bit to take away from this small collection.
“Mercy, grace, forgiveness, and compassion are synonyms, and the approaches we might consider taking when facing a great big mess, especially the great big mess of ourselves—our arrogance, greed, poverty, disease, prejudice….the idea of accepting life as it presents itself and doing goodness anyway, the belief that love and caring are marbled even into the worst life has to offer.”
“Kindness towards others and radical kindness to ourselves buy us a shot at a warm and generous heart, which is the greatest prize of all. Do you want this, or do you want to be right? Well, can I get back to you on that?”
It’s the attitude in that last line that led me to respond to Candice, “Yeah, and I’m enjoying it.”
The Only Rule is It Has to Work —You knew there had to be a baseball book in the batch…and you would be right.
This is a story of what happens when two numbers guys—Ben Lindbergh and Sam Miller—get the chance to run an independent minor league team for a season. Both worked at Baseball Prospectus and were eager to see how their sabermetric theories might play out in real life.
This is a fun read, in part because both are good writers and they have a good story to tell. (They switch back-and-forth in writing chapters, which you get use to.) For part of the season, they move slowly in implementing their theories. But after they make the bold move to fire the player/manager who pushes back on many of their suggestions, changes come more quickly. There’s the added bonus of having their team—the Sonoma Stompers—become the first professional team with an openly gay player. Sean Conroy’s story is just one example of how the authors blend metrics and human interest in this funny and informative book.
Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us About Who We Really Are — This was easily the most interesting book of the four I read over my vacation, and I picked it up after chatting with a seat mate on a recent plane ride who gave it a strong recommendation.
Seth Stephens-Davidowitz is a social scientist who is using new, big data sources to uncover hidden behaviors and attitudes. He notes that Google searches are a type of “truth serum” because we undertake those searches anonymously and tools such as Google Trends can tell us what people—in huge data sets—are really thinking. “In other words, people’s search for information is, in itself, information.” And as Stephens-Davidowitz explains, “The power of Google data is that people tell the giant search engine things they might not tell anyone else.” That’s true about race, politics, and especially sex. People lie about all three things when taking surveys, but they don’t lie when searching for data in the anonymity of their living rooms. The recent acknowledgement of the rise of white nationalism in the main stream media was something that Google searches predicted in 2008…on the night Barack Obama was elected president. There were more searches using the “n-word president” than “first black president” in some states.
This book has much to recommend it, and much that is disturbing to know about ourselves and our fellow citizens. There is great analysis, excellent storytelling, and witty writing throughout. I could go into so much more here, but suffice it to say that this book will change the way you view the world.
Architecture’s Odd Couple: Frank Lloyd Wright and Philip Johnson — Hugh Howard’s 2016 work on the intersection of two of the 20th century’s best-known architects is an interesting read that ultimately falls short of making its central case: which is that each architect was greatly influenced at a key point in his career development, by the work of the other. It is a hard argument to make given that Wright was a stunningly original innovator and one of the world’s great designers. Johnson was more of a shaper of architectural tastes whose work doesn’t reach the breadth or depth of Wright’s. (Full disclosure: I work for an organization, the National Trust, that owns houses designed by both men.)
Nonetheless, there is much to like and take away from Howard’s work. The focus on Johnson’s breakthrough with the MoMA architectural exhibition that helped introduce Modernism to the American public, while alienating Wright in the process, makes for great reading. The descriptions of Wright’s designing of his masterpieces—Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum—as well as Johnson’s conception of The Glass House, are compelling and showcase Howard’s writing skills.
At the end, Howard’s conclusion gets it right.
“Rather against his will, Johnson evolved into one of Frank Lloyd Wright’s most important public admirers. As a man who worshiped the zeitgeist, he found that his old nemesis’s ideas retained remarkable vibrancy. As he came to recognize the importance and the value of their odd alliance, he also grasped that Wright’s work transcended style and even time. Though it rendered his work inimitable, Wright’s genius was, quite simply, of a greater magnitude than Johnson’s.”
“Today, more than half a century after his death, Wright remains America’s best-known and most admired architect. By the time Johnson died, barely a decade ago, he had become what he himself disparagingly called, ‘the famous architect.’ With his death, his fame began to recede; inversely, Wright’s clearly grows. Yet their connection, in death as in life, enriches our understanding of both grand men of American architecture.”
Once you read this book, you’ll be ready for another field trip to New Canaan, or Bear’s Run, or Spring Green, or New York City to see the works of these two men. And that’s reason enough to pick this one up.
More to come…