Book Overview 2019

Educated by Tara Westover

One of the most emotionally exhausting books I’ve read in a long time. Having grown up as a part of the Mormon church in Utah, I’ve seen several instances of extremism similar to this (albeit less dramatic). I’m sure anyone who’s lived in a religious culture has. Voids created in families as a result of diverged beliefs, social circles heavily determined by religion, and feelings of confusion, anger, and loneliness for those who are skeptical and don’t quite fit in.

It’s really easy and comfortable to stick with the beliefs you’ve grown up with, accept them without question, and pass them on to your kids. However, it’s incredibly difficult and courageous to question your entire upbringing in the pursuit of a more balanced worldview. I never truly understood how much being raised in a bubble can fabricate your worldview (and make you feel more enlightened than everybody else) until I saw it from an outside perspective.

I have to be careful with what I say here because it’s still a sensitive topic for myself and my family, but I think extremist beliefs, religious or not, can be dangerous and damaging for everyone involved. This story is a perfect example of it. We need to take a deep breath and realize that we’re all in this life together. Nobody has all the answers—we should be learning from each other in a productive way and having open-minded discussions rather than trying to force our worldview onto others.

Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer

This book made me want to hike more. Not extreme mountaineering like the folks in this story, but maybe some mild mountaineering. Unlike fiction that inspires adventure, this was real life for the people involved including the author, Jon Krakauer. He didn’t just do a ton of research and interview others to get a feel for how things went down—he lived it. Gives the story a unique feel when compared to his other books (which I also highly recommend), and makes you feel like you were right there with him.

Tragically, so many died on this expedition to summit Everest, but there’s something to be said about the fact that they died while out on an incredible adventure. They were at the pinnacle of fitness and mindfulness, and trying to accomplish something not many humans have done before. You can’t help but respect the hell out of them for it. Same can be said for the Sherpas, who’s physical ability is just as impressive as their life-long dedication to service and adventure.

This story also serves as a not-so-gentle reminder that nature is unforgiving, and things can turn from mildly annoying to deadly in a matter of minutes. The mountain doesn’t care if you’re a wealthy socialite or a humble Sherpa—you’re on the same level as everyone else up there.

The one great advantage which inexperience confers on the would-be mountaineer is that he is not bogged down by tradition or precedence. To him, all things appear simple, and he chooses straightforward solutions to the problems he faces. Often, of course, it defeats the success he is seeking, and sometimes it has tragic results, but the man himself doesn’t know this when he sets out on his adventure. Maurice Wilson, Earl Denman, Klavs Becker-Larsen—none of them knew much about mountain climbing or they would not have set out on their hopeless quests, yet, untrammelled by techniques, determination carried them a long way.

The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu

This book was originally written in Chinese and translated to English six years later, so it was a fascinating read but difficult to follow at times. Not only does it help you realize how awful it would be to live under a tyrannical government, but it also explores the idea of a world that is reluctant to believe in scientific evidence. Overall it was an interesting mix of politics, war, aliens, space, physics, and computational problem solving at a fundamental level.

Beneath a Scarlet Sky by Mark Sullivan

Every once in awhile I need a good historical fiction. This one is based on a true story set in the 1940’s during World War II in Italy. It’s heartbreaking, exciting, and meticulous as it paints a picture of young Pino, who’s a relatable young guy obsessed with music, food, and girls, getting pulled into the world of war. He falls in love, endures some horrible things, and remains positive as he does everything he can to fight the Nazis incognito.

This book gets a lot of negative reviews because the author focuses attention on the main character’s life and accomplishments rather than the details of the war, but I think there’s plenty of other good books out there (both fiction and non-fiction) which highlight the details of WW2. It’s interesting to experience it from a different perspective.

Pino: “Is that really all you want? To chase happiness, and live passionately?” Anna: “Can you imagine any other way to do it?”

We never know what will happen next, what we will see, and what important person will come into our life, or what important person we will lose. Life is change, constant change, and unless we are lucky enough to find comedy in it, change is nearly always a drama, if not a tragedy. But after everything, and even when the skies turn scarlet and threatening, I still believe that if we are lucky enough to be alive, we must give thanks for the miracle of every moment of every day, no matter how flawed. And we must have faith in God, and in the Universe, and in a better tomorrow, even if that faith is not always deserved.

Left of Boom by Douglas Laux and Ralph Pezzullo

It’s uncomfortable to think about what it would be like to completely hide most of the details of your life from everyone including friends, family, and loved ones. The work Doug was doing for the CIA was so significant and impressive, yet he couldn’t tell a soul about it outside his circle of work peers. What kind of psychological toll does that take on a man?

A lot of these types of books are filled with pages of mundane details, but this one was riveting from cover to cover. Doug was just a regular guy fresh out of college, and joined the CIA to eventually become a successful field officer in a remote area of Afghanistan—completely blending in with the locals, perfecting the language, and gathering intel for our country in a secret war. You really can’t help but have massive respect for Doug and other officers/agents/soldiers who put their lives at risk to protect our country. This book made me all the more grateful for the sacrifices they make.

Even in an organization as large and full of bureaucratic red tape as the government, there’s still room for innovation and creative problem solving. It just takes the right mind to do it, and a lot of determination in the right place at the right time.

Timeline by Michael Crichton

Michael Crichton remains one of my favorite authors, mostly because I grew up reading Jurassic Park more times than I can count. His books are always pretty short and easy to read over a long weekend. I enjoyed this one in particular because I’ve always had a weird fascination with the Middle Ages. After spending some time in Europe and being exposed to some truly old cities (compared to cities in the US), it got me thinking about how these places looked half a millennium ago. How were they furnished? What were they used for? What did they smell like? (Poo and body odor, probably.) What were the people like, and what did they talk about during their day-to-day? It’s fascinating to think about.

A moment that stuck with me from this book is when the group first sets foot in the medieval world. One of the first things they notice is how quiet it is—the complete lack of ambient noise. We’ve become so accustomed to man-made white noise (planes in the sky, distant traffic, ventilation systems, etc.) that it’s nearly impossible to find a place that’s completely isolated from it. We don’t even notice until it’s missing.

Bad Blood by John Carreyrou

I’ve been in the startup world for quite some time now, both as a founder and working for/with/around other founders, and stories like this when someone over-promises and under-delivers are extremely common. Theranos just happened to get away with it for much longer than it should have—not to mention their product was medical-related, so it probably wasn’t the best idea to lie about its functionality. Although their product was innovative early on, when they decided to swindle investors and the public, they put human lives in danger.

That being said, you can’t help but have some empathy for Elizabeth Holmes. She really did try hard to make the world a better place. She just placed her trust in the wrong person, infatuated and blinded by a deep desire to be famous and successful—to be seen by the world as the next Steve Jobs. You can imagine how devastating it’d be to accept the fact that your product literally couldn’t function as intended, and all the hard work, devotion, and money you and others put into it over the years was wasted. She was willing to do whatever it took to hide her failure rather than embrace and learn from it. It’s a shame that she didn’t have the courage to be honest about her company, because they could’ve eventually had a breakthrough that changed the world.

Permanent Record by Edward Snowden

I bought the hardcover version of this book with cash rather than the Kindle version, because you know… the government. Didn’t want them to know I was reading it.

I’m kidding of course (about the reasoning, I did buy the hardcover.) But my opinion on this subject has changed quite a bit as I’ve thought about it over the past few months. At first I was disgusted by what the government was doing, but now I’m not so sure. Although government overreach is a problem that needs to be kept in check, I believe that people go a bit too far with their expectations of privacy. As long as you’re a living, breathing human, you’ll never have 100% privacy for anything unless you don’t use technology, don’t live in a community, don’t go outside, don’t have family or friends, don’t make any noise, don’t talk to anyone, and don’t buy anything. Why should we expect the same on the internet?

I might be venturing into controversial opinions here, and I want to state that I don’t endorse governmental spying without reason—I enjoy my privacy just as much as the next person. But at the same time, the world is full of corruption, hackers, terrorists, and people who are looking to harm you. Unless society is full of cybersecurity engineers, we’d be living out Mad Max without some type of protection (both physical and virtual). I like to believe the US had good intentions when setting up these wire-tapping programs, but they went too far after being left unchecked for so long.

Internet privacy is a delicate balance that needs to be struck. With the technology being so new, we haven’t had time to find that balance yet—but it shouldn’t be an extreme on either side. Most countries will get torn apart in cyberspace if left to fend for themselves, so we need to give the government some leniency to protect us. As long as we’re aware of the bargain we’re making, and it’s not being swept under the rug.

Congo by Michael Crichton

This one makes you think about the unexplored territories of our planet. It’s mind-boggling that with so many advances in technology and 7.5 billion people in the world, some locations remain so isolated that we still don’t have the physical capacity to map them out. What’s lurking there? Cannibalistic tribes who have never come into contact with modern society? Undiscovered species or subspecies? Aliens who have made themselves at home? Nobody knows. It’s a breeding ground for myth and superstition. The same can be said for the deepest parts of the ocean… but let’s save that discussion for another Michael Crichton review.

Amy the gorilla, who is somehow connected to the Lost City of Zinj, is endearing and you start to care about her. Anybody know where I can adopt a baby gorilla? Michael Crichton probably based this novel on a new giant ape species discovered in the Congo, which are ferocious and capable of killing lions. Guess I’ll cancel my plans to map out missing areas of the rainforest until I’m in better shape.

American Kingpin by Nick Bilton

Double life imprisonment, plus forty years without the possibility of parole (couldn’t they just say until the day you f***ing die?). If you ask me whether he deserves that sentencing, I’ll tell you to form your own opinion after reading the book. But it does make you think about the justice system here in the US—it’s probably not fair 100% of the time.

Ross Ulbricht let his success go to his head and thought nothing of killing to keep his position. There’s no proof that any of the hits actually happened, but the fact that he paid a huge amount of money for them speaks for itself. That and the fact that he was selling drugs and other illegal items to people all over the world—definitely not okay, but does he deserve life in prison for it? People can and do change, as do laws. Is it fair that someone should spend a majority of their life in prison for breaking a law that may one day become legal? If drugs and the selling of drugs were ever 100% legalized, how would that make the folks feel who are currently serving life sentences for drug-related crimes?

I don’t do drugs and never have, but stories like this make you think a lot about the war on drugs and whether it’s effective at keeping people safe. Or if it’s doing the complete opposite by creating black markets, overdoses, and other issues related to a lack of education and proper support. Portugal decriminalized drugs in 2001, and drug-related deaths in 2015 was 6 per million. In the US? 312 per million.

Most people go through life thinking that tomorrow they’re going to do something great. Tomorrow will be the day that they wake up and discover what they were put on this earth to do. But then tomorrow comes—and goes. As does the next day. Before long, they realize that there aren’t that many tomorrows left.

Go to last year’s book overview.

An Early Life Lesson