What I'm Reading (No. 79): going deeper
One of the books I powered through during the week of the 4th was Gail Honeyman's dazzling debut, Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. Finally able to make room for it here in the newsletter.
Catching up to this week, I took a short break from Les Mis (I'm at 850+ pages) to finally read Ryan Holiday's popular and potent Ego Is the Enemy.
There's actually a commonality in my reading experience with these two books that I didn't realize until after writing about both of them: at first blush — after the first few handfuls of pages — I was expecting something completely different than what the books ultimately ended up being. The deeper I went into each of them, the more meaningful they became. A delightful surprise.
Let's do it.
Ego Is the Enemy by Ryan Holiday (2016)
"Imagine if for every person you met, you thought of some way to help them, something you could do for them? And you looked at it in a way that entirely benefited them and not you. The cumulative effect this would have over time would be profound: You’d learn a great deal by solving diverse problems. You’d develop a reputation for being indispensable. You’d have countless new relationships."
At first glance, it can seem like this book is geared towards people who are already quite successful, or who dream of climbing some sort of ladder to get to that point — towards folks who are restlessly and relentlessly ambitious. Like Holiday himself. Is this just a series of admonitions to his own ego?
But then you get a little deeper, and you realize this book is about more than just tamping down that "unhealthy belief in our own importance." It's really about finding out your purpose, and more importantly, the why behind that purpose. Is it ego driving your actions? Or something greater?
"It’s time to sit down and think about what’s truly important to you and then take steps to forsake the rest."
I've read a lot of Ryan's work over the years, and I think this is my favorite of the bunch. It's remarkably quotable, and is sure to make you ponder the direction of your projects and goals and life in general. Ego Is the Enemy definitely did that for me.
What's truly important in my life? At the end of the day, what do I want to be remembered for? It's clear to me that the answer to those questions lies far more with the my family and my community than with making a name for myself. As Ryan so aptly writes near the end (and the quote that really stuck with me the most):
"it’s admirable to want to be better businessmen or businesswomen, better athletes, better conquerors. We should want to be better informed, better off financially . . . We should want, as I’ve said a few times in this book, to do great things. I know that I do. But no less impressive an accomplishment: being better people, being happier people, being balanced people, being content people, being humble and selfless people. Or better yet, all of these traits together."
Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman (2017)
I was convinced after the first 25 pages that this was going to be a light-hearted book about a quirky character finding their way to "normalcy" in society — much like Where'd Ya Go Bernadette or even The Rosie Project (both worth reading, btw).
But then, Honeyman grabs the deeper parts of your reading brain by throwing in a line or two at the end of most chapters that hint towards some sort of big mystery. As you get into the second half of the book, Honeyman reveals more and more, culminating in a surprising and satisfying final few chapters.
Anyways — to the primary plot. Eleanor Oliphant lives on her own. She's an office admin for a graphic design company and even though she's very socially awkward, she's reliable and her routines outside of work are unwavering (including eccentric, random books and gallons of vodka). An overbearing and hurtful mother looms large in the background. She's quirky, to say the very least, and at first, the reader assumes Eleanor has autism. But ultimately the puzzle pieces don't quite fit together that way.
Then Eleanor finds a beau. Then Eleanor finds a friend at work. And those two characters lead our protagonist through a series of self-discoveries, albeit in somewhat different directions and methods, as well as into the muddy waters of that mystery hanging on in the background.
As I said above, I was pleasantly surprised at Eleanor Oliphant's depth. I asked my wife what she thought, and she actually said the exact same thing. I can't say everyone will enjoy it, but I'd encourage you to give it a shot (it helps that it's a marvelously quick read).
A 2019 WWII Reading List
As a blogger and podcast producer, I get a lot of books sent to me by publishers. I bet it averages 3 or 4 per week, and it's often many more than that. It's overwhelming at times. Because of this, I end up noticing themes in the publishing world. 2018 was the year of the big biography — Frederick Douglass, Winston Churchill, Gandhi, and more. They each got door-stopping volumes. This year, I'm being bombarded with WWII histories. I have to wonder if it's because those veterans and witnesses are quite literally a dying generation. There just aren't many left, and once those firsthand accounts are gone, writing those histories becomes much different and much harder.
So, all that said, here's a list of some books I've received this year for you to peruse. Some I've read, most I've not.
The First Wave by Alex Kershaw. A D-Day account which was published just in time for the 75th anniversary.
Madame Fourcade's Secret War by Lynne Olson. The prolific historian is back with another stirring tale.
Retreat From Moscow by David Stahel. An upcoming book about Germany's winter campaign of 1941-1942.
Fire and Fortitude by John McManus. Another upcoming title about the Army's role in the Pacific.
War and Peace by Nigel Hamilton. The final part of Hamilton's lengthy series on FDR during WWII.
The Washington War by James Lacey. More of a political look at how the war was won.
Code Name Lise by Larry Loftis. A fun and engaging read about WWII's most decorated spy.
Spearhead by Adam Makos. Tank gunners in Germany. Classic Makos.
George Marshall: Defender of the Republic by David Roll. Big new bio about the man who Truman said "the greatest military man that this country ever produced."
Okay, that's plenty for this week. Thanks for reading, as always. I'm gonna keep chugging away at Les Mis. It's marvelous — there's no doubt about that. But it does also require some endurance.