January 11

2020 Book Reviews: A Baker’s Dozen Pt 1

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I read a lot of books in 2020, and most of them were pretty good. I trawled through them looking for the ones I got the most out of–either in information or sheer pleasure.  I ended up with, I felt, enough to recommend.  So, I set about putting together a long post detailing all these recommendations.  My wife, Mary Dan (aka MD), asked me what I was working on so diligently, and I her about the 52 books.  The conversation went sort of like this:

MD: 52 books! You’re putting up a post reviewing 52 books?

Me: Yep.

MD: You are insane.  No one will scroll through 52 books.  You are wasting your time.

Me: I scroll through long lists of books all the time.

MD: Yes, but you’re weird.  Most people won’t do it.  You’re wasting your time.

Me: Oh, come on.  Wouldn’t you scroll through a long list of books if you were interested.

MD: I supposed.  If I were really interested.  But I’m not interested in scrolling through a list of 52 books selected at  random by some guy on the internet.

Me: But these aren’t random.  They’re the best from all my reading last year.

MD: Do what you want, but I’m telling you no one will scroll through all those.  You’re wasting your time.

Since she’s generally right about these kinds of things, I figured I would break it into several parts.

Since 52 is easily divisible by 4, I decided to break this into four posts over the next couple of weeks and put a baker’s dozen up in each post.  What follows are 13 of the 52 books I enjoyed this year.  I’ve added a small paragraph to each book describing why I savored it or what I got from it and why I recommend it.

Not all of these books were published in 2020.  In fact, most weren’t.  But I read them in 2020, so they all made the 2020 list. Don’t assume anything based on the placement on this list. I simply put these books on a list as I found them and I’m transferring that list here. Other than the first one, they are not in any order at all, so don’t try to decipher any kind of rationale as to where a particular book is on the list.

Happy Reading.

And if you’re glad you don’t have to scroll through 52 books, you’ve got my wife to thank for it.How to Think
This is the first book on the list, and I purposefully put it there.  It was one of the best reads of the year for me.  Alan Jacobs, the author of How to Think, takes a different look at critical thinking than any I’ve seen before.  A real eye opener for me.  It was the featured book in my first weekly newsletter (sign up here if interested).  Highly, highly recommended.   The rest of the books are in no particular order.The Case for Keto

I just got my copy of The Case For Keto a couple of weeks ago, so it was on the top of the pile.  But I already read it in manuscript form last year, so it counts.  It’s as much an overall treatment of a low-carb diet from a scientific perspective as it is a keto diet book.  As with all of Gary’s books, it’s chock full of insights from scientists long dead whom he’s resurrected to make important points.  I think it was supposed to be a prescriptive book in that it advocates a keto diet, but, unlike most prescriptive diet books, this one presents both sides of a number of arguments.  So you can see the data and make your own decision.

Hello World

Hello World is fun to read, but infuriating and frightening at the same time.  The author, a math professor in the UK, pulls back the curtain on the various algorithms Big Tech uses to collect our data and use it for their benefit.  It can also be used for our benefit or to our detriment. Problem is, we don’t get to make the choice. Big Tech does.  Facebook and Google can serve you ads you might want to see, while saving you from an onslaught of ads for products and services you probably don’t want.  They can also influence your vote, and if you don’t believe they can influence your vote, then just read this book to see how Big Tech can influence other peoples’ votes.  Elections may never be the same again.  Highly recommended book both for the content and the writing style.

Real Food Fake Food

Larry Olmsted’s book Real Food Fake Food is a winner.  I can’t remember when I learned so much about food.  Who knew that real Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese has a texture “just firmer than aged cheddar,” and that it actually crunches in your mouth as you chew it thanks to “tiny crystals of calcium lactate”? Who knew that most of the fish you buy at the store isn’t really the fish specified on the label?  I didn’t know any of this.  In fact, I didn’t know most of the information in this book.  But I do now. Consequently, I’m more careful about ordering fish.  As the author points out, it’s really easy to tell the difference between chicken and lamb if you’re served it in a restaurant.  Not so much so when you get a plate of some sort of fish.  Grab this book and learn all about all the fake food you may find in your shopping cart.  It has made MD and me much more careful shoppers.

The Volunteer

The Volunteer is the story of Witold Pilecki, a member of the Polish gentry, a WWI veteran, and a member of the Polish Resistance, who volunteered to be imprisoned in Auschwitz.  In 1940 the Germans were putting Polish prisoners into what is now know as Auschwitz.  At the time no one knew what was going on inside the prison camp.  Pilecki volunteered to get captured in the hope he would be imprisoned there and be able to set up a means of getting info out.  He took part in a partisan uprising, allowed himself to be captured by the Nazis.  He was sent to Auschwitz where he stayed for two and a half years while putting together a group of agents within the camp to gather intelligence that he transmitted to the outside world.  He reported the horrors going on there, but the world was in disbelief.  He finally decided to escape, which he did in 1943, in an effort to tell his tale of horror in person.  It fell on deaf ears.  Pilecki’s own book on his time in Auschwitz in an incredible read.  But The Volunteer is an easier read and brings in information Pilecki could not have known when he wrote his book.  If there was ever a hero worth reading about, it is Witold Pilecki.

Loonshots

Safi Bahcall, a physicist and biotech entrepreneur, writes in Loonshots about how companies or governments can allow renegades (for lack of better word) to have the freedom to pursue oddball ventures while maintaining the status quo.  It’s not an easy balance. I have no interest in working in a company or, God forbid, for the government, but I enjoyed immensely the tales related about those who did.  The chapter about the development of radar during WWII is fascinating.  As is the one about the discovery of statins and the many hurdles overcome to develop and bring them to the market.  That story has a sad ending.  They succeeded.  Now the world is awash in a sea of expensive and useless drugs.  But the story of how they pulled it off is amazing.  Many other stories to make you wonder how anything gets accomplished.

Life at the Bottom

Theodore Dalrymple (real name Anthony Daniels), the author of Life at the Bottom, is a retired UK physician, who spent his career taking care of the poor and those in prison. He writes, “I am in an unusual position: while I spend most of my professional life as a doctor working in the extensive lower reaches of society, I have, because of my writing, an entrée into literary society. The complacent disregard by the latter of the social catastrophe wrought in the former appalls me almost as much as the catastrophe itself.” The mindset of the people he treats is unbelievable, and makes one believe nothing will ever change.  The writing is superb.  I read it not only for the information, but just for the joy of reading the prose.

The Enigma of Reason

The authors of The Enigma of Reason, cognitive scientists both, ask why humans born with the ability to reason often act so completely irrationally in their possession of seemingly impossible beliefs. In their analysis we didn’t evolve the ability to reason to solve problems, but to be able to successfully deal with the problems encountered while living in collaborative groups.  This is another well-written book that reads easily.  The authors so skillfully mount their arguments that it’s hard to find fault with them.

The Shipping News

Time for a little fiction. I don’t know what inspired me to read The Shipping News.  I had never read any Annie Proulx.  In fact, I really knew nothing about her.  I didn’t read a review of the book.  For reasons known only to my subconscious I just picked it and started reading. If someone had told me what it was about, I would never have read it.  But I was absolutely mesmerized by the story, which I got into quickly.  I enjoyed it so much I badgered MD into reading it, and she loved it.  The mark of a good book–to me, at least–is if you find yourself thinking about the characters months after you’ve read the book.  This one has got one of the all-time great characters.  I don’t want to put anyone off by telling what it’s about, because, as I said, had I known, I would never have read it. And my life would be the less for it.

A Woman in Berlin

A Woman in Berlin is a book I had heard about for years, but just never took the opportunity to read it until last year.  In the final months of WWII, when shelling could be heard outside the city, a young female journalist living in Berlin started keeping a diary.  The people living in Berlin, especially the women, had heard all the horror stories of what was going to happen to them if and when the Russians arrived in town.  The Russians arrived and the populace paid.  Especially the women.  This young woman, who was a terrific writer, recorded the first eight weeks of the nightmare.  Because she wrote about the rape she suffered and the mass rape of others, she had to publish the book anonymously. She died in 2001, and her name has become public since.  You can find it on the internet, but I’m not going to reveal it.  Despite the excellence of the writing, the book is difficult to read, because the conditions it describes were so terrible. But she dealt with it and helped others deal with it.  It really is a testament to the human spirit how people manage to survive under the worst situations imaginable.  Everyone should read this book.

The Great Influenza

I read The Great Influenza years ago and thought it was wonderful.  I decided to read it again during the current pandemic.  Makes for a different read now than it did on my first time through it.  Along with the story of the flu pandemic, the author describes the tortuous history of medical education in the US, which was grim at the turn of the 20th century.  And it details the beginnings of serious US scientific investigation, which was really kicked off by this grim onslaught of influenza.  It’s a dreadful story told well.  A must read during these troubled times.

Ghost in the Wires

I met Rodney Mullen several years ago and we struck up an unlikely friendship (unlikely because I have no interest in skateboarding and Rodney is one of the sport’s patron saints).  I discovered he was into hacking as a sort of hobby.  I had always been interested in hacking myself, but didn’t really have the programming chops to do it.  I asked him if he had a book he could recommend to get me started.  In typical Rodney fashion, he told me he wanted to think on it for a day before he made a recommendation.  He told me the next day that I should read Ghost in the Wires.  Of all the books he had read on the subject, he felt it was the best one for a rank beginner (or even whatever the step is before that) to read.  So I did.  And until I read it, I had no idea what true hacking involves.  Most of it is what is called “social hacking,’ not creating some devious programming virus to penetrate and get info.  A real eye-opening book.  And a terrific read, even if you don’t have plans to become a hacker.

A Statin Nation

For the final book in this baker’s dozen, up popped A Statin Nation. My friend Malcolm Kendrick delves into all the Big Pharma shenanigans that have made statins the best-selling drugs of all time.  He dissects the studies purporting to show their efficacy and, in a meticulous yet accessible way, describes them and shows how dubious the data really are.  If you’re worried about your cholesterol, this is a must read book.  It will provide you all the information you need to have a serious discussion with your doctor.

Back again with the next baker’s dozen soon.

Photo at top by Giammarco Boscaro on Unsplash


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  1. I agree with both of you! Thanks for the great recommendations and I'm glad I only had 13 to digest at once. I'm already not sure where to get started.

  2. Thanks for the list. We have similar tastes, science, nutrition, history. You've saved me numerous hours searching for something interesting to read.

  3. Great Mike I will definitely read number one .
    I wonder if you’ve read and what do you think about the following :
    -Cured The life changing science of spontaneous healing .
    -The biology of belief (Lipton)
    -The Wahl’s Protocol

    1. Hey Jeff,

      I thought I had read the first two books on your list, but when I went back and checked, I hadn’t. I’ve read two others, however, with similar titles. I haven’t read The Wahls Protocol, but I know Terry Wahls, so I know what it’s about. My view of a Paleo diet and hers differ a little, but there is a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of both of them.

  4. I always enjoy your recommendations, and will order a few of them. But the one thing I'm waiting for is the new Protein Power book that has been in the works for years. Will we ever see it? It will certainly be the best thing out there.

    1. Yes, you shall see it. It is still under construction. We are publishing it ourselves, which is the problem. All of our other books went through mainstream publishers, so we don’t need the imprimatur of being published that way. Going through a standard publishing house is a real pain because everything takes an eternity, and you lose all control of the book. They decide when it’s coming out, what it looks like, whether or not it has a bibliography, etc. If we do it ourselves, we have control of all that. But what we don’t have by not going with a mainstream publisher is a deadline. And since we have no deadline, we just keep adding to the book. All kinds of new info, so I think (hope) it will be worth waiting for. We’re going to try our hardest to get it out this year.

      1. Sounds like you need to hire an editor who can crack the whip and make you stick to a deadline.

        I read of someone who went to see Charles Babbage in his dotage. Babbage showed him his incomplete prototypes for a mechanical computer. The conversation went something like this
        Babbage: "Now this is my Difference Engine, but then I had a much better idea and abandoned it and started work on my Analytical Engine over here." He never completed either of them, although the opinion now is that either could have worked and become the first computer 100 years before the invention of the electronic computer. The moral: the best is the enemy of the good.

  5. Thanks! Great descriptions of the books so I was easily able to ascertain if I would enjoy them. I've just checked several ebook editions out of my library.

  6. I'm always on the lookout for a good read. And, given the current isolation of social distancing, I'd kill for a good read. Looking through these titles reviewed, I didn't encounter a single one I'd read. Thanks, for taking the time to share with us the kind of stuff that interests you.

      1. Lol, I think you misinterpreted what Frank Araujo was saying. I think he meant "I haven't yet read any of those you recommended" which is a positive. I don't think he meant that he would not be inclined to read any of your recommendations!
        Anyway thanks for the first list, I've downloaded 12 of them (no need for the Statin one for me). Should keep me busy for a couple of months thank you!

  7. Thank you for this list. So grateful that this is coming in sections as it's already slightly intimidating thinking of where to start. But, it saves me time and effort finding what appears to be interesting and quality reads. Can't wait to jump in.

  8. Thanks for this list, Bought a couple, bookmarked others. Look forward to the rest, yes I'm weird, I'd have gone through the whole list.

  9. In the spirit of your review, I just borrowed The Shipping News audiobook from our library without reading anything about what it's about. I like the idea of a surprise book, and your other recommended books are so good, I'm really looking forward to listening to this one! Thanks!

  10. Please tell MD that while we certainly appreciate her attempts at protecting us, her suggestion just means have to wait across the fours posts to copy out your reviews, put them together in a single document to save as a checklist… We'd rather have had YOU do the work for our easier saving. Love her, love your reviews, love you!

  11. Thanks for all these book recommendations. I have read a number of books which you recommended in past posts, and have never failed to enjoy them. I will look forward to your next wave of suggested reading. Glad you ignore Mary's concerns.

  12. Thank you! This should be called the "Reading as a Subversive Activity List." Looks like a lot of impressive reads.
    My Picks:
    The Volunteer
    The Great Influenza
    A Woman in Berlin
    How to Think
    A Statin Nation (although no on is going to listen)

    My current read: No Sweat Know Sweat, by Bill Akpinar

  13. I get so excited when I see an email from you in my inbox! Pathetic??? I know it is always going to be interesting, and probably has some book reviews. It was really a sad, long, dry spell when you weren’t posting. I am so grateful for the reviews (and the new newsletter) as they come from a different perspective from the usual book review sites I check.

    While I enjoy fiction, I have a boring habit of wanting to read every general health and nutrition book that comes along. Your other non-fiction book suggestions look very interesting, and those should encourage me to read something other than just the healthundefineddiet stuff.

    If you don’t already know, there was a movie made (2001undefined2002) of The Shipping News. It had a fabulous cast but I seem to vaguely remember the movie stunk!

    Thank you for sharing the good stuff. BTW, maybe you can share in one of your newsletters an update on your coffee routineundefinedtips. I've enjoyed Nespresso made Americanos every morning thanks to you.

      1. Will try Corto with my next order. Nespresso recently discontinued my favorite variety, Dharkan, for making an Americano. Arpeggio, Napoli and Kazaar are my standbys.

        The most memorable, but heart wrenching, novel I have read was A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry. Published in the 90s, when I read it, it continues to haunt me.

        I too am eager for the new Protein Power book. Hurry! Please!

          1. Corto, yes! Received a Nespresso order the other day, which included Corto, based on your recommendation, and it is a new favorite. Not quite as dark and strong as my usuals, but nicely smooth and balanced. Thank you for mentioning it.

            I quickly read, and skimmed through Case for Keto and it wasn't quite what I thought it was going to be. I guess I was looking for a new Protein Power type book since the authors of it are lollygagging around, and not getting the new one out. LOL!

            Since you grew up in Arkansas did you ever get to Oil Trough? My paternal family hails from there. I haven't been there since I was a wee one, in the late 60sundefinedearly 70s. Wasn't much there back then.

  14. I love book recommendations from non-publishing entities. Already looking these up to see which ones to read first. Thank you for taking the time to post.

  15. As always, I look forward to your book reviews. However, I really appreciate MD's influence in your deciding to break up the 52 books you've reviewed into four postings. Gives me time to consider a smaller chunk of books at a time.

  16. Thanks! I've read Real food, Fake Food and The Shipping News and thought a lot of them. I just finished the best novel I've read in a long time – A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – its really fine.

  17. I’m weird too! The Shipping News was good. Always looking for something “different” to read. Looking forward to adding some new titles to my stack! Keep it coming !

  18. Hi Mike

    Thank you for a great list of recommended books with a review for each one. Initially I thought MD would be wrong about the 52 all at once being too many, but as it turned out she was absolutely right. I look forward enormously to seeing the other 39 reviews, in bite sized chunks, but 52 altogether would have been overwhelming.

    My order for one, or maybe two, of the books will be on its way to the book store soon.

    I love your eclectic output as well as your learned scientific posts and videos.

    Keep up the good work.

    Yours Gratefully

    Gilli

  19. Thank you for a most valuable filter. 13 at a time is a good number. I always find myself interested in what you (and MD) have to say.

  20. "The Shipping News", sounded very familiar to me. The movie came out in 2001, starring Kevin Spacey and Julian Moore. I will have to read the book!

  21. Greetings Mike,

    Fascinating stuff. Life always feels great when there’s a new pile of books to read!

    Your words: “For reasons known only to my subconscious I just picked it and started reading”. This prompts me to recommend: “The Mind is Flat: the Illusion of Mental Depth and the Improvised Mind” by Nick Chater.

    Thanks for all of your work, and please keep ‘em coming!
    Patrick

  22. Thanks, MD, for influencing your guy to break up the list! 😉
    A great list and am looking forward to the others. Only problem, my book wish list just grew a lot of inches.

  23. As I don't know what's among the other 39 books forthcoming, I'm not sure if the title I'm suggestion is a duplicate, but I can highly recommend "Irreversible Damage: The Transgender Craze Seducing Our Daughters" by Abigail Shrier.

  24. Thanks! Just ordered two on the list and looking at a couple more but will check at the library on those. BTW, I like MD's thinking. lol

  25. Thanks, I added two books from your list. Real FoodundefinedFake Food and A Woman in Berlin.

    Just finished "Rubicon" about the last days of the Roman Republic. It's shocking and seems very similar to what is going on now in the USA. Oh, the treachery!

    Looking forward to the other picks on the list.

  26. Your wife is correct. 52 at once is too many. The bakers dozen is perfect. I have a couple from this list to add to my wish list. As soon as I get my cataract surgery I will purchase. I can read your blog since it can be read in readers view! Wish every site used that.

  27. I've chosen 4 of the books to read: The Volunteer, Life at the Bottom, The enigma of reason and The Shipping News. As much as I'd like to be able to stomach The Women of Berlin, I am a woman in my 70s and feel I would not be able to sleep after reading it.

    I've been a fan of yours since Protein Power first came out. Thanks for the list.

  28. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles – a stunning read and achievement. Possible spoiler alert: how do you write an entire, lengthy novel with the protagonist sentenced to spend his days in one hotel?

    Not the most prolific writer, but his other work is worth reading too.

    Also, Dr Malcolm Kendrick has reviewed the Taubes book on his website.

  29. Great list. Unfortunately, many titles are not available in Australian libraries; shall have to order. I grew up in Newfoundland and thought I would enjoy reading the Shipping News, sadly no, didn't like way conversations were presented. I did enjoy the film of the book though.

  30. I guess I am also one of the weird ones out there. Got to the end of this list and could easily have kept gong through many, many more. Already added these to my Amazon wish list and ordered three of them.

  31. Greetings Dr. Mike,

    The list looks excellent, and I am interested in most of them already. I didn't realize Gary Taubes wrote another book out.

    I really enjoy your reviews and taste in books. Like you, I prefer non-fiction primarily. I recently read historian Arthur Herman's "How the Scots Invented the Modern World". It was excellent and I was wondering if you have ever read any of his books.

  32. Question re: How To Think. My library has it, but with a different subtitle:
    “A Survival Guide for the World At Odds.”
    Same book?

  33. Not entirely off topic – I enjoyed reading today the latest "No Name Newsletter".

    I find it easy on the eye with its photos and graphics and its easy to read text. Also, the diversity of topics – you never know what's next when scrolling down – the section on chimps being a good example.

  34. Just had time to sit and read. Love the list, it is hard to find non-fiction that interests me. Thank you saving list of books. I will await your emails.

  35. I laughed when you mentioned the bakers dozen because I was thinking "a season's worth" and then thought of a "full suit" of cards. Makes me wonder what else is counted in 13s.

    I'll need to get "How to Think." I'm intrigued. I've only just finished The Great Influenza and Taubes' keto book. Both very good, and this sounds like a good list. Tell MD I appreciate her intervention 😊

  36. Is your No Name Newsletter posted online anywhere? I'm trying to figure out how to comment on the latest installment.

    Thanks for the tip on the latest Travis Christofferson book, which as you predicted I had not heard of, despite having read his two previous books.

  37. It will take me a week to get through your No Name Newsletter #3. And then I'll move on to this. Like Dickens, you might benefit from installments.

    Thank GOD you are doing this!

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