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!).


Monday, September 2, 2019

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami ---------------------- 3 Stars

Well, this is my second run through with a Murakami book. A bit over two years ago, I read and reviewed Murakami's Norwegian Wood. A shorter, bit more straightforward book than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. So, what did I think of him the second time through?

Well, as you can see based on my review, pretty much the same way I felt after the first time through. Certainly not bad, but I was expecting a bit more from one of the most highly regarded authors of the past quarter century. The one was about a man who has a wife, and loses a cat, and then crazy weird stuff happens to him involving military veterans, prognosticators (one of whom is a prostitute), and a young teenage girl next door. Also, it's really hard to tell what is a dream and what is reality.

Sooo, it's an incredibly thought provoking book. Not told in a fast way. In fact, at over 600 pages, it was clear the author was in no hurry to get to things (especially as not that much happened). But, I did find myself really yearning to understand more about the story - so, of course, the internet was of great help. Well, I certainly missed a few things. Not plot elements per se, but more about deep themes enveloped in the prose. Things that were hard to tease out while reading but pretty fascinating to step back and think about while over. Themes of masculinity, guilt, happiness, etc.

As I was going through what to write for this review, I did spend a few minutes reading my review of Norwegian Wood from a few years ago. Not surprisingly, I had a very similar experience to that book. So much so, I though I'd just quote that review

"On a positive, this book actually made me think far more about it after I finished it then during. The book is a bit of a slog to read, with nothing extremely exciting for long periods. However, the book is beautifully written and has a great deal of nuance and subtlety. Unfortunately, sometimes the book was so subtle and points made so hard to decipher, that it simply felt boring. Nonetheless, upon concluding and thinking/looking back at what transpired. I was more intrigued than when I was reading. What to make of that? Certainly, it's a good sign the novel was so thought provoking and ending open to interpretation that I continued to mull over various parts but what does it say about the entertainment value of reading it that I continually felt it wasn't moving anywhere?

Well, I'm not sure what to think about Murakami at this point. This book made him a star in Japan and at least three of his books are incredibly well acclaimed, but I really didn't love this one.. However, I definitely want to take one of his more traditional science fiction novels to try to get the full Murakami experience. In the meanwhile, do feel free to check this one but be forewarned about some of the concerns noted above."


Yeah, couldn't have said it better myself!

Sunday, August 25, 2019

Range - David Epstein ------------------- 2.5 Stars

About a month ago, I read David Epstein's last book, The Sports Gene, and reviewed it here. As you can see, I thoroughly enjoyed his detailed look at why great athletes are world class at sports. In perhaps a more important book, Range studies why certain people become the best in their field and/or who might change the world. However, unlike the last book, it was not nearly as an enjoyable read.

To be clear, I thoroughly enjoyed his premise and appreciated the argument he makes - generalists triumph in a specialized world (yes, I copied that from the cover). His point, is that far too often in our education focused world, we take some of our smartest and most creative and breed that out of them while they specialize deeper and deeper in a singular subject. He continues that the greatest inventions, positive changes in our world, strongest athletes, best musicians, etc. had broader backgrounds, were later starters, etc.

So, he makes a strong case. However, I strongly feel this book could have either been a long article or about 150 pages shorter. Again, he makes a strong case early in the book to support his argument. And while I appreciate the varying stories he tells (nearly all of which I had not heard before) to strengthen his argument, he goes on far too long, either in the telling of the story or adding more stories. Really, it's a fairly narrow argument, so after you understand his viewpoint with a few examples, it makes sense. I didn't feel the numerous subsequent chapters relaying the same message were necessary.

Like the previous book, Epstein had some fascinating examples to support his premise. Perhaps the most interesting in this book is the story of orphaned musicians of the Venetian sex industry who become world class musicians on multiple instruments centuries ago. Unfortunately, as I mentioned above, too often these examples aren't nearly as interesting and exciting as one would hope.

Overall, the premise of the book is fantastic. I think he's questioning about the limitations of specialization and the importance of people being able to think in a more broad way is incredibly important. I just don't think you need such a long book to make the point. If only there was a condensed article to save the time; alas, here is a perfect one from the Atlantic written earlier this summer. Enjoy!

Monday, August 19, 2019

The Monuments Men - Robert Edsel -------------------- 4 Stars

Perhaps, you were like me and saw The Monuments Man movie, or even the PBS special (The Rape of Europa), about a decade ago. But, were you also like me and read and enjoyed the splendid book that both were based on? If not, read ahead (actually, just read ahead regardless).

If not familiar, the book/movies are about a great story regarding a group of men who served in the armed services during World War II. Their expressed objective was to keep the Nazis from destroying the greatest art/cultural pieces in Western Europe. The book follows the story of about a half a dozen of the most important characters that worked as Monuments Men from 1940 to 1945.

When I started, I wasn't sure I'd be as engaged in the story as the movie. Like often, the movie was (obviously) much shorter and pulled the most important aspects of the book. However, I was so pleased to enjoy the book as fully as I did. As happens often when comparing book vs. movie; the level of depth the author was able to spend with back stories, small details, and rounding of characters, made the book a fascinating read. Surprisingly, I struggled to put the book down, as the author did a masterful job of jumping from character to character; and, as soon as one start began to ran dull, it jumped back to another character's big discovery or closeness to death (that happens in war).

The book also had some existential themes run throughout. Perhaps, what made me most pensive, was the idea of a person's life/worth vs. a classic piece of art or historical document. Can you compare one to the other? Does any life trump non-life? Alternatively, is there any life as "valuable" as, say the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo's David? While the author never posed these questions in the book, I found myself often thinking about these incredibly famous historical works that were truly saved or rescued while the many losses of life necessary to do so.

I found few drawbacks of the book. Like any non-fiction story, there were times when the paced slowed too dramatically. In addition, some of the characters are a bit more interesting than others. So, there are parts where I was hoping that the author might jump to a more interesting character; but that feeling really did not last long (as the book did usually jump!)

I'd recommend this book to nearly all readers. It's a great unknown piece of history, especially during one of the most important periods of all time. The stories of these heroes that truly saved some of the world's great masterpieces is not to be missed or underappreciated.

Friday, August 9, 2019

The Sports Gene - David Epstein ---------------- 4 Stars

While David Epstein's new book, Range, is getting some positive reviews, his earlier book, The Sports Gene, included many of the viewpoints espoused in his most recent book. While I look forward to reading, Range, I really enjoyed The Sports Gene.

The premise of the book is pretty interesting - basically, based on recent scientific discoveries, there are some underlying genes that make people better/worst at certain sports. What's also interesting is that he also party discredits some of the more common views that "you can grow up to do anything" or the now normed, 10,000 hours idea (which is that you need 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything (popularized by Malcolm Gladwell)). The book goes on to talk about all the different findings regarding the discoveries about the human body and that affect on athletes from around the world.

Overall, the book is really quite fascinating. For me, it was an interesting read as the majority of the book was talking about why athletes are great and experts at what they do. Unlike, many of the past book recently about this topic, including the reviewed Talent is Overrated, it was interesting to hear more about the other side of the nature/nurture coin. As you can imagine, some the author's premises are difficult for others to hear/want to discuss. First, he basically puts out that your genetic make-up has a lot more to do with success than hard work; not a great narrative for many coaches/parents/teachers to hear. Second, there is a lot about race that goes into this book which also can be hard for others to digest. For example, science has shown (and reality) that runners from the eastern part of Africa tend to be much stronger at shorter distances, while those on the western part (see: Keyna marathoners) tend to be much better at long distances. Science has shown different genetic make up (that they believe were based on revolutions over time based on their social needs) between the two sets of people. Similarly, if you ever notice that many of those winning 100 meter dashes in the Olympics come from Jamaica (again, a similar gene arrangement).

The only downside of the book is that, on too many occasions, it goes a bit deeper into the science than necessary. While I do feel the author did a good job breaking very complicated science down to easily digestible pieces for laymen readers, there are sometimes long passages or almost page(s) dedicated to the specific scientific underpinnings that make his point. While not a huge negative, it did take away from the reader on some occassions.

As a whole, I really enjoyed the read. Mixing peak athletic performance, with a philosophical mix of nature/nurture, this book was right in my sweet spot of interest. I also enjoyed hearing a more slanted nature viewpoint to help balance most of what I have read/heard more about lately. While I do believe (as does the author) that it is a large mix of both to be an expert at anything, this book does jive with my own "eye test" about observing athletes becoming great (just take a look at how many NBA players have only started playing in their past few years of life). Do check this book out if you have any interest in what makes superb athletes or the science behind the "nature" trumps nurture idea.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

This is I Believe - Edited by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman ------------- 3 Stars

This is I Believe is/was a radio program/book that has been around for over fifty years. Surprisingly, until someone passed on this book,  I had never heard of it but am happy that I am now aware of this cool concept.

So, this book is based on the NPR radio series of the same name. Similar to the book, people write/record about their own personal vies and philosophies about life. There are a couple of cool parts to the concept. First, the responses have to be fairly short; I think no longer than 500 words. Second, it's an eclectic mix of people responding.  Some are famous individuals and others are quite "common" individuals from across the United States. Third, the variety and diversity of responses is fascinating. Some are incredibly thoughtful and deep and some are just humorous (and still deep) - like be cool to the pizza guy!  Finally, it's cool that while Edward Murrow began this program over 50 years ago, NPR reintroduced it years ago.

Overall, it's a fairly entertaining and enjoyable read. I liked the wide variety of authors, writing styles, and different thoughts that guide people's views on living their lives. Out of the probably 40 essays, about a dozen really resonated with me and were dogeared for a future read.

The downsides of the book are minimal. Again, the essays are easy reads and fun to get a glimpse into different people's outlook on the world. My small nits include that while the essays are thoughtful and well written, many are not super engaging or don't resonate with my own views on living...which led to my other challenge, trying to think about what my 500 word "this I believe" would be. What philosophy do I live by? What are the guiding tenets that I follow as I enter the second half of my life? Well, those are tough questions that I wasn't planning on wrestling with while trying to sit down to enjoy a book!

With all joking aside, this really is a neat book and concept. I'll certainly check out the NPR program as I could imagine that the versions spoken over the radio seem even more impressive than their written duplicates. Overall, I do recommend the book, just know that you may end up pausing to think about what exactly you believe.

Friday, July 5, 2019

Only Killers and Thieves - Paul Howarth ------------------- 4 Stars

It's always nice when a book comes by that you had no idea of or intention of reading and it amazes. Well, that is certainly what happened as I just enjoyed Paul Howarth's Only Killers and Thieves.

Set in late 19th Century Australian outback, this book is a tough read. Not tough like, "hmmm, I don't know that word" or "what exactly is going on right now." No, it's a tough read because life in the outback during this time period is hard. What makes it even more tough is that the author writes about some of the most gruesome and violent elements of people's bad personalities. It reminds me a lot of the most famous Thomas Hobbes quote that life is "nasty, brutish, and short."

While the story starts out slow, perhaps to mimic the slow tick of time when there is not much to do during this period and location of vast expanse, it picks up very quickly about a quarter of the way in. After a life changing event, the two teenage boys who are the main characters of the book, have to grow up incredibly quickly without much adult support. As the novel rolls on, and they are faced with the brutish nature of unkind and self-interested adults, they struggle with determining how they want to live their own lives, and really, what kind of man they want to be.

The story is quite fascinating and the action scenes, along with a few major and diverse story-lines, makes this a very entertaining read. Be warned, the detail and violence with which the author describes some scenes is jarring. Murder, rape, racism and other difficult acts are on full display, with all details included. For many, I would assume it will be difficult to read these words and picture these scenes. Though, I figure that's the point; you can't help but care for these two young brothers and as you realize the depth of fear, anger, and sadness they face, you sympathize even further with their plight.

Overall, this a highly charged and engaging story that keeps the reader connected until the end. In fact, I was impressed with the ending as the author did enough to assure that there was closure while allowing your imagination to run a bit about what may have happened with things not spelled out fully. If you can get past the difficult language and violent nature of many parts of the book, you'll most likely enjoy this well told tale.