Wednesday, November 25, 2020

An American Marriage - Tayari Jones --------------------------- 4 Stars

As I was reading An American Marriage, I realized it was like an inverted bell curve of entertainment (basically, a U shape). It started out very exciting and interesting, moved into a very slow middle section, and rallied again in the last few chapters. But, as that middle part didn't last too long, and did move the story along, I found this book quite enjoyable.

An American Marriage is a recently released book that became MUCH more popular after Oprah named it to her book club list; and for good reason, it's a well written and told story. Based on the author hearing a couple discuss whether the man in a relationship would have waited for the female if she had gone to prison (while he did not answer, he did say that scenario was not likely), the book is about a man going to prison right as his marriage was beginning for a crime he didn't commit. The third main character, is the childhood best friend of the female lead. Told in alternating chapters from the voice of one of these three characters, the author would slowly move the plot forward while getting the perspective of each of the characters in a chapter.

The book shined in many notable ways. First, it's an engaging story with an interesting premise (described above). Other than the middle quarter/third when the action really slowed down, the book grabs you immediately and delivers through the end. Which is another thing - great ending. As happens too often, authors struggle to pull everything together and leave the reader unsatisfied. Not here, I finished the book and felt it was a nearly perfect ending that fulfilled all the needs of the characters. Third, the characters are well rounded and easy to engage with. As the author switches perspectives often, it's effortless to fully connect with each character's motivations. Finally, the story takes on the subject of race directly and fairly. All of the characters deal with the aftermath of the injustice of the criminal system on Black individuals.

I have few gripes, with the biggest being the large section in the middle of the book when the story comes to a nearly grinding halt. The pace was moving so smoothly and then it got bogged down during the years when one of the characters was in jail. Perhaps purposeful in allowing the reader to better understand the parallel affect his incarceration had on the characters - there lives slowed too - it didn't do much for me as the reader.

Overall, I highly recommend this book. It's of decent length, is well written, has a fascinating plot and great starting and ending. The copy I read also had some interesting discussion questions after the book ended which I enjoyed engaging with to help think more deeply about themes in the story. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Catch and Kill: Lies, Spies, and a Conspiracy to Protect Predators - Ron Farrow --------------- 3 Stars

 Catch and Kill is not the type of book that you look forward to reading. It's about awful human beings, most notably, Harvey Weinstein, and those that know and have hid, and continue to hide awful things. While the book was often not enjoyable to read about, it was quite interesting and I greatly appreciated Farrow's courage to put to print the many findings he learned in his research.

As most people know, Harvey Weinstein is now in jail for sexually harassing, assaulting and raping many women of his long career in the movie industry. Thanks, in large part to this book, those allegations and eventual convictions came to the public light. What was not so clear is the amount of people and organizations working diligently to ensure these wrongs never became public. It is truly astonishing to see the level of cover-up that occurred and the number of high power and profile people who came to Weinstein's defense.

While the book is revelatory, many of those findings are incredibly hard to read. Both from the level of specificity of his crimes and also the harrowing aftermath that negatively affected so many people's lives. The book adds some lightheartedness as Farrow talks about his own personal challenges in doing the research for this book. He also has a good sense of humor which he includes which allows an occasional break from the quite serious subject matter.

The biggest weakness of the book is the length and final fifth/quarter of book. Farrow basically finishes telling his findings about Weinstein about three-quarters of the way in. He then weaves through less related stories that are marginally connected to the focus of the majority book. For example, he talks about the accusations about Matt Laurer - who is also a pretty awful dude - but the depth was lacking compared to the Weinstein material. I wondered why the book didn't just conclude after he finished the items related to Weinstein.

Overall, the book is highly recommended for the importance of subject matter. While not the most entertaining book (frankly, I wanted to put it down often), hearing these stories and knowing the importance of supporting ways to stop sexual harassment, assault, etc. and the cultures that allow reprehensible behavior is vitally important.


Tuesday, October 27, 2020

Night Film - Marisha Patel ------------------- 4 Stars

While not a book I had ever heard of till someone gave to me, Night Film was an awesome read and quite different than many other books I've read recently. Besides being a well written, page turning thriller, it was also one of the most creative books I've read.

Short synopsis - the book is about an investigative reporter, and two unexpected accomplices, who research a family whose father is famous for making thrilling and harrowing movies. The daughter of this director dies suddenly and many are left unsure what happened to her. Like any great mystery, the author does a phenomenal job of slowly pacing the book and providing small clues along the way to keep the reader interested and invested in the next page but never giving you enough to figure things out. 

There were a couple of things about the book that made it so entertaining. First, the characters and mystery set forth in the plot or intriguing. Besides being a mystery novel in the classic sense, this book also included many uncertainties and confusions about this family. So many rumors and theories are discussed and alluded to but rarely is anything ever substantiated. From page 1, I was totally in on wanting to learn more about the life of the Cordova family and their crazy past.

Second, unlike most other paperback novels, this book had other elements included to add more intrigue and interest. Within the first few pages, pictures from fake magazine articles and websites were included and often in the book, a visual of something stated in the text was included. Unlike a picture book, the reader was treated to cool websites and visuals that made it feel more like I was investigating these items myself. Some of my favorite parts of the novel were when the text stopped and the author included one of these "artifacts" that I could sift through myself.

My only critique of the book, like many thrillers, is the ending. Though, in many ways, there was no way it was going to live up to my expectations. After being so enamored with the storytelling and characters leading up to the ending, I had a sense the ending would not impress like so much of the rest of the novel. While the ending wrapped things up nicely, I did still feel let down.

While I do recommend this book, it's important people realize it's dark. Some of the themes can be scary and morbid. However, if you can get past these (it is just a fictional book!), I believe the reader will be highly entertained!

Sunday, September 20, 2020

The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America - Richard Rothstein --------------------- 4 Stars

 The Color of Law was recently recommended to me as a great book to better understand the current challenges created by systematic racism in this country. While an intense novel, that surprised me on numerous occasions, it often was a painful read.

The main premise of this book is the current situation that African Americans are struggling with did not happen by happenstance and a few private citizens who were racist individuals. Rather, the United States government, at federal, state, and local levels, created inherently and systematically racist and unjust laws, policies and rules to ensure African Americans were penalized because of their skin color. Distinguishing these as being de jure segregation, which includes government policies as the cause, rather than just de facto, which occurred through private parties, is his main theory. 

His arguments are strong and I found all the research and data he presented, overwhelming. To be clear, I don't mean overwhelming in the sense that I cannot understand his arguments. Rather, I found it overwhelming how much I was unaware of the consistent and notable racist practices that were put in to law throughout our country's history. Here is a summary of the areas he covers that are FULL of policies and rules that are discriminatory: housing, zoning, mortgage and lending, white flight, tax code, local housing ordinances, state sanctioned violence, etc.

Reading this book reminded me of the first time I read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States (if you have not read, a must read!). Like that book, I feel almost foolish with how many important items in America's history were hidden from me over the past 30 years. As a political science major, I read many books about history and government policies, and very little in this book was covered. 

It's depressing and shocking to know that so many Americans are unaware of the troubling history in our country. This is especially concerning because it helps explain so much about the inequities in our country. It's not just luck certain people are not as wealthy, have as much property, have the chance to go to college, etc. It's also not just because of a few racist individuals in the past. Rather, America has a history of overtly racist rules, laws, policies, and discriminatory practices that ensured African Americans would not be able to advance like other races. While there are many things that have changed, much, much more needs to be done to right these wrongs. And, without understanding and knowing this history, it's harder to do so. 

I strongly recommend this book to all readers.




Saturday, September 12, 2020

The Underground Railroad - Colson Whitehead ------------------ 4 Stars

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, The Underground Railroad has been on my "to read" list for a while. Happy I could finally get to it in the past couple of weeks as I really enjoyed the story.

Written as historical fiction, this book does an excellent job depicting the terrors of slavery and the yearning to escape. It also includes the heartless slave catchers who go across the country working to return escaped slaves to their owners. The twist in this book is that the underground railroad is an actual railroad that is kept up by slaves and allies of working to support their freedom. While this difference one could assume would be a major plot point, it isn't. It's mentioned matter of factly and not dwelled upon.

The heart of the book is really about one character and her life as a slave and efforts to escape and go North. I really enjoyed her story and how the author brings to together storylines of people related to her. Using a popular trick, the author does jump around a few times to add a greater back story about characters. Not always in a sequential timeline, it was enjoyable to get a bit of history on some of the character that were less rounded out. 

At the heart of the books is an adventure story about a strong willed slave who is seeking a new life. The books is well written but her story of perseverance and work ethic is supreme. The author also provides an accurate and detailed account of the horrors of slavery. This includes specifics about the slave trade, the back breaking labor required of each slave, and the constant mistreatment from the slave master.

Overall, this is a really strong book (and well deserving of its awards). The pace is natural and progressive and the characters are fascinating. It's truly a well told story that keeps the reader engaged at all points, clearly rooting for the hope and life of the main character. I highly recommend!




 

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

The Emperor of Ocean Park - Stephen Carter -------------------- 4 Stars

Well, after really struggling through my last book, The Name of the Rose (which earned a wretched review), I was so pleased to read The Emperor of Ocean Park. Not a book I was aware of, it was a nice surprise to read this enthralling legal thriller. 

Written about 20 years ago, it reminded me of a smarter version of some of the classic Grisham novels (the old ones!). It was just as much of a page turner as the classic legal thrillers I mentioned above and the author did a great job of always putting a bit of a teaser at the end of each chapter. I loved the arc of the novel and the subject mater focus. In this case, the death of powerful judge weighs heavily on the remaining members of the family. Most poignantly, the narrator, who the novel focuses on as he works to determine what exactly led to his father's death and the mysteries of his life.

The book felt "smarter" than a Grisham based on many of the higher level references, including many characters who are law professors. There is also many references to chess; including numerous plot connections. In fact, the solving of one of the book's many mysteries goes back to a fairly unknown chess challenge. The writing also comes off as a bit more intelligent with some of the language he uses and content that is focused upon.

Overall, it's a very engaging read. Checking in at over 600 pages, it is a long read but after the book gets going and you get what the focus is about, it picks up quickly. The story has great characters and the mystery really gets in full swing by about half way through. I really enjoyed how quickly the plot moved though it did get slow in some parts. Really, the book stands out what the plot is moving forward and the action was the centerpiece. The biggest negative were the many self-indulgent parts of the narrator. Most chapters include small, or larger parts, of him sharing his thoughts of musings about a situation. Normally, this would be great but often they really did not come off as interesting of insightful. In some ways, they just take away from the book.

As a whole, however, I strongly suggest this book. It's an interesting and exciting read.


Thursday, August 6, 2020

The Name of the Rose - Umberto Eco -------------- 1.5 Stars

The Name of the Rose was a huge hit when it was released in the 1980s. I recently came across it as it many said it was a great book and very engaging. Well, something went wrong because it was one of my last favorite books in the past few years.

As I am not sure how many of you are familiar with this book, as it was written a generation ago, quick synopsis - set in the Middle Ages (early 14th century), it tells the story of a monk and his assistant who go to a monastery to investigate a death. Once there, further deaths take place and a quasi-murder mystery takes place.

I include "quasi" above because about 5% of the novel is a murder mystery. Those parts are actually pretty engaging and would have made a good book. Unfortunately, the other 95% was about religion, and Jesus, and mostly a whole bunch of stuff from 700 years ago that was super archaic and incredibly confusing. There was multiple sentences, paragraphs, and pages where I was truly lost and, while I understood the words being used (except maybe Dominicans and Fraticelli), the words together made very little sense. The book was so in depth and nuanced in its focus on Catholicism that it really was not enjoyable.

Then, after reading 495 pages of this drivel, I decided to read the last 30 pages after the book ended. In this edition, the author offers answers to many questions that he apparently received over the years. I thought maybe I'd learn more about things I missed. No chance - instead I got even more maddening confusion and more answers that made no sense.

Overall, the book was a really challenge for me. Perhaps I just needed to pay more attention or have more prior knowledge about the Middle Ages and Christianity. Or, perhaps, this book is just not an engaging read for me as a modern, discerning reader. Either way, you have been warned should you decide to take it on.

Friday, July 24, 2020

Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell --------------- 4 Stars

I might be a little bit late getting to Gone with the Wind, since it is nearly 100 years old (lol), but I like to take on a longer book during the summer. Well, this one certainly met that goal, checking in at over 1,000 pages. When I started this book, which was a couple months ago, I also did not anticipate a historical social justice movement taking place at the same time which made me read this book differently than I most likely would have otherwise (during my reading it was also reported that HBO stated it would no longer show Gone with the Wind movie).

So, related to the note above, I want to get out of the way quickly - this book is incredibly racist, sexist, and very dated (there was also a part where Scarlett is basically raped and seems to offer enjoyment for the assault). It was hard to even read various parts and realize just how different a time it was during the setting of this book, the Civil War/Reconstruction, and even when it was written in 1936. While I tried to really engage with the story, it was impossible to not juxtapose the current inequality and systematic racism and white supremacy that exists in the US with what was going on during the writing and setting of this novel.

As for the book, I can see why it's a classic and beloved story. While so much of the setting and actions are dated and not connected to any part of modern life. The themes of love, hope, survival, etc. are certainly easy to connect with. Of course, I know of Scarlett O'Hara and Rhett Butler but really appreciate learning more about each of them and who they truly were.

Ultimately, I found the novel very engaging, which is why it earned a high rating of 4 stars, but I don't particularly enjoy how the story ended up or Scarlett. Truthfully, I found her awful, selfish, and totally self absorbed at every other characters expense. When Rhett offers the famous line, "Frankly my dear, I don't give a damn," I strongly empathize with him. I too struggle to give a damn about her as a person. However, she is the ultimate survivor who will allow nothing in her way to continue to move forward and succeed.

As everyone is probably aware of this novel, it's hard to recommend to people but I would say if you have not read it by now, have some time, and are okay getting pretty shaken up by overt racism of this time period, it may be worth the read.

Thursday, June 11, 2020

Where the Crawdads Sing - Delia Owens --------- 4 Stars


While I'm a bit late to the Where the Crawdads Sing party, as this book came out over 18 months ago, it's still a massive bestseller and currently#2 on Amazon books. And while I really didn't enjoy the ending (more below), I was thoroughly entertained by the book as a whole.

I would imagine many people have read or know of this book. Short synopsis - story, over multiple decades, about young girl who becomes a woman who lives in nature in very rural North Carolina. Of course, there is some intrigue and mystery in the book to keep it moving, but most of the novel is about the interesting experiences of her life.

For the most part, I really enjoyed this book. It's a really comfortable read and has a nice pace. The plot moves forward in a smooth way and never feels rushed. Nature is a focal point of this novel and the author does a wonderful job of going into beautiful and serene descriptions of different outdoor scenes. As much of the novel is based on the swamp the protagonist lives in, wonderful and detailed descriptions are offered of the beaches, birds, water, etc.

In many ways, the story of where the main character lives, is just as important as what happens to her. The marsh that is her home for the extent of the novel is a character unto itself. As the main character's life is so closely connected to the environment she lives in, you can't help but fall in love with it. Or, at least, fall in love the way she falls in love with it. The story provided and the environment and setting really do make this an enjoyable read. It's got a scenic and leisurely pace that I really enjoyed.

While I really enjoyed the majority of this book, and found it hard to put down, I really was left disenchanted with the ending. For me, it closed this up just a bit too quick. After spending 350+ pages becoming connected and truly caring about protagonist, it was a bit tough for me to see her story end so abruptly. I also found it quite odd. The author spend so much time carefully nurturing her story and the environment that enhances it, it seemed surprising she would not take as much care with the ending. Perhaps she had some other things to do? Lol.

Overall - really entertaining read and was hard to put down, just be forewarned that you may not enjoy the final parts of the book!



Monday, May 25, 2020

The Wisdom of Crowds - James Surowiecki ------------------ 1 Star

The Wisdom of Crowds had been on my to read list for a number of years. I was hoping that it would be as entertaining and enjoyable to read as some of the Gladwell books or perhaps Freakanomics. Unfortunately, as you can glean from the rating, it did not live up to my expectations.

Quick synopsis - the book makes a strong case that people's collective opinion, on nearly anything they are educated about or have a background about, will be more accurate or show more wisdom than a singular person. Okay, now you don't have to read the book! Honestly, this would have been a great Atlantic article that explained the author's main points with a few examples. Instead, I slowly trudged through this not interesting, much too long book that went into areas that were both confusing in purpose and boring.

While the book started strong with an interesting introduction and on point first chapter, it slowly lost my interest with each subsequent chapter seeming less useful and less entertaining. Unlike, say the books by Gladwell, this author is not a great storyteller and really needs a better editor. While he tried to use real life examples to make his points, like many other books of this type, he was long winded with the anecdotes not easily understandable by a laymen.

It's rare that I read a book that is such a dud. First, I am pretty good at vetting books to ensure they are not going to be a waste of my time. Second, it's really hard for me not to get interested in what I am reading. While I have a bias for certain types of books, I really can enjoy any time of literature (fiction or non), so I usually can find some interest in almost any type of book. Third, it is possible this book is better than I give it credit (which is very little). Perhaps this global pandemic and my viewing of more engaging TV has lowered my patience and tolerance to push through more esoteric writing... Or, perhaps this book is just super boring!




Saturday, April 25, 2020

Freedom - Jonathan Franzen ------------------ 3 Stars

I really enjoyed Franzen's other major novel - The Corrections. I assumed that Freedom would be just as good, if not better. For some reason it didn't hold up. And, I can't tell why. Was it simply not as good as The Corrections or am I a more discerning reader nowadays? By comparison - here is my review of The Corrections from nearly 9 (!) years ago!

Just re-read my past review; I do think this book is just worst. I talked in the last blog about how this is "modern literature" as the themes are about the modern world and all its craziness. Really, I found this book interesting but slow. It's about a pretty dysfunctional family (same as last time) but I found them super unlikable - which was probably the point. But, that was not why I disliked. I disliked because nothing really happened. The book is over 500 pages and a slog to get through. The characters are interesting and very real. Since the vast majority of the novel is based on a few characters, Franzen does a great job of rounding them all out. But, so much is about the boring of their lives and what they are thinking about it.

Of course, the book is still interesting to read. The dialogue is funny and the writing is crisp. Franzen is a gifted author. While I do think the novel's pace was glacial and the stories of the characters seemed real, I just didn't love their stories. It's like the characters were trapped. Franzen couldn't decide if he should go all the way with the craziness of the story and really push it and make it seem totally fictional OR if he should make this a more realistic story about people's lives that is more based in realism.  Being stuck was not for me. Again, it's not a bad read but just not sure it's worth the effort to get through this long read.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Only Plane in the Sky: On Oral History of 9/11 - Garrett Graff ---------- 4 Stars

While not intentional, the coincidence of my reading of The Only Plane in the Sky: An Oral History of 9/11 and the COVID-19 pandemic beginning, created a fascinating juxtaposition. As 9/11 was probably the last crisis that most closely resembles our current challenges, it was interesting to relive one of the most horrible and memorable days of American history.

This book provides an oral history about September 11, 2001. It begins early that morning and, deliberately and very intentionally, goes through the day by retelling people's own stories and recollections of what occurred. The book provides an unbelievable account of hundreds and perhaps thousands of people who had connections to either the World Trade Center, Pentagon, United 93, or something else relevant from that day.

It was a heavy but captivating read. Graff does an incredible job of thoughtfully helping the reader remember each aspect of the day by painstakingly editing interview after interview so the reader is left with a clean story from start to end. Of course, the story is so much more than just a tale about the day. The beauty of these interviews is how personal they are; literally, each word is provided by someone remembering how the events changed their life. I can't imagine the work that must have gone in to both, interviewing the hundreds (or thousands of individuals), and organizing and editing what is most useful for the text.

Finally, while an engaging book that was hard to put down, it really was hard to go through and remember this awful day. I, of course, could easily remember my own memory of the day - turning on the TV briefly before heading to a college Pol. Sci. class and seeing one of the Towers burning and being confused. Then, after class, heading to the student center to see the other damage done with my fellow classmates. Then,  going home and watching the rest and trying to understand what the hell happened. This book, in a visceral way, really brought those memories back.

As it felt like this was the last time our country was in a true crises, until now, it's interesting to compare the two. One event was quick with a massive impact of death and injuries; the other, a slow, painful killer. One was a purposeful event by foreign terrorists; the other, an unintentional act. One led by a president who clearly understood the entire tenor of his presidency would change forever (W. Bush), the other, well, not a leader in any way, shape or form. Really, the comparisons could go on and on with one similarity clear - fear, anxiety and pain are at the heart of both.

While I would not recommend this book if you are struggling with sadness/anxiety with our current situation, it may be a useful read in remembering a painful day, but also, how our nation found a way through and came back on the other side. Certainly something we all pray for now.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

Just Mercy - Bryan Stevenson ---------------------- 4 Stars

I've had Stevenson's Just Mercy on my "to read" list for a while now, ever since I saw him speak a few years ago in Baltimore. Part of the reason I've waited is I knew it would take some extra emotional energy to read the book and be wiling to deal with the many challenges and problems with our judicial and penal systems. While it certainly wore me down, I'm happy I spent the energy taking on this incredible story.

As it's now been made into a major motion picture, I assume most readers know the story. Stevenson, an awesome lawyer, goes to the Deep South and works to get many either falsely accused or incorrectly punished individuals off of death row and/or out of prison. While there are many anecdotes and cases, much of this book focuses on Walter McMilian, a young, black man sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit.

Stevenson is as gifted as a writer as he must be as a lawyer because the book was a pleasure to read. His use of effusive and colorful language helps paint the picture of darkness of prison and beauty of his subjects in a glorious way.  He also does a superb job of helping the reader understand the systemic challenges and problems of our judicial system.

Though this is why I had to give the book only 4 stars. The story is incredible and its as important a book that I have ever reviewed, but, I often really did not look forward to reading it. Rather, I often dreaded the thought of picking it back up to read about another racist decision made, another intentional structural decision that hurts a person with less social standing, or another time an innocent or traumatized person was unfairly treated. Honestly, it was hard to read about these injustices page after page. But, that is of course the point and value of Stevenson's stories - these untold stories need to be shared with the world. There is far too much unfairness and hate within our judicial system, and frankly, our society. However, as Stevenson argues, that can change. People still have options and the more we're all aware of ways we can help others, the better we can do in offering mercy and care for those who need it across our country.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Art of Fielding - Chad Harbach -------------- 4 Stars

Thanks to my kind brother-in-law, I recently had the chance to read the enthralling book, The Art of Fielding. While I had not heard of before, I did realize that it was a highly anticipated recent release from a young author, Chad Harbach. As a whole, it did not disappoint.

Quick premise - small, D3 college near the Great Lakes (or was it Northeast... not critical) with a small cast of interesting and very well described characters; most of which are on the baseball team along with the school President and his daughter. The story is about their dreams, hopes, loves, etc.

The book starts with a bang and made me intrigued and care immediately. It was about baseball and, more specifically, the beauty of a perfectly fielded ball and the work and effort that goes into perfectly fielding a ball. From there, the author spends even more time going into the intricacies that go into being a great fielder. As the book goes on, it continued to captivate me. The characters were slowly introduced and the author did a fantastic job of describing each of them deeply; their looks, personality, and motivations were quickly apparent. I found the more I read, the more I wanted to continue reading.

But, like many books that check in over 500 pages, it did lull in some places. Not many though, perhaps a few times I looked at the book and chose a TV show instead; but more often than not, I wanted to pick up the book and keep reading it and not put it down. The story kept me intrigued due to it's multifaceted plots. While baseball and the objective of winning was underlying much of the book, the main characters seeking to find their own ways of winning were just as captivating.

As the first novel from Harbach, I eagerly look forward to his next release (though I read that it took him 9 years to complete this book; so it may be a bit of a wait). This book really was a fun read and one that I was a bit sad when it ended; I wanted it to keep going! Always a revealing sign about the entertainment value of a book.  I highly recommend.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Unwinding - George Packer ---------------------- 3.5 Stars

I recently came across this book as I was perusing a list of the best non-fiction of the past 20 years. While I have read more than a few of them, the summary for George Packer's The Unwinding was intriguing. Well, did it live up to its ranking of a top non-fiction story? Read on....

Well, sort of. While I think it was an excellently told story; I do feel like I have been more thoroughly entertained by many other non-fiction books I've read in the past couple of decades. However, I can also understand why this book did make the list. I believe it's primarily about the themes that Packer outlines.

So, basically, Packer takes a few characters and cities (Tampa, Silicon Valley) and tells very specific stories, that cover the past 15-20 years, about these people (about 4 or 5) and places. While the very specific and individual stories are  interesting to follow and well told, they are also emblematic of many Americans stories. And, more deliberately, how this country continues to change in monumental, and life altering ways. Interspersed throughout are also about a dozen short biographies of important and timely people in American history (Oprah, Newt Gingrich, etc.).

As a whole, the book is pretty engaging read. He does a great job of making the reader really connect with each character and keep interest to learn how they lives change every few years (when he makes typical jumps). Of course, the real genius of the book is helping the reader see the marco changes of our country through these specific stories. They do seem to go on a bit too long sometimes and there were a couple of times I thought a good editor may have helped the flow, but it's a small complaint. Overall, it's a strong read, and other than a few dragging parts, does a nice job telling an interesting story - both small and big.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

Talking to Strangers - Malcolm Gladwell ------------------------- 4 Stars

Well, I'm a huge fan of Malcolm Gladwell and was very excited to read his new book, Talking to Strangers. I've read all of Gladwell's books and reviewed a few of them here. While I think Tipping Point and Blink were simply incredible, I do feel like his last few efforts were not as strong. Perhaps others feel this way too. Besides not getting a lot of press, this book also was sold at a steep discount (only $6) a few months after it came out. So was it worth the money and time?

Short answer - absolutely! I'd read pretty much anything by Gladwell, as he has a gift for both storytelling and explaining creative ideas. The latter in this case, included the premise that people are inherently quite awful at understanding strangers and believing them. Basically, humans are built for connection and wanting to understand others and, thus, will always default to the assumption of truth even if there many pieces of contrary evidence put in front of them.

Like usual, the book was most interesting, and moved along smoothly, with Gladwell's great ability to share short stories and anecdotes to support his argument. This book included fascinating entries about why World War 2 got going because people didn't convince themselves Hitler may be a liar, the guy who realized Bernie Madoff was running a ponzi scheme about a decade before the SEC, and his biggest and most clear question - why did Sandra Bland end up killing herself after an unnecessary traffic stop (hint - the police officer was trained with very poor tools).

Overall, the book is a pretty strong read. As I described above - pretty interesting premise and great stories along the way. However, I did find Gladwell struggled to really support his premise and pull it all together. While each and every anecdote is interesting, I did not find they always supported and helped to clarify his overall premise. With his stronger, previous texts I found he made his points abundantly clear; here, he struggled to pull the strands fully together.

Still, it's Gladwell and it's better than 98% of the books out there. It's entertaining, the premise is captivating, and it's relevant to the current world and our lives.

Sunday, December 1, 2019

The Martian - Andy Weir -------------------------- 4 Stars

Well, I feel like I've been on a great streak lately with enjoyable and entertaining books. The last two I reviewed both earned 4.5 stars and now, The Martian, comes in with a solid 4 rating. Like many of you, I probably came to know of the movie first, but the book did not disappoint!

So, if you haven't seen it, the Martian is a great science-fictiony movie starring Matt Damon. Super quick premise - he gets stuck on Mars and has to use his creativity to get home (also, he's kind of funny). Well, the book is pretty much the exact same. Except, like most books vis a vis movies, it goes into a lot more depth, covers far more details, is a better total story, and has some different plot elements than the movie.

It's always an interesting experience to read a book after a movie (as opposed to the alternative). The biggest difference between reading one before or after is how you "see" it all. When reading the book first, you get to create your own of how people look/sound and make the setting up in your head. After seeing a move, it's very, very hard not to picture it the way it was on the screen. This can be both good and bad, In this case, it wasn't too bothersome as I enjoyed the movie and Damon in the main role but if I had my choice, I would have preferred reading it first.

One related and interesting challenge is to try to figure out if there are any movies better than the book. Almost always, the answer is "no" but I assume there are a few exceptions. One off the top of my head is Forrest Grump. GREAT movie but not sure the book had the same level of interest/quality. For the most part, the books are much better. One I kept thinking about was The Godfather. As you active followers know, it earned 5 stars on this blog - the highest possible score- and is a phenomenal book. But the movie? Also fantastic. I think that's where I might be coming down on The Martian. I found the movie to be about 4 out of 5 stars too; roughly equal. Though, I do wonder if I'd have a different take about the book being better had I read it first.

I recommend this book for all readers and especially those that have seen the movie and liked it. Again, it's very similar to the movie but improves upon it with the great detail and further plot elements that time did not allow the movie to follow. Perhaps, further, I suggest this book for anyone who has NOT seen the movie as you'd be able to decide if the book is truly better without being biased by the movie first.  Overall, really good and entertaining book!

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Basketball (and Other Things) - Shea Serrano ------------------------------- 4.5 Stars

Who would have thought a basketball book with questions like, "Was Kobe Bryant a dork?" and "What attributes make for the best basketball villain?", would be so entertaining and enjoyable to read? I certainly wouldn't have thought so but I am sure happy I came across Shea Serrano's Basketball (and Other Things).

This book was the truly the perfect read for me. First, all about basketball (pro, college, high school, pick-up)!  Second, it wasn't just boring columns about this team winning against another team or about which player had the highest points per game. No, this book took a different tact at looking some of those questions but from more fun angles. Third, the book scoped the time period of late 80s through today. For me, this was perfect. Like many of us, I never saw Russell and Wilt play but I certainly saw Shaq, and MJ, Lebron and Curry - so this was much more in my wheelhouse. Finally, the book was written in such a fun way with such great illustrations. I'm not normally into "picture" books, but the art by Arturo Torres greatly complimented the words on the page and provided a fun pause in between chapters.

A few other things I loved: Serrano has an obsession with using incredibly funny and entertaining footnotes. I'm not exactly sure how many, but due to the small size but large numbers, I estimate they take up about a quarter of the book. To be clear, they are great. Some of the biggest laughs I had were reading those footnotes (if you think some of the chapters are bizarre/off-topic, wait till you see the footnotes).  Also, the book was very easy for me to relate to. Many of the questions and opinions he has about players I shared or often thought about. Serrano has clear favorites and not, and I often found myself nodding along to his conclusions. As a basketball player, he also has a great chapter about pick up basketball expectations that was my favorite.

While I gave this book 4.5 stars (I almost felt like it should be 5 by how quickly I read it and enjoyed), I am not sure how many others would enjoy at same level. As a basketball junkie that likes irreverent humor, this book was meant for me. Not sure everyone falls into that category. If you do like basketball, I do suggest taking the time. It's a very good read.*

* So I don't know how to make footnotes on this blog but felt obligated to do so. I did want to add - I highly recommend getting a hard copy of this book. Yes, it may be easier to handle and quicker to read on Kindle, BUT you will miss out on the great art and easy to access footnotes at the bottom of each page. Only downside, because of the design and color of the book, many of the chapters start on non-white color paper (blue, green, purple, etc.) which is a huge problem for the eyes (you quickly realize  why white paper is so wonderful). Other than that, the hard copy is way to go.

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Aloha Rodeo - David Wolman and Julian Smith ----------------- 4.5 Stars

I can't really remember where I came across the recently released Aloha Rodeo, but I'm sure happy I did as it was one of my favorite books read in the past year.

Quick background - Aloha Rodeo is about "three Hawaiian cowboys, the world's greatest rodeo and a hidden history of the America West" (or at least that's what the cover tells me). Further, the book provides a superb retelling about the introduction of domesticated cattle to Hawaii (1700s), the importance and proliferation of cattle in Hawaii (1800s), and the impressive rise of cowboys in Hawaii (paniolos) (late 1800s).

For full disclosure, part of the reason for the very high rating is my background growin up on Maui and great nostalgia for all things Hawaiian. Some of my fondest memories of Makawao, were going to the annual 4th of July rodeo and watching such incredible events as bull riding, and the unique (I think to just Hawaii, or maybe Maui? or maybe Makawao?) double mugging. (Side note - double mugging is incredible. It's two cowboys, one on a horse and one on his two feet - first guy lassos the half-a-ton steer, then the guy on the ground has to go and wrestle the steer over and then tie three of it's feet. Way too much fun to watch these burly cowboys take on cows three times their size.)

So, I have great fondness for the history of this book and thoroughly enjoyed the storytelling. Moving from the history of cattle in Hawaii, to the rise of rodeos in the West, to the eventual explanation of the entertainment value of cowmen and rodeos, the authors did a a superb job keeping the book engaging, detailed, and full of colorful stories of people and events.

While I am not sure this book would appeal to everyone, even without a personal connection and affinity to Hawaii, I do believe one might enjoy. While I was particularly infatuated with the read (and finished in under week as I was obsessed!) I do think this smaller piece of American history is a worthy read for all. You can pass on a "Mahalo" to me after reading!

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Be Frank with Me - Julia Claiborne Johnson -------------- 3 Stars

Be Frank with Me was not on my radar but it was passed on to me, and it was an interesting read about an incredibly ECCENTRIC young boy named Frank who was the star of this story.

Not having heard of this book, I was intrigued by it's general plot: young employee at a book publishing group is assigned to support one of it's strongest and reclusive authors who needs to finish her second book after she rose to stardom with her debut novel. As I mentioned above, what turned out to be the most pleasant of surprises was the character of Frank - the reclusive authors 8 year old son who, to say the least, is incredibly eccentric. The book goes on as the young employee shares her experiences living with this unique family and the trials and tribulations of the amazing charismatic, challenging, and bizarre - Frank.

The book read easily and there was a lot of interesting dialogue and great interactions between the key characters. The first half of the book was my favorite as it included wonderful vignettes from Frank's life that included all of his exuberance and oddities at it's best. He really was the best character in the story and most scenes without him were boring and kept me missing him.

I found the second half less exciting. Unlike the first half that just told short anecdotes, that really didn't move the plot forward. The last half of the book tried to tell the story of Frank's mother (a Harper Lee) type. I supposed this was necessary to assure the plot "moved" somewhere, but it just wasn't exciting or that interesting to hear about the narrator's quasi-love story, Frank's mom struggle to write, or the book publishing editor coming to rescue things.

If you want to read a humorous book about one of the most eccentric, funny and charming young kids you could imagine, this book is for you. It's hard not to love Frank (especially since he's fictional and does not live with you!).