Review: Raise Your Game

Raise Your Game is written by Alan Stein, and it’s the sort of performance principle laden book I read when I get an itch to study being effective.

I liked it. It is more brief than many of the other books of its type, but it manages to use this brevity well. Anecdotes and examples in practice from both business and sports, particularly basketball in the latter case, help to illustrate the points very well.

I have a limited knowledge of basketball, just enough to know that when you throw the ball into the hoop it is not called a touchdown. It is not necessary to know much about people or just because many of the anecdotes does not mean that you will need to be intimately familiar with it.

The approach that Stein takes is to look at the various skills that individual members of the team, leaders of the team, and everyone in general on a team need to have. Personally, when I look at my own experience and successful and unsuccessful endeavors, I find that all of the methods and practices can be applied by anyone, but certain ones are more important for certain stages of life.

One of the strong points of the book is that it includes plenty of exercises that anyone can apply. This isn’t the sort of book where you will learn theory but not get enough help begin practicing it.

Another selling point is that Stein is able to use examples from some of the most well-known figures in modern business and sports. In many cases, he has had interviews or other personal connections with them, and the result is that you get a feel for whether the advice given is authentic or not. I believe it is authentic. If you know people who are successful from the context of your own personal life, listening to this book can help you to identify some of the traits that helped make them successful.

This may sound somewhat limiting. If you already know successful people, why can’t you just figure out what they’re doing right?

These notions are difficult and hard to understand without the right perspective, and Stein is a great communicator. It helps to understand things if you can put words to them, and Stein manages to be approachable, interesting, and most of all clear. Many of the concepts that he talks about are familiar to me from the likes of Stephen Covey, but where Stein excels is in making every lesson immediately comprehensible. You won’t get lost in navel-gazing over what he means by technical jargon, because he rarely uses any.

I listened to the audiobook, which Stein narrates himself. He does so with a clear voice and an inflection that helps drive the point home. One does miss out on infographics from the book (they are available online, but it is not necessarily convenient to go and look them up), but I didn’t feel lost without them.

I think perhaps the best testament that I can give to this book is that it manages to communicate great ideas very efficiently. This is where many writers run into issues.

It is easy to have great ideas, but it is not always easy to make them clear and to convey them in a way that respects the reader’s time.

Raise Your Game (Amazon affiliate link) manages to do this very effectively, and I highly recommend it.

Review: Age of Ambition

I’ve recently listened to Evan Osnos’ Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, & Faith in the New China. I found it an interesting read, but I don’t know that I would necessarily place it on my best books that I have listened to in 2019. Of course, that list has grown rather long of late, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Incerto series has claimed more than one spot on that list (I finished Skin in the Game yesterday), which seems unfair to other authors.

What I find interesting about Age of Ambition (affiliate link) is that it is a very personal narrative, but it is one which backs up that personal narrative with other events that are meaningful, so that one gets a feel for the people who are presented throughout the book.

However, while this approach is engaging as a writing style, the author’s experiences often dominate the text.

This is not necessarily a flaw, since it does give a certain amount of character to what is presented, but it does come with the drawback that not everything is particularly interesting from an academic perspective. As someone who is not really a scholar on China, I was a little disappointed by how little I learned from the book. Of course, I am a student of Cold War history, and I was already familiar with many of the major figures named in the book, like Han Han and Ai Weiwei, so perhaps I simply have a slightly higher level of familiarity with China than the target audience of the book has.

The book does excel in providing interesting information. It just doesn’t present quite as much of the big picture as I would have liked. Again, I think to someone who knew less about China than I did it would have been a very interesting and educational read, and there were some parts that were very interesting, like talking about how visiting lecturers were able to achieve great success discussing philosophical and moral questions in China. There were also places where the author was able to work his own experience in to talk about the parts of China that an outsider would never see, the day-to-day experiences of people who would not normally make the news.

Lest I sound overly harsh, I did actually enjoy Age of Ambition. The big issue I had with it is merely that as much as I enjoyed it, I don’t feel like it’s going to be a book I will remember. If you want a very Broad survey of China it could be wonderful. However, I’m just not convinced that it’s anything more than a survey.

It does give a unique Western perspective on China, which I suppose has some merit in and of itself. However, it feels like Osnos wants to avoid jumping to judgment. This is a shame, because the times when he is most willing to engage with subject and give his personal reactions are also the times that have the most character shown. For instance, he discovers that ferrets have taken residence in his lodgings, not directly in the living space, but in such a way that the smell became a nuisance. He recounts how in China, ferrets are considered lucky, add many people urged him to keep the ferrets almost as an ersatz pet (albeit at a distance). Despite initial flirtations with having them exterminated, he decides to live and let live, and while he doesn’t embrace the Chinese superstition surrounding the animals, he bids farewell to them fondly as he leaves, mentioning that they have recently welcomed new members into the family.

The personal moments like this make age of ambition worth listening to or reading. Again, Osnos definitely knows more about China than I do, and his experiences with important Chinese personalities are of great value. However, he has an odd approach of at times analyzing, and at times leaving as inscrutable, his subjects. This inures him against falsehood, which I appreciate on an academic level, but also means that the reader is going to do much drawing of conclusions as they go through the book, not fully gaining from Osnos’ expertise.

The book is definitely a success in the notion that I feel much more confident explaining some of the phenomena of China, but as someone who’s read prolifically about current events and reporting following China at the same time as Osnos seems to have been in China, and as someone who is familiar with the psychology and philosophies surrounding the major forces of the Cold War (that is to say, conflict between eastern and western thought), I found it to be moderate interest as far as learning new things goes. Where I can see offering a much less reserved recommendation would be to someone who simply wants an immediate overview a China with both historical and relatively up-to-date information.

Unfortunately, being up-to-date is a minor weakness of the book. For those unfamiliar with China’s current events, Xi Jinping has taken over much of the Chinese government at least in terms of influence. This happened primarily after Age of Ambition was written, so those seeking a read on what would be called very current events might find themselves disappointed. Nonetheless, understanding anything is a product of understanding its context.

Nonetheless, Osnos offers what would be called a nonpartisan view of the situation. He talks to people influential and minor, and from those he provides some individuals we would consider Western aligned and some whom we would consider hardliners. As far as I can tell, he is fair to all his subjects, which does make for an interesting read for those who may not have had access to on the ground reporting or biographies of some of the more esoteric figures whose lives are detailed in the book. The count of one of these, college student made the viral hit aligned with Chinese nationalist ideals, was a particularly interesting perspective to look at from a Western viewer, considering that the Chinese nationalist that Osnos interviews is well-versed in Western philosophy and has quite sophisticated reasoning. If one evaluates books from the perspective of using them as a mirror to see the human condition, Age of Ambition is great for that.

Ultimately, the real question of whether I would recommend Age of Ambition has to come down to availability and time. If you are interested in it, if you have the time to read or listen to it, and if it is not a major financial burden, and I would recommend it. This is not a particularly stellar recommendation, and you can’t hear the somewhat humorous tone with which I would express it in speech, but I don’t want to disrespect Osnos. His work is really good from an objective standpoint. My question would be whether it is the best. If you have my interests, it is a great book. If you deviate from my interests, say, if you’re not at all interested in China but you enjoy something like a contemporary history, it may also be an enjoyable read.

Is it, however, a “drop everything and read this right now book”, or a “book to add on your list of books to read” book?

Definitely more of the latter. I enjoyed it in the same sort of way that I enjoy most movies. If you’re looking for a similar interest piece which is more historically removed but still has a richly personal connection, I might recommend Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), a sort of historical biography of Shostakovich. Of the two, Symphony for the City of the Dead is my favorite. But both are similar, both are well-written, both audiobooks are quite good, and I am not complaining about spending time listening to either.

I don’t typically like giving a numerical review score. I feel like it fails to encapsulate all the potential difference between one work and another to put it on a rating scale. However, I feel comfortable saying Age of Ambition is a four out of five. It’s interesting, it didn’t bore me, but it didn’t challenge me either. I wouldn’t be assigning it as course-work, for instance, and requiring other people to read it. However, I feel it was worth the money I put into getting it, and I’m not wishing that I had listened to something else instead.

Perhaps it would be possible to distill my whole review into a very short statement: good read, not fantastic.

Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead

I recently listened to M.T. Anderson’s Symphony for the City of the Dead (affiliate link), which is a biographical history of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony. It is one of my favorite audiobooks I’ve listened to so far on Audible. In addition to just being a generally enjoyable listen (it is read by the author), it presents an interesting look into Soviet culture. Shostakovich lived through some of the most terrifying parts of Stalin’s purges, and as a high-profile artist he found himself frequently in the crosshairs of the regime.

Continue reading “Review: Symphony for the City of the Dead”

Reflections on The Examined Life

The Examined Life (affiliate link), by Peter Grosz, is a book based on his practice as a psychoanalyst. I was led to it by an article that I had read on The Guardian about the use of cognitive behavioral therapy as opposed to psychoanalysis to treat mental illness. The article itself is more in-detail in its findings than I care to be here: you can read it for yourself if you so desire.

When I was in college, I had to read one of Freud’s case studies for a course. It was a survey of the humanities, and while I greatly enjoyed the class in general I remember being somewhat put off of the whole notion of psychoanalysis by Freud.

It is only through the work of Joseph Campbell that I wound up making a connection to Jung, and from Jung I discovered that psychoanalysis of the sort practiced by Freud was not the extent of the field.

Grosz provides case studies of psychoanalysis that are both analytical (as they should be), but also personal. While there is a limit on how much can be said for the sake of the patients’ privacy, there is also a lot of depth, which makes reading the case studies an interesting and intimate process.

There is something about the way that Grosz recounts things that makes the whole affair into something like a biography of the ordinary man. While it is true that many of the clients that Grosz works with would not technically be considered wholly ordinary, the humility that he expresses and the earnest, down-to-earth practice (including admissions of his own errors or misjudgments) goes a far way toward making the read worthwhile.

All-in-all, I finished The Examined Life in two days. The book is structured into sections and chapters based on topics, though the majority of chapters focus on just one or two cases.

There’s something transcendental in reading such things. Our human minds are capable of weaving mysteries hidden from ourselves, but seeing that same process go on in others shows us something of our essence, to borrow a notion from ancient philosophy.

The structure of the book, as it is, is probably one of its best achievements. I’ve also been reading the essays of Montaigne and listening to a sort of biography-cum-analysis centered on his life and works, and I am immediately struck by the similarity in the broad-topic specific-analysis correlation between the two works, written centuries and languages apart.

I think that it’s possible to see something of ourselves when we read a work like this, both in Grosz and his clients. While some of the examples are extreme (for instance, a child who engages in increasingly oppositional defiant behavior), there are also more common examples.

Upon reflection, I can easily draw connections between Grosz’s patients and the work of Ibsen, or of Miller. There is something that is literary and timeless in the individual mortal experience; an archetypal connection between the being of an individual and the Being of reality as a whole.

There is another side here, a side that Tolstoy illustrates in his magnificent Death of Ivan Ilych, the notion that we are incapable of believing that which we do not wish to believe, as Grosz’s patient who has every possible piece of evidence that her husband is having an affair, but only draws the connection after discovering a neatly loaded dishwasher in his apartment away from home.

However, the art of the psychoanalyst goes deeper; the mind is deep and multilayered, and there are things within it that remain unconscious to the individual, shown in dreams and complexes but not in conscious thought. These things cannot be believed not because they are necessarily abhorrent or because a person is in conscious denial, but rather because they are entirely unknown to us: Jung’s conception of this took the form of the Shadow.

The Shadow is the part of the mind that we are unaware of, the subconscious. Confronting the Shadow is important, because it bears strengths and weaknesses that otherwise are occluded from our awareness. Having these known to us provides us with a great tool to improve ourselves, both by extending our potential and by allowing us to shield ourselves from our greatest weaknesses.

Grosz’ work involves voyaging into that realm, that unknown part of the mind, and retrieving from it treasures. To do so, he must often help his patients vanquish the dragons that guard their inner keeps.

I think that this is why The Examined Life is such a compelling read. It is not merely the fact that it presents a deep picture of each of us as individuals, something which we want dearly to believe for the sake of avoiding the oblivion of meaninglessness. This is an expansion upon the explanation given for its popularity in The Guardian’s article, which I mentioned earlier. However, I think that this is just part of the appeal: it is a compelling read not only for its picture of the human individual as a being capable of worth, but also because it is a reflection of the heroic process.

After all, the individual is meaningless if their actions are also meaningless, but when an action becomes meaningful it provides the actor with meaning. Carry that further, to the greatest possible good, and you have a sort of deity in the form of Meaning: values strong enough to justify the pain and suffering of existence.

Review and Reflection: You Have the Right to Remain Innocent

James Duane is actually a fairly well-known law school professor because of his YouTube video simply entitled “Don’t Talk to the Police” in which he gives the reasons why you should, generally, not talk to the police if they ask you questions.

While he may not be a household name, he does have a couple million views on YouTube just from that video, and he wrote a book on the subject.

Video Courtesy of Regent University School of Law

You Have the Right to Remain Innocent (affiliate link) is basically a longer, more detailed explanation of the legal principles summed up in his lecture.

Basically what it says is to never talk to a government official without a lawyer (who can ask better questions than a potential suspect can about what exactly is going on), and if you are asked questions you should always insist on answering in writing after getting the advice of your lawyer.

It’s an interesting book: well-written, full of case studies, and a little alarming. I can’t attest fully to the legal quality of the work, but Duane seems to know what he’s talking about and he’s gotten praise from judges and law professors across the country, so I’ll take their word for it.

The actual read itself is tremendous. It’s incredibly fluid and elegant, despite the matter of its subject, and it manages to go into nuance almost like a conversation would. It does a good job of sticking to its key point while developing each detail, with the following message: If you try to be helpful, you may only hurt yourself.

The case-studies throughout the book are varied in origin, but reflect both serious and minor crimes that people have inadvertently gotten themselves convicted for despite their probable innocence.

The only down-side I can see to it is that there’s a very singular focus, and the basic information that it contains could be presented more quickly. However, since the reason for this is that Duane gives a tremendous level of detail and background to tell the reader why his suggested course of action (immediately ask for a lawyer and comment only in writing) is important.

One of the interesting things that it points out is jurisprudence regarding the use of the constitutional rights guaranteed under the fifth and sixth amendments. I had the luxury of sitting in on a law class during my undergrad studies, and I’ve noticed that both Duane and my own professor (the late Dennis Karjala) have strong responses to judges’ rulings that often seem to be biased against potentially innocent individuals, for the obvious moral reason of wanting to protect the innocent.

Duane’s number one point is that you need to be clear with demanding a lawyer and saying nothing else until the lawyer has arrived. This seems like it’s a little suspect (after all, this is what smart bad guys on crime dramas do), but apparently due to precedents set all the way at the Supreme Court failure to cooperate can be seen as evidence of guilt.

Reflections

I’m not a lawyer and I can’t give legal advice (nor, technically, does Duane), but the practical advice from the book seems clear: the system no longer really presumes evidence.

I think that’s a shame, but I’m not going to go too far into polemics or politics. Rather, I think that it’s an important reminder to us as individuals to set the cultural tone that we want to see in the world.

It’s very easy to assume guilt, especially if the “legal process” has unfolded, but we also need to remember that things that look criminal often aren’t, and allegations and evidence need to be considered impartially (to say nothing of interviews by prosecutors and law enforcement, who have a stake in putting people away and are able to present information provided by defendants freely, while defense lawyers have a limited ability to do so).

It’s not a happy book, but I enjoyed reading it, and I think it gave me some good information. I don’t plan on tangling with the law, since I’m pretty mild-mannered, but that’s perhaps something that puts me in Duane’s target audience: the people who haven’t done anything, but might accidentally give details that falsely incriminate themselves if speaking without a lawyer present.

I really recommend reading this book; it’s free on Kindle Unlimited, and a mere $0.99 otherwise, and the potential benefits are fantastic.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 2)

In my last post, I talked about the first half of George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier (affiliate link), in which he describes the working conditions of 1930’s Britain with a particular eye to the conditions in coal mining towns like Wigan.

The second part of The Road to Wigan Pier is a compilation of Orwell’s thoughts on the situation, and an overview of socialist theory with Orwell’s own interpretations as to both why socialism was not prevalent and what would have to be done to make it prevalent.

It’s worth noting that my own perspectives differ significantly from Orwell’s, and there were very few points on which I agreed with him. This is both due to my own political beliefs deviating from his, but also probably in no small part due to the fact that several decades later many of Orwell’s predictions have become false.

Orwell’s Irony

One of the most ironic things about Orwell’s general presentation is that while he possesses the ability to be brutally honest about himself and with regards to his situation, he winds up falling into many of the traps that he sets for himself.

Take, for consideration, the fact that he describes many British socialists as “cranks” during his overview of why people are not attracted to socialism. Orwell proceeds to be quite bitter, and perhaps even more so than the people he criticizes.

While Orwell does call for a toning down of rhetoric and going from a concept of proletariat and bourgeoisie to a concept of robbed and robbers to appeal to a broader audience, he overlooks the fact that what he endorses is itself no more palatable to most than traditional socialism, bound up as it is in its negativity toward many of the conventions of standard life.

Orwell fails to really provide any example of the “oppressors” in his society; and while he argues that socialists should define themselves by a pursuit of “freedom and justice” in many cases throughout this section of the book, he fails to ever define freedom or justice, much less to give clear examples of why the socialist utopia (or, perhaps, since he is more cynical than to call it a utopia, a socialist world order) would actually be more free or more just than any other way of living.

It also is worth noting that Orwell’s anti-religious sentiment tends to bleed into his arguments; he often says that socialism will replace religion, but seems blind to his own implication that this would only work on the basis of indoctrination and supplanting the spiritual with the political (e.g. creating the sort of Soviet-style commissars that he derides in a couple places throughout the passages).

Likewise, he often actually derides people who are working for justice, like the feminists of the 1930s and charitable workers, as failing to drop everything and accomplish this socialist ideal.

A False Dichotomy

Orwell presents the future as a conflict between socialism and fascism, with no room for a middle ground. However likely that may have seemed from his perch in the early 20th century, the reality that we got is two-fold:

First, capitalism, far from being inevitably destroyed by other factors, has remained alive and well as a dominant economic force, and perhaps even has more principled idealistic adherents than it had prior to the 20th century due to the works of figures like Hayek and Rand.

Second, neither socialism nor fascism has risen to the point of world domination. While Orwell was an outspoken objector to Russian Communism (at one point calling its adherents members of the “cult of Russia”), he predicts that either we would be living in an uniformly fascist or socialist world.

Wrapping Up

The Road to Wigan Pier is an interesting book, and certainly a lighter read than Ordinary Men, the last book that I read, but its first part is certainly much more interesting than its second part.

While Orwell is a fantastic writer, I don’t believe that the same can be said for him as a political theorist. While he is sensible enough to deride trite and hollow arguments, he fails to advance anything of meaningful depth and coherence of his own behalf, at least according to my perceptions of his arguments.

Reflections on The Road to Wigan Pier (Part 1)

George Orwell was probably one of the most influential writers of the 20th century, and he had some great insights that make him an invaluable resource to the modern reader. However, despite the fame of his 1984, many people would be hard-pressed to mention anything else that he wrote, maybe discussing Burmese Days or some of his essays.

Outside of those works, however, The Road to Wigan Pier is one of his better known works, and probably his best known full-length nonfiction work. I’ve been listening to an audiobook (affiliate link) of it on my daily commute, though I’ve also read parts of it in digital format, and I’m about half-way through the book now.

Timelessness

I think that George Orwell’s prose has a particular timelessness to it, and not just because of the subject matter. He’s well known for his fiction writing because of the quality of his work, and there’s a certain tone to it that’s hard to emulate and easy to love.

The matter-of-factness of Orwell’s style could perhaps best be compared to other contemporaries; I think of Chesterton’s Heretics (affiliate link; free ebook), though I am sure that Orwell would be offended by the comparison. He combines stereotypically dry, but personal, British writing with lucid and detailed descriptions of the scenes that he found in English mining towns to great effect. The prose reads like a conversation with a distinguished professor who is also an expert lecturer: formal, but never boring.

The first part of the book details almost exclusively the conditions in the mining towns (and, occasionally, other industrial and lower-class areas) in Britain. While it makes little effort to cater to a non-British audience (it was written for Britons by a Briton, and if you don’t have some passing familiarity of where things fall in England you’ll miss some minor elements), it’s still very understandable and clear.

One exception to this is found in the intolerable pre-decimal English currency, but from what I’ve heard about it having an explanation will not make the shilling and the tuppence comprehensible to anyone who hasn’t lived through them.

One place where the timelessness of Orwell’s study can be seen comes in the notions that Orwell has about the lifestyle of the impoverished. He decries the cheap–barely nutritious–processed food, the cheap luxuries, and the intolerable rents that his subjects face, and the daily wage work that they do with little recourse for injury or protection against job loss.

Orwell’s musings echo to this day in the statements that we often hear about our own society. I don’t agree with Orwell’s politics on all counts, but I have to say that I appreciate his honesty and the earnest presentation of his beliefs, and the rationale he gives for them.

In this sense, Orwell’s work is timeless.

Tremendous Detail

Another place where Orwell’s writing shines is in the tremendous detail of the scenes and personages he portrays.

If you ever needed proof that Orwell is a masterful writer, the first full chapter of The Road to Wigan Pier–in which he describes the various inhabitants of a house that he rented a room in and the house itself–is a perfect example of how to give enough detail to create a near-perfect mental image: I suffer from partial aphantasia and even I’m able to get some picture of what Orwell describes.

It’s also clear that Orwell has a genuine interest in his subjects. He describes people in a way that personalizes them, scenes in a way that project both details and emotion, and events in a way that provides nuanced context.

I’d compare it to John Hersey’s Hiroshima (affiliate link),

Critiques

There are places that Orwell’s writing doesn’t hold up so well. He is, by his own admission, judgmental, and honestly Orwell can be a bit of a jerk. Unfortunately, he wavers between being sardonic enough to make this humorous, and just plain rude. His attacks first against effeminate poets (it’s not entirely clear whether he detests the literary elite or homosexuals, or perhaps some conflation of the two) and later against temperate religious devotees, cement the notion that one feels he would be attacked by both sides if he were to make the same comments in the current day.

In addition, Orwell enjoys over-explaining to the reader. While his prose is good enough that it carries well, he has a tendency to give five or six times as many examples as would be required, then go into further detail, as if he expects his every statement to be scrutinized.

Of course, this could be a consequence of the fact that his work would be scrutinized, but in a day and age where Orwell’s work is sacrosanct, he does not need to build up his work to survive cross-examination. Sometimes the examples are good and varied, in other places they are tedious.

Closing Thoughts

I’m looking forward to finishing The Road to Wigan Pier because it’s quite good. It’s a compelling listen or read, whichever format I’m going through it in, though it can be fairly heavy.

The first part of the book is primarily journalistic in nature (or, now, historical), but apparently Orwell makes some political and philosophical arguments near the end

I strongly recommend it.

Reflection on Ordinary Men: Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

I have a tendency to read books which make me deeply uncomfortable with the world. I’m not sure what impulse drives me to this, but Ordinary Men (affiliate link) is one of these books.

It would be both fair and unfair to call my thoughts on this book a review. I am not qualified to critique the historical methods, factual accuracy, or mass appeal of such a book, but I can say that it is a compelling, necessary read, in the vein of Solzhenitsyn’s work.

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Review of Educated: A Memoir

I have a bad habit of accidentally purchasing things for Kindle, a side-effect of having the one-click purchase set up and too many tabs open at any given time.

The reason this is important is because I accidentally purchased Educated: A Memoir (affiliate link), as well as about a half-dozen other Kindle books over the course of the years.

Educated: A Memoir cover courtesy of Amazon.

I have no regrets.

Tara Westover tells her story in a deep, personal, no-holds-barred fashion, and that in and of itself would be enough to make it compelling if it didn’t also deal with a dysfunctional family dynamic that puts King Lear to shame (or, rather, would make him look well-adjusted).

It is impossible to truly describe what Westover manages to convey without taking so many words that it would be unconscionable to suggest reading the description rather than the source it mirrors, so I’ll have to fall back to a more basic description of my response.

Continue reading “Review of Educated: A Memoir”