Summer 2019 Reading List

I read more books during the summer months than at any other time of year. The warm weather allows me to get outside, find a bench in a nice park somewhere and read for hours at a time. Here is a list of books that I have read this summer. I enjoyed them all.

Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes

What a gift Cervantes left us all some 400 years ago! This is a book that will stay with the reader long after having turned the final page. Book II in particular, is filled with nuggets of wisdom, from both Don Quixote himself and even from the simple-minded Sancho.

After some 800 pages, both characters become somewhat like extended family to the reader, who recalls their stories and positive disposition with fondness. There’s a reason this book has been translated and re-printed for four centuries.

I finished the book weeks ago, yet I still find myself thinking about it. I’ve watched multiple educational YouTube videos that analyze the book in detail. There is a whole community of people around the world who obsess over the novel. You can buy t-shirts, attend speeches and view art that has been inspired by the book in cities across the globe.

It amazes me that Cervantes, a man who spent years in prison and also as a captive slave, was able to pen such an inspired work. The noble Don and his faithful squire, Sancho, still manage to entertain, centuries after they were first introduced to the world.

The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway

This novel follows the war-torn lives of three Sarajevo citizens during the siege of the early 1990s. I visited Bosnia and Sarajevo in 2017 which helped bring the read to life. Steven Galloway goes out of his way to describe the neighbourhoods, landmarks and market squares of Sarajevo, which I had walked through a couple of years ago. Thankfully, I explored the city well after the conflict came to an end.

The book does a good job of describing the nightmare of being a civilian trapped in a siege zone. Something as simple as accessing potable water becomes a potentially deadly task. Electricity is often unavailable. You can’t flee a city, because every exit point is guarded or mined. Everybody ages horribly. The only people who get ahead in this situation are the organized criminals. Everyone else is stuck in a deadly trap, watching their city , life and friends get shredded.

The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles by Steven Pressfield

A quick read in which Steven Pressfield argues that “Resistance” is our greatest enemy. Whether it’s self-doubt, procrastination, fear of failure or even fear of success, everything that stops us from achieving something great is due to the great force of resistance.

The book is mostly intended for those who work in creative endeavours, but its message can also be applied to entrepreneurs or even career types.

Goodbye Things, The New Japanese Minimalism by Fumio Sasaki

A Japanese man’s take on minimalism. What makes this book work is that the author writes with sincerity about his pretentious and insecure mindset before embracing minimalism. For example, he talks about how he liked to prominently display stacks of books in his apartment, half of which he hadn’t even read, to appear more sophisticated when guests would visit. This provides an element of humour to a mostly practical read.

If you feel overwhelmed by clutter in your life, be it in your home or even at your desk, this book may prove to be helpful.

The Little Book of Common Sense Investing by John C. Bogle

John Bogle makes an overwhelming argument that low cost index funds are the best investment option for everyday people. Chapter after chapter, he explains, with statistics and historical evidence, why other popular investment avenues, such as mutual funds, very often amount to minimal gains or a loss to the main street inventor. He also hails what he calls “the magic of compound interest” while decrying the “the tyranny of compounding interest costs.”

While the book provides sound advice, it also offers up a word of caution in Chapter Nine, titled “When The Good Times No Longer Roll.” Unlike the boomers, who enjoyed investment return rates of 11.4% (!) from 1974 onwards, he forecasts that we millennials are likely to experience subdued returns, which he guesstimates to be somewhere between 6-7% in the coming decade.

The book was released in 2017. Bogle passed away at the beginning of this year. May he rest in peace.

Worry-free Money : The Guilt-free Approach to Managing Your Money and Your life by Shannon Lee Simmons

This book is written by a Canadian Certified Financial Planner who is a regular contributor for major media outlets such as the CBC and the Globe and Mail. Worry Free Money helps readers to cultivate a positive mindset with how they spend their money.

Shannon Lee Simmons’ offers up some creative systems to grade and classify your spending habits. She works with her clients to make subtle changes to their spending habits, rather than making radical changes that will be unrealistic or impossible to follow in the long term.

The Cubs Way by Tom Verducci

When I read this book, the Cubs were firmly ensconced in a playoff position and Joe Maddon was still their manager. Things change fast in the world of pro sports…

This book documents everything that went into ending the Chicago Cubs 108 year championship drought. While this is a baseball book, it will be of interest to any fan of professional sports.

Author Tom Verducci spends much of the book detailing how Theo Epstein and Maddon approach their respective roles. Those two men in particular, provide a great deal of insight on how to be effective leaders. They were very candid about how they went about creating a championship calibre organization.

I suspect that many managerial types in professional sports across America have pored over this book and taken notes.

Sugar Nation: The Hidden Truth Behind America’s Deadliest Habit and the Simple Way to Beat It by Jeff O’Connell

A thin and healthy man faces his prediabetic diagnosis head on. Rather than accepting the standard treatment of disruptive drugs offered up by doctors, the author looked to find solutions by altering his diet.

With a low carb, low sugar, high protein diet, O’Connell was able to stop the onset of diabetes in its tracks, despite its prominence in his family history.

I found many of the diet tips offered in this book to be very beneficial. A few tweaks to my diet resulted in a loss of winter weight I had been negligent in working off.

This book also provides additional motivation for pursuing a healthier diet by laying out exactly what happens to those who suffer from type 2 diabetes. Blindness, amputations and massive heart attacks are what awaits many of us if we don’t fix our diets while we can.

 

Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton

A broad overview on the mindset of mankind. The author explores what he believes to be the causes of “Status Anxiety” and the variety of philosophical solutions that have emerged over millennia, which humans have attempted to use to cope with the anxiety they feel.

Over the past century, the idea of meritocracy has been widely accepted across the Western world. While the opportunities life affords us are beyond anything our ancestors could ever imagine, we now struggle with a new form of anxiety that emerges when we feel that we haven’t been successful enough, especially when we compare ourselves to our peers and neighbours.

Art, Politics, Misanthropy, Stoicism, Christianity and even Bohemia have all attempted to wrestle with this form of anxiety, which shows no signs of slowing down in our consumer-driven world.

 

The Weight of Glory by C.S. Lewis

A collection of essays and speeches, grounded in Christian thought, that C.S. Lewis prepared during and shortly after World War Two. There are nine addresses in total. The ones I liked most where “On Forgiveness” and “Learning in War-Time.”  The book is a short read. You can either power through it all in a few hours or read one essay at a time at the end of your day.

This is the second Lewis book I have read. The first was his celebrated Mere Christianity, which I first read about five years ago. His essays, including The Weight of Glory, are available in audio format on YouTube.

Book Recommendations for Young Men

Back in October, I was on a train headed to Vienna. An American man in his late 60s sat next to me and we struck up a conversation that lasted the duration of the two and a half hour trip. He was from Connecticut but had spent most of his adult life living in California. As a hippie in the 1960s, he hitchhiked across Canada. 13 years ago, his kids all grown up, he decided to move to Bangkok to work as an administrator at an English language school. He said it was the best thing he’s ever done. Eventually, our conversation steered to what we were reading.

“It’s good that you’re reading. Read everything you can,” is what he told me.

Here are some interesting books that I’ve enjoyed recently.

Shōgun by James Clavell

An epic adventure, which introduces us to a highly intelligent English sailor, John Blackthorne, whose boat crash lands on the shores of Japan in the early 1600s. In an effort to save his own life and hopefully one day return to England, Blackthorne slowly assimilates into the isolationist Samurai culture of the day, while becoming close allies with a powerful daimyo, Lord Toranaga. Through the 1,100 page story, we are witness to a historical, cross-cultural exchange and learn a tremendous amount about ancient Japanese culture. The concept of honour, the roles of wives and consorts and how the people of that time viewed death are all explored.

Author James Clavell goes to extraordinary lengths to describe the culture of feudal Japan, showing great respect for their customs by describing them with complete objectivity and in great detail. This is noteworthy because he spent time in a brutal Japanese POW camp during the Second World War, where he suffered greatly.

Clavell does a great job of tying the loose ends with an inner-monologue from one of the characters to close the book. When I had finished, I found myself missing my nightly reads. I would have loved to read a sequel. Shōgun truly transports you to another time and place. Highly recommended.

Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

C.S. Lewis was the author of the Chronicles of Narnia series and an intellectual giant of the 20th century. Originally an Atheist, Lewis would eventually became a devout Christian. During the Second World War, he gave a series of lectures to the BBC on Christian beliefs. These lectures formed the basis of the book. You can listen to one clip here:

This book makes a lot of interesting points in support of Christianity that are worth considering. The one I found most interesting was the following:

Almost all human beings are born with an inner sense of morality and right and wrong. We all know how we’re supposed to behave, but often break those rules and when we do, we usually try to rationalize it or make excuses for it. For example, say that I live with a roommate and we share a fridge. Say I start cooking up some food and preparing sandwiches, but steal my roommates’ cheese to add to my meals. Eventually he would notice and perhaps confront me about it. Very rarely would someone have the audacity to say “Yeah, I took your cheese, what are you going to do about it?” The likely response would be something like “Yeah I did, I thought I still had some of my own, but I ran out so I borrowed some of yours. I planned on replacing it, I swear!”

Where did this sense of right and wrong, this moral code or natural law, as Lewis describes it, come from? Why aren’t we all just running around, robbing and killing each other? Lewis argues that this sense of morality was given to humans by God.

“Quarrelling means trying to show that the other man is in the wrong. And there would be no sense in trying to do that unless you and he had some sort of agreement as to what Right and Wrong are; just as there would be no sense in saying that a footballer had committed a foul unless there was some agreement about the rules of football.”

This is just one of the many thought-provoking ideas put forward by Lewis. Whether you’re a believer or a non-believer, the book does provide some valuable ideas and insight on the human condition.

Be forewarned, it’s not an easy read. I found myself having to go back and reread paragraphs a few times to grasp what Lewis was getting at. Having said that, he usually provides some easy to understand real world examples to help readers better understand his complex arguments. The football quote above is a good example of this.

You can download a PDF of the book for free, from here.

The entire audiobook has been posted to YouTube.

The Rum Diary by Hunter S. Thompson

This is a fun little read written by Hunter S. Thompson in his early 20s. He sat on the novel for decades before releasing it upon the encouragement of a friend (Wikipedia says its Johnny Depp). The story follows Paul Kemp, an American journalist who moves from New York City to Puerto Rico to take a newspaper job. Most of the characters are depressed, angry and often violent people who work at the paper. They spend their days on the island drinking too much rum, getting into fights and worrying about the pending closure of the newspaper while dreading the fact that they are all getting older. Kemp himself falls into an awkward love triangle with a pretty young thing and her abusive boyfriend which doesn’t end well for anyone.

This book is easy to read. It’s a fun distraction. Good to read between more serious works

The Martini Shot by George Pelecanos

I had never heard of George Pelecanos. When I was back in Canada over the Christmas season, I was driving home from the gym listening to NPR’s Fresh Air. Pelecanos gave a lengthy interview in promotion of The Martini Shot, a collection of short, gritty stories. It was one of the best radio interviews I’ve heard. He talked about how he goes about writing, his life as the white parent of adopted black teenagers, mistakes he made in his youth and his time working as a writer for The Wire, among other things.

http://www.npr.org/v2/?i=375166711&m=375399672&t=audio

[Direct link to NPR interview]

The collection of short stories in this book reflect those experiences. Pelecanos says he wrote The Martini Shot to show what life is like on the set of a TV show.

Pelecanos is an interesting cat. Listen to the interview. If you like what you hear, you’ll probably like The Martini Shot.

Thirty Seven: Essays on Life, Wisdom and Masculinity by Quintus Curtius

qC37Quintus Curtius reads the difficult books so that you don’t have to.

A fanatic of the Latin language, Curtius explores masculinity by examining written works by the great thinkers of the past. An essay he wrote in 2014 persuaded me to read Ernst Junger’s Storm of Steel, which I reviewed here.

Thirty Seven is filled with nuggets of wisdom, brought back from the past to the contemporary reader, like this one:

“The vulture, because he feeds on carrion, is considered by us as a disgusting and wretched animal; but for the ancient Romans, experienced in divination by auguries, he was a favored animal and a good omen. For a vulture never attacked a living man, and performed a useful function in removing a source of pestilence.”

Curtius looks to the past to find solutions to the problems plaguing the modern man. He deplores the dearth of instruction available to young men seeking to begin a journey towards self-improvement.

“I have tried to remind readers of the glories of leadership, character, and masculine virtues that can change their lives. By bringing up the past, a time before masculine virtues were shamed and punished, we remind readers of the glories that will be theirs if they follow the right path.”

Curtius also submits an essay on the lost art of the pilgrimage and urges men to take up this forgotten ritual and explore the places and accomplishments of great men. This essay resonated with me. Being located in Europe affords me the opportunity to explore the accomplishments of some of history’s biggest names. I will have to plan a trek somewhere interesting.

What makes Thirty Seven so enjoyable is that you feel yourself getting smarter with every chapter. Curtius uses a wide range of vocabulary (I’ve added quite a few new words to my vocabulary thanks to this book) while helping us become wiser, more profound men. He is set to release a new book, Pantheon, by April 2015. You can visit his website to learn more and to get your daily dose of wisdom.

Of these five books, three of them look to the past and can provide guidance to men in the present. Shōgun showcases the best of Samurai culture while illustrating how a man can overcome cultural divides to become a great contributor in a strange new society. Mere Christianity provides a worldview which reminds us that while societies change and evolve, human nature does not. The spiritual needs of mankind have remained with us for thousands of years and for centuries, skeptics have had doubts about religion, yet Christianity continues to endure. Thirty Seven packages the wisdom of the past into digestible essays that we can take with us in our day-to-day lives.

This theme of exploring lessons learned in previous eras is one I plan to continue to explore. While it is wonderful to be living in a time of such technological advancements (I’m able to travel and while working online) I can’t help but think that these amenities may have anesthetized us, holding back the development of our character and, eventually, our wisdom. We’re so distracted now, which hinders any kind of deep thinking. Mankind has been wrestling with existential questions forever, some of the conclusions made in times gone by may seem out-of-place in our modern age, but could very well still hold value.

What are you reading these days? Any book recommendations that you’d like to suggest? Leave a comment or drop me a line on Twitter.

Book Review: Storm of Steel by Ernst Jünger

Storm_of_steel_coverIn war you learn your lessons, and they stay learned, but the tuition fees are high. – Ernst Jünger, Storm of Steel

Ernst Jünger’s Storm of Steel provides readers with a graphic recounting of his service in the German Army during the First World War. An honest account of a young man’s thoughts, feelings and beliefs from a century ago, Jünger kept a private diary of his experiences, pulling no punches about what life was like for the common soldier in a time of bloodshed and chaos.

Through Jünger’s eyes, we see the way war strategies evolved and improved. In his early days, trench warfare was the standard. He provides detailed recollections of what a 24 hour cycle in trench duty was like, where scenes like this one were the norm:

A sentry collapses, streaming blood. Shot in the head. His comrades rip the bandage roll out of his tunic and get him bandaged up. ’There’s no point, Bill.’ ’Come on, he’s still breathing, isn’t he?’ Then the stretcher-bearers come along, to carry him to the dressing-station. The stretcher poles collide with the corners of the fire-bays. No sooner has the man disappeared than everything is back to the way it was before. Someone spreads a few shovelfuls of earth over the red puddle, and everyone goes back to whatever he was doing before.

As the war dragged on and new technologies emerged, Jünger was deployed as a shock trooper, rushing enemy trenches and fortifications. The later chapters, when Jünger describes the battles he took part in as a shock trooper are particularly powerful. Most stunning, perhaps, is his description of a shell explosion happening in his vicinity during the second Battle of Cambrai:

There was another whistle high up in the air. Everyone had the choking feeling: this one’s heading our way! Then there was a huge, stunning explosion – the shell had hit in our midst.

Half stunned I stood up. From the big crater, burning machine- gun belts spilled a coarse pinkish light. It lit the smouldering smoke of the explosion, where a pile of charred bodies were writhing, and the shadows of those still living were fleeing in all directions. Simultaneously, a grisly chorus of pain and cries for help went up. The rolling motion of the dark mass in the bottom of the smoking and glowing cauldron, like a hellish vision, for an instant tore open the extreme abysm of terror.

After a moment of paralysis, of rigid shock, I leaped up, and like all the others, raced blindly into the night. I tumbled head- first into a shell-hole, and only there did I finally grasp what had happened. Not to see or hear anything any more, out of this place, off into deep darkness! But the men! I had to tend to them, they were my responsibility. I forced myself to return to that terrible place. On the way, I saw Fusilier Haller, who had captured the machine-gun at Regnieville, and I took him with me.

The wounded men were still uttering their terrible cries. A few crawled up to me, and when they recognized my voice, wailed: ’Lieutenant, sir, Lieutenant!’ One of my best-loved recruits, Jasinski, whose thigh had been crumpled by a splinter, grabbed hold of my legs. Cursing my inability to be of assistance, I patted him feebly on the back. Moments like that are not easily shaken off.

Junger_ErnstDespite being surrounded by death and destruction, Jünger maintained a laudable perspective, always being mindful of the fact that his enemies were men just like him. As told from his point of view, there was cordial respect between the warring factions. It doesn’t seem to have been as dehumanizing a conflict as World War Two.

Throughout the war, it was always my endeavour to view my opponent without animus, and to form an opinion of him as a man on the basis of the courage he showed. I would always try and seek him out in combat and kill him, and I expected nothing else from him. But never did I entertain mean thoughts of him. When prisoners fell into my hands, later on, I felt responsible for their safety, and would always do everything in my power for them.

Jünger managed to survive the war, despite being injured 14 times, becoming a literary celebrity upon the release of his book. During the Second World War, he served mostly in Paris, but was careful to distance himself from the Nazi establishment, never endorsing them. He continued to write throughout his life, publishing more than 50 works. He traveled extensively. Towards the end of his life, he was recognized by world leaders, including Helmut Kohl and Franƒçois Mitterrand. He died in February 1998, aged 102.

This memoir is a poignant reminder of just how destructive war is. As we mark 100 years since the beginning of World War One, Storm of Steel is a frank look back on the carnage that was endured during that terrible conflict. I highly recommend this book.

Thoughts on Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Inspiring Autobiography

Arnold Schwarzenegger’s massive autobiography, close to 700 pages long, is filled with all kinds of motivational wisdom.

The Austrian Oak has lived an incredibly fascinating life over the course of his 65 years (and counting), earning it all through hard work and determination. He grew up poor, in a small Austrian village, and became one of the world’s biggest celebrities. This didn’t happen by luck or by accident.

Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by Arnold Schwarzenegger
Total Recall: My Unbelievably True Life Story by
Arnold Schwarzenegger

All of Arnold’s great accomplishments throughout his remarkable career followed the same simple recipe. It’s a recipe that anyone can apply to their own life, to bring about positive changes and increase their measure of happiness.

  1. Have a clear vision of what it is you want to do and who you want to be.

    Throughout his book, Arnold uses the phrase “The vision had formed in my mind. Once the vision was in his mind, he was locked in.

    As a teenager, Arnold knew that he wanted to become a champion bodybuilder and move to America. Later, he knew he wanted to transition from the gym to the big screen and be a leading Hollywood actor. Finally, he wanted to spend time in public service and help fix what he felt was a broken political situation in California. He saw the governorship as the way to make this vision a reality.

  1. Embrace the power of setting goals.

    Every year, Arnold would write down his goals on paper to ensure that he stayed focused.

    As a bodybuilder, he charted weightlifting progress, writing down his totals and always looked to achieve a personal best. When Arnold worked towards becoming a leading man in Hollywood, he set financial goals for himself, making sure that with each movie he starred in, his pay would double. ‚ As governor, Arnold kept a list of things he wanted to accomplish in the top drawer of his desk. He crossed them off, one by one, as he got them done.

  2. Put in the work.

    This is what really sets Arnold apart from the rest.

    Arnold’s personal drive, especially in his younger years was remarkable. The man let nothing get in the way of his personal missions.

    He went AWOL from his Austrian Army duties to attend his first bodybuilding competition in Stuttgart, Germany, even though it meant jail time upon his return.

    After he burst onto the bodybuilding scene, he trained harder and longer than anyone, to the point that he said winning the competitions wasn’t much of a high, because he knew that he had outworked everyone and that victory was a foregone conclusion. (There’s that vision becoming a reality!)

    After having accomplished his goal of becoming a great bodybuilder and coming to America, he didn’t have an “I’ve made it slump where he took it easy. He kept pushing.

    As a young man in California, he continued to train in the gym, studied at local colleges, took acting classes, worked and ran his own construction business, conducted real estate business and maintained a mail-order fitness business. Talk about crushing it.

    Arnold applied the gym concept of “reps, reps, reps to all aspects of his life. He would rehearse the stunts in his movies at least 10 times before attempting a live take on camera. As a politician, he practiced his speeches 40 to 50 times, so that he would be prepared and relaxed when the moment came and the cameras rolled.

    There are countless examples of this kind of work ethic buried in the pages of this book. It’s incredible.

Other interesting points worth mentioning:

  • Arnold grew up very poor. He talks about how his home had no running water. As the youngest member of his family, he would bathe in the water that had already been used by his parents and older brother, which according to him, still beat trekking outdoors for a fresh bucket of water.

  • The book, while being 700 pages long, is actually a relaxing and enjoyable read. I couldn’t help but to hear his voice in my head as the words came off the page. He sprinkles in German words throughout the text, only amplifying this effect. He’s also not afraid to use colourful language, dropping f-bombs in just about every chapter, even when talking politics. The term “federal fuckups is used.

  • The final chapter is devoted to the recent news of his lovechild. He’s pretty matter-of-fact about the whole thing and addresses the situation head on. It’s pretty clear that his wife Maria Schriver (a Kennedy, by the way), knew all about the child for years. She scheduled a therapy session for him the day after he left the governor’s office to confront him about it.

  • For those who aren’t aware, Arnold is a Republican. Even though he partied hard, smoked marijuana, etc, his rationalization for supporting American conservatism makes sense when you understand his background. He had come from Austria, a very socialist country and he loved the entrepreneurial spirit and individual freedoms that America encouraged. At one point in the book, he talks about when he first started his construction business in California, it blew his mind that all he had to do was go down to a local government bureau and get a license. In Austria, things were much more complicated. Also, to be frank, a man who works as hard as Arnold does, has no need for government help, simple as that.

I’d recommend this book to anyone looking for a little motivational reading.‚ Having now finished the book, I feel like we’re old friends and that I actually know him. That’s the sign of a well-written autobiography.

‚ Cheers to Arnold for a good read.