Favourite Books of 2019

Image courtesy of Johanna Ljungblom

Given all the heartache that is going on in the world, we all need some (or a lot) of bibliotherapy to get us through these challenging days.

For most of my life, I have turned to books for entertainment, for knowledge, for their calming effects. Although I never did get a prescription for bibliotherapy, or book therapy (BT) as it is also known, I did and do get therapeutic value in reading.

Check out: Bibliotherapy Proves that Reading Is More Than a Cure for Boredom.

FICTION

1. Out of Nowhere by Susan Dunlap

Out of Nowhere is part of the Darcy Lott mystery series. One reason that I like a book series is because it's an opportunity to get under the skin of the characters; to feel as if I know what drives them; to see how they evolve. I also like learning what they learn, as in the case of Darcy Lott in Out of Nowhere.

It's a bonus when I find a book that broadens my knowledge base and piques my interest in some way. Out of Nowhere does both. Abalone poaching is something I knew nothing about. The returns are high for the poacher, but so is the risk. The market for abalone includes restaurants that have no interest in conservation practices.

Darcy balances her high-risk career with Zen Buddhism. One moment she is sitting zazen (seated meditation with the goal to free oneself of all thoughts, words, images and ideas) and the next, she is hurtling through space on some movie stunt. I have racked up a number of injuries in my life, but nothing compares to willingly putting oneself in risky situations, as Darcy does.

She uses Zen thinking to help her uncover the mystery about the attacks on her brother, Mike. When all things are dead ends, do the next thing. And the more complicated: What is the price of rice in Luling? Something we can all benefit from: Now! Just this!

While the story itself was okay - good thing it was only 187 pages long - it was those two koans that gave this book value.

Whether it is through work or because someone is out to get her or someone close to her, Darcy never fails to rise to the challenge.

2. The Lie by Helen Dunmore

Daniel returns to Cornwall after fighting in WWI. His solitary existence is punctuated with his tumultuous thoughts that reach into the dark corners of his life.

On page 90:

" 'You use too many words,' Frederick said to me once.

We'd have been fifteen then or thereabouts. I was hardened by by work and I always had a book tucked inside my jacket. I read by system at first, through the alphabet of the authors on Mr. Dennis's shelves, but as I grew more confident I began to choose among them. In the potting sheds, when the rain was heavy, I would sit on my heels and snatch a chapter. It was true that I used the words I found, especially when I was with Frederick. it wasn't enough to read them. I had to try them out, and Mulla House wasn't the place for that, nor was home. But I see now that I did my mother an injustice in thinking that. I forgot how she'd love the beautiful words of the songs my father sang."

Such a profound realization on page 99:

"The children in the photograph are not changed. I look at us, and all at once, for the first time, I realise why she never put it on display. I was not one of the boys in a Sunday jacket and collar. I was one of half a dozen who wore mended jerseys, and showed no collars below their scrubbed and shining faces. It must have cut her to the quick. Not because we were poor; we were most of us poor. We had been less poor once, when my father was alive, and we would do better again once I was older and able to work....It was how we were and it said nothing about us, beyond that we had little. That photograph said too much. It said that this was how I was, a child who had no jacket or Sunday collar, and would never have one, as far as the photograph was concerned. It fixed what we believed was temporary, and made it the fact of our existence. But she hadn't destroyed it. I could not imagine my mother tearing up any photograph which contained my face."

You'll find beautifully descriptive phrases such as this one that describes the changes that took place in the Dennis house:

"Now everything is pared, as if a knife has gone round and round an apple without knowing where to stop, so that it isn't only the peel that has been taken away, but the whole fruit." (Page 112)

The Lie is an elegiac book that brims with atmosphere; reading it is like knowing that a storm is brewing, but you don't have any idea of when and how it will hit. Sadly, Helen Dunmore passed away in 2017; she leaves behind a legacy that is sure to satisfy the fiction readers - adult and children, the poetry enthusiasts and lovers of elegant writing.

3. The Kingdom of the Blind by Louise Penny

I was thrilled to make the imaginary journey back to Three Pines to share in the lives of Chief Superintendent Gamache, his wife Reine-Marie, his sidekick, Jean-Guy Beauvoir, and the rest of the quirky characters that make this village so inviting.

Friends who accept one's flaws, community, cozy and communal meals, good food, books and the love and support of family are the foundations of The Inspector Gamache series. Oh, and the weather does play a role, too.

Even though I found there was too much repetition of "the junkies and whores and trannies," in reference to what was happening in the darkest reaches of Rue Ste. Cathérine, that didn't dissuade me from adding it to my list. Nor did the fact that I was able to guess part of the plot. This book and the entire series ranks as a perennial favourite.

The juxtaposition of the body in the morgue and the hopes and dreams crudely expressed, yet never-realized, was gut-wrenching.

"Her body was marked with what looked like homemade tattoos. Hearts. Butterflies. And on the back of one hand was Esprit.

Spirit.

And on the other, Espoir.

Hope.

Esprit. Espoir."  (Page 346)

Gamache performs a little mental exercise that is an invaluable stress buster. On page 131, Gamache recalls:

"Laundry on the line. The scent of Honoré. Sitting in the garden with an iced tea. Reine-Marie. Reine-Marie. Reine-Marie."

" 'Clean sheets,' thought Gamache. 'The scent of wood smoke of wood smoke. Feeling Henri's head on my slippers.' He went through his own private code. A sort of rosary." (Page 86)

This is a wise practice to adopt anytime, but then, Gamache is replete with wisdom. I would like to meet him and the Three Pines gang at the bistro on one of those chilly afternoons, where the falling leaves dance silently in the wood smoke-scented autumn air.

4. Sourdough by Robin Sloan

Sourdough is set in San Francisco. Meet Lois, a programmer who is lured to San Francisco to work at General Dexterity, a robotics company, where she is working on a project called Arm-Os.

Ironically, "we were on a quest to end work" (page 7). The cost was high.

"I worked on the submodule responsible for Proprioception, which is, I think, a beautiful word—pro-pri-o-cep-tion!—and also the process by which organisms judge the position of their own body parts in space. It's a crucial sense; defininitely more important than a few of the Big Five. When you walk, you look forward, not down at your feet, because you are confident they are where you expect them to be, obeying your commands. That's a pretty cool feature." (Page 16)

You'll attend meetings with members of The Lois Club. It's a group of women who all have the same name - Lois. In case you're wondering, The Lois Club is a real thing! (I checked - there is no Marianna Club. Is there one for your name?)

As Lois wonders what to eat, she finds a flyer for Clement Street Soup and Sourdough, run by Beoreg and Chaiman Mazg. These two brothers lead a very curious life.

As I embark on my first-ever sourdough starter project, I wonder if I could just get some starter from a Mazg brother. Who wouldn't want to bake with such a magical and mystical product?

Part commentary on the nature and future of food, part silicone valley, this book is just as delightful as Mr. Penumbra's 24 Hour Bookstore, which I reviewed here: Favourite Books of 2017.

5. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

This is the first book I've read by Jess Walter. Suffice to say, I'll be reading others.

You are taken on a journey through time and place, visiting tiny Porto Vergogna (Port of Shame), with side-trips to Rome and Firenze. There are stops in Hollywood, London, Scotland, Seattle and Idaho. The cast of characters weave in and out of these places, bringing life and all its ups and downs into your own life.

"Pasquale was nothing if not tolerant, and he abided the eccentricities of his melodramatic mamma and his crazy zia just as he put up with the crude fishermen - each morning skidding their peschereccio down to the shoreline and pushing out into the sea, thrumming with the bup-bup of their smoking outboards." (Page 5)

I love how Italian is woven into the story. It's fun for me to be able to translate before reading the translation that is provided.

Beautiful Ruins is like a number of short stories that are connected through time and place. Claire becomes aware of Shane's "calculations" for his movie pitch:

"And now she knows where she she recognizes that look from. It's a look she sees every day, the look of someone doing the math, of someone seeing the angles." (Page 200)

"And what she loved about Lydia's play: that it gets at this idea that true sacrifice is painless." (Page 336)

The ending, oh the ending, is perfect. I won't disclose anything more as I don't wish to ruin it for you.

NON-FICTION

1. Atomic Habits by James Clear

This books provides an ideal template to help people give life to good habits and to suffocate the bad ones with the 4 Laws of Habit Formation:

  • Make it Obvious
  • Make it Attractive
  • Make it Easy
  • Make it Satisfying

As I read the book, I realized that I was already making use of some of these techniques. For example: Habit Stacking is something I do each morning when I start my day. I also design my environment to support my goal to maintain and strengthen by keeping Fitness in Sight.

To break a bad habit - yes, I have a few - he suggests making it invisible, unattractive, difficult and unsatisfying. Some are easier than others to implement.

On page 232, James writes:

"I have a pet theory about what happens when we achieve a flow state. This isn't confirmed. It's just my guess. Psychologists commonly refer to the brain as operating in two modes: System 1 and System 2. System 1 is fast and instinctual. Generally speaking, processes you can perform very quickly (like habits) are governed by System 1. Meanwhile, System 2 controls thinking processes that are more effortful and slow - like calculating the answer to a difficult math problem.

With regard to flow, I like to imagine System 1 and System 2 as residing on opposite ends of the spectrum of thinking. The more automatic a cognitive process is, the more it slides toward the System 1 side of the spectrum. The more effortful a task is, the more it slides toward System 2. Flow, I believe, resides on the razor's edge between System 1 and System 2. You are fully using all of your automatic and implicit knowledge related to the task while also working hard to rise to a challenge beyond your ability. Both brain modes are fully engaged. The conscious and nonconscious are working perfectly in sync."

That theory works for me. How about you?

At some point in the cultivation of your habits, you may get bored. The solution is to "fall in love with boredom," as James suggests on page 236. For example, I swim regularly for a number of reasons:

  1. When I was around 14, I joined a competitive swim club. Five days a week, for an hour - up and down the pool I swam. Gradually, I perfected my strokes (all except the Butterfly!)
  2. It's an activity I can still do, despite the ravages of RA.
  3. It's the perfect joint-friendly exercise for RA. Helps me maintain and sustain a level of fitness.
  4. It's meditative. I've swum thousands of miles over the decades, so swimming is natural to me - it's a habit - one where I don't have to concentrate on how to do it.
  5. I love the freedom of being in the water. For me, that overrides the boredom of swimming back and forth.

The brain loves novelty, which explains why boredom can quickly assassinate good intentions. The food industry spends billions on creating novel tastes, for example the right amount of crunch in potato chips. Gamblers are treated to novelty with a vast array of slot machines that whiz, clang and ding. Even social media has novelty built into it. Become aware of these pitfalls when you are looking to curb bad habits.

Since COVID-19 has interrupted our lives, our routines can be pretty monotonous. I've experienced moments, sometimes longer, when the mundane quality of my days get to me. I don't want to drop my good habits, so I'll look for ways to change them. Maybe I'll do them in a different order. Or I'll build some new ones. I've started walking in a different neighbourhoods, while observing physical distancing, of course. A little bit of novelty to keep things interesting. But not too much that I'm breaking the healthcare rules.

See: COVID-19 Stress Strategies.

Finally, a quote on courage from poet and artist Mary Anne Radmacher in James' 3-2-1 Newsletter, dated December 12, 2019.

"Courage doesn't always roar. Sometimes courage is a quiet voice at the end of the day saying, 'I will try again tomorrow.' "

That's something you may wish to keep in mind while you are working towards building a new habit.

2. The Brain That Changes Itself by Norman Doidge, M.D.

Neuroscience is a fascinating subject on its own. However, it rises to another level when it is given the "Doidge treatment." The Brain That Changes Itself is eloquent, riveting and beautifully written.

You're introduced to Paul Bach-y-Rita, whose early and revolutionary work in stroke recovery raised the bar on how the brain can reorganize itself, if people are given the correct rehabilitation exercises. Edward Taub expanded upon this work to introduce constraint-induced (CI) movement therapy. In CI movement therapy the brain motor map is basically forced into rewiring. Even years after a stroke, Taub's patients recovered significantly.

The training principle Taub used with his patients:

  1. The practice skill should be relatable to everyday life.
  2. Training should be done in increments.
  3. The work should be concentrated into a short-time period, which he calls "massed practice."

By following these principles, Taub discovered that his patients made rapid progress. A language immersion program operates in the same way. The constraint is the target language. The "massed practice" is the immersion in that target culture. Add in motivation and language skills improve.

"If you practice and have a great deal of motivation for a particular domain, you're going to be able to improve in that domain beyond normal limits,'" says Michael Paradis, a neurolinguist at McGill University in Montreal. (Science on NBCnews.com)

"The competitive nature of plasticity affects us all. There is an endless war of nerves going on inside each of our brains. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we do not just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. If you ever ask yourself, 'How often must I practice French, or guitar, or math to keep on top of it?' you are asking a question about competitive plasticity. You are asking how frequently you must practice one activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another." (Page 59)

Doidge goes on to explain why bad habits are so hard to break. It has to do with competitive plasticity - the equivalent of a neural hostage situation. It's better to instill good habits properly, and preferably at an earlier age, than have to unlearn bad habits at a later stage.

There are habits, then there are addictions, which Doidge discusses in Chapter 4: Acquiring Tastes and Loves. Learn how neuroplasticity is involved in romance, internet porn, sexual and drug addictions and proclivities. In another section of the book, neuroplastician Vilayanr Ramachandran provides a theory for foot fetishes.

During our early years, both in school and in employment, we're actively engaged in the acquisition of new skills and abilities. Our brains are working hard.

On page 87, Doidge explains what happens during middle age:

"We still regard ourselves as active, but we have a tendency to deceive ourselves into thinking that we are learning as we were before. We rarely engage in tasks in which we must focus our attention as closely as we did when we were younger, trying to learn a new vocabulary master new skills....By the time we hit our seventies, we may not have systematically engaged the systems in the brain that regulate plasticity for fifty years."

That's why it's important to press the "on" button for plasticity if we wish to stay as sharp as Frank Lloyd Wright, who designed The Guggenheim Museum when he was 90 years old. Did you know that bifocal glasses were invented by then 78-year-old Benjamin Franklin?

For an optimistic answer as to why you should continue to practice (and learn), take the cellist, Pablo Casals' advice. He was 91 years old when he said that he practiced because he was making progress. (Page 257) It reminds me of an 87-year-old woman who sat down at my booth at a trade show. Her first words to me were, "I want to learn to live a better life." She has become my friend. She is now 101!

This is a book I want to re-read - it's just that good. But first, I want to read Doidge's next book: The Brain's Way of Healing.

3. Making it Happen - A Non-Technical Guide to Project Management by Mackenzie Kyle

People thrive on stories.

A friend asked me if I was interested in doing some project management for him. Consequently, I wanted to learn more about it. After checking some very dry books out of the library, I came across this one. I was hooked right from the beginning on page 3.

" 'So you see, we'll need a work breakdown structure almost immediately,' he said.

'I see,' I said. I didn't.

'Ralph is also asking for earned value cost analysis, and he wants you to keep the scope flexible, understand?' he asked me.

'I understand,' I said. I didn't.

'And he wants self-empowered work teams running the show on this one,' he continued.

'Got it,' I said, pretending to take notes. I didn't have a clue what he was talking about."

Making it Happen delivers the framework for Project Management (PM), in a way that kept me engaged, thanks to being lightly sprinkled with humour and illustrations that clearly defined the subject matter. The fact that it was explained in a story format makes it easier to remember the principles. You are walked through the basics of PM as Will gets the "Windsailor" project up and running, thanks to the advice from his consultant/grandmother-in-law.


Over to You:

  • What is your favourite genre?
  • Do you have any recommendations?
  • Book-book or e-book?
  • When and where do you do your reading?

Books and More Books

Just in case your reading list isn't long enough, here are some recommendations from the British Columbia Teachers' Federation: 100 Best Books for BC Secondary School Students.

Here's another list, courtesy of Amazon. How many of these titles have you read?

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