Forging Souls & Failing Your Way to Success: July 2022 Book Reviews — Educated, David & Goliath, Little House in the Big Woods, The Emperor’s Soul, The Undoing Project

Sad fact of life: Everything has a cost. That includes both good and bad things.

And the best (read: most interesting) stories, fiction or nonfiction, reflect that reality. That’s what this last month’s random collection of reads reinforced.

From a book about how the so-called “underdogs” may actually have strengths that the “giants” aren’t aware of, to how an intense (and sometimes intensely troubled) friendship led to one of the biggest breakthroughs in economics/psychology, to the (fictional) account of a convict asked to “forge” an emperor’s soul. It’s all in here!

Side tidbits:

All of the books featured in this review were audiobooks. I also read a few other books that weren’t in audio form, but apparently all the TBR-related reads were in audio. Thank goodness for audiobooks, or else I wouldn’t get anything read, really.

90% of my book consumption is in audio form now, it’s super efficient and really helpful for getting through the 80% of so-so content out there in order to find the 20% WOW content (Pareto Principle. Look it up)

Oh, and I didn’t quite get through my penalty books list this month. Not sure what that means, haven’t exactly decided on a “punishment/consequence” for that, if anyone has any ideas, let me know!

What’s inside this TBR Wrap Up Article:

  1. List of books read this month
  2. Brief reviews of selected books

(To learn more about the Tic-tac-TBR Game, join our Brilliant Writer Merry Band!)


July 2022 Book List & Prompts:

 

Key

(F) = Fiction. (NF) = Nonfiction.

  1. Prompt: Song inspired — “Confessions, Independent Women”
    Educated by Tara Westover (NF) A memoir by a girl who came from a hyper-conservative cult family.
    How I did: Finished the audiobook in a day.
  2.  Prompt: Book based on other books
    The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (NF) Two Jewish researchers whose breakthrough research changes everyone’s minds.
    How I did
    : Finished audiobook in a day
  3. Prompt: Not Childrens’/MG/YA
    David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (NF) Why those we think are “disadvantaged” may not actually be…
    How I did:
    Finished audiobook in a day
  4. Prompt: Urban setting
    The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (F) A
    How I Did:
    Finished audiobook in a day
  5. Prompt: Penalty
    Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder (NF) The memoir of a girl who grew up on a 19th century America homestead.
    How I did:
    Finished audiobook in a day

Selected Book Reviews

 

Personal Ratings & Review

I use 2 criteria to rate every book on a scale of 1–5:

  1. Content: the ideas in this book are interesting, edifying, and worth learning. (Out of ★★★★★ stars)
  2. Craftsmanship: the work is polished, skillful, and well-written. (Out of ★★★★★ stars)

Educated by Tara Westover (NF)

“My life was narrated for me by others. Their voices were forceful, emphatic, absolute. It had never occurred to me that my voice might be as strong as theirs.” — Tara Westover, Educated

  1. ★★★★
  2. ★★★

Educated by Tara Westover is the story of a girl who grows up and eventually escapes her abusive fundamentalist Mormon family, learning to fend for herself in the world of academia after living through a childhood that provided her with virtually zero basic education at all.

Things I learned (or was reminded about, rather) from this book: Cults are scary. Family love can get twisted. Love is hard, manipulation easy.

This book made me wince. Several times. The physical and mental-emotional abuse this girl suffered almost actually made me cry. If I’d been reading it as a physical book, I might have quit. But this was an audiobook and I was doing something else with my hands (painting, I think), and so I just decided to go through with it.

The physical and especially mental-emotional abuse Tara faced at the hands of her neglectful father and vicious older brother makes you ache inside for Tara as a little girl. And yet Tara the writer does a good job of showing how and why her family might have been that way. It’s not for no reason that her dad and brother are the way they are, and along with the pain they dished out, there were also moments of kindness and real support.

That’s what makes family, love, relationships, and the past so complicated and painful. That there are no “fundamentally good people,” but that we all can choose how we deal with our own pain and treat other people, so that the former does not spill out and hurt the latter.

The Undoing Project by Michael Lewis (NF)

“It’s hard to know how people select a course in life…The big choices we make are practically random. The small choices probably tell us more about who we are.” — Amos Tversky, The Undoing Project

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★

The Undoing Project is a biography, not of a man or an idea, but of TWO men, who changed the course of popular psychology and economics.

I picked up this book because of the author’s name. The first Michael Lewis book I read was The Big Short, all about the 2008 financial crisis. Sounds dull, but somehow Lewis managed to make it all make sense, and make his reader feel smart in the bargain (although it DID take me two tries to get through the whole thing, what with my absolute lack of financial background education, and all).

So when I saw that The Undoing Project was available in the audiobook section of my library, I snapped it up. I was intrigued also by the subject matter of the book — the friendship between Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, the psychologists who changed the world’s perspective on how human beings make decisions.

I’d tried reading Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow, and while I haven’t finished it yet, found the ideas fascinating. And I always love to hear behind-the-scenes stories about great creators and thinkers. The more so when the story is about a friendship between TWO great creator-thinkers.

Listening to The Undoing Project was an interesting experience. I enjoyed hearing about the backgrounds of these two scientists, who lived through the Holocaust and all the conflict in Israel before finding themselves working together on their magnum opus in America.

The story of their friendship was at times intense, at times competitive, and, at times, tragic. Human beings are messy, and whenever you put two brilliant ones together, the mess seems to get magnified tenfold. Ultimately, an interesting read, great for people interested in backstories and psychology/economics.

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell (NF)

“Giants are not what we think they are. The same qualities that appear to give them strength are often the sources of great weakness.” — Malcolm Gladwell, David and Goliath

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★★

The Biblical story of David and Goliath is always portrayed as an underdog-beats-expected-victor tale. But what if it’s the other way around? What if Goliath was always at a disadvantage, and David was bound to win?

That’s what Malcolm Gladwell argues in his book, David and Goliath, which begins with the Biblical record and dives into other modern examples of how those we think are “disadvantaged” because of their pasts may actually find that those so-called disadvantages are their greatest strength.

The anecdote that stood out most to me from this book was the one about the doctor who came up with an effective treatment for childhood leukemia by being a passionately self-confident, disagreeable bully to others who tried to keep him from trying his risky ideas on fragile, dying children.

The book really makes you think about the line “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or perhaps Nassim Taleb’s concept of “antifragility.” While I don’t agree that this quote holds true in every (or even most) cases, Gladwell does bring up an interesting and sad idea:

Is it the case that, while having a tragic backstory may be terrible for the person with said tragic backstory, our society NEEDS sacrificial lambs like these in order to survive and thrive?

The Emperor’s Soul by Brandon Sanderson (F)

“No person was one single emotion; no person had only one desire. They had many, and usually those desires conflicted with one another like two rosebushes fighting for the same patch of ground.” — The Emperor’s Soul

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★★

The Emperor’s Soul is a novella by prolific sci-fi fantasy author, Brandon Sanderson. I’m not a major sci-fi/fantasy fan, by any means, but I’ve been studying Sanderson lately, and decided to dip into his fiction a bit more to see what kind of work he does.

This story, according to Sanderson, was inspired by Chinese art stamps — in the past, ancient Chinese people had red stamps that they would use to identify art that they made, or art that belonged to them. In The Emperor’s Soul, these stamps take on a fantastical role — a skilled stamp maker can use stamps to “forge” objects and even people, rewriting their history and changing their form and existence in the present.

The plot: A stamp forger, Shai, is arrested for breaking in and forging a priceless work of art, and in exchange for her freedom, is asked to “forge” the soul of the emperor. The emperor has barely survived an assassination attempt, and while his body lives, his mind is gone. Shai’s job is to go through the emperor’s diary and collected memories to recreate his psyche/soul into a stamp that his advisors can use to “bring back” the emperor.

It’s a brilliant and clever premise, and the execution is done fairly well, also. A solid piece of work from Sanderson, while not my favorite, but a good way to pass the time and learn a little about Sanderson’s writing abilities and world.

Little House in the Big Woods (NF)

“She was glad that the cozy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.” — Little House in the Big Woods

  1. ★★★
  2. ★★★★

Little House in the Big Woods is the first book in the famous Little House on the Prairie series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It’s been years…decades, even, since I last cracked open a Little House book, and I don’t recall if I ever read Big Woods before. It was entirely new to me.

Nothing particularly dramatic happens in this story — it is, after all, the true story (stories?) of an old woman remembering her life as a child growing up in a homesteading family in the 1800s. But the entire book is like a warm hug. I found myself oddly mesmerized by the accounts of how the family makes their own butter and toys, how they get together for dances at each others’ houses, how they spend their Sundays and holidays, and so on and so forth.

Growing up as I did in suburban America, it’s fascinating to think about what life was like in this country a few hundred years ago, how people lived so differently, and yet were so similar to us today. The loves and hopes, the rivalries and joys, they never change, even if the outward forms do.


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