Book reviews

I’ve talked about writing a book, and I have a lot of material already, but in the last few years I think I’ve spent more time reading than writing.

Here are some I’ve enjoyed, in chronological order. Of course there are many other books (including the ones I named this blog after) but these are some I’ve read lately. The associated picture is taken at a time when I was listening to the book.

The Brain that changes itself (Norman Doidge)

The story is, mum gave me our family television along with a bunch of other stuff when I moved into my own house. I kept it in a cardboard box downstairs, but brought it up every four years when the (soccer) World Cup was on (by the way, I am not really into this anymore, as it’s just a showcase of cheating with FIFA unwilling to clean it up). Anyway during this short period I’d get to see some other television and there is some really good stuff, especially on good old SBS.

My old house

So one gem that I found was a movie version of this Norman Doidge book about neuroplasticity. It was looking at several cases, different patients and different doctors, where conventional medicine was at a loss, and a few practitioners with a belief in the brains capacity to change would invent non-invasive exercises or tricks to rehabilitate or retain function, essentially by rewiring the brain. Absolutely fascinating stuff.

Nearly a decade later I was reminded of this by a friend at work and looked it up and listened to the audiobook (from the library), there was also a second book which is another collection of mind-blowing and inspirational stories.

Training your brain

In paragliding, decision making is arguably the most important factor. When you hear about what mental effort is involved for some less fortunate people to just retain functions we take for granted, it inspires you to develop this asset as best as you can. It would also be a book I’d recommend to anyone who has a paragliding injury.

Silk Roads (Peter Frankopan)

Trading goods in Morocco

The same friend at work gifted me an audible subscription. This is the first book I listened to, having just been to China and travelling across the Mediterranean from Europe to Africa.

In a complicated and confronting world, I find listening to history gives me a sense of calm. This book is all about geopolitics, controlling the wealth of the world, but has some time as passed you are less bamboozled by propaganda. I chose it partly because it is so long, but it does cover all of human history. I’ve recently revisited a few chapters. Highly recommended if you want something that makes more sense than daily news updates.

Guns, Germs, and Steel, Upheaval (Jared Diamond)

Pondering civilization, a long way from it

The author has had a long and interesting life, living in many places throughout the world. Reading books about sailing and mountain climbing, and doing that a bit of that myself, I really like the all rounder aspect. Jared Diamond points out that in general, Papua New Guineans are much more practical than the average westerner. They watch less television. They are in touch with their environment. They ask, why is it that westerners have so much stuff? Years later, he sets out to answer that question in this book.

If you’re sick of the political correctness and right wing left wing ideologue on social media, this is a good antidote. The author points out that by explicitly discussing what it is that sets westerners and indigenous populations apart, we are not left with an implied sense of racial superiority.

Upheaval is another groundbreaking book, following on from his comparative analysis of history methodology. He studies situations faced by eight different countries he’s intimately familiar with, and compares nations to individuals facing a crisis.

Sapiens, Homo Deus (Yuval Noah Harari)

Many of the books I read have me consolidate my existing beliefs, and almost wishing they hadn’t “stolen my thunder”. Sapiens was able to open my mind to new ways of thinking. The fundamental premise of the book is that humans are animals, but what is it that sets us apart? From now on I look at cars and planes and imagine monkeys behind the wheel.

There are some really important ideas in here, but even if you don’t agree with them it should provoke thought, or at least give you a few tidbits out of human history. The follow up book is about future possibilities and what could go wrong, and is somewhat existential – I’d recommend reading Sapiens first. The book addressing the present, 21 reasons, is on the list.

Thinking, Fast and Slow (Daniel Kahneman)

This was a rather long book, and has some interesting points, although at times it was a little tedious. The fundamental idea is that we have an autonomous fast thinking part of the brain that does most of the work, and the conscious deliberating part is slow and hard work so we tend to be lazy and jump to conclusions. It certainly is a skill to be self aware enough to recognise this.

It talks about dozens of psychological tests done over time, and “economic games”, perhaps these were less interesting because I’d heard of them in other books though.

Behave, Stress and Your Body (Robert Sapolsky)

The author studied primates and neuroscience. The book itself is a very detailed analysis of everything associated with human behaviour on a range of time scales, with the basic theme, “it’s complicated”. If you don’t have time for the whole book, check this Joe Rogan interview (podcast).

Stress and Your Body is also a detailed analysis of all the latest medical science.

The Other Side of History (Robert Garland)

Budawangs, Australia

More bang for buck history. Good bedtime stories, reminding us of how much things have changed for the average human since ancient times.

The Story of Human Language (John McWhorter)

You’ll get more out of this book as someone interested in languages, but he’s such a good presenter that I think it’s entertaining for anyone. Lots of insight and all the examples make it come to life. A book like this can’t avoid geopolitics and history, but it’s very relaxed.

Albany, Australia

The Virtues of War (Steven Pressfield)


The classic book “Gates of Fire” from this author I read years ago, about the Greeks defending the West from the massive armies of the Persian Empire. The reason it is so great is it gives a personal touch to the characters in the story, bringing history alive.

Virtues of War is about the campaigns of Alexander the Great, and the folly of war in Afghanistan, which should appeal to anyone with an interest in geopolitics and governance.

Dark Emu (Bruce Pascoe)

Just got this one from the library. Wow, an ancient culture that turned a desert into productive land, and used to hunt in cooperation with dolphins and killer whales??

Still reading…

Relevance to paragliding

Many of these books are just to give me a greater understanding of the world, which can be confronting when you are travelling. I also think it’s a great skill to be able to relate to people, and to understand and trust in your interactions with other people. This is a fundamental part of the vol biv adventure experience.

In the West, sometimes we don’t realise how old the world really is. Civilisations rise and fall over time. Stability of governance is not really something you can take for granted. The structures and conditions which influence a society can have a profound influence. To understand history is to understand humans and the environmental factors that shape them.