Category Archives: Books

Blackout – Marc Elsberg

When the lights go out one night, no one panics. Not yet. The lights always come back on soon, don’t they? Surely it’s a glitch, a storm, a malfunction. But something seems strange about this night. Across Europe, controllers watch in disbelief as electrical grids collapse. There is no power, anywhere.
A former hacker and activist, Piero investigates a possible cause of the disaster. The authorities don’t believe him, and he soon becomes a prime suspect himself. With the United States now also at risk, Piero goes on the run with Lauren Shannon, a young American CNN reporter based in Paris, desperate to uncover who is behind the attacks. After all, the power doesn’t just keep the lights on―it keeps us alive.

The book is a dystopian thriller starting from a cyber attack on the EU electricity grid. The protagonist, an Italian IT specialist, tries to solve the crisis by finding how the system was affected and going to authorities. The pace of the book is fast, by quickly changing the locations.

The premise of the book is jaw-dropping: a EU-wide electricity blackout. The Austrian author carefully researched the subject and the potential outcomes of such a crisis. The book is full of  excellent logical consequences of such an event.

What if the electricity grid collapses?

However, the quality of the writing itself is not great. The translation from German is not perfect and there is too much said and too little shown. There are also some plot holes, the solution focusing too much on individual characters, while in reality there is more of a team work.

I really enjoyed the book, despite its drawbacks. A great analysis showing the vulnerabilities of a vital system, our electricity.

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays – Gen Tanabe, Kelly Tanabe

“IT APPEARS ALL YOUR CELLS ARE DEAD.”
Only shock prevented the tears from streaming down my face. My cells were dead. After being accepted into the competitive Stanford Institutes of Medicine Summer research Program (SIMR), and spending approximately 170 hours of the past month manipulating human embryonic stem cells (hESCs), I was back to square one—with only one month of my internship remaining. How in the world was I going to make up for lost time?

This is a book presenting, as the title says, 50 essays that made the applicant being accepted at some of the top universities in the world, with fierce competition. After each essay, the evaluators’ comments are included.

The essays were absolutely fabulous. It was a pleasure to read life stories and motivations condensed in only 1 page. While still young and lacking a certain complexity of vocabulary (we are talking about 18-year olds!), the perfect organisation of information, of the message, of presenting someone in the best light, was amazing.

I was particularly impressed by the title of some stories, such as Puzzle and Science Sparks, which made the reader interested and wanting to explore the text. There are so many beautiful turn of phrases, motivations and development stories that it is simply inspirational to discover them.

The book has also 26 solid advices on writing, which can apply to everyone holding a pen or using a keyboard.

Overall, a beautiful and inspirational read.

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NIKE – Phil Knight

I thought back on my running career at Oregon. I’d competed with, and against, men far better, faster, more physically gifted. Many were future Olympians. And yet I’d trained myself to forget this unhappy fact. People reflexively assume that competition is always a good thing, that it always brings out the best in people, but that’s only true of people who can forget the competition. The art of competing, I’d learned from track, was the art of forgetting, and I now reminded myself of that fact. You must forget your limits. You must forget your doubts, your pain, your past.

The book is a candid memoir by the founder of Nike, the sports shoes and apparel company. It starts with his travel around the world as a young graduate and concludes when the company was made public in the 1980s. The book presents in great detail the beginnings of now the largest sports company in the world.

This is indeed a great memoir, well-written, full of details and easy to follow. Apparently, JR Moehringer helped as ghostwriter. No wonder it was a best-seller, particularly because the owner of Nike never liked being in the spotlight.

Phil Knight starts his story when, as a young graduate of Stanford Business School, prepares to leave for a world voyage. The trip is hiding a business purpose as well, as he intends pass through Japan and propose selling rights in US from a Japanese manufacturer of sports shoes. This idea came from a university seminar.

His proposal succeeds and Knight gradually increases sales, while working as professor and later accountant. Being ditched by the Japanese manufacturer he is forced to produce his own shoes. And this is how Nike was created. The company always had financial problems, banks abandon him twice, legal challenges almost topple the company, he fights with US customs, but through sheer passion for the product and loyalty of men and women around him, the company succeeds.

It was amazing to see how much of a team work it was. The founder did not create the shoes, the clothes, the design, not even the name. All he did do very well was putting the right people in the right jobs and ensure loyalty of his employees.

As he often quotes in the book: “Don’t tell people how to do things, tell them what to do and let them surprise you with their results.” A shy person, he prefers to be a strategist than a general, although his idol is American General Douglas MacArthur.

Phil Knight talks about his family as well, his wife and sons, his parents and sisters. He talks fondly about his wife and her sacrifice to let him work long hours. He regrets not staying longer with his sons. He recalls his daily evening calls with his father, talking business and how to fight the legal challenges.

Overall, a great book from a shy man who built a sports empire and made the world a little better.

When Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

Don’t think I ever spent a minute of any day wondering why I did this work, or whether it was worth it. The call to protect life—and not merely life but another’s identity; it is perhaps not too much to say another’s soul—was obvious in its sacredness. Before operating on a patient’s brain, I realized, I must first understand his mind: his identity, his values, what makes his life worth living, and what devastation makes it reasonable to let that life end. The cost of my dedication to succeed was high, and the ineluctable failures brought me nearly unbearable guilt. Those burdens are what make medicine holy and wholly impossible: in taking up another’s cross, one must sometimes get crushed by the weight.

This is the autobiographical story of an incredibly gifted person, Paul Kalanithi, written while he was dying of cancer, only in his thirties.

The author describes his life and morals, from childhood, to medical school, to his English degree at Cambridge, to operations as neurosurgeon and, finally, fighting cancer in his last weeks.

Paul Kalanithi was a truly extraordinary human being, valedictorian in high school, then Standford, Cambridge and the Yale School of Medicine. A neurosurgeon with great writing skills, dedicated to a have meaningful life. Paul finds out he has cancer and despite some minor improvements, he succumbs to the illness. Cancer took him in less than two years.

An inspiring sad story.

However, before he died, he wrote this extraordinary book, talking about his life and eventual death, about time and meaningful things, about his patients and his family.

His writing is so fluid, words are well chosen, vocabulary is vast and he grasps such a deep understanding of things. The readers finds himself moved with emotion at every page.

It is an honour, a source of inspiration and a pleasure to read about humans pushing the boundaries of what can be done, to show true skillfulness and quality, and, above all, great strength of character and bravery.

The book is the Goodreads choice winner of 2016. I could not recommend it enough.

Iron Gold (RED RISING SAGA: BOOK 4) – Pierce Brown

Those you protect will not see you. They will not understand you. But you are the Gray wall between civilization and chaos. And they stand safe in the shadow you cast. Do not expect praise or love. Their ignorance is proof of the success of your sacrifice. For we who serve the state, duty must be its own reward.

Iron Gold is a continuation of the Red Rising Trilogy, one of the best recent sci-fi adventures. Ten years after the Society pact was destroyed and the Golds commanding planet conquered, the new Republic is in anarchy. The last of the Society fleets is around Venus, while the Rim have their independence.

The book intertwines several stories: our former protagonist, Darrow of Lykos, as ArchImperator of the Republic’s force; Cassius au Bellona and his protege Lysander au Lune; Ephraim ti Horn, a Grey from Luna, now an expert thief; and Lyria of Lagalos, a Red from Mars.

Ten years after Red Rising

Each of the stories presents a different perspective and ends up in a single plot. As usual, the writing is exceptional, the plot is unpredictable and plausible, the pace of action just right and the new protagonists introduced have depth and motivations. What is interesting is that, although sometimes antagonistic, all protagonists have justifiable point of view, making the reader hard to decide who is right.

A point that makes the series so good is that the author uses just the right amount of technical sci-fi jargon. All stories were good, and signaled a departure from the single perspective of the Darrow, as in the trilogy.

The proof-reading was average, I noticed mistakes; while the plot quality, although very good, not at the level of the previous books. The author puts Darrow in a questionable dilemma, which for some readers shouldn’t be really a difficult choice. Finally, I did not get why the book is called Iron Gold.

Overall, an excellent reading, towering at 600 pages, packed with action and a wonderful sci-fi saga. Next book in the new series, in February 2019.

The Great Acceleration: How the World is Getting Faster, Faster – Robert Colvile

The greatest impact will be felt in the east. Today, there are 28 cities with a population of more than ten million people. By 2030, the UN predicts there will be 41 – and more than half of them will be in Asia. In India, as ambition pulls and poverty pushes, urban populations will almost double over the next 20 years, with some 240 million people moving from country to city. China recently announced a plan to build another mega-city around Beijing, containing a third as many people as in the entire United States. In just a decade’s time, China will have 221 cities of more than a million people. There are only 35 such cities in the EU today.

The book discusses the changes in society, considering them increasingly fast. The author, Robert Colvile,  divides the book in several chapters that analyze separately the evolving human society: friendships and relationships, news, logistics, politics, culminating with environment.

Colvile argues that humans are more impatient, news are faster, sometimes lacking substance, logistics are incredibly well-timed, politics focus more on the news cycle rather than long-term strategies, cities are growing and become the nodal societal points, and we slowly damaging the environment.

The book is extremely entertaining, well-written, full of quoted studies and gems of wisdom. The arguments are purposely well-balanced, rather on the optimistic side of technology. It is generally highly recommended by readers of all tastes.

Robert Colvile is a journalist, writing for various US and UK newspapers, such as Politico, Financial times or The Wire. He was previously news director at BuzzFeed and comment editor at the Daily Telegraph.

Overall, it’s a good book, entertaining, well-written, exploring the current societal trends. A nice book to have in a train or on a beach.

Coal: A Human History – Barbara Freese

Some saw in the mines scientific proof of biblical flood. Some credited coal with protecting people from the bubonic plague; others accused it of promoting baldness, tooth decay, sordid murders, caustic speech and fuzzy thinking.More recently many of us believed we could burn vast amounts of coal without disrupting the natural balance of the planet. No doubt we have still much to learn about coal, but at least we’ve been able to dispel many of the old myths.

The book talks about the history of coal, since Roman times to modern day. Barbara Freese talks about both the good and the bad sides of the mineral. As the author is an environmental lawyer, the book slightly tips on the bad side of coal, however the research is deep, insightful and entertaining.

Coal is appreciated by Ms Freese as the basis of the Industrial revolution and the rock that made the British Empire and the United States. It significantly improved living standards by increasing on a massive scale the efficiency of industrial processes.

On the other side, the bad environmental effects were constant, from the fumes and hard working conditions to current greenhouse gas problems.

The message of the book is that coal was never popular, but always useful. The author finishes the book on a positive note, such as using coal for in plastics and other alternative uses.