Non-Fiction, Sociology, Psychology

Range by David Epstein

In March I attended my first book buyer’s retreat and was grumbling about the fact that all the publishers were sending me fiction books – didn’t they know that some book buyers really prefer nonfiction? Until, finally, the last book arrived before I made my way up to Rhinebeck, New York – Range by David Epstein. I was THRILLED. And it was even more exciting when the only author whose book we were sent to attend the retreat, was the man himself. Needless to say, I fangirled, hard. And then quoted his own Atlantic article at him without realizing it… thankfully I got the details right.

Synopsis

From the Inside Flap:
What’s the most effective path to success in any domain? It’s not what you think.

Plenty of experts argue that anyone who wants to develop a skill, play an instrument, or lead their field should start early, focus intensely, and rack up as many hours of deliberate practice as possible. If you dabble or delay, you’ll never catch up to the people who got a head start. Butt a closer look at research on the world’s top performers, from professional athletes to Nobel laureates, shows that early specialization is the exception, not the rule.

David Epstein examined the world’s most successful athletes, artists, musicians, inventors, forecasters, and scientists. He discovered that in most fields – especially those that are complex and unpredictable – generalists, not specialist, are primed to excel. Generalists often find their path late, and they juggle many interests rather than focusing on one. They’re also more creative, more agile, and able to make connections their more specialized peers can’t see.

[…] Failing a test is the best way to learn. Frequent quitters end up with the most fulfilling careers. The most impactful inventors cross domains rather than deepen their knowledge in a single area. As experts silo themselves further while computers master more of the skills once reserved for highly focused humans, people who think broadly and embrace diverse experiences and perspectives will thrive.

Review

A jack of all trades is a master of none, but oftentimes better than a master of one.

While David doesn’t directly include the old rhyme in his book, it kept running through my head, every page I turned. For years, we are taught that if we want to excel at something, one has to start early and focus all of our energy into it. One cannot realistically decide to be a Olympian at 15, surgeon at 25, or an astrophysicist at 35 (as my dejected husband believes, his dream job, long story). Those lofty goals require years and years of dedication, or so we’ve always been told. But David starts off his book with a call back his first book, The Sports Gene, with the tales of 2 world class athletes, Tiger Woods & Roger Federer, the former a specialist, the latter a generalist, to turn society’s misconceptions on their heads.

Each chapter of Range covers a different topic, from sports to music, to mathematics instruction, emphasizing the underlying theme that those with a more general knowledge base are, essentially, able to problem solve better by using their disparate areas of knowledge to make connections between different scenarios and situations that benefit their ability to work and explore the world efficiently.

Some of the chapters focus on mastery of a particular skill within a larger field, i.e. trying lots of sports or instruments before focusing on one. And in these chapters, the examples offered are of people who found success in their chosen skill without having a known proclivity or outside influence encouraging them towards a particular activity or skill. Orphans in Italy who played musical instruments beautifully, those with no musical background taking quickly to the nuances of their instruments.

Conversely, he shows that how we learn greatly affects our ability to problem solve. Those who memorize, whether knowingly or not, have difficultly applying their knowledge across different types of problems and explaining their thinking or thought process (meta-cognition). He offers the example of chess grand masters who cannot adjust their thinking to asses a chessboard that has simply been rotated 90 degrees as well as mathematics students who appear to “learn” math skills but are really guessing until they receive the right feedback from the teacher.

I know the year is only half over, but Range is my favorite nonfiction book of the year and I don’t think there are many candidates for unseating it in my reading pipeline. I feel like it validates my life choices when it comes to what topics I pursued throughout my education as well as the employment opportunities I’ve taken. It’s difficult to shrug off your AP Stat teacher in high school when you drop his class for 2D Art and he tells you, the naive teen who wants to be a medical researcher what a big mistake you’re making. And it’s as if Range is looking back on teen me and saying, it’s okay. You made the right decision (it’s also been 12 years, I should probably just let it go at this point…)

From his discussion of sports (I played ice hockey), music (I’m a violist & composer), mathematics (I’m a math teacher who doesn’t shut up about number sense and mathematical theory when given the chance), am dual lingual (Wie geht es Ihnen?), and finished college with a history major focusing on American Legal History after having changed my mind half a dozen times (I started in biomedical engineering), and with 5 teaching certifications and 5 minors ranging from fine arts to chemistry.

I don’t say all of this with the intention of being a braggart, but because I’ve never really known what to do with all of my interests and which would be helpful in securing me a position/job/career. It seems every employment opportunity I’ve pursued, the organization (mostly schools) want specific areas of focus and experience. A generalized work history isn’t always what they’re looking for, but it is what I can offer.

And now I work at a bookstore, putting my vast general knowledge to use recommending books across a variety of genres and age ranges. And while I love it, staying in the same position is mentally taxing. It’s like I have a unique form of ADHD (along with actual ADHD…) And when my husband takes the jack of all trades rhyme to heart as well, it means that we have a house full of the spoils and accouterments related to all of our various interests – it was a necessity in our new house to have room for an art studio, space for a 1,000 book strong library with plenty of academic texts on everything from architecture and anthropology, and space for a motorcycle work shed out back.

In the old days, I feel like I would be an academic – the ivory tower would be the only place that would know what to do with me. I’d be like da Vinci or Jefferson (though not really because I’m a woman…), pursuing all sorts of different interests simultaneous and sequentially, jumping from one to the other as the interest arose. Right now I’d love to learn how to fly a Spitfire. But regardless of what I do, what I continue to do with my life, I’ll know that I can at least hold up one book, and many examples, of how my life is happier and better off for the vast array of my interests and knowledge. (That’s my viola, Kerry, my heavily-Post-it-ed advance copy of Range, and my pink-laced hockey skate below).

Rating: 10 out of 10 stars

Available for purchase with free international shipping through Book Depository.

Biography, History, Non-Fiction

Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson

Picking out books with my nonfiction book club is such fun. Death in the Air is very similar to Devil in the White City, or so I’m told, and it was a good fit for the nonfiction book club!

Death in the Air

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
London was still recovering from the devastation of World War II when another disaster hit: for five long days in December 1952, a killer smog held the city firmly in its grip and refused to let go. But in the chaotic aftermath, another killer was stalking the streets. All across London, women were going missing – poor women, forgotten women. Their disappearances caused little alarm, but each of them had one thing in common: they had the misfortune of meeting a quiet, unassuming man, John Reginald Christie, who invited them back to his decrepit Notting Hill flat during that dark winter. They never left.

The Great Smog of 1952 remains the deadliest air pollution disaster in world history, and John Reginald Christie is still one of the most unfathomable murders of modern times. Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson braids these strands together into a taut and gripping true-crime thriller about a serial killer and an environmental catastrophe with implications that still echo today.

Review

Death in the Air really wants to be Devil in the White City according to my book club. I, on the other hand, have read many Eric Larson books (Isaac’s Storm, Dead Wake, In the Garden of Beasts), but I have not yet read his best known work so I feel my assessment of it is not clouded by a previous read.

I was first introduced to the Great Smog through the Netflix series The Crown and was instantly intrigued. With all the discussion today of climate change and environmental disasters, its worthwhile to know that what we’re experiencing today truly is not a new, or even a unique, occurrence. Smog has been a regular characteristic of London and is featured or mentioned in numerous works of English literature. But the Great Smog of 1952 is unique.

Before reading Isaac’s Storm I wouldn’t have considered weather history a great interest of mine. But it never ceases to amaze me how destructive natural forces can be. And while the smog is trigger by the activity of men, it is, at it’s root, an environmental phenomenon. The best parts of the book are those where the author focuses on the smog and how it affected every day Londoners.

The serial killer side of things, however, felt mismatched. He wasn’t really active during the smog, but it was when his crimes were exposed. I got the feeling the two narratives just weren’t as compatible as the author would like us to believe. I found myself frequently skimming the chapters of murder and savoring the chapters detailing the natural disaster.

All in all, not a bad book, and definitely an informative read, but the narratives felt like they should have been two separate books.

Rating: 7 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $15.99 – 9780316506830 – 368 pages – originally published October 2017, this edition published November 2018 by Hachette Books – average Goodreads rating 3.50 out of 5 stars – read in April 2019

Contemporary, Fiction, New Adult

The Royal Runaway by Lindsay Emory

I’m a sucker for a royal romance. And given my current requirement that all fiction I read must feature Scotland in some way shape or form (and oddly enough, be an imprint of Simon & Schuster, which is probably just a coincidence…), I picked up my long forgotten ARC of The Royal Runaway one night when I was looking for something, anything, that would hold my attention.

Synopsis

From the Back Cover:
Princess Theodora Isabella Victoria of Drieden of the Royal House of Laurent is so over this princess thing.

After her fiance jilted her on their wedding day, she’s back home, having spent four months in exile. AKA it’s back to putting on a show for the Driedish nation as the perfect princess they expect her to be. But Thea’s sick of duty, so when she sneaks out of the palace and meets a sexy Scot named Nick, she relishes the chance to be a normal woman for a change. But just as she things she’s found her Prince Charming, he reveals his intentions are less than honorable: he’s a spy and he’s not above blackmail. As they join forces to find out what happened the day her fiance disappeared, together they discover a secret that could change life as they know it.

Review

Is it perfect? Of course not. It falls into my favorite contemporary fiction sub-genre – royal fanfic. Often an ARC will feature a letter in the front from the author or editor and the letter in this one promised a book that I wouldn’t want to put down and would remind me simultaneously of The Princess Diaries and The Royal We. Two books I love. Well, she was right, I’m just, once again, disappointed it took me over a year of owning said ARC to read it. I started reading around 9pm and finished the book the following morning by 11am. It was the perfect rainy summer night romp.

Character-wise, Thea is definitely a new favorite. Super smart, with a great love of history (yay history buff protagonist!) and an even greater love of speaking her mind, she is just awesome. And Nick is Scottish. And also smart. And while initially annoyed by Thea, quickly comes to accept her for who she is and, doesn’t try to change her! Again, yay! It’s a great palette cleanser of a book, which is where most royalist fiction lives, and is genuinely a fun book.

Are there plot holes? Yes. Are most of the other characters in the book mostly one-note and not at all developed? Yup. But if you just want to escape real life for a couple of hours and you want a lighthearted book that doesn’t insult your intelligence, or you’re like me and just really love royalist fiction, look no further. It’s just a fun book.

Rating: 9 out of 10 stars

Edition: Paperback – $16.00 – 9781501196614 – 304 pages – published October 2018 by Gallery Books – average Goodreads rating 3.47 out of 5 stars – read June 2019