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It’s a reality of life that nothing lasts forever. All things are transient. Everything that begins must eventually end.

And I do mean EVERYTHING.

Even the universe itself will eventually come to an end. Entire fields of study are devoted to beginnings and endings on a cosmic scale, with brilliant scientists spending their professional lives staring out into the universe and deep into the atom in an effort to understand not just how everything works, but how it might eventually stop working.

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s new book “The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)” (Scribner, $26) is a smart, surprisingly funny look at some of the ways that cosmologists believe the universe could potentially end. Don’t worry – it probably isn’t taking place anytime soon. Most of these endings won’t happen tomorrow. Probably.

It’s an accessible and engaging work of pop science, one that finds a way to strike a balance between the intricate physics and mathematics that go into these explorations and an easy narrative tonality that allows even those without PhDs to wrap their heads around these big-by-definition ideas. Consider this a crash course in cosmic eschatology, a sort of End Of It All 101. It is informative and entertaining in the way that only the very best science writing can be.

Published in Tekk

Celebrity memoirs are generally a tough sell for me. The notion that a famous person is going to tell me anything of substance about themselves – particularly in a book – seems unlikely. So often, these books are baldly self-celebratory with nary a hint of genuine introspection.

Colin Jost’s “A Very Punchable Face” (Crown, $27) isn’t the worst celebrity autobiography you’ll find. Jost, a longtime writer and “Weekend Update” host for “Saturday Night Live,” knows how to write and is unafraid to look foolish – a solid combination for someone presenting a book about their own life. While it might not be as thoughtful or reflective as you might like, Jost does pull back the curtain a little bit, particularly when it comes to his family and his Staten Island roots.

Again, it’s not some sort of soul search, but nor is it merely a wad of rehashed “SNL” backstage anecdotes (though it’s closer to the latter). Instead, we get a pleasant, perfectly cromulent memoir – one that focuses largely on the goofy stories, but still leaves room to talk a little bit about the stuff that matters.

Published in Style

Anyone who has worked the same job for a long time likely has their share of stories. And if that job involves regular interactions with the public, they probably have even more. And if said public isn’t always thrilled about those interactions, well … you get the point. Stories. Lots of them.

Tim Cotton certainly has all of those bases covered as a veteran police officer, having served for more than three decades in a variety of capacities. He’s got the stories for sure. But unlike the majority of his peers, he’s taken the time to write some of them down.

That writing started in earnest with Cotton’s assumption of the position of Public Information Officer for the Bangor PD, a job whose duties included updating and maintaining the department’s Facebook page. He started sharing his thoughts and stories about the job on that page (along with a healthy helping of the Duck of Justice, an old stuffed duck whose origin has become the stuff of legend), as well as a delightful regular feature titled “Got Warrants?” where he related the week’s particularly ridiculous incidents.

Before long, literally hundreds of thousands of people – nearly 10 times the city’s population – were following the page, all of them eagerly anticipating TC’s latest bit of homespun hilarity. Soon, Cotton’s writing was appearing elsewhere, popping up in newspapers and on various websites.

The logical next step? Write a book!

Hence, we get “The Detective in the Dooryard: Reflections of a Maine Cop” (Down East, $24.95), a collection of thoughts, musings and anecdotes about the world as seen through the eyes of one particular (and kind of peculiar) police officer. These tales are brief, breezy reads that embrace the idea of sharing stories that might not make their way into the local paper’s police beat, but warrant (see what I did there?) telling nevertheless.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 23 June 2020 12:07

‘The Biggest Bluff’ is the nuts

Play the man, not the cards. It’s an adage that has been circulating in the poker world since there has been a poker world in which it could circulate. But how true is it?

That’s one of the fundamental questions explored in Maria Konnikova’s new book “The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win” (Penguin Press, $28). Konnikova is the perfect person to explore such a question, combining a longtime study of psychology and human behavior and a complete lack of knowledge regarding poker. Through answering that question, she sought to get a firmer grasp on the role of chance in the way our worlds operate.

She gained that understanding, to be sure, but that was far from all.

The pitch was simple – go from utter neophyte to the World Series of Poker in one year. But while she achieved her goal, Konnikova also wound up completely changing the trajectory of her life, both personally and professionally. Her voyage through the poker world opened her eyes to a number of truths about herself and her perceptions and proclivities.

It also turned her into a hell of a player. A good player … and a surprisingly successful one.

Published in Sports

Baseball is a game of decisions, both on the field and off it. And when we talk about Major League Baseball, well – there are A LOT of choices that need to be made. Whether we’re talking about in-game strategy or front office maneuvering, the sport is rife with opportunities to make decisions.

But how do we know if they’re the right ones? How do we know if we’re truly making optimal choices or if we’re being guided (or misguided) by subconscious belief systems and biases of which we may not even be fully aware?

Answers to those questions are among the many things that Keith Law is delving into with his new book “The Inside Game: Bad Calls, Strange Moves, and What Baseball Behavior Teaches Us About Ourselves” (William Morrow, $28.99). It’s an effort to make accessible the behavioral science behind the inherent biases that can impact our decisions, baseball or otherwise.

By walking us through the conscious and unconscious influences that impact how baseball works, Law gives us a new perspective on the intricacies of the sport – a perspective that matches the more data-driven and analytically-inclined model followed by 21st century practitioners of the game.

Published in Sports

If you’ve ever paid a visit to one of this country’s National Parks, you know that there is a surfeit of awe-inspiring natural wonder in the U.S., albeit one that is perhaps not given quite the degree of respect that it deserves. It’s hard to imagine standing in one of these majestic places and not feeling overwhelmed by its beauty.

Now imagine doing that for ALL OF THEM.

That’s Conor Knighton’s travel guide/memoir “Leave Only Footprints: My Acadia-To-Zion Journey Through Every National Park” (Crown, $28), a book whose subhead is both accurate and insufficient. Knighton, a correspondent for “CBS This Morning,” does precisely what he says – he goes to every single National Park (though a couple more have been established since his 2016 trip.

Zigzagging through the country over the course of the year – sometimes with his sage photographer sidekick, often alone – Knighton offers up a loving look at our national natural pride. But it’s an internal journey as well, with Knighton also spending this time dealing with the aftermath of his breakup from his fiancée and other personal turmoil.

Published in Adventure

I love crossword puzzles. Ever since I was a kid, I’ve found real joy in solving those black-and-white grids. From the daily newspaper to collections in books to online sources, I’ve been a cruciverbalist for most of my life.

But I’m far from the only person out there with a devotion to the joyous wordplay that comes with crosswords, spending a portion of just about every day working my way across and down, filling in the blanks and feeling the satisfaction of a finished puzzle. Millions of people engage with crosswords every day, though we all have our routines – some solve at breakfast, others as a break during the day; some solve on their commutes, others in the evening to bring their day to an end. Maybe it’s intellectual engagement they seek. Perhaps a competitive thrill. Regardless, it ultimately boils down to love of the game.

Adrienne Raphel loves crosswords as well. She loves them so much, in fact, that she went ahead and wrote a book about them. “Thinking Inside the Box: Adventures with Crosswords and the Puzzling People Who Can’t Live Without Them” (Penguin Press, $27) is a thoughtful and in-depth look at a hobby that has been occupying minds for over a century. Through a combination of historical research and first-person experience, Raphel takes the reader on an engaging and entertaining stroll across and down the cross-world.

Published in Style

When I first heard about “The Wax Pack: On the Open Road in Search of Baseball's Afterlife” (University of Nebraska Press, $27.95) by Brad Balukjian, my reaction was pure and basic: “God, that’s a f---ing good idea.”

Even after a decade-plus of literary reviews, I can count on one hand the times that I was legitimately envious of the idea behind a book. Not necessarily the best books or the most interesting books, but the ones with an underlying premise that spoke directly to me.

“The Wax Pack” is one of those.

Balukjian, a lifelong baseball fan, undertook a simple, yet deeply fascinating adventure. He bought a pack of Topps baseball cards from 1986, the year he got into collecting. He popped the decades-old gum into his mouth and flipped through the 15 cards, regaling himself with ghosts of seasons past. And then, he packed up his life and embarked on an epic road trip, a cross-country voyage in which he hoped to make contact with the players he found when he peeled the paper from the titular wax pack.

The result is something unexpected, a thoughtful exploration of fandom that also serves as a glimpse of the different directions a faded athlete might go. And in the process of delving into this sports-loving memory hole, Balukjian himself becomes more present, undertaking an effort to look back at his own history.

Published in Sports

At first glance, the disciplines of science and philosophy would seem to be mostly distinct. To put it simply, science is about considering how the world works, while philosophy is about considering why the world works the way it does. Again, an oversimplified explanation, but close enough.

What the two share, however, is that deep-seated desire to unpack the secrets of the universe. And in some cases, the line of demarcation can become considerably more difficult to find.

In “The Dream Universe: How Fundamental Physics Lost Its Way” (Doubleday, $26.95), author David Lindley posits that in the bleeding edge world of theoretical physics, that line is all but erased. He walks the reader through a quick-hit history of science and how our conception of what “science” even is has evolved from the philosophical beginnings of the Greeks, growing into something observationally and experimentally based over the centuries, only to relatively recently push so far into the theoretical realm as to circle back round to its thought-driven underpinnings.

That might sound a bit heavy, but Lindley has a real gift for narrative; it’s rare for science writing – even pop science aimed at a broad audience – to be this readable and engaging. Lindley pushes us through the history of science via a handful of touchstone figures, giving us a crash course of sorts. From the early work of Galileo up through the pure-math musings of today’s physics giants, we’re along for the ride.

Published in Tekk

“Oh great,” you groan. “Another book about Winston Churchill. Just what the world needs.”

I’ll concede that those feelings are understandable. We’ve all been through the whole finest hour thing more times than we can count; it’s a story that anyone with any interest in history has at least a passing knowledge of. Untold reams of paper and gallons of ink have been devoted to the life and work of the noted statesman; while no one can argue Churchill’s historical significance, it’s also easy to assume that everything that needed saying has already been said.

All true, yes. But conversely – Erik Larson hadn’t yet said his piece. Until now.

The bestselling historian – author of acclaimed works such as “Thunderstruck,” “Dead Wake” and “The Devil in the White City” – has turned his narrative gifts and powers of insight onto the Prime Minister with “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz” (Crown, $32). Far from the dusty doorstop of a book you might expect, “The Splendid and the Vile” is an example of Larson at his best.

Meticulously, exhaustively researched and told with Larson’s usual deftness of prose, this account of Churchill’s first year – from his being named prime minister on May 10, 1940 up through April of 1941 – is an intense close-read of the man’s life. It’s an almost day-by-day accounting of how that first year was spent, both through Churchill himself and through those closest to him – his staff, his friends and his family.

Published in Style
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