This is a collection of reviews written by our senior editor.  All of these books are bestsellers.  Dr. Barnes believes that great editors read deeply, and chances are, he's read and worked with best-selling books in your field.  For more, visit The Sharper Quill Review at 

Guilia Enders, Gut: The Inside Story of Our Body's Most Underrated Organ. Translated by David Shaw.  Greystone Books, 2015. 256 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Guilia Enders is a German medical student who has been interested in the gut from an early age.  She took the world by storm with her YouTube video presentations on the gut—and because of that popularity, she was contacted by a literary agent and now has the world's best selling book on digestion.

Guilia tells the story of the gut as a sort of giddy scientist, truly excited to share all of the gut's wonderful secrets and (in her words) charming mystique.  It really is a gift when someone can take scientific knowledge and make it interesting and understandable for the rest of us, and Guilia's singular passion for the topic takes us halfway.  The other side of the coin is David Shaw's masterful translation of the German original. 


John Krakauer, Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town (Doubleday, 2015)

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD


This is a fantastic book, but boy, it's a difficult read. This is perhaps the most difficult book that I've ever read. It is difficult because it affords us a very frank look directly into the face of evil. Krakauer investigates the culture of rape, impunity, and football in a college town. It's disturbing to read the detailed accounts of various rapes -- sometimes gang rapes -- but even more disgusting is the indifference of the community, law enforcement, and the district attorney's office regarding the victims.

The greatest value of this book is the investigation into the trauma of the rape victim, explaining why victims may not immediately know that they have been raped (the incident is so traumatic) and why rape victims are so vulnerable to being ignored by prosecutors (the nature of consent and questions concerning character in the context of parties, alcohol, or drug use).

Joseph J. Ellis, The Quartet: Orchestrating the Second American Revolution, 1783-1789.  Knopf, 2015. 320 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Joseph J. Ellis is an American historian who won the Pulitzer prize in 2001 for Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation.  His thesis in this book is that there was a fundamental change in the motivation for the Revolutionary War and the arguments related to the formation of the United States by the drafting and ratification of the Constitution.  Ellis calls this second movement the second American Revolution.  The so-called founding fathers had to address a few significant problems to keep the Revolutionary spirit alive—most importantly a fair, national taxation for the support of the Revolutionary army.  

The quartet of leaders that Ellis examines—George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay—were tasked with finding ways to unite the states in a revolutionary cause that inherently contradicted the Revolutionary spirit that motivated them to fight against the British: concern over personal liberty from a centralized government that taxed them without adequate representation.  So the United States had to come together in a way that established a national government without undermining individual liberty—at least to the point that enough states would ratify the Constitution in time for the Revolutionary army to withstand the British invasion.      

Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.  W. W. Norton, 1999. 496 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Most readers can simply assume that Jared Diamond is a polymath.  He is currently (in 2015) a professor of geography, but started out as a PhD in physiology.  He is well known for drawing on multiple disciplines in his books, including anthropology, biology, and ecology.  In addition to his significant academic training, he draws on personal experience living in Papua New Guinea for three decades.  This particular book won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1997.

Diamond addresses the question of why Eurasian peoples conquered American, Australian, and African peoples -- and why wasn't it the other way around.  Diamond explains (or more precisely, theorizes convincingly) why Eurasian people were so successful against much larger groups of people on their own land: it has to do with the domestication of plants and animals, the development of diseases, and even the languages that were written and spoken.  Diamond's book presents a fantastic solution to a question that has often been answered in racist or at least ethnocentric terms.

Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., Mindset: The New Psychology of Success.  Ballantine Books, 2008. 288 pages.  
Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Carol Dweck's bestselling book on mindset is incredibly useful.  She focuses on two opposing mindsets: fixed and growth.  The underlying principles are very simple, but the applications are life-changing.  The fixed mindset is a perspective that embraces the idea that talent, intelligence, and personalities are stagnant—they never really change and don't need to be (or cannot) developed.  The growth mindset recognizes the need for development.  These are very basic ideas that are easy to understand—but these mindsets define the way that we approach very significant challenges in life, and Dweck demonstrates that the growth mindset is far more beneficial.

The fixed mindset is not prepared to face new challenges.  When someone with a fixed mindset is unsuccessful, it is a negative reflection on their character—it is an opportunity for humiliation.  Because of this, CEOs may have become successful doing things their way, affirming their talent and intellect, but implode when they fail.  CEOs with a fixed mindset rule their companies with an iron fist and surround themselves with worshippers and people who are afraid to speak  their minds—such companies have been unable to compete in the changing marketplace.  The growth mindset, however, embraces challenge and recognizes the contribution and worth of employees.  

Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements: A Guide to Personal Freedom, A Toltec Wisdom Book. Amber-Allen Publishing, 1997. 160 pages
Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Don Miguel Ruiz is a neo-shaman spiritualist who re-interprets Toltec wisdom for modern living.  The four agreements are very simple life principles to follow in order to achieve happiness.  Millions of people have been inspired by Ruiz's simple, direct approach to wise living.

The four principles are:
1) Being impeccable with your word
2) Don't take anything personally
3) Don't make assumptions
4) Always do your best

It's Toltec soup for the soul.


Tom Rath and Barry Conchie, Strengths Based Leadership: Great Leaders, Teams, and Why People Follow (Gallup Press, 2009). 266 pages

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Tom Rath and Barry Conchie have a cottage industry producing incredibly useful books on strength-based leadership.  Most companies focus on developing weaknesses rather than developing strengths, and Rath and Conchie present years of Gallup research to demonstrate that this approach is precisely backwards.  The alternative, of course, is focusing on strength, which increases everything that we like—retention, productivity, and profit.

Dorothea Benton Frank, All the Single Ladies (William Morrow, 2015). 368 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This is a fun little novel about friendship and falling in love for the second time.  A nurse at a nursing home joins a circle of friends after one of their group, a hospice patient, dies.  The book addresses a number of familiar themes related to growing old in America, but the real focus is on the women growing closer through a gentle adversity—solving the mystery of a landlady stealing from their deceased friend's estate.

Stephen King, Finder's Keepers (Scribner, 2015). 448 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

The man with the golden pen.  This is a suspense thriller, not horror. I've been trying to get friends to read this, and they expect a tale like It, Pet Cemetery, or The Stand.  But Stephen King has more than one voice, obviously.  In Finders Keepers, King gives us a limited cast of fully developed characters who come together in a thoughtful plot with unexpected outcomes.  The story revolves around the stolen manuscripts of a famous author who is murdered by a disgruntled reader.  The murderer buries the loot—along with $20k—just before he is arrested for another crime.  Thirty-five years later, he's out of jail and ready to start a new life.  But in the mean time, a teenager has recently discovered the money and the manuscripts—and he lives in the murderer's old house.

Gen. Stanley McChrystal, Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement in a Complex World (Portfolio, 2015).

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Gen. Stanley McChrystal is an impressive individual.  In this book, he outlines a philosophical argument for creating a team of teams that can be dynamic enough to respond to unpredictable outcomes produced from complex challenges.  McChrystal argues that the traditional organization of businesses and the military only work in response to complicated systems that have predictable problems.  Therefore, the organization can respond slowly, and the people at the top can micromanage and the workers at the bottom don't need to react in real time, thinking on their own. 

McChrystal observes that CEOs of winning companies that can compete in a changing marketplace have adopted unconventional structures that place new value on employee input according to a shared vision.  In order to respond to the unpredictable nature of the Iraqi insurgency, McChrystal had unparalleled success because he revolutionized the ways that his staff collected, interpreted, and acted on intelligence, and his methods will prove valuable in today's business.  

Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event (Knopf, 2015). 416 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

I remember reading about Blume's Fudge when I was in grade school, so I was happy to see In the Unlikely Event on my reading list.  This is a very different animal—Blume tells the story of a small town that suffered three plane crashes in a period of eight weeks the 1950s.  

Henry Marsh, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery (Thomas Dunne Books, 2015). 288 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Henry Marsh is a highly respected neurosurgeon with a speciality in brain surgery.  This is a book about his mistakes.  It may appear a bit self-aggrandizing, because his mistakes are different... they are a matter of life and death or permanent, severe disability, and Marsh is already operating at a very high level.  That is, he's a master surgeon, working at the very top of his field, and his mistakes are exceptional in that most people will never have Marsh's extreme level of competency.  So the context of a mistake for Marsh exists in an almost incomprehensible level of perfection.

In any case, medical professionals normally don't talk about their mistakes whereas Marsh openly struggles with his shortcomings.  

Willie Nelson, It's a Long Story: My Life (Little, Brown 2015). 400 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

The first song I remember hearing is On the Road Again by Willie Nelson, and I remember when he was ridiculed by the media for his tax problems.  I also live in Fort Worth, TX and he's very well known for his work with Farm Aid and of course his 4th of July picnic.  One time I even saw his tour bus on the side of the interstate with a flat tire.  So I love, love, loved this book!  It has the same kind of unpredictable, free rhythm of Willie's voice.  He tells the story of his early life, loves, the making of his music, and his triumph over the IRS.


David Allen, Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity (Penguin, 2015). 325 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD
This book is basically the art of making lists. It's about organizing your life so you can maximize productivity.  Allen's advice is tempered by his consulting experience—he makes a decent living by helping CEOs and other leaders organize their personal workflow, and he's seen incredible success with his methods.  Perhaps the greatest benefit for today's reader is the reclamation of the personal life.  Allen's organizational strategy frees up not only personal time but the mental stamina to live in those moments, even for the busiest CEO.

Lawrence Wright, Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief (Knopf, 2013)

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This is an incredible book.  It's difficult to read at times because Wright covers some deplorable stuff.  The first part of the book is very much like a mafia movie, with L. Ron Hubbard's biography culminating in the founding Scientology, a mafia-like church complete with tax evasion, extortion, and murder.  The second part of the book covers David Miscavige's complete takeover of the church.      

Heidi Murkoff, What to Expect When You're Expecting, 4th Edition (Workman, 2015). 640 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This is basically an encyclopedia for pregnancy.  I suppose it's what to keep on your desk if you don't want to look stuff up online.  My wife and I didn't use this book when she was pregnant because of its reputation for terrifying women unnecessarily by presenting the worst possible diagnosis for every little symptom—but that's no different from a Google search.  

This book is ok for what it is—perhaps most useful when all of your devices are dead and you really want to learn something.  I do suggest that pregnant women leave this by the toilet... it's quality bathroom literature for the significant other. 

Ann Coulter, Adios America! The Left's Plan to Turn Our Country in to a Third World Hellhole (Regency, 2015). 400 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This is racism in its purist, unadulterated form.  Living in the South, most of my friends and I have an uncle or a grandfather who occasionally says something shockingly racist and the younger generation has the responsibility to identify and educate.  This book is like that grandfather getting drunk, listening to FOX news commentary, and angrily ranting for several hours.  The really worrisome thing about this book is that it's a bestseller, which means that a lot of people in America are buying it and feeding on its garbage.  

Ashlee Vance, Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future (Ecco, 2015). 400 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Elon Musk has done what no one else has been able to do, other than Steve Jobs.  He has contributed significantly to very different fields - the electric car, commercial space flight, and online banking.  Musk envisioned the company that eventually became Paypal, made a fortune when it was sold, and invested a good portion of his own newfound fortune into Tesla and  SpaceX.  This risk has paid off so far, but both companies have a huge vision and continue to overcome tremendous challenges. 

David McCullough, The Wright Brothers (Simon & Schuster, 2015). 336 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

David McCullough is an exceptional author, winning the Pulitzer Prize twice, and receiving several other notable awards.  This book tells the story of the Wright brothers, who were the first humans to achieve controlled, motorized flight.  It's a story of American ingenuity - the brothers had to develop many of their own parts and tools, making remarkable progress in aviation science and technology.  The brothers had to overcome not only the challenges of flight itself, but convince the US government and industry that it could be useful in war (the Wright planes had to be economically feasible - military leadership knew that air superiority was critical to future wars) and profitable in business.  

David Fisher and Bill O'Reilly, Bill O'Reilly's Legends and Lies: The Real West (Henry Holt, 2015)

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

David Fisher and Bill O'Reilly cover the usual laundry list of heroes of the Wild West.  There is no attempt to recover the historical character, separating it from legends and lies - as the title would suggest.  This book contributes no new research and very little analytical insight into the lives of historical figures, other than what we could expect to find in a Wikipedia article.  This is not to say that Wikipedia is inherently a poor source of information.  In fact, Wikipedia articles are so good that a book should contribute more to the general discussion than what is common knowledge.  As such, this book is a best seller that rides on the coattails of a very popular cable TV show by the same name, but in substance it is completely (not just a little) useless.  At the same time, useless drivel can be fun... if you're like me and grew up with stories about American Western folk heroes, this book reinforces those stories rather than challenges them.

Brian Grazer and Charles Fishman, A Curious Mind: The Secret to a Bigger Life (Simon & Schuster, 2015). 320 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

Chances are you've seen a movie produced by Brian Grazer.  When I picked up this book, I'd never heard of him, but he's done a lot of projects with someone that I did recognize - his longtime partner, friend and colleague, Ron Howard.  Brian's movies are blockbusters: Splash (1984), Apollo 13 (1995), A Beautiful Mind (2001), Frost/Nixon (2008), and the TV series 24.  This book is about Grazer's curiosity and how this made him such a successful movie producer. 

 Early in his career, Grazer began developing what he eventually called a 'curiosity conversation' where he meets an interesting person and just talks with them informally, just to find out what makes them tick.  He has been careful from the beginning to exclude people directly related to his field - he's not developing a social network or looking for a job - he's simply chasing his curiosity and learning about other people.  

Grazer has had curiosity conversations with a tremendous variety of international cross-section of business leaders, heads of state, and religious figures, giving him a rich experience to draw from as he writes about curiosity.   

Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer (Scribner: 2011).

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This is a difficult read.  It's exactly what it says that it is - a biography of the plague of our time.  There's hope at the end, but not much.  Cancer diagnosis and treatment have dramatically improved, but it still seems that most serious cancer diagnoses mean treatments that almost cause death with only prolonging life for a few years and there's little promise that it won't come back.  Gene therapies may be the future.


Ian Caldwell, The Fifth Gospel (Simon & Schuster, 2015). 449 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This book is right up my alley.  I have a PhD in New Testament and I'm an ordained minister, and I love a good novel.  In this book, Ian asks a very interesting question: Can the Eastern Orthodox and Western Roman Catholic Christian churches, divided for more than a thousand years, finally forgive each other by the power of a common symbol?  

Caldwell chooses the Shroud of Turin, and the characters examine the earliest manuscript of the Gospel of John to determine if it is actually authentic.  If it's authentic, the Pope can use the Shroud as a unifying symbol by restoring it to the Eastern Church.  The story is told in the context of two brothers, one an Orthodox priest and the other a Roman Catholic, and everything is at stake.  

Gretchen Rubin, Better than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives (Crown: 2015). 320 pages.  

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

I didn't get much out of this book.  I guess a lot of people need to be told that bad habits are bad and good habits are good.  So Gretchen has studied habits and is able to tell us with some authority that good habits are good.  This is a light-hearted, feel-good book, though.  If it were a movie I'd wait until Netflix.  You can check it out from the library should you ever wonder if good habits are good for you.

Tom Reiss, Back Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo (Broadway Books, 2015).  432 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This is a long and difficult read, but it is very rewarding.  I read The Count of Monte Cristo at least once a year.  This book is about Dumas's father, who was a general in the French army with and under Napoleon.  Because he was black, and he resisted Napoleon's egomaniacal tendencies, the incredible life of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas was forgotten.  Reiss recovers this singular personality and shows how he is the inspiration for his son's Count of Monte Cristo.  This is also an outstanding example of how to interpret historical evidence.

Andrew Hodges, Alan Turing: The Enigma (The Book that Inspired the Film the Imitation Game) (Princeton University Press, 2014). 768 pages.

Review by Nathan J. Barnes, PhD

This book is 768 pages of pure joy. If you don't like long books, this one might not be for you... not because it's long, but because you can't skip very much of it and understand what's going on.  In short, Alan Turing is an unparalleled genius who is understandably a bit socially awkward and tragically, homosexual.  Turing's genius is not a major focus of the book, but it does loom in the background, because while he grew up in a culture that at least latently tolerates homosexual behavior, he serves a nation that eventually forces him to undergo painful hormone therapy.  He commits suicide as a result.

This is the man who defeated the Enigma machine that enabled the German Navy to send encoded messages, making the crossing of the Atlantic deadly for Allied boats.  Turing was a gifted mathematician who theorized a universal thinking machine, which is the philosophical backbone of the modern computer.  This is his story -- without him, there's a very real possibility that I'd be much better at German.