Recommendations

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

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin

By Erik Larson

Recommended on: 18th October 2021

In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin, by Erik Larson. We have read many books over the years about the rise and fall of the Third Reich (including Shirer’s definitive classic by that name).  But In the Garden of the Beasts is one of the best we’ve ever read in describing the gradual unfolding of the evil that was Hitler and his loathsome cronies.  The book follows William Dodd, the unlikely, bottom-of-the-barrel pick as Ambassador to Nazi Germany, and his daughter, Martha Dodd, who slept her way through the top of Berlin’s high society as she merrily embraced Nazism.  But as the Dodds grew more familiar with Germany and the Nazis, they began to appreciate the true horrors of the regime. Martha would become a spy for the communists—only late in life realizing that she had been the dupe of each evil faction.  Larsen’s descriptions are stunningly apropos of the era—and resonate today: 

“…Germany had undergone a rapid and sweeping revolution that reached deep into the fabric of daily life. It had occurred quietly and largely out of easy view. At its core was a government campaign called Gleichschaltung—meaning “Coordination”—to bring citizens, government ministries, universities, and cultural and social institutions in line with National Socialist beliefs and attitudes. 

 “‘Coordination’ occurred with astonishing speed, even in sectors of life not directly targeted by specific laws, as Germans willingly placed themselves under the sway of Nazi rule, a phenomenon that became known as Selbstgleichschaltung, or ‘self-coordination.’ Change came to Germany so quickly and across such a wide front that German citizens who left the country for business or travel returned to find everything around them altered, as if they were characters in a horror movie who come back to find that people who once were their friends, clients, patients, and customers have become different in ways hard to discern. Gerda Laufer, a socialist, wrote that she felt ‘deeply shaken that people whom one regarded as friends, who were known for a long time, from one hour to the next transformed themselves.’ Neighbors turned surly; petty jealousies flared into denunciations made to the SA—the Storm Troopers—or to the newly founded…Gestapo…

This is an absolutely remarkable book of history—we cannot recommend it more highly. 

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The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future

By Arthur Levine and Scott J. Van Pelt

Recommended on: 12th October 2021

The Great Upheaval: Higher Education’s Past, Present, and Uncertain Future, by Arthur Levine and Scott J. Van Pelt. If you’re looking to understand the future of higher education, you couldn’t do better than to look at The Great Upheaval.  What makes this book so interesting is not only its review of past changes in higher ed, but also its careful look at what has happened in leading industries such as movie-making, filmmaking, and newspapers as they’ve been disrupted by the online world. All this background means it’s a slow wind-up to get to the meat of the matter—that is, the future of higher ed. But the careful foundation that Levine and Van Pelt lay pays off. They conclude that many new universities will be unlike their industrial era predecessors. “The key actor is the student or consumer of higher education, no longer the colleges and universities that provide it. The focus is on learning rather than on teaching. The outcomes of education are fixed instead of time- and process-based. Higher education is primarily digital, no longer principally analog, and content is unbundled rather than consolidated. Competencies replace credits as the currency and accounting system of higher education. Colleges and universities are one of many sources for education rather than the sole provider.”  Well worth reading if you are wondering where higher ed is heading post-COVID.

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The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden 1945

By Sinclair McKay

Recommended on: 6th October 2021

The Fire and the Darkness: The Bombing of Dresden 1945, by Sinclair McKay.  This riveting book held us spell-bound each evening over the past week—only when sleep called with urgency was Barb able to draw herself away.  It is hard to do justice to Dresden’s horrific bombing, which was, on the face of it, a war crime that killed some 25,000 innocent civilians—many of them refugees—in the final weeks of World War II. Yet McKay does a fantastic job of setting out the context of what occurred, describing the horrors experienced by Jews and anyone else who dared cross the Nazi juggernaut, and how, whatever else it might have done, the savage bombing seemed to have been the final straw that broke the Nazi’s morale.  Even-handed, riveting works of history such as this book are extraordinarily important as nowadays, hyperinflated versions of the Dresden death toll are used by neo-Nazis to support revisionist history. These revised histories give short shrift to the millions of deaths and untold damages that Hitler caused.  The Fire and the Darkness is truly a great book. (Also excellent for audio listening).

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The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD

By George A. Bonanno

Recommended on: 28th September 2021

The End of Trauma: How the New Science of Resilience Is Changing How We Think About PTSD, by George A. Bonanno. Bonanno argues that we vastly overestimate how common PTSD is, and we often fail to recognize how resilient people really are. In fact, many relatively new ideas about stress and how to handle it can actually exacerbate stressful feelings. Take mindfulness, for example—as Bonanno points out, not only is there not good evidence for mindfulness’s efficacy in helping with recovery from trauma, there is actually some evidence that it could be detrimental. As Bonanno notes: “A group of mindfulness experts recently cautioned, in a paper published in a leading psychology journal, that misinformation about the effectiveness of mindfulness can mislead people, and can even lead to harm. An alarming number of published studies and case reports have linked meditation to serious side effects, including increased anxiety, panic, disorientation, hallucinations, and depersonalization—the feeling of being disconnected from oneself. It can also cause people who have gone through potentially traumatic events to reexperience memories of these events.”

So what does Bonanno recommend to end trauma? Flexibility—realizing that there is no “one-size-fits-all” ways to handle trauma. For example, letting emotions out in relation to a stressful situation may sometimes be warranted, but many times, suppressing emotions is the better approach.

As Bonanno concludes: “All of this research points to the same basic conclusion: coping and emotion regulation strategies are inherently neither good nor bad. Every strategy has costs and benefits, and a given strategy is effective only insofar as it helps us meet the demands of a specific situation. Ironically, this is not a new story. The leading theorists on coping and emotion regulation have always emphasized this kind of dynamic interaction with changing situational demands. The core theorists have also emphasized the importance of timing. What may be effective at the onset of a stressor event, they pointed out, may be less effective or less useful later as the stressor runs its course.”

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Seven Essentials for Business Success

By George Siedel

Recommended on: 17th September 2021

Seven Essentials for Business Success, by George Seidel. Since we aren’t in the world of business, we found Dr. Seidel’s description of the world of business education, and the philosophy of great professor-teachers in business, to be intriguing.  The discussion is filled with nuggets of thought-provoking, teaching-related information we’d never encountered before, as for example: 

“In 1995, Robert Coles, a professor of psychiatry and medical humanities at Harvard University, published an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education titled ‘The Disparity Between Intellect and Character.’ He wrote the essay after meeting with a student who was distraught after another student propositioned her on more than one occasion. She recounted to Professor Coles that she had ‘taken two moral-reasoning courses with [the other student], and I’m sure he’s gotten As in both of them—and look at how he behaves with me, and I’m sure with others.’ She went on to note, ‘I’ve been taking all these philosophy courses, and we talk about what’s true, what’s important, what’s good. Well, how do you teach people to be good?’”

Now that’s an important question for us as teachers!

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Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization

By Edward Slingerland

Recommended on: 13th September 2021

Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization, by Edward Slingerland.  We were a little taken aback at the title and topic of this book.  After all, drunkenness is not a state most of us aspire to—at least not most of the time—and alcoholism is a tremendous bane.  Yet, while acknowledging alcohol’s dark side, Slingerland makes a credible case that alcohol, by virtue of its ability to tone down the ever-self-conscious prefrontal cortex, can have a helpful impact on the human condition, including the fostering of trust and opening of creativity. By turns witty and thought-provoking, Slingerland leads us through a new perspective on alcohol. This passage gives a sense of the book’s style and approach: 

“A significant portion of the Incan Empire’s organized labor was directed toward the production and distribution of the corn-based intoxicant chicha. Even ancient dead people were obsessed with getting wasted. It is hard to find a culture that did not send off their dead with copious quantities of alcohol, cannabis, or other intoxicants. Chinese tombs from the Shang Dynasty were packed with elaborate wine vessels of every shape and size, in both pottery and bronze. This represented a cultural investment equivalent, in today’s terms, to burying a few brand-new Mercedes SUVs in the ground with their trunks full of vintage Burgundy. Ancient Egyptian elites, the world’s first wine snobs, were sent off in tombs full of jars that carefully recorded the vintage, quality, and name of their content’s maker. Because of its centrality in human life, economic and political power has often been grounded in the ability to produce or supply intoxicants.”

Drunk is an interesting and thoughtful read—also good for audio listening.

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The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism

By Olivia Fox Cabane

Recommended on: 8th September 2021

The Charisma Myth: How Anyone Can Master the Art and Science of Personal Magnetism, by Olivia Fox Cabane.  Every once in a while, it’s good to return to a book that’s shown its worth through the years.  Just such a book is The Charisma Myth, which is one of the best books we’ve ever read about how to get along with people while simultaneously being more persuasive, influential, inspiring, and yes, charming. (Who knew that charm could be taught?)  If you feel uncomfortable in meeting people and interacting in public settings, this is one of the best books we could suggest to help.  Also good for audio.

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Set it & Forget it: Are you ready to transform your sleep?

By Daniel Erichsen

Recommended on: 31st August 2021

Set it & Forget it: Are you ready to transform your sleep? by Daniel Erichsen.  Barb’s been doing her darndest over these past few years to try to make sure she gets at least eight hours of sleep most evenings.  Well, there’s been a problem with that.  Mostly, she just can’t get eight hours of sleep—instead, she generally spends an hour or two staring into the darkness trying to fall asleep.

Enter Daniel Erichsen’s intriguing, easy-to-read but potentially life-changing Set it & Forget itDr. Erichsen is a pediatrician who has also studied sleep medicine at the University of Chicago—his passion is helping people to improve their sleep.  His counterintuitive advice?  We generally don’t need as much sleep as the “experts” say.  Erichsen suggests simple, workable approaches for detecting when you are truly sleepy, (as opposed to just tired), and perhaps most importantly, he provides advice for reducing the stress that causes so many of us to lose sleep. (Oddly enough, one of the most common stressors on top of all our other daily stressors is that we stress about not getting enough sleep!)  If you have trouble sleeping, this thought-provoking book, and other related books and podcasts by Dr. Erichsen, may help bring you to your dreams.

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The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo

By Tom Reiss

Recommended on: 27th August 2021

We can always tell when we’ve got a great book to read when we’re so excited about it that we sneak reading in even during the day, when we’re supposed to be working. And just such a book is Tom Reiss’s The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Biography.  This is a stunningly good book—to be deposited on Barb’s shelf of “favorite books of history.”  It’s always fantastic when you read a biography centered around a decent, caring, but daring human being who gives whatever it takes to do it right by his fellow humans.  

Just such a person was Alex Dumas, father of the famous novelist Alexandre Dumas, (author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers—whose key characters were clearly based on aspects of the novelist’s father). Alex, the son of a white marquis and a black enslaved woman, Marie-Cessette Dumas, was the first person of color in the French military to become general-in-chief of a French army. What an extraordinary man!  You can’t help but read about his exploits and come to believe he was an eighteenth-century superhero. 

Reiss provides a very different perspective on the French Revolution and its destroyer, Napoleon Bonaparte.  By providing an in-depth perspective of someone who knew Napoleon well, we come to see how narcissistic Napoleon actually was.  And where the French Revolution had begun the process of freeing all enslaved people in French dominions, Napoleon moved to re-enslave them and to re-institutionalize racism in France.  (Somehow, this is never emphasized in Napoleon biographies.)  In the end, however, it is the wonderful exploits of Alex Dumas that makes this extraordinary book such a delight to read. Also fantastic for audio.

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Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World

By Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell

Recommended on: 16th August 2021

Socialism Sucks: Two Economists Drink Their Way Through the Unfree World, by Robert Lawson and Benjamin Powell. In keeping with our enthusiasm for alcoholic beverages, and our own past experiences in the world of Marxist thinking, (both alcohol and Marxism feature in Barb’s Hair of the Dog: Tales from a Russian Trawler), we couldn’t help but be tickled by Lawson and Powell’s enlightening tales of travel through socialist societies. As Bob and Ben note: “In this book … we’re aiming for a popular audience that will appreciate not just our economic insights but our down-to-earth honesty. We wrote this book because too many people seem to be dangerously ignorant of what socialism is, how it functions, and its historical track record. We also wanted to get drunk in Cuba, and this was a great way to write off our expenses.” 

This not-to-be-missed book describes what’s really happening on the ground in socialist countries throughout the world—not just relating blinkered academic theory. Plus… beer.

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Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering

By Scott Small

Recommended on: 12th August 2021

Forgetting: The Benefits of Not Remembering, by Scott Small.

This extraordinary book is the best, most riveting, most readable book related to learning (and PTSD, autism, memory, and a host of other topics) that we’ve ever read.  Small is an extraordinary writer—his tales of being at war, and why he didn’t develop PTSD despite what he’d experienced, provide thought-provoking insight for us all. And his simple, lucid explanations of why we forget—and how important it is to be able to forget—provide a whole new perspective on how you look at both life and learning.

Perhaps most importantly, Dr. Small provides a profound scientific underpinning for one of the most important points we make in Learning How to Learn—that having a great memory ain’t necessarily so great.  It can be hard for you to forget the details so that you can see the big picture.  (This is part of why people who can’t remember so well can be more creative.)  Even better, Dr. Small is by our estimation in the top ranks of non-fiction writers—our guess is that if he’d gone into writing fiction, he’d be ranked amongst the best in the world for his prose style.

We love this book—it is a tie for the best book we’ve ever read.  It’s also ideal for audio. You can’t start reading this fantastic book soon enough!

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Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste

By Bianca Bosker

Recommended on: 8th August 2021

We give an enthusiastic thumbs up for Bianca Bosker’s fantastic book Cork Dork: A Wine-Fueled Adventure Among the Obsessive Sommeliers, Big Bottle Hunters, and Rogue Scientists Who Taught Me to Live for Taste. You might think that this is just a simple book about wine tasting.  It’s not. Or rather, it is about wine tasting, but it is SO much more!  Much like our other favorite “immersion learning” book, Moonwalking with Einstein, Cork Dork is one person’s hilariously obsessive, but scientifically-informed pursuit of the development of memory.  But this time, rather than learning to memorize things like cards, numbers, or names, Bosker is learning to remember tastes and smells. That might seem inconsequential, but as Bosker reveals, improving your sense of taste and smell, in fact, improves all of your cognition.  Bottom’s up to this brilliant book! (Bosker also reads the Audible version; you may be able to get two free audiobooks through this link.)

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Greenlights

By Matthew McConaughey

Recommended on: 1st August 2021

Greenlights, by Matthew McConaughey.  It took us a bit to get used to McConaughey’s style. But once he hits his stride with stories, Greenlights soars as an unparalleled autobiography of a funny, tough, unfailingly curious extrovert with a sense that the world is conspiring to make him happy.  This is the kind of book you read so you’ve got funny stories to haul out when you’re sitting around jawing with friends. But the book goes much deeper than that, with insights ranging from the sacrifices and risks needed to get to where you want to go, to finding the love of one’s life, to the value of listening to your intuition.  Highly recommended—also good for audio (McConaughey himself is the narrator).

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Clean: The New Science of Skin

By James Hamblin

Recommended on: 29th July 2021

Clean: The New Science of Skin, by James Hamblin.  Clean begins with a startling claim: author James Hamblin, a medical doctor, had stopped showering for five years and had given up as well on shampoo, conditioner, or soap, except on his hands.  With this unusual introduction, Hamblin moves on to describe soap, skin, and the entire set of related industries.  The book is filled with interesting factoids, such as that the pharmaceutical industry is tightly regulated at great expense, but the cosmetics industry is basically the wild west—“there are currently no legal requirements for any cosmetic manufacturer marketing products to American consumers to test their products for safety.”  That, in a nutshell, is why you can find seemingly elegant $60 creams and lotions with the same basic ingredients as a $6 tube. 

Clean was named a Best Book of 2020 by NPR and Vanity Fair. This is an especially worthwhile book if you have skin issues, or spend a lot on skin products, or have ever wondered why—and whether it’s reasonable—to spend so much on skin products. Clean is also a good book for audio.

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The Swerve: How the World Became Modern

By Stephen Greenblatt

Recommended on: 8th July 2021

The Swerve: How the World Became Modern, by Stephen Greenblatt. One of the things we love about reading is that it allows us to discover how much we don’t know.  We had no clue, for example, about how the works of ancient Roman writers were able to make their way through two thousand years of mold, mildew, bookworms (the real kind), fire, and purposeful destruction. Greenblatt allows us to follow in the footsteps of Italian politician and humanist Poggio Braccilioni who, in the early 1400s, undertook journeys to northern Europe to seek out such ancient manuscripts as he could find hidden away in monasteries.  By leaning in to Poggio’s methods, we learn how and why manuscripts survived—often under the care of monks who were utterly opposed to the ideas contained in those ancient, heretical documents.  One of Poggio’s discoveries was epic. It was, in fact, Lucretius’s De rerum natura: On the Nature of Things, a poem that spelled out a shockingly prescient worldview of a world derived only of atoms that swerve—not the divine intervention of the traditional Roman deities.  

Greenblatt explores the nature of the Italian world of the middle ages, and also shows how important free thought, shocking though it may be, has been for the development of the modern world. The Swerve is a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Non-fiction. Highly recommended, and an excellent book for audio listening. [Hat tip, Sadegh Nabavi]

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A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence

By Jeff Hawkins

Recommended on: 1st July 2021

A Thousand Brains: A New Theory of Intelligence, by Jeff Hawkins. Hawkins is a neuroscientist as well as one of the most successful and highly regarded computer architects in Silicon Valley. Some of his scientific papers have become the most downloaded and cited papers in their journals. 

A Thousand Brains is one of the most intriguing books we’ve ever read about the brain—Hawkins takes an utterly novel approach to understanding how the brain works.  As he notes: 

“People often say the brain is the most complicated thing in the universe. They conclude from this that there will not be a simple explanation for how it works, or that perhaps we will never understand it. The history of scientific discovery suggests they are wrong. Major discoveries are almost always preceded by bewildering, complex observations. With the correct theoretical framework, the complexity does not disappear, but it no longer seems confusing or daunting. A familiar example is the movement of the planets. For thousands of years, astronomers carefully tracked the motion of the planets among the stars. The path of a planet over the course of a year is complex, darting this way and that, making loops in the sky. It was hard to imagine an explanation for these wild movements. Today, every child learns the basic idea that the planets orbit the Sun… Similarly, I always believed that the neocortex appeared complicated largely because we didn’t understand it, and that it would appear relatively simple in hindsight. Once we knew the solution, we would look back and say, ‘Oh, of course, why didn’t we think of that?’” 

Hawkin’s book proceeds to lay out precisely those relatively straightforward ideas—often arising from his group’s research—that make the brain much easier to understand.  He also makes a prescient case for why artificial intelligence will advance only by copying the approaches used by the human brain.  Highly recommended for brain buffs and those interested in artificial intelligence.

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Churchill & Son

By Josh Ireland

Recommended on: 17th June 2021

Churchill & Son, by Josh Ireland. Reaching the end of a fantastic book like Churchill & Son is bittersweet. There’s a feeling of satisfaction with the closure, but that satisfaction is mixed with the sad knowledge that you will not be able to return and spend more time with characters and a story you’ve become entranced by.  Winston Churchill is one of history’s astonishing figures—an ostracized man who saw a future few others wished to see. His accurate vision, combined with his ability to unite and marshal his country’s (and others’) forces to combat the Nazi juggernaut was unparalleled.  But when it came to Churchill’s son, Winston took a path that virtually everyone—especially Churchill’s long-suffering wife Clementine—could see was bound for disaster.  By overcompensating for his own neglected upbringing, Churchill groomed his son to become a spoiled, overbearing, overweening character whose descent into alcoholism left him with few friends, and lost him even the respect of his father. As this book so eloquently reveals, being the son of a great man can truly be a curse. This is an amazing behind-the-scenes story of what was really going on from a family perspective during some of the most tumultuous political upheavals of modern history.  This book was hard to put down—highly recommended! (Also good for audio.)

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Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges

By Ezra Werb

Recommended on: 10th June 2021

Teach for Attention! A Tool Belt of Strategies for Engaging Students with Attention Challenges, by Ezra Werb. This brief, easy-to-read book provides “from the trenches” teaching strategies for students with ADHD, low self-confidence, distraction, and other attention challenges. There are dozens of true classroom stories that show the strategies in action. Ezra is an educational therapist working with students with attention
 deficits, learning challenges, and spectrum disorders, so his insights can definitely help build your teaching repertoire if you are working with attentionally-challenged students.

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The Tiger

By John Vaillant

Recommended on: 3rd June 2021

The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival, by John Vaillant.  This is one of those books that’s hard to put down, as the story unfolds of a tiger with a lethal grudge against a particular human—a grudge that widened to encompass every human the tiger encountered.  John Vaillant is a magnificent story-teller—this brief excerpt gives hint of his literary prowess: “As the encyclopedic reference Mammals of the Soviet Union puts it, ‘The general appearance of the tiger is that of a huge physical force and quiet confidence, combined with a rather heavy grace.’ But one could just as easily say: this is what you get when you pair the agility and appetites of a cat with the mass of an industrial refrigerator. To properly appreciate such an animal, it is most instructive to start at the beginning: picture the grotesquely muscled head of a pit bull and then imagine how it might look if the pit bull weighed a quarter of a ton. Add to this fangs the length of a finger backed up by rows of slicing teeth capable of cutting through the heaviest bone. Consider then the claws: a hybrid of meat hook and stiletto that can attain four inches along the outer curve, a length comparable to the talons on a velociraptor. Now, imagine the vehicle for all of this: nine feet or more from nose to tail, and three and a half feet high at the shoulder. Finally, emblazon this beast with a primordial calligraphy: black brushstrokes on a field of russet and cream, and wonder at our strange fortune to coexist with such a creature. (The tiger is, literally, tattooed: if you were to shave one bald, its stripes would still be visible, integral to its skin.) Able to swim for miles and kill an animal many times its size, the tiger also possesses the brute strength to drag an awkward, thousand-pound carcass through the forest for fifty or a hundred yards before consuming it.”

In The Tiger, you will learn a great deal, not only about tigers and their remarkably human ability to think abstractly, but about how the Russian Far East is slipping toward ecological imbalance, even as brave conservators work to keep this unique region intact. Highly recommended!

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Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life

By Aidan McCullen

Recommended on: 6th May 2021

Undisruptable: A Mindset of Permanent Reinvention for Individuals, Organisations and Life, by Aidan McCullen. Aiden knows something about reinvention. He had finally achieved his dream of becoming a professional rugby player, when injury forced him to completely rethink his life’s journey.  Aiden is a master of analogy.  As he observes: “Rather than a rigid set of frameworks or business models, I present the book as a series of mental models. To bring these mental models to life, I offer analogies from nature, anecdotes from business, ancient wisdom, exemplars of perpetual change and evidence from evolution, neuroscience, business and life.” Aiden’s goal is to help you adopt a mindset of permanent reinvention. Enjoy!

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