Category: Book Review

Book review posts.

Books I read and enjoyed in 2016

I met my 2016 reading challenge of 60 books, just barely. I won’t recount everything I read last year here. Instead, I’ll cover the highlights, the books that I recall best because they resonated with the most.

Speculative fiction discoveries

I discovered three series, two speculative fiction and one mystery, that I really enjoyed.

Jo Walton’s Small Change series (Goodreads), set in an alternative post-WWII England where Britain has joined with Hitler instead of the allied forces. I enjoy historical fiction, particularly anything set in the UK, so this was a treat. Each book in the series focuses on a different set of main characters. The first is Farthing (Amazon, Goodreads), followed by Ha’penny (Amazon, Goodreads), and finally Half a Crown (Amazon, Goodreads). I enjoyed each installment as much as the other. I recommend reading them in order. You wouldn’t be too lost reading them out of order, but there is a story arc developed and resolved across the entire series.

Connie Willis’ Oxford Time Travel series (Goodreads), another speculative fiction work that takes place in England. The central conceit of the series is that time travel is possible and that its main use is by historians, Oxford University historians, as a method of studying the past. The first novel, The Doomsday Book (Amazon, Goodreads) is set primarily in the 14th century during the Black Death. The second in the series, To Say Nothing of the Dog (Amazon, Goodreads), involves an absurd plot to retrieve the “bishop’s bird stump” and jumps between WWII and Victorian England. Delightfully, one of the protagonist’s sidekicks ends up being an English Bulldog, which I couldn’t help but picture as Bertie. The third and forth novels in the series are actually one story split into two: Black Out (Amazon, Goodreads) and All Clear (Amazon, Goodreads). While each book in the series shares some characters, you could easily read them out of order, with the exception of Black Out and All Clear, which you should read sequentially. To Say Nothing of the Dog is the most humorous of the series, almost a true farce, and the one I would recommend if you are weary.

M. J. McGrath’s Edie Kiglatuk series (Goodreads) is a detective series set in the Canadian arctic where the protagonist is an Inuit hunter and guide. So far I’ve read the first two books in the series, White Heat (Amazon, Goodreads) and Boy in the Snow (Amazon, Goodreads). The author is not Inuit herself, and I can’t speak to the veracity of how life in the arctic is portrayed or vouch that the novels aren’t culturally appropriative. But I did enjoy the characters and setting and found the plot interesting. Recommended if you like detective fiction and are craving something new.

More in series I already know I love

And I read additional installments in series already familiar to me:

Laurie R King’s Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes series (Goodreads) continues to be among my favorite mystery series and I read the sixth in the series, Justice Hall (Amazon, Goodreads), through the eleventh, The Pirate King (Amazon, Goodreads).

I listened to the Jim Dale audio version of most of the Harry Potter series (Goodreads), which was highly enjoyable. Even more so when I re-watched the original Pete’s Dragon the other day and realized Dale’s voice sounded so familiar because he played Doc Terminus.

I read a couple more installments in Walter Mosley’s Easy Rawlins (Goodreads) and Sue Grafton’s Kinsey Millhone (Goodreads) series. I continue to love each of these, but I’m trying to pace myself with each of these, because I am nearing the ends of what’s available.

Other fiction notables

Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower (Amazon, Goodreads), which I found quite compelling and, now, uncannily prescient. It’s speculative fiction set in a near-future America undergoing widespread environmental, social, and economic crisis. Lauren Olamina is the protagonist, and the novel follows her upbringing in a struggling, gated community and then her departure from it and journey towards creating something better. It’s the first of the Earthseed series (Goodreads) and I look forward to reading Parable of the Talents (Amazon, Goodreads). I recommend this as well as Kindred (Amazon, Goodreads), another great piece of speculative historical fiction.

Although I struggled with Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer (Amazon, Goodreads) and Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (Amazon, Goodreads), I’m glad I read them. I did have to skip some of the more violent parts of The Sympathizer.

I loved Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, and so I picked up Swing Time (Amazon, Goodreads) shortly after it was released. I had a harder time getting into Swing Time than I did On Beauty (subject matter is less familiar to me), but enjoyed it nevertheless.

Non-fiction that impressed me

Moving on to the non-fiction that I read last year.

Who Really Matters: The Core Group Theory of Power, Privilege, and Success (Amazon, Goodreads) by Art Kleiner and Leadership Without Easy Answers (Amazon, Goodreads) by Ronald A. Heifetz gave me a lot of insight into how organizations and leadership work.

The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (Amazon, Goodreads) by Grace Lee Boggs and Unearthing Seeds of Fire: The Idea of Highlander (Amazon, Goodreads) by Frank Adams gave me insight into organizing for social change.

I very much appreciated Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration (Amazon, Goodreads), which tells the story of the mass migration of Black Americans from the South to northern and western cities during the 20th century.

Bill Bryson’s At Home: A Short History of Private Life (Amazon, Goodreads) was a delightful read.


Alternative Definitions of Conflict

Some months back, Code Hale mentioned the book Mediating Dangerously: The Frontiers of Conflict Resolution by Kenneth Cloke. I’ve ever so glad he did, as the book has given me a life-changing perspective on the nature of conflict and how to address it. One of the most profound things I learned from the book is a a set of alternate definitions of conflict.

In the book, Cloke says

“Most people think of conflicts as disagreements based on difference over what they think, feel, or want. Yet most arguments have little or nothing to do with the issues over which people battled.”

Understanding these alternative sources of conflict and being able to identify which applies to a given situation is of paramount importance because: “each calls for a different set of strategies to prove the inner logic of the dispute and a different set of questions to elicit honest and empathy.” Because each type of conflict requires a different strategy and set of questions, you won’t know which to employ until you’ve identified the true source of the dispute. Once you have identified the source, you can choose a more appropriate and targeted approach to resolving the conflict.

Here’s the list:

  • Conflict represents a lack of awareness of the imminence of death or sudden catastrophe.
  • Conflict arises wherever there is a failure of connection, collaboration, or community; an inability to understand our essential interconnectedness and the universal beauty of the human spirit.
  • Conflict is a lack of acceptance of ourselves that we have projected onto others, a way of blaming others for what we perceive as failures in our own lives. It reveals a need to hide behind roles or masks that do not reflect our authentic feelings so we can divert attention from our mistakes.
  • Conflict represents a boundary violation, a failure to value or recognize our own integrity or the personal space of others.
  • Conflict is a way of getting attention, acknowledgement, sympathy, or support by casting ourselves as the victim of some evil-doer.
  • Conflict represents a lack of skill or experience at being able to handle a certain kind of behavior.
  • Conflict is often simply the continued pursuit of our own false expectations, the desire to hold on to our unrealistic fantasies.
  • Conflict represents a lack of listening, a failure to appreciate the subtlety in what someone else is saying.
  • Conflict is often a result of secrets, concealments, confusions, conflicting messages, cover-ups, and what we have failed to communicate.
  • Conflict represents a lack of skill, effectiveness, or clarity in saying what we feel, think, or want.
  • Conflict is a way of opposing someone who represents a parent with whom we have not yet resolved our relationships.
  • Conflict is the sound made by the cracks in a system, the manifestation of contradictory forces coexisting in a single space.
  • Conflict is the voice of a new paradigm, a demand for change in a system that has outlived its usefulness.
  • Conflict represents an inability to grieve or say goodbye, a refusal to let go of something that is dead or dying.
  • Conflict is a way of being negatively intimate when positive intimacy becomes impossible.
  • Conflict is the expression of one-half of a paradox, enigma, duality, polarity, or contradiction.
  • Conflict is often a fearful interpretation of difference, diversity, and opposition, which ignores the essential role of polarity in creating unity, balance, and symbiosis.
  • Conflict is a result of our inability to learn from our past mistakes, our failure to recognize them as opportunities for growth, learning, and improved understanding.


Books read, July 2013 edition

I’ve read 32 books so far this year. You can see their covers above.

I <3 Detective Fiction

Once thing you’ll notice right away is that I love crime/detective fiction and that my current two favorite authors in this genre are Michael Connelly and Laura Lippman.

I’m working my way through Connelly’s Harry Bosch series in order and am a little over half way through. I’ll be sad when I’ve read the last Bosch novel, but Connelly is a prolific writer and his other novels include characters from the same universe. I identify strongly with Harry, particularly his creed that “everyone counts, or nobody counts” and his ability to disregard the rules when they don’t make sense.

In a similar vane, I’m working my way through Lippman’s popular Tess Monaghan series. The novels are set in Baltimore, which I have a slight affinity for having visited there and also being a huge fan of the best cop show ever, The Wire. I feel less of a personal connection to Tess, the main character in this series, than I do Harry Bosch, but it’s still awesome to get to read detective fiction where not only the author is a women but the protagonist is as well. Another thing I enjoy about the Monaghan series is that we follow Tess from her very beginnings and have the privilege of watching her grown and learn.

Much to my delight, Sara Gran published this year a sequel to the fantastic first Claire DeWitt detective novel, Claire DeWitt and the City of the Dead, set in New Orleans. The follow-up, called Claire DeWitt and the Bohemian Highway, takes place in San Francisco some years after the first novel. While it was great to visit with DeWitt again, I didn’t enjoy this novel as much as the first. It felt more rambling and less cohesive. Then again, our protagonist completely falls apart during this story and this could simply be a reflection of that. It some ways this second novel felt like more of an introduction to Claire’s world than the first. It left me wanting more, and I hope Gran continues to create stories about Claire. Oh, and if only Détection, the book-within-a-book detective manual, were a real book!

Why did it take me so long to read Neil Gaiman?

Finally this year I read Neil Gaiman. Sherri’s been gently recommending him to me for years, but I’ve just never been interested. “Oh, that’s fantasy,” I’d think, “and I don’t like fantasy.” Well, turns out if you call it magical realism instead of fantasy them I’m perfectly okay with it. What really tipped the scales, though, was going with Sherri to hear Neil read from Ocean and the End of the Lane. I felt such an immediate, strong connection with the story and I knew I had to read it and American Gods too, of which I’d had the 10th anniversary edition for some time but hadn’t dived in to. Well now I’ve read them both and they were amazing. And I’m a bit sad because I know I can never read them again for the first time.

Non-fiction about identity

I read some really great non-fiction this year as well, the highlights being: Far from the Tree, Quiet, Salt Sugar Fat, and The  American Way of Eating.

Far From the Tree, by Andrew Soloman, examines identity, difference and diversity through the lens of families whose children have identities greatly from their parents. Soloman devotes a chapter to each of the following: Deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, multiple severe disabilities, child prodigies, children conceived during rape, children who are criminals, and transgender children. The topics are bookended by Soloman’s own experience with difference, first as a son and then as a father. This book had a profound effect on me. If you read it, I recommend doing so carefully, and consider skipping chapters that might be triggering to you (I skipped the one on child prodigies). What I gained from the book was an understanding of how difficult it is for us to build and maintain deep, authentic connections with one another, and a profound awe at the amount of effort that we’ll expend in order to have that connection. Paradoxically, the book also gave me relief from the pressure of having biological children. It made me realize that the sense of loss I have around not being able to (easily) have biological children is based in a sense of completing my own identity by having it reflected back to me in another human. What I now understand is that this sense of completion is not dependent on biological children, nor is it dependent on having my own identity reflected back to me. What it is dependent on is being connected deeply to others while we are both being our authentic selves.

Quiet by Susan Cain was an important read for me because it helped me understand my own temperament better. Am I an extrovert or an introvert? Depending on how I’m feeling, I flip back and forth between the two on the Meyers-Briggs scale. I love running events and planning things with other people, but simply attending an event where I have no defined role other than attendee is nearly paralyzing. I now understand a lot more about myself: I’m an introvert, highly sensitive to stimulation, but not a shy person. And, I have some more techniques for dealing with highly stimulating environments.

Non-fiction about food politics

If you’re interested in food politics, I highly recommend both Salt Sugar Fat by Michael Moss and The American Way of Eating by Tracie McMillan. In Salt Sugar Fat, Moss examines how the processed food industry has systematically created and marketed food that is not only bad for us but specifically designed to make us overeat and continue to do so. Moss argues that processed food is a public health issue, just as smoking is, and should come with the same regulation and warnings that tobacco products must. What surprised me most about this book was not that processed food is bad for you, or that the food industry cares about profit over our well-being, but just how long this has been the case. I had always thought Kraft cheese was an invention of the 60s and it’s not, it was created decades prior. The American Way of Eating is perfect to read next because it examines the notion that Americans can simply eschew processed foods and eat fresh, “real” food instead. McMillan examines how Americans obtain the food we eat hands-on in three scenarios: as migrant farm laborer picking varies fresh fruits and vegetables, as a worker at Walmart in Michigan, and as a server at Applebees in New York. For each of these scenarios, McMillan lived the part entirely, subsisted on the wages and the resulting lifestyle provided by those jobs. Because of this, we gain insight into the labor conditions of those integral to providing our food, how that food is often unaffordable to the those who make it available in the first place, and how overall economic and social conditions create barriers to utilizing healthy food when it is, seemingly, available. If you have a Michael Pollan book laying around that you haven’t managed to read yet, throw it away and read these two books instead.

What have you been reading?

What are some things you’ve read this year that have really stood out? Oh, and if you’re on Goodreads, send me a friend request!

Thoughts on Peck’s “People of the Lie”

M. Scott Peck, is best known for  The Road Less Traveled, followed closely by People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil, his second book.

People of the Lie explores the psychology of human evil and possible ways for healing that evil. Peck wrote the book 5 years after Road Less Traveled and after he made a firm Christian commitment and was baptized. Peck takes a distinctly Christian approach towards his topic. Other world views are mentioned ever so briefly, but there’s no ambiguity in Peck’s language: Walking on the path with God (the Christian god) is the way to heal evil.

While I find value in many Christian teachings, I am not a Christian myself and given its obvious bias, this isn’t a book I would have picked up on my own. But, after a discussion with my mother, who read it and was profoundly influenced by it, I decided it was worth a read-through. While I disagree with many of Peck’s premises, there are some useful insights in the book and I’m glad I took the time to stick with the more unpalatable parts.

The book starts out with a case study about a man named George who “made a pact with the devil.” The next chapter outlines why we need a psychological model of evil and what that model looks like (to Peck), drawing heavily from a Christian model for evil. Then we a given a handful of additional case studies, some about those who are more blatant in their evil than others. And then we meet Charlene, the “teaching case.” Reading about Charlene made me fairly uncomfortable. Not because of her actions, but because of the paternalistic way in which Peck talks about Charlene. The boundaries between the two of them, or lack thereof, felt strange to me. This could simply be a symptom of how old the book is (e.g. norms about such things have changed since then), or that I am not a trained therapist (and therefore am not skilled at recognizing the proper boundaries of the therapeutic relationship). After we read about Charlene there is a whole chapter on possession and exorcism (more on that later). Then Peck explores aspects of group evil using the massacre at My Lai as his example. The final chapter is about danger and hope: danger of a psychology of evil, of moral judgment, and of misusing science in the diagnosis and treatment of evil. Peck ends the book by giving a hopeful vision for individual love healing human evil.

The most valuable information in People of the Lie is the way Peck describes how evil manifests. For those who have not yet had direct experience with evil behavior and recognized it for it was, this can be useful. And even for those of us who have, it’s reassuring to to know that the behavior you’ve been subject to is something that is not okay.

Peck explains that evil is inability to tolerate oneself as imperfect. Not being able to tolerate the idea that you are not perfect means that you cannot recognize your need to grow. It means that you need to maintain the pretense of your goodness and perfection above all else. People who demonstrate evil see the world as they want to see it rather than how it actually is. To maintain their version of reality, they must scapegoat others and project their own faults onto them. They must attack any and all who jeopardize their self image. All of this means that those who demonstrate evil are entirely incapable of true empathy and can be utterly destructive in their relationship with others in the name of self-preservation.

Now to discuss the less palatable parts of the book.

There are several outmoded ideas, which isn’t entirely surprising for a psychology book that’s nearly 30 years old. Peck refers to autism as “the ultimate narcissism,” a statement that is simply ignorant and prejudicial according to current thinking. Peck doesn’t make explicitly negative comments about queer people, but something about this description during his case study about Charlene rubbed me the wrong way: “Edie had become a lesbian. Charlene considered herself bisexual.” Throughout the book, I kept finding that I wanted Peck to acknowledge the role of privilege and other structural power dynamics on behavior. Instead, he says “free will is the ultimate human reality.” It’s a tremendous privilege to be able to express your will freely (without interference from your biology, your social status, etc.) and Peck completely fails to acknowledge this. In fact, Peck’s examination of group evil is relegated to a single, over-simplified analysis of the Vietnam war and the My Lai massacre. It’s obvious why Peck selected this example (it’s personal to him), but given the importance of society on evil, I would liked to have seen a more in-depth discussion about how, for the most part, we allow evil to occur every single day.

The chapter on possession and exorcism was the most difficult chapter for me to get through. It’s not because I have a fundamental bias against ritual as a healing practice. Quite the opposite, actually. I think community-based ritual has tremendous healing potential and I’m always curious about different cultures’ traditions in this regard. It’s because Peck approaches possession and exorcism as if it is the most true model for evil and true method for healing it. The possession/exorcism model might work very well for a devout Christian, but not everyone is a Christian nor is everyone going to become a Christian so exploring other models is important.

While Peck acknowledges that good and evil have the same source (God), he nevertheless believes that  good and evil are two distinct paths from which one chooses. To choose the evil path is to be evil. While it might be possible to be cured of your choice, evil, to Peck, is intrinsic. It’s something you are.

The problem with this viewpoint lies with its all or nothing approach. If one cannot be thought of as evil than they must be good. Many abusers take shelter in this misconception. It is more useful, then, to focus on evil as something a person does rather than what they are. This means that a person who is generally thought of as “good” is capable of behaving evilly and visa versa. Cultivating healthy community means we must be vigilant for destructive behaviors, not for judgments about who we think is good or evil, because those judgments are highly susceptible to error.