You should know the story from the last post I wrote about why I’m posting these 13 books instead of the whole list of 52. The short answer is that my wife browbeat me into dividing them into four posts. All the books in this post were selected at random from the 52 books I read in 2020 that I thought were exceptional. Other than the first book on the list, there is no significance in the order in which they appear. That’s just the way they came up when I pulled them off the shelves.
The Cancer Code was one of the best books I read in 2020. It provides a comprehensive overview of where we are today in terms of cancer treatment. And tells us why those treatments are not much better than they were 70 years ago. There have been a handful of spectacular breakthroughs in the treatment of some specific and fairly rare cancers, but overall the outcome with cancers in general is still pretty grim. Why? Because cancer doctors have been looking at cancer the wrong way. In other words, they have adopted the wrong paradigm. And not just once, but twice.
First came the cancer is abnormal growth paradigm which was the ruling paradigm for centuries. It led to the idea that cancer could be treated by cutting it out, burning it, or killing it with chemicals. All of these treatments have been used on cancer victims (sufferers? maybe instead of victims? or ‘those afflicted with cancer’) for the past 70 years with minimal success.
In paradigm #2 cancer was viewed as a genetic disease and the follow on: if we can map the genetics of cancer, we can treat it. Well, the genetics have pretty well been mapped out, but the treatments have improved only minimally.
Finally cancer researchers went outside the cancer research field into the field of physics to have fresh eyes look at the problem. Turns out cancer didn’t quite work like everyone had predicted for years.
This book is the exciting story of how cancer really spreads and why it’s so difficult to treat when it does. And it offers hope for new treatments based on the new paradigm. This is a book I really couldn’t put down. I wrote about it in one of my weekly newsletters. And now here. I can say without a doubt that this is the most highlighted of all 52 in my list of 2020 books. I can’t recommend it enough. If I had stars, I would give it all I had to give.
The Physics of Life was a huge disappointment to me. So, why, you might ask, is it in my top 52 books of 22020? Because I think it’s an incredibly important book. I just wish it had had a better editor. Or maybe I just wish I were a little smarter so I could understand it better. The author is a famous academic with a zillion papers to his credit. He is also not a native English speaker. Someone somewhere along the way must have told him to “write like you speak.” If so, he took the advice to heart. There are all kinds of shifts of subject and bizarre interjections that are jarring (to me, at least) and make no sense.
The concepts in the book are hugely important and the author, Adrian Bejan, is a very smart guy. In a flash of insight after listening to a lecture by Nobel laureate Ilya Prigogine, Bejan came up with his constructal theory on the plane on the way home. The constructal theory is a new way of looking at evolution in terms of facilitating flow of materials and information. Take traffic flow, for example. When a town springs up somewhere, it has a couple of small streets intersecting. Then a few more small streets appear as the population grows. Then more. As the town grows and traffic increases, larger roads start to appear amidst the network of smaller roads, all of which feed into the larger roads. With more growth and more traffic, larger and larger roadways are built. Ultimately, if the city grows large enough, giant freeways and freeway interchanges will criss cross it making traffic flow even better.
The same pattern emerges with almost everything. Look at the arteries, for example. A few large arteries feeding smaller ones, which themselves feed even smaller ones all the way down to the capillary level. Ditto for the lungs. A large trachea splitting into the two bronchi then on down to the alveoli. A tree follows the same pattern from the trunk up and down.
The part that I found the most fascinating was the application of the constructal theory to money. Money flows through economic systems the same as blood through the arteries, air through the lungs, and streets through a city. And, as such, it obeys the laws of the constructal theory. Which means as a country grows and becomes more economically successful there has to be more economic inequality. Just like you can’t have a huge city without a few freeways and a zillion little roads, you can’t have a huge, bustling economy without a few very rich people and many, many less rich ones, which is the definition of economic inequality. If the constructal theory is correct, economic inequality should be an outward sign of economic success for the country and not a thing to be destroyed. It would be much like trying to destroy gravity because people get hurt when they fall.
It all makes for fascinating reading. Bejan writes about how the constructal theory can predict who will be a fast runner and who won’t, along with many, many other situations you wouldn’t think such an hypothesis would apply to. I had to dig most of what I gleaned out of his published papers and an older, but better written book (he had a writer for this one), but maybe others much smarter than I can dig it out of this book. There are good ratings on Amazon, so others found it much easier going than I. Maybe you will, too. It’s an important book.
Most books I buy I learn about from reviews, but I came across Breath while prowling through the science section of an actual bookstore. I flipped through it and thought it looked book shelf worthy, so I bought it. I was intrigued because I knew so little about breathing as a physiological act. I knew how many breathes per minute the average person takes (12 in case you’re wondering) and have written the breath rate down in thousands of patient charts. But I had always thought of it simply as breathing, something that just happens. It hadn’t occurred to me that breathing is something that could be improved, let alone that various breathing gurus all over the world had their own methods of improving health by changing breathing patterns.
The author had just gotten over a bout of pneumonia and had developed a little asthma as a consequence. His doctor told him it might help if he took a breathing class. He wondered the same thing I would have wondered. Why do I have to learn how to breathe? I’ve been doing it all my life. Nonetheless, he finds a breathing class held in a funky house in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco and shows up to take the class. The instructor gives some pointers on proper deep breathing, puts on a tape to help with rhythm, and the process starts. He thinks it’s all woo woo, but he goes along with it. Suddenly, he has an emotional experience and is drenched in sweat.
The experience makes him realize there is more to breathing than simply breathing, a realization that sends him on a worldwide trek to seek out all the breathing gurus he can find, be they MDs, PhDs, dentists, or simply lay practitioners. What he learns is there are countless ways to breath and countless gurus promoting their own ways.
When I finished the book I didn’t come away from it with a strong idea of which of the many ways is best, but the book’s resource section is filled to the brim with article recommendations and scientific citations, which are like catnip to me. And one of the characters who shows up in the book is Wim Hoff, of whom I had heard much. Which led me to the next book in the list.
The image of this book is larger than any of the others not because the book is better, but simply because it is one of the coolest book covers I’ve ever seen. It’s really something to see in its full-sized version. The publisher really did a good job of it. I’ve heard about The Wim Hof Method for years, but until I read his book, I had always assumed it was about braving the cold, swimming in ice water, etc. Until I read it, I didn’t realize that much of what he learned to do was because of breath control and that the actual changes he experienced within that allowed him to survive the extreme environments occurred as a result of breath control.
Hof, who was born and grew up in the Netherlands, relates early in the book how he got started in his bizarre practice of braving the cold. As he tells it, he was in his mid-twenties, ruminating alone in a park in the middle of winter. Close by was a pond with a skim of ice on it. He began to wonder what it would be like to be in the water with the ice. He took a look around, and there was no one in sight, so he stripped off his clothes and jumped in. He stayed in the freezing water for a bit, got out, got dressed and went home. He felt invigorated by the experience and began to repeat it daily. I can tell you for a fact that, irrespective of age, if I were in the middle of a Dutch winter with a frozen pond hard by, the very last thing that would occur to me would be to disrobe and jump in it. But, then, neither would I have gone on to run a half marathon above the Arctic Circle in just a pair of shorts. Nor would I have set the record of sitting in an ice water bath for almost two hours or swum underneath the ice of a frozen lake for 10 meters. Hof did, however, and for that I take my hat off to him.
His book is fascinating and gives precise instructions on how to breath to achieve certain states of mind. I don’t mind trying the breathing exercises, but I’m not sure they would ever lead me to plunge through the ice into a semi frozen lake. My wife calls me a thermal wimp, because it takes me forever to get into a hot hot tub or into a cold swimming pool. If I get into the shower after she’s been in it, I feel like I am being scalded, and I start groping for the temp adjustment knob as a matter of survival. I do have friends who swear by Hof’s methods, and many people I follow online do, too. Intellectually I can see the advantages and I know others have benefited greatly, so I may, very incrementally, give some of Hof’s suggestions a try. At some point. But not too soon. What both this book and the one above it have taught me is that there is much more to breathing than, well, breathing. And, until I read these books, breathing is something I never gave much thought, but from here on I certainly will.
Tara Westover’s Educated is truly an unputdownable book, at least for me. And for my wife, too. After reading it and doing a little online research, I’m just not sure how much of it is true. She tells her story of being born the youngest of five or six children into a survivalist Mormon family in a dinky town in the middle of nowhere in Idaho. Her birth was at home, assisted by a midwife, and no birth certificate was registered. Her parents, her father mainly, were anti-education, so she never attended school. What little education she got was from erratic home schooling by her mother.
During her upbringing, family members suffered all kinds of serious trauma and disfiguring burns, none of which were treated by doctors, as her father was anti-doctor, but were instead treated by herbs and poultices concocted by her mother. During what would have been her late high school years, Westover began to long for an education, so she surreptitiously began to read and study on her own. Her self-education was enough to allow her to score well on the ACT and gain admission to BYU. She struggled there for the first year, but in her second year, one of her professors recognized her writing skills (and they are formidable) and became a mentor. She did well enough that with this professor’s help she was able to get a scholarship to Cambridge University, from which she ultimately earned a doctorate.
Her book about her journey is unquestionably a riveting read. I was so taken with it that I mounted my own online search to learn more about her. And I found out a lot. Her family has turned against her for what they say is a major stretching of the truth in the memoir. Instead of the ramshackle house out of which her mother sold herbal oils and poultices to a handful of weird survivalist neighbors, it turns out her mother has a huge business selling essential oils nationally. And her mother has now written a memoir about what really went on in the Westover family. I have not read the book, so I can’t comment on it. All I can say is that even if Educated is partly fiction, it is still a spectacular read.
Okay, time for some fiction. I read a ton of fiction all the time. I generally have three or four fiction books going at once, and I bounce back and forth between them until one really takes off. Then I finish it and add another to the mix. I particularly appreciated The Prodigal Spy, because I learned a lot about fiction writing from it. I’m working on my own novel right now in fits and starts, and I’m coming to understand fiction writing is a whole different ball of wax compared to non-fiction writing. All of us have experienced freak occurrences or highly improbably events in our lives and we write them off as just that. But if a fiction author bases a major plot point of one of these, the book seems contrived. That would never happen in real life, we would say. And it would diminish the book. And yet Joseph Kanon has all kinds of these events take place in this book, but because he so cleverly lays the foundation long before they happen, when they do, it seems perfectly normal. Expected, even. It’s brilliant the way he does it. Since I’m always reading fiction with an eye toward writing it, I may be a little more analytical than others who read simply for pleasure. If you’re one of those, you’ll still love this novel. I love all of Joseph Kanon’s novels. In fact, I want to be Joseph Kanon. If you’ve already read The Prodigal Spy and want more, his The Good German is my favorite, but I didn’t read it in 2020. Same with Leaving Berlin. Another great one.
As I was going through this list of books, I tried to remember what prompted me to buy Eyes Pried Open or where I even heard about it. I cannot remember at all. But it ended up being one of my favorites. If you’ve watched any news coverage over the last four or five years, you’ve doubtless heard the FBI described as “The Premier Law Enforcement Agency in the World” at least a hundred times. Those words hooked together are almost as ubiquitous as the infamous “artery-clogging saturated fat.” You can draw your own conclusions after reading this book.
The author was working away as a white collar drudge while daydreaming of becoming an FBI agent. Unlike most, he decides to act on his daydream and give it a shot. He runs into the How-does-one-apply-to-become an FBI agent problem, which he works through. He describes the whole application and interview process, which is totally opaque. Out of the blue, he’s notified he’s accepted. He enters the training program, which (apart from a perceived lack of depth of some of the subjects covered) is rigorous, to say the least; he perseveres and makes it through.
As a newly minted agent he is offered a choice of locations in which to start work. One of the things I didn’t know (actually I had never thought about it) until I read this book was that FBI agents are never assigned to places they’ve lived or grown up in. So if you were born and raised in, say, Austin, Texas, you’ll never be able to work there. The author ends up picking San Diego from the list provided him and is assigned to the violent crimes division there.
He shows up for his first day of work and goes through the mind-numbing process of getting oriented and all that. On the second day, he shows up and it told he’s in luck, he is going to make his first arrest that day. Which is a big deal in terms of promotion: the more arrests you have to your credit, the better your chances. He gets in the car with another FBI agent and they head to the local state prison. As an aside, rookie FBI agents don’t get paid squat. But if they stay around for a few years, their salaries go up markedly. So these two agents head off on what is going to be an all-day event at taxpayers expense. Probably a combined salary of $150K per year, $200K with benefits, making this one day cost the taxpayers about a thousand dollars plus expenses.
They went to the state prison to pick up a prisoner, who had finished his sentence there, but still had time to serve in federal prison. The rookie agent gets to make the arrest on a guy who comes out in shackles. He gives him the FBI spiel, handcuffs him (the first criminal he’s ever handcuffed), marches him to the car, and they drive him to the federal prison. Being federal and subsumed by typical governmental incompetence, his admission there takes forever. The agents are worried because if the prisoner doesn’t get process by about 4 PM, they won’t be able to get him into the facility, and they’ll have to take him to a local jail for the night. The prisoner does get processed on time, the two agents go back to the office, and that’s a days work for the two of them.
During the course of the book, the author relates a number of such experiences. Even worse are the not so ordinary days. He relates how he’s told to come into the office at 1 AM or some such ungodly hour to get briefed on a pre-dawn raid. He shows up and finds out that the FBI in conjunction with the San Bernardino police ( or sheriffs or both, I can’t remember) are going to take down a drug trafficker of some kind. They make the two hour plus drive to San Bernardino, join up with the other LE agencies, plan the raid, and head off. They surround this dinky house and begin pounding on the door, which is opened by a young woman with a child. She is the perp. So they nab her in front of her daughter and take her to lockup. Probably a dozen people involved. Incredible.
One such event after another start to get to the young agent. Finally, the ultimate governmental action of gross incompetence persuades the author that maybe a career in the FBI is not for him, so he hangs it up to go back to doing something productive with his life. He leaves with great admiration for all the friends he’s made and thinks the FBI and FBI agents are swell. But… This book certainly lived up to its title, for me at least. I ended up with my own eyes pried open. And, BTW, I don’t know if the author actually wrote the book himself or not, but it is well written and goes at a gallop.
I have been shit-faced, knee-walking drunk exactly three times in my life, and I remember everyone of them. One was semi-intentional, the other two snuck up on me. The last was over 20 years ago. And the aftermath of each of them in terms of sheer physical miserableness has kept me on my guard against drinking too much. Consequently, I’ve never understood how people can willingly sign up for that misery day after day.
I once had a conversation with a teetotaler who was a recovered (or recovering, as they say in that lingo) drug and alcohol abuser about his drinking. I asked him if, after all these years, he didn’t miss having a couple of beers with the guys. He relied, “A couple of beers? What fun is that? Back when I was drinking, I didn’t want a couple of beers. I wanted to get frigging smashed. That’s why I drank.” Until I read Drunk Mom, I never understood that sentiment.
Jowita Bydlowska, the author, is a Canadian woman who immigrated there from Poland when she was a teenager. She is an unbelievable prose stylist, which is amazing since English is her second language. Not only does she write well, she hires herself out to native English speakers to help them with their writing. Until I read her book, I never understood the way alcoholics view their relationship with alcohol. And I didn’t have an understanding of how tenuous their relationship with sobriety is. A truly eye-opening book for me. I knew alcoholism from a treating physician’s viewpoint, but never from the viewpoint of the suffering alcoholic. Now I do. If you have a friend or family member suffering from this scourge, I urge you to read this book. Of if you just want a helluva read. Or to be amazed that someone who hasn’t been speaking English all that long can write so well. And if you do read it, I’ll tell you what a mickey is, which is referred to all the time in the book. It’s the Canadian term for a half bottle, or 375cc of booze.
I’ve got to confess. I love Matt Taibbi’s writing. He, himself, is a member of the Left, but he never lets his own politics get in the way of the truth. He’s kind of an equal opportunity offender who goes after both sides. He calls bullshit when he sees it, no matter which side of the political spectrum is slinging it. And that is what makes him truly admirable from my perspective. It is so totally refreshing to realize when I see a piece from Taibbi that it’s not going to be filtered through his own political leaning, but through the truth as he sees it. And he sees it from an amazingly unbiased perspective.
Hate Inc presents his idea as to what has caused the great divide between people on the Right and Left right now, really more so than in any of our lifetimes. When I was growing up almost everyone knew what everyone else’s political views were. And no one hated anyone for them. Now people fear to reveal their political leanings, unless they’re a strongly liberal. (I say this because a recent survey showed that the majority of Americans were reluctant to reveal their own political affiliations. According to the poll, the only group who hadn’t become more afraid were “staunch liberals.”) Why do the two sides hate one another so much now, when they used to be much, much more tolerant in years gone by? I had a long discussion of this in my most recent weekly newsletter (sign up here if you’re interested – it comes out every Thursday) and quoted extensively from another book coming at it from a little different perspective.
Hate Inc explains what’s going on now, but it you want to read Taibbi at his government-bashing best, you should read Griftopia, which, in my view at least, is his masterpiece. Griftopia would have been at the top of this list, but I read it a few years ago. One of my favorite quotes from the book (and I’m writing this from memory, so I’m not using quotation marks): Individuals and small businesses view the government as a threat; big business views it as an ATM. I read Hate Inc on my Kindle app, but when I went to Amazon to get the link, the Kindle version is no longer there. The paperback doesn’t come out until the middle of next month and the hardcover is almost $100. That’s Amazon for you.
This book got a great review last year in the Wall Street Journal, which is how I learned about it. I figured given the review it got, it would soar to the top of the bestseller list, but it kind of sank beneath the waves. And I don’t know why, because it’s a great book. Great that is if you want to find out what’s in the food you eat and drink. And the chemicals you slather on yourself.
The author of Ingredients is listed everywhere I looked as an “MIT-trained chemist,” which I interpret to mean he has a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from MIT. He is also a film and TV producer and an explainer of science, which job he does well in this book. My only objection is that he sometimes stretches a bit to be funny. The author highlights a few studies I wasn’t aware of, for which I’m thankful. And, he really does a terrific job of demystifying the way research is done and published. He loves to dig deep into facts, many of which I doubtless learned at some time, but long ago forgot. For example, he writes:
…photosynthesis is incredibly productive. Under optimal conditions, some plants can photosynthesize a molecule of glucose using just 60 photons of light. (For reference, about 300,000,000,000,000 photons hit your eye every second when you look up at an empty patch of blue sky on a sunny day.
I knew plants could wring a lot of glucose out of very little sunlight, but I didn’t know they could wring that much out of that little. The book abounds with factoids like that one. On the negative side of the equation, I had to wade through a fair amount of his imperious proclamations about diet books and diet book writers. But, I’ve got to say, he’s pretty even handed about it. For example, he asks a question on the minds of many:
What should I eat? Before we get to THE ANSWER, know this: whatever THE ANSWER may be, there are a small number of very loud people who passionately believe that they know it. (Does “Eat food, not too much, mostly plants” sound familiar?)
Although I suppose I’m in the group of those authors of books on nutrition he bashes, it does my heart good to see anyone publicly go after that twerp Michael Pollen, who, thanks to writing that ignorant statement above, has been elevated to God-like status among the plant-based dieters.
I was recommended this book by a friend from Nashville who knew I was working on a detective novel. The title Monster City is a play on the name Music City. Who knew Nashville had such a murder rate? The book is basically the true story of a dedicated detective who solved many, but not all, of the murders that took place during his time on the force. It’s incredible and creepy to learn how many people lose their lives by just happening to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. And it’s creepy to learn how many twisted people there are out there who don’t bat an eye at the destruction of another human for their own pleasure.
From reading this book, I learned why so many murders go unsolved. The length to which this Nashville police detective goes to find a perp is stunning, and the roadblocks he runs into from other law enforcement officers due to laziness is mind boggling. I didn’t realize until reading this book how many people are murdered in random highway killings. People stopped on the freeway with flat tires or other car breakdowns are victimized at such a rate that there is a special FBI team devoted to solving these horrific crimes. This isn’t a book for everyone, but if you would like to read about a decent, dedicated police officer, who, himself, is affected by the crimes he investigates, it’s worth reading.
This book is, next to The Cancer Code that headed the list, my second most highlighted book of 2020. It, too, contains a cornucopia of references in the back, which I love to root through and use to add to my scientific article collection. David Sinclair, author of Lifespan, is one of the world’s preeminent researchers on longevity. He is deeply involved in research on sirtuins, so I figured the book would be primarily about that. It is about surtuins, but not in the way I had imagined.
The author lays out The Information Theory of Aging, describing how our DNA is protected by the epigenetic material surrounding it. And how with time, the ability of the DNA to be reproduced clearly is damaged by outside forces in much the same way an old CD might get scratched up. Just like the scratched CD doesn’t reproduce the sound engraved in it the way it did when it was new, the dinged up DNA doesn’t reproduce the ‘sound’ it is supposed to. The accumulation of dents and dings in the epigenetic material more or less defines aging. If we can’t accurately access the info stored on our own DNA, we age. Some of us more quickly than others. This book discusses the latest research on how to best keep your epigenetic material in working order.
It’s hard for me to overstate how much I loved The Biggest Bluff. If you were to see a movie about what happened here, you would think it an absolute fiction. You might even walk out of it, because it would be so improbable. Here’s the deal. A young woman living in New York, who immigrated from Russia as a child, studies hard and goes to Harvard. She then gets an advanced degree in psychology from Columbia, then pursues a career in journalism. She writes a couple of books that do well, then she decides she would like to learn to play poker. And not just play poker, but make it to the World Series of poker in Las Vegas. And do it in a short period of time. A year. But she has two problems. First, she doesn’t know diddly about poker. She doesn’t even know what poker hands are. She doesn’t know whether three of a kind beat two pairs. She doesn’t know how the game is played. Second, professional poker is a cutthroat business requiring vastly more money to get into than she has to lose. In fact, she’s broke. And she has absolutely no knowledge of how the vast universe of professional poker operates. Starting from this inauspicious beginning, she sets out to find a guru to help her on her way. She ends up finding several, but the first is an internationally famous big stakes poker player who has won millions. He takes her under his wing, teaches her the rudiments of the game, gives her a list of seminal books to read, and encourages her to start playing online poker for tiny stakes. She lives in NYC, where online gambling is illegal, so she has to shlep to New Jersey to set up in a coffee shop whenever she wants to play. The book is a hero’s journey right out of Joseph Campbell, which of course is why it is such a compelling story. She receives the call to adventure, finds a mentor, endures challenges and temptations, hits the abyss when she loses her ass, then makes the climb out of the abyss, and then… I don’t want to spoil the tale for you, but I’ll give you a hint. You can see her playing poker on TV today. Amazing, amazing adventure.
Well, that’s about it. Looking back on this post, I think I went a little overboard on the mini-reviews as compared to last time. There are 26 more books on my 2020 list, and I’ll have the next 13 up as soon as I can.