A mix of six...

The fact that I haven’t posted much during the past months does not mean that I haven’t been reading.

Here are six praiseworthy books more or less devoured during the summer.

Two amazing novels by Don Winslow:

The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are sweeping complex tales of epic proportion describing the so-called War on Drugs, which of course is anything but that, because it is being ‘fought’ on the wrong fronts.

An incredible amount of research has gone into these tomes and you will read every bit of news on the subject in a different light after reading them. At times I forgot I was reading novels, that's how authentically he writes.

El Chapo escaped from a maximum security prison using a 1500 meter long ventilated and well-lit tunnel? Nobody noticed that it was being dug? Really?

In the end it’s all about money, and unfortunately drugs seem to be one of the most profitable businesses in the world, also for a number of governmental organizations in various countries. This is where the hair on the back of your neck starts rising.


There are some horrific scenes in the novels, and I’m not referring only to the ruthlessness or the torture, but also to painfully skewed decisions, programs, and so forth which are brought to light here. My entire body was tensed up for long stretches while reading, because, frankly my dear, you will learn things from these books that you do not want to believe are true.


John Williams


New York Review Book , 278 pages


Stoner by John Williams is another great novel. First published in 1965, it just exploded in popularity here in Germanyduring the past year or so. I’d never heard of it until I began seeing it in every bookshop and literature magazine.

The novel follows the life of William Stoner from the poor farm he grew up on to his position as associate professor of English Literature at a university in Missouri, through his unhappy marriage, his relationships with his colleagues, his love affair, all the way to his death. I can’t even describe what it is about Stoner which I liked so much, and found myself comparing the novel with the thick paperbacks one finds at the airport newsstands for example, the ones that keep the reader’s attention with action packed scenes and nearly invincible protagonists. What a contrast Stoneris to those, and what it actually means for an author to be able to keep one captivated solely with the story of an average hard-working teacher. That requires a special talent. Every sentence works.

Mark J. Plotkin, Ph.D.

Tales of a Shaman’s Apprentice. An Ethnobotanist Searches for New Medicines in the Amazon Rain Forest

Penguin Books 1993, 319 pages


Every time a shaman dies, it is as if a library burned down.Mark Plotkin 


I feel lucky to have found this treasure at Half Price Books in Bellevuethis summer. It’s both informative and entertaining – a perfect mix. If only all school textbooks had been written in this manner!


Ethnobotanist (and adventurer) Mark Plotkin travelled to the northeast Amazon area of South America a number of times to search for and catalog traditional medicinal plants. His respect for the people and cultures allowed him to gain access to places and knowledge not easily granted to outsiders, and also earned the trust of shamans from whom he learned much about the curative powers of plants.


In Chapter One, Plotkin writes “When a Westerner looks at the jungle, he sees green – herbs, vines, shrubs, trees. When an Indian looks at the jungle, he sees the basics of life – food, medicines, and raw materials from which to build shelters, weave hammocks, and carve a hunting bow.”


I couldn’t even begin to list all the interesting bits, but there is a long chapter on curare, an amusing account of his participation in a pineapple festival for which his body was painted, encounters with all manner of flora and fauna, descriptions of rainforest delicacies such as the sho or sawari nut, and some others that were not quite so delicious (warm cassiri, or cassava beer sounds like something he more or less forced himself to choke down in order not to offend his hosts…)

Quinine comes from the bark of the cinchona tree and has apparently been used for thousands of years in the northern part of South America and rosy periwinkle is used for treating diabetes and cancer, which in turn leads to the darker side of the subject: the problem of pharmaceutical companies exploiting regions such as these for their curative plants is also addressed.

Wade Davis

The Wayfinders. Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World

Anansi Press 2009, 223 pages


How is it possible to navigate from one island to another in a 25 million square kilometre expanse of ocean using only nature and the elements as a guide?

Wade Davis writes about the wayfinders – some still exist today – who use the sun, the moon and the stars to find their way from one Polynesian island to another, able to read and interpret the physics of waves, rhythms of the sea, shape and movements of clouds and wildlife to determine their location.


San hunters in the Kalahari, Peoples of the Anaconda in the Amazon basin, rainforest nomads in Borneo are but a few of the cultures described in this amazing book which provides much food for thought, especially regarding the second part of the title Why Ancient Wisdom Matters in the Modern World.


What did our ancestors know that has been lost over time?

Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, Mark A. McDaniel

Make it Stick. The Science of Successful Learning

The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2014

253 pages


In high school and college, I read and re-read texts using a highlighter to mark what I thought was most important, a widely preferred study strategy then and now for most.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong.

Apparently this method only gives one the illusion of mastery. And illusions rarely last. 

Why that is, is well explained in Make it Stick.

The authors also explain how one should learn new material and what they write makes perfect sense. Every now and then I test it out with what I need to learn for my Spanish class.

(But most days I revert back to my high school ways and do my homework right before my class, reaping smart-ass remarks from my teenage sons if they notice. Admittedly they’re not really smart-ass comments; they just tell me what I usually say to them…)

Now that I have pulled this book back out of the pile, this week I will work on the subjuntivo using retrieval practice.


Take a look at the Make it Stick homepage – here you will find a short overview of each chapter.



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