Discover my recent book recommendations below, or explore the full Recommendations archive.

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators

By Ronan Farrow

Recommeded on: 6th December 2019

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators, by Ronan Farrow.  We’ve long been interested in the “successfully sinister” among us. These individuals can become so powerful that they can get away with virtually anything—that’s how they can destroy so many lives. Ronan Farrow is to be commended for pursuing the story of Harvey Weinstein and others of his ilk, despite the threats and imminent personal danger that put off so many for so long. Catch and Kill might as well be a thriller—we’ve become huge fans of Ronan and his fearless ability to uncover behavior of those who can feign doing good while doing so much harm.

The successfully sinister are the subject of Barb’s book Evil Genes: Why Rome Fell, Hitler Rose, Enron Failed, and My Sister Stole My Mother’s Boyfriend. For six years, while overtly working towards tenure as an assistant professor of engineering, she covertly delved into an analysis of the holes and flaws of the field of psychology. She remembers thinking “Why am I even doing this? Nobody’s going to read a book that’s focused on psychology, but written by an engineer.” Ultimately, Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker called Evil Genes “A fascinating scientific and personal exploration of the roots of evil, filled with human insight and telling detail.” 

As one correspondent recently wrote Barb, “Reading your outstanding book [Evil Genes] today…. I work with organizational behavior, reading a lot recently about narcissism. Everything I just learned is in your book. From my work with others and most recent personal experience of aggression directed at me and accepted by a Board, I asked myself that questions that you did years ago to write your book. Seems like the Me Too movement exposes this everyday behavior…”

Yes, the Me Too movement does expose this type of behavior, which, sadly, is equal opportunity and can be found in women as well as men.  The hypocrisy of news organizations like NBC reporting on sexual abuse in organizations such as the church, while killing stories that might incidentally be related to their own sordid abuses, or the horrific behavior of their favored people or politicians, is a perfect example of Conquest’s third law of politics: “The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.” Sadly, we feel Conquest’s insight is relevant to the field of education.


The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss

By Jason Fung

Recommeded on: 27th November 2019

The Obesity Code: Unlocking the Secrets of Weight Loss, by Jason Fung. We’ve met several friends lately who have shifted to eating only one meal a day—whatever they want during that meal—and have successfully lost, and kept off, dozens of pounds. One friend finally clued us into The Obesity Code, which has helped them a great deal to provide a good background and framework for this type of semi-fasting lifestyle.  We have to say, after a month’s tryout, we’re finding this lifestyle has done a lot for helping keep us alert, even while we still enjoy our meals and knock off a few pounds.  The Obesity Code is a wonderfully thoughtful book—if you are having trouble with losing pounds that creep back, even while you’re trying to keep your cognition in tip-top shape, give this approach a try.  It works great except on days where Barb’s giving major presentations and can’t eat until late. If you’re in a hurry, just read the final chapters on how to set up this lifestyle.


Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

By Simon Sebag Montefiore

Recommeded on: 18th November 2019

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. This extraordinarily well-researched volume reveals what can happen when a vicious, brutal, but charming-whenever-necessary killer climbs to power in a system that has nothing by way of checks and balances. Even Churchill—no fool when it came to Hitler’s intentions, was wowed by Stalin—a man who enjoyed the mental as well as physical torture of all who opposed him. Montefiore describes the strange family and public life of a man who led one of history’s greatest democides. It’s hard to convey just how difficult life was for anyone who thought independently, or even anyone who made a simple joke, in Stalin’s time—Montefiore does an outstanding job at this virtually indescribable task. An extraordinary book.


Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners

By Michael Erard

Recommeded on: 10th November 2019

Babel No More: The Search for the World’s Most Extraordinary Language Learners, by Michael Erard.  For years, Barb has thought she would like to write a book about language superlearners. Babel No More is what she had in mind. This fascinating book begins with the story of legendary linguist Giuseppe Mezzofanti, the Italian cardinal who was said to speak 72 languages. It goes on to share dozens of interesting language learning tidbits. Although in 2012 (when this book was published), neuroimaging techniques weren’t as advanced as they are today, Erard does a fine job of exploring how the brain of language superlearners might be different from those of more ordinary learners.  Interestingly, “..individuals living in multilingual communities seem to settle on an optimal cognitive load. The hyperpolyglot possesses a similar patchwork of linguistic proficiencies. Yet he or she exceeds this optimum with a conspicuous consumption of brainpower.” 

We particularly liked learning how the common mentality that you only speak a language if you are a native or near-native speaker is actually not a reasonable measure. “[People think] that when you really know a language, you think in it. In fact, the brain doesn’t think in any language. What people refer to as ‘thinking in a language’ comes from being able to speak more immediately in a language without rehearsing it or translating it from a language one might know better; the spoken thought feels as if it’s closer to its source in the brain.”

If you’re interested in language-learning, and want some inspiration, you’ll find it here in this book.


Patient H.M. A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets

By Luke Dittrich

Recommeded on: 7th November 2019

Patient H.M. A Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets, by Luke Dittrich.  H.M., that is, Henry Molaison, rivals only Phineas Gage as one of the world’s most famous brain patients.  As it turns out, Dittrich’s grandfather, neurosurgeon William Beecher Scoville, performed the notorious surgery that removed Molaison’s hippocampuses and helped spur extraordinary bodies of research on memory. Dittrich’s family history means he has an unparalleled perspective to share on what actually happened to Molaison and what type of man Scoville actually was (hint—there are many dark secrets). This can sometimes be a bit graphic about what can happen during brain surgery, as well as what happens when people undertake to do experiments on people, but its final revelations are astonishing.


Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come

By Robert Preston

Recommeded on: 30th October 2019

Crisis in the Red Zone: The Story of the Deadliest Ebola Outbreak in History, and of the Outbreaks to Come, by Robert Preston. We’ve been fans of Robert Preston ever since his gripping New York Times best-seller The Hot Zone first came out. Crisis in the Red Zone focuses on Ebola—Preston traces its origin back to a little boy playing in the forest, probably touching a bat. Ebola got its initial foothold in humanity largely because of lack of education—most people simply couldn’t believe that the love and care that is at the heart of our humanity is what allows the contagion to take place. The bravery of the nurses and doctors on the front lines of this epidemic, and the potential danger to humanity of these types of diseases, is something everyone should know more about.  Don’t miss this edge-of-your-seat thriller.


Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning

By Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S.

Recommeded on: 21st October 2019

Powerful Teaching: Unleash the Science of Learning by Pooja K. Agarwal, Ph.D. and Patrice M. Bain, Ed.S. If we had to select a single book to recommend to instructors of any kind, it would be this masterpiece—the best book on teaching that we’ve ever read.  

In Powerful Teaching, Agarwal and Bain provide a tour de force of practical ideas and explanations involving retrieval practice, explaining how this vital topic is related to concepts such as interleaving, deliberate practice, formative assessments. 

Retrieval practice is so much deeper than simple memorization: As Powerful Teaching notes: “we typically focus on getting information into students’ heads. On the contrary, one of the most robust findings from cognitive science research is the importance of getting information out of students’ heads. Based on a century of research, in order to transform learning, we must focus on getting information out – a strategy called retrieval practice.”  

If you are a K-12 teacher or university instructor, or a parent, don’t miss this teaching book for the ages. Think retrieval practice is only for plebeian facts? Think again—as Agarwal and Bain note: “When it comes to retrieval practice, how far up the pyramid can we move student learning? If we want students to think on a higher-order level, then we should make sure our retrieval questions are basic and higher-order. It’s shortsighted to think, ‘Gee, well, if I have students retrieve a vocabulary word, they should be able to apply this in a higher-order example or a higher-order type of material.’ Based on research, provide a mix of fact-based retrieval and higher-order retrieval if that’s the type of learning you want to see in your students.” 

Part of what we love about this book is the simplicity of its explanations—not only is it well-researched, it’s elegantly written. Looking for a Christmas present for a parent or teacher friend, or for yourself? This is it.


Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster

By Adam Higginbotham

Recommeded on: 16th October 2019

Midnight in Chernobyl: The Untold Story of the World’s Greatest Nuclear Disaster, by Adam Higginbotham. This extraordinary book tells of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant disaster—but it is also a powerful testament to how governmental propaganda and secrecy can cause these types of global-scale disasters to unfold. 

The surprisingly positive upshot of the disaster is that far safer nuclear power is being developed.  As Higginbotham notes: “Less than a month before the explosion of [Chernobyl] Reactor Number Four in 1986, a team of nuclear engineers at Argonne National Laboratory–West in Idaho had quietly succeeded in demonstrating that … the integral fast reactor … was safe even under the circumstances that destroyed Three Mile Island 2 and would prove disastrous at Chernobyl and Fukushima. The liquid fluoride thorium reactor (LFTR), an even more advanced concept developed at Tennessee’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, is fueled by thorium. More plentiful and far harder to process into bomb-making material than uranium, thorium also burns more efficiently in a reactor and could produce less hazardous radioactive waste with half-lives of hundreds, not tens of thousands, of years. Running at atmospheric pressure, and without ever reaching a criticality, the LFTR doesn’t require a massive containment building to guard against loss-of-coolant accidents or explosions and can be constructed on such a compact scale that every steel mill or small town could have its own microreactor tucked away underground. In 2015 Microsoft founder Bill Gates had begun funding research projects similar to these fourth-generation reactors in a quest to create a carbon-neutral power source for the future. By then, the Chinese government had already set seven hundred scientists on a crash program to build the world’s first industrial thorium reactor as part of a war on pollution. ‘The problem of coal has become clear,’ the engineering director of the project said. ‘Nuclear power provides the only solution.’” [Hat tip: Mary O’Dea] 

We read Midnight in Chernobyl in conjunction with watching the HBO documentary Chernobyl.  Television doesn’t get better than this.


The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die

By Niall Ferguson

Recommeded on: 5th October 2019

The Great Degeneration: How Institutions Decay and Economies Die, by Niall Ferguson.  One experience that struck Barb when she worked as a translator on Soviet trawlers was just how easy it was to convince people to go along with certain ideas, no matter how bizarre they might be. Once you get enough people thinking in the same way, that’s enough to get them to blithely hurdle themselves, lemming-like, off a societal cliff.  

Ferguson’s book is a prescient reminder of how countries get themselves into terrible trouble when society turns a blind eye to profligate overspending. In 2010, Ralph Cicerone, President of the National Academy of Sciences, and Jennifer Dorn, President and Chief Executive Officer of the National Academy of Public Administration, jointly wrote: “Much is at stake. If we as a nation do not grapple promptly and wisely with the changes needed to put the federal budget on a sustainable course, all of us will find that the public goals we most value are at risk.” (See also Pathological Altruism and “Concepts and implications of altruism bias and pathological altruism.”)

Ferguson’s book gives an overview of a future that could still be changed through the will of a well-educated populace.


Marie Antoinette: The Journey

By Antonia Fraser

Recommeded on: 28th September 2019

Marie Antoinette: The Journey, by Antonia Fraser. We’re used to reading history books about compelling, intelligent men and women like Peter the Great, Catherine the Great, and Queen Isabella of Spain. We’re not-so-used-to reading books about apparent intellectual lightweights. And indeed, Marie Antoinette started her life as a coddled royal who successfully eluded attempts to, for example, teach her how to read. But despite her love of frivolity, Marie Antoinette had a great and good heart—you’d be hard put to find a woman who could face the worst and remain brave until the end.  Her ultimate, raw intelligence in front of the jury, with its pre-ordained verdict of guilt, is heartrending. This is the story of how dangerous “fake news” mobs—as easy to lead then as they are now—put Marie Antoinette under the guillotine. A spell-binding read.


Mission Transition: Navigating the Opportunities and Obstacles to Your Post-Military Career

By Matthew J. Louis

Recommeded on: 22nd September 2019

Mission Transition: Navigating the Opportunities and Obstacles to Your Post-Military Career, by Matthew J. Louis. This book is a special treat for those in the military, and military veterans. Nearly a quarter-million leave the service each year, but transitioning to civilian life can be a challenge—as Barb knows, having shifted out of the Army to begin her engineering studies as a civilian. As the book cover notes: “Mission Transition is a practical guide to career change for service members considering leaving active duty. It attempts to address this primary question: How can transitioning veterans realize their full potential by avoiding false starts and suboptimal career choices following active duty? The book has been endorsed by Generals, Astronauts, Super Bowl winners, members of Congress, and best-selling authors.” We’re all in accord that this is an extraordinarily useful book!


How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less

By Cal Newport

Recommeded on: 15th September 2019

How to Become a Straight-A Student: The Unconventional Strategies Real College Students Use to Score High While Studying Less, Cal Newport.  Oliver from Switzerland (see his inspiring email below) recommended Cal Newport’s book on studying—this book launched Cal’s authorial career.  We’ve actually read Cal’s book twice over the years. It’s a sound, common-sensical guide not only on how to study, but how to avoid some of the common pitfalls of study advice from well-intentioned “experts” who don’t think things through, such as giving a detailed 12-step process for reading a chapter (including coming up with 20 questions) and studying till 10pm every night, including on the biggest party nights of them all: Friday. In fact, one of the points we most appreciated about Cal’s book is his advice to set a strict quitting time each day. We’ve tried to keep to the approach each day, although we suppose it also depends on what’s meant by “quitting.” For us, that usually means diving into a book!  Also, don’t miss Cal’s Deep Work and Digital Minimalism.


The Grapes of Math

By Greg Tang

Recommeded on: 9th September 2019

The Grapes of Math, by Greg Tang. We’ve recently become aware of Greg’s work as a math educator. He came about his calling through a circuitous path—first earning a B.A. and M.A. degrees in Economics from Harvard, and later an M.A. degree in Math Education from New York University. Greg is certified as a middle and high school math teacher. His books, including the Grapes of MathMath-terpieces, the Best of Times, and many more, are cleverly designed to allow young people to learn and become excited about math, and to learn how to problem-solve in creative ways.  Enjoy!


The Wrong Kind of Muslim

By Qazim Rashid

Recommeded on: 31st August 2019

The Wrong Kind of Muslim: An Untold Story of Persecution & Perseverance, by Qazim Rashid. This is a soul-searching book about one man’s attempt to discover why people would want to die for their faith. Not in the sense of being suicide bombers, but exactly the opposite: How can one be willing to stand fast for one’s beliefs even when faced with torture or death?  Qazim is a member of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, which is deeply persecuted as heretical within Pakistan and elsewhere in the Muslim world. Qazim notes the Prophet Muhammad’s words that “Faith is a restraint against all violence, let no believer commit violence.” He also notes that “Islam champions universal freedom of conscience for all people of all faiths, and for all people of no faith.”  Unfortunately, as Qazim relates, pointing out these kinds of ideas nowadays, in certain places, does indeed make him The Wrong Kind of Muslim

This book describes little known facts such as how the first Pakistani and first Muslim to be awarded the Nobel Prize in the sciences, Abdus Salam, was disavowed by his own country for being an Ahmadi Muslim. A real eye-opener about what can happen when discrimination becomes law.


Misty of Chincoteague

By Marguerite Henry

Recommeded on: 29th August 2019

Over the past few weeks, as she works on her upcoming books, Barb & her Hero Hubby Phil have been traveling the Northeast in their little trailer. (Adventurous friends from Spain are living in the Oakley house this fall to give their children a semester’s experience in US schools.)  Among the sights Barb & Phil have visited? The Morgan Horse Farm in Vermont, and Chincoteague Island in Virginia, where she sits writing the “Cheery Friday” email right now. 🙂 These wonderful places brought to mind some of Barb’s favorite books as a child: Justin Morgan Had a Horse, and Misty of Chincoteague, by Marguerite Henry and illustrated by Wesley Dennis. If you are looking for beautiful books to read with children you love, these fantastic books are just the ticket.  If you’re looking for more adult-oriented equine material to sink your teeth into, try the fantastic Seabiscuit: An American Legend, by Laura Hillenbrand. Hillenbrand’s use of metaphor is virtually unparalleled.  Want something even meatier? Try The Color of Horses: A Scientific and Authoritative Identification of the Color of the Horse, which Barb used in to help guide the creation of the best-selling horse board game (the first board game about horses): Herd Your Horses.


The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education system—and how to fix it

By Natalie Wexler

Recommeded on: 19th August 2019

The Knowledge Gap: The hidden cause of America’s broken education systemand how to fix it, by Natalie Wexler. If you are a teacher, parent, or in any way involved in the US school system, this book should move to the very top of your list to be read today. We can’t help but quote Amazon reviewer Emily, whose review nails the subject: “Essentially, the majority of US elementary schools use language arts curriculum that attempts to teach vague ‘skills’ like ‘finding a main idea,’ ‘finding supporting evidence’ or ‘drawing conclusions’ from texts. Wexler summarizes the substantial evidence showing that reading comprehension depends on a person’s background knowledge on the subject. Students from advantaged backgrounds will pick up some background knowledge at home, topics related to history, geography, science. But these subjects have been pushed out of elementary schools to make more time for reading instruction (for testing purposes). Children from disadvantaged homes suffer disproportionately with this system. It is truly a matter of social justice.”

We were struck by examples of children confusing “civil rights” and “Civil War,” or “conservation” and “condensation” because they may have been able to read the terms, but they had no knowledge of what lay behind them.  This highly readable book was often hard to put down. What’s especially encouraging is that, as Wexler describes, there are solutions—great knowledge-based curricula have been developed and are being used in more and more schools.  If your school isn’t using Core Knowledge or Wit and Wisdom, it’s time to explore the possibility of change!


Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times Vol I: The Great Americans

By Philo F. Willetts, Jr.

Recommeded on: 19th August 2019

Nursery Rhymes for Modern Times Vol I: The Great Americans, by Philo F. Willetts, Jr. This wonderful slim volume uses some of the best of what we know about learning to help kids remember key ideas and concepts—just as Wexler recommends in The Knowledge Gap. Our brains are ‘wired’ to remember rhymes, and kids are inspired by the qualities and achievements of great people. This book is packed with great stories and information, including excerpts from Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration, Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream!” Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and many more, including Barb’s personal favorite historical figure, Sequoyah. Here’s a witty excerpt on Dolly Madison:

She made enemies like one another,
By inviting those who hated each other
To eat at the Madison’s table
And be as nice as they were able.

She planned her table’s seatings,
So all had friendly meetings.
Her dinners weren’t just for fun.
She got important agreements done.

Barb has been commanded by her daughter to spend Christmas time teaching some English to her son-in-law’s Spanish-speaking-only (at present) little brother. She’ll be using this book to help with the task!


The Graduate Student as Writer: Encouragement for the Budding Scholar

By Shuyi Chua

Recommeded on: 15th August 2019

This week’s recommendation is rather an unusual one. “Anonymous friend” writes: “I’m one of 1M ‘silent’ students of LHTL who also enjoys your Friday Greetings emails since 2015. A friend of mine [Shuyi Chua] recently self-published The Graduate Student as Writer: Encouragement for the Budding Scholar, a tiny book (1.5hr read time) to encourage and help fellow young scientists to develop writing skills. It would be great if could take a quick look at it… Why? I trained as a physicist and did fMRI from 1996 to 2010, and then quit science altogether because I couldn’t figure out how to deal with ‘publish or perish’ BS. Had I come across something like Shuyi’s book, things might have been different. If it ‘worked’ for me with 15 years of age difference, it might be even more effective for people with a smaller age delta.”
And yes—we agree, it’s a very good book! And it’s free on Kindle Unlimited.


Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations

By Ronen Bergman

Recommeded on: 27th July 2019

Rise and Kill First: The Secret History of Israel’s Targeted Assassinations, by Ronen Bergman. This fascinating book has been named one of the best books of the year by The Economist, The New York Times Book Review, BBC History Magazine, and Kirkus Reviews. It is a tour de force explanation of how a people who have suffered through the Holocaust and myriad other horrors through the centuries have developed a “kill first” approach as an integral part of their approach to organized terrorism. As Bergman describes, this policy has been adopted by others in the West, for example, Barack Obama. When successful, targeted killings are very effective at saving lives. When unsuccessful—well, read the book to find out. As spy-master extraordinaire John le Carré writes: “A remarkable feat of fearless and responsible reporting . . . important, timely, and informative.” [Hat tip Ali Ali Binazir MD MPhil] Of course, other countries have related programs—perhaps not as tightly monitored, benevolently intentioned, or ultimately as accountable to the public.


Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World

By Maryanne Wolf

Recommeded on: 25th July 2019

Reader Come Home: The Reading Brain in a Digital World, by Maryanne Wolf. 

This lovely book uses metaphors to convey the extraordinary complexity of what happens when we read—and to describe how important it is to pause and read deeply.  As Wolf notes: “whenever we name even a single letter, we are activating entire networks of specific neuronal groups in the visual cortex, which correspond to entire networks of equally specific language-based cell groups, which correspond to networks of specific articulatory-motor cell groups—all with millisecond precision. 

“It takes years for deep-reading processes to be formed, and as a society we need to be sure that we are vigilant about their development in our young from a very early age. It takes daily vigilance by us, the expert readers of our society, to choose to expend the extra milliseconds needed to maintain deep reading over time.”

This is a book well worth reading, if only to remind us of the value of reading slowly and deeply.


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