Monday, January 14, 2019

2018: The Top Ten

In 2018, I didn’t have as many five-star reads as I did in 2017—only nine, five fiction and six nonfiction, as opposed to a total of sixteen, ten fiction and six nonfiction. In 2016, sixteen books also garnered top honors. Historically, I tend to be a bit tougher on my nonfiction reads, and this year, for the first time ever, I read more nonfiction than fiction. Usually, though, including this year, they are fairly close, so I don’t know if that can really explain my somewhat lackluster year. To be fair to the books that did earn five stars this year, the ones that did shine did so brightly.
This year’s top ten rose to the top of a pile of 77 total reads—the lower end of average for me. Here are the basic stats:

Total number of books: 77
Total fiction: 34
Total nonfiction: 43
Number of print books: 35
Number of pages read: 11,688
Number of audio books: 42
Number of hours listened to: 523

2018 Top Fiction:

This year’s top novel was a difficult choice, but there was one book that I talked about more than any other. It could be that it is set where I live, or it could be that I went into it with very low expectations. No matter the reason, here it is:

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah snags Lit in the Last Frontier’s top fiction read of the year. If you follow my reading life, you might recall that I really hated Hannah’s much lauded The Nightingale. Taking that into consideration and the fact that the last book I read that was set here in Alaska, Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier, was just flat out awful in every regard, I had darkest depths of a crevasse expectations for The Great Alone. Since I wrote a review for this novel, I’ll direct you there for more of my thoughts.

2018 Fiction Runners-up:

Rounding out the other four fiction slots, in no particular order, are:

If the Creek Don't RiseIf the Creek Don’t Rise by Leah Weiss: This book is fabulous example of Southern Fiction and was recommended to me by two of my favorite readers, a Tennessee lady and a North-easterner. I found it interesting that two friends of mine who don’t share a common reading circle and who generally enjoy different books from each other would both rave about this evocative and wrenching debut. Within its own genre, If the Creek Don’t Rise was also chosen by the Southern Independent Booksellers Association as a top pick. As is common in Southern Fiction, this book is drenched in that slow burning melancholy of lives that happen to a person—as opposed to lives mastered—and the systemic inability to alter your trajectory once on it. I wanted so much for our protagonist that I just had a terrible feeling wouldn’t be within her grasp. I read this outstanding novel at the very beginning of the year and even then had no doubt that it would make this list; I cannot recommend it highly enough. recommended for book clubs

As Bright as HeavenAs Bright As Heaven by Susan Meissner: Meissner is one of the many, many authors whom I have never read and always mean to “get to.” I read the synopsis of this novel in the publisher’s pre-publication marketing and was drawn to its unique plot line. Set in 1918 Philadelphia, this lovely, character driven novel centers on a mother and her three daughters, newly arrived in the city when the Spanish Flu arrives and alters all of their lives beyond imagining. I loved every minute of following these women as they built not the life they had anticipated but one even richer in love, accomplishments, and service. recommended for book clubs

Us Against You
Us Against You by Fredrik Backman: This novel is the conclusion to Swedish novelist Backman’s Beartown; you absolutely must read that novel first. Both novels are set in a small, rural Swedish town and show what can happen when priorities become skewed. I enjoyed both novels, but the finale earned the fifth star because the plot didn’t always go in the direction I thought it would (or wanted it to), the characters that were interesting in the first book became riveting in this one, and the conclusion of the message was profound without being trite.

In Every Moment We Are Still AliveIn Every Moment We Are Still Alive by Tom Malmquist: Another great work from a Swedish writer, this one is very different stylistically—Malmquist’s writing is far more spare and artistic (he is a poet), and this is an autobiographical novel (the main character is tellingly named Tom). His style, tone, and personal engagement are perfect for this stirring story of a man trying to go on in the wake of his wife’s death, a death which has left Tom alone raising their baby daughter. This is not an easy read from start to finish, but it is short (again, not surprising from a poet) and will leave you thinking about it for a very long time.

2018 Top Nonfiction:

As the year began to draw to a close, I had five five star nonfiction reads and no idea how I would decide between several of them for the top slot. In December I read Lindsey Hilsum’s standout biography of Marie Colvin, and I knew without a doubt that I had found a winner. So, Lit in the Last Frontier’s top spot for nonfiction goes to:

In Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie ColvinIn Extremis: The Life and Death of the War Correspondent Marie Colvin by Lindsey Hilsum: One of the biggest issue that I tend to have with biographers is that they fall in love with their subjects. It would have been easy for Hilsum, who was both a friend and a colleague of Marie Colvin, to do so. Marie Colvin is, without a doubt, the most renowned female war correspondent of all time and was loved by those who spent time with her in the world’s darkest places for her willingness to help, positive attitude, courage, and passion for the mission she felt called to—that of shining a light on the most egregious happenings so that the world could not claim ignorance. For all her wonderful attributes, Marie Colvin fought some sizable personal demons every day. Lindsey Hilsum shows her readers that part of what made this woman so awe-inspiring was that everything didn’t come easily for her, that as dark as her professional world was, her personal world often shone rather less than bright, too. This is an outstanding, if at times grim, biography that I recommend to anyone curious about imbedded war correspondents. recommended for book clubs

2018 Nonfiction Runners-up:

The other four nonfiction books that earned top honors, in no particular order, are:

Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of NikeShoe Dog by Phil Knight: This might look to be an improbable book to make the top ten of someone who reads as much serious nonfiction as I do, but there is a lot to like here. Phil Knight is the founder of Nike, and this is the story of how a college project—that absolutely no one thought was plausible—morphed into a fantastic success story. A former collegiate runner, Knight shares what drove him as an athlete and how he used the mental attributes and knowledge of equipment honed as a competitive runner and the networking connections made during those years as the driving factors in beginning and then growing Nike. This story is inspiring and fast paced. Even if you have no interest in beginning a business, it is a great read about an iconic product and the man behind it.

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America's Shining WomenRadium Girls by Kate Moore: Until I read In Extremis in December, it was looking like this work would be my top nonfiction of the year. Another book that covers many micro topics in the course of telling its central tale, this story of small town America and unscrupulous company practices made many, many “best of” lists this year. During the first decade of the 1900s, paint containing radium began being used to paint numbers on clock faces and aviation equipment because the paint glowed in the dark. This book tells the story of the young women—whose small, deft hands were particularly suited to the minutia of the work—who painted the faces of the watches, clocks, and instruments. By the 1920s, it was becoming apparent that these women were all suffering terribly—and dying—as a result of their work. The book tells of their desperate fight during their dying years to get justice from the companies they worked for and bring awareness to their plight.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of CancerThe Emperor of All Maladies by Siddhartha Mukhergee: I am very late to the reading party with regard to this book depicting the history of cancer. If you have read a broadly about the history of disease, then a good portion of this book will be a refresher course on the topic but from the standpoint of how that history relates to cancer. It was yet another work that was a strong candidate for my top nonfiction spot. The reason I didn’t select it was because I don’t think it is a book that will have the universal appeal of In Extremis. There are times when the book gets a bit bogged down in medical jargon, and if you don’t come at the subject with a decent knowledge base and interest in the subject, you will likely end up skimming a bit. If however, it is a subject you enjoy, you will love this book.

Ticker: The Quest to Create an Artificial HeartTicker: The Quest to Create an Artificial Heart by Mimi Swartz: My dad and I had been talking about the research that led to the artificial heart. I was pretty positive that it had its genesis at the University of Utah (where I had heart surgery), but my dad was positive it began in Austin, Texas. Shortly after our discussion, I saw this book in its publisher’s new book marketing. Dad was correct, and this is the story. I loved this book! Mimi Swartz does a great job of making not only the history of the artificial heart interesting and understandable to the layperson but of bringing to vibrant life the many researchers. The book also tackles the path that any medical device takes to FDA approval, the ethical issues, and the emotional and familial stressors of the researchers. While this book is an easier read than The Emperor of All Maladies, I still felt it lacked the broad appeal that might have earned it my top spot. That said, the artificial heart is one of the most significant medical milestones of the twentieth century, and this readable history will find many devotees.

Nonfiction Near Miss: I only had one extra nonfiction title that didn’t make the top five: Nine Continents by Xiaolu Guo

2018 Top Audiobook:

BeartownBeartown and its conclusion, Us Against You, by Fredrik Backman were the absolute best audiobooks I listened to this year. Narrator Marin Ireland not only masters voices for each of the characters, she successfully conveys all the subtle emotional nuances needed to accurately impart the message behind the happenings in Beartown. There was some criticism that Marin Ireland didn’t attempt Swedish accents or that the publisher didn’t select a Swedish narrator for the audiobook, but I disagree. Her performance is so pitch perfect in every other regard. I also feel that a Swedish narrator would have taken the global aspect away from the story, which is written in such a way that it is not obviously set in Sweden. Because an American narrated the story, I could absolutely picture this tale playing out in any hockey crazy small American town. Fantastic story. Fantastic narration. What more could you ask for?

2018 Big Miss: Spies in the Congo: America’s Atomic Mission in World War II by Susan Williams. It baffled me that someone could manage to take a spy story, set in colonial Africa and based upon the secrecy of the hunt for uranium, and make it so incredibly boring. This book desperately needed an editor to weed out the minutia and bring into focus the heart of what should have been a fascinating tale.

Hopefully you will have a chance to add one of these outstanding books to your stack! I wish for you all a wonderfully bookish year!

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

The Great Alone by Kristin Hannah ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Nobody among my reading friends disliked Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale more than I did. Couple my shudders at the memory of that book along with the way I felt about the last novel I read set in Alaska, Dave Eggers’s Heroes of the Frontier (lucky to pull two stars out of me), and it is a wonder that I even considered reading Kristin Hannah’s The Great Alone. All of the raving about how The Nightingale was the book that Hannah was born to write is completely misplaced. She has a family history that is linked in with the plot of The Great Alone, and that resonates throughout the novel. This was the book she was meant write.

I love my state and read a fair number of books set in Alaska, but most of them tend to be nonfiction. Oddly enough, the bulk of the fiction that comes from Alaskan writers tends to take place in places other than here. This leaves people from Outside as the ones who write the majority of the novels set on my home turf. Many of them have never even been here but see in our state either a catchy setting that will draw readers to their novels or someplace that gives their imagination room to roam. Often, that imagination goes well beyond the bounds of the possible and the real and into the realm of eye rolling, trying to play up stereotypes that any Alaskan would find ridiculous. I’m looking at you, Dave Eggers.

From the standpoint of sticking to the truth of things, Hannah is spot on with this novel. The setting of the book, a location a short boat ride from Homer, Alaska, is well sketched without playing up aspects that Outsiders would find enticing but locals would immediately spot as false. Her novel is set several decades ago, but even today many of her markers of plot and setting still hold true. Our family loves the Homer area, and my husband and I plan on retiring there, perhaps even in Seldovia, a small hamlet, much like the setting of The Great Alone, across Katchemak Bay from Homer. I love how this novel brought this place I love so much home in such an intimate way.

Another thing that Hannah does really well in this novel is letting her characters shape the plot and setting instead of letting those elements drive character development. One of my biggest complaints with The Nightingale was how stereotypical and wooden her characters were, as if the author had made a list of all the characters she felt a novel set in France during the Nazi occupation required. In this case the novel makes sense because the characters create a setting to suit themselves and in so doing an authentic plot is formed.

I absolutely recommend this novel for all readers who enjoy late twentieth century historical novels, realistic characters, and books set in the Last Frontier. 

Friday, November 16, 2018

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

In Us against You Fredrik Backman does something very rare. He takes everything you learned in the first book of his duology and uses it to maximum effect without making you feel like he was just trying to sell another book. This book follows his Beartown, which was good but not quite five stars for me. 

Us Against You: A Novel (Beartown Book 2) by [Backman, Fredrik]So what bumped this one up that final star? I liked the subtlety of it. He picks up right where Beartown left off and is able to move his story forward without losing any momentum. Beartown did resolve to an ending (a book with cliffhangers will very rarely get more than two stars from me), but Backman left himself plenty of story, should he decide to pick up the threads.

And pick them up he did. Both books tell the story of the people in a very small rural town in Sweden. You only need to know one thing about the town: hockey is everything there. All of the town’s pride is wrapped up in the sport—past, present, and future. The first book revolves around a crime that takes place, involving the town’s star hockey player and the coach’s daughter. While the story does resolve in Beartown, Us Against You brings it to its full potential.

Backman’s strength is in the characters he creates. Without bowing to extreme stereotypes, he deftly brings his readers home to where his people live. The characters combine into collective forces to become, well, us against you. There is workplace drama, family dynamics, powerful friendships, dreams of glory. Plenty of dreams of glory. And what they can do to a town completely blind to their destructive side.

The power in this story comes from the exploration of human nature and what happens when the drive to win overtakes absolutely everything else. You do not need to know a thing about hockey to love both of these books. Hockey isn’t really the story here but the vehicle in which the psychology of the story is set. I cannot imagine a reader who wouldn’t marvel at these finely crafted novels, and so I recommend them without reservation to all readers.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Hearts in Atlantis by Stephen King was my Chloe’s Choice Challenge book for January.  My youngest daughter, who is choosing one book a month off our shelves for me to read, chose the book because she liked the title and the cover and because, “It has been on the shelf ever since I can remember.”  Honestly, I think that I have had this book since long before she was born in 2007.

The narrative is five interconnected stories that share a common theme—how group behavior can affect people in a negative fashion.  The first two stories, “Low Men in Yellow Coats” and the title story, “Hearts in Atlantis,” are by far the longest (I would call them novellas) and introduce the reader to all of the main characters who will pop up in the stories.  Both main stories are set in the 1960s, with subsequent stories being spaced out chronologically until 1999.  Group behavior, first in small town childhood and then in college, sets the tone of these first two stories and gives the reader insight into what is looming on the horizon for these kids (Vietnam) and how their crowd mentality, learned in childhood and adolescence, will adversely affect their future actions.

A common question with Stephen King books is whether or not it is a horror novel.  The only thing that comes close is the first story, “Low Men in Yellow Coats,” but even that is more a sci-fi vibe than horror.  “Hearts in Atlantis” has a psychological element to it.  “Blind Willie,” the third story, was, in my opinion, the weakest story; it almost has it’s own theme, with its emphasis on the morality of the choices made by a Vietnam vet after his return from the war, but you do see the group behavior element quite strongly in Willie’s flashbacks.  The premise of the story was great, but I just felt that it lacked emotional punch and thus was a missed opportunity.  The last two stories, “Why We’re in Vietnam” and “Heavenly Shades of Night are Falling,” have a very slight magical realism element to them.

Overall, I enjoyed this book.  Structurally, the book succeeded in that the short story format allowed for large jumps in time and diverse settings.  Watching the characters evolve made for excellent character development, both through the individual stories and then through time into subsequent revelations in later stories. 

What cost this book a fifth star was continuity.  The character element was the only area where I felt like every story flowed smoothly into the next.  In the sci-fi/magical realism area there wasn’t any continuity, and its lack made the stories feel disjointed despite their common characters.  The first story was sci-fi, the second psychological, the third had no supernatural elements, the fourth had a ghost, and the fifth wrapped things up for two main characters with a baseball mitt that traveled mysteriously through several stories.  There were just too many different supernatural elements for there to be flow in that regard, and it was enough to cost the book a fifth star from me.

Despite my feelings about the supernatural forms being inconsistent, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and would absolutely recommend it.  My only caution would be for readers who won’t read books with any profanity.  Two of the main plots in the stories involve college boys and soldiers in Vietnam, so yes, there is some profanity.  If you can get past that, this book will make you really think about group behavior—how it affects individuals and society and the role it has probably played in the decisions you have made in your life.

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin ⭐️ ⭐️ ⭐️

As is no doubt obvious from my less than stellar rating, I didn’t find as much to appreciate in Chloe Benjamin’s The Immortalists as some reviewers.  The author chose an interesting premise: four children go to a fortune teller who tells them the exact days on which they each will die.  The rest of the book is divided into four sections, one for each of the kids—Simon, Klara, Daniel, and Varya—that, with the exception of Varya, cover the span of their lives.  I did find the premise of the book enticing and kept going because I wanted to know what became of the characters.

One of my major complaints about the book—and one I noticed put off many readers to the extent that they dropped the book in its first section—was the very graphic homosexual sex scenes in Simon’s story.  Literary fiction is not erotica.  In my experience, readers of literary fiction do not want graphic sex scenes, be they heterosexual or homosexual, in their novels.  And before you go off and call me homophobic, I invite you to look on my blog, Lit in the Last Frontier, where you will discover that my number one novel of 2017 was The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne.  I understand that Chloe Benjamin was trying to show Simon’s tumultuous experience in 1970s and 80s San Francisco, but she needs to learn the value of the literary “fading to black” and letting the readers fill in the rest from their imaginations.  There are other places in the book where she inserts odd, needless sexual references.  In all of these cases the graphic portrayals neither further the plot of the novel nor flesh out its characters in a way that couldn’t be accomplished in a more literary fashion.

The other three sections cover the other characters, with each one being given a time frame: Klara from 1982-1991, Daniel from 1991-2006, and Varya from 2006-2010.  Unfortunately, this format doesn’t do the premise any favors.  Such large segments of Daniel’s and Varya’s lives are jumped over that the author has no opportunity to develop their characters, and, as a result, the things that both characters do seem very out of character for the people they were when we last spent any pages with them.

I found the plotting rather weak in places, making it easy to tell how the characters are going to die.  For instance Simon’s story—that of a gay young man who tells his siblings that the fortune teller told him he would die “young”—in early 1980s San Francisco, is pretty easy to predict.  To give Ms. Benjamin her due, where a crystal ball isn’t necessary to know where the plot arc is taking us, the emotion with which the stories are told carries the reader through.

This book almost got two stars from me for the above reasons.  However, Chloe Benjamin writes beautiful prose, worthy of the literary genre.  She just needs to perfect her intimate scenes to bring them more in line with what literary readers want from their novels.

I also felt that the separate, almost interconnected short story format didn’t work for the premise of the book.  The reader really needs the opportunity to see how the characters develop year by year as a result of knowing how their days are numbered.  Jumping large time segments robbed Ms. Benjamin and her readers of the opportunity to explore the entirety of her characters’ development.  A compellingly successful example of interlinked short stories comes from the book I read just, Hearts in Atlantis.  In this 800 plus page novel, Stephen King uses the same format but takes the time (and the pages) to flesh out his all of his characters.  Perhaps the 300 plus pages in which Ms. Benjamin tries to tell her story were simply not sufficient to the task.

Overall, this book is a solid three stars.  It has issues that I know some readers will find extremely off-putting.  For those who are either unbothered by the first section’s sex scenes or are willing to scan over them in order to get to the heart of the book, I think you will find, as I did, that the premise is interesting, the prose is lovely, and the characters engaging enough to keep you turning the pages.  

Friday, January 26, 2018

A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna and Samuel Sternberg ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

I don’t write very many book reviews.  When I do they are usually motivated by one of two reasons: the book is fabulous and compels me to become a book pimp, or the book got an abysmal rating from me that needed explaining.  Every now and again I write a review for a third reason: the book is important.  As in “if you are human you need to read this book.”  A Crack in Creation is that kind of a book and will likely be the most important 249 pages you read this year.  I highly recommend this work for book clubs that look for thought-provoking books that incite serious discussions.

Authors Jennifer A. Doudna and Samuel H. Sternberg give their readers a brief history of DNA, genetics, and gene editing followed by an explanation of their own breakthrough research with a biotechnology known as CRISPR/Cas9.  Building on the research of many of their predecessors, Dr. Doudna and her team made a discovery that vastly simplified the process of gene editing, allowing for cutting a DNA strand at a given sequence and replacing it with an alternate sequence.  While gene editing was possible before, it was complex and so costly that even some universities couldn’t afford to research it.  Using CRISPR/Cas9, scientists—and even hobbyists in their homes—are now able to target specific sequences of DNA, allowing for gene editing that can remove mutations that cause a variety of heritable diseases, add desirable characteristics, or edit out those that are less desirable.

The explanation of what exactly CRISPR/Cas9 is and how it functions is what cost the book a fifth star from me.  The authors struggled to pinpoint their target audience; for the average reader the explanation is rather dense, but for a fellow scientist it would be too simplistic.  If you are the average reader, my recommendation is to power through it even if you find yourself struggling to wrap your brain around the information.  Trust me, the back half of the book makes it well worth it.

Several reviews that I read of the book are critical of the authors, saying that they do not give credit to others who paved the way in the field of gene editing and don’t reveal their own commercial interests involving their technology.  I completely disagree.  The fact that the main researchers have founded biotechnology companies is openly discussed, and all throughout the book the authors lay out the chain of discovery that led them to their breakthrough, mentioning countless scientists whose research was invaluable to their success.  The authors even ponder the curious mix of collaboration and competition that exists in the field of biotechnology.  In the final chapters, they express their excitement or unease as they have watched where their fellow biochemists have taking their discovery.

CRISPR/Cas9 technology is changing the world as we know it, and the jury is still out as to whether it will be for good or for ill or some of both.  Dounda and Sternberg do a masterful job laying out the directions in which their fellow scientists are taking the technology and sketching for their readers the pros and cons of these different uses of the technology.  Their writing is organized, lucid, and thought-provoking.  Even if you struggle through the scientific descriptions earlier in the book, the back half makes it worth it with its presentation of the many sides of this complex issue.  One major concern expressed by the authors is that the technology isn’t 100% en pointe for targeting exactly where in a human’s genome to cut and zipper in the replacement code, which could prove catastrophic if rushed into human clinical trials.  There are also huge ethical considerations that need to be addressed.  As Dr. Doudna and her partner, Emmanuelle Charpentier, pursued their research, they hoped to pave the way to a method that could, on a cellular level, heal those stricken with devastating heritable illnesses.  Other uses such as improving crops, both in terms of yield and disease resistance, editing the human germline (editing heritable diseases out of a person’s DNA, ensuring they cannot pass on to descendants), recreating extinct species, and the eventual possibility of “made to order” babies are discussed.

Dr. Doudna is concerned about the ethics of many possible uses of CRISPR/Cas9, even those that might, on the surface, seem to have no apparent down side.  She addresses the issue in the book and talks about her efforts to engage fellow researchers, legislators, and the public in open discussion about the technology and how it should—or should not—be regulated.  Herein lies the reason that I feel this book is so important.  This technology has the potential to change the future of the human genome, agriculture, the environment, and animal biology, and the implications of that are enormous.  It is crucial that people have a thorough understanding of just what CRISPR/Cas9 makes possible so that they can fully grasp its impact on their lives and those of their descendants and make informed decisions as individuals and members of society.

For me, gene editing became very personal a couple of years ago when I was diagnosed with Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, a rare and inheritable disorder which causes a body to produce insufficient levels of collagen, which leads to serious connective tissue deficiencies.  There is no cure, no surgery, and no medication that can cure or treat EDS.  Currently, the location of the mutant gene that causes my illness is unknown, but my hope is that during the time it takes for CRISPR-Cas9 technology to become more target specific, researchers will locate where the EDS causing mutation is in the human genome.  CRISPR/Cas9 could ensure that my children, grandchildren, and further descendants do not have to endure the pain and medical issues that I live with every day.  Millions of people worldwide suffering from diseases such as sickle cell anemia, cystic fibrosis, Down’s Syndrome, and many, many others, could eventually be cured by this revolutionary discovery, but we need to ensure that the dark possibilities, such as a new brand of eugenics, don’t evolve alongside this bright future of biotechnology.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

As Christmas of 1984 approached, I looked forward to one thing.  My elder brother, Dave, was coming home from college.  Yes, I was excited to see him, since Minnesota is a long way from Germany and communication was not what it is today.  I, however, had another motive for wishing him home quicker: Dave was bringing home my first pair of Nike running shoes which were, at the time, unavailable in Germany.  When I heard that Nike founder Phil Knight had a book out, I was almost as eager to read his story as I was to lace up that first pair of his running shoes.

Shoe Dog by Phil Knight was one of those books where I had to try incredibly hard to find something that I didn’t like.  This nonfiction book tells the story of Phil, otherwise known as the guy who created the Nike shoe and sportswear empire.  I am not a fan of autobiographies; in general, I find them either self-aggrandizing or a stilted coverup job.  Phil’s book is neither.

In order to set the stage so the reader understands his background, Phil tells a bit about his suburban upbringing, his relationship with the sport of running and some of its legends, his education, and how the idea to build a shoe business grew out of a college presentation assignment that most of his classmates dozed through.  Phil never put the idea on the back-burner, though, and a gap-year trip around the world included a stint in Japan, where he pitched the idea to a group of executives at a shoe factory.  The rest, as they say, is history.  A very rocky history.

Phil’s story is inspirational not because he built an empire, but because of everything he had to go through along the way.  Readers will marvel at Phil’s grit as they follow his very unconventional management style.  While his practices might make your average MBA cringe, they show that, in Phil’s case at least, following your gut, respecting others (their oddities and quirks included), and building a culture of creative collaboration can build something amazing.

From a mechanical standpoint, the book is well put together.  The story flows so well it is difficult to quit reading, or in my case, listening.  Narrator Norbert Leo Butz is the perfect teller of this story.  His voice is engaging, grasping Phil’s dry wit and letting the reader feel the heart at the center of the narrative.  It is one of those first person narrations where you feel like the author is narrating the book and pulling you in with warmth and confidences.  I’d highly recommend the audio of this one.

Whether you have ever laced up a pair of Nike shoes or not, the company is so dominant in our culture that I think all readers would enjoy learning the inside scoop on the megalithic sportswear company.  Readers with a business background will find much of interest in Phil’s candid sharing of the mistakes he made along the way and how, time and again, he made unconventional choices that pulled his company back from the brink of ruin.