Review: Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the LusitaniaDead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania by Erik Larson
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What Erik Larson does in his novels is so difficult for me to define I don’t have a category for it. I labeled it as both “historical fiction” and “non-fiction”, he calls it “narrative non-fiction”, but by any name it is mesmerizing. In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, Erik Larson synthesizes a staggered amount of meticulous research to provide an intimate vantage point within The White House, British Intelligence, the passengers and crew of the Lusitania and the captain of the German submarine that sank her.

Larson works by aggregating enormous amounts of data, newspapers, autopsies, museum collections and reports. He then incorporates the actual voice of the characters from their journals, ship logs, letters and interviews. He builds from their list of possessions a portrait of their final moments and with the benefit of one hundred years of distance can unravel the events with clarity and context. The story is immensely compelling. When laid bare with the benefit of hindsight and the combined knowledge of all participants I think it is even more tragic. I was surprised at the extent of the culpability of British Intelligence and their leadership. While the actual act of war was committed by the Germany captain of the U-20; the circumstances had seemingly been arranged through both planned action and inaction by the British with the specific goal of bringing America into war.

I only had a vague framework of events which lead to The Great War; the paragraphs read and forgotten in high school history courses. Larson breathes life and bares witness to these pivotal moments in our past. I am astounded by his gift for forensic and empathetic storytelling. Highly recommended.

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Review: Practicing Mindfulness

Practicing Mindfulness: An Introduction to MeditationPracticing Mindfulness: An Introduction to Meditation by Mark W. Muesse
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The last The Great Courses lecture series I listened to was Exploring Metaphysics, and while I had a lukewarm response to it, it did make me think about some more esoteric sciences and beliefs. An old friend of mine has encouraged me to try meditation for over 15 years. Not as a component of religious practice, but scientifically. In finally deciding to investigate this field I selected this lecture series because The Great Courses have proven to be consistently strong, like TEDTalks with a deeper focus. I also decided if I was listening I should practice as well, so throughout the duration of the lecture series I practiced meditation each day as guided by the course.

Caveat – I also primarily listened to the lectures either A) while driving, or B) while on the elliptical, and always at 3X speed. This sounds like I wasn’t giving it a fair shake, but 3X speed is actually pretty natural. 1X is artificially slow, and while 3X is probably a bit quicker than Mark W. Muesse’s regular lecture pace, listeners minds acclimate quickly and it doesn’t sound hurried at all (also Mark is from Texas so could use a pick-me-up to my northern ears).

Mark W. Muesse does a solid job walking the listener through the essential methods of meditation, establishing social and historical context, and describes some potential psychological and biological benefits. I appreciate that he manages expectation as well, underlining that it may take years to advance beyond introductory methods and results. He also supplies many anecdotes from his personal life and experience with meditation, but mostly these felt impersonal and unemotional. It sounds like he is speaking to an empty room, and to a point about 18″ in front of him. Undoubtedly this is the reality, but most of the other lectures I have heard were infused with more energy and personality. He did frequently recite mantras from his religious beliefs which I am innately unreceptive to, but other people may find kinship there.

A few odd outcomes. During the lecture #8 on the “body scan” technique I discovered that I have been practicing this form of meditation since my second year of architecture school, and was (and occasionally is) the only way I could still my mind so I could sleep during those long and stressful years. Also, during the lecture #21 on “pain” I discovered that I have been faithfully practicing this technique for pain acceptance and mitigation for nearly 30 years. I have had migraines since I was nine and also been through two notable bouts with cluster migraines and this technique is largely responsible for my day-to-day function. So I came into this experiment as a devote skeptic (and equally devote practitioner).

While Muesse didn’t necessarily open new doors to mindfulness for me, he did draw my attention to the very real applications which are integral to my life and work. You will get the basics, some of the history and science, a fair amount of Buddhism, and potentially a valuable toolkit of self-awareness.

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Review: Exploring Metaphysics

Exploring MetaphysicsExploring Metaphysics by David K. Johnson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The Great Courses have lived up to the name on each of my previous selections, so perhaps I should chalk this up as an “it’s not you, it’s me” situation and move on. I am a nerdy kinda guy and very intrigued with physics, cosmology and some of the more esoteric questions about how life the universe and everything got started. Exploring Metaphysics should be a logical expansion of my interests. Questions about the nature of self, personhood, time, and reality are fantastic questions. I spend more time then I should admit debating and filling notebooks with my musings on these subjects, but apparently the actual discourse of metaphysics is indistinguishable from philosophy and utterly irks me. It is a dizzying knot of conjecture which in each case seems to present absurd dualities citing again and again, “if this is true, then the opposite must necessarily be false”. This maxim and many like it create logical levers which pry at and build on each preceding supposition until we ramble into some “QED” which invariably is qualified as “still very much in debate”… no shit.

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Best of: Non-fiction 2014

As I described in my introduction this Best of list reflects my favorite Non-fiction books and lectures I read in 2014. It is less an awards kinda thing, and more a distillation of my year of reading and a short list of recommendations. Here’s a link to all of my Best of 2014 lists.

A Short History of Nearly EverythingBill Bryson – A Short History of Nearly Everything
The title says it all. Bill Bryson uses his travel guide background to establish a foundation for physics, chemistry, biology, and much more with a light and adventurous tone. For anyone beginning their journey into scientific thought, or wanting to see an interconnected timeline full of personality and fun asides. Good for friends, family, kids, adults, everyone; it is worth remembering science is the culminating effort of generations of dedicated and intelligent real people. It is a community with a history, culture and heroes.

Einstein's Cosmos: How Albert Einstein's Vision Transformed Our Understanding of Space and TimeMichio Kaku – Einstein’s Cosmos
The science here will likely not be very new to anyone who would seek this book out, but the focus on Albert Einstein as a person, with his foibles and faults, ego and genius gives us a humanizing insight into one of science’s great geniuses. The descriptions of each of Einstein’s foundational principals though simple thought games and images aides in understanding the process and product of his contribution to physics.

Language A to ZJohn H. McWhorter – Language A to Z
Linguistics is a fascinating field and John McWhorter is just the guy you want to walk you through the bazaar and beautiful world of spoken words. Some of the most basic concepts were mind blowing to me; variations in correlation of spoken and written language, alphabet, phonetic development of language, and the many contemporary examples of changes in usage and grammar. I am making this sound terribly dull, which is exactly why you need to listen to this 26 part lecture series for yourself.

The History Of World LiteratureGrant L. Voth – The History of World Literature
This opened up new worlds of literature to me, and made me rethink several I already knew. This is a great lecture series from someone who is passionate about literature. Each movement, author and book get thoughtful attention and most importantly interconnection to preceding and subsequent works which influence.

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic AgeNathan Wolfe – The Viral Storm
This book doesn’t have the benefit of being written by a notable travel writer, lecturer like my other selections, so the narrative aspects are not delivered with the same storyteller ease and effect, but this book gets its message across. Told by a leading virologist working on the fringes of society, Nathan Wolfe knows his stuff, and his stuff is scary.

Review: The History Of World Literature

The History Of World Literature
The History Of World Literature by Grant L. Voth

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Grant L. Voth delivers an energetic, engaging and cohesive lecture on a history of world literature. His selections touch on many literary movements from the beginning of written word to contemporary fiction, spanning the globe, exploring cultures as divergent as ancient China, British Colonial Africa and India, Japan, Brazil, Russia, and much more. Voth’s contextual, historical footnotes ground the stories in time and culture marking how each story is a response to previous literary thought and reaction to the social and political environment of the author. His passion is palpable. You can hear the laughter in his voice at the recollection of a anecdote from a story or the empathy he feels in the many moments of tenderness and loss. Several synopses had me at the edge of tears. This is a great survey course and has added several new books to my “to read” list and several to my “re-read”. Highly recommended.

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Review: The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age

The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age
The Viral Storm: The Dawn of a New Pandemic Age by Nathan Wolfe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Terrifying, without being sensationalized; Nathan Wolfe describes the world of infectious diseases in clear context. Wolfe’s research spans several continents and decades. His investigations have taken him to the epicenter of numerous lethal breeding grounds for trans-species viruses. As he describes the method of transference, process of genetic recombination, and life cycle or various viruses, it becomes clear that large scale outbreaks are inevitable. Wolfe does also provide hope through initiatives that should effect our response times and cultural adjustments which could disrupt transmission, but it is still fairly bleak. Knowledge is always preferable to ignorance, but I will miss my blissful self-delusion.

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Review: Classical Mythology

Classical Mythology
Classical Mythology by Elizabeth Vandiver

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Elizabeth Vandiver’s lectures focus on why we create myth, and what we can infer and deduce from from the historical and contextual references within classical mythology. Through the lectures she does outline several examples of specific myths, traces ancestry of both fictitious and historic persons, and the psychology of myth-making. This was all fun and educational material, but the clear take-away was that I need to read some works by Ovid. He was the Oscar Wilde of ancient Rome and a total badass.

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Review: Orange Is the New Black

Orange Is the New Black
Orange Is the New Black by Piper Kerman

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Informative, funny, and educational, Orange is the New Black is an enjoyable read. Piper doesn’t shirk her responsibility for her incarceration and the damage her actions may have caused. I think this is important to bypass the excuses and delve into the heart of the description and interpretation of prison life for women in America. She is descriptive of how the official and unofficial systems work as well as the cultural and emotional environment within. Piper peppers in statistics related to the subject which do feel shoehorned in but not unwelcome. They are informative and bridge from her story to a larger discussion about our intent and practice of incarceration. A fun read which does create awareness and advocate for Americans who have a limited platform for representation.

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Review: Language A to Z

Language A to Z
Language A to Z by John McWhorter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Highly Recommended. Any good survey course will provide enough information to ignite your curiosity and give you a little something to take with you. John McWhorter’s 24 part lecture series is pure enjoyment. He is an engaging speaker and is able to present a clear understanding of the field of linguistics, the history of language and writing and it’s effect on our understanding of both, the breadth of communication structures, modulation of grammar and lexicon, and numerous other fascinating insights, each with very specific and illustrative examples. The series only about 6.5 hours (at 1x speed) and well worth the listen.

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