Recommendations

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

Leif and the Fall

By Allison Sweet Grant and Adam Grant

Recommended on: 14th October 2020

Leif and the Fall, by Allison Sweet Grant and Adam Grant.  All the other leaves say that “All leaves fall in the fall.”  But Leif applies creativity to learn that success grows from plenty of failures in this beautifully illustrated little story. If you are a parent, caregiver, relative, or friend, you couldn’t do better to help a child’s creativity than reading this uplifting book together. 

We also greatly enjoyed Allison and Adam’s children’s book The Gift Behind the Box. Adam Grant wrote one of our very favorite books, Give and Take: Why Helping Others Drives Our Success (which also discusses Barb’s work on Pathological Altruism.)

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Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime

By Sean Carroll

Recommended on: 10th October 2020

Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime, by Sean Carroll. We have to admit, we know nothing about quantum physics. (Well, at least Barb, who is writing this review, knew nothing about quantum physics. Terry, on the other hand, studied relativity with John Wheeler at Princeton, so he can dish on quanta when he feels like it.) Sean Carroll is a magnificent writer—understandably, this book became an instant New York Times best seller.  Just take a gander at this paragraph: “Note the subtle difference between Planck’s suggestion and Einstein’s. Planck says that light of a fixed frequency is emitted in certain energy amounts, while Einstein says that’s because light literally is discrete particles. It’s the difference between saying that a certain coffee machine makes exactly one cup at a time, and saying that coffee only exists in the form of one-cup-size amounts. That might make sense when we’re talking about matter particles like electrons and protons, but just a few decades earlier Maxwell had triumphantly explained that light was a wave, not a particle. Einstein’s proposal was threatening to undo that triumph. Planck himself was reluctant to accept this wild new idea, but it did explain the data. In a wild new idea’s search for acceptance, that’s a powerful advantage to have.”

Barb can’t say she emerged from Something Deeply Hidden having a good grasp of quantum physics, (although maybe another version of her in a different world does), but she now has a much greater appreciation for some of the discipline’s oddly beautiful ideas. Also, it’s interesting to know that Schrödinger didn’t like cats. 

Enjoy!

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Teachers vs Tech? The Case for an Ed Tech Revolution

By Daisy Christodoulou

Recommended on: 8th October 2020

Teachers vs Tech? The Case for an Ed Tech Revolution, by Daisy Christodoulou. We’re tremendous fans of “force of nature” Daisy Christodoulou, author of Seven Myths about Education. In her newest book, Daisy makes the perceptive, balanced case for using technology for many critical teaching-related purposes, including personalized learning, make learning more active, and improving teachers’ reach and engagement with students. When combined with Daisy’s perceptive asides and experience, Teachers vs Tech makes for a compelling read.  

For example, think you can always “just look it up?” As Daisy shows, just looking things up can be worse than just being wrong—it can allow you and your students to be suckered by big tech into their self-serving, deceptive world. Want your students to learn independently? It’s not as simple as that—in fact, students don’t get better at learning independently by just learning independently. Think a video project can help your students learn more about the material? Think again—such a project can ultimately help students learn far more about video-making than about what you’re actually trying to teach.

Amongst all her intriguing perspectives, Daisy has a special insight into rubrics, and why rubrics can mislead teachers into believing students understand the material when they don’t. (Here is some of her published research on the topic.)  Indeed, there is excellent research evidence that just because a student may mouth or write the words you want to hear does not mean they actually understand what you want them to understand.

In the end, Daisy writes like a great teacher—we especially liked the illustrations and straightforward layout that made Daisy’s ideas easier to “chunk” and internalize. In these pandemic days, teachers and parents are pausing to reset their expectations about what the online world can bring to education. Daisy’s book provides an intriguing guide to what lies ahead.

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The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win

By Maria Konnikova

Recommended on: 29th September 2020

The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win, by Maria Konnikova. What a fantastic book! Maria has a doctorate in social psychology from Columbia. But instead of going into academia, after a bout of sad events in her family, and with the stalwart support of her husband, Maria decided to tackle the world of high stakes poker.  Armed only with her own chutzpah (she had no knowledge whatsoever of poker), and a deviously informative research paper, she convinced one of the world’s best poker players to take her on as a student. This extraordinary book tells her tale. What turns this book into a master work is that Konnikova turns her psychoanalysis skills on herself.  As she observes:

“What I will offer throughout is insight into decision making far removed from poker, a translation of what I’m learning in the casino to the decisions I make on a daily basis—and the crucial decisions that I make only rarely, but that carry particular import. From managing emotion, to reading other people, to cutting your losses and maximizing your gains, to psyching yourself up into the best version of yourself so that you can not only catch the bluffs of others but bluff successfully yourself, poker is endlessly applicable and revelatory. The mixture of chance and skill at the table is a mirror to that same mixture in our daily lives—and a way of learning to play within those parameters in superior fashion. Poker teaches you how and when you can take true control—and how you can deal with the elements of pure luck—in a way no other environment I’ve encountered has quite been able to do. What’s more, in an age of omnipresent distraction, poker reminds us just how critical close observation and presence are to achievement and success. How important it is to immerse yourself and to learn new things, truly. As Erik [Konnikova’s mentor] told me that first day, lesson one: pay attention. This book isn’t about how to play poker. It’s about how to play the world.”

This book is a wow—enjoy it now! (Also great for audio.)

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Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education

By Justin Reich

Recommended on: 24th September 2020

Failure to Disrupt: Why Technology Alone Can’t Transform Education, by Justin Reich.  Let’s cut to the chase. This brilliant, upbeat book should be read by anyone involved in education, including parents, teachers, educational administrators, and policy-makers. If you want to understand how education itself is carved at its joints, this book, ostensibly centered on edtech, is the book to read. 

The challenge for us all is that today’s vast edtech industry is enormously convoluted and connects virtually every sector in education. It’s deucedly difficult to get a “bird’s eye” view of the playing field, because there are so many players with so many motives and perspectives, ranging from lawmakers and university administrators to kindergarten teachers, from charismatic high-tech entrepreneurs to established industry players. 

One would need an extraordinary intellect to understand and float between all the worlds and layers. Fortunately for us, Justin Reich not only has the intellect and writing chops to make sense of the landscape, but his positions at Harvard and then MIT have given him an unparalleled opportunity to interact with or be aware of virtually every major trend in edtech. Additionally, with the advent of COVID, edtech is shifting. The “built from the foundations” nature of this book’s explanations—which cover networked communities, assessment, gamification, adaptive tutors, and far, far morewill help you understand where the shifts are going to have their biggest impact. (We love Reich’s Law“People who do stuff do more stuff, and people who do stuff do better than people who don’t do stuff.”)

Oddly enough for a book with “failure” in the title, Reich is an optimist, and his book provides a sunny outlook on the gradual improvements taking place, tweak by tiny tweak, in education aided by technology. When Reich finds unsuccessful areas in edtech (and there are many), he relates them cheerfully, so that even the partial deadends seem worthwhile.  Reich is able to suss out the ideologies that underlie the various educational approaches, looking beneath them and dispassionately describing what’s effective and what’s not.

This is masterful writing and thinking that helps us all see more clearly how to help students succeed. Highly recommended!

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Engaging Learners through Zoom: Strategies for Virtual Teaching Across Disciplines

By Jonathan Brennan

Recommended on: 16th September 2020

We’ve been intrigued by books on Zoom, and we wanted to share about a new one, out soon, that takes a different approach: Engaging Learners through Zoom: Strategies for Virtual Teaching Across Disciplines, by Jonathan Brennan. As Barb wrote in her blurb for the book: “Engaging Learners through Zoom is like a banquet of ideas for polls, chats, breakout rooms, using the main session as a central hub, and far more.  What’s terrific about this book is that it gives concrete, innovative examples for practically every discipline—any instructor can benefit! I never knew I needed this book, but now, I couldn’t do without it!” 

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Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain

By David Eagleman

Recommended on: 10th September 2020

Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain, by David Eagleman. There’s no getting around it—we loved this book! It’s enlightening, upbeat, beautifully written, and deeply thought-provoking. Ever thought about what it’s like to have a new sense? Eagleman has, and he writes provocatively of those who have begun to explore this strange new neural territory:

“Todd Huffman is a biohacker. His hair is often dyed some primary color or another; his appearance is otherwise indistinguishable from a lumberjack. Some years ago, Todd ordered a small neodymium magnet in the mail. He sterilized the magnet, sterilized a surgical knife, sterilized his hand, and implanted the magnet in his fingers. Now Todd feels magnetic fields. The magnet tugs when exposed to electromagnetic fields, and his nerves register this. Information normally invisible to humans is now streamed to his brain via the sensory pathways of his fingers. His perceptual world expanded the first time he reached for a pan on his electric stove. The stove casts off a large magnetic field (because of the electricity running in a coil). He hadn’t been aware of that tidbit of knowledge, but now he can feel it. Reaching out, he can detect the electromagnetic bubble that comes off of a power cord transformer (like the one to your laptop). It’s like touching an invisible bubble, one with a shape that he can assess by moving his hand around. The strength of the electromagnetic field is gauged by how powerfully the magnet moves inside his finger. Because different frequencies of magnetic fields affect how the magnet vibrates, he ascribes different qualities to different transformers—in words like ‘texture’ or ‘color.’

But Eagleman goes far deeper than just bio-hacking (interesting as it is) in this book—his enlightening metaphors provide insight into neural processes of all sorts, especially about the competing processes of sensory neurons. Who knew that our ability to see and feel could be equated to a form of neural colony building by our hands and eyes?  We particularly liked the section on why young brains are so much more plastic than older brains—perhaps surprisingly, it’s not all bad news for the mature amongst us. As Eagleman notes: “There’s a trade-off between adaptability and efficiency: as your brain gets good at certain jobs, it becomes less able to tackle others… To get good at one thing is to close the door on others. Because you possess only a single life, what you devote yourself to sends you down particular roads, while the other paths will forever remain untrodden by you. Thus, I began this book with one of my favorite quotations from the philosopher Martin Heidegger: ‘Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.’”

If you want to freshen your mind with the latest thinking of human potential, settle down and enjoy Eagleman’s brilliant book. (This is also a great book for audio.)

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The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn

By Nathaniel Philbrick

Recommended on: 31st August 2020

The Last Stand: Custer, Sitting Bull, and the Battle of the Little Bighorn, by Nathaniel Philbrick. Barb and her Hero Hubby Phil were driving through Montana last week and happened to spot signs for the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. Next thing you know, the intrepid duo had parked their little trailer and were off to spend a blistering hot day exploring the battlefield.  In some sense, the Little Big Horn Monument is like an action-packed cemetery, with clusters of gravestones marking the spot of bodies as the battle swept through the gullies and hillsides. But just roaming the hillsides wasn’t enough—they had to learn more.

Enter Nathaniel Philbrick’s extraordinary The Last Stand.  From the very first pages, this exquisitely written book pulls you into the world of bad guys (if Custer’s premeditated attacks on a peaceful Native American villages don’t qualify him as a bad guy, nothing would), good guys like the extraordinary leader Sitting Bull, and everyone in between. The Last Stand gives a tremendous sense of the injustice and inequities experienced by Native Americans around the time of the first US Centennial in 1876. But it also gives a broad sense of place and time thanks to Philbrick’s extraordinary way with words. (Philbrick has won the National Book Award and has been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.)  This is a rare, hard-to-put-down masterpiece. Enjoy!

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Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World

By Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West

Recommended on: 26th August 2020

Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, by Carl T. Bergstrom and Jevin D. West. This very readable book describes how easy it is for journalists, politicians, companies, and yes, even researchers themselves to bullshit people.  As Bergstrom and West note: “Perhaps the most important principle in bullshit studies is Brandolini’s principle. Coined by Italian software engineer Alberto Brandolini in 2014, it states: ‘The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than [that needed] to produce it.’ Producing bullshit is a lot less work than cleaning it up. It is also a lot simpler and cheaper to do. A few years before Brandolini formulated his principle, Italian blogger Uriel Fanelli had already noted that, loosely translated, ‘an idiot can create more bullshit than you could ever hope to refute.’

We also like this book because it provides fresh perspectives on the black box of artificial intelligence algorithms; how to understand conditional probability in simple, visual ways; how p-hacking leads to a misleading research landscape; and why even superb scientists can publish irreproducible results. Not that Bergstrom and West aren’t above a bit of occasional bullshit themselves, but this is an important book that we feel is destined to become a classic. Also good for audio listening.

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Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It

By Ian Leslie

Recommended on: 20th August 2020

Curious: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, by Ian Leslie. Barb has an upcoming talk for Novartis on curiosity for their Curiosity Week, (it will start with the story of the worst professor Barb ever had, and this professor’s inadvertent role in inspiring the corny video editing behind Learning How to Learn). So meanwhile, Barb couldn’t help but become more curious about curiosity.  Ian Leslie’s book is a scorcher on the topic—highly readable and beautifully researched.  Here’s a sample: “Sir Ken Robinson’s 2008 [TED] talk on educational reform—entitled “Do Schools Kill Creativity?”—has now been viewed more than 4 million times. In it Robinson cites the fact that children’s scores on standard tests of creativity decline as they grow older and advance through the educational system. He concludes that children start out as curious, creative individuals but are made duller by factory-style schools that spend too much time teaching children academic facts and not enough helping them express themselves. Sir Ken clearly cares greatly about the well-being of children, and he is a superb storyteller, but his arguments about creativity, though beguilingly made, are almost entirely baseless.”

This is also a great book for audio.  Enjoy!

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Memory Superpowers! An Adventurous Guide to Remembering What You Don’t Want to Forget

By Nelson Dellis

Recommended on: 8th August 2020

Memory Superpowers! An Adventurous Guide to Remembering What You Don’t Want to Forget, by Nelson Dellis. It’s probably clear from our many past postings that we’re HUGE Nelson Dellis fans. That’s because four-time US memory champ Nelson isn’t just a memory experthe’s also one of the best memory teachers in the world.  Nelson’s latest fantastic book is geared toward helping teens achieve remarkable memorization skills. If your child is a struggling underachiever, read a little section of this book together each evening so you both can learn how to outwit the Memory Thief. If your child is an overachiever, encourage them read this book on their own so they can achieve still more, all while enjoying adventures in the Forest of Forgettable Names and the Great Word Pyramids, maneuvering around the Pirates of the Periodic Table and journeying through the Himalayan Memory Palace. Nelson notes: “10-14 is the age range (but not limited to that. I mean, lot’s of adults could read it and get a lot out of it. Some advanced readers under 10 could read it too.” Truly a fun and highly practical guide to helping kids achieve remarkable memorization skills.

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Online Teaching with Zoom

By Aaron Johnson

Recommended on: 31st July 2020

Online Teaching with Zoom: A Guide for Teaching and Learning with Videoconference Platforms, by Aaron Johnson. We had previously read and liked Aaron’s first book on online teaching, Excellent Online Teaching. Aaron’s new book provides a solid overview of how to use Zoom for teachinghis insights are also more broadly applicable to any sort of online teaching.  And the price is rightboth books are free on Kindle Unlimited!

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The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad

By Emily Thomas

Recommended on: 29th July 2020

The Meaning of Travel: Philosophers Abroad, by Emily Thomas. Thomas’s book helps explain why travel is so useful and important, and such a valuable tool for creativity. (Although it doesn’t quite get to why travel can, for some, be such an addiction.) Although the book can be a bit uneven, Thomas gets into unusual, often-overlooked aspects of travel. For example, the European “Grand Tours” that served as a sort of finishing school for the wealthy were apparently just as often an exercise in debauchery. We particularly appreciated the descriptions of how travel has changed over the years—mountains and empty spaces, for example, weren’t always seen as beautiful. Thomas’s description of the meaning of sublime is alone worth the price of the book, and echo Barb’s experiences at the South Pole Station in Antarctica. If you’re pining for travel, this book will help serve as a temporary touchstone to assuage your longing.

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Urban Myths about Learning and Education

By Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof

Recommended on: 22nd July 2020

Urban Myths about Learning and Education, by Pedro De Bruyckere, Paul A. Kirschner, and Casper D. Hulshof. This book, originally published in 2015 (and followed by a 2019 sequel), is as topical as ever. Killing commonly repeated educational myths is, it seems, its own cottage industry, although it probably isn’t nearly as lucrative as the sales of learning styles assessments. What we particularly like about Bruyckere et al’s book is the personal nature of the writing. Sometimes it feels as if a good friend is writing to you, making mildly snarky side-comments about the strange things they’re discovering when trying to detect the source of some of education’s most popular—and utterly bogus—imagery and ideas. Sometimes seemingly solid research citations lead nowhere! Anyone involved in education would find gold in this easy-to-read but thought-provoking book.

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The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean

By Susan Casey

Recommended on: 14th July 2020

The Wave: In Pursuit of the Rogues, Freaks, and Giants of the Ocean, by Susan Casey. Recent research on the dead water phenomenon (see below), reminded us of Casey’s book—a New York Times best-seller and one of our favorite about waves. Casey herself is something of a phenomenon. She was the long-time editor of O, The Oprah Magazine, and she had unprecedented access to surfer Laird Hamilton, joining him and other surfers to begin experiencing waves as surfers experience them. But she explores the bigger picture as well, looking at things like rogue waves, disappearing ships, and Lloyd’s of London insurance practices. Interesting look at the fascinating phenomena of waves, which Barb has been interested in ever since her own years at sea.( Her old, well-thumbed copy of Waves and Beaches: The Dynamics of the Ocean Surface has been reread many a time—when, that is, she wasn’t sea-sick with the dynamics of said ocean surface!)

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The Bilingual Brain

By Albert Costa

Recommended on: 6th July 2020

The Bilingual Brain, by Albert Costa.   We’re suckers for books on bilingualism, and this recent book, by multilingual Albert Costa, (who is in real life a leading researcher on bilingualism), really delivers the goods on what we know from neuroscience.  Unlike many authors who are in love with their discipline, Costa is an honest broker—he thoughtfully describes areas where research may be reflecting a bit of wishful thinking about the benefits of bilingualism. But he also has intriguing perspectives on how, for example, making decisions while speaking a foreign language can result in a more rational decision. As Costa notes: “I realized that we had discovered something interesting when I was explaining these results to my mother and son over lunch and they both said at the same time: ‘No way!’ If people who were more than fifty years apart in age were surprised by the same phenomenon, it was because they could not believe that their moral judgements, what most identified them as individuals, could be affected by such an insignificant thing as the language in which a moral dilemma is presented. And believe me, my stories almost always bore them.” If you’re trying to learn a new language, this book will give you fascinating insights into how your brain will change. Count us now as Costa fans! Also good for audio.

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The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits

By Judson Brewer

Recommended on: 30th June 2020

The Craving Mind: From Cigarettes to Smartphones to Love—Why We Get Hooked and How We Can Break Bad Habits, by Judson Brewer. For years, we’ve been looking for a good book that gives insight on the science of meditation. This book is a great one that goes far beyond simple addiction and gets to the heart of issues such as why our minds get “stuck” on people who annoy us, and squirrel-like thoughts that can keep us from focusing as we’d like. 

Amongst many quotable gems, we liked how Judson described what the “RAIN” process of what to do when getting caught up in obsessive thinking: “RECOGNIZE/RELAX into what is arising (for example, your craving) ACCEPT/ALLOW it to be there INVESTIGATE bodily sensations, emotions, and thoughts (for example, ask, ‘What is happening in my body or mind right now?’). NOTE what is happening from moment to moment The N is a slight modification of … ‘nonidentification.’ The idea is that we identify with or get caught up in the object that we are aware of.” Also nice for audio. [Hat tip: Mako Haruta]

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The Breakdown of Higher Education

By John M. Ellis

Recommended on: 22nd June 2020

The Breakdown of Higher Education: How It Happened, the Damage It Does, and What Can Be Done, by John M. Ellis. This provocative book provides a sobering analysis of what is unfolding on college campuses today—a phenomenon similar to that which Barb experienced in her past work with the Soviet communists. (All of which ultimately led to Chernobyl, because censorship under communism reigned supreme.)  Key graf: “Censorship on college campuses concerning questions where the opinions of thoughtful people differ is contrary to what we have always thought about higher education. Until recently, universities dealt in precise argument using evidence that is systematically gathered and carefully analyzed—not in ruthlessly enforced uniformity of opinion based on arbitrary political dogma. That is exactly the kind of anti-intellectual behavior that we expect universities to remedy—it’s what we have them for. If those institutions now routinely resort to this irrational thuggery, what is the point of them? We already see enough of that in the wider world. Academics who behave in this way are really telling us not only that they don’t do university-level thinking, researching, or analyzing of issues, but that they won’t allow anyone else on campus to do it either.”  The Breakdown of Higher Education explores, in great detail, the consequences in higher education of Pathological Altruism.

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The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience

By Matthew Cobb

Recommended on: 17th June 2020

The Idea of the Brain: The Past and Future of Neuroscience, by Matthew Cobb. This broad-ranging book starts back in the dawn of written history, where we learn that even back in ancient Rome, active learning was a “thing.”  “To demonstrate his discoveries Galen used ‘lecture-commentaries’ in which he simultaneously described his new knowledge and showed it in an animal… this was part of Galen’s emphasis on the importance of experience in understanding.” As Cobb wends his way into modern times, matters get even more interesting. We learn, for example, of the different main theories of consciousness, how they differ, and why each theoretical approach still has problems.  

The study of the brain is endlessly fascinating, and Cobb’s delightfully wry sense of humor provides the perfect foil as we get an overview of the field’s history.

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Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood

By Trevor Noah

Recommended on: 12th June 2020

We watched Trevor Noah’s thoughtful video take on George Floyd, the Minneapolis Protests, Ahmaud Arbery, and Amy Cooper, and were inspired to read Noah’s autobiography, Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood. Wow! This riveting book describes how, due to miscegenation laws in South Africa, Noah really was born a criminal—blacks and whites were not supposed to be mixing under apartheid in South Africa. Lucky for us, Trevor’s miraculous mother deliberately chose to break the law. We won’t tell you how or why because we’d be spoiling the story.

The long and the short of it is that Noah is, quite simply, one of the most masterful story-tellers around.  He describes the great value of language—a gifted linguist, Noah could use his ability to understand the essence of how people spoke to in turn speak with them. “I became a chameleon. My color didn’t change, but I could change your perception of my color. If you spoke to me in Zulu, I replied to you in Zulu. If you spoke to me in Tswana, I replied to you in Tswana. Maybe I didn’t look like you, but if I spoke like you, I was you.” Noah truly understands and conveys the horrors of domestic violence, and perhaps most importantly, from our perspective, he describes the often appalling lack of educational opportunities for children born into poverty.  This is truly a great book by an extraordinary writer—also a terrific book for audio listening. (Noah’s subtle South African accent is almost magnetically listenable.)

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