Books to Get You Thinking Holiday Edition I

The cool crisp air, the deep colors of the foliage, and the lengthening evenings signal the beginning of Fall, a season unique in its beauty and colorful splendor.  It is also time to celebrate with friends and family and to start thinking of gifts to exchange with all the special people in your life.  With a wide choice of genre and subjects to choose from that are certain to please just about everyone on your list, books make the perfect present.  This month's selections cover books in the nonfiction, biography and memoir categories while my December column will feature fiction, cooking and entertainment titles.


The Innovators: How a Group of Inventors, Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution by Walter Issacson
Walter Issacson, well known for his powerful biographies of Steve Jobs and Albert Einstein, now provides a compelling history of the digital revolution, its evolution over the ages, and the brilliant men and women who were behind it. He traces two parallel but distinct areas – the computer from the early 1800’s when Ada Lovelace, daughter of Lord Byron, first conceived the notion of a machine that could process large amounts of numbers and data patterns; and the more recent development of packet switching technology that gave rise to the growth of the Internet. The combination of the two resulted in the explosive growth of communication and global networks. Central to the premise of the book is that innovation, rather than being the result of individual genius, is the product of a continuum of collaboration between brilliant minds over time.

Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution by John Paul Stevens
John Paul Stevens, who served as Justice of the US Supreme Court for more than three decades and retired in June 2010, gives a lucid and eloquent exposition of six changes that need to be made in the Constitution to ensure the future welfare of the people. He devotes a separate chapter to each of the amendments he elucidates, covering controversial issues as gun control, the death penalty, political gerrymandering, campaign finance and sovereign immunity.  Underlying the recommendations is the significance that John Paul Stevens places on the importance of democratic rule, and the Supreme Court functioning as an impartial organization giving credence to opposing viewpoints.

How Google Works by Eric Schmidt and Jonathan Rosenberg
Google is a company that has become an icon for technological innovation, creativity and efficient management. Google’s success is in large part tied to its unique work culture.  In this book, Eric Schmidt, the company’s former CEO, and Jonathan Rosenberg, advisor to Larry Paige, Google’s current CEO, give readers an insider’s look into different aspects of how Google works . In separate chapters the authors discuss: Google's workplace culture, company strategy, its hiring practices to ensure a creative and talented workforce, how decisions are made, communication and teamwork, and the company’s focus on constant innovation and technology breakthroughs.

Flash Boys: A Wall Street Revolt by Michael Lewis
Michael Lewis follows his earlier bestsellers, The Big Short and Moneyball with this fascinating narrative about how a young Canadian equities trader, Brad Katsuyama, working at the Royal Bank of Canada uncovers how high frequency traders are locating themselves in close physical proximity to the New York Stock Exchange, and using super fast computers for trading.  These traders are able to receive information some milliseconds earlier than others, thereby amassing  huge profits.  Brad leads a small group of traders who decide to leave their lucrative jobs and set out to reshape the financial markets by setting up a fair exchange where information would be available to all at the same time. The riveting sequence of events gives readers insight into the complex working of Wall Street and high frequency trading.

What If? : Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hypothetical Questions by Randall Monroe
Randall Moore, who worked on robots at NASA, is the person behind the very popular web comic, xkcd. Randall’s use of expressive stick figure drawings and logical reasoning provide humorous and fascinating answers to random and seemingly absurd hypothetical questions. At first glance, the scenarios that Randall provides as answers might closely resemble science fiction but in reality are founded on research, scientific principles and complex mathematical calculations. Some of the questions that Randall answers in the book include how long a nuclear submarine could orbit around the Earth, whether it is possible to construct a bridge between New York and London out of existing pieces of Lego and how much physical space the Internet takes up .

Biography and Memoirs

Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant by Roz Chast
Roz Chast’s comics have been appearing in the New Yorker since 1978. She now writes this poignant graphic memoir about her parents and taking care of them as they grew old.  Chast’s brilliant illustrations bring to life the small Brooklyn apartment that she grew up in and where her parents spent over sixty years of their lives living and growing old together. Under the sharp wit and humor lies the sadness and grim reality of watching her parents age over the years, the visits to the hospitals and the final days in the nursing home.

Stress Test: Reflections on Financial Crisis by Timothy Geithner
The Former US Secretary of Treasury provides a riveting account of the 2008 financial crisis when the collapse of financial institutions holding large amounts of subprime mortgages was imminent and threatened a global situation of unprecedented proportions.  The book gives readers an insider’s view on the hotly debated discussions and closed door meetings between the nation’s policy makers that culminated in innovative measures and the large scale infusion of funds to support the volatile financial system. The drama behind averting a major financial breakdown and a possible return to the days of the Great Depression of the 1930’s is eloquently captured in this memoir.

The Opposite of Loneliness: Essays and Stories by Marina Keegan
Just five days after graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan, creative and talented writer, lost her life in a car accident at the age of 22.  Marina’s deeply stirring words at Commencement, published in the graduation issue of the Yale Daily News and subsequently online, went viral and was viewed by over 1.4 million viewers from 98 different countries.   Marina’s writings were published posthumously with an introduction by Annie Fadiman, Marina’s Professor and mentor at Yale. The collection of nine essays and stories address the many conflicts and contradictions facing young people as they come of age and Marina’s strong belief about the importance of following one’s passion and finding meaning in one’s life.

Cosby: His Life and Times by Mark Whitaker
Mark Whitaker, journalist and former managing editor of CNN Worldwide, provides an in-depth look into the extraordinary career of one of America’s foremost African American comedians and television icons who won the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in 2009. Spanning over five decades, the book is comprised of three sections - each one focusing on different stages in Bill Cosby’s life. Based on extensive research and interviews, the author traces Cosby’s journey to fame, the success of The Cosby Show and other productions, his personal tragedies and complex personality, as well as puts in perspective Cosby’s sometimes controversial views on parenting, race and education.

Charlie Chaplin: A Brief Life by Peter Ackroyd
Peter Ackroyd brilliantly showcases the legendary Chaplin’s life from his birth and early years in the South London slums of Victorian England to his meteoric rise as an iconic actor, director and beloved figure on the silver screen . Ackroyd attributes much of Chaplin’s personality and idiosyncrasies to his early childhood. It was a childhood spent with a largely absent alcoholic father and a mother who struggled with mental illness and the grim reality of living on park benches and workhouses. Performing in England’s music halls, Chaplin’s talent propelled his career forward and, by age twenty-five, he established himself as a star figure in California. Eventually Chaplin’s personal indiscretions and political views led to his tragic failure and exile from England.

- Nita Mathur


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