Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Underground Airlines -- Ben Winters ---------------------- 4 Stars

Underground Airlines is one of the more interesting plot set-ups I've read in a while. It probably falls under the genre of "revisionist" or "alternate" history but reads more like a sci-fi novel in certain parts. The basic premise: after the Civil War the South is allowed to keep four permanent slave states which exist into modern day, the time period from which the novel is told. So, was this new spin on history any good? Well, for the most part the strongest part was the set-up; the follow through could have been improved.

I really enjoyed reading this novel though the first half seemed more interesting and exciting than the second, which is odd. I loved learning more about how the current USA was allowed to have four states that legally could allow slavery. In many ways it's a dystopian novel. What's fascinating about it is all the aspects of slavery that exist in modern times with all the modern technology. To say it's a bit scary to think about, is an understatement.

The biggest area this novel struggled is actually pulling all of the plot pieces together. The story is based on a black man who is now an escaped slave catcher in the norther states; apparently a real problem in the dystopian setting of the novel. While the first half is very strong in setting up the conflict and rounding out most characters, I found the author failed to follow through at the same level of intrigue as the novel continued. While he tried to add more action, I felt like much of it fell flat compared to some of the set-up of the first half. Odd, I know, but true.

Overall, I would recommend this novel. It's a pretty fascinating idea and certainly keeps your attention throughout. While there is some lag in the second half as the author seems to be out of his comfort zone pushing an action novel, there is certainly enough there to make you keep up and you do feel a certain level of interest in learning the fates of the key characters.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Undoing Project - Michael Lewis ------------------ 4 Stars

I really struggled trying to figure out how many starts to give Michael Lewis' new book The Undoing Project. When I heard it was coming out a few months ago, I got very excited, which probably raised my expectations much too high. I finished it about a week ago and had it at lower than a 4 but in the past week, I've thought more about it, and it's moved back up. Let's get into why.

A little bit of background to help explain: this book is about two incredibly influential, but fairly unknown psychologists named Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky. A few years ago, I started reading a number of books about behavioral economics (Predictably Irrational, Nudge, and others). Basically, these two guys help create and make famous this new way of looking at decision making. If you are not a familiar with it, definitely check out this book. Basically, behavioral economics takes on normal economics, which assumes that each person acts logically, and puts a human overlay on it, which, study after study shows, people are not at all logical with money or decision making. In fact, they are often illogical. So, I've been really interested in this for the last few years and read Kahneman's comprehensive book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, a few years ago. Frankly, that book is fantastic and probably should have earned higher than 4 starts. When I heard that Michael Lewis, an author I usually enjoy reading (save the atrocious, Home Game) was writing about these two titans, I was very excited. 

Now to the problem, it's not actually the most exciting book. I'm not sure if my expectations were just too high, I knew too much already so most of this was not new, or if it's simply not a great book, but I really did not enjoy as much as I would have thought. I had two major problems. First, I was hoping to get more about the relationship between the two. Basically, it was one of the greatest partnerships in history, to the point neither actually could tell where the ideas were coming from at their peak. And while Lewis does a noble job at trying to detail their relationship, I never really felt it the way I was hoping.  He describes it in so many different ways but it still fell flat in truly adding clarity to the emotional part. Second, while he cherry picked some of the most interesting and noteworthy projects/studies they did, I had heard many of them before. The experiments are very interesting, but I thought he also did a poor job explaining just how far-reaching their research had become in the modern era.

So why did it end up with 4 stars? Because I have to think about the average reader who has never heard about Kahneman or Tversky, which is most of you! As this will be your first foray into behavioral economics, it could be a lot worst. In fact, the one added benefit of this book is that you get biographies (which truly is interesting) of these two fascinating scientists. However, if you want to get into a more meaty and thorough read and understanding of behavioral economics, then cut out the middle man and go straight to Kahneman's Thinking, Fast and Slow!  Either way, pick one of them up so you can at least understand all the poor decision making you currently are doing!

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Old School -- Tobias Wolff ----------------------------- 3 Stars

I can't really recall how this book came across my path or why exactly I felt the need to read it. Like most people, I have a limited amount of time to read so I try to only take on books that are I really think I will learn from or enjoy. So, it is with some frustration that I spent the last few weeks finishing Tobias Wolff's Old School.

I must have thought I would enjoy the book based on a few things. First, it has the word "school" in the title so that must have captured my interest. Second, the cover picture brings up (accurate) images of a story about some sort of New England type boarding school from decades ago. Third, Tobias Wolff is a fairly impressive writer with some other pretty good novels.

Was the book enjoyable? Well, yes and no. On the positive, the book is amazingly well written. Wolff truly has a way with words and there are many sentences and paragraphs that I read more than once due to both the complexity and beauty of the words. The story is interesting but not great. I think the author is far more interested in the words and the connections he is trying to make in his analogies in the book than the actual plot moving forward. To say it's a character piece, is an understatement.

One of the odd parts of the book that bothered me is that the author never used quotation marks. While the dialogue is minimized for the most part, it did bother me the few times when individuals were talking. I also really enjoy dialogue as a part of the book so this was an annoyance for me.

On a positive, I did enjoy the "academic" nature of the book. To clarify, the book is about a bunch of adolescent boys at a prestigious boarding school, specifically focusing on the boys that are great writers. In the time of the novel, the school has visits from Robert Frost, Ayn Rand, and Ernest Hemingway. Hearing the author reflect his views of these writers through the characters in the story is very enjoyable to read as well.

Overall, the book is very well written and enjoyable foray into words. Wolff has a real talent with the pen and that is the most enjoyable part of the book. As far as looking for a book with a great plot and wonderful dialogue, I would look elsewhere. But if you are looking for a fun period piece about school, great writing, and honor, this is the book for you!

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

NurtureShock: New Thinking about Children -- Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman ---------------- 4.5 Stars

NurtureShock has been on my "to read" list for a few years now, and I'm very happy to have finally picked it up.  For some reason, the title scared me off a bit, and I thought it was a book about going up now and how "shocking" it is for kids. Rather, the book was sort of a Freakonomics meets child rearing, and I enjoyed it immensely.

The basic set up of the book is to cover, in multiple chapters, a variety of cutting edge and recent research about educating kids. How they learn, what helps them/what doesn't, etc. The first chapter, which is about how/when to use praise with kids, is fantastic. In fact, I think the authors writing on this subject (which included a focus of my favorite, grit), was published in the New York times to much acclaim. My guess is they got great feedback about the subject matter and discoveries so they decided to do some more research on other areas and make a book. The other chapters vary in their usefulness and holding the reader's interest, but the majority of them are quite interesting and I learned a great deal from the book. Some of the other subjects the book takes on are: the importance of sleep, why kids lie, why parents don't talk about race, why teens rebel, and many others. In fact, I was able to learn something new from nearly every chapter I read.

What made this book so enjoyable to me is a few things.  First, the writing style is clear, concise and easy to keep up with. Second, the stories that are used to illuminate a point being made are interesting and varied. Third, the book was based in research findings and data, and while the authors are certainly trying to make subjective points with the data, they can back up a lot of it. Finally, as the book applies to two important things in my life, my job and my kids, I was keenly connected and interested in nearly every view they argued.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with any interest in kids. Although it does have a bit of an education bent and focus, any parent could learn valuable information from this text and, because the stories and writing styles are so accessible, I think many will enjoy. I know I did!

Wednesday, November 23, 2016

Seinfeldia - Jennifer Keishin Armstrong ---------------- 2.5 Stars

I think we can all agree that Seinfeld is either the greatest comedy of all time or among the best. The show's legacy still makes it mark nearly two decades hence and watching reruns are nearly as enjoyable as seeing it for the first time. There is truly nothing else quite like it. So, one would think that a retrospective, titled Seinfledia, would be as awesome as the show. Sadly, not even close.

I was very excited to read this book as you could probably tell from above. And it's not a terrible book; it's just not very good either. The book has some interesting anecdotes about how the show was created, back stories on many of the main characters and Larry David, and how the lure of Seinfeld still looms large in modern pop culture. I also enjoyed learning about many of the bit characters and writers from the show over the years (fun fact: almost every season they'd hire new writers. Basically, David would mine their lives for interesting stories (extra points if you were from NYC) and then dismiss them after they've used them up).

The real reason why the book was so lacking is because the author only interviewed or talked to people that were on the periphery of the show. This means neither David, Jerry, Elaine, George or Kramer had anything to do with the book. Certainly, they would be the most interesting and useful people to talk to in doing a book on Seinfeld. She did interview the soup nazi, and the guy Kramer is based on, and other people like that, but you could imagine the lack of insight without any of the core being part of the book.

Overall, I really can't recommend this book save you are an absolute Seinfeld nut.  You most certainly will get some nugget out of it and learn something new about the show. However, I think your time would be better spent just enjoying re-runs and waiting from a more comprehensive account to come out.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life -- William Finnegan --------------------- 4 Stars

Growing up in Hawaii, surfing was a large part of life. And while I never loved it, and took part much more to connect with friends and enjoy being in the water, I remember well my surfing days. With much nostalgia, I truly enjoyed William Finnegan's Barbarian Days.

Winner of the Pulitzer Prize, Barbarian Days is truly a great surfing story. Autobiographical, the author tells his story of his upbringing in California and then early life in Hawaii.  He goes on to tell stories as he travels the world looking for great surf. The story does a fantastic job of balancing Finnegan's search for what his purpose is in life and the purpose of trying to find a great wave.

Perhaps one of the most enjoyable part of the book is the author's description of waves. Frankly, I never thought there would be so many ways to describe the ocean and a wave. Amazingly, Finnegan does so page after page (and there are plenty), describing, and vividly recalling, wave after wave across our planet.

Similarly, I very much enjoyed Finnegan's description of all the different places he's surfed. From southern (and northern - San Fran.) California, to Hawaii, to the Pacific, to South Africa, to Portugal, and then to Long Island.  He really goes on a journey around the world, while beautifully describing the people and places he goes, to find great surf.

The book is not perfect, though. It's slow in portions. It sometimes feels like an odd balance between the surf stories and Finnegan's true search for what his purpose is. About that... I did feel a bit of annoyance for the author.  I'm not sure if his goal was to earn sympathy (I doubt it was), but his writing does feel that way sometimes.  Specifically, the reader is supposed to sympathize when he struggles to figure out his lot in life, which girl to date and follow, how to really make his mark, etc. Along the way, though, he travels the world doing nothing more than searching for good waves. In Finnegan's defense, I should note that he worked to stop apartheid in South Africa and traveled to war torn countries to report on their situations internationally.

Without a doubt, the most enjoyable part of the book was one of the early chapters about Maui. During his early years, the author was living in Lahaina and working in a bookstore for ends meat. While the Maui he described then was not the exact same as my memories,  the amazing surf spot, Honolua was. Ironically, it was not until I was nearly leaving Maui (which turned out to be forever...#sad) that I appreciated just how lucky I was.

So, if you have any interest at all in surfing, or a great story about trying to find one's self or just a great travel book, do yourself a favor and pick up this book.  You won't regret it.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The Girls: A Novel - Emma Cline ----------------------- 4 Stars

As some of you know who have read my blog, I love a good mystery and especially have enjoyed these female led, sort of crazy stories, that started with Gone Girl.  I sort of liked Flynn's other book, and very much enjoyed the knock off, The Girl on the Train. Joining the same ilk as those books is Cline's, The Girls. Although a bit different set up and plot, same storyline -- some people are crazy!

So this one is about a girl growing up in the late 60's in the Bay Area of California. Like, seemingly every book now, it does the jumping back and forth thing where the main character is now much older and is living her life while reflecting back to  many years ago. The crazy part: she was, more or less in a Charles Manson like cult one summer. And that summer, the cult did something bad...read the book to find out more!

In general, I found this book very entertaining and enjoyable to read. First, it's a very good plot and very interesting story. There was never a dull moment and once one strand of time seemed like it was getting a bit boring, the author would switch to the other. Also, impressively, the book maintained your interest without any real fireworks. Unlike that drunk girl on the train, this book was pretty even keeled throughout. Second, I really enjoyed the main character. Cline does a fantastic job of really making you feel the angst and apprehension of this young teen girl struggling with her parent's divorce and how to fit in socially. The allure of the cult seemed perfectlwhen considered in the context of the other parts of her life. Three, the book does a fairly nice job of making you feel what life was like in the late 60s. While not overtly part of the plot, the author does a fantastic job of making you really get into the setting. Finally, the book is, in many ways, a mystery novel. While it's not quite a 'whodunnit', and you more or less know what's going to happen, the author increases the excitement about events as the book moves on.

Of course, there are areas this novel could improve. While I did like the pace in general, there are parts were it gets to slow.  There are some parts where there seems to be a monotony to the chapters and it almost seems like the same events are going on again and again. I also felt the "future" character was a bit underdeveloped and did not really get a sense how the events in her past really affected her. While the author did a very nice of explaining and, having the reader feel what her life was like now, I was surprised there wasn't more connection between the earlier parts of her life and where she was in the present.

In general, I think The Girls is a real good read and fits in well to the genre I described at the start. If you like that type of book, you'd probably enjoy this as well. I do think that this book also could appeal to other readers as well. It's a very well written book, and the first Cline has penned, I believe. I suggest giving her a shot.

Friday, August 19, 2016

All the Lighe We Cannot See - Anthony Doerr ----------------------- 2.5 Stars

Ok, so I know that Anthony Doerr's All the Night We Cannot See is this beloved book by many people, has amazing ratings on Amazon (click the link above), and won the Pulitzer Prize, which I think means someone important like the book.  And you probably think I'm crazy for only giving it 2.5 stars; well, I tried my best but I truly couldn't appreciate the book.

For those of you unaware of the plot of this New York Times bestseller, it's about two competing stories of youths during World War 2. One, a blind French girl, removed from her home and the other, a teenage boy who joins the German ranks due to his fantastic skills working with radios. And this is basically where my malaise began. While both characters are interesting, and the author certainly does more than enough to round them out and make the reader connect with them, I found them boring. Certainly, I appreciate their challenges and plights (as much as one can with fictional characters). But really, I found them both quite slow to develop.

Now, don't get me wrong, the telling of the story really is quiet beautiful and I'm not ignorant enough to not understand why this book has won awards, but it just didn't do well against my ranking system, which is mostly based on entertainment value to me. I certainly appreciate the authors well created and thought-out to descriptions of scene after scene after scene, but I just couldn't get myself that excited about picking up the book and reading it.

Another thing that troubled me was how sad the book was. And unlike, the Nightingale, pretty much right from the start, this book depressed me. While I understand that World War 2 is ripe for good narratives and fictional works, it's become tiresome to me. That, perhaps, may also be why I did not enjoy this book as much. Not more than a month ago I finished the Nightingale, which I enjoyed more than this, but the book were so very similar. Both are similar settings and time periods, both have a few different characters who are written about and go back and forth in taking the lead and both books skipped between time periods. By the way, what's with that in books now?  I feel like every book I read starts with almost the ending of the story, goes back and tells the story while sprinkling in parts from the future, gets to the ending (which we already knew about) and then finishes with a bit more new information. Certainly both this book and The Nightingale followed that schedule.

So, I totally get why people like this book and I did enjoy many parts of it. The writer is very strong and the story, while glacially slow, was interesting and worth reading about. Certainly, all the people who enjoy this book can't be wrong, just know what you're getting into.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The City of Mirrors -- Justin Cronin ---------------------- 4 Stars

About 3 years ago, I read an absolutely superb book, and one of a very small and select few that has earned 5 stars on this blog. It was titled The Passage, and I reviewed it and it's sequel, The Twelve, here and here, respectively. When I finished The Twelve, I read there was a final book in the trilogy coming out sometime in the Spring of 2016.  This was a few years ago and I pretty much forgot about it until about a month ago when I was looking for a book to read and checked the NY Times bestseller list. Wouldn't you know, Justin Cronin's, final book in the trilogy, The City of Mirrors was number 1? What a very, very welcome surprise. Well, did it live up to the first? Not quite but it sure beat the sequel.

Quickly, the basic synopsis of the series: a set of core story characters are living in a post-apocalyptic America after a virus nearly killed off everyone. The virus has led to a set of, basically vampires, that rule the land at night. The books jump around by timeline, in some cases by millennium, as the reader learns more about both the main characters and the viruses affect upon the world, past and present.

This book concludes The Passage trilogy. Coming in at over 2,000 pages between the three, the author does a pretty fantastic job weaving them all together while also going into sufficient, and welcome depth, to better understand all the core characters, including motives and what ends up happening to them. This book is about all you could ask for to conclude this series, as the scope of the story and depth in which the author had described many prior events/characters was going to be hard to fully wrap-up.

For the most part, the book is very entertaining (which is the main criteria for my rating system). I thoroughly enjoy Cronin's style whereby he will have great description of important plot developments and action and then take full chapters to go into depth to describe a scene or person in the novel. It's a great way to both feel like you really know and understand the characters but don't get bogged down on items unrelated to the story. At one point, Cronin really takes a detour and basically includes a 100 page novella early in the book about an older character that hadn't really been detailed yet.

My biggest complaint about this final installment is the slowness to get the action going. Like other epic tales of fictional apocalypses, this has a classic good guy (or girl)/bad guy scenario. You know that eventually, they are going to square off, and it was pretty clear that the book was setting up to do that; I just didn't think it would take so long to get to. It seemed like at least half the novel just setting things up. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed that half and Cronin does such a good job of rounding out the scenes that it's hard not to enjoy, but it just felt so obvious that the book was slowed down. However, once things to start going, it's a furious final quarter of the novel. I even liked the final chapter and how the entire trilogy was pulled together.

Overall, if you have not read The Passage, I would highly recommend you do so soon. Please know that even though the books have a vampire element and are apocalyptic, they are really phenomenal reads and really are just vehicles for fantastic storytelling . I would also suggest that if you read The Passage and got frustrated with The Twelve, you owe yourself the reading of the City of Mirrors partly to understand how the story ends and because Cronin is much more on his game in this final book.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The Nightingale - Kristin Hannah -------------------- 4 Stars

So, here's something crazy about Kristin Hannah's The Nightingale, if you click on the link in this sentence, you go to Amazon. There, you can see this book, as of this writing, has been reviewed 26,268 times and has averaged 5 stars. That's literally the highest rating a book can earn on Amazon. For the most part, I have to agree with all those fans though I don't think it's a 5 star caliber book in my mind.

To be clear, this is a very entertaining book that I enjoyed immensely. A quick summary: World War II, France, two sisters who have very different lives and struggle to connect with each other, have parallel stories that inevitably end up being quite sad. In addition, a future character is recounting all of this in a modern time as she returns to Paris for a remembrance celebration.

Overall, the book is a breeze to read and a pretty enjoyable novel. Do note that it gets fairly depressing as the story goes and the war gets worst though. Having never read a Kristin Hannah novel before, I did enjoy the storytelling and dialogue immensely. I also think she did a very nice job of rounding out the characters and making you identify and feel for each of them (including the "bad guys").

While I did read this book quickly and had difficulty putting it down (it really did have a fairly suspenseful plot), I struggled with a couple of small elements that knocked it down from 5 stars. To begin with, it is a fairly sad novel. I really don't like reading/learning about war/death and I once again was reminded of that again as the focus on the Holocaust in the final third of the novel was tough. I also found a few of what I would have considered, the bigger dramatic parts, a bit too glossed over. There were two specific "major" moments in the book that I though the author did a poor job of describing and did so quickly. While I like the breeziness for most of the scenes in the novel, spending a bit more time around the large events would have been worth the time. Finally, I found a few of the love parts a bit sappy. Don't get me wrong, I like a good love story, but, to me, some of it seemed a bit contrived and a few of the lines read to me a like a bad romance novel (or a good one, I don't really know the difference).

Please don't let that last paragraph skew you to think you should skip this book. I mean, 26,000 people can't be wrong, right? While I did have a few small issues, I do think this book is really quite good and one of the better stories I've read in a while. Top it off with some very easily to connect with characters and add some great dialogue and you get one good novel!

Monday, May 30, 2016

Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World -- Adam Grant ----------------------4.5 Stars

Adam Grant's Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, has been kicked around a lot recently on various lists and circles as a real "hot" book this year in the non-fiction realm. After a few others I know suggested I pick it up after raving about, I felt I should check out. I was very, very happy about my choice!

To be blunt, this is a fantastic read. It's one of the more enjoyable books I've read in the past few years, and gets one of the highest ratings since this blog began seven years ago. What makes it such a great read? A number of things. To begin with, it's got a great premise: originals/creative individuals are critical to our world but are often misunderstood and/or challenged to allow their creativity come out. Grant does a great job of expressing early just how critical and underrated originality truly is. After selling us about the many benefits of "non-conformists" he then goes through and explains to us how to better leverage our own creative attributes and support others in those areas.

If the previously mentioned summary was not enough, the book stands out because of the many specific ideas and actions that can be taken from the reading. That's what I most liked about the book, there were specific things offered that can have an immediate impact in a personal or professional setting. Often I remember highlighting a passage or idea and reflecting about how useful it was in the moment I was in or for the future. This is perhaps why the book is so impressive. I've read many books that fall under "workplace culture" and often they are interesting but lack specific and readily actionable take-aways (I'm looking at you lately, Gladwell). Not true here, this book had so many wonderful and specific things that you can take from it to improve and change your life (I know that sounds cheesy, but it's true in some small (and maybe larger) ways).

Let me continues to gush. The book is a very accessible and easy read. The writing style is simple but interesting and Grant's stories and anecdotes he uses to prove his points are fascinating and well researched. Speaking of research, Grant is a researcher by training so you can also trust that the information learned and points can be a bit more trusted (again, I'm looking at you Gladwell). Also, there are some wonderful endnotes included that often will include additional research that are fascinating.

So, any negatives? Not many I can think of. Perhaps some of the stories are a bit slow or don't have an obvious connection to a point he makes. Or maybe the focus of some of the stories are skewed. I don't know, I'm picking nits, really. Honestly, this book could have easily earned 5 stars but I just didn't feel it was on the same level of the few fictional epics that earned the highest rating. The bottom line is, I highly suggest picking this up and reading it immediately. I sincerely doubt you'll regret your time and more likely will come away better understanding about the importance of originality in our world!

Friday, April 22, 2016

Missoula: Rape and The Justice System in a College Town -- Jon Krakauer -----------------3 Stars

I have to confess, I'm a big Jon Krakauer fan.  If you've not read any of his previous books, you're missing out.  Coming to fame after writing about a tragic Everest climb titled Into Thin Air, he continued with Into the Wild which became a mediocre movie (though a great soundtrack), and also a great book about the Mormon faith/culture (Under the Banner of Heaven), and recently the scam that  made up the story for Three Cups of Tea. I truly enjoy his very deliberate and logical writing style and ability to take the mundane and make interesting.  Well, did Missoula hold up to my expectations?  Sort of, but not really.

Missoula is basically a book about the challenge of rape and sexual assaults that are becoming all too typical at college campuses across the country.  Specifically focusing on a few years at the University of Montana, Krakauer paints a picture of a sexualized group of young men, many who play football, whose relationships with woman are the focus of much of the story.

Overall, I didn't love the book. While he does a good job of focusing on a small cast of individuals and tries to illuminate a large problem by telling the stories, at different stages, of a few, the book struggles in many directions.  First, the stories are simply not that interesting. Sad, certainly, but the tale of relationship, then rape, then police investigation, then legal trial, then aftermath, simply aren't as entertaining as other similar tales.  Second, I feel like some of the writing as not as tight and well detailed as I remember it.  I felt like he rambled a lot and there were many areas that could have been skipped over and abbreviated.  Third, and most importantly, the book is incredibly depressing.  The stories of rape and sexual assaults are increasing yet the likelihood of any penalties for those accused is small.  In fact, by percentage it's the crime with the lowest incarceration rate for those accused.  So, basically, committing rape is the safest law to break if trying not to get caught.  Beyond that, I had no idea quite how damaging the assaults are to those involved.  Nearly always they destroy relationships and families, but by far the most saddening things I learned are the ways young woman deal with it.  They are hurt physically and emotionally.  They are scarred socially and many have long term psychological issues.  Simply, rape ruins lives in many more ways than I was aware.

I do suggest reading this book should you have an interest in learning more about the specifics of sexual assaults and the epidemic that is the college rape crisis. I learned many things that I did not know.  The cost, however, is that you have to be prepared to deal with some pretty tough material and some incredibly difficult stories about the ruining of people's lives.  In general, I really enjoy non-fiction but the down side can be that when it's sad and true, it's tough to deal with. 

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides ---------------------- 4 Stars

I was recommended to read Middlesex by a friend nearly 5 years ago.  Since then, I've heard other people rave about this book, and I suppose, it has to be pretty decent to win the Pulitzer.  In the end, it met most expectations but not totally.

One of the problems I have with the book is that it has two, somewhat competing, though very related, story lines.  The first, is about a family of immigrants, going back multiple generations to Greece, and eventually their lives in America (Detroit).  The other, is a story of the main character who is born a girl, but changes to be a man when older.  Yes, this is a fictional book about a hermaphrodite, which you probably want to be aware of before starting the read.

The reason I struggled a bit with the competing stories, is I felt they often were unrelated and competed for attention from the other.  I actually LOVED the first quarter of the story that tells the history of this family leaving in Greece and eventual escape (yes, escape!) from Europe to America.  Once here, I felt like the Greek history and cultural aspects, which were a large part of the novel, took away from the now more interesting story line of this person who was struggling growing up to understand his/her own biology and sexuality.  THAT story line was fascinating in the second half of the book, but again, was often hijacked by the author's need to connect back to the Greek past. 

But again, the book won the Pulitzer, so may be I'm picking nits a bit too much.  As a whole, the novel is very successful and quite entertaining.  The author does a phenomenal job relating the main character to us, especially as almost all of the experiences and memories presented were when she was a child or teenager.  As I said, I very much loved the earlier chapters about this person's grandparents and found their early life in Greece, and then as immigrants in Detroit, to be as interesting, if not more than the later part of the novels around the main character.

The book was also eye-opening due to the subject matter.  To say I knew little about the life of an hermaphrodite is an understatement.  I found myself Googling some of the scientific issues that he/she was dealing with as much of the book is based in fact (and historical facts too).  In many ways, this was what I most enjoyed about the novel.  I believe that any time you can earn a better understanding of something, be it people, cultures, views, etc., the better and more fulfilling the read.  This book truly made me have a much better understanding for this group in society and better perspective on some of the challenges faced. 

As you can probably guess by now, the book is very well written, with strong dialogue, rounded characters, and a few good twists and turns to keep you on your toes.  I'm sure many people better appreciate the connection between the immigrant side of the book and the struggle with gender, and so I highly recommend this book to read.  Although there are some slow parts, those are far outweighed by the fascinating plot and modern theme. 

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Boys on the Boat - Daniel James Brown ---------------------- 3.5 Stars

The Boys in the Boat is certainly popular right now and making it's way around various 'best of' lists lately.  As you can see from the second part of the title ("Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics"), it's focused on an Olympic rowing team from 1936.  Is it as good as advertised? Well, read ahead to find out.

The book basically tells two parallel stories.  One, which is in much more depth and takes up the majority of the novel, is the history and creation of the University of Washington's rowing team that competed in Germany for the '36 Olympics.  The other, less time intensive story, is about the rise of Hitler in Germany leading up to those games.   The former focus is much more interesting than the latter. In fact, I would argue that the focus on the rise of Germany was unnecessary and took away from the other story line as, to many readers, the rise of Hitler is well known history, not necessary to tell again.

The other story, about the history and creation of this incredible group of rowers, is really quite fantastic.  While there are nine  rowers on that team (and a couple of alternates), the author does a great job of really focusing on Joe, and telling his story... and what a story it is.  I won't spoil all the great details, and suggest you pick up the book, if nothing else, to learn about this great guy, but just know this his story and his hardships he had to get through were remarkable.  Not the type of person you would expect to lead a world class rowing boat.

Overall, the book is a good read.  As mentioned, the individual stories about the rowers were fantastic and only eclipsed by the parts of the novel that focused on the actual sport of rowing and creation of the boats.  Although only a minor character, my favorite was a man named George Pocock, an English transplant who was the wise old sage who also built and designed the best racing shells in the world.  His quotes, which began each chapter, and few contributions to the story, were Yoda like in delivery and importance.

I also enjoyed the story telling aspect of the book.  The author has a fine hand and the writing reads easily and enjoyably.  He also does a good a job as imaginable to describe the actual races (of which there were many).  After a while, though, it sort of seemed like he just used different synonyms to describe their race.  At some point, there are only so many ways you can detail nine people in a boat rowing as hard as possible versus others.

My biggest pet peeves include the two I already mentioned: the unnecessary telling of Hitler's rise to power (I guess to juxtapose vs. the other story) and the similar way in which most races were described.  My only other small annoyance was the level of detail with the description of certain aspects of the story that were inconsequential to the end product.  While I can understand the depth of descriptions for some of the backstories (i.e. Joe), for other things it just seemed superfluous.

Overall, this a fairly well told book and an absolutely remarkable story.  The fact that it was not brought to the national conversation until now, shows exactly how undiscovered it is.  If for nothing else, spend some time reading the story and you won't help but care more about the sport of rowing and enjoy this amazing story about overcoming hardships and finding successes against immeasurable odds.

Saturday, January 16, 2016

The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins ------------------------ 4 Stars

So, unless you've been under a rock, you've probably heard of Paula Hawkins exhilarating The Girl on the Train.  But, is it as good as so many have said?  Short answer: yeah, pretty much.

This is one of those books that my former High School English teachers would have referred to as "airport trash."  Don't despair, they were snobs with literature.  Yes, the book has few redeeming qualities.  Yes, you won't read it and think to yourself about the beauty of the prose.  Sure, the characters are fairly unrealistic and little time is spent rounding them out.  But, boy oh boy, this is one fun book to read.  It's truly a page turner; nearly impossible to put down.  My wife read in 3 days, while I took 4.  Sure, it might be "airport trash" but this book blog always basis the rating on one main criteria: is it entertaining?   The Girl on the Train certainly is.

Basic premise: there's the girl... on a train.  Oh, you want more?  Well, she's kind of nutsy and she starts seeing some things while on the train and starts getting involved with some people, and she likes to drink and not remember much.  That's about all you need to get going, really. 

The book  is quite a fun read.  Hawkins does a great job of getting you into it early and it's pretty easy to see why it's been so enjoyed by many people.  It's a simple and fast read.  The plot is easy to follow.  It's chock full  of exciting and juicy dialogue.  Of course, it has some drawbacks.  As mentioned earlier, this book pulls no punches about what it's going for.  It's not going to be anything more than a quick and easy read that keeps you entertained and constantly guessing.  There is no existential question or any real deep thought in it at all.  But, again, as long as you know what you are signing up for, it's a good ride.

The comparison between it and Gone Girl (my review of it here) are obvious and apt.  Both books follow similar arcs and have similar female protagonists.  Both books keep making you think something else might be happening and you're never quite sure what's going to transpire next.  Both books are wildly entertaining.  For my money, Gone Girl is better.  It's a smarter novel and there's more depth to the story and characters.  The Girl on the Train is a really good knock off but not quite the real McCoy.

Not sure if you are looking for much more but, at this point, go pick it up if you have not read yet.  Again, it's quick, fun, and you won't regret the time not spent on something that would really be more illuminating; you'll be enjoying this one too much to think about that :)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do -- Claude Steele ---------------- 3.5 Stars

Although this book came out a few years ago, I just heard about it recently from a teacher at my school.  I really feel like I've missed some good info. the past few years having just gotten to it now.

Basic premise: there are TONS of stereotypes that go on each and every day throughout our lives and they have major repercussions and effects.  In addition, what our own identity is and how we perceive others identifies has significant affects on us as well.  Specifically, we often have to deal with something the authors deem stereotype threat and it happens all the time, everywhere. 

I'll leave the rest of the book to you to check out and read.  The positives: very important book that really makes one consider and reflect about a lot of things in our lives and society.  Having not all that often focused on various stereotypes of stereotype threat as a white man, this book made me really consider and think about things in a very different way.  Also, the book does a really nice job walking the reader through the author's objectives and breaking them down so they are clear and easy to understand.  I also liked the variety and breadth of experiments mentioned that help to explain many of the findings.  Also, on a positive, it's a pretty short book, and it's easy to skip through the specificity of the experiments if just looking to pull out the salient points being made. 

A few reasons that only kept it at 3.5: while a pretty important concept, it's kind of a downer (sorry, but my blog is based on how entertaining and things like embedded stereotypes that are subconscious and nearly impossible to change is not so uplifting).  The book also is kind of a boring read. While the author does a good job of writing in a less formal, non-academic tone, he is no Gladwell in the sense that it often lacks the flair of a more easily accessible book of its type.  I also found that many of the points he was trying to make ran together, without real significant differences between them.  Finally, the second part of the title ("and what we can do"), was less than desired.  The problem that they describe is certainly well founded and makes good sense to me but I did not find that that options of what to do was as clear or easy to understand (hence my attitude of it being a bit of a downer). 

To my last point, I think the absolute best way to solve the problem and know "what to do" is to have people read this book.  While not the most entertaining book written or that I've reviewed, one could make the case that it's the most important book to read of the books I've reviewed. So, again, do check it out!

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace ---------------------- 5 Stars

I have never read a book quite like David Foster Wallace's (DFW) Infinite Jest. It is without a doubt the most challenging, confusing, mind expanding, fascinating, and longest book I have ever read.  It is also unparalleled in modern fiction, and, without a doubt, earns a full 5 stars.

Where to even begin?  How do I even try to do justice to this book or attempt to explain it?  For those that have read it, I am sure you can sympathize and understand.  For those that have yet to take the plunge, I'll do my best to summarize as many aspects around, and about this book as I can.

Let's start with the first and most obvious thing when you first see this book or download it: it's size.  I believe it's over 1,000 paper pages (I read the Kindle version) which includes a couple hundred pages of footnotes.  First important thing to know, DFW loved footnotes and there is a trove of interesting, though sometimes useless, information in the footnotes.  Anyway, the book is very, very long.  I started in June and, though I read a couple other short books during this time, it still took me around 6 months to finish (this includes some long summer months were I was really focused on it). 

Now, to make even more difficult, the book is very, very challenging to. Really, in two areas.  First, the vocabulary and way DFW writes is pretty overwhelming.  It literally felt like at least once a page I'd have to look up a word (thanks goodness for the built in Kindle dictionary).  Additionally, DFW has very long, and often complex sentences that sometimes could go on for an entire page.  Second, and perhaps more challenging and annoying (though ultimately more worthwhile?), the book is not a linear narrative.  In fact, it jumps all over the place.  Compound this by the large number of different characters and the seeming disconnectedness with the multiple plot lines, and one can get easily overwhelmed (see: me).

SO, how is it possible that, with all the weaknesses noted above, can this book earn a coveted 5 star rating?  Well, the answer is the book is simply incredible.  There is nothing else quite like it.  Why? Let's start with all that was written above.  All of that difficulty, the length, the vocabulary, the complexity of language and characters and structure, makes the reader really earn it.  You can't just pick this up and half pay attention with the game on; no, you have to make a concerted effort to focus and really understand what's going on. But when you do, you start to realize just how great DFW is as a writer.  There were oftentimes reading the book for long periods of time, stopping, going back through and realizing that I just read 20 pages, had no idea what happened but loved the text I had just read. 

What else? The characters - their crazy.  Their interesting, and weird, and different, and lovable, and deeply flawed -- really they are quite human.   Plus there are so many of them.  Even as the book is coming to a close, and the reader is starting to get annoyed about a perceived lack of resolution, DFW is still introducing new characters and fascinating biographies about them.

Finally, what about the plot?  Many people say that this is the hardest thing to explain about the book.  Their right.  This book is about A LOT and covers A LOT yet, at the same time, it sometimes feels like nothing happened.  In it, the world and government is different than today, the calendar has changed and that helps confuse things further.  There are a few main characters and groups - there is a tennis facility with teenage prodigies with a few main characters, there is a group of military folks looking for something, there is a drug rehab house with a man and woman who end up being major characters.  Sounds pretty lame, right?  Well, to make it even more potentially confusing, much of the book is about addiction (drug, sex, media/entertainment) and this plays out in the very seemingly disconnected, but really interrelated, lives of many of these people. 

The plot piece, to me, was the most confusing part of the book when finished.  Thank goodness for the Internet.  After finishing the book yesterday, I spent a large part of a day googling and trying to understand the various plot elements.  Needless to say, I missed a lot but I also learned just how much depth this book truly has.  I certainly felt very frustrated and annoyed when I finished the book but now realize just how incredible this book truly is; what an absolute genius DFW was.   In many ways, the book reminds of the TV show Lost (except, this ending is better).  Often, it's confusing and the perception is that much of it does not make sense, but after digging and spending more time reflecting, one realizes just how interesting it can be.

This is one of the longer reviews I have ever written, and I really feel like I could go on all day writing about Infinite Jest.  If you know nothing about the book or David Foster Wallace, you owe it to yourself to at least learn a bit more about either (or both).  DFW committed suicide about 7-8 years ago after battling with depression.  Many believe, and I am one of them, that he is the greatest author of his generation.  While the book has often been classified as "post-modern", and certainly does not follow a "typical" model of fiction, it is without a doubt an amazing piece of literature.

I highly recommend, at some point in your life, you consider reading the book.  Know that it will take a long time, and know that you will have to labor through it, and know that you may not understand/like large parts of it, and know that you may need the help of others (i.e. the Internet) to help you.  But, also know that you will be a better person for reading it and, hopefully, you will be as entertained and pleased as I am now after finishing. 

Monday, November 9, 2015

The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go so Their Children Can Succeed -- Jessica Lahey ----------------------- 3 Stars

I've spent a lot of time thinking about Jessica Lahey's new book, The Gift of Failure. I've read it cover to cover, created questions for two different book club meetings, and will be hearing her speak at a work event next week. Her book has a very clear and overarching premise: parents are not letting kids fail often enough and that is badly  undermining their future successes in life.  Is this true? Well, you should read it to make your own opinion, but I'll pass on a few tidbits below.

Lahey's book makes a fairly convincing argument for why the pendulum in our society has swung "too far" in one direction and why it's critical to move it back to the middle. Oddly, I find the book started off incredibly interesting and each passing chapter was slightly less exciting. To begin, she talks about the history of parenting in America and how we got to where we are today. As I mentioned above, she makes the case that the pendulum is too far in one direction and must move back. This well researched opening chapter was a good lead in to the rest of the book as she then stakes out her claims. Unfortunately, by the final chapters, the book turned very "self-helpy" while she also flip-flopped a few times with a couple of views.

On a positive, the book is a very easy read, and she has interesting and easily connectable anecdotes from her own time as a teacher and parent. Perhaps most noteworthy, she does make a very strong case for why parents (and teachers) need to allow students to have more independence and opportunities to make mistakes and learn from them. The first half of the book is a strong vindication of many of the educational and parenting ideas that I have seen been effective.

However, and I can't tell if she truly believes this, or is just making an argument to push the envelope, but she REALLY espouses letting kids fail.  In some case, perhaps to the detriment to the child. Again, I am not sure if she really believes it or is pushing it because it gets good press and being "in the middle" doesn't sell books.  Regardless, you should take a read and see what you think. Other concerns? I'm not sure how well referenced the book is. She certainly has a lot of anecdotes and personal "facts" but I'm not sure if they are researched.  And, as I mentioned earlier, the book turns a lot into a self-help book about parenting near the end.

I do suggest that each of you check out the book and read it for yourself. Even if you are not a parent, you were a child once (I think) and her suggestions for how one should raise kids is certainly interesting and probably has some nugget of truth in it.  The big question is: how much truth? 

Thursday, October 15, 2015

Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania -- Erik Larson -------------------- 4 Stars

The Lusitania.  What do you know about it?  Nothing?  It's a boat?  Something about World War I or II?  It got the U.S. into World War I?  Well, if you weren't sure about some of those questions, it's probably worth taking the time to pick up Erik Larson's new fascinating novel titled Dead Wake.

Dead Wake is a fun book as it reads like a piece of fiction but every part of it is highly researched and accurate historically.  You really should read the book to learn more about, but to whet your appetite, know that the Lusitania was a giant cruise ship that sailed in 1915 between England the U.S. and was very similar to the Titanic.  It was indeed sunk and eventually (though not immediately as many people believe) led to the U.S. joining to fight in World War II.

So that is a very short description of the book but the story is so much more than that.  It's a story of people; individuals that played decisive parts in others lives and the movement of history.  The book is told in short snippets from a few different directions.  There is the Lusitania captain who is in change of this massive floating city.  There is the German submarine captain off the coasts of England.  Then, there are the numerous individuals that are riding the Lusitania.  Family members, rich businessmen, etc. who we learn more about on their voyage.

Okay, enough about plot.  Why should you read the book?  Because it's a fascinating story.  The author does an amazing job going back about a century and reviewing a ton of materials to create this wonderful tale for the reader.  By the end of the book, you really have a good sense of the different individual characters in the book and what motivates them.  And, because it is such a fascinating story, as good as any fictional novel, you can't help but feel connected with book.

Are there any downsides?  Yes, a few.  The book is slow from time to time and drags along a bit.  Some details are a bit to needless and, while perhaps the author finds them interesting, I found they did not actually add to the story.  The story is also quite sad.  I mean, you know what you are getting into when you start reading it but when you get to the end and find out what happens to all these people you've now connected with, it's kind of tough to hear.

So, do yourself a favor and pick up this interesting piece of history.  It tells of a time that is quite different from today and a world with different people with different interest and lives but it certainly is quite interesting and will, no doubt, hold your attention.  Enjoy!

Friday, August 21, 2015

Think like a Freak - Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner --------------- 3.5 Stars

Like my last blog, this is another example of a follow up book trying to mimic the original in basic premise and form.  Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner's first book, Freakonomics, is an absolutely great book that I highly recommend. So, did Think Like a Freak equal the original?  Not quite but pretty close.

This book was sufficiently interesting and entertaining.  Good subjects, interesting questions, cool stories and nice writing style.  Unlike Freakonomics though, I've read this type of book so many times by now that it has kind of lost it's luster.

The general premise of the book, as the title suggests, is to look at the world and think differently.  They suggest not looking at giant problems, but start small and redefine how you look at a problem.  Pretty decent premise  and the follow through was not too bad.  Through some pretty interesting stories, the authors are pretty convincing about ways to re-acclimate yourself to the world around you.  I actually appreciated some of their take-aways; things like: admitting you don't know something, look at a problem like a child might and why quitting is not a bad thing.

The writing style is fun to read and easy to follow.  I really enjoyed most of the chapters and the stories that are included.  Although they would move quickly from subject to subject and story to story (sometimes as short as a only a page or two on each), they did have a common theme within each that would pull together the chapter.  In fact, some of the chapters were absolutely fascinating (one titled "What do King Solomon and David Lee Roth have in common" was particularly interesting. )

One other great take-away from the book is to always be willing to ask tough questions and take a stand for something even if you stick out.  In other words, it's okay to be a freak sometimes.  Freaks are the ones that often change the world.

Overall, I do suggest you check this book out and learn to better think like a Freak.  Even if you don't really want to you'll enjoy the stories along the way!